I stood emotionless as I watched the gargantuan claw grasp our couch from the curb and drop it into a trash truck as though it were a toy.
I couldn’t determine whether my lack of emotion was due to the immense gratefulness that we were alive, or due to the truth that I was exhausted with emotion, and had nothing left to offer for the olive green couch that I once loved so dearly.
The couch that I once loved so dearly. What a strong term of endearment for a couch. Who am I, even?
The days following the tornado that ripped through and demolished half of our city were long (well, that’s a slight understatement).
Tiring Draining. Emotions were a roller coaster, as we celebrated our survival, and yet mourned with those whose loved ones were lost. As we celebrated being able to salvage a small portable storage unit of stuff, and yet mourned with those whose every treasured memory was obliterated. As we celebrated being alive, and yet watched fear and post-traumatic stress suck every ounce of life and joy out of our son.
Over the next many days and weeks, we shifted from staying with friends, to borrowing an RV, to renting a travel trailer, which we parked behind our house during the months of repair and renovation. We filled out paperwork and listed all of our losses. We stood in endless lines, sharing stories with those around us as we waited, all in hopes of getting various forms of assistance, help, a glimmer of hope in the midst of the darkness.
Our church was destroyed. Our church building was destroyed. For a few months after the storm, Convoy of Hope gave us the opportunity to become a distribution center underneath a tent in the parking lot for supplies, food, prayer, help. A team cooked on grills and served survivors and volunteers at every meal. A team kept track of distributions and needs. Another walked through our makeshift “store,” helping kids try on shoes to replace those lost, helping young moms choose diapers, helping load trunks with supplies. Others prayed. Some swept the parking lot and organized products. Teams of our students (who survived the tornado with us as we hunkered in the hallway of that destroyed church) loaded up in the back of pickup trucks, and walked through our surrounding neighborhoods, handing out warm food, cold drinks, gloves, shovels, and love to residents and they tirelessly cleaned up their piles of homes. It was the most beautiful display of servanthood that I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing and participating in.
Sometimes, I miss those days. Did I just say that?
I don’t miss the wake of that storm… the heartache and pain, the loss and utter chaos. I don’t miss watching the struggles, hearing constant emergency sirens, seeing the count of lost lives rise. I don’t miss the nervous breakdowns every Sunday from my five year old son as we headed to church (in rented spaces). I don’t miss the tears from my kids as they struggled to sleep for fear of not waking up. There is so much that I don’t miss about those days. So. Very. Much.
But what I do miss is how unoccupied we were with stuff. We were thrust into a different world… a different way of living.
“With all this going for us, my dear, dear friends, stand your ground. And don’t hold back. Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort.”
-1 Corinthians 15:58
This verse (and the several before it in 1 Corinthians) became our battle cry, in a sense. We threw ourselves into His work, because it was all we could do. We’ve often said that the months (and beyond) that followed the storm were like living on a different planet. Everything we’d known the day before the storm changed. Even those who weren’t directly affected by the tornado, were affected. The entire city became a triage unit for the hurting, the lost, the needy, the hopeless.
There were laundromats set up in grocery store parking lots. Parking lots became supply distribution centers. Vehicles became traveling urgent care offices. Gyms became dorm rooms for volunteers. Hotels became homes for residents who had no where else to go. Hotel meeting rooms became church sanctuaries. Strangers became family.
Everyone had a calling. A calling to serve. To pray. To unite. And it was beautiful.
I’d be lying if I said that our lost stuff didn’t creep into my mind at least once during many of those days. But truthfully, it took a backseat. Though my kids were hurting, I had my kids. Though their stuff was lost, they were not.
I’d never seen my oldest daughter (10 at the time) so full of joy as when she would walk off with a group of students, pulling a wagon filled with hot dogs and water bottles. It was the joy of the Lord. It’s so real. She didn’t spend her days crying over what she’d lost, she spent her days smiling as she served those who’d lost more.
There were many common threads amongst survivors. One statement heard from every single one of those was, “It was just stuff.”
Whether we said that because we were trying to convince ourselves of it, or whether we said that because we truly felt it, didn’t matter. What mattered was the truth that it really is just stuff.
The days before the tornado were filled with the typical end-of-the-year madness. Graduations, programs, weddings, parties, commitments. In the moments after the storm, we sat in shock, along with thousands of others, walking through our streets in what seemed like an apocalyptic movie. I didn’t care about the stuff as I held my babies close. I didn’t care about the stuff as we huddled in the hallway of our church, crying out to God while the winds whipped through. None of the happenings of the stuff of the week prior were even on my radar as we surveyed the condition of our students and fellow church goers, neighbors, and strangers in the aftermath of the storm.
The stuff we lost has long since been replaced over the last five years. We filled our home with restoration projects, scripture, positive quotes, and happy colors when we moved back in. I wanted to learn from the storm, from what we experienced, what we walked through. I strive to let go of the stuff more easily than before.
I try to place my focus on the people who inhabit and surround my home, rather than the things that inhabit it…. rather than the often excessive obligations that tug on me and keep me from loving those people hard.
I do really well most days. And then there are days when I fail miserably at all of that. I’m grateful for the moments when God smacks me straight up with a reminder. Maybe, just maybe, the tornado was one of those moments.
Maybe I needed to be reminded to cherish every moment that I have on this earth. To share the love of Christ with everyone in my path. To turn my eyes from the temporal to the eternal, and to point others in the same direction.
Material items… they are simply things… just… stuff. It’s so cliche, and yet intensely true.
Jesus. People. That’s what I want to cling to.
I want my children and those around me to know that they mean so much more than a couch, a building, things. I want my Jesus to know that He is everything I need… and then some.
When I leave this earth and go Home, I want to leave a legacy, not things.
You can have all of my stuff. Just give me Jesus.
This post is dedicated to the 161 who lost their lives due to the May 22, 2011 tornado that changed Joplin, MO forever. It is dedicated to those who lost their precious loved ones. To those whose lives were forever shifted from that day forward. To those who came. Those who served. And those who prayed.
Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.