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Tornado prompts pastor’s awareness of need for spiritual ‘searc

EDITORS’ NOTE: Using John 10:10 for his text, Tom Elliff, senior pastor of First Southern Baptist Church, Del City, Okla., and immediate past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, scrapped his prepared sermon to speak directly with his congregation in their first post-tornado Sunday service, May 9. Personally, Elliff lost his own leased house in the May 3 killer tornado, after the house he owned was destroyed by fire in February. More than 1,200 members of the congregation were directly impacted by the F-5 tornado which demolished a 38-mile swath from southwest Oklahoma City through the southern and southeastern suburbs, including Del City. More than 65 families from the church were completely dislocated.

DEL CITY, Okla. (BP)–What we have witnessed in the last few days is nothing short of the testimony of the miraculous power of God. People have said this was a powerful act of God. They ask, “Why would God do this?” My response has been that the storm was an act of nature. If you want to see an act of God, look at what God is doing through his children all across this city.
Across our land there are those who say that America would somehow operate better if we could be gutted of our faith. What the world is witnessing through this tragedy in Oklahoma is real America — and real America involves our believing in God. There is no way this nation can function or should function without deep-rooted faith in God.
One reporter asked me, “How in the world is it you guys can go through this? You go through the bombing and there is no looting, no one seems to be taking advantage of one another. I walk up and down the streets and people are smiling. Why?”
My response was, “I’m grateful the president came and we’re grateful for all the help our government provides, but the reason we smile is not because we believe in government, but because we believe in God. Long before an official of our government showed up, the Chief was here. When we crawled out of the rubble, God was there. In fact, he’s been there all along.”
Within minutes of the storm, our church members were out in the rubble looking for others. Search and rescue. Some who had lost their own homes were searching for others. Over 330 people slept here at the church the first night. Our conference center has been transformed into a warehouse for clothing. Our fellowship hall has been changed into a food distribution center and information center for long-term resources. We have sent dozens of teams sent into the disaster area to help.
To the north of the church building is the Texas Baptist Men [disaster relief unit]. The Oklahoma Baptist Men disaster relief team was here the first day. They relocated to another storm site to prepare meals for that area. You may not know this, but Southern Baptists nationwide provide 90 percent of the meals distributed by the American Red Cross. More than 20,000 meals have been prepared just from our site. Southern Baptists are holding hands in this effort. You would be amazed if you were to travel from site to site, from shelter to shelter to see what Southern Baptists are doing in this moment.
The big push is before us. The tendency is to volunteer for about a week, then the excitement wanes. We have at least two to three weeks of intense work before us. We can use every volunteer who will show up at this site.
Jeannie and I go to bed at night rejoicing. We are amazed at the Lord walking us through these recent events. In one sense, it has allowed us to have credibility with those to whom we minister. They may look at us and say, “But you don’t understand.” However, in a sense we can say, “Yes, we do understand what you are going through.”
How do we emotionally explain this catastrophe? What do we tell people about this? People’s emotions run the full gamut during a tragedy. People will say, “I’m very mad at God.” That doesn’t make much sense. The troubles in this world do not happen because God has turned his back on us. They happen because we live in a world cursed by sin. From the Garden of Eden, man turned his back on God. We rebelled. We became sinners. To be mad at God is to be angry with the wrong person.
I recall visiting with a lady who had a family member ripped out of her life on a very tragic occasion. She said, “I’m so mad at God because of this.”
Some say it is OK to be angry with God, but the truth is you are wasting your anger. So I asked her, “Where is your child now?” She said, “Heaven.”
I then asked her, “Whose heaven?”
“God’s heaven,” she answered.
I reasoned with her, “Don’t be mad at God. He’s the one who has provided a way for you to see your child again and to be with your child forever if you will place your trust in Jesus. God loves you. He will meet you at the point of your loss … at the point of your need. He will minister to you.”
Sometimes we get mad at each other. People get tired and angry and frustrated with the events surrounding the clean-up and rebuilding. Sometimes we even get mad at ourselves. We question ourselves about whether we could do more have helped the situation.
However, we must understand that events like this are wake-up calls. We must understand this storm with all of its horror is like a thumbnail scratch on a basketball. Compared to the population of the world, it affects so few people. If you put it into a global perspective, some here have lost houses, yet there are people in this world who have lost their countries. Some have lost houses, but some peoples of the world have lost hope. For them, the very idea of getting up in the morning is painful.
There is a silent storm occurring, a catastrophe of global proportions, and we forget about it when life is good. The thief, the devil, comes “to steal, to kill and to destroy.” He is not after your resources as much as he is after your reputation. He isn’t after your provision as much as he is after your peace of mind. He comes to destroy.
I looked at the West Moore High School. It was blown apart. Then I began to think. The devil has been working long before the storm. He’s not after a school building. He’s after school kids.
The devil is not after your house. He wants to destroy your home.
A reporter said to me, “Dr. Elliff, you have lost two homes in the last four months.” I said to him, “I haven’t lost one home.”
“But it says so right here on my background paper, that you lost two in the last four months,” he reported.
“Oh, that’s talking about a couple of houses, but that’s not my home,” I said.
The devil is also after your heart. Sometimes it takes a wake-up call like this to make us realize what is important. If what is important to you is stuff, I have news for you. Your stuff is one day going to become dirt. Jesus said, “Life does not consist of the abundance of things” (Luke 12:15). If you put your confidence in the abundance of stuff, and your joy come comes from hoarding stuff, then you must know that dirt always wins and you will always lose.
Should we keep things that have memories? Certainly, but if they were taken, life must go on. God still has a plan, a purpose.
Some might ask, “Are you attempting to minimize what has happened here?” Not in the least. If you had been with me, you would have seen me talking, listening and crying with people. This is a catastrophe but this is not the big catastrophe. While we have been sleeping in our beds at night, there has been a storm of evil across our land. The hearts and homes of people have been ravaged by the devil and they don’t even know it. You can’t dance with the devil and not be hurt. He has but one purpose “to steal, to kill and to destroy.”
Where is the voice of the prophet? Network news is not warning people of the calamity. But that doesn’t mean it is not happening. You may be hurting and suffered loss, but this is the real issue: Your life will go on. Life is more than the things swept away by this storm.
I’m deeply convicted about another issue. Within minutes of the storm we were on the streets. The brother with me said, “Brother Tom, you got the wrong kind of shoes on for this kind of work.” I said, “These are the only shoes I have in this world.” We went up and down streets, across the rubble, crying out, “Hey, are you in there? Can you hear me?” Search and rescue.
The thought occurred to me, I was much more intent on searching for and rescuing those in physical calamity than I was for those who are swept away by spiritual calamity.
We should be doing all we can to rescue those in physical peril, but should we not be as aggressive in searching and rescuing their souls?
The devil comes “to steal to kill and to destroy.” He’s killed and destroyed a lot of things. He’s stolen many things from people: their reputations, their purity, their children, a spouse, a parent.
He’s stolen from many their sense of purpose. With others, the devil has killed their devotion for God, their calling from the Lord, their sense of ministry. Some people were once red-hot for the Lord, but the devil has killed their sense of being available to go any place or to do anything for the Lord.
The devil didn’t use a big spiritual tornado. He slowly destroyed the sense of God’s presence in many lives.
Instead of our calling out to people in spiritual calamity, we put up with all kinds of inconveniences to get to peoples whose physical lives are in peril. But we have quietly let the devil take over.
Frankly, I’ve had it. It’s time for us to take back what the devil has destroyed. Time for us to mount a spiritual search and rescue. Time for us to say, “Dear God, we are operating on limited time.” In that limited time we must give ourselves to reminding people that while the devil comes to steal to kill and to destroy, Jesus says he comes that we might have life and that we might have it more abundantly. Not just and existence, but life.
I looked into the terror-filled, wide-open eyes of a woman who lay dead on the slab of what was her house. I would have given anything to say to her, “Live!” Too late. There are walking dead people among us. To them we can say “Live!” Because Jesus offers them life. Abundant life.

    About the Author

  • Tom Elliff