Five years ago a fierce F4 tornado brought devastation to my hometown in Central Illinois. In less than 30 seconds, 200 mile-an-hour winds ripped through the area and wiped out 20% of the town, demolished over 1400 homes and traumatized a loving community. Many friends and loved ones lost everything as personal belongings were scattered and destroyed on this cloudy Sunday morning.
Neighborhoods I used to ride my bike in were decimated and unrecognizable. Trees were uprooted, branches broken like twigs and cars were strewn down streets and launched into living rooms. At the time I was leading a training event in Medicine Hat, Calgary when I received text updates from my wife who was sitting in church with our sons when tornado alarms sounded and the congregation rushed to the basement for shelter.
Miraculously, there were few casualties because most people were at church and the tornado zig-zagged through neighborhoods avoiding churches packed full of worshippers. I returned from my trip to find my hometown looking more like a war zone than the community I remembered.
At the time I wrote an update describing the effects of the storm on families and friends:
“Sounds and images continue to sear minds and steer conversations. PTSD is far-reaching as people say things like, “I can’t sleep.” “My mind won’t stop.” “My daughter now cries for no reason.” “My son started throwing temper tantrums.” Some feel depressed and can’t get going while others are anxious and can’t seem to stop.”
In spite of the trauma, this resilient community came together and pooled together their resources to meet the needs of neighbors and friends. In my book Transforming Fellowship, I refer to this pooling together of resources as the Greek word normally translated as fellowship, which is koinonia. It was this remarkable community response of comforting each other, praying for each other, and providing the many needs that brought beauty out of ashes and joy out of despair. As one friend said it, “During a crisis of this magnitude we really learn what we are made of.” My friend observed that the people with skills and maturity became pillars of joy and support to those who were largely isolated, ill-equipped and suffering.
I was thankful for the outreach opportunities to serve and use the THRIVE 19 relational brain skills to equip community members and leaders to better guide families as they recover from the devastation. One particular meeting with a friend stands out from the rest.
One of my friends was first on the scene as the tornado swept through his neighborhood. While his house was not destroyed, he was able to pull neighbors and children out of basement windows after their homes were flattened. My friend was new to relational skill practice, particularly the one skill I knew would be the game-changer for him, Skill 13 – Seeing what God sees, so I guided him with some coaching and practice in order for him to find his footing again.
I started by asking my friend to think of things he appreciates and feels thankful for. (This is Skill 4 – Create Appreciation.) After a few moments of reflection, he began to share some of the interactions and moments he considered to be miraculous from the recent tornado. I then said, “This may sound strange to you, but I want us to see what God may want you to know about this ordeal. Are you comfortable with this?” Unsure, but motivated to find some peace, he cautiously agreed. We took the next 45 minutes practicing appreciation (Skill 4) to activate his brain’s relational circuits, quieting (Skill 2) to calm his body and noticing what Immanuel was saying and doing (Skill 13). For the first time, he felt like he had a “God thought” which brought immense peace and comfort.
He said, “This is odd, but I have a new perspective, then he described how he perceived God’s hand carefully guided the tornado through the town for the least possible casualties. “God was protecting us!” he said as a smile broke out on his face. He recounted the sharp twists and turns in the tornado’s path to avoid the churches and gatherings filled with people, especially in a number of buildings without basements. Previous anxiety and tension melted away as he encountered the Living God in his angst. “God was with my family and friends,” he said, and now he could breathe again. His mind had been updated with Immanuel’s peaceful thoughts.
Practicing the skills on the good days helps the skills stay available on the hard days when things go wrong. Without consistent practice, we remain isolated in our own pain and distress, not knowing what to do or how to do it. Having the skills equips the “helpers” to be more available and know what to do when relationships don’t work and life becomes hard. I hope to see you at a THRIVE Training one day and you can start your skill practice today with the book, Transforming Fellowship.