Finding Gratitude When Paradise is Lost

Bus driver Kevin McKay and fourth-grader Charlotte Merz. Photo by CNN Newsource.

By Steve Beard

As families and friends gather on Thanksgiving to watch football, meticulously avoid politics, and feast on holiday favorites, the day will be starkly different for the first responders and fire victims in California. Accounting for dozens of deaths, nearly 250,000 acres in Northern and Southern California have been scorched.

More than 11,700 family homes have been turned to ashes.

Thanksgiving meals for the exhausted fire fighters and devastated victims (many are the same) will be shared using plastic utensils and paper plates on makeshift tables and folding chairs. Many are living in tents in the Walmart parking lot in Chino– 15 miles from ground-zero of the devastation, the town of Paradise.

Last Sunday night, the First Christian Church in Chico held a vigil to remember the more than 75 who died in the wildfire. Residents reverently reflected, prayed, and brought photos and mementoes of lost family members, friends, and even pets. A sign on the church altar read: “We will rise from the ashes.” People held one another and wept as the Rev. Jesse Kearns recited a prayer for first responders: “We ask for continued strength as they are growing weary right now.”

On Thanksgiving, there will be nearly two dozen sets of parents that will joyously include Kevin McKay in their prayers of gratitude. He heroically drove a school bus through a harrowing inferno with 22 elementary students and two teachers on board. The children were stranded at Ponderosa Elementary School in Paradise. Because of the wildfire chaos, the families were unable to reach the school.

Despite only being on the job for a few months, McKay knew that they needed to evacuate immediately in order to beat the flames. “It was very scary,” recalled Mary Ludwig, 50, a second-grade teacher on the bus. “It felt like Armageddon.”

“It just kind of looked like we’d be headed into Mordor,” McKay told CNN, referring to the fictitious, horror-filled realm of the evil lord Sauron, a character in “The Lord the Rings” books and films. It ended up being a terrifying five-hour journey to safety.

The school bus was trapped in a traffic jam of people trying to escape the flames. “That’s when I saw something that gives me hope for the next generation,” McKay reported. A young man in his twenties got out of his car and offered McKay a bottle of water because he knew there were children on the bus, apologizing that it was all he had to offer.

That bottle was put to good use as smoke filled the bus. One child complained of being tired, others were beginning to doze off. The teachers tried to comfort the children as best they could.

McKay took off his shirt and tore the material into smaller pieces so they could wet the fabric down and give to the kids to use as filtered masks for their breathing.

Abbie Davis, a 29-year-old kindergarten teacher, said she thought she was going to die several times during the ordeal. At one point, they paused to pray for their safety.

Fourth-grader Charlotte Merz, 10, said she tried to stay calm and go to the “happy place” in her mind. “It was so crazy, and there were fires left and right everywhere you looked,” she recalled.

McKay said: “That’s when we realized – it’s a silly statement, but Paradise is lost.”

Strangely, he now feels a sense of destiny about his new job in the wake of the experience. “I was where I was supposed to be. I feel blessed,” McKay told a reporter. “It hadn’t made sense financially for a while, but it all makes sense now. It’s wild. It was the right place at the right time.”

Both teachers agree that McKay acted like a true hero. “We had the bus driver from heaven,” Ludwig said.

Gratitude in the midst of horror

On his legendary children’s TV show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the late Fred Rogers often told a story about when he was a boy and would see scary things on the news: “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day,” he said, “especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”

Perhaps that is a reminder for young and old when we face calamity during the holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter all appear on our calendars every year despite war, terrorist threats, murders, fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Recasting our vision might be one way to deal with intense hardship.

In the midst of war, we look for the peacekeepers. In the midst of cancer, we look for the compassionate doctors. In the midst of an emergency, we look for those who rush into harm’s way.

“Was I deceived or did a sable cloud turn forth her silver lining on the night?” wrote John Milton in the 1600s. His poetic stanza – where we get our concept of finding a “silver lining” – is inspired by the observation that sunlight cracking through storm clouds sometimes gives off the appearance of a silver outline. While never meant to be used as a trite cliché in the midst of tragedy, the idea is that storm clouds eventually roll away and light will shine again after the thunder and lightning of life. Or, in the case of Paradise, the smoke will eventually clear and the sky will be blue again.

Until the sky’s blueness is in sight, however, wisdom beckons us to hold off on blithely quoting Bible verses to victims. Instead, we should simply lend a shoulder to cry upon and mourn with those who mourn. As the Psalmist affirmed, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

For most people of faith, one of the most difficult biblical injunctions comes from Saint Paul: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

It would be understandable for the mournful to dismiss Paul’s words. Ultimately, however, that would be a mistake. Paul knew what he was talking about. His life was riddled with brutal and unjust hardships. He was repeatedly imprisoned and beaten – even stoned and shipwrecked.

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty,” Paul would testify. “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:12-13).

Through his faith in God, Paul was able to see the silver lining of heaven in his painful circumstances. That is most certainly not an easy thing to do. But his attitude of gratitude was a helpful first step.

“To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything He has given us – and He has given us everything,” wrote Thomas Merton in Thoughts in Solitude.“Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.”

Steve Beard is the creator of Thunderstruck.

To make a donation to the ongoing relief work in Northern California, please consider donating to the Salvation Army HERE


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