A year ago, my daughter, her roommate, and I drove to Joplin, Missouri to help with the clean up after the tornado. We made a spur-of-the-moment decision Saturday night and left early Sunday morning. As we drove into town later that morning, we started looking for tornado damage, but didn’t see anything at first. All of a sudden, there it was. As far as we could see in both directions, east and west, and a good mile wide was devastation. It was like a war zone. Houses and stores were leveled to the ground. Trees, if they were still standing were stripped bare of all leaves and bark.
There was definitely work to be done and we had arrived to pitch in! We pulled in at Mt. Hope Church of Christ just as services were ending. This congregation had responded immediately after the tornado as a relief headquarters. The halls of the church building were lined with clothes of all sizes and diapers, toiletries, and paper goods. In another part of the building, they were collecting food. Dozens of people had already arrived to help and were “camping” out in the classrooms of the building. There were work crews that had been going out daily following the tornado. It was a very impressive operation.
We asked to be assigned to a work crew, joined our group, and headed to a neighborhood to clean up tree limbs and other debris. It wasn’t 30 minutes that we had been cleaning, when I carried an armful of branches from the backyard of a house to a big pile in the front yard. I stepped up on a section of a tree stump so I could throw my branches on top of the pile. I turned to hop off of the stump, leading with my right foot. Instead of landing flat on the ground, my foot hit a stick and I turned my ankle, which caused it to contort at what I’m sure was a 90 degree angle. Have you ever seen blackness and stars in the middle of the day? That’s what I saw as I fell to the ground, in pain that I have never felt before.
The first thought to fly through my head was, “I hope no one saw me,” followed quickly with the realization that I was going to miss the triathlon I had planned on doing the following weekend. In a matter of milliseconds my third thought was, “What the heck?! I drove all the way to Joplin to help and won’t be able to do a darn thing!”
Tornados and sprained ankles. Sometimes life just stops you in your tracks. I have given this idea a great deal of thought this past year. My injured ankle was a mere inconvenience compared to the life changes experienced by the people of Joplin. Yet it stopped me in my tracks literally for awhile, and has continued to affect my activity even a year later.
After I fell, my daughter and her roommate, both of whom had just graduated the month before with nursing degrees, came to my rescue. They got ice for me and brought the van to pick me up. We drove slowly around tornado-torn Joplin in disbelief at the destruction, discussing whether we should drive on home because of my ankle or stay the two nights as planned. I wanted to stay at least for one night, hoping my ankle wasn’t too bad, although it was swelling up like a tennis ball. As we drove down one street, where windowless houses stood, we spotted a pair of crutches leaning against a tree. We assumed that they were left for someone who needed them, and we decided that would be me.
We drove through another neighborhood full of roofless houses, constantly amazed at what we saw. In one house, most of the walls still stood, but the roof was gone as was the furniture, except for a bookcase full of books sitting undisturbed. In an apartment complex, the front wall had been torn off revealing the rooms like the inside of a doll house. One bedroom had been emptied of its contents but in the closet, clothes still hung neatly on their hangers.
Such bizarre force a tornado boasts. In its rudeness, it leaves little time for adjusting plans. You stop what you are doing and leave your possessions to find a safe place or you take the chance of falling victim to its fury. Thousands of people in Joplin were stopped in their tracks that day. Some, forever.
Why? Why do these things happen? Why did I go to Joplin on Memorial Day weekend to serve and wind up helpless from a sprained ankle? Why did so many people lose loved ones and everything they owned? It seems many questions are not meant to be answered, at least in this life.
Maybe when we are stopped in our tracks, if nothing else makes sense, we should take time to be quiet and listen. Sometimes the normal noise of life makes it hard to hear God, and we don’t always stop and tune in to what he has to say. In the book of I Kings, the prophet Elijah endured some strong earthly forces in order to experience God. The Lord told him to stand on the mountain because he was about to pass by. A great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart, but the Lord was not in the wind. An earthquake followed, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. Finally, there was a gentle whisper, and from that came the voice of the Lord.
As long as we’re alive, questions will abound. Heartaches will persist. Illness and injury will always be unwelcome intruders. Yet in the stillness that follows the devastation, we may not understand fully what has happened, but…we can hope to hear the gentle voice of God.