Saturday, June 30, 2012

Waldo Canyon: Survivor’s Guilt

Smoke is still curling from the mountains near the north of Colorado Springs. More than 1,200 firefighters are still cutting fire lines and stamping out hot spots. President Barack Obama has come and gone. The Waldo Canyon Fire isn’t going out anytime soon, but it feels as though the worst—at least down here—is over.

Some evacuated residents started returning home yesterday. We weren’t among them: Our neighborhood was close to the hottest action, so I have a feeling we’ll be waiting a bit longer. But at least we know that we have a home to come back to.

So many people don’t.

Nearly 350 homes were destroyed in the Waldo Canyon Fire, and once residents get into their houses and inspect the damage from smoke and water and who-knows-what, that tally’s bound to go up. We know some families that lost their homes and so much more. These places aren’t just wood and stone and cement: They’re built with memories year by year. Lines on the kitchen wall, tracing childrens’ growth. Paint colors painstakingly picked over months, then lovingly slathered on in an afternoon. An heirloom table. A kitschy souvenir from Florida.


I understand the fear that comes with disaster sweeping through your neighborhood, the stress and angst of just not knowing. But to know, and to know the worst … that’s something I can’t comprehend. In the end, I’ve been inconvenienced by the Waldo Canyon Fire, but nothing more. My 36 hours of terror has turned into something more akin to a really bad vacation.

So what can I say to those who lost their homes? What is there to say? How can you make sense of one house being untouched, while one the next street over might be burned to the ground? It seems so unfair.

I expect in the days and weeks to come, we’ll hear some of the fortunate evacuees talk about how God spared their home; how He “heard our prayers” and answered them. And perhaps that’s true. I know lots of folks were praying for my family and our house, and I thank them from the bottom of my soul. I want to believe they helped.

But what about those who prayed just as hard and their houses are gone? Better people than I lost everything in this fire—people just as “deserving” of God’s mercy.

In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent’s driven insane by circumstance. Fire didn’t take his home, but his fiancée and half his face. He was a good man—Gotham City’s White Knight. He didn’t deserve what happened to him. Didn’t deserve it at all. He wonders aloud why he—among all Gotham’s crusaders—was the only one who lost everything.

Some surveying the damage here over the next few days will wonder the same thing.

“The world is cruel,” he tells Batman. “And the only morality in a cruel world is chance.”

But he’s only half right.

The world is cruel: We can’t deny it. The proof isn’t just found in Gotham or in the neighborhoods gutted by fire, but everywhere we look.

But as Batman tells us, morality isn’t found in chance but the choices we make—and we see some wonderful choices being made here. Much of Colorado Springs is rallying around those who have lost everything—offering their homes and help. Affected residents themselves are trying to shake off the sadness and move on. Some even found a silver lining in the ash.

“My house is vaporized,” CJ Moore told The Gazette in Colorado Springs. “I have my dog. I have me and my late husband’s ashes and those are the most important things. I love my neighborhood and I will re-build and so will many of my neighbors. This may be the economic boom the city has been looking for.”

It’ll take others more time to look so boldly ahead, I’m sure. Or, at least, it’d would’ve taken me time to work through the grief.

But I, apparently, don’t have to. Now I have to figure out how I can help those who do.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Morning After

It’s a beautiful morning here, green and alive. Finches are playing around our bird feeder, the sun painting their backs with a line of bright yellow. Only the smoky tang in the air—a smell that bites the very back of your nose and throat—would betray that something’s amiss in Colorado Springs.

That same bite was in the air yesterday when I went to work—before Colorado Springs was torn through by flames from the Waldo Canyon Fire. A hundred or more homes have been destroyed, I hear. The Flying W Ranch, a local landmark, is no more. I think that, for now, my house is relatively safe—but there's no way to know for sure and the fire's still threatening. And today promises to be another hard, hard day.

We're told sometimes, particularly in Christian circles, that it's good to hold our things lightly: They could be snatched away at any time.

Easier said than done.

I was in Denver when the fire blew up, checking out an advance screening of The Amazing Spider-Man. I heard about the new evacuations on my way home, fighting the beginnings of rush-hour traffic. I called my wife, Wendy, to see what was going on.

“We’re leaving,” she said before I could ask. “We can see the flames. We’re throwing stuff in the back of the truck. Can’t talk—bye.”


This is what they saw coming over the hill behind our house (my daughter-in-law took the photo). I can see why they might've wanted to hurry.

The news just kept getting worse the closer I got to the Springs. A massive, gray-brown cloud spread over the city like a Roland Emmerich special effect. As I drove into the smoke, the landscape took on a surreal, orangish hue, as if I was driving on the surface of Mars. Radio reporters talked about how the rock quarry—where my house sits right in front of—wasn’t even visible anymore because of the smoke. Ash was falling like snow, they said. Houses were burning, they said. They were leaving the site for their own safety.

It felt like it took weeks to reach my parents' house. My family—my wife, my son and his wife and my 18-year-old daughter—were safe and in pretty good spirits, considering. My daughter said she saved the fake mustaches she bought me for Father's Day. My son, who works at Wal-Mart, never imagined he'd need to push the "natural disaster" button as to why he wouldn't be coming into work. (Number 6, in case you're curious.) For an hour or so, we turned off the news and flipped on a bad B-horror movie (Snowbeast), ate pot pies and enjoyed each other's company. It was great in a way. It felt normal. Comfortable.

But even though things felt OK for a bit, they weren't. Not really. At about midnight, most of the family rousted themselves out of bed to gather our possessions again and put them in our cars—worried we might lose this temporary sanctuary to mandatory evacuation, too. My daughter slept with the lights on all night.

New perspective comes with morning, though, and more importantly, more information. It looks like, for now, our home is OK—though flanked by burn on three sides. Fire conditions will be brutal again today, filled with unpredictable winds and temperatures close to triple digits. Tonight, we may be joining the many, many families in our neighborhood who have lost their homes.

In the spate of publicity I've been doing for God on the Streets of Gotham, I've been asked a time or two whether I believe God can work through anything. It's always been a hard question for me to answer, because I know there are times when God seems distant or impotent or, depending on our outlook, even vindictive. But using Batman as an example—the loss of his parents at such a young age—my standard answer has been a wary "yes." God doesn't necessarily create your hardships or tragedies, but he can work through them.

The Waldo Canyon Fire pulled a Joker on me: "Really?" it seemed to say. "Do you mean that?"

In the midst of my uncertainty and worry and heartache for neighbors and friends who have indeed lost everything, I feel that I can still say yes. I don't know where God was when the fire started. I have no clue why His help feels so far away now, as wind and sun collude with the fire. I'm sick with anxiety. Truth be told, I feel a little angry—like a petulant toddler who just wants the hurt to stop.

But in the midst of it all, I can feel God with me, in a way. I can see His fingerprints around the edges. I'm so touched by the friends who've called or e-mailed or Facebooked me, offering us their homes or help or their prayers. I feel, more powerfully, all that God has given me—the people I love and treasure most of all. It reminds me that, even in disaster, life goes on. All of us live on the edge of a razor, and maybe some of us—folks like me who can grow a little too comfortable—needed to be reminded of that now and then.

I'm anxious. I'm hurt. The losses this city's experienced—houses and history, trees and trails—are staggering, and I feel them quite personally. I know the losses will continue to mount and may grow more personal yet. But more than all the heartache and worry, I feel another thing most of all.


Monday, June 25, 2012

Watching the World Burn

"Some men just want to watch the world burn."

So Alfred told Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight—a phrase that came to mind a time or two this weekend as I watched smoke billow from the foothills behind my house.

I live in Colorado Springs and, this weekend, a fire broke out a few miles west of town. It started in Waldo Canyon, a nearby trail that I've hiked probably a dozen times. It has torched somewhere near 4,000 acres now, forcing the evacuation of several small towns and neighborhoods around here—including, for a short while, mine.

Most everyone around here is warily watching the smoke and the flames, checking wind patterns and fretting about the desert-dry conditions. But now and then—on the news or on Facebook or in just quiet conversations with each other—you hear people begin to wonder what might've started the blaze. Thunderstorms have been pretty sparse here as of late. Waldo's more of a day-hike trail, so not a lot of people would probably start a campfire. Could someone have set it on purpose?

Just a couple of weeks ago, an arsonist, or arsonists, tried to start 20 fires in nearby Teller County (all of which were extinguished before too much harm was done). The day after the Waldo Canyon Fire began west of Colorado Springs, another small fire started out east of town. It's now about 80 percent contained, I gather, while the bigger fire rages on.

I doubt we'll know for a while how the Waldo Canyon Fire started. But I think most of us affected suspect it could be arson—one of the most senseless acts of destruction I can imagine. Even the most heinous crimes we can think of have some sort of motive: Passion or rage or revenge. But arson, most often, seems to have one: Some people just want to watch the world burn.

People, when they watch The Dark Knight, might wonder whether anyone could be as truly evil and awful as the Joker seems to be—a guy who kills and destroys and obliterates just for the fun of it. Frankly, even I have a time wrapping my head around the concept: In my book, God on the Streets of Gotham, I dedicate a chapter to Batman's bad guys, and I could see a bit of myself—a bit of humanity twisted and twined out of position—in almost every one of them: Catwoman's pragmatic amorality, R'as al Ghul's misguided zealotry, Two-Face's despair. But the Joker … he's a tough guy for me to understand, just as he was for Batman.

“ I like dynamite and gunpowder and gasoline,” Joker says in The Dark Knight. “Do you know what all these things have in common? They're cheap.” Fire is cheap. Destruction is cheap. It’s piecing things back together that’s expensive.

But that’s what heroes do. Batman does it, and it’s what loads of people are doing around here, too. I’m hearing how charity organizations have been overwhelmed with food and donations. Complete strangers offer to house the displaced for a night or two. Firefighters work hours upon hours in horrific conditions, to beat back the flames—sometimes risking their lives.

In The Dark Knight, Batman tells Joker that people are better than he imagines. And while that’s not a purely biblical take—Christians believe that folks are prone to fail more often than not—sometimes we can prove folks like Batman right. We can be better than the world around us. We can mirror the grace of Jesus.

It’s true, unfortunately, that some people do want to watch the world burn. But that’s not the whole story. It never is. There are people out there whose job it is to put out the flames—and people who rebuild once the damage is done. Those folks are true heroes, no matter what Joker might say.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Big Interview With Big Hollywood

I've been doing some radio interviews to promote my book, and I'm pretty astounded with how weird those interviews can be. It has nothing to do with the folks interviewing me, and everything to do with me--particularly when I'm speaking for radio or television. I'm concentrating so much on speaking for a certain length of time (not too short, not too long) that I sometimes forget halfway through my answer what I'm actually saying. And then, when I finally stop speaking, I think to myself, "so, what did I just say? Did I actually string together any coherent sentences together at all? Did I even use any nouns?"

So it's nice when I read back and interview and I discover that, yes, I am able to piece together a reasonable sentence under circumstances. Such was the case with my interview with Christian Toto, movie guru for Big Hollywood and a good friend. I thought I'd link to it here, just in case you're interested. Hope you enjoy.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Are Youth Losing Faith?

Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center reported that nearly a third of Americans under the age of 30 have admitted that they've doubted the existence of God. That's more than twice the number who admitted to such doubts in 2007.

Some news outlets have interpreted those stats as a sign that huge numbers of millennials--generally described as those born after 1980--are turning away from God and toward atheism. "God is Dead--For Millennials, Anyway," read a headline from Mother Jones. And there's probably some truth to that. We know that rates of self-described atheists are growing, and CNN reports that anti-religious organizations like the Secular Student Alliance are expanding rapidly on college campuses.

"For a lot of millennial atheists, they are expecting to find a group, they are coming to campus, and if they don't find one, they are starting one," Jesse Galef, communications director for the Secular Student Alliance. "This is completely different than what other generations grew up with."

But faith is a tricky thing to quantify. And I believe that the question that grabbed most of the headlines--the "doubt" question"--was ever-so-slightly misinterpreted by some news organizations.

Some journalists reported that 31 percent of millennials now doubt the existence of God. But Pew was asking something quite different--whether they had ever doubted the existence of God. The answers received were startling, yes, and marked a significant upturn from just a few years ago. But the question doesn't address so much a person's present religious outlook as much as it does that person's past religious experience. Some respondents, if given a chance, might've said, "Sure, I doubted that God was out there ... but I don't anymore."

I wonder if Pew's question wasn't just tracking a rise in unbelief in American youth, but a greater willingness to ask tough questions and grapple what it really means to have faith. And if so, I don't think that's necessarily an awful thing.

Frankly, I think Christians should ask tough questions ... because I'm confident that Christianity has the answers. They're not always easy answers. But for those who truly seek the truth--those who really want to know Who or What is out there, and whether that Who or What cares for them--the answer would be a game-changer.

I'm less concerned about Millennials honestly grappling with questions of faith than about how we, as Christians, respond to those questions. I think it's easy for us sometimes to get a little defensive or serve up a paint-by-number answer that doesn't completely satisfy. Really engaging with the honest doubts and uncertainties of another person can be difficult, even scary. Our own faith can be challenged.

But challenge is part of what Christianity is all about. Christianity is supposed to challenge us--challenge us to be better reflections of Christ every day. And sometimes I wonder if that's really the issue: Whether we Christians--and I know I'm as guilty of this as anyone--don't reflect Jesus as much as we just talk about the guy while looking an awful lot like the world around us.

When non-believers look at Christians and don't see the love and beauty of God somewhere inside us, maybe it's not so surprising that they might have their doubts. When we claim that Christianity can change lives, but our own lives aren't changed at all, what does that say?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Singing Stones

I saw in this morning’s Colorado Springs Gazette, my old place of work, that Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church—one of the city’s prettiest—has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. I can’t think of a church that deserves it more.

When I was The Gazette’s religion reporter, one of my first—and most enjoyable—assignments was diving into the bowels of Grace and St. Stephen’s to get to know the church’s sprawling, 4,000-pipe organ.

When you go into a church with an impressive organ, you may or may not see a bristling array of pipes. Often, these pipes are actually a façade—just a showy bit of metal for the folks in the pews. The actual working pipes are often hidden out of site, in crevaces and alcoves and whole rooms. In Grace, the pipes filled four or five rooms, splayed and stretched across floor and wall and ceiling, requiring the church organist Frank Shelton and me to contort like cave spelunkers to get to them all. “Some pipes are thinner than straws and shorter than index fingers,” I wrote, “others tower like telephone poles.” The pipes make use of the church’s own walls—pushing and prodding the stone with its sound. In a sense, the church itself becomes the instrument—as critical to the organ’s sound as the pipes themselves.

I covered a lot of stories at Grace, some of them not so fun. It was the site of a major brouhaha when the rector was accused of embezzling funds. The rector alleged that he was being framed by the diocese for his outspoken views on homosexuality (the Episcopal Church, U.S.A., had recently voted to allow openly gay clergy to serve in its churches, and the pastor was a national leader opposing the move), and the congregation split over the fracas, fighting over the church like it was a kid in a difficult divorce. It was a complicated, messy story to cover—one that didn’t do the Church, as in the Christian Church, much good. And there was some doubt whether the physical sanctuary would survive the fight.

So for me, the fact Grace and St. Stephen’s stands in the center of town, still beautiful as ever (and now a recognized landmark), is a bit of a metaphor for the broader Church itself. Sometimes Christians don’t give Christianity our best. Sometimes we fail the Church, sometimes we betray her. We’re human, after all.

But despite our flaws and failings, the Church remains, strong and beautiful. And even the stones inside may sometimes sing.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Superhero Teams, Assemble!

While my own little world has been pretty heavily invested in Batman as of late, I was still interested--and frankly, a little excited--to see how well a rival batch of superheroes has fared at the box office. Marvel's The Avengers has been the year's biggest movie, earning nearly $600 million domestically and about $1.4 billion worldwide since its May release. It's the third biggest-grossing movie in history.

Let's face it: Marvel knows how to make a great superhero movie. Sure, none of them have the grit or depth of Christopher Nolan's Batman sagas, but they are competent and fun--a perfect fit, really, for the summertime moviegoing audience. I've seen and reviewed The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America and both Iron Man flicks, and all of 'em were an absolute hoot: fun, exciting pictures that had (if you were interested in searching for them) some good messages in play.

And, of course, they were extraordinarily effective two-hour advertisements for The Avengers. Not bad strategy, that.

'Course, it might've all come to naught had The Avengers been terrible. But it wasn't. In my opinion, it was the best of the bunch. Maybe that's my inner geek speaking: There's something about bringing together a bevy of superheroes that brings out my inner 12-year-old. It's a little like watching an All-Star baseball game that actually means something.

No surprise, then, that DC and Warner Brothers are now planning a supersize superhero movie of their own: A movie involving the Justice League--a partnership made up of DC's biggest costumed crime fighters--is in development now. Word is they've already hired Will Beall (who wrote Gangster Squad) to write the script.

It'll be a tougher sell, of course: Green Lantern didn't exactly wow at the box office last year, Superman Returns (despite its resonant spiritual messages) didn't fare that much better in 2006, and of course The Dark Knight Rises marks the end of the road for Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan in the Batman franchise. And I wonder whether Warner Brothers might actually push Justice League to theaters without all the cinematic lead-ins that Marvel and Universal Pictures so painstakingly pieced together.

I hope not: Personally, I wouldn't be nearly as interested in seeing a fresh-out-of-the-box Justice League without getting some motion-picture backstory in play. DC's superheroes have the character oomph to make for some fine movies ... if they can get the right folks behind it. If they're able to flesh out all the characters on the big screen, I'd be waiting for a Justice League movie like a 7-year-old on Christmas Eve.

But going straight into a Justice League feature, cold? Hmmm. I know there's probably a strong drive to get a Justice League movie done as soon as possible--while superheroes are still big and the market's still primed. But if they don't take their time with this and do it right, I think the Justice League will feel less like a super powered all-star team-up and more a rather cynical grab for money. But I guess we'll see.