BBC Radio 4:Canon Angela Tilby - 31/08/2017

Good morning. There were severe weather warnings of course, but the floods in Texas have exceeded the worst expectations, breaking records for the speed and volume of water that has swallowed up trees and streets, cars and houses, homes and shops. In Fort Bend even alligators were displaced from their river habitats as the banks gave way. The bewildered reptiles ended up in backyards, on doorsteps or under cars, like dragons of the apocalypse breaking into the human world; symbols of the chaotic possibilities of nature.

Hurricane Harvey has shown once again how fragile we are in the face of the weather. Not only in Texas but in Bangladesh and other parts of the world where millions are at risk from flooding. Lifetimes of work and investment swept away in moments. No wonder that when the Psalmist meditated on the nature of God, he thought of God sitting above the flood; assuming that the churning waters that separate our environment from God’s dwelling are simply beyond human control.

The poets of the Bible recognised that the laws of nature interact with one another in unpredictable ways. For them, God may have designed it all but it is not clockwork. Disorder is usually held in check, but not always: ‘The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice’. Huge volumes of angry water represent the true wildness of nature; a wildness which God seems to have restrained at creation, but did not forbid. On a good day our world is beautiful but it is never quite safe. We live always on the edge of chaos. Even our bodies demonstrate our vulnerability: We have no shells to hide in, no wings to fly away, no gills to breathe air once the waters have gone over our heads.

What people do when faced by this kind of disaster is a mirror of who they are. Some make plans to protect their possessions; others stay put hoping the forecasts might be wrong. Neither are necessarily right; some who escaped were flooded on the highways as they fled; others who stayed on their rooftops were rescued. There are times when there can be no infallible advice; nature is not capricious, just unpredictable in a way which mocks all our illusions that we can control our environment.

Disasters disrupt and destroy, but they also judge us by what they reveal about our true values. It is heart breaking to hear of people looting abandoned homes. Such behaviour reveals a rapacious instinct in the human heart that seizes other people’s misfortune as a personal opportunity. Totally callous, but oh, so human. But then there is the opposite instinct; the solidarity that drove thousands of Houston volunteers to help rescue the stranded from homes and boats and vehicles. When disaster comes whose side are we on? We don’t really know until it happens. There is no escaping the changes and chances of this fleeting world; but we can choose to stand together.

First broadcast 31 August 2017

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