Lately I’ve been spending time in the Psalms. Just today, I read Psalm 69 and it just about ripped my heart out. Partially because I have identified so closely with it over the last several months. And also because of David’s utter despair coupled with his complete trust in God. Two seemingly opposite concepts that, in this Psalm, are seamlessly woven together. David was great at pulling that off.
Next week I'm leaving town for about 2.5 weeks. I’m going to help my parents get ready to move here and visit Baytown while I’m in the area. Then we’re driving from there to ACU, where Julia will go to Learning to Lead and Chad and I will lead a group at MPulse. We’re stopping by Lubbock on the way back (which you Texans know is not on the way at all, but we’ll make it work).
So those are the reasons for my being gone half of July. And truthfully, I could use some time away.
A number of people who know me are aware that this year has been pretty rough for me. I haven’t gone into specifics on my blog, but you can find traces of it here and there.
Also this year, I’ve started working out. And the only way I can make that bearable is to have music pouring into my head the whole time. Mostly the Twilight soundtrack, but also some vintage stuff, such as U2’s The Unforgettable Fire. That album is one of my all-time favorites and every time I listen to it, it sounds as fresh and new and gripping and convicting as it did when I first heard it in the mid-’80s.
The other day I was walking through the neighborhood with Bono’s voice streaming through my earbuds, and I had one of those DUH experiences. After listening to this album for almost 25 years, I heard something that had managed to slip by me all this time. In the album’s title track, Bono sings “And if the mountain should crumble, or disappear into the sea…” I’ve heard it a zillion times. But a realization hit me and nearly stopped me in my tracks. That’s the second verse of Psalm 46.
Psalm 46 is inscribed on the memorial to the victims of the 1947 Texas City Disaster. On April 16, 1947, a ship loaded with 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate (the same highly explosive fertilizer used in the Oklahoma City bombing, except that was only 2.5 tons) exploded at the docks in Texas City, Texas, killing at least 581 people and injuring more than 5,000. The blast shattered windows in Beaumont, a town 90 miles away. It even registered on a seismograph in Denver. The blast is still the nation’s worst industrial disaster. For the people of Texas City that day, the mountains crumbled and fell into the sea.
I met several survivors of the blast in 2003, when I wrote a series of articles about the disaster for The Baytown Sun. One survivor is an elder at the church we worked with in Baytown. His 13-year-old brother was killed after riding his bike to the docks, where a large crowd had gathered to watch the ship’s fire that would result in the explosion later that morning. Larry was 15 then, and all those decades later, the sorrow of that day’s events is still carved into his face. Journalists write a lot of stuff that they forget about. But some stories stay with you. The Texas City story has stayed with me.
Larry loaned me a book of survivors’ accounts to use in my research. I took it to the library to piece my articles together. Going over the survivors’ stories was the most heart-wrenching research I’ve ever had to do for an article. I had to keep getting up from my desk and walking away from the book for a few minutes because the grief and devastation in those stories was so overwhelming. Much of it was too gruesome to include in my articles. A woman who was a young girl at the time told of debris from the blast hanging in the trees of the neighborhoods near the docks. She said she learned to walk with her head down to avoid seeing human remains that had been blown into the branches and were left hanging there. She told of a T-shirt that was found in a tree near her house. When someone climbed up to get it down, they found a human ribcage inside it. There are accounts worse than that – accounts I could not bring myself to type.
The Texas City Disaster made international news. Celebrities like Jack Benny and Frank Sinatra performed in fundraising campaigns to help the people of Texas City in the aftermath of the blast. Survivors still gather on anniversaries of the blast to remember the ones they lost and the day that changed their lives forever.
This was a horrible tragedy. But the truth is that there are mountains crumbling and falling into the sea all around us. Sometimes it’s something that makes national headlines and results in some memorial being constructed somewhere. But sometimes the evidence is much less noticeable. It could be a “fine” that is really just a lie. Or a tear-streaked Compline program. Or a cryptic Facebook status or blog post.
For me, on a deeply personal level, “Mt. Deana” crumbled and fell into the sea about five months ago. God is working through several people – some who don’t even know it – to pull me out and put me back together. It’s a terribly difficult process, though. I would rather have skipped the whole thing altogether.
The great thing about Psalm 46:2 is that there has to be a verse 1. And that verse says “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” You can read this and know it’s true, but I’m sure most of us have lived it and experienced its truth. When something you thought was a solid foundation, such as the view you’ve had of church your whole life, crumbles underneath you and heads for the sea, God’s always there. In fact, he created that sea. He’s bigger than it is.
I told my house church the other night that my life right now is kind of like the book of Jonah. No happy ending I can put on it at this point. But I’m going to my homeland to breathe some refinery fumes and eat some decent Tex-Mex. I’m going back to my alma mater to hang out with middle school kids for a week. I’ll see a lot of people I’ve missed, and that’s always good. I’ll come home, turn 38 and try to have a better year. I think that’s all I can do right now. Which is OK, because God can do the rest.