For the last thirteen years, we’ve been blessed to own a piece of property in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. After my father died and we were settling his estate, we had a small amount of money to put toward a down payment on a log house outside of Gatlinburg. Terri and I had prayed for twenty years to be able to one day own a place in the mountains (maybe retiring there at some point), and with a small investment, we bought a little log cabin.
For years she had planned, prepared, and saved furniture and other items to use in our mountain retreat if we ever got one. She knows how to decorate and make a place feel like home!
About six years later, when property values were at their peak, we sold that cabin and bought another house, one that we dreamed would be used by our kids and grandkids for years to come as a family get-a-way. We’ve had that home for seven years this month. We’ve invested time, sweat, resources, and energy into updating what Terri affectionately called “the ugliest house on the mountain.”
Terri made that house a labor of love. When we bought it, it was what she called a “blank canvas.” After ten days of working, painting, arranging, and updating that house was transformed from a blank canvas to a home our rental company called one of the most beautifully decorated homes on their program. We wanted people to walk in and feel “at home” like we did.
I can’t tell you how it felt to walk in those doors several times a year. It was my refuge. I had a study area set up downstairs with a desk and computer. The minute I arrived I would get my books and computer out and get ready to work on sermons, books, and other projects.
Terri would spend time straightening up items that had been moved around by those who had rented the property. We spent many mornings watching the sun rise over the mountains. We spent two weeks snowed in there after a sixteen-inch snow blanketed everything in sight. We always enjoyed building a cozy fire (you don’t use your fireplace much in Albany, Georgia) and watching a movie. I had the most comfortable red recliner in the living room—I could fall asleep in ten minutes in that chair.
We’ve enjoyed days there with our friends Roger and Linda Breland and Charles and Penny Lowery. We’ve been there with my first pastor, Charlie and Retta Draper. I’ve had pastor friends who have used the house for a study break. We’ve had fun times with our girls there. As my friend Roger Breland would say, we’ve had some “lovely moments” there.
The house was named Stand in Awe, and the view is awe inspiring. We have an unobstructed view of the Greenbriar Ridge in the National Park. It inspired me in the moments when I was there to retreat, study, and write. I’ve written the major portion of at least three books in that house. I’ve written countless sermons at that old wooden desk. I’ve been able to step back and get a perspective on ministry, trials, and life in general inside that house.
The view of the mountain sky with no lights was breathtaking to me. Far away from the city, there were few manmade lights to interfere with God’s heavenly lights. Seeing the mountains with nothing but a full moon to light the sky is stunning. The sound of storms rumbling across that valley and rolling over those mountains reminded me of the majesty of our Creator.
The serenity that Terri and I felt in that home was unexplainable. Walking in and seeing family heirlooms, a few pieces of my grandparents’ furniture, gave it a warm touch. Over the years, we had probably placed a dozen of Ken Jenkins’ pictures in the house. Plus the game room walls were filled with signed sports memorabilia I had collected through the years. All this was a quick reminder that this was our “get away” in the mountains. It was our home away from home.
We were able to maintain the house because we rented it out when we weren’t using it. Over the years, because God has blessed us with consistent rentals, we’ve been able to make significant improvements, building a stone retaining wall, remodeling the bathrooms, putting stone on the front of the house, and in general watching the house get a “touch” from my very creative wife.
Yesterday, Friday the 13th, 2011, that all changed. I got a call from our rental company yesterday afternoon that our house was on fire. It had apparently been struck by lightning. At this point, we aren’t sure of all the details, but we know that our home is, for all practical purposes, gone. We were originally supposed to be there next week to spend a study week and to relax for a few days before a hectic summer schedule. Now, all that has changed. There is no house to go to. Many of the heirlooms are either gone, or we’ll probably not be able to salvage them. I’m not sure what I’ll find when I drive up on Monday to assess where we stand and what the next step is.
Corrie Ten Boom said something to the effect of, “Be careful how tightly you grip things; the tighter the grip, the harder it hurts when God pries your hands from it.” I know that’s not the exact quote, but it’s what came to mind. The reality is that we’ve always said this house was the Lord’s, and now we’ve been tested on that. It was. It still is.
I’ve got a feeling when I drive up on Monday, my heart is going to be filled with a variety of emotions. I hope I can say, “Lord, I know you know we asked you for this house and this view of the mountain. I’m grateful that you gave us what we asked you for. Uh, Lord, did you know that your house burned down last Friday? It was one of your lightning bolts that hit it. Never mind, Lord, you know all things. Now, Lord, that we are here and in this situation, how do you want me to proceed?” I don’t have to “feel” it. I do, because of my faith, feel I must profess that and confess it.
A few weeks ago, we had a number of people gather at Sherwood to tape a DVD on the life of Ron Dunn. Before we started sharing, we all sat down and watched a DVD of Ron preaching on “Not ‘Why?’ but ‘What Now?’” It kind of defines where I am tonight.
Terri and I are grateful no one was in the house—it could have been disastrous. It could have been so much worse (and I haven’t seen it yet). We could have been there. Terri had knee surgery a week ago and is unable to travel. Months ago I reserved the house for two weeks for us to get away right after Mother’s Day. We could have been in there and possibly trapped.
Someone else could have been there. If I hadn’t reserved it, it could have been rented and someone’s life could have been devastated. There was only one way into and out of that house on the front. One person who called me said when they arrived, the whole front door was engulfed in flames and the firemen had to cut a hole into the roof to try to get into the house to put the fire out.
Ron Dunn famously said, “Good and evil run on parallel tracks, and they normally arrive about the same time.” That’s kind of where I am right now.
When I think of all the families who have lost everything in the recent tornados across the south, I have perspective I might not normally have. What brought me the most perspective was who I was with at the time.
Because Terri was home recovering from surgery, I had gone to the church to meet my friend, Pastor Ed Litton. Ed was in town to speak at Sherwood Christian Academy’s graduation that night. I walked out of my study and next door to the Strauss House, a guest house our church maintains for speakers who come in, and met Ed. We walked across the street together.
For the hour before that, I had been on the phone. I had to call Terri and break the news to her because I was headed to the graduation. I talked to the rental company, to a person who had been on the scene, to Tom Elliff who also lost a house in a fire, and to Ken Jenkins who lives just up the road from us in Gatlinburg. It was a whirlwind of trying to figure out “what now” and when I could get up there to see what’s happened.
God knew I needed Ed with me at that moment. I wouldn’t see Terri for several hours. My thoughts were spinning. When I saw Ed I was reminded that four years ago, I was in Texas and got a phone call that Ed’s wife Tammy had been tragically killed in an automobile accident. I took a look from Mount Perspective and thought, “Here’s a man who has suffered more than I can possibly imagine, and I’ve seen God all over him in his darkest hours. How could I do anything but trust God in this moment?”
That thought immediately gave me an eternal perspective. What I have lost will one day be gone anyway. What Ed lost on that tragic day was a life, a love, a wife, and a mom to his kids. Looking at Ed I realized, what I lost was stuff. My “loss” was insignificant.
Ironically, (God has to have a sense of humor) our oldest daughter Erin is in Knoxville for six weeks filming a movie. She had called us earlier that day to ask us to pray because she was shooting a scene where she is trapped in a burning building and a wall collapses behind her. We sent text messages to folks and asked them to pray, and God answered that prayer. The shooting of the scene went off smoothly. Two fires in one day—one made for a scene in a movie, the other one not planned or expected.
Just to give us something to laugh about, while Erin was getting ready to film the scene, all the firemen who were there had seen Erin in Fireproof. She had pictures and signed autographs before they shot the scene. I think we laughed to keep from crying.
We don’t know what’s next. We don’t know how bad things are. We do know the damage was extensive, if not complete. I’ll know more next week. I’m sure a range of emotions will hit me when I see it next week. I’m hoping beyond hope that some of our heirlooms survived. We had some old wrought iron tools that belonged to my grandparents on a wall in that house. We had the rocking chair that Terri rocked our girls in when they were babies.
I’m hoping that some of my signed books by Warren Wiersbe, Vance Havner, and others that I kept there survived. I’m hoping my signed mementos by people like Arnold Palmer survived, but I know better. I’m hoping my Ken Jenkins’ pictures weren’t damaged, but I know better. Smoke and water have a way of destroying things once treasured.
Here’s what I do know for sure. God is still on the throne. My family is safe. God knew this was going to happen. He allowed us to enjoy that house and those “things” for a number of years. The first thing Terri said after she got over the shock was, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away.”
Blessed be the name of the Lord. Are we sad? Of course. Do we have a clue what’s next? No. What I do know is that God is in the storm. He is the God who causes well-being and creates calamity. He is in the darkness and the light.
We don’t know “why,” but sometimes God works in unexpected ways. We look for Him in a still small voice, and He shouts to us in a mighty rushing wind. We think He will come in on a white horse and deliver us, and He shows up as a baby in the manger. God’s ways are not our ways.
I know this is going to sound trite, but it is true. This world is not our home, we are just passing through. I do know that every treasure I’ve laid up in heaven is going to be there for all eternity. The money I’ve given in tithes and offerings has gone before me, invested by the Lord Jesus who owns it all anyway. The things eternal are not shaken today. Things temporal are always one moment away from being shaken. I’m reminded today to put my trust in the Lord, not in things.
The reality is that there is so much of life we can’t control. It’s beyond us. That’s why living by faith is the only sane thing to do. Not faith in my ability to guard the gates and nail everything down, but faith in God’s ability to see me through when things aren’t going well.
God will see us through and will give us wisdom on what to do next. We ask the wrong questions when we ask, “Why?” “Why me?” “Why us?” “Why now?” Ron Dunn was right. The question is really, “What now?” Lord, in light of this, what is it you want us to do?
I don’t know the answer. I do know the one who has the answer. If He chooses to show it to me, I’ll be grateful. If He doesn’t, I won’t complain. He’s been too good for too long for me to complain now. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m not a sadist or a fatalist. I’m a realist who knows that God is in control and I’m not. I’m a Christ follower who understands that His ways are not my ways. I know He will work this for our good and His glory.
Others have gone through much worse. We have friends who have lost everything in a fire. We have friends who have lost a spouse or a child. We have friends who are battling cancer right now. I have a longtime friend whose oldest daughter just had a mastectomy and is facing chemotherapy. I know people who can’t find a job. I know church members who have loved ones in hospice care right now.
From Mt. Perspective, I don’t have a fatalistic view. Not at all. I’m not going to stare at this dot on the canvas of our lives for long. I’ll back up, take a panoramic view of the life God has given us, and I’ll thank Him. It doesn’t mean I’m not hurting. I’m not unrealistic. God knows the frailty of our hearts.
When Ed Litton talked to our students tonight he said, “Tornados reveal the foundation.” Tornados strip away everything and reveal foundations. Storms do that. Tonight, I’m grateful to say, our life is built on the solid rock, not sinking sand. My foundation is firm, even if the foundation of our house in the mountains may or may not be firm any longer.
From the mountain you learn there are valleys ahead. It’s in the valley that we encounter life on real terms. As Andrae Crouch wrote, “Through it all, through it all, I’ve learned to trust in Jesus, I’ve learned to trust in God…I’ve learned to depend upon His Word.” So, we’ll trust Him and take one step at a time. We’ll trust Him and seek to be sensitive to what He wants for us and from us. I do know this is one Friday the 13th I’ll never forget.
As one wise sage once said, “Get ready. You are either in a storm, coming out of a storm, or headed into a storm.” Storms are inevitable in life. No one is immune, regardless of what the “joy boys” on TV tell you. I love Jesus, I give faithfully of my time, talents and tithe, but that doesn’t give me a pass from adversity.
The prince of the power of the air may think he won today. What foolishness! My father owns the cattle on a thousand hills. That house sat on the side of a mountain my father formed before the first man ever breathed his first breath. My Father gave us that house. He owned the deed to it (regardless of what my mortgage company might say to me on Monday).
Do you want a view from Mt. Perspective? You’ll have to endure a few falls. The view will allow you to look into the valley of pain and suffering caused by the fall. You’ll see a creation groaning. You’ll be reminded that every day people are being martyred for their faith. You’ll see problems in the valley that can only be addressed by prayer and fasting. You’ll discover someone who has far greater problems than you (which always makes one stop whining). You’ll see, with God’s perspective, how blessed you’ve really been and how you did nothing to deserve it.
Over the course of these last few years, I’ve watched my Father roll like thunder across that valley and over those mountains. Sometimes, the power has been frightening. I’ve sat in that home and watched everything from a seventy-mile-an-hour wind bending the trees outside to a gentle snowfall on a windless day in January.
The last time we were in the mountains, just prior to our annual ReFRESH® conference, we drove by a house that was engulfed in flames. Lightning struck, and it was swallowed up in a matter of minutes. We felt sorry for the owners. But, the reality is, we drove on to our place and laid our heads on our pillow and went to sleep. We observed, but we weren’t affected by it. This time, it was our place. Rather, I might say, it was HIS place. We were just allowed to be the stewards of it for these last several years.
Everything we’ve lost was manmade. Everything we have in Christ is eternal.