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.

Awaken to the World

By Matt Sapp

During Lent at Central Baptist Church (the six weeks between Ash Wednesday and Easter) we’re focusing on the humanity of Jesus and the ways that Christ’s teaching “awakens” us to what it means to be fully human.

This spring as we remember that God has a hand in all of creation as it awakens from its winter slumber, we’re praying each week that God will awaken us, too–and in these five ways.

Awakening to Scripture
Last Sunday we looked at two potential responses when faced with temptation. One approach to temptation is to buttress yourself with the word of God. Jesus literally quoted scripture to turn back temptation (Matt 4). Adam and Eve, though, were easily convinced that God’s word wasn’t true—or that it didn’t apply to them—when they rather easily gave in to temptation (Genesis 3).

Let me challenge you to use Lent this year as a time of awakening to scripture—as a time to reflect on the role the word of God plays in your life. How familiar are you with scripture? How often do you read the Bible? What habits can you develop to help you both embody and believe the word of God?

Awakening to Curiosity
This week in worship we’ll explore the value of honest questioning and of acknowledging intellectual uncertainty as we look at the story of Nicodemus (John 3). It’s okay to have questions for God. It’s even okay to have real, lasting uncertainty about the full nature of our faith.

Let me challenge you to use Lent this year as a time of awakening to curiosity—and as a time to enter into conversations with God and with one another about real questions that may not have easy answers—or ANY answers—but that allow us to explore our faith more fully.

Awakening to Guiding Narratives
We all carry unconscious stories that guide our thinking about our lives—internal narratives that we tell ourselves about who we are. Many of us have mostly good internal narratives. Some of us can be pretty hard on ourselves. But no matter what your internal narrative is, the story that God would tell about you is far greater than the stories you are telling about yourself.

We’ll explore this idea as we talk about the Samaritan woman at the well in a few weeks (John 4). Let me challenge you to use Lent this year as a time of awakening to the internal narratives that guide your understanding of who you are.

Awakening to New Vision
The thing about blind spots is we don’t know we have them until someone else calls it to our attention. When Jesus heals a man who was born blind (John 9) the whole community—and especially the Pharisees—were forced to acknowledge blind spots in their thinking.

You may have some blind spots, too. Blind spots in your relationships. Blind spots in your behavior. Blind spots to things you don’t know or properly understand.

When we acknowledge our blind spots, we have the chance to gain new vision. Let me challenge you to use this Lent as a time of awakening to your blind spots and as an opportunity to increase your vision.

Awakening to God as a New Creator
On Palm Sunday (Matthew 21), the crowds were cheering the arrival of a king. And Jesus IS a king. But Christ is not the kind of king the crowds were expecting.  Jesus is not someone who comes simply to upgrade the talent on our team. Christ is not the All-Star who swoops in to help us win the big game. He’s not just a good guy here to help us defeat the bad guys.

When Christ comes, he comes to introduce us to a whole new game, governed by a whole new set of rules, and aiming for a whole different set of outcomes. If we’re looking for someone to step into our game and play by our rules and become our champion, then we have a grave misconception about what God is doing in Jesus Christ.

God is coming to create something completely new! Our job is to understand the new rules, to play the new game, and to get on God’s team—rather than expecting Christ to join our team.  Let me challenge you to use this Lent as a time of awakening to the full scope of what God is aiming to accomplish in Jesus Christ.

And, one more challenge: Be in church as often as you’re able between now and Easter. These weeks of preparation really are worth it. They help us wake up to all that Easter means for our lives and for our world.

The Reverend Matt Sapp is pastor of Central Baptist Church, Newnan, Georgia. This article was reprinted with the author’s permission.

Heads up, Light Touch, and Keep Running!

person holding rectangular white photo frame standing on rock formation near body of waterBy Rev. Matt Sapp

A few years ago, I gave my wife Julie a hang-gliding trip as a birthday present. We spent the night in Chattanooga and got up early in the morning for a lesson at Lookout Mountain where she and two other students spent a few hours with an instructor to learn the basic skills of the sport.

They got comfortable with the weight of the glider, walking first on level ground and then jogging and even running with the glider on their shoulders.

Once they got comfortable on level ground, they started working with the glider on a slight slope and then on increasingly steeper hills. And as they started jogging and then running down these hills—with this huge glider wing above them—they actually started to take off!

The glider started to lift them up into the air, at least for a second. And then all of them did the exact same thing—a great big Superman belly flop into the grass.

When the glider starts to lift you up into the air, beginning hang-gliding students have three natural reactions.

First, they look down because they feel as if they are losing their footing. Second, they grip the metal bars of the hang glider as tight as they can, holding on for dear life. And third, they tend to stop running and try to leap into the air in an attempt to give the glider the final push it needs to really take flight.

And when you do those three things, you do a great big Superman belly flop into the grass.

So guess what the hang gliding instructor kept shouting—over and over again?

Head up! Light touch! Keep running! Head up!! Light touch!! Keep Running!!

Head up, light touch, keep running. That repeated mantra has stuck with me. It’s not just good advice for hang gliding students; it’s good advice for all of us in 2020 as we face what has the potential to be a pretty turbulent year.

Keep your head up in 2020. There’s a lot going on around us this year, and tensions seem to want to run unusually high. It can be easy to want to just hunker down and wait for calmer waters. But Christians shouldn’t feel bowed or beaten down by even the most challenging of seasons. The ultimate Good News of scripture is that God’s presence endures in wonderfully powerful ways, especially in challenging times. So count on God’s presence, be God’s presence, and keep your head up.

Handle things with a light touch in 2020, too. Don’t cling to issues or events too tightly or approach people with an overly heavy hand. We all have a lot on our plates, and most people just want what’s best for our community and world just like you do. So use a light touch.

And keep running in 2020. Don’t let the feeling of being overwhelmed or exhausted knock you off your feet or put you on the sidelines. Keep plowing ahead faithfully in the fields where God has placed you. Know that your presence, your work, and your Christian witness matter—and keep running.

The Reverend Matt Sapp is pastor of Central Baptist Church in Newnan, Georgia. This article first appeared on the church’s blog, and is reprinted with permission.