Destruction in Washington, IL after an EF4 tornado.

Destruction in Washington, IL after an EF4 tornado.

On the heels of my second deployment with Operation Blessing U.S. Disaster Relief team, this time in Washington, IL following the November 17, 2013 EF-4 tornado that struck the heart of the city’s residential community, I was reminded of the commonalities inherent in the wake of – and recovery from – disaster … darkness, chaos, disorientation, loss, paralysis, fear, frustration, regrouping, hope, healing, rebuilding, new normals and restoration.

When life breaks – when divorce, death, job loss, tornadoes, floods and hurricanes wipe out life as we know it – we face numerous challenges on the road to recovery (shaken)

But as the dust settles, one question seems to stand out from the others. Will I ever feel safe again?

Can I really trust that God’s got this? Will healing come, eventually? Will there be any relief from the pain, uncertainty and loss? Will God truly bring something new – something valuable, necessary or purposeful – out of the rubble of this brokenness?

During our deployment in Washington, I made a new friend with one of the victims of the tornado. After her 8-year-old son convinced her they had to go to the basement as the sirens sounded, she found herself, just moments later, covered in the rubble of her home. Her physical life, and the lives of two of her sons and her sister, was spared by the twin mattress she threw over her family at the last minute. But she continues to walk through the emotional brokenness left in the path of the trauma. I understand why a new threat of severe weather causes a fear in her that only other tornado victims can understand.

I started this post months ago, but never found the right words to finish it. I think I’m still trying to answer those earlier questions once and for all for myself. Pain is exhausting, as our broken lives lay in pieces around us, and our responses can be as varied as our situations.

I recently watched the second message in a sermon series by Freedom Fellowship (Virginia Beach, VA) pastor Rick Hocker, called “The Healing Journey” ( Based on Jeremiah 17:14*, he acknowledges, “More people are healed on their journey, rather than in a moment,” and that God is committed to continually healing us.

Then he defined an emotionally healthy person as one who “can be comfortable enough with pain because you know you will heal.” This stopped me in my mental tracks. Being comfortable with pain? Because I know I will heal? I’m not sure everyone who has experienced an extreme loss feels confident that they have healed, and/or could heal again in the face of more pain. I think, at some point, survival becomes the goal vs. healing, as complete healing seems less and less likely.

A beautiful new author, Rebekah Lyons, introduced her book, Freefall to Fly to a Greenville College chapel audience a few months ago. She writes, “We freefall because we never figured out what makes us fly.” She encouraged us to,”Stay … stay in the freefall … stop running … stop avoiding the pain … embrace the struggle … because it was working something out in me that was buried deep.”

This spring I committed to fall fully, while trying to keep my hands from reaching out to grab at anything else to break my fall or thwart the process. I want to wrestle once and for all with the deep pain of loss experienced too many years ago. I’m asking a lot of questions and, although I’m not getting as many answers as I’d like, I think I have received a few.

Pain Has Layers

It’s not that I haven’t been a willing participant in the healing process before now. After identifying the presence of long-term depression in my life while in the midst of a divorce twenty years ago, I set out to heal … with a passion. I have read books until my eyes went dry, counseled my brains out with some amazing listeners and over-anaylyzed my life from too many angles to count.

But when any pain goes unprocessed, it often begets more pain, more mistakes, more regrets, more moments that require their own individual healing journey. The longer denial, the longer the healing. Pain pretty much refuses to be ignored.

Peeling back these layers can take some time. During this process, it’s easy to con yourself in to believing you’re done with the hard work after one layer is removed. Pain processed. Check that off my list. When in reality, one layer may have been processed, but not the most important layers, the deeper ones that continue to fester … all the while growing new layers of fear and insecurity on top of them.

Walking Wounded

In the previous post I shared how desperate I was for a beach this spring, after an extended Midwest winter. I got it. Due to disaster relief work following the Pensacola flooding, I spent many a Sunday afternoon in May and June on Perdido Key resting, listening and walking. And then I spent many evenings and weekends over the last three weeks at OB headquarters in Virginia Beach along the shores of Chesapeake Bay listening, walking and processing the continued freefall God had me in.

I recognize that ended seasons of brokenness, pain and fear breeds insecurity in life, in ourselves and in God’s power to heal. I feel like I live in a constant state of “fight or flight,” wanting to be brave, trusting and obedient to the journey God has me on, but ready to hightail it out of the there if the situation/relationship goes south.

I know I’m still processing the pain because I still fear it. In response to a friend’s prayer for peace, I responded, “Peace and I are too rarely on speaking terms. I’ve come to fear pain instead of expect good.” I’ve tried not to allow fear to change my course, personally or professionally, but I continue to battle it none the less.

Wounded Healers

Lyons writes of wounded healers, “Their treasure isn’t found merely when they use their talents but rather when their talents are deployed to redeem the brokenness in their midst.” Pastor Hocker described the healing process as a journey to the promised land, “during which God transforms His people for His eternal purposes.”

I know what drives me in to dark seasons of others’ lives … I have tasted just enough of hope’s healing impact on pain and brokenness to want to be hope for others. But maybe if I have more to learn, then I also have more to teach.

Operation Blessing U.S. Disaster Relief and Home Depot partner to serve the Washington, IL community in the wake of an EF4 tornado.

Operation Blessing U.S. Disaster Relief and Home Depot partner to serve the Washington, IL community in the wake of an EF4 tornado.

Disasters Leave a Mark

Scarred land, scarred relationships, scarred confidence … it’s not pretty. Having driven through multiple tornado ravaged communities, I recognize the distinct thumbprint left by a tornado … blown out windows, 2×4’s and other construction debris scattered across a neighborhood, flags standing proudly and the thin brown layer of dirt covering the remaining structures. This is followed by mounds and mountains of curbside debris, piles of wood, furniture and appliances. If only the emotional rubble was as easy to remove as the physical rubble.

Darkness, chaos, fear, hopelessness, disorientation, confusion … the aftermath of disaster has a distinct thumbprint. Life looks different. You find yourself referring to life “before disaster” (BD) and “after disaster” (AD), because in the moment of disaster, everything changes and you can’t go back. You can rebuild, renovate and/or move, but you can’t go back to the familiar. Disaster wreaks havoc on finances, families, future plans, relationships. If you’re lucky, these open wounds heal into scars over time, and, albeit seemingly ugly and unwanted, these scars remind you that you survived to live out something new and something next.

Operation Blessing volunteers bless a Washington, IL family walking through incredible loss in the wake of an EF4 tornado.

Operation Blessing volunteers bless a Washington, IL family walking through incredible loss in the wake of an EF4 tornado.

Bridge the Gap

Responding to a disaster, Operation Blessing asks one key question of emergency management, pastors and victims, “What is your greatest need and how can we help you meet that need?” OB’s president and COO Bill Horan states, “Operation Blessing is doing a great job to provide the bridge between those that need something and those that have something to give away.”

What is the need of the tornado victim, the victim of human trafficking, the newly widowed young father, the elderly flood victim … and in what ways has God gifted me to respond. With my time? Finances? Company services? My goods? How can I minister hope and help?

No two disasters – natural or otherwise – are the same. Different disasters require different responses. Even the same disaster requires a unique response. A tornado in one community might take out electricity and communications, leaving a community with little contact to the outside world, whereas a tornado in another community might leave hundreds or thousands of people homeless.

Our role in disaster relief is to stand in the gap of need … a single mom needs assistance with food and a local church steps in with monthly gift cards to the local grocery store, an elderly woman is snowed in and can’t get to the doctor and so the city’s “Snow Buddies” program sends in volunteers to do snow removal, a community left devastated by yet another hurricane finds requires outlets for food and water until long-term help arrives.

Sometimes it’s what OB calls a “Ministry of [His] Presence” that’s most needed. Jody Gettys, OB VP for Disaster Relief and Programs, recently shared with a team of new national reserve staff, “The greatest compliment you can pay someone during a time of disaster is to listen to their story.”

Sometimes disaster results in paralysis. Too much loss and too much hopelessness suspends rational thought and challenges the victims to move forward. In this case, relief may come in the form of helping to make next steps … coming alongside a single parent to create and manage a budget, assisting a grieving widow with funeral arrangements, helping a family recover personal belongings spread across their property when they can hardly stand to be on their property.

Focus on Hope

We won’t be able to fix everything – for ourselves for for others – but often we can help heal something with our Hope. We can seek God for help and we can be help. We can look to Jesus for hope and we can be hope. We can trust the Spirit for His healing power and we have the power to help people trust in God goodness and presence.