This past Saturday night dozens of friends gathered together for a campfire, s’mores, whiffle ball, a lot of laughs, and a few tears. These are some of the most important people in the life of my family. To use the church-y cliche, these are people we have been “living life with” for years. We were gathered together on this night because our friend Heather is to begin chemo therapy this week. Her husband Paul, a much better man than me, organized a surprise party for Heather with her friends and family on this last weekend before chemo to lend support, strength, and encouragement. It was sad. It was happy. It was perfect.
This afternoon I spent time watching the news coming out of Houston. As I’m watching this slow-motion catastrophe unfold, it is impossible to not think back to other disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the Indonesian tsunami, or the tornado that absolutely devastated my own city in 2011. For those of us reduced to watching these events unfold on our TV or on social media, it is impossible not to be awed by the destructive power of nature and be completely broken by the loss of lives and livelihoods.
But, as you look through the images of submerged highways, destroyed homes, and frightened and weary survivors, you’ll also catch images of inspiration. The Houston pastor who spent Sunday morning out of his pulpit and instead was swimming from car to submerged car looking for people who might be trapped. Dozens of rednecks with flat-bottom boats, the so-called Cajun Navy, descending on Houston looking for any way to help. The first responders, the journalists, neighbors, and complete strangers risking their lives and well beings to help anyone and everyone regardless of race, gender, creed, or politics. Yes, there were people on Twitter and other places who decided to capitalize on the tragedy by spouting idiotic, politically charged hot takes. But one thing that events like Hurricane Harvey teach us is that life is not Twitter. While idiots turn everything into politics, real people in the real world were rising (and will continue to rise) to the occasion to help, heal, and love.
We experienced something similar in Joplin in the summer of 2011. As strange as it might sound, when Joplinites reflect on that summer today they do so with a swelling sense of pride. It was a horrible tragedy. Many lives were lost. Many others bear physical and emotional scars to this day. Parts of the city have still not fully recovered. But it was also inspiring. I’ve tried to think of some profound way to describe it, but I think it is best to simply say that in that moment everyone was together. If you’ve never been in a community where everyone was truly together, it is a breath-taking experience. Neighbors and strangers were family and friends. We were together in our hurt, together in the hard work of recovery. Churches were together. Businesses were together. Other people came from all over the country just to be together with us. It was beautiful. It was sad. It was happy. In a strange way, it was perfect.
No one wants tragedy to strike. Cancer sucks. Hurricanes and tornadoes suck. There’s no getting around it. There’s no sugar coating it. People going through trial and pain don’t need to be told how “it’s all really a good thing after all, so go ahead and turn that frown upside down.” Nevertheless, I’m thankful – and it is a profound grace – that these worst moments can also be some of our best moments, that even in the darkness (and the deluge) we can still see stark beauty in the midst of pain. In the midst of cancer, we can gather to show how much we really love each other. In the midst of destruction, when everything is stripped away, we can be reminded that we still have “together.”