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Trauma and grace


We need one another for ‘the difficult work of healing’

November 14, 2019

In the first seven months of this year, more than 20 school shootings occurred. The refrain “I never thought this would happen here” has become a mantra on the evening news. The circle of those experiencing trauma — or knowing someone who has — widens daily.

 In her book “Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining,” Dr. Shelly Rambo recalls standing in the backyard of Julius Lee, a retired member of the U.S. Air Force. It was after Hurricane Katrina and all that was left of his house were remnants of a washed-out foundation. As they stood there, Lee said, “The storm is gone, but the ‘after the storm’ is always here.”

Whether the trauma was caused by a human being or nature, what kind of faith do we need for “after the storm”?

First, God does not will for bad things to happen. Scripture tells us that God loves us deeply and wants the best for us. God even conquered death for us. God does not need for evil to exist simply to show off God’s own goodness. This is not who God is. Still, bad things happen, and when they do, I believe that God is first on the scene and weeps alongside us. As 20th century preacher the Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin said, “God’s heart is always the first to break.”

Second, even out of utter devastation, God can bring good. God simply refuses for evil and death to have the last word. This is not to say that God glosses over the bad to make it less ugly in a Pollyanna-ish sort of way. Rather, from the dust and ash of our pain, God can and does create beautiful things.

The challenge comes in letting our own lives be part of that dust and ash. Perhaps the greatest sin we could commit in the face of tragedy is to refuse to be changed by it, to prohibit God from working on and in us.

In much of American culture, we have little tolerance for grief and pain — our own or other people’s. Our discomfort is revealed in phrases like “Everything happens for a reason” or “God just needed another angel,” which are neither true nor helpful to people who are suffering. We expect people to fix it or just get over it. But that isn’t how it works.

God models how we can be present to one another by simply holding space for suffering. Traumatic injuries need a witness; healing begins when the wound is treated, not hidden. We want to know what to say, but silence is welcome here. A simple “I’m so sorry” is enough. Sit and wait. Offer to pray with someone — not just for them. Grant them the grace to be who they really are in that moment. When you serve as a compassionate witness to someone else’s wounds, the ground becomes hallowed. Just by being present, we show others they are not alone. We tangibly exhibit some of God’s love by allowing God to work through us.

Remember, too, that God can bear all of our pain and anger. Among the most beautiful poetry in all of literature are the Psalms, filled with ancient words for joy and praise and also some of the deepest grief and harshest anger. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) are words Jesus prays on the cross. Or, “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! … Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:8–9). These texts show us that we, too, can pray in this way, knowing God will hold all of the ugliest, most desperate and broken parts of us.

Finally, when we catch our breath, we might ask: What does this all mean for me/us? We need community for this work. Church is meant to be a place where we wrestle together with our theology, define and refine it, and help each other see signs of transformation and even resurrection.

There is trauma all around us, whether we see it or not, which is why we need to learn to be a humble, vulnerable, broken church and eschew the shiny, polished, always-happy one. We simply cannot do this without God and one another.

As Rachel Held Evans, the bestselling Christian author who died May 4 at the age of 37, wrote: “There is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome.”

 Rev. Adele Crawford, Former Pastor of Valley Presbyterian Church in Brookfield, Connecticut, and Former Interim Dean of Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School

Today’s Focus:  Trauma and grace

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Jeannette Larson, Presbyterian Publishing Corp.
Jeffrey Lawrence, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray:

Jesus, we know our society is fractured. Help us to serve the expanded community to which you have called us, that we may reflect your love. Amen.

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