Theological Reflections

Remembrance Sunday

NOVEMBER 10, 2019

The following is the (largely unpreached) text for the sermon on this Sunday. As I wrote on facebook the previous day: “My sermon is growing exponentially!” I have recently spent so much time reading and reflecting on the implications of trauma theory for theology and ministry that my thoughts are jostling together, seeking to find a way to the written page. The spoken sermon was quite a different piece; I will try to post a link later this week.

This morning, we remember.

We remember the dead: lest we forget those who gave their lives in the great wars: we honour them, mourn them, and give thanks for their actions on our behalf.

We speak our gratitude for what was won through bravery and suffering; for the end to the imperialist sweep of evil ideologies.

But this is only a small portion of what we remember.

We remember those who fought in the wars which followed and those that continue; those war zones and on peace keeping missions; soldiers and support workers and rescue workers. We acknowledge those who served and serve on our behalf, in the complicated hopes of creating peace and stability in our world.

We remember the devastation of war—lest we forget, and minimize the terrible cost and aftermath of war for all involved. We remember those who live with the wounds of war, broken bodies, broken minds, the manifestations of trauma and PTSD.

We speak of these things, not to minimize those who died, or to wallow in the dark, but to bear witness to the real suffering and struggle of countless lives.

We speak of these things: because we long for the peace of God on earth.

In a few weeks that church year will end with the “reign of Christ”, and the new year will follow with the Advent, the beginning of the love story of God and humanity, of God-made-flesh in Jesus.

In one way, Remembrance Day interrupts that history. It marks the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month: it marks the end of what (to that date) had been the most horrific war in human history. We remember: lest we forget.

In other ways, it reinforces the need for the gospel promise.  

In the last few weeks before Advent, the readings of the Church traditionally enter into “apocalyptic” history: where all evidence suggests that God is absent and impotent, where the powers of darkness appear to be winning, where all hope is gone…

This echoes the cry of those who live in the aftermath of war. Where, in a world of hate and destruction and social fragmentation and trauma, is God to be found?

And yet. And yet: Advent comes. Into this darkness, a child is born…

God becomes one of us in Christ to heal and to reconcile and to begin a new strand of history: the way of love and of peace.

We live in a world and society in which that claim often seems impossible.

And yet: we hope for God’s salvation.

And as followers of Jesus, we work to speak that salvation to the world.

One outcome of the wars of the past century has been a new understanding of trauma and its long-term effects on soldiers and others.

Trauma affects both individuals and collectives, its effects may be passed down through generations, and causes untold suffering for those who are its unwitting carriers. Those who experience unresolved trauma may undergo personality changes, become unable to function in society, are prone to addiction, and even to random acts of violence.

For much of history, this “problem” (when evidenced by soldiers) was labelled as personal cowardice and moral failure.

We now know that it is a symptom of a serious breakdown of mind/body integration due to circumstances that are beyond our capacity to process. In its more extreme manifestations, it is termed PTSD.

Because of how the trauma response affects both mind and body, the body is central in healing from trauma. There is no pill that can heal trauma: there is only the long slow process of re-integration.

What do we as the Church—the body of Christ—have to offer in this healing?

We have, first of all, that very body. In the words of theologian Shelly Rambo: “… God holds the memory of suffering, across time, in a suffering body.”

Our faith circles around the incarnation; God become flesh; flesh that reveals God’s love in daily community; flesh that bears and redeems our trauma in God’s own existence, and in God’s own body, flesh that carries the nail prints and sword thrust of traumatic wounds even in resurrection.

How might we—as those who follow Jesus—offer respite to those trapped in the aftermath of war?  

Again, Shelly Rambo: “we can keep in mind three lessons of trauma studies: The past is not in the past. The body remembers. The wounds do not simply go away.”

What can we do… We can do beginning things:

We can lament—give voice—to the wounds and the scars that others bear in the name of war; we can speak on behalf of those who find themselves speechless

We can hold space— We who are the body of Christ can create safe and open communities of healing for those who bear death in their living bodies. We can be present for others as they process their pain.

We can bear witness to the suffering of war in liturgy and in community.

Today, one small act… We will stand, silent before God and one another, witnesses to the bravery and the deaths and the wounding of those who fought for our freedom.

Trauma, Art and Theology

NOVEMBER 8, 2019

Much of my recent theological reading–inspired by blessed conversations with Dr. Chelle Stearns– is on theology and trauma. In November, 2019, Chelle gave the 2019 Stanley Grenz Lecture at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. Her lecture was titled “‘My Heart Flows on in Endless Song’: Lament and Hope Through a Trauma-Informed Theology.” I traveled to Seattle to participate as one of her respondents.

The Stanley Grenz Lecture Series is offered in honor of former Professor Stanley Grenz, a prolific Christian scholar with a pastoral heart and deep intellectual presence. In his memory, each year The Seattle School hosts theological leaders and thinkers to advance theological discourse in a public setting.

My theological questions…

My current theological reflections circle around how the Incarnation drives the inner logic of historic Christian faith and practice. In particular, I am pondering the possible relationships between the embodiment of God in Christ and pastoral responses to trauma.

Of course–the meaning and dynamics of “incarnation” have been contested in all sorts of ways throughout the last 2000 years, as have the trinitarian underpinnings of the classic understanding.

My personal experience is that trinitarian teaching and incarnational theology go hand and hand. Although it may strike many as strange, studying the Trinity while at Seminary rescued my faith. Until I spent time exploring the various models of the Triune God, I thought that saying someone was both God and human was pretty much impossible nonsense.

Fundamentally, a first principle of my theology is that God is radically other, thus in a “non-competitive relationship” with creation (here I am influenced by Kathryn Tanner and Rowan Williams). Thus, nothing we human creatures do can put God’s nature at risk; and God’s action in the world does not erase human agency or identity.

When we speak about God, we are saying things about someone/something that we can’t really know or describe. That means that anything we say about God is provisional and limited. We use similes and metaphors and symbols and stories to put into words what we do know, or to try to explain what we experience.

What makes the Christian theological enterprise doable is the conviction that God wants to be known, and that God understands human beings very well. The “material” evidence on which this conviction is built is the wonder of creation, the encapsulation of human experience of God in story and written form (described as “scripture”), and the ways in which the divine heart and character are expressed through the man Jesus of Nazareth as recounted in the gospels.

To claim that this evidence is the ground of Christian faith would be misleading however. At the heart of Christianity is the call to a spiritual experience: a personal encounter with the Divine. That is true regardless of tradition or theology or practice.

Who is the God we encounter in Jesus? One who is encountered in three personal ways–as the Father of Jesus (not to be confused with male fatherness), as Jesus the Son of God, and as the Spirit of comfort and inspiration and power. From this personal threeness develops the doctrinal claim of God as “Trinity”.

Why is this important to me? Because the “incarnation”, the en-fleshment of God as the man Jesus of Nazareth only makes sense, is only possible, if God is not a singularity; if God is able to be fully Jesus, and fully Spirit, and still fully and entirely God. Likewise, the incarnation only makes a real difference to created, embodied living, if God really becomes one of us and lives a flesh and blood existence, and dies as one of us–and yet somehow doesn’t get trapped in our sticky messes, and really rises again, and really takes our human nature into God’s very being.

All of that is only possible if God is not a single lump sum of godness; if God is a dynamic eternal relationality of threeness in oneness. And it is only possible if God so loves the world that God chooses to enter into it.

Next ponderings…

thinking of how Incarnation determines our mission in this world…

The mission of the Incarnate One is expressed in the world through offering hospitality, seeking the common good, working for justice for all, environmental care…

The mission of God is experienced through embodied spirituality, through the practice of intentional community, through shared worship and sacrament.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.