"He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted.....
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor." Isaiah 61:1-3
The devastating fires that engulfed Gatlinburg Tennessee, this past November, was a tragedy beyond words. Several lives were lost, and countless homes reduced to ashes. That night was the stuff of nightmares. Viral videos captured the unbelievable scenes of destruction, panic, and heroism. I was not physically there that night, but I, and many of members of my family were awake through the wee hours of the morning, praying hard for this place we loved so dearly. Falling asleep finally, when we realized there could be no more word until morning light provided a report of the devastation. So many were praying for rain that night, and thankfully, the rains came. After seeing the destruction first hand in December, I realize now how sweet those rains had been. If they had not come, I firmly believe all would have been lost.
I cannot begin to describe how precious Gatlinburg has been to our family. For multiple generations it has been a nearby sanctuary. Always welcoming and peaceful, helping us forget the stresses of life, as we literally climb closer to spiritual comforts: Like a balm, renewing our mind, body, and soul. It has been a place of happiness, discovery, and love.
There were many false reports indicating that much of the town was gone. Don't get me wrong. The loss is tragic. There are large pockets of town that are no longer with us....but there are very large pockets that survived! The main strip, for example, and most along River Road, have all survived. It was comforting to see these places still standing - beacons of hope and strength.
One loss felt most poignantly, was a beautiful red barn, tucked up along side of the mountain base, just across the stream. Local lore said this was one of the first riding stables built in Gatlinburg for the use of tourists back in the 1930s. Seasonally framed in the trees, this picture of history will live on only in our memories, and the photos taken over the years.
As for the beauty rising from the ashes: I was encouraged by other sights we witnessed. During the day, we can see the darkened earth and scorched trees, sprinkled with ghostly chimneys standing as monuments to the pre-fire days. But in the night, standing on the balcony of the condo rental, looking towards downtown, I could see pockets of light sprinkling the hillsides. You could clearly see the areas that survived, and there were many more than I expected. Sadly, there were large pockets of complete darkness, but those surrounding clusters of light were perfect messages at Christmas. Beacons of hope, reminding us all that Gatlinburg will survive, and flourish once again.
In fact, there were some parcels that had already bulldozed the rubble and had framing already in place, as the sound of construction remained steady. This was a wonderful sign of new life. As we are reminded that beauty comes from the ashes, I can't wait to see the spring growth take over. The area will rise stronger than before, as long as we continue to support its people. The weather is warming up, and the blossoms are unfurling their splendor. For those of you who share this heartfelt regard for Gatlinburg, get those reservations in - it's time to come back!