How much trauma can you handle?

We’re asked to respond to a new tragedy everyday. It’s wearisome. Through my social media feed I am flooded with news about the latest hurricane, plain crash, shooting. As a pastor, I  want to respond adequately but my responses often feel hollow. I also want joy, a laugh each day with our adorable kids. And yet one can feel the weight of the world’s  trauma delivered to you daily. How much trauma can one handle?

I remember after a shooting in Las Vegas, I could only muster up a “Thoughts and Prayers for Las Vegas” on my Facebook account. A friend messaged me and said, “Thoughts and prayers just aren’t doing it these days.” I understand the sentiment.

Once I learn about a tragedy, and prayerfully consider how I might acknowledge it, another one occurs. As a pastor, I often struggle with how much to preach about a recent tragedy. There’s a hesitancy to write a sermon too early in the week.  After a while, you become numb. When is there time to offer a message of grace to the dad out there in the fourth pew who just lost his job?

One practice that has helped me is the practice of lament. Lament slows us down. A lament is our way of complaining faithfully to God. The Bible doesn’t lack people who complain in their prayer life. The Bible can teach us to complain like a Christian. This coming Sunday, we’re looking at the story of Abram. In Genesis 12, God called Abram at age 75 to leave his home country for a new land. God promises to bless Abram and make of him a great nation. God promised to give his wife Sarai a child. In chapter 15 Abram has grown weary of God not fulfilling his promise. The Lord says to Abram, “Don’t be afraid.” But Abram is too frustrated to let it go. Abram responds, “Lord God, what can you possibly give me, since I still have no children?” (Gen. 15:2).

Abram is real with God. To be real and honest takes trust. In our prayer life, we can be real with God and bring forth our complaints. God is big enough to handle it. God doesn’t punish Abram for his griping. In fact, the Lord and Abram draw closer to each other through this exchange of real emotion. And through it, Abram trusted the Lord and the Lord recognized Abram’s high moral character (Genesis 15:6).

As we think about tragedy, what does it mean to be a people of lament as a faithful response? After witnessing tragedy and trauma, our emotions often become a tangled mess. To move too quickly to the next tragedy makes us numb to the suffering. We’re not able to deal with our real emotions. Our prayers become nothing more than simple thoughts. Lamentation slows us down and helps us feel, helps us have our heart punctured so that we don’t just move on. Noted theologian Dominique Gilliard writes on this topic,

We can’t take time to lament because we are constantly processing new tragedies.

Nevertheless, before we truly grieve one tragedy, another occurs. So in our rush to keep up with our newsfeeds, with the latest scandal, the newest tragedy, we move on before processing the trauma we have just witnessed. We move on to stay up to date — and in part, because we believe that our minds and our hearts, like our smartphones, can hold only so much.

Lamentation, however, forces us to slow down. In the midst of daily tragedy, lamentation requires us to stay engaged after the cameras and publicity move on. It summons us to immerse ourselves in the pain and despair of the world, of our communities, of our own sinfulness.

I’m thankful for the congregation I serve. After Hurricane Michael last fall that ploughed through Florida, our congregation decided to send a team to help. We’re heading out over spring break to Marianna Florida to do some relief work. It’s a way for them to get out of their head and into their hearts. It’s a way for our church to be on the ground and to hear the stories of those affected. It’s a way to lament and feel the fulness of the human experience with all its hurt and hope. It’s a way to experience the pain of the cross and the joy of the resurrection.


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