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Beauty out of ashes

When trouble comes, God asks us to take Him at His word

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Where were you during the lockdown? Many of us have vivid, specific memories of what we were doing this time last year as COVID-19 began its dramatic spread.

I had just finished crisscrossing South Carolina, where Democratic presidential hopefuls were stumping and candidate Joe Biden’s hopes were fading unless he pulled out a primary victory in the Palmetto State. During a debate in Charleston on Feb. 25, the candidates barely mentioned the mysterious virus creeping our way.

Across town, Pastor Steve Wood was busy with his duties as rector of St. Andrew’s Church and bishop of the Diocese of the Carolinas. It was almost March, and the month brought an anniversary of sorts: In 2010, the congregation had departed from The Episcopal Church over issues of Biblical fidelity. St. Andrews became part of the Anglican Church in North America.

Now he finds himself in frequent conversations about the Lord. “It’s been fun,” he says.

A few years later, the church secured the right to retain its property after a long legal battle, but in April 2018 another mile-marker arrived: A few hours before worship on a Sunday morning, the church building caught fire.

Hundreds of members gathered outside in disbelief, and Wood managed to collect himself for local reporters as he peered through the worship center’s caved roof. “The Lord promises to bring beauty out of ashes,” he said. “And we’re taking Him at His word.”

The congregation met in an elementary school while a new building project got underway, but two years later church members faced another furnace: COVID-19 struck, and Wood became one of its early targets in late March.

At age 56, Wood was healthy, but he landed in the ICU. His wife waited at home, separated by tight visiting restrictions. Wood called his four adult sons to tell them he was proud of them and he loved them. Doctors put him on a ventilator. Church members gathered in the hospital parking lot to pray.

Wood remembers waking up on April 1 with ringing in his ears. (The tinnitus still lingers nearly a year later.) Ashes piled up: The pastor who preached to more than 2,000 congregants on Sundays now needed speech therapy. He couldn’t think clearly. He couldn’t walk without help.

But there was also beauty: He remembers the day a nurse got him into a chair and shaved his scruffy face: “I was so thankful and so happy to be alive.” Another nurse noticed he couldn’t tie his shoes and helped him regain that simple skill.

Wood’s wife cared for him during his long recovery at home. In June, he returned to preaching on Sunday mornings—now in an open-air farmers market, since the school the church rented had closed during the COVID-19 outbreak.

He regained his physical strength, though doctors still consider him a COVID-19 “long-hauler,” with lingering conditions. He also regained his joy. Wood realized it had been a long time since he focused on personal evangelism. Now he finds himself in frequent conversations about the Lord. “It’s been fun,” he says. “And I had forgotten.”

Late last year, the church’s new worship center finally opened. Wood is still waiting for his office to be completed, but on a recent Sunday morning he plucked his preaching Bible from a storage box. The pages still smelled like smoke.

He turned to Mark 10 and preached about following Christ. “What does the Lord require of you?” he asked his congregation. “He requires all of you.”

The new sanctuary still contains remnants of the old: Firefighters salvaged the cross, the baptismal font, and the Communion table. Wood says he asked workers to restore the pieces, but with one caveat. “Don’t take out the burn marks,” he told them. “I want those to stay.”

In the church foyer, a painting on the wall shows the remains of the old building after the fire, with the cross still visible. It hangs in a simple golden frame—a reminder of all the possibilities in our own afflictions, when we remember the Lord’s promise to bring beauty out of ashes, and take Him at His word.

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for The Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C.



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