As a child I spent countless evenings with my family huddled in the bathroom of our Montgomery, Ala., home listening to the wails of tornado sirens. As the cooler temps of spring began to give way to summer during March through April in Alabama, dealing with tornado watches and warnings was simply a part of life. Most often nothing materialized in our neighborhood and I have fond memories of those unusual family times.
Since I was a boy I have possessed a sense of awe, wonder and fear, mixed with disgust at the amazing destructive power of tornadoes. There is nothing quite like walking or driving through the aftermath of the path of a tornado. When trees that no force for hundreds of years has budged have been snapped and tossed around like toothpicks, it’s an unnerving sight. One cannot help but think that this is not the way it is supposed to be and to long for something better.
But I have never felt quite like I felt the evening of April 27 as I sat in my Kentucky home and watched constant cable coverage of Alabama being devastated. There was the immeasurable angst of waiting to hear from friends and family while praying they had survived the devastation. But I also felt uneasy because I was not there. I do not know how to explain it other than to say that my life is rooted in Alabama soil. I never hear the song “Sweet Home Alabama” without grinning. According to God’s design, I am David of Alabama.
Our transient, globalized culture often feels awkward about our rootedness but we must remember that when the cosmic Lord came in human flesh he was known, even by demons, as “Jesus of Nazareth” (Mark 1:24). Some saw his rootedness in an ordinary family and a modest town as a liability (John 1:46, 6:42, 7:27). But Jesus was from somewhere and it mattered, and the same is true for us. Our rootedness in a particular place in this fallen world should serve our longing for rootedness in the world to come (Hebrews 11:16). We have already had the opportunity to experience family, fellowship, love and place, however imperfectly. To act as though we come from nowhere is a prideful commentary on our understanding of the past as well as the future.
When I turned on the television and saw streets in Birmingham and landmarks in Tuscaloosa that have been there my entire life — gone in an instant — I felt queasy and wept. There are places I had planned to take my sons and daughters that no longer exist and never will. Unless you are from Alabama you cannot understand my joy when I found out the report that Dreamland BBQ had been destroyed was false. It is not just a BBQ place. The loss of home, as the familiar is obliterated in an instant, makes one feel violated and hurts deeply.
The present creation groans in bondage to corruption in a sin-soaked, chaotic world captivated by the Serpent. The adopted sons of God groan as well, eagerly anticipating the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:18-23). But even this groaning is permeated with Gospel hope which overshadows both our past and our future (Romans 8:24-25). Events like the tornado that ravished Alabama remind us that sin, rebellion and the parasitic rule of Satan are enemies. The Scripture does not give simple, tidy explanations of these kinds of tragic events but doesn’t hesitate to conclude that they should serve as a warning to us of the need of personal repentance (Luke 13:4-5).
But such disasters also remind us that these groanings are not empty, they are headed somewhere. The writer of Hebrews says that in this fallen world we do not yet see all things in subjection to man as He intended but we do see Jesus (Hebrews 2:8-9a). And He is the one who can say to an EF 5 tornado “Peace! Be still!” and the winds obey Him (Mark 4:39-41). But His Kingdom unfolds in ways that so often defy our understanding. He is also the one who suffered and was crucified. His death seemed senseless to his disciples (Matthew 16:21-22, Luke 24:21). It was not (Hebrews 2:9b-10). Our suffering often seems senseless but we know that, in Christ, it is not (Romans 8:18-39).
One day Christ will utter the final “Peace! Be still!” and usher in the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:3-5). In that day the waters will no longer churn, His voice will forever still every supercell and no tornado siren will ever be heard. As we long for that day I am glad that my life is not only rooted in Alabama culture but also in an Alabama church that told me about the voice that can still the storms and can declare “your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48).
Alabamians are tough. They will weep together, clean up the mess, replant and rebuild. Alabama churches will be on the frontlines of that effort, and rightly so. But the hope for Alabama does not reside in replanted pine trees and rebuilt strip malls but in the message of those churches. Tragedy will give way to triumph as those churches say without hesitation that God has a billion purposes in this tragic event beyond what we can see. Trust Him. The cross is the ultimate display to triumph in tragedy. Put your faith in Him. With one syllable Christ can stop tornadic winds and one day He will forever for those who repent and trust Him.
I love Alabama. But my tears give way to a smile when I remember that He loves Alabama far more than I do. In fact, He is going to redeem Alabama and the entire created order and root His people forever in a new heavens and new earth. In that day, “Alabama the Beautiful” will be more than a state slogan.