In mud boots, I crawled out a window onto my front porch. The early morning rains and blasts of cold air extinguished the warmth I felt under my jacket. Minuets later floodwaters poured into our home. I stumbled from the porch and sank deeper into the chilling current. Waist deep in the dark water I reached the end of my driveway. Clutching a small bag of supplies over one shoulder, I cautiously waded to the end of the street. The breaking sunlight announced no hope. It illuminated our flooded neighborhood.
It only took a few hours to lose every material possession we had. When I reached dry ground, my neighbor met me. In despair, he stared at the destruction. We briefly consoled each other, and I turned to take in the magnitude of the calamity that lay before us.
One devastating event followed another that woeful week. We rescued families out of flooded houses and ventured out on numerous boat rides through submerged neighborhoods. Each day intensified with a greater loss. I felt myself reaching a point of emotional exhaustion. When the floodwaters receded, I hesitantly made my way back to our house. The first time I set foot in it I was shocked. The realization of so much damage depleted all hope. Nothing was salvageable. Clothes, pictures, furniture, and the toys lay in ruins under the sewage-filled stench.
Close friends from our church aided me in pulling our things to the curb. That night I stayed at a friend’s home. Sitting in the darkness on a temporary bed I reached for hope. “Where were you, God?” I asked. I wasn’t accusing Him of not caring. I merely felt like He was not with me. Everyone prayed hoping they wouldn’t fall victim to the wreckage. Some were elated with answered prayers while many more, like me, felt unheard.
At the time of the flood, my wife and kids were safely situated out of town. After we were miraculously given a temporary place to live, we were finally united. A few days after that, we prepared our boys to see the house. I knew it would be a painful moment for them to process. We braced them for the scenes they would experience. When we arrived in our front yard, I watched the heartbreak happen in slow motion.
Covered with the grime of sheetrock dust, the grimacing face of a well-loved stuffed monkey gazed out from under a pile of trash. As he lay trapped under the debris my youngest son, Shiloh, spotted him. He ran toward “monkey” with his arms flailing in despair and tears streaming down his face. With moans of grief, he worked to pull out his little treasure. My eyes flooded with tears in watching and feeling his pain. Moving from the pile of treasure-become-trash in our lawn we entered our home. The walls were stripped bare, down to the studs. The realization of all that was lost was painful. Seeing our children grieve, however, inflicted an even greater wound. We cried. We cried deeply. Standing on the cold slab of the house we embraced our kids. We wept with them. That’s all we could do.
Well-meaning friends encouraged us in the weeks to follow. A few parroted the familiar phrase of, “God is in control,” to me. Each time I heard that phrase a volcano of questions would erupt inside. Is He in control? Did God have some level of influence over what happened? If God is in control, then He must bear some responsibility for the tragedy, shouldn’t He? How can God be good if suffering is partly His blame? If God is good, where was his goodness in this storm? Where was He? Did he hear my prayers for help? In the days ahead I discovered my answer.
Not long after the storm passed, our church facility was converted into a makeshift distribution center. My phone rang non-stop for a week as churches, ministries, and unknown callers bombarded us with desires to help. We received hundreds of eighteen-wheelers, U-Haul trucks, and even a few airplane loads of supplies to aid those who had lost everything. As we handed out of food, water, and supplies we witnessed God graciously calm the chaos of our community. We experienced powerful moments of joy and hope as residents received an assurance that God was with them in the trenches of their suffering.
Then it became personal. I completely broke down in tears when a man, who identified himself as Jay from Tennessee, overwhelmed me with his concern. He said he owned a furniture store and wanted to transport mattresses to those who needed them. Then he asked me how I was doing. Completely distracted with my work up until that moment, I paused to think. The deep distress in my own soul spilled out. In a comforting manner, Jay made me a promise to replace all that we had lost in our home. I could hardly hold back the tears. God, through the voice of this complete stranger, stepped into my hidden anguish and assured me that he felt the loss that I felt. It’s not that our furniture and things were of great value, but it was how Jay took notice of a more profound loss I felt.
I only needed someone to feel what I was feeling and breathe life into it. When I had asked God where He was a few days earlier, this was His clear answer. He was there with me in the moment of my loss, in the feeling of my weakness. God wasn’t standing in the shadows orchestrating events to send me a coded message of His mutual concern. His voice, through Jay, emphatically assured me that He would take care of us.
A few days later Rene, the owner of an aviation company, contacted my wife. She, along with the partnership of Celebration Church in Austin, sent us airplane loads of supplies. Despair was swallowed up in generosity. Within a matter of days, numerous distribution sites were opened around town, and we began to supply those centers with all the resources they could contain.
Then our church shifted to the labor of emptying and gutting out flooded homes. With close to 80% of residents lacking flood insurance, many had no hope of rebuilding. In response to this great need, God stepped in again through the ministry of Operation Blessing. They set up camp in our church parking lot. They pulled volunteers from all over the US and daily dispatched teams to aid families in the rebuild process.
Organizations like Austin Disaster Relief, Christian Aid Ministries, ARC Churches, Christian Disaster Relief and many more came to our rescue and walked with us through this dark season. As I write this, the noise of a power drill is buzzing outside of my office door. Teams of volunteers are assembling bunk beds to house the next crew of Mennonite craftsmen who will arrive. They will aid in the rebuilding of many more homes. So many have poured out the love of Jesus that it would take numerous pages to list the groups who have come to our side.
It’s been a little over four months since our world was turned upside down and the compassion of the church has not faltered. The work before us will take many more months to complete, but there is no question concerning the heart of God in this matter. He loves to step into our broken places and overwhelm our doubts with His goodness. Where is God amid our tragedies? He’s right in the middle of it.
Christmas came and went, and we are happily working through the rebuilding process of our home. In hearing old Christmas carol, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” I recently re-discovered a meaningful truth behind Christ’s Emmanuel title. I’ve limited the meaning of this praise to merely imply God’s existence with men during the time of Christ’s incarnation. However, the deeper meaning of His name is not only a comfort for us, but it is a direct identifier of where His presence can be found. He is in the bleak darkness of pain. He weeps with us in our tragedies. He offers us the healing that is not only the anticipation of a favorable outcome but also in His ability to identify with our own pain.
As I stood weeping with my little boys in our loss, God stands weeping with us even more. He takes in the wounds that are inflicted upon us. This is what I believe the writer of Hebrews implies when he says God is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities…” (Hebrews 4:15)