On the Brevity of Life
The thesis for my sermon I recently preached was on how to stir up a renewed perspective on God’s sovereignty in our lives. One of my points from James 4:14 was something like Recall the Shortness of Life. James writes, whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.
One of the most amazing events that illustrates this biblical truth is the Johnstown flood that happened on May 31st, 1889. An earthen dam, about 15 miles above the town of Johnstown, PA, was loosened during a series of rainstorms that hit the state the week leading up to May 31st. The torrential rain washed out the dam sending a massive wall of water down upon Johnstown. The force of the water was likened to the volume of water that cascades over the Niagara Falls in 30 minutes. Having had the opportunity to stand in front of Niagara Falls, I can tell you that that is a lot of water.
The first published book by author, David McCullough, was a historical account of the events of the Johnstown flood. He recounts the story of a young, 16 year-old Victor Heiser. A story that reads like a fictionalized scene from a movie if it weren’t for the fact it is true. After reading the account, keep in mind what happened and consider the final sentence.
The water in front of the Heiser store had been knee-deep since early in the afternoon, which was a record for that part of town. In the other floods over the years there had never been any water at all so far up on Washington Street…
Sometime near four o’clock George Heiser had sent his son, Victor, out to the barn to see about the horses. The animals had been tied in their stalls, and George, worried that they might strangle if the water should get any higher, wanted them unfastened. The barn, like the store front, was a recent addition for the Heisers. It had a bright-red tin roof and looked even bigger than it was, standing , as it did, upon higher ground at the rear of their lot. To get back to it, Victor had left his shoes and socks behind and, with a pair of shorts on, went wading across through the pelting rain. It had taken him only a few minutes to see to the horses and he was on his way out the door when heard the noise.
Terrified, he froze in the doorway. The roar kept getting louder and louder, and every few seconds he heard tremendous crashes. He looked across at the house and in the second-story window saw his father motioning to him to get back into the barn and up the stairs. Just a few weeks earlier he and his father had cut a trap door through the barn roof, because his father had thought “it might be a good idea.”
The boy was through the door and onto the roof in a matter of seconds. Once there he could see across the top of the house, and on the other side, no more than two blocks away, was the source of the racket. He could see no water, only an immense wall of rubbish, dark and squirming with rooftops, huge roots, and planks. It was coming at him very fast, ripping through Portage and Center streets. When it hit Washington Street, he saw his home crushed like an orange crate and swallowed up.
In the same instant the barn was wrenched from its footings and began to roll like a barrel, over and over. Running, stumbling, crawling and over hand, clawing at tin and wood, Victor somehow managed to keep on top. Then he saw the house of their neighbor, Mrs. Fenn, loom up in front. The barn was being driven straight for it. At the precise moment of impact, he jumped, landing on the roof of the house just as the walls of the house began to give in and the whole roof started plunging downward. He clambered up the steep pitch of the roof, fighting to keep his balance. The noise was deafening and still he saw no water. Everything about him was cracking and splitting, and the air was filled with flying boards and broken glass. It was more like being in the middle of an explosion than anything else.
With the house and roof falling away beneath him, he caught hold of still another house that had jammed in on one side. Grabbing on to the eaves, he hung there, dangling, his feet swinging back and forth, reaching out, trying to get a toe hold. But there was none. All he could do was hang and swing. … Then his grip gave out and he fell, backwards, sickeningly, through the wet, filthy air, and slammed down on a big piece of a red roof from the new barn. And now, for the first time, he saw water; he was bumping across it, lying on his stomach, hanging on to the roof with every bit of strength left in him, riding with the wave as it smashed across Johnstown.
The things he heard and saw in the next moments would be remembered later only as a gray, hideous blur, except for one split-second glimpse which would stick in his mind for the rest of his life. He saw the whole Mussante family sailing by on what appeared to be a barn floor. Mussante was a fruit dealer on Washington Street… Victor knew him well, and his wife and two children. Now there they were speeding by with a Saratoga trunk open beside them, and every one of them busy packing things into it. And then a mass of wreckage heaved up out of the water and crushed him.
But he had no time to think more about them or anything else. He was heading for a mound of wreckage lodged between the Methodist Church and a three-story brick building on the other side of where Locust Street had been. The next thing he knew he was part of the jam. His roof had catapulted in amongst it, and there, as trees and beams shot up on one side or crashed down on the other, he went leaping back and forth, ducking and dodging, trying desperately to keep his footing, while more and more debris kept booming into the jam. Then, suddenly, a freight car reared up over his head. It looked like the biggest thing he had ever seen in his life. And this time he knew there could be no jumping out of the way. But just as it was about to crash on top of him, the brick building beside him broke apart, and his raft, as he would describe it later, “shot out from beneath the freight car like a bullet from a gun.”
Now he was out onto comparatively open water, rushing across a clear space which he judged to be approximately where the park had been. He was moving at a rapid clip, but there seemed far less danger, and he took the time to look about. There were people struggling and dying everywhere around him. Every so often a familiar face would flash by. There was Mrs. Fenn, fat and awkward, balanced precariously on a tar barrel, well doused with its contents, and trying, pathetically, to stay afloat. Then he saw the young man who worked for Dr. Lee, down on his knees praying atop his employer’s roof, stark naked, shivering, and beseeching the Lord in a loud voice to have mercy on his soul. Like the Mussante family, they were suddenly here and gone like the faces in nightmares, or some sort of grotesque comedy, as unreal and as unbelievable as everything else that was happening. And there was nothing he could do for them, or anybody else.
But now his course changed sharply, from due west to due south. The current grabbed his raft and sent it racing across the Stony Creek a half mile or so, over into the Kernville section, and it was here that his voyage ended. “I passed by a two-and-a-half story brick dwelling which was still remaining on its foundations. Since my speed as I went up this second valley was about that of a subway train slowing for a stop, I was able to hop to the roof and join a small group of people already stranded there.”
When he had been standing on the roof of his father’s barn, looking across the housetops at the avalanche bearing down on Johnstown, he had taken his watch out of his pocket to look at the time. … He had snapped it open, because, as he would say later, “I wanted to see just how long it was going to take for me to get from this world over into the next one.” Now, on the rooftop in Kernville, realizing that he had perhaps a very good chance of staying on a little longer in this world, he pulled out the watch a second time. Amazingly enough, it was still running, and he discovered with astonishment that everything that had happened since he had seen his home vanish had taken place in less than ten minutes. [The Johnstown Flood pg. 150, 151, 152, 153, 154]