Five years ago today, tragedy struck. It’s one of those days that will live in our minds until we die. Of course, the news media provides a constant reminder with scenes of devastation following the tornado outbreak on April 27, 2011. According to news reports, there were 243 killed in the state of Alabama. This morning as I read through the list of names of those killed, I uttered a prayer for their families, and I was struck by the numbers of those killed all around us in the city of Decatur. But our city was spared the loss of life. Our county suffered no physical casualties, but there were 2 killed in Cullman county; 27 in Phil Campbell; 14 in Lawrence County; 18 in Hackleburg; 4 in Limestone County; 5 in Marshall County; and 9 in Madison. Every county surrounding us suffered casualties, and we were spared. Some say it is because of our topography here in the Tennessee River Valley. Some say it was the hand of God, and I am always grateful for His protection. I don’t understand why He spares some and not others, but I know this – it doesn’t mean the people who live in these other counties are wicked and we are not; Jesus made that clear in His teachings: both the righteous and the unrighteous suffer. It’s just that for some reason, April 27, 2011 wasn’t our time. So we join in prayer with the thousands of people that were affected on that day asking that God would comfort them as only He can do.
Our story of that day is somewhat different. We had known since the weekend that the risk of severe weather was high on that Wednesday. Early in the day, we cancelled services at Southside. The wind had picked up; and the rain had begun. Sonya and I were sitting in our recliners reading and watching the weather reports. I picked up my computer and was looking at the radar for the Tuscaloosa area because my family was there. Rob, Jennifer, and Hayes. As I watched the storms approaching Tuscaloosa, I called and talked to Jennifer. They had recently moved to an apartment in the city because they were soon going to relocate to the Birmingham area and were able to find someone to rent their house. I had pulled up the map of Google Earth under the radar image and found their apartment complex. I watched as the large storm holding the devastating tornado approached the city, and I told Jennifer that unless the storm changed its path, it would miss their apartment complex. Then the phone went dead. Soon, the power in Decatur was off. There was no internet. And the skies grew dark. Sonya and I prayed for our family and those in the path of the storm, and I felt a sense of peace. So we went back to reading our books.
The skies grew dark. The storms came. So we put on our glasses that have little flashlights on both sides, and we continue to read unaware of the devastation around us. Then we went to bed knowing that it had been bad, but I slept soundly that night. The next morning, there was still not electricity, no phones, and no internet. We looked outside, and we had lost a part of our Bradford Pear trees in front of our house. Several neighbors had trees down. And we wanted more than anything to hear from our family in Tuscaloosa. So we got in the car and we drove hoping to find a cell tower that was still working. We found one in Tanner, Alabama, but in getting there, we had seen terrible destruction, so we thanked God for keeping us safe. I think it was about that time that the first element of worry began to creep into my heart. When we finally got through to Jennifer, they were all physically fine. It had been close. She could see the massive tornado from her doorway as it tore through the city and passed within a few houses of the home they had just rented out. Their house was totaled, but fortunately, the family that was renting it were not there.
In the weeks that followed, Sonya and I served with the Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief teams that were working hard in our area, and we made several trips to Tuscaloosa. Such devastation. Such heartbreak. Such tragedy. We listened as people told their stories, and we ministered to their needs as best we could. I wanted to shout to the world how blessed we had been, but the pain in the eyes of those we talked with wouldn’t allow it. How can you explain to someone in the depths of their sorrow that we had been blessed when their world had been turned upside down? Even now, I struggle with the thought, but as I shared with my Bible study group this morning, “We don’t interpret the goodness of God through our circumstances. We interpret our circumstances through the goodness of God.” No matter how bad things get, God is always good. He cannot be anything but good because He is God. And while we do not understand everything that happens to us, we must continue to trust in God’s goodness. As the wise man said in Proverbs 19:21, “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” And His purpose is always to take all of the circumstances of our lives and make something good out of them – if we will let Him.