When We–and Our Friendships–Are Hit By the Tornado of Grace
On a balmy night in June 2008, I got a call from a young man who feared his parents were about to get killed in a tornado. Normally the picture of calm, Pat Arthur sounded frantic as he talked to me on the phone. It was just before midnight in Manhattan, KS, and we were in a tornado warning. Pat—away at college at KU—had been talking to his parents on his cell phone when the twister had touched down near their home on 119 E.J. Frick Drive. Shortly after that, he lost the call. He tried to contact them again, but couldn’t reach them.
Since I had been Pat’s youth pastor, he called me to see if I could help contact them. “Vaughn,” his voice wavered over the phone. “I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know if they are safe.”
I prayed with him and told him that I’d do my best to get ahold of his parents. Or, if possible, drive down to the house. I had Suzanne Arthur’s cell phone number, so I began calling it. After thirty minutes or so, someone finally picked up. There was a pause.
“Suzanne?” I asked.
“It’s Vaughn. Are you guys okay?”
Anyone who knows Suzanne would not be surprised by her bright and cheery response.
“The house is destroyed. It’s gone. But Tom and I are okay,” she said. “God is good.”
The next day, I drove over to the Arthur’s house, and she was right. The house had been ravaged. The roof was ripped off, the floors were caved in, walls were knocked over, and the contents of their home were strewn all over their property and down the road. What was really truly amazing, however, was that even though the house was ruined, everything that really mattered was almost perfectly intact. Unimportant things like the television and couches were trashed; but family photos of Tom, Suzanne, Jennifer, Pat, and Lindsay—they still hung perfectly on parts of the interior walls unmolested by the tornado. Hundred-mile-an-hour winds had ransacked the pool table, but the keepsakes that testified to the blessing of the Arthur family–family portraits, toys from childhood–they were still there.
I walked through the wreckage for a little while, finding old notes that the kids had kept from some of my youth group Bible lessons. And there were, of course, photos blowing around inside the carcass of the house, now dusty and dirty and mingled with small tufts of insulation. A couple hours later, Pat drove up to the curb, arriving from Lawrence. Seeing his childhood home destroyed, he promptly put his head in his hands and began weeping. His dad Tom gathered him up in a big bear hug, and a little while later, Lindsay and Jennifer made it back home, too.
That was when I witnessed one of the most emotional and powerful scenes of my life. Standing together on a lawn that now looked like a battle field, the family huddled together in one big, powerful embrace. The tornado had destroyed the Arthur home; but the Arthur family was intact. In fact, looking at them together, I thought, “Not only are they safe, they’re stronger. What a grace of God!”
A grace of God? Yes. Normally, when we think of God’s grace, we think of it as casting itself over our lives like a clear, blue sky or lightly falling upon us like rays of sunshine. But God’s grace often enters our lives in exactly the opposite way. It comes to us in a fury, wild and tornadic, knocking down the stable structure of our life and upsetting the contents of our soul. In the end, though, it does its work: it destroys what is unimportant and it strengthens what is essential. It rids our house of trinkets and baubles, of all that is tertiary and trivial, until only these three remain: faith, hope, and love.
In Philippians 1:7, Saint Paul writes, “It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.” Paul was writing from a prison cell. He had been thrown into jail because of the ministry of the gospel. But in a strange spin, Paul was the one encouraging the Philippians! This trial that I am experiencing, Paul said. It is a grace of God! And because of our partnership in the gospel, you get to share in that grace! That is what Paul meant when he wrote that in his “imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” the Philippians were “partakers with me of grace.” In Paul’s mind, there is a direct connection between suffering and the experience of God’s grace. Elsewhere, he makes this connection more overt: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (1:29-30). And, as they endured suffering and experienced grace together, Paul could write that he held them in his heart, and that he yearned for them with “the affection of Christ Jesus.”
How does this apply to our ongoing discussion of Christian friendship? As we or our friends endure suffering, we ought to remind one another that God’s grace doesn’t always come in the soft breeze, but in the tornado. We ought to remember that even as God graciously called Saint Paul to be the apostle to the gentiles, he declared “I will show him how much he has to suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16). We ought to remember that while Our Lady experienced the unparalleled blessing of delivering the Son of God into the world, Simeon told her, “and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” And, ultimately, we ought to remind each other that our redemption was not accomplished with the blooming of flowers or the soft trickle of gently flowing streams, but by the digging of thorns into a brow, the piercing of nails into a body, and the flowing of blood from the Cross. The grace of God was not expressed by the joyful “Hosanna!” of the fickle crowd, but by our faithful savior’s blood-curdling cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
In addition, truly Christian friends not only share suffering and encourage one another to find redemption through it, but in the experience of tornadic grace they, like the Arthur family, grow closer and more affectionate. In all of life, not just in the life of faith, people often bond in the midst of suffering. The greatest unity of the United States in the last 10 years was not a victory in the Olympics, but the tragedy of 9/11. In the same way, suffering provides a unique opportunity to forge friendships that rise above the nominal and the ordinary. The grace that comes through suffering has a way of knitting our souls together, so that we come to hold one another in our hearts in a far greater way, and truly come to yearn for one another with “the affection of Christ Jesus.”