As I look out the window at the first threatening blasts of Hurricane Sandy on New York City and feel the floor shudder beneath me and my ear drums move from the force, I feel for those who already have died from this storm in the Caribbean, those who already have lost their homes, and those who have been evacuated and don’t know when they will be able to return to their homes. But mostly, I am thinking about what it is like to wait for disaster—to know it is coming and to be powerless beyond taking precautions and laying up recommended supplies.
As a Californian, I am accustomed to the occasional temblor or full-blown earthquake, from the slightest shudder to the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. The Loma Prieta was a frightening experience to live through for many Californians, and a grievous one due to the number of deaths from Santa Cruz to San Francisco. What was most unnerving was the fact that one can’t see an earthquake coming. Suddenly, the building starts shaking right to left (or rippling up and down), and one is aware of how powerless one is. It can happen any time with no warning.
It is very different to know that a natural disaster such as a hurricane is coming. It can be heartening to hear that shelters are available, that the most vulnerable are being evacuated, that people are told what to do. But it is intimidating to hear the (increasingly more accurate and dire) predictions of the worst storm ever and to wait for it.
As a religious person, I naturally incline toward thinking of this theologically and spiritually. Theologically: I wonder about a God who creates a world with such frequent natural disasters in it. I don’t think God engineers individual occurrences of natural disasters. They are not punishments. Nor are they arbitrary, neutral actions of an uncaring God. I cannot and do not worship that little “g” god.
These events may be part of a huge, wondrous web of creation that contains many cycles of birth and destruction, a wondrous sort of variety that is thoroughly bewildering but that causes many of us, time and time again, to worship a majestic and awesome God who is ultimately a mystery. It just is the way the world is and has always been.
As a Christian, I never consider God to be insensitive to human suffering because I believe Jesus Christ to be the incarnation of God, and in his ministry and death he demonstrated constant attunement to the mental and physical suffering of others, often healing it. Most notably today, as the wind shakes the timbers of my building, I remember the Gospel accounts of the disciples in a boat, frightened by the storm and strong winds that they fear will destroy them. In each account (Mark 4, Matthew 14, Luke 8), Jesus rebukes the winds to calm down the disciples, and then he wonders at the disciples’ lack of faith.
Okay. If I were on a boat with a divine man who rebuked the wind and stopped it instantaneously, after he had just fed 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes, I could understand that rebuke. But that same Jesus frequently says to people, “Do not be afraid.” I take this to be a divine acknowledgement that it is perfectly natural to feel fear at occurrences such as natural disasters. Fear is not inherently a spiritual problem.
However, blaming God (or attributing evil to God) is a spiritual problem. I am always disturbed when a natural disaster happens and some Christians blame it on their favorite sin(ners). Harnessing a damaging notion of God to caste aspersions upon other people is spiritually wrong-minded to me.
However, turning to God is not. Crying out as Peter did in a storm, “Lord, save me!” is one reaction. Another one from my Franciscan sense of spirituality is to focus on the needs of the most vulnerable in the midst of a natural disaster: those who have no shelter, no transportation, no food.
Last night, as I was worried about my daughter arriving in New York City just before public transportation was to shut down, she texted me to say that she had missed the first available train and was going to catch the next one. And why? Because she had stopped to buy a MetroNorth ticket to Grand Central Station for a homeless man.
As Mayor Bloomberg talked about the many, many evacuation shelters open in New York City and thanked the volunteers, I realized that it takes a LOT of such volunteers to care for the evacuees. These shelters are crowded, difficult places, and I am amazed at the dedication of the many people who will volunteer for days.
I am also amazed, as I was during the Loma Prieta earthquake, at the spirit of camaraderie between apparent strangers during a natural disaster. Neighbors who never talked before now talk. On my elevator, we are asking one another, “Do you have water? Batteries?” In the Fordham MetroNorth train station, where people usually regard each other with cold New York expressions, I found myself trading jokes and sharing complaints about delayed trains and the impending hurricane with people. I was so grateful for that camaraderie as I waited for my daughter’s train to arrive. This doesn’t happen on the average commute day, trust me. There is a leveling that happens in disasters: the usually observed barriers between ages, races, genders, and classes are removed as people acknowledge their powerlessness in the face of this storm.
Francis would love it, this levelling of human barriers. He would love this acknowledgement of powerlessness. To Christians, this is a good reminder of our true relationship to God and creation. It just becomes far more obvious when the wind is shaking the timbers.
Lord, save us!