Where Are You? Reflections on California Fires


(Message delivered at New Creation Lutheran Church, Sunday, December 17, 2017)

“Where are you?” That’s the first thing God says to a human being in the Bible.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” (Genesis 3:8-10)

Throughout the Bible, God asks people questions, but I think we can be sure it is never because God is hungry for information – God knows the answers. We need to be asked.

We call this story in Genesis the “fall from grace” or “original sin.” We talk about it as our disconnection from God – that’s what the word “sin” means.  But as I have studied faith, psychology and neurophysiology for crisis intervention, peer support and chaplaincy, I have come to see that we need three dimensions of connection. All three become broken in the Genesis story.

The first disconnection is social. Adam, Eve and the serpent, rather than supporting each other, talk each other into doing the wrong thing.

The second is physical. Childbirth and food production will be painful; Adam and Eve will “return to dust,” becoming part of the earth that they were taken from.

The third disconnection is spiritual – they are banished from the garden and no longer have access to the tree with knowledge of good and evil, the tree of life. They no longer walk with God in the garden.

God’s question, “Where are you?” is about relationships. Where are you socially – your relationships, knowing your friends and neighbors? Where are you physically, in relationship with creation, knowing yourself, your body and the earth. Where are you spiritually, in relationship with the divine, knowing what is right and wrong?

I teach this by inviting people to think of them as directions. In wildland firefighting, one of our safety mottos is “Look up, look down, look around” – keep your head on a swivel so you will be aware of all of the things that can hurt or kill you in that dangerous environment.

Look around and you see your social support, which psychologists repeatedly find has the strongest correlation to our resilience under stress and after trauma.

Look down and you see your body and the earth – your physical presence in creation.

Look up and be reminded that the universe is far more than we can comprehend, that as much as we can and should try to dissect and understand it, awe and mystery transcend logic and rationality.

Jesus points to these dimensions when he answers the question “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” He replies: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… And the second is like it, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40). Your neighbor, yourself and God – social, physical, spiritual. How are your connections to them?

Although my primary work with CAL FIRE and others is called “critical incident stress management” or “peer support,” it is really about disconnection and connection.

When God asked Adam “Where are you?” Adam said he was afraid, so he hid. Fear leads us to disconnect from others, the physical world and God.

Fear is powerful. One of the most surprising recent discoveries about stress showed that it is only toxic to your health if you are afraid that it is. A big study about stress over 10 years found that people who had the highest stress level, but did not believe that stress is bad for your health, were least likely to die. (In a wonderful “coincidence,” the church’s theme on the day I offered this message turned out to be 1 John 4:16 – “Perfect love casts out fear.”)

I have never found anything in the Bible that suggests that when life becomes challenging, the answer is be “stress reduction,” which research shows rarely works anyway. The Biblical response to stressful situations is repeated hundreds of times – “Don’t be afraid.” The words that usually follow are, “I am with you.” Relaxation is not the opposite of distress; connection is. Even when Jesus retreated to the wilderness, it was not to disconnect, but to re-connect. Solitude is not the same as isolation.

Whether I respond to a fire as a chaplain or with CAL FIRE’s employee support team, our job is to be present for people to talk to and connect with. Most of it is quite informal, after things really go out of control, we also lead formal crisis interventions. We primarily serve the firefighters, but we have always also been available to other responders and the public. We ask a lot of questions, even though we often know, in a general sense, what the answers will be. In fact, after 15 days on the fires in the North Bay, I felt as though I had heard the same two stories – the citizen story and the responder story – hundreds of times.

For the citizens, it was a story of being woken in the dead of night, wondering if they would escape from a terrifyingly fast-moving fire. The story included many heroes – people who risked their lives to wake up their neighbors and help do things like figure out how to open a garage door when there was no power.

For the responders, the story was about staying awake for more than four days until there was finally enough help that they could take a day off. They talked about embers the size of basketballs blowing a mile or more ahead of the fire; falling asleep holding a nozzle or dozing for a few minutes in their engines only to be woken by someone pounding on their windows and yelling for them to get out because the fire was nearly on top of them. They described situations where it was their job to rescue people they could not reach, and wondering over and over if they would survive themselves.

One thing we never ask is, “How are you doing?” The answer is almost always, “Fine.” To our team, FINE stands for Frustrated, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional. We don’t let each other get away with that answer, either.

Whether I was talking to citizens or firefighters, all it took for the stories to start pouring out was to say something like, “I know I can’t possibly understand how this is for you, but it’s got to be very hard.”

In this kind of situation, as people talk about what happened to them, we mostly listen, acknowledging and normalizing their reactions. We offer some education and resources to help them get through the crisis. In Santa Rosa, we also had the privilege of handing out $100 gift cards that the firefighters union provided.

Some of the tougher moments came as people talked about their neighborhoods and friendships, realizing that they had not just lost their homes, but entire communities. Along with the physical losses, that is an enormous loss of social connections.

For many of the firefighters, one of the hardest parts was hearing all of the thank-you’s from the community. Like all public safety people, we are perfectionists – the minimum passing score on our job is 100 percent. So it is very difficult to have a person who is sifting through the ashes of their home say “Thank you.” For me, it was most difficult of all when that person was a firefighter. After doing this kind of thing for more than a dozen years, I’m rarely at a loss for words. But for the firefighters who lost their own homes, I had nothing but big hugs. And that’s okay.

For a few days, there was a crowd of a couple of hundred people just outside of the fairgrounds where the base camp was located. They had signs and noisemakers and they would cheer loudly when we drove by, heading out to the fire. I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t even look at them to thank them or say, “You’re welcome.” More than 8,000 homes were lost in the North Bay. Forty-two people were killed. I had to remind myself, just as I urged other responders, to remember that so many homes and lives were also saved.

In our peer support response, we did something new – we called in every dog team we knew about. At earlier fires, especially in Lake County two years earlier, we’d seen how effective dogs can be.

We saw firefighters, EMTs and dispatchers relax and open up as they petted and played with the dogs. I had a CAL FIRE captain as an instructor a couple of weeks ago. He told me that he was exhausted and irritable, doing paperwork, when one of our dog teams approached him. “Go away, I don’t have time for this,” he thought. Two minutes later, after petting the dog, he said he was relaxed and grateful that they were there. That’s what we want to hear.

If there’s a Biblical model for crisis intervention, it is the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They are in deep grief because their friend and teacher, who they thought would become their king and savior has been crucified. They don’t believe the stories of the women who claim to have seen him.

Jesus could have appeared to them as himself and cleared everything up immediately. But instead, he appears as a stranger who doesn’t know what’s been going on. “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened there in the last few days?” one asks (Luke 24:18). Like God in the Garden of Eden, he asks a question  – “What things?” – even though he already knows the answer. He doesn’t need information; they need to tell their story. Like in the Garden, the story falls short of the full truth – they have the facts right, but the bigger perspective is missing, so he reminds them of the Biblical prophecies of death and resurrection. They don’t finally recognize him until he joins them for dinner and breaks the bread – the symbol of his sacrifice.

The question, “Where are you?” seemed especially meaningful in the aftermath of these fires because I think that we tend to discount the importance of our connections to the physical world – our own bodies and the earth. We don’t eat well, we don’t exercise enough and we have greatly isolated ourselves from nature. And because we don’t appreciate nature deeply, we have been building homes in places that are highly vulnerable to this kind of disaster.

So I invite you to tackle God’s first question – where are you? We need to answer it often. Where are you in your relationships with neighbors, yourselves and God?