The first time I, a visiting West Coast girl, ever heard the chilling scream of tornado sirens was late one night in southeast Tennessee. My husband and I were RV camping in a university parking lot while attending a church conference. Before retiring a half hour earlier, we had commented to each other about that evening’s warm, restful breeze. But now the warning wail of sirens jolted us into a state of heart-pounding wakefulness. An authoritative knock brought us rushing to the door of our RV.
“This is campus safety patrol. Tornado warning!” called a man’s deep voice. “You need to seek shelter immediately.”
Opening the door, my husband asked, “What does ‘tornado warning’ mean, and where do we go for shelter?”
“It means a tornado is heading our way,” said the uniformed man, “and you need to head to the basement of the girls’ dormitory at the end of this road!”
Two memories from the subsequent events of that interruption-filled night still linger with me. First, while our pickup truck headed down the winding road amid pelting rain, its headlights illuminated the figure of a woman and two children hurrying along the roadside. We slowed and asked, “Where are you going?”
The single mom, as it turned out, answered, “My children and I are temporarily camping in the nearby park. Our car is in a repair shop. We’re running from the storm, but we don’t know where to go.”
The warning wail of sirens jolted us into a state of heart-pounding wakefulness.
“Climb into the back,” my husband called over the howling wind. “We’ll take you to shelter.” After they clambered into the truck bed, we headed toward the base of the hill and safety. Who would have helped them if we hadn’t been there? I wondered.
Second, the gravity of the approaching storm frightened me as I saw other shelter seekers lining the walls, cell phones in hand. Snatches of nervous, urgent conversation filled the air: “Hey! Wake up! A tornado’s coming!” Or: “I’m down here in the girls’ dorm basement. You need me to come bring you here too?” And: “Don’t waste another second. Just come to the shelter—now!”
I’m happy to report that the tornado itself missed that area, though straight-line winds did some damage to trees and area structures. Sometime after midnight, when the all-clear signal was given, we drove the woman and her children to their campsite, then headed back to our own RV for a few hours of sleep.
For days I could not get the image of the soaked, fleeing widow’s family out of my mind. On the other hand, my mind felt lighter as I recalled the many people streaming through the dormitory basement door—because someone who cared had taken time to warn them. What if they hadn’t?
Now another tornado—an unprecedented tornadic outbreak, actually—is headed straight toward us! We already see, feel, and hear the signs about us. The dark, turbulent clouds of human suffering on an unprecedented scale; the angry winds of saber-rattling and wars around the globe; the baffling rise of previously unknown diseases; the churning uncertainty that fills our lives and our futures–all these point to the approaching storm. In fact, Jesus Himself told us what to watch for (Matt. 24; Luke 21; and Mark 13) and how to seek shelter.
And where is the shelter? “The name of the Lord is a fortified tower: the righteous run to it and are safe” (Prov. 18:10). Paul assured the Christians in Rome, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13). Solomon emphasized that God’s safe place is in a personal, abiding relationship with Him. “Whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm” (Prov. 1:33).
Yet we believers also have a responsibility from within God’s shelter to warn those outside about the approaching storm, and invite them into a saving relationship with Jesus. In Christ’s parable of the great supper, the command of the master to his servant is fraught with urgency: “Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full” (Luke 14:23).
Now whenever I hear tornado sirens—or see headlines about the carnage or war, or cringe at the latest report of “wickedness in high places”—I ask God to calm my spirit and use that warning sign as a reminder: first, to double-check that I am still in a safe, saving relationship with Him; second, to do whatever I can, not only to invite, but also to transport, others to the Shelter before it is too late.
Carolyn Sutton lives with her husband, Jim, in Dayton, Tennessee. Carolyn, a cancer survivor, is a retired educator and also served as editor of Guide magazine.