Roland Skipper, married to Carolyn, is my distant cousin who lives in my hometown of Wauchula (actually, everyone in Wauchula is my distant cousin). His son James is my age and part of the gang of cousins I grew up with.
I went to the ranch last week to do take care of some things. While there, my brother called with awful news: Roland and Carolyn’s house was on fire.
According to the fire marshal, the fire started in the dishwasher (!), spread up through the wall, and into the garage. Roland was resting in his chair, recovering from a recent fall that busted his arm. Carolyn was busy around the house. Neither of them noticed the fire at first.
By the time they realized the house was on fire, they had just enough time to escape. Roland made it out in a t-shirt and pajama bottoms. Carolyn did what any country woman would do: she turned on the garden hose and tried to put the fire out. Might as well tried to clean a house with spit.
Roland and Carolyn live out in the country, a long way from fire hydrants and fire departments. By the time the fire department came, the fire had spread up into a dead space between the old roof and the new roof added when the house was remodeled. With no way to get at the fire, the only thing left was to watch the roof burn and collapse in on the house.
I went by the next day, just to let them know I cared. The kids and grandkids were going through the remains of the house. Odd what survived and what didn’t: two cars, burned to a crisp; one Stetson hat, intact; old flip phone – works. The list went on and on.
I hugged Carolyn and she said, “I watched fifty years of memories go up in smoke.” Roland sat there, looking at brick walls and wondering how an 87 year old man goes about building a new house. My cousin Margaret, their daughter, told me, “It could have been a lot worse. I could be planning two funerals today.”
The insurance adjustor came by. He rolled out his standard condolence speech, then told everyone he would take pictures to assess the damage. I told him I could save him some time: it was a total loss. He gave me a dirty look.
I could sense I was in the way and they needed to get about their work. I asked if they would like me to pray with them, and they said, “Please.”
I’ve prayed for a lot of things in my life: for healings and strength; for people to come to know Jesus. I’ve prayed for God to send resources for the doing of his work and for Jesus, the Lord of harvest, to send laborers. I’ve even prayed for dogs that were sick and for cows to go the right direction. But as we held hands, it dawned on me I didn’t know quite what to pray.
When you don’t know what to pray, sometimes God will give you the words you never thought of before. The Spirit put these words in my mouth:
“Lord, thank you that Roland and Carolyn are all right. As for the rest of this, God, it was just stuff. I know it was important stuff, but its gone now. Father, one day, we will all leave all our stuff behind. You’ve reminded Roland and Carolyn what really matters – the life and the hope we have in Jesus…”
I prayed some more, but what stuck with me was the thought that one day, we will all leave behind our stuff. Roland and Carolyn got a head start. Yes it hurts and I’m sure there is grief because of memories lost. But on that Thursday morning among the smoky ruins, Jesus was teaching me one more thing:
Who you love is more important than what you have.