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We can't control Austin weather, but dealing with it is a moral choice

By Terry Dawson
Special to the American-Statesman
From left, Tina Martinez and Kristie Kittrell walk up Cherrywood Road in Austin on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. Kittrell has been staying with Martinez since her home lost power. "It's 34 degrees in my house right now," she said. Millions of Texans lost power last winter.

"The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children that we might follow all the words of the law." 

These ancient words from the Torah's book of Deuteronomy speak best to us in 2022 when viewed through the honest American lens of Mark Twain. 

"I'm not troubled by the things in the Bible I don't understand," he said, " but I am troubled by those things which I do understand and which I find very difficult to measure up to." 

We cannot hide behind our lack of understanding of the Almighty if we ever hope to measure up. This even applies to a subject once regarded as safe  — a usual go-to when one had nothing else to say. These days, however, it's become a topic sure to invite a fight. I speak, of course, of the weather. 

Terry Dawson is the co-chair of Jazz at St. James' event.

This week marks the anniversary of Texas's week of devastating winter weather. Even as a kid it stuck me as strange to refer to such events as "acts of God." This seems to suggest to those affected that the disaster in question is all part of a divine plan.

From a psychological perspective, this only adds to the anxiety of those suffering from the emotional as well as physical damage of such tragedies, which includes fear and insecurity about future catastrophes. Suggesting there nothing to do about it by roping God into the equation offers, literally in our Texas case, cold comfort. 

Truth to tell, I missed our "big freeze"... well most of it. My wife and I had joined our son during his winter break to ski in Colorado. We'd left my flown-in East Coast sister-in-laws to care for their mother, who'd come to live with us once COVID-19 broke out. The multiple phone calls we engaged in as the weather unfolded put a damper on the skiing, and try as we may to fly back home, we couldn't. When we did we had to leave our car and drag our bags several blocks to our door because the roads refroze.

The power, when it resurged destroyed our range and range hood and dozens of plants, including nine trees, succumbed to the frost and snow. We weren't unscathed, but still lucky. 

I may have missed our week-long freeze in Texas, but I endured another one in sunny California back in the 1980s when as a young pastor. I'd taken 25 teens from the Silicon Valley to Lake Tahoe for a week of skiing.

The kids, counselors and I split up between three vehicles. I drove a borrowed truck loaded with all our gear, accompanied by Matt, the newest and smallest member of the youth group.

When the storm blew in, we poised to enter the Sierra Nevadas, but the state police closed the lower route we'd chosen. The other two cars got through but Matt and I had to head north to the alternative route: the legendary Donor Pass. Images of the fated pioneers leapt to mind, but we persisted.

We weren't alone in our detour so it remained slow-and-go all the way to the summit. What's more our alternator began to fail. This meant the truck kept staling out as the snow continued to fall hard. We had no choice but to borrow other drivers' cables and beg for a jump ... several times.

Driving into deeper accumulation, we had to put on chains  — something neither of us had ever done. This meant repeatedly facing the elements. Each time we became soaked to the skin. No problem, we'd a truckload of suitcases. Our teeth chattered as we made multiple changes — much to the chagrin of the others when we reached our destination. Laments broke our across the cabin: 

"Why are my jeans all wet ... this isn't my sweater...I swore I packed my boots!"  

At one point during our harrowing journey, Matt turned to me and asked the inevitable question: "Why is God doing this to us, Rev?"

I didn't answer but the look in his 13-year-old eyes steeled my determination to avoid joining the bevy of abandoned cars we'd seen buried on the side of the road.

A minute later we heard a chain snap to begin rhythmically slamming one wheel well. Fortunately a service station sign blinked at the next exit.  A line of cars soon formed behind us  — many simply to have the pros put their chains on. While waiting to have ours fixed, Matt and I took these installations on ourselves and waved the grateful travelers on their way. We quickly became the pros. 

Even though we could barely see through the whiteout as we headed down into Donner valley, both our dispositions had improved. I even looked over to see Matt smiling. We'd figured out a way to rise above the storm. 

Psychologists recommend that those emotionally stressed by natural disasters "focus on their own strength and ability" to help cope and heal. We all saw this in our own Texas neighborhoods during our week of winter hell didn't we? One neighbor dropped by a propane tank once learning our range out of commission. Another got busy welding neighbor's burst pipes. True, tragedy musters our humanity, but is this enough when hundreds die and others' homes are lost? 

Here's where Twain's reading of Deuteronomy comes in. Sure "secret things" about our so-called "acts of God" remain, but we still remain responsible for "the things revealed" for they "belong to us."

When we endure tornadoes in December and flooding rain in the arid southwest, do we truly believe this all God's doing? Even when we come to terms with our extreme weather "new normal" should we not then expect newly enacted remedies, say the weatherization of our gas lines to prevent a "big freeze" redux? Does the fact that Texas gas and oil providers made billions during our "big freeze" fall into the category of "things revealed"?  

Let's, for example, apply Deuteronomy's "secret' verses "revealed" measure to our Texas Railroad Commission. Not everyone knows that this entity hasn't assumed responsibility for the railroads since 1919, when the commission was "granted jurisdiction over oil and gas production."

I gleaned this bit of information from the very helpful website of Commissioner Christi Craddick, who happens to live and worship in my part of town. I contacted her office and as well as that of another commissioner to let them know I planned to write this essay and sought an answer to a question not resolved on the website: Why does the commission still cling to its "railroad" designation? I indicated I also wanted to know what they thought an appropriate moral response to last year's severe weather event, in light of its human toll? I approached them several times over a six week period but got no response so, when I ran into someone I learned running for a seat on the commission, at a gathering in friend's home, I cornered him. 

Luke Warford, an economist by profession, answered my second question first: 

"I've spent a lot of time in different worship settings but as to my moral orientation let me say this: every year I'd ask my mom, when she alive, what she'd like for her birthday and every year she'd respond the same way: Make the world a better place."    

As to the commission's name, he indicated that those in charge benefit from the misrepresentation. He pointed out that the Texas grid nearly failed back in 1960 — again because of a lack of gas supply due to the freezing of pipe mains and well heads. Yet the commission did not pressure suppliers to pursue costly, remedial weatherization. In spite of last year's actual grid failure, it still hasn't.

"Thinking that those we elect regulate railroads instead of our state's vast energy sector serves to maintain the status quo and this cozy arrangement," Warford said.

This is, of course, only one man's opinion. Our moral imperative compels us to determine if this view matches what Deuteronomy implies "has been revealed" — i.e. the facts. Advocating for one political candidate over another has no place in this column.  I will not, however, concede "the weather" to the expanding realm of topics deemed too controversial to discuss.

What I advocate for is an open discussion on the subject. My thesis in brief: We may not know all God's secrets, but we certainly have a clue. Even my teenage charges knew this.

In the face of so-called "acts of God," we ought not surrender our agency so easily. Before, after and in the midst of climate disasters, moral choices exist. Are the ensuing endeavors of conscience, curiosity and heart aimed at making "the world a better place" any less "acts of God"? Still, all involve risk.

The tongue-in-cheek remark of Albert Camus, who had little time for God, puts such risk into perspective: "Without beauty, love and danger, it might almost be easy to live."

Moral choices often involve all three, but they are seldom easy. 

Terry Dawson is an ordained Presbyterian minister and former adjunct faculty member of San Francisco Theological Seminary.