Always

I wept today when meeting with a friend of mine who had been in the ER when the tornado hit. She is a nurse, and her descriptions of the scenes, the smells, the sounds are quite vivid, and they now won’t leave her alone.  She’s angry, and hasn’t been able to shed a tear yet.  There’s a story of a woman who was thrown out of a car during the storm.  Her and her husband were in the heart of it when it hit them.  She survived complete exposure to an F5 tornado by being wrapped in pool liner.  In her shock, the only thing she can say is that she remembers some man wrapping her in pool liner as the tornado bore down on her.

The nurse described her own heart in much the same condition.  She was shocked at first, affected too much by what she saw to be of any help.  Then she went into automatic mode, removing much of her heart from the situation in order to do what she had to do, as if God, too, wrapped her in a protective sheath.  Now the job is to gently remove the protective barrier to expose and heal the bruises underneath.  Her heart hurts, deeply.  So today, we cried together. We cried for what was meant to be but wasn’t, for living through something that wasn’t meant to happen, and for the tragedy that befell her and the ones around her.

There’s a song that’s been reverberating in my heart since this happened, a song of worship to a God who is more broken than we are over the suffering, who is yet completely confident that His plans won’t fail, and that He has such good meant for us that even these circumstances cannot change.  He is a God that comes through for us, always.

We sang this song in church last Sunday, one week after the tornado trashed our homes and businesses and took the lives of our loved ones, injuring hundreds in the process.  I have never seen this sung with the passion I saw last week.  Acquaintances of mine in the service that I know lost their homes, or whose families lost their homes, sang loudly, eyes closed, hands raised.  Tonight my wife and I bought the CD and played it several times in the car, letting it give words to the hope and truth we cling to, and to the love we have of our God who loves us so deeply and tenderly, who remains our defense, our refuge, and our strength.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hN7L3m9jIcc

Always
Kristian Stanfill

My foes are many, they rise against me
But I will hold my ground
I will not fear the war, I will not fear the storm
My help is on the way, my help is on the way

Oh, my God, He will not delay
My refuge and strength always
I will not fear, His promise is true
My God will come through always, always

Troubles surround me, chaos abounding
My soul will rest in You
I will not fear the war, I will not fear the storm
My help is on the way, my help is on the way

Oh, my God, He will not delay
My refuge and strength always
I will not fear, His promise is true
My God will come through always, always

I lift my eyes up, my help comes from the Lord
I lift my eyes up, my help comes from the Lord
I lift my eyes up, my help comes from the Lord
I lift my eyes up, my help comes from the Lord
From You Lord, from You Lord

Oh, my God, He will not delay
My refuge and strength always
I will not fear, His promise is true
My God will come through always, always

Oh, my God, He will not delay
My refuge and strength always, always

Our Stories Matter

I spoke to a gentleman today who had survived the F5 that screamed through Joplin taking out his house on 26th Street.  He held his head down when he spoke.  His eyes were tearful, distant, far-away.  He spoke with a kind of solemnity, a seriousness, without giving eye contact, looking into the pictures he still saw flashing in his mind, still hearing the “horrific roar” of the wind and debris. “I guess I can’t really complain,” he told me quietly.  “I should feel lucky.  I survived.”  Part of his body had been amputated.  His face was still so swollen family could hardly recognize him.  The tornado for him was a monster that ate part of his body and left him crippled.

I listened intently, allowing myself to feel this man’s fear and pain the best I could, while trying to help him feel safe as he retold his story.  It scared him even to think about it, but think about it is all he has been able to accomplish these past ten days.  He retold only pieces of the events, and I didn’t prod him for more.  Since I didn’t spend much time with him, I didn’t feel I’d earned my place to offer much counsel.  I only wanted to let him know that his story mattered.  His pain, his fear, his worry about the future — they are not only expected (“normal reactions by a normal person that’s gone through abnormal circumstances”), but they are also, in a very real sense, important.  They are his, you might say.  He deserves to feel them, needs to process them.  They are his heart’s way of making sense of the deep “why” questions, his mind’s way of dealing with the overwhelming images and smells and pains as the world crashed in around him.  There will be a time when they are no longer appropriate, when pain and fear should give way to hope and joy again, and he will need the help of doctors, medicine, and both physical and psychological therapy to get him there.  But for now, just for a little while, it was my honor to join him in his experience.  He was alone that Sunday afternoon. He doesn’t have to be alone the memory and the recovery.

Of course there’s more to his story, much more.  But it isn’t mine to tell.  The hours and days that have followed since then have been radically different for this man than anything he’s ever lived through before.  They have changed the nature of his life and the relationships he has with everyone around him.  Looking up at me, a furrow in his brow and the same pensive look in his eyes, he told me that everything looks different. “Nothing feels the same,” he said.  “And nothing ever will be again.”

This man has just lost his home, his security and safety, and part of an arm, but he was looking over some precipice that I couldn’t quite yet see.  His brush with death shone light someplace in his soul, and he was trying to see what was there.  Should he have the courage, he has the potential to change things for the better.  There’s hope there somewhere.  The possibility of reconciliation with estranged members of his family.  A fresh glance at the gift of life.

But those changes are still yet to be told.

Those of us who have been affected by this deadly storm have in these days an opportunity to take hold of an incredible gift, something that we normally shield ourselves from with busyness and the small dramas we live in.  It’s the recognition that life is fragile, that life is short.  These are realities that we must hold to if we are to live well.  Those who have lived the greatest lives always seemed to live it with the knowledge that death was only a moment away.  It somehow gave them courage and vision to live more fully and freely.  “Desire life like water,” said G.K. Chesterton, “yet drink death like wine.”

We live in a story that isn’t safe.  It often doesn’t make sense.  The pain and fear can sometimes overwhelm us.  I don’t even pretend to understand what it must be like for some who have survived this horrific event while someone they love hasn’t, or who lost their beloved pet or lifelong home.  But we also live in a story that, above and beyond the tragedy, has the potential to be breathtaking and meaningful, full and true.  There’s much, much more to be told.  It doesn’t end with the tornado, not for any of us.

 

Examining the Pieces

I found in the bed of my truck today a brick that came from the building that housed our counseling practice on 20th street.  I flashed back to several days ago when I had discovered a kitten and its mother cat in a house behind the building.  It was a small find compared to the missing loved ones we had been praying for, but to someone, those pets were like family.  Several of us looked for the other kittens — this one was not yet weened, and we figured there must be more.  The tornado had wiped out their home 24 hours before, and the kitten was hiding in the rubble while the mother cat paced quietly.  She was a sweet cat, and let me hold her.  But when I tried to carry her beyond the rubble she wouldn’t have it and insisted on going back.  We knew she was waiting and looking for the other kittens.  We eventually gave up the search and put the two into a plastic bin we had found, and put the brick on the lid to keep it closed. It didn’t work.  In the truck on the way to the Humane Society, the two had gotten out, and the mother looked through the back window toward the rubble of her home and cried incessantly.  It was later that day I discovered the great news that her owner had come back looking for her, and was sent to go collect her and her kitten.  We learned that there had been six kittens all together.  Why this one survived and not the others, we’re not sure.

As the search and rescue phase comes slowly to a close (the sixth and final sweep will begin on Tuesday, and we’re of course still hoping for miraculous news), we’re all doing the same — examining the pieces that survived, scattered remnants of the city, the business, the home, and the life that we once knew.  Friends from Springfield Missouri worked today with a crew from around the country to help with collection and cleanup.  They told my wife and I that when helping a lady dig through her own rubble, she had pointed to a small box and asked the crew to put whatever valuables they found into it.  It stunned our friends.  How would they knew what’s valuable to her?  It’s her story, so to speak.  It’s her life, her treasures, her loss.  They would help in any way they could, but it would be up to that home owner to examine each piece, one by one, and decide its remaining value.  I had a strange feeling of joy this morning when one of my colleagues told me they had saved my coffee cup.  I feel as ridiculous saying this now as I did in sensing it this morning, yet this cup represents for me hours of shared stories of my clients’ lives as we would sit together through the years and work through the difficulties and glories and transitions in their own tales.  It represents my profession, my passion, and ones I have come to care so deeply about.  It will now mean that much more in the years to come as more stories are shared.

Today my wife and a couple of other Christian counselors were trying to put our heads together and plan out what ways we could offer to walk through the healing journey with people.  This is what we do; it’s what we’re trained and impassioned to do.  But with a need this great, what would it look like?  We listened to some of the words God used to describe this condition of brokenness, and we decided that perhaps the devastation what we see in our city is the condition Jesus came to remedy within us.  What seems to most impassion God is that we become again the restored people He loves.  Frederick Beuchener once referred to human beings made in the image of God as “glorious ruins,” a term that aptly applies to Joplin itself — once beautiful, functioning, alive, now shattered into pieces of rubble.  Bricks scattered on once manicured landscapes.

Isaiah 61 is one of those places in Scripture that identifies both our condition and the purposes of Jesus to heal us of it.  He writes that, “the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor [we could use it!]. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted [there is much of that in the Four States area tonight], to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners… to comfort all who mourn,  and provide for those who grieve… to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”  This is the same Scripture that Jesus quotes in Luke 4 when He first comes upon the scene to announce His mission in coming.  Restoration. This is what He is about.  It’s what He wants to do.  And it’s what we want to do with Him.

Sharing Stories, Healing Together, Restoring the Ruins.  Brick by brick, word by word, story by story, heart by heart (even cat by cat and dog by dog).

Taking a Collective Breath

At 5:41 this afternoon, our world stood still.  All of us in Joplin, in unison, spent a minute in silence for the victims of the storm that wrecked havoc exactly one week ago.  It was the first time many of us paused or took time to stand still and take a breath.  We have spent most of the time either holding it, waiting and searching and hoping beyond hope as more information came our way about those we love, or expending it endlessly with the overwhelming amount of work and need coming everyone’s way.  Sitting with my wife and her family on Rangeline as the silence fell, there was an eerie, almost out-of-place sense of calm that fell in such stark contrast with the chaos that the savage weather brought our way just days ago.  Yet those one hundred and fifty souls that lost their lives that day were remembered, collectively, by thousands and thousands — possibly millions, as I believe this moment was aired live and perhaps even honored by folks around the country and around the world.  We are still getting stories coming in daily about the lives and deaths of these beloved neighbors, family members, friends, and citizens of our hometown.

This is not what was meant to happen.  God has not wanted or planned for this, and as hard as we weep, His tears fall harder.  His heart breaks deeper and feels the weight heavier.  I left town for a few hours today after an invitation to have lunch in Springfield an hour away.  I took it as an opportunity to let my heart rest, to allow it to sigh heavily and unfold itself a bit.  And do you know what I felt?  Held.  Comforted.  I realized the heart of the Lord God is with me and for me and for this city and the people of it.  Obama came today, and left.  CNN and the Weather Channel and Fox News will leave and the spotlight will shift to another place, the ministries and volunteers who have been so graciously pouring out their sweat and blood and their own tears will too be called away to another great need.  But God is in it for the long haul.  His intention is so, so good, and He can still be trusted.  His love hasn’t failed. He means to restore us.

A heard a simple story of restoration from this last week. A family that was stricken by the tornado on Sunday owned a pet Quaker Bird — a type of parrot — that had been lost in the storm.  On Thursday, he turned himself in to the Humane Society.  Flying overhead, he landed on the shoulder of one of the workers, who was naturally quite surprised to see him.  They fed and took care of him, and within 24 hours he was reunited with his owners, who were elated to find their long lost friend.

No one will know what this parrot went through, or how he ended up at the Humane Society.  But that he made it through a tornado that stripped the feathers off of wild birds and left them for dead is miraculous, and the reunion with his family is one of those hundreds of stories we need to hold to.  It may be simple, but to that family, their pet that they had given up for dead had come back home to them.  Something in the life they once knew will continue for them.

Tomorrow holds more work for all of us.  How appropriate that it is set aside as a holiday of remembrance and reconciliation. Let’s take time to breathe. Let’s take time to remember and reflect.  And seek out and hold to these stories of hope that bring light into a dark world.  They help to heal something in our hearts, and our hearts will be desperately needed for the long road ahead.

 

So It Begins

Where do we begin to piece together the moments in these past six days, significant and weighty, seconds that changed some lives forever, and took other ones?  Moments when time froze like a chill in the bone when sirens sound and then exploded with the wind and debris and chaos. How do I recall and recount the stories — thousands and thousands of them — of our lives and bring them the honor they deserve?

It has been a full six days now, though the days run together and I swing between feeling like it was a day ago at some points and at others feeling like more than many experience in a lifetime has been crammed into a week of agonizing time.  A mother loses her two babies and husband, who had gone shopping one lazy Sunday afternoon at the local Home Depot.  Teens come from Kansas City to meet their grandmother at a Pizza Hut, and end up waking up two days later in a hospital remembering only flashes of death, of screams, of the violent shrill of metal and wood being shredded. A family who had lost their home in Katrina and who decided to get away from the hurricanes ends up homeless once again, bruised and scratched and terrified.  Our city has been gutted.  Lives changed forever. The landscape unimaginably, unrecognizably scarred.  No one walks away from an even this big untouched.  It is as if our souls and not just the trees were stripped bare, that our hearts and not just the metal shrapnel has been twisted and gnarled into grotesque shapes.  We in Joplin — those of us who have lived, that is — are now among the walking wounded.  A deep ache, a groan almost perceptible, permeates this place.

Nothing will be the same.

I am a counselor in Joplin. I’m actually completing my provisional requirements this year in order to obtain my full state license for professional counseling.  The practice, the only setting I have ever counseled and my home away from home (and a safe haven for so many who have come in for counseling) was totaled. Ironically, it was one of the few buildings for miles that remained half-standing, a corpse of the structure it once was. This town has been my home for several years, and as a kid I often came here from across the border in Oklahoma where I grew up to watch movies, eat, hang with friends, and eventually work and live. This is my home.

As a counselor, my area of concern and expertise is the heart, the soul, the unseen mental and emotional and even spiritual aspects of people that are impacted in such dramatic and sometimes unspeakable ways by an event like this.  “Like this.” As if there is something else to compare it to.  Miles and miles of our land has been laid flat, a wasteland.  Hiroshima in the Midwest. And I have been working with many other amazing folks trying to offer help and aid to those affected.  The first needs of course are the basic: shelter, food, clothing, social support — many hobbled or limped or sometimes rode away in ambulances with none of these left. Suddenly everyone became a medic, a social worker, a neighbor, a friend, a brother or sister, and at least to a few, a hero.

Six days into the tragedy, local, state, and federal agencies have become very active and, together with large ministries and other relief organizations, have taken over much of the reactionary needs.  Slowly now we are waking up from nightmare to realize we weren’t actually asleep.  We are lifting our heads from our basements and our bathtubs where we hid, breaking through the powerful self-defense of denial, and realizing the enormity of this disaster.  We are beginning to see that recovery — and for some that remains an elusive and even cruel word — will take not weeks, not months, but years.  Decades from now some of us will still have lingering fears, deep pain, and will silently cry ourselves to sleep at night remembering that Sunday afternoon when our world blew away.

In the meantime, we hope, and we work.  And we really are a tireless people.  Everyday friends of mine have now become giants in my eyes.  Neighbors I never knew I’m now meeting in church shelters as we stack water and organize distributions. Everyone becomes a counselor to someone — no license needed.  Just love enough to let your own heart break, hands, tears, and somehow, in some way mysteriously unique to the human condition, the ability to share an ache that is unsharable, uncommunicable.

Community is not a new concept to me; I value it deeply, and know both as a part of a church body and as a trained therapist, that community is required for us to live and thrive.  But it has taken on a new definition for me.  Not different, just more.  There is more spirit and soul in this place than I have ever seen before.  Our city now looks and feels very much third-world, and we have stories to tell, but even with the unspeakable suffering, they don’t have to be stories of despair.  At least, that is not the way I hope they end.  For now, in order to honor the reality of all of this, I fear that will be a key character within the pages.

There were fifty thousand tornadoes that day.  Probably more.  But every person who experienced did so differently.  For one, it means that their beloved son who just graduated high school, who was sucked through the sunroof of his car while driving, is dead, and they have to figure out how to live without him.  For another, it is the loss of a business that has years of their blood, sweet, and tears poured into it.  For another, it came with a loss of their own life.  For all, it is the collective cry and groaning grief of a loss too immense for us to quite yet fathom.  We remain in reactive mode.  It is hardly time to reflect.

But that is my purpose here.  I know that I can only offer hope and help to the degree that my own heart is alive and well, and I must process what I experience in this, else I am in danger of symptoms of secondary trauma.  That is one reason I am “writing out the storm” here.  Another, though, is that I want to remember.  I want the stories to be told of the great seconds of heroism and the heavy ache of loss, of what this city once was and what it is to become, of those who have given something of themselves — even though they may be across the country or the world — in order that we here in Joplin Missouri may recover.  As elusive as that seems, we will recover.  We will heal and we will live.