Wineskins Archive

February 6, 2014

The Write Side: Flood and Drought (Jan-Feb 2001)

Filed under: — @ 4:37 pm and

by Thom Lemmons
January – February, 2001

If you live in west Texas long enough, you have to come to terms with drought. We were in the middle of one this past summer. We could only water our yards once every two weeks, after dark and before the heat of the day. The bottoms of our lakes looked like vacant lots, overgrown with shoulder-high weeds. Everything turned brown. Trees died – big ones.

People everywhere were praying for rain. You could see it on the marquees in front of many church buildings. Back in the spring, a town west of here had its prayers answered; a line of thunderstorms dumped seven inches of rain squarely on the watershed for the town lake, which quickly became just about brim full – one of the few towns in the area with more water than they strictly needed. There was a flash flood; the creeks feeding the lake went out of their banks, making some of the roads around the town impassable for several hours.

The newspaper reported that Cindy Harbour was trying to make it home during the storm. She had her kids in the car with her – six-year-old Dalton and his nineteen-month-old sister, Peyton. In retrospect, it’s easy to see she shouldn’t have tried to drive across the flooded place in the road. Who knows? Maybe the baby was scared of the storm, wailing in that unnerving way only babies possess. Maybe the kids were hungry. Maybe Peyton was wearing a soiled diaper that also happened to be the last one in the diaper bag. Whatever the reason, Cindy decided it made more sense to drive through the reddish-brown water flowing across the road than to turn around in the middle of the highway and go somewhere else to wait or the runoff to subside. That water was between her and home. She decided to try to get home.

But the water was deeper and swifter than Cindy realized. Within seconds of entering the crossing, she realized she was in trouble. The car wouldn’t respond to her attempts to steer. It slid sideways across the flooded crossing and then, to her horror, swept over the side and into the flooded channel of Mustang Draw.

What went through Cindy’s mind as the water began to gush into the car? What did she hear, think, and feel as she pivoted frantically in the driver’s seat, trying to free her seat-belted children, trying to get herself and her kids out of the sinking car?

Searchers found Peyton’s body about twelve hours later. Twelve days later – five days after the funeral service – they found her brother’s body.

I wonder what Cindy thought about in the days that followed. Aside from the numbing shock and self-damning guilt any parent would feel in a similar situation, did she find herself emotionally at odds with the rest of the community? On the way to the children’s funeral, did she pass a church marquee that said, “Praise God for the rain”? I wonder if it occurred to her that, though the town’s drought had ended, hers was just beginning. I wonder if anyone tried to comfort her with that venerable clunker, “It was the will of God.”

What was the will of God? The rain? Maybe. There’s plenty of biblical precedent for the notion. And lots of sincere people had been praying for this very occurrence. In all honesty, I wouldn’t want a single one of those who gratefully received the rain to think for an instant that the refilled lake wasn’t a direct result of their simple, trusting entreaties of the Divine. After all, in parched west Texas and everywhere else, water is life.

But I can’t rid my mind of the picture of a young mother with two dead children, children sucked away from her by the waters of a flash flood. How is she supposed to make sense of the will of God as she wanders the wasteland of bereavement, guilt, and confusion? How long will it be before she can hear thunder without remembering the panicked screams of her trapped children? How long before she can abide – never mind enjoy – the sound of rain on the roof? Will she ever again be able to bring herself to pray for rain?

Sometimes I think paradox is the underlying principle of the universe. It must surely seem so to Cindy Harbour. That which brought relief and renewal to a thirsting community brought her devastation and loss. It’s almost proverbial in this part of the country that you don’t complain about moisture, watever form it takes. I wonder how Cindy feels about that.

Thinking about Cindy Harbour reminds me of the words of another mourner. “If only my anguish could be weighed and all my misery be placed on the scales! It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas … What strength do I have, that I should still hope? What prospects, that I should be patient? Do I have the strength of stone? Is my flesh bronze?” The man who spoke these words had just lost his fortune, his children, and his health. He had nothing left except his faith, and even that was being mocked and questioned by those closest to him. Even his name – Job – means “one who is hated.”

I wonder if Cindy ever got the feeling that the universe had turned against her. If so, she’s in pretty good company. When everything that’s most precious to you is violently yanked away, I guess you can start to wonder. I guess, like Job, such all-encompassing grief can even make you question God’s fairness. Like the psalmist, you can start to think God is hiding from you at best, mangling you at worst. Like Jeremiah, you can start to view God as a patron of the wicked and a deceiver of the innocent. “He has walled me in so I cannot escape,” the writer of Lamentations says of God. “He drew his bow and made me the target … He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver ….” If he’s absolutely in charge and he’s absolutely good, how can things like this happen? you ask.

Good question – one God chooses not to answer, by the way. When, at the end of Job’s story, God does appear, it’s not to respond to Job’s complaints and accusations. Instead, it’s to say, in effect, “Job, hush up and listen. I’m God, and you’re not.” To Jeremiah’s lament, God responds, “You think it’s tough now? Just wait!” Even the psalmist, when he finishes up his catalog of undeserved miseries, pleads for God’s intervention, knowing there’s no hope left if God remains silent.

If God remains silent … Maybe that’s what we’re most afraid of. What if there is no answer for my pain? What if my loss turns out to have no meaning, to be the aimless act of a random universe? What if God’s not absolutely in charge? Or, maybe even worse … what if God is there, but my hurt just doesn’t matter to him? What if he’s absolutely in charge, but he’s not absolutely good?

Seems like we’ve traveled a long way from a flooded road crossing in west Texas, doesn’t it? Grief and loss can do that. They can send you on a journey you never wanted, a journey that takes you far from home, far from everything that used to seem so safe and secure. What’s the destination of this trip? Where will we end up?

I guess that’s up to each of us who makes the journey. Fortunately, some of the others who’ve made the trip ahead of us have left some markings along the trail. For the psalmist, remember, it was the decision – perhaps from sheer desperation – to continue trusting in God’s eventual deliverance, even in the midst of ongoing pain. For Jeremiah, the picture was a little less clear; though he continued to testify to God’s presence and comfort, the prophet died in Egypt, a refugee from a land devastated by the very disasters he foretold. But my personal favorite, the dog-eared, creased fragment of map I return to most often, is the statement from Lamentations, just after the writer has accused God of lying in ambush.

I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
Because of the LORD’s great love, we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”

Somehow, the writer remembers the old stories of God’s longsuffering love. He catches the faint echo of hope and he follows the sound through the ashes of burned-out dreams, past the ruined foundations of comfort and security, through the dry wasteland of harsh reality. And there, in the desert, he peers around the blasted landscape and decides to hang on. He decides, in the face of all the visible evidence to the contrary, that God can be trusted. This drought won’t last forever, he thinks. Rain will come again, someday.

I don’t know if Cindy Harbour has heard that faint echo. For all I know, her faith may be so strong that even at her children’s gravesides she can still hear the song of hope. Or, she may be sitting among the ashes, wondering why God sent everybody else a flood, but left her high and dry. I don’t know.

I don’t know where you are, either. Maybe you’re one of those fortunate souls who have never experienced gut-wrenching sorrow. Or maybe you’re one of those blessed ones whose faith remains unwithered even during the most desperate dry spell. If so, I kneel before you in admiration and humility.

But for me, it’s important to remember – another paradox? – that doubt and faith aren’t necessarily opposites. That it’s okay to beat on God’s chest and wail; he’s big enough to take it. That no matter how deep my grief, my suffering, my loss, I can’t go somewhere no one’s ever gone. Others have been there before me, others will go there after me: into the dry country, into the depths of the drought-stricken land.
And some of them, at least, found water.Wineskins Magazine

Thom Lemmons

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