The Storm

From June to September, I have a regular practice of checking the National Hurricane Center webpage to watch for storms. I’ve done this a few years now, and every time I see another hurricane coming, I find myself wondering: is this the one? Is this the holy storm that will hit us so hard that we’ll finally see the light? Katrina shone some light, made us see the wretchedness our society has papered over, made us see the poverty and contempt that creeps through our culture like a cancer. Then Katrina blew itself out and we looked away. So every time another alert goes up on the NHC website, I ask: will the wrath of a wronged, forsaken god finally come down on us? Will heaven finally stop pulling punches, truly lay us out, make us change?

And then I do this: I hope. I whisper, “Make it this one. Do it. Break us. Shatter our cities, open our eyes, make us see. Hit us. Hurt us.”

There’s a storm brewing; I hear there hasn’t been a storm like this since Gloria, or Bob, or the “Long Island Express.” This one is called Irene. It could tear up the whole coast, whack every city from Savannah to Boston, roll right into New York Harbor and hit that city as it has not been assailed in generations… no, not even ten years ago.

I was talking with my friend Jay, of whom I’ve written before. She lives in DC, and I said to her, “I’m glad you don’t live in New York.”

Saying this, I stopped. Jay’s not in New York, but Phoebe is; she’s an old flame of mine, I’d hate to see her hurt. And Jo, to whom I owe so much, is in Boston, which may suffer just as badly. In fact Irene is going to pass over every woman I’ve loved in the last five years.

Which made me wonder: do I only care if someone I’ve had a crush on is in danger? I actually have people all along that coast. Friends. Family. So many people I love in so many ways, from Atlanta north.

It hit me then: every single person in the storm-path is loved by someone.

If even one person dies, then someone’s heart will be broken.

I was ashamed then. I still am. Ashamed of quietly calling for a killer storm on everyone else, whispering prayers for divine judgment so long as they didn’t touch me or mine, not seeing or not caring that any deaths would rend someone as much as I would be rent if Jay or Jo or Phoebe or anyone else were hurt. Here I was, just months ago, saying how we are all connected. Here I was, just days ago, teaching myself to see everyone as people, so I can take the next step and love them as neighbors. And here I am today rooting for a city-breaking, world-changing storm to hit the next town over from my friends. I’ve drawn a circle around the people who matter to me and said, “Take the rest.”

We all do it, of course, not that it excuses me. Everyone has that circle, and beyond it we rarely raise a finger. Oh, sometimes we do, when a quake hits Haiti or a storm smashes New Orleans. But we don’t care enough to change the world’s ways — our ways — that put those people in the path of the storm to begin with. They are outside the circle.

But Christianity is about drawing one big circle around everyone ever created and saying, “This is who we care for. No one gets left out. No one is unloved.”

Hard, yeah. Likely impossible. But it’s written plain right there in the law: “Love your neighbor. Love the stranger. Love your enemy.” If we don’t… well, then, the man from Galilee won’t even want to know us.

Then I remember that the One I follow is mercy and forgiveness incarnate, and that we absolutely get points for trying.

Irene is not the wrath of the One. If there’s anything heavenly in this hurricane, it’s in the hope that people will help each other. Not just this week or this year but all the time, in advance and ever after.

And if there’s no such thing as god, then absolutely nothing changes. If there’s no one watching us, we’re still watching each other. If there’s no reward, then helping just for helping’s sake is all the more beautiful and selfless.

Hurricanes will come. They aren’t the wrath of a heaven too long ignored. There won’t be a god-storm that opens eyes. If I want eyes opened, then I have to speak up.

So.

What will it be? Will we turn away from each other? Will we leave each other in the lurch again, forever look the other way?

Or will we face this storm and all storms? Face it together? Together as a community, as a country, as one people? Shall we again disappoint, or shall we rise to meet our promise?

Take my hand. Make the circle. Bring everyone in.

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Port-au-Prince, January 2010

The news out of Haiti wrenches at me.

Disasters always make me feel bad; in part because I care for all the people hurting out there, and in part because I regret that I don’t care more. I read the news and went back to having breakfast, a reaction I fear will be extremely common the world over. Certainly the news out of Haiti has been atrocious for decades if not centuries, and the world rarely bats an eye. Still, this is not going to be a white-guilt post. I fired off a donation to the Red Cross and signed up to give blood, and given my current circumstances that’s about what I can do right now.

Disasters, however, also raise the hard questions again. Haiti is a land that has had  no luck at all, and now the biggest earthquake the region’s felt in two centuries hits the poorest city in the hemisphere? That’s on beyond bad luck, that’s almost malice. As if God has it in for them; that has, in fact, been suggested. Seeing the devastation in Port-au-Prince, it would seem God is cruel, vengeful, or simply not there. So I have to ask, as with every disaster, how can I watch such tragedy and still believe in a holy power that is both vast and compassionate?

As with everything else, there are many causes at work; the simple answer is almost never right. Haiti is a classic example of all the factors that govern human life going wrong at once, and combining to produce even greater horror. Continue reading