The Way of the Cross and PTSD

Each year our ecumenical group of congregations leads a “Way of the Cross Walk” through our neighborhood.  We are Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Presbyterian, Episcopal, Mennonite and others who simply join in along the way.  When I am leading the walk, I am aware that some of my deepest heart-work takes place in the mapping of the route in which we choose the places we will pray and in the writing of the reflections for each place. Today, however, I was particularly moved in the conversations along the way, and the experience of being fully present at the stations. 

The walk draws me to listen freshly to biblical story of the journey to the cross; to remember the cruelty, the suffering, the inhuman disregard for life; and at the same time the compassion, the ache, the love, and the possible healing of those were with Jesus along the way.  The walk calls me to go to new places within, to challenge my own assumptions. 

In the past year, I have listened to and cared for people suffering with PTSD, rooted in varied traumatic experiences.  As I read the story this time, I found myself asking questions about the soldiers that I had not asked before.

The Story:    “Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the Sabbath …. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed.  Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him.  But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.  Instead one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.”  (John 19:31-34)

The biblical story ends here.  A story in tradition, however, tells of Jesus taken from the cross and placed in the arms of his mother.  The paintings or sculptures of this are called the “The Pieta”, rooted in the Pity.


It would be wrong for us to assume that every soldier carrying out crucifixions wanted to do it.  It would be wrong for us to assume that no soldier shuddered and felt sick at the thought of the torture he inflicted. It would be wrong to assume that every soldier treated the bodies on the crosses like rubbish. It would be wrong to assume that just because a soldier was caught up in the fervor and acted with cruelty and disregard, that he did not suffer from his actions. Surely there were soldiers who, like Pilate, wanted to wash their hands of what they had done, but it just would not come off.  Surely in their nightmares, they heard the groans and saw the horror, unable to escape it.  It would not have been called PTSD in that time, but surely there were soldiers who suffered.

Perhaps when they took Jesus from the cross, his mother begged to hold him, and through an act of compassion a soldier was able to find momentary solace, touching that place of compassion within himself.  Perhaps a soldier did believe that ‘Surely this Jesus was the Son of God,” and that realization brought healing to his wounded spirit.  (Or did it send him into deeper despair?)

 In our work lives, and in our lives as citizens, many of us participate in systems we know are wrong.  Often our souls are wounded, our humanity distorted, by the work we do, or the systems we support financially, or the groups in which we have become entangled.  The spiritual wounds of participation in war or in other acts of violence run deep.  Though we may believe there is no way out, no alternative, God offers us opportunities – even small ones – to begin to reclaim ourselves. It may be an act of compassion, or a glimpse of new understanding. 

The gift is that God-With-Us in Jesus Christ is able to bring healing, to redeem even the most broken places in our lives.   Thanks be to God.


Street Prayers (with or without Ash)

Lent has begun again. It seems that I am always drawn to write during Lent. It is the reflective nature of the season, I think. Last Wednesday, while participating in “Ashes to Go” on a busy street-corner of the city, I was moved by one particular encounter. A very young woman approached us and asked what we were doing. I could plainly see that she was pregnant. I described that it was Ash Wednesday and we were there to pray with people and to offer to mark their foreheads with ashes to remind us of our humanity and mortality. She looked at my forehead, already smudged with black ash, and her nose wrinkled. She said, “You mean on my head?!” I said, “Yes, if you like. Or if you would rather not have ashes we could just pray. Would you like me to pray with you?” She said “Yes,” that she would, but no ashes. She told me her name and when her baby is due. We prayed for her, for her baby, for her family, for this new life as a mother.

As soon as I said “Amen.” She said “Thank-you, do you know where the bus-stop is?” My colleague and I began looking around for bus stops, discerned the direction she was going, and pointed her to the correct bus-stop. She was off.

When this young woman approached us she was in the process of looking for direction, finding her way in the Metro system. I doubt that prayer on a street corner with two robed pastors smudged with ash was in her plan. Yet, she was amazingly open to what God placed in her path at that moment. She asked what we were doing, and then she made a decision; ‘no’ to the smudge of ash, but ‘yes’ to prayer, and ‘yes’ to engaging for those moments with two strangers.

As she thanked us and headed off to the bus stop, I saw someone negotiating her way in life with an awareness of her life-bearing humanity, and of God’s life-giving presence. There is nothing more sacred than that!

Signs of the Eternal

I am drawn to the ancient ruins of churches, monasteries, holy places. I give thanks for those who find value in them and maintain them. A number of years ago, I found the deep joy of sitting in the gardens that now fill the ruins of the Augustinian abbey on the island of Iona. Then this past spring Dave and I spent hours in the ruins of the monastery on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

I feel the presence and the life of those who lived in these sacred places. I experience God in spaces that once were, but are no longer the homes and centers of vital ministry. For some, these might seem to be places of the dead; no longer alive, no longer relevant. For me they are signs of our connection and continuity with the saints who have gone before us. And more, they are signs of the living, moving God whose work spans generations, centuries, and eons.

Time in ancient spaces reminds me that the work we do matters, is essential, but is not the last word of God. Like many before us, we will not see the completion of God’s reign on earth; yet we are always working and living into the kingdom/empire/reign of God.

Thanks be to God eternal!

The Grace of Lent

As we begin this very special time in the Church Year, the season of Lent, a particular image stays with me. It is the image of children with the smudge of ash in the shape of a cross on their forehead. In this year’s ecumenical Ash Wednesday service at St. John’s Episcopal, I had the privilege of preaching and then other participating pastors took the role of imposing ashes on the foreheads of those who came forward.

After the imposition of ashes, I looked out from the chancel and there was little Hugo Hagel happily toddling up the aisle with ash on his face. Then I began to catch in my line of sight other children, from toddlers to elementary age children, all with the mark of the cross in ash. It is not unusual to see children with smudges on their faces – dirt, that pea-green baby food, spaghetti sauce, cake-icing; but it takes your breath for a moment when it is the dark, intentional ash of the palm in the shape of the cross.

When we impose ashes, it is a reminder of our mortality and our utter dependence on God. We normally say “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” When I impose ashes on a young child, I tend to say something like, “God has made you human, Jesus loves you, and will always be with you.” But in my mind are those words that I can’t shake: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” It is a statement that catches us by surprise every time; the hard truth that this life, this mortal body will die and will be no more. It feels different to say it to someone who has lived a good long life already, and to smudge that ash on a face that is a bit wrinkled with age; someone who has considered his or her own mortality. But when we touch that fresh smooth skin of a baby with the ash, it is just almost too much.

At the beginning of this Lent, I am aware that our mortality is ever before us; so much so lately that the heaviness for ALL of us is almost too much. Yet the message of Lent is not simply that we are mortal and that we sin, but that we are held in the grace and forgiveness and love of God who will never let us go! That is the truth we carry with us as we travel this journey toward Holy Week and then Easter. We are human AND we are wrapped in the holy love of God! We are broken AND we are embraced by God who calls us to turn around and look into the compassionate eyes of Jesus the Christ. We sin AND we are made whole in God’s forgiveness.

Yes, I want every child and every adult to be reminded in these days that “God has made you human (you are dust and to dust you shall return), Jesus loves you, and will always be with you!

May this be a Holy Lent and a journey of deepening faith for all of us,