The pictures of devastation in Joplin, Missouri, tell the story better than words. And for those of us who have personally witnessed the aftermath of a mega tornado, they bring back vivid memories.
Years ago I had the opportunity to witness the devastation suffered by the little South Dakota community of Spencer after one of these tornados had torn through the town, leaving almost nothing but rubble. It was eerily quiet as I walked into what had been a small but active rural community. On the far end of town, National Guard heavy equipment was gathering together a depository of destroyed cars and trucks. Relief efforts were underway.
The most remarkable thing for me was my own confusion, as I tried to figure out where I was in the small town. Although I had been there numerous times before, I couldn't tell where anything had been. The once-familiar pattern of streets had become a gridwork to separate piles of rubble left by the storm. Even the town's water tower was no longer standing. I realized then how important landmarks are, and the landmarks were gone.
Only when I came upon the site of our LCMS church, its sign still half standing, and only when I looked out on the surroundings from the floor of the church swept clean except for a few randomly strewn hymnals–only then could I finally make some sense out of the community. Now as I looked out on the landscape of shredded trees and splintered wood and basement holes I could see where things had been. It was the church that helped me to get my bearings.
It was a teaching moment, a poignant reminder of the role of the church in our lives, especially in times of tumult, "even," as our hymn proclaims, "when steeples are falling" ("Built On the Rock," st. 1). There were four churches in Spencer. There were no steeples left standing. But still left standing was the role and presence of the church to help those left confused and suffering and mourning to begin to find their way.
Our LCMS pastor serving the congregation at Spencer understood this very well. He pastored the entire community after the storm. Later in the week at the town's athletic field, he provided a worship service of thanksgiving for the entire community. His message was clear: The steeples may be down, but the church and its message of unfailing hope and life are present. This will be our landmark during the confusion and struggles of the weeks and months to come, to help us maintain our bearings, even though most things familiar will be gone.
We have learned again these past weeks that we never know when our lives will change dramatically, even to the point of losing all things earthly. We may be left to wander in confusion among the wreckage of once well-ordered lives, unable to recognize much of anything. But there will always be a landmark to help us get our bearings. We will still have the church, its even-when-silenced bells still "chiming and calling," its Gospel assuring us of God's love despite all.
For five people in Spencer and 125 people in Joplin, the storm was their time to leave all behind, a time that will come for all of us in due time, in one manner or another. What a blessing to know that even then, as we pass from this turbulent world into "rest everlasting," we will not wander or wonder. We will have the words of Christ articulated in the hymn to provide all the direction we will need: "I know my own and my own know Me; You, not the world, my face shall see. My peace I leave with you." To which we will gladly say, "Amen."