It’s our second summer in an area of Melbourne where the bushfire rating is described as extreme. Last summer, we were at the honeymoon stage of moving house. All very exciting - unpacking boxes, meeting the neighbours, sourcing services and exploring the best places to shop, writes Judith Lynch.
The weed on our block, that at ten paces and wearing dark glasses could just pass for grass, stayed reasonably green, thanks to a massive downpour of rain on Christmas night.The local Country Fire Auathority was not far away and the house insurance was up to date. A bushfire survival plan just didn’t figure on our lengthy to-do list.
Sometime in early spring the Council publicity campaign began: Prepare. Act. Survive. There were flashing signs along the roads in and out of town, residents were urged to attend information meetings, an area-personalised booklet was delivered to every letterbox. Right through Advent when Isaiah and his prophet mates were spreading the scriptural message, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’, we were preparing for something a little different.
A careful reading of the CFA booklet gave a Lenten feel to my January. I backed up and double backed up computer data, packed a quick-getaway bag and put it in the car boot and for the first time registered the obvious fact that in this area there was only one main road out, one bridge across the Yarra.
The touch of Lent came from the scary thought that losing our house in a summer bushfire was always going to be a possibility. This brought me up close and personal with lots of thorny, prickly matters that spiritual writers used to call attachments. I’m not sure exactly what attachments they were referring to, things or people, but I’m willing to bet they didn’t have a whole house-full in mind.
Already this summer, hundreds of Australian families have had a lifetime of belongings either reduced to ashes or waterlogged beyond recognition or salvage. I don’t know how they manage to start again. When I look at my carefully assembled house furnishings, the copper bottom saucepans that replaced the battered set that cooked thirty years of meals, my mother’s paintings, favourite bed linen and holiday souvenirs from long ago overseas trips, my heart sinks. There’s no doubt about it – I’m attached to my belongings and just now I want to keep them all.
We like to think that God will protect us, open doors, create opportunities, keep us from harm. At the same time, we define ourselves by what we have, where we live, how comfortable we are financially, how we have eased ourselves through the roadblocks of life. Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness remind us about the careless way we slot God into a space in our busy lives labelled One day - to be activated in times of emergency.
And it’s not just about houses and personal belongings. There is an assumption that the earth and all its goodies are there for us, for the taking. But of course they’re not. The earth’s resources are finite. We need to cherish our land, to respect its boundaries – stones cannot become loaves of bread, God is not to be put to the test by our stupidity and selfishness.
So my unwelcome January Lent not only began to winkle out my attachment to my belongings, but alerted me to my responsibility not to exploit the plot of land that has my name on the title. I gained a new respect for water and for the slatey rock upon which our house rests. If we are to continue living in our house among the gum trees then I have to let the land talk to me, like only planting what rightly belongs there. I am learning to accept that there is beauty in dry grass, that the weedy, stony patch where the swing set sits, was never meant to support a suburban lawn.
Lent asks the hard questions. It doesn’t necessarily answer them, just clears some of the junk away, the kind of unnecessary detritus that blocks our “Yes” to God. That FireReady booklet nudged and shuffled me into facing the fact that in a bushfire here I would probably lose all the ‘stuff’ I hold dear.
Once upon a time I used to wonder how people could stand to live in an environment subjected annually to the possibility of devastating bushfires. Maybe it’s because some of the beauty and peace of the hills and valleys moves into their souls. I do know that in the twelve months we have lived here I have moved into a more peaceful place, a more prayerful place.
Today photograph albums and a small box of memorabilia are sitting by the door of my study, ready to be picked up if the fire danger rating is Code Red, which means we need to leave. The rest of it we will leave in God’s hands.
Judith Lynch is a writer who lives in Melbourne. More of her writing appears at tarellaspirituality.com
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