Thursday, July 8, 2010

God, Life and Everything - A Fire Remembered

I write a column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take. Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

Last week I wrote about an anniversary I had. This week, there’s another anniversary, though not so nice.

Twenty-six years ago today (June 16), St. James’ Church burned in a fire that remains mysterious to this day. I remember when I came to St. James’, one of the first things anyone did was hand me a video tape of the fire and say, “Here, watch it.”

The video show flames shooting out of the bell tower like a flame thrower. It showed windows shattering and flashing lights from the fire trucks.

The bell tower was destroy first, its large bell falling to the ground in molten drops. The organ, also located in the tower, was burned to ash. It spread from the tower eastward toward the altar, taking ever pew with it. Though I remember hearing that the fire did not reach the altar itself the damage was so severe that the entire sanctuary had to be torn apart.

Every stained glass window except for a tiny one up by the altar was shattered either by the flames themselves or by firefighters who needed to get through them in order to save the structure.

Then the video cut to the next day when several people hauled out surviving pieces of furniture or altar equipment, laying it all on the ground even as the ruins smoldered. Next to the church volunteers were setting out chairs for the stunned Sunday service that would take place outside.

Though it’s been a long time since I saw that video, I believe the service had volunteer musicians to make up for the lost organ. The sermon was about rising from the ashes. There was probably a resurrection theme.

This all happened long before I came to St. James’, but there was a reason that parishioner demanded that I watch the unfolding disaster and its aftermath.

I needed to understand.

I needed to understand what kind of scars the fire left on the congregation. I needed to understand the lasting trauma of things lost so dramatically and suddenly. That the loss of the building and so many beloved treasures of the past still affected many. Also, I needed to understand the satisfaction – dare I say pride – shared by so many in the congregation over their recovery and rebuilding.

It’s no small feat to rebuild an historic church, but they did it. Not that it really matters in the grand scheme of things, but they wanted to rebuild just as it had been. The congregation came close.

We don’t hold celebrations to commemorate this devastating fire, but I keep it in the back of my mind. Its effect was long lasting.

As people, we all remember significant anniversaries, both good and painful. First love / loss of a loved one / moving away from home / getting that first job.

Perhaps more importantly, we remember the significant events surrounding the lives of our loved ones – events that shape who they are. Death of a parent, divorce, birth of children. If we are smart, we know key events of those we care about.

Why? Because those events are part of the makeup of people. They color how we think, how we act – certainly how we react to others. In short, if you want to truly know someone, you need to pay attention to their past.

For that matter, if you want to truly know yourself, you need to pay attention to your past.

We don’t like to do that, I admit. It’s easier to pretend nothing ever happened, that we are not affected by those big events. That’s why we have anniversaries – they force us to at least acknowledge the event, even if we don’t dig too deeply into how it shapes us.

So, today, I’m remembering that fire of June 16, 1984. Even twenty-six years later, it has left its mark.