Sifting Trash, Sorting Treasure

When all threatens to be swept away, what would you save?  As they say, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”  Last month my sleepy city of Brisbane had a wet season that lived up to its reputation.  Inundated by global attention, this dilemma tumbled from hypothetical into turbulent reality.

For nearly a month the rain fell.  Seventy-five percent of Queensland was flood affected—think France and Germany combined.  The low-system settled over us.  Freak storms hit the Toowoomba range, immediately west of Brisbane.  Locals looked on, horrified, as the centre of that city became a tumultuous river.  Cars were swept away like sticks.  And on the waters cascaded, through the Lockyer Valley.  With little notice an inland Tsunami hit towns like Grantham.  Stories abounded of parents clambering onto rooves, holding their children aloft, praying for a helicopter to fly them away.  The water accumulated in Wivenhoe dam, soon straining at nearly 200 percent capacity.  Thankfully the wall didn’t give way.  Nevertheless, each day a body of water the volume of Sydney Harbour was released toward Brisbane.

My suburb was one of the first hit.  The Brisbane River peaked at 21 metres, a silty sea sweeping away our local park.  Houses were built high, so our worst experience was isolation for 5 days.  We moved a friend’s house contents above the predicted flood line, and then two days later moved it all back again, unscathed.  Deciding what was worth saving was subjective at best.

By the time the waters passed through Brisbane city, however, it was a different story.  The 4.5 metre peak was enough to take out nearly 20,000 properties.  Once the waters receded, the sight was staggering.  Kilometre after kilometre, houses were covered in silt.  The streets were lined with trash.  So many families lost everything.  The devastation compounded when insurance companies informed residents that, technically, this wasn’t a ‘flood’—the river banks never broke, even as the waters rose.  Everything was gone.

I could dwell on the details, but one image sums it up.  Back in March 2010, close friends had their house damaged by local flash floods.  So they formed an evacuation plan in case of serious storms.  Each of the family members set aside a box of priceless items to protect at all costs.  Yet as the Brisbane floods hit, they were trapped up the coast with no chance of clearing their possessions.  The waters rose and swallowed their house.  Upon returning, everything was ruined.  Dozens of people volunteered to clean up the mess, but like I said earlier, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”  Each of the kids searched for their box of items.  Tom, a twenty-year-old dental student, followed the garbage trail out to the nature-strip, scanning for his missing items.  Thus far he had been stoic.  But then he saw the legs of his childhood stuffed toy poking out of the dirty pile.  Without over-dramatising, he fell to the ground, frantically sifting trash with his bare hands.  Items he held dear were destroyed.  A guttural cry passed through his lips and the streams flowed once more.

When all is taken away, what do we value the most?  At times like this, “You are what you own” rings hollow; retail therapy is exposed as a placebo.  As outsiders, we prioritized large and expensive items to secure above the waters for our evacuated friend.  But for insiders like Tom, when it all washes up in the end, what matters most isn’t material at all.  This is really about that.  This photo is about that friendship.  This CD is about that first date.  And this muddied toy is about that childhood memory.

Our ‘flood’ experience seems overblown compared with Brazil and Pakistan, displacing Australia’s entire population.  But common to us all is that which holds ultimate worth.

In our consumerist culture, ‘stuff’ should always take second place.  We can thank God for material blessings, but even my prized laptop is just trash compared to the worth of a life, of love, and of shared memories.  All our possessions will perish.  And tears will flow.  But for Tom and his family, hope remains afloat.  They have taken Jesus’ teaching to heart: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and he will give you everything you need.”  Their ‘home and contents’—their treasure and centre of identity—is built on the rock.  As the floods come, and the elements conspire, it cannot be shaken (Matthew 7:24-27).  I only pray that the floods we face prompt us each to sift trash from treasure before that great day when God’s love and justice inundate us all.

Dave Benson


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