We live in Nebraska and I’m sure we’ve all learned by now that storms can come out of nowhere. Journalist Steve Tracton recently shared the story of a memorable event in our region you may have heard about. He writes:
“On the morning of January 12, 1888, a blizzard swept down suddenly on the unsuspecting inhabitants on the prairies of the upper Midwest (especially portions of Nebraska and South Dakota) with unprecedented ferocity.
One moment the air was clear, calm, with spring-like warmth. Then, in a period of just [three] minutes the sky darkened and temperatures dropped 18 degrees, and vicious winds drove tiny snow flakes (described as “ice dust”) which almost instantaneously created a whiteout with visibility near zero. Blizzard conditions continued until about midnight as temperatures fell precipitously to double digits below zero with a wind chill of -40. An estimated 4-5 feet of snow had fallen, although drifting undoubtedly made accurate measurements virtually impossible.
By the next morning (Jan. 13), hundreds were killed (235) with a high proportion of children among the storm’s victims as they attempted to return home from school.
The storm is most commonly referred to now as “The Children’s Blizzard”.
The Children’s Blizzard ranks 5th on the list of all time worst U.S. blizzards and affected a large area with the death toll held down largely by the much lower population density.
What made this storm especially deadly was the unusual warmth in the region before the storm struck.
Anyone who ventured outside wasn’t properly dressed for the Arctic weather that was on its way. As fate would have it, parents sent their children off to school in the morning without heavy coats, boots, hats, or mittens, being totally unaware they could be caught in a raging blizzard on the way home that afternoon. When the blizzard suddenly struck, some teachers hunkered down with their charges in the small school houses. Many more apparently panicked at the raging storm and dismissed their classes relying on the children to somehow find their way home.
Scores of children, along with parents, teachers and other would-be rescuers, experienced severe hypothermia from rapidly falling temperatures, fierce winds and blinding snow which buried the landscape and encased school houses in tremendous snow drifts.
David Laskin, author of a book about the event, vividly describes several individual stories that end tragically. For example, dozens of kids got lost in the whiteout and froze to death or suffocated beneath the rapidly accumulating snow. One woman died after unsuccessfully searching for her child just feet from the safety of her home not visible through the blinding snow.
On the other hand, there are several suspenseful accounts of the harrowing travail of many who survived. Some children managed to find temporary shelters or bundled together for warmth in the open prairie. In one case, the teacher kept the children in the schoolhouse until the storm abated, surviving the night by the warmth of a fire fueled by the foresightedness of the teacher’s stockpiling of fuel.
Plainview, Nebraska: Lois Royce found herself trapped with three of her students in her schoolhouse. By 3 p.m., they had run out of heating fuel. Her boarding house was only 82 yards (75 m) away, so she attempted to lead the children there. However, visibility was so poor that they became lost and all the children froze to death. The teacher survived, but her feet were frostbitten and had to be amputated.
Holt County, Nebraska: Etta Shattuck, a schoolhouse teacher, got lost on her way home, and sought shelter in a haystack. She remained trapped there until her rescue 78 hours later by Daniel D. Murphy and his hired men. She soon died on February 6 around 9 A.M. due to complications from surgery to remove her frostbitten limbs.
In Great Plains, South Dakota, the children were rescued. Two men tied a rope to the closest house, and headed for the school. There, they tied off the other end of the rope, and led the children to safety.
Mira Valley, Nebraska: Minnie Freeman safely led thirteen children from her schoolhouse to her home, one half mile (800 m) away, after the roof to her schoolhouse blew off. As the story goes, she used a rope to keep the children together during the blinding storm. She took them to the boarding house she lived at about a mile away and all of her pupils survived. Many children in similar conditions around the Great Plains were not so lucky, as 235 people were killed, most of them children who couldn’t get home from school.
By the way, the story of Minnie Freeman is enshrined in a mural located at the State Capitol building in Lincoln.
For a few weeks now we’ve talking about dealing with the storms that come up in life. We’ve talked about why these storms happen and, more specifically, why they happen to you and I. We even talked about how God can use these storms to discipline us and fit us for His kingdom. This week I want to take the next step and talk about our reaction during stormy weather in our lives. We’re asking the question “What now?”
Deuteronomy 31:6 says, “6 Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
What do I do when the storm comes? How do I react? When real-life weather hits, how we react sometimes determines whether we live or die. So, this morning, I want to share a few nuggets of wisdom from the scriptures about how to survive the storm. It all comes in the form of three lessons I’ve learned about dealing with storms: first, take cover; second, pray it out; and third, learn to be prepared.
While in seminary in Jackson, MS, I was the youth pastor at a United Methodist church. We had a game room there and often, after the meeting was over, we would gather there to play games. I remember one particularly stormy evening where I was shooting a game of pool with one of the boys in the youth group. He had just missed shot and now it was my turn. As I maneuvered around by the window to take my shot there was a bright flash that lit up the room and one of the loudest cracks of thunder I’ve ever heard. It was really bright, blindingly so, and you can be sure that every one of us in that room was a little startled. I glanced toward the window and back at the young man I was playing against and started to say something when I realized that he wasn’t there. In fact, he wasn’t even in the room.
The lightning had struck a tree about 30 feet from the building and it was still smoking when I looked out the window. The boy I was playing pool with was somewhere down the hall, he ran just about as fast as that lightning when it hit. I’ve never seen anything like it. If someone were timing him, he would have run the 40 yard dash in about 1 second, maybe less.
I can’t blame him for running. He was just following his most basic instinct to take cover from the imminent disaster. He walked sheepishly back into the room a moment later and we all shared a good laugh over it. Then we called 911 to have the firemen come out and take care of the smoke we were seeing since we thought it hit the house next door, not the tree.
When the storm hits, the first thing we should do is take cover. In Psalm 57:1 the psalmist writes, “1 Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.
One particular Sunday in Bartlesville, OK, I had the opportunity to experience a day of tornado sirens going off. Some friends of mine and I had gotten out of church late that afternoon and missed our opportunity to eat in the cafeteria on the college campus. That wasn’t always a bad thing. So this Sunday we all went out to Subway and enjoyed our subs while the sirens went off for two separate tornados that came through the area. This was the storm, in case I mentioned it before (and I think I did) that had clouds swirling around the city like it was doomsday and we were about to be sucked up into the heavens all at once. It was awesome!
The other guys were getting antsy and I had them drop me off at the church since we were within about 45 minutes of the evening service. The service never happened as the weather forced us into the basement for even more sirens and warnings going off.
Now, I’m a little looney when it comes to this kind of weather and I was outside taking it all in. First Wesleyan Church sits on a nice hill looking out to the Southwest. If you’ve experienced many tornados, you know that they almost always come out of the southwest and move North and East. So I was out watching the storms move in and, all of the sudden, a dark gray cloud drops down out of the sky and starts to billow in towards me. It sounded just like a freight train, believe it or not.
I knew what that was. It was a wind cloud that was coming in just ahead of the tornado and it was my cue to take shelter. I turned to my left and got hit by a very strong wind that threatened to blow me over as I walked the 15 feet back to the door of the church. It was really strong. A few minutes later we came back out and surveyed the damage caused by shingles from the church being blown down into the cars in the parking lot. A window in the church was broken, the sign for McDonalds was messed up, and all the air conditioners from the roof of the old Walmart were ripped off and carried a few miles away. Neat!
I had to know when to take cover in that situation. I am fascinated by crazy weather but it’s not hard to get fascinated to the point of putting myself in danger. So when that wind cloud came towards me, I knew it was time to take cover.
Storms in life happen. We can stand out in the rain, wind, and lightning, or we can seek shelter. Nahum 1:7 says, “7 The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble.”
When life storms hit we need to seek shelter in God. We need to take cover in a safe place where we can wait out the storm.
When I was growing up in Lincoln, we (us kids) always got nervous when mom and dad went out of town. We would have to go stay with some family friends and it never failed that, when mom and dad went out of town, the storms would come running our direction. The vast majority of tornados I remember from growing up happened when mom and dad were out of town. I remember one tornado-filled evening spent in the basement of a friend’s house. These friends were close by and they were always ready for the next tornado. So when the sirens blared, we headed for the basement, turned on the TV for the weather update, and found a safe place under an old mattress.
Basements are really important in some parts of the country. It’s the best place to go when the storms hit. We’d always head for the basement and wait out the storm.
Psalm 61:1-4 says, “Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe. I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.”
When the storms in life hit, we need to take cover in a place where we can wait it out. More importantly, we need to pray it out. This is what it means to take shelter in the Lord. When the big bad storm comes our way, we need to get on our knees and pray. “Oh Lord, please help me through this. Let me take refuge in You.”
Psalm 138:3 says, “When I called, you answered me; you made me bold and stouthearted.”
The problem that happens when we get caught in the storm is that we often experience fear. We worry. We realize the danger we are in the midst of and we begin to worry that we’re not going to make it through.
Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
It’s during the stormy weather in life that we learn to trust in God. We learn to stay faithful to Him as we learn how faithful He is to us.
I’ve learned in my faith that I am ready to go. I mean that. Anytime, anywhere. I know that, no matter what happens, I am going to end up with Jesus in Heaven. If a tornado comes along and takes me out? I’m ready.
I understand fear and worry. But this is what we must fight against. We can rest secure in the arms of our Lord. Are you concerned about your relationship with God? Fix it. Fix it right now. Don’t wait. You can be sure of your eternal destiny. Don’t leave that to chance.
When you rest comfortable in the Lord, you can wait out any storm and let the fear go. If you’re not ready, well, we’ll make sure and give you the opportunity to be sure in a little bit. And that brings us to our last lesson to learn this morning.
Growing up in tornado country has some unique twists. I’m sure every place has its uniqueness but I’m most familiar with this kind of uniqueness. In school we were always preparing for the worst. We would do tornado drills several times a year. This would include going to our designated safe place to get into our protective positions (on the floor, legs tucked in, leaning over and hands covering the back our heads) and wait out the storm. The designated safe place changed depending on what grade you were in. One year it was out in the hall next to the lockers and the next it was inside one of the bathrooms down the hall. Curiously, the procedure was the same if a nuclear war happened. And, curiously, I felt just as safe in that eventuality as I did if a tornado were to come along. It was during the Cold War after all.
One year we actually had to put this procedure into play. No, there wasn’t a nuclear warhead dropped near the school. A tornado hit the area and we were moved to the hall where we assumed the position and waited out the storm. It was a frightening one. In those days we were taught to open the windows to prevent the changing pressures from shattering the glass. So, in this case, the windows were open and the winds were really howling outside. We could hear the desks and stuff moving around in our classroom. As it happened, the storm passed over and we went back to our class. After picking up a few desks and papers, we resumed the lessons of our day.
Always be prepared. That’s the motto of the Boy Scout, right? We were always preparing for bad weather or some other horrible disaster back then. And that’s a big lesson to learn about the storms of life as well.
In I Corinthians 16:13, Paul says, “13 Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.”
How many of us carry blankets, flares, and other tools along with us in our vehicles just in case we get caught in some sort of emergency? How many of us keep water around in jugs during the winter in case we get snowed in and the electricity is out? What kind of events are you prepared for in life? The storms of life are no different. We must be prepared.
The time to get your relationship right with God is not when you are in the middle of the worst storm of your life. That’s a recipe for faith-failure. It should never happen. Be on your guard. Stand firm in the faith. Paul is right. Read up and pray up. Talk with God every day. Read your scriptures. Don’t let the sins in your life go un-confessed before the Lord. Get yourself right, and keep yourself right.
The storms in life have just hit. What now? Are you ready? What lessons have you learned for dealing with storms? When the storms hit: take cover, pray it out, and learn to be prepared.
Psalm 46:1-3 reminds us that, “1 God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, 3 though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”
That’s what it all comes down to. When the storms hit I need to react by taking cover in God, my refuge and strength. He is faithful.
I want to leave you with Psalm 16:8 on your mind. It says, “I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.”