One of the great joys of my life is making the short trip over to Cape Canaveral and walking the beach there. There is about a mile and half stretch of sand between a county park - where there are usually places to park - and the jetty pier - where fishermen wave to tourists on cruise ships as they steam past them in the nearby inlet - that has somehow escaped Florida’s de facto state bird, the construction crane. It is far enough away from the light pollution of the nearby Pier with its boozy guitar players entertaining boozed up tourists and its tee shirt and kitsch shops that you can even see the stars on clear nights.
Sunday night a week ago was a beautiful night at the beach. We’d had a nice meal at a restaurant with good Greek and Italian food. We’d navigated the couple of miles of neighborhoods complete with their peacocks crossing the streets ahead of us to the beach. We’d parked outside the county park and walked over the crossover to the sandy expanse below. Sea oats bent nearly horizontal in the very strong northern breeze making an otherwise hot day comfortable.
It was absolutely beautiful.
Reprieve From An Angry Sea
I love the ocean. I have long felt a deep, spiritual connection to her. And I learned on my cross-country travel that I cannot live far from her shores. I find the middle of the country suffocating in more ways than one.
This night the sea was rough with waves crashing both near and far from the shore. A solo surfer braved the waves with his board but he was alone in the ocean, a single dark silhouette on the horizon. Not even waders ventured into the frothing surf.
Perhaps the surfer was less brave than foolhardy. The retreating waves ran out swiftly in rivulets speeding back to the sea. While these runouts were visible from the shoreline, they spoke of the deeper currents just below the surface of this angry sea, riptides that could quickly pull a swimmer under the surface to drown.
There was a reason the sea was so angry. Just 60 miles as the crow flies east of where we stood, the eye of a growing hurricane named Humberto spun off the coast. On the horizon we could see the banks of dark clouds that marked the outer feeder bands of the storm and on occasion lightning would light up the entire horizon.
From a safe distance away, there was a beauty to this natural wonder spinning furiously, growing stronger over the waters of a warm Gulf Stream as it began making a right turn toward the open sea. Humberto was headed to Bermuda and the island was already on alert for what would be a Category 3 hurricane with winds over 115 mph as it rushes by. But for the most part, this will largely be what the weather folks call a “fish storm,” blowing and raining itself out over open water.
We remarked on our good fortune last night as we walked and picked up shells. The recently renourished beach was jagged with erosion from a close call with a killer storm just a week previously. Hurricane Dorian had been one of the most powerful storms to ever form in the Atlantic Basin and had stalled for 40 hours of pounding the northern and eastern Bahamas with 185 mph winds and gusts to over 200.
The damage there was catastrophic. The relief had just begun to pour in when Humberto formed nearby no doubt providing an island nation which now more resembled a war zone than a tourist destination with no small amount of PTSD.
Both of us know that PTSD only too well. We lost our home in Hurricane Charlie in 2004 when a 120 year old oak tree came down through the middle of it. We were out of our home for nearly four years as two contractors began repairs and then walked away from the job. The week before Dorian had finally passed ever so closely up our shores. It was an incredibly difficult week for us both. Numb with fear, we were both essentially paralyzed for a week.
We know what it feels like to be at the mercy of an angry Mother Nature. And she is truly angry these days, with good reason. We talked about leaving our beloved home we had rebuilt from ruins, a true labor of love that lasted for nearly four years. But where would we go? What corner of our world will escape the anger of a planet out of balance from the activities of its most destructive form of fauna?
One of the many destructive aspects of anthropogenic climate change is the phenomenon of killer hurricanes that form and strengthen quickly and change directions without warning. For days Florida had been on high alert when forecasters were predicting Hurricane Dorian would charge across the Bahamas into Florida and gullet the state from bottom to top.
Then it stalled. And turned. We were spared - or so we told ourselves.
“O Lord, Make Haste to Help Us….”
Shortly after Dorian had begun its northward turn which would bring it much closer to the shoreline than Humberto, images of a giant hand shielding Florida from the hurricane began to appear on the internet. The clear implication is that G_d had somehow shielded Florida from the hurricane even as it decimated the nearby Bahamas.
It’s a natural reaction to see one’s unpredictable escape from a deadly storm as somehow being spared. It’s easy to confuse relief from anxiety with a sense of being blessed. That can take the form of feeling special when the escape has not been available to everyone.
But there are deeply troubling aspects of such thinking. As I saw the image on a friend’s site, I wondered, what had Floridians done or refrained from doing that resulted in our delivery from evil, this change of direction and near miss? What magical words had we figured out to utter in our terror that caused this change in direction away from us? And what had the Bahamas done to merit such catastrophic destruction?
More importantly, what kind of G-d plays favorites like that? And, given the complete destruction of the Bahamas, one has to wonder if G_d is really that sadistic. And if G-d is not directing these unfolding disaster and corresponding catching of breaths, is G_d oblivious to human suffering?
Anyone who has ever taken coursework in a seminary or at a university in theodicy has had to deal with the problem of evil. What they generally discover is that it is largely insoluble and that when one presumes the existence of a deity charged with omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence while simultaneously seeing that deity as a loving god, they have a real problem on their hands.
Of course, that presumes a rescuing deity who acts on behalf of those with whom the deity is pleased and to the detriment of potentially everyone else. My own extensive study of the Holocaust dispelled any notions of an interventionist deity for good. There are too many problems with such a model in the light of that depravity.
Beyond the theological questions, there are questions about how one understands natural phenomena such as hurricanes. In light of the science, beliefs in a deity shielding one location on the planet from harm while allowing another location to suffer its fury ultimately get in the way of understandings which rely on scientific evidence, hopefully as a means of preventing and ameliorating the suffering caused by these juggernauts.
I suspect a major part of that denial and avoidance process has to do with an innate realization that we are part of the problem, that our lifestyles are unstainable and that the privilege we in the first world see as our entitlement is killing the biosphere. With such realizations come guilt for failure to act compounded by self-deception and a recognition that at least in this context, the eucharistic prayer of the Book of Common Prayer is right on target: “Have mercy on us, Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.”
A Prophet Crosses the Angry Sea on a Sailboat
This week the NOAA reported that the month just ended had been the second warmest August on record, the latest of record or near record heat months all around the world. Clearly, we are slow learners.
This news arrives coincidentally with the arrival on a solar-powered transatlantic ship of a 16 year Swedish girl named Greta Thunberg. She has come to speak to the United Nations about the climate change that she rightfully notes provokes terror for her generation. And she is leading a climate strike of high schoolers that is becoming increasingly loud and insistent: Do something now!
Jesus observed that prophets are never welcomed in their home towns. In a global consumerist world, they are rarely welcomed at all. We don’t want to hear that our behaviors have been predatory, that the costs of continuing those behaviors could mean a major extinction event for our planet, that we will have to radically change our self-indulgent lifestyles beginning with our addiction to fossil fuels if we want to survive.
It’s a lot easier to stone the prophet, to shoot the messenger. And predictably that began almost immediately, many of this young woman’s critics seizing upon her physical disability, Asperger’s Syndrome, as their place to dig into her person while avoiding her well timed and well considered message. It is the adolescent behavior of the bully that has come to dominant all public discourse on virtually every subject today.
But this young woman is not going away and she is not backing down. We need her a lot more than she needs our approval.
Our Luck Will Not Hold Out Forever
All of that seems far away this peaceful night along a turbulent ocean fading into shades of inky blues and greys, the western horizon over the Indian River fading into pastels of lavender, orange, white, soon to give way to the stars that still can be seen if one gets far enough away from street lights.
This will not be Florida’s last scare. Our luck will not hold out forever. Sadly, the Katrinas, Michaels and Dorians may simply be the harbingers of the future of tropical cyclones in ocean waters heated by climate change.
Most importantly, there will be no rescuing deity to place a hand between a people with an enormous sense of entitlement and the results of their misdeeds forever. G-d is always present with us. But if we are going to ameliorate the damage we have done to G-d’s very good Creation, we are going to need to stop engaging in self-serving fantasies and find our ears to hear badly needed prophets like Greta Thunberg.
It is, ultimately, up to us.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston 2019