I was driving through a horizontal Southern Alberta rain shower when I felt the urge to explore. There, near the bridge over the Old Man River on the Cowboy Trail (Highway 22) a road I had never taken beckoned. I had no deadline to get home, so I turned left onto the gravel road and followed it. When I reached the other side of the valley I looked back and this is what I saw.
I’m not a detail person -which means that I don’t handle details easily. I get trapped in the minutiae of the day. I have to keep lists and the bullets points form a kind of map to help me find my way back out. I can easily lose sight of where all the details lead.
When I get bogged down in a problem and start obsessing about things that don’t make sense to me, I hear Abba telling me to take a step back and see the bigger picture. I’ve been in that bog many times over the years, questioning the “right” way to do Christianity. When too many questions start to involve the word “should” He draws me away from the arguments to go for a walk with Him.
“Step back,” He says. “Look at the greater panorama, the big picture, the one that started before your lifetime and will go on until eternity. Look carefully and as far in any direction that you can. Can you perceive my voice has called all of it into existence? The story of gospel of Christ did not start in Bethlehem and end with an empty tomb outside Jerusalem. The gospel is written in every molecule, and every detail proclaims the glory of my Word. My Word will not return to Me void. It will accomplish my purpose -eternally.”
In the beginning, God created everything: the heavens above and the earth below.
Here’s what happened:
At first the earth lacked shape and was totally empty, and a dark fog draped over the deep while God’s spirit-wind hovered over the surface of the empty waters.
Then there was the voice of God.
John 1 Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking.
The Voice was and is God.
This celestial Word remained ever present with the Creator;
His speech shaped the entire cosmos.
Immersed in the practice of creating, all things that exist were birthed in Him.
His breath filled all things with a living, breathing light—
A light that thrives in the depths of darkness, blazes through murky bottoms.
It cannot and will not be quenched.
The Voice was and is God.
The Voice took on flesh and became human and chose to live alongside us.
We have seen Him, enveloped in undeniable splendor
—the one true Son of the Father
—evidenced in the perfect balance of grace and truth.
It’s been a year since the rains came down and the floods came up. Our son and his family are back in their house in High River, but it’s still a construction zone.
The kids are back playing soccer and baseball, but I see some of them watching the approaching rain clouds as much as they watch the ball.
The middle school band plays at an outdoor concert for an audience of proud parents, grandparents and siblings who step around puddles in the gravelled yard.
The temporary business structures beside the Saturday artisan’s tents have become the new downtown.
When I ask my granddaughter how her friends are doing she says everything is different , but different is kind of normal now.
Then she asks, “Do you think it’s going to rain like that again?”
There’s a greater maturity, but also something akin to a lost innocence in High River. I suppose that is what happens after any disaster, or after any change in the definition of normal. Whether it’s a flood, a tornado, a serious illness – or a betrayal, wherever we experience unexpected loss we can no longer say, “That would never happen.”
Now we know it can.
And now that we know we are left standing in the playing field on a Saturday morning in June checking the sky for signs of rain, wondering if it will happen again.
“Folks are a bit twitchy when the forecast is for heavy rain in the mountains,” a merchant/artist told me. “It’s understandable -especially for the kids.”
The thing about lost innocence is that it is one thing that can never be restored. You cannot un-see things. When I’m with my family it seems like half a dozen times a day I hear the phrase, “We had one of those, but it was lost in the flood.” My grandchildren don’t have bikes or outdoor toys because even though we offered to replace them, they don’t have anywhere to store them yet. The shed containing their old bikes and toys was also lost in the flood, and that image is still with them.
Innocence may not be restored but many other things can be. Bikes and sheds and houses can be restored. Purity can be restored. Faith can be restored. Respect, hope, joy, peace, confidence can all be rebuilt, but they require new firmer foundations than the absence of the experience of suffering.
I asked an older gentleman how he saw the town now, 365 days after the rushing water that poured down from the mountains changed everything.
“It’s the best thing that ever happened to this community, ” he said.
“Why do you say that?”
“We discovered what it means to be a community,” he answered. “We discovered what it means to have real friends, and who our real friends are. We discovered what it is to work together for more than our own comforts. We discovered the generosity of strangers. We discovered what it is to need help and give help. We discovered faith.”
He smiled sincerely when he said this. He had genuine joy.
“Not everyone is back in their homes yet and a lot of businesses are still in temporary quarters or not even up and running at all. We hope it doesn’t rain like that again, but you know, we also hope it does so we will know if the steps toward flood mitigation are working. We hope another disaster doesn’t happen anywhere in Canada, but we also hope the things we have learned here can be put to use if there is one – when there is one.”
Loss of innocence is being reconciled to the reality of sin in people around us and in ourselves. Loss of innocence is acknowledging that all is not right in the world. The Bible says all creation groans until things are put right again. For some who have survived disaster there lingers an increased fear and greater sensitivity to pain which results in anxiety that hums in the background like the drone of a machine that never shuts off . For some there grows a greater faith that seems to free them from fear of the future. I watched this gentleman in a crowd after church, smiling and greeting folks, shaking hands and giving hugs when he met someone he hadn’t seen for a while. After I took the kids home for lunch I remembered his words.
“The flood showed us that God is faithful and even though we have been down and bone-weary, we now know that with His help we are much stronger than we ever thought we could be.”
But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.
Grandmothers have them -little treasures labeled with memories- daughter’s first shoes, mother’s salt and pepper shakers, son’s first woodworking project. Depending on tolerance for visual clutter and willingness to dust, they may be displayed on a shelf or tucked in a box under the bed.
Folks caught in the flood in High River tell me their most painful losses were photos and personal trinkets and heirlooms irretrievably saturated in mud and sewage. At least they still have their memories. I watch my elderly father desperately grabbing for precious memories as they are sucked into the muddy mess of dementia. His frustration in trying to recall a name is because that name is attached to the memory of a person whose significance he realizes is fading. His memory treasures are being de-cluttered down to the essential ones -his wife, his children, his God.
It’s not necessary to have objects to help us remember, in fact when too many things carry memories for us we can easily become hoarders and block our own paths to the future with junk from the past. A lot of memories need to be tossed, but sometimes a jar that carried precious spice a magi gave your baby can be pretty special. I wonder if Mary kept it or if Joseph sold it to finance their sojourn to Egypt.
It’s really the memories of God-moments that Mary treasured. She pondered them, meditated on them, tried to understand the significance of them.
Sometimes God has shown up in my life and handed me something I don’t know what to do with, but know it’s significant, so I store it on a shelf in my mind. Sometimes I take it down and ponder it, looking at it from all sides, then put it back. Later, when I’ve almost forgotten, it comes in handy and suddenly makes sense.
About a year ago I had a dream in which I saw a leather-covered box with long leather tethers attached. In the box I saw pieces of paper with scripture verses written on them and I had a strong sense that I would need these. I pondered this dream when I woke up and realized the box was like the phylactery boxes orthodox Jews tie on their foreheads and arms. At the time I was waiting for O.R. time so my surgeon could do a biopsy on something that had all the signs of serious advanced cancer. Fear gripped my mind; it almost paralyzed me. I remembered all the promises and significant Bible verses that stood out to me in the previous few weeks and wrote them down on coloured sticky notes. I didn’t have a leather box, but I read them over and over applying them to my mind. Even when I had trouble hearing them -(By His stripes we are healed; Bless the Lord and forget not all his benefits -who heals your diseases and renews your youth; Trust in the Lord with all your heart... and many more) I tied them on my head figuratively speaking, as weapons against the monster of fear that waged war in my mind. Metaphorically I tied them on my arm as a reminder to continue to choose to act in the light of His words, believing in God’s faithfulness.
By the time the biopsy was done I was at peace. My doctor was totally surprised when the procedure revealed a benign growth that could be easily removed. God was not surprised. But this whole exercise was just a warm-up for the next battle.
Before we left to go to our granddaughter’s birthday I saw the pile of scripture verses on my dresser. They had become precious, ponderable treasures to me and for some reason I grabbed them at the last minute and tucked them in my suitcase. Later that week, when our son-in-law was comatose in critical condition and doctors were privately giving him 0% chance of survival, I pulled out the verses and read them over him in the hospital room. My daughter borrowed them and in the battle for his life read them as well. I sometimes saw her pull them out of her pocket and lay them (now worn and curled) on the counter with her keys at the end of a long day. I saw her faith grow. I saw my faith grow. Together we, and an entire community, saw God miraculously restore her husband to perfect health in away that totally defied all predictions.
Mary didn’t understand a lot of the things she witnessed and experienced in her life. It’s easy in hindsight to put the puzzle pieces together, but God didn’t give her the complete picture all at once. He told her she was highly favoured and that the message she carried in her body was for the salvation of the world. Who could possibly fathom how that would work? Who could possibly comprehend that the pain she suffered — the gossip and rejection, the refugee flight, seeing her son shamed and executed as a criminal– were all signs of God’s favour? So until the day when her son rose from the dead and became her own Saviour she treasured the promises and pondered the memories on the shelf. When the time was right, in God’s good time, they all made sense.
They’re a tough breed, these ranch country people. A walk around town today revealed such contrasts, the broken and the restored, the old and the new, the open and the closed, the cold temperature and the warm hearts.
Hampton Hills by frosty fields
Filming “Heartland” at -11 degrees. One of the crew took me to a place to watch where I wouldn’t I wouldn’t be in the way, then offered me a hot cuppa tea.
“One who gains strength by overcoming obstacles possesses the only strength which can overcome adversity. ”
High River, Alberta is still under a cloud. It may not be the same dark heavy rain cloud that dumped more water than the Highwood River could hold on that horrible day in June, but it’s a cloud. And even though there is light on the horizon, for many people living with the consequences of the first day of summer disaster, it is still dark and heavy. The children will tell you.
I stayed in Saddlebrook camp this week, caring for my grandchildren while their parents were away on business. Saddlebrook is the trailer town out in the country on the road to Okotoks built to house those whose homes are not habitable. There are many kind, encouraging, generous people there –especially in the food service areas (residents are not permitted to use the unconnected stoves). Visitors to the camp are strongly discouraged, but as a substitute parent I was permitted to stay (after paper work and getting photo I.D.) The government has generously provided housing to those still affected by the flood, but due to logistics problems there are often a lot of rules and regulations that communicate a big brother/victim disparity in such situations. (I’ve noticed that when people who already feel a loss of control are treated like incapable victims, they start to act like helpless victims –and angry victims need someone to blame. Just sayin’.)
I cannot possibly understand what it is like to suddenly lose everything but the mortgage. I don’t really know what it is like to wait, fill out forms, and wait some more and still not have answers. All I can do is listen –and pray.
I listened to where-were-you-when stories. I listened to you-think-that’s-bad stories. I listened to survivor guilt stories from folks who didn’t have much damage. I listened to a job list a mile long from an exhausted young father who sat on the front steps of his broken house, too tired to put one foot in front of the other anymore. There is so much to do in his “spare time” before winter.
I listened to a young mother who longed to correct her children in private when they misbehaved at the dinner table in the café at Saddlebrook. “Don’t misunderstand. I’m very grateful,” she said. “The food is good, but it is not what I would choose to make for my toddlers. I just want to go home and cook for my family again. It’s hard to explain.”
Someone told me, “People have been really kind and have wanted to give us things, but we have nowhere to put them. And I sound awful and l hate myself for it, but I don’t want your stuff! I want my stuff! I liked my stuff! I want my baby pictures. I want my Grandma’s teapot. I want my old music. I want to go home!”
I think my granddaughter expressed it best when she was telling me about children on the school bus arguing over who was most deserving of sympathy: the ones who lost everything, the ones who knew people who died, the ones who lost their school and still don’t have classrooms and are trying to study en masse with other traumatized kids and teachers in a single chaotic banquet hall room without an outside play area, the ones who don’t have dads to help them fix their houses, the ones living in a fenced refugee camp with security guards checking their every move….
She stomped her foot and cried, “They don’t understand! You don’t understand! Nobody understands!” then plopped on her bottom bunk bed in the tiny “kitchen” and pulled a blanket over her head because that’s as close as she can get to running to her room and slamming the door.
She’s right. Every heart has its own sorrow. And this was definitely not the time to remind her of Syrian refugees or Pakistani Christians being blown up in their churches. She can’t understand their sorrow any better than they understand hers.
Only the heart can know its own resentment; likewise no stranger can experience its joy.(Proverbs 14:10)
I admit I feel my own rage rising and want to stomp my foot and scream every time I read another heartless online comment about “the foolishness of people who build on a flood plain and then want the government to pay for their stupidity.” Our son’s house is more than two kilometers from the river in an area that is still marked on the maps as being far outside any risk for flood. They are hard-working responsible people who checked before buying. This flood was way beyond anything a prudent planner could have predicted. The history of this country is that nearly all towns and cities are built on waterways. According to the maps millions in this country are at greater risk of flood than they were. Do we blame people for building in areas where tornadoes, or forest fires, or earthquakes, or blizzards or ice storms or tsunamis occur? I guess my heart has its sorrow too and I’ve got some forgiving to do. No, these know-it-alls don’t understand –and why should they? If a person has never faced adversity or experienced feeling out of control of their circumstances it is easy to maintain the illusion of being sufficient unto oneself. They don’t know what it is like for others –not really.
I saw signs of recovery though –like a chinook arch of clear sky rising on the horizon. People were trimming hedges and mowing lawns or raking leaves in some areas of town. Businesses were re-opening. Folks were discussing the choosing of new paint colours and flooring options for re-builds. My grandson was thrilled with a patch of grass in the camp big enough for him to practise throwing his new football. There is talk of an off-leash dog park going up nearby -somewhere near the beep beep beep sounds of backing-up earth movers.
I saw people laughing.
I saw kids showing off donated clothes and backpacks.
I saw a group of loving people whose church building was not damaged. They moved their own service to less-than-convenient early hours on Sunday to make room for others to use their building for the rest of the day.
I saw grateful tears in the eyes of an older woman as she clutched a handmade quilt my friend sent. (Rose gave a dozen of her gorgeous handcrafted quilts to the folks in High River).
“I waited until the families took what they needed,” she said. “But I’m so glad this one is still here. It’s so beautiful. You don’t know what it’s like to lose everything and have to start again at my age. It means so much to have something this nice!”
No, sweet lady, I don’t know what it’s like. But I see joy in your face and you give me hope.
I dare to believe that most of the people of High River will not only survive, but that this beautiful windy mountain-edged prairie town will thrive and remember the sorrow of this tough season without bitterness. They will also remember the joy. My prayer is that they will know what it is to need help and how to give help in a way that preserves dignity. They will use this opportunity to develop the skills that untangle red tape; they will know from experience how to plow through unwieldy bureaucracy, how to organize volunteers, how to establish a grass-roots just-folks-helping-folks attitude that can stand firm when disaster hits another Canadian town. They will know how to be grateful, thoughtful, helpful and compassionate because, unlike the nasty commentators on the sidelines, they get it. Right now they are hurting and need more time to heal, but they will rise up again.
They will rise up.
It’s people like these beautiful folks, the ones trained by adversity, who build up this country. They are the wise ones. They are the strong ones.
I believe when the dark cloud blows away, the town will see it has a purpose and a higher calling in the grand scheme of things.
High River will be a city of refuge, of peace, of caring –and of love.
He consoles us as we endure the pain and hardship of life so that we may draw from His comfort and share it with others in their own struggles. (2 Corinthians 2:4)
The problem with people who want to “take God out of the box” is that they can seldom resist the temptation to stuff him in another one of their own making.
Jesus said the Holy Spirit is like a river that flows and a wind that blows. He is ever moving. To try to put constraints on him, by explaining him by how we have seen him move before is putting him in a box.
Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. ( John 7:38,39)
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)
Jesus did not heal everyone the same way each time. God did not respond to the cries of his people for deliverance the same way each time.
Recently I heard someone say that the rules and regulations surrounding practices in their denomination were put there for protection. The rules seemed to be quite reasonable when they were devised years ago. But as I was thinking about this, it struck me that the berms built around my son’s neighbourhood in High River, Alberta were also put there for the protection of the town. When the river temporarily changed course at the highest point of its rain-fed uncontrollable gush, the berms actually served as barriers that stopped the water from flowing back into the channel and turned whole neighbourhoods into a stagnant lake, a lukewarm mix of both fresh river water and disgusting sewage sitting in the summer heat. Stagnation created ideal growing conditions for mold and bacteria in the foundations of homes that were now trapped behind the man-made parameters that were “put there for protection.”
Sometimes denominations form around groups of people with similar experiences, similar understandings, similar revelations, similar aspirations, similar emphasis, or similar disgruntlements. The unity they experience can feel like a refuge and berms are built around it to protect this peaceful easy feeling. But after a few years those protective structures can serve more to keep some folks in and other folks out, and sometimes even try to confine Holy Spirit inside the berms of their definitions of themselves.
The result is stagnation.
Many of us sit in dangerous lukewarm water. We have become the comfortable church of Laodicea, thinking we are rich, when we are poor, not noticing how stinky it is getting and that all of our accomplishments are tainted by the backwash of our own waste.
Church-leavers who form tiny home groups and church-planters who organize stadium-filling mega-gatherings all face the same temptation to berm themselves in. It doesn’t work.
Why? Because God no longer lives in a box. No longer does he need to say, “Touch this box and die!” because we couldn’t approach his holiness in our sinful state. He lives in his people – living, moving, breathing people, reconciled to their Creator by the blood of Jesus Christ. We are his temple. Living stones.
Christ in us, the hope of glory.
This doesn’t mean we abandon discernment and wisdom and accept any old thing. In fact when the Holy Spirit is flowing there is greater discernment and falsehoods are swept away instead of being treasured in hidden places in our hearts’ basements.
He desires all who truly follow Jesus Christ to drop the barriers, and worship Him in Spirit and truth without anger or disputing.