On May 25, 2008, a devastating EF5 tornado struck the placid little town of Parkersburg, Iowa - population: 2,000. In one of the worst tornado strikes in recent memory, 228 homes and 22 businesses were destroyed. The damage was estimated at nearly 6 million dollars. Seven people lost their lives. Most people assumed that it would take 5-10 years to rebuild the town and get it back to what it was before.
I read about this event quite sometime after it happened and the thing which amazed me the most was the resilience of the community. Largely motivated by the example of their long-time high school football coach, Ed Thomas, who declared the next morning that there would be practice and a football season even the school was ruined, the community came together and did the nearly impossible. The town was thriving within a year - something people said would never happen. Jack Rozilskj, an expert on how communities rebound from such disasters, and an assistant professor at Western Illinois University at Macomb, told the Christian Science Moniter that,
"What stands out in Parkersburg and what you can take away
from them is the extent to which recovery was very rapid.
They found a way to draw on their internal strength for
the town's recovery."
The story of this town's rebuilding had a profound influence on my life. As I attempted to rebound from the devastation within my own soul, I found many parallels to the situation in Parkersburg. Upon reading a book that described the resilience of this community titled The Sacred Acre, I penned my own thoughts regarding the impact this image had had on my own journey. It was a necessary step toward discovering the secret of losing:
"My life, to be honest, feels a lot like the town of Parkersburg after the tornado hit. Emotionally, I see piles of rubble and debris, and I find myself staring at it all and wondering where to begin to even start putting the pieces back together. All the lights have gone out, and a penetrating darkness has closed in, just like on the South side of town. My natural instinct is to just pick up the few valuables that have survived and leave the scene. Nothing in me wants to sum up the resolve to say, 'We will rebuild...' like Coach Thomas declared.
How can you? I question...
But I have also come to realize that, just as the Sacred Acre lights were the first to shine again and the Thomas home was one of the first to rebuild on the South side, so my life, despite the losses it has incurred, can be a point of purpose for others who have lost hope. The fact that the loss has happened can't be denied, as much as I would like it to be. The way life was before can never be retrieved. Just like the 'Old Parkersburg,' things will never be quite as they were before. But they can become better, made stronger as a result of the devastation. Parkersburg got a better athletic facility, a newer school, and a lot more character in the community after everything was destroyed. Light shown out of darkness again. Beauty was gained from ashes, joy out of mourning. But it happened because people were willing to face their loss for what it was and determine that the loss would not define them or their town.
I so want to view the crisis of the last [few] years in this perspective. The lives of people around me and in the future depend on it. I am coming to realize that, just as the Thomas family knew that, as they went, so went the town, as I choose to go, so will others. The anger, the bitterness, and the resentment that I harbor will, eventually, spill over into the lives of people I love. If I fail to accept my losses for what they are and decide to run away from them, I will never know the grace and hope that comes from rising above your tragedy and facing life with joy despite your sorrow. My story will not have an ending of life. It will die...along with the losses. Future lives will see the result of my choices and realize I did nothing to embrace my loss but, instead, feared it too much to deal with it and experience redemption. They will see that I shut Christ out, rather than let Him in. I valued my pain while yet hating it. As much as it hurt, I was unwilling to face a new reality and to see the possibility that God could create a better one. I would not let go.
That picture is enough for me to take a different path. I don't want the story to end that way. I want the lights of my own 'sacred acre' to light the way again. I am through focusing solely on the pain and not on the bigger picture. By only seeing the loss, I will never be able to see the potential behind it. Hope will never arrive. I am willing to comb through the heaps of rubble if it means that I will acquire life again. Maybe I can rebuild..."
For me, the picture of going through the crushed remains of a former life was very powerful. Up until that point, I had never opened my mind to the possibility that I could build on those ruins and start over. It never occurred to me that something whole could be created out of something broken. All I saw was the loss. Seeing the optimism of people in Parkersburg, like Coach Thomas (who we'll discuss more in a future post), who saw possibilities amidst the rubble, blew me away. I so desperately wanted to pick up the shattered life I now had and make something beautiful out of it.
Was that possible?
All of us tend to be like this in some way following the sorrowful incidents of our past. We think there is no way to rebuild our lives after what has happened. We see no vision for the future. All we see is what we have lost, the good life we have supposedly been denied. But, the difference here again, is the blind discovery that comes through future hope. In spite of the ruins we now find ourselves standing on, God is already in our tomorrow, making a way for us to see the light in the darkness. When we are behind the door, all we can focus on is the negative. But when God begins to shake up our world, we can be enabled to look at life differently. Inspired by the hope that there is a bigger plan at work, we can begin to ask ourselves...and God...if maybe...just maybe...we can rebuild.