I spent Sunday evening and Monday morning researching the damage the EF-5 tornado did to my hometown of Joplin, Missouri Sunday. Sirens alerted residents of a dangerous situation at 5:11 PM. Twenty minutes later, a tornado, three-fourths of a mile wide with wind velocities over 200 mph, slammed down on the southwest side of town and ripped a swath through six miles of residential and business areas.
Located in tornado alley, Joplin is no stranger to severe spring storms. Since moving back to Joplin in 1961, I have huddled in a bedroom closet (we did not have a basement) on more than one occasion, hoping the spotted funnel cloud would not touch down on our house. Some did touch down in and around the Joplin area, but nothing in my memory comes close to the devastating scenes I have viewed online.
My high school, only about one mile west of my old house, was destroyed. About half a mile west of my house, only wreckage of a large grocery store remains. Mangled cars lay on their sides or in piles in the parking lot. Another half a mile to the east of my house is Range Line, Hwy 71, packed with businesses. The roof of Wal-Mart is gone. Home Depot leveled. Academy Sports in shambles.
The horizon presents an eerie scene. Instead of houses, piles of rubble and debris litter the landscape. Only the trunks of most trees protrude out of the ground, limbs gone, bark stripped away. But why is the sky so clear and bare looking? All of the power lines and poles lie on the ground, leaving an unobstructed view of the horizon.
A regional hospital suffered as an early victim of the twister. Only the structural ironwork of the top two of its nine floors remains. Nearly every window in the building imploded, spraying patients and staff with broken glass. One hundred and eighty patients were evacuated to a nearby hospital.
Search and rescue operations continue today, greatly hampered by more inclement weather. The death toll continues to rise as I write, now at 123. Rescue workers must travel from house to house and upended car to smashed car, looking for occupants. Thousands of people are now displaced and must find alternative housing. Most of them have only the clothes they wear and their lives.
Seeing the devastating pictures of a town where I lived, of places where I shopped, of buildings I often visited, of homes that I passed daily, brings the losses much closer. I cannot remain as detached as I might when looking at tornado damage in Birmingham or Tuscaloosa. These houses and buildings were – are – part of my life.
I can more easily envision surviving the sheer horror of the tornado, only to crawl out from under the furniture, the two-by-fours, the bricks, the drywall and the insulation to find my roof and walls gone. I can imagine looking at my neighbors’ houses – what is left of them – up and down the block. Where will I take my family to sleep tonight? What about next week? Where will my children go to school – next year? Where will I buy the things I need – food, clothing, contact lens cleaner? Where will I get money to pay for these things? Do I still have a job to go to? How can I rebuild my house financially?
Hundreds of previously unnecessary questions now entangle thousands of lives, punctuated with the nagging question, Why? Some people will invent answers to retain their sanity. Some people will discover correlations that can be explained dozens of other ways, but they will bring comfort. I ask myself if I would be able to declare with Job, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21
Ten years from now, some people will still suffer the effects of this traumatic night. Most will have rebuilt their homes, their businesses and their lives. Some may be affected by PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). But for most, they will have managed to move on, their memories indelibly marked by the panic of that Sunday night in May 2011 and the months of crisis that followed.
Central to their recovery will be their theological adjustments. How will they explain this tragedy? Is there any meaning or purpose to it? How can this nightmare benefit anyone? How is it possible for any good to emerge from this evil? Where is God in the midst of my disaster and chaos? Does he really care about me? I prayed, but my home is gone. Is he there?
These questions reveal the human soul in theological crisis. They are real. They are honest. They are authentic. They display the turmoil of life in distress, seeking reorientation to theological north.
Dorothy Sayers poignantly writes, “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – He had the honesty and courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work, and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.” (Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World, 1969, p 14)
God knows our suffering because he experienced it as a man. This does not answer all the questions, but it answers the important ones. God is there, and he loves us, and he is with us, and he will help us – blessed be the name of the Lord.