Last night…actually it was very early this morning, I was handed a mostly melted plastic cup by a firefighter. Its contents were recovered from a bedroom in a house that was destroyed by fire. “Go find the owner of these”, he told me.
I knew the residents, a family of 16 on vacation here in Nags Head, had kindly been given refuge from the rain on the ground floor in a vacation rental across the street. They had no place else to go. Their vehicles were blocked in the driveway by great big fire trucks. One SUV was parked under the house, and who knew if it would survive the inferno above. All their clothes, food, boogie boards…whatever they brought for their week on the beach was lost.
Except the contents of this melted cup that I held in my hand.
As the department chaplain I was there to do whatever I could to help whoever needed it. In my turnout gear (I was called “chief” a few times during the incident, I guess because I wear a white helmet) and through the rain I walked across the street and into the game room with a pool table, furniture and big TV. All sixteen were huddled there. Grandparents. Siblings. Kids.
“Do you have any blankets?”, I was asked by one shivering young lady. Most were barefooted, wearing whatever they were wearing to bed a couple hours before.
“No. But I have some rings. Whose are they?” And I poured the four gold rings, one with a sizable diamond, onto a cocktail table. From the crowd around the TV a young woman jumped up. “They’re mine!” Included in the four rings were her wedding and engagement rings, something no woman wants to ever lose.
She came up and looked at her soot covered jewelry on the table and the tears began to flow. Then, with such a look of gratitude, she hugged me and planted a big kiss on my cheek! What she thought was likely forever lost, items precious to her because of the love they symbolized had somehow been returned.
Picking up the melted cup and looking closely at it I saw a name that had been written on it with a Sharpie, although it had shrunk with the plastic. “Who’s Jeff?”, I asked. And Jeff raised his hand. “Here’s your cup!” Everyone laughed. Laughs were good at that time for that family.
Sometimes life can’t seem to get much worse. These folks were on a vacation they had likely planned and saved for since last summer. They drove all the way from somewhere in New York to be together in an oceanfront home. My guess is they were having a great time until they were awakened at 3AM by a neighbor pounding on their door. I’m told they last one out got out just in time as the flames rapidly expanded through the dwelling.
Suddenly, in a moment we can lose what is most precious to us. The blessing was that no one was injured. No one lost their life. They would have to find a new place to stay. They would have to buy clothes to last them through the rest of the week. A week’s worth of groceries for 16 people gone.
But the salvaged rings brought a night of horror a realization that all was not lost. They were able to smile and laugh and rejoice with their owner.
I hope she’s been able to clean them up today and put them back on her fingers. But now they are more than reminders of a proposal and vows. They’re also a reminder of how precious life is, and how quickly everything we possess materially can be lost.
The Bible tells us that life is brief. Like a fog, it’s here, then it’s gone. There are no guarantees of tomorrow for any of us. But God has provided something more precious than silver, gold or precious stones to give us hope. And that gift is the offer of eternal life in His Son Jesus Christ.
I’ve seen so many in my lifetime receive that gift and have what was lost found. There is no greater joy than that moment in a person’s life.