I recently went to Moore, OK with a small team from my workplace to spend a day helping with the disaster relief from the tornado that swept through it on May 20th. Several of us who were assigned field work, spent the entire day working in a large field right on the edge of the subdivision where the tornado hit Tower Plaza Elementary School and the surrounding neighborhood. We could see the torn roofs in the distance from where we worked in the field beside the highway. We spent the day picking up the fallen debris from the tornado and placing it in large piles so a trailer could come by later and pick them up. We used rakes, garbage bags, wheel barrows and our hands to gather and pile up as much as we could. It was mostly shingles, shredded insulation and siding, a few toys, clothes, scraps of wood, mail and a few pictures we saved and turned in to hopefully be returned to their families. It was a large job and it felt like at the end of the long day of hauling and fighting debris, the debris had won and we had barely made a dent in it. There had been previous teams who had worked the same field before us and there would be additional teams who would work the same field after us. Thankfully the weather was nice. The sky was a bit overcast which offered us protection from the sun all day and a nice gentle breeze helped keep off the sweat. It was simple but back breaking work which left me sore and moving like a stiff board for the next several days.
At the end of the day before we began our long drive back to Dallas, we drove through the neighborhood that was at the end of the field we had spent the day working in and saw the complete devastation. It was incomprehensible.
Everything was flattened like broken match sticks. There were bare concrete slabs where entire lots were missing their homes, other areas that appeared as massive wood, brick and debris piles. Cars were crushed in drive ways and in parking lots like soda cans. Steel poles were bent in half like straws. There was nothing but complete devastation in every direction as far as your eye could see. It was like driving through a wasteland that had no end. You kept looking for the end and there wasn’t one for a very long time.
Then, in the middle of it all, we came to the large empty foundation where Tower Plaza Elementary School had once stood. Debris still surrounded it, while bobcats and bull dozers continued working to clean up what was left. A tall wire construction fence was placed around the entire school yard to keep people at a distance while they worked. The fence itself had become a memorial of sorts, littered with stuffed animals, small toys, notes, t-shirts, toys, pictures, bible verses and all other kinds of memorabilia stuck to it from top to bottom as if another strong wind had drawn it all across the nation to accumulate there.
Just inside the fence in the corner of what was left of the schoolyard you could see what was drawing such great winds of affection from all across the city and nation. Through the fence you could see the object of their love and attention which they were attempting to pour themselves out upon but were unable to reach with their gifts and their messages because of the great barrier that barred them back. Seven little crosses with lanterns on the top of each stood just inside the fence facing them. Each beam on the cross had written upon it a child’s name who had died in the school from the storm. The beautiful crosses stood peacefully and quietly in the middle of all the emptiness and chaos that surrounded them.
Out of all the scenes of destruction we saw, this was the greatest, the most grievous, the most immeasurable one. The heavy emptiness in this place was deep. It pulled at your heart attempting to tear it from your chest as if the storm was still somehow present over this very spot still pulling up what it could. It caused all of us to become silent and took our breath away as if we had entered into some kind of vacuum. We each quietly went our separate ways, spreading out to take in the scene alone as the weight of it all rested heavily upon us.
It played with your senses. The sense of injustice and unfairness of it all weighed heavily upon me. Something deep down inside me cried internally this is all so-so wrong. It’s not suppose to be this way. I know the world is this way, but it’s not suppose to be this way. It was never suppose to be this way.
What played with my own senses was the great sense of injustice of it all and helplessness. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair that these small innocent children had lost their lives. They were defenseless. I felt the bottom of a storm begin to touch down in my own heart, causing all sorts of feelings of anger at death, frustration, confusion and grief begin to rise up and spin within me at increasing speeds as my own emotions began to race as I tried to process it all.
Where was God? Why did he allow this to happen? Why didn’t he protect them? Why didn’t he save them? How could such a good God allow this to happen? The questions tore at me as they would tear at anyone, believer or non-believer staring at the face of such tragedy and devastation.
Sometimes as a believer I feel guilty asking such questions as if I have betrayed my faith in God by paying them any mind or attention especially since they are not new questions. I’ve been pelted by them before. I’ve beat them back before. I know the right answers. So why are they beating me up again so badly now?
I have found that such questions in such situations need to be addressed again and again and again. They are the same storms that hit us at different times, trying to wear us down through their dogged persistence and intensity. Once again I gripped God’s promises tighter and positioned myself behind his word as my shelter so that I would not be blown away like chaff as they attempted to beat at my faith in another attempt to dislodge it. Where was God? Why did he allow this to happen? Why didn’t he protect them? Why didn’t he save them? How could such a good God allow this to happen?
God is seated on his holy throne. (Psa. 47:8)
Calamities such as these make one look around and then up, where is God? Was he not looking? Is he not with us? Does he not care? It is much like the disciples finding Jesus asleep in the bottom of the boat during their great storm in Mark 4:35-41. ““Wake up! We are perishing! Teacher, don’t you care we are about to die!” How can you be sleeping? I’m sure they wondered. Why aren’t you doing something? Helping us, bail out water, help us steer with the oars, help us stay inside the boat as it rocks, pay attention….why you are indifferent, resting when you should be panicking with us! Why aren’t you doing something? Don’t you care?
The disciples did not ask the Lord to do anything, except to wake up. It was his apparent indifference to their troubles, his apparent unawareness that they questioned. “Teacher, don’t you care we are about to die!” The apparent indifference of God in times of trouble often bothers all of us. David struggled with this also.
Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psa. 10:1)
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent. (Psa. 22:1-2)
Even Christ cried out from the cross, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me!‘ (Mark 15:34) Why do you think it is that God often seems so silent to us, distant to us, absent from the throne, asleep when the storms of life threaten us? It is as Sinclair Ferguson once said,“There is an awful sense of being forsaken by God when you know you are on the cross.“
Is God far off? Doesn’t He care? I think this is the real question behind all the other questions of where is God and why is He allowing this to happen. Something tells us that if God is with us, if God is on His throne as all sovereign and all powerful, if God truly loved us, then God would do something if He truly cared and He would not delay in His response. He would ride out against the storm on our behalf and rescue our loved ones from deaths jaws.
But instead He seemingly does nothing and the storm continues to pound and pelt us and steal from us. I can’t help but think it stole these seven little children like a thief. Everything else it stole we can replace, the houses, the buildings, the trees, the vehicles, the school but here it stole something irreplaceable to us. Something more precious than the millions of dollars of damage it did. Something we would have willingly given up and traded all those things for it we had just been given an opportunity to negotiate and ask for the return of these seven little lives.
The storm is a thief. Death is a thief. An unseen enemy who comes at us from another realm. An enemy who we can’t follow and defeat or hide from. One we can’t rebel against or outwit with wisdom, or bribe with possessions, or overcome by power. One who cruelly reigns over us all and haphazardly picks us like flowers from the earth before our time only to crush us without purpose. One who is cruel, barbaric, unjust in his ways, showing no mercy to the young, no mercy to a protected class, having no friends that it keeps and protects for their allegiance to him. If only death would leave us alone for even one minute, but he is an ever active force moving about us and reminding us of his reign and presence over our lives. No one can plead with him. He does not listen, he does not respond, but only swallows up the living.
If only we could pursue him, chase him off and perhaps even take our loved ones back from his giant unsatisfied belly Imagine if we could step into Death’s domain and plunder his possessions as he has plundered ours. Who would not ride out against him in an attempt to defeat him once and for all and rescue his captives? Who has not lost a loved one to him? However, the largest army that man could possibly muster, can not defeat this enemy of mankind. Nor can man’s greatest technology or knowledge ever hope to overcome him. In order to plunder Death one would have to enter into death and back out again. No one has ever returned from this thief’s domain…except one man who defeated death and who has defeated death alone: Jesus Christ.
When Jesus entered this strong mans house, He was able to plunder it and many graves were opened and many people saw their loved ones return from their graves when Christ entered death’s domain.
“And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:50-54)
God did do something. God does care and because of Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf for those who place their faith in Him, we no longer have to fear death or any of its storms which threaten us and steal from us. We know that when death’s storms and armies unexpectedly ride into our camps, destroying our cities and stealing our loved ones that someone has already pursued it and plundered its possessions on our behalf. Someone named Jesus who now receives all those who choose to follow Him by placing their faith in Him and receiving His forgiveness of sins so death no longer has any more claim over us. Death can shake us loose from this world, but our shaking loose is only to fall into the hands of Jesus.
For those of us who trust Him, this is a good thing. For those who have rejected Him and denied Him, this is a terrible thing. Hell is under new ownership. Those who anticipate seeing the devil in hell will be absolutely frightened to see Jesus reigning there instead. Jesus Christ has slain our enemies and remains the only person to be feared in life and in death. Death is but a doorway that leads to His presence. He sits on the throne of heaven and rules over all, heaven, earth and hell. He holds the key to Death and Hades in His hands and tells us to fear not because he has died and is now alive forevermore. (Rev. 1:17-18) He promises us that those who are faithful unto death, he will give a crown of life and the one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. (Rev. 2:10-11) “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55)
These seven little crosses are a reminder of that for me and for every Christian. Jesus reigns over death. Jesus has been here. Jesus is here. His stake in the ground above them is as a sword piercing the earth reminding us of his authority and claim over us, not death’s claim. He stands over them and death no longer has victory to be found in this place. His peace still reigns in the center of the storm and chaos that surrounds us. He may be silent but he is only whispering to those who listen, “Be still and know that I am God.” I am here ahead of you. I am on the other side and I have already plundered death and taken back my own. The seven little crosses represent his promise to those who trust in him and give us hope, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
My heart breaks for the great pain of loss that this storm has left behind in Oklahoma. I pray that all those touched by it will be able to find their strength and shelter in God’s word and in the hope of resurrection offered in Jesus Christ to still be able to say despite it all, “It is well, it is well, with my soul.”