When something bad happens, people like to know where it happened. They want to know how close it hit to them. They want to know if it’s going to affect them.

If your house is robbed and you’re part of the neighborhood watch, they will ask what street you are on. They want to know how close the danger is to them. They want to know if it is going to hit them next.

If someone dies unexpectedly, people will ask “How did she die?” or “How old was she?”or they will wonder out loud if she caused her own early death due to not taking care of herself. They want to know if there’s a possibility that it will happen to them. They want to know if they are at risk for the same thing.

In both cases, they want to know if they should move away from the danger.

No matter what you do, you will get sick, and you might get robbed. Asking how close it is to you only insults the other person and says “You are not like me. I’m special.” It implies that you think that you are above the other person – more blessed.

The phrase “There but for the grace of God go I” is especially insulting. If there is a tornado that goes through your neighborhood and your house is intact and half your neighbor’s houses are flattened, it doesn’t mean that God loves you more. It doesn’t mean that God gives more grace to you and withdraws it from them. It doesn’t mean that they did something bad to deserve it.

Bad things happen to people, period. Not just bad people. What matters afterwards is how we deal with it.

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
– John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, “Meditation XVII”

Basement faith

We spent our evening in the basement last night. That is part of living in the South. A tornado can happen anytime, even four days before Christmas.

We knew all day that bad weather was coming. My husband and I are both “certified storm spotters”. We have certificates to prove it. We have taken seven hours of classes to learn more about severe weather. We’d been watching the weather and anticipating it turning worse. It was fairly pleasant all day. Overcast, sure, but warm. If it weren’t for the grey sky you’d think it was a nice spring day.

We went about our day as normal, with the understanding that we might have to cut our plans short and get home fast. Fortunately the bad weather held out and we got most of our chores taken care of.

We don’t really have a plan of action when a storm hits. The training really is for spotting tornados, not riding them out. But I’ve lived in the South all my life and tornadoes are just part of the package. That and a few years in Girl Scouts and I think I know what I’m doing. I hope and pray I’ll never actually need a real plan of action.

We started arranging things when we heard the sirens. It was around 8:30 p.m. They’ve just installed tornado sirens in our neighborhood and we are still getting used to them. I looked at the weather radar and decided we had about 20 minutes.

We turned off our computers. Lightning was associated with this storm. Of course, if it was a tornado we were facing then losing electricity would be the least of our concerns. Who cares about losing electricity when losing your house is an option?

I looked at Scott and said that the worst part about tornadoes is that where we were standing could be gone twenty minutes from now. He looked at me and said “Well, I didn’t want to come here.” He’s missing something. Sure, he moved here with his parents when he was young, but when his parents had a job opportunity when he was in his 20s, he stayed. He’s stayed all this time, and it has been 20 years. So he has chosen to stay here. That counts.

Now, it doesn’t really matter if you want to be in a tornado-prone area or not when a tornado is coming. It doesn’t matter if it is your choice or not, it is coming, and you’d better deal with it. First plan of action – don’t freak out. Assigning blame doesn’t help either.

We had just finished supper so we took our medicine. That just isn’t something to miss. Then we went to the bathroom, because well, it is important too.

We got our coats and hats and headed toward the hallway. Then I got my purse. And a book. And a flashlight. And a cushion to sit on. And a bottle of water. As an afterthought I picked up the weather radio. It isn’t much help, really, after the initial alert, but it felt like it was something I was expected to pick up.

Then the wind picked up. I went outside for a moment to look. I also prayed while out there. God can hear me inside the same as outside, but somehow I feel the connection is better when I’m outside. Perhaps something about being in harm’s way is part of it. It shows I’m not kidding.

I went back in and sat in the hallway. It was kinda boring.

I went to get a shopping bag. If I have to move quickly, it is best to have all my stuff together. Then I thought it might be a good idea to prepare the spot in the basement. You know. Just in case the storm actually got bad.

I’m reminded of the Arabic phrase. “Trust God, but tie your camel.” So I prayed, but I did something just in case. I know God looks out for me. But I also think God wants some participation here.

But then there is the story of Jesus in the boat. (Mark 4:35-41) There’s a terrible storm, and he’s taking a nap. The disciples are freaking out, and he’s cool as a cucumber. They wake him up and the only thing he’s upset about is the fact that they are upset. He knows that God is in control. They haven’t figured that out yet.

Whatever happens to us is the will of God. Freaking out doesn’t change anything. So it is better to accept it. Tornadoes in the South are good teachers of this lesson.

We pulled out some camp chairs and went to sit in the part of the basement that realtors amusingly term “unfinished.” We amusingly call it the “dead body room”. It looks like it would be perfect for that. It is all dirt and rock and cinderblocks and venting for the central air unit. There is a little standing room. There is just enough room for two people to sit face to face, so we did. Scott was a little overwhelmed with the seriousness of the situation. He and I had not waited out a storm together in this spot. Normally we are either separated because we are at work when a storm hits, or we ride it out in the hallway. We talked for a little bit about what was going on, and then I distracted him with other topics.

Sometimes the best way to get through a situation is just to live through it and not to think about it too hard.

He was getting concerned about what would happen if there was a big storm and he died. He wasn’t concerned for himself. He was concerned for me. I’ve been abandoned a lot throughout my life and he didn’t want me to go through that again. I’m not worried about it. It is what it is, and I’ve gotten through it before. I’ll get through it again. I assume it must be a lesson I need to learn.

The storm was over fast, and it wasn’t bad. Well, it wasn’t bad for us. Nobody died, but plenty of people were inconvenienced over the county. A lot of people were without electricity. Some trees down. A brick wall fell and blocked a road. Nothing big. Nothing that requires the Red Cross to mobilize.

But you never know. I’d rather ride out the storm in the “dead body room” than not and become an actual dead body. But then, am I trusting in God, or myself at this point? Sure, God is in control. God has a plan, and everything happens for a purpose. So am I supposed to go hide out during a storm or not? Is hiding out during a storm taking matters into my own hands? Or is it using the brains God gave me?

I’m reminded of the story of the guy who stayed at his house during a flood. Everybody else had evacuated, and he was still there. A rescue worker came by in a boat, and the guy was on his front steps. The rescuer yelled to him – “Come on! Get in the boat! The waters are rising!” The guy says, “Nope! I’m staying right here. I’ve followed God my whole life and He’s not going to abandon me now!” The rescuer shakes his head and goes on. An hour goes by, and the waters have risen dramatically. The guy is now standing at his second story window, because the first story is flooded. Another rescuer comes by in another boat, and says the same thing. The guy again refuses, again saying how he has followed God his whole life and God will provide for him. Another hour passes and the waters are so high now that the guy is standing on his roof. A helicopter comes by with a rope dangling down to the guy. “Come on! Climb the rope! We’re here to save you!” The guy waves them off just the same as before, with the same story. They go away.

The waters rise. He drowns. He arrives at the Pearly Gates and is quite angry with God. “I have believed in You my whole life, and always followed You! How could You let this happen?!”

And God looks at him and says “I sent you two boats and a helicopter…”

Snake handler 3 (Jonah and the tornado)

Consider this Post Secret for weird people. This is a tale of Jonah in the whale, except I was Jonah and a tornado was the whale.

A few months ago a huge storm was coming. It was so big that the National Weather Service had sent out alerts a day beforehand. Now, I live in Tennessee, so severe thunderstorms that can produce tornadoes are normal. They are a fact of life, and just part of the tradeoff for living here. So for the local NWS to issue a strong alert about this the day before was concerning.

When I came home from work the day before it was late. The moon had risen, and a gentle darkness had covered my town. I felt a strong need to pray, right then, in my driveway. I didn’t feel like it could wait until I got inside. Also, I’m a little private about my prayers. Even though my husband has some inkling of my prayer life, he hasn’t seen it in action.

Now, you’d think that praying outside would be more public, but it isn’t. This is the South. It is hot. It is humid. We generally stay inside in air conditioned splendor. I’m honestly not sure how people survived before central air. Perhaps we have gotten soft with our modern machines, but I digress.

I was standing outside on my driveway, in the dark, praying to God. I prayed harder than I have prayed in a long time. I prayed for the safety of everyone in the path of the storm. I prayed that nobody lose their life. I felt after each request that it would be granted. I decided to push harder, and pray that there be no property damage, but I got a push back on that one and felt that was answered “no”. I prayed for about 20 minutes, fervently, earnestly, tearfully. This was a big storm. I was afraid.

The next day came and the storm was predicted for around 4 or 5. This gave me plenty of time to do errands. This too is normal in the South. We can’t let the fear of tornados stop us from living our lives. If we did, we’d never leave our houses in the Spring or Fall, when tornados are most likely to develop.

I had the day off the day of the storm. I met up with a friend and went to an art supply store. On the way I saw a guy who essentially lives at the library. He is homeless, and spends his days there. But on Fridays, we are closed. I saw him near the library and advised him about the big storm and asked if he had a place to go. He did. I went looking for another homeless person who lives near the post office but didn’t see him.

I finished my errands and went home. I prepared. I brought a camp chair into the area we use for tornados. There is a section in the basement that realtors refer to as “unfinished.” It is glorified crawl space. You can stand up in an area that is about 2 feet by 3 feet, and the rest is rock and dirt and conduit and pipes and wiring. There is an interior door and no windows. It is the best place to be in a bad storm – low, no windows. It is also really boring and a little smelly. I brought a flashlight. I brought my cell phone, with the Weather Channel application on.

Now, about now in this story you might be thinking where is my faith? I prayed to God. Yet I’m preparing for a tornado. Yes. There is no contradiction. There is an Arabic saying – “Trust God, but tie your camel”. I’m pretty sure that has a deeper meaning, but to me it means that you can’t be stupid. God will do what God will do, and it is up to us to do the rest. I also remember the story of the guy and the two boats and the helicopter. It is an old story that is told as a cautionary tale about not waiting for divine intervention to appear in miraculous ways. Often God works through simple everyday means. Perhaps I’ll transcribe it for another post, just in case you haven’t heard it.

I put on my long coat. I put on my bicycle helmet. I did both of these things to protect myself from potential flying debris. Sometimes it isn’t the tornado that kills you, but the stuff that gets flung around by the tornado. I looked outside and told my next-door neighbor who was just then noticing the storm coming that he should get inside and close his garage door. I suspect my wearing a coat and a bicycle helmet drove the message home that I was serious. I called my neighbor across the street to let him know about the storm as well.

I’m an Advanced Certified Storm Spotter. I’m certified by the National Weather Service. I’ve taken two classes for this, totaling 7 hours. I’ve got a certificate. I’ve got a non-public 1-800 number stored in my speed dial to call in reports. I know what bad weather looks like.

This looked bad.

The storm was huge, at least 6 miles wide. The center of it on the radar was purple. Red is bad enough. When it gets to purple you are in real trouble. The purple area was at least 2 miles wide. And it was headed straight for my neighborhood. There were reports of hail. Hail is an indicator of tornadic activity. We were under a tornado warning, not a watch. Warnings are worse. Warnings mean that it looks on the radar like a tornado could be forming, but the NWS has no way of knowing one has actually touched down unless it is called in by a spotter. So there could be a tornado happening and the NWS wouldn’t know. Best to prepare as if there is one.

I sat inside my safe place and waited. I could hear the storm howling around the house. I could hear what sounded like hail. I was alone, because my husband was stuck at work waiting out the storm there. I prayed. I prayed hard. I prayed like Jonah. I prayed in a different way than I’d prayed the night before. I was stuck in the middle of a bad thing, and instead of praying to get out of it I prayed prayers of thanks. I praised God. I gave thanks to God, praising Him for his mercy and kindness. I thought of everything that I had and everything that I am and I gave thanks to God for it. Instead of asking for more, I gave thanks for what was right now.

Meanwhile that huge blob of purple was headed straight for my house. There was no way it was going to miss me. If it didn’t have a tornado in it, it had wind strong enough to knock down the trees in my yard and flatten my house. You don’t need a tornado to destroy your home. A strong enough wind will do the job.

And I prayed.

And God listened. God always listens. God always answers prayers, but not always the way you want them to go. This is an important point. It is important to be OK with “No” being an answer. It is important to know that God isn’t your waiter.

The storm eased. It grew quiet outside. Was this the eye of the storm? I looked at the weather radar and it looked clear. The blob had moved on faster than I expected. It is as if this huge freight train of a storm had just hopped over my neighborhood.

I went upstairs to look out the front door. I braced myself for the sight. I expected to see several trees down, or power lines across the road. I steeled myself against the inevitable results of storms in the South, and especially one so ferocious sounding.

I opened the door and was greeted by bright sunshine and the songs of birds. The only thing that had come down in my neighborhood were leaves. No limbs. No trees. No power lines. It looked like a standard spring rain had happened. As I took all of this in, I heard very clearly in my head this voice – “And now you know that I am your God.”

I laughed. I laughed with relief and amazement. I had tears coming down my face as I laughed. I said in reply “And I am your girl.”

I checked the news reports the next day, and found that “miraculously”, no one was killed in this storm.

I’m telling you this story to tell you that God is real.
I’m telling you this story to tell you that God listens to prayers.
I’m telling you this story to tell you that it is OK to pray big.

I’m telling you that our God is an awesome God.
I’m telling you that even if you don’t believe in God, God believes in you.

This is the God of Abraham, and of Isaac and of Israel. This is the God who is the father of Jesus. This is the God who created the world and everything in it. This is the God who created you and me.

I’m telling you that it is comforting to pray to God. It is comforting to know that there is a power greater than you who is in charge and who cares about you. It is comforting to know that you aren’t alone. It is comforting to know that this power, this force, wants to connect with you.

I wish you peace on your journey.


(Edit – I’ve located the pictures from my phone of the radar picture from that storm)
I was right in the path.
It was a very dense storm.