Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fire, Heroes, and the Power of Perspective

Friday started out like many normal days: a whole lot to do in a short amount of time. The plan was to meet my husband, Chris in Conway, then travel to Little Rock to help Sabrina move. (This is one of my best friends whose husband died in September. Her brother lives with her now, and she was moving into a bigger house to accomodate the household.) From Little Rock, we were headed to West Point to stay with my parents. On Saturday we were driving to Jonesboro to celebrate the 40-year ministry of the people who probably had the single greatest impact on Chris and Tonya's life. On Sunday Chris was preaching at my home church. Since our house was on the market, I had to get it spotless before we left, arrange the dog's weekend care and pack for myself and three kids while fighting an ear and sinus infection. On Thursday, I had done all the important things: oil change, hair cut... pedicure.

I picked our older children up from school, secured (more like 'forced') all three of their carseats in the back row of the van and popped in a movie. I got annoyed at the gas station pump because it wasn't fast enough: so instead of filling up for 80 bucks, I stopped at $19.62. As I was pulling out of the gas station, my friend Nathalia texted me. I don't text and drive, so I called her as I went on my merry way East-bound across I-40. You have to understand that Nathalia and I know how to talk: we were making plans, discussing the Lord, and the faithfulness of God in the life of Sabrina. There wasn't a bit of silence in that 20 or 30 minutes, and when we finally said "good-bye" I returned Chris' call to tell him when I'd be in Conway. After I hung up, I adjusted my rear-view mirror to do that motherly thing of looking at my children, when I noticed a strange smokey film covering the entire back window of the van. I have zero sense of smell at the moment, so if something was burning I wouldn't have known it. The film didn't look like normal exhaust to me, but since there was a semi in the distance behind me and a bridge in front of me, it took me a little while to pull over.

I didn't want to panic my children, so I calmly said "kids. I want you to get unbuckled." They tell me later that they were immediately reaching for their seatbelts, but were having trouble finding the buckle because they were squished together in the back seat. All I heard was "why?" My calm demeanor quickly changed to yelling "THIS IS NOT A TIME TO ASK ME QUESTIONS! WHEN I SAY UNBUCKLE, YOU DO IT NOW! WHEN I STOP THIS VAN, GET OUT IMMEDIATELY!"
The older two jogged out and then I finished unbuckling my youngest. We stood as far away from the road and van that we could, right next to a line of trees. I called Chris and the conversation went something like this:
Tonya (in a collected, but urgent voice): "The van is smoking. We are on the side of the interstate. Come get us."
Chris (envisioning his children and wife standing on the side of the road with huge vehicles whizzing by): "Oh my goodness. Can you get to the next exit?"
Tonya (in a high pitched, loud and rapid voice): "WHAT?!?!?!? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?? NO, I CANNOT GET TO AN EXIT, THAT'S WHY I'M HERE!!!! I WILL NOT GET BACK IN THAT VAN, IT MAY CATCH ON FIRE!!!"
Chris: "okay. okay. Where are you?"

Did he really need to know that small detail in a crisis like this? I mean, I had just been enthralled in a great conversation. I could tell you every word that was said to me, so of course I didn't pay attention to insignificant things like mile markers and highway signs.

I couldn't really explain what I was seeing to Chris, and knowing that he likes detail, I hung up and popped the hood. I could see now that there was a little smoke coming from the front, and thought it was overheating. Just as I had my hand on the hood and was about to open it, a man ran up behind me and startled me. I jumped about three feet back and he got down on the ground with his fire extinguisher. I came to know this man as Randy, my modern day "Good Samaritan" as Nathalia later termed it. (Luke 10:25-37) Then I looked to the right, and a young semi-driver going west bound had stopped his huge truck even with my vehicle. To be honest, he looked like a bowed-up leprachaun, leaping and dancing over tall weeds and mudholes, running and turning his head from side to side to cross two lanes of interstate traffic with a fire extinguisher in his left hand.

I couldn't figure out why these men had extinguishers when my van was just overheating a bit. In moments, HUGE amounts of smoke were billowing out of the top of the hood and around the sides. They fired their extinguishers, other men were calling 911, and here came a policeman, a tow truck, a fire truck, and men in fire suits. At this point, I realized the grass was on fire.  My girls were looking a bit shocked and Kinley remarked how much that extinguishing fluid looked like puke. Cade was jumping up and down yelling "COOL! a fire! a fire! Now we can get a van with a DVD player. Can we get one like my friend ____?"  Here's a picture of the "puke".

    (left: radio guy   Middle:  semi-driver  right:  Randy)
The firemen let the kids play on the firetruck while I filled out paperwork and made decisions. No one had enough seats for all four of us, so the policeman let me get in the cargo van with Randy and all of our belongings for the weekend. I strapped two kids in the front captain chair, and the other kid and I sat on the floor of Randy's van. We drove 10 miles to the nearest gas station: Randy bought us food and drinks, put a movie on his laptop for the kids, and stayed with us until Chris arrived.

A few hours later, Randy called us. "Chris, I've got a car that I just bought a month ago. Come get it until you get another vehicle." We have it now; this is no junky spare car. It's a shiny red pontiac with 32,000 miles on it.

On Monday, we drove to the mechanic's place to get the rest of our stuff from the burned van. The mechanic and the local fire chief (who was the tow truck driver at the scene) showed us the burnt oil that covered the back of the van. He pointed to a nearby car that had blown up and told us how the woman barely got out. He said over and over "You don't know how fortunate you are." He told me that the van was on fire while I was driving it. He told me all of the things that could have happened: the automatic doors could've stopped working and trapped us in, the gas tank could have blown up, the oil......

I can not tell you how sobering it was to suddenly understand the full extent of what had happened. I now understand why the firemen were there so quickly: someone had called 911 while I was unknowingly driving a burning vehicle at 70 mph. I do not know how long it had been burning. I don't know how all the pieces fit together, but I know the "Who". And because of Him, you can't finish this story without "seeing" the bigger picture.

I was saved on Friday the 13th by no work of my own. I simply did not resist the help that came to me. Imagine me standing between the burning van and Randy or the semi-driver and arguing: "Excuse me men, but I don't need you. I will get where I intend to be. I was going to help a widow. I was talking about the Good Lord. You have no right to my van. I'm the one who puts gas in it, I'm the one who got the oil changed. I know every quirk about my van and you just laid your eyes on it for a few seconds. My dad was a fireman, and I know how to use that extinguisher when I need it."

That doesn't even make sense!!!! But somehow most intend to get to Heaven while they are driving towards Hell. They think they will arrive at Heaven's door by the wheels of their good works. They think because they can say His Name that they have a relationship with Jesus. They think they have rights to their own body, that they know their thoughts more than anyone else, that they'll be saved by the example of their parents. They think they will get to Heaven by knowledge of the Word when they don't even apply it.

I would submit to you that BECAUSE I was focused on my good works in this burning van situation, I was not aware of my true problem. Oh, I eventually saw symptoms. I knew something was wrong, but because I was so close to the van, I couldn't see flames. I needed someone outside of me, someone who had a better perspective, to look at my situation and know that the problem was fire, not smoke.

We sense that there are problems in our lives. We feel them. But few understand that the root of the problem is sin. It's either your sin, or someone else's sin, or the effect of sin on a once-perfect world. You can not fix it, but Jesus defeated it. God killed His Son in order to put sin to death. Jesus rose again, to allow us to share in His life.

You get to be a part of my story through no work of your own. You simply have not resisted reading it. Grace can come to you now because I am alive to tell about it!! Do not resist the greater Help for your greater need. Pray that God would open your senses. Hear His Word. Look at the beauty of God. Smell the sweet fragrance of life. Taste and see that the Lord is good.

How many times have I failed to tell this truth to people? How many times have I seen the real problem in marriages but didn't interfere because it wasn't my place? How many times have I waited to have a relationship with someone before I helped them?  But I have been given new heroes to remind me how I want my life to be.
*I want to be Randy who scared me so that he could save me.
*I want to be the nameless semi-driver, who didn't seem to notice how awkward he looked because he was too busy running for my life.
*When I have no ability of my own, I want to be the one to call up to the "Higher Authority". 
*I want to be the firemen who turned children's panic into a playground.
*I want to be the policeman who chose grace over the law by allowing us to ride in a van without proper seat belts so we could get to a safer place.
*I want to be the spouse that lays down his/her own agenda in order to help the other.

I hope that you will do likewise and stop minding your own business. James 4:19 "My brothers, if any among you strays, and someone turns him back, he should know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his life from death and cover a multitude of sins."


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this Tonya. I am so thankful you and the kids are safe and the Lord was providing such protection over you. Randy, the Good Samaritan, is such a good example for all of us to follow.

  2. THank you for sharing! Not only is this an amazing story (Oh. My. WORD!) but now I know that other people have crazy stories too! Maybe it's a BCM-life sickness? So glad you and the kids are safe and able to tell the story!