When I told my friends I was moving from the Heartland to the barrier islands (to help a dying church), half asked what I had done to earn a call to Paradise, and the rest warned me that this was risky (or ill-advised) because the barrier islands were a place where at any time a hurricane could devastate an entire community. I disregarded their concerns, but one persistent friend whispered to me as we said goodbye, “whatever you do, don’t live near the water.”
Stories of hurricanes were the first stories I heard when I arrived. How Charley had come that August and stayed a full week, only to be followed by Frances and Ivan. But how it was Jeanne, the 4th and last that year who changed the lives of folks in this Paradise for years.
The stories came out in bits and pieces, like the debris the people picked up for months after their electricity finally returned.
I remember it was so dark. Even in the day. Dark grey. All the time. For days.
I remember seeing 3 small boats, still tied to a dock — a dock that had left the shore. The dock and the boats were floating down the river like a family taking a walk.
A man’s voice from the back, one who rarely speaks, offered:
I remember the storms were relentless. Just about the time one subsided, the next one hit. We lost power for 9 days, got it back for two, then lost it for another 14.
I saw photos of the fellowship hall soon after I arrived; the heaps of sheet rock littering the floor; the dim light making the wreckage look like a sleeping giant. I asked about the sanctuary. Nell said, “I walked in to set up communion and the sanctuary was one big lake.” She motioned at the pews. “A lake. Right here.”
The memory is still strong enough that the stories are whispered– staccato-sentences spoken nervously as if the memory alone might summon a squall.
The water always wins. I heard this many times. And I wondered: how do we reckon this truth against John’s account that…
16 When evening came, Jesus’ disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.19 When they had rowed about three or four miles,[d] they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, “It is I;[e] do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going. (John 6)
I thought of Jesus, walking toward his quaking disciples, clinging to the sides of the boat. I wondered if the darkness prevented them from realizing who he was. I wondered how close they had been to the land, or if their arrival there so soon after Jesus said, Do Not Be Afraid was part of the miracle. I wondered.
I thought of Matthew’s account of the resurrection. How there had been an earthquake as Jesus gave up his spirit. And of the centurion’s whispered account, that “surely this was the Son of God.”
I thought about Noah and my struggle to understand the very concept that God would cause such a flood. And I thought of the flood stories from various traditions and the scientific evidence that indeed, a huge flood had devastated the world even then.
I tried to suppress the nagging question, but it wouldn’t be stilled. Rising up repeatedly like the fish I see jumping from the deep to check the weather above, it flipped through my mind: Does God / control / the weather / or not?
I thought about the farmers praying for rain. And the mosaic of people in New Orleans praying that the rain would stop.
I thought of the fire raging for weeks now in the cascade mountains, and the roads closed, and the people evacuated, and the beloved village of Holden threatened next, the 500+ firefighters working 24/7 and hanging onto hope that maybe the wind will cease, or maybe– it will rain.
And the question continued to tumble like clothes in a dryer, Does God / control / the weather / or not?
I remember the calm. It was so quiet when it finally ended that I was afraid to speak.
I remember the telephone poles, snapped like toothpicks, lying everywhere. All over the roads.
When the causeways opened, and I came home, there was a mattress from a baby’s crib on my front lawn. I never did see the crib.
I thought about the people I’ve served now for more than two years. They live in a constant state of preparation. They keep huge bottles of water on hand. And generators. And astronaut food. And ice.
Some will not drink anything without a full glass of ice.
They stockpile provisions in the same way that the folks in the Midwest fill their garages with tire chains and sand bags and rock salt.
I think of Job, the classic example of bad things happening to a good man. And how his friends tried to explain away his grief as punishment for something he must have done to offend God. And how they were wrong.
And again, I thought of Jesus. Jesus, changing water into wine, for the wedding would not have been a wedding without it. Jesus, touching the untouchable, giving sight to the blind with his spit, giving freedom to the woman at the well. And forgiving the unforgiveable.
Jesus, waking in the storm–to still it. Jesus, walking on the water–to save.
I asked the children, what do you remember?
“My dad putting up the hurricane shutters; they had alligators on them.”
We had 3 first days of school because every time we started, we’d have to stay home for a week then start again!
I asked them, where is God in a hurricane? Hadley, not yet in middle school answered first, “Right there with you”, she said, motioning to the space next to me on the floor.
Now that I’ve been here two years, you who called this place home long before I arrived are helping me understand that the two camps of friends I left behind were both right.
I remember that the fire station put on its sign, even before we had the electricity back, “It’s Still Paradise.”
Melbourne Beach is a place where people went 3 full weeks with no ice and only canned food, living on their lawns because they couldn’t breathe in their homes, and feeding their babies spoonfuls of peanut butter because the storms sucker-punched this island and had them on their knees where they groped along in the dark until one by one they found one another.
I remember sharing a can opener up and down the block because the electric ones didn’t work.
I remember a man who had lost his dog. He was devastated. Everyone was looking for the dog. Finally, a guy spotted the pup in Turkey Creek, which was flooded and filled with alligator, to save the dog. And he did.
I remember trying to get the tarps on the roof of the church and we just couldn’t do it. A man showed up and with very little effort, in no time at all, he had them all in place. Then he was gone. No one got his name. We never saw him again.
I remember that whoever came by when we had food, we fed. And people walking the streets day and night looking for ways they could help one another. We hauled trash and carried bricks and washed laundry for weeks.
It took forever before I got over being able to go to a gas station and have them actually have gas. I kept looking for the bags covering the pumps.
I ignored my friend’s advice. My home is a condo right on the ocean. Everything metal rusts in time and a fine film of salt covers my counters, my car, my skin. And, the sound of the waves can still my anxious mind in minutes. A walk where the water meets the sand centers my soul in a way I can’t fully understand. I stop to sip my coffee and watch the sunrise on the water and again, I imagine Jesus.
Jesus walking on the water, salt spray stinging his face, he comes, stilling the storm.
The waves hit my legs and I turn toward home thinking of these resilient people who live near water. It is a choice of bravery and faith: we will not be afraid. They know the importance of hope, even in paradise. And together, we hold onto the words of promise that are far greater than any doubt:
“And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”