“To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:3)
On November 29, 2016, as wildfires engulfed The Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg, Tennessee (USA), my tear stained face was glued to the internet as video emerged of the scene. Actually, I had been keeping watch as fires plagued the beautiful Appalachian mountains for nearly a month prior, across several states. The found this news devastating due to a deep heart connection I have with those mountains and it’s inhabitants: childhood vacations spent in nearby Pigeon Forge, TN and Cherokee, North Carolina with my great grandparents – the Eastern Band of Cherokee being where part of my bloodline flows.
I had not visited the area for decades; perhaps not by chance, it was on my itinerary for the coming year. The Great Smoky Mountains definitely grew in popularity since the 1980’s, as many people I know now frequent the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area. No matter, I left a portion of my heart somewhere in these mountains; memories that my mind won’t erase, such as the first time I emerged my hands and feet in the clear, cold mountain stream next to our campground…probably a vein of the same stream that is flowing in the photo below (I) shot on January 3, 2017.
While those fires were still blazing through the mountains, God spoke into my heart and planted the seed for an assignment: the first formal “outreach” of The Potter’s Clay Cafe. Uncertain, albeit a willing vessel, as my heart broke into many pieces for the people who ran for their lives as everything they owned went up in flames around them that ill-fated week. It was a simple thing He was asking and miraculously the time off work had already been made available for travel. I gave it to God to orchestrate as he does so well, and awaited further instruction on how to spread His love amongst the ashes.
A Solo Mission Trip?
When God sends a servant on a mission, he is normally not crystal clear as to what it will resemble in full. So is the case with this assignment: Bake a slew of cookies, brownies and whatever else I find myself desiring to bake, package them up nicely and drive to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. That is it. I sought donations from others who might like to contribute and even posted on one of the Facebook pages for Sevier County on a reputable place to take the donations. No help with the baked goods came, and the one suggestion I received was not sitting well with my spirit, therefore, I left it to the Lord to lead.
Do you know how awesome God is? The story that follows (to me) is a prime example of His omniscience:
God had led me to stay at Brookside Resort, located a few of blocks north of downtown Gatlinburg. Having arrived after dark on January 2nd, I could not see what was around me. However, I could hear the amazing brook the hotel is situated on babbling loudly. The next day, after I returned from a very early breakfast in town, the blue mountain fog had lifted and I witnessed an unexpected scene. One of the hotel’s structures was missing a roof and it’s outer walls. Strange! Upon entering my room, I decided to sit out on the deck; gazing admiringly across the brook to the nice blue residencies sitting on the other side, I saw something that wrung my very being…the fire line.
Not only the fire line, but at least five completely burnt down structures, one of which I discerned being the management office. I realized at that moment that the only part of Gatlinburg actually unscathed by the fire are the businesses and accommodations along the Parkway. That particular morning must have been the beginning of that property’s clearing process as the lot was overwhelmed by a construction demolition crew, pulling down and picking up the charred remains via heavy equipment and men with chains. It was such a sad thing to sit and watch. Thankfully, I had an itinerary to follow so forced myself away… As I did so, the Holy Spirit placed a prayer on my heart so I spoke it aloud, releasing it to God for his use.
I departed the hotel and headed for higher ground. As I drove around town and over the mountain roads that morning, I could finally see the insanity of the fire pattern! How anything made it without damage is God’s hand for certain! One house on a ridge made it, whereas the ones around it did not. One structure would be completely unscathed but something in front of it, would be burnt. That presumably must have been the fault of extreme winds tossing embers to and fro. It was through these striking visual effects (and my horror) the Lord relayed why He placed me at this specific hotel, on this specific date…
The Crowds Departed
January 4, 2017:
It was my last day in Gatlinburg and I awoke recognizing the Lord’s voice whispering two things into my heart. First, He urged me to inquire at the hotel office if any of their employees were victims of the fire. Second, and no irony in this – He kept telling me to head up the road a bit to the Arts and Crafts Community. This is where he wanted me to distribute the remaining goody bags. After the fires subsided a bit, I’d read that several of those artisans had suffered losses. More importantly to God, the artist’s will be used to keep people engaged and help Him breathe new life into the area. He will use them to bring beauty from the ashes.
As I checked out, I realized the woman helping me managed the hotel. I said, “I have a strange question, but perhaps not so strange…” then proceeded to inquire about her employees. Apparently, two employees had lost everything. She explained that she lives on site, then asked if I’d seen the the roof outside and went on to share how it had been blown off by the 90 mph winds. She continued by sharing how they (her family) had moved to Gatlinbug after losing a home in Georgia to a fire…so evacuating herself and their four cats, in two cars, was a nightmare for her and her husband.
She ended up relaying a lot of information to me about the event and the weeks following. Sadly, it was quite clear she is in a place of denial as she was rather emotionless. However, I could see in her eyes both fear and great sadness. I stood there listening to her until she stopped talking. I wonder if anyone else who had come through truly showed they cared. She seemed a bit annoyed with the people who had come to “see.” I inquired about the property behind the hotel, where the burnt structured were, asking if she knew anything about them. She said no but people with reservations at that property were ending up in Brookside’s office, asking questions because they were not informed of the loss. This was hard for her, I could tell, not being able to assist them.
Not sensing she would be receptive to prayer, I left Brookside extending kind words plus a big tin and a couple goody bags for herself and the employees. She suggested I go to the Chamber of Commerce to see where I might donate the other bags… This led me on a short wild goose chase on E. Parkway!
After about a half an hour of going from place to place around Gatlinburg…and not one organization or church taking donations, my gut started telling me to follow my initial leading – the well known Arts and Crafts Community. I turned my SUV around, went back up the hill to the intersection where the community began. I ended up stuck at the stop light but not by mistake, I was meant to slow down. To my right I spied several artisan studios, one of which was a wood crafter/sculptor. In the side yard sat huge pieces of chainsawed, charred trees, one in the process of being turned into beauty from ashes!
I turned left onto Glades Road and within a few yards, I suddenly felt my car turn right and then left into the parking lot of a long storefront. This is where I met Carol, an artist and the proprietor of Mountain Girls Primitives. God sent me to Carol, with purpose, and we both understood this within several minutes of my entering the store, goody bags in hand. I opened the door and she immediately gave a big, friendly greeting as I approached the counter; as I stood there out of my mouth came, “Hi there! The Lord sent me here with these bags of baked good because He believes people in the art community need some love.”
Carol’s mouth momentarily fell agape. After the initial “shock” wore off she looked me in the eyes with love and said, warmly, ‘Yes, we certainly do…’
Carol lives in Wears Valley, about 20 miles from Gatlinburg (down the mountain). As we conversed about why I was there, she shared how quite a few homes and businesses were lost to the fires in Wears Valley, however, that area received little attention on the news. I could tell how deeply this grieved Carol, especially after mentioning several people who frequently stop at her shop lost everything. God knew that Carol, a sister in Christ, would know people these bags were meant to go to, thus why He kept urging me in that direction. She was more than happy to distribute the items.
Carol believes God has a purpose for allowing these wildfires to happen, effecting (and affecting) the area as it has. We chatted for a good hour about her life, what brought her to Tennessee via Florida, via southern California, and how she has grown to love these mountains, its people, in the seven years since relocating with her husband and dogs (we discovered our mutual love of German Shepherd’s).
God’s Plans Are Mysterious
As I departed Carol’s wonderful company, I felt my spirit stirring in unbelief at how The Lord God moves us about if we only allow it. I went to Gatlinburg merely hoping to be His hands, feet and a vessel of comfort, however, came away with much more than I ever anticipated: Firstly, and most importantly, a deeper love for my Lord than I had arrived with, which I didn’t realize possible, considering. Next, a newfound clarity on God’s definite plan for The Potter’s Clay Cafe and a burning desire to do God’s will where it is concerned – reaching those who need His love and comfort. Lastly, personal healing and resurrection of a feisty spark of life I needed confirmation still flickers within.
This heart is sad for what it witnessed in Gatlinburg, Tennessee but blessed by it all the same. Blessed that God sent and would trust this unworthy servant enough to share his LOVE with those in need, after such tragedy. As I was reading the Bible this morning, knowing I would finish this piece for him today, the Lord showed me the following verses in Psalm 65:5-13. It is a reminder for the people of The Great Smoky Mountains (and everyone effected by the fires) and goes very well with their #MountainTough mentality because what I’ve witnessed is a land abloom with His people; people who absolutely know where their strength comes from. Jesus!
“By awesome deeds in righteousness You will answer us,
O God of our salvation,
You who are the confidence of all the ends of the earth,
And of the far-off seas;
6 Who established the mountains by His strength,
Being clothed with power;
7 You who still the noise of the seas,
The noise of their waves,
And the tumult of the peoples.
8 They also who dwell in the farthest parts are afraid of Your signs;
You make the outgoings of the morning and evening rejoice.
9 You visit the earth and water it,
You greatly enrich it;
The river of God is full of water;
You provide their grain,
For so You have prepared it.
10 You water its ridges abundantly,
You settle its furrows;
You make it soft with showers,
You bless its growth.
11 You crown the year with Your goodness,
And Your paths drip with abundance.
12 They drop on the pastures of the wilderness,
And the little hills rejoice on every side.
13 The pastures are clothed with flocks;
The valleys also are covered with grain;
They shout for joy, they also sing.”
7 thoughts on “A Mission: Love Amongst the Ashes”
Wild fires are so devastating, but I love the reminder that God can bring beauty from the ashes.
Like many, I have seen God’s hand at work in the hardest times in my life. I don’t always see it in the midst of the situation, but when I look back, He was always there. What a loving mission.
I appreciate your comment Sheila! God’s purpose is always so much more beautiful than anything we can ever conceive!
Thank You for Sharing Our Story ~ God Sent You to The Right Place just at the right time! It was a Pleasure sharing My Thoughts about My Life in these Beautiful Smoky Mountains with You, God brought me Here as He did You ~ Thanks For Sharing My Life Path & Thank God for Putting Me On it ! Our God is an Awesome God ~ Bless You My Friend ~
It is my honor, Carol!
Thank you for sharing so much with this sister in Christ.