You should first know from where I write. My family and I live on the Jersey Shore in Toms River, just a few miles from where Superstorm/ Hurricane Sandy did its worst damage. While we are inland from the beach, my neighborhood sits along the river the town is named for.
My greatest fear as the storm approached was that the ancient 60-ft. scrub pine that sits in the front yard would come crashing down on our house. Taking a cue from Ralph Waldo Emerson, I took a preventive measure. Believing there could be a connection between me, the tree and the divine, I had a silent prayer session with the old pine. Admittedly feeling a little silly, I put my hands on its weathered trunk and together we appealed for its survival. The wind roared for hours that night and the old tree bent, but it did not break.
While we came through the storm just fine, many of my neighbors were not so lucky. Around the corner is a stretch of six houses that each took on several feet of water. They still sit empty today, six months after the storm. The owners are waiting for insurance money or for new building restrictions to be finalized or both. In all likelihood, they will need to raise their homes by three or four feet, which for most will not be economically or architecturally feasible. There is an air of sadness that hangs over these homes, like a fog that rolled in from the sea one morning and then refused to leave.
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My cousin and her family have lived in Toms River for 23 years in a modest single-story home. While they are not directly on the water, it is nearby in the form of the Barnegat Bay. As Sandy charged up the coast, they made what they now know was the unwise choice to not evacuate. A quarter century in the same house without ever encountering a storm surge will do that to you.
The night Sandy hit, the water came rushing into their home about midnight. It came so fast that they quickly realized it was too late to escape. So with their two young-adult children, they pulled down the stairs that led to a small, overhead attic. They sat there in the dark amongst stacks of boxed up Christmas decorations as the water slowly filled the house, stopping only when it had reached half-way up the wall, a few feet below them. My cousin’s husband, a big burly man, said he was never so terrified in his life.
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So where is God when disasters like Sandy strike? It’s a question that comes up time and time again, after every natural or man-caused disaster. We heard it after 9/11 and the Newtown school shootings and the bombing at the Boston Marathon. I heard it after Sandy. If God is all knowing and all powerful, where was he that day? Why did God not warn my cousin and her family to get out? Better still, why did God let the storm happen in the first place?
For some, there is an easy answer and it comes from viewing God through an Old Testament lens. Some “Christians” believe in a God that is not kind and loving, but that is judgmental, unforgiving, even vindictive.
A preacher by the name of John McTernan received national press by claiming that Sandy was “God’s judgment on the gay agenda in America.” And you don’t have to look far to find like-minded thinkers in the Christian blogosphere, with one writer blaming Sandy “on a nation hellbent on promoting sin”, claiming the storm was “a warning shot…to give people opportunities to repent”.
Thankfully, there is another Christian perspective. It has been articulated by a local man of faith and a neighbor of mine, David Joynt, the Senior Pastor at the Presbyterian Church of Toms River. His church is handling one of biggest Sandy outreach programs in my county. The “Superstorm Sandy Recovery Team” continues to help those in the worst affected areas, distributing food and supplies, offering volunteer labor and emotional and spiritual support.
During a recent sermon, Joynt recognized the storm’s “emotional and human toll on a grand scale” that has broken families as well as homes. He too has heard the same questions regarding the all-mighty God and been asked: Why does God let these disasters happen to us?
His answer starts with a passage from Matthew 5:45 that reminds us that what happens to one, happens to us all, regardless of our place in life: For he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. He also points out that even Jesus had his own questions about God, crying out on the cross “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”
Yet the truth is that once the storm passes, we come to realize that we have not been forsaken. When we take the time to stop and contemplate where God is, we come to realize that God has been with us, within us all along.
Pastor Joynt believes that “God’s final will is to restore all things” and that “everything broken will be restored and made more glorious still”. He words are not empty promises, they are backed up by the church’s Sandy Recovery Team, as well as the many professionals and volunteers now assisting in the Shore’s restoration.
While he acknowledges that “we have gone through an experience that has required our bravery, endurance, faith and sacrifice”, the pastor reminds us that “amidst the struggle and difficulty there is an historic and unprecedented opportunity to witness God’s love and compassion.” Because even while we suffer through the hardest of times, God “brings out good things in us”.
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This love and compassion continues today along the Shore. There is the story of the Mariner’s Cove Motel located up the road in Point Pleasant Beach. After the storm, it took on major flooding and its entire first floor was under five feet of water. The owner, Raj Patel, opened up his second story rooms to those who had lost their homes. While he had no power for 20 days, he was able to provide candles and blankets and beds to sleep in.
Six months on, FEMA has stopped paying for many of the people who now reside in his hotel, but he has not kicked them out—in fact, he is letting them stay for free until they find a place to stay. There’s one older man there “living off a meager Social Security check” who sweeps the parking lot to show his gratitude. When asked if anything positive had come from his experience, Patel replied:
I realized how much I love being in this country. I was raised in India and I still visit from time to time, but seeing how everyone has been bringing all the food and supplies to the people stranded here has made me really appreciate this country.
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Look for the helpers. It’s an expression I head in the days after the Boston Marathon bombing and it comes from the late television host Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers. He once said “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Sure enough we saw “the helpers” in the TV coverage of the Boston bombing, scores of people running into the mayhem, not away from it, to see how they could help the injured. And while we don’t have the same compelling video footage of those assisting with the Sandy tragedy, the helpers are there.
I mentioned the work of the Presbyterian Church of Toms River. On the church Web site, they keep a running blog called “Relief Stories” that details the storm relief work they do. In one of the entries there’s a quote from a man named Alan from Ortley Beach whose home suffered major storm damage:
The Lord sent the storm that destroyed most of our belongings. He then sent the Presbyterians to help clean it up.
So perhaps, like Alan, if you do blame God for the storm, you must also give God the credit for all the good that came in its aftermath. And that good came from the generosity and sacrifice of the people, giving their time, their money and their emotional and spiritual support to assist those who need God’s help the most.
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One person who I believe knows God well is the author and religious scholar Mirabai Starr. She has immersed herself in the rituals and traditions of several of the world’s religions, practicing what is known as interspirituality. Starr sees a common thread in all faiths and has come to the conclusion that “each faith tradition sings the same song in a deliciously different voice: God is love.”
She goes on to say something that has special resonance after the Boston Marathon bombing: The wisdom teachings remind us that love—active, engaged, fearless love—is the only way to save ourselves and each other from the firestorm of war that rages around us.
Another compelling point-of-view on the role of God in our lives comes via a New York Times column by Maureen O’Dowd. In an article titled ‘Why God?” she asks a close family friend, Father Kevin O’Neil, about why man has to suffer. His response follows:
I will never satisfactorily answer the question “Why?” because no matter what response I give, it will always fall short. What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. This is a gift that we can all give, particularly to the suffering…for whatever reason, God has chosen to enter the world today through others, through us.
It’s an idea that ties into the Hindu belief that God is omnipresent, both inside of us and right in front of us. From this perspective, God can be realized here in this world in human form and can appear as anyone you encounter, whether it’s your spouse, your child, your friend, or a stranger you meet on the street.
So perhaps the answer is that after Sandy, or after any tragedy, God is there. God appears as the people who arrive on the scene to help, comfort and heal those in distress, the people who in various ways shower us with “active, engaged, fearless love”. I wonder: Could this be the face of God on earth? Could God be hiding from us in plain sight?
This post originally appeared in May, 2013, on the Web site Contemplative Journal.