In heavy mud boots I crawled out a window onto my front porch. The early morning rains and a blast of cold air extinguished the little warmth I felt under my jacket. Minuets later floodwaters mercilessly poured into our home. I stumbled from the porch and sank deeper into the chilling current. Walking waist deep in the dark water I reached the end of my driveway. I clutched a small bag of supplies over one shoulder and cautiously waded to the end of the street. The breaking sunlight announced no hope as it illuminated our flooded neighborhood. It only took a few hours for us to lose every material possession we had. When I reached dry ground my neighbor met me. In despair he stared at the destruction happening. We briefly consoled each other and I turned to take in the magnitude of the destruction that lay before us.
One devastating event followed another that woeful week. From rescuing families out of flooded trailers, to boat rides through submerged neighborhoods each day intensified with greater loss. I felt myself reaching a point of emotional exhaustion. When the floodwaters receded I hesitantly ventured back to our house. The first time I set foot in it I was shocked. The realization of so much damage depleted my last remnant of hope. Nothing was salvageable. Clothes, pictures, furniture, and the many cherished toys of our kids 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 there. 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 to take our boys to see our house. I knew it would be a difficult 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 sheet rock dust, the grimacing face of a well-loved stuffed monkey gazed out from under a pile of trash. As he lay trapped under a mountain of 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 font 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 and wept together 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 I thought to myself, is He in control? Did God have some level of control over the destruction that happened? This repeated comment felt like nothing more than a blind confession of some ambiguous plan God held for those who were suffering. If God is in control then he bears some responsibility for the tragedy, doesn’t He? How can God be completely good if suffering can be traced back to Him? If God is good, where was his goodness in this storm? Where was He? Did he hear our prayers for help? In the days ahead I discovered my answer.
Not long after the storm passed, our church facility was converted into a make-shift 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 witnessed 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 he 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 the way in which Jay took notice of a deeper loss I felt. I simply 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 audible 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, strongly 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 in the midst of our tragedies? He’s right in the middle of it.
I am reminded of a story told by Eli Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor. Although the destruction of homes and property in no way compares to the suffering of the Jews, Wiesel’s point indicates the whereabouts of God in suffering. He writes,
“One day, as we returned from work, we saw three gallows… The SS [guards] seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows… ‘Where is merciful God, where is He?’ someone behind me was asking. At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over… Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive… The child, too light, was still breathing… And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death… Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer; ‘Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…’”
As Christmas songs resounded last month I re-discovered the deeper truth of Christ’s messianic title- Emmanuel. It means God is with us. I’ve limited this meaning to merely imply God’s coexistence 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 healing that is not only in 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 say God is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities…” (Hebrews 4:15)