On September 14, 2015 our family awoke to the sad reality that our grandmother was nearing the end of her life – the last living member of a whole generation. In a few days my mother would lose her mother; my sister and I would not have a grandmother; my children, nieces and nephew would be without a great grandmother.
My wife and I took our five oldest children to see her in the nursing home. We knew this would be our last time to say, “I love you,” to the woman we affectionately called Grandma B. Although in extreme pain, she made every effort to open her eyes for each of my children and even tried to kiss one of my daughter’s hands. As each of us said our final goodbye, tears rolled down our faces. I wished I could take away the pain and hurt my children were experiencing.
As much as I want to shelter my children, the realities of living confront us with pain, suffering and death. While my grandmother’s circumstance reminded me of this, it was a reminder that I could help my children face this with HOPE, explaining that although physical death is a consequence of sin, it is not the final destiny for those who have placed their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. Indeed, beyond the pain and suffering and coming death of Grandma B, God has prepared a place; not just for her, but for all who have asked Jesus to forgive their sins. So, while it was natural for us to feel sad and cry, we were not without HOPE.
Paul told the believers in Thessalonica:
Dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died (1 Thessalonians 4:13, 14).
While we mourned as Grandma B approached her final breath, we rejoiced that our children were blessed to know their great grandma and that we had many wonderful memories with her, knowing that one day we will be with her again – without the pain and suffering.
I held her hand and reminded my grandmother of this promise. I told her of what awaited those who have placed their faith in Jesus (Revelation 21-22) and reminded her this was not the final goodbye but that one day she would be reunited with her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Despite the pain she was in, I can still see the smile on her face as I spoke those words. That is the facial expression I look forward to one day seeing when I also enter into the presence of my Lord and Savior.
My prayer is that when death closes in, you, too, can have a smile on your face because you know that this life is not your final goodbye. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
This year, our community mourned the death of two high school students and came together in support for two more that were in critical condition after a severe traffic accident while on their way to a Young Life meeting. These four girls were well known, much loved and touched many lives. My family knew these girls and, being the high school girls’ soccer coach, I used to coach one of the girls who died.
As I spent time at the school talking with faculty and students, I was encouraged and comforted to see everyone come together. It is in moments like these where we learn the most valuable life lessons and are reminded of the importance of community. Not only do we need the support and love of others, but we also need to return that love and support. We need to bear each other’s burdens.
Along with the idea of community, I am reminded of the importance of being intentional with loved ones: to never walk away angry, or let the sun go down without letting them know how much they are loved; to live each moment with appreciation for the time that we have with our family and friends. Life can truly change in a moment, so we all need to let others know with our words and actions, how much they mean to us.
Through this tragedy I am also reminded of how important it is to live with purpose. Watching the students flow into the room set aside for them to come and grieve, I was overwhelmed to hear stories of how their lives have been enriched in knowing the girls who had died. These remarkable young ladies were taken from us too early, but they are remembered through those impacted with their kind words and their positive actions.
From the love and support displayed by the faculty, students and the surrounding schools and communities, I saw God working in and through each one of us. As in any tragedy, the WHY tends to knock us off our feet, but the WHO enables us to stand back up. Though our understanding may be shaken, our faith in Jesus Christ will not be destroyed. His loving arms embrace us and bring comfort and hope in our times of pain and sorrow.
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).
Looking for Light in the Darkness
In the weeks following the accident, many questions arose as the community tried to make sense of, and find purpose in, their pain and sorrow. In fact, life-tragedies often cause us to feel the impossibility of walking through the brokenness of a situation while overwhelmed with hopelessness and despair.
When I was in college my soccer coach took our team into a cold, wet cave. We had an easy time navigating it until Coach told us to turn off our flashlights and find our way out. What had seemed easy before, became difficult as we repeatedly hit our heads on the cave walls while desperately seeking the exit. Finally, our coach told one of us to turn on a flashlight. The darkness vanished instantly. While the light did not show us the exit, it did reveal the direction in which to go as we made our way slowly forward towards the brightness of sunshine just outside the cave.
To those facing tragedy, the challenge is in trying to find our way out of the dark cave of loss. There is a light that can guide us through the darkness of confusion and pain. The girls who died both knew the Source of this light, for each had given her life to Jesus Christ. Because they looked to Him, their lives continue to shine brightly as a reminder of the ONE that we all can look to: the One who can heal our broken hearts and strengthen our weary souls.
This same Jesus is ready to give light for us all. He hears our cries. He is ready to embrace us in His loving arms and help us move forward through brokenness and pain. While this process may never be fully completed in this life, we have the sure hope that He will one day guide us to that exit to be fully embraced by the true Source of light that awaits us at the end. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we can know the certainty of a future where He will wipe away all tears; where there will be no more death, sorrow or pain (Revelation 21:4).
Until that day, may the legacy of these girls continue on in how we choose to live. Like them, may we embrace the light that Jesus gives so we, too, may be a light for others.
Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” (John 8:12).
No matter where you are in your life, remember: The WHY may knock you to the ground, but the WHO is always there to help you stand back up. God has throughout the past, and will continue to, prove faithful as He turns tragedy into triumph.
Note: The preceding is taken from BJ’s previous blogs and already has reached thousands of people across the U.S. and in 28 countries.
We have received permission from the parents of the girls involved in this tragic accident to share the following:
from Lexi’s dad at her funeral:
“We have been overwhelmed with the outpouring of love and support in our community and even distant communities have offered much encouragement, support and prayers.
“I’ve had time to reflect on what has happened and like everyone else, I asked WHY? It does not seem fair that my baby girl can be here one minute and then taken from us the next. WHY?
“Lexi loved her family, friends, teammates, teachers and neighbors. Lexi spoke to you because she genuinely wanted to share this love with you. Remember the pain you feel now and realize this happened for a reason. God wants us to display the best version of ourselves to one another. Please Wear Your Love on Your Sleeve. Lexi wants us to.”
from Danielle’s Cross Country coach Barry McLaughlin:
“Danielle had an unbridled enthusiasm and love for life and for the Lord which was evident to everyone on the team. She was a spark who ignited a desire for those around her to serve Christ and a spark on the cross country team that encouraged others to give their very best. We all still feel the hurt and loss.”
from Leah’s best friend Kylie:
“Leah is a light who shines with a love for God. She loves telling people about Jesus and showing them His love through her actions. Leah is a great friend with a great passion for God and a smile that is contagious to everyone who is near.”
from Leah’s mother from hospital:
When asked in a text from Bill Rudge, “Are you willing to face this tragedy for God to be glorified?” Betsy texted right back, “Yes we are.”
from Emily’s mom from hospital:
“It’s truly the power of prayer. It’s been extremely difficult, but the good Lord is getting us through. You know I really questioned my faith when this all happened. I don’t anymore. If our story can change just one person then I’ve done my job. I told Emily she is going to do something so good and I can’t wait to see what it is. What God has in store for her… I don’t know when but I hope I’m around to see it.”
If the resurrection had not occurred: ➔ The Christian faith is a lie. ➔ Jesus was just another person who claimed to be a messenger from God. ➔ There is no hope beyond the grave. ➔ We have no assurance we will see our loved ones again after death. ➔ The resurrection is a myth that has deluded millions with false hope.
If the resurrection really did happen: ➔ The Christian faith is true. ➔ Jesus is the Messiah, God incarnate and the only One who can give eternal life. ➔ Believers in Jesus Christ have a sure hope beyond the grave. ➔ We and our loved ones will rise from the dead and stand before our Creator to have our eternal destiny determined and receive our everlasting rewards. ➔ The truth of Jesus’ resurrection is the most significant event in history, inspiring millions with certain hope.
Christ’s death and resurrection are the means by which believers may cling to hope in spite of the trials and tragedies of life. May you be strengthened by the love of Jesus. Never give up. Always have HOPE:
H old on to the promises of God (Revelation 21:3-4) O pt to trust in God through the challenges you face (Isaiah 40:31) P lace all your cares and concerns upon Him (Psalm 46:1-3) E nter into the loving hands of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:35)
This has been a very sad and difficult week for the community that I live in. This past Sunday (February 10th), four high school students from our school district were in a severe accident. The accident led to the tragic death of two of the students. As I write this blog, the other two students are in the hospital dealing with a range of injuries. This tragic event has impacted me personally as my family knew these girls and, being the high school girls’ soccer coach, I use to coach one of the girls who died. In simplistic terms, this has been an emotionally difficult situation to deal with as it has brought me face to face with the reality that no one is immune from the tragedies of life. But despite this reality, it is in these moments where we learn the most valuable life lessons. For instance, I was reminded of the importance of community. As I spent time at the school on Monday talking with faculty and students, I was encouraged and comforted to see everyone come together as one. Despite our differences, there was singularity in purpose. A powerful reminder that not only do we need the support and love of others, but we also need to return that same love and support. We need to bear each other’s burdens. I hope and pray that you have others in your life that are helping you bear your burdens, and in return you are coming alongside them to bear theirs.
Along with the idea of community, this situation has reminded me of the importance of being intentional with my loved ones: to never walk away angry, or let the sun go down without letting them know how much I love them. I need to live each moment with appreciation for the time that I have with my family and friends. Life can truly change in a moment, so we all need to let others know, through both our words and actions, how much they mean to us.
A final impression that I have gained from this tragedy is how important it is to live our lives with purpose. As I stood watching the students flow into the room that was set up at the school for them to come and grieve, I was overwhelmed to hear their stories about how their lives were enriched by knowing the girls who had died. One particular staff member told me that when they first moved here, her daughters had a hard time adjusting to their new surroundings, but that the transition was made easier because one of the girls who had died introduced herself to her daughters and made them feel valued and accepted. This is a great reminder how just a simple word and action can make the difference in the lives of others. While our school has lost two remarkable young ladies, their memories will live on through those they impacted. Their lives were taken from us way too early but they leave a legacy that will continue for years to come.
In the uncertainty of this tragedy, I do see God actively involved. From the love and support of surrounding communities to the unity displayed by our faculty and students, I see God working in and through each one of us. As in any tragedy, the WHY will continue to knock us off our feet, but it is the WHO that will enable us to stand back up. Though our faith in Jesus Christ is shaken, it will not be destroyed. His loving arms are embracing our community and bringing comfort and hope in our time of pain and sorrow.
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).
The neighborhoods and mountains were devastated as if by an atomic blast! Charred mountains and canyons lay as far as the eye could see. Over 3,500 houses were destroyed – most reduced to rubble and ash – along with ranks of burned cars and trucks, their windshields blown out. Billows of smoke blackened the daytime sky. Black soot covered everything in sight, creating a lunar landscape as out-of-control wildfires, exacerbated by Santa Ana winds, devastated an area equal in size to the state of Rhode Island.
The Rudges had just returned from ministering at US Army and Air Force bases in Germany and were in Southern California for further ministry when they found themselves under a mandatory evacuation order due to California’s most devastating wildfire in history. Shifting winds caused the raging flames to cut off many escape routes. Some people had already died trying to flee when the intense heat overtook them. Others lost all their worldly possessions in homes that had no insurance and faced an uncertain future. We prayed that daughter Tabitha’s home, which was in harm’s way, would be protected.
In the midst of this chaos, our faithful God provided not only a way of escape but avenues for ministry. Over the next two weeks, Bill Rudge had opportunities to minister to hundreds of people as a Red Cross Chaplain not only at several evacuation centers but also at the sites of their burned homes. He freely gave out hundreds of his books and audio messages to the fire victims who requested and received them gladly.
It was a beautiful and peaceful evening on Saturday, October 25, 2003 at my daughter and son-in-law’s home in Alpine, California – about 30 miles east of San Diego. As it was the last weekend in October, we turned the clocks back one hour before retiring. About 3 a.m. Sunday morning Tabitha woke me because the Santa Ana winds were gusting up to 70 mph – blowing the outside furniture and toys away.
There had been no significant rainfall in Southern California for over six months, creating perfect weather conditions for fire.
Glimpse of Revelation
In the morning, I went outside and saw billows of smoke to the north, west and south; looking as if atomic bombs had exploded! The sky became pitch black; the sun appeared red – it seemed like Armageddon. On a smaller scale I caught a glimpse of what it will be like all over the world during the Tribulation.
My son-in-law, Clayton, a California Highway Patrolman (CHP), had been out working the fire areas from Saturday night to Sunday morning and was exhausted. (He threw up three times from smoke inhalation.)
As the fires burned ever nearer to their house, I stepped out in Tabitha’s driveway several times and raised my hands to the Lord, asking Him to spare this house because it was used for ministry purposes. At about 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, October 26, Clayton decided to take his family to Rich and Sunday Miller’s house in Mission Bay (on San Diego’s coast). I’d wanted to stay on at the house but Clayton insisted we follow in his car.
My son-in-law, daughter and two young grandchildren led out heading to Interstate 8 West. Karen and I followed in a 1995 Neon with a gas gauge that was not working – their two dogs in the backseat.
Only a few miles into the trip, Tabitha informed me they’d left the gas on at the house. I said I’d go back (in spite of Clayton’s warning not to do so) but wanted Karen to go with them. She insisted, however, on staying with me. At this point the flames were burning within 100 feet from where we stopped on the freeway. And I was about to learn an important lesson: Do not turn around!
Back at the house, I turned off the gas and closed all the windows, which Tabitha had opened because of the high winds earlier. Thank the Lord I did, or they would have sustained soot and smoke damage throughout the house. Meanwhile Karen heard on the news that I-8 was now closed to the west and fires were burning all over San Diego County.
We decided to stay and I got both dogs out of the car. Twenty minutes later, I saw an orange glow and flames just over the hill from Tabitha’s house. I went out in the driveway and again raised my hands to the Lord asking Him to spare this house.
Thirty minutes later, the Sheriff came through the neighborhood announcing a mandatory and immediate evacuation. I loaded Molly in the car but was unsuccessful in corralling Niki – a huge Siberian husky. After five minutes of chasing him around we had to leave. I prayed the Lord would somehow protect him. Firefighters and neighbors at the end of Tabitha’s street told us not to expect anything of our neighborhood to be left.
We were uncertain of where to go and even how to get there. The only place the fires were not yet burning was to the east, taking us farther from our daughter and her family.
It took us one hour to go merely a quarter mile in bumper-to-bumper traffic while leaving Alpine. Clayton told me via cell phone to leave his car and RUN because the flames could quickly overtake us from the unpredictable winds that were gusting up to 70 mph. He said people had been incinerated while trying to escape in their cars. Since we were stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, he told me to take his gun from the trunk, strap it around my shoulder and abandon the car. But where could we go without a car? So we stayed with the car.
The sky was ominous with billows of smoke. Fleeing the approaching wildfires, traffic was often at a standstill so you could get out of your car. I told people we met that we were catching a glimpse of Revelation and that the Biblical account is accurate regarding its description of destruction on earth during the Tribulation (Joel 2:30, 31; Revelation 6:12; 8:7, 11, 12).
I had recently read Fox’s Book of Martyrs and also had watched videos about Christian martyrs such as John Huss and others who were burned at the stake or tortured with fire, so I had vivid mental pictures of what fire and smoke could do to humans.
Karen was crying and calling BJ and Tabitha and other family members to say goodbye. However, I assured them I had total peace and knew the Lord would keep us safe and also protect Tabitha and Clayton’s house. Looking back though, it appeared to us that Tabitha’s house was in flames and smoke! We prayed several more times that the house would be spared.
In one moment, it seemed Karen and I were safe, secure and comfortable; yet in the next moment we were fleeing for our lives – without food, water, shelter or a bed.
Still caught in the bumper-to-bumper traffic, hot ashes were falling all around us and our eyes and lungs were burning from smoke. Once again, I assured Clay and BJ that we would be safe. Tabitha was very upset because she felt she’d sent us back to her house. Unable to go west, we headed east in hopes of reaching the home of Sue and Doug, friends of Tabitha who told her we could stay with them.
When we finally got out of Alpine and onto 8 East we saw a woman standing along the freeway near a motor home. She looked distraught and was staring back at Alpine watching the fire. Karen and I stopped and stood with her. She had fled Alpine when the canyons around her house burst into flames; she was certain her brand new house had burned to the ground. Her husband had gone back to get their truck, which was loaded with personal items. I prayed with her that her husband and house would be safe. About a minute after praying she was elated to see her husband drive up in the truck.
Sue and Doug, whose house we were hoping to reach, lived in Mt. Laguna in Cleveland National Forest, about 25 miles east of Alpine. It was dark by the time we drove the last ten miles to their house in the mountains – on unfamiliar winding roads.
We faced several other challenges. Our cell phone battery was dying but Karen tried one more time to call Sue for her address. As soon as Karen got it, the phone went dead! Although the gas gauge was not working, we knew we were almost out because Clayton kept a record of his mileage so he would know when to fill up. With electricity out (no street or house lights) it was pitch-black in the mountains. I stopped at a fire station near Sue’s house to call and ask her husband to stand at their road with a flashlight so we could find them.
Sue and Doug were using candles to light their house and were hosting another displaced couple. In the course of the evening Sue asked me how I came to faith and we all talked together for over an hour as I shared my testimony.
Early the next morning, I felt led to drive back to Alpine. I wanted to check on Tabitha’s house, then make our way the 30 miles west to Miller’s, but knew it would be difficult since so many roads were closed. The thick smoke made daylight seem like night.
At their insistence, we left Molly (who looked like a coyote) at Doug and Sue’s in case we had to walk to Alpine because of blocked roads or if we ran out of gas.
We wound our way down the 10 miles of mountain roads and then took U.S. Route 80 heading west. However, seven miles from Alpine, this highway was closed as well as 8 West. Taking the only road left open, sent us south toward the nearby Mexican border. I was concerned that should the road take us into Mexico, having a gun in the trunk could mean life imprisonment there. Not knowing the road, we were relieved to finally see a sign indicating 16 miles to Alpine, so we continued on. Ours was the only vehicle on the road.
About four miles from Alpine, airborne ash and smoke were so thick, I thought we might have to turn back, yet I knew that could be dangerous too. I expected our tires to melt at any moment as hot ashes rained down all over and around us. I apologized to Karen for getting her into this if anything should happen, but still felt the Lord would get us through. Then in the distance – out of nowhere – I saw three pickup trucks and followed them right into Alpine! A few hours later, the entire area through which we’d just driven was consumed by fire – as we would have been if we had run out of gas or broken down.
Alpine was abandoned except for a few vehicles. It looked like a ghost town. As we drove down Tabitha’s road we prayed their house would still be standing. From a distance I saw that it was! We rejoiced and thanked God. It was covered with ash, but untouched by the fire. We were elated to see Kacy Magnett, Tabitha’s good friend and one of our volunteer staff, pull up to Tabitha’s house with her daughter. They had slept in their house last night in Alpine since her husband Terry could not get home because I-8 was closed. Niki the dog was also safe, taking refuge in a storm drainage pipe.
We could not stay in Alpine because the air was still too thick with smoke and ash so we got on I-8 going west and met Clay at the CHP office in El Cajon to switch vehicles and give him his gun and belongings. Clay hugged me three times.
After leaving Tabitha’s and while on 8 West, helicopters flew 100 feet overhead dropping water on burning fires. The smoke was very thick all the way for 30 miles from Alpine west to San Diego. (The hazardous air quality lasted for days.)
Rich and Sunday hosted thirteen people (including two pregnant women and three toddlers), two cats and two dogs in their home which at that time only had three bedrooms and one bath.
The one road in and out of the mountains which we had traveled to stay the night was shut down the very next day due to fire. It would have taken us two or more days to get to the Miller’s if we’d had to go another way.
I was scheduled to fly to Pennsylvania on Monday but my flight was cancelled. On Tuesday I went to a one-hour Red Cross training for volunteers, followed by a one-hour chaplain training session.
The people of California and the Red Cross workers were amazed that being from Pennsylvania, a refuge of the fire myself and staying at a temporary shelter, I should serve as chaplain to other fire victims. Truly, the Lord orchestrated this ministry opportunity. Some of the people affected by the California wildfires had, a few years earlier, come east to help at the 9/11 terrorist site. Now I was able to return the favor.
On Wednesday I took eight hours of Red Cross Mass Care Training. KC Hutter, owner of Dirt Cheap Car Rental, gave me free usage of a yellow convertible Mustang. (I wanted something more conservative but she insisted I “deserved” this vehicle.)
On Thursday we moved back into Tabitha’s house. With no telephone service or electricity, we had to throw out all the food in the refrigerator. We had a cell phone, but no way to charge it.
That same day, Karen and I went down Stagecoach Road to see Susan (the woman we’d met on 8 East when the canyons around her house were burning). She was overjoyed to see us, and we were overjoyed to see that her beautiful new house was still standing. The fire came within 20 feet of it and the canyon burned on three sides, but her house remained untouched. I gave her a copy of my book, Faith Through the Fire and a pamphlet copy of my testimony which she enthusiastically received.
During the following days I had hundreds of ministry opportunities. Next month I will share some of the amazing stories and exciting opportunities during the devastating wildfires.