Monday, March 26, 2012

Hope for the hurting

I have read a lot about PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder--it's a particular interest of mine--and in the course of nearly every week, I meet someone who has experienced some profound physical, emotional or spiritual trauma--and, most often, all three.  Sometimes, the people I meet are combat veterans of recent wars; others have survived rape and incest and other violent attacks.

I am moved by their stories and suffer with them. I want to take away their pain, but know that they have to work through the pain themselves and reconcile themselves to it somehow. It's a long and difficult process, and some people survive it, but others don't.

Yesterday, I read an encouraging article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about people who are dealing with PTSD. The US Army has devoted some $25 million to caring for people with PTSD in the field and at home.

With the help of psychiatrists, psychologists, and researchers, among others, the Army has created a program for teaching soldiers how to develop "mental strength" or "resiliency" in surviving and even growing from the horrors of war. The program seems to be working.

One of the important discoveries is that PTSD can become Post Traumatic Stress Growth. This change happens when the traumatized person approaches the event--be it a roadside bombing and the loss of a limb or the death of a friend in combat-- as something from which he or she can learn and can grow, something that will help him or her become a stronger and better human being.

Yes, it sounds simple. But, no, it isn't. It's hard, painful, agonizing work.

The lessons that soldiers are learning today are similar to those that people in civilian life have been learning for a long time as they have confronted the traumas of sexual assaults, other violent acts, the tragic and sudden loss of loved ones, and much more.

Millennia ago, a man called Joseph learned the same lessons. Genesis tells the story of how Joseph was the favored son of his father, how his position in the family prompted his jealous brothers to plan to kill him, but then to sell him into slavery. Both bad and good things happen to Joseph in slavery and in Egypt.

Over many years, Joseph becomes second only to Pharaoh himself in power in Egypt. Joseph meets his brothers again. They have come to Egypt looking for food to feed their starving families, and Joseph, whom they don't recognize, treats them well and gives them food. When he reveals himself to his brothers, and they are astonished by his gracious treatment of them, Joseph says to them of the hurt they had done to him, "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good."

Joseph is a resilient person. With God's help, he responds to the trauma of being betrayed by his brothers, becoming a generous and forgiving person, a savior of starving multitudes in his homeland.

As Joseph and as many people since then have discovered, tragic and traumatic things don't have to wreck us, but can raise us up to become more than the worst thing or things that have every happened to us.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Celebrating 25 years of priesthood

The people of Christ Episcopal Church, Springfield, MO, joined me yesterday, the Second Sunday of Lent,  to celebrate the 25th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood.

My actual ordination date was the Feast of St. David, patron saint of Wales, March 1. On that date in 1997, Bishop David Reed of Kentucky ordained me to the priesthood at Christ Episcopal Church, Bowling Green, KY.

On my anniversary, I renewed my ordination vows at the Holy Eucharist at 9 am, which was followed by a beautiful reception in the parish hall.

I am grateful to the several parishioners who made it possible. They organized and publicized it. They set up the tables and spread the table cloths. They contributed the food and gorgeous spring flowers. They served the food and drinks and welcomed people.

As I said in my remarks in the parish hall, there have been many highs and lows over more than two decades of priesthood, but, on the whole, the former outweigh the latter.

Just the day before, I said,  I started the morning watching four short films at the Moxie with a group of preschoolers from church. Afterwards, we worked on crafts in the lobby. It was fun. I love the energy of the children and helping to foster the Christian faith in them.

Then, later Saturday morning, I visited with high school students from throughout the diocese who were spending the weekend at Christ Church. They were taking part in Happening, a spiritual renewal experience.

I listened to a young woman's testimony about the importance of Christ in her life. (Later on at the closing Eucharist on Sunday afternoon, I was again moved, hearing participants share their experiences of Christ over the weekend.) It is a delight to see faith coming alive in the young.

These experiences are among the joys of being a priest, and I hold onto them. They are highs that help me endure the lows.

In his famous poem, Robert Frost writes of the "road not taken." A long time ago, I could have taken a different road--a military officer, a banker, a lawyer and politician, a journalist, a partner in the public relations firm (and I did take several of those roads for a time).

But priesthood was the road I chose ultimately, or rather, that chose me. God chose it for me and called me to walk it. I have done so now for more than two decades.

I trust that this is the road God created me to walk, and that when I reach the end of it--a long, long time from now, I pray--I will look back and say, "Thank God, I took this road. And thank God, I remained on it, for this road has led me into a life of purpose, value, and joy."