Saturday, June 30, 2007

God in the fire

I am on my way back home to Cape Coral, Florida, after the Founders Conference in Owasso, Oklahoma. But I simply must tell this story and can't wait until I get back on Monday.

On Thursday afternoon, around 4 PM Central time, we received a phone call from my friend and brother, Don Reisinger. He said, "Pastor, we don't want to alarm you, but thought you should know, a serious fire is burning in Northwest Cape Coral, and is getting dangerously close to your home. It is over 500 acres in size. Evacuations in your area have been ordered. Helicopters are dumping water on houses that are in danger, including yours. We are praying."

We spoke a little more about God's faithfulness and absolute sovereignty over the weather and he encouraged me to remember what I believe.

Donna and I got on the internet and starting watching and reading news reports about the fire. Instead of 500 acres, it was now being reported as 1200. The main road leading to our home was closed down to traffic. Firefighters and forestry workers from surrounding cities were joining the fight.

Donna and I cancelled a dinner meeting we had with dear friends and prayed together. By God's grace we were able to confess that the Lord is good in all His ways, and that there would be no reason to doubt His wisdom, goodness and power if our house burned to the ground. We asked Him to protect the firemen, our neighbors and the animals in danger.

Bill Vanhelden is the Fire Chief of Cape Coral. He is a friend and a faithful Christian brother. I knew he would be praying while enduring the greatest challenge of his career. We prayed for him specifically.

After talking with our children, we decided not to start the 30 hour trip home immediately. Though we knew there was nothing we could do, even if we were there, knowing that we were so far away added to our sense of loneliness and helplessness. We spoke with several fellow members of Grace Baptist Church who had tried to drive to our house but were stopped by officials. One got through and told us the house was OK around 4:45 PM.

There is a way to walk to our house through some wooded areas behind our neighbors' houses. Had I been there, I would have taken that route. Another resourceful friend and church member, David Stamps, figured that out as well, and made his way to my neighbor's home across the street from us. He called us at 4:55 PM and told us that our neighbor, who stayed in his house, would help water our house and yard if the fire drew closer. My house was between his and the rapidly progressing NW front of the fire.

So many brothers and sisters from our church family offered to help walk through the wooded area to our house to grab pictures and important papers for us. We seriously considered those offers but decided that the risk was not worth it, and resolved to leave it all with the Lord without any further effort to save anything or check on the house.

By 6:15, the fire was over 2000 acres big. It ultimately grew from 85 to 24oo acres in 4 hours, becoming the largest wildfire in Cape Coral history. At 6:25, I spoke with my neighbor who told me that everything looked good at that point, and that there was a "huge cloud" hanging right over our heads, but that there was "no sign of rain anywhere." I told him we were going to pray for rain, and we did.

Our whole family attended the Founders Conference this year and we entered the worship center at Bethel Baptist Church right at 6:30 PM. Around 7:00, my brother Bill, who was moderating the meeting, led the congregation to pray for the Lord's mercy to be displayed in the fire in Cape Coral. He asked the Lord to rule over the weather and protect our house and our neighbor's.

Around 8PM, near the end of the service that night, my wife spoke by cell phone to Barb Reisinger back in Cape Coral. Barb reported that she had just heard from a church member who lives within a few miles of us that a "huge burst of rain" had fallen about 45 minutes ago and stopped the fire. I relayed that word to Bill at the end of the service and the congregation erupted in clapping, praising God for His kindness in this.

Later that night, I read news reports and checked my phone records in order to reconstruct the time-line on these events. Around 7:00 PM Central time, we prayed in Owasso. Around 8:00-8:10 Eastern time the rain began to fall on the western front of the fire in Cape Coral. To the best of my ability to determine it, God answered those prayers in Owasso--and no doubt many others from many places, including Cape Coral--within minutes of their being voiced.

Friends told us they had never seen such a deluge of water in such a short amount of time. It poured for 10 minutes, then stopped as suddenly as it started. One of our young adults called later that night, having gone to our house to check on it and said that our yard and house was "soaked."

Cape Coral and all SW Florida has been the midst of the worst drought we have experienced in 100 years. This fire was by far the largest our city has ever seen. It was a rapidly moving fire, sparks traveling up to a quarter mile to ignite other areas under heavy winds. Hundreds of people worked around the clock to fight this fire on the ground and from the air. Our local newspaper offered this commentary in commendation of those workers:
Fighting a brush fire of this size that spread from 85 acres to 2,000 in about four hours, wasn’t about dumping millions of gallons of water on it. Water didn't put this fire out. Plows did.
I thank God for the forestry service's expertise in cutting fire breaks with their plows. But plows didn't put this fire out. God did. This is a story about the kindness and power of our great God. Had the fire burned our house down, it would still be such a story, but perhaps shrouded in more mystery for a season. Romans 8:28 is always true, when houses are spared and when they burn to the ground. So is Romans 8:32.

Thanks for your prayers. Join us in expressing thanks and praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been very merciful to us in these events.

12 comments:

Aaron L. Turner said...

My brother,

Thank you for sharing this. It has helped strengthen my faith on a day when I need a faith strengthening.

Blessings,
Aaron

Malcolm Yarnell said...

Tom,

Praise the Lord.

In Christ,
Malcolm

Byroniac said...

Praise God! This was most encouraging, and I needed encouragement. I cannot imagine anything more encouraging than the fact that God is in complete control, and He is also gracious and merciful. Bless His name.

Joshua Chavers said...

Praise the Lord!

m b redmond said...

Talk about strange baptist fire...

Tony Kummer said...

This is a great testimony. I like hearing how your theology matters when a crisis comes.

Timmy Brister said...

Yeah, it's kind of funny that members from "TeamPyro" and "Stange Baptistfire" were both there in Owasso and praying.

The Lord is good and faithful, showing kindness to all generations. May our God be praised for his greatness, and may the people of Cape Coral hear the testimonies of our Savior Jesus Christ.

Brian Hamrick said...

We rejoice with you in God's goodness that is glorified in this account! Like Aaron, this came at a timely moment for me.

Mark Redfern said...

Job 5:8-10

8 “As for me, I would seek God,
and to God would I commit my cause,
9 who does great things and unsearchable,
marvelous things without number:
10 he gives rain on the earth
and sends waters on the fields;

Praise the Lord. Tom, thank you for your faithful testimony.

Ray Van Neste said...

Thanks for sharing this Tom. People who think abstract doctrine is all we are about just have not seen this sort of community life. I am always blessed by these stories from your church and am made ven more grateful to know such a community.

Perry McCall said...

Thanks for sharing the complete story. I praise God with you. I want you to know that God used this event and your experience in a mighty way in our Church Sunday. I read much of your testimony as part of our pastoral prayer time. Thank you again for your sharing.

Tom said...

Thanks for the encouraging words! We arrived home around 2 AM today to the smell of smoldering embers and lots of dampness from rain. I have not yet toured the area near us that burned but from what I read and have heard, the fire never successfully jumped the 2 lane road that is about 1/3 of a mile from our house. When flames did erupt, firefighters were able to extinguish them quickly until the deluge came and knocked the fire down.

We worshipped yesterday with Don Elbourne and the Lakeshore Baptist Church near Waveland, Mississippi. They are still rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina that hit two years ago. It was so encouraging to be with people full of faith and joy, whose lives have been turned upside down by natural disaster. Our church has sent two teams to serve with them in the ongoing relief effort over the last 18 months. My 5 oldest children have participated, but this was my first opportunity to be on site. Don preached a wonderful message from Ephesians 1:3-14 and the folks were warm and welcoming to our family.

I encourage you to pray for Don and this church. They have built 17 houses for people in their community and rebuilt 100, with many, many more still awaiting their efforts. They feed, clothe and help people in ways that many of us can only imagine. They have seen people come to Christ in the aftermath of the storm, and have experienced God's goodness in a thousand ways. Remember them. Contact them via the link above and ask how you may help them.

Being with them yesterday put our little scare into proper perspective and made us marvel all the more at the mystery of God's providence.