As it neared the Florida coast, Hurricane Ian was so gigantic that the International Space Station could see it on the distant horizon. Hurricane Charley, a horrific 2004 storm that killed fifteen people and left more than one million people without power, could fit entirely inside Hurricane Ian’s eye. The storm stretched five hundred miles east to west, twice the width of the Florida peninsula.
After wiping out power on the entire island of Cuba, Hurricane Ian made landfall yesterday afternoon near Cayo Costa, Florida, as a Category 4 storm. Wind gusts of 140 mph were recorded in Cape Coral. Storm surges up to eighteen feet have been seen. Homes were moved, obliterated, and submerged. Streets in Naples looked like rivers; there are reports of vehicles floating out into the ocean. More than 2.2 million people are without power in Florida today.
The storm is tracking across eastern Florida this morning. It is expected to move off the Florida coast later today and approach the coast of South Carolina tomorrow. Orlando set a daily record with 7.72 inches of rain reported yesterday at the international airport; the previous high for the same date was 2.68 inches of rain. Central and Northeast Florida are expected to receive isolated totals of thirty inches of rain today.
This is a storm we’ll talk about “for many years to come,” according to National Weather Service Director Ken Graham.
“The conclusion I dread”
I cannot imagine how people who have lost everything are feeling this morning. But I can say as a cultural apologist and a pastor that, in the face of great suffering, asking “why” is normal and appropriate.
- If our God were not all powerful, we could not blame him for what he could not prevent. No one faults me for the existence of cancer.
- If our God were not all loving, we would not be surprised when he does not intervene at times like this. No one who knew of Hitler’s vehement hatred for the Jews could be surprised by his role in the Holocaust.
- If our God were not all-knowing, we could understand why he doesn’t stop what he doesn’t see. You cannot know what you cannot know.
But Christians claim that God is all three. We believe that his character and capacities do not change; if he could part the Red Sea and calm the stormy Sea of Galilee, he could prevent tragedies like Hurricane Ian. But he did not.
For most of us, our fear at times like this is not that God does not exist. Rather, we agree with C. S. Lewis, who wrote after his wife’s death: “The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”
“The gift we most desire”
At the same time, I think we should ask ourselves why we are asking such questions. Perhaps the very fact that this disaster provokes such angst for us shows that we believe, perhaps subconsciously and intuitively, that this is not the way the world should be.
Why? Nothing in our experience as fallen humans on a fallen planet guarantees a life without tragedy.
To quote C. S. Lewis again, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
In Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, Henri Nouwen expressed this explanation profoundly:
“I know that the fact that I am always searching for God, always struggling to discover the fullness of Love, always yearning for the complete truth, tells me that I have already been given a taste of God, of Love, and of Truth. I can only look for something that I have, to some degree, already found. How can I search for beauty and truth unless that beauty and truth are already known to me in the depth of my heart?
“It seems that all of us human beings have deep inner memories of the paradise that we have lost. Maybe the word innocence is better than the word paradise. We were innocent before we started feeling guilty; we were in the light before we entered into the darkness; we were at home before we started to search for a home. Deep in the recesses of our minds and hearts there lies hidden the treasure we seek. We know its preciousness, and we know that it holds the gift we most desire: a life stronger than death.”
“The universal way of the soul’s deliverance”
Today is a day for grief and mourning, for solidarity with millions of people who are suffering through one of the worst natural disasters in US history. It is a day to ask hard questions and, perhaps, to recognize that even in despair there is hope and in mystery there is Mystery.
My purpose this morning is not to offer the victims of Hurricane Ian a logical explanation for their suffering but rather to point them—and us—to the One who heals broken hearts and calms stormy souls.
As Jesus wept for Lazarus, he weeps for Florida. And he asks us to trust him with our suffering and confusion, our doubts and grief. Those times of our greatest pain, when we understand him the least, are the very times when we need him the most and therefore need to trust him the most.
Such trust positions us to experience all that his redeeming love and healing grace stand ready to give.
In his classic The City of God, St. Augustine observes that “the universal way of the soul’s deliverance” comes from One whose “design . . . is impenetrable by human capacity.” For example, he notes that when Abraham was promised, “In your seed shall all nations be blessed” (Genesis 12:3), he had to leave his homeland and father’s house and, by obedience, worship the one true God “whose promises he faithfully trusted.”
Abraham could have such confident faith in the midst of his many tribulations because he was “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).
So can we.