It’s been five weeks since Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, and we are all starting to breathe just a little bit again. Wherever we all are – back in our own houses or still in temporary housing – some of our breaths might still be short gasps for air, but there have been a few moments of genuine exhale and learning how to live again.
But I don’t think many of us will ever live the same. At least I hope we don’t ever live the same. Harvey changed our city and changed us as individuals, and I wanted to take time to reflect on some of the lessons we have learned, are learning, and hopefully will continue to learn in the days and years ahead.
1. “Before Houston can be Houston Strong, we must be Houston Humble.”
The pastor of our church, Gregg Matte, has said this phrase since his first Sunday back in the pulpit after the hurricane hit. And he is so right. Houston must be humble enough to hear what God is saying to us, as a city, as individuals, in the rubble before the rebuilding. Because, as Jesus Himself said (and this is my paraphrase here), “What good is it if a person, or a city, gains the whole world, rebuilds their whole city, becomes strong by their own arms and the sweat of their own brow, yet loses their souls?” (Matthew 16:26) God alone knows how He wants to rebuild our city to save our city, so before we put one brick on top of another, we must humble our hearts before Him and genuinely ask Him what He wants to say, how He wants us to change, and what He wants us to do.
2. When given the opportunity, the church in Houston really can become the church.
When given the opportunity, the church in Houston didn’t just read their Bibles, they did our Bibles, in the rain, in boats, in the tear outs and in the tear downs. The stories and examples are endless, absolutely endless, but the one that gets to me the most happened at my friend Sally Henry’s house. I’ve known Sally since I was in junior high (she was my junior high youth director at church), and her house flooded along with so many others in her neighborhood. She had standing water in her house for nine days, so when the waters finally receded, a crew was needed to get in there quickly to get sheet rock, floors, and everything single thing she owned out to keep mold from spreading anymore than it already had.
I figured anyone who put up with me in junior high deserved a helping hand in the biggest sort of way, so Jason gathered a network of about fifteen men who descended on Sally’s house on a Friday morning. And by Friday afternoon, all the work in Sally’s house was done. But with the exception of my husband, Jason, not a single one of those men knew Sally personally. They just knew she needed help. The group included business men, construction workers, real estate brokers, Sunday school directors, ex-cons, and ex-atheletes, whose only thing in common was the love of Jesus and a desire to help someone who had lost everything in the flood.
I was standing in the driveway a couple of hours into the job and up walks a friend of ours named Ryan Bishop who heard help was needed at Sally’s house…and that Friday also happened to be Sally’s birthday. Ryan is married to his beautiful wife, Annette, and has three precious children. He is a fellow Sunday School teacher at our church, and we usually pass each other with paper in our hands headed to the copier on the fourth floor on a Sunday morning to make copies of our outlines for our respective classes. But instead of holding papers, this day he was holding flowers. “I heard it was someone’s birthday today,” he said. “Which one of you is Sally?” As Sally raised her hand, Ryan walked up and gave her a big hug along with a beautiful bouquet of flowers. In the midst of all the ugliness of a house torn apart by a flood, and in a space that looked more like a war zone than a party zone, Ryan brought in a bit of beauty. And in the sweetness of that moment, watching the church really be the church to one another, I had to keep wiping away tears running under the mask over my face. Ryan didn’t know Sally. Sally didn’t know Ryan. But Ryan was willing to minister deeply and specifically to the needs of Sally’s heart, even the invisible ones, and let the church be the church in a way that was a privilege to witness.
3. Stuff is just stuff and really isn’t all that important.
Hurricane Harvey put all of our “stuff” into major perspective. No one’s stuff was immune to total destruction. Rich people, poor people, middle class people – people from all walks of life lost their stuff. No one’s stuff was protected because of how much many they had made in the stock market or had in their bank account. No one’s stuff was protected because of how famous or influential they where or how many degrees they had. No one’s stuff was protected because of how good a life they had led. Everyone’s stuff – rich, poor, white, black, Asian, Hispanic – ended up on the curb waiting to be hauled off and taken to the trash heap. Every time I passed another row of houses with loads of mildewed, ruined “stuff” on their lawns, it was a powerful reminder to me and to many others of Jesus’ words: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
4. Stuff is more than just stuff and really is important.
I know, I know. This completely contradicts what I just wrote in point #3. But this statement is as true as well. Stuff is more than just stuff because it is attached to meaningful moments and significant memories in people’s lives. And so much of the stuff that was lost cannot be replaced. And that is oh. So. Hard. Before the reality of point #3 can happen in many of our hearts, point #4 has to be acknowledged. Stuff that is lost has to be grieved over, and we must give ourselves the emotional space and time it requires for memories to be mourned before we can move on to the next stage of rebuilding.
5. As much as Jesus is with us in the storm, Jesus is with us in the aftermath of the storm.
I’ve always drawn comfort from hearing the story in the gospels about Jesus being with His disciples in the boat in the middle of the storm (see Mark 4:35-41). But what I discovered I needed more than the assurance that Jesus was with us in the storm, was that Jesus was with us in all of the wreckage after the storm and would also help us rebuild.
And He was. Jesus was with us in the wreckage in every house we entered, in every labor of love given for the sake of another, and in every empathetic tear shed and hug given.
My daughter Mia Grace helped me understand this point more than anyone else.
The girls and I took lunch over to a friend’s house that had flooded and we stayed for a while watching a crew rip out her floors. For the last fifteen years that I have known her, I have always loved going to my friend’s house because every nook and cranny speaks of the warmth and beauty of her creativity and attention to detail. And one of my favorite creative details of her house is the statue of Jesus that normally stands guard by her front door greeting every guest, reminding everyone of the presence of Immanuel within.
As I set up lunch on my friend’s kitchen counter, I looked outside and saw her statue of Jesus leaning up against her chain link fence, resting among the wreckage of the storm. Mia Grace was standing beside the statue with a look of awe on her face, and she slowly leaned over and gave Him a kiss. It was a much needed reminder that Jesus was there, with us, with us in the wreckage, with us in the details after the storm as much as He was with us in the terror of the storm. Perhaps we would have to look for Him and find Him in different or unusual places, like leaning up against a chain link fence when we would normally expect Him by the front door, but He was there, with us, helping us, loving us, every step of the way.
6. Survivor’s guilt is a very real thing.
Those of us who escaped from our homes flooding had to deal with the guilt that came from being spared. It took days and even weeks to get over the feelings of awkward embarrassment and even guilt when talking to someone whose house did flood. And through the process of learning how to deal with survivor’s guilt, I found that the only real remedy was recognizing that the gift of margin and time given to me by my house not flooding was there to give to those whose houses did. And instead of focusing on the guilt, I learned to focus on the grace – the grace that God allowed those of us who had hands to help to truly be a source of help and comfort to those who were in need.
7. Road rage is real.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that the traffic jams that followed Harvey were as stressful as the hurricane itself. Sitting in the car for three hours to go six miles is enough to make you lose your mind. The only silver lining I found was that I got to know the other people in the car with me REALLY WELL. They know things about me that I am pretty sure Jason doesn’t even know. Things like when I get stressed, I start to pick my toe nails…and then throw them out the car window. Gross, I know. But what else are you going to do with three hours in a car going at the pace of a snail?!?
8. Don’t pick up a cat in the pouring rain and try to put it in a boat. Just. Don’t. Do it.
This point has to be my personal favorite. Some of our friends, Jason and Tiffany Melton and their four beautiful children, had to evacuate from their neighborhood because of the rising waters. Once Jason got his family to safety, he went back into his neighborhood to help others and ended up in the fight of his life with a cat. What he didn’t realize until later was that his whole experience was caught on his phone camera…
As a reward for his feat of bravery by trying to hold onto and save the darn cat, Jason was bitten five times on the hand by the cat and was given the gift of…staph.
So again, I make the point…don’t pick up a cat in the pouring rain and try to put it in a boat. Just. Don’t. Do it. Let it go.
9. Dudes were made for hurricanes.
I am not trying to be a sexist here; I’m just trying to make the point that my husband came alive in a different way than I did in the midst of a full on storm.
Over the course of just two short weeks, Jason got to do more “dude-like” things than in the previous forty-five years of his life. He (along with many other men in our community) waded in chest deep water and put person after person into boats.
He wound up taking 9-1-1 calls with the Drug Enforcement Agency who was here from Florida while singing, “Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do when they come for you…” in his head the entire time.
He got to drive a monster truck through flooded streets to shuttle people back and forth to their homes.
And instead of sitting behind a desk or looking for real estate sites in the car, he got to swing a crow bar, rip out flooring, tear out sheet rock, fill and re-fill wheelbarrows, and sweat to his
heart’s content. It made going back to work three weeks after the hurricane feel more than a little mundane. I fully expected to get a call from him his first week back saying, “Babe, I’m headed to Florida to join the DEA.”
Like I said, dudes were made for hurricanes.
10. For there to be a Red Sea Road, there must be also be a Red Sea.
A week before Hurricane Harvey hit, I was reading the passage in Isaiah 11 that says,
“And the Lord will utterly destroy
the tongue of the Sea of Egypt,
and will wave his hand over the River
with his scorching breath,
and strike it into seven channels,
and he will lead people across in sandals.
And there will be a highway from Assyria
for the remnant that remains of his people,
as there was for Israel
when they came up from the land of Egypt.” (Isaiah 11:15-16)
In the book of Exodus, when the Israelites fled from the Egyptians, Pharaoh and his army pursued them on chariots and horses to try to bring them back to Egypt as slaves (Exodus 14). The Israelites walked as far as they could on their own two feet, and then hit the barrier of the Red Sea. Addressing his people’s panic as they watched Pharaoh’s chariots come closer and closer, Moses said, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Exodus 14:13-14).
Under God’s command, as Moses’ lifted his staff and stretched out his hand over the Red Sea, the waters parted, and the Israelites crossed to the other side on dry land. Once the Israelites had passed through to safety on the Red Sea Road, the waters came crashing down on Pharaoh and his army, and the horses and chariots went tumbling into the sea.
This passage in Isaiah 11 is remembering the Red Sea Road of deliverance God made for His people and is looking ahead to a “greater, worldwide Exodus” when Isaiah foresees the sea itself being dried up and God gathering once and for all all of His people to Himself (Alec Motyer, Isaiah By the Day).
In my journal, I wrote this about Isaiah 11:15-16: “To have a Red Sea Road, you must have a Red Sea barrier. You must be backed into a corner with an enemy breathing down your neck and no way forward. You have to experience the pain of the press to know the healing and wonder of redemption. I forget that so much of the time. I want the miracles of the Red Sea road without the pain and press of the Red Sea barriers.”
God used that passage to prepare my heart for the hurricane ahead, for so much of the time, I cry out to God to show me His power, to show me His deliverance, and to make a way through the Red Sea, forgetting all the while that means I must be backed into a corner with absolutely no way forward but Him.
In the last few weeks, Exodus 14 and Isaiah 11 have given me confidence and courage to believe that when we find ourselves in the pain and press of needing deliverance with absolutely no human way forward, no money in our bank account, no funds to cover the costs, no more energy to manage the needs, no resources to fight the fight, then, and only then, is when we see God’s hand of deliverance lifted high over our lives, over our needs, over our city, and He parts the waters, and makes a way with a Red Sea road.
The Red Sea barrier of Hurricane Harvey was terrible and took us all to a place of needing deliverance in ways most of us have never experienced before. But it also gave us the privilege of seeing God’s hand part the waters around us and make Red Sea roads for His people in ways we would have never seen without the hurricane.
Hurricane Harvey taught all of us in Houston so many things that matter; I just hope that they are things that remain. Things that help us to refocus and reorganize our priorities, our pocketbooks, our to-do lists and agendas for each and every day. And I hope that it helps us remember that for every Red Sea barrier that blocks our way forward in the future, we have a Deliverer who promises to make a Red Sea road for His people every single time, no matter the size of the sea.