The camera’s searchlight roamed through murk-filled watery darkness. It found trash cans; scrap papers; cleaning supplies — everything that was left behind, floating on a sea of muck. A shelf of toys incongruously jutted above the water line like an iceberg, slightly higher than four feet of floodwater. In the auditorium, there was no platform — just a plain of smooth brown ooze over the whole room.
Jeff, my old pastor, wore hip waders and slogged through sludge up to his waste as he walked with the cameraman. This used to be my church. I directed plays on that submerged stage; walked through those swamped doors every Sunday to worship. If I were still in Iowa, I would’ve helped pile sandbags before the river rose high enough to pour over the barrier.
But I was living in Kentucky, so none of this affected me. God got me out just in time.
A few months before their third-snowiest winter in Iowa City history, my wife and I packed a U-Haul. A year before snowmelt and torrential rains swamped hundreds of homes, Julie and I pulled up to our new apartment in Kentucky.
Clearly, the Lord was protecting us. He knew the flood waters would come, so he arranged for Julie to get into seminary when she did. As for those saps in Iowa, I guess God doesn’t love them as much.
I have a well-honed response to natural disasters. I read the news article online and mumble a prayer for the people who just lost everything; the poor souls who got earthquaked or hurricaned out of house and home.
Then I click over to the Louisville weather forecast, and if it isn’t affecting us, I smile and move on with life. Like I said, God looks out for me.
I did have a close call one night at the Englert Theatre. A film festival was in full swing and I was working as House Manager when I heard tornado sirens.
Another staffer and I quickly emptied the theatre and herded everybody into the lobby. Beer sales at the concession stand skyrocketed as people nervously started calling family on their cell phones. A crowd of idiots went outside and stood under the theatre marquee, trying to spot the tornado. I asked them to come inside. “Don’t worry; we won’t sue you,” they laughed.
Twenty minutes later the twister swept through town, shattering windows and thrusting tree trunks onto streets. One street of houses was demolished while a Catholic parish lost its roof. But at the theatre, nothing happened. Even the clowns under the marquee were safe.
As all of us drove home later, we gawked at the damage while cops directed traffic around fallen trees and past fried stoplights. It was like seeing a disaster movie in 3-D, but if felt even better because we’d lived the 30 minutes of terror. It was as though we dared God … and won.
You could say that civilization works because it’s never me.
It’s always somebody else’s house that got lifted off its foundations by the tornado. I’m never the one trapped behind the steering wheel on the freeway with the engine in my lap. It’s not my house that got burgled or my flight that slid off the runway.
We have a universal agreement to cross our fingers for luck and ignore the unpleasant. So we buy more insurance and whisper to ourselves that we’re wiser, luckier, more spiritual than the parents on the news begging for word from their runaway daughter.
Every other week, I back up my computer hard drive — the one with years of writing and labor encoded as nothing more substantial than magnetic particles. I burn a DVD of irreplaceable data and stow it carefully in my desk, so if anything happens to the computer, I still have what is more precious than gold to me.
Still, a fire could destroy hard drive and DVD alike. A thief could take everything; a tornado spare nothing. Everything I’ve tried so hard to preserve — gone.
I keep praying against the worst, and so far, God’s got my back. But the hard reality is that if my data outlives me, my children will sort through boxes of their dead father’s most precious things and consign them to a dumpster.
It’s strange how tightly I cling to wood and stubble. It’s never me, it’s never me, I whisper, over and over again.
In a harsh world, disasters do not always happen on a grand scale. Sometimes they don’t demolish strip malls or even hard drives. Just a soul.
Jerry was older than me by five years, yet he’d managed to live through twice as much pain. An abusive mother who never believed he’d amount to anything; a broken marriage; a son he had no idea how to love. Extreme bouts with depression that cost him jobs and friends and anything commonly called “life.” Inability to trust the God who’d allowed this flood of misery in his world.
One night at a party, Jerry unleashed his sorrow; tried somehow to release the angst of a lifetime gone wrong to three people willing to listen. Then he turned away from us and walked outside — away from the party that mocked his emotions. I found myself overwhelmed with Jerry’s grief, and full of questions for the Jesus who claims to bring abundant life.
Through stinging tears, I asked my friend Andrea: “Do you ever wonder … why God allows so much suffering in the world?” I cried for Jerry, tears that wouldn’t come from his own eyes, tears that wanted to do anything to help him find hope.
But real empathy is rare and short-lived. Finding pseudo-reasons for the suffering of others is a perpetual human pastime.
If Jerry didn’t give into depression, he wouldn’t have trouble holding a job, I thought later. If he hadn’t grown up on the wrong side of the tracks, he’d be a fully-functioning person. If he just had a little more faith, God would see him through any darkness; any flood of circumstance.
For that matter, if the geniuses who planned New Orleans hadn’t built a whole city below sea level, Hurricane Katrina would have overwhelmed a swamp instead of a city. If Iowans stayed clear from the river when they built a town, they wouldn’t be swimming to work. If no one was foolish enough to build a house in Earthquake Central, California wouldn’t be worried about the Big One.
If people weren’t such idiots, the rest of us wouldn’t have to feel sorry for them. Really, if everybody were as smart as we are, Adam and Eve never would have sinned, and Jesus wouldn’t have needed to die.
The Bible never gives the man a name — just “Blind Since Birth.”For the full story, see John 9:1-41. He’d always lived within a flood of inky darkness. The waters of blindness had never allowed him to see a sunset or a mountain, his mother’s face or the road to town.
He lived the only way a sightless man could: begging. And though people dropped enough coins in his cup to keep body and soul together, the pennies didn’t fall without derision.
After all, spiritual eyes were sighted eyes. What could be a clearer sign of judgment than being covered in darkness? People gave to the beggar while thanking God they weren’t under his curse, and hurried away in case blindness was catching.
“Who blew it, Jesus?” asked the disciples, speaking in hushed pious tones as they observed the piteous sight by the side of the road. “Why is this man set apart from normal people like us? Was it him who sinned, or his folks?”
“Neither,” said the Great Iconoclast. “This blindness happened for God’s glory.”
Then Jesus spit in the dirt, put mud on the man’s eyes. The flood of darkness receded and light poured in! Blind-Since-Birth caught his first glimpse of trees, sky, houses — and faces. Perhaps the most remarkable thing was the smiling face of Great Physician who’d just brought sight to his incredulous eyes.
People who’d known the man all his life didn’t believe it. They assumed this must be his long-lost twin.
It was the kind of miracle, the kind of goodness, that only stands out against tragedy. God’s grace would not have been amazing if the man weren’t blind. In the great human capacity to ignore the marvelous, his ability to see would never have excited comment if he’d possessed it his whole life.
In the aftermath, the Pharisees were quick to criticize Jesus for Sabbath miracle-working. They couldn’t see what God was doing, in spite of every personal advantage.
In fact, perhaps they could see with their eyes because a merciful God wanted to give them all possible means to encounter him — even if they missed it all in the end. Perhaps if they’d been denied sight, they would have thrown themselves off a cliff in despair. Perhaps the blind man was the only one who saw God clearly enough that even if he never encountered a sunset, even if his mother’s own face was less than a blur, he could bring a sacrifice of praise. Perhaps he was the only one in the company with enough faith to glorify God in hard times.
Maybe my friends were left in Iowa with the floodwaters not because they’re less spiritual than me, but because they are more. Maybe I’d be cursing God while I watched my town, my church, my apartment sink under the water. Maybe the people left are strong enough to be part of the Lord’s work, and I’m not.
The whole time I’m shaking my pharisaical head at the fools who built their houses on the fringes of a flood plain, perhaps I am the fool whose eyes cannot see, ears cannot hear, mind cannot comprehend what God is doing in Iowa.
The Missions Shack
Half-floating in the muddy water filling the church, a strange structure leans against a window. It vaguely resembles a lemonade stand: a crude kiosk made from old gray barn wood and weathered tin. The unlikely title of “Missions Shack” hangs on a sign.
In brighter times, the “Shack” was our church’s clearinghouse for evangelism information. Brochures sat on a wide shelf and signs were tacked to the wood, helping people take Jesus around town and the world.
But now, as floodwaters sweep away everything people hoped and dreamed; as garbage and precious memories both lie under four feet of filthy water; only a few things manage to rise on top. Strangely, the Missions Shack is one of them.
Yet it’s not the only one. The rescuers and the rescued, who float down flooded streets in canoes, are conquering the flood. Sandbag mountains stand as a community’s joint defiance against the ravages of a sinful world. Friendships forged in adversity will last a lifetime.
Perhaps the Missions Shack floats as a symbol that somehow God’s purposes will move forward. He makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust. The floodwaters rise inside churches and strip clubs alike. But those who have eyes to see will look for Jesus anywhere, even bobbing in muddy water.
Come August, my wife and I are planning to go help clean up the mess. For some reason, God didn’t make us a part of what he’s doing in Iowa with this flood. Maybe that’s because I don’t have the faith to be Blind-Since-Birth.
Even so, I don’t want to stand around asking whose sin made the waters rise. I want to find the grace he left above the flood.
Copyright 2008 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.