Record flooding in Calgary has placed my hometown in the international spotlight. A state of emergency and the evacuation of 75,000 people from their homes; dramatic video of a home being washed away into a river and smashed against a bridge; and the iconic symbols of the city forlornly pictured in the midst of giant puddles, dirty and inaccessible—these are images not easily set aside.
In a sense, the flood barely affected me. My suburban neighbourhood is well clear of the evacuation zone and the only impact on our family involved briefly hosting a few friends in need and the cancellation of various planned events. We tried to be good citizens by conserving water and staying at home and out of the way of the rescue workers. Responding to the phone calls and emails from acquaintances around the world, concerned about our safety, felt strange. I was watching the same media reports as they were.
Yet it was different. Knowing the Bow River was raging just a few kilometers from my home caused me to watch with an intensity that was different than watching news reports of a disaster in a distant city. It was a reminder that whatever proximity technology and media may provide, it cannot provide the connectedness and sense of participation and identity that physical geography provides. The street names were familiar; the naming of a neighbourhood prompted a phone call or email to ensure someone you knew was OK; and the speculation about a building being closed for weeks or even months prompted concern regarding the impact on specific people you know who are affected. Technology may provide the same images to people a few kilometers away as they do to those on the other side of the world, but the message those images send are different.
Difficult circumstances provide a measure of character, and the past few days confirmed things that attracted our family to move here a decade ago. Calgary has a down-to-earth neighbourliness, a “can-do” attitude, and a sense of civic identity and pride that is different from the other cities I have lived in. Although most of the population is made up of people who have moved here in recent decades and therefore do not have the same network of extended family and connections that a less mobile population might have, it is significant that only 1,500 of the 75,000 evacuated people utilized the municipally-provided shelters—all the others were taken care of through their own social contacts or by strangers who offered their homes. Monday morning the city needed 600 volunteers to do a door-to-door drop-off; 2,500 people showed up at McMahon Stadium ready to help.
The response of all levels of government and the first responders has been inspiring to watch. Our leaders all had a presence, showing themselves to be in control and on-top-of things as best one could expect in such unpredictable circumstances. They inspired a confidence that things were being taken care of with clear and consistent messaging. Politics and partisanship were conspicuous by their absence. As someone who spends his days promoting the importance of the institutions that make up our social architecture, seeing them work well in trying times is inspiring.
Of all the emotions I felt during this flood, however, none was as intense as the humbling consciousness of our human finiteness. Calgary is a leading Canadian city, where it is reported more than $55 billion of business a day is conducted. It is a wealthy and modern city and our infrastructure is impressive. Yet, against the force of rushing water, the most powerful structures are humbled. As major conferences were postponed, rivers diverted, and an entire city brought to a standstill, I could not help but be reminded of a slogan which I heard my mother say whenever unpredictable events changed our family plans as a youngster: “Man plans, God rules.” (It has a different ring in her Dutch cadence than in English translation.)
In our Sunday morning worship service, we read Psalm 93.
“The floods have lifted up, O LORD,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.
Mightier than the thunders of many waters,
mightier than the waves of the sea,
the LORD on high is mighty!
Two thousand years of Christian social thought can teach us many things about what it means to love our neighbours, the importance of social institutions, and what effective leadership looks like. It also reminds us, however, that whatever heights humans are able to climb to, our best and most powerful efforts are minute compared to the sovereign power of God. And as the preacher pointed out yesterday, while that is humbling and scary when water rushes powerfully through, it is also comforting: it speaks to a future ultimately shaped by a God much greater than we are.