I was in Manila last week on  business when Typhoon Ondoy swamped the city. But when it hit, I had no idea it had.

That Saturday, I was staying at a hotel on Manila Bay. I heard rain falling all day, and the few times I went to the lobby to eat, I noticed staff mopping the floor—apparently some water had overflowed from the street into the lobby. The next day, I took a walk early in the morning, and I saw signs of flooding here and there, and a couple of intersections that contained a foot or two of water, but that was about it. The night I arrived, my taxi driver had welcomed me to "monsoon season," and I figured this was just a slightly more than typical rain for the Philippines.

I'm not a CNN watcher, and I had only sporadic Internet access at the hotel, so I used my online time only to check my emails, not the news. Unlike most hotels, a newspaper was not delivered to my door, and since I was immersed in a book at the time, I didn't feel the need for reading material on Sunday, the day after the rains hit. So I was clueless as to what had happened only a few miles away. I would have known more had I been in a hotel in Chicago.

I got my first clue when later that Sunday morning, a taxi driver refused to take me to a church in Makita City, a little south of where I was staying. He said he couldn't get there because of the flooding. Slowly I started to pick up that Ondoy was the worst storm to hit the Philippines in some 40 years, and that hundreds in Manila were dead (the figure now stands at around 250) and hundreds of thousands more left homeless—mostly squatters whose riverbank homes, and a few inhabitants, had been swept away in the floods. 

The next Saturday—when Typhoon Pepeng was supposed to have hit Manila but didn't—I visited areas devastated by the flooding, led on my tour by independent missionaries John and Libby Dreisbach. Sunday I finally made it to Union Church Manila, the famous English-language church in the heart of the Makita business district, and heard about (through the sermon) and saw (through large-screen projections) more of the devastation, and the church's relief work.

So, the Saturday I was happily making my way through a book about Karl Barth's theology, nine floors above the rest of the world, a few miles away, homes were swept away, cars overturned, and people drowned.

This incident struck me as a parable. Excuse the cheap homiletical move, but it really is true that there are typhoons raging in people hearts and minds all around us, and because of lack of imagination and attention, we often don't have a clue. In Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan, I like to think that the Levite and priest who ignored the mugging victim did so not because they were hard hearted, but because they were lost in their thoughts, ruminating on some fine point of theology. It's pretty hard to ignore human suffering right before your eyes. But it's pretty easy not to see it in the first place.

In the  Internet era, it is easier to pay attention to disasters 9,000 miles away—and then donate online to World Relief—than it is to walk next door to invite your neighbor to dinner. In a culture addicted to busyness, it is easier to schedule a monthly stint at the homeless shelter than it is to buy a cup of coffee and have a conversation with a homeless person we bump into on the street. In a religious culture fascinated by more and bigger programs, it is easier to offer classes on being salt and light to the culture than it is to visit a nursing home to bring some light and joy to to a shut-in.

But of course, where there is chaos—typhoons literal and figurative—there is the Spirit of God, brooding over the face of the deep. And as Elijah discovered, we will not find God in the earthquake of the Internet, or the wind of our busyness, or the fire of religious programs, but mostly in the still, small voice—the voice that comes in a whisper, a whisper that is at once both the voice of God and the plea of the suffering neighbor. The literal neighbor. The God-appointed neighbor. The God-sent neighbor whose whisper we cannot hear until we lean over and get real close.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is author of A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Baker).

Related Elsewhere:

More accounts of Typhoon Ondoy can be found on Liveblog and Her.meneutics.

Previous SoulWork columns are available on our site.

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
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