Healing Wounded Souls

August 21st, 2019

The following is excerpted from Words That Heal: Preaching Hope to Wounded Souls by Joni S. Sancken. Copyright © 2019 Abingdon Press.

In a small Texas town a man with a gun entered a church during worship and fired off hundreds of rounds of ammunition, killing twenty-six worshippers ranging from a young toddler to senior citizens. In addition to regular worshippers, among the dead was that Sunday’s preacher, who served as an associate pastor at the church, as well as a couple visiting that congregation for the first time. In a world where our churches can be scenes of death and injury and where media images replay heart-wrenching interviews of stunned survivors, what can we say? While those who survived the shooting and immediate friends and families of victims certainly experience more intense trauma, when an event like this happens, we all feel the effects. Closer to home, about twenty-four hours before this mass shooting, a fifteen-year-old member of a congregation in a town near our church was killed when a drunk driver slammed into her car at a high speed. Local, national, and global traumatic experiences impact us, and the effects can accumulate in our bodies and souls.

In the midst of serious trauma and other more common wounding experiences, preachers can help. As agents of grace we can contribute to God’s healing for those with soul wounds. We can also foster resiliency in our congregations so that they can better weather the storms of faith and life and emerge as powerful witnesses to God’s activity in our world.

The Healing Power of the Gospel

When wounds threaten to take over, listeners need to experience the presence of the God who receives our wounds, embraces us with healing, and transforms hopelessness and loss into a meaningful life and future. Wounded listeners keep us preachers honest about brokenness in our world and the challenges of feeling connected to God and others in the wake of loss. However, our sacred calling as preachers pulls us beyond brokenness toward God’s real presence in our world and stitches together the places where the fabric of life has torn.

It can be tempting for pastors to spend energy explaining or defending God’s seeming inaction in the wake of a horrific event. We may do this as a way to channel our emotions into a cerebral safe zone or from our genuine concern to offer solid constructive theology in a deeply formative moment. However, God does not need our protection. Anger at God can be a natural and helpful response to trauma, and can maintain and even energize relationship. God is large enough to receive our anger, to safely and securely hold it so that it doesn’t harm others or us.

Experiences of powerlessness, hopelessness, and isolation that can follow a traumatic event or set of prolonged traumatic circumstances mean that particular aspects of gospel or good news may need to be lifted up to speak to particular needs. For example, preaching about the presence of Christ in the midst of suffering and the Christian community as the body of Christ reminds survivors that they are not alone. Preaching a sense of reliance on the Holy Spirit when one’s own power is insufficient offers empowerment in Christ and hope in the promises of God.1

"Words That Heal" by Joni S. Sancken. Order here: http://bit.ly/2KmnqN8

Following my sister-in-law Twila’s death, I needed to repeatedly hear the proclamation of Easter, that Christ is risen, to counter this experience of death that looked and felt so definitive. My memories of her and my carefully constructed theological footholds for navigating life were powerfully shaken by shock, tragic details around her death, and her sudden absence. I longed to hear about Jesus’s resurrection and experience assurance that death neither holds nor lastingly defines Twila or any of us. Christ’s move from cross to resurrection serves as a promise of our own move from death to life and can be experienced fragmentarily in our world today—in part through experiences of surviving, healing, or finding new purpose in the wake of trauma. Preaching the gospel can be a counterbalance, a check on our wounded perspective. The good news of the resurrection never gets old or tiresome, and listeners struggling with wounds of all kinds need to hear it.

Wounding experiences can permanently change survivors, but this does not mean there is an absence of the gospel. Healing will likely not look like a return to indiscriminate optimism. Serene Jones puts it this way,

For those who are able to move forward and experience some degree of healing from traumatically inflicted harms, it seldom happens in a direct, linear manner and the past from which they are recovering never completely leaves them; it is never vanquished. This means that in lived experience, most survivors are never completely made anew and thereby restored to the self they were before harm found them.2

More common is that survivors find a way to manage, function, affirm life, grow, and trust others.3 In the wake of wounding experiences, survival and a return to life among the living can be celebrated as a manifestation of the gospel in our sermons. Gospel experienced as provisional or partial, a foretaste of greater and deeper healing and joy found in God’s horizon, is still good news for listeners with a range of painful experiences.

Resilience Liberates People from the Power of Soul Wounds

Resilience in the face of a wounding event is rooted in early life experiences but can also be aided by supportive, caring relationships and guidance by trauma-aware leaders. It can be helpful for pastors and other caregivers to remember that simply surviving a deeply wounding or traumatic experience shows extreme resilience; the challenge can be unlearning the coping mechanisms that allowed one to survive a horrific experience in order to engage with ordinary life again.4 When a wounded person comes to church, it is a sign of God’s healing presence nurturing resilience and growing a desire to connect with others and to believe in Christ. No matter how deep the wounds, simply showing up merits celebration and praise to God. I remember the words of the old spiritual, “You know my soul look back and wonder, how did I make it over.”

Preaching that participates in God’s healing for wounded listeners helps break cycles of violence and nurtures faith and skills that can help people embrace life again. When a person is caught in a violent cycle where wounds continue to exercise control over life either through self-destruction or harming others, it can feel like the wounded person is trapped in a kind of prison. The wound or wounding event has more power than it deserves. God can liberate us from the tyranny of old wounds and brokenness. Conditions that can encourage survivors to “break free” include safety, support from others, guidance in managing physiological symptoms, and regaining a sense of “body/brain regulation, leadership, and choices.”5 The role of leadership is especially significant for preachers. When a community or individual is in crisis, the brain does not function fully or efficiently. Pastors can help guide people spiritually and morally so that they can live by their values during seasons where a traumatic wound may be interfering with a sense of identity.6 Preachers can remind listeners who they are in Christ and emphasize the hope and core of our faith. This is why proclaiming the gospel kerygma is so central to funeral services.

Once the wound no longer has a vice-like hold on the soul, mind, and body, there are numerous tools that can help foster healing, restoration, and resilience. These tools are not sequential. Healing is often an incremental process with ebbs and flows; it doesn’t follow a straight path. People may revisit these tools as needed.

Acknowledge the Wounding Event

Trauma specialists group a number of behaviors and actions under the umbrella term acknowledgment.7 Allowing space for mourning and grief over what has been lost in both the wounding event and in the time following can help release pent-up physical, emotional, and spiritual energy. Grief can be named and normalized in the sermon. Preachers can be upfront about their own grief as well as grief present in the biblical text. The Psalms offer examples of deep grief; so too do numerous biblical narratives. The sermon can also memorialize, which is often done instinctually in funeral sermons. The sermon can remember and name what is lost as well as use naming rituals connected to the loss.

Create a Ritual

Rituals can be very important to both individuals and communities.8 A ritual in worship need not be complex. Lighting a candle, inviting members to come forward, kneeling, bringing a concrete memento or representation of the loss or wounds, and holding a moment of silence can all be helpful components of a healing ritual.

Tell the Story

Storytelling can also be deeply restorative.9 It validates and strengthens the one whose story is told. The story and the interpretive frame around the story both can help survivors make meaning from trauma. The importance of interpretation is just one reason it can be beneficial for preachers to put stories into their own words rather than reading directly from a book or showing a video clip. In a setting where the focus is on healing from wounds, preachers will want to make full use of setting their own interpretive structure so that it is appropriate to their context. An alternative pattern would be to read or quote the words of one who is in the midst of healing, with permission. The sermon will still frame the storytelling, but this will allow marginalized voices to come to the fore.

Along with telling the story of the one who is wounded and healing, preachers can also engage with the stories of those who may have contributed to causing wounds.10 Quaker peace activist Gene Knudsen Hoffman reminds us, “An enemy is someone whose story we haven’t heard.”11 Of course, we need not tell every story in the sermon, but it can be helpful to expand a congregation’s perspective after survivors are well on their way to healing. Telling the stories of perpetrators in sermons may be met with resistance, but this too may be part of the healing experience. Hearing the other side in a story helps survivors make meaning by showing the roots of violent behavior, uncovering bias, challenging “us-them” thinking, and re-humanizing our enemy, which can help end scapegoating behavior.12 Even with all these benefits, telling a story about a perpetrator of violence from either the biblical text or our world in a sympathetic way will likely disturb or upset those who are victims of violence. Preachers will need to attend to the specific wounds of the congregation when making choices about what stories to tell and when to tell them. Engaging with stories, both our own and those of our “enemies,” is a form of risk-taking that actually creates new neural pathways in our brain that contribute to healing and new life.13

1. Paragraph paraphrased from Joni Sancken, “When Our Words Fail Us,” in Theologies of the Gospel in Context, ed.David Schnasa Jacobsen (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017), 114–15.

2. Ibid., 155–56.

3. Ibid., 156

4. Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score (New York: Penguin, 2014), 281.

5. STAR Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience: Level 1 Participant Manual, The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding,Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA, February 2018, 120–21.

6. Ibid., 121.

7. Ibid., 122.

8. Ibid., 123.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., 125.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid., 126.

13. Ibid., 127.

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