Video still suspended on the internet, weathermen almost screaming fear and warning,
Maps lit up with horrible storms, bright, rotating monsters
And the skycams filming it
Dark rumbling cone of cloud, wider and firmer, roaring down,
Swallowing places we all recognized, this street corner, that road, this hospital and the University itself
Gobbled into darkness
We sat watching helplessly in what passes for our safe place
Terrified for people we know and can’t call or get to
Just sat there, watching, listening, praying in a basement or a closet
Now it lives on YouTube and in children’s nightmares
Fear comes out of nowhere, rumbling into a sunny place and wipes it out
We still remember . How can you forget 63 tornadoes,
Taking down a state a town at a time? Houses blown apart, unglued matchsticks
Flying everywhere. That was the picture everyone shared
But it’s the million snapshots, most of them not taken
Sagging shoulders of an old man and his wife looking at the wreckage of sixty years
A family crying over photographs and precious pets and dead neighbors
Burying the body of a son or a mother or a friend
Who committed no crime against nature that took their life.
The foolish weakness of our lives pitted against something so vast that we shrank away
Our hearts melted, our schedules crashed, our computers went dead with no grid to hook to
Agendas changed, all the foolishness swept away into immediate priority
Only holding the people we love, finding the body of a lost daughter
Feeding a neighbor who was hungry and broke
Losing a job that blew away in a second. Going to church when it mattered
Listening for God when God seemed gone
Oh, we remember a million snapshots, of a child calling, “I’m okay,” of a house that used to be
Where a neighbor and his wife died, their bodies snapped like twigs and tossed into an undignified heap
Diapers and receipts and toys and furniture, curtains and unrecognizable slivers, trashbags and deck chairs
Wood and metal and rope and canvas, slung in no pattern, no priority and with no respect for their value
Gone, gone, gone, a house, a town, a store where we shopped, a friend we knew,
A way of life we lived, a sense of safety with which we deluded ourselves
But some things still didn’t blow away—faith and hope and love survived
Love for strangers fired up strong and woke us up to one another.
But we stood for a moment, blown away like the pieces of our lives and our world
Dazed, disbelief, daunted, discouraged, disheartened, darkened in soul
For just a moment, to take it in. We will never forget if we rebuild it all again
What happened that April day, when Alabama almost died.
One of the most-read blog pieces on here was one I did on the Hardy family of Williams, Alabama called, “Following Jesus from Israel to Rural Alabama.” As a follow up to that, I am happy to report that last Sunday evening, the Hardy family received the keys to their new home in a dedication ceremony led by Pastor Mike Oliver.
Times of crisis can certainly reveal our failings and weaknesses. But it is also true that crisis reveals character and new possibilities. one of God’s most mysterious works is bringing communion and healing from our disasters. Such times can divide, but they can also invite new re-formulations of Christian fellowship. Ordinary divisions become an unaffordable luxury in the moment of need. We come together and leave lesser things to God.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, was a man of broad spirit and reconciling heart. He sought Christian cooperation in every way possible. He once preached a sermon on 2 Kings 10:15, which says, “When [Jehu] left there, he met Jehonadab
son of Rechab coming to meet him; he greeted him, and said to him, “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?” Jehonadab answered, “It is.” Jehu said, “If it is, give me your hand.” So he gave him his hand. Jehu took him up with him into the chariot.”
Wesley said “But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”
In other words, unity of heart, spirit and love can exist even though we must have differences that will take longer to resolve. We begin with this willingness to know a fellow Christian’s heart and build upon the possibility of fellowship. It does not mean give up our convictions. But we must begin with the hardest and highest call Jesus gave to us—to love one another as He loved us. That is not what we do once we have worked out all our disagreements, our differences or
our hurts with one another. Forgiveness itself is born out of obedience to the Savior’s call to love one another.
For a change, Alabamians were watching anxiously for everyone else’s safety as Irene ripped up the Eastern seaboard. Alabamians are used to hunkering down in our safe places with flashlights and batteries, bottled water and a weather radio, waiting for the all clear. So we waited this time, but the memories of April were still with us. I have a daughter in New York, so I appreciated Mayor Bloomberg’s caution.
There is a delicious sweetness in hunkering in the dark during a storm. Routine stops, you call and gather everyone who matters most to you and let go of a frightful number of things that seem, normally, indispensable. So, for a moment, flights grounded, schools closed, ballgames stop, traffic ceases, the world grows still as nature roars its terrible beauty and we wait. It is delicious and sweet because the ache for life is powerful. Anxiety, just enough to give an edge, focused toward listening and being ready. Tomorrow, when the storm passes, not only will we have the euphoria of having survived, but we will also probably see the most beautiful weather in months. We are alive, and it feels good. We have remembered for a moment who matters to us, and what doesn’t matter at all, and it is clear to us.
Storm names are the oddest thing to me. Will I one day kneel in terror as “Hurricane Howard” or “Tropical Storm Myrtle Mae” bear down on me? Weird. We don’t name the tornadoes. They come too quickly and they’re gone. We only give them terrifying numbers: F4 or F3, as though they were aliens dropped on the earth to destroy us. Life and death, so close that we can think about it, not just abstractly.
So, glad it’s over. But it drove me to somber singing this weekend. Thought about old Leadbelly’s song, “Good Night Irene” when some man had painted a hasty sign he nailed to his outer banks property, “GOOD NIGHT, IRENE.” Good night, indeed. And goodbye. We dodged death once more. We are a little more alive, although some didn’t make it. Count our blessings, clean up, and move on.
Had a little time this afternoon, so I recorded “Good Night Irene,” and remembered what a sad and tragic song it really is. It’s odd to see what happened to it. Leadbelly was a convicted murderer in prison who sang well enough to get a pardon or two, but the song is deeply sad, about a broken heart in an early marriage between two young, immature people. The singer struggles with temptation to die, to throw himself into the river and drown. Later mainstream folkies softened and sanitized it. The Weavers’ version sounds like something from “A Mighty Wind.” You can almost see Mitch Miller’s bouncing ball.
No, a good blues song is a serious thing–about life and death and pain and hellhounds. No white picket fences, just the storm of some life, roaring toward you, and the sheer audacity of living when you know you’re going to die sooner or later. Hunker down in a storm shelter, think about love and family and what matters, and your heart starts pouring out. So you sing it and the storm passes and you’re still here, the truth is out there now, in notes and tears, and you can get up and go on a little more, relieved, glad, breathing still. Now that’s a song. So, goodnight Irene. See you in our dreams, fears and all. Good to still be here.