Moore, Oklahoma, May 20, 2013
Early Monday afternoon, on May 20, an EF5 tornado, the largest recorded in US history, moved slowly through my home state, with winds up to 300 mph, and creating a path of horror roughly a mile and a half wide. All tolled, somewhere between thirteen to fifteen thousand homes were completely destroyed, flattened beyond recognition. Hundreds were injured, dozens died, many of them children. The Plaza Towers Elementary School was one of the places where people were most concerned because many children were trapped inside the wreckage for almost two days. Thankfully, only nine children died, when it could have been many more, but each one was a child of God and loved by grieving parents. The death toll overall was amazingly low given the horrific destructiveness of the storm, but that’s poor comfort to the families and friends of those who were lost.
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For many years I lived with my family in Oklahoma City, down in the south west corner, right on the border with Moore. All of my (now grown) children went to Moore schools and I called them this week to see how they were and tell them I loved them. They’re all gone now, but I have two cousins who do live in the area. One of them lives in Norman, just below Moore, and she had the roof of her home blown off. She’s now staying with her sister in Dallas. Another lived right in the center of the storm and she lost her entire home. Everything. The neighborhood looks like piles of firewood. She’s now living with her aunt in another town several miles away.
I have two purposes in telling you all this. The first is to help you get a feeling for real people with names who died or lost so much in this tragedy. When people die far away it's terrible, but we don't feel so much for them because we don't know them. I don’t know anybody in Syria, or Palestine, or Afghanistan, and it is hard to understand the true impact of suffering and loss until you know somebody there and grieve for them. The people of Moore and the people in the bombings in Boston last month are not statistics but good people, kind people, ordinary people, and they have lost a lot, and will continue to suffer a great deal for a long time to come.
The second thing I wanted to say is that God did not create this horrifying tornado, the worst ever in modern history. There is a perverted, cruel theology that says that if someone dies it is because God did it, either to punish us, or to teach us a lesson. Of course, the infamous Westboro Baptist Church issued a statement saying that God killed all those people to punish the “Oklahoma Thunder” (a local pro-basketball team) because they were so tolerant of fellow-player, Jason Collins’, coming out as gay. They also said a few weeks ago that God killed and maimed dozens of people in Boston to punish it for being such a liberal town.
I think we all know that talk like that is madness, but I also hear it more gently put by good Christian people all the time. They say, “God had a reason for 'taking' my mother.” Or, “Why did God 'take' my father?” But that belief is wrong. God doesn't kill people. Storms, tornados, disease, and human sin kill people. God is not in the destruction, but in the healing. God is not in the breaking, but in the mending.
God did not cause a teenage drunken driver to kill my father and his fiancée years ago on a highway the week before their wedding. God did not cause my step-father to suffer and die of a series of ghastly strokes that weakened him until he could only die to find relief.
God is indeed in the midst of suffering, but as its resolution, not its cause. God is in its healing. God is in the relief workers, the doctors, the volunteers, and in the heroic acts of people who saved their neighbors and pulled survivors from their shattered homes. God is in the relief agencies, like the Red Cross and Church World Service, who showed up the morning after the storm with emergency supplies and health and nutrition kits. God's act of creation is for good, not evil, and when the creation falls, God is in the pain too, working for the best possible outcome of the destruction.
I am worried about my family members and I’ve called them all, but so far I’ve only reached those who were well and lived further away, and they are the ones who have given me reports. I also prayed to God for them, not with anger but that they could reach out to God's spirit and experience strength and courage in it, whether in this world or the next.
There’s one picture I’ve seen again and again in the press reports about Oklahoma. It’s a scene of a young woman walking away from the ruins of the grade school that was damaged so severely. She has a child in her arms and they are hugging each other tightly.
Just in back of them is a huge tree, gnarled and ravaged, filled with sheet metal debris blown onto it from the sides of the school that was destroyed. It looks blackened and abused, but it’s still standing. It is just to the side of what once was the Plaza Towers school. There was another tree like it in front of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which withstood the terrible bomb blast in 1995. Somehow those trees give me hope, or at least comfort. Perhaps it is because they seem to stand for standing strong. In some way they symbolize the God of all creation who is unbent and unbowed by the destruction of creation all around them. Like the trees, God too has suffered, right in the midst of their suffering, right alongside their pain, and in the end, battered and bruised, God never releases a tight hold on the earth.