Hurricane Isaac and the Promise of Laughter

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Call it “Ishmael,” I say.

All day long my father has been sending me pictures from the center of Hurricane Isaac, as the storm rages.

I know that hurricanes are named through some bureaucratic process by the proper officials, switching between male and female names. But the names embed some associations, potentially for life. I still cringe at the mention of the word “Katrina.” If one of my sons out there in the future marries a woman named Katrina, I’ll have to just work myself through it. But, if one of them names a daughter Katrina, I’ll wave my cane and yell in protest.

And now here is a hurricane, ripping up lives and ravaging precious places, with the name “Isaac.” Isaac, of course, is a name rooted deep in the biblical story. He was the son of promise, the one through whom God would bring about the promises to an ancient and childless Abraham. The name came about because Sarah, the mother of those who live by faith, was incredulous when God promised blessing (Gen. 18:10-14). She laughed, and the child was named Isaac or, as the novelist Frederick Buechner immortalized it, “the son of laughter.”

Hurricane Ishmael, now that would be more appropriate, I think to myself. Ishmael is, after all, the son of exile, the son of the “will of the flesh” seeking to accomplish God’s work on its own.

But, the more I think of it, maybe Isaac is the right name. Isaac’s story, after all, seems horrific and tragic. In order for Abraham to receive God’s blessing, he must lay on the altar every hope that he can see of being blessed: including God’s promise of this son. God doesn’t accept that sacrifice, we know. But Isaac ultimately dies, and so do all of his children. And, in the biblical story, erased also is the very Promised Land itself. The people of God are left without patriarchs, without kings, and without even the security of home.

As I watch the hurricane Isaac bounce around the weather maps, that’s what I fear, I suppose: the loss of home. After Katrina, I found myself on the side of Highway 90 in Biloxi, vomiting in grief at the fact that I couldn’t recognize the wreckage of a beachfront I’ve known practically right down to the individual grains of sand since I was an infant. What more will be ripped away? What more will be erased, and forgotten?

But that’s kind of the point.

My hometown, anyone’s hometown, isn’t “safe” because of the lack of threat. It isn’t “safe” because of some illusion of permanence. Isaac is offered up, and Isaac dies. But Isaac doesn’t die. God is not, Jesus tells us, the God of the dead but of the living. And he is the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob (Mark 12:26-27).

My hometown, and the entire surrounding region, will be okay. There has been worse, and we’ll all reassure ourselves that this was “no Katrina.” But we can’t promise there won’t be an even worse Katrina to come. As a matter of fact, we know there will be. All of our hometowns will be submerged one day, not in wind and water but in the fire of God’s righteous judgment. But, out of that, springs a new creation that started in a promise God made to a Middle Eastern wanderer thousands of years ago.

I don’t know what waits for you or for me in our lives. I know we’ll face struggle and loss and disappointment and, unless Jesus comes first, the dust of death. But there’s a promise out there that took on flesh in a virgin’s uterus somewhere in Nazareth. And if we could see the kind of inheritance, the kind of restoration of home, that he has waiting for us, well, we’d probably laugh in wonder at it all.

So maybe Isaac isn’t such a bad name after all.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).