riding the wave

This pandemic is adding inches to my waist. The connection was shamelessly illustrated to me last night. In the middle of the BBC evening news report of rising infection levels (the number of cases tripled in Northumberland this week), I went to the kitchen and grabbed a handful of chocolate biscuits. No mystery where those inches are coming from, as if there ever was one.

 Which leads me to contemplate creature comforts and the role of respite and celebration in surviving the pandemic. When an individual is traumatised, her brain may oscillate between intrusive thoughts about the traumatising event and a kind of numbing dissociation. In this way her brain gives her periods of rest and recovery so that she has more resources at her disposal to try to make sense of what has happened when she can.

 So too communities and churches need periods of respite and outright celebration in the midst of the rock and roll of this onslaught of global pandemonium. We need to be reminded of the good things in life as a kind of ballast and hope-basket. We need to laugh and move and sing and just feel good – forgetting momentarily the danger and drama unfolding before us. No wonder young people are raving. (I am not condoning this.) Celebration is more than a safety valve. It’s an affirmation of the joy of being alive.

 In mid-July the granddaughter of a church member got married in much reduced circumstances. Scores of church members lined the streets around the church in a socially distanced manner to greet the bride as she arrived. Though they could not attend the wedding, they could celebrate the occasion and share the joy. The event lifted the spirits of everyone. Lockdown-schlockdown, love is alive and kicking and so are we. I am aware that such a thing would be illegal under the current Rule of Six and further local restrictions in the NorthEast; we will have to be more creative next time.

 I have added to the list of leadership tasks in a collective trauma: Celebrate Joy! Create respite!  (Emphatic exclamation mark!) So much is happening in this disillusioning, sometimes despairing time: survival, adaptation, seeking ground firm enough to stand on, learning to hold opposite ideas in our heads (we will celebrate Remembrance Day together; we can’t gather for Remembrance), watching out for folks who are more severely impacted, contemplating church life in the future, assessing risk, trying to stay healthy, worrying about future traumas (economic impact, Brexit, climate change, mass extinction…..ugh). This is all tricky, heavy stuff. Attending to our needs for simple pleasure and collective celebration is an essential, along with self-care. Play and celebration help calibrate our souls to the eternal now.

 Bring out the party hats. Refuse to not celebrate special events in whatever safe way you can. Add “notice Joy!” and “Take a break!” to the list of things to do today. It may be the most important thing you can do for yourself and the community. And a lot healthier than scarfing chocolate whilst watching the evening news. That said, I’m cutting myself some slack here. My jeans still fit. Just. (Don’t ask me about my corduroys.)

 Revd Dr. Carla A. Grosch-Miller and

the Tragedy and Congregations team (www.tragedyandcongregations.org.uk)

September 2020

Are we there yet?

Are we there yet?                                         

We have been offering small group information and discussion sessions for people in ministry under the title of Trauma-informed ministry for times like these. What we notice is that folks are worn out and wanting this to be over, despite knowing that we are in this for the long haul and that that might be a very long time. The weariness is accompanied and sometimes offset by excitement about the opportunities ahead in a changed landscape. Yesterday I was asked How long will we be in this disillusionment phase? with obvious longing for it to be over. (You may want to look back at our Mapping the journey through uncharted Covid-19 territory blog.)

Well, it won’t be over until it is over. We can’t change that. And that’s not a bad thing.

Being up close and personal with the disillusionment phase this summer has led me to believe that interesting and very important things are happening during it. People are recouping their energies after the heroic output that was called forth in lockdown. The disillusionment phase is a time of depleted energy, which will hopefully lead us to rest more. At the same time there is a settling into the facts of what has happened and its impact on us personally, as a church congregation and as British people and world citizens. When a traumatising event occurs, there is a rupture in time. We have the experience but don’t really understand its impact at first. Whilst being heroic, we are carried on a wave of adrenalin to respond. When that crashes – as it must – the full impact of events begin to register. Not only are we disillusioned, but we may be de-illusioned, stripped of ways of thinking that no longer work in this new world we’ve entered. Fundamental assumptions about the safety and benevolence of the world, of other people and of ourselves are shaken and shattered. These nonconscious assumptions have enabled us to live and plan in a relatively stable world. Now they are gone. And the work of rebuilding and reshaping them is a long and arduous task that begins in the disillusionment phase.

Through all the phases after and during a collective trauma, we are surviving and adapting. Human beings are constantly creating new neural pathways in the brain as we meet challenges and obstacles and learn new ways of doing things. We are born learners and we create those new pathways until we die. By now many of us have begun to master the art of holding two opposite things in our head: we will begin in person worship on _____ (fill in the blank) and maybe we won’t (if the infection rate soars). We are learning to live with unpredictability. It remains hard work for our brains and is exhausting but we are doing it.

In the disillusionment phase we are also experiencing sparks and seeds of new possibilities. Whilst looking for ground firm enough to stand upon, we are innovating. That is exciting (and may come with its own exhaustion). These sparks and seeds enable us to survive and adapt and through them we might find our way to a new normal in months or years to come.

Finally, we continue to name and grieve the losses. This is tricky, as we wrote about in Lament and the Pandemic a few months ago. It is tricky because it forces us to face those losses and we prefer to look away and skip over them. And it requires we actually grieve them, when we in the Western church have lost the capacity to lament and prefer the excitement and positivity of the new things. A kind of toxic positivity will seize some in a desire to avoid negative emotion, fearing that expressing it will bring us down. But the opposite is true. Have a go at writing a lament, as advised in that earlier blog, and you’ll discover that it shifts things within us and releases energy for the future. Walter Brueggemann, who features in our last blog Living in Apocalyptic Times: Reality, Grief, Hope, talks about how grieving the losses enables us to grasp the new normal as we find our way into it.

It is this business of naming loss that may keep us in this phase for some time. We simply do not have a sense of what losses are ahead, although we know they are looming. Not only is the infection rate rising and there is the possibility of local lockdowns, but the impact on the economy of this pandemic has not fully hit. And then there is climate change and Brexit (… I need a lie down, or a stiff cuppa).

It is no surprise that the characteristics of the disillusionment phase are exhaustion, low energy, tension and conflict, and utter unpredictability and variability of emotions. There is a lot going on! But it is worth hanging in there so that the important, soil-turning work that happens in this phase can be done and done well. We listen prayerfully and discerningly to our people, encouraging honesty about how this really feels, and holding both sadness for the losses, and excitement for new possibilities in tender hands. We also take good care of ourselves. This work is costly; we must steward our energies as we will be in this for the long haul and we want to lead well.

Are we there yet? Hardly. But we are definitely on our way. And we also have what we need: a faithful God who refuses to let go of us and who walks with us through the valley and into the sunlight of a new day.

Revd Dr. Carla A. Grosch-Miller, with the Tragedy and Congregations team

Living in apocalyptic times: Reality, grief and hope                        

Living in apocalyptic times: Reality, grief and hope                        

   from the Tragedy and Congregations team, www.tragedyandcongregations.org.uk

 

As the pandemic continues to unfold around the globe, it may be helpful to think about how we are living in apocalyptic times. The word apocalypse means an uncovering or revealing. When a collective trauma happens, it is common for it to be closely followed by disturbing revelations of other traumatising realities. It is as though the lid of Pandora’s Box is lifted and all kinds of things fly out. A minister is found to have engaged in misconduct and it is revealed that the treasurer has fiddled the books. The world is hit by a pandemic and the killing of George Floyd ignites a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement around the world.

Covid-19 has revealed (and reminded us) of much: the interconnected nature of life on earth, a shameful hierarchy of value among human beings, the benefit to the earth of us pausing our activities, the vulnerability of certain groups of people, the ache of loneliness and lack of human touch….the list goes on.

Old Testament scholar and wise man Walter Brueggemann, reflecting on the impact of the destruction of Jerusalem in 587BCE, observes that in times of cataclysm there are three urgent prophetic tasks: to face into reality, to grieve the losses, and to foster hope. In that order. I would argue that these are not just prophetic but also pastoral and priestly tasks.

Reality: What is revealed is real – pay attention to it. The veil has been torn and the scales fall from our eyes. What is revealed may set the course for our future ministry together.

Grief: Grief is the antidote to denial. The Bible testifies to the power of lamentation. Name the losses (lost health, lost loved ones, lost innocence, lost ease of being in the world, lost time…). Grieve them. Or notice how your current emotional state is actually one of grieving.

Hope: Grief also opens the way to authentic hope. Not the hope that everything will be OK or go back to normal, but the sure knowledge that God is working God’s purposes out amidst the chaos and pain. God is not done with us. We can rely on that. We hope for a new normal which manifests the commonwealth of God among us.

Those familiar with the myth of Pandora may recall that the last thing left in the box is Hope. The thing with feathers (Emily Dickinson). That orientation of the spirit that transcends the world and is anchored beyond its horizons (Vaclav Havel).  That which does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us (Romans 5:1-5).

Fierce with reality, unafraid to shed a tear and with hope in our rucksacks, we press on……

Carla A. Grosch-Miller with Christopher Southgate and Hilary Ison

            22 July 2020

 

Resources: Walter Brueggemann (2014) Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.); and (2020) Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Uncertainty (Eugene OR: Cascade Books).

Carla Grosch-Miller’s ‘Lifelines’

Carla Grosch-Miller’s collection Lifelines (Canterbury Press), 978-1-78662-234-3.

I have kept company with this book most mornings for the last couple of months. It is a trustworthy book – by which I mean that the poet’s evident zest for life and love is discovered in and through struggle, and the griefs of the deaths of her brother, mother and father. This is no easy appeal to goodness or to joy, but material won out of and beyond bitterness of experience.

The book begins with a long section tracking the church’s year. Unlike Malcolm Guite’s fine sonnet sequence Sounding the Seasons (also Canterbury) the verse here is free and colloquial, but insight is always breaking through. On ‘Christmas Morn’ we are described as ‘complicated dust’. In ‘Bent over’ an old woman is ‘looking to the time/when I shall be emptied of all but love’.

Indeed Grosch-Miller is very strong on the beauty of old age, extraordinarily evoked in one of the early grief poems of the second half of the book. ‘I saw beauty in the fragility/of her shrinking shoulders… Saw it in her thick thighs and pretty feet/the pixelated skin of her ankles and shins.’

Beyond the grief section comes Carla’s own struggle with faith: ‘It slips between my fingers/this faith that once sustained me./The graceful cup I make with my hands/prefers emptiness now,/the kiss of wind,/the memory of water.’ Here are poems that will speak to many who find themselves in a place of emptiness. And poems of the resolution that keeps on keeping on – ‘I will walk to church today’ (‘Sunday morning’), and is surprised by grace. ‘Grace is grace. It comes… I pray that each heartbreak to come will/crack the stone/and allow more Love to seep in.’ And always the honesty, the accuracy of tone, as in ‘Psalm for the Dead’, and the ‘Mother’s Day Prayer’ which balances a prayer for vigour in giving birth with a prayer for courage in facing death.

The book relents, towards the end, and offers us less intense, if no less wise, poems from a walk on St Cuthbert’s Way. Good prayers for any pilgrim, from one whose own journey has given her the right to pray ‘Receive the full weight of my being/Read the tilt of my body as a leaning into you/Render my soul to be fit for heaven on earth’.

So I commend those drawn to this website, by acquaintance with or interest in tragedy, to consider this remarkable book – which would be a true and giving companion on their journey of exploration.

Christopher Southgate

July 2020

easing out of lockdown?

Easing out of Lockdown – what next?

 

At the beginning of lockdown in this coronavirus pandemic, the Tragedy and Congregations team offered a short document on ‘Thoughts for Ministers in the first phase of the coronavirus crisis’

http://tragedyandcongregations.org.uk/2020/03/24/guidance-for-min…s-crisis-deepens/ ‎

which is still worth revisiting for the information on trauma reactions.

Stress is exhausting

15 weeks on, as we begin to ease out of lockdown, I wonder what your reaction was to the news that churches could open again for private prayer and then for public worship at the beginning of July? If the Twitter-sphere is anything to go by then it is, as would be expected, a very mixed experience, with some really glad and able to be back in church again, and others more cautious or unable to open up for various reasons. But whatever your situation, just coping with the experience of the past 15 weeks will have been exhausting on a personal and professional level, as well as psychological and emotional. The stress reaction to a crisis is fuelled by the release of adrenalin to help us respond as best we can. But that stress response is only meant to last for a short time to deal with an immediate event – not 3 months and counting! It will be in our bodies as well as our minds that we will be registering the effects of this.

Take time out

In a recent poll of clergy in the Diocese of London, it emerged that 72% had not had any time off since lockdown began. It’s understandably been really difficult to take time out during lockdown but it is vital for ministers and church members to take time out over the summer, whatever that will look like. Your whole brain-body needs to rest and allow the nervous system to reset before ploughing on to the next phase of this crisis. Self care is vital if we are in this for the long-haul.

Take time to reflect

You may have come across the saying, “we have travelled so far, so fast, that now it is time to sit and let our souls catch up with us”. I’ve seen it in various forms, but the truth of it is important for this in-between time from one stage of the pandemic to the next. It’s important for us on a personal level, but also for ministers to be able to encourage church members and church leaders to reflect on their experience and where we are now. There is no ‘going back to normal’ as many of us wish for, and there will be many losses to acknowledge and grieve, as well as new insights, initiatives and opportunities that have emerged. But most importantly, what has shifted within ourselves as people and congregations? What have our experiences been and what have we learnt?  When we travel this road of reflection, we are better able to make life-giving choices about how to move forwards as God’s people on the Way. 

Living with the unknown

One of the hardest things of living through this pandemic crisis is living with uncertainty, with the anxiety of simply not knowing. Nobody knows how this will all turn out, and what ups and downs there will be on the way. It makes us feel insecure and vulnerable. How can we resource ourselves to live with such vulnerability – both our own and as leaders, trying to hold it for others? For leaders in these times, it means holding your nerve and being prepared to live with the vulnerability of ‘not knowing’ the answers, but being prepared to work them out together.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke counselled his ‘young poet’ to be patient with the uncertainties in his heart, to ‘love the questions themselves’ and to live them, without seeking answers. He would not be given the answers, wrote Rilke, because he could not live with them. Instead he should ‘Live the questions now.’[1]  ‘Perhaps [we] will then gradually,’ suggests Rilke, ‘without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’

We are travelling this journey as the disciples did in the experience of Holy Saturday – of the extreme vulnerability of not knowing the outcome, nor of what lies ahead. What holds us is that we are accompanied; Jesus has travelled this road. We can only be present to the experience and live into it in the company of the one who is faithful and who holds our souls in being.

Hilary Ison with Christopher Southgate, Carla Grosch Miller July 2020

A visual aid to help us reflect on our experience in the storm….

Three representations of resilience (with thanks to Ruard Ganzevoort) 

  1. the rock – solid, unmoved as the waters swirl around it in the raging river.
  2. the tree – well rooted in the ground, able to bend and flex with the wind and all that buffets it
  3. the complex of sand dunes – the storm lifts up the sand and swirls it around, so when it lands again after the storm it is still the same overall complex but refigured in shape and form

 

In what ways do any of these representations speak to my experience or that of the church?

[1]    Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Tr. M.D. Herter (New York/London: Norton, 1993), 35 (italics in the original).

Mapping the journey communities are taking through COVID

Mapping the journey through uncharted territory in Covid 19.

 

On a walk recently I was very glad of a map I had with me to help me navigate through unknown countryside. Maps are created when people have charted the terrain and noted the ways in which people have walked to lay down the well-trodden ways. 

This chart from the Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth is just such a map, created after enough people and communities have been through traumas of various kinds and noted the ways in which people have journeyed through the terrain such that recognisable paths are forged; for more information see https://www.ictg.org/phases-of-disaster-response.html

The chart is not prescriptive in the sense that everyone will react in exactly the same way or in a tidy, ordered and linear way, rather it is a tool to help orient communities in the sense that this is what is likely to happen in the journey through trauma and recovery over a period of about 24-60 months. It is also a good conversation starter, a heuristic tool, for communities in reflecting on their experience – where do we think we are now? Not everyone in a community or congregation will be in the same place at the same time. People react differently to the same event depending on their circumstances, their past experiences, and the resources available to them.

The ICTG chart was drawn up in response to one-off traumatic events such as fires, floods, murder, suicides, terrorist attacks, earth quakes etc. The shock event happens and the kind of process as documented in the chart begins to unfold in individuals and in communities.

In the heroic phase after the initial impact of the shock event, people discharge their stress hormones that have been activated by the shock through wanting to do something, either by helping victims, or by volunteering and donating things. People are energised and it generally brings out the best in them – kindness, caring, generosity and selflessness. But operating at this level of activism is exhausting and not sustainable in the longer term. So when energy levels become depleted and the reality and awfulness of the situation sinks in, disillusion sets in. No amount of heroics can change what has happened.

In the disillusionment phase, people are tired, weepy, irritable, unable to concentrate, angry at what has happened and what may or may not have happened in response to the situation, especially against those ‘in charge’. There may be grief at injury and what or who has been lost, a questioning of faith and God. There may be competition among sections of the community or congregation for attention and scarce resources. Some will be looking for a rescuer, and others will just be wanting to get back to normal as soon as possible. The difficult thing is that this stage cannot be short-circuited – the only way is through. It is messy and difficult, and requires a real holding of nerve and extra support for those in leadership.

As the chart indicates, the rebuilding phase emerges when enough people in a community are able to hold together the understanding that bad things have happened and yet goodness still exists in life. As with the psalmists, so congregations can rail against God for the losses and hurt, and yet hold onto the truth of God’s loving-kindness, grace and presence in it all. Thus experience is integrated, new wisdom is grown and a more robust faith. None of this is easy or straightforward and there will be lots of steps forwards and almost as many back.

So what of this in the Covid 19 situation? In a sense it’s the trauma that keeps giving. Or like an earthquake with aftershocks. We do not know yet what may happen further down the line. The problem is that there are no maps available to us to help us navigate through this Covid 19 pandemic crisis as it is an unprecedented situation in the experience of this generation. But perhaps we can take the elements of the ICTG chart to see how we can use them to chart our experience and draw our own maps. Perhaps it is like the medieval cartographers who, when they came to the edges of the known world, simply wrote,  “’ere be dragons”.

In response to the initial phase of the pandemic, we have certainly seen heroic and inspiring responses; amazing self-giving in those who have volunteered to help neighbours and communities, healthcare and frontline workers, clergy and congregations serving those who are in need and ministers learning to record and live stream services and finding many creative ways to engage with congregations and local communities. But instead of a peak in the heroic phase, perhaps we would need to draw a plateau – a stage that has lasted not a few days but 10 weeks as I write.

Many are now tired, emotional, increasingly frustrated with the loss of liberties, with the denial of the usual comforts of contact with families and friends, of going out and just being normal. Losses are mounting up and realities are hitting home. Government and church leaders are not able to rescue us all and disillusion sets in, together with questioning as to whether those in charge have really done their best for us. Some just want to get back to normal and others are fearful of coming out of lockdown too quickly. In the Church of England there is disillusion and anger amongst some clergy towards bishops, and mounting fear and distress at what the future holds in terms of the financial impact on dioceses and churches, while others are keen to embrace the new opportunities this change will bring.

And it is at this point, when energy levels are depleted, that we as communities and churches are being asked to be creative all over again in finding ways to develop a ‘new normal’, which may only be temporary, to cope with requirements of social distancing, and won’t feel ‘normal’ at all. Perhaps this could be a new element on the chart – a transitional phase in which we try to function as best we can with the uncertainty of not knowing if we will be on a gradual trajectory out of this crisis or find ourselves back in lockdown again.

This is where we are at the edge of our known world so far. The rebuilding and restoration phase is yet to come and could be a long way off with many valleys and false summits to traverse. It will be important for us to chart our journeying and to be kind and forgiving to ourselves and one another, for there is much to learn and endure as we travel, and we will need time and space to reflect on and integrate our learning. Wiser living is not a final destination, but it is the fruit of hope, trust and love shared amongst companions on the Way.

Hilary Ison June 2 2020

Meditation on lament by Carla Grosch-Miller

This morning as I dutifully engaged in my daily exercise, I walked past a train speeding from Morpeth towards London. I noticed, as I have for the last six weeks, that it was virtually empty. Coach after coach of empty seats, a shadow (a person?) in one. I nearly burst into tears. And I realised that I was holding a deep reservoir of feeling that I did not want to tap into.

My head had been telling me that I was struggling to write this reflection because brains that are searching for safety and predictability, brains that hum with a fear barely discernible to the naked ear, have a hard time engaging all their cognitive function. But the answer was in my heart. The reason that lament felt unavailable to me at this point in the pandemic is that I am not ready to go there. It’s not (just) an intellectual thing; it’s an emotional one.

Lament is the ravaged heart’s cry to the source of her being, the inconsolable ranting that reaches out to demand an end to suffering, the fierce force of living in the face of death that turns towards God in irresolute hope.

In the Bible God is spoken of as the One who hears our cries (Exodus 3:7). The first and only person to name God, Hagar, names God El-roi – God who sees or God of seeing (Genesis 16:13). If only God will hear and see us, surely God will respond. Surely.

The ancient prayer book that is the Book of Psalms contains nearly all the emotions known to humankind. Over one third of the psalms are psalms of lament, personal or communal. God is raged at, castigated, blamed, entreated, begged. Complaints are lodged in detail: God has failed to act or acted too harshly or allowed the wicked to prosper. Revenge is courted. Blood is willing to be spilt. Look now at the Revised Common Lectionary; few of these psalms are included. In the comfort of our Western churches, we are embarrassed about the emotion, find the rawer parts of our nature distasteful, think that Christians shouldn’t have or admit to such feelings. Yet there they are, in black and white and red.

Lamentation is an expression of pain, an articulation of what’s happening now. It is a part of a healing journey which in time, a long time, integrates the experience into our life story.

In our secular world, we find it easier to complain about the government: its response was too slow, the most vulnerable have been ignored, what’s the exit strategy…we can think of and gripe about one hundred and one things that have not been done right with 20/20 hindsight. I wonder if this is a displacement activity. A way of trying to manage the deep anxiety and fear that is thrumming through our bodies. The means of keeping uncontrollable feelings under wraps, in the pretence that we are coping, really we are.

What would happen if we used the age old Judeo-Christian practice of lament (if we are ready, only then)? If we lanced the boil and put the whole mess in God’s hands, God who created this world and gave us the insane freedom to muck it up in the first place?

If you are ready to lament, here is a structure adapted from John Swinton in Raging with Compassion(Eerdmans, 2007, p. 128). The structure is derived from the structure of the psalms of lament.

  1. Address God using any names or titles that speak to you or express qualities of God that you want to call upon. You can use many names.
  2. Make your complaints and be detailed. (Consider how detailed the book Lamentations is.) What has happened? Who is hurting and why? Whose fault, if anyone’s, is it? Give God the full blast of your anger, hurt and fear.
  3. Express trust in or relationship with God. This can be one sentence. See, e.g., Lamentations 3:24 ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in God.’
  4. Make an appeal or petitions…a request for God’s intervention and why it is needed.
  5. Optional: Vow your praise. Terrible things have happened, and yet I will praise You.

This last step is optional because the lament must be true to where you are in the moment. Many of the psalms of lament include a vow of praise. There is a scholarly debate about why that is. Some consider the vows to be later additions. Others consider the psychology of lament – how expression of pain moves us along and enables us, in time, to praise. The important thing is that lamentation be authentic. If you are not ready to praise, you are not ready.

No doubt there are people who are ready to lament now, who can face God with the full force of their pain. God bless you if you are such a one; God bless and sustain you. And then there will be people like me, who can’t yet count the losses that are mounting up or face into the abyss of fear. God bless and sustain us too.

God bless and sustain us all.

Carla A. Grosch-Miller  10.5.20

thoughts for ministers one month on – April 25 2020

Guidance for Ministers – a month on

A month ago we offered some very general guidance for ministers navigating themselves, and their congregations, through the Coronavirus crisis.  Here we revisit the situation and our early responses.

One month further into lockdown, we all find ourselves a little, or a lot, more tired and with no fewer questions about our current situation. We offer here a rough framework of three dimensions for processing these questions and shaping a lived response.

Earthing

The goal for any recovery from a shock event, modest as it may sound, is to reach a place where it is possible to say ‘what has happened has happened’. The initial shock of an overwhelming event (or time) can make even this kind of simple acknowledgement difficult or impossible.

Along the way one of the most effective ways of moving toward that place is to notice, and name, the various things that are going on in our bodies, thoughts and emotions. This is important even, or perhaps especially, when these things seem strange or unedifying. The more we are able to acknowledge without judgment persistent questions, niggling emotions, bodily discomforts and surprising compulsions, the closer we edge to an ability to bear the fullness of our reality. Biological research tells us that the simple act of naming a truth builds new neurological pathways in our brains. Allowing a place for each of the things we notice within ourselves, and approaching those places with gentleness, helps us to earth ourselves and to be fully present to our situation.

By the same token, being gentle with what we notice about others, including those whom we accompany as minister, and assisting them to recognize and name what is going on in them, helps to earth them also. Note that neither advice nor answers are necessary in the short term. What is needed is to acknowledge uncertainties and questions (both one’s own and those of others) and to allow them a place.

Mapping

In order to help us to make sense and meaning, of our situation, it can be helpful to attempt some mapping of our context.

Our earlier guidance was subtitled ‘thoughts for ministers during the first phase of the coronavirus crisis’. Coming back to it a month later, it seems to us that we are still in ‘the first phase’. Perhaps many of us have moved past the initial, heady days of ‘heroic response’ in which rapid release of stress hormones carries us through the emergency of the onset of disaster, but we have not, collectively, experienced the decline that inevitably follows the adrenaline rush. We don’t yet know the parameters of the disaster.

Perhaps we are now in a ‘doing’ phase. We are keeping ourselves busy, attending to people and developing innovative and creative interventions, quite possibly while looking over our shoulders at the innovations and creativity of others. We’re doing some anxious assessment – ‘am I doing lockdown well?’

There are different motivations for all of this ‘doing’. Partly it is a natural response to the need we perceive. And it is true that we, ourselves, need activity at a time like this to help us to establish routines, patterns and aspects of identity to replace those that have been lost. But for most of us there will be, mixed up with all of these things, a subconscious attempt to avoid thought and feeling – a reluctance to bear the reality of what we face.

Anchoring

In addition to a grasp on our reality, and a context in which to understand that reality, we also need hope to anchor us. Where does our hope come from? Studies that have mapped the various stages of responses to shock events often refer to a final stage that may be termed ‘wiser living’. This stage is marked by wisdom in all its aspects. ‘Recovery’ is blessed with gifts of wisdom and experience as well as with the simple relief of receding pain and injury. However, recovery is likely also to be weighed down by such costly gifts. Perhaps recovery looks something like an increased capacity for the bearing of reality.

While it is counter-productive to attempt to side-track the necessary journey ‘through the valley of the shadow of death’ in order to reach recovery sooner (and there will be those in every congregation who will want to try), we nevertheless need to be able to perceive rays of hope when we are strong enough to look for them. Many people are beginning to ask what life will look like when this is all over. Tied up in those questions are half-formed hopes that out of this suffering and pain might come new patterns of life that, for example, value the earth, promote justice or support relationship better than the old patterns. It is almost certainly too soon to be putting flesh on such hopes, or prescribing directions for their fulfillment, but it is not too soon to be consciously planting seeds or to be noticing green blades where they are rising.

Associated with the quest for signs of hope will be questions about the place and role of God in the pandemic. Much writing about trauma cautions against getting caught up too soon in the ‘where is God in this’ question, and especially against the temptation to formulate premature answers. Rainer Maria Rilke counselled his ‘young poet’ to be patient with the uncertainties in his heart, to ‘love the questions themselves’ and to live them, without seeking answers. He would not be given the answers, wrote Rilke, because he could not live with them. Instead he should ‘Live the questions now.’[1]

Conversations we have had with friends and colleagues suggest to us that many of us are doing just this. Holy Saturday and the Easter period have been especially profound times this year, with some speaking and writing with vulnerability and honesty about their experiences of understanding in new ways the painful mixture of hope, despair, joy and confusion depicted in the post-resurrection accounts, as well as in the psalms. This is a time, if ever there was one, for vulnerability, honesty, and a tentative humility in theological reflection. ‘Perhaps [we] will then gradually,’ suggests Rilke, ‘without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’

Meg Warner, Hilary Ison, Carla A. Grosch-Miller, and Christopher Southgate (with thanks to Katie Cross)

25 April 2020

 

 

[1] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Tr. M.D. Herter (Norton; New York/London: 1993), 35 (italics in the original).

thoughts for ministers taking funerals during the virus crisis

Some thoughts from a trauma-informed perspective on supporting ministers in funeral ministry during the Covid-19 Crisis

 

As the Covid-19 crisis deepens, we will, as ministers, be called upon to take funerals for those who have died from the virus, as well as from other causes, in circumstances that may well be very distressing for us as well as for the few family members who are able to attend, and those who can’t.

What we are going through globally, locally in our communities and churches, and in our families and within ourselves is a traumatic situation. Trauma can be a shock event like an accident or act of violence, but it can also be a slowly unfolding situation over a period of time as in the current crisis that we are all facing personally and professionally.

First a bit of background to set the context as it’s helpful to understand the main characteristics of trauma which many of us are experiencing in some form or another in this situation in order to know how best to approach supporting ourselves and others:

  • overwhelm – our normal capacities to cope become overwhelmed and we feel that we can’t handle all that’s coming at us; it’s all “too much, too fast, too soon”[1]. The sense of overwhelm can also come from having to receive and handle other people’s distress and pain, and to have to keep doing it, while trying to hold our own anxiety and distress.
  • broken connections – quite literally our physical connections with one another have been broken and we can’t console others with a touch or hug as we would normally do. Not only are families distressed by the loss of a family member, but also by not being able to have the funeral they would have liked to celebrate and honour the deceased. Our understanding of who we are and how we connect as ministers is being shaken, and how we understand the world and God is being challenged. When previously safe assumptions about how we live, what we think and what we experience are thrown up in the air it feels a scary place to be, in our bodies and emotions as much as in our minds. 
  • trauma is a whole body experience – we know we are going through something difficult because our bodies, not our minds, tell us first! All sorts of body experiences and symptoms emerge, such as a tight chest, stomach ache, needing to go to the toilet more often, headaches, tiredness, loss of concentration, depleted energy levels, neck and shoulder tension, skin conditions and so the list goes on depending on where your stress registers in your body. The amygdala, our ‘early warning system’ in our ‘feeling brain’ (limbic system) is telling us we are not safe and is triggering the nervous system to send out the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol to get us ready for fight or flight. When these hormones are coursing round our bodies, we quite literally lose connection with our ‘thinking brain’ (pre-frontal cortex) and we react instead either with fix-it energy, or with collapse. Most importantly, we lose our capacity to be truly present to ourselves or to others.

So, how does this help in terms of being faced with taking several funerals in extremely distressing circumstances, on top of all the overwhelm and disconnection we may already be feeling in our ministries and personal lives?

  • Naming what’s happening: this might sound obvious, but attentive listening to exactly what is going on for us enables us to name precisely what we are experiencing in our bodies and our feelings. Our nervous systems start to calm when we can name exactly what it is we are feeling.It releases tension when this is heard and received in ourselves and, whether in person or virtually, by a warm resonant other. One of our deepest needs is to know that we are understood, so being able to share what we are going through with someone else who can acknowledge with us that what we are facing is overwhelming, difficult, upsetting, confusing etc, is a huge resource. Once we’ve been able to name what we’re feeling, then we can begin to work with what we need to move forwards.
  • Normalising: understanding that what we are experiencing is perfectly normal in a traumatic and anxiety provoking situation. Knowing that we can’t stop our bodies reacting initially in this way helps us to realise that we are not being weak or inadequate, and to let go of guilt or shame that we are not coping better than we feel we should. 
  • Breathing: when we are agitated, anxious, or distressed we can’t think clearly as we have temporarily lost connection with our thinking brain. Calming the triggered nervous system is what helps us to re-regulate ourselves and bring our thinking brains back on-line. One of the most effective ways to do this is to pay attention to the breath and to consciously slow it down, lengthening the inhale and the exhale for a few breaths and bringing our awareness to our bodies being grounded in the present, in physical space and time. A way of doing this is:
  • to stop for a few moments and be aware of your body, your feet on the floor, the chair supporting you, and any areas of tension that you notice in your body;
  • to become aware of your breath and then to take a slightly longer inhale (for the count of 3) and to lengthen the exhale (for a count of 4), and to do this about 5 times;
  • to stay with the quiet for a few moments, to be present to the moment and your experience, and then bring it to a close perhaps with a thanksgiving to God for the gift of his presence with us in our breath.
  • Resourcing: when our feeling brain is calmed then it can connect well with the thinking brain to gain access to our resources! This is the space for working out creative and sensitive ways of handling the service and what will be of most help to the family. Positive and practical ways forward emerge along with drawing on other resources that may be available to us.
  • Being present: one of the gifts of this approach is that you can then practise breathing, calming and centring when faced with the actual funeral and, from this place, be more able to communicate a sense of safety and space in which the distress and grief of those attending can be held. It’s not only viruses that are contagious, but feelings are too. Being able to be present to and hold difficult feelings, our own and those of others, is calming for others and enables them to be more present in the midst of very distressing circumstances. Sometimes we’re afraid of naming in the service how difficult this is for the family in case we make it worse, but actually the opposite is true. People feel that you understand, that you ‘get it’. It speaks to their souls.
  • Self care: doing this kind of funeral ministry on top of all the other pressures and different ways of ministering in this crisis, is hugely demanding and tiring, so it is really important that you don’t feel guilty about attending to your own needs. We are in this for the long haul. Be kind to yourself!

And finally – some very practical advice for at the Crematorium as on Twitter @PeterCo27756774

            You’re not wimpy

            Keep your distance from folks

            Go vested, to avoid using the small vesting room

            Use your own prayer book/order of service

            Wear disposable gloves until you begin

            Use hand gel after touching anything & avoid touching your face

            Shower afterwards

Hilary Ison 01.04.20

www.tragediesandcongregations.org.uk

[1] Peter Levine, author of several books on understanding and healing trauma

guidance for ministers as the coronavirus crisis deepens

Thoughts for ministers during the first phase of the coronavirus crisis

 

We are offering these out of the work of a three-year project on trauma and tragedy in Christian congregations.

First thought: context is everything. You will know better than anyone else how your particular community is likely to react.

Second: this is a trauma to communities, the nation, the world. It’s not a shock-event like a fire or a terrorist attack, but slowly there has built, and is still worsening, a crisis that shatters people’s assumptions that the world is generally safe and reliable, and that all that we have worked for in businesses, churches and communities will be fruitful.  The loss of those assumptions, the breaking of connections between people, and the overwhelming of people’s ordinary resources – all of these are characteristic of trauma.

Some of the wisdom that has been gained about trauma recently can help us:

  1. People’s whole selves are affected – they may feel all sorts of strange symptoms because the body is reacting to the fact that they are not safe. Emotions will be all over the place in surprising ways. Concentration may be difficult. Sharing this information – that it is normal to be up, down, energetic, exhausted, afraid – will help people to cope with it.
  2. People react very differently depending on different backgrounds and experiences, including past traumas.
  3. People respond best when they have clear, reliable information; when they have something to do – ‘agency’ of some sort; and when they are cared for in warm and authentic ways. Even phone calls can be reassuring.
  4. We make sense of things by being able to integrate the experience into an overarching story. But it is much too soon to assemble a coherent narrative out of all this. Even the process of meaningfully gathering together to lament what has been lost is very hard. The trauma is unfolding and there are many losses yet unrevealed.

Community responses to disaster typically show a ‘heroic phase’, full of energy and self-sacrifice, which burns itself out and is followed by a ‘disillusionment phase’, which may contain much mutual blame and suspicion. Only as the disillusionment phase loses its force can realistic, hopeful re-making take place.

Many of the responses in communities can be celebrated and affirmed. It is worth ministers thinking about what, over and above the generous and heroic actions of many in the secular world, Christian story and practice can contribute. That is particularly true in this time approaching Holy Week and Easter. Public worship may be suspended, but these great transformative moments in the whole human story need some sort of marking.

Lastly and in a way most importantly, this is a very confusing and draining time, a time when ordinary healthy rhythms are lost. Trauma professionals are disoriented! You may be feeling in yourself and your body the impact of trauma – feeling low and anxious one day and hard to get your brain in gear, energetic the next, and all at a time when clergy are needing to be creative and adaptive in their approach. So self-care, attending to your own well-being, is vital. That includes the basics of good rest, eating, and exercise. It also includes having people you trust whom you can share with, and making sure you are in touch with them.

With warmest wishes for every blessing in this strange time,

Christopher Southgate, Carla Grosch-Miller and Hilary Ison

Tragedies and Christian Congregations Project

www.tragedyandcongregations.org.uk

Tragedies and Christian Congregations ed. Megan Warner et al is published by Routledge

and is available from c.c.b.southgate@ex.ac.uk for £20 plus postage.