The Evening we Traded Ashes for Beauty

bfa(These thoughts had been whirling around in my mind for years. Four years ago, I put them down on paper. I never want to forget that God came to earth to bring beauty from ashes .)

The year was 1998. We called it “Christmas Eve Eve” even before that particularly eventful day. The Reeves kids (I’m sure they weren’t the only ones) were usually getting really excited about the next day, and so December 23 came to be known as that. This particular one fell on a Wednesday. Brent and I got up that morning with lots on our “To Do” list, but I felt like I was coming down with the flu and he didn’t feel much better than that. The Christmas Eve service was on his mind and the house was a mess with Christmas approaching in two days and we had not even unpacked from a recent trip we had taken.
Now this is the part of the story where most writers would say “the next few days are somewhat of a blur” … but that would NOT be the case. God has vividly etched in my mind and heart many of the details of the following hours and days. I guess you could say that during those days, I pondered all the unfolding events in my heart and have kept them safely tucked there.
Emmanuel – God with us.

The week before, we had been blessed by friends to be on a Christmas cruise. Several couples from our church (who gifted us with the trip), as well as some of our high school and college students, all went together, which made it fun and memorable. To save money we all decided that instead of flying we would charter a bus together to and from Miami. I well remember stepping off the bus when we arrived back into Auburn that December night, thinking to myself as I put my foot on the asphalt of the church parking lot: Welcome Back to Reality!
Little did I know what that reality would be.

On the days before that now-famous Wednesday, it had already been a Christmas to remember … but for all the wrong reasons. For weeks we had been dealing with (and I’m not exaggerating for effect) NEVER-ENDING LICE! The girls could not seem to get rid of it. Before we had left for the cruise, I had felt depressed and almost at the end of my rope – nits, combs, treatments, etc. We were all ready to shave heads and start over.
Also, on the very night we returned from our trip, we found out that one of our daughters had been in some trouble at school the week we were gone, with the consequences being the dreaded ISS – in school suspension. That was no fun to deal with after a very long bus ride, but we called her teacher and found out the details.
The week finally ended and turned into the weekend. And on Saturday morning we woke up to find that all our sewage had backed up into our bathtubs in both of our bathrooms.
Obviously, reality had hit hard!
It was in those moments that I struggled with more anxiety and frustration than I had in all the weeks before. We made it through Sunday, but I remember thinking through tears “does God really work in ways we cannot see?”
I questioned.
Emmanuel – God with us?

Wednesday morning turned into Wednesday afternoon and then evening. The girls had been asking us when we were going to do our annual night of “sipping hot chocolate and viewing Christmas lights”. We didn’t get to it before we had left for the cruise and we had given our word we would when we returned. Now it was December 23 and that was still on the agenda before Christmas. Brent and I knew there was no other night left, so we all loaded in the van. Most of the evening was spent with my head leaned up against the passenger side window, longing for my bed. I admit I was not holiday Mom of the Year that night.
Before heading home, I remembered we needed milk and diapers for Josh, so Brent pulled in the nearest grocery store for me to run in. As I rounded a corner with my cart which was carrying more than I went in for, a friend from church was standing there. He looked a little confused and informed me that people from our church had been looking for us. I assumed that there had been a death or some sort of crisis and they needed Brent. He told me to wait a minute while he called his wife.

When I said “Hello” I could tell something was not right. She managed to get out the words: We have all been trying to find you. Your house is on fire!
And once again I began to fear.
Emmanuel – God with us?

And so it began. Some life changes for the Reeves family. This day would not be remembered for the hot chocolate or the Christmas lights. This Christmas Eve Eve was one that our family holds dear and near to our hearts for reasons we could never have imagined.
At that moment, running out to my van load of kids, fear of the unknown gripped me. I seriously felt terrified in that instant. In my panic, I know I scared everyone. The doors were locked and I couldn’t get in as quickly as I wanted. I banged on the window and yelled to Brent. Our house is on fire! Our house is ON FIRE!
The kids started crying and at the same time were attempting to comfort me. I remember them saying all the way home, it will be alright, Mama, it will be alright. (Amanda continued to lean over the front passenger seat and gently pat my shoulder.)

When we arrived at our street, we couldn’t get to our house. Fire trucks and cars lined the road. Brent told us all to stay in the van and he jumped out and ran toward the house. It was really dark, and we couldn’t see down the street to our house. Soon dear friends from our church surrounded the van and spoke words of encouragement and concern. Brent came back to the van and shook his head to me in a subtle way. At that moment I thought it was all gone. But honestly, also in that moment, I was just relieved we were all together… and safe.
Brent said that he didn’t think the kids or I should go near the house. For one thing, it was smoldering. For another, it was pitch black.
But THEN AND THERE the words of Isaiah began to unfold in our lives: “To all who mourn, He will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair…”
Emmanuel – God with us.

… In the next hours, we were surrounded with gracious love. In the Bodine home there was actually a feeling of peace. There was comfort and safety. We made phone calls to parents and family members. We had to call the insurance company. Phone calls came in from far away friends and concerned church members. As I sat on the couch with Natalie right under my arm, not wanting to venture far away from me, I saw it in her sweet little eyes and written on her face. They all needed to know it was going to be OK.
Was this a bad dream? Did our house really burn down two days before Christmas? Would there be a Christmas for us? Is everything we have gone? Who do we call first?

I knew that as children, they wanted to say that presents and toys didn’t matter now. But I also knew that as children, it did. It was CHRISTMAS, after all. Time for laughter, music, each one of them opening one chosen present on Christmas eve, our annual Christmas Eve meal, all sleeping in the same room on the night before Christmas morning, when everyone wakes up early and we celebrate together.
But the truth was setting in. The feeling in my heart said it REALLY is going to be OK.

In those rather calm and sometimes hushed hours, we all sat together in the Bodine’s den. Brent and Randy had ventured back to the house to assess the damage more accurately. I asked Brent to look for a couple of things – not really expecting them to be retrieved – still holding on to hope that he would spot them. I will never forget when he walked in the door with my Bible and four picture albums of the kids. He said with his big smile and deep trust in our God, “Look. I found them. They all made it through.” Jana rejoiced with me and it seemed to be a sign to me.
Emmanuel – God with us. (And He cares about the little things, too!)

Exhausted, we fell into bed in the warmth of that home. The kids were safely tucked in and seemed peaceful. As if it happened yesterday, even at this moment I am moved by what happened that night. Brent reached his hand out for mine and grabbed it and said “Let me pray for us.” In that moment, he whispered a simple but profound prayer to God, asking Him for His peace and wisdom. God’s peace and comfort overwhelmed me that night and did not leave. For days it remained so real. His presence sustained me in ways I could never have imagined. Although I was still feeling symptoms of the flu coming on, I mostly just felt peace.
Emmanuel – God with us.

The next day, Christmas Eve, took me by surprise. Our church family’s response to our situation was beyond my comprehension. We awoke to find people ready and willing to serve and love. People delayed their Christmas trips and spent their day washing our clothes. Jana’s washing machine was running all that day, as she washed, dried and folded our smoke-filled clothes that had survived. Some went shopping for the kids. They took a list of all the gifts they were to receive that year and began looking for them. They brought food and cards. Friends dropped by to give hugs and love. The girls’ friends were so kind and caring. The girls still questioned if we would have our regular Christmas Eve traditions as a family, but that just wasn’t possible and they, too, were trying to deal with the changes and the unknowns.
Since the Christmas Eve service was scheduled for that night, Brent wanted to go ahead with it as planned. That afternoon, the doorbell rang and in walked ladies from my Sunday School class with new “outfits” for all six of us – shoes too. Everything fit perfectly. The girls were elated. In fact, they loved them so much that they wore those dresses ragged that winter!
That was the most meaningful Christmas Eve service I have ever attended. My friend, Jana sat close and held my hand to reassure me. My girls were filled with joy and as we sat on that pew, I was overwhelmed with God’s grace and goodness.
Emmanuel – God with us.

Christmas Day brought new challenges. Although we were with our dear friends who did everything in their power to make it alright, we obviously weren’t waking up in our own beds in our own home with our own traditions. It was different. Not bad, just not the same.
The kids actually had the biggest Christmas they had ever had before or have had since. There were gifts everywhere! In fact, we even put some away to open at some other time because there were so many. People had gone above and beyond the call of friendship to serve us and show us love. We spent the morning with the Bodines and then they packed up and headed to see family and to give us a little quiet time as well. They had so graciously allowed us to invade their home and lives at Christmas. Never once did they seem bothered or annoyed that a family of six had moved in two days before Christmas!

After the morning excitement wore off, we realized that were all extremely worn down, so we all went back to bed for much of that day. When we got up late that afternoon and began to think what to do next, we knew that family would be a comfort. We decided to drive to North Carolina where my family was spending Christmas. Neither Brent nor I was feeling well, and though we did not look forward to the long drive, it’s where our hearts were already.
We packed up what we had and headed out. When we arrived in NC, it was cold. My mom came to the door to greet us. I know she was anxious to see us with her own eyes and SEE that we were all ok. Amanda was following behind and came up the front steps.
My mom looked down and said – Amanda, where are your shoes? It’s freezing! With all seriousness, Amanda said “Mama Jo, I don’t have any!”
We can laugh now, but it was true. (Mama Jo didn’t let that last long though.)
We went in my grandmother’s home and found more of what we had already experienced … so much grace and love.
Emmanuel – God with us.

In the days to come, there would be so much evidence of God’s faithfulness and kindness. We “moved in” with our friends and stayed until Easter! We became a family with them and even now share a bond that can’t be explained with words. Yes, it’s true. They still love us, even after our invasion!
There were details to work through in those months. The house did not burn to the ground, but it was so smoke damaged that the inside had to be totally rebuilt (taken down to the studs). Insurance, paper work, replacing important items, etc. We began assessing the losses. Almost everything that pertained to Christmas was lost. All of our ornaments and decorations were all gone. Some that were sentimental were hard to lose, but more and more we realized that it was all only “stuff.” God had given us so much more than we lost!

Before my story ends, I must share the best part! As the details of that Christmas Eve Eve night were rehearsed during the days following the fire, we found out something. A couple of the firefighters, sitting in our home all night on December 23 watching to make sure there was no fire left in the walls, began talking.
One was a Christ follower. One was not.
That night in our charred home, one firefighter shared with another firefighter the real meaning of CHRISTmas. A spiritual conversation took place that night. One man had hours to tell another of the love and hope of Christ. Because I am not sure of the exact outcome, I am not able to say if that man gave his life to Jesus that night, but I do know that it was a divine moment …
God was bringing beauty from ashes,
just like He always does!

Emmanuel – God with us.

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