Some years ago my husband and I were walking down a street in St. Thomas, one of the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. It was sunny and warm with a light breeze, and we should have been relaxed and happy to be on vacation in this beautiful place. We weren’t.
We, along with everyone else on the island, were waiting for Hurricane Georges to strike. In 24 hours, we would be huddling indoors while the roaring wind lashed against the door, and water squeezed in through the shuttered windows. On this bright, balmy Sunday morning, it seemed almost impossible to believe the forecast for tomorrow. We’d probably be safe in the small, concrete block inn we found after our tented ecolodge was closed, but it all seemed quite unreal.
As I recall that sunny day, I am haunted by two sounds that followed us everywhere as we walked through the town. The first was a sharp repetitive hammering as plywood was nailed across windows, roofs were battened down, and doors were sealed. The islanders had been through this before; they knew how to prepare.
The second sound provided a counterpoint to the percussion of the hammer. The Cathedral Church of All Saints was broadcasting its Sunday morning service on the radio. We heard the music and prayers of the gathered congregation coming from all the little shops as we strolled down the street. From one open door and then the next came the music: O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blasts. We heard the prayers of the people. And we heard more music: Martin Luther’s A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.
Yes, these islanders had been through this before. They knew how to prepare. They knew that hammering plywood was not enough. For courage, they needed the grand old hymns and the community united in prayer. They – and we – needed to turn to the One who was a fortress, whose help and hope sustains through the centuries.
Worshipping in person in the Cathedral or joining in the worship by listening to the radio broadcast wouldn’t turn the hurricane aside. But it could bring strength to endure what had to be endured. It could bring hope to a time filled with dread. In a storm, God-given hope is as necessary for survival as plywood over the windows.
Hurricane Georges arrived, and we huddled in our little room. We read by flashlight, sopped up water from the floor, and ate our sandwiches while we listened to the roar of the unending battle just outside our concrete walls. Eventually the wind and rain quieted, and we carefully opened the door and stepped out. Most houses still had their roofs, although many of the boats had been badly tossed around. All the trees and shrubs had been stripped of their leaves. But no lives had been lost, and we were grateful.
I’ve never forgotten that experience on St. Thomas, and the lesson of both/and. In our ordinary daily life or in extraordinary stormy weather, we need both to do the work before us and to turn to the One whose Presence strengthens and brings hope. When we turn to the Source, to the God of love, we are better able to sustain the work we’re called to do. And we remember that, like the vegetation of St. Thomas that was stripped bare by the hurricane, we too are designed to grow new leaves.
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