Oh, dear God, the Oklahoma tornadoes. Such heartbreak. Christ, have mercy.
On March 2, 2012, forecasters anticipated tornadoes in our area. My son’s school let out early, and when the sirens started up we all huddled in the unfinished basement. The air outside our windows was deadly still, but the internet broadcast from our local television station told us that a large tornado was on the ground just a few miles away. We waited underground in folding chairs, my husband reading a book and my young son playing a video game. I kept my eyes on the screen as reports began to come in about damage in small communities populated by beloved church members and friends.
Then the image changed: a school collapsed, no knowledge of how many students might be trapped inside. My stomach lurched, and I thought I might vomit. I silently ticked off a list of all the young people I knew inside that school, their young lives and fears flashing before me. I grabbed the laptop and slammed it shut—presumably to protect my son from frightening news, but probably also because I could feel the panic overtaking me. Since the storm, I have relived that terrifying moment awake and in dreams. As soon as the sirens stopped, I began to call for news, and passed several anxious hours with families waiting to hear if all were safe and well. Miraculously, no lives were lost at Henryville school that day, although children and adults did die in their homes as a result of the storm.
Today in Moore, Oklahoma, the story has a more grim ending. I know how traumatic the tornado was here, but I can only imagine how that distress is multiplied tonight in Oklahoma. My heart breaks for parents who have lost children, children who have lost parents, and a community gripped by shock and grief.
The recovery ahead will be measured in months and years, not days and hours. I have spent the last fourteen months working nearly every day on recovery efforts here in my community, a disaster much smaller in scale than tonight’s news from Moore and the surrounding areas. I am currently the chair of March 2 Recovery, the long-term recovery organization working to rebuild homes, address unmet needs and tend to the spiritual and emotional needs of our community. I’m not an expert, but I have learned some things worth sharing.
All compassionate people want to respond, to help, to do something in response to tragedy. This impulse is good, because the people of Moore, Oklahoma will require outside aid, volunteers and resources to help them in their recovery. However, many well-meaning people and organizations give “help” that is far less than helpful, and may actually be harmful to the recovery process. I went looking tonight for a list of “do’s and don’t’s” for how to help after a disaster, but I didn’t find any lists that were more specific than “send cash, not stuff.” So I made my own.
As one who has worked closely with tornado recovery efforts in the last 14 months, I would like to offer these DO’s and DON’T’s, so that you can help in ways that are the most helpful, and avoid the ways that are not.
DO NOT send “stuff,” unless you specifically know it is wanted, needed and has a clear destination. The avalanche of used clothing, toiletries, canned goods, furniture and household supplies that pours in after a disaster can become a “secondary disaster” for a community, as organizations are forced to set aside the actual needs of survivors in order to attend to the mountains of stuff arriving at their doorstep. People who have lost their homes won’t need household goods and furniture for many months, and don’t have anywhere to cook your can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle.
DO NOT drive to the impacted area to help unless you are trained and credentialed by a recognized organization. Not only is the tornado debris field dangerous, the crowds of onlookers and unskilled volunteers get in the way of trained relief workers trying to do their work.
DO NOT say dumb things like “I know what you are going through,” because you don’t. Only if you’ve lost a child or lived through a disaster do you have some first-hand knowledge about what someone is feeling. Even then, be cautious. Not everyone will feel the same way you do. It’s doubly presumptuous to say you know what people are feeling if you’ve never even been in a similar situation.
DO NOT offer help in order to lessen your feelings of helplessness or make yourself feel better. Put aside your own needs and desires, and act only in the best interests of others. Don’t do what makes you feel better—do what best helps survivors.
DO NOT forget about this disaster as soon as another tragedy takes the headlines. Recovery will take a long time. Stick with it. The most helpful people are those who come long after the TV cameras are gone.
DO NOT try to theologize disaster away, or say that God did or didn’t do something. God didn’t need more angels, or have any kind of master plan that involved dead children. God didn’t save the children at one school only to harm the children at another one. That’s not how God works. Let God be God, and don’t assign your own motives to the Creator of heaven and earth.
DO: Donate money. But not just today. While organizations like Red Cross and Salvation Army do amazing work feeding and sheltering people in the immediate aftermath, they do not rebuild homes or communities. Local leaders and faith-based organizations pick up the work of long-term recovery, and they will need major dollars for construction, case management, survivor support and more. Sure, send $10 via text message today, but wait to mail a check for $100 or $1,000, and send it to groups involved in long-term recovery efforts. Be careful to give to reputable, established organizations only. No matter what your faith or cause, there’s a group for you.
DO: Volunteer. But not today, or even in the next month or two. Thousands of people pour in to help in the first few weeks, but the work of rebuilding will last for a year or two. Volunteers, especially those with construction skills, will be needed far more urgently 9-24 months from now to help people get home again.
DO: Listen to anyone who needs to tell their story, no matter how many times they need to tell it. Survivors, first responders, clergy and helpers of all types will relive this experience over and over again. It helps to tell and retell it to patient, non-judgmental listeners. Make room for whatever people are feeling—sadness, anger (at appropriate or inappropriate people or institutions), grief, fear, anxiety, even laughter.
DO: Remind others that God is present even in the midst of destruction. Speak of God’s love that overcomes all barriers, even death. Give people room to have their own relationships with God, even if they’re having a big family fight with God right now.
DO: Send messages of love and concern. Whether it’s e-mail, texts, Facebook posts, tweets, letters, cards, notes, banners or children’s drawings, your words can be a source of great encouragement. Send them to local churches through your denomination. Mail them to the fire station or hospital or police station to encourage the helpers who are working 24-7 to aid their community. Share messages with people in the affected area who share your profession, whether it be insurance agents, funeral directors, electricians, servers or retail workers. Indicate that you do not expect a response, but merely send your love and prayers. It will be appreciated.
DO: Pray. It seems like such a small thing, but it matters. We could feel the prayers from around the world bearing us up and giving us strength.
There you have it. That’s what I’ve learned in the last year about life after a disaster—how your help can be most helpful. I’m sure I’ve left things out, and will count on you to add them in the comments section.
This is my small way of helping, through communication about what’s actually helpful. My heartfelt prayers are with the people of Oklahoma, now and in the long months to come.
A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon, Doubleday, 2006, 354 pp.
I adored Mark Haddon’s previous novel, the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. Its unique narrative voice and compelling story captivated me. I eagerly scooped this next novel off the library shelves as soon as it appeared. While the particulars of the story and the narrator did not haunt me the same way Haddon’s previous story did, it was an excellent story and intricately written.
The story is about a family coming undone. George, the patriarch, is slowly losing his mind, but no one seems to realize it. Jean, his wife, is having an affair and busy planning her daughter’s wedding. Everyone thinks the daughter, Katie, is marrying the wrong man in Ray, who is steady and faithful and adores her young son Jacob, but does not match Katie’s class or education. George and Jean’s son, Jamie, is a gay man struggling to make a commitment to love and a long term relationship, even as his family struggles to accept his sexuality.
The plot of the novel moves through all of these intertwining relationships–each member of the family with every other member of the family, all while George’s sanity and everyone’s primary marital relationships are unraveling. The storytelling is excellent; the characters are interesting, likable and relatable. Much like Haddon’s first novel, the act of reading it simply brought me joy and delight. While it may not stick out in my memory like the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, A Spot of Bother was clever, engaging and well worth reading.
A Light in the Window, Jan Karon, Viking Penguin Books, 1995, 413 pp.
These High, Green Hills, Jan Karon, Lion Publishing, 1996, 333 pp.
Where do I even start to talk about these books? I have heard them recommended several times over the years, as delightful stories about an Episcopal rector in a small town in North Carolina. I had never really taken up with them. I feel a general disdain for the category of “Christian fiction,” because I like my faith to engage the real world, not a softer, gentler version of it. However, this spring in my ministry has been painful and sorrowful enough–a soft, gentle story seemed like a healing idea. These had come highly recommended by people I trusted. They would be nice and sweet, and that would be fine by me.
The first book, At Home in Mitford, was delightful. It introduced Father Tim Kavanagh, the rector of Lord’s Chapel in Mitford, NC, who had lived into his sixties as a bachelor priest, high on work and low on adventure. Then we are slowly introduced to his parish–his acerbic secretary Emma; the oldest and most generous and wealthiest member Miss Sadie Baxter; her lifelong friend Louella; Miss Rose and Uncle Billy, the town’s eccentric characters; Dooley Barlow, a young man taken in by the rector; the mayor Esther Cunningham; the local doctor and veterinarian, who are among his friends; the owners of local businesses and many more. The book tells of three major developments in the priest’s staid life: the arrival of a dog who is disciplined only by scripture, the diagnosis of diabetes, and the arrival of a new and charmingly attractive neighbor. The rest of the story simply recounts episodes in the life of the small town and its characters. There is little character development, and the characters (even Father Tim) are not particularly deep or complicated in their emotional lives. Even the most major of problems are resolved within a few pages. It’s like episodes of Highway to Heaven or Seventh Heaven, without anything plot lines that are actually heart-wrenching. It’s not like any of the novels I usually read, and I found myself drawn in to the life of the small town with delight. There were some annoying factors about the life of the priest (like his terrible boundaries and refusal to take a vacation) and the portrayal of theology that was in no way Episcopalian (having him save a lost soul by kneeling and praying the “Believer’s Prayer” is evangelical, not Episcopal). However, the Christian themes were not heavy-handed or moralizing, so I just enjoyed the story.
The book was so light and easy it was like cotton candy, and quickly devoured. I was eager for more, so I dove right into A Light in the Window. Unfortunately, it did not match the first book, and I really did not enjoy it much at all. The plot of the second volume centers on his relationship with his neighbor Cynthia, and their long-distance courtship while she is in New York writing one of her children’s books. There is nothing at all appealing to me about a simple romance between two shallow characters, and I found myself skimming whole chapters of flowery love letters. The other characters I had come to love faded into the background, and the neurotic Father Tim and Cynthia took a long, boring time to admit they loved each other. I am a quite direct and decisive person myself, and I found little entertaining in their dithering and diversions. It didn’t help that Father Tim’s boundaries got even worse, as he had people walking all over him, including an unwanted cousin living in his guest room throughout. I almost quit, but I hoped moving through their romance and into their marriage would return to the parish-related plot lines I had enjoyed in the first book. I plowed through and turned to the third.
A Light in the Window also became more heavy-handed in its portrayal of Christianity and morality. Other than a kiss or an embrace, there is no talk of sexuality between Father Tim and Cynthia, except for a conversation about waiting until marriage that could have been lifted from an abstinence-only sex ed curriculum. While I’m not one for romances and wasn’t looking for something steamy, it just seemed devoid of passion. They also begin praying together and quoting scripture at one another in ways that were just too, too perfect and pleasant. They didn’t ever seem to struggle with their faith or relationship with God, they just lived by this simple moral code of prayer, worship and tending to personal needs of the parish. While the first book felt nice and sweet in a way that was refreshing and charming, the second book felt sanitized for your protection and attempting to persuade readers of the benefits of chastity. Gag.
Still hoping to return to the joy of the first book, I plunged headlong into the third, These High, Green Hills. Cynthia and Father Tim jumped from announcing their marriage to having been married for several months, so that whole sex thing disappeared entirely. There was no mention of their intimacy, only of the challenges of merging households, Cynthia’s stepping into the role of pastor’s wife (gag again) and collapsing into the same bed exhausted every night. It was as vanilla as Leave it to Beaver, which made me roll my eyes at every careful avoidance of sexuality in their marriage. It felt unreal and unbelievable, even irritating to me. I was eager to return to the parish stories, which were more enjoyable fantasies of uncomplicated lives. The novel did just that, and I was grateful to catch up with Sadie Baxter, Dooley Barlowe and the rest.
However, midway through there was a startling, downright offensive comment of a sexual nature. I am not easily offended, and I would not have been offended by the reference in most other settings. However, this line was the ONLY one that referenced their sexual life together, and that made its inappropriateness all the more glaring. Father Tim and Cynthia are laying stones for a path between their houses, and Karon writes, “Given how youthful she was looking and what he was thinking, he could be jailed for violation of the Mann Act.” (135) The Mann Act was originally passed out of racist fears of white women trafficked across state lines for sexual purposes, and it was designed to protect white women from forced prostitution. However, it has mostly been enforced (and casual references imply) to prohibit sex with minors, who are considered too young to consent. So, in the book, after hundreds of pages of abstinence and asexual marriage, the lone reference to their sexual lives compares the priest’s desire for his wife (both old enough for AARP) to the desire to take a young girl across state lines for the purpose of having non-consensual sex with her. How twisted is that? Somehow, we get paragraphs upon paragraphs about their decision to wait until marriage (without any pining or sense that this is a challenge), then we get a marriage marked only by cuddling—until suddenly the priest fantasizes about his wife like an underage girl, too young to consent? Disgusting. This is everything that is wrong with “Christian culture” and its teachings on sexuality—don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, but idolize the image of the virgin girl. There is no room for mature sexuality between consenting adults. I was so appalled that I put the book down and thought long and hard about giving it up altogether.
After consulting friends on Facebook, I decided to keep going, mostly because I wanted to find out what happened to Miss Sadie Baxter. I did, along with most of the rest of the town, and the story was both enjoyable and satisfying. However, I’ll be taking a break from this series. I don’t know if I will ever return again. While I enjoy the sweet, small-town interactions of the parish and I want to read about Mitford, I can’t take any more of dithering Father Tim and Cynthia, of their asexual non-passion, of Christian moralizing, and certainly no more lines like the one reference to sexuality above. Here’s my verdict: some I loved, some I hated, some was “meh.”
The Preaching Life by Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications, 1993, 180 pp.
Barbara Brown Taylor’s writings and reflections are always rich and beautiful. The Preaching Life is no exception. The book talks about her own life and relationship with preaching, which is insightful for anyone engaged in preaching or listening to sermons.
The book is divide into two sections, “A Life of Faith” and “The Preaching of the Word.” The first is her reflection on her own call into ministry, the role of the church, and the task of preparing sermons. The chapters follow a simple trajectory: A Church in Ruins, Call, Vocation, Imagination, Bible, Worship, and Preaching. The second section includes 13 sermons, mostly on the Gospels. I read the book more for the reflection than the sermons, so I will focus on that in my comments here. Taylor’s sermons are always thought-provoking, as she has a way of drawing us into the intersections between the life-world of the Bible and our own.
I especially appreciated her perspective on preparing sermons that attempt to join the timely pastoral concerns of the congregation and the timeless stories of scripture. Sermons reside in the space between pastor, congregation and God, and they always emerge from the preacher’s reflections on the relationships between all three.
Preaching becomes something the whole community participates in, not only through their response to a particular sermon but also through identifying with the preacher. As they listen week after week, they are invited to see the world the way the preacher does—as the realm of God’s activity—and to make connections between their Christian faith and their lives the same way they hear them made from the pulpit. (33)
Later, she likens the preparation of a sermon to being Cyrano de Bergerac, “passing messages between two would-be lovers who don’t know how.”
What is called for, instead, is a sermon that honors all of its participants, in which preachers speak in their own voices out of their own experience, addressing God on the congregation’s behalf and—with great care and humility–the congregation on God’s behalf… Down in the bushes with a congregation who have elected me to speak for them, I try to put their longing into words, addressing the holy vision that appears on the moonlit balcony above our heads. Then the vision replies, and it is my job to repeat what I have heard, bringing the message back to the bushes for a response. (83)
From the beginning, she speaks about call and vocation as they apply not simply to preachers and clergy, but to all of the baptized—we are all called to live our lives for God through our work and our service. Her approach to preaching echoes that theology throughout.
And finally, just an eloquent word on God and the life of faith:
Then I remember that God’s power is not a controlling but a redeeming power—the power to raise the dead, including those who are destroying themselves—and the red blood of belief begins to return to my veins. I have faith. I lose faith. I find faith again, or faith finds me, but throughout it all I am grasped by the possibility that it is all true: I am in good hands; love girds the universe; God will have the last word.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Picador, 2004, 247 pp.
After a difficult season of ministry, I needed something good and redeeming and holy to read, so I pulled Marilynne Robinson’s magnificent Gilead off the shelves to read for the second time, thanks to a Facebook post from a friend who was rereading it herself. It is one of those books that gets better every time you open it.
Gilead tells the story of Rev. John Ames, in the form of rambling notes written in his elder years for his young son. There is a loneliness, a deep sorrow that hangs over the whole book, which spoke to the pain of my own heart. I relate to Ames as a fellow pastor, and love reading and rereading this book for the subtle, poignant portrayal of the parson that Robinson creates. She is able to capture much of the beauty and heartache of ministry, and the peculiar life inside and outside the community that we clergy lead. Her passages on writing as prayer, baptism, sermon-writing, spending time in the empty sanctuary–they are too beautiful to comprehend.
But Gilead is not just a story for preachers, about preachers. It is the story of multiple generations of struggle and redemption, of conflicting paths of faith and disbelief, of seeking home and family, of struggles and betrayals between fathers and sons. Ames’ grandfather and father were both preachers too. His grandfather’s support for John Brown in Kansas forever broke his relationship with his son. The story stretches on into the future, to Ames’ son and his neighbor and fellow pastor Boughton, and his relationship with his son and grandson.
This is a book that’s nearly impossible to review, because it’s like poetry from beginning to end–simply elegant, profound and rich with meaning. Read it. Especially if you are a preacher/pastor/minister yourself, but even if you are not. Just read it, slowly and deliberately. Then put it aside for a few years and read it again. I know I will.
The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton, Anchor Books, 1998, 328 pp.
I needed to escape into a good novel after a rough few weeks of ministry. The Book of Ruth was simply handy, and it fit the bill. While it didn’t take me in and away to another world, it did offer interesting characters, a good story and lovely writing.
The novel tells the story of Ruth’s life, from her perspective. She grows up poor in a small town, with her gifted younger brother Matt and her mother May’s hate and abuse. She responded with equal abuse toward her brother, and believed herself always to be unlovable, unteachable, and slow. Ruth tells the story of the few adults that showed her kindness and affection as a child–her Aunt Sid; Miss Finch, the blind woman down the street she helps after school; a teacher. After she graduates from high school, she goes to work at the local dry cleaners, and becomes the star of the bowling team.
Then she meets Ruby, a drifter with problems of his own, and falls in love. They marry, but remain living at home with the angry May. Tensions grow, especially when Ruth gives birth to her first child. The three broken people manage to bump along until one day the anger gets to be too much for them, with tragic consequences.
This is one of those stories where none of the characters (including Ruth) are particularly likable, but the author manages to make all of them sympathetic. I did not find it gripping or even moving, but it was an interesting read.
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, Hougton-Mifflin, 2012, 231 pp.
I’ll admit it: I was drawn to this book as an anxious parent eager to do everything possible to equip my child for success. I read one of the preliminary excerpts in The New York Times, and I was fascinated. To continue the confessional spirit: I am someone who is highly risk-averse, and fears failure. I would like to teach my child how to take risks and fail boldly, then get up and try again. So far, his natural tendencies match the caution of both his parents. Instruction will be required, and I’m not sure I know how to give it.
Tough’s title might sell a lot of books to people like me (although I borrowed it from the library), but he is writing about children like mine, from relatively stable homes with educated, financially privileged parents. He takes an honest, close look at what we can do as a nation to change the lives of children from low income backgrounds and give them not only the opportunity, but the support they need to succeed. What he discovers is that intellect is not nearly as important as core character traits like grit, self-control, conscientiousness, and curiosity. If you have intellect but not those character strengths, and you come from a disadvantaged starting place, you will not likely overcome those disadvantages. If you do have those strengths, and some critical support along the way, you can overcome all kinds of poor schooling and stressful home situations, even improving intelligence scores, academic success and life opportunities.
Tough researches a wide array of programs aimed at overcoming the disadvantages of poverty, uncertain home life and poor schooling. He looks at research from neuroscientists, educators, educational reform experts, social scientists, and doctors. He diagnoses success and failure in programs to help children and adolescents, and concludes that we have failed as a nation to adequately address these problems. The challenges of poverty, the legacy of racism, poor schools, unstable family life and inadequate support combine to leave millions of young people further and further behind. We must improve all of these things, but if we could start with the most effective, it would be certain strengths of character that would help overcome the rest.
I found the list that Tough uses, drawn from researchers and employed by schools in the successful KIPP charter school program, to be particularly interesting and helpful. The character strengths deemed most important to success are: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity (76). Notice that kindness, compassion, respect, honesty, helpfulness and other moral traits are not included. While those are important, they are not the things that lead to success in life. Most schools emphasize those character traits, and do not talk at all about the others. When you are trying to save children from a broken system, those are the strengths that make a difference–and the best news of all is that they can be taught.