Preaching in Times of Trauma: Learning on the Journey
Is there something particular about preaching in a time of trauma? The ideas offered here are drawn specifically from a ‘journey’ I began at the start of Holy Week 2020, as lock-down became our reality, from Palm Sunday to Pentecost I shared a thought for the day, based on one of the lectionary readings set for morning prayer. I was seeking to offer a word of comfort, challenge, or hope, based on the Gospel of God’s saving work by the power of the Spirit through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. This is the theological work of preaching.
When preaching in traumatic times it is vital to return to theological foundations, reminding ourselves that God is alive and well and present whatever we face. God continues to speak through the particularity of a scriptural text into the present day. Each time I began to write, I tried to step into the creative process, trusting God would lead, even if I had little sense of this. This journey has reminded me again of God’s faithfulness working through my flakiness, and the feedback suggests the inspiration of God has been at work. So, step one in preaching in a time of trauma, trust that God can work miracles with the crumbs of our stale loaves. When energy is low and faith wobbly, God only needs our willingness to speak; our frailty and vulnerability do not inhibit the effectiveness of his word. That is an essential theological anchoring point and a source of confidence.
Medium and Method
Almost as important as the content is the medium, and the method of sharing the sermon. Without a church building how do we reach the hearer? I was looking for intimacy, simplicity, and seeking to build a sense of community. Each thought was around 3-4 minutes in length and delivered as a podcast, with a copy of the text for those with no technological facility. A podcast reduces the interference between mouth and ear, lending itself to the kind of intimate pilgrimage I wanted to create. A podcast demands careful attention to pacing, inflection and tone. I wanted to use this to communicate warmth, companionship, and closeness, using colloquial phrasing and a conversational style. For those whose only access was via a text version I wanted them to be able to ‘hear’ my voice on the page, through the use of language.
The audio files went out to friends and contacts through email, Whatsapp and Messenger. Some found their way onto church websites. People were invited to pass them on if they found them useful. Whilst using Facebook or Twitter would undoubtedly have increased the potential audience, it ran the risk of the thoughts becoming ‘scroll fodder’ – which seemed to remove the intimate connection I wanted to establish. I was wary of putting out another message in a saturated space. My intuition was to ‘let go’, rather than ‘push out’, allowing the thoughts to find their own way through personal sharing and recommendation, if people felt they merited it. I had a strong sense of ‘casting bread upon the waters,’ to borrow from Ecclesiastes. I think this intuition was right for my purpose in this season. I was delighted when a written version found its way to an elderly lady from a congregation I once ministered to, a woman without digital technology. She got in touch with me and we exchanged letters. An example of the intimacy of old school connectivity. In a time of trauma finding ways to express closeness is particularly important. The feedback (unsought – but came anyway) underscored this sense of a shared pilgrimage, even with people I’ve never met, who reached back to me sharing their stories of lock-down and how the thoughts had affected them. The truth is the words made a profound difference to some people in a way I found humbling and overwhelming. To my knowledge the podcasts reached as far as the Falkland Islands, through the military community, and across the United Kingdom. Some people reported listening in groups, others used them as they had their breakfast each day or took their daily exercise.
The necessary brevity of the audio format really lent itself to speaking to people who were feeling distracted and unfocused – and time and again the feedback from people mentioned this. When people are feeling afraid, distracted, or anxious a short ‘sermon’ is enough to give them hope to hang onto. Also, in a time of trauma, the preacher is not above the situation. I didn’t have the energy for long complex sermons.
A really fundamental question, especially in a time when many people seem to be seeking God, is establishing who we are trying to reach This shapes the language we use and highlights any assumptions we make. In the journey from Palm Sunday to Pentecost, I wanted to find language which might speak to those struggling to find meaning, perhaps with no faith framework, as well as to the established Christian community. This affected how I used the Bible, making no assumptions about prior knowledge, and reminded me not to use theological shorthand or churchy phrasing. I earthed my language in local soil, drawing from aspects of popular culture, and offering the occasional aside designed to raise a smile.
It seems I am always speaking aloud to myself in my sermons. So, I question myself, exploring my feelings, fears, reactions and resources. If I feel at sea, what are my compass points? Where is the shore? Then I ponder people experiencing a different angle of this traumatic time. I live alone, in a house with a garden, near the countryside, with a secure job. How is it to live in a small flat with young children and no job security, or no job at all? What’s it like to be furloughed and not know how long that will last and when it will end? Ponder imaginatively the experience of the other. Of course, there are many situations we won’t even think of, but the empathetic effort will communicate.
Content and Connections
Given the format I chose is concise, I tried to pick up on one theme or image in the biblical text and allow that to connect with a matter of the moment. Sometimes it worked the other way and something at the time of writing highlighted an aspect of the text. For example, the reference to crowds in the reading on Palm Sunday spoke powerfully into the separation and silence on the day I wrote the reflection. The intimacy of touch in the meal Jesus took with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, connected with the longing of many today to share a meal with friends or touch another person. I sought reference to issues in the news, and concrete experiences in people’s lives, acknowledging the complex issues around us and reorientating us to the sovereign God in whom all our hope is founded. Here’s an example from the reflection for Tuesday of the second week of Easter:
Just six words: ‘in him all things hold together, ‘What does this mean? Paul’s vision of Christ is breath-taking. This isn’t some good teacher from long ago. Jesus is Alpha and Omega, beginning and end. As C.S. Lewis wrote of that lion ‘If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most, or else just silly.’ I think Paul would agree with Lewis. There is nothing unknown to Christ – from the mystery of space to the rhythm of your heartbeat. There is no political leader not known fully and beheld clearly; there is no act of care offered on a Nightingale Ward that he doesn’t see; no quiet tear slides down a cheek without him knowing. No cry of ‘Why’ that he doesn’t receive. No prayer slides by him. ‘In him all things hold together.’
The other thing I was mindful of is the importance of lament. Sugar coating the pain of the moment in religious platitudes offers only denial. I wanted to speak in a way that provided some tools for developing spiritual resilience. Resilience calls for an honest assessment of the situation and the willingness to wrestle with how the great theological truths land in the reality of our back yards.
I end with the thought for the day from Tuesday of the third week of Easter. It exemplifies a number of the points above and ends in a prayer, as each of the thoughts did. Whatever we face when this article goes to print, it seems a fitting prayer.
’Let it be.’ When I hear those words, I think of the Beatles song. I promise you will have that as an ear worm for the rest of the day! The words of the song are strangely relevant – with phrases like ‘when I find myself in times of trouble,’ mention of ‘broken - hearted people,’ and ‘through they may be parted’ and the need for ‘words of wisdom’. In the song it’s ‘Mother Mary’ who comes and speaks words of wisdom. If ever we needed a visitation from the Blessed Virgin Mary – now would be a good time.
To be fair – she hasn’t failed us. She speaks loud and clear in the New Testament reading set for this morning. It’s about the angel Gabriel being sent by God to Mary, with the news that she will conceive and bear a child. This child will be named Jesus – he will be the Son of the Most High, sit on the throne of his ancestor David and his kingdom will never end.
Mary questions the angel – over a few technical issues – and ends the encounter with the words ’Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.’
’Let it be.’ Mary’s words are far from a passive shoulder shrug and a ‘whatever’– they are dynamic, ringing with her willingness to trust the God for whom nothing is impossible.
The Beatles song promises that ‘there will be an answer.’ The Gospel account spells out the nature of that answer, God become human. Again, my cynical self wonders at how to join the dots between the theological statement that Jesus Christ – in his life, death, resurrection and ascension – is the answer to all the world’s pain and sorrow, and the stark reality of that pain and sorrow – images of patients on ventilators, stories of people dying alone, and so on – and that is to say nothing of the hungry, the dispossessed and displaced. Is it an idle tale?
I come back to that ‘let it be’ of Mary in Luke’s Gospel. Let what be? Let all the greatness of God: power, majesty, mystery, come into the world in the precarious vulnerability of skin. Let God be known in flesh. Not God far from the world, but God intimately present in life, in joy and in pain. Acquainted with suffering. Present in suffering. ‘Let it be’ - Mary’s words are dynamic, ringing with the willingness to trust in God for whom nothing is impossible. Her trust will lead her through times of immense joy, and times of intense sorrow. But the trajectory of her story is in the direction of hope.
When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, through St Luke’s Gospel, via the Beatles, speaking words of wisdom, ‘Let it be...’
A prayer for today:
Help us to trust in your great answer
to the suffering of the world:
Help us to trust that you are present
in the midst of sorrow.
Help us to trust
that there will be answers
to the questions posed by the crisis we face.
Grant us hope. Amen
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