As a Senior in high school. I was forced to read the Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cities. Yes, let’s be honest, nobody chooses to read Dickens, especially that one. But it does contain one of the best openings ever written – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
At age 18 those words meant very little to me. I had not yet lived long enough, or experienced enough of the world and all that life has to offer, to understand life’s many paradoxes. Now, many years later, after having spent the majority of my career as a journalist, I am just beginning to understand the depth of what Dickens was trying to communicate. He was not being whimsical, or cleverly stringing together phrases, but instead trying to make sense of the world around him. As best he could, he was trying to bring some sense of order to the chaos of the age. I wonder, if Dickens were a contemporary writing about our lives, would he choose to word things any differently? Somehow, I doubt it.
A month ago, I walked recently-flooded streets in north Houston, Beaumont, and Vidor and talked with people who were gutting their houses of everything they owned. There were stacks of furniture, clothes, wedding albums, homecoming mums, baby pictures, prom dresses, and more…memory upon memory stacked in reeking water-logged heaps. But there were also smiles, and people grateful for the friends, neighbors, and strangers who had come to help.
When I met Kevin, he was working on the back patio of his home, his living room empty except a few photos on the walls which contained a water-line much taller than Kevin’s six-foot frame. The ceiling fan, blades drooping like the branches of a weeping willow, also gave testimony to how high the waters surged. As we talked, Kevin fiddled with his fishing rod, putting drops of oil here and there, almost oblivious to the destruction around him, focused only on one small thing he could control in his life. Kevin was not at home at the time of the flood. His neighbor, Larry, was not so lucky. “I was watching the news in my living room at 5:30 that night,” said Larry. “At 5:30 the next morning I was wading through chest-deep waters with my dog lifted over my head.”
As with many disaster situations, capitalism found a home as “I survived Hurricane Harvey” and“Texas Strong” t-shirts flapped in the summer breeze attached to makeshift roadside stands, many next to restaurants and other businesses that had yet to reopen. John was running one of those stands. When he saw the word “chaplain” embroidered on my shirt, he broke down in tears and asked me to pray for him, his daughter, and his new grandchild who was born the night of the storm. At the time, his daughter was still in the hospital, but their home was flooded, and John did not know where they would live when it was time for her to leave the hospital. I prayed for John and went home with a “Texas Strong” shirt in my hands. I wish I could have done more.
Yet, even through the loss, confusion, and sadness, a sense of humor about the situation worked its way into the strange patchwork fabric of the mountains of soaked drywall and housing insulation that lined the streets. Messages left on spray-painted plywood warned visitors of looting and other potential crimes. “You loot, we shoot” was a common placard. After all, we are in Texas. But my favorite was, “Yard of the Month.” Dickens was right. We do have the capacity to see joy through the pain.
I also met an army of yellow-shirted volunteers – Southern Baptist relief workers, who know first-hand what it is to see the other side of disaster. They sacrificed vacation days, time with family, and the opening weekend of college football season. They came from Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and even as far away as Alaska. There were those who assessed the damage, others who cooked meals, some who brought trailers with showers, and others who ripped walls from studs and carried wheelbarrows of debris to the curb. They came only to serve. They came to show that while it may be the worst of times, there are those who have come to be the hands and feet of Jesus in times like these, in an age like this.
Long before Dickens penned his famous prologue, King Solomon struggled with life’s incongruous mysteries as well. His conclusion, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…,” he wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:1 (ESV). We may never know why natural disasters occur, and why some people must endure them while others do not. However, we have evidence that the worst of times brings out the best in people. I pray that if you have not yet donated financially, or sacrificed your time to help those who are still hurting, may this be the day you are called to be a living witness of the Good News of Jesus Christ.