Jesus orchestrates beauty from what we designate ugly. From what we label broken he crafts something flawless. Jesus restores lives we see as lost. God’s ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. We may not always understand why God allows tragedy to happen, but we trust he uses all things for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. God is always trying to draw people to himself and how he chooses to do so is not our concern. Our concern is how we respond to God’s invitation.
On May 20, 2013, a mile and a half wide EF-5 twister (five being the highest classification of tornado based on strength and damage caused) destroyed a majority of Moore, Oklahoma and claimed two dozen lives. I remember being at work and watching the tragedy unfold on television. Pointing at the television I said to our bartender, “God is going to send me there, I know it.” I didn’t know how, but I was certain Jesus would get me there. That same night Pastor Rick Yeomans from OC Church on the Rock was in our living room sharing how he felt led to respond to the tragedy in Moore. I laughed to myself because, personally, how I know God is calling me somewhere is that it continues to come up. As we discussed what responding looked like and shared our hearts to serve the people affected, he added, “I would love if you could come with me.” I responded, “When?” His reply, “A week from tomorrow.” I serve six shifts a week at the Cheesecake Factory and you’re giving me a weeks notice to raise two hundred and fifty dollars plus the money needed to cover living expenses and provide for my wife while I am gone? It’s possible. Jesus said anything is possible to him who believes. I told him I’d pray about it. And my wife and I did, that night. I asked Jesus to speak to Jamie in a dream and give her peace about my going to Moore without her. I knew if Jesus was behind this he would provide all the time off and the funds needed, which naturally in our world’s line of thinking is a “long shot.” But Jesus is not of this world. Jesus did speak to my wife that night and gave her peace. So, with six days left I prayed that Jesus would move in the hearts of each of my managers to provide the time off needed to go. After a days notice, my general manager came up to me and said, “Of course you can have the time off. What you will be doing in Moore is good work and important.” In fact, each of my managers said something along those lines, and co-workers even donated money. I was still wondering how I was going to cover the rest of the cost, but Jesus had that covered. In under twelve hours I had one thousand dollars covering the trip and expenses here at home while I was gone. I was all in for a twenty-eight hour drive in a van with a trailer filled with chainsaws, wheelbarrows, and other trinkets. I called Rick and he said, “Praise God! We leave Wednesday at 4:30 am.” I hadn’t even left for Moore and God was already confirming the call. If Jesus calls us to it, he’ll get us through it.
Oklahoma or bust.
Motorists on the I-40 E waved, honked and gave thumbs up confirming the call to Moore, OK. Emergency Ministry Services is a non-profit ministry that responds to natural disasters inside and out of the continental United States. I traveled with Pastor Rick Yeomans of Church on the Rock, where I also am the Youth Pastor. Rick and I are chaplains with EMS providing grief counseling and in addition bearing the physical burden of clean up alongside those affected by these disasters.
No itinerary was in place, and we had nowhere to stay in Moore. Our plan was to pray and let God lead. The first prayer was for Jesus to lead us to a man of peace, a person we could stay with. If not, we would set up camp somewhere within the city limits or a secluded field and see who needed help. A phone number had been given to us for Lynn Laske, a friend of Rick’s son’s neighbor. No guarantee he would host us. Upon calling, we find out he is a Christian, and he’ll gladly accommodate us. After a 28-hour cross-country drive, the Laskes greeted Rick and I with food, water, a bathroom.
Neighborhoods were gone; faith in Jesus was not. “God didn’t do this, but he is getting us through this.” Nathan, a local of Moore, confidently said this to me while rummaging through what remained of his home and possessions. This statement defined the trip. Nathan wasn’t the only individual that held this idea of seeing Jesus’ hand in the midst of tragedy.
147th and Harvey
After asking this officer where prayer was needed he paused, and after a quiet moment said, “The corner of 147th and Harvey–pray there.” Why there? A seven month old and three year old child had been claimed by the tornado. Nothing was left of the house but a few scattered children’s toys. The officer said I would know the house by a black SUV that was in the driveway that previously had not been there. He told me it was probably placed there so I would know where to pray.
Serving Lynn and Bonita Laske
Physical labor was only a small portion of ministering to the Laskes. Each day I would read my Bible and Bonita, Lynn’s wife, would ask me to read aloud so everyone could hear. I was always asked to explain what was read. I discerned that God had me in Moore for several reasons, encouragement to other Christians being one.
Prior to leaving I kept thinking we would be caught in a tornado. I even had a dream I was going to die in Oklahoma. I was right about the tornado part. The second night we were in the midst of five tornadoes that had touched down just to the east of us. Locals said they hadn’t seen anything like it before. Their words didn’t give us reassurance but Jesus’ words did. We watched from a distance, heard on the radio that the storms were progressing; and knew a visit to the cellar was imminent. Oddly, a cellar or basement is uncommon in Oklahoma. Was it coincidence or God’s providence that the Laske’s happened to have one? Nevertheless, that night twelve people recited the Lord’s prayer in a cellar as three sheep dogs looked on. A long extension cord connected to a small radio in the cellar was all that informed us of where the storm was. The wind above sounded like a train bearing down on us and Bonita suggested we recite the Lord’s prayer, and I read from the Bible. It became real quiet as I read Psalm 91 and shared about Jesus. I would never have foreseen this – a sermon in a cellar. But that’s Jesus’ modus operandi. In the midst of the storm we lost power, flashlights came out and the sound of increasing wind caused a young Mexican girl to cry. I found and showed her with my hands that Jesus had us in his hands, that we were safe. I hugged her, whispering: “Jesús te ama” (translated “Jesus loves you”). Still unaware of the tornados location, we emerged from the cellar three separate times, only to hurry back down. No power, five tornadoes, golf ball sized hail. Our only option was to wait it out and pray. In the end; Jesus kept us and the home intact. The time in the cellar with complete strangers, praying and reading Jesus’ word will always be dear to me. Because, regardless of what each one knew about Jesus going into the cellar, emerging they knew with certainty that he was with them and loves them.
Prior to departure, a co-worker traveled out of her way to my home with an envelope of money. When I asked her where it was to go she said, “God will let you know.” I held onto that donation in my suitcase until the day Jesus nudged me to put it in my back pocket and said, “You’ll use this today.” Only later did I find out that the Mexican family hired by the Laske’s to take care of their horses were no longer needed because the horses had been killed in the twister. Having spent the night prior in the cellar with them, we had become close. Now, out of the job, they came into the house for a tearful goodbye. It was sad. The Lord jolted my heart, “The money is for them.” I pulled the envelope from my back pocket and explained in my best Spanish that the money was from Jesus. The mother hugged me tight, crying, and said, “Thank you.”
A Prayer for Yukon
The news reported tornadoes heading directly for a small town called Yukon. I had a strong urge to pray and I remember Jesus whispering right before: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16) I believed him. I asked, “Father, don’t let the tornado even touch one part of the city, but let it stop before the city and rise up over and drop back down outside of it.” The next day, Lynn came home and said, “I was in Yukon and I saw where the tornado stopped right before the city limits and rose up, and it dropped back down to its original path right outside the city limits directly on the other side. Your prayers are powerful Steven; God listens to you.”
I hugged as many people as possible in the time span of one week. Hugs were one part, coupled with prayer, preaching, providing material needs, physical labor – these all tie into what a typical EMS outreach looks like. No hug was more memorable than the one I shared with an older woman named Avis. Driving, I noticed a woman poking around what remained of her house with a stick. Slowing to a stop I asked if she needed a cold drink or hot burrito. “No” she replied. We drove about thirty feet and my heart was hit hard by the Holy Spirit. “Stop, go back, hug her and pray.” I asked Rick to stop the van and shared the urgency in my heart to go and minister to this woman. I got out of the van and grabbed a water and a particle mask and proceeded into the house. I engaged in conversation with her and learned that her name was Avis. She was looking for the lid to her bear cookie jar. I told her Jesus had placed her so heavy on my heart that I had to turn back and give her a hug and pray with her. She became emotional. I then asked her if I could give her a hug and she said yes, so I hugged her and she wept. I told her that I was certain Jesus had me drive two thousand miles to hug and pray with her. She shared prayer concerns with me and I told her, “Jesus just heard you voice all those concerns, now we can pray too.” We held hands in a room with no roof and prayed. Jesus was there. The Holy Spirit then led me to read Psalm 18:1-3 “I love you, Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and I have been saved from my enemies.” I then shared about Job and how God restored him after disaster struck, how Job remained faithful, believing God even in the midst of opposition and tragedy. This encouraged her. I truly believe Avis was the primary reason Jesus sent me to Moore. All the encounters in Moore were blessings, but when Avis looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “A hug was all I needed,” I recalled what Jesus said to me: “I am sending you to Moore to give hugs.”
Minister to the Minister
Raise Some Hope offers a safe place for children to mourn their lost classmates. In addition, they provide counseling for children who have difficulty opening up emotionally. Jesus laid on my heart to pray for these two women, September and Pam. I remember thinking: Who ministers to those continually pouring themselves out for others? It was this question that led me to pray for them. I walked by them at first, but then turned around because the urge to pray for them was so heavy that I couldn’t resist. They were extremely grateful for the prayers and even told me that they were asking God for someone to minister to them. Glad I listened.
Particle masks and waters
The Holy Spirit asked me to take particle masks (masks worn to help protect the lungs from harmful debris) and a cooler of bottled waters and walk the neighborhood. I wasn’t sure what God had in store, but I am glad I was obedient. God planned a day of prayer, a lot of hugs, crying and families opening up about their material loss and even family losses. I walked for hours down several streets and prayed with many. At the end of the day I was blessed I had said “yes” to Jesus.
I met Joyce, a local of Moore, while walking, praying and sharing the good news of Jesus. I approached her asking if she needed prayer or help loading her car. Her reply was: “I think God is trying to get our attention with all these tornadoes and horrible things happening in the world.” Not the reply I expected, but I agree. These tragedies testify to the world needing a Savior. The earth is groaning to be restored and these groans can manifest as natural disasters. Joyce and I discussed that true peace only comes from knowing Jesus in the midst of life’s tragedies. I mentioned that preceding his death, Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) A comforting reminder that true peace is only experienced through knowing Jesus.
A Lutheran, a Catholic, and a Butwell
This photograph is one of my favorites. It was taken candidly from the rear view mirror of our van towards the end of the outreach. I had stopped to ask this man if I could pray in Jesus’ name for the continued work of his volunteer team. He seemed shocked I had asked, replying, “I am Lutheran, and she is Catholic.” My response was: “Well, then let’s pray in Jesus name.”
Leaving behind Mo(o)re.
It was difficult leaving Moore and the Laske family. Over the course of a week, Rick and I grew close with Lynn and his wife, Bonita. The Laske’s opened their home and fed us as if we were one of their own. The Bible reading, prayers, and time in the cellar together drew us closer than we could have imagined. A gracious host family that is missed. Thank you for your genuine hospitality.
God is often held responsible for all the bad things that happen in the world, but do we seek a real biblical answer? Seeing God and hearing God in the midst of disaster is about perspective. The people I encountered in Moore had lost everything, even loved ones. But had they? What’s your perspective? Is everything a coincidence or does God have providence over every detail? The Bible teaches that humankind rebelled against God and the world was cursed as a result. In an attempt to restore, God sent Jesus. A relationship with God can be restored, but only if Jesus is your spokesman to God. God looks at our hearts, and he desires hearts that love him. Do you believe? Does your life reflect that belief? God sent his son, Jesus, to restore your relationship with him. Will you accept the free gift of eternal life that God has offered?
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. (2 Peter 3: 9-14 NIV)