A Gentle Knocking

June 11, 2004

Dear Friends and Family,

As many of you already know from watching the news, three weeks ago this evening, on May 21, 2004, a tornado struck the towns of Rolfe and Bradgate and many farms in between, leaving an eight-mile long path. Several people were injured, but there were no fatalities. A number of friends have emailed us to ask about the twister and find out if we had seen it and were okay. Well, the answer is yes--we saw the tornado, and we are okay.

Our good friend, Helen Gunderson has done an excellent job of chronicling the event on her website. Be sure to view video clip A and clip B at http://www.rolfealumni.com/tornado/index.htm The video was taken near our house by my good friend and law enforcement colleague, deputy Scott Devereaux. You can also see photos of our house at http://www.rolfealumni.com/tornado/photos-roland.htm.

Throughout history, people of many different faiths have identified natural catastrophe as a divine message--appease the gods to avoid further wrath. Well, I have to say that surviving such an affliction certainly does get your attention and lead you to seek a larger meaning in it. Here are a few of our personal reflections after the tornado.

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The morning after the tornado, I looked down at the broken sign that had stood beside our driveway, and wistfully recalled the former beauty of our wooded country home. "Meadow Run" was still proudly spelled by large silver letters nailed to an old red board. However the homestead before me no longer displayed the respected charm it had once known as an established horse and cattle farm. Instead, it looked like a landfill.

The old pine trees, which had provided lush shade for our children to play under, had been ripped out of the ground by their roots and snapped into hundreds of pieces, some the size of pop-sickle sticks, which littered the yard. The big, hundred-year-old barn had exploded into a barrage of splintered lumber and steel that pierced through the roof, windows and siding of our house like missles. Blue plastic Wal-Mart bags had blown in from who-knows-where and now flittered like flags in the wind. The tires of heavy machinery had mashed the freshly mown lawn into hills and valleys of mud.

Before the storm, we had little idea of what was to come. The sun was shining out from behind a dense wall cloud. In fact, we watched the storm build and approach until it began to rotate and we realized that a vortex was forming. With greenish clouds moving in three different directions above us, we headed to the basement. Even though the clouds promised trouble, I still was not prepared for anything more than heavy wind, rain and perhaps some hail.

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We had been in the basement for only 30 seconds, when we were surprised by the sound of things striking the house. The next moment everything happened at once. There was a big crash and the blast of air, dust rained down on us from the floor above and our ears popped from the pressure. Glass shattered and flew around us as we sheltered the children and prayed that the house wouldn't collapse.

I felt fear—a sudden surge of adrenaline in response to the power above us—Death was only a few feet away. We waited in the rush of loud wind, not knowing if we were to be spared or not. Then as quickly as it had come, it was gone, in a sense, it was like the angel of death passed over. The children were crying. We had all been spared, but it took days for that fact to sink in. Little did I realize what we had just escaped--or that our lives had been so greatly altered.

When I thought it was safe, I ventured up to see if the house had collapsed. From that moment, I stepped into a different world where almost every physical part of our lives had been turned to chaos--as if whizzed in a blender. The house was standing, but our old home was gone and there were few remnants of order or beauty to remind us of it.

I first noticed that there was sunlight shining into the house where it hadn't before. Most windows had been blown out and there was glass, furniture, leaves and dirt everywhere, like in an abandoned house. Outside tree limbs and heavy, nail-studded lumber were strewn everywhere.

There were also many things in the yard I did not recognize from our property. It was as if some "thing" had come, and brought an odd world with it.

This feeling cannot be described better than by a story from my childhood, McBroom's Zoo by Sid Fleischman, illustrated by Kurt Werth. The story is about a poor Iowa farmer named McBroom. His family survives a tornado to discover that a number of weird animals have been left in its wake--the Desert Vamooser, Silver-Tailed Teakettler and Sidehill Gouger. I half expected to see these freak animals roaming about the place.

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In the first days after the tornado, we dealt with a pressing burden to figure out where we were going to live and what we were going to do. Would we move, or rebuild? How long will it take to recover from this catastrophe and get back to normal? How can I get my work done?

What was most unsettling was the sense that we couldn't live in our home anymore--that we had lost our home. This familiar comfort had been stolen. The American Red Cross helped us with immediate needs and listed us as "displaced persons." We felt a little like war refugees, exiled from the "old country" which really no longer existed as a place. Psychologically, I couldn't keep myself from grasping for the familiar. My mind replayed over and over in clear detail the normal daily tasks from before the tornado—taking out the garbage, going for my morning run, sweeping the porch, etc.

When the shock left us and we compared our small loss with the horrific power that so nearly touched us, we realized that God had knocked softly at our hearts and spared us from a far, far more painful toll. As a family with small children, our home is very much our base of operations—it is where we live and shapes how we live. But we long for a stability and permanence that are impossible in the physical things of this world. The following text spoke to me in a new way:

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Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit"--yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that." James 4:13-15

Since the twister, we have become quite a tourist attraction. Scores of airplanes and helicopters have flown daily sorties, interrupting our cherished country privacy. Things have come to the point that you don't do anything out of doors that you wouldn't want to appear on the evening news. However, seeing an opportunity as a good American capitalist, Heidi suggested setting up a roadside stand to sell hotdogs and pop to the stream of traffic that continues to pour by our house each day. : )

We are so thankful to all of the friends who have been Christ's hands and feet to us through the past weeks. Thank you for your help, prayers, encouragement and patience. People have picked our household belongings out of the yard, fields, plum trees, etc. and taken our muddy, wet, glass-filled clothes and linens home to clean them. They have cooked and delivered full meals for us and our helpers, some, only hours after the end of the storm. One dear friend brought diapers and diaper wipes and clothes for the kids for that first, electricity-less night that we spent at Dad and Mom's (the Dahls). Some people helped clean up with chainsaws, shovels, rakes, brooms, and buckets. Some picked up glass. Others gave us bottled water, food, leather gloves, clothes, advice, photos, a bunk bed, a washing machine, and cleaning supplies.

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Before the tornado, we had started looking for a new position for full-time work, expecting to move by the end of summer. So rather than move twice, for the short-term we have decided to try and stay and return the structure to a home until an upcoming job move in a few months.

The second week after the tornado was difficult as we daily faced an environment of filth and ugliness, brokeness and death. Then we were blessed by a visit from our dear friends Ben and Miriam Spring from Una, Germany. Ben and I were students together at Trinity and they lived just across the hall in our campus apartment building. Ben is now a pastor in Germany and the couple had planned to spend part of their American vacation with us. When we told them what had happened, they still wanted to come. Instead of spending their vacation resting at a beachside resort, they joined us in a mud-spattered home and tirelessly helped clean up--this was love.

Most of the families affected by the tornado have had to deal the question "why did God allow this to happen?" For us, we have not questioned so much whether we deserved it, but rather what we should learn from this trial. Adversity is part of human life. Thinking of history and our friends around the world, the peace and prosperity we have enjoyed living in modern America have been an undeserved blessing of mercy and grace. We see this experience as an exercise to make our faith stronger, bringing a clearer perception of reality and value. We have seen more of the beauty and excellency of our God, and He is good.

On the death of her husband Jonathan, Sarah Edwards expressed what we feel now:

April 3, 1768

"What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. Oh that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore His goodness, ? We are all given to God; and there I am, and love to be."

Jim, Heidi, Sophia, Maria, Peter & William

Meadow Run

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copyright © 2004
James & Heidi Roland
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