PTSD, Pastors, and a Program for Healing

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Art by Nick Fewings, unsplash.com

By Joe LaGuardia

I had a spell of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) today. I am writing while it is still fresh in my mind. People who suffer from PTSD never know when it is going to hit. We try to identify triggers, but sometimes they are unavoidable. Living in these stressful, fear-laden times does not help. I am writing so that you can catch a glimpse of what its like.

The first thing about PTSD is to acknowledge that its real. It is not something that a person can help or “choose” to get over. It is not narcissism or doubt or paranoia or a temper tantrum. PTSD is a disorder because it is objective, something that happens to a person and within a person. We who suffer from it are victims, not people seeking attention. We cannot “get over it.”

PTSD is debilitating. When there is a trigger and you enter that place of suffering, you enter a deep, dark hole only a few people have known well. If you find other people who suffer from PTSD, then you know you’re not alone. But even in a community of other victims, you all suffer the disorder at different times. When you’re in the hole, that’s when you text or call a buddy who can lend a hand.

That’s what I did. I texted some friends and reached out to my wife. They responded with open hearts. The best ones do not tell you what to do. They do not make light of your situation. They know, like Job, that sometimes you just have to sit in your ash heap until the clouds pass. They will sit with you and put their needs on hold for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, the storm rages inside, and the demons are accusatory:

“Why are you still feeling this way–your trauma situation happened so long ago?”

“Don’t be a baby, and snap out of it!”

“What did you do to feel this way? Don’t make it everyone else’s problems–its none of their business!”

“You’re so selfish! Why do you have to ruin everyone’s day and draw attention to yourself?”

And when you do reach out, sometimes it backfires. When I get into that PTSD mode, I have to try not to react. It takes effort not to say or do things that you might regret later. I try not to make decisions until it passes, and sometimes that means retreating into bed and just closing your eyes until things take a turn.

Unfortunately, when this morning’s trigger occurred–in a communication text thread about a certain situation–I did respond (by text) before thinking it through. I tried to respond positively, as a way to help people think differently about a topic they were discussing, but the response I got back was, This isn’t the place for you to write these things, Joe.

That might be true. Actually I know its true. But, at the same time, a “Thank you, Joe–we’ll talk more about this later,” would have been helpful (at least to me).

Its no excuse for my reaction, but it is my reality. And I apologize for my reaction, but I am not going to apologize for my hurt.

To be fair, not everyone knows I suffer from PTSD. We who are victims know it as a lonely road, and we don’t like to broadcast it. Some of us have therapy pets, but our culture is increasingly hostile to pets these days since all they hear about on the news are sensational reports of therapy peacocks and therapy pigs. But this is no joke. If you don’t have a pet, you just deal with it in suffering silence, although 99% of your days are great and joyous.

My feelings at the time were authentic. I wanted to blame the text thread for triggering my PTSD. I wanted to tell my correspondents where to go. I wanted the world to know that there are many of us hurting (in my case, from gun violence).

But that’s the first reaction to PTSD, and that’s when you know you are having a PTSD situation: You want to lose control and lash out to those around you.

I went to bed instead, and my wife followed. I told her I was in bed because I didn’t want to take anything out on her and the children. Its not fair to victimize everyone else and weaponize the trauma we have to live with every day.

Not all PTSD cases are the same–mine is one in a million. My bouts can last anywhere from 10 minutes to a couple of days depending on the situation, but when bouts come I am grateful for a church that lets me retreat for the time I need to get past things.

And that’s the difference. Our churches need to understand PTSD, and our pastors need training on recognizing PTSD, responding to it, and providing best practices for how to handle it. And pastors need to know that it doesn’t only affect normal people. CEOs, doctors, pastors, professionals, clinicians, psychiatrists, therapists–they can suffer from it too. PTSD does not discriminate for education, income level, or ethnicity.

Only by understanding PTSD, that is, by reading testimonies like mine and studying up on trauma-sensitive theology, clergy and churches can facilitate support by being midwives to healing and resiliency. They can utilize biblical and historical resources that promote a type of faith that finds solidarity in the trauma-laden Christ-event of death on the cross and the new life of resurrection.

I am grateful for all the support I receive on those rare days when something triggers my PTSD. I am grateful for God’s mercy, which always carries me through–and the Spirit who gives me the voice to write things like this to help others know they’re not alone in their stunted journeys of faith.

My prayer is that others will listen and take note, and then respond accordingly. There are many of us in the world today that it cannot be ignored.

“One Like Us:” Discovering God’s True Love for Us

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Text: Hebrews 2

I.

Did anyone catch the season finale of the reality show, The Bachelor, last week?

I’ll fill you in on the premise: Basically, a bachelor spends two months with two dozen women contestants to find the love of his life.  During the show, he eliminates a woman until one lucky lady is left whom he wants to marry.

Ever since I heard about the show, I thought it preposterous that people would actually sign up for this show, much less buy into the premise.  This past season was the 13th season, which means that, apparently, there are many people who are eager to get on to find the love of their life.

This doesn’t include the other long-running companion show, The Bachelorette, just as ridiculous to watch. Ridiculous yes, but very addictive at times.

My wife and I watched only a few episodes this past season, and it seemed to have changed very little from previous years:  Women go around telling the cameras of how much they love the Bachelor.   She loves him, and she loves him, and she loves him.  Gosh, there’s a lot of love on that show.

Then there’s the bachelor:  He doesn’t want to hurt this one’s feelings, or break that one’s heart.  But its inevitable.

Our favorite moments of the show happen when a contestant just loves the bachelor–she wants to spend the rest of her life  with him, she wants to have his babies.  Then, as soon as she is eliminated and is driving home in the limousine, she changes her tune:  The Bachelor is the biggest jerk in the world.  He’ll never find a family because he’s rotten.  How could he be such an animal?

Well, this past finale was a real whopper.  Mr. Always-Right apparently found Miss Probably Right, and the big point of contention was that Mr. Always-Right had yet to say the big three words:  “I love you.”

Now granted, we know Miss Probably-Right loves him.  She wants to be with him for the rest of her life.  Why wouldn’t he tell her the same?  And where was that engagement ring he was supposed to offer her?

So the host spent nearly 10 minutes of the finale trying to get Mr. Always-Right to say that he loved her. The studio audience scoffed; but, Kristina and I actually thought he was being pretty smart.  I mean, here is this guy who really likes this girl, and he doesn’t want to say the big “L” word because he wants to take things slow.

I don’t know why the show’s host didn’t see this as honorable.  Out of 12 bachelors who have appeared on previous seasons, only 3 got married.  The rest broke off the relationship in less than a year.

I think the real mockery in all of this is the victim of this reality show: No, not the victim who’s wife insists that we shouldn’t change the channel to find something else worth watching.  Rather, the victim I am talking about is love.

Have we as a society become so shallow as to think that love is something you can just find on a reality show, something that is entirely driven by emotional responses to what amounts to nothing more than sensual desire?

II.

We think that this infatuation (no pun intended) with love is new in our society.  Well, at least we think its something that erupted only in the past five decades, a result not of new psychological methods of defining love, but of the “free love” era of the 1960s.  “Peace, man.  Let’s just love one another.”

Striving for love, however, is something that has been around a long time.  We even see it as far back as the Old Testament:  Astute Bible readers will note that throughout the Old Testament, God is indeed a God of love more than the myth that the Old Testament God is a God of wrath.  But Israel fails to realize that.

God tries to convince Israel over and over again that God’s first commitment is to His people in a posture, not of fleeting, emotional love, but of “steadfast love.”  The Hebrew word is hesed, and it implies the same kind of compassionate, self-giving love as the Greek word, agape.

Yet, we find people in the Old Testament about as anxious as our lovely contestants on that reality show.  They know they want love.  They strive, and they long, and they reach for love, but find it in all the wrong places.

I can’t help but to think of the anxiety of the author who wrote Psalm 8, when he wrote of God’s love in a perplexing manner and asked, “What are we humans that you visit us?”

God visited His people.  God was intimate with His people. It didn’t seem to be enough.  Something was incomplete, not because God was incomplete but because I think God knew that something was missing in our life the minute we humans decided to sin against Him and get kicked out of the Garden of Eden.

You remember what it was like in the Garden way back in Genesis 1 and 2?  Scripture tells us that God “walked with Adam and Eve,” and spoke to them in the cool of the evening breeze.   There is an intimacy there that only the Hebrew poetry of the first few chapters of Genesis can evoke.

But then sin happened, and humans got eliminated—no roses for them.  They get into a limousine driven by angles, and then tell the camera, “Oh, who does that God think he is anyway?   That God isn’t about love after all!”

No wonder Cain killed Abel.  Imagine growing up in that household?  Might have drove me mad too.

III.

Since the very beginning of the New Testament, however, something happens.  Something changes for us that we may not have seen coming:  God decided on a course of action that would, once and for all, reveal the extent and length and breadth of His love for us:  God visited earth in a real, flesh and blood sort of way, in the form of a baby—in the person of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel: “God with us.”

Something amazing happens.  God goes beyond merely visiting humans, God becomes ever intimate with humans.  God touches them—the lepers, the women, the children, the poor.  God heals them.  God interacts with them.  God cooks them breakfast on the shore of the sea of Galilee and gathers them around the table with scriptures on the tip of his tongue and bread in his hands.

This is the sentiment of the book of Hebrews, out of which our scripture lesson comes today.

The book is what many scholars believe to be a sermon that tells of this unfolding drama of God’s visitation to earth.  It begins like the Gospels: With a declaration that God helps conceive a Son, a beloved child, who is God’s very own, who bridges the gap between heaven and earth.

It explains in high prose and majestic poetry that, in the person of Jesus Christ, God visits humanity in a new, climactic way that inaugurates the kingdom of God as well as the divine love of God.

I am intrigued today by Hebrews 2 as the author makes some bold statements about the nature of this divine love of God.

God’s divine love doesn’t come in the form of a rose or a ring, but in the form of a cross.   Verse 13 says this:

“It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect [or complete] through sufferings.”

In other words, in becoming human, God goes one step further with this notion of love: God loves us so much that God chooses to suffer and experience death in one of the most humiliating ways ever—on the cross—in order to express three simple words to us: “I love you.”

The language here almost evokes that something was incomplete, that the love under the Jewish law was not enough, that it still evoked feelings of longing and desire in humans that was somehow inadequate, if not too fragile.

There was something that God had to do, and that was to experience suffering and testing and temptation on our terms.

IV.

One of the hardest classes a seminarian takes is pastoral care.  Basically, it’s a class on how to do pastoral visitation without making a fool of yourself.

It’s a nerve-racking, heart-wrenching class, because PC doesn’t just give you resources for these different situations, it also tests a student’s response to those situations.

Students make visits and then write up a “case study” or the basic script of the conversation.   The student then brings copies of the case study to class, hands it out to peers and teacher alike, and basically reads through the conversation.

This is really difficult, because when you read through an actual conversation you had with someone you visited by the bedside, you start to see things that make you really insecure.

Have you ever gone into an awkward situation with someone facing hardship, and on your way out of the hospital room, you wonder whether you said the right things?  Some of you ask, “What did I even say?”

Many students who visit someone find that they say to the patient, “I know how you feel,” in order to make that person feel better.

Or a student will say, “I understand, please tell me more.”

Or, “That is terrible for you, I’m so sorry to hear that.”

You too can probably recall a time in your life when you’ve visited someone in need and said one of these things.

Now, none of these responses are bad.  In fact, if you are visiting a friend who has cancer, and you know how they feel because you’ve had cancer, then it can be very assuring and very comforting to say, “I know how you feel.”  It lets the other person know that he or she is not alone in this journey, and that you will not let them go it alone.

But for many students in pastoral care, these statements are not true.  Many students don’t understand what people are going through in times of trauma.  Many students don’t know how a person feels.  And, many students are unable to be sorry for what is happening in another person’s life; there is no way to be sorry—there is nothing the student can do to change or help the situation.

God’s love is so profound, that the only way to fully express it was to pass through the very suffering, temptations, and hardships of life so that when God says, “I love you,” God means it.   God was willing to taste the very sting of death and brokenness that touch all of our lives.  God knows what it feels like to pass through hardship; God understands; God can make a difference.

Hebrews 2:14 says it this way:  “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power over death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”

I wonder if those men and women go on those reality shows not just to “find love” but to fill that void in all our hearts that comes with the knowledge that all of us are, well, human.  We don’t want to be alone in life or in death.

The epistle of 1 John, often called one of the love letters of the Bible, says this about God and love:

3:16: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”

3:18:  “Little Children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

4:8-12:  “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that he love us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

The biblical theme is always the same:  We get at God’s love through the very cross of Christ, by the very fact that God “knows” and “understands what we are going through.”

V.

I’ve met a lot of people who suffer or have faced hardship who have been resentful towards God.  I can’t say that I blame them, and I certainly don’t condemn them or tell them they are wrong.  Often, I’ll just encourage people to be honest with God.

But many folks resent God because they still feel God is distant.  They feel that God is somehow detached from human affairs.  God’s only involvement, they assume, comes in the form of judgment or the dishing out of consequences for sins committed.

The sermon that is Hebrews paints a different picture:  God is so intimate, so loving, that God is directly involved with us with every step we take.   Jesus is not ashamed of this intimacy; Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters.  Jesus was not ashamed to suffer and be humiliated on the way to death.

And Jesus is not afraid to let us bear our crosses a time or two either, because it is in our own fragility that we find the very beautiful tapestry that allows us to embrace, love, and nurture others.

I like the poem by late Archbishop of Argentina, Oscar Romero, that appears in your bulletin:

We should not wonder that a church has a lot of cross to bear.  Otherwise, it will not have a lot of resurrection.  An accommodating church, a church that seeks prestige without the pain of the cross, is not the authentic church of Jesus Christ.

Just as God’s symbol of love is the cross, so too does our symbol of love for each other and the world around us become the very crosses we bear, so that when we meet others by a bedside, we too can say, “I love you.  I am present with you, and Jesus is present with you too because He knows how you feel.  He is one just like us.”