Wounds of the Soul

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Early morning comes to a green valley near Marshall, Arkansas.
Photo by Paul Barrows.

Hurricanes and earthquakes of the soul . . .

The lush vegetation of Puerto Rico has been replaced by broken trees, homes lying in ruins, a painfully barren landscape. β€œHurricane Maria destroyed us,” said Edwin Serrano, a construction worker in Old San Juan.

Dominica was devastated. Thousands of trees snapped and were strewn across the landscape, leaving the island completely stripped of vegetation. Dozens of mudslides turned the sparkling blue-green sea to a murky, muddy brown.

At least 286 people were killed in Mexico City by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake. A rescue operation at the city’s Enrique RΓ©bsamen school resulted in the rescue of eleven children, but nineteen children and six adults were killed. Extreme urgency permeated the school as more than 700 rescue workers continued digging after two days without sleep, knowing that survivors would be able to last only about four days.

In a very real sense, nature turned on the survivors, leaving them despairing from disasters that created devastation in many forms. Destroyed cities, of course, physical injuries and homes left in the rubble, yes. But also wounds of the soul that are lasting and life-changing.

People who live through natural disasters live with a kind of violence, violence that is perpetrated randomly by nature. When one depends upon nature’s rhythms to provide sunlight and moonlight, rain and breeze, the predictable tide of breaking waves and calm waters, the suddenness of violent storms and earthquakes assault the psyche. Nature is usually a constant, comforting presence, but a natural disaster leaves those in its wake coping with an environment that resembles a war zone. Living in that kind of environment day in and day out causes behaviors similar to those identified with persons who suffer from PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder).

The assault by nature creates a chronic and debilitating state of fight or flight. To cope, survivors develop the ability to numb their feelings and repress intrusive memories. This leaves many of them with enormous anxiety, feeling that the world is no longer a safe place. While many symptoms of PTSD are evident, often the most frightening symptoms are those not readily visible, secret symptoms and reactions such as disorientation, memory lapses and night terrors. These symptoms are buried in the deep crevices of the psyche.

Wounds to the soul and spirit are caused by events that violate one’s most deeply held sense of safety and security, and it is important to address PTSD not as a β€œdisorder,” but as a response, an appropriately normal response to an overwhelmingly abnormal situation.

So when we send positive thoughts, donate, and pray for the restoration of these ruined cities, we must also be intentional in praying for healing of the soul and spirit of every survivor. Long after buildings and homes have been repaired, survivors will live with a deep wound of the soul that can only heal with time, prayer, faith and hope, as wounded people learn to abide with the God who walks with us through every β€œvalley of the shadow of death.” The Scripture can be a comfort in such times, and often the most familiar passages are the ones we lean on.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

– Psalm 23

Until that day when tender green shoots once again begin to fill the landscape in those devastated countries, may the wounded people walk through the green pastures of the heart and the still waters of the spirit with the Gentle Shepherd who restores the soul and leads to peace.

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What do you do when you’re tired, very tired?

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Photo by Steven Nawojczyk

For years, Steven Nawojczyk has been one of my heroes. Yesterday I posted on my blog one of his many beautiful photographs taken while enjoying nature with his delightful dog, Feebi. The two of them explore nature every day, taking in the extraordinary beauty of Arkansas. Steve has learned to immerse himself in the life-giving sights and sounds of creation. It is therapy, really, a time of re-creation for a person who spent his life as a public servant, immersing himself far too deeply in human tragedy.

In the early 90s, Steve was the county coroner in Pulaski County, Arkansas. He saw too much, felt too much, cared too much and investigated the deaths of far too many young people. Steve was the “face” of the 1994 documentary that gave Little Rock a years-long reputation as a haven for gangs β€” HBO’s β€œGang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock,” While that star billing turned him into a sought-after public speaker and educator throughout the country, it didn’t make him popular in Little Rock city government.

When HBO came to town, largely because of Steve’s urging, Little Rock was a city with a problem. Gang-related killings had spiked the murder count to a record high of 76 — a higher per capita murder rate than Los Angeles and New York. With the coming of crack and gang skirmishing to determine who would sell it and where, there were areas of where drugs could be purchased openly in the streets. Graffiti threats covered every wall, every bridge. Gang life had even spilled over into the suburbs, with white teens suddenly willing to do violence for their colors.

Steve Nawojczyk did not sit in his office in those days. Instead, he walked city streets, listening to gang members, hearing their life stories, holding before them the possibility of change and hope. But that kind of life commitment made him tired, more than tired.

Today, national media are again interested in the soaring murder rate in Little Rock, surmising that gangs are once again taking their place in the city. And they are calling Steve for interviews and information. This is, in part, Steve’s response to them:

ATTENTION MEDIA BOTH NATIONAL AND LOCAL WHO HAVE BEEN CALLING:

I am not doing any interviews or returning phone calls about the LR night club shoot-out nor the current status of gangs. I’ve been saying the same things about it since the early 90s when I was the county coroner . . .

I will address one question all of the reporters, even the one from CNN, seem to be leaving on my voice mail- “…how does this compare to the gang wars of the early 90s when HBO came to town?”

Here’s my answer- ask the leaders in LIttle Rock this question since almost every single one of them were involved in one way or the other back then.

The current mayor was the prosecutor. The current city manager was in the city manager’s office. The current prosecutor was the chief deputy prosecutor. Many of the city board were around then as were many of the same preachers that are still preaching the same sermons. So, they should have been working to understand this and work to prevent it from recurring for the last 20 plus years. At least you would think . . . No need to reinvent the wheel, dudes.

So, I’m retired and tired, very tired. Thanks for thinking enough of my opinion to call me. But I’m done with it all, I’m tending to other more important personal battles right now. Paz y amor.

Signed:
Steve Nawojczyk

So what does one do when they are tired, very tired? Again, Steve is our example.

Go out into the serene beauty of nature. Take in all that is right and good about God’s creation. Let the sunrise awaken your soul and the ripples of an Arkansas lake sooth your spirit. Let the weariness of the past fade into yesterday; let the present day give you strength; and lift your vision to the bright hope of tomorrow.

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Feebi

Steve and Feebi are restoring their souls in their daily adventures. They are opening themselves up to stunning sunrises and the gentle breezes of soul healing. So if you are tired, very tired, spend some time letting nature give you a fresh, new vision of the world.

And as Steve so often says, β€œPaz y amor.”

Pete and Peter

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Impulsive, spunky, fiery, colorful Pete. RIP.

My youngest brother, Pete, was taken from us too early. Cancer ravaged his body, but could never damage his indomitable, spunky spirit. Pete was spirited, colorful and full of life, fiery in one moment, gentle in the next. He was funny. He was fiercely loyal. And he loved lavishly.

I could easily compare Pete to his namesake, the disciple Peter. You know the one, the disciple who kept putting his foot in his mouth, who tried to walk on a lake and began to sink because of a faith too small. He was the disciple who betrayed Jesus three times and in the end, in the very last verse of the 22nd Chapter of the Gospel of Luke, verse 62 ends the pain-filled story with these words: β€œAnd he went out and wept bitterly.”

You see, in spite of his mistakes, his denials, his impulsive behavior, Disciple Peter loved Jesus deeply. And my baby brother was a bit like this flawed disciple. Pete was often impulsive, volatile, frequently unreasonable, quick-tempered. Yet, he was full of love that opens its arms to protect with extravagant caring.

So for the 29th of June, St. Peter’s Day, I remember the impulsive disciple who, for all his mistakes, learned how to hold on to his better self, to recover from wrong turns in his life, and to make peace with his wavering self. Jesus called this seemingly undisciplined man β€œthe rock.” I suspect Jesus chose that name because he saw that Peter knew how to live again, standing strong against his own demons and ultimately learning that any betrayal, every betrayal, can miraculously be restored by love.

My brother Pete’s life, also filled of rough roads and wrong turns, taught him the same lesson: that love restored him to himself, to his estranged family, to the sister that had been lost to him for years. Love did that. And love is what keeps Pete close, even in death.

Poet Malcolm Guite has written a beautiful piece entitled β€œA Sonnet for Petertide.”

Impulsive master of misunderstanding
You comfort me with all your big mistakes;

Jumping the ship before you make the landing,

Placing the bet before you know the stakes.

I love the way you step out without knowing,

The way you sometimes speak before you think,

The way your broken faith is always growing,

The way he holds you even when you sink.

Born to a world that always tried to shame you,

Your shaky ego vulnerable to shame,

I love the way that Jesus chose to name you,
Before you knew how to deserve that name.

And in the end your Saviour let you prove
That each denial is undone by love.

Thank you for your life, Disciple Peter. You give us hope that we can overcome our imperfect actions, make it through dusty roads covered with the boulders of our mistakes, and find love at the end.

And as for my baby brother, Pete, I will always remember your ornery ways, your explosive temper, your intense loyalty and your lavish love.

Happy Name Day, sweet little brother. I miss you.