“It happened so fast it was unbelievable...before I knew it, it was here.” The “it” Jerry Stewart, a retired fireman, was referring to, was the enormous tornado that leveled Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and the surrounding areas last week.
As terrible as the Tuscaloosa tornado was -- and watching the video, it looked like one of plagues of Egypt -- it was only part of an outbreak that killed at least 263 people in six states. It was deadliest outbreak of tornadoes since 1974, when a storm system in the Midwest killed 315 people.
It is natural to try and make sense of out terrible events such as this. Some people will see it as a sign of the end times. That’s always speculative. It would be presumptuous to offer definitive lessons, but there are eternal truths that calamities like this should bring to mind.
The first is that, as theologian David Bentley Hart once put it, we “exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe.” The result is that “this is a broken and wounded world” and “that the universe languishes in bondage to ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’ -- spiritual and terrestrial -- alien to God.”
Thus, the world that is our home, that nourishes and sustains us, can turn on us, kill us, and destroy the work of our hands, as the people of Alabama and Japan have recently learned in such a tragic way.
The second lesson is that there is little, if anything, we can do about it. To think we can control nature or, “heal the planet” (as President Obama once said in a public address), is folly. For starters, we simply don’t possess that kind of knowledge or power. We can barely warn people to seek shelter immediately, whether in Japan or Alabama. We’re not as clever as we like to think.
More importantly, creation doesn’t need to be “healed,” much less controlled -- it needs to be redeemed. In Romans, the apostle Paul speaks of creation "groaning," of it being “subjected to frustration” and in “bondage to decay,” a frustration and bondage that will only end when the children of God are fully revealed. Its destiny and ours are inextricably intertwined until Christ’s return.
The third lesson is about the fragility of human life. On the same day that hundreds were killed by tornadoes, evangelist and pastor David Wilkerson died in an automobile accident. The one thing I’m fairly certain they had in common was that none of them woke up and said, “Today is the day I will die.”
But they did. And some day, so will we. We should live our lives in light of that fragility. Not in a morbid sense, but as motivation to love God and our neighbor. We shouldn’t go to bed without asking, “Did I walk as a Child of the Light today? Did I serve Christ in whatever guise he came to me?”
No one is promised another chance to answer those questions in the affirmative, so let’s get it right today.
Getting it right means, as Hart put it, “[hating] death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls.”
And it means being in solidarity with those who have been shattered -- by prayer and works of mercy that bind the wounds inflicted by those imbecilic forces -- always aware that before we know it, we may not have another chance to do so.