JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)--A standing-room-only crowd of 1,500 people gathered in Union University's G.M. Savage Memorial Chapel Feb. 19 to reunite for the first time since a tornado battered the campus Feb. 5.
"Out of the rubble across this campus," Union President David S. Dockery said, "I am praying that we will see renewal in the lives of dozens, and hundreds, of students, staff, faculty, administrators and trustees."
The service -- on the eve of Union's return to classes Feb. 20 -- featured singing, Scripture reading, prayer and a devotional message from Dockery.
Union students were returning to campus after a two-week break from class during which university personnel worked to make the campus operational again.
"Blessed Be Your Name," echoed throughout the chapel as students, faculty members and others in the Union community sang praise to God for sparing the Union body from death.
"Blessed be your name, on the road marked with suffering," the crowd sang. "You give and take away, but my heart will choose to say, 'Blessed be your name.'"
"The Miller Tower clock that has not moved for 336 hours will move again as we start afresh," Dockery told the crowd. "We start afresh because of God's grace, His providence and the hard work and determination of His people."
Union Provost Carla Sanderson prayed, "O Lord, thank You for providing a place of refuge in the rubble ... that saved our loved ones from death."
Although the tornado that caused about $40 million in damage to the campus left many devastated and displaced, Dockery said the Union family continues to push forward with hope in God's sovereignty and provisions.
"It is hard to imagine 14 days ago where we stand," Dockery said. "But by God's grace, we are here tonight to enjoy one another's fellowship, to reconnect together and to focus on the God who has sustained us."
Dockery acknowledged, "For some of us, Feb. 5 has resulted in much confusion, causing us to struggle deeply with our faith." But, he noted, "[F]aith is not free from complexity nor is it free from challenge."
Dockery cited Psalm 84 to relate Union's past and future to the longing of the psalmist for the place where he had met the living God. It was the psalmist's displacement from that special location that created within him a longing for God and the things of God, Dockery said.
"It may well be that our current situation may result in a new yearning and hunger for God and the things of God for many of us here tonight, Dockery said.
Dockery identified two things that students can know: that, like the psalmist, they must go through their own "valley of tears," but that through the difficulties "the one, true, living God is both good and faithful."
"Some of us have shed tears daily for the past 14 days," Dockery said. "For the next several months we will be passing through the 'Valley of Baca,' the valley of tears, and we will help each other and hold onto each other."
Dockery referenced C.S. Lewis' book "The Problem of Pain," in which Lewis notes that God often uses the experiences of suffering as a megaphone to awaken His people. Lewis depicted suffering and pain as the essential means by which God often brings about dependence, fortitude, patience and forgiveness in His children.
"Certainly we have seen hundreds of acts of mercy and compassion from people near and far," Dockery said. "Now we pray that God will work in our lives to bring about patience with one another, forgiveness when we have been wronged as well as seeking forgiveness when we have been the ones in the wrong, and fortitude and courage to face the challenges that are now ours.
"Most of all, we pray for an urgent sense of our complete and total dependence upon God for all aspects of life."
Although the pre-Feb. 5 Union University is irretrievable, Dockery said he looks forward to a "new future."
"Here, the impossible can become possible," Dockery said in comparing Union's situation with that of the psalmist. "Affliction can point us to joy. Ashes can become beauty, hardship can be turned to rejoicing, rubble can become renewal and weakness can be transformed into strength. We can, by God's grace, become an oasis of hope to others across this campus.
"We claim the promise of the final verse of Psalm 84: 'O Lord of hosts, blessed is the man who trusts in you.'"
Brittany Howerton is a senior public relations student at Union University.