Save me, O God,
for the waters have risen up to my neck.
I am sinking in deep mire,
and there is no firm ground for my feet.
I have come into deep waters,
and the torrent washes over me.
I have grown weary with my crying;my throat is inflamed;
my eyes have failed from looking for my God. (Psalm 69)
These words of Psalm 69 came immediately to my mind in September when I visited a friend whose life in Schoharie was affected by flooding caused by Hurricane Irene. The waters had risen to the ceiling of the first floor of her house. In front of many homes were muddy piles of people's possessions; keepsakes and family treasures that insurance or FEMA cannot replace.
Storms and floods have been a symbol of chaos and disorder in both the Old and New Testaments. In the psalm above, a lament, the writer is overwhelmed by the chaos in his life. Isaiah calls the exiled people of Israel, "O afflicted one, storm-tossed, and not comforted" (Isaiah 54:11). The disciples are caught in a storm that threatens their lives, until it is calmed by Jesus.
Seeing the devastation to the people in Schoharie and Middleburgh, I have come to a deeper understanding of the symbolism of the storm and flood. I had seen the pictures and videos of the flooding, but to stand in the midst of the damage and loss made it real. My friend didn't talk about appliances and furniture, she spoke of photo albums and the things her children, now adults, had made in school.
There is a turning point in Psalm 69: "Answer me, O Lord, for your love is kind; in your great compassion, turn to me." In my friend's case, there came that moment when God's compassion came to her. As she and her son were tearing the sheetrock from the walls of her home, she stepped outside to take a break. A car pulled up and two women got out. They walked up to her, a stranger, and asked how they could help. The two women then spent the afternoon pulling nails out of the beams of the house. They probably didn't know it, but at that moment they were angels. They were messengers of God's love and compassion.
Immediately after the hurricane, I put out a call in my two parishes asking for donations for the victims. The response was a huge outpouring of generosity, as it was within many worship communities. God's people responded to the needs of others. I dropped a van full of donated items off to a distribution center that was filled with cleaning supplies, toiletries, food and household items.
"O Lord, for your love is kind; in your great compassion, turn to me." God's compassion has been shown through people's compassion. The helping hands of the volunteers were God's helping hands, the words of comfort from strangers were God's words of comfort.
The lament psalms came out of the pain and tribulation of the people of Israel. They were a cry of help to God. In the midst of life's tragedies, people often turn to God.
Religious writer Walter Brueggemann calls these laments, "psalms of disorientation."
"The presupposition and affirmation of these psalms is that precisely in such deathly places as presented in these psalms new life is given by God. We do not understand how that could so or even why it is so. But we regularly learn and discern that there-more than anywhere else-newness that is not of our own making breaks upon us," he writes.
I am sure all of the flooded communities will be rebuilt. They will need help, and find it in caring individuals and communities. I am equally sure that in that process God will be with them to create newness.
The Rev. T. Kyle Grennen is the priest in charge at Grace Church in Cherry Valley and St. Mary's Church in Springfield Center.