Two weeks ago today, a fire started in the Smoky Mountain National Park spread furiously into the City of Gatlinburg and the surrounding areas of Sevier County, Tennessee. Thousands of acres burned, homes and businesses were destroyed and 14 people died as a result of this tragedy. While travesties of this nature are not restricted to any time and place, this particular horrific event came the day after many Christians celebrated the first Sunday of Advent. For the Church, this season is not just a warm-up for Christmas, or a journey toward the celebration of Christmas, but rather a season unto itself where we celebrate God’s work throughout history — past, present and the future — as we await the coming of God’s final Kingdom that will reign over all creation.
As pastors, we often deal with people who, because of past events, greet this season with as much sadness and anxiety as they do joy. Yet for me, these two weeks of Advent have been more about pastoring through all of the periods of waiting, both expectantly and unexpectantly. It is no secret that we have become averse to waiting for anything. We freely use the expression, “The waiting is killing us.” In a recent podcast by Chilton and Fairless (aka, “Two Bubbas and a Bible”) they discussed how we say that we don’t mind waiting as long as we are not suffering. At the same time, I think for many of us these days, waiting is suffering. This is especially obvious with the use of modern technology that allows us to receive nearly immediate feedback to any inquiry or question. When technology works, we marvel at the efficiency of its operation. When it doesn’t we have a tendency to be at least slightly irritated, frustrated, desperate, or worse; sent into fits of complete rage.
Like many in my congregation, my waiting started the night of the fire. However, for me it was not about waiting for evacuation orders, or waiting to see the fire’s path; instead, it was waiting to get off a plane, get home and find out what was going on in the first place. However, this was only the beginning of the wait. The waiting continued the next morning as I tried contacting all twenty-five members of my congregation in the face of the power outages, the poor cell phone coverage, discontinued phone numbers and unavailability, or inaccessibility to the internet and email. Meanwhile, reporters on TV and radio were counting souls, missing people, structures lost, and telling people to stay away. The rumors about what was destroyed and what remained standing spread as quickly as the fire itself. Still we waited. We waited to hear about one another. We waited to see whether our church facility was still standing. We waited for safe passage back into the city. We waited over a long and anxious week to know whether all of the rumors and stories were true. It was only then that residents, renters and business owners could return to town for the first time. Even though help and gracious gifts came pouring in from around the country, we still waited to find out people’s needs beyond immediate food and shelter.
When the initial waiting period ended, my congregation learned that it had been blessed throughout this ordeal. Everyone who came into direct contact with the path of the fires escaped safely. The rest were slightly inconvenienced by the smoke filled air and the lack of electricity. I returned to the church on the first Friday after the fire to find it sustained little or no damage. Other homes and businesses close by were not as fortunate. One of our families lost everything, but they have also been blessed by having a place to live since the blaze missed their sister’s vacation home. Finally, because our facility was virtually unaffected and our friends have been so generous, the congregation is blessed with the ability to house a group of 30-plus first responder volunteers for at least the next 45 days.
It is too soon to determine the final impact the fire has had on this Advent season. Yet scripture continually reminds us that God often asks us to wait between times of destruction and restoration. I believe it is in these times of waiting that hope becomes most real to us. The waiting gives us an opportunity to reflect on God’s blessings, and to hunger for a time when hope will be realized by good overcoming evil and creation being restored to complete perfection. For now, we will continue to wait and wonder about what the restoration, the realization of that hope in our community will ultimately look like. In meantime, we can be reassured and reminded that God has, is and will work with, in, through and despite us, always.
Greg Bennett is a Certified Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and
the current Pastor of Gatlinburg Presbyterian Church in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.