ON THE GREAT FLOOD (2021)
In retrospect, documentaries may call it ‘the Great Submersion’ or ‘the Sumas Prairie Deluge.’ It has already been identified as the most costly natural disaster in Canadian history. I’m referring to the catastrophic flooding that we have experienced around my city (Abbotsford, BC) through the final week of November 2021. After high winds and a historic downpour across southern BC (our November monthly rainfall fell in under 48 hours), rising waters either submerged or shattered all the highways out of the port of Vancouver, cutting off supply chains to the interior.
Locally, the Nooksack River in Washington State overflowed and gushed north into Canada, then has spread east as far as Chilliwack, BC. The torrents knocked out major dikes and turned Sumas Prairie into a giant lake.
I’m writing from my home, grateful that my house is dry, our power is on, and our cupboards are full. We live just a few blocks up the hill from the huge evacuation zone and were personally spared. But we’re wringing our hands and grieving with friends and family whose homes, barns, and farms have been overwhelmed and damaged, now only accessible by boat. So I wanted to post this blog for the sake of those who’ve been worrying, praying and asking about us. We’re okay. Others are not.
A FEW WORDS ABOUT NATURAL DISASTERS
Natural disasters are not 100% natural
When you hear about a natural disaster, there’s often more to the story—a human angle worth examining. For example, until a century ago, Sumas Prairie had been Sumas Lake, formed by receding glaciers about 8000 years ago. The Sema:th peoples settled around the lake as early as 400 BC, and a large community still lived there in the 1840s. The tribe lived in a symbiotic relationship with the environment, adjusting to its constantly shifting shoreline, and harvesting a wide range of fish and wildlife by net fishing and traps.
Then came European homesteaders, who began claiming the region for themselves, immigrating in large numbers in the early 1900s. They didn’t like Sumas Lake’s swampy wetlands, frequent floods, and mosquitoes. But they saw great potential for ultra-fertile farmland by creating dikes and pumping out the water. Patrick Penner (Abbotsford News) writes, “Sumas Lake was drained and the Vedder canal was built in the early 1920s, using a pump station to divert the lake’s in-flowing rivers for irrigation and allowing European farmers to access the fertile soil. It was described as an engineering marvel at the time.”
That farmland became the most fruitful in the nation. Tulip fields, berry orchards, and vegetable crops produce an Eden-like abundance. Amid the crops, the valley floor is dotted with barns—home to thousands of cattle, pigs, and millions of birds (chickens and turkeys). The area is a massive source and supplier of produce for human consumption.
The downside is that when you try to impose the human will upon the environment instead of living within its limits and rhythms, risks need to be assessed and blowback during extreme climate conditions is inevitable. In that sense, it’s the conditions we create and the risks we take that cause the disaster. It does no good to shame or blame the visionary builders or current inhabitants. I have beloved friends and family members who’ve made their lives and livelihoods in that space. And I’ve enjoyed the fruit of their labor and generosity. What I feel is empathy. We grieve with them as they face loss and devastation, and we’ll work together to repair the damage and restore normalcy.
That said, an important footnote: when we describe the current flooding as a natural disaster, it’s also important to pause and consider how, for the First Nations people, the initial catastrophe was actually the loss of their land, lake, and livelihood (without consultation or compensation). I take this moment to gratefully acknowledge that I live in the traditional and unceded territory of the Stó:lō people.
Natural disasters are not ‘acts of God.’
You may be familiar with the fineprint on insurance forms that exempts insurance companies from compensating homeowners due to ‘acts of God’—e.g., earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, etc. Those who live in flood plains or on fault lines may still be able to obtain insurance but only at much higher premiums and deductibles. That makes sense. No argument here. But I’d like to push back at the theology for a moment.
The belief that God sends the cataclysmic ‘forces of nature’ to demolish human civilizations is an ancient worldview, founded on the assumption that God is the all-powerful cause who micromanages the universe. And the Bible will often present that impression, even though it does so poetically more than the biblical literalists realize. But still, the language of Scripture does ‘go there’ at times, describing God as directly responsible—the one who ‘sends’ floods or droughts or plagues or enemy armies. And this worldview persists to this day—not only assigning hurricanes, tsunamis, and pandemics to the will of God, but actually imagining that God is their architect. And since God is righteous, just, and holy, he would only unleash his death-dealing ‘acts of God’ as punishment for evildoers. The next step is for the righteous people to determine who the evildoers are and to begin pointing the accusing finger of blame.
Jesus simply didn’t see it that way. In Luke 13, he denies that you can determine whether one is righteous or unrighteous by whether a building collapses on some and not on others. In John 9, he denies that you can assume someone’s sin (one’s own or their parents) is the cause of a disability or disease. It doesn’t work that way. Then how does it work?
I would propose the following: God is ultimately responsible for all of creation as its Creator. That is, behind natural law and human freedom is the God who created all things and in whom they live, move, and have their being. Natural law submits to its own design and humanity exercises its freedom. God doesn’t micromanage gravity nor does he inhibit human agency. We call these ‘secondary causes.’ God ‘consents’ to these secondary causes, even while participating in them by grace through willing human partners who image (verb) God’s care for the world and for one another.
To use an analogy, the manufacturer of a car is ultimately responsible for producing the vehicle, but if the vehicle malfunctions through misuse or there is a crash through driver error, the manufacturer is not directly to blame for the crash unless proof of culpability is established. If we transpose that picture to the natural world, yes, God is ultimately responsible … and ultimately good, because through natural law, God has created the conditions for life. And through human freedom, God has created the conditions for love. But the shadow side of nature is that which makes space for life can also take life (such as this flood). And the shadow side of human freedom is that it can turn from love. But in the midst of the rubble, God is with us. The calamities we experience are NOT signs of divine abandonment. Rather, God is with us in our mess, embodied especially in those who serve and help and rescue. As I’m writing this, I can hear rescue helicopters flying overhead, on their way to deliver help to those who need it. I’m aware of those operating excavators, trying to repair the breach in the dike. I can hear sirens, getting emergency aid to someone a few miles from my home. Others are racing between homes and farms in their boats, assessing damage so we know what’s needed next. The military is here with hundreds of other volunteers, walking the dikes, shoring up weaknesses against the flood. They are all extending themselves as real caregivers, some well beyond the call of duty.
And that, I would argue, is a real act of God.