Destructive storms are just the nature of this world

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Column by David B. Whitlock

I grew up in Tornado Alley. Tornadoes were more of an event I enjoyed than a threat I feared, so invincible did I think I was as a child and teenager. As we gathered in the Shively’s storm shelter with other neighbors, I rather enjoyed the social gathering and naively hoped the twister somehow would be bad enough to cancel school but not destructive enough to hurt anyone.

Questions of why, an inevitable response to suffering, weren’t in my purview, at least not then.

And so I managed to survive my first 18 years, waltzing through the annual threat of tornado season but not really being affected by any single one of them.

Then I drove home from college for Easter 1979. Wichita Falls, Texas, had been hit by a devastating tornado a few days earlier.

In Wichita Falls, they still refer to that day as Terrible Tuesday. A swarm of twisters had slammed the region, killing 42 people in Wichita Falls and 11 in Vernon, Texas. Vernon being just 40 miles from where I grew up in Altus, Okla.

Wichita Falls looked much like a war zone: Buildings had been flattened, homes destroyed, debris strewn everywhere.

I was shocked. “This is terrible, just horrible,” I remember saying over and over. “Why here? Why not out there in one of those wheat fields?”

Tornadoes were no longer something I anticipated with an adrenaline rush. They became something I dreaded and feared.

Turning on the news on the day the tornado struck Moore, Okla., last Monday, I found myself speaking the same words I did back in 1979: “This is terrible, just horrible.”

My wife’s sister, Lisa, lives in the path the tornado took that day. My brother and his wife just happened to be in Oklahoma City as Joy was undergoing medical tests for her recently diagnosed breast cancer.

Lori and I waited anxiously for news of their safety.

As the reporter told of Plaza Towers Elementary School that had been leveled while children were still inside, I choked back tears.

“Couldn’t God have at least directed it around that school?” Lori said to herself aloud.

It was an automatic response, a gut reaction. It’s a question that’s not really a question, but more of a wish: A desire that what we were seeing wasn’t really happening.

It’s the same kind of question I had as I drove through Wichita Falls in 1979.

It’s a desire for a world we don’t live in, a world that does not operate according to natural laws, a place where a Someone intervenes every time there’s danger.

It’s a world where there is no pain or suffering or tears. The Bible calls this place heaven. We aren’t there yet.

We can blame God for this world we live in, filled as it is with contrasts of calming breezes and destructive tornadoes, peaceful waters and powerful hurricanes, life-giving rains and devastating floods.

Or we can blame others, maybe even ourselves and our forbears, for creating the fossil fuels that warmed the ocean that helped create an environment that seems ever more prone to wild storms.

We can blame the victims, as does the Rev. Pat Robertson. In trying to defend God, Robertson asked the people of Moore, Okla.: “Why did you build houses where tornadoes were apt to happen?”

Such callousness ignores the possibility of danger everywhere: the East Coast and the Gulf, where there is the possibility of hurricanes; California, where the danger is earthquakes; the entire Southwest, where there is drought; the northern states, where ice and snow may kill innocent victims; or the highways, where more deaths occur than in all the storms combined.

Why step outside your house, for that matter?

During the Oklahoma tornado, Shayla Taylor was in the Moore Medical Center, ready to give birth to a baby boy. She already had his name picked out: Braeden Immanuel.

Aware of the storm, she checked the weather app on her cell phone, only to discover the hospital was in line for a direct hit from the tornado. The nurses took Shayla to a safer room, one without windows. Shayla closed her eyes, and when she opened them, she could clearly see Interstate 35 and the Warren Theatre where there was once a wall.

She later delivered her son at a hospital a few miles away. Reflecting on the name of her son,” ‘Immanuel” which means, “God is with us,” she said, “I had it picked out for months. And now I know why I, because God was with us that day.”

Maybe in another world God would have created humans without a free will that allowed them to build a school where a tornado would one day deliver a death notice, a different place where God constantly would be suspending the laws of nature, prohibiting any kind of pain and suffering.

Instead he formed this world, the one we live in, the one he lives in too, the one where we find him in the midst of our pain and suffering, here in the storms of life, where he is “Immanuel,” the God who is with us, the One who never leaves us.

There is no one to blame in that.

David B. Whitlock is a Baptist minister, college instructor and author. He can be reached at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com.