Tornadoes have been in the news lately … Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Joplin, and other communities have experienced catastrophic loss of life and property. Our story is nothing compared to what they have experienced, but it is a story of what we experienced, what God has been teaching us, and how He is at work in our lives.
Before I get to the story, I need to give you a little historical context. I grew up in Ozark, Missouri, population 1,350, one yellow flashing light, and county seat of Christian County. Now a lot of folks have heard about the Ozark Mountains, but some are geographically challenged and don’t exactly know where the town of Ozark is located. I used to say that it’s about 15 miles south of Springfield, and a few people knew where that was. But now I tell folks that I grew up 40 miles north of Branson, and everyone knows where that is. It wasn’t “tornado alley,” but we had our share of storms.
I spent the first 18 years of my existence in a house that my dad built on Jackson Street. That little three-bedroom home was nestled between Claude and Zella Boone on one side and a sweet widow named Mrs. Mitchell on the other. I guess Mrs. Mitchell had a first name, but for some reason I was never given that personal information. What Mrs. Mitchell did have was a cellar. She never used it during storms, but I guess she gave my mom permission to because we did. My mom had a severe fear of tornadoes.
I recall getting jostled out of bed and running across our muddy, gravel driveway in a downpour, with lightning popping and a storm bearing down on us. There we’d sit in Mrs. Mitchell’s cellar, flashlight in hand, surrounded by green beans, pickles, and potatoes in Ball jars. We were never hit by a tornado, but the memories of the musty smell of that cellar and the fear my mom instilled in me of tornadoes are still fresh.
A storm bears down on our home
Fast forward about 50 years to Monday, April 25, 2011—the week a legion of tornadoes marched across the south. It was 6 p.m. and Barbara and I had just left the breast cancer surgeon’s office.
Earlier in the month her annual mammogram had come back suspicious. A biopsy followed and while on a ministry trip to Southern California, we received the results. “Cancer cells, but non invasive,” the doctor told us. “If a woman is going to have breast cancer, it’s the best kind to have.”
As we met with the breast surgeon that Monday, it became clear that a lumpectomy was the next step. The area was small, less than the size of a pencil eraser, but needed to come out. So we scheduled it for Thursday, May 28.
As we drove from the doctor’s office to where I had left my truck, our conversation about surgery was interrupted by weather reports on the radio of a potential tornado moving in our direction. As I hopped in my truck, I gave Barbara some advice: “If a tornado comes our way, get out of your car and get in the ditch!” To which she said, “You lead the way and if I need to get out of my car, I’ll follow you!”
Barbara followed as I blazed a trail home, rushed in, and turned on the television just in time to hear that a tornado had been seen about 15 miles from our house. As I looked out over the lake, I could see the cloudbank with the embedded twister. It was well to our west and would miss us. But then I looked to my left and saw another cloud bearing down on us from the southwest, looking very ominous. I was worried. I prayed a quick prayer out loud, asking God to keep us safe and protect our home. I began to pace the floor, monitoring weather radar on the TV and keeping an eye on the approaching storm.
The problem is that our house sits up on a ridge, surrounded by a forest of pines and oaks which allows for limited visibility. And we don’t have a cellar.
Barbara, who did not grow up with a cellar, began to tease me, saying that I was making much to do about nothing. She was a bit preoccupied with our conversation with the surgeon and wasn’t paying close attention to the storm. But I was … I was troubled that the sky looked really angry, like I’d never seen it before. I responded by saying, “Well, I may be going over the top on this, but if a storm hits, we’re going to go into ‘Santa’s Workshop’” (a small storage closet under the stairs in the center of our home). She agreed.
I moved my pacing away from the windows, to the hallway in front of Santa’s Workshop, peeking around the corner at the window. Barbara stayed in our kitchen, six feet from the closet, fixing dinner and watching the violently swaying trees through the window.
I’m not exactly sure how long the following sequence took, but it went very fast. We didn’t hear the “roar of a train” that so many tornado survivors report, but suddenly the full power of the storm descended upon us and Barbara screamed because the massive pine trees she was watching were bending over to such a point she knew they wouldn’t spring back. My ears popped, and then I grabbed Barbara and pulled her toward the closet. She gladly followed.
We weren’t in the closet for more than 60 seconds. When I opened the closet door I noticed two things at once. First, the house was filled with the pungent smell of freshly cut pine. And second, I couldn’t see out of the any windows on the west side of our home. Pine needles, oak leaves, and debris were plastered on the windows like wallpaper.
It was twilight, but there was enough light that I could see the results of what looked like a small explosion in our woods. Pine branches and twisted tree trunks were piled on our deck. I walked around saying, “Wow! … Thank you, God … Wow! … Wow! … We’re alive!” It was like someone shot a gun at us and missed.
Surveying the damage
Without power, we went to bed early, by candlelight. It wasn’t until daylight that we were able to see the full extent of the damage.
Twenty seven trees were uprooted, twisted in half, and tossed through fences, crushing our deck railing and piercing our screened porch. There were trees lying by three of the four corners of our house—stacked up, as if surrounding our home. One substantial 40-year-old cypress that proudly stood within five feet of the front of our home had been twisted in half and tossed 15 feet. Now it was leaning up against an oak tree between our two cars. Neither was damaged.
Our next-door neighbor lost 60 feet of her roof. A mile or so away, the twister crumbled four metal power poles in half.
The tornado blew sheet rock dust out of our walls, but not one window was broken in our home. One 60-foot pine leaned against the corner of our house right above our bedroom, but it caused only minor damage.
And neither of us had even a scratch. Some 48 hours later, after seeing the devastation in Tuscaloosa, Barbara and I concluded that if a tornado that strong had hit us, we wouldn’t be here today.
Which brings me back to Barbara’s surgery three days later. The lumpectomy was successful and the margins around the cancer were clear. No additional cancer cells were found. After receiving the good news from our doctor, we sat together on our couch and gave thanks. Again. It had been quite a week.
(Since that time, as a preventative measure, Barbara has begun six weeks of radiation treatment and has a very good prognosis. Still, I know that she would greatly appreciate your prayers for her.)
We are God’s workmanship
In the last six weeks we have reflected often on those experiences and the devastation in other communities.
My mentor, friend, and seminary professor, Dr. Howard Hendricks, said in class one day, “Man is immortal until God’s work for him is done.”
Couple that statement with what has always been a favorite verse of mine, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
Both Barbara and I have thought about how quickly our lives could have ended in that storm (as many did in the days that followed). We’ve realized she could have received a death sentence (as many women do) because of an aggressive form of cancer.
We have concluded that our work must not be done. God must have an assignment or two left for us. Before the storms hit, both of us knew the truth of those statements. But because of what we’ve faced, we have just been given a fresh reminder that life is given to us by God. He can take it in an instant. Our next breath and heartbeat are gifts from God.
Bill Bright’s life verse teaches all of us how we are to live: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Sometimes in the midst of sweating through “small stuff,” we just need to be reminded by God that He has a purpose for every one of our lives, if we will submit to Him. We aren’t sure of what tomorrow may bring, but that’s how we should live today.
I’m glad God has called me to serve Him by building godly homes and legacies and not by being a storm chaser!
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