By E. Jennifer Esses, M.D., FACOG
There is another beach community just 50 miles to the east of us called Mexico Beach; there the coastline is known as “the Forgotten Coast,” because it embodies old Florida living. It is mostly rural, slow paced and less touristy in nature. But Oct. 10, 2018, this area received more attention than it probably ever has in recent history. And hopefully not soon to be forgotten.
On this day, Hurricane Michael struck the Florida panhandle. A near category 5 storm, with its eyewall passing over Panama City and causing massive storm surge into Mexico City Beach, the hurricane resulted in widespread devastation. The pictures literally look like something apocalyptic in nature. Entire neighborhoods and communities have been wiped out, with the landscape forever changed.
Most of the people I know in the Destin area prepared for the storm not knowing how severely our area might be affected. Many folks evacuated; along Hwy. 30A there was a mass exodus, leaving the area looking much like a ghost town. When the day had passed, we were left with a mixture of emotions. There was relief and thankfulness that we did not see the worst effects of the storm. But people also articulated they weren’t sure how to feel when disaster passes over and hits your neighbor instead. Knowing that what happened to the Panama City/Mexico Beach area could have happened here, instead brought a somber realization; we escaped what others did not. It’s called survivor’s guilt.
If you call yourself a Christ follower, this, in fact, should be our daily reality; not merely when the storms of life come uncomfortably near. By believing in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, and making him your Lord and Savior, death has already ‘passed us over.’ He paid the price for my sin, granting me the gift of eternal life with God. Knowing that there are people on each side of me who will not escape that sentence, should produce in me the same mixture of emotions.
The first is gratitude. Because of what Jesus did for me, I am motivated to show the same grace to others. Gratitude compels us to action. We have seen this in our area. Countless individuals and churches immediately went into these devastated areas looking for physical needs that could be met. Motivated by the knowledge that this could have been them, they felt like they had to help. Basic fundamentals like food, water and shelter are first priority. When you meet a person’s physical needs, it opens the door to meet their spiritual needs as well. Jesus demonstrated this reality over and over. In John 4 he met a woman at a well. Her physical need was thirst. But her spiritual need was to fill a hole in her soul that left her always thirsty. This is how we partner with God in his mission here on Earth. He very much cares when we have physical needs, but He cares the most about our greater spiritual need. The ultimate goal of our motivation to act should be the truth of the Gospel and it starts with us; it is the realization that I have been spared with a grace that I did not deserve and therefore I need to share what I have with you.
“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” – Luke 12:4-5.
The other emotion many have felt is of being overwhelmed. The task of re-building seems so big. Where do we start and to whom do we go to? I think the answer is always to follow the example of Christ. As he travelled in his ministry, He met the need of the person who was directly in front of Him. Many times, that need was presented as an interruption or by someone others would have overlooked. In our modern era, I think Mother Teresa is an example of someone who keenly understood how to look at a massive problem like the world’s lack and be the solution. You start with the need that is directly in front you. You start with your neighbor. Here are some of her thoughts:
Love begins with the ones who are closest to us; it begins at home.
• We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love.
• If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one.
• Do not wait for leaders. Do it alone. Person to person.
• I can’t go to Panama City and pick up a chainsaw. But I can use the talents and gifts that God has given me and I can do it one expecting family at a time.
Lastly, one thing we should never question is the goodness of God, even when bad things like natural disasters happen. If you think the worldly devastation was massive, could you even begin to comprehend the spiritual aftermath that God is working? It is upside down thinking to us, but God reveals himself in peoples’ lives how He chooses. Sometimes that is through some pretty fierce storms. I believe He was (and is) working in this midst of this storm in countless ways that our natural eyes don’t easily see. Just read the stories on the internet and you will ‘see’ countless miracles if your eyes are looking for them. You can’t fully know Him as comforter, until you have really known fear. You can’t fully know him as provider, until you have really known lack. You can’t fully understand his love, until you really comprehend his grace. I can tell you without a doubt, that it was the hardest times in my life that have allowed me to better comprehend God’s character. He doesn’t just want me to have a head knowledge of his love, he wants me to experience it first-hand. As residents of the Emerald Coast, this is our privilege. Disaster may have passed us over, but God’s love did not. And by being his missionaries to our neighbors to the east, we are granted an incredible opportunity to know Him more.
Do you know what the name “Michael” means? It means “who is like God?” Who is like this God who controls the winds and waves, yet then cares for my intimate personal needs? Who is like this God who works in all things for the good of those who are called according to his purpose? (Romans 8:28) Who is like this God who would send his one and only son to die to save me from my own certain destruction? Who is like this God who can accomplish all of this without me, yet allows me to partner with him in the administration of grace? The irony is that in God’s economy, it may be the story of the ‘Forgotten Coast’ that imprints upon my hometown the most indelible of life lessons.
Dr E. Jennifer Esses, OB/GYN, has been in private practice in Okaloosa/Walton Counties since 2001. She has delivered well over 3,000 babies in her career. Prior to private practice, she served active duty in the U.S. Air Force stationed at Eglin AFB as the Eglin OB/GYN Flight Commander. She is currently affiliated with Sacred Heart Hospital on the Emerald Coast and delivers at ‘The Family Birth Place.’ She loves to run and meditate on God’s word. Dr. Esses says her faith keeps her running and she keeps running because of her faith. You can read her blog, “Running on Faith,” at http://runningonfaith-beachstork.blogspot.com.