A Pastor’s Ponderings: Storm Stories

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Out of the Depths – Amazing Grace

Michael Schneider, Pastor Emeritus, Trinity Presbyterian Church of Valparaiso
As Hurricane Sally was swirling through the Emerald Coast, the Weather Channel began showing waves washing over Beach Boulevard in Pascagoula, Miss., in front of the place where my childhood home once stood. In that house in 1947, at age 5, I watched through a small window of the front door as the waves from “the hurricane of 1947” washed up on the front steps.

I saw waves wash over the streetlamps of Beach Boulevard. In some of those waves were swimming live wild cows which had been swept off Greenwood Island to the east, really a peninsula separated from the mainland by a marsh. Some of the cows stumbled to their feet and began walking through the town mooing their sorrows as the wind and rain bowed down the trees around them.

We walked two lots to the east, and there on the ruins of the house, a woman was picking up pieces of vases and other glass fragments to make a mosaic for her friend who had lived in the house. Propped up against one of the remaining oak trees in the yard was one of those ply-boards we tack over the windows to keep the wind and rain out of the house. The house was gone, but the board was left. And the owners had written this message on the board: “Twas grace hath brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.”

The lady picking up the pieces of glass was Tricia Lott’s sister-in-law, and Tricia sent me the picture of the sign. Trent and Tricia Lott, who now have a home in our area, lived before Katrina in a house on Beach Boulevard about 10 houses to the west, a house built in the 1850’s. It was also totally swept away by Katrina. In that house, President George W. Bush once sat on the balcony looking out over the Gulf of Mexico.

Flashback to 1969 and the approach of Hurricane Camille to the Mississippi coast. My wife Judy and I were again visiting Pascagoula after the birth of our first child. Sitting in the front yard of my parents’ home, the sun was shining, the sky was blue with white fluffy clouds, but people were scurrying all around us, pulling their boats out of the water in advance of the coming storm, now named and being followed on the radio. We were preparing to leave for the Pensacola Theological Institute, but my father pleaded with us to stay there, “where we would be safe.” I said, “But the storm seems to be heading for Mississippi!”

We crossed the Mobile Causeway along the northern edge of Mobile Bay (before Interstate-10) as the waves were lapping over the causeway. When we arrived in Pensacola, the bridge to the island was closed, and we would be unable to reach our beach cottage until Tuesday of the next week.

Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones of Westminster Chapel in London was re-scheduled to preach mid-afternoon (instead of evening) at McIlwain Presbyterian Church, because the storm was coming in, and it was not certain exactly where. As Hurricane Camille was bearing down on the Gulf Coast, Lloyd Jones preached on Romans 8:18, “…I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”

The winds that night were “only” about 60 miles an hour in Pensacola, since Camille actually went in on the west side of the Mississippi coast. But the electric street wires outside our window were crackling and snapping all night, as we listened intently on a portable radio to see if my parents were surviving in Pascagoula. Pensacola had been relatively spared from Camille, and though it was the most powerful storm to strike the Gulf Coast since 1947, my parents’ house in Pascagoula survived again in 1969.

As I write today, I am wearing a classic collector T-Shirt from 1995. The front of the T-shirt carries a front-page headline of August 4: DIRECT HIT! Erin Slaps Gulf Coast.

The back carries the front page of October 6, with the headline: DISASTER! Emerald Coast Two for Two. Erin was a category 2 hurricane; Opal was a category 3. As I was cleaning up the massive debris after Erin, and chasing an alligator back into Lake Sharon from my back yard, I had no idea that just two months later, Opal would be a much worse storm.

The only real physical hurricane damage we sustained as an adult couple, after our children were married, was from Hurricane Ivan in September of 2004. We were booked for an Alaskan cruise out of Seattle, and we decided to fly out of the Okaloosa County airport in Valparaiso, even though Ivan was bearing down on the Emerald Coast. After a lunch atop the Space Needle, we received a call from our neighbors that the largest tree in Lake Sharon had crashed through the roof of our house. We cancelled our Alaskan cruise, and, thankfully, the damage was largely covered by insurance, and our trip insurance enabled us to resume our cruise a year later.

I have great personal sympathy with those who experienced loss through Hurricane Michael in the Panama City area in 2018, including our son John, whose family had extensive property damage, but not nearly the loss of property and life experienced in Mexico Beach and the surrounding area.

The Gulf Coast hurricanes have had a devastating effect upon the Emerald Coast and upon my own life. But, in retrospect, I’ve really experienced only some minor inconveniences. My storm stories and trials are almost trivial in comparison to the storms of life experienced by the slave trader John Newton, which he recorded in his autobiography Out of the Depths. It was out of those life storms that he wrote his famous poem in 1772:

Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found was blind, but now I see.
‘Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear, and Grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear the hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come.
‘Tis Grace hath brought me safe thus far and Grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me. His Word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be as long as life endures.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.
As you and I face the storms of life, may we have the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord to sing from the heart, ’Tis grace hath brought us safe thus far, and grace shall lead us home.

A Freeport resident, Pastor Mickey Schneider become Trinity’s first pastor in 1986. Pastor Schneider served for 28 years, retiring in 2012. He now serves as pastor emeritus and can be reached at (850) 897-5554 or trinvalp@cox.net.