Speak No Evil: Criminals Are Not Monsters

You’ve heard these words recently. You may have even said them yourself: He’s a monster. He’s a demon.

He’s evil.

With some widely publicized, particularly heinous crimes in the news the past few weeks- the hundreds of sexual abuse victims in USA Gymnastics and the school shooting in Florida, specifically- I’ve heard countless people use terms like the ones above to describe the perpetrators of those crimes. I find that troubling.

In his latest book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, Father Gregory Boyle make a wonderful point about crime and evil. When pressed to call the crimes that his gang kids commit “evil” he replies, “If I said ‘evil,’ I’d have to deny everything I know to be true about how complex human beings are. I’d have to embrace the least sophisticated take on crime and its roots to say that. So I can’t.”

I understand the impulse to want to call certain crimes and certain criminals evil, especially when they involve children or sexual violence or both. For a very long time, I called my father evil. After all, what kind of man sexually tortures his own baby daughter? He had to be evil right?

No. My father wasn’t a monster, or a devil, or anything else supernatural. He was simply a human being. He was raised in a violent, abusive household, he was mentally ill, and he had no empathy for other people. He made the terrible choice to hurt his family, which makes him a criminal- but that’s all.

When we talk about people like Larry Nassar, the sports medicine doctor who sexually abused hundreds of women and girls under his care, or Nikolas Cruz, the Florida school shooter, and we use terms like demon or savage, all we’re doing is mythologizing them. We’re making them bigger than they actually are, raising them to supernatural heights, and giving them more power than they actually possess.

Don’t do that.

Don’t give these people so much credit; they don’t deserve it. They are no more than damaged, sick human beings who did terrible things to other humans. Let’s leave it at that, and make sure they are held accountable for their actions while recognizing the reality that these two people are far less terrifying than they seem- because except for their choices, they are exactly like us.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Matthew 5:43-44

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Remember Who You Are: A Post For the New Year

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Tonight is the last night of 2017. Even though it’s an arbitrary date in a calendar that humans made up, we still use this time to set new intentions, make new plans, and create new goals. At the beginning of another year, there always seems to be pressure to make yourself better, to do better than you did in the past.  However, in focusing so much on the future and how things could be better, I think we miss out on a lot.

I think we miss the chance to appreciate where we’ve been. The past contains important lessons, and a view of our journey. We need to take a moment to stop, and just honor our path to the place we are now.

To much focus on how things can get better leads us to forgetting how blessed we are in the present. This is a big one for me. For most of my life, whenever I set a goal, I didn’t do it to improve– I did it to become worthy. Losing weight (even when I didn’t need to) was to become worthy. Working was to become worthy. Going to school was to become worthy.

The problem with trying to achieve goals to make up for feeling like a defective human as opposed to wanting to achieve a goal for its own sake is that the former will always, always, set you up to fail. Because there is no accomplishment on this earth that can make you feel like enough until you accept that you are God’s creation, holy and beloved, and that nothing can take that intrinsic worth away from you. There is no amount of pounds lost or miles run or money made, no grades high enough or enough good deeds done to equal what you already have right there in your heart, if you’d only recognize it: the beauty of the light of Christ that shines through the darkest depths.

I started college when I was 17. I’m 34, and I only now graduated. Why? Because I only now accepted that I am a whole, healed human being who deserves to be happy, who deserves to graduate and accomplish my dreams. I never graduated before, not because I wasn’t smart enough or because I couldn’t handle the work but because I was afraid of being happy. I honestly didn’t believe I deserved that. So I tanked the play, for nearly twenty years.

Before you set a new goal, make a new plan, or dream a new dream this year, do yourself a favor: stop. Take a few minutes. Look back on 2017 and appreciate how far you’ve come, how hard you had to work to get here. Honor your journey and all the lessons contained therein. Think about your goal and why you chose it. Are you trying to better something in your life for the sake of making it better? Or are you trying to make up for a lack of self-worth? Check in with God, and pray on your goal. You’re going to need His help to accomplish it anyway. Ask Him to be with you as you walk this this new path. Ask Him to heal any places in you that still feel unworthy; to remind you of His promises, His love.

Setting goals and making plans are good things. Keep your heart centered in the right place, and may God lead you to where you’re meant to be in this coming year.

 

 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: 

The old has gone, the new is here!

2 Corinthians 5:17

 

Life, Death, and Pizza

Poem by Nayyirah Waheed


Tonight I ate pizza for dinner.

It isn’t often, but whenever I do, I remember this girl that I was in eating disorder treatment with. She was there for anorexia and bulimia, and she discharged halfway through my stay. She seemed to be in a really good place.

I found out later through mutual friends that two weeks after she discharged, she attempted suicide.

She slit her wrists after eating three pieces of pizza.

Notice I didn’t say “because” she ate the pizza. She didn’t try to kill herself over that. If you’ll forgive the metaphor, the pizza was just the trigger on an already loaded gun- a girl with a deadly psychiatric disease in a crisis state.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. At 20%,  that means 1 in 5 of us die. Many of those deaths are suicides. Anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, orthorexia, and eating disorders “not otherwise specified” (aka OSFED) are all deadly, cunning, terrifyingly insidious diseases that need comprehensive treatment to combat. A custom combination of physical medicine, psychiatric medicine, nutritional care, psychological counseling, life skills, and spiritual care (among other treatment options) is essential for helping people get into solid, lasting recovery. With proper treatment, that mortality rate drops to 4%.

As I ate pizza for dinner tonight, I reflected on a time when dying because I ate too much of the “wrong” food seemed reasonable. I remembered a time when that girl’s decision made some sense to me.

And I thanked God for the fact that it no longer does. 

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 

Matthew 6:25

A Litany of Gratitude

We’re pretty fond of litanies in the Episcopal Church. A litany, according to the Episcopal Church website, is “an intercessory prayer including various petitions that are said or sung by the leader and fixed responses by the congregation.” There are six that I can think of immediately in the Book of Common prayer, and probably many more that I’m unaware of.

There is a Litany of General Thanksgiving, and I love praying that. However, I have so many things to be grateful for in my life, so I decided to write a litany specifically for all the things I’m grateful for this year, all the things I am thanking God for as we approach Thanksgiving and soon begin Advent.

A Litany of Gratitude

For a family that sticks together through the hardest times, when it would be easy to give up on life or each other or ourselves

God, I give you thanks.

For a family that goes beyond blood, for all my family of affiliation, my friends who are family, and every brother and sister in Christ

God, I give you thanks.

For a mom that loves me as unconditionally as is humanly possible, who supports my dreams and goals with everything that she has and is proud of me no matter what

God, I give you thanks.

For my Godson, my nieces and nephew, my friends’ kids, and the children of St. Mary’s; for the privilege of getting to love you and be a part of your lives

God, I give you thanks.

For friends who inspire me, make me a better person, challenge and change me

God, I give you thanks.

For friends who have been there through it all, and whose love is strong enough to literally cross oceans

God, I give you thanks.

For friends who understand that sometimes you just need to get out of town, get tipsy, or hang out at their house, or not talk at all; for friends who will distract you and laugh or sit with you in the mess of life and cry

God, I give you thanks.

For my education and all the opportunities it will afford me

God, I give you thanks.

For angels of generosity who appear through your Grace and are manifestations of Your abundance here on earth

God, I give you thanks.

For my cats, especially Sophie, who love the way God loves, with no conditions and with lavish abundance

God, I give you thanks.

For my Church, who encourages asking questions and discovering your own journey of faith, and whose structure comforts and guides me

God, I give you thanks.

For my church, whose people are my family, whose clergy are my teachers, whose grounds are my sanctuary and spiritual home

God, I give you thanks.

For my health and sanity, because I never thought I would have either

God, I give you thanks.

For my relationship with you, and my salvation in your Son, my Savior Jesus Christ

God, I give you thanks.

 

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

 

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Colossians 3: 16-17

 

 

 

Misconception: Grieving The Life I Should’ve Had

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This week, I’ve spent a lot of time with my two-and-a-half year old Godson, and it’s been wonderful. He’s learned to call me by name: he calls me “Godmommy Sarah.” He’ll run into my arms, run up and hug my legs, give me kisses, and all sorts of other adorable, heart-melting things.

And I love him. I love him so much that it leaves me breathless. I would give him anything, do anything for him- I would literally die for him. I love him like he was my own.

But he’s not my own.

He is my best friend’s baby. And because I love my best friend, and I see how her life has changed and the incredible joy her son brings brings her and her husband, I can’t be anything but happy for them that Nolan belongs to them. He is the center of their lives, and that’s how it should be.

As much as I love spending time with my best friend and her son, or any of my friends who have children (that would be nearly every single one of them) it reminds me of what I don’t have. They are nearly all married too, reminding me that I do not have a spouse either.

None of this is their fault. I do not blame them, I am not angry at them, nor do I wish any of them ill.

It’s not that I’m not happy for them. It’s that I’m sad for myself.

The ironic thing is that, when I really think about it, I don’t even feel ready to married or adopt children. I’m not at that place in my life. I need to focus on my education, career, and continuing to get myself healthy. And yet, when I see my friends with what I don’t have, I feel this deep and abiding sense of grief, and a feeling of something missing.

Perhaps it’s not what’s missing in this life I’ve got right now, but the life I was supposed to have. The life I would’ve had if I hadn’t grown up in violence and chaos, the life I’d have had if things had been normal. If I’d gone up through high school and college, dated and found a husband, and maybe, if I hadn’t been abused the way I was and wound up so unhealthy, I might’ve been able to get pregnant. And I’d be in the same place as all my other friends in their early thirties, and I’d feel like a person who did things on a normal trajectory, instead of someone who’s always playing catch-up, always missing something that would make me enough.

I never said this was rational.

I grieve that life that was stolen from me. I grieve the fact that I’m not where my friends are. I grieve my inability to have children.

Because all the Sunday school teaching, Children’s Chapel leading, babysitting, teen mentoring, and Godmommy time in the world does not make me a mother.

To my friends: Please know that sometimes I may be inexplicably sad around you. Just let it happen. You can’t fix it; just be there with me and it’ll pass. It’s ok to talk about your kids, talk about your marriages. If you’re trying to get pregnant or you are pregnant, it’s ok to talk to me about it. If you need to complain about it, to be honest, I’m probably not the best person for that. But please continue to include me in things. Invite me to your kids’ parties and your girls’ nights. I love you, and I am happy that you are happy. I want nothing but the best for you. I will never let my grief get in the way of our friendship.

Thank you for understanding, and loving me through this. Thank you for letting me be part of your families and your lives. You make my world so wonderfully rich and beautiful. And this grief will eventually subside. In the meantime, I have plenty to do; nursing school to tackle, a business to run, Sunday school to teach.

And a Godson to love.

 

Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

Luke 1:45

 

More Than Numbers

Body Composition Activity 2.2

The above document is an assignment from the “physical fitness and wellness” course that I’m being required to take in order to graduate. In it, I’m being asked to calculate my BMI, body fat %, “fat weight” (could there be a more triggering phrase?), lean body mass %, waist circumference, and more ridiculous numbers that are not even a reliable indicator of health.

Basically, I am being asked to calculate all the numbers that I used to obsess about when I was anorexic.

So I used to have this scale. I took it from my parents’ bathroom when I was around 11. I had this scale for over twenty years. I saw every number on this scale from somewhere in the 150s to somewhere in the 50s. I watched my body magically grow and shrink like Alice after eating a truffle and drinking a potion. I watched my body as it marched towards death and grew into life and back and forth until my final ascent into recovery. I watched those numbers like some mad mathematician, calculating my worth, if I deserved love, or even life. Those ridiculous numbers determined everything about me. They were me.

Until I realized they weren’t.

The last time I saw that scale was ten years ago, when I threw it off the balcony of my apartment onto the concrete of the parking lot below, and I watched it smash into a hundred pieces.

Am I happy with my weight right now? Not particularly. But the danger that lies in attempting to manipulate it from where it has naturally settled it too high for me to risk doing anything about it. Maybe that will change in the future. I don’t know. What I do know is that those numbers no longer make up who I am. I don’t even think about them. My body is more than numbers. My life is so much greater than that. I have a big, beautiful, wonderful life, and it has nothing to do with how much I weigh, or my body fat percentage, or how many calories I eat in a day. It has nothing to do with that because no matter what those numbers are I am deeply loved by God, my family, my friends, and my church. Being thin felt nice, but it was lonely as hell and painful and small, and so destructive and unhealthy.

Love is so much better than being thin, y’all. So. Much. Better.

My body isn’t perfect, but what the hell is. I’d rather be happy than a size zero. And as for this assignment, I’m fighting for an alternate assignment, as I’ve fought for other alternate assignments. My health and recovery are more important than any class.

 

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.

1 Corinthians 10:31

“Arise”: A Poem For Everyone With a #metoo Story

This recent social media campaign of so many survivors coming forward to tell their stories and acknowledge that they have been affected by sexual violence has had me thinking a lot about empowerment.

I believe so strongly in the empowerment that comes from sharing the truth, from using one’s voice to overcome the silence that surrounds issues like sexual violence. I believe in the healing power of unburdening ourselves of these truths. I believe in the power that comes from so many people raising their hands at once to say, “Yes. This is real. It happened to me. And we need to do better.”

In my own journey, I have been wrestling a bit with an energy I have felt building recently: this sudden surge of confidence, boldness, strength, and conviction that has made me feel more personally and spiritually empowered than I ever have in my life. This energy is so new, and is still a bit unwieldy for me. How does a person who spent the majority of her life being victimized, violated, and disempowered suddenly manage feeling strong, capable, and full of a courageous energy that makes her want to shriek with joy? I really don’t know yet. It’s going to take practice. I will have to train myself to channel this energy into constructive, creative pathways because I am vulnerable to this energy becoming destructive. 

This latest poem was inspired by my own journey into standing in personal and spiritual empowerment after being destroyed by the actions of others. So this is for everyone who has ever felt destroyed, then found a way to go on. No matter how dark it seems, remember that there is always a spark left inside you.

And it only takes one spark to start a fire.

“Arise”

From the start

Every spark

Ground to ashes

Until I thought

I had nothing left

But that wisp of smoke

That was my ghost

And the body

That lay burned

And bereft

What I found

As I rose

From the ashes

Is that I am

A phoenix

Aflame

A fierce

Burning light

That blazes

So bright

I cannot be

Snuffed out

Again

I fought

For the right

To be

Full of light

After the depths

Of darkness

I dwelled in

God’s shining

Through me and

All around me

I’m unleashing

The power

I held in

May this flame always

Be used

To warm

Not to burn

To help others

Find their light too

What I now know

Is I’m ready

To show

I wasn’t

Extinguished

By you


© Sarah Ann Henderson 2017


Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. 

Hebrews 12: 28-29 

Judah Levi Brown: One Year

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Last night was the one-year anniversary of the death of Judah Levi Brown.

Judah was the vivacious, beautiful, three-year-old son of my dear friends Mark+ and Christi. He drowned in a tragic accident, and this past year they have lived every parents’ nightmare.

And yet, I have seen more grace through their grief than I thought possible of any human beings.

Mark+ is somewhat of a public figure. He is an Episcopal priest who goes to my church (and often serves there) and he serves around our diocese whenever another priest is needed (called a supply priest). He also has the largest online prayer group in the world, with over 400,000 people on Facebook. His life has been an open book for many years, even through the time he met and married Christi, and they had Judah. When Judah died, there were really only one of two choices: to turn away, shut down and grieve on their own, or to grieve openly with everyone. They chose to grieve openly. It’s one of the most grace-filled, courageous decisions I’ve ever seen two people make.

By choosing to bare their grief process to the world, they allowed people to witness what is usually a private pain. They allowed people to witness them struggle with their faith, struggle with their anger, struggle daily with the devastation of losing a child. They allowed people to witness the deepening of their relationship to God through that struggle. The deepening of their relationship to each other and their other children. They allowed people to see how they guided their other children through their own grief, which they did with such care and love. They allowed people to see them reach out for help, through therapy, for them and the children, and through the church. They reached out to their family and friends. They both processed through writing, but Christi especially took to Facebook nearly every day and wrote journal-like updates, poems, and prayers. Christi’s writing didn’t just tell people what it is like to lose a child. It let us into her heart and soul, to viscerally grieve with her.

As is their nature, Mark+ and Christi used their experience to help others. They created an online support group for grieving parents. They allowed Judah’s story to be used by one of his former teachers to create the Judah Brown Project, which works to prevent drowning in kids like Judah. They’ve worked very hard with his teacher, Annette, to make this project into a full-fledged charity that is saving children’s lives, preventing people from having to feel the pain they are feeling.

Once a month, for the past year, on the day that Judah drowned, and on the day that he died- the two are a couple of days apart, as he lingered in a coma- they lit candles in front of his photo and held a small vigil. In June, we celebrated Judah’s birthday at his grave, and had his favorite foods, shared memories, shared laughter and prayers. The year anniversary drew closer.

I know, from my own trauma, that everyone shows up in the beginning. Everyone is there when the original tragedy happens. As time goes on, it gets less present in other people’s lives, and people begin to drift away.

But it never gets less important in your life.

I don’t know if I’ve really done anything to help, but I’ve made every effort to be a there-for-it-all friend. I’m in, and I’m in for good. I was only friends with Mark+ and Christi for about a year before Judah’s death, and I wish I had known Judah better, but I do remember him and I will never forget him. I wish I could do more, but perhaps the best thing I can do is be there, and make sure they know that their loss is important to me. They are important to me. And their son is never forgotten.

Last night, as we sat around Judah’s grave, we watched a video about him on Annette’s phone. It was a photo series of his whole life. We laughed and cried. Stories of the photos were told. As we watched, it began to rain. It rained gently, and another friend there remarked, “We’re just being baptized.” It was a holy, Spirit-filled moment.

When it got to the minute that Judah’s time of death was called, a candle on his head stone was lit. We held silence for a few minutes. I read a prayer:

 

Heavenly God,

With a mother’s strong love
you shelter us in your shadow,
and you mourn as we do the death of this child.

Love Judah forever
as we have loved him.
Guide our steps in the way of peace
till with our eyes we behold you
and shall praise you with all the saints
for ever and ever.

Mark+ shared a little more with us, and closed with a benediction. We left with hugs and prayers and smiles through tears.

Moments like these are why I feel called to be a priest. It was a privilege to be with Mark+ and Christi and their children as they marked this anniversary. It is a privilege to be their friend, to witness their grace and faith. It will be a privilege every time I am with someone as they grieve, celebrate, wed, baptize, die, are ill, or in spiritual distress. To just be present with someone, without trying to fix, is a holy thing.

Thank you, Brown family, for allowing me to be present. Thank you for letting me remember Judah with you. Thank you for letting me laugh and cry with you.

I love you.

 

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

Revelation 21:4

To donate to the Judah Brown Project, please click here.

 

Prayer above adapted from two prayers by Gabe Huck from the Catholic Catalogue.

Published with permission from the Brown family.

The Struggle is Real: Accepting, Not Overcoming, Infertility

“There is a unique pain that comes from preparing your heart for a child that never comes.” -David Platt text

When you hear that a woman is “struggling with infertility,” what do you think? Do you think of a woman desperately trying to get pregnant? Someone timing her ovulation, taking hormone injections, freezing her embryos?

This is one picture of a woman struggling with infertility. There is another picture: Me.

I am not desperately trying to become pregnant. I will never try to become pregnant, because pregnancy is too dangerous for me. Struggling with infertility is not always about pregnancy. Struggling with infertility is also about the grief that comes from knowing that you can’t even try. That pregnancy is simply not an option. My struggle with infertility is not an attempt to overcome it. My struggle with infertility is my attempt to accept it. 

How many other women are in this part of the struggle? How many other women silently try to grieve their way through without any support? Why is there no support system for women who can’t try, can’t fight it, who have to simply accept that having children naturally will not happen?

Believe me, when you go looking for “infertility support” every single resource is focused on getting pregnant or adopting. I have not found a single one that simply says, “Yes, you are grieving the loss of your ability to have children naturally. We’re here to help you accept that and move forward.” I don’t know why that doesn’t seem to be available. If you find a resource like that, please let me know.

While I do hold on to the idea of adoption someday, that does not, in any way, mitigate the grief that comes from knowing I can never have children of my own. I wish that I could have what other mothers have with their children: getting to learn about them from inside my body, to feel their energy and get a sense of who they are from the way they move, kick, and flutter. I wish I could know what other women talk about when they describe that overwhelming love, that primal heart-to-heart connection they have with their biological children.  I don’t know what kind of love I’ll experience as a mother to a child not born of my body, but I know it will be different. Not less, but different. I don’t believe that a genetic connection is a guarantee of love, nor that a lack of one means less love. I know that isn’t true. I know that from how much I love my Godson, and he isn’t even mine. But I do wonder what it would have felt like to hold my baby moments after they came into this world, to tell them that I’m their mom, and have them look into my eyes with recognition. To know that I will love them forever.

That will not happen.

It’s a loss, and it’s real, and I will let myself grieve it.

 

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Thessalonians 5:23

 

 

“Too Blessed To Be Stressed”: Bullsh*t

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“Too Blessed To Be Stressed.”

You’ll see this phrase often on Christian art and gifts. Tote bags and painted pallets, travel mugs and tea towels that declare that one cannot be simultaneously “blessed” and “stressed.”

I have always found this phrase to be problematic. Right now, I found it downright offensive. Who decided that it’s not possible to be stressed out just because you’re also blessed by God? How are we defining “blessed” anyway?

Right now, around here, “blessed” tends to mean that your family is safe and your house didn’t flood. This was the case for me. However, I have been careful not to say that I was “blessed.” I’ve been saying “lucky” or “fortunate” or other words because saying I was blessed not only seems theologically unsound, it seems rude. If I was blessed by God with a safe family and a dry house all the way through Harvey, doesn’t that imply that other people were not blessed? Doesn’t that imply that God picked and chose who would be blessed or not? Doesn’t that imply that God had some list of people He was going to protect and some people just weren’t on it?

I simply don’t believe that.

I believe that humans are responsible for climate change and therefore are a good deal responsible for massive hurricanes and other events we like to call “acts of God.” I believe that humans have over built this area and did not pay attention to warnings about flooding and so we are a good deal responsible for the extent of this disaster. I believe that whether a person’s house ended up flooding or not was due to chance, because rain fell on everyone, everywhere. The rain fell and where it rose the highest had nothing to do with God’s favor, and everything to do with the way the earth is shaped. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. Matthew 5:45.

Whether your house is safe or you lost everything, what I have discovered through this disaster is that we are all blessed. We are all blessed because we are loved so deeply by God. We are all blessed because we are not alone. We are all blessed because we are reaching out to help one another, through acts of service, prayers, and love.

That does not, however, mean that we are not stressed. Natural disasters are fucking stressful. Especially if you lost everything, but even if you didn’t. Because it’s everywhere. The water, the damage, the hashtags, the helplessness. The need is overwhelming. There’s so much to do, and often we don’t know where to start. (Hint: prayer is always a good place to start.)

Being blessed and being stressed are not mutually exclusive. In fact, stress can often be a blessing in itself, and blessings help get us through stress. God gives us both.

So excuse me, but whoever came up with that cutesy phrase can shove it. They clearly have never experienced a hurricane.

 

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Isaiah 41:10