What a month or so it has been. I’m finding this particular period of time difficult to describe because it’s been such a blend of extremes. Lately, we’ve seen temples in Thailand, taken tuk tuk rides through rural Cambodia, admired red cliffs and turquoise water along Australia’s Great Ocean Road, and soaked up the pastoral perfection of New Zealand. But enormous, chaotic chasms have cut in and between these mountaintop-type experiences. Let’s start with the hurricane.
One week before we were due Down Under our governor issued a mandatory evacuation order due to the threat of Hurricane Matthew making landfall. We spent five days at my in-laws’ home in North Carolina along with Taylor’s parents, my parents, my brother-in-law, and two dogs. We lost power after three of those days and spent our remaining time together avoiding cold showers, preparing food using alternative methods, playing games by candlelight, and preparing ourselves for the fact that the family trip to Australia we had booked six months prior might not be happening. When we returned home we found that Hilton Head Island was standing, but it was also stripped and changed. The 48 hours before our non-refundable departure were spent with chainsaws, blowers, and rakes in hand as we dug ourselves and a few neighbors out of the debris piled on our homes. We removed a massive fallen limb from our roof, covered the fractured skylight in our kitchen with a tarp, threw some clothes in a carry-on and did our best to mentally prepare to leave the United States. Hurricane Matthew caused millions of dollars of damage to Hilton Head, and debris removal in our neighborhood alone is expected to stretch well into 2017.
And then there’s the election. Taylor and I watched the results roll in from a hotel room in Te Anau. From the television to my Twitter feed, first came shock, then came anger and accusations and finger-pointing and shaming and caustic headlines and countless expressions of hopelessness. The next day, while on a beautiful walk through a green, green forest that spilled out onto a blue, blue lake surrounded by tall, tall mountains, I cried. For the division, for the lack of understanding, for the readiness to talk and the inability to listen, for the fact that no matter whose name had been announced I would have been left with the same lack of confidence and trust in our leadership I was then experiencing. These feel like especially dark times, don’t they? And yet we are not the only country whose streets are currently filled with protestors. As I type, thousands of men and women are marching in South Korea and calling for the resignation of their president amid accusations of corruption.
Now for the present. Around 12:30 this morning our Christchurch hotel room began to shake and creak and sway. I woke up out of a dead sleep thinking that we were on a cruise ship and that the waves outside of our window must be huge. In reality, we were experiencing a magnitude 7.5 earthquake along with the rest of New Zealand. Once we were both conscious of our actual surroundings, Taylor called the front desk of our hotel and asked what to do. They answered on the first ring, said “Stay in the room” and immediately hung up. The screech of some kind of metal-on-metal scraping – maybe the building’s newly renovated infrastructure, swaying with the movement of the earth – continued in our room, and I looked up at the ceiling and wondered if it was going to fall on me and if I would be crushed, or if I would survive it and be pulled out of the rubble like the people who had survived the devastation of the 2011 quake in Christchurch that made headlines across the world; the one the city is still recovering from. Once the shaking stopped we got dressed and walked down the stairwell and into the lobby. Most of the other guests were already there, circled up in groups and taking turns describing what it felt like. Someone at the front desk said that we could go back to our rooms and that there wouldn’t be any aftershocks, but he was wrong. We experienced several while still in the lobby, one strong enough to send a large portion of the lobby contingent running out of the doors and into the streets.
Following the scare of the biggest aftershock, the general manager and several employees put on yellow vests and announced that tea and coffee would be served. A tsunami warning had been issued but they felt confident in the combination of our hotel’s downtown location and 30 million dollar renovation; there was no need to leave and, again, we really could go back to our rooms and try to get some sleep as soon as we felt comfortable doing so. Around 2 a.m. Taylor and I decided against evacuation and did just that. We took the hotel staff at their word because they are the experts; the ones who endured the 2011 earthquake and came out stronger on the other side. We left the United States a month ago in the wake of one natural disaster and we are leaving New Zealand today less than 24 hours after another. For the first time ever I am able to literally say that our world has been shaken.
And now I write. I am sitting at the airport, waiting to board a plane and wade back into the waters of post-hurricane Hilton Head and post-election America, and I write because it’s the best way I know how to process it all. The one-two-three punch of the last month has left me with much to consider, and strangely enough, I haven’t felt a peace about any of it until last night – the moment I realized that the roof of a Christchurch hotel might very well crush me in bed.
It was an impression in that moment, but this afternoon it is more well-defined: from the hurricane, to the division, to the earthquake – in all of the current chaos – I see and I feel and I believe that everything on and under the earth is groaning in expectation of and longing for the return of Christ.
For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope,the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (see Romans 8:19-24, NLT)
I have so fervently clung to the illusion that I have control over this life of mine. I think last night’s earthquake may have finally been the death of that. You see, we were given a week’s notice to evacuate before Hurricane Matthew made landfall. If I couldn’t control the election results, I could at least exercise my right to vote and feel as though I had some small say in the final decision. But you cannot predict an earthquake. You can simply endure it once it strikes. I have never felt so helpless before, and at the same time, I have never felt so completely wrapped in the “peace that surpasses understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Last night I realized that no matter my end – if I was truly going to be crushed in my bed that very night, or if Christ’s return will happen within my lifetime, or if I’m destined to meet Him in another 70 years or so – I am safe and held and secure in the Father’s love, and in His plans for me and the world that He created.
Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39, NLT)
Before leaving for this trip I had really hoped that New Zealand would be perfect. Like apparently every other American, over the last few months I had been tossing around the idea of packing my bags and running away to another country if things got too bad at home. I wanted New Zealand to be that beautiful island of refuge that Taylor and I could escape to, maybe permanently, if America and the rest of the world began to sink. But even before last night’s earthquake I had already realized the truth – there is no heaven on earth. There is beauty here, but there is no place I can run to where sadness, sorrow, and sickness of heart and mind and soul and body cannot touch me. And so I have two choices: to fight to regain my semblance of control and obsess over the darkness and the muck and the mire, or to choose to remain in the rest and peace I felt last night – the one that enabled me to actually fall back asleep as the aftershocks of an earthquake continued to shake the walls around me.