Making Sense of the Storm
On Wednesday afternoon our youth pastor and I took a generator to the home of a family in our church that had been hit by a tornado that morning. They were scrambling to try repair their home to the point that it would be secure. We all knew there were more storms coming and they would be worse. I am not a carpenter. In moments of urgent carpentry all I am is in the way. When I go on a missions trip my job is to carry stuff in Jesus’ name. So we did not stay long and I was home by early afternoon settling in for a long night of wild weatherman radar watching.
Some people may think tower-cams are cool, I think they are nearly useless. Anytime there is a storm we get a tower-cam image of a sleepy wet town. Most of the time you can see little to nothing because the camera is drenched and shaking. The weather man then discloses what the rest of us didn’t know, that it is windy and raining in Podunk. Wednesday was different. On the Tuscaloosa tower-cam entered a dark cloud that reached to the ground. As it got closer you could tell it was circulating. In a few moments it revealed itself to be a perfectly formed tornado, grey and sinister. My wife and I watched in stunned shock knowing that property was being destroyed, lives were changing, people were dying. As the camera panned to include a shot of Bryant Denny Stadium with a massive tornado in the background the screen went green; disconnect. I have lived in Alabama long enough to know how these storms track. I looked at my wife and said, “That thing is headed straight for us.”
Within the hour we were hunkered down in the basement. My daughters were crying. We were praying knowing full well that the words, “It is all going to be O.K.” may not be within the realm of possibility. I have seen hundreds of disasters on television. Never have I had one headed for me. The awful part of it all was that there was no evacuation, nowhere to go, there was no escape. All you could do is wait and wonder if this would be the last time you would know your home as it is. You wondered if you may be hurt or if you may die. I tried to convey none of these ideas to my family, but I didn’t have to. Though we didn’t verbalize what we felt each of us were easy enough to read. We prayed and prayed and prayed. I tweeted, “Praying for all our people. Serious situation here. May God be merciful to us.” After the obvious questions we were left with only one, “Would God answer our prayers?”
The tornado that destroyed Tuscaloosa and West Jefferson County tracked 180 miles across Alabama. We live in a span of about the only 30 miles in which it did not touch down. As it passed our home the air was still, then green, then violent, then black as night, then light as day. For about 30 minutes before and after it passed roof shingles, sheet metal, splintered wood, insulation, and paper fell from the sky. My wife found a $6,000 check in our driveway. The moment was surreal. I had no doubt that God had done something for us, but as I picked up the pieces of other people’s lives raining down on my yard I wondered, “What had God done for them?”
I know thousands of people across that 180 mile stretch of death prayed as hard as we did and believed just as much as we did. Some of them are dead. Some of them lost everything. Some of them, like us, rejoiced that we were spared. Situations like this foster questions from both believers and skeptics. My wife heard a woman on the radio crying asking why God didn’t answer the prayers of the people who died? As she ripped through her list of questions she rattled off, “Did they not have enough faith?” Some people call tornados an act of God. Insurance companies do. Some people see them as so random and unforgiving that they conclude there cannot possibly be a God.
How do we make sense of a storm?
For some it may be way too early to read this. For others it may be too late. Yet I write this so that you may “Feel my Faith” and perhaps to help those of you who find this on time to sort through what you feel, and perhaps find some Biblical basis for it all. If the Bible promised us what many preachers have tried, that if you have enough faith, do right, and believe God then all things will be wonderful - then Wednesday would have made me an atheist. Yet the Bible is more honest about life and its storms than many Bible Belt preachers have been over the last few decades. The Bible is full of storms and God. In fact, Jesus used the illustration of a devastating storm as the concluding illustration of what many regard to be His most famous teaching, The Sermon on the Mount.
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” Matthew 7:24-27
The Bible is honest enough to tell us that there will be storms and we are candidates to be materially devastated no matter what we believe or how much or how little faith we have. In 180 miles atheists, agnostics, preachers, babies, mothers, Christians, and otherwise all died in the storm. We live in a world that was devastated by sin long before it was devastated by storms. These moments are a part of our story. Because we live so small we fail to realize there is evil everyday. There are pockets of the world in which people are swept away by the hundreds and we simply sleep, or watch football, or eat burgers. It could be argued that our daily indifference is evil. At the very least storms reveal to us that we are unaware and bank too much on what is totally insecure. Jesus interprets the true power of the storm. Storms have nothing to do with what buildings are made of. We have yet to build one strong enough to withstand the storm. Storms are about what we are made of. Storms make us question what we believe. That is what we are doing. Storms are also a litmus test to tell us whether what we believe is strong enough to help us make sense of reality and survive.
The Bible is honest about the reality of storms. We live in a sin scarred world. The Bible is also honest in telling us that none of us have ever suffered from the evil in this planet like God has. God lost His Son in an incredibly unjust storm. The storm of the crucifixion had nothing to do with weather, but people. The wrath of man that Jesus suffered was unpredictable, unrelenting, and unforgiving. Yet in the midst of the storm, He forgave us (Luke 23:34). That moment changed everything for us. Then the meaning of that moment was secured when Jesus rose from the dead. The honesty of the Bible is that everything about this life and the planet that hosts us has gone wrong due to sin. There will be storms. The honesty of the gospel is that there is coming a day when everything will be made right in Jesus. When this happens, there will never be another storm. The hope of the gospel is that everything we experience in this life is temporary. Storms prove that the size of your home is inconsequential. Yet, the decisions we make, the way we respond, the things we believe are eternally consequential. The gospel gives us hope that there is eternal life; immune from pandemic, safe from the storm, victorious over death, Hell, and the grave. What was taken from us on Wednesday, in Christ, can be returned, raised, and redeemed. If we die in Him, we will live again.
What did God do for us in the storm? There is no accurate way to use the storm to prove or honestly question whether there is a God, though many will try. The crucifixion settled the question of theodicy. We constantly resurrect it. The news media will continue to flash before us the death toll. Has anyone taken the time to count the miracles? Those stories will emerge, but will they be reported? Yet none of this will help us make sense of the storm. We will never be able to adequately calculate the ways of God. So how do we make sense of this? We realize that sin has devastated the world. The storm is only symptomatic of a greater problem. As long as this world continues as it is, we will rebuild, and other storms will come and destroy what we have done. We will never engineer something eternal and we will never become immortal. Storms are not about stuff, storms are about people. They reveal whether we believe in something strong enough to endure, that give us hope beyond the grave, that places our values in something greater than things that can be easily blown away. Storms teach us that ultimately nothing in this life is secure.
So I stood there praying, looking at my family, wondering if this would be the last time I would see them on this side of the storm. When I saw the tornado hit Tuscaloosa I knew that no matter who I was, or how I prayed, the reality was that I too was a candidate to suffer great loss. In that moment all I had was the gospel. I knew that if we lost everything, our home, our church building . . . that everything would be fine. I knew that if I lost my family, I would be devastated, but they would be fine. I knew that if I died, they would be devastated, but they would know that I was fine. Whether we lived or died, with our lives hanging in the balance we too could say with confidence as Paul, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21).” That is how we made sense of the storm and will continue to do so.
May the people of God rise up and help one another recover and to make sense of the storm. And may the days ahead be filled with love, recovery, healing, and the gospel.
We heard the report of the Tuscaloosa tornado and realized as you did that it was heading for B'ham and our family and friends. We immediately starting calling our children to make sure they were all aware of the situation. It was a very chaotic 20 minutes or so and we felt utterly helpless. As the storm neared B'ham we pulled off the highway and began crying out to God in prayer. Realizing it was all in His hands we returned to the highway and drove for what seemed an eternity waiting for news. I don't remember ever being that afraid for my loved ones. Finally the phone began ringing and one by one we were able to verify the safety of all our children. God had graciously spared our family.
We will be in Fl. a few more days. Please know of our love and our prayers for all our church family and for the people of Alabama and all across the South who are suffering. Love in Christ Jesus, AP Mattox