Once upon a time, I helped shingle a three-story house in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which meant ascending an old wooden extension ladder with a bundle of shingles on my shoulder, a ridiculous circus act. I needed one hand to keep that 90-pound bundle on my shoulder; that left only one on a ancient paint-spattered ladder that bowed like an buggy spring when me and that bundle were aboard. I lived. But I never forgot.
For maybe two weeks total, I worked for a construction crew putting a new interstate highway up the lake shore. They paid good money for every last muscle in my body. It took no brains at all to cut sod or load it on flatbeds, even fewer to lug those heavy sod balls in soft dirt up 45-degree interchange inclines. It just about killed me, six to six every day save Sabbath. My body--I was 21 years old!--taught me what the word overtired means.
Once upon a time, years ago, my father-in-law and I drove down to Sioux City to work at flood relief. Perry Creek had come up in early summer cloudbursts that wouldn't quit. Dozens of homes went under in a muddy torrent and ravaged an old area of the city that could hardly be called "exclusive." Houses that could be saved had to be disemboweled.
No job I ever worked at--sod balls or shingle bundles--was an butt-ugly as lugging 10-gallon buckets of muck up people's basement stairways, trip after trip after trip, and emptying those buckets outside. In one house a wall of paperbacks had caved in, and a couple hundred books were lodged in mud so thick you sometimes worried you'd be gone yourself in another ten minutes.
I remember an old African-American woman sitting at a table while an bucket brigade of volunteers tramped up her stairs and past the open door to her kitchen, each of us heavy laden with buckets of sludge, her stairway and back hall a pig sty of slop beneath our muddy boots.
After last night's storm, we're coming close to 15 inches of rain here in the last month, a dozen more than normal. Lots of houses have been inundated, then emptied, a lifetime of possessions transformed into trash. Even without the mud, cleaning out a soggy house means watching your life turn to garbage.
This morning I'm thankful for the dozens, the hundreds, the thousands of volunteers who, today again, will go down into the bowels of horrible human loss and try to make life easier for those who, right now, can't see but an inch or two past their own muddy basements.
All those volunteers, today once more, will be doing good work. Ugly work, but good work, blessed work, God's own hands in a flooded, muddy world.