While reading my March 1 issue of The Christian Century, I noticed a call for submissions to a writing contest for first-person narratives related to the theme of “storm.” The experience of a particular storm in 2001 is a component of my call into ministry, so I submitted the following:
We had spent the whole day at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. Some parents and I, the youth minister at the time at Bartlesville First United Methodist Church in Oklahoma, had taken a group of Jr. and Sr. High youth as a reward trip for having the most consistent attendance at Sunday school. We had spent the day riding roller coasters…but the real roller coaster was waiting for us on the highways of Kansas. I was driving a church van full of youth—the “conversion” kind with the shell top so you can walk to the back. The van would hold a “conversion” for the driver too. Unfortunately, I’d always noticed the shell on the top caught the wind like a sail, and it was unsettling to drive if there was any wind at all. Heading west on the interstate in Kansas, I began to notice the sky in front of us was dark, and the wind that I dreaded was picking up. 18 wheelers were careening in their lanes, trying to stay within their bounds, and many cars were beginning to pull over as sheets of rain began to pummel my windshield. I glanced from my white knuckles to the rearview mirror, amazed to see my youth laughing and carrying on and flirting with each other, oblivious to the torments that I saw ahead of me. On the radio, I heard the distinctive beeps that preceded a weather alert. It was a tornado warning—but I had no Kansas map, and the locations of touchdowns of funnel clouds meant nothing to me.
In the middle of Kansas there aren’t many places to seek shelter in a storm, but I found a gas station and pulled in to see if I could find a map. Sure enough, the tornados were directly west of us. Conventional “tornado alley” wisdom holds that tornados move from west to east, or southwest to northeast. So, they were headed our way. Within 40 minutes we would be in the midst of the line of storms. If I plunged ahead, we’d make it to our southbound highway in 15-20 minutes and hopefully far enough south to be beyond the southwest angled southern tip of the line—affording us even more time to clear it. I remember the big plastic garbage cans at the gas station flying around the parking lot as I ran back to the van. I knew the ramshackle old gas station wouldn’t do anything to shelter us from the approaching storm, and the parents of the youth would already be waiting an hour or two past our estimated time of arrival because the hard rain had slowed our travel down significantly. “Just go,” I thought to myself. “Go, go, go, go!”
My prayer as I got back on the interstate heading directly toward the darkening, rotating sky was more a demand than a petition. “These are your children, God, and I’m all you’ve got to get them home safely. Now I need you to show me that you’re with me, because I’m afraid!” Moments after my fist shaking prayer of desperation, and just as I was glancing at an oak tree in a pasture 100 yards out my driver’s window, a lightning bolt crashed into it. The tree seemed to glow like an x-ray image of itself and then exploded into flames. My hair stood up on my arms.
A resounding “coooooool!” was mixed with shrieks of fear from the teenagers in the seats behind me. The story of Jesus waking from his nap to the protestations of the disciples (“Do you not care that we are perishing?!”) to rebuke and calm the storm flashed in my mind. “Have you still no faith?” My anxious and tangled mind became quiet. After I witnessed my own “burning bush,” I had a new sense of confidence in God’s presence. The rain didn’t let up, the wind still rocked the van, the wet road continued to slow us down, but now my grip on the wheel relaxed, the blood rushed back into my knuckles, and I was able to feel the road better with the wheel. We carried on.
We made it home safely. The sign of God’s presence that I had prayed for was actually presented to me in an unmistakable way. Though God had been answering prayers in more subtle ways my whole life, this particular instance gave me a renewed sense of purpose and promise as a steward of God’s church.