arkansas-tornadoes-2014

When I was growing up, I always wanted to be a meteorologist. Well, not always. I toggled back and forth between meteorology and journalism, giving up on the weather gig out of sheer fear for the level of math involved.

So, now I’m a pastor and counselor. Fairly seasoned too, at this point. Makes perfect sense, right?

Actually, as strange as it may sound, the truth is that God’s call on my life has done something that I never would have believed all those years ago. In His own wonderful way, God has allowed me the best of both worlds. You see, I have the opportunity every single day to talk with people — to interview them — about various aspects of their lives, their beliefs, their passions, their hopes and dreams. I also get to walk with many of them through the storms of life.

Of course, these storms are generally not weather-related. They come in a wide variety of forms: unplanned pregnancies, unemployment, loss of loved ones, major illnesses, freak accidents, honest questions, doubts, fears, and crises of faith. Sometimes the storms of life come as a result of a real-life meteorological event, as was the case this week in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, and various other places.

Fortunately for me, I didn’t really know anyone that well who was impacted by the tornado that scourged the earth just miles from my city. But I had met a couple of them — and I am friends with several families whose extended families were directly and severely affected.

It has been a tough week for many people across the South. The stubborn cut-off low just continually churned an environment ripe for severe storms. The photos, as bad as they are, don’t even come close to telling the whole story of the total devastation wreaked by the monster EF4 tornado that cut a path some 40 miles long as it traveled on the ground for an hour.

The news reports have documented the heartbreaking tragedy inflicted on so many people during the storms. People lost loved ones on Sunday, April 27 — a day I preached about the grace of God. And while I believe wholeheartedly in the sovereignty of God, sometimes I require reminders that His grace is always there when we look for it. I’m grateful that amid the stories of incomprehensible loss, there have been many stories of God’s grace — often from the mouths of the very people who lost the most. Their mom or dad or grandparent or son or daughter or co-worker or close friend.

For me, this particular storm has really affected me personally. Even though I don’t know anyone who died in the storm, and even though I’m not close to any of the ones who lost everything, I’ve felt a certain amount of survivor guilt — that somewhat irrational but still palpable feeling that life is just not fair. Questions like these pop up frequently:

  • Why should I get to hold my kids, tell them I love them, and tuck them safely in bed?
  • Why should I get to laugh and play with them and tease and tickle them?
  • Why should I get the privilege of being annoyed by their typical bickering and whining?
  • Why should I get to enjoy the company of my beautiful wife?
  • Why them and not me?

Life isn’t fair. And there’s no answer to those questions other than the amazing grace of God.

I’ve hurt deeply this week for those who have lost so much. I don’t understand how mini-vans can just completely disappear. Or how family pictures can be found 110 miles away from home. Or how people even begin to pick up the pieces of their broken lives, knowing that they lost not only their loved ones and their homes but also, in some cases, their place of business too.

I’m thankful that God has given me a heart of compassion for people. But sometimes it’s tough to be so tender-hearted. I’ve cried real tears this week. I’ve prayed the kind of prayers you pray when you don’t even know what to say or ask for. And I’ve felt the very uncomfortable sense of knowing that when my tears dry and my prayers fade, these people — in many ways, people just like you and me — will still be hurting, grieving, and doing the best they can with whatever and whoever they have left, to continue this journey of life, one day at a time.

May we always remember that old but true saying, “But by the grace of God go I.”

Life isn’t fair, but tragedy and death are no discriminator of persons. If it’s not our turn to experience some tragedy or trauma today, then we’ll have another chance tomorrow and the next day and the day after that.

Dear reader, I ask you to please pray for Arkansas — and for all the other areas that suffered crippling blows in this wild weather week. May we bear each other’s burdens by loving one another, and may we allow God’s grace to freely flow through us to those who need to know Jesus is real.

Life isn’t fair, but God is good. Check out a couple stories about that by clicking here and here.

blood-moonIt was a very normal sort of Monday. I had taken Caroline to school and arrived at the church office early, around 8:00 a.m., as I usually do. That’s when my brother called me on my cell phone to let me know that Dad was not doing well. Somehow what we thought was a somewhat routine hospitalization shifted into what would inevitably be his final one.

When Keith’s voice cracked with emotion, I knew I needed to leave for Mississippi. Soon. Despite my earlier assumptions, this Monday would not be ‘business as usual.’

I made a few contacts to cancel some meetings and let our staff know what was going on. Then I gathered everything I needed to take with me and headed home to pack hastily for an unplanned trip. I knew I’d be hanging out at the hospital most of the time, so I threw some random casual clothing in a suitcase. But something told me I needed to take dress clothes too — just in case.

The six-hour drive from Little Rock to Jackson was filled with mixed emotions: concern, fear, anxiety, regret, hope. It was a mixed bag indeed. Mainly I filled the time with prayer and praise music, thanks to my handy iPhone playlists.

I’ll never forget this particular anniversary, and not just because it was tax day. Shortly after I stopped for lunch, my phone started going crazy with news alerts about the chaos at the Boston Marathon. Explosions. Injuries. Fatalities. Confusion. Mass hysteria. My drive from Lake Village to Jackson was filled with constant live coverage from news radio in Boston.

Though in a much different way, I remember thinking to myself that all these people were also dealing with an unplanned interruption in their day. And like me, most of them were probably feeling pretty powerless to do anything about the situation they were facing.

Life is filled with many unexpected twists and turns. Just as I’ve come to understand that real-life ministry often happens during the interruptions of life, so too does personal and spiritual growth. As much as we love the view from mountaintop experiences with God, we know in our hearts that we can’t stay there. And that’s by His divine design.

Anyone who has spent time in the mountains knows that the views are surreal, but there’s always evidence of the order of His creation. The treeline ends well before the peaks of high mountains. And the air gets very thin — too thin to support life for very long. Just as God didn’t intend for humans to set up house on the top of a physical mountain, He doesn’t intend for us to ‘camp out’ on the periodic emotional mountaintops either. Those ‘big moments’ like weddings, the birth of a child or grandchild, graduations, and such, are Kodak moments precisely because we know they are quickly fleeting.

Mountains always co-exist with valleys. In fact, they are mutually dependent on each other for their very identity. Valleys don’t provide the panoramic vistas, but they provide the practical necessities of life. That’s where we find water, food, and oxygen. From a spiritual perspective, our souls find their nourishment in the valleys — in the low points of life. It’s when we acknowledge our need for God that He steps in with just the right amount of grace, at just the time when we’ve exhausted our own energy and effort. His grace shows up in different ways — sometimes through an overwhelming sense of peace, sometimes through the quiet presence of a trusted friend, sometimes through special memories and recollections of other hard times when His grace has been more than enough.

Here I sit in the wee hours of a very chilly spring morning so that I can catch a view of the total lunar eclipse. It’s kind of funny, actually. One of the last conversations I had with Dad (during a visit home last March) was marked by his fascination and enthusiasm for the tetrad of ‘blood moons’ that he had heard San Antonio pastor John Hagee talk about many times. Dad always had a keen interest in Bible prophecy — so much so that as a child I can remember being frightened by some of the conversations I overheard. Dad was absolutely convinced that Jesus was coming back today — and I still wanted to hang out on earth for a while.

Tonight I again have some very mixed emotions. I didn’t always have the best relationship with Dad. And I’m not sure, to be quite honest, exactly how I feel right now. That’s pretty bad for a counselor, isn’t it?

I don’t know for sure if Dad really even knew I was with him those last few days of his life. But this I do know: relationships are hard, but reconciliation is worth the effort. Life is short. Life is wildly unpredictable. And I don’t understand how people make it through life without faith in Jesus Christ who will ultimately restore everything to its pre-Fall perfection. I get excited just thinking about it!

For now, I’m resigned to the reality that Dad has a front-row seat for tonight’s viewing of the much-anticipated ‘blood moon.’ And I know he wouldn’t trade seats with anyone on this ol’ planet.

Tonight, for me, God’s grace is the moon.