There is an old preaching adage that begins, “How many of you would like to go to heaven? OK. How many of you would like to go today?”
Saturday, Jan. 13, began as another morning in paradise for me. My wife and I had flown in to Honolulu, Hawaii, to spend some quality time with our older daughter Becca, her husband Chris, and two of our grandchildren, Carson and Harrison. Chris has recently retired from the Air Force and has begun work for a company on the island of Oahu. They are living on Hickam Air Base located on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
It was 8:07 a.m. and the sun was just turning from early morning red to its customary bright yellow when my daughter’s cellphone Emergency Alert alarm went off. She offhandedly reached for it and scanned the screen before her eyes widened. She read aloud the message sent in all-caps, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Shortly afterwards warning sirens went off on the base accompanied by a computer voice telling people the same thing as television screen tickers reinforced the message in yet another media. Given all of the threats emanating from North Korea about their nuclear capabilities, the people of Hawaii have gone to lengths the past several months to reactivate warning systems not used for decades. My son-in-law’s expertise lies in missile defense and he immediately expressed doubt about the accuracy of the warning and, if it proved accurate, equal confidence in our military’s capabilities to defend us.
Still, the text from the authorities was real enough and the real-world statistics were sobering. Flying time from North Korean missile launch to impact in Hawaii is 20 minutes. It takes about five minutes from a missile launch for the military to determine its target and notify the Emergency Alert people. It then takes several more minutes for the alarm to then be sent out over multiple media channels. That means that by the time people become aware of the threat there is a maximum of 10 to 15 minutes before a nuclear detonation. Hickam/Pearl Harbor is ground zero. Honolulu is just a few miles away. What does one do?
Those of us on Oahu were certainly not unique in staring into what we presumed to be the very real possibility of death. The Bible is full of accounts eerily similar to what we heard last Saturday. I wonder what the Hebrews of the exodus felt when they found themselves backed up against the sea with Pharaoh’s army bearing down on them. Think about what the people of Jerusalem must have felt when they found themselves surrounded by the army of Assyrian king Sennacherib, which had just roared down from the north brutally sweeping away everything in its path. The king sent a military envoy to warn the people that their own annihilation was at hand should they fail to immediately surrender. I wonder how John the Baptist felt lying in a dungeon waiting for his execution. Think what Stephen, the church’s first martyr, must have felt knowing that his testimony before the council would lead to his death. More recently, I have listened to accounts of folks who lived through the bombing of London during WWII.
Life is like that, isn’t it? Fragile. No matter who we are, our days are numbered. Nobody gets out of here alive. Sometimes we know what will end our life, sometimes not, but all life on this earth does end. So how do we deal with this fact?
The headline in the Honolulu Star Advertiser account of the missile warning read, “38 Minutes of Panic.” The stories within the article are poignant — visitors in hotels rushing downstairs not knowing where to go or who to talk to, fathers putting their children into sewers to try and protect them from the expected blast, folks pulling their cars off the highway and rushing beneath nearby overpasses. What is more difficult to define is what went on in people’s minds when they presumed their life would only last a few more minutes.
Clearly some people had a pretty typical response, “When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles scream and shout.” Others simply set their jaws and stoically awaited their fate. Still others refused to even consider anything might happen at all, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Those of us who call ourselves Christians had a different approach available to us. We do what we can, then we leave the rest up to God. Psalm 91 put it this way,
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.’ For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from every deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.”
Jesus promised he would never leave us or forsake us. No matter what happens to his followers here, we have the promise of eternal life. I can’t speak for anyone else who was on Oahu during the warning (which turned out to be caused by human error), but in the minutes following the alert, we gathered together as a family and said prayers asking God to be with those who were responsible for keeping us safe if the threat was real, and entrusting our lives into his hands whatever the outcome. Then we poured ourselves another cup of coffee.
The Rev. Mike Hesse, former senior pastor of Immanuel Anglican Church, is now retired and living in Destin.