I grew up in Oklahoma. Tornado alley. I loved that moniker as a kid. It gave me a warped sense of pride knowing I was from a place that, every Spring, went toe to toe with the meanest bitch on the planet-Mother Nature.
We lived across the street from the Oglesbys- a rough and ready family of 4 boys who themselves were responsible for many a debris ball. When the tornado sirens sounded, the Oglesbys would sit in their driveway, play loud music on their car stereos and flip the bird at the ominous sky. Meanwhile, I would try to put on a brave front until I couldn’t bear it any longer. Then I would dash back home into our hall closet and cower under a heavy coat.
This week I wanted to find another closet to hide in. Last Thursday a man I have known and admired for 15 years, and his wife, were killed by the tornado that swept through Granbury, Texas. Bob Whitehead was just a wonderful guy. The man could build anything. He was at our house a few days before he died, fixing something I had tried to install on my own. I can’t tell you the number of times Bob fixed my mistakes. He lived a quiet simple life with his wife and dogs. He served proudly in Vietnam although he never spoke about it. He was a humble man who worked hard for an honest wage. Tomorrow I will attend his funeral.
Then Moore happened. Days like yesterday make palpable the frailty of life, the terrible futility of it all- the fact that you can drop your child safe and sound for second grade in the morning and stumble through scorched earth a few hours later in a desperate attempt to locate her tiny remains. They are a stark reminder of how close death lurks.
Frankly it scares me.
I once read that God does not give us anything we can’t handle. So I am now caught between trying to avoid eye contact with God altogether or reminding God that I have a low pain threshold.
But are there spiritual lessons to be learned in the wake of such a tragedy?
Maybe, but they’re sometimes hard to find. You have to get past the breathless journalists and the politicians, not even from Oklahoma, who trip over themselves to lay blame at the feet of a political opponent.
CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer interviewed a survivor and asked her whether she “thanked the Lord.”
“I’m an atheist,” she replied.
I point this out only because God no more saved the 83 year old grandmother than God killed the nine year old girl in freckles and pigtails. If you believe prayer saved you why didn’t it save the others who prayed just as fervently? And if you’re that plugged in with the Big Guy upstairs why don’t you ask Him to ease up on tornadoes altogether. As my teenage daughter would say: “They’re getting really annoying.”
Please don’t think this is a knock on prayer. It’s not. I most assuredly believe in God. But I don’t believe God randomly and indiscriminately chooses who lives and dies in a tornado, or who gets cancer or who wins a football game.
I watched an interview with a man carrying his every remaining possession in a laundry basket down a street strewn with splintered wood and scattered families. Night had fallen and he had nowhere to go. I wonder where he spent last night. I wonder where he is right now. But there was a resolve in his voice that gave me hope. “I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said.
There’s your spiritual lesson in a nutshell. Moving forward. Being grateful. Inspired to do so by people whose lives were ripped to shreds in an instant. A man with a laundry basket who is thankful he survived; a teacher who threw herself across her students to shield them when the storm bore down. For every politician in front of a camera, there’s a firefighter in back who quietly digs through the rubble for survivors. No one knows his name.
We are surrounded in this world by unspeakable horror and unimaginable beauty. But, in a strange way we still get to decide which one we will choose. It is the overwhelming paradox that is life.
We can let this be about politics or God’s vengeance or we can pick ourselves up and get on with our lives in a meaningful, caring way. We can focus on what we lost or be grateful for what we have. We can cower in a closet or we can stare down devastation and flip it the bird. Our choice.