by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
27 June 2021
This summer our worship theme is “Restore.” We are ourselves living through a season of restoration, as many aspects of our lives return after more than a year of distance and isolation. We are also doing new things and creating a new normal, both restoring and transforming the lives we once had and the lessons we learned during the worst of the pandemic.
And that pandemic along with the reckoning for racial justice, violence in our streets, the tumultuous election, the attempted insurrection, and more have left a collective trauma upon us and really every person in the world. How do we heal and grow from these experiences we’ve been through?
To explore these concerns, we’ve turned to stories in the Hebrew scriptures about the return from exile of the Jewish people as they worked through their collective trauma and tried to restore their society, their culture, their religious faith. Our reading has opened up insights on the emotions and resilience and courage. But also some lessons in what not to do, especially the tendency of traumatized people to hurt others.
Today, we read a passage from the Book of Malachi, and I want to use it as a launching pad to explore the importance of imagining and enacting new realities as part of the process of healing. Hear now the word of the Lord:
See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.
But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.
For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God within us,
For the Word of God among us,
Thanks be to God.
This oracle of the prophet invites the people, invites us, to use our imaginations. Let’s imagine a day burning like an oven—no stretch for us who have endured some awful heat the last month. On this day, God’s justice will arrive. The wicked and the evildoers will meet their just rewards. And the righteous will go out leaping because a new day has dawned, bringing healing.
Don’t you like the image “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings”? We can picture it. Even sing about it. It’s an evocative image of newness, hope, possibility.
And this imagining of a new, good, joyful reality is what I want to focus on today, as we continue to explore the theme of Restore.
One of the best books I’ve read on trauma and healing is The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk. There was a point this last winter when in a few weeks four different people mentioned the book in conversation, so I finally thought, “I’d better read that.” And it is a thorough, informative look at the way trauma affects our bodies and various approaches to healing.
In the early chapters of the book, Van Der Kolk explains what research has revealed about trauma and its impacts on our minds and bodies. That research has shown how dramatically it can affect us, reorienting our minds and deeply impacting our ability to live well. He writes,
We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.
Van Der Kolk then goes on to explain further,
Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.
In detail in the book, he discusses these impacts and how a traumatized person can begin to view everything in their reality through the lens of the negative experience. And how this can damage their relationships and sense of well-being.
Brain research has shown how trauma physically impacts the brain. He writes, “We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive.”
One of my favorite quotes to use, that has often shaped my preaching and ministry, comes from St. Irenaeus—“The glory of God is a humanity fully alive.” Another is our Reformed teaching that the chief end of humanity is to “glorify God, and to enjoy God forever.”
To live fully, with enjoyment and glory, to be our best selves—these are central ideas in Christian theology and in my own approach to ministry.
But the research on trauma studies shows how difficult that can be for people who have experienced real trauma, those who suffer from various forms of PTSD. Or those who have been traumatized by poverty, injustice, and oppression. Plus, all of us experience less debilitating forms through grief, depression, illness, loss, or the even the world events of the last year and a half.
And so we face a spiritual challenge. To develop resilience, to hope, to heal, to rise up again.
This brief passage from the Book of Malachi contains one of the ways we do that—through imagining and then living into new realities.
Here’s what Bessel Van Der Kolk writes about the importance of imagination:
Imagination is absolutely critical to the quality of our lives. Our imagination enables us to leave our routine everyday existence by fantasizing about travel, food, sex, falling in love, or having the last word—all the things that make life interesting. Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities—it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes come true. It fires our creativity, relieves our boredom, alleviates our pain, enhances our pleasure, and enriches our most intimate relationships.
Since trauma compromises the ability to imagine, it can have devastating effects on our well-being and our enjoyment of life. So, part of healing from trauma is learning to imagine again. For imagining, over time, can actually heal the brain.
But if our ability to imagine is compromised, how do we start to imagine new realities?
Another book I’ve read recently on healing from trauma, by Mark Wolynn, emphasizes the importance of having new experiences and how practicing those new experiences slowly retrains the brain.
How many of you were a nervous the last few months the first time you were in a crowd, or went to a restaurant, or took your mask off around other people? Yet once we did those sorts of things, we became a little less nervous and took bigger steps.
Wolynn emphasizes the value of new experiences that “engage our sense of curiosity and wonder.” Also those that bring “comfort or support, or feeling compassion or gratitude.” He writes,
On a neurophysiological level, each time we practice having the beneficial experience, we’re pulling engagement away from our brain’s trauma response center, and bringing engagement to the other areas of our brain, specifically to our prefrontal cortex, where we can integrate the new experience and neuroplastic change can occur.
So, we begin to rewrite the brain as we have these new positive experiences that help us to imagine new realities.
Last week I had a most marvelous experience. I drove back home to Miami, Oklahoma for their first ever Pride Festival. Miami, Oklahoma—my birthplace and hometown and the place four generations of my family lived—has a population around 12,000 and is located in the northeastern corner of the state. I was thoroughly shocked about a month ago when someone sent me a Facebook post about their upcoming Pride Festival in Riverview Park. At first I donated some money to the effort, but pretty quickly realized that young Scotty Jones would not forgive grown up Scott if he didn’t go to this event.
Riverview Park, where the Festival was held, was the site of so many events in my childhood and adolescence—family reunions, church picnics, Independence Day fireworks, and more. But here I was, in this place of such rich memory, watching drag queens perform and trans kids march.
Hundreds of people showed up. There were twenty or more vendors. A large area for crafts. Bouncey houses for kids. Food trucks. And a performance stage that ran all afternoon. I sat on my lawn chair in the shade with one of my high school teachers and everyone who stopped by said, “Did you ever imagine this would happen?” And the answer was, of course, “No.” But here it was.
Someone did imagine it. And they then made it real. And here, in an unlikely place, a new reality came into being.
And I’ve watched this week on the Facebook group organized around the event as parents have posted pictures of bringing their queer kids to this, their first ever Pride, and what a good and affirming and welcoming experience those kids had. In Riverview Park in Miami, Oklahoma.
Mark Wolynn does give us some particulars about what we need in order to imagine new realities. He writes,
We will need sentences, rituals, practices, or exercises to help us forge a new inner image.
Aha! Worship! Church! Prayer! Spiritual practice! We already come equipped with tools of hope and healing. We can sing a hymn like “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come,” and that singing, that physical act of our bodies, helps to rewire our brains. Or we read passages from ancient scripture that invite us to imagine “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” and something happens in our prefrontal cortex that helps us to develop courage and strength.
And so this place becomes a sanctuary, where we are safe and comforted. In this space, we hear and say and sing good words. We see beautiful images. We encounter encouraging, smiling faces. And we begin to imagine, and our brains begin to change, and our bodies begin to relax, and new realities begin to emerge, and healing is possible.
I return to Bessel Van Der Kolk, who writes that for people to heal, they need to have experiences “rooted in safety, mastery, delight, and connection.”
Then, he adds, “to be welcomed into a world where people delight in them, protect them, meet their needs, and make you feel at home.”
I experienced that last week in Miami, Oklahoma—when home felt even more welcoming.
And I experience that here every week—a place of comfort, support, and delight. Where God brings healing as we make this home a new reality.