I grew up in tornado alley. Weather systems that coalesce over Dallas move in a northeasterly direction, and by the time they reach Texarkana they’ve often become unstable and pack a mighty punch. Moving northeast of Little Rock, tornadoes become common—very common. My mother’s high school in Jonesboro, Arkansas, was destroyed by a tornado over thirty years ago. St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jackson, Tennessee, just two hours from my hometown and the parish that sent me to seminary, was leveled by a tornado less than a decade ago. The schools I attended growing up had tornado drills as frequently as fire drills. On a regular basis as a youth, we’d look outside my parents’ house to see the sky turn a heavy and still, eerie shade of green. Without pausing to turn on the television and check the weather report, we’d head to the basement to wait out the coming storm. Once, early in our marriage, Jill and I were driving across the boot heel of Missouri (that little portion that dips into the notch of Arkansas) and looked to the north of us only to see an ugly twister. “What should we do?” Jill asked. “Just keep driving,” I replied, “and hope it moves in the other direction.” It did. Tornadoes are so ubiquitous in northeast Arkansas that a one-hit-wonder country music band from Jonesboro actually assumed the name “Twister Alley.” You can still see their video on YouTube:
Even so, the tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma on May 20 of this year made my jaw drop. It was an EF5. Tornadoes don’t get any stronger. The Moore Tornado had sustained winds of over two hundred miles per hour. By comparison, Hurricane Ike’s strongest winds were a mere one hundred forty-five miles per hour. The tornado was more than a mile wide, and it stayed on the ground for forty minutes. The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management struggled to come up with an adjective that adequately described the tornado’s destruction. The best they could do was “catastrophic,” and somehow even that wasn’t enough. Entire neighborhoods were obliterated. Witnesses said the tornado looked like “a giant black wall of destruction.”[i] Can you imagine? I can’t, and I grew up in tornado alley.
The day after the storm, a CBS news crew toured Moore, Oklahoma to survey the damage. They came upon an elderly woman named Barbara Garcia standing next to a jagged, flattened pile of lumber. Upon speaking to her, they realized that the pile had been her house, and she had been in it during the tornado. Mrs. Garcia explained that she and her small dog, Bowsie, had taken refuge in an interior bathroom of the house. But no space is safe from an EF5 tornado. The storm ripped the house from its foundation. It wrenched the little dog from Mrs. Garcia’s arms and threw Mrs. Garcia herself to the ground, where she stayed pinned under rubble until the storm passed. With teary eyes, Mrs. Garcia relayed to the reporter that Bowsie’s body was lost somewhere in the wreckage.
As the interview goes on, the news camera shifts from Mrs. Garcia to the pile behind her, as the cameraman spots something moving under the rubble. It is the same color as the rest of the wreckage, and even as the video camera zooms in it’s difficult to see. But then Mrs. Garcia turns to look, and she realizes in an expression of utter and complete surprise and thanksgiving that the movement is coming from Bowsie, her little dog, as the pup struggles to push through the wreckage to freedom. Mrs. Garcia (with reluctant help from the news crew) lifts heavy debris off of the dog. She and Bowsie are reunited under the most devastating circumstances, and for those few moments, Mrs. Garcia forgets everything else: her destroyed home, the lacerations on her own arms, the uncertainty of where she will sleep that night and what she will eat for her next meal. None of it matters, because what was lost is found. The video is linked here:
The CBS video of this reunion immediately went viral. Hundreds of thousands of people have viewed it online. It could be taken as just a maudlin feature story about a sweet old woman and her dog, and undoubtedly many have viewed it as such. But that’s a mistake. The video is a real-life parable that reminds us of God’s very truth. There is something distilled about it, something clarifying. Just as Jesus says of the lost sheep and the lost coin today, in our real world one truly will leave all else behind to recover that which is most precious. Those things of false value, in which in our calm and stable moments we place so much stock, fade into the background when faced with the loss of the truly valuable. We view the footage of Mrs. Garcia and this companion animal that is her whole life, and we know that the love she has for that little dog is awesomely greater than the black wall of destruction that sought to take from her everything.
But until the storms hit, how those things of false value can lead us to forget this truth. In the Exodus lesson today, the Israelites have forgotten once again. They’ve fashioned for themselves an idol of gold—literal gold in their case—a glittering calf to which they can bow. And with gold reflected in their eyes, they have forgotten that which is truly precious. It is lost to them.
This truth is archetypal. It populates universally-experienced dreams in which the dreamer is intently and pensively searching through a morass for something incredibly precious, the identity of which remains mysterious, but with the felt assurance that it will be known the moment it is found.
And so I’ll ask: What have you forgotten? What is the coin that is lost in your life? What is the sheep that has strayed? What do you dimly remember used to live in the very center of your soul, that made your heart sing, but seems somehow to have gone missing? And what in your life, by contrast, has stolen your attention by pretending to be valuable and important and allowed the loss?
A warning: If we wait for the inevitable storms of life to hit, we will surely then be reminded of what is truly most important to us, but that doesn’t mean what is truly important will be returned unhurt and whole. For every story like that of Mrs. Garcia, there are a dozen in which the dog lies dead in the rubble. For every coin that is found, there are fortunes forever lost. If we wait for the storms to hit to clarify for us what we truly value and love, we are liable to end our lives in regret and sorrow.
A counsel: Jesus’ parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin are not self-help stories. They are not about “finding yourself” in a Barnes & Noble, pop psychology sense. Because for Jesus, that which is lost, that which is rightly at the heart of us, that which is most central to who we are called to be, is God. The sheep that is found returns to God’s flock. The woman who finds the coin has recovered the treasure of God’s love. Indeed, the Israelites have opted for an idol of gold in place of God whose love has sustained them in their very wilderness. Jesus is saying to us that however else we respond to these parables in our own lives, that which has gone missing and which we seek to recover must include the embrace of the divinity that is all around us, that holds us and sustains us and, indeed, loves us more than we can ask or imagine.
And a hope: We don’t have to wait for the black wall of destruction to hit to seek what we’ve lost. Jesus tells us parables that occur in mundane, everyday settings on purpose. Even today, we can light a lamp, we can sweep the floor of our souls, and we can recover what is lost. But this requires that we be willing to walk away from the ninety-nine sheep that have preoccupied us. It requires that we be willing to melt down the golden calf, whatever it is for each of us. It requires that we sift through the accumulated rubble and give our lives back to what is truly valuable. What is that for you?
There is a final point worth making. Mrs. Garcia’s little dog wanted to be found. It struggled through that wreckage in Moore, Oklahoma, desperately seeking Mrs. Garcia even as she sought it. Just so, the God who is the air surrounding us and the air we breathe also desires to be at the heart of us. That God wants us to find—to recover—whatever it is that gives our souls life. Even as we seek, we are being sought. And that is grace greater than any storm. It brings joy in the presence of the angels. Amen.