Over the last few days, I’ve been looking online at pictures of places I used to go — old haunts of mine when I lived in the Florida Panhandle.
I recognized that scenic stretch of Highway 98 at Carrabelle that runs along the shore of the St. George sound, now all buckled and broken up after Hurricane Michael. I saw that there’s now no road at all on Alligator Point, my go-to Friday afternoon beach in college, where the Tiki Hut bar is also gone. There was a boat tossed up against the post office in East Point, and everybody’s docks were ripped up at Shell Point where I used to go sailing. The funky Driftwood Inn at Mexico Beach is gutted and roofless, and St. Marks seafood market is covered in river sludge.
And in between the photos of the places I used to go were photos of cars smashed by trees, boats splintered and slammed into each other, living rooms missing their walls, bedrooms missing their ceilings, refrigerators lying on concrete slabs where garages used to be.
And there were photos of people sifting through the rubble, trying to salvage picture albums or jewelry or furniture, or, in the case of restaurants, beer, and a woman sitting in front of the Mr. Mart convenience store, wondering where she should go now because her house was completely washed away by the storm.
And then I read Becky Lehman’s moving meditation in today’s Spirit about the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in North Carolina just a few weeks ago. Her descriptions were so vivid, I didn’t need photos. I could see in my mind’s eye the piles of things in front of all the houses, stuff dragged out to be hauled away, and not just stuff but memories and keepsakes that hold laughter and beauty but now, as she so memorably put it, are “ruined things in public view,” “the visual representation of lives interrupted.”
I don’t know if the woman sitting in front of the Mr. Mart, wondering what to do, now that her house has been washed away, would enjoy hearing the story today of Jesus telling the man who knelt before him to get rid of all his possessions so he might inherit eternal life.
It feels callous to hold up the virtues of voluntary poverty amid the real and understandable grief of those who have just lost everything they owned within the span of a few hours. And although we know deep inside that God always brings new life out of destruction, it feels a little too soon to press her to look at the bright side just yet.
Sometimes we just have to sit with our grief and mourn our losses. Actually not just sometimes. None of us can really move on without acknowledging and grieving the things we have lost, be they possessions or memories or relationships. Jesus cried when his friend Lazarus died and Mary Magdalene went back to the tomb and stood there weeping after the disciples had gone home. The Israelites were devastated by the destruction of Jerusalem - the Psalms say that the people loved her very rubble and had pity on her dust.
And so let us acknowledge the pain that destruction brings. Let us grieve not only the loss of life, but the loss of a way of life for some and the loss of the material goods that supported the lives of others - beds to sleep in, refrigerators in which to keep food fresh, cars to take people to their jobs, shoes to protect their feet, roofs to shelter them from heat and cold and wind and rain.
Let us not condemn but love as Jesus did the man who sadly walked away, grieving at just the thought of giving up everything he had. Surely we can relate. Nobody wants to lay themselves bare before the eyes of those who would judge. Nobody wants to be so vulnerable.
In the end, though, it is vulnerability that Jesus is offering as the way to the kingdom. Elsewhere he has said that we must become like children to enter it. We must be like those who are, and know they are, completely dependent on God. Like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, relying on manna from heaven for their daily bread for forty long years, completely dependent on God.
The hard truth is that we cannot save ourselves, we cannot grant ourselves the fullness of life God intends for us, neither by following the rules, nor by accumulating money and possessions to shield us from all the things we fear. Jesus knows we’d be better off if we could accept this. And yet he looked at the man kneeling before him and he loved him.
True connection comes from self abandonment in the face of love. Giving ourselves away, giving our wealth away, letting go of our shields and props, that’s what frees us from the bondage of stubborn self-reliance so that we might boldly approach the throne of grace. Giving ourselves away opens us up to the beauty of life in God, a life where it’s not scary to be vulnerable because there is always enough and more than enough, and we are cherished and safe and will be cared for even though we can’t quite let ourselves believe it.
According to news reports, back in Mexico Beach, rescue crews are going door to door, or what remains of doors, and combing through debris, to find everyone who needs help. Over in Panama City, people with generators are offering to charge their neighbors’ phones for them. The Sonny’s Barbecue staff started cooking all their pork and chicken and beef in the smokers in their parking lot - the meat would go bad with no refrigeration - and gave it out to all who came. A tapas bar with no electricity in Apalachicola fired up its gas grills to cook not only their own food but anything folks brought over from their own still-without-power homes to serve to first responders and locals alike.
The papers say these communities look like war zones, but to me they sound a bit like the kingdom of God. Amid destruction, people are searching for the lost, caring for each other, giving away what they have to those who have suffered. The vulnerable are being sought out and found and fed.
The losses are real, and so is the love.