By Cade Campbell
Today, March 2, 2017 is the five year anniversary of the EF4 tornado that struck Henryville, Indiana in 2012. Cade Campbell is one of the pastors at First Baptist Church Henryville and was there when the storm hit and in the days after. This article is adapted for the anniversary from an article that Cade wrote that was published by Baptist Press (BP) on March 16, 2012, “Grace from the Whirlwind.”
O worship the King all-glorious above,
O gratefully sing his power and his love:
our shield and defender, the Ancient of Days,
pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise.
O tell of his might and sing of his grace,
whose robe is the light, whose canopy space.
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
and dark is his path on the wings of the storm…
– Robert Grant, “O Worship the King”
Tornado sirens never bothered me. They were always just an annoyance. They test monthly. They seem only to go off at inconvenient times. I’ve typically rolled my eyes, sigh, and patiently wait to return to dinner, obligations, and plans I have made (or have rolled over and gone back to sleep). During my time as a pastor in Henryville, Indiana, those high pitched wails of the emergency sirens have become almost as monotonous as the regular trains that run through town not far from our home. The sirens are almost always false alarms.
The warnings on March 2, 2012 weren’t a false alarm. Before the day ended I had experienced the terror of disaster all around me as a powerful EF4 tornado tore through Henryville while I along with many others sought shelter in our church’s basement. It was a normal Friday afternoon. I had been in the church office during the day working on the upcoming Sunday services. My wife Amy was getting off work at 2 o’clock. Then we were going to have a date night — watch a movie and have dinner at home. By the time she arrived back in town, however, the sirens were already blaring calling us to seek shelter. Since it was still early in the day we drove back to the church together to see if anyone else was gathering there. Amy walked downstairs while I made my way outside to the front parking lot where several families were arriving. I stood with some other men looking out toward I-65 to the west.
We heard the rumbling roar and felt the ground begin to shake long before we realized exactly what was happening. As the winds began to pick up we watched the tornado cross over the interstate and crest the top of the hill in front of us. Our little group, which included our senior pastor, Toby Jenkins, quickly ducked back inside and downstairs to the basement. I found Amy and held her as the building shook and the church windows exploded above us. As we crawled from the safety of that basement ark we stumbled into a town radically different from the one we had left just moments before.
Henryville in many ways didn’t exist. I stood with families who saw their homes in ruins for the first time, and I watched the dazed wanderings of townspeople walking streets that were now unrecognizable. It was absolute shock. It couldn’t be processed. So much was gone. I had seen similar images on the news before, but now I was walking around in that nightmare myself. For that one brief moment nothing else had my attention.
Storms have a tendency of doing that – getting your attention. They grab it and refuse to let it go. The world is seen more clearly. Life becomes fragile again. The routine is mocked. Entitlement is erased. Who we are and what we have made ourselves believe we are is stripped bare by the relentless wind.
We find God using storms for this purpose throughout the Bible. The God who steps upon the clouds uses the powerful thunderheads to snap individuals from their trance of self-focused forgetfulness. We see it as Jonah is thrown into the raging waves by his fellow frightened sailors. We hear it in the frantic cries of the disciples as they are tossed like leaves in the tempest of Galilee. And we huddle with Job as he cowers before the tornado of God’s presence.
Job’s story in particular stands out. Job had demanded God’s presence. He wanted a personal interview, a meeting. He demanded to hear God’s voice. So God gave him a tornado — and not just an F4, but something far worse — a raging, speaking, whirlwind of glory inhabited by the very presence of God (Job 38:1). In the path of that storm Job is forced to confess “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you, therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). When God appears in the whirlwind Job is broken by the vision of God’s grandeur and the truth of his own insignificance. In my own small way, as I walked through the storm-ruined streets of Henryville I had to confess that God is really big and my world is very tiny and frighteningly fragile.
But in the midst of that overwhelming, sinking feeling the brilliance of the gospel always shone bright. When God appeared to Job, he was not destroying Job. He was giving Job far more mercy than he could have ever dreamed or imagined. God was giving him grace. Job wanted to talk. Job wanted a theology class. Job wanted to feel important and right. Job wanted an explanation. Job wanted to be vindicated. Job wanted a revival service that fixed his friends and made him feel better. But what he got was a storm. What he got was God. Instead of giving Job his answers and instead of giving Job his judgment, God gave Job…God. And that changed everything. The storm was a sweet vision of a sovereign God. It was, to use the phrase of C.S. Lewis, “a severe mercy.”
In the years since that terrible afternoon in Henryville, I have come to understand that our own whirlwind was a weighty mercy. It destroyed, but it also brought life. We were overcome with examples of God’s protection and preservation. The tornado humbled us (as a church and as a community), but it also forced us to look beyond the pathetic excuses of our own self-worth and self-strength to something far more powerful than our own efforts and far more powerful than a raging wind. There really is something to be said for helplessness: In the helpless moments of disaster and suffering we are left with the only place we can go — the arms of a strong and mighty God who knows, who reigns, and who loves.
The 2012 tornado for all its fury was nothing more than the merciful servant of God, used to prepare his way and work like a wind-tossed John the Baptist. Ultimately I believe God gave us the tornado to my town, and then let it be broadcast to the world for the beauty of the Gospel being proclaimed people who desperately need it.
We would do well to let this truth sink into the depths of our heart: The Gospel stands at the point where the terror of the tornado and the will of the wind-ruler meet. The gospel is at the confluence of crisis and our own desperate cries for deliverance. That means that the terror and the tears were ultimately a gracious means for us to know him more. It is all about him, and our own storm was the bitterly sweet gift from a very sovereign savior.
Today as I look back on this five year anniversary of that storm I am all the more confident that God leads men and women through those testing valleys of death’s shadow so that in the blinding darkness our eyes will be adjusted to behold his beauty. When our vision is refocused we find that the storm clouds are held by hand with very fresh nail scars. Five years out the tornado that hit Henryville and the memory of everything we suffered are still being used by God to confront us with our sad condition and the cross of the Savior that is our only hope.
Therein lies the secret of our sufferings, ours and the sufferings of others that we encounter every day. God is not weak in the face of our hurts, nor is he ill-prepared. In the midst of our pain, as bad as it may be, he graciously speaks from the windstorms to show us something far worse than we face and far more beautiful than we have ever glimpsed. That’s because the glory of the gospel will not leave us in the pits of days like that Friday afternoon on March 2. Instead, the gale-force winds of God’s merciful sovereignty pick us up and sweep us to another Friday afternoon on another warm Spring day. On that afternoon the skies grew dark and the ground shook with a mighty rumbling. There was another storm, and not a storm of dust and debris but a storm of God’s gracious judgment as he sacrificed his own Son Jesus Christ in death. In the wake of our own tragedies and in the path of ruins left from our own Friday afternoons, where else can we go? It’s been five years and there’s still nowhere else to go. Crux probat omnia indeed: “The cross is the test of all things,” even anniversaries of painful tragedies. The cross is the only secure shelter. The cross is the only endless hope. When everything else is taken away, the gospel is shown to be everything. Like Job, I had heard that with the hearing of the ear, but oh how sweet it is to see it with the eye.
Cade Campbell (M.Div, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) and his wife Amy are natives of Mississippi. He currently serves as Associate Pastor for Preaching and Discipleship at First Baptist Church Henryville, Indiana. You can follow him on Twitter at @DCadeCampbell.