October 25, 2021 | by Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño
For weeks we have been lifting up our eyes towards this region of our Conference and praying for all of you as we have watched the news reports of what came to be called the Dixie and the Caldor fires.
With the whole world we saw on our TVs and on our computers the destruction that the fires brought. We heard the reports of the evacuations, some short, some long, some evacuations feeling permanent for those who lost everything.
We are so grateful for those of you who escaped the fires and who from a deep sense of compassion, knowing the fear and anxiety of the power of fast-moving and ever-changing fires, extended care, and support to the victims of these latest fires. Volunteers from our churches in Placerville, Cameron Park, Susanville, Taylorsville, Chester, and you members of Quincy UMC, have been our front-line response workers supported by others from across the California-Nevada Conference, our world-wide United Methodist and UMCOR. We are grateful to God for you.
For weeks our Conference Team has longed to come and join you so that we could in person be with you a presence of support for those most affected by the fires. And, to learn from you what else we need to do to strengthen victims and volunteers.
We were finally able to come this weekend beginning our visit on Friday morning with a first stop in Portola where we saw a video that captured the devastation caused by the fires, heard the painful stories of members of our Portola church as the fires seemed to play with them and their emotions, rising around them with fierce power.
One woman shared with us that she had just arrived in the area, hadn’t even fully unpacked, when she realized that wildfires were headed her way. But she wasn’t the only one filled with fear. The voices of long-term residents quivered, their eyes becoming tearful as they spoke of the fires that threatened their lives as well.
On Friday morning we were just beginning our visit to you and others in this fire-affected area and were already feeling the depth of trauma that all of you have experienced to some degree or another. But soon we would also know the depth of your faith.
During that first hour of our visit, Pastor Becky Stockdale stood before us and read the 121st Psalm. With this Psalm upon our hearts, over these three days that we have lived among you, we have come to know of the great faith of you our United Methodist brothers and sisters who live and serve in Plumas, El Dorado, and Lassen counties.
We’d been looking up your way, and as we traveled to you, we began to see the hills, and the grandeur of God’s creation. But what prepared us to see the devastation left by the fires was the 121st Psalm, and more importantly your claiming of this sacred text.
Psalm 121 is a special Psalm, known as a Psalm of ascent, because it was early on used by people of faith as a prayer and a blessing for those who journeyed up to the holy temple in Jerusalem. Over the generations of faith, this Psalm has become a blessing for any journey in life we may be taking. But a blessing of this kind comes best after a confession of faith.
The Psalmist raises his voice to declare his faith – Looking towards the hills he says with clear simplicity: Where does my help come from? It comes from God, the Lord, who makes heaven and earth.
Brothers and sisters, there is no greater expression of faith than to declare that our lives are fully dependent on God, not ourselves and not on others who may love us dearly. We are fully dependent on God. And I am moved to share that we have heard the witness of your great faith, of your total dependence on God even through danger and disaster and we praise God.
Sometimes we have heard your faith through a single voice, but we have come to know that that single voice is an expression of the bold and courageous faith of the collective heart of United Methodists, of you, who have lived through the fires. And I believe you would agree with me that no one has spoken this witness aloud with more assurance and courage than the members of Greenville UMC.
We’ve learned that the community of Greenville, including our Greenville UMC, burned to the ground in 8 1/2 minutes. Ken the chair of the Trustees at Greenville was engaged in trying to save Greenville, but he didn’t see the church burn. He didn’t see it because he was watching his own home burn up on the hill. Yet when we visited Greenville, Ken and his spouse weren’t at the site of the scraps that remained of their home, they weren’t at a shelter, they were at the site of what had once been their beloved church that now lays reduced to ashes, bent iron, disintegrating concrete, and blackened trees. They were there with no small amount of faith.
As we gathered for a time of remembering the church, its ministry, and what it had meant to those who were members, Ken celebrated the fact that certain parts of the church building needed to go! He was tired of repairing an old building. But even more, he and our brothers and sisters of Greenville church remembering God’s faithfulness to them claimed a future for the Greenville church joining their voices and their spirits in saying that they would, with God’s help, build up the church anew. The fires would not have the last word, because God the maker of heaven and earth is with them! Praise God! Our help does come from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.
Hearing the stories of how the fires come through the hills, aided by the winds, jumping indiscriminately and unpredictably from one tree to another, two trees down, consuming one house but then skipping a whole row of houses, we began to realize with you that the hills aren’t always lovely sights or protective barriers. In fire season they can be a contributing factor in threatening fires. The hills may obscure some threat, but by their very existence they also bear witness to God our Creator.
While the hills all around here still bear the scars of the fires of previous years and now also bear the scars of this year’s fires, more than that, they will soon enough bear witness to the blessings of God.
Before long green sprouts of new trees, grass and flowers will begin to arise along the hills because just as the Psalmist says: God chooses to bless us along our journey of life, caring for us as God cares for all of creation because God is our eternal keeper.
There is no greater blessing than to have God choose to be our keeper in life and in death. That God is mindful of us in our short existence is quite amazing! But as the Psalmist proclaims,
God will not let our foot be moved;
God who keeps us will not slumber.
God who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is our keeper.
Who is God? God is our keeper! God’s own self-chosen identity is to be the One who protects, shields, watches over, guards, and keeps us. As the 127th Psalm declares, God keeps us like a watchman keeping guard over a city (vs.1) or a bird shielding its young in the shelter of his wings as we hear in the 91st Psalm (vs. 4).
What does God promise to do? God promises to keep you. God will guard you as you go on your journey of life, and as you return home. As we go out and come in. As we face the dangers of the day and of the night.
Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño is Resident Bishop of the San Francisco area and the California-Nevada Conference of The United Methodist Church.