I was pulling my three-year-old’s shirt over his head when my phone roared. It was the harsh buzz of an emergency alert, which usually informs me of severe weather, potential flash floods, or crazy high surf. I glanced outside. The morning was cool and glistening. I grabbed my phone while I Velcroed a little tennis shoe. My phone said “Extreme alert: BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
No way. I thought.
“Gary!” I hollered, “Did you get an alert?”
Gary was on his way to fix a leak in the church roof. He stopped to look at his phone. The same message blinked on his screen. He clicked on the television. PBS was airing its usual programming, but the audio was blocked. Instead of bland politicking, we heard a stale electric reader say:The U.S. Pacific Command has detected a missile threat to Hawaii. A missile may impact on land or sea within minutes. This is not a drill. If you are indoors, stay indoors. If you are outdoors, seek immediate shelter in a building. Remain indoors well away from windows. If you are driving, pull safely to the side of the road and seek shelter in a building or lay on the floor. This is not a drill.
We only have 10 minutes. I thought.
We quietly summoned the kids to bring their toys and head for the only room in our house that has no windows. We closed the doors and sat on the dirty floor. Gary turned on the radio.
“What are we doing, Mom?” Felicity asked.
I smiled. “We are just going to play in here for a bit, and see what happens.”
“What’s going to happen?” She sounded excited.
“I don’t know, baby.” I whispered. I kissed their foreheads.
Across the islands there was panic. Thousands of cell phones had received the same text message at the same instant. Students at the University of Hawaii stormed from their classrooms and ran for cover. Drivers swerved and parked in the streets or began speeding for home. Business slammed their doors and would not let people in. Parents began lowering their kids into a sewer drains. In hotels and resorts, guests huddled and cried and tried to call home. Cell phone towers were clogged. Calls that made it through were full of terror as loved ones said final good-byes. A visiting reporter, huddled in a hanger, said “We’re headed for war.”
Images of Hiroshima filled my mind. I had watched a documentary in which people told their stories of surviving nuclear attack. Friends nearby them were turned to ashes in seconds. A mom heard her children screaming—but only for moments. It happened so fast. The destruction was unthinkably complete.
But we were on Maui. As my kids drove monster trucks across the dusty carpet, I thought how unlikely it was that our sleepy hamlet, high on the side of the volcano, would be the target. It is heading for Oahu. Will we feel anything? Will we hear anything? Will the Navy shoot it down before it makes impact? How different will the world be after the next four minutes?
“Mommy, can we leave now? Can we have our milk?”
“Not yet, darlings, we have to wait.”
“Let’s play the opposite game!”
Gary was hunting through stations. We listened for the wail of sirens. It was quiet.
My heart was racing, pumping truth through me with every thud. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea, though its waters roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with its swelling.”
After 15 minutes Gary left the room. He was gone for a brief eternity. The power was still on. The water was still running. We were still breathing. It was getting harder to believe the world was about to end.
“False alarm.” Gary said, “the alert was a mistake.”
I looked at my phone. “Then why hasn’t there been another one?”
“That’s what everyone seems to be asking. But we can come out now.”
The kids giggled and went back to their play. Gary and I turned on the news. Thirty-eight minutes after the first alert, another arrived. It was all a mistake.
All afternoon the media glutted itself on stories of the scare. What happened? What were the immediate reactions of all our city and county officials? What did each of our local icons do? Who was responsible for the false alert? Is there really one, powerful button that was accidentally pushed during a shift change? (Wait… It takes me eight different clicks to send an email.) Would it help next time to put two people in charge of “the button”?
Politicians took the opportunity to blame one another and to make bloated promises about getting to the bottom of this and making sure someone was properly razed. Who do we sue?? And while we are on the subject, why were there no shelters? People who thought they had only moments to live trembled and wailed and didn’t know where to go. Why isn’t there one massive underground, underwater shelter that all 900,000 Oahu residents could enter within 10 minutes, where there were bathrooms and spam musubis available?? Why isn’t there a state-funded caterer on call at times like this? People were angry, and in their anger they lost their grip on the possible. I marveled at a society that routinely expects its government to do what only an omnipotent God could do, and to do it without incurring any expense. The fact that we all live everyday under the inexorable threat of mortality was not brought up. Clearly it is our leaders’ responsibility to ensure our ongoing existence. We are entitled to live for a very long time, and to do so without the inconvenience of fear like we felt today. The social consciousness was outraged. Hardly anyone had the simplicity of heart to be grateful.
The next day we gathered with our church family. The atmosphere was light. Our pastor asked people to share how they had heard the news, what they thought, how they felt, and what they did. “I went back to sleep.” “I got my family and hid in the closet.” “I made some overdue apologies.” “I looked up to see if Jesus was coming.”
Then he preached a powerful sermon. If you are afraid, you are not in the Spirit, because the Spirit that God gives us is not one of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind. Clear away distractions. Live for a singular, piercing purpose. Live in such a way that you don’t fear or regret death, but anticipate it—the way you would a much-needed vacation. And make the most of this tremendous opportunity, when, for a few minutes, almost a million of us shared the same strange, heart-stopping experience. Use this earth-moment to share the eternal hope that we have, a hope that can make us fearless in the face of nuclear attack. Step above the politicking and clamor that is already drowning out the good in this situation, and hear God’s patient warning. He will not contend with man forever. One day will be the last day. Until then, live with loving fervor, and win souls.
My skin tingled all through his message. It is tingling still.