The second year we were in California we experienced our first earthquake tremor. It was nothing more than that and we were all smiles after it was over. We called our relatives back East to let them know of the exciting event we had experienced. Then, after that first “ground shiver” there were others that brought much more fascination than they did fear. And with each light tremor our concern over earthquakes diminished. By our eighteenth year in California, earthquakes had become “no big deal” for us.
In 1986 we took a church in Northridge, California, a city in the San Fernando Valley Northeast of Los Angeles but still in the LA metro area. On January 17th, in 1994, at 4:31 in the morning on Martin Luther King’s birthday, we were awakened by the Northridge Earthquake registering 6.8 on the Richter scale…though it felt like 9.0.
Later they said it was a thrust quake, which meant the plates facing each other beneath the earth’s surface were sliding against each other vertically rather than horizontally. It created a violet jerking rather than a rolling motion. That explained why it felt like King Kong had wrapped his arms around our house, picked it up, and was pounding it against the ground angrily.
I recall waking up…standing up. I’m not sure whether the quake had thrown me to a standing position beside my bed, or that I was so startled that I stood up while I was still asleep and woke up in a standing position. Either was possible considering the violent nature of the quake. No more had I found myself standing up, but something struck me in the head and I fell back onto my bed.
By then my wife was at full alert and said in a panic, “We have to go get the kids.”
Our two son’s bedrooms were on the complete opposite end of the house. I blindly felt my way through the house with my wife hanging onto my pajamas, because the power had gone out and there was no light with which to see. I bumped into doorways and walls, and stumbled over fallen furniture through the rooms and down the hall; all while our house continued to shake fiercely.
After we were assured of our children’s safety, I felt my way into the kitchen where I knew there was a flashlight, all while my wife continued to hold onto my PJ’s. As we entered the kitchen, we could feel broken glass and dishware all over the floor.
With shaking and noise all around us I felt my way to where the flashlight was and reached upward as we had kept it in an upper cupboard. However, the cupboard was empty. Assuming all of its contents were now on the floor, I reached down, felt around, located the flashlight, and turned it on.
Our kitchen looked like an explosion had taken place. The cupboard doors were all opened and it seemed that every dish, glass and breakable item we owned had fallen onto our tile counter onto the floor and had smashed in the process. Cans of food, emptied cereal and pasta boxes, flour and sugar, spice bottles, pans, bowls, cups, plates, and every kitchen utensil we owned was scattered all over the room. There was at least two inches of debris spread over the entirety of our kitchen floor. It was a miracle that our bare feet weren’t cut and bleeding from the broken glass; but neither of our feet had a scratch.
The earth shook for more than a minute. As the initial vibrations of the quake subsided, our family converged on the front door and we all scurried outside to our front sidewalk. Once outside, we gazed in awe around us. There were no lights. The power everywhere was out. However, noise and flashes could be heard and observed in the night sky above.
Helicopters were now visible overhead. Fires were lighting up the horizons around us. There were bursts and flashes of light with explosions that could be seen and heard all around us as transformers, gas mains and propane tanks were igniting. Water could be heard running down the street in front of our house that sounded like a small river, which we would later learn was from water sloshing over the sides of swimming pools, flowing down driveways and into the streets. It felt like a warzone.
For two years after the earthquake, if I was sitting on a chair or couch that someone bumped accidentally, adrenalin would run through my body, which many know is a kind of post-traumatic stress. The earthquake was the single most terrifying event of my life.
But there was another terror in my life that far exceeded that of the earthquake.
Before I became a Christian, almost every night prior to falling asleep, I would justify my moral condition to my own heart in an effort to ward off the fear in me that I wasn’t worthy of heaven. It was almost subconscious. Without awareness of what I was doing, I would compare my sins and failures to the criminals I had seen reported on the evening news, or bad people I had heard about or knew. After I did this, I was reasonably sure they were worse than me so I would somehow twist my thinking to conclude: since I was morally better than them, I was worthy of heaven. Then I would be able to fall asleep.
It was denial of my sinfulness in the grandest and most destructive form, and relied on complete ignorance of how the plan of God worked. And I did it because I was terrified of hell. I call it my “terror by night”.
About two months after I became a Christian I discovered that my subconscious nightly terror ritual had ceased. It was only then that I realized what I had been doing, and how terrified it confirmed I was concerning what fate might await me for my sinfulness.
Today, I walk in peace concerning my afterlife destination. But to be honest, I am not excited about going back to California.
Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” John 14:27