Unspeakable death, outrageous death

There are some things you can’t speak about, and you certainly can’t share them on social media. The Thing that thuds along like a dead thing underneath. The sun is shining and the garden is full of fruit and your work is blossoming and everyone is starting to see each other again after the COVID-ridden months; but every now and then you lose the energy which enables to you stay in the present and fall back into the numbness of the Thing.

Most of the time, you don’t even know what it is that is making you tearful, and tired and unmotivated. You can’t even speak of it to yourself. The unspeakable death, the outrageous death, which takes you back into other unspeakable and outrageous deaths, and which echoes around a world which has been full of outrageous deaths since Cain and Abel.

Reading John 11 and 12 today. Jesus’ outraged weeping over the tomb of Lazarus – how much more outraged would He be at this death – at the violence, the disposal of the body, the injustice of the system . . . no quiet tomb out of which to call the beloved to resurrection.

And Jesus’ prediction of His own death.

More knowledge, more grief

Ever get tired and lose track of God’s purposes and then find Ecclesiastes set for your morning reading? Is there really any sense in life? ‘What do we gain from all our labour?’ (1:3) Yesterday, I was ‘Hooraying’ because I’d finished the draft of my paper, but now I wonder why I did all that work this week. (On the other hand, get to chapter 2 and you find out that you wouldn’t necessarily feel any better if you’d tried to have fun all week.)

This morning, though, what struck me was 1:18:

‘For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.’

When I’ve read that before, I’ve just thought, ‘Oh, there’s the preacher finding knowledge empty’. But, today, I am thinking how true it is. Especially knowledge of what is going on around the world – whether from the media, or from listening to real people I know, I stack up more and more knowledge of situations and events which are not only grievous in themselves, but also make me grieve. And, if ‘wisdom’ has to do with perceiving people and with putting knowledge to godly use, the older I get the more I perceive and share peoples’ sorrows.

If I lose track of God’s purposes, this really is ’emptiness’ – it just makes me miserable and adds to the misery of the world.

I need to call myself back to God’s heart – the heart which shares the grief of the world (I’ve so often written and taught about how the pain/grief in God’s heart in Gen 6:6 reflects the pain/grief of humanity in Gen 3:16-17 and 5:29). God has ‘more wisdom’ and ‘more knowledge’, so He shares more sorrow and grieves more over the tragedies of His world. In fact, He has ALL wisdom and ALL knowledge, so He shares ALL sorrows and grieves over ALL evil.

That’s an unthinkable burden: imagine the almighty-ness of the Person who can carry it. But He did carry it. He does carry it. And my intercession is to take the little I carry to His Cross, and find Life!

Cheap death?

Arabic speakers may describe the deaths caused by the explosion in Beirut last week as ‘cheap’ – for me, that captures the feeling of senselessness as human life is suddenly destroyed; of those precious human beings having been somehow devalued and dishonoured; of the sudden emptiness of what had previously been a rich and wonderful world; and it implies the outraged justice question of who might ever be made to pay for this.

And the sudden deaths have been coming at me over recent months – a COVID-related stroke, a suicide, a death following a fight . . . Each one freezes something inside, triggers memories, drains energy, and makes it more difficult to find motivation for today’s work. Is it all ‘cheap’ – worthless, and moving only towards a senseless end?

Every new hit adds to the disorientation. My regular ‘survival’ mechanism kicks in, and I compartmentalise the shocks and get on with life. But I also get less able to function in the present. So . . . let’s open the ‘sudden death’ compartment, and see whether there is any sense there.

The ‘sense’ today is slowly dawning as I ask whether any death is really ‘cheap’. I think of Jesus’ outrage and grief over Lazarus’ tomb, and of the bloods of Cain crying out. Not a single sparrow is so cheap that the heavenly Father does not care about its death.

In the paper I am supposed to be writing, one of the questions I am asking myself is what would happen if we stopped our reading of the synoptic Gospels when the disciples/Peter tell Jesus that He should not die. That is, after all, the view of most Muslims: that Jesus should not have died, and that, indeed, God rescued Him so that He did not die. God would not permit such a ‘cheap’ death for such a great prophet.

But the Gospel is that Jesus’ death was not ‘cheap’. The Cross of Jesus the Messiah is the most expensive death ever, and the blood that was shed is the most valuable thing ever. I know that we are not redeemed with such cheap things as silver and gold, but with that unbelievably costly blood.

I don’t always see just how that makes sense of sudden deaths and disasters, but at least it tells me that no human death is ever really cheap. And there will be justice – someone has paid for it, and someone will pay for it.

On risking it again

You did something very good, which you believe God gave you to do, but, in the midst of it, the trauma was badly triggered and it took weeks to get back to equilibrium.

Now, it seems like God is calling you to do something similar. You can set it up so that the previous trauma triggers are avoided, or, at least, minimised. But, even so, something inside you is saying, ‘It will happen again’. And it might!

I just wrote a blog on God’s power towards safety for every single person who entrusts themselves to Him. Can I do that? Will I do what He is calling me to, even though I think I can’t?

I will. I will recognise the rising terror, but I will choose to do it. I will thank God for all the good things that He accomplished last time, and that I (and others – a traumatised Ida affects the people around her!) have survived that nightmare period and even learnt from it. I will trust again in His righteous ordering of the universe, and in His great love which always works towards my, and everyone else’s, ultimate good.

‘Though He slay me, I will trust Him’. Though He lets it ‘happen again’, I WILL TRUST HIM!

Good news! For it is the power of God towards safety

That’s Today’s Ida Glaser translation of the middle of Romans 1:16. If trauma is caused by a combination of danger and helplessness, power towards safety is Good News indeed.

What we lose when we translate ‘safety’ by ‘salvation’! For me, ‘salvation’ has long been a theological term – very important, and very good news, to be saved from sin and all that goes with it. But ‘safety’ speaks to me of God’s involvement in every level of everyone’s life, and somehow communicates that there is a deep safety in God even in the place of danger. And it is a safety rooted in the all-powerfulness of God.

Let’s go on in the verse: ‘ . . . towards safety for every single trusting person’ (again, TIG) . . . and the ‘everyone’ is then spelt out as Jews and Greeks. There is no ethnic or even religious boundary here. The only requirement in this verse is ‘trusting’ – also translated ‘believing’ or ‘having faith’. Theologians spill gallons of ink in discussing just what this means, but the obvious main point is the Good News that everyone is invited to entrust themselves to God, and that, when they do so, His power gives them safety.

And what is at the heart of the reason why we can find that safety? Verse 17 tells us: ‘For the righteousness of God is unveiled in the Good News’ (TIG). ‘For the righteousness of God . . ‘ parallels ‘For the power of God . . ‘

The Righteousness of God The Power of God

God’s exercise of power is always righteous. THAT is good news!

God’s exercise of power deals with all the unrighteousness which leads to dangers in today’s world. THAT is good news!

God’s righteousness deals with all the unrighteousness in us which leads us and others into danger. THAT is good news!

The Good News unveils/reveals/opens the door on God’s righteousness. After all our longings for justice and for goodness and for SAFETY, the Good News at last shows us what God has been doing. We were lost in our traumas and in our own as well as everyone else’s unrighteousness, and couldn’t see God’s righteousness. We were afraid that He lacked in power and could not help us. Or, worse, that He had plenty of power but was punishing us for our unrighteousness. Or, worst of all, that He had the power but was unrighteous Himself, and was doing bad things to us and to other people.

Not so, says Paul! God is BOTH powerful AND righteous. And the Good News that he is going to explain will SHOW US AT LAST!!!

Just here, Paul gives us a summary – this is going to be a call to trust, and it is going to lead to LIFE! Trauma brings fear of death, and feelings of disconnection and non-existence. The Good News brings LIFE – and connection and eternal existence. THAT is safety.

Choosing an image

‘Insert a new image’, it says. These days we can choose whatever image we want. We can even choose imaginary names for ourselves in our virtual game worlds. I am made in the image of God. How can I choose an image to represent myself or my thinking?

But I have the option: I can have an image for a logo for this page. Shall I choose the image of trauma that I discussed in my earlier blogs?

No! I don’t really want that fragmented image in front of me all the time.

Something more positive? I found this

This is an image from our lockdown Passover celebration. It goes in my mind with the wonderful invitation which begins the Passover Haggadah:

The bread of affliction reminds us not only of the affliction, but also of our liberation from affliction. So it becomes the food for the hungry, and the welcome for all.

Fight, flight, freeze and refuge

Thinking about the COVID situation as traumatic . . . it does tick the two major boxes of ‘danger’ and ‘helplessness’. This virus is dangerous and, because it is invisible and we don’t know who might have it even without symptoms, we feel helpless.

So . . . it is not surprising if we respond with ‘fight’, ‘flight’ and ‘freeze’.

The virologists and the health care people are ‘fighting’ – they actually have some thing they can do to fight this beast. And lots of people have ways of fighting for their families, for their work, for justice etc. Tragically, some are taking the opportunity to fight for more power or money or fame for themselves. Some, who have lost their livings, are fighting for their very survival. I wonder how many have been pointlessly and destructively fighting the people with whom they have been ‘locked down’? When we can’t fight the real danger, we may just fight whoever is in front of us.

‘Flight’ – that includes people who are simply denying the danger, but also flights into virtual worlds and addictive behaviours. There are more positive flights into the beauty of nature and the creativity of cooking – turning from the reality of the danger to the reality of God’s good creation. But there is also the ultimate flight of suicide – the flight from a lockdown from which there feels like there is no escape.

And what about ‘freezing’? Perhaps this is not so easily observable, but I can see it in myself. As news comes in of the sudden deaths, as I see people I love in destructive ‘fight’ or ‘flight’, I can feel the shock and notice the inner ‘shut down’. How many of us have been through those days when we find it difficult to do anything constructive? And especially to do the creative work which we know is important? So may people who, like myself, should be writing, have found it very difficult to write anything . . Some seem to have given up on life itself.

How we need to see the God who fights all evil, who is the only safe refuge to whom we can fly, and who never ‘freezes’ because He is never helpless. We read Psalm 71 this morning:

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame.
In your righteousness, rescue me and deliver me;
    turn your ear to me and save me.
Be my rock of refuge,
    to which I can always go;
give the command to save me,
    for you are my rock and my fortress.
Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked,
    from the grasp of those who are evil and cruel.

For you have been my hope, Sovereign Lord,
    my confidence since my youth.
From birth I have relied on you;
    you brought me forth from my mother’s womb.
    I will ever praise you.
I have become a sign to many;
    you are my strong refuge.
My mouth is filled with your praise,
    declaring your splendor all day long.

Re-visiting the trauma stuff

I am about to embark on editing – for a new publication – the paper on trauma that I first drafted a decade ago (can it possibly be that long?), just a year after the head injury which triggered the PTSD.

This is going to be both interesting and challenging.  It might be painful, because I will be re-visiting some of the trauma.  But it will also, I think, be fruitful, because it will give me an opportunity to reflect on how far I have come – and, in God’s grace, it can bear fruit in the lives of others who will read it.

Any praying folk out there:  please pray for me as I try to do this.

What happens in trauma therapy?

It’s interesting to look back on what has helped me to journey through PTSD towards ‘normality’.  I have had 4 therapists, 3 of whom have used a remarkable technique called ‘EMDR’.  The other used ‘Cognitive Behavioural Therapy’.  My major observation is that I made more progress with therapists who paid a great deal of attention to me and to my reactions, and had a range of techniques they could use as tools.  That takes a lot of experience!

‘Cognitive Behaviour Therapy’ helped me to MANAGE the trauma/head injury.  the therapist encouraged me to plan forward carefully for anything I was going to do, to pace myself and to find simple ways of reducing the adrenalin levels when I got over-stimulated.  For example, she introduced me to a very simple breathing exercise that really works:  you breath right out, then breath in and out but deliberately make the ‘out’ breath longer than the ‘in’ breath.  You can make it a bit more effective by counting and increasing the ‘out’ time e.g. in-2-3-4 out-2-3-4-5 in-2-3-4 out-2-3-4-5-6 in-2-3-4 out-2-3-4-5-6-7 etc.

Then, she tried to help me deal with my ‘startle response’ – that is, the way that I jump and ‘freeze’ in response to certain stimuli.  I was to choose something positive and think of that every time a certain stimulus arose.  For example, traffic could make me ‘freeze’ – so she asked me to think of something positive about people driving cars past me.  The problem was that I couldn’t think of anything that I really believed was positive about all those cars.  Eventually, I decided that I would find something to thank God for every day, and deliberately thank Him for it when I met traffic.  It did help me to manage my immediate problems, but I don’t think it dealt with the underlying condition.

I realized that people with PTSD need both to learn to manage their immediate reactions and to deal with the memories that are producing the trauma.  CBT helps with the former but not, I think, with the latter.  It also helps with something else that is very important:  teaching the body to react to stimuli in different ways.