Editor’s note: Cade Campbell serves as associate pastor of First Baptist Church in Henryville, Ind.
HENRYVILLE, Ind. (BP) — Tornado sirens have never bothered me. They have always been an annoyance. They test weekly. They seem only to go off at inconvenient times. I roll my eyes, sigh, and patiently wait to return to dinner, obligations, and plans I have made. During my time as a pastor in Henryville, Ind., those high pitched wails of the emergency sirens have become almost as monotonous as the regular trains that run through town not far from my apartment. The sirens are almost always false alarms.
That was before Friday, March 2. Before the day ended I had experienced the terror of disaster as a powerful F4 tornado tore through Henryville while I and others sought shelter in our church basement. It was a normal Friday afternoon, as far as afternoons go. I had been in the church office during the day. My wife Amy was getting off work at 2 o’clock. We were going to have a date night that evening — watch a movie and have dinner at home. By the time she arrived back in town, however, the sirens already were blaring, calling us to seek shelter. Since it was still early we drove back to the church together to see if others were gathering there. Amy walked downstairs while I made my way outside to the front of the sanctuary where several families were coming into the church basement and several others were watching the skies.
We heard the rumbling roar and felt the ground begin to shake long before we realized exactly what was happening. As the winds began to pick up I stood in the front parking lot and watched the tornado cross over the interstate and crest the top of the hill in front of us. Our little group, which included our senior pastor, Toby Jenkins, quickly ducked back inside and downstairs to the basement. I found Amy and held her as the building shook while the church windows exploded above us. As we crawled from the safety of the basement ark, we stumbled into a town radically different from the one we had left just moments before.
Henryville in many ways didn’t exist. I stood with families who saw their homes in ruins for the first time, and watched the dazed wanderings of townspeople walking streets that were unrecognizable. It was shock. It couldn’t be processed. So much was gone. Last year I had seen the images of Tuscaloosa and Joplin on the nightly news. Now I was walking around in that nightmare.
Storms have a tendency of getting your attention. Storms like this grab your attention and refuse to let it go. The world is seen more clearly. Life becomes fragile again. The routine is mocked. Entitlement is erased. Who we are and what we have made ourselves believe we are is stripped bare by the relentless wind. Throughout the Bible, storms are used to snap individuals from their trance. We see this as Jonah is thrown into the raging waves. We hear it in the frantic cries of the disciples as they are tossed like leaves in the tempest of Galilee. And we huddle with Job as he cowers before the tornado of God’s presence.
Job’s story in particular has repeatedly been on my mind during these last few days. Job demanded God’s presence. He demanded to hear God’s voice. And God gave him a tornado — and not just an F4, but something worse — a raging, speaking, whirlwind of glory (Job 38:1). In the path of that storm Job is forced to confess “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you, therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). When God appears in the whirlwind Job is broken by the vision of God’s grandeur and the truth of his own insignificance. Walking amid the streets of Henryville I had to confess that God is really big and my world is very tiny and frighteningly fragile.
Yet in the midst of that overwhelming, sinking feeling the brilliance of the Gospel shone bright. When God appeared to Job, he was not destroying Job. He was giving Job far more good than he could have ever dreamed or imagined. God was giving him grace. Job wanted to talk. Job wanted a theology lecture. Job wanted to feel important and right. Job wanted a revival service that fixed his friends and made him feel better. What he got was a storm. What he got was God. Instead of giving Job his answers and instead of giving Job his judgment, God gave Job God. And that changed everything. The storm was a sweet vision of a sovereign God. It was, to use the phrase of C.S. Lewis, a severe mercy.
In the days since that terrible afternoon in Henryville, I have come to understand that our own whirlwind was mercy also. It destroyed, but it also brought life. We have been overcome with examples of God’s protection and preservation. The tornado humbled us, but it also forced us to look beyond the pathetic excuses of our own self-worth and self-strength to something that is far more powerful than our own efforts and far more powerful than a raging wind. In the helpless moments of disaster we are left with the only place we can go — the arms of a strong and mighty God who knows, who reigns, and who loves.
The tornado in all its fury was nothing more than the merciful servant of God, used to prepare a way like a stormy John the Baptist. Ultimately I believe that God gave the tornado to my town, and then let it be broadcast to the world for the beauty of the Gospel being proclaimed to a town and a people who desperately need it. The Gospel stands at the point where the terror of the tornado and the will of the wind-ruler meet. It is all about Him. How foolish we would be to blind our eyes and make our own small storm the center of God’s work. It is merely a pointer, stirring us to remember something far worse and far more beautiful. There was another Spring day that grew dark. There was another Friday afternoon around three o’clock when the sky grew black and the ground shook with a mighty rumbling. There was another storm, and not a storm of dust and debris but a storm of God’s gracious judgment as He destroyed his own Son Jesus Christ in death. In the wake of our own tragedies and in the path of ruins left from our own Friday afternoons, that is the only place to go. The cross is the only secure shelter. The cross is the only endless hope. When everything else is gone, the Gospel is shown to be everything. I had heard of that with the hearing of the ear. Now my eye has seen it.
Cade Campbell is associate pastor of First Baptist Church in Henryville, Ind.