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Halyn McKnight sits with her niece and a child of a friend as she searches for possessions from her destroyed home after tornadoes.
Halyn McKnight sits with her niece and a child of a friend as she searches for possessions from her destroyed home in the aftermath of tornadoes that tore through the region, in Dawson Springs, Ky., Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021.
Gerald Herbert, Associated Press

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Opinion: Tornadoes and devastation remind us what Christmas should really mean

Every time someone relieves a bit of suffering — whether by combing through rubble to find photos, bringing someone a meal or just lending a sympathetic ear, it is a sign that the faith of this season is not in vain

I’ve had two brushes with tornadoes in my life.

As a young journalist working for a small-town newspaper in Oklahoma, I huddled with my wife in the bathroom of our newly rented apartment (the innermost room of the place) while a large twister passed about five miles from us.

It was my wife’s birthday. It was 1983. We had been married less than a year and had lived in Oklahoma less than two months. We had just gotten our pizza order at a local restaurant that night when the server told everyone to leave and seek shelter. We ate quietly in that bathroom, listening to the wind outside, wondering what might happen next.

A National Weather Service report said the tornado struck about 6:30 p.m. and traveled 28 miles.

The other brush happened in downtown Salt Lake City in 1999, when an F2 tornado struck while I was outside jogging. One man died and about 120 roofs were blown off houses as a colleague and I ducked into a nearby building for shelter.

Both gave me a sobering respect for the forces of nature. But neither brush can even begin to approach what happened in Kentucky and five other states on Dec. 10.

As I write this, 88 people are known to have died, with the toll expected to climb. But that’s just a number. Dig deeper and you’ll find real people, ranging in age from 5-month-old Chase Oglesby to a 94-year-old Korean War veteran The New York Times said was in a nursing home in Arkansas.

TV reports have shown mile after mile of devastation — scenes difficult to fathom for those, like me, who don’t know what used to be there. Still, these views are, while disturbing, not the real story. Dig deeper and you’ll find bits and pieces of real lives shattered and scattered; of real pain, and of personal spaces laid bare for all to see.

You’ll find the 15-year-old boy an NBC reporter found combing through the wreckage of a neighbor’s home in search of an elderly woman’s medication. “I don’t want to see anyone go without anything, so I’m just gonna come out here and help some people,” he said.

He ended up finding old photos he returned to the family, treasures once taken for granted that now are priceless.

Listen closely to news reports and you will hear people describe clinging tightly to children in the darkness as walls buckled and roofs disappeared. You will hear one man marveling at the irony of remembering his mother fussing over the details of a house when it was under construction years ago. “It was beautiful and now it’s trash,” he told the BBC.

The onslaught of deadly tornadoes so close to Christmas seems especially cruel. And yet, there is something uniquely Christmas in the aftermath — albeit quite different from the tinsel and presents that usually symbolize the season.

Suffering is difficult to watch because it evokes empathy and desires to help. Indeed, news reports say people have voluntarily come from other states to do whatever they can. Churches have rallied. Neighbors have come together.

Christmas is filled with contrasts. It is the celebration of the birth of a child who grew up not only to experience a great deal of sorrow, but to bring healing, joy and real hope to everyone who suffers. He fixed physical deformities. He raised people from the dead. He even ordered the angry winds to be still.

Ultimately, he turned sorrow and a cruel death into a triumph that brings lasting hope of a glorious future to every believer.

Life is filled with pains that, unlike the rubble from a tornado, remain largely out of view. Statisticians estimate more than 8,000 Americans die every day, on average. The CDC once did a study that found most deaths occur on Fridays and Saturdays.

But those are trivial numbers. We tend to ignore them until they are concentrated in a notable disaster. Dig deeper and you will find that each number is a person who was loved and is missed by someone else. Each is an opportunity to bring comfort, and the opportunities abound.

For every young couple huddled against a storm that passes safely, there are others who find themselves in the direct line of fire. Christmas is about them.

Every time someone relieves a bit of suffering — whether by combing through rubble to find photos, bringing someone a meal or just lending a sympathetic ear, it is a sign that the faith of this season is not in vain.

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