Will WellmanAugust 29, 2019
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Who will lift this sorrow from our hearts?
Yesterday evening a heavy rain and again today
the covered sky burdens us. Our thoughts —
like the pine needles of yesterday’s downpour
bunched up and useless in front of our doorway —
would build a collapsing tower.

Among these decimated villages
on this promontory, open to the south wind
with the mountain range in front of us hiding you,
who will appraise for us the sentence to oblivion?
Who will accept our offering, at this close of autumn?
— from “Mythistorema,” George Seferis

I am 21 in Trevor’s jacked-up Chevy Silverado crossing the Gandy Bridge from Tampa to St. Pete. We are tossed back and forth by 70-mile-per-hour winds from Hurricane Charley’s outer bands. Trevor is gripping the wheel with all his might, Jones is in the front seat screaming, beer in hand, and I am in the back—no seat belt—staring straight ahead at black sky, screaming, too.

After nearly barreling into the sides of the bridge a hundred times, we arrive at our destination—a small bit of shore on the St. Petersburg side of Tampa Bay, affectionately known as Beer Can Beach. We are young, arrogant, hopelessly brave as we jump out of the truck and confront muscular winds that push back without stop. We dance like idiots behind a news reporter who fights the wind as well, yelling into a clunky microphone. Her cameraman attempts to angle us out.

We are young, arrogant, hopelessly brave as we jump out of the truck and confront muscular winds that push back without stop.

On the way home, my mother calls my cellphone: “What the hell are you doing in St. Pete? Why’d you cross the bridge?” I laugh maniacally, telling her everything is fine. I assure her nothing happened, that we’re almost back. I am 21 and think of nothing but having fun.

•••

Having lived much of my 34 years in Florida, I have faced dozens of hurricanes. In 2004—the year of Charley—we were hit by four major hurricanes, and I came home from college in Gainesville for each one. Tampa became a playground of sorts. I lived through Hurricane Sandy while at seminary in New Jersey. Humongous, wind-knocked trees lay everywhere, and my astounded classmates and I climbed over them, drinking beer, talking theodicy, waiting for the electricity to come on.

Hurricane Irma was different. The normal attitude in Tampa and most of Florida is to buy some water and wait out the storm. Irma, though, brought on the largest emergency evacuation in Florida’s history. Even my most cavalier friends boarded up their windows. I bought five days’ worth of canned food. Grocery stores ran out of water the week before it hit. Gas stations were running out of gas four days before.

The normal attitude in Tampa and most of Florida is to buy some water and wait out the storm. Hurricane Irma was different.

My wife Taylor is from Nashville and had never lived through a hurricane. She became a Floridian quick—knowing the hours the National Hurricane Center put its updates online, following our local weatherman and therapist, Paul Dellegatto, on Facebook for detailed discussions on the path of Irma. She wanted to leave earlier in the week, but I told her the way Irma was tracking we’d be fine. Most of the models had Irma hitting Florida on the East Coast around Miami, then moving northwesterly through the state. So we prepped for what would come, ready to ride it out in the 1926 wood-frame house we had purchased less than a year before.

On Saturday morning, the day before the storm hit, Taylor woke me up, in tears, asking if we could please evacuate. I knew Irma had been tracking west but still felt like we were O.K. Taylor showed me the 8 a.m. National Hurricane Center update: The path was dead-on for Tampa, and Irma was now a Category 5. Tampa is a small peninsula inside of a bay and has been called the worst situated place in the continental United States for a hurricane to hit, worse than Houston or New Orleans.

For the first time in my life, I was evacuating from a hurricane. Taylor and I scrambled to pull inside whatever furniture, bricks, objects in our front and back yard that could become missilized by hurricane winds. We grabbed insurance documents and clothes and toiletries and whatever else came to mind at the time. I was uncharacteristically anxious, yelling are we ready? as I weaved through our suddenly full house—full of outdoor furniture, garden tools, wood, a mower.

On Saturday morning, the day before the storm hit, Taylor woke me up, in tears, asking if we could please evacuate.

I ran across the street to our neighbors to check on their plans. Emily looked at me like I was crazy—You’re going to get on the road? It’ll take you forever to get out of here, and there’s no gas. I told her we’re going to try, we exchanged numbers, and I let her and her husband know they could have some plywood we had bought to board our windows and didn’t have time to put up. We jumped into the car and headed north.

The traffic going north on I-75 wasn’t too bad. Our recently rescued corgi mutt, Lily, was excitedly panting on top of a cooler in the back seat of my Jeep, completely oblivious to what was going on, just excited to be on a car ride. I didn’t know if there would be a house to go back to in a few days. Would it be washed away, would that giant live oak in the backyard fall on it, would those nearly 100-year-old windows just shake till they shattered?

The first hour Taylor and I ran through apocalyptic scenarios and said dammits for the little things we had forgotten. A few miles north of Tampa, Taylor asked if we could pray for our friends and neighbors who stayed, for our house, for our city, for our state.

•••

What brings natural disasters? It seems like a simple question, but visit churches and diners throughout Florida, and you’ll soon overhear folks talking about providence, the hand of God, the evil of man and on and on. We saw this with Katrina (Pat Robertson was quick to blame the hurricane on abortions); we saw it with the earthquake in Haiti; we saw it recently with Hurricane Harvey (Jim Bakker said the flooding was judgment from God).

A few miles north of Tampa, Taylor asked if we could pray for our friends and neighbors who stayed, for our house, for our city, for our state.

While it is easy to dismiss this way of thinking, it has a staying power. Folks from all backgrounds seem to find God’s involvement in disasters to be an explanation they not only can digest but, in some way, need. Is this the tendency in humans to seek out patterns? The need to have some moral structure to the world? The fear that if these events are random, it’s just a quick hop, skip and jump into nihilism?

On our drive to Charlotte, I thought about the reasons why a supernatural explanation for the approaching Irma would be a comforting position. A long history of kidney disease and seminary training had led me to a firm position of being anti-theodicy. I have no doubt in my head and heart that God plays no direct role in any disaster—natural or man-made—and so am disturbed by any talk of God’s involvement in tragedies.

As I imagined a Category 5 sweeping through Tampa, I thought of surging seas drowning the entire city and wondered who would think a benevolent God would want such a thing. Human lives would be lost. Others would be wrecked by the cost of rebuilding and dealing with the lack of flood insurance. And still others would be completely uprooted from their homes. No, God has nothing to do with this—if we were to come home weeks later to a destroyed home or an untouched, still-standing home, God has nothing to do with this.

What brings natural disasters? Visit churches and diners throughout Florida, and you’ll soon overhear folks talking about providence, the hand of God, the evil of man.

So where could God be? I’m no deist, and yet—driving up I-95 through Georgia—I began to wonder if I was. Maybe God just set things in motion billions of years ago and now sits back—an admiring watchmaker. Throughout our many stops to get gas, get food, let Lily pee, Taylor and I discussed these things. She was much more of the mindset that God is involved—not in any malicious way, but in some way, God is involved.

•••

In my first year of seminary I quickly became discouraged with what I found to be the rationalistic approach to theology in the classroom. I came to seminary with no theological training—I had a background in ecology and botany—but a growing fascination with the Christian contemplative tradition. I arrived expecting discussions of Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John Ruysbroeck, and Catherine of Siena, and late-night bar talks around mystery and life and ecstasy.

My unmet expectations quickly turned to sadness and a spiritual slump—everything felt as dark and lifeless as the New Jersey winter. I have always had a problem keeping my eye on the ball, but this time was particularly challenging—I began to wonder what the hell I was doing in seminary. On top of that, a medication I was on had the unintentional side effect of making me clinically depressed.

Luckily, I am stubborn and stuck it out. Things got better and I found my foothold. I also found a mantra from Job—a high point of biblical literature: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (38:4).

God responds to Job from a whirlwind—a tempest, a hurricane.

This is what God says to Job after Job has spent most of the book trying to figure out, alone and with friends, why his life went to rubble. God responds to Job from a whirlwind—a tempest, a hurricane.

The phrase was a snide remark I would say to myself when professors or peers—always males—declared they had figured everything out. More than that, though, it became something that drove me to seek out a path, in and out of the classroom, that sought mystery over rationality, that held paradox as powerful, that knew there were things I did not know.

•••

I do not remember where it was on I-95 when, in my thinking over the supernatural explanations around Irma, I began to wonder why God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind. Of all the things the biblical author could have chosen, a whirlwind. Why? Maybe it is because the author understood the unfathomable depths of God’s mystery. This God was essentially unknowable; of course God would speak from a windy, wet, violent storm.

Driving among the flood of evacuees headed north, I imagined myself inside a hurricane over the sea. The choppy, grey waves like a Winslow Homer painting, the whirling walls of wind and water, the deafening noise. I imagined God within the hurricane—not seen but felt—threshing to life formerly still seas, disturbing the entire water column from surface to sediment, sea life fighting to get away. Amid this blue, grey, white body hovered black clouds fast for the horizon. God in every drop of water that stung my face, in each gust that spun me round, in each cloud that passed.

God is not some petulant deity sending disaster upon those who disobey; God is the God who meets us in disaster.

Throughout the drive, our prayers journeyed geographically further—from Tampa down the coast to Southwest Florida, then past the Everglades and over the Gulf to Key West, and finally out to Puerto Rico and other Caribbean Islands. In some way, Irma broadened my sense of self, my sense of concern. No longer was I simply waving to neighbors but being in a deeper relation of concern and compassion.

God didn’t bring the whirlwind; the whirlwind brought God. God is not some petulant deity sending disaster upon those who disobey; God is the God who meets us in disaster. In these moments we are brought outside ourselves and our own concerns; we are forced to consider the other and, hopefully, help the other just as they help us.

God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind because this is what shakes Job out of his inward theologizing and philosophizing. He is forced to look outward. And what does God do? Give an answer? No. God asks him, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” God then lists a litany of wild animals—none of them domesticated, all outside the bounds of Job’s known world and personal use. Job moves from his singular internal world to the multitudinous external world and so does his concern.

•••

I am 34 in my Jeep, my wife Taylor next to me, escaping Hurricane Irma. Our dog Lily sits atop a cooler in the back, surrounded by our most important belongings and clothes. Taylor grabs my hand, our fingers interlace and squeeze the other’s hand tight. Taylor prays for our escape, our neighbors, our friends and family, for the many strangers south of us in Florida and the Caribbean. My eyes are open to the road and world ahead.

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sheila gray
1 year 8 months ago

A great read. Nature inspires me to deeper and deeper contemplations about Life’s mysteries. Danger and death are integral to all of it. Maybe life is so precious because it’s fleeting. Without death would we write and read poetry? Thanks for this piece of writing.

Michael Bindner
1 year 8 months ago

God told me to watch for him. Then came the wind, but he was not in the wind. Then came fire, but he was not in the fire. Then I heard a small whisper and I hid my face, lest I die from seeing the face of God.

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