Sumter Pastor Clay Smith: Trauma ...


There was another school shooting, this one in Nashville, Tennessee. Three 9-year-olds and three adults are dead. I watch the news reports and read the articles and ask, "How long, O Lord, how long?" This was the lament of suffering people captured in Psalm 13. How long, O Lord, until this violence stops?

This shooting comes in the wake of three children and one adult being murdered two miles from my home last week. How long, O Lord? Every day the news brings me tragic stories: Forty are killed in a fire at a refugee center in Mexico. A Russian missile slams into an apartment building in Ukraine; dozens die. A college girl is raped.

Some people feel the solution is to stop watching the news. I understand that sentiment, but personally, I want to know what is happening in the world. There is nothing fake about the news of death and violence.

Edwin Friedman, a psychologist, observed that Americans have come to falsely believe that the world can be a safe place. Maybe that is why we try to bubble wrap our children, to protect them from harm. Precaution is not bad, but ultimately, as the parents in Nashville learned, you cannot protect your children from everything.

The world has always been filled with violence and war. Perhaps in old times, violence would come, and then there would be a long period of time to absorb the loss and process the grief. Not now. Traumatic events happen around the corner. Cameras are everywhere to give a firsthand view of shootings and war. In case we are not getting enough, TV shows invite us to imagine rape, murder, racial hatred and torture. Like Rascal Flatts, I miss Mayberry, sitting on the front porch, drinking ice-cold cherry coke, when everything was in black and white.

Trauma, psychologists tell us, is a deep emotional response to violence and loss. A wise counselor recently shared, "We live in a traumatized world." I have few memories of my mother crying. Two stand out: When she found out her brother-in-law had been killed in an accident and when she found out her uncle had also been killed in an accident. Even as a child, I knew she was not just crying for her aunt and her sister; she was reliving her own shock of my father dying too young of a heart attack. Trauma can be re-awakened by someone else's pain.

People respond to traumatic events in different ways. Shock and anger are two go-to emotions. All those angry posts you see on social media after a traumatic event are the result of trauma.

People can disassociate. Years ago, a woman came to me with a puzzling issue. She would find herself driving down a road and have no idea how she got there. I knew her issues were above my skill level, so I referred her to a counselor. She later told me the counselor had helped her uncover trauma from childhood. She had learned to disassociate to survive. Now the memories were coming back, and her brain was responding in the way she knew best.

Many of us, myself included, cope with trauma using denial. I held the hands of people who were dying; I saw the bodies carried out of the house; I've had to run toward the fire and urge a dazed man to quit spraying water on natural gas tanks and run. Mostly, I have experienced the trauma of people dying too soon, dying before I was ready to let them go. My response is usually to kick into high gear, to over-function, to try to be everything to everyone, and then to crash with some bad habits a few weeks after the traumatic event. That's denial.

Jesus lived in a traumatic world. He had seen other men dying on crosses long before he was nailed to one. He saw the trauma demon possession inflicted on people. In his small village of Nazareth, he would have known about the babies who died in childbirth, about the rapes of Jewish women by Roman soldiers and about the violence of government suppression of protests.

When Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid," he was not speaking of a world of daisies and flute music. He spoke those words the night before his own death on a cross, where he experienced the greatest trauma of all.

The great trauma of the cross was not the physical pain preachers like to emphasize. The great trauma was bringing all the messiness of the world into his perfect soul. He was filled with every traumatic event in human history, from the ancient wars to the rapes that happened on college campuses last night. He brought all of this to himself, so the trauma inflicted by evil could be healed, so peace could reign.

God has not chosen to stop traumatic events. Instead, he has promised us a peace greater than our trauma, a peace that will drive out fear and anxiety, a peace that will bring us to him. Bring your trauma to him. Let his strong arms hold you. Let his grace be sufficient.