Making Sense of the Storm

Yesterday was the 3 year anniversary of a life changing day for me, my family, and for almost everyone in the community where I lived at the time.  Ironically, tonight we are preparing for a new set of storms.  I felt compelled to re-post this article today that I posted orignially on April 29, 2011.  I hope you find it helpful.

_____________________

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.

Random Thoughts on Friday 2/3

Shannon and I celebrated 15 years of marriage this week.  The official wedding anniversary gift almanac says that this is our crystal anniversary.  I did not buy Shannon crystal.  Instead I bought her tickets to Wicked.  This is our wicked anniversary.  Strange to hear a preacher say something like that.


I am continuing to trudge through the massive biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He was a gifted theologian with an amazing story.  There are plenty of books about his life that will help you get the jest of who he was without reading the most recent 500 + page edition.  I’m not saying the book is bad, it is just really, really, really detailed.  At this point I am too far in to put it down and I have too much pride to quit.  There is just something nerdy cool about saying you read a 500 page biography about a German theologian.  Another thing keeping me in the book is to see how many casual conversations I can drop the name Bonhoeffer into and share an obscure fact about his life.  If you are having a hard time finishing a book, make it a game to keep you in it.


Greg Garrison at the Birmingham News wrote up a nice article this week on the response of area churches in the cleanup effort.  You can read it on al.com here:  http://www.al.com/living/index.ssf/2012/01/birmingham_area_ministries_chu.html

One Week After the Storm

There are only two seasons in Alabama; football season and tornado season.  Actually football season never really ends here.  The teams only play 11 games but the fans talk about them 365 days a year.  Tornado season usually takes up about 8 months of the year.  There will be tornadoes somewhere in Alabama every week of the Spring and Fall; you can count on it.  Kansas has nothing on Bama.  The Wizard of Oz was supposed to be based on Dorothy from Tuscaloosa, but everyone knows the wizard behind the curtain of Bama is The Bear.  No surprise there, so they moved the plot to Kansas just to keep the story interesting.
A white Christmas in Birmingham is the unicorn of holidays.  In 2010 Bama had snow on Christmas day.  Last winter brought us lots of snow, another oddity in Alabama.  Then came Spring/tornado season part 1.  Tornado season is always dangerous in our state.  Last April it was devastating.  All of us have been weather paranoid since April.  We did not have snow this past Christmas, but we had thunderstorms just a few days into the New Year.  Lightning in January is another weather unicorn.  This past week only continued the rare weather that seemed to begin Christmas of 2010.  In the third week of January a series of F3 tornadoes ripped through our state.  The fact that it happened in January, once again, makes it a rare event.  This year the storms did not wait for Spring.  But this time the tornado was different for me and my family.  Not because the storm came early this year, but because this storm had a familiar face.
When tornadoes hit Alabama we watch it on the news and if it is within proximity we load up the following Saturday and go help.  You go to hurting people, but they are people you have never met and will probably never see again.  As devastating as the April tornadoes were to our state, and as much work as we did at the time, my heart grieved for the people impacted, but I did not know any of them.  I helped them, but I did not know them.  When the tornadoes hit our state last Monday night, they hit just up the street from my house.  I know dozens of the families impacted.  13 families in our church were affected.  My daughters go to school with children who are sharing story after story of what happened at their home.  When I watch the news I see people who I have met on a ball field, people who once attended our church, people I see almost every day.  In April I helped and watched people in North Smithfield, Tuscaloosa, and little towns all over the state.  This week it has been Jane, the Tice’s, Ms. Trice, Cheryl, Patsy, A.P. and Toni, the Bohan’s, on and on.  The guy on the news is Ken.  I remember when his kids were small.  His brother-in-law was our youth pastor.  This storm did not hit my house, but it severely damaged my home.
I still do not know what it feels like to look at your own house and all that’s left is a pile of debris.  I have no idea what it must be like to lose a daughter in a storm, but I was closer this week to understanding those feelings as I have ever been before.  None of it happened to me, but it happened just up the street.  The first house we put on offer on when we moved here was destroyed last Monday night.  We were one signature away from “that” house being “our” home.  I moved bricks and tossed debris at one house while a group of men crawled beneath the pile trying to salvage anything of value they could find.  I knew the people in the pictures they were pulling from the rubble.  I saw chairs and tables crushed beneath the walls of living rooms and dens where I have led families in prayer many times.  This week was a reminder that in a moment everything changes.  One storm blows through your community and in 10 minutes every scene that has been familiar for 9 years becomes barely recognizable.
Tornado ravaged areas all look and smell the same.  If you have seen one, you have seen them all.  Yet the world is so huge that the storm always seems far away.  Tornadoes happen, but they happen somewhere else.  Then it is your street, your family, your friends.  No one is immune.
Many people view the Bible as a narrative that occurred a world away and in another span of time.  Our world seems so different now than then that the two could not possibly intersect; then suddenly they do.  The Bible is honest about a world created with good intentions but ruined by sin.  Because of our rebellion in the garden the world that was created to sustain our lives will sometimes fight against us and take our lives.  Because of sin the story of the Bible is full of storms.  Because that story continues with us the storms will continue as well.  The storms remind us that the story of Scripture is not that far away.
After the storm we rush in, desperate to save a life.  We become desperate to make things right.  Yet ultimately we realize that insurance helps us recover but it does not help us redeem.  I visited a man in the trauma unit who told me that this was not his first trip to the hospital after a storm.  No matter what we rebuild we know we may be hit again.  Our rescue efforts, volunteer cleanups, and insurance policies can make the moment somewhat better but we are powerless to ultimately make it right.  We are incapable of looking any of our neighbors in the eyes and saying, “I promise, this will never happen to you again.”  It is a cruel reminder that we cannot save ourselves.  We need good news.
The Bible is honest about the storm and it is confident about redemption.  Along with the angry palpitations of our planet there are also promises of hope.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.  Romans 8:18-25
The good news is that the world was not supposed to be like this and because of Christ it will not always be like this.  The difficulty is in the waiting, but we do not wait hopelessly, we wait with hope.  Waiting hopefully does not mean we passively subscribe to Christ and wait patiently to die.  Waiting with hope means that we live for Him now.  Waiting hopefully means we must realize that recovery is not simply about extending Christian charity, but about spreading the gospel message.  It is calling people to repent of sin and submit to Christ as the ultimate expression of hope.  Some may charge that calling for repentance at at time such as this seems cruel, but if we merely rebuild homes in Jesus’ name, we have redeemed nothing.  All we have done is recovered and rebuilt something that may be destroyed again.  The message of the gospel is that in Christ we enter into a new hope that will sustain us in the storm because we know one day He will come again and return the world to right.  We wait for Him to come then, but in the waiting we live for Him now.  The promise of the gospel is that one day Christ will end the terror of sin.  When sin ends, so will the storms.  In the weeks to come our task is to rebuild, but our call is to tell.  We must rebuild homes, but we must also give people hope by sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
These are our neighbors.  These are our friends.  This is my community.  Jesus Christ is our hope. 

Hypocrites and Tornadoes (Just Ask)

Question:  I am dealing with people in my family not wanting anything to do with church because of hypocrites. I need help in this area.  What can I do?
The word hypocrite comes from a Greek word that means “an actor on a stage.”  It describes someone who is able to play a role in a certain context, but who lives a very different life “off stage.”  This is certainly true of many people in the church.  The Bible is honest about their existence.  We also know that Jesus did not shy away from using the word in His confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23).  We certainly have warrant to use our common sense and discernment to recognize people who are hypocritical.  They are not difficult to spot.
The existence of hypocrites in the church, however, does not give one warrant to reject the church.  Some would say that they can follow Christ without the church.  This concept is foreign to the New Testament.  Biblically it can be argued that one cannot follow Christ without the church.  Therefore, it may sound more noble to reject the church because of its hypocrites, but it is really foolish.  
Not going to church because there are hypocrites is like saying you will never again eat bananas because there are brown spots.  Yet exposing the illogical and foolish nature of the argument may only add to your frustration or sorrow in dealing with your family over this issue.  The best you can do is to continue to proclaim the gospel to your family and live it out before them.  Don’t be a hypocrite!  In the end it is important for your family to know that the hypocrite and those who despise them are all in the same boat, sinners in desperate need of Jesus.    Those of us who are not hypocrites are merely more honest sinners than they.  Jesus died for all – the honest sinners and the hypocrites alike.
Question:  What is Ridgecrest (the church I serve as pastor) doing as a whole to help the victims of the tornado?  I know other local churches have groups together and designed teams to go and volunteer; what is RBC doing?
This has certainly been a surreal week in our community.  13 homes in our church family have suffered minor damage to total destruction.  One family in our church suffered injury and has spent the week in the hospital.  Since the storms members of the pastoral staff, deacon body, and membership at large have been extremely active in our community helping families remove trees and salvage belongings.
This weekend there will be several opportunities to serve.  If you will contact the church office rcore@rbconline.net or jmann@rbconline.net we can share with you some specific work sites where you may volunteer.  We are also encouraging our people to partner with other works, churches, and organizations in our area.  Responding to a storm of this magnitude is a team effort.  No one can do it all alone.  Below are a few listings and opportunities that have been passed along to me.
The Birmingham Baptist Association – sending out teams daily, contact:  http://bbaonline.org/
ClayRidge Baptist in Clay is looking for volunteers to carry meals into Centerpoint on Friday and Saturday.  They especially need men to help through the weekend to help make delivery more secure.  There are also debris cleanup crews meeting and leaving from the church parking lot.  
The following note comes from Jae Skinner, one of our members and a teacher at Erwin Elementary:
Hey! If you don’t have to work, we need HELP AT ERWIN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL moving classrooms for the Centerpoint teachers. If you can come help, please do! I (Jae) will be there at 8:00. Call me 966-7133 and I will get you plugged in somewhere. Trying to get the school ready for kiddos so they can get back to a normal routine!

Storm

We have had reports of several families in our church whose homes have been destroyed or damaged.  At this time we know of only 1 family with injuries.  Mr. Wheat (Jane Hikman’s father), Hope Hickman, and Hope’s nurse were hurt in the storm.  Mr. Wheat suffered the most serious injuries (broken ribs) and will be recovering at UAB.  Hope will be at Children’s Hospital as her medical equipment and medicine were a total loss.  At this time the area is blocked from Deerfoot to Chalkville Mountain Road.  As always we will be partnering with the Birmingham Baptist Association for cleanup and relief.  For updates, see our wall posts on the Ridgecrest Baptist page on Facebook.  Please pray for our families and we will share information as it becomes available.

BB
Gal. 2:20

The Spirit After the Storm

Keith Rice and I with a family in Smithfield

On Saturday I spent a few hours helping clean up from the storm at a member’s house and another couple of hours checking on other situations in which we might be able to help in the coming week. It was not until Monday that I was able to join with the Birmingham Baptist Association and enter into some of the most devastated areas of our city.

There is no string of adjectives I can use that would adequately describe the scene, nor are there any words I could use that you have not already heard over and over again. All I can do is share my pictures, which, again, are not much different than any you have already seen. Nevertheless, I will submit my entry to the ever growing online album.

I would like to share my thoughts about involvement and how we continue to minister going forward:

1. The Body of Christ is awesome. In times like these you realize how significant the gospel is and how the Holy Spirit truly unites His people. The depth of cooperation and love right now between the churches cannot be duplicated by any other entity or organization. I hope this continues long past the storm.

all that’s left is the inside steps
carpet is wrapped around the tree

2. The storm was an incredible tragedy, but the greatest tragedy will be if we simply clean up and move on. This is an incredible opportunity for us as a people to seek the face of God and experience revival. Over the past few days I have prayed with people at gas pumps, in driveways, and in living rooms that no longer have ceilings and walls. The gospel is flowing through the streets right now.

3. This week will not be the end of it. It will take months and months for us to erase the marks of the storm. The rescue phase is over. Recovery of possessions is winding down. The rain yesterday may have indeed ended this phase. Demolition and rebuilding are next. These are the phases that will be most costly, especially for those who are uninsured. It costs us little to nothing to use a rake, carry furniture, or use a chainsaw; but to rebuild homes is going to be astronomical. For the church, the next phases of the project will have to be less general and more specific. Instead of moving into areas, the church will have to move into families, adopt them and walk with them in the months to come.

4. The parasites are coming. In working with victims of Katrina I heard story after story of fraud and corruption. Looters are cowards without a heart. They are thoughtless and heartless. The people who are coming next are calculated, charming, cunning con-artists. They will deliberately prey upon people’s emotions and sense of desperation. I don’t know how to go about this, I know the local law enforcement community will do all they can to prevent this from happening, but somehow the church and all of our surrounding neighbors need to come together as an antibody against the parasites. There are many people who are devastated by the storm now. When the parasites come and con them out of what money they had for recovery, the word devastation will not be adequate enough to describe the subsequent hopelessness. We need to educate ourselves and then educate one another on the schemes of the parasites.’

5. I appreciate our governor. I saw a brief portion of his speech yesterday, and like everyone else I have seen his leadership night after night. This is a man who unashamedly loves the Lord, quotes Scripture, and cares about people. We need to pray for him. He must be tired.

There is an awful scar in Alabama right now, but a wonderful spirit that I have not experienced before. Surely it will last until football season – after that, who knows! In any event, I love watching the Body of Christ at work. It is inspiring to me and I know it is an incredible witness to others.