March 12, 2023

In Desert Places: Haunted by the Past

The third in a Lent Sermon series about human 'wilderness' experiences and how our faith speaks to them.

Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

In Desert Places: Haunted by the Past

Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

Sunday 12th March 2023

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” L.P. Hartley’s famous opening line in The Go-Between is meant to highlight the problems we have with memory and history. Memories can be unreliable, half-remembered or, worse still, totally misremembered. Meeting an old friend can lead us to realise that we have very different memories of the same event. We are often unreliable witnesses.

But whether we remember correctly or inaccurately, The Go-Between is a novel that says something about the way the past impacts on the present and not always for the good. This sermon is about the harm and the hurt of the past, the way we remember it and how as Church and Christian people, we can respond to it.

The way we understand memory and its impact upon us has been part of the way we think about being human ever since the time of Sigmund Freud. As well as being physical beings, we are psychological ones too. The way we understand and behave in the world is often shaped by past experience, good and bad. And this morning, I’d like to focus on one area of physical and psychological experience which has become more visible in the past twenty years or so, and that is the experience of trauma. When we think of being haunted by the past, it is often a traumatic experience that we use as a reference point.

Trauma is a far more common experience than we have often thought. The psychologists say that trauma happens when we face something threatening or dangerous outside of usual human experience, a threat to life, overwhelming event that make people feel powerless or afraid. They can be one-off things or an ongoing pattern of events or actions by other people. These include a wide range of experiences: soldiers and civilians who face death in war zones, refugees fleeing danger, a parent in prison, living with someone with a mental health disorder, bullying, child abuse. These are obviously traumatic experiences. But trauma can also be experienced second- hand – overexposure to daily news or social media full of violence and threat can traumatise. Social workers and counsellors are trained to be alert to the experience of what is called ‘vicarious trauma’ as their lives are filled with other peoples’ damaged lives.

Trauma can have a wide set of effects. It can affect our bodies, for example with over-exposure to stress-related hormones; it can affect our ability to understand ourselves and others, for example in our ability to see the world as a safe or benign place; it can affect our emotions, for example with high levels of anxiety or a desire to flee in the face of pressure; it can affect our relationships, to trust other people or to avoid intimate relationships; and it can affect our spirituality, through a crisis of faith. What is particularly telling is that trauma in childhood is particularly significant because when it occurs as the child’s brain is developing, it can affect the way the neurological pathways develop, affecting a child’s sense of the world around them and the people in their lives in profound ways. One example, in adults as well as children is called hyper-vigilance: children pick up non-verbal atmospheres and can feel anxious when others are anxious, even if people are smiling. They can pick up on anger and frustration, even when others are trying speak calmly. They learn to read other people’s faces and atmospheres so they can prepare themselves for anything frightening. This hypervigilance makes the traumatised person, especially children, analyse everything we say, our body language and our facial expressions as much as our words. Trauma has a profound and long-lasting effect on people, especially if it occurred in childhood. It is worth reflecting, whether in church, at your place of work, or even in your family and personal relationships, if the person who you find difficult or challenging might be acting from an experience of trauma: they may be overwhelmed with negative emotions which can lead them to behaviours that cause harm to themselves or are pushed outward in disruptive, or even aggressive, behaviour. That of course doesn’t make the aggression appropriate or right, but it may mean that we see it in a different light. The source of healing might well be found in addressing the trauma rather than the behaviour.

Churches are often seen as places of welcome and acceptance, and I am sure that every one of us here would want that to be true of St Mary’s. As Christians our starting point is the example and presence of Jesus. In our Gospel reading today Jesus approaches a woman in gentleness and leads her into a conversation that exposes her own situation (five previous husband and an ongoing relationship will have taken their toll) and leads her to a deeper understanding of the life-giving refreshment that he brings. Talking of himself, Jesus says, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 15 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

And in our epistle reading, Paul writes about the gift of the Holy Spirit given to bring us peace with God, and the way in which God’s love enables us to endure suffering and hardship, setting us free from the burdens of sinful humanity – which I take to be not just our own sin but the sin we inflict on one another – reconciling us to God, bringing us into a new place where it seems to me we can be set free from the burdens of the past, even if we never forget them. Taken together these two readings tell us that in Jesus Christ we have a hope that is real and meaningful, not just in terms of theological truth, but in the possibility that through Jesus we need not be dominated or defined by the past, including past trauma. And in the context of a world where trauma is both real and better understood, perhaps that says something to us and to those around us, that our faith means that there is hope for everyone, no matter what they – or we – have been through.

Just a couple of ways that might have real-life, real-time implications. I’ve already said that we might be wise to have trauma in mind when faced with the challenging or strange behaviour of an adult or a child. This is something that is really important in churches like ours where we have new people joining us all the time. We need to be aware of the signs of trauma. It’s really important it seems to me that we reflect the love of Jesus by trying to ensure that St Mary’s is a safe place for people. Remember what I said about hyper-vigilance? Traumatised people will be looking for additional signs and reassurances that this community is a safe place for them, so part of our Christ-like hospitality will be trying to be the sort of community that is safe. Very sadly, over the years, some people have learned the hard way that church is not always safe, and our history around child sexual abuse in churches has meant we are often now seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. This is why safeguarding and creating a safe culture in our churches is at the centre of what we do. And it’s at the centre of what we do, not just because we need to make up for our past failures and we need to better show the face of Christ to the world, but because it demonstrates something of the compassion and acceptance of Jesus for all people. Creating a safe culture in our churches isn’t just the job for PCC members and our Parish Safeguarding Officers; it’s something we all can play a part in, by offering love and care that shows awareness of and affirmation of those we meet.

A kind, accepting welcome is a great start but, after the pandemic, in the face of a war in Ukraine, cost of living challenges, an epidemic of poor mental health (the number of people on antidepressants in England would fill Wembley Stadium 90 times) and much else to cause anxiety and stress, we need to go further. We read in the Gospels of Jesus who meets people where they are and offers healing. We are asked to play our part in being part of the healing he offers – even if we aren’t Jesus ourselves. The psychologists and therapists say that traumatised people need people to believe the best for them and know they can overcome what they have experienced. Kindness is at the heart of our Christian response, being with people as people go through the wounds that life throws at us. We cannot make the trauma go away, but we can play a part in helping one another live with it, so that it doesn’t dominate our lives. Because it’s complicated being a human being, and it’s not always easy to find places and communities where weakness and vulnerability is accepted, there’s a vital necessity – I would go so far as to say a vocation for the Church – to be communities where weakness and vulnerability are welcomed. Let’s talk openly about mental health struggles, sharing the highs and lows of life; let’s not see the difficult behaviour of others in the church as problematic (and certainly not something to be gossiped about) but instead, just as I need healing from the wounds of my life and you need the same, think of those difficult or challenging behaviours as signs of an ongoing need for healing, not as the essential identity of someone who we find it hard to understand or to like. Remember, our truest identity as disciples is not the wounds we carry, but the one who carries the wounds on our behalf.

Moving on from trauma is not easy, but one of the things that helps more than anything else is relationships that are restorative, that help people recover. There’s something at the heart of the Good News of Jesus Christ about the power of the Holy Spirit to bring us closer to Jesus the Healer, the one who offers the Samaritan woman life-giving water and gives us the same water to drink. If you don’t think you’ve experienced that sense of freedom and refreshment, it is at the heart of what Jesus offers each one of us. But, as those who know a little already about the love and acceptance that Jesus brings, creating communities where love is the foundation of our life is at the heart of the vocation of the Church. Healing the hurts of the past is a long, and sometimes arduous, journey. But if churches have anything to offer in a world where trauma and hurt are everyday realities for far more people than we realise, it is that they are places, no, that we are people who show the love that Jesus shows us. Because, as St Paul says, God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”





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