I recall blogging about the terrible floods on the Somerset Levels two years ago. Then, I was a sympathetic bystander living hundreds of miles away, trying to enter into an experience that was not mine. Now it has become our own. I never expected that two months after moving into our home in Northumberland, we would be so suddenly ambushed by the colossal (and frightening) quantities of water that swept down from the North Pennines and inundated our village and other communities in the Tyne Valley. This was not quite how we had envisaged these first weeks of retirement in the run-up to Christmas. 'How do you make God laugh? You tell him of your future plans' quipped Woody Allen. That's become true for us in the past days. Our lives have been wrenched into directions we had not anticipated.
Not that it was anything like as bad for us as it's been for others. If you read last week's blog, you'll know that the water in the cellar crept up the steps almost to ground level, but not quite. Others have seen their homes flooded for the second time in a decade. We went to visit one of them, a church member who lives on the other side of the bridge. Her house had the river rushing through it to dado height. She and her husband will not be back in it for six months. The roar of a dozen dehumidifiers were a noisy comment on the extent of their inundation. Over in Cumbria, as you know, it is worse still. Our hearts ache for the people we see on TV or read about in the papers.
There's an irony about Burswell House being flooded. It's probably named after a collier ship called the Burswell that was built on Tyneside. It went down in the North Sea in the 1880s. Our house was built the following decade, and was lived in by the pit manager at the nearby Bardon Mill colliery. After the ship had gone to its watery grave, its name was memorialised, either because the pit had a connection with it, or the manager had a personal link to someone on board. Burswell House has shipped a lot of water below, but she is still afloat, and her crew have lived to tell the tale. But there's another irony too, in that these dramas have been happening while the climate change talks have been taking place in Paris. Our biomass boiler and its supply of wood pellets, drowned by the flood, was our little commitment to living more ethically for the sake of the environment. Now it's the environment itself that has dramatically seen it off. But inspired by Paris, we hope to install another biomass, this time in a location where it is well above the water table.
It's easy, when you are hit by disaster, to let it fill your head and suppress everything else that matters, perhaps matters much more in the grand scheme of things. I am trying to stay present to what is happening in our world, to the lives and concerns of this community, and to our own family. On the day the storm rushed down on us, we were in Leeds meeting our new granddaughter for the first time. She is a perfect little baby and is bringing tidings of joy to her parents who have loved her into life, to Isaac her elder brother and to all of us who celebrate her coming. The memory of her beautiful, delicate, peaceful face has calmed and sustained me during this past week.
And there is much else that is thoroughly good on our very doorstep. I'm learning that there is no better way of arriving in a new community than to engineer a big crisis. I said something about this in my last blog. People in our street, in the village, in the church community have been marvellous. We have been staying with generous neighbours two doors away, invited out for meals, been offered help, put in touch with those with specialist skills of many kinds. I spoke on local radio about this. I highlighted the role of the fire crews who have been on duty round the clock since the weekend. No tribute is adequate to do justice to their role in this and every other community affected. After this, the idea that our local fire station could be axed because of County Council cuts is, if you'll forgive another turn of phrase, dead in the water. For the good of West Tynedale, it's essential that we keep it.
The significance of all this happening in Advent has not been lost on me as I have lain awake pondering it in recent nights. Traditionally in this season, we reflect on death, judgment, hell and heaven and try to regain the long view of things, God's view, in the light of the end towards which the cosmos is travelling. All four of these awesome realities have been present in my thoughts this Advent in ways more vivid than I've known before; present if not in my direct experience, then through the symbolism of what we have lived through. It's essential, when trouble strikes, to maintain a larger perspective. Local19th century Haydon Bridge artist John Martin, the famous painter of huge apocalyptic canvasses such as 'Sodom and Gomorrah' and 'The Great Day of His Wrath' would have risen to the occasion and helped us. His signature was the towering storm cloud and flash of lightning. His are paintings with a religious message that asks, as Advent asks, what is truly permanent in life? What is of enduring value? What survives the storm and deluge, actual or metaphorical? What ultimately matters?
So our personal Advent and run-up to Christmas has included a flood and the birth of a baby, symbols of judgment and redemption, calamity and hope. Writ large, this is the daily experience of a world that is both beautiful and tragic. So there is plenty of scope for a rich spirituality of the season that comes directly out of our shared lived experience. Meanwhile, 'postmen go from house to house'. Trains rumble over the level crossing. Children saunter past the study window on their way to school. The church clock chimes the hours five minutes late. The dramas of life get played out and the season of Advent unfurls; yet ordinary time goes on. It's the way of things. God's way.