Douglas Estes: Preparing to Witness an Act of God

On Ash Wednesday 1962, the dead didn’t just rise again. They floated.

The Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 was one of the worst storms to hit the Eastern seaboard in modern memory. One of the places hardest hit was Chincoteague Island, a tiny barrier island off the coast of Virginia. As the island flooded, and residents scurried into their upstairs bedrooms, the tidal surge was so great that it sucked the wooden burial vaults out of the ground. The dead floated down Taylor Street.

Everyone alive has experienced the storm—maybe it was a hurricane, maybe it was a nor’easter, maybe it was a tornado, or gale, or earthquake. I grew up hearing the stories of my grandparents being airlifted off of Chincoteague by US Navy helicopter the day after the 1962 storm. In 2015, I watched as the flood waters of the 1,000-Year Flood rose across my yard and ran under my house. Each one is a unique event, the sum and total of which is unexplainable from our limited, human perspective.

Beyond Our Understanding

The night before the Chincoteague storm, waterman Herman Fitchett told his daughter, “The barometer is the lowest I’ve ever seen it in my life. Something bad is going to happen.” Still, in 1962, the residents of places like Chincoteague had relatively little warning.

Times have changed. As Hurricane Florence bears down on the Eastern seaboard, coastal communities like Chincoteague are under mandatory evacuation. At time of writing, Florence is a Category 4 hurricane, a tropical cyclone with winds of up to 130 mph. In 1962, the Weather Service wasn’t able to predict the Ash Wednesday Storm. Today we have Doppler radar that allows us to watch the hurricane’s every move.

Modern science has provided us with the remarkable ability to explain weather patterns on Earth—explanations that ancient people would never have understood. But just as storms make us stop and pay attention today, they did the same to ancient people. One of the most well-known passages of the Bible that speaks of the storms of our world is Job 37. When Job writes about storms, no easy answer is given. Prophetically, Job tells us, God “does great things beyond our understanding” (Job 37:5).

Christians spend an inordinate amount of time trying to explain God: who God is and how God works. And this is a good thing; our wonder and curiosity reflect the image of God in our lives. But often when God acts, there is no explanation. We can only be a witness to it.

When we read the stories in the Bible of how Jesus walked on water, multiplied the loaves, and calmed the sea, the temptation that sets in for modern readers is to try to explain in human terms what God is doing. Yet, as our power to explain the natural world has increased in the modern era, our ability to experience the acts of God have decreased. That’s because when God acts, it may be that we are not meant to explain it in human terms but only to be a witness to what God does.

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Source: Christianity Today