Shelter from the Storm
Insights The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary
Helsel • Weibe • Carlin • Engstrom • Reichert Beadle • Pogue • Lincoln • White • Jensen
The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary Fall 2018
Editor: David F. White Editorial Board: Carolyn Helsel, Asante Todd and Randal Whittington The Faculty of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary Margaret Aymer Whitney S. Bodman Gregory L. Cuéllar Lewis R. Donelson William Greenway David H. Jensen David W. Johnson Carolyn Browning Helsel Philip Browning Helsel Paul K. Hooker Timothy D. Lincoln
Jennifer L. Lord Blair Monie Jennifer Owen-Jofré Suzie Park Cynthia L. Rigby Asante U. Todd Eric Wall Theodore J. Wardlaw David F. White Melissa Wiginton
Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary
is published two times each year by Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 100 East 27th Street, Austin, TX 78705-5797. e-mail: email@example.com Web site: austinseminary.edu Entered as non-profit class bulk mail at Austin, Texas, under Permit No. 2473. POSTMASTER: Address service requested. Send to Insights, 100 East 27th Street, Austin, TX 78705-5797. © Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary Printing runs are limited. When available, additional copies may be obtained for $3 per copy. Permission to copy articles from Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary for educational purposes may be given by the editor upon receipt of a written request. Some previous issues of Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary, are available on microfilm through University Microfilms International, 300 North Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48106 (16 mm microfilm, 105 mm microfiche, and article copies are available). Insights is indexed in Religion Index One: Periodicals, Index to Book Reviews in Religion, Religion Indexes: RIO/RIT/IBRR 1975- on CD-ROM, Religious & Theological Abstracts, url:www.rtabstracts.org & email:firstname.lastname@example.org, and the ATA Religion Database on CD-ROM, published by the American Theological Library Association, 300 S. Wacker Dr., Suite 2100, Chicago, IL 60606-6701; telephone: 312-454-5100; e-mail: email@example.com; web site: www.atla.com; ISSN 1056-0548.
COVER: “October 30, 2012 – Gone – The morning after Sandy ...” by Burl J. Dawson; ©2013; 30"x40," oil on canvas; used with permission from the artist.
Theodore J. Wardlaw
Shelter from the Storm 3
Pastoral Care Amid Disaster: Hurricane Harvey and Beyond by Philip Browning Helsel
Pastoral Care and Care of Pastors in Times of Collective Trauma
An Interview with Philip Browning Helsel
Becoming Valley Sherpas: The Practice of Abiding with Survivors after Disaster by Kate Wiebe
Living in Limbo by Nathan Carlin
Pastorsâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; Panel Cynthia Engstrom, Andrew Reichert, Tracey Beadle, Dean Pogue
30 Required Reading Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari, reviewed by Timothy Lincoln; Days and Times: Poems from the Liturgy of Living by Paul K. Hooker, reviewed by David White
34 Christianity & Culture Vulnerability, Violence, and the Image of God by David Jensen
write this introduction for the Fall 2018 issue of Insights as a monster storm, Hurricane Florence, barrels across the Atlantic Ocean and points toward the Carolinas. Even now, a day before she hits the southeast coast, Florence is designated as a fearsome storm. Just a bit more than a year ago, Hurricane Harvey worked himself across the Gulf of Mexico until he crashed into the beach towns, the Houston metropolitan area, and the Coastal Bend of Texas. Assisted by the certainty of climate change, these vicious storms amount to a new normal—both in their frequency and their violent power. In the pages ahead, a number of pastors and scholars explore the various dimensions of such disasters and reflect upon how communities of faith might respond. Phil Helsel, our associate professor of pastoral care, recalls his own involvement in providing care for pastors whose psyches, homes, and churches were impacted by Hurricane Harvey. He and others of us here at the Seminary and beyond organized an event, called “Shelter From the Storm,” during which a cohort of some twenty pastors in and around Houston retreated to our campus across two weekends earlier this year. Conversation turned around issues related to trauma, self-care, vocation, and personal and communal recovery. It was, in my opinion, an amazing experience of hope even in the midst of tragedy. Kate Wiebe’s article considers the role of a Sherpa—guiding others up a challenging peak such as Mount Everest, or any number of other sojourns across the Valley of the Shadow of Death—as another helpful metaphor for those searching for restoration in the midst of challenging times. Nathan Carlin, who endured Hurricanes Ike and Harvey, focuses in his article upon the experience of limbo—an ancient and somewhat problematic doctrine that has been remarkably reframed as a helpful metaphor for tracking the emotions of disorientation and reorientation that are inevitable in all manner of dislocating experiences. I encourage you to dwell upon these three articles; each one of them offers both consolation and inspiration. In addition, Cynthia Engrstrom, Andrew Reichert, Tracey Beadle, and Dean Pogue offer reflections upon their personal experience ministering in the midst of natural disaster. You will be gifted by their observations. Dean Jensen’s closing article, “Vulnerability, Violence and the Image of God,” is a searing theological reflection on the violence so prevalent at the core of our culture. He dwells particularly on the impact of this violence upon children, and he suggests, in a hopeful word, that vulnerability—especially that of the child Jesus, who grows up to attend to the vulnerabilities of others—is one way in which we are made in God’s image. Read what is offered in the pages ahead, and you will be blessed. Theodore J. Wardlaw President and Professor of Homiletics
Pastoral Care Amid Disaster: Hurricane Harvey and Beyond Philip Browning Helsel
urricane Harvey makes landfall north of Corpus Christi around ten in the evening on August 25, 2017, as a category three and finishes dumping rain on September 3 as a category four storm. The storm takes more than eighty lives, impacting over thirteen million people in an area from Port Aransas to Port Arthur. A million people evacuate and 42,000 seek emergency shelter. Nearly 35,000 homes are damaged by the historic flooding, some 27 trillion gallons. Water gauges at the National Weather Service do not go high enough, so it is hard to account for the fifty inches of water that landed on Houston.1 Harveyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s flooding of the Texas coast left 11,000 displaced and had a long-term impact on the region. Hurricane Harvey impacted congregations on the Texas coast in a multi-dimensional fashion because it destroyed houses, disrupted jobs, and unsettled congregations. Even those narrowly missed by the storm become grief survivors, impacted by the disaster in enduring ways. How can we provide pastoral care for pastors, those expected to shepherd their
Philip Browning Helsel is associate professor of pastoral care at Austin Seminary. Helsel earned his PhD in pastoral theology and practical theology from Princeton Theological Seminary; he is ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). His first book, Pastoral Power Beyond Psychologyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Marginalization: Resisting the Discourses of the Psy-Complex (Palgrave Macmillan, New Approaches to Religion & Power Series) was published in 2015. He serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling.
Shelter from the Storm flocks, when these pastors themselves have faced threats to well-being and livelihood? In this situation ministers feel overburdened, with no one to hear their stories.2 In Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church he urges us to care for the body of believers as we would different body parts, interdependent in functioning. This notion of an interdependent body could be used as a model for healing disaster that impacts the collective tissue binding the community together. Natural disasters overwhelm a community’s ability to respond, and they may have many of the same overtones of anger, guilt, and the search for meaning that comes with human-caused disasters, such as 9/11. Disasters, defined as “extreme natural events that overwhelm vulnerable human populations,” tend to affect members of society indiscriminately, yet they send people on a journey of meaningmaking, asking “why” questions to God and one another.3 Pastoral care for a disaster includes pre-, peri-, and post-disaster factors. What came before (what resources were present in community and how much disruption were people already facing?), What came during (who was around as the disaster hit and were people alone or able to comfort one another?), and What came after the disaster (how long did it take for help to come?). This essay explores the distinctive meaning of care for the pastoral caregiver in the context of an extreme weather event that disrupts community.
The Phases of Disaster Although what occurred in Houston and its environs seems distinctive, what happened in the Harvey disaster shares some similar stages to disasters everywhere. Rabbi Stephen Roberts describes the life cycle of a disaster: a spike of energy (heroic), then a drastic slump (disillusionment), then a slow process of recovery that includes many dips (rebuilding).4 During the heroic phase people proclaim that their town is strong with news stories, bumper stickers, and t-shirts. During the disillusionment phase, people’s attention moves on even as promised resources do not arrive fast enough. The rebuilding phase includes the return of basic services and the slow rebuilding of homes and congregations, provided that people choose to stay. During the rebuilding phase some city officials and leaders leave a community, frustrated with the pace of recovery, often leaving a gap in leadership. The disillusionment phase is especially troubling. Lasting from two to fifteen months, this moment is often one of betrayal, in which hidden truths about the disaster emerge, such as the fact that many residents were sold homes in floodplains without being told.5 As a minister shepherds a congregation in different stages of the disaster process, congregants might expect heroism from their pastor when the pastor actually feels disillusionment. In a season of conflicting expectations, otherwise happy ministers can fantasize about leaving their churches. When the Apostle Paul in Galatians urges us to bear one another’s burdens, there is little recognition that some ministers wind up bearing a heavier share, especially in times of crisis or disaster. The minister might silently carry such pain in the form of chronic stress, headaches, nightmares, or stomach problems, and may identify well with the Psalmist’s 4
Helsel cry, “How long?” (Ps. 13:1). While waiting for the FEMA payment or insurance disbursement, people face worsened health and disease burden. Add to this the stress of unacknowledged grief, a now-hidden loss that took place before the disaster to which no one now attends, and ministers might often struggle to proclaim God’s faithfulness as they try to have hope themselves. Faith might not go away entirely, but it might be hard to see. Rebuilding after a disaster is the slow process of trying to get life back to the way it was, which includes important discernments of whether and how to rebuild in a region. During the rebuilding phase, there will be sudden triggers such as a rainstorm that comes out of nowhere and makes survivors feel as though they are back in the disaster once more. It is often complicated by a lack of resources and labor required to rebuild. Nearby congregations can sometimes become hubs for the cleanup effort, hosting help groups and quickly launching into action. These host congregations help absorb much of the stress, but they, too, can become fatigued from the grief of survivorship, tired, and at a loss. There is a range of hidden losses associated with a disaster like this, including the loss of pets or the loss of familiar and cherished items. These are secondary losses to the trauma of disaster, and they might include functional limitation, relationship change, as well as loss of beloved and familiar objects.6 One family lost nearly everything, and then had to relive the trauma by looking at their objects out on the front yard for two months. Let me pause to define trauma and indicate how healing takes place. Trauma is an out-of-the-ordinary event that shatters your ability to respond and reorients your world. Kate Wiebe, the founder of the Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth, maintains that “healing transformation appears to begin at the moment when a person perceives his intimate experience of trauma as truthfully witnessed by a caring person.”7 Empathetic responses such as, “I have no idea what you’re going through, but I want to understand” tend to be better than sympathetic responses, “I know what that feels like,” since no one else knows what this feels like. Empathy speaks to that mystery that we can never truly know one another’s journey.8 Yet the real problem after a disaster is that there is not enough public morale to lift one another up, and the lack of pastoral care can make people feel forgotten by God. Dr. Wiebe’s work has focused on how the church is a good place to heal from trauma, as we share an empathic response with one another. A minister whose house was flooded had a neighbor come by and tell them that it “could have been worse.” Instead, she needed her neighbor to lament with her, to ask how she was doing, and to help her name how hard it was.
Collective Trauma: Wounded Connective Tissue We are realizing nowadays that pastoral care can refer to collective, not only individual, realities, and it can be used to heal society. In this collective view, one’s psychology is important, but so is one’s social identity, including one’s gender, level 5
Shelter from the Storm of education, and race or ethnicity in a given society. A collective level of pastoral care takes account of the context in which people live, drawing attention to the relationships at play. The communal-contextual approach to pastoral care considers it a form of public theology, where the community-wide concerns are understood as being as important as an individual’s story. In this approach, public contexts and concerns become pastoral care arenas. A collective approach insists that there is a back and forth between people and their environments, their social identities, and their worlds.9 Such a communal-contextual response does not deny the importance of one’s stories, but sees them in dialectic relationship with contexts. Disaster pastoral care requires a communal-contextual level of interpretation, since disaster impacts not simply the individual but the community. Sociologist Kai Erikson defines collective trauma as a “different species of trouble” that is “a blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together and impairs the prevailing sense of communality.”10 This is a new kind of trauma that is extended, chronic, and severe. Rather than being a single event, it is a form of ongoing mourning. What happened before, during, and after the disaster pushes everyone to their limits and destroys the typical patterns of pastoral care. When the social bonds of community are broken by disaster, people are thrown upon their own resources in ways that make it difficult to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). Erikson coined the word “communality,“ the familiar feeling of knowing one another in a small town, and he gives the example of people helping themselves to a cup of coffee in one another’s home. I prefer the less clunky term community, that may be more than a small town phenomenon, wherein we hear each other’s stories deeply enough and for long enough that we start to become responsible for one another. Bearing one another’s burdens in a concrete fashion means being moved by each other’s stories, moved enough to act in response. When people across the congregational community are moved in this fashion, it results in a feeling of mutuality. The church’s connectionality is held by God, whose gracious gift of sustenance provides the bonds that undergird community. In disaster response, making apparent God’s faithfulness is always a result of our shared effort, a combined response of spiritual and theological awareness. Can disaster fray these connectional bonds beyond recognition? On the one hand, they seem to become more important, with people showing up for worship after disaster. Yet, there are signs that congregants may feel afraid and alone, overwhelmed by their own concerns and focused on their inner circle of close kin. The church’s connectional nature is always incomplete, fractured by its social identities, and driven by its anxiety and need for control, and is always eschatological, held by God in the not yet. A common problem of ministers is loneliness. Ministers facing natural disasters go through a variety of responses, some of which are physical stressors and others are theological questions. Many of these responses relate to the problem of not having anyone to hear their own stories and becoming over-stressed from hearing the stories of others. Indeed, in Puerto Rico a minister had a heart attack from 6
Helsel Hurricane Irma-related caregiving stress.11 The Reformed notion of the priesthood of all believers means that the community of faith must be equipped to care for one another’s stories as an essential aspect of living out the Gospel. After disaster, many people expect that God has punished them, and there are always theological voices in social media that continue such discourse, linking massive social suffering to a state of sin. Ministers may share such questions, but not have anyone with whom to voice them. In a theological belief system that emphasizes Gods providence, believing that one is being punished by God is a common response, and one that we should take seriously.12 Many of us unconsciously link our fortunes, the good outcomes of our lives, with our perceived faith. Ultimately, what helps is being able to reflect theologically on these questions. Clearly, there is a seemingly overwhelming number of factors to consider when ministering after a disaster, and a small emotional bandwidth to respond to one another. When trauma is collective, challenging basic tissues of community life, when they disrupt relationships to body, people, and land, ministers can end up feeling burdened with nowhere else to share their problems. Harvey created a series of disruptions that impacted ministers and their congregations. It destroyed homes, churches, and community spaces, disrupting what was sacred on a personal and collective level. Ministers who try to shepherd these congregations can stress out because they are trying to be compassionate and witness to other’s suffering, when they may lack an empathic mirror to witness their own suffering. Vicarious traumatization is that suffering that comes from witnessing another’s pain and feeling out of control and helpless as a result.13 The crucial elements of pastoral care, listening and paying attention, can inadvertently lead to compassion fatigue if there are just too many concerns at once, and too few people to carry them. Without social supports, some ministers feel helpless. Sometimes it shows up as physical symptoms, such as insomnia, pains in the neck, or chronic tension in the back. It may come through as hostility toward a friend, family member, or pet. Vicarious traumatization results in a disrupted spirituality, giving up on the resources of prayer, contemplation, or meditation that have been meaningful in the past.14 Ministers who stay in constant contact with their flock through social media might experience added grief. Those who always respond to their phones, and who never have back up for pastoral emergencies, are especially at risk for vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue because they carry super-human amounts of stress, at levels no one can bear alone. The stress, combined with the lack of resources, can cause profound disruptions in the spiritual lives of pastors after disaster. A similar dynamic appears with city officials in disaster zones who leave after six months because they lack support. Certainly, pastoral care is something more than one-on-one counseling that leads to insight, it has to do with the collective body that binds us together, that tissue that is held together in the fragile bond of one another’s stories. Context plays a part. When the community is stressed, it challenges its capacity to bear witness to 7
Shelter from the Storm one another, thus contributing to feelings of isolation and despair. When ministers hear the stories of many disaster-struck members over time, without anyone to hear their own story, they may become fatigued, leading to a disruption in faith and one’s call.
Spiritual Gifts for Broken Bodies Ministers in congregations impacted by Hurricane Harvey and other disasters are members of the body as well. At times they feel stranded emotionally, and they need help to rebuild and an ability to achieve normalcy. Bodily approaches to trauma healing emphasize the importance of restoring the rhythms of the body through yoga, massage, music, and other modalities that release the body’s tension first, thereby allowing it to make meaning. Of course, in Maslow’s hierarchy, the body’s needs might seem to come first, with spiritual needs coming later. Dr. Andrew Reichert, a Hurricane Harvey survivor and seminary-trained psychotherapist, argues that we may want to reverse this hierarchy. He suggests that we must meet spiritual needs, even in a time of physical deprivation and material harm, showing how the need for prayer and meditation might be primary, with food and shelter coming after. Dr. Reichert’s reversal helps explain the central role of the church after disaster, and how people seldom stop meeting with one another, even after extreme events. It is as though in prayer and contemplation, in shared bread and wine, we find the grace to return in service to the world. Ministers note that after a disaster, congregations almost never stop meeting. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath they often see an uptick in attendance. One Houston pastor met on the grass after Harvey struck, and another met in the fellowship hall until the church was rebuilt, with the pastor reporting that the new location added a fresh informality to worship. In the wake of a storm, ministers also need to worship and lament, they need a chance to confess their sin and guilt and be assured of God’s pardon. The key things that are important is for ministers to begin to heal the chronic stress that has accumulated in their bodies, and remember their baptism in a context of worship that meets their deep experiences of fatigue. At Austin Seminary we held a retreat for Hurricane Harvey-impacted ministers that focused on self-care practices. This retreat, “Shelter from the Storm: Telling Our Stories, Finding God,” was supported by the Texas Presbyterian Foundation and the Board of Pensions of the PC(USA). Developed in consultation with New Covenant Stated Clerk Lynn Hargrove and Austin Seminary President Ted Wardlaw, it focused on the trifecta of ministers who had their own homes destroyed, who witnessed the destruction of their congregations, and who had many in their community impacted. The retreat included options for bodily care, such as massage and psychotherapy, as well as dinner and entertainment at a comedy club. These whole-body care options allow for healing at the level of gut, breath, and limbs, which then also impacts the mind and soul, slowly working its way up to free up thinking. One minister stated that she had forgotten how much she needed to go out with friends and 8
Helsel laugh, and that when she returned to her community, she was immediately going to engage friends for an evening out. In the worship service on the final morning, beginning with the praise song that states “All who are thirsty/all who are weak/come to the water/bow your head in the stream of life.” We paired up and walked down the center aisle to the baptismal font, marked each other with the baptismal waters, stating, “Remember your baptism.” In the midst of the chaos of God’s water, we reclaimed our primordial vocation, that which goes before our ministerial vocation and undergirds it, to be people who proclaim God’s peace and presence for one another. After this we processed back into worship, rededicated and blessed by one another for the service ahead. The service also included a confession of pardon, drawn from the prayers of Iona. In this confession of pardon, all of us proclaimed our complicity before God and our failures of empathy and imagination. The confession of pardon was a place where we admitted that we had fallen short in our response, that we did not have the energy to respond appropriately after this storm. It was the theological center of the service. The assurance of pardon read from Romans 8, offering the assurance that nothing would separate us from the love of God, even if we felt that we had not done enough in response to the disaster. At the center of the worship service, President Wardlaw presided att the Lord’s Supper, the body broken for us, a promise of God’s daily bread that comes beyond and despite our working, and also a sign and seal of this covenant. As President Wardlaw served us, I found myself rushing to take the bread, but I needed to wait until it was given to me. Baked ahead of time by our MDiv student Carrie Winebrenner, the gluten-free loaf was given to all, separated and sent out from the group, and I couldn’t help but notice that there were pieces left over, gathered as a gift. At the close of the service we left the church singing “Kanisa Litajengua,” a Kenyan song that responsively asks who will build the church now, answering: the children and the elderly. The disaster of Hurricane Harvey tore through the Texas coast leaving communities disillusioned in its wake; similar disasters occur regularly around the world and provoke questions of how to do ministry. In this article I have shown how this hurricane, “ground zero” for our Texas communities, added challenges to communities already facing stressful dynamics.15 Some ministers facing recent loss or an uncertain future were suddenly expected to be heroic leaders. They focused on the immediate needs of a million concerns and their own self-care fell to the wayside. Little wonder if some were fatigued and despaired of God’s presence in this time, if some found it hard to carry one another’s burdens, but instead needed someone to carry their own for a while. Because pastoral care is a practice that helps people feel remembered by God, it requires a combination of delight and patience—that unique blend of wisdom and fortitude. When the community gathers, pastoral care provides assurance of God’s presence and forgiveness of sin and guilt about things left undone. This approach, undergirded by the practice of self-care, give pastors the opportunity to 9
Shelter from the Storm give thanks to God whose care comes first. By giving skills of self-care and creating neighbors among one another, it provides a community of shared stories, support, and laughter that allows for a renewal and return to ministry. In the context of disaster recovery, we must do what we can to help one another feel less afraid and alone, reminding each other of God’s grace and acting as God’s agents of healing in the world. v NOTES
1. Edgar Walters, “How Much Has Been Raised for Harvey Relief—and How is it Being Spent?” Texas Tribune—In Harvey’s Wake series, 30 Jan 2018, https://www.texastribune. org/series/in-harveys-wake/ 2. Jamie D. Aten and David M. Boan, Disaster Ministry Handbook (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016), 110. 3. David K. Chester, “Theology and Disaster Studies,” Journal of Volcanology & Geothermal Research, 146, 2005, 319. 4. Rabbi Stephen B. Roberts, “The Life Cycle of a Disaster” in Disaster Spiritual Care: Practical Responses to Community, Regional, and National Tragedy, ed. Roberts and Ashley (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2008), 5. 5. Audra D. S. Burch, “Brutal Choice in Houston: Sell Home at a Loss or Face New Floods,” 30 March, 2018, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/30/us/hurricane-harvey-flooding-canyon-gate.html 6. Lucy Hone, Resilient Grieving: Finding Strength and Embracing Life after a Loss that Changes Everything (The Experiment, NY, 2017), 68. 7. Kate Wiebe, “Cultivating Care,” unpublished dissertation. 8. Margaret Kornfeld, Cultivating Wholeness: A Guide to Care and Counseling in Faith Communities (NY: Continuum, 2001), 34. 9. Larry Kent Graham, Care of Persons, Care of Worlds: A Psychosystemic Approach to Pastoral Care & Counseling (Nashville, TN: Abingon Press, 1992), 49. 10. Kai Erikson, Everything in its Path (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1978), 153-154. 11. I rely on Vice-President for Education of the Presbyterian Foundation, Jose Irizarray for this anecdote. 12. Harold G. Koenig, In the Wake of Disaster: Religious Responses to Terrorism and Catastrophe (West Conschoken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2010), 34. 13. Lisa I. McCann & Laurie Anne Pearlman, “Vicarious Traumatization: A Framework for Understanding the Psychological Effects of Working with Victims,” Journal of Traumatic Stress, 3:1, 1990, 131. 14. Ibid. 131-149. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/BF00975140 15. I rely on my Executive Presbyter Sallie Sampbell Watson for this memorable phrase.
Interview Phil Helsel
Pastoral Care and Care of Pastors in Times of Collective Trauma Why has the topic of healing amidst trauma been of interest to you? I was a hospice chaplain in San Antonio, Texas, when Katrina hit, so we received a lot of patients who were refugees from that storm. I heard their stories and I watched families trying to resettle. Also, our family vacations in Port Aransas every summer so that was a sacred place to us. When Hurricane Harvey hit, part of what hurt was seeing some of those places that we loved destroyed. And it reminded us, “Hey, we have friends in Houston. I wonder how they’re doing?” So in your essay, you’re working with two concerns: how congregations respond but also how pastors respond to the trauma that they’re experiencing. Say a bit about what you think that congregations need to have in place as they anticipate this kind of collective trauma or natural disaster. First, there should be someone in your congregation who is responsible if a disaster strikes. That person should consult with emergency disaster responders in your area—ideally with the chief of police and the fire chief. Each congregation should develop a disaster plan that includes communication with those who are planning the civic emergency response. Are there examples of how you saw congregations responding in exemplary ways in the wake of hurricane Harvey? Definitely. Some congregations who were close to the disaster but weren’t struck themselves made major changes to facilitate the disaster recovery of their neighbors. A church I visited in Corpus Christi adapted their facility so they could have showers for groups—refugees, responders, and other volunteers. Other churches I know have constantly hosted groups that have been part of the cleanup efforts. Another church has even devoted a full-time staff member to that recovery effort— they have someone on staff who is networking in response to the disaster. What is the status of the Hurricane Harvey cleanup? It seems very uneven to me. There are some towns where two thirds of the houses
Shelter from the Storm
What heightens the experience of trauma—and the experience of moral injury—is feeling afraid and alone. And this is where the ministerial response comes in as well. Those dynamics can be helped to a great extent if we can see one another and ask these questions of one another and know that we’re not carrying these stories by ourselves. —Phil Helsel
are still empty—and they are left with big questions about whether anybody’s going to come back. And then there are other towns in which pretty much everybody is home, but they are left to figure out who they are now in this new situation. Do we feel safe or threatened? Also, I think this recovery is uneven based on people’s social status. Texas seems to be giving priority in the recovery process to people who had more expensive homes. So those folks are getting money faster than people who have greater needs. What are some other kinds of collective trauma that you had in mind as you’re writing this? In the essay, you mention the 9/11 New York World Trade Center disaster. In the field of disaster studies, there is a distinction between directly human-caused traumas like the Boston Marathon bombing or school shootings, versus things that are natural disasters, things that used to be called Acts of God—like tsunamis, hurricanes, or tornados. Actually, however, there are many similarities. In the wake of any tragedy we ask God, Why does this happen to me? With the human-caused disasters, there’s more of a fault-finding element and a sense of having been harmed by someone interpersonally that causes different reactions. So in the gun shooting debates, for example, there’s often an impulse to establish motive: What was the motive of this shooter? And there’s soul searching that happens: How have we as a society failed? 12
Interview How are those different in terms of pastoral response? What is called for in the case of human causation? I think there’s a more direct grappling with the problem of evil when someone causes harm to someone else. And it sends you on a meaning-making journey that has to do with the incomprehensibility of our actions against one another. Everybody’s asking questions like, Who was this person? and Why did they do this? So the community needs to lament in different ways after a human-caused harm—they need a chance to cry out to God. Whereas I think after a natural disaster, sometime worship needs to hold people and say, You’ve done enough. How can we care for you, body, mind, and soul? All of this work needs pastoral guidance to be done well. Where does moral injury come into this conversation? It seems like there are times when perpetrators, victims, and others have to wrestle with how has this trauma distorted my moral sensibilities? What happens with moral injury and that kind of shattering of the soul’s compass, I think, really pertains to some of these disaster events. In trauma studies, what heightens the experience of trauma and the experience of moral injury is feeling afraid and alone. And this is where the ministerial response comes in as well. Those dynamics can be helped to a great extent if we can see one another and ask these questions of one another and know that we’re not carrying these stories by ourselves. In your essay, you cite Rabbi Steven Roberts who talks about three phases of energy following a trauma—including a spike and then a kind of slump and then a slow sort of recovery. How do you account for the slump? It seems like communities have an abundance of good will. Well, I think it’s multi-factored, and some of it has to do with the news cycle and the feeling that the next minute after a disaster happens, even a disaster the size of Harvey or Katrina, there’s another one the very next week to grab the public’s attention. Also in the slump—the disillusionment phase—there’s a sense that people aren’t always keeping their promises to you. For example, you’ve been promised money or resources for rebuilding from the federal government and gotten a fraction of what you’ve asked for. Now, a lot of your life is spent waiting, especially if the public services in your community are coming back at a much slower rate than you would have anticipated. If there is no communication, it can feel very lonely in this phase. For those not directly affected, something like Harvey happens and it’s a blip on the screen. Maybe you feel some survivor’s guilt but we rarely go back and check in six months afterwards. But I think the people who work in local governments and other workers in caring professions start to get really burnt out around six months and many end up leaving. And that adds to that feeling that there’s not anybody around to witness what I’m going through.
Shelter from the Storm It seems like many of us, especially in the Western world and among the middle class, live with this sense that if something goes wrong there are a lot of safety nets. We have resources, friends, and family. We have governmental structures and community structures and we’ll be okay. And for the most part, our nets hold us. But in these extreme times when those nets don’t hold or when they aren’t as quick or secure as we imagine they should be, we feel like our trust has been misplaced. And I think those times of waiting are really hard because they just don’t fit into any grand narrative about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps … they fall outside a dominant idea that “We’ll be okay if we take care of ourselves.” A lot of people carry around an implicit contract with God; “If I’m a good person, something like this won’t happen to me or my community.” And then when you experience that lack of control that basic sense of trust gets challenged. America perhaps more than any other country is founded on this myth of conquering the West under the guise of manifest destiny, and we romanticize these figures, those rugged individuals who forged ahead. Those myths often have a seed of historical significance. It is interesting how they’re being used and how hard it is, once you feel like you should have it all under control, to ask for help or realize that you might need help. So if you’re under a lot of stress—and you’re constantly operating on the adrenaline of that stress—you don’t always know how deeply harmed you’ve been and how much help you might need. There’s also a tendency, I think, to judge the headwinds that we’re up against as being disproportionately larger than other people’s and then to not realize the tailwinds that are pushing behind us and not be as grateful for them as we could. So we tend to judge the obstacles facing us more often and severely than we judge the things that have given us a boost. Say more about the headwinds/tailwinds idea. I think it helps to be reminded that we all have a negativity bias and that we’re not as likely to be grateful for the things that have helped us. The headwinds/tailwinds research suggests a need for deliberate and contemplative practice to help people be more grateful—to not live solely in the space of loss and regret. The other phenomenon that you talk about is pastors suffering silently. The pastors that we reached out to in the wake of Hurricane Harvey were mostly people who had faced three different things: damage to their homes, damage to the physical church, and damage to many in their congregation. If a number of people in a community have their homes destroyed, they may be at different stages in the recovery process which can cause congregational tension. Caregivers attempting to give attention to these various layers of need can easily succumb to PTSD. So if you go through symptoms of PTSD yourself for a long time but nobody knows it, and you’re trying to just constantly minister to others, you can turn bitter and feel like nobody sees what they are going through. Often caregivers are taught 14
Interview to ignore their own need for care. It seems like there would be a point where you would come up again the limits of your own resources, and I can see how that could prompt vocational questions. Our idea of getting people together over two retreats was to help people feel remembered, which I think helps with that discernment. I think it helps to have people around who hear your stories and see what you’re going through. What conditions have to be in place in order for people to feel like they’re being heard and seen? I think the best witness to suffering is probably being physically present after a disaster. And second best is emotionally and spiritually traveling together in its wake. I recall one person who was uncomfortable using dishes because he had been eating off of paper plates since the storm. And so people in the retreat got to watch each other go through that, watching the body’s response to care, and how care unravels our worry. Is there more about the worship aspect that is part of the therapeutic response? It was healing for pastors to have services planned for them when they could be in the pews again. I think the renewal of baptismal vows—using the actual font—helped us to redeem the water that God created. The sign of the cross was made on one another’s foreheads at the start of the worship. And we pray together a prayer of confession where we admitted that we hadn’t done what we should have done in response to this and we experienced God’s consolation and pardon saying “nothing separates this from the love of God” (Romans 8). So that sense of safety and pardon going together in response made it possible for us to worship with one another in a new way. Some people came to the retreat struggling with survivors’ guilt. The confession of sin and the assurance of pardon address theologically their guilt in a framework that’s different from how the psychotherapeutic sciences deal with survivor’s guilt. You mentioned that humor had an important role in healing trauma. I had a friend, a Franciscan brother—he was also a southerner—who used to say, “The subtext of all humor is ‘bless our hearts’”which is southern for “Aren’t we a mess?” Perhaps humor allows us to step outside of the immediacy of the experience and look at the human condition—its irony, its contradictions, its tensions—and laugh. Humor has a way of taking some pressure off. It can also be a nice leveler or a connector. And I think it’s only one step from humor to then be able to move to empathy—to be able to say, Someone else had it even worse than I did.
Shelter from the Storm What are some of the missteps that communities make or that pastors make in the wake of traumas like this? One we haven’t mentioned is rushing to rebuild exactly the way things were. There’s a tendency to want to get everything back to normal quickly. Because the church really functions in some communities as a central place that organizes people’s lives, losing that place touches a lot of their social networks. So it can be really hard to make that next decision about how to rebuild. Sometimes trauma can be a chance for a church to reevaluate some things. But there’s a grief in that and some people will resist, wanting to rebuild just the way things were because it’s a sacred space that was damaged. You have to grieve what was in order to move into something new. And I think a lot of times, people don’t necessarily hear the stories of all the members who have witnessed baptism after baptism in this place or whose children had their weddings here. And I think you have to hear those stories and honor that grief, especially for people who have deep ties to a place. v
Becoming Valley Sherpas: The Practice of Abiding with Survivors after Disaster Kate Wiebe
s oral history goes, living mostly in the eastern mountainous regions of Nepal, the Sherpa people primarily descended from four groups who migrated out of Solukhumbu, one of the fourteen districts in eastern Nepal. While Sherpa people also inhabit areas of China, India, and Bengal, it is believed that a particular group of descendants from Tibet migrated through the high mountainous Nangpa La pass of the Himalayans. This group is presumed to have been from the Kham region, and called “Shyar Khamba.” Over time people indicated their origin more commonly as “Sherpa.” Like many indigenous Nepalese tribes, this group moved from one place to another throughout the Himilayan region and mostly survived as herders and traders within the mountains. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as they migrated, they cultivated elite mountaineering abilities. Today, they particularly are known for their history of assisting with extraordinary expeditions to climb Mount Everest. Given such an exemplary model of guiding, over the years the term “Sherpa” also more generally became synonymous with the act of mentoring people who are facing widely ranging learning curves, including from substantial psychological or spiritual spelunking to scaling tremendous heights in career development. Perhaps, we, too, might use this metaphor to consider what it takes to companion with survivors after severe loss, even community-wide disaster. Indeed, anyone who has endured the debilitating shock of murder, abuse, or having their home suddenly destroyed by a critical weather incident, for example, can attest to how the arduous journey across the Valley of the Shadow of Death can feel similar in spirit to traversing the Himalayans. Those who abide with survivors also may find this metaphor an accurate depiction. In many cases, following a di-
is an organization consultant, specializing in education, coaching, and therapeutic services following crises, trauma, or disaster. Founder and director of the Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth (ICTG), she also serves as a volunteer National Responder for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. Follow The Reverend Dr. Wiebe at www.ictg.org, or www.katherinewiebe.com.
Shelter from the Storm saster, the people who abide with survivors are referred to as “second responders.” Second responders may be professional, including clergy, chaplains, counselors, teachers, and social workers, or they may be volunteers, including peer counselors, volunteers for facility cleaning and rebuilding, deacons, Sunday school teachers, or good neighbors. Indeed, this metaphor of the Valley Sherpa may serve us especially well as we discuss, in particular, not only the characteristics of abiding with survivors of disasters and other forms of tragedy but also the range of topics related to training seminarians who may one day either become guides along the Valley of the Shadow of Death or pastor guides. Therefore, keeping the image of the Sherpa in mind along with the work of modern-day second responders, let us turn to how the Psalmist describes the journey along the Valley. Though I walk in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Psalm 23:4 When leading post-disaster clergy retreats, human-caused disaster field expert David Holyan often invites participants to begin reading the famous Psalm “in a disordered way.” Start in the middle, he encourages, with verse four. Holyan observes how beginning this reading out of order, especially if this scripture is well known, can help a reader to engage with fresh attention.1 Personally, this exercise helped me to take more notice of the companion abiding with the sufferer. For example, observe how it is the companion’s act of being there, as well as arriving prepared with the required equipment for arduous travel, the rod and the staff, that keep any notions of fear at bay. Not the companion’s “right” words. Not the companion’s scholarly or professional expertise. Rather, both the companion’s abiding presence and the companion’s implements for protecting and warding off danger provide assurance to the downtrodden traveler. Companionship is a constant theme throughout the Bible. Whether in the creation of the first family (Genesis 2) or in the sending of the disciples to go out twoby-two (Mark 6), the children of God are not meant to live their lives or do their work alone. We are meant to do it together. We are meant to support one another as we go. In speaking about the kinds of relationships that draw near in times of sorrow, evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar summarizes the importance of local friendships by explaining how social media cannot be one’s only form of maintaining relationships today. The reason to strive also for a small inner circle of proximate friends is that “they’re the people who come to your support in times of great crisis,” and, presumably, the care is mutual. In other words, when needed, “a shoulder to cry on has to be physical thing.”2 However, even when good friends are maintained, survivors often describe how isolated or alienated, rather than connected, they feel after severe loss. Indeed, holding an emphasis on companionship and community next to what survivors tend to experience spotlights important contrasts. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my 18
Wiebe head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. Psalm 23:5-6 According to traumatologist Peter Levine, in the days and weeks after critical incidents, survivors vacillate between strong urges to connect and to isolate themselves: Many traumatized individuals, and especially those who have been chronically traumatized, live in a world with little or no emotional support, making them even more vulnerable. [After] a devastating event—be it violence, rape, surgery, war, or an automobile accident—or in the aftermath of a childhood of protracted neglect and abuse, traumatized individuals, even those who share a residence with a friend, family member, or intimate partner, tend to isolate themselves.3 Levine observes how traumatized persons often are bereft of genuine or lasting intimacy, or what he refers to as “the salubrious climate of belonging that we all crave and need in order to thrive.”4 In fact, in states of shock and disorientation, survivors can struggle greatly to perceive and discern between acts of actual care and acts of antagonism. Within these blurred distinctions, it can feel to some survivors like enemies are all around. Yet, even as the way may not yet be clear or enemies may still abound, the Psalmist emphasizes how the companion in the Valley nourishes the survivor in body and spirit along the way. Perhaps not unlike the angelic companion whom Elijah finds attending to him in 1 Kings 19. Recall how Elijah, fearful of a pursuant enemy army, calls out “Enough!” before falling into an exhausted sleep. The divine messenger coming to his aid, wakes him with a nudge and advises, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”5 Take note of what characterizes the presence of Valley companions, or Sherpas: abiding, protective, and nourishing. These skills and attributes speak to what is needed to get through a rigorous terrain, particularly one that requires learning, and relearning, how to get up and down safely. They also help us to notice what may too often be missing in the aftermath of crisis, tragedy, or disaster, for survivors in our day. Today, when reports display epidemic rates of loneliness,6 it is clear that countless survivors find few, if any, Sherpas offering support in times of great crisis. Clergy and ministers, in particular, frequently tell me about how lonely they feel in ministry, and, especially after a disaster. They feel sure that no one fully understands what being in their shoes really is like, or how it is to field the seemingly unrelenting and widely ranging demands directed toward them in the aftermath of disaster. No one fully understands what it feels like, for example, to have their livelihood on the line in such an acute way. Many clergy also feel unequipped to field the torrents of spiritual grief and disillusionment communities can devolve into following mass destruction. They also can feel burdened and overwhelmed by what feels like an impossibility of “balancing” work and life demands. They find themselves grieving not only what happened but also the loss of a missional call19
Shelter from the Storm ing they had prior to the disaster and that now seems obliterated along with the disaster. Too often, clergy feel they do not even have friends or colleagues who truly understand what they are experiencing. Important to note, too, a Valley Sherpa is not a survivor of the same event as the person they are companioning alongside. Though we all experience trauma and loss at some point, we do well to discern when it is our season to guide and when it is our season to be guided. Just as actual Himalayan Sherpas gained their mountaineering abilities at other times than primarily with the expeditions they eventually guided, Valley Sherpas guide when they are not also directly impacted. Beyond only abiding, protecting, and nourishing survivors, Valley Sherpas also offer the critical act of encouraging survivors toward (re)connecting with and cultivating local relationships that are truly caring. Again, recall how when Elijah finally meets with God, God hears Elijah’s complaint and then immediately points Elijah back to his community. God does not fix Elijah’s problems. In fact, Elijah faces more challenges ahead. Rather, God reminds Elijah he is not alone and helps him reconnect with his community. Following a disaster, creating opportunities for faith leaders of a community, as well as other groups including worship directors, youth ministers, administrative staff members, and educators, to fellowship together can serve as one useful example of a meaningful step in developing personal and vocational healing. The practice of meeting, of listening, and of sharing stories provides unpressured opportunities for clergy and ministry leaders to begin to reconnect with people who appreciate, value, and understand the particularities of their post-disaster position. Lastly, becoming a Sherpa along the Valley of the Shadow of Death means observing, learning, and knowing the rhythms that occur along the terrain—or, more, the terroir, the complete environment—of the Valley path. How, metaphorically, it undulates from craggy and rocky, narrow and steep, dank and dismal, to areas where sprouts creep out among cracks in the rocky edges, blossoms find their way along the stone path, and how eventually the path widens and becomes less treacherous until finally it gives way to pastures beside still waters. Where once travelers barely saw beyond a few steps in front of them, if even that far, in the course of traveling together and being nourished along the way, now a horizon crests far ahead of the paths that continue well beyond these pastures. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside waters of rest, he restores my life. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. (Psalm 23:1-3) As Christians, one of the great forms of evangelism we embody is the confidence that trauma is never the end of the story. Still, it is a kind of hard good news we bear, or a “costly grace” as Bonhoeffer (1937) puts it. Though trauma only is a part of broader trajectories for individual and groups and trauma does not comContinued on page 25
Living in Limbo Nathan Carlin
onald Capps (1939-2015) taught pastoral theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, where I studied with him. Some years ago we were talking about mission and evangelism and Capps, who had a subversive sense of humor, joked that we should not tell anyone about the Gospel because this could jeopardize their chances of getting into Limbo. Capps’s joke was a twist on the Roman Catholic teaching that persons who die but did not have the opportunity to be baptized—such as infants or people born before Jesus—do not go to Hell but rather to Limbo, a place (like Purgatory) somewhere between Heaven and Hell.1 The teaching, which is centuries old, was meant to be pastoral in that it was intended to give grounds for hope for the unbaptized. Capps’s joke took this logic a step further by extending grace to the un-evangelized. Contemporary Roman Catholic parents have tended to be distressed by the idea that their unbaptized babies who have died are not in Heaven, so much so that the Vatican felt the need to issue a statement on Limbo in 2007 in which it was asserted that ideas about Limbo were never official.2 When I mentioned this recent disavowal of Limbo by the Roman Catholic Church to Capps, he suggested that we should make a case for retaining it. At first he was joking again—this seemed humorous given our Protestant heritage (Capps was Lutheran and I am Presbyterian)—but as we kept talking we began to feel that we were on to something substantial. So we wrote Living in Limbo: Life in the Midst of Uncertainty.3
The Limbo of Everyday Life Our case for retaining the pastoral significance of the doctrine of Limbo is based on the assumption that there are numerous limbo situations on this side of the grave.
Nathan Carlin is associate professor at the University of Texas Health Sci-
ence Center at Houston (UTHeath), where he holds the Samuel Karff Chair. His primary academic appointment is in the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics, housed in McGovern Medical School. Dr. Carlin has published five books and many articles. Two more books are forthcoming, both with Oxford University Press, in 2019.
Shelter from the Storm Many times in life people find themselves waiting—waiting, for example, to figure out what to do when one has been laid off from work or how to proceed when one receives distressing biopsy results. To define “limbo,” we began with the dictionary and found that three meanings were listed. One was theological, as discussed above. The others were: “any intermediate, indeterminate state” and “a place or condition of confinement, neglect, or oblivion.”4 We then built on these definitions by distinguishing key aspects of acute limbo experiences relating to situation, distress, and duration. The types of acute limbo situations that we identified included early limbo, relational limbo, work-related limbo, illness-related limbo, and the limbo of dislocation and doubt. Regarding types of distress, we suggested that these emotions are frequently associated with acute limbo situations: anxiety, worry, impatience, frustration, anger, dread, and despair. With regard to duration, we asserted that the longer a limbo situation goes on, the more extreme the emotions.5 Theologically, we grounded our book on the hope, reflected in Christian art, that Christ meets us in Limbo, rescuing us from despair, and the calling that, as Christians, we are to meet others in their limbo experiences. Our book is filled with stories that illustrate our definition of limbo as well as the way others have made it through the limbo of everyday life.
Three Hurricanes In Living in Limbo there is a chapter, as noted, on the limbo of dislocation and doubt. In that chapter I discuss my experience of two hurricanes: Hurricane Rita (2005) and Hurricane Ike (2008). Hurricane Rita was more or less a nonevent for Houston (where I have lived since 2005) in terms of the physical damage yielded (it caused considerable damage elsewhere). Indeed, The Houston Chronicle noted that “the worst impact in Houston was some branches down, empty gas stations, and a few hours without electricity.”6 But it produced a great deal of psychological damage because it struck only days after Hurricane Katrina (2005), which, of course, devastated New Orleans. Before Hurricane Rita landed, anxiety-filled Houstonians fled the city all at once, jamming the highways, leaving many stranded in their cars. While my experience of Hurricane Rita was not a limbo experience of any magnitude, because life was back to normal the next day, my experience of Hurricane Ike was different. Unlike Hurricane Rita, Hurricane Ike did cause a lot of damage to the Houston area. While I was not geographically dislocated (such as evacuees from New Orleans), my living environment became transformed. I lost power in my apartment for about a week. Also, because I assumed that this was going to be like Hurricane Rita—that life would be back to normal in a day or two—I was totally unprepared. I had no food and no water and all of the grocery stores were out of everything. It was very hot, so sleeping at night without air conditioning was extremely difficult. I did, therefore, experience an acute limbo situation that was uncomfortable; I experienced anxiety, worry, impatience, and frustration, precisely because I was in an intermediate, indeterminate state. It was unclear when life was going to get back to normal. All in all, though, my experience of Hurricane Ike was more of an inconvenience than anything else. 22
Carlin My experience of Hurricane Harvey (2017) was different still. Two major differences were that I bought a townhouse in 2012 and that I married Keatan King in 2016. During the first two hurricanes, I was single and I was renting from the university, so if my apartment would have flooded, it would have been bothersome but nowhere near as problematic as if my house had flooded during Hurricane Harvey (it did not). In my apartment where I lived during graduate school, I did not own any furniture, so my loss of possessions would have been limited to clothing and books. But if our home had flooded during Hurricane Harvey, we would have had to deal with our insurance company as well as the logistics of the repairs. Also unlike Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Ike, for me there was a threat of physical harm. As a graduate student, I took shelter in a very safe building on the campus of Rice University, but during Hurricane Harvey, given that our townhouse has so many windows, and also because we do not have a basement, we felt very exposed, especially during the thunderstorms and the tornados. What was especially difficult about the hurricane was that it lasted for days (both Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Ike passed through Houston in a matter of hours). During Hurricane Harvey a slow rain persisted and it just would not stop or, when it did stop, it would restart again in a matter of hours. As the days passed, a chronic anxiety set in, which felt like a mix of tiredness, unease, and dread. There was not much to do other than to sit around and wait for something bad to happen. My wife and I did not experience despair, though I can imagine that those who lost their homes (especially those who needed to be rescued) did. Also, I realize that my experience of Hurricane Harvey may seem trivial when compared with those who did lose their homes. It needs to be said that many others had it much worse than we did and that I cannot speak for these people—some of whom are my friends and colleagues—so I won’t. Nevertheless, looking from not quite the outside, but rather alongside, I have noticed certain features about their acute limbo experiences. To name but a few, I noticed that some people waited: • to be rescued from their homes; • to find shelter; • to receive donated food, clothing, and medical assistance; • to procure temporary housing; • to discover whether their place of employment flooded (and, if it did, whether they would experience a layoff); • to assess the damage of their house; • to learn what insurance would cover; • to hire contractors to repair their house; and • to complete the repairs. Many still have not completed the repairs on their houses, even as the first anniversary of Hurricane Harvey approaches.
Shelter from the Storm
Looking for Rainbows There must be rainbows somewhere with all the rain. And there are—in community. After Hurricane Harvey I witnessed a number of rainbows as I watched St. Philip Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas, where my wife serves as associate pastor, respond to the crisis. All church staff members and many parishioners attended to the needs of the congregation and the city. A sizable percentage of the congregation flooded—roughly 10%—and some of these families had to be rescued by boat. Youth from the church made phone calls to check in on everyone in the church, with a priority on those over the age of 70. Even before the waters receded, the church database was leveraged to pair members in need with fellow members living within blocks of each other who could safely reach them and come to their aid. Then the church ascertained who needed a place to stay, and other families in the church who did not flood volunteered to shelter those in need. After the immediate crisis had passed, teams formed to clean up trash, to cut out drywall, and to tear out carpet. The church itself sustained damage and staff and parishioners alike came immediately to clean up the church. St. Philip is preparing for future disasters as well by funding a meals program for the city. It was remarkable to see these efforts unfold. I was so proud to be the husband of a pastor, and also to be a Christian. It became crystal clear to me that in moments such as these, being a Christian is about being there for those in need when they are in need, when it counts. Hurricane Harvey made me see, quite clearly, how organized religion sometimes has something to offer that atheists, agnostics, and spiritualists often do not, for the simple reason that these groups usually do not have a social infrastructure—in Christian terms, an ecclesial body—to be mobilized locally during a crisis. Sometimes being a Christian means you need to open your house. If you can’t do that, then maybe you can clean up trash. If you can’t clean up trash, then maybe you can make a phone call. There are enough tasks to go around. All of us need to pray. We also need to plan now to mitigate future suffering. And there are ongoing needs here in the Bayou City that are material, emotional, and spiritual, for many still are waiting, which raises the question: How is God calling you to serve those living in limbo? v NOTES 1. Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984). 2. International Theological Commission of the Roman Catholic Church, “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized,” accessed on May 3, 2018: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20070419_un-baptised-infants_en.html. 3. Donald Capps and Nathan Carlin, Living in Limbo: Life in the Midst of Uncertainty (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010). 4. Michael Agnes, ed., Webster’s New World College Dictionary (Foster City, CA: IDG Books Worldwide, 2000), 832. See Capps and Carlin, Living in Limbo, 2-3. 5. On this point we were influenced by the emotions that an infant goes through while waiting for a caregiver to attend to her needs: from waiting, to anticipating, to pining, to hopelessness. See W. C. M. Scott, “Depression, Confusion, and Multivalence,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 41 (1960): 497-503; Capps and Carlin, Living in Limbo, 11-12.
Carlin 6. Carol Christian and Craig Hlavaty, “12 Years Ago Hurricane Rita Made Us All Lose Our Minds in Houston,” September 21, 2017: https://www.chron.com/news/houston-weather/hurricanes/article/ Hurricane-Rita-9236850.php.
Sherpas Continued from page 20
pletely define one’s identity or purpose, no short cut exists for healing the whole self after severe loss. Instead, the road to healing is a journey across rugged terrain of mending broken spirits, mourning what has been lost, and beginning to rebuild. Amid this hard good news, though, we have the tremendous opportunity to be agents of hope: I’ll go with you. Together we’ll find restoration beyond the Valley. v NOTES 1. For more, see Laurie Kraus, David Holyan, Bruce Wismer. Recovering from Un-Natural Disasters: A Guide for Pastors and Congregations after Violence and Trauma (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017). 2. https://www.npr.org/2017/01/13/509358157/is-there-a-limit-to-how-many-friends-we-canhave. Accessed August, 2018. 3. Peter A. Levine, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2012), 109. 4. Ibid. 5. 1 Kings 19:5-8 6. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/08/lonely-die.aspx. Accessed August, 2018.
We asked religious leaders for their reflections on ministry in light of this issue’s lead article. Here is what they told us.
The Reverend Cynthia Engstrom (MDiv’12) is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Schulenburg, Texas, and a current Austin Seminary Doctor of Ministry student. While she was an MDiv student she was associate pastor of First United Methodist Church in Bastrop, Texas, during the 2011 Bastrop Fires that lasted almost two months and burned 34,000 acres in Bastrop County. Dr. Andrew D. Reichert is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Port Aransas, Texas. His community was in the path of Hurricane Harvey—the second costliest hurricane after Katrina—which devastated part of the Texas coast in 2017. The Reverend Tracey Beadle (MDiv’11) is senior pastor of Westlake United Methodist Church in Austin. After Hurricane Harvey, members have traveled at least monthly to Victoria, Texas, providing assistance in relief and rebuilding. Congregants trained as early responders and the church invested in a trailer and materials to continue this ministry. The Reverend Dean Pogue (MDiv’05) is pastor of Grand Lakes Presbyterian Church, Katy, Texas. He and his congregation were broadly impacted by Hurricane Harvey, which dumped more than fifty inches of rain on the Houston area causing massive flooding in some areas.
What were the effects and consequences of the disaster you experienced? Cynthia Engstrom The 2011 Bastrop fires began Sept. 4th and were extinguished Oct. 29th. Two persons, innumerable pets, animals and livestock, 1,673 homes and thousands of acres were lost or destroyed. Community was strengthened. The pervasive impulse was generosity and presence. Churches functioned as first responders for the newly homeless and dislocated. Andrew D. Reichert Before Hurricane Harvey, I thought that I would never put anything in my beach condo that I wasn’t prepared to lose forever. I kept all my nice things safely stored out of harm’s way. After the storm, I got rid of old things that I don’t need or like and started decorating with the things that I enjoy most. 26
Pastors’ Panel What were the critical needs of those you serve during a natural disaster? Tracey Beadle Basic survival needs, of course, and practical help cleaning up the mess. But on a deeper level, the greatest need I found was assurance that they had not been abandoned to their own weakened devices and depleted resources. And they need hope that they will be restored. Andrew D. Reichert My impression is that some of those hit hardest by the storm may have already been struggling with basic needs for shelter, safety, and security, often compounded with medical, relationship, and even legal problems—all of which the storm wreaked even more havoc upon. Cynthia Engstrom Initially, there is a need for clothing, toiletries, safe and clean bathroom/shower facilities, a place to sleep and begin connecting with family and resource agencies. Telephones and computer access was also appreciated. People were grateful for prepared meals or sandwiches, fruit, and water. The initial hours and days are most critical. How did you try to address the needs? Andrew D. Reichert As a local psychologist, I offered free crisis counseling and support groups, and there were many religious, community, and social service agencies, along with thousands of volunteers, construction workers, electrical crews, first responders, and countless others from all over the state and nation helping in amazing ways. Dean Pogue For us, I suppose the “critical needs” category can be divided into a couple of different areas (at least!): The “big obvious” ones and the subtler “less-obvious” ones. Because of our relatively small size, we focused on less-obvious needs. For example, we don’t have enormous front-line resources for feeding, housing, demolition, etc., so our session organized childcare for parents occupied by FEMA, SBA, IRS appointments, and paperwork. Some of our folks also volunteered to help with abandoned pets and owner reunification. Our church ice-maker ran overtime in providing ice for homes without power. While we had a small amount of donated, give-way cleaning supplies, our session organized lunch delivery for first responders and demolition teams. We’re better at ham sandwiches than hammers! Money matters! Thanks to the generosity of donors (and a much-beloved Pres27
Shelter from the Storm byterian church partner in Conyers, Georgia), we were able to provide our community with some financial support. Cynthia Engstrom Our congregation’s Fellowship Hall became a community meeting facility. Bathrooms were available and meals were served daily. Donated clothing/food/personal items were distributed. Within a day, community churches and agencies established a network of help/assistance locations so we could specialize and connect people to resources. We became command station for the denominational emergency assistance ministry that continued for months. Tracey Beadle In the immediate aftermath the church supplied flood buckets and financial support and provided personal items, Bibles, and opportunities to worship for refugees housed in nearby shelters. Longer term we deployed recovery teams that have served 75+ families in Victoria, mucking out flooded homes, tarping roofs, and, now, rebuilding. What spiritual practices sustained you/them during this time? Dean Pogue In many ways, our spiritual “recovery” began with togetherness in worship. While our facility had no damage (except for our known roof leaks!), we were unable to access it for several weeks due to high water. Immediately upon building re-entry, we had a mid-week-evening service of “Lamentation and Hope,” where we faced the reality of disaster head-on. Ending our service with the Psalmist’s resounding “And yet …” we celebrated the Lord’s Supper, a comforting anchor of worship normalcy in the midst chaos and regrouping. We also practiced realistic expectations that our impacted folks will ride a rollercoaster of emotions, ranging from hope to PTSD. We strictly avoided “Pollyanna thinking!” Tracey Beadle Prayer and presence. Prayer to ground, guide, and empower those serving. Prayer with and for those we serve to comfort, encourage, and inspire hope. Presence beyond showing up to do the work that includes authentic relationship with the hope that the clients will experience God’s presence. Andrew D. Reichert The days and weeks after the storm were exhausting, working from sun-up to sundown, yet often feeling like nothing was accomplished. It was hard to see progress. 28
Pastors’ Panel The “mountain” seemed to get bigger and bigger with many interruptions and setbacks and no light at the end of the tunnel; so I encouraged people to breathe, pray, meditate, and “Do what you can, not what you can’t.” Cynthia Engstrom Spiritual practice for personal sustenance is the conditioning we do in advance of the emergency. In the crisis moment, the discipline is one of presence for others. It is a practice of kenosis until help agencies arrive and get established. The more prepared—pastor, facility, and congregation—the better. What words of hope or comfort do you have for pastors and those impacted by natural disaster? Tracey Beadle I do not believe that God inflicts suffering as a means of redemption. I have, however, seen God redeem suffering. When the church shows up to offer friendship and help … I’ve witnessed, in their smiles and tears, clients pierced by God’s grace, sometimes for the very first time. Andrew D. Reichert Happiness often seems to be determined by external events, such as the “right” job, house, and car; if we lose these things in a storm, then we’re unhappy. But these externals are always changing, and so our happiness is really more about how we respond to the externals. If we can stay grounded in our internal faith and values, then we can weather any external storm. Cynthia Engstrom Moments of crisis will remind us all of our communal identity and vocation. Those who suffer and those who assist will bring their best selves forward, especially in the early hours and days. Plan for the days that will follow, rest in the prayers of the church, say “Yes” to assistance, and find moments for which you can give thanks. Dean Pogue We learned that it’s “OK to be who we are, and to not feel guilty about who we’re not.” In our ’hood, if you want massive, organized front-line-field-feeding with semi-truck mobile kitchens, call our Baptist friends. Chainsaws and demolition? Methodists! Carpentry? Lutherans. Our LDS neighbors can expertly cut wallboard! We looked to our particular gift-set, and (without apology) felt called to focus on prayer, childcare, emotional support … with the occasional ham sandwich. We also learned that we have some pretty great pastors and communities around us, ones that may serve as potential partners. As a Southern Baptist pastor-friend said to me over coffee, “When the waters came up, the walls came down.” v 29
Required Reading Books recommended by the Austin Seminary faculty Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari. New
people is, and the prevalent religion of the future will be, humanism. The branches of that religion are liberal humanism (valuing the utter individuality of each person), socialist humanism (which stresses the economic underpinnings of social life rather than my feelings), and evolutionary humanism (which asserts that “the world is a jungle, and what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger”). Traditional religions like Judaism will continue to have adherents, Harari argues, because religions help us ground value judgments (physics cannot tell us whether it makes sense to kill strangers or welcome them). However, traditional religions are fundamentally unable to deal with the challenges that the future brings because they don’t attend seriously to technology’s irreversible changes to culture and human experience. Part of the future for human beings, Harari argues, will be the quest to solve medical problems like genetic tendencies toward disease with technical fixes to create an elite class of humans. Biotechnology makes it possible for people with enough money to live extremely long, healthy lives. But there is also a serpent in this garden, according to Harari. Human beings (mammalian sacks of chemicals that run algorithms) are increasingly becoming useless because the artificial intelligence of inorganic devices (computers) is better at solving all of the problems that human beings used to be good at. In Harari’s terms, intelligence is now decoupled from consciousness. In 2018, computers are already better at playing chess, welding, finding tumors on x-rays, and driving cars than people are. Using artificial intelligence, some computers can also compose music that is indistinguishable in style and quality from compositions by Bach, because music is fundamentally a set of patterns following certain rules: a set of algorithms. It is only a matter of time, Harari says, before flesh and blood people become irrelevant, or are guided through
York: HarperCollins, 2017, 435 pages, $35. Reviewed by Timothy Lincoln, Director of the Stitt Library, Austin Seminary.
hat are human beings? How do religions function? What is the future for human beings? Israeli public intellectual Yuval Harari offers provocative answers to these questions in this book, which takes up where his Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015) left off. Harari argues that human beings are animals whose brains run algorithms (a set of steps to solve problems). In the scheme of evolution, there isn’t anything that fundamentally separates the human animal from others. The complexity of the human brain, however, has enabled us to create complex cultures based on social agreements (for instance, all of us agreeing that certain metals count as money) and our ability to probe beyond what is obvious (science). Historically, in Harari’s view, religion functioned both as the provider of meaning for individuals (whatever my personal struggles, my life has meaning because I belong to a people chosen by God) and as a social glue (e.g., the way that the Québécois are wont to say that everyone speaks French, loves hockey, and practices Catholicism). Over time, the rise of science and individualism broke down religion’s hold over the majority of people in the West. Harari is an atheist; sometimes a rather naïve one. Nevertheless, he makes a fascinating argument that humans have left behind the worship of gods for the worship of themselves as the bearers of ultimate value (thus the title of his book). Why? The liberal tradition of the West leads to the deification of the individual. In other words, there is a direct line from Rousseau to the ideology of Disney princesses: follow your heart! The functional religion of most
Required Reading their lives by the enlightened decisions of their personal assistants who know what people want and what is best for them far better than individuals themselves. There is much to take issue with in this book. Harari writes at the level of broad strokes. He suggests that the problem of human consciousness has been solved: it is simply an illusion. The bald fact is that our physical selves (brain) want or don’t want, decide or don’t decide before our mind becomes aware of wants or choices. Physicians, theologians, philosophers, and regular people have known that we have/are bodies for quite some time. I daresay that human consciousness troubles even working neurologists. There is an element of irony at play in Harari’s statements about selves and consciousness, since in his acknowledgements he thanks Satya Narayan Goenka, the teacher that taught him Vipassana mediation. This valuing of what Christians call the inner life runs against the general line of argumentation in the book. Herein lies the biggest problem in the book. Harari knows that we cannot ground ethical choices in brain scans or macroeconomics. He doesn’t explain how grounding values in humanity is better. Indeed, he points out that the three great humanist sects are at ideological loggerheads. Harari is the most cheerful pessimist that you might ever meet. He thinks that all of us will gladly surrender even a semblance of agency over our own lives because, well, it will just be easier. No fascist state will crush our seeming freedom; we will click a box on a screen accepting the terms and conditions and let the Googles and Amazons of this world run our lives. Our robot minders will pick the people we date and tell us how many children to have—or not have, if we have bad genes. Perhaps this line in the sand has been crossed already. While Harari does talk about politics in broad strokes, he does not engage in sober reflections about the public policy implications of his predictions.
Nevertheless, Harari opens up fascinating perspectives and raises important questions for Christians. Because he argues at the fifty-thousandfoot level (reminiscent of Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, 1997), Harari draws attention to large-scale features of culture such as the empirical finding that human beings who cooperate with others lead better lives than those who live in isolated groups. The religion called humanism identified by Harari surely passes scholarly tests to be considered a belief system, albeit humanism is held by most of its practitioners without theorization. His analysis of the rise of humanism as the religion of the West is understandable and does not rely on the reader’s pre-existing understanding of Romantic or Marxist thinkers. Believers may not be too worried whether or not our sense of self is an illusion. We should, however, worry about the new affordances that biotechnology make possible. Given good testing for genetic disorders, is it right to selectively abort fetuses that will become babies destined for epilepsy? If a gene edit can plausibly guarantee another ten points on an IQ test, is it right to offer that service to those who can pay? Will genetically unenhanced people become the permanent underclass of the second half of the twenty-first century? Homo Deus paints a troubling picture of what might happen when it’s all up to people like you and me.
Days and Times: Poems from the Liturgy of Living by Paul K. Hooker. Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2018; 74 pages, $12. Reviewed by David White, The C. Ellis and Nancy Gribble Nelson Professor of Christian Education
nce upon a time the pre-modern world was enchanted—spirit still inhabited matter; God spoke by means of the created order; rites and relics invited us into their magic. But then, somewhere between the sixteenth and seventeenth
Required Reading centuries the Western word determined that what really counted were things solid and stable—things that could be observed, counted, repeated, systematized, rationalized, and manipulated. This “enlightened” advance of science allowed us to do a great many important things, like build bridges, cure polio, and calculate to the tiniest fraction the allowances of space travel. Unfortunately, this approach to the world, when applied to such things as biblical interpretation, Christian theology, or spiritual practices, serves to evacuate the world of mystery, beauty, and God. This is the situation into which Paul Hooker contrarily speaks. Ironically, if you were to look at Paul’s CV you might imagine him on the “systematic-rational” side of the modern equation. He is a biblical scholar steeped in methodology; an expert on canon law in the Presbyterian tradition; an expert in ecclesial polity—which can at times be as exacting as engineering a bridge. Clearly he is no common bohemian, but undeniably a serious man. Yet, a closer look reveals that Paul is a tortured soul: torn by on the one hand the need for intellectual rigor and on the other by the soul’s hunger for true sight. In Paul’s view, his Christian faith demands new sight, new hearing, new language, beyond the limits of established words and reasons. He stands firmly in a tradition of theo-poetics that gives voice to the experience of lived faith, faith that always pushes past given words so it might remain vital and compelling and joyful. Days and Times is organized according to cycles of the liturgical year (with major sections on Holy Days and Ordinary Time), weaving in and out of the Christian seasons and holy days. This is to say that his collection follows the narrative arc of the gospel story from Christ’s birth to his death and his resurrection in the new creation. The biblical themes are familiar enough, except they are now made strange to us. Paul’s poems traverse ground so familiar we imagine we can walk among them blindfolded in our stocking feet, and yet once underway, we are sent in labyrinthine circuits to unknown places which somehow make them familiar places over again. In his
poetic recounting of Advent, while awaiting Christ’s coming, we come face to face with the utter darkness of the world, including our own in the tragedy of Aleppo, the bedside of a dying mother, war in Ramah. In Lent and Holy week he takes us into the lair of Pilate and to the treacherous kiss of Judas, to the Syrian Lebanese border and the first kill of a hunter. In a poem entitled “Woodwork” he embeds imagery of the bloody cross into the very furniture of Christian life, thus establishing all human effort as sacramental: Woodwork It’s about the blood— joining boards at angles, edges are negotiations, prone to pinch, and nails pierce like talking points, splinters burn like lightening beneath the skin— red stains in the palms of hands. It’s about the blood— a lifetime of little cuts saw-blade nicks chisel slips on turning lathes scrapes from roughened surfaces in rapid motion, currency to pay for chalices and tables, for chair legs in church parlors, and for crosses. Always crosses. It’s about the blood smeared on every lintel, doorpost, pulpit, pew— forensic faithfulness: a wound for every wonder. Impassive as a judge’s smile, the paschal lamb has nothing more to say after the planer’s blade has smoothed the ragged faces of the cross, and with every hammer-blow the blood sinks deeper in the heartwood unseen and silent, until all that’s left is argument, quid pro quo. Leave the dead behind in the night when angels pass, and head for parted water.
Required Reading But it’s about the blood crying out from every field and every brother without a keeper, every lamb laid on every altar, every cup on every covenantal Table. That’s where the wounded Body lies awaiting autopsy while survivors lurk in hallways fighting over the personal effects.
questions redeemed by epiphanies of grace. But this analysis is far too banal to convey the richness of Paul’s poems, which deserve repeated and lingering attention. Paul’s poems might serve as a wonderful companion to individuals or groups, to be read and considered in studies or liturgies that follow the liturgical seasons of the year. These poems might also appropriately find their way to the pulpit, table, or font in worship settings alongside scripture and prayers. I recommend this book not only because it will provide moments of delight (as it surely will) but also because we all, you and I, need to reclaim the language of poetry and thus re-enchant a portion of our world on its lonely way to God. v
In Ordinary Time Paul gives voice to existential questions of loss, questioning, hubris, depression, insomnia, absence, and death; but also to the epiphanies of sensual sleep, the sweetness of life, music, starlight, greenery, dawn, and the rhythms of the day. Appropriate to his Christian sensibilities, we see our existential
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Photography by Allkindza
Christianity & Culture
Vulnerability, Violence, and the Image of God David H. Jensen
n the current cycle of twenty-four hour news, media images sear into our national consciousness only to fade away in a matter of minutes. Pictures are worth a thousand words, or even a hundred thousand, but todayâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s favored image invariably gets replaced by the time the day is done. Over the past several months, many images have haunted my mind, but two of them refuse to depart. Both of them concern children and the impact that our conflicted society wracks on their bodies, in the form of school violence and the experience of children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. As the 2017-18 school year drew to its close, violence erupted with malice in two highly publicized school shootings: one in Parkland, Florida, another in Santa Fe, Texas. As the horror of these mass killings (totaling twenty-four murders) began to seep in, we as a nation participated again in a familiar ritual: initial shock and outrage, followed by calls to enact laws to prevent such atrocities from happening again, and eventual resignation that these terrifying events are part of the new world that we raise children in.
David Jensen is academic dean and professor in the Clarence N. and Betty
B. Frierson Distinguished Chair of Reformed Theology at Austin Seminary. He is the author of ten books and is also an editor of the book series â&#x20AC;&#x153;Compassâ&#x20AC;? (Fortress Press) that encourages theological reflection on everyday practices. His most recent project is Christian Understandings of Christ: The Historical Trajectory (Fortress Press, forthcoming).
Jensen Yet for a while, it seemed like this time would be different. For several weeks, the nation focused on the children who survived, who told their stories of the massacre and their survival, who organized marches and spoke with eloquence and authority. During these few weeks we listened to young people and how their voices spawned other movements in nearly every state across the nation. Students took part in peaceful demonstrations to call attention to escalating school violence, reminding us that they stood on the front lines whenever shots were fired. My own children— one in college in Tennessee and the other in middle school in Austin—participated in two of these events. As these children told their stories, they challenged us as a nation to have the courage to reduce the violence of American society, to prevent places of learning from becoming places of slaughter. Their voices reminded us of the vulnerabilities of being a child, how children typically bear the first consequences of adult action and inaction. These young people, who in most cases were not old enough to vote or drive, encouraged the rest of us to take responsibility for the youngest in our midst. What they were calling for was hardly new: more extensive background checks for firearms purchases, stricter regulation of semiautomatic weapons, and more robust measures for addressing mental health. Such calls have become common in much of American political discourse. But the fact that children were issuing these calls, rather than adults, made us listen anew. These child survivors of horrific violence could not escape our memory and inspired our will to act. At least for a time. Later on in the year, another media storm erupted over the Trump administration’s decision to separate undocumented children from their families at the U.S.Mexico border. Like the images of the survivors of school shootings, the photos and videos of children torn from their parents and placed in glorified prison cells were profoundly disturbing. Toddlers cried for their mothers, children wondered aloud when they would see loved ones again. Their faces told unspeakable stories of perilous journeys to the border and the shock of being ripped from their parents’ arms. Audio tapes of their pleas played on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. We saw the tears of mothers and young children, wide-eyed looks of disbelief and downturned eyes of grief. The callous responses of some administration officials that these migrants never should have made these journeys in the first place only heightened the nation’s empathy for children in detention facilities and parents who had no idea where their children were. This time, the images resulted in at least some small changes. After a few weeks, the separation of families at the border stopped and the government began the slow process of reunification. This process is far from complete, as hundreds of children at the end of summer still languished in detention facilities far from their parents’ embrace. These children, like those who experience school as a place of violence, are vulnerable each and every day. Two thousand years ago, an unwed teenage mother gave birth to a child surrounded by the smell of animals. This child Jesus entered the world mirroring countless precarious births across the world. This child brought hope, of course, but his mother undoubtedly also worried about his survival. Too many children in his time and in ours do not make it out of infancy. Often their mothers die as well. 35
Christianity & Culture I believe it is significant that this child—the One Christians proclaim as Savior of the world—came into the world completely vulnerable, dependent on others for survival, with no guarantee of the next day. Jesus’s birth calls our attention to every birth that happens in this day, to the way that life begins, grows, and ends in vulnerability. This vulnerability does not disappear as Jesus grows in wisdom and years (Lk. 2:52). His ministry calls attention to the vulnerable in his midst: the outcast, the poor, the hungry, the leper. His preaching echoes Torah’s call for Israel to show its faithfulness to God by caring for the widow, orphan, and resident alien/immigrant (Deut. 24:19). In many respects, the life of Jesus is one long story of him becoming vulnerable for the sake of others, even at its close, as he surrenders his life on the cross for the life of the world. Jesus lives in vulnerability so that others might simply live. Jesus’s vulnerability—from birth to death—is for the sake of relationship with others. It is a radically ec-centric way of living, casting us out of small circles of familiarity, reminding us that to live fully is to become open and vulnerable to others. We might even read the long arc of scripture as an extended narration of God’s vulnerability for the world and for us: becoming vulnerable in a covenant relation with the people Israel, extending that covenant to the world in Jesus Christ, and experiencing the consequences of our human “no” to God’s “yes.” As creatures of this covenantal God, we might also understand human vulnerability as one dimension of being made in God’s image. We are persons made for relation, open to the beauty and surprise of each other’s lives. Yet the vulnerability of human beings is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes us capable of intimacy—of entering into each other’s lives, being changed by others, and flourishing in community. On the other hand, vulnerability also renders us susceptible to the wounds of violence: the vulnerability that makes flourishing possible can also devolve into brutality that diminishes and erases life. Yet if we take cues about what it means to be human from the life of Jesus, we will recognize our own vulnerability and be changed by the vulnerabilities of others. To follow in Jesus’s footsteps is to attend to others’ needs as well as our own. This is the way of abundance (Jn. 10:10), that we might have life with others. The twenty-four hour news cycle has the strange effect of fostering inattentiveness as we get bombarded by an endless parade of overwhelming images. It is nearly impossible for our attention to linger when this morning’s riveting photo gets replaced before lunchtime. But the witness of Jesus encourages the countercultural practice of paying attention, of recognizing vulnerability in others as well as ourselves. Have we paid enough attention to the children who bear the brunt of our society’s violence? Have we responded with courage and compassion? Or have we simply moved on to the next image? v
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