Sunday, April 23, 2017

T Minus 1

There are three factors that, individually, are necessary and can be sufficient to create a personal paradigm shift – to radically change the way a person views, engages, and understands the world:  education, travel, and crisis.  I have experienced all three and they have shaped not just my world view, but my theology as well.  And these experiences have profoundly informed the ways in which I read the biblical text.  Today I would like to invite you to consider scripture not as a mandate for what and how to believe, but rather as an invitation to explore how your story is similar to these stories and what our stories might learn from each other.

It’s called T minus 1.  That point in time where we get stuck after something awful happens.  The “T” stands for “trauma.”  The minus 1 stands for “one second before.”  When we witness or encounter something traumatic, a part of our psyche can get stuck in that second before it happened as our brain, incapable of integrating this new information, seeks to deny that it even exists.  Some part of the brain rewinds to the second immediately before and hits the pause button.

We find ourselves here today, the first Sunday after Easter.  The first Sunday after the resurrection.  We find ourselves here today and someone is missing.  On the first day of the week, when the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples, Thomas was not with them.  We have no information in the text itself to tell us why Thomas was not present or where Thomas was instead.  So, I would like to invite you to consider when Thomas might be.

In my favorite episode of Doctor Who, the Doctor once said, “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly … time-y wimey … stuff.”  Now, I don’t necessarily propose that we get our theological or cosmological education from British Sci-Fi; but I do think this description of how time works is particularly poignant in understanding what happens to our perception of the world in response to trauma. 

I think in terms of when Thomas is …  Well, Thomas might still be somewhere between Maundy Thursday and noon on Good Friday.  Having witnessed the arrest, torture, and execution of his closest friend and leader of their ragtag band of followers, I think Thomas is at T minus 1.  Trauma is one of the most profoundly isolating experiences a person can have.  To that end, it is no surprise to me that Thomas is removed from his community. 

Thomas often gets a bad rap in Christian popular culture because he is said to have doubted that Jesus had been resurrected.  “Don’t be a doubting Thomas” we’re told when wrestling with questions of faith.  “Just believe!”  “You just need to have more faith,” is oft the spoken refrain when people are hurting following a loss.  “Seeing isn’t believing,” the quip goes, “Believing is seeing!”

If Thomas is stuck in the T minus 1, if Thomas is still in the time of one second before Jesus died, then Thomas’s doubt isn’t necessarily a doubt in the resurrection.  Thomas might still be incapable of even accepting that Jesus has truly died.  “Until I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” Thomas tells his friends.  “Until I see and touch the physical evidence of this death, I will not believe it happened.”

Resiliency is the ability to bounce back effectively after a crisis – it is often formed in our earliest experiences of trauma.  The biggest predictor of whether or not a person develops resiliency is not if or when they experience the inevitability of crisis, loss, trauma, but rather how those around them respond to their experience. 

Over and over and over again in the gospels we see Jesus interacting with people who have experienced trauma.  And over and over and over again, we see Jesus respond to their trauma in a way that it appears no one else has.  Jesus acknowledges, names, and accepts that what they have experienced is real and that it is terrible.

Meeting a leper, Jesus does not turn away, but instead chooses to heal the man and then restores him to community by having his healing witnessed by a priest.  The trauma of isolation was acknowledged and witnessed and restoration happened.

Meeting a paralytic, Jesus hears and acknowledged the pain, isolation, and trauma of infirmity.  The man is healed, he takes up his mat, and he walks.

Meeting a woman at a well at noon, isolated, alone, Jesus names her trauma, “You are right when you say you have no husband.  You have had five husbands and the man you have now is not your husband.”  “You continue to repeat the cycle of abuse because you are stuck in the T minus 1.”  This woman responds by returning to her village, a place where she is shunned, and declares, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did.”  “Come and see a man who witnessed my trauma.  I am no longer stuck.”

A bleeding woman knows that if she can just touch the hem of his cloak, her infirmity will leave her.  Jesus, sensing the power had gone out of him questioned who had touched him.  “Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth.”  Jesus heard her story and responded, “Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

Time and time again Jesus responds to invisible trauma by saying, “Your wounds have been made visible.  The traumas you have suffered are real and terrible.  And it is possible to find healing and move forward.”

A week after Thomas is reunited with the other ten disciples, Jesus appears.  “Come, Thomas.  Touch my wounds.  See that my death and your loss are real.  The trauma you experienced in witnessing my death has been made visible in these wounds.  Touch my wounds.  Know, intimately, that they are real.  Witness collectively, as a community, naming and affirming the reality of the trauma you have suffered.  Move forward from T minus 1 and find healing.”

Most days, it feels to me as though we are living in a time of crisis. The world right now feels like it’s stuck in the T minus 1.  Our ability to move forward and function in a mature fashion has been stunted by our failure to acknowledge, name, and give witness to the realities of trauma.   Though studies indicate that the world is less violent now than at any previous time in history, access to 24 hour cable news cycles, citizen journalism, and social media amplify the conflicts of the world, imbuing them with magical powers and always, always, always pointing a finger of blame.  Rarely does anyone say, “These things are real and terrible and we can find healing and move forward.”

Thomas’s doubt wasn’t a failure of faith.  Thomas’s doubt wasn’t a failure at all.  It was a necessary step in his learning how to touch wounds, how to see that invisible trauma is real, how to witness and name and affirm.  Thomas’s doubt gave him space to learn how to find healing by moving toward and through loss, rather than stopping at the T minus 1.

As we face our own crises today, may we do so knowing that within crisis lies the potential for a paradigmatic shift.  If we allow it, moments of crisis have the potential to bring us back to the cross, the place that speaks truth to power, love to hate, and acknowledges that trauma – seen and unseen – can leave us isolated, alone, without community or connection – but that same trauma is never the final word.  In our own moments of crisis, if we have the courage to acknowledge, name, and touch, to make visible the wounds of trauma, we can find the power of healing.  We can find the power of resurrection.

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