The town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee will never be the same. An historic fire that recently swept through this mountain village has forever altered the landscape and re-shaped the lives of the area’s residents.
My family has owned a home in those mountains for 46 years. Our neck of the woods was not in the path of the raging flames; however, nearly 2,500 structures were destroyed. Twenty-five hundred. It’s always shocking, isn’t it, when we hear that one certain home or business has burned? Now, imagine entire neighborhoods demolished. It’s horrifying, really.
Our Lakeland phone rang at 1:30 a.m. on November 29, 2016. A call at that time of night is never a good thing, right? My fear instantly spiked as I saw a Gatlinburg friend’s name on the caller ID. He said that, as far as he knew, our home was okay, but that “Gatlinburg was essentially burning down, and I just thought you’d want to know.” He was right on all accounts.
Even though the Internet allowed us to watch the calamity unfold from afar, our online viewing of the destruction was only mild preparation for what we witnessed upon our next trip there. Homes of friends…gone. Favorite restaurants…destroyed. Entire subdivisions…rubble.
For Lakelanders, imagine that every fine home around Lake Hollingsworth burned to the ground. That’s what happened in Gatlinburg’s Greystone Heights mountainside community. And scenes like this happened all over town.
The unusual combination of a wildfire in the National Park and hurricane force winds blew fireballs and ember clusters indiscriminately throughout the community. The most striking characteristic of the disaster was the speed at which the flames moved, consuming everything along the flow of the high winds. In other words, most of those who escaped their homes quickly fled with only the clothes they were wearing at the time. When they were even allowed back into town days later, the heartsick owners of 2,460 structures returned to find only a pile of ashes.
Worldly goods – all of them – were consumed in an instant.
Wedding pictures…family antiques…grandma’s hand-knitted this or that…baby’s first locks of hair…Christmas presents wrapped and ready…the latest flat panel televisions…important papers…state championship trophies…a lifetime of memories…now, incinerated.
The survivors were simply glad to be alive.
As much as these folks would rather this had all been a terrible nightmare, wishing they could return to the comforts of home and to the security of their businesses, most would quickly come to a new understanding of true value.
Things, the stuff of life, that seemed so essential the day before -- these same type of belongings that seem so important to us, even today – are really not so valuable in the scheme of things. For the people of Gatlinburg, getting out of harm’s way, with loved ones in tow, superseded even the most prized possession.
For people of faith, this tragic event made Philippians 3:8 come to life. You know the verse, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
Christians can come out of this terrible loss with their faith – albeit acutely shaken – still placed in the goodness of the Lord Jesus Christ. When all else is lost, they don’t really have a choice, do they?
So, what about us? What if we truly started tomorrow with one outfit, and no home or other possessions? And maybe that’s already happened to you. Would our identity in Christ that we talk about all the time be enough? Would we still be able to see God’s loving kindness?
If God’s sovereign plan for our lives included an unspeakable tragedy, could we have the heart and mind of Job? Even in his deep grief and anguish, Job proclaimed, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)
My true confession? Even though I, too, could voice that, I believe it would take a while for my heart to catch up with what I know to be ultimately true. That’s because I place such a high value on the comforts and pleasures of life. And I don’t think I’m alone in that, right?
May it not take a catastrophe for us to keep a proper perspective and assign God-pleasing priorities to all of His provision in our lives. I trust that, even without loss, we will daily affirm the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus – and live like we truly believe that.
Because as we know…the “stuff” we love could all be gone in an instant.