Soul wounds are pervasive in our world, with a range of origins and characteristics. The field of trauma theory provides tools to unpack the dynamics associate with these wounds.
Preaching with empathy for wounded souls can help with healing. Using the stories of wounded biblical figures is helpful, as is addressing the wounds that have been caused by the church.
The book showcases worship practices, sermons and ministries that are actively engaged in supporting healing for those with wounded souls.
About the Author
Joni Sancken is Associate Professor of Homiletics at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH. She is interested in theological and contextual issues in preaching. She is the Author of Stumbling Over the Cross: Preaching the Cross and Resurrection Today (Cascade, 2016). Joni is an ordained pastor in Mennonite Church USA and served congregations in Indiana and Pennsylvania and completed level one STAR training (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience) through the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in 2017. She lives in Oakwood, OH with her pastor husband Steve Schumm and children Maggie and Theodore.
Read an Excerpt
Human responses to traumatic or wounding experiences are mysterious. We do not understand why some people emerge seemingly unscathed in the wake of horrific events while others remain wounded and are unable to return to meaningful life and relationships. Consider these scenarios.
A parenting group meets in a church basement. A few women linger afterward to share stories of childbirth. Some of the mothers express feelings of grief, shame, and isolation at what they expected to be a joyful time. Their experiences of birth were not positive but rather were experiences of deep fear or powerlessness.
A man in his mid-thirties doesn't drive. He has arranged his life around walking and taking public transportation. When he was a teenager, he lost both parents in a fatal car accident and has been unable to get into a car without suffering a strong physical reaction.
An idealistic mission worker in an urban context suffers a mental and emotional breakdown following the murder of one of the women with whom she worked.
On Sunday morning, when congregations gather for worship, many come with soul wounds buried deep within from previous life experiences. Survivors of abuse, family members of those with addictions, and parents who have lost children are among those listening to sermons. Some soul wounds are rooted in a national event — those who have survived a mass shooting or those for whom the news coverage of the most recent national tragedy triggers memories of a violent experience in their own lives. Because these wounds are often hidden, preachers may not be aware of the dynamics at work.
Peter Levine describes those who suffer in this way: "They are unable to overcome the anxiety of their experience. They remain overwhelmed by the event, defeated and terrified. Virtually imprisoned by their fear, they are unable to reengage in life. Others who experience similar events may have no enduring symptoms at all."
Language about trauma and diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have become part of our national vernacular. Many may find the word trauma repelling or jarring and may be unaware of the importance of having precise language to name the complexities of how trauma affects individuals and groups. The word trauma is related to the ancient Greek word for "wound." The word trauma is important because it incorporates causal circumstances or events along with coping responses. Learning about trauma is beneficial for many because it helps them understand dynamics in their own lives or the lives of loved ones.
People who have experienced trauma of all kinds often share worldviews and behaviors caused by their experience of powerlessness, imminent death, and the ineffectiveness of language to help or describe their circumstances. Survivors of trauma struggle to feel safe, trust others, and find meaning in life. The past may be frozen in the moment in which the traumatic event occurred as the survivor experiences it again and again, unbidden, while the future is completely closed. The wound caused by trauma is deep — affecting the whole person. I use the term soul wound to speak of the pain that lingers within those who survive trauma and other wounding experiences.
Preachers today experience the pull of many possibilities and pressures. Sermons must contribute to congregational growth, encourage giving to support the church, avoid offending denominational leadership, teach the Bible, and speak a relevant and hopeful word for our time. This book doesn't seek to add one more burden to preachers but to shine the healing light of Christ on traumatic and other wounds carried by many in our world. The proposed methods and techniques may be helpful not only for survivors of trauma but also for others who feel the lingering effects of loss, bullying, or shame. The church has a unique and much needed balm for unhealed soul wounds. The Christian gospel travels through the cross to the resurrection, and the call to discipleship involves facing brokenness, pain, and loss armed with Christ's redemptive power.
To live fully into our calling, we who preach must do so with sensitivity and awareness toward those with soul wounds and a sense of hope and an orientation toward God's promises of healing and new life. Every congregation includes people who carry soul wounds, leading to personal and social ramifications for the individual and surrounding community. When pastors encounter someone with a serious soul wound, listening and showing care can be intuitive responses; so too may be the reflex to refer the person to a professional counselor or mental health provider with more expertise in this area. However, just because a referral has been made does not mean that the congregation cannot be an agent of God's healing. Unsure of how to engage wounded members in the midst of gathered church life, pastors may experience a sense of internal division between pastoral care that often happens in private and the public ministries of preaching and worship. No matter how uncomfortable or unqualified a pastor may feel when confronted by church members with serious soul wounds, pastors cannot refer away their preaching ministry to everyone in the church.
Trauma-aware preaching can support healing for those with soul wounds from trauma and other, less-raw painful memories. Sermons can create a bridge between the gathered life of the congregation and care given by the pastor or members of the congregation. Sermons can offer instruction about the pain of traumatic experience and legitimize the effects of trauma. Sermons can reach out to those who may be suffering quietly and provide an open door for further conversation. Preaching can speak God's promises in a powerful way to those who need to hear them and provide theological tools to help people make sense of their experiences in a way that nurtures faith.
A starting place for speaking to those who have survived a traumatic experience can be marking the difference between healing and curing. While curing can be an instantaneous act of the Spirit in the present, curing most often takes on eschatological dimensions, something that may not happen this side of the realm of God. On the other hand, and from a Christian perspective, healing is a process that is theologically rooted in the human experiences of salvation and sanctification. Healing can also be understood as a fruit of the resurrection breaking into our world here and now. Healing can be personal, bodily, communal, relational, ecological, structural, social, physical, or spiritual. When we see healing of any type in our world, it is a sign of the resurrection regardless of whether it is claimed as such by the ones who experience the healing. While PTSD is a complex illness and trauma causes deep wounds, as Christians we believe that healing is part of our experience of salvation. Healing is a process not to be confused with curing. It is not some extra bonus gift that God capriciously doles out to some believers and not others. Because we struggle with the eschatological dimension of cures for the many wounds people carry, we may hesitate to talk about healing in our prayers and sermons. But we can ask God for healing with boldness. One of the ways that sin and brokenness affect us in our world is to blind us to signs of God's action among us. We can therefore also ask God to reveal healing that is already taking place so that we can name healing in our sermons.
What does it mean to be human in a world that stands between crucifixion and resurrection? In his essay "The Bitter Christ: Suffering and Spirituality in Denial," worship scholar Don Saliers addresses the necessity of dealing with complexity: "The mixed texture of our world — its terror and beauty — confronts our prayer and worship, our meditation and our liturgies. For increasing numbers of people the experience of the absence of God, or at least the loss of secure ideas of God, leads to giving up prayer and worship." Trauma-informed pastors can preach sermons that are relevant for people with soul wounds from trauma and past life experiences and helpfully participate in the Spirit's work breaking cycles of violence and abuse. However, in order to participate in healing, preachers must be equipped to recognize what can cause soul wounds; to understand how these deep wounds may affect relationships, participation in church, and worship; and how to preach in ways that minister not only to survivors of trauma but also to the many who struggle to find healing and meaning for disappointment, loss, and other painful experiences and memories.
What Causes Soul Wounds?
People carry many types of wounds that may harm relationships and hinder their ability to experience love and hope. What causes these soul wounds? They are caused by experiences in which survivors feared for their own lives and well-being or that of others. Survivors often name a common set of experiences including feeling powerless in the face of danger, that language and other tools had little or no effect on their situation, and that structure or order in the world has been lost.
The perception of danger or threat may be more important than the specific nature of the experience. A person's background and prior experiences may make him or her more susceptible to complicating reactions in the wake of trauma. Just because someone has a traumatic experience does not mean that she or he will have a soul wound. However, as pastors and caregivers we may be watchful for signs of unhealed wounds. The following discussion may be helpful for pastors who seek to preach healing for a range of diverse wounds, those caused by unaddressed trauma as well as other more common painful experiences.
Not every traumatic event results in ongoing or lingering soul wounds. One clue that the event may be potentially wound-inducing is if someone describes her or his life with a clear sense of "before" and "after" surrounding a negative event. For example, more than twenty years ago a relative was involved in a serious car accident that left him paralyzed. This was an event with a clear "before" and "after" for his entire family, and for some time, they talked about life like this. Today, they no longer talk about life in this way. While he is still paralyzed, the traumatic wound around the accident has healed.
A serious car accident is only one example of a potentially trauma-inducing event. A wounding event can be "an intense one-time event, natural or human caused, where there is a serious threat of harm or death," such as a "natural disaster, accident, rape, or sudden loss." Traumatic events can also involve ongoing situations or repeated events such as living in a violent context or having everyday encounters with racism or gender issues that chip away at dignity and safety over time. These one-time events or repeated/ongoing situations can impact individuals as well as larger groups. Ongoing experiences of poverty or abuse can create traumatic wounds in addition to making an individual less resilient in the face of more common experiences of stress. Only the survivor can define an experience as traumatic, and not all traumatic experience leads to a lasting wound. Personality, history, and the presence or absence of a caring community can all affect experience of trauma.
Individuals can also experience secondary or vicarious trauma from hearing stories of those who have directly experienced trauma. This can happen in the case of first responders, family members and friends, lawyers or human-rights advocates, medical and mental health professionals, clergy, and those who operate crisis lines — anyone who "cares and listens to the stories of fear, pain, and suffering of others." Secondary trauma can often have a cumulative impact over time that leads to "compassion fatigue." Yet the satisfaction that care-providers experience can help counteract the cumulative emotional wear-and-tear.
Trauma can also be experienced by individuals who may have participated in causing pain to others, especially in cases where the harm was unintentional, such as in a car accident, as part of a medical procedure or drug trial gone wrong, or following orders in a military context. This participation-induced trauma can also be called moral injury. Brite Divinity School's Soul Repair Center describes moral injury as growing from making decisions or witnessing actions that may violate moral values in the midst of life-or-death circumstances, often in a context of war or situation of violence and chaos following a mass shooting or terrorist attack. These decisions may cause a survivor to experience intense shame, loss, and disconnection from his or her core identity.
Trauma can also be collective or societal, caused by one-time events or ongoing/repeated experiences. Examples of one-time events include large-scale natural disasters, such as the 2005 Indian Ocean Tsunami; human-induced disasters, such as a nuclear accident; deliberate actions from an enemy, such as a terrorist attack; political revolution that results in sudden cultural shifts, such as the Cultural Revolution in China; and the loss of a significant and symbolic leader, such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. Repeated or cumulative experiences can include historical trauma with ongoing effects, such as slavery and racism in the United States or conflict between religious groups in the Middle East; cultural trauma in which a group experienced a complete or nearly complete destruction of culture, such as the case with Native Americans and Jewish people through the Shoah; and structurally induced trauma created by laws and cultural practices that result in injustice, such as Jim Crow laws or South African apartheid. These events are complex and multifaceted. Collective or societal trauma can be traced to actions in multiple categories. Hurricane Katrina would be an example of a multi-category catalyst for collective trauma, involving natural disaster as well as human error and racism.
Traumatic wounds can also be transferred from one generation to another through time as with the experience enslaved Africans brought to the United States, cultural and physical genocide of Native populations, and colonialism. Because of the wide variability in reactions and triggering experiences, it is important for pastors to validate a traumatic reaction regardless of how the precipitating event or events may appear to others. Many events and chronic conditions can cause trauma, from the murder of a colleague or car accident to childbirth, serious illnesses or pandemics, human-caused natural disasters such as an oil spill, homelessness, or being a refugee. Because trauma impacts not only individuals but also groups, communities, and societies, we can see how wounds, both named and unnamed, are likely present in most ministry contexts.
While serious trauma does not impact everyone in a congregation directly, it is beneficial for the life of the church for pastors to preach trauma-aware sermons. Some of the same symptoms and concerns faced by survivors of trauma are also challenges for people who have a wide range of painful experiences such as losing a job, bullying, or betrayal in relationship. Encounters with pain and brokenness are part of life in a world still waiting for complete redemption. Further, while we pray otherwise, serious traumatic events may happen at any time. Trauma-aware preachers will be prepared to speak to the immediate situation and begin fostering healing. Even if not every member experiences trauma directly, when a brother or sister is hurting it affects the whole community. Like a human body, participants in a community are not completely independent of each other. Part of our identity as Christians is to care for the whole body in order to witness to Christ's healing intentions. When wounded members experience care and healing, the witness of the whole church is stronger.
Stress and Trauma
The effects of trauma are physical, emotional, cognitive, relational, sociological, and spiritual. The field of trauma studies is like a fair or convention with various disciplines promoting their perspectives and wares. Expert insights range from clinical awareness brought by psychiatrists and neuroscientists to experiential knowledge from poets, memoirists, and anthropologists. What these varied approaches confirm is the thoroughly penetrating impacts of trauma on survivors and their communities.
Soul wounds can arise from a range of causes and circumstances, but the physiological response to stress always simmers beneath the surface. According to the Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) program, "stress is any outside force or event that has an effect on the body, mind, or emotions. It is the automatic physical, mental, or emotional response to these events." A stressful experience triggers neurochemicals and hormones in our bodies that stimulate us to act. Not all stress is bad. At best, we can feel energized and motivated, such as the stress a student might feel in preparing for an exam, an athlete might feel before a big game, or a musician before a concert. At times we may feel unproductive stress, such as sitting in busy traffic as we watch the minutes tick by making us late for an appointment. These experiences of stress are fairly common and likely not wounding. However, prolonged stress can lead to fatigue, depression, and anxiety, which can make us more susceptible to deeper wounds that make it difficult to connect to others or experience God's presence and good news in our lives. Traumatic stress is different from other forms of stress in that it completely overwhelms a person so that his or her experience exceeds any ability to respond.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Words That Heal"
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Table of Contents
Series Preface vii
Chapter 1 Soul Wounds 1
What Causes Soul Wounds 4
Stress and Trauma 7
Responses to Traumatic Stress 8
Recognizing Unhealed Wounds 9
Claiming Therapeutic Approaches for the Church 11
Theological Frameworks for Addressing Unhealed Wounds 19
Conclusions: Moving toward Healing 24
Chapter 2 Soul Wounds in the Bible 25
Interpretive Tools 26
Trauma-Informed Interpretation Example: Genesis 22 36
Chapter 3 Soul Wounds in the Church 49
Many Factors Contribute to Resistance 51
Sexual Abuse in the Church Causes Deep Wounds 56
Preaching to Those Who Have Been Wounded by the Church 58
A Sample Sermon: "Defanging the Snakes" 69
Chapter 4 Healing for Wounded Souls 75
Preaching the Gospel Builds Resilience 76
Preaching Words That Heal 80
Appendix A Preaching when the Church Has Contributed to Wounds 103
Appendix B A Trauma-Sensitive Exegetical Supplement 107