Summers in central Saskatchewan are short. Okay, they’re too short. And so when the snow finally melts, the ice disappears and the risk of frost is nearly non-existent, we clear out of the cities (and the pews) and head into the wilderness.
Unfortunately, last year, summer was even shorter. From about mid-June to mid-July, a thick blanket of smoke hung over the sky as forest fires raged in the north. Several folks in my congregation were concerned as fires threatened their cabins. Many communities such as Montreal Lake, Weyakwin, and La Ronge were on high alert as the heat and flames made their way to the edge of town. And while a few homes were lost, through the endless effort of firefighters, both local and from afar, many homes, businesses, cabins and communities were spared from the fire’s wrath. But what is undeniably clear is that the landscape, the forest, has significantly changed.
Forest fires are a powerful force. It’s really an illusion to say we “have it under control.” Even though we go to great lengths to defend against them, to pour tremendous energy into saving homes and buildings, our efforts simply run up short. We are at the mercy of the elements, and where there is destruction, we lament, and where there is salvation, we rejoice.
One of the stories of salvation comes from Ric and Theresa Driediger. Their story was shared in Canadian Mennonite last summer (Aug. 17, 2015, p. 29). Forest House is a beautiful, off-grid retreat centre deep in the wilderness, accessible only by canoe, float plane or snowmobile. As the fire approached, Ric accepted the fate of destruction. He removed the propane tanks, put them into the water, went out into the water and waited. But then within hours of the fire’s fury, a team of firefighters arrived by helicopter, set up sprinklers and dumped significant water on the structure, hoping it would not burn. When Ric returned the next day, to his surprise, Forest House did not perish; the forest was decimated, but the structure remained. Others were not as fortunate.
Yet as powerful and destructive as these forest fires are, they are essential to the health and well-being of the forest. Within six weeks of the fire, Ric and Theresa hosted a pastors’ retreat at their Canoe Outfitters, three hours north of Prince Albert. As we drove past the destroyed forest near Weyakwin, amidst the charred timber and new open spaces, the forest bottom was teeming with new life. A green carpet covered the earth. Fireweed was bursting through in violet beauty. The forest was born again!
While all metaphors have their limits, there is clearly a force at work changing the landscape of the church within North America. And while it is tempting to point blame or find fault as to why things are the way they are, the force at work cannot be stopped by a three-point strategy or by simply trying harder. What is happening in our culture, society and church is bigger than us. Does this mean we do nothing? No! We do what we can but then we wait, and we trust. And even if the structure is gone in the morning, we thank God for what was, we lament over our loss, and begin preparations to rebuild.
Ryan Siemens is Area Church Minister, Congregational and Pastoral Relations for Mennonite Church Saskatchewan. He is also pastor of Grace Mennonite Church in Prince Albert, Sask.