God was not in the Whirlwind
Reflections on What Happened April 27, 2011
Looking back I remember that the first 16 hours of that day didn’t seem to be all that unusual. Yes, there had been storms and damage early that morning (which I understand were very significant to anyone that suffered from them), and yes, there were dire weather predictions that this would be an extraordinary day, but up until mid-afternoon, it didn’t seem like it. In fact, around lunchtime I felt a little bit foolish calling off Wednesday evening church activities. After all, the sun was shining! It seemed this might be like many other false alarms we’ve all heard at one time or another. But I thought I’d better err on the side of caution, since James Spann said he’d only seen weather conditions this bad once or twice in his lifetime.
Around 4 o’clock we heard him report that tornadoes were now on the ground near the Mississippi state line and headed in our direction. So, for the first time ever we cleared out the closet under the stairs to make enough room for my wife, Rita, our son, Ryan and I to get in … if the storm actually hit us. But then it never had. It always happened to somebody else, which isn’t meant to sound cold or self-righteous at all. It’s just human nature, I guess, that we’re able to insulate ourselves from so many bad things that happen. Tragedy happens. There’s no denying it, but we don’t want to deal with it too much.
But when it comes close to home … literally and figuratively … it is different … very different. As soon as we’d cleared out the closet Rita had settled in there with a flashlight and a book. Periodically she would call out to me, “Honey, come get in here!” But Ryan and I had been glued to the TV over the last hour. I said to her that I felt safer knowing exactly where the tornado was. The towercam clearly showed it as it steamrolled its way toward Tuscaloosa. It was a little after 5 PM when James Spann said it was on the ground at I-359 & Kauloosa Avenue, which is only about a mile away! So, I said to Ryan, “It’s time for us to head for cover”. He didn’t really want to get in a closet with Mom and Dad, but when his mother made it clear that she’d brought him into this world and wasn’t ready to see him go out … he reluctantly obliged. (After we came out alive, he gave his mother one of the biggest hugs ever!)
It was less than a minute later that we knew we were actually in its path. I’ve always heard that a tornado sounds like a train, but for the time we were in it, it sounded like a monstrous washing machine with an eerie, pulsating tone … until it reached a crescendo … and then we heard things crashing, breaking, and slamming. During all this I had the door knob of the closet clenched in both hands, and it was the strangest sensation to feel that powerful intruder trying and trying to pull that door open. Above all the mayhem, I heard Rita praying, “Lord …!” as we huddled together under a comforter (ironic choice of insulation). Then as fast as it came, it was gone, and then all I could hear was a door upstairs slamming over and over again. It was indeed a rude intruder that didn’t bother to clean up after itself.
When I opened the closet door, it looked like the floor was covered with snow! But then I realized that’s not snow; it’s insulation. After all, it did have a pinkish tint to it. There was insulation everywhere. It’s not unusual even now a year later for us to find a piece of insulation in our things, even though we’d spent countless hours throwing out things that were covered by it and sifting it out of everything else. I suppose there’s a parable in there somewhere … like no matter how much I try to insulate myself from things, there are times when my world gets disrupted. And good grief! Did it ever!
As we emerged from our closet cocoon, I found the front door laying on the floor just a few feet from the closet. It had literally been blown-in off its hinges 15 feet away. Strange! Since I had felt those powerful tugs outward on our closet door. Tornadoes are strange beasts indeed. They defy explanation … how some things are ripped to pieces and other very delicate things are left untouched (like the Easter decoration – not ours – that was blown into our yard.)
As I moved out into the foyer, I noticed light coming from upstairs in an unusual way. Rita cautioned me as I started wading up the stairs through the snow drifts of insulation, but I had to see. When I got upstairs, it was shocking. Most of the roof on the western half of the house was gone. Our bedroom and bathroom were on that side. I thought to myself, if this had hit us before sunrise as one had earlier that day east of Tuscaloosa … Rita and I might not be here now. A few days later some who helped move things out of the house said they were amazed to find insulation and other debris in between the sheets on our bed … in between the mattresses … and some had even managed to get inside the box springs! The bed must have been levitating! I’m glad we weren’t in it!
Hindsight is always sharper, isn’t it?, but foresight is a different matter. I definitely do not claim to be a prophet, but this made me think of another person who was a prophet by the name of Elijah. He faced dire times himself. Under the tyranny of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, all the prophets of God had been killed except Elijah. He was the last one, and he knew that his days were likely numbered. In fact, after facing down 450 prophets of the pagan god, Baal, and seeing them consumed by fire, he had to flee for his own life, when conditions were getting “too hot” due to Jezebel’s wrath. He was so afraid that he fled to the mountains and hid in a cave. While in hiding he had an incredible encounter as recorded in 1 Kings 19:11-13. Listen in with me …
11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
You know, that’s a good question: What am I doing here? Well, times like last April 27 will put things in perspective in a vivid way. A few days later as I lay in Intensive Care, it was a strangely enlightening time. Experiencing my body shutting down the way it did was frightening. I didn’t know what was happening. But one thing I can say without a doubt – God was not in the Whirlwind. The Good News is that we have a good God. I awoke and found that God had not abandoned me, but in fact, God was and is with me. And this galvanized my sense of calling that I am here to make a difference in peoples’ lives through Christ.
Looking forward, my continuing prayer is that I can give strong pastoral leadership so that our Church will be a Beacon of Hope to the world around us … inviting people to “Let Us Be Your Safe Place”. Two ways we will do this in the coming week is to again unveil the billboard sign (this time on the side of our gym), and then we will shine a beacon into the night sky on April 27 and for several days following. Join me in praying that this will be a powerful sign that points people to God. And in the weeks, months and years ahead may we look for many more ways to help people find true security in our good God.