Isaiah 62:1-7, 10-12; 2 Corinthians 6:2-10
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
16 January 2022
“We are most dangerous to ourselves and to the people around us when we feel powerless.”
That’s according to Brene Brown, who has turned her academic research on the emotions into a series of bestselling books. In Rising Strong she discusses how believing one is a failure can lead us to feel powerless, and how feeling powerless, we can begin to despair. Then she offers a surprising definition of despair—“It’s the belief that tomorrow will be just like today.”
What she means by that is, tomorrow is just like today, if we can’t set goals and pursue them. If we can’t make any changes in our lives. Once we begin to feel that way, then we feel powerless and we despair.
And this is when she gives a surprising definition of hope. Hope, she writes, “is not an emotion; It’s a cognitive process.” She explains, “Hope happens when we can set goals, have the tenacity and perseverance to pursue those goals, and believe in our own abilities to act.” Hope, then is “a function of struggle,” not some rosy outlook on life.
What often prevents us from hoping, from acting, from rising strong, is our own sense of shame. Some of Brown’s earliest and best research focused on shame and how that is different from guilt. Guilt, she writes, is feeling “I screwed up.” Whereas shame is feeling, “I’m a screw up.” Guilt focuses on behavior and shame on our sense of self.
We counter shame by being open and vulnerable. She encourages us to talk with someone we trust about our feelings of shame, because “shame thrives in secrecy” and it “can’t survive being spoken” to someone who responds with empathy.
And so the prophet Isaiah declares that he will not keep silent. Instead, he proclaims the vindication of the daughters of Zion. God has seen and heard, and God is responding. God is a rock and a refuge. God delivers those she loves. Now is the day of salvation, the epistle proclaims.
In her notes on today’s scripture lessons, biblical scholar Wilda Gafney writes that these stories offer “a way to talk about life after trauma.” We can see that in the Psalm, where the poet cries out for God to deliver her from her enemies. Or in the Epistle lesson, where Saint Paul has an entire list of bad things that have happened—beatings, imprisonments, punishments, sleepless nights.
Wilda Gafney points out that this is most clear in the reading from Isaiah. If we listen carefully to that text we realize the sorts of trauma it’s about. Zion has been conquered. Ravaged by her enemies. What must be understood is that this includes sexual violation and violence. How often rape and other dehumanizing acts accompany conquest.
Yet, God is promising vindication. Shame will be vanquished. The daughters of zion will receive a crown of beauty. They will find a spouse who cherishes them. They will be protected from future violation. They will be saved.
One of the best books on life after trauma from a theological perspective is Serene Jones’s Trauma and Grace. Jones is the President of Union Theological Seminary in New York. And she’s spent much of her career working in the field of trauma, including leading support groups for women recovering from violence.
For her a key insight into life after trauma is that “wounds are not magically healed but are borne.” That’s borne with an “e,” as in carried. She writes that we have to learn to “hold the loss.” And that we can do that, because we are “held together in the strong grip of divine compassion.”
She suggests two spiritual practices to helps us hold the loss and move into life after trauma—mourning and wondering. She writes that grieving is the hardest of all our emotions, that its “demands are so excruciating.” But that if we genuinely grieve, then we have the possibility of moving on. So we must learn to give our loss “as much attention as can be mustered.”
Last week we talked about the strength of attentive care, and how that includes care of ourselves. When dealing with loss, grief, and trauma, that is one of the vital places for attending to ourselves, caring for ourselves. Giving ourselves the time and space to have these emotions, to feel them fully, to learn from them. Instead of living in denial, pushing them down all the time, trying to move on too quickly.
Serene Jones teaches that if we are attentive to our mourning, that’s actually when wonder appears. Because if we are attentive to our grief, then we are being vulnerable. And it is when we are vulnerable, that we are most likely to be drawn outside of ourselves, to have our attention drawn to something or someone else.
“Wondering,” she writes, “is the simple capacity to behold the world around you (and within you), to be awed by its mystery, to be made curious by its difference, and to marvel at its compelling form.”
And so wonder works to heal the trauma because, as she says, “wonder is the complete opposite of the truncated, shut-down systems of perception that traumatic violence breeds in its victims.”
Now, then the Gospel lesson Gafney attaches to these other scripture lessons about life after trauma is the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. What gives? How is this story tied to the themes of these other passages?
Gafney answers, “Against this background [of sexual violence and trauma], the ability of women to choose baptism and discipleship matters.”
The ability to choose an identity, a faith, a community. To undergo a ritual about new life, putting the past to death and being reborn as a beloved child of God.
To rise strong from trauma, powerlessness, and despair is to believe that we can set goals and pursue them. That we have agency and power. To hope. To do new things so that tomorrow is not like today.
God sees our pain and hears our cries. God’s compassion holds us. God’s power delivers us. God saves us. We are vindicated, because God has given us the love, the strength, and the chance to heal. And to move forward.
Now is the day of salvation. We are alive.
Our vindication shines out like a blazing light.
We are God’s beloved children, in whom God is well pleased.
As the final verses of today’s Psalm declare:
God reached down from on high, she took me;
She drew me out of the multitude of water.
She delivered me from my strong enemy,
And from those who hate me;
For they were too mighty for me.
They confronted me in the day of my calamity;
Yet the Sheltering God was my support.
She brought me out into a broad place;
She delivered me, because she delights in me.