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TRUTH IN ART: Tornado Over Kansas

ST. LOUIS (BP)–Looking at aerial photographs of tornado-ravaged Union University last week, memories of my own days at the school came to mind. With my sons alongside me at the computer, I pointed out the women’s commons where I first met their mom. From what I can tell in the pictures, a pile of rubble is all that remains of that building. I can also see the windows of the place my roommate Tim Ellsworth and I shared, staying up late at night to talk theology and Cardinals’ baseball. Or, the room I shared with Andy Neely, soaking up his love for teaching teens the Word of God. Union gave me a lot in terms of mind, spirit and friendship.

Alma mater means “nourishing mother.” That is an apt description for an institution like Union, comprised of faculty, staff and administration who sheltered refugee-students in their own homes last week.

Thinking of little else other than Union since “Super Tuesday,” I am overwhelmed with thankfulness to God for His mercy in sparing the lives of every student. A nephew and some children of friends came out scratched but very much alive. When natural disaster brings death, there is great comfort found in the biblical answer to such tragedy. But praise God for His mercy in keeping us from having to have that conversation this time around.

“Tornado Over Kansas,” painted by 20th century Kansas artist John Steuart Curry, provides a framework for talking about some aspects of the Feb. 5 tornadoes. Curry repeatedly painted human frailty in the face of natural disasters. Produced in 1929 just before the Great Depression, this painting came at a time of great hope in the progress of modern technology to make life safer and more comfortable. [Column continued below picture.]

This rural family, however, knows little of modern technology. There is no electricity, phones, automobiles or paved roads. No tornado sirens or sophisticated radar give them advanced warning of dangerous weather. But consider that even with all the modern technology in 2008, more than 50 people still lost their lives to the storms. Technology may cut down the number of casualties, but it is no infallible savior.

Mental strength and courage play a vital role in times of emergency. I heard a first-hand account of Union professor Greg Thornbury running through the wrecked dorms within five minutes of the devastation, helping students climb out of the bricks.

In “Tornado Over Kansas,” Curry paints a muscular father, tanned from long hours of hard labor in the sun. He looks like a man who I’d want on my side in time of danger. But the wisdom of the father knows when to fight and when to retreat. His muscles are used in service of pulling his family into the safety of the underground shelter.

The Scripture says of God, “He is not impressed by the strength of a horse; He does not value the power of a man. The Lord values those who fear Him, those who put their hope in His faithful love” (Psalm 147:10-11).

And it follows that we are to pattern our thinking likewise: “Some take pride in a chariot, and others in horses, but we take pride in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 26:7).

Having a tornado fall out of the sky on top of you is a humbling experience. Experiencing that, one is much more inclined to believe in the frailty of mankind. This would be a good mindset to have, even in times of safety.

In the painting, the family had precious little time to prepare. The children grab the family pets, but the horses are left out in the field. The practical mother carries with her a blanket but nothing else except her infant. Toys, farm tools, family mementos — these are all left behind, for the family’s very survival depends on getting into the shelter before the twister blows away the farm.

There is only one character who stands unfazed by the danger — a chicken! Exhibiting mindless bravado in the face of foul weather, this serene hen calmly oversees the emergency descent into the hole.

So, what is the chicken doing in the painting? Is Curry just adding one last touch of realistic detail? Perhaps. On the other hand, artists have always loved to stick birds into their paintings as a representation of the spiritual world. Such birds stand in silent symbolism as a contrast to the concerns of the material world. All the material things of this family are about to be blown away, and then what will remain?

When a dozen dormitories and the personal belongings of 1,200 students are blown into the air and across the county, what remains behind?

We mourn with those who mourn. Union students have lost a lot this week, and I hope we Christians will promptly send in financial help. However, it has been inspiring to hear the witness of so many students who obviously hold very loosely to the material things of this world. As the old standard says, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through”.

Often overcome with depression, hymnist William Cowper gave the church a great gift when he penned these words:

“God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform;

“He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.

“Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take, the clouds ye so much dread;

“Are big with mercy and shall break, in blessings on your head.

“Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace;

“Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.”

I am praying for Union students and faculty to have renewed courage, and for God’s blessings to be on their heads. I am praying that God’s smiling face would be displayed outwardly through the Christian courage and hope of those who rebuild Union. Let the world take note of the hope that is within us, especially during times such as these.

And I am praying that countless numbers of Union students will live their life with passion for building God’s Kingdom, meditating regularly on the fact that God spared their life that night. I can’t wait to see how the “One who rides upon the storm” is going to once again raise up Union — buildings and people — for great things in His Kingdom.
Scott Lamb is pastor of Providence Baptist Church in St. Louis, Mo.

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