Headlines from First Thoughts

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Light of Hope

Tomorrow came tonight at Second Presbyterian Church. I gathered with at least 1,000 others Knoxvillians at the Candlelight Vigil for the TVUUC. People from across the faith community attended, primarily from the Unitarian and Jewish congregations. But nearly half of the crowd were from congregations beyond these. We've all been touched, and we lit candles of hope.

Throughout the evening, you could hear the cries of children break the silence of the service. Their sobs were soothing reminders that life continues to break into grief. The surprise of tomorrow literally came at the end. The students whose Sunday performance of "Annie" was so tragically interrupted were stationed on the platform during tonight's vigil. On cue, they sang a rousing version of the popular song "Tomorrow" from the musical to close the service. We raised our candles together knowing that tomorrow has already come. Light has dawned. Hope is here because we were together as a community.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Helping Children Cope and Understand

The tragedy at TVUUC involved children, and certainly children will be talking about the issues. A Methodist friend of mine shared these insights with me, and I have adapted them to this situation as we deal with this tragedy.

Needs of Children

Be Accepting
Children need your acceptance of their feelings and behaviors during this time of fear, grief, anxiety, loss, anger, and confusion. Let your children know how you feel and how you cope.

Be a Listener
Be a good listener and non-judgmental in your attitudes toward children's feelings and concerns. Children will have difficulty expressing what is wrong, but you can help them name their feelings and sort out why they feel the way they do.

Be Assuring
Children need assurance of safety and security expressed honestly, realistically, and in terms they can understand. They need reassurance that they are not in danger and are cared for by family members or others who love them. The likelihood of a similar event happening at their church is very small. Avoid being overly protective. Talk with your child about concrete things you can do to help make things better for those persons who were involved. You might be surprised at what your child comes up with.

You can send notes and cards to TVUUC to be sent to children and their families.

Be Comforting
Allow your children to be more “clingy” than usual. They are seeking security in a time of chaos.

Be Encouraging
Children need opportunities for venting their feelings, acting out the experience, and telling their stories. Encourage them in means of self-expression that are non-destructive to themselves or to others.

Be Loving and Caring
Love, love, and more love. Children need to know that you care. That you are available. That your love is deeper and longer than anything they can imagine.

Be Trustworthy
Children need to know they can trust you—your feelings, what you will do, and what they can expect of the future. Trust is always important to a child, but especially so now.

Be Honest
Be honest in answering children's questions. Give simple facts, without too much information, in a loving, caring atmosphere. Children cope best with what they know. Yes, this happened. Yes, it was a bad thing. Yes, it could happen at any church. But the odds are that it won’t. Sometimes all we can say is "I don't know" or "Let's try to find out." Don’t be afraid to use words such as “death,” “dying,” or “evil.” Your children understand these words on their own level.

Be Hopeful
Children need to know that events like this will not happen all the time. If these things do happen, God is still there with them to help them and strengthen them. People all around them are working to keep them safe at their churches, schools, and in their communities.

Be Real
Children may have difficulty distinguishing between fact and fantasy in watching television. Help them know what is real and what is a story. Journalism in today’s world sometimes goes for the worst stories or only covers a part of the story because of a deadline or a short time frame. Remember, ninety percent of what a child learns comes through the eyes. Avoid watching the news accounts of this tragedy over and over and over again on television. After watching the news, talk about what you have seen.

Be Normal
When children's lives have been turned upside down, put some semblance of stability back into their lives. Keep routines such as bedtime, mealtime, church attendance, and activities, as close to normal as possible. This will help children have a sense of being in control.

Remain active in church. The best way to reinforce safety and security is to come and demonstrate safety.

Be Supportive
Children need your support when disturbing videos are shown on television or when other children make disparaging remarks that hurt. Children may want to focus on a positive activity that will make them feel that they are in control. Talk with children about ways to help other children feel included. Support them in this role wherever possible. Whenever a child feels threatened at church, school or in other public areas, take it seriously.

Be Understanding
Children need the calm presence of and contact with family members or adult care givers who understand their feelings and needs. Your role will be to interpret, clarify, and respond to the children's questions. Avoid withholding important information. Children can tell when something is not right.

Ways Children Respond After Violence

Children may respond:
—to the sights of the event as seen through television, newspapers, and magazines
—to the sense of not being “safe” in formerly familiar environments
––to loud noises and unsettling crowds

—by becoming hyperactive, overly busy, active, or restless as they try to make sense of the event
—by becoming egocentric, feeling they are the only ones affected and thinking only of self (Will someone shoot me?)
—by being fearful of injury or death to a loved one (such as a sibling who may be in another church)
––by reacting negatively when separated from the family, or by being afraid they will be left alone
—by becoming friendly and glad to be alive
––by becoming very talkative and wanting to share his or her experiences with everyone
—by overly responding to their emotions of anger by hitting, kicking, or throwing objects
––by being upset more easily or showing worry unnecessarily
—by needing to tell their own story over and over
—by becoming dependent and fearful
—by feeling guilt and seeking theological explanations (God did not “allow” this to happen.)
—by role reversal or transference. (If a family member were killed, they may try to fill the missing person's role in the family.)
—by having a higher than normal anxiety and stress level
—by being afraid to go to bed at night or to go to sleep for fear of something happening
—by coping through denial that certain feelings are present, or by suppressing that this is actually happening

—by becoming shy and withdrawn from both adults and peers
—by being overly fearful of strangers, especially if they are in uniform
—by clinging to parents for fear that one or both of them will leave (They may refuse to go to school or church, feeling it is unsafe.)
—by becoming upset more easily (shown by crying, fighting, or exhibiting other forms of disruptive behavior)

—by asking questions about God. (Why didn’t God stop the shooter? Why didn’t God protect the young men and women on that college campus? If these people were doing nothing wrong, why did God allow this terrible thing to happen?)
—by lacking trust in God (Will God take good care of me? If someone shoots my daddy or mommy, who will care for me?)
—by questioning God's presence with us (If God is here, why do I feel so bad? Why didn't God keep the killings from happening?)

Ways to Help Children Express Their Feelings

Send Cards
Channel their fears into helping them support others who are grieving.

Water Play
Playing in a tub of warm water stimulates inhibited children and soothes explosive children. A warm bath may help relieve stress.

Play dough
Play dough can be worked or reworked to express feelings of anger, frustration, and anxiety.

Painting can help children express moods of joy, sorrow, fear, or anger. Children paint what they feel or what matters in their lives. Finger painting is a good medium for such expression.

Puzzles can be a way for children to create order out of chaos. Children whose lives have become disoriented, confused, or disrupted will often feel better after putting a puzzle together.

Toys can help children relive a bad experience or play out their feelings. Often the victim becomes the rescuer, the one in control.

The use of puppets enables children to become talkative and to reenact an unhappy experience. Puppets are good listeners.

Children often lack the vocabulary to express their feelings. A book can help define a child's understanding of death, violence, and anxiety.

Cuddly Toys
Sitting quietly with a cuddly toy can soothe an angry or fearful child.

Music allows an emotional release and the free expression of feelings through songs, creative movement, and games.

Active play allows for release of emotional energy in a socially approved way. Quiet games may be comforting to a child who chooses to be alone.

Storytelling, drama, and role plays are ways to help children tell their stories, to act out feelings, and to resolve conflicts.

What Parents Can Do

• Help your children distinguish between the reality of television coverage of the event and the fantasy of movies, especially for young children. These people died. They won’t get up after the cameras stop rolling and walk away.

• Limit the time you permit your children to watch the news. Watch the news with them and encourage them to talk about what you saw. Correct any misunderstandings and answer any questions.

• Keep routines and expectations of behavior as close to normal as possible to give children stability in their daily lives.

• Be honest in answering children's questions. Keep answers simple, without giving more information than the child needs at the time.

• Be honest with your own feelings. Discuss these with your children or help them know that you have some of the same feelings that they have.

• Assure them of your love. Reassure them that you will keep them safe and will be there to care for them.

• Help children realize that they are not responsible for what has happened and could not have prevented it.

• Provide comfort in ways that feel reassuring to you and to your children.

• Watch for signs of maladjustment to the event. Spend extra time putting children to bed. Leave the night light on, if needed. Give opportunity for them to ask questions, express concerns, or share their feelings before going to sleep.

• Listen to what the children say, how they say it, and what they play. Is there evidence of fear, anxiety, or insecurity? Talk about and clarify any feelings shown in the conversation or play.

• Have quiet family times together. Spend time sharing concerns, expressing feelings, feeling God's reassuring presence, and praying to God to express your needs and concerns.

• Assure children that God listens to our prayers and answers them. That God continues to love us. That God is a forgiving God. That God knows our needs. That God cares how they feel, think, or act. That God can take away their fears and anxiety. That God is always with us and will guide us and strengthen us to meet whatever lies ahead.

• Plan for the family to attend church and Sunday school regularly to feel the support and strength of this community of believers.

• If a child's adjustment does not return to normal after a sufficient time, consider talking with someone (minister, school counselor, or professional counselor) who understands children and their needs.

*Reach out to loneley people. Jim Adkisson was a lonely man with no family in town and lived by himself. Look in your neighborhood, school, and church for people who are isolated. Befriend them and let them know you care.

Downtown Community to Gather for Prayer

The downtown community will gather for prayer Tuesday, July 29 in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church. Doors open at 11:30. Prayer service at 12:00 noon led by ministers from downtown congregations. All are welcome to come, participate, and gather to pray for the congregation of Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, victims, their families, and all who are affected by this tragedy in our community.

A candlelight vigil will be held tonight at 2nd Presbyterian Church at 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Knoxville Tragedy at Tennessee Unitarian Universalist Church

The last place anyone expected a lone gunman to destroy the lives of innocent people was Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Rev. Chris Buice has been a voice of peace, unity, and harmony throughout his ministry in East Tennessee. He has led reconciliation movements, and First Baptst has followed his lead through the End Violence initiatives in Knox County.

The forces of evil are random enough to pick the good people and congregations who care about peace to try to silence the voices of people like Chris Buice and the good people of TVUUC. But today is not a day to be quiet. Instead, it’s a day to be reminded that the forces of evil do not determine our perspective on the present. The cross determines our present, and through the power of the cross, we can see that God has already intervened in this tragedy; and the forces of evil lost again.

As Christians we believe that God intervened in the worst of the world’s darkness. Even worse than the actions of Jim Adkisson was the heinous world of the first century when God came through Jesus. In Romans 8:26-29, Paul reminds us that God began a long process of stopping evil in its tracks through his suffering on the cross. God entered a world through Jesus’ death to engage in a love that conquers all forces of darkness. Through the cross, Jesus suffered with the pain of this world that continues to this day.

This is not a love limited to the first century; God’s love suffers with us today. God’s love through the cross shows us that God suffered with the victims of this terrible tragedy. Through the pain on the cross, God demonstrated that he suffered with Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger when they died.

God not only suffers with the world; but through the cross, God has been working continually to redeem the world. When God could have given up on this world, he sent Jesus to work beside us to have help, hope, and healing in the midst of the darkness. Jesus’ presence was felt today. When evil interrupted a children’s musical, three people jumped on Jim Adkisson and prevented the violence from becoming worse.

Imagine what the world would be like without a place like a church to pray. Imagine a world without a house of prayer for all the nations. Our greatest testimony will be when we return to church on Wednesday night and Sunday morning and unite as a common people of faith to say we have heard the words of Jesus in the midst of the storm: “Peace, be still,” and we will not be afraid.

For God is still working. God does not necessarily just work everything out. But God does work with all things, even the worst things imaginable. The forces of evil cannot stop the voices of Chris Buice and this fine church. Our voices grow even stronger as we engage as salt, light, and peace in a difficult storm. Our voices grow as we offer prayers for the McKendry and Adkisson families. Our unity increases as we pray for children who witnessed this tragedy, as we comfort and pray for hearling for the other victims, as we offer counseling to loved ones, and as we look this church in the eye and say, “We are working with you and God for the good of those who love God to those who are the called according to his purpose.” God’s work is not random. God’s work has a purpose of love that still triumphs over the worst of the forces of evil.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Shaw Family: Survivors

Chris Shaw

Kim Shaw shows the storm shelter to Marion Graybeal

Kim Shaw still finds shards of glass in her carpet from the devastating Williamson County tornado 6 months ago. Long after FEMA, disaster relief teams, and immediate responders have moved onto other needs, the Williamson County long term recovery committee still works. They provide hope to families like the Shaw’s and many others in this forgotten region of rural Tennessee.

In February, this storm ripped a swath of destruction from Jackson to Macon Counties, a stretch of over 200 miles. The path of the storm left homes and property like the Shaw’s unlivable. A few mailboxes away, horse farms remain untouched. Ironically this is one of the wealthiest sections of Tennessee. Some say this is the most lucrative county in the state. But families like the Shaws do not share in that wealth. They are still picking up and finding pieces of their lives scattered down Hwy. 46.

The problem with recovery is that there is no easy path from shelter to survival. As I talked to Kim Shaw Tuesday, it’s much like putting together pieces of a puzzle that are lying around with no picture, however, to guide you as you fit each part together. Jobs, education, teenagers, and nearly 5 acres of land would be the usual responsibilities for a family living in a small modular home in the country. Two kids are out of high school. One has two years left. All members of the family work. Chris is a plumber. Kim is a caretaker for elderly people. Even if they wanted to send kids to college, as Kim says, “We can’t afford that.”

Now add a storm from 6 months ago. They rode out the storm in a 4x8x8 storm shelter just large enough for the five of them. The storm lasted only 10 minutes, but the winds were so fierce that it blew the barn into the side of their house, and boxed them into the storm shelter. They had to beat the door open just to get outside to see the damage.

Some 6 months later the only ones left to help the estimated 10-12 families like the Shaws that are still recovering in Hickman and Williamson Counties are local people and volunteer teams.

The Shaw’s live in their old home that has plywood in holes where windows once stood. They purchased a slightly used modular home with what little money they received from FEMA and income they had when the storm hit. They are putting on the finishing touches with the help of volunteers like ours so they can move in. This is not “making ends meet.” This is tying a knot in the end of the rope and hanging on until help arrives.

Yet they are not without hope. Their spirits are good. Kim says, “If we can just get everything back together,” we can move on with our lives. Still some 6 months later, they wait among the shards of glass to turn a used house into a home.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Mentoring Works

Mentor Gene Hale and his "Little Brother" Tyler.

Every hour in Tennessee, a child is abused or neglected. Every 35 minutes, a child is born into poverty. Tennessee ranks 36th in the nation for children living at or below the poverty level with 45% enrolled in the Free and Reduced-Price Lunch Programs. In Knox County alone, 365 students are homeless, living in shelters, in cars, or on the streets. Among Tennessee fourth graders, 74% read below grade level, and 76% score below grade level in math. Only 60% of high school students in Tennessee graduate.

In one month, the faces behind these statistics will converge in our schools.
Pundits and preachers blame these alarming numbers on everything from poverty and race to families, sin, and God.

Beyond the sound bytes and applause lines, however, one solution changes children’s lives. By offering the gift of time, volunteer mentors make a difference one child at a time. Through mentoring, caring adults establish long-term one-on-one relationships with children who do not have nurturing family support. Mentors cross the barriers of race, economics, and literacy. Through the common kinship of the heart, they provide help when a child or teenager needs love the most. And the results are impressive: Studies indicate that children in a mentoring relationship are 46% less likely to use drugs (minorities 70% less likely), 27% less likely to use alcohol, and 33% less likely to hit someone. School attendance of mentored children increases 50%, resulting in improved grades.

This fall, I am calling on East Tennesseans of faith to mentor at-risk students. Many congregations already serve as volunteer mentors in their neighborhood schools throughout the school year. I am convinced that more East Tennessee churches can mobilize volunteers to mentor in elementary, middle, and high schools. As people of faith, we have been trained in the great commission. Now it’s time to live out the great commandment. By setting aside the desire to proselyte and by respecting the boundaries of church and state, we can meet the needs of deserving children. We can demonstrate love in action.

My church has done just that through KidsHope USA, Buckner International, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Knoxville at First Baptist’s neighborhood school, South Knoxville Elementary. We do not visit campus to sell our brand of faith. Instead, we go with open hearts, listening and providing hope to children. Our philosophy is to follow the school’s rules and to read, tutor, assist, play….to do whatever dedicated educators and social workers ask of us. I am proud to have worked with South Knoxville Elementary’s faculty and administrators. Principal Roy Smith who retired this year acknowledges the difference between the grades of at-risk students who were mentored and those who did not have that privilege.

Imagine the possibilities if every local elementary, middle, and high school principal had mentors available to devote time to children. What could happen if every at-risk child in Knoxville had a friend who cared not just about his grades but about his life? Not only would more children avoid being left behind, but the lives of the mentors would be enhanced. In working with my “little brother” at South Knox, I have received the greatest benefit from the relationship. My life has been enriched because I served a child whose father is in prison and saw this little boy’s face light up each day I met with him.

Perhaps at the end of your life you would like to say, “I made a difference with one person beyond my immediate family.” Three weeks from now, you can begin working toward that goal. On October 7, I’ll be hosting a group at First Baptist downtown to challenge more people of faith to become faithful mentors, and everyone is welcome to come and learn how your congregation can serve. Together we can change statistics into solutions.

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