Christmas Fire: A Finding Amidst the Ashes

by E. Wesley Ely, MD, MPH and Kim A. Ely, MD
Published by Dobson’s Focus on the Family, 2003

It was Christmas night past, and we were indeed sleeping quietly as mice, when the alarms went off. “Rrrr, rrrr, rrrr, rrrr,” was the deafening sound I heard at four a.m. I first thought that the noise was a false alarm since the security had malfunctioned often in the past. Bolting out of bed to turn off the box before my wife and daughters woke up, I was shocked to see heavy black smoke pouring into the hallway. Was this a nightmare? Ducking down in order to breathe, I made it to the den where I saw flames two feet high! This was no nightmare; this was real!

“Kim, get the kids out of the house and call 911,” I screamed, while I ran for our only fire extinguisher. Spraying frantically, I put out the flames and thought we had time to call neighbors for more extinguishers. But to my horror, within only about five minutes, the fire surged up and advanced so rapidly through the house that I knew we had to get out immediately. (The fire marshal later instructed me that a fire grows at a rate of 50 to 100 times per minute.)

Yelling at the top of my choking lungs, I ran back to where I had last seen Kim and the girls. They were gone. I ran out to the street, where I found them still half asleep and bewildered. Shaking and crying in the winter night, the four of them stood in a tight knot, watching our home burn. I grabbed for them, hugging and patting and saying over and over, “It’ll be all right, it’ll be all right.” But deep down I couldn’t help thinking that if I’d simply had more extinguishers it might have been possible to have saved the house.

Looking back to that terrible night, Kim and I can now see how God had already begun to prepare us for this challenge of faith. The five of us on Christmas Eve had done two things to help focus attention on the real Christmas. We spent three hours watching and discussing Nativity, a wonderful movie of the trials and tribulations of Mary and Joseph, living by simple means, yet struggling in their quest to bring Jesus into the world despite Herod. Following Mass, we helped at a shelter to cook and serve dinner for forty homeless men, all down and out, though all working at least one job; we provided them with clothes, shoes and other gifts. We explained to our six-year old twins and their eight-year old sister that it is our duty to serve those less fortunate than we. We stressed that despite their lack of a home, these people were still deserving of all the good things with which God had blessed us. How were we to know that very shortly we, too, would be homeless and without clothes, shoes or gifts?

On Christmas the fireplace and its hearth had been a constant source of amazement and wonder for our family. For example, that morning after the children confirmed that Baby Jesus had indeed been born in our own nativity scene, they had found sooty footprints coming from the fireplace. Could they have been from Santa? Kim and I enjoyed watching the three excited sleuths decide that indeed they were from the jolly soul. Yes, he had eaten the cookies and milk left by them, and had even sketched the requested self-portrait (as they said, they wanted to know what he looked like “for real life”). But most importantly, when inspecting the chimney itself more closely, they had found a shred of red velvet clothing hanging from some metal within. Obviously this was from his coat or pants!

This sort of magic continued to warm our spirits throughout the day and into the night. We spent the early evening with some of our best friends in front of a classic crackling fire, enjoying each other and looking over wedding albums and family photographs. In fact, we never left the neighborhood a single time that day. Once our hearth fire had died down, the kids informed us that they had arranged a slumber party. Our upstairs had just been completely renovated, and was especially nice and fun for the kids, who had been waiting to have a sleepover! As we tucked the five children into bed at nine o’clock that night upstairs, our friends went home and we prepared to go to sleep.

Alas, due to their excitement, the kids couldn’t sleep. The neighborhood guests eventually went back across the street to sleep with their parents. Following that, our three children asked if they could come sleep in our bedroom. It had never happened that all five of us had slept downstairs in the same room before. Was this clearing of upstairs an accident or a well-orchestrated divine intervention?

Presumably, the fire started from a spark flying out from the fireplace onto the carpet several hours after we had gone to sleep. When the smoke alarms finally woke us up, I had run to the tunnel-like staircase that was immediately across from the room that was in flames. Looking up, I couldn’t see beyond the third step! This narrow staircase was acting as a chimney. The entire upstairs was already black as night with smoke — surely a death trap. Considering the fact that piercing alarms do not typically wake children (which is well-documented), it is highly likely that I might have struggled to no avail to rescue five sleeping angels from upstairs that night.

In this instance, one might ask God why He allowed such a fire on Christmas night. This common yet misdirected question in our opinion would be better restated as a prayer: Dear Lord, we thank You for protecting us during this immensely dangerous fire. You were watching over our entire family and that of our neighbors by clearing the upstairs in advance. In addition, you prepared us to handle the misfortune through your Christmas message during the previous 36 hours.

Many psychologists have written that a house fire of this magnitude is akin to death in a family. In your life, an array of similar tragedies may sometimes befall you and your loved ones, temporarily weakening and sickening your spirit. From our experience during the weeks following the fire, we will tell you that the most strengthening medicine for us was the collective outpouring of love and support from the community — neighbors, friends, clergy, teachers, classmates and even complete strangers. The tendency of some is to wonder “What have we done to deserve such a disaster.” Rather than believe that God causes such tragedy, we believe that he comes to us in its midst to minister to our souls during the long healing process. As Job remained faithful after repeatedly harsh blows, so all of us must continue to know that our Father will never leave us. Let my daughter’s observation provide you the evidence…

While the Christmas tree is perhaps the most visible sign of Christmas in a home, all that remained of ours was a ten foot long black wooden spear. Alongside this remnant, however, we found the vestige of our charred nativity scene. This previously beautiful and hand-painted nativity was one that we had bought as a young couple, thinking that we would display this sign as the focal point of Christmas for our future children. The blackened porcelain baby Jesus, now missing an arm, was alarming at first. With the unencumbered wisdom of a six-year old (I write this with all sincerity), and a healthy and unshaken faith, our daughter Brooke spoke words of the Spirit, “Look, Daddy, we knew Jesus was born on Christmas and he didn’t leave us. He’s staying right here to help us now.”

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On New Year’s Day, we received a note from a friend with whom we had lost contact about 10 years earlier. His family’s house had also burned down a few years ago, and so he offered me a practical and well thought-out emergency list of things to do. The last and most important “to do” was to remember 1 Thessalonians 5:16-19 – “Be joyful always, pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.”

The healing from this loss is going to take a while and will come in waves. I have just spent the last hour going from bed to bed in my house comforting Kim and our three daughters. Even as I type on my knees in thanks, I can smell the smoke in my clothes, but at least I can smell! Having both studied the scientific aspects of breathing, we are more overwhelmed than ever in considering this miracle that was almost ripped from our grasp by lifeless black smoke.

Faith is like a muscle, which will either atrophy from disuse or grow stronger when put to the test. For us, faith is being exercised in a healthy way. This itself is a gift from God. Like parents who know what is good for their children, so the Father knows what is good for you and me (Matthew 7:7-12). The wonder of God is that he chooses unexpected ways to bring us closer to him. Hopefully, my family will respond to this Christmas birth of Jesus with trust and a keen sense of closeness. Forever, we will have this Christmas blaze to thank for our bolstered relationship with God. We wish the same clarity, and even more, for you and your family!

P.S. We had chosen to send the following message inside our Christmas card, mailed 5 days before the fire:
Heaven’s Hues – “Looking back you will see that every step was planned. Leave all to Me. Each stone in the mosaic fits into the perfect pattern, designed by the Master Artist. It is all so wonderful. But the colours are of Heaven’s hues, so that your eyes could not bear to gaze on the whole until you are beyond the veil. So, stone by stone, you see, and trust the pattern to the Designer.”
from God Calling, entry from November 11th

Dr. Kim Ely is an Assistant Professor of Pathology, and Dr. Wes Ely is an Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Allergy/Pulmonary/and Critical Care. Both practice at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, TN.
Email address: wes.ely@vanderbilt.edu

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