Abide in Me: Spiritual Life in the Midst of Trauma

I am the vine, and you are the branches. If you stay joined to me, and I stay joined to you, then you will produce lots of fruit. But you cannot do anything without me. John 15:5 CEV

John 15:1-8

Life in the Connection

Spring in this part of the world is absolutely beautiful. The mountains turn to green. Gardens erupt in a sea of pinks and yellows and purples and whites. Week after week brings a new display of color.

We have a volunteer in our congregation that produces the most amazing floral displays every week throughout the year. She incorporates an astonishing variety of seasonal flowers and her creations always seem to fit the liturgical theme. Her arrangements are astounding in both their natural beauty and their human ingenuity. I’ve never seen anything like them in nearly 30 years of ministry. She produces these works of art as a labor of love and fills our sanctuary with God’s beauty throughout the year.

Still, the beauty of a cut flower always fades. My wife cut some irises from our garden last week and put them in a vase. Their beautiful purple flowers turned to brown, their green stems turned to mush and their aroma turned to stench. Within a week of being cut they were good for nothing but the trashcan or compost heap.

My street, on the other hand, is lined with birch trees that were severely pruned in the fall two years ago. When the trimming was complete, they looked like nothing but tall stumps. What was left of the branches ended abruptly where the chainsaws had done their work. The trees were barren, gnarled and ugly. I was sure they were dead. Even when spring rolled around, the trees showed no sign of life for weeks. By midsummer, however, new life had emerged. Even then, a few trees that stood outside the chapel appeared to be completely dead, with areas of obvious decay near the truncated limbs. They went through a complete growing season last year without sprouting a single green leaf. This morning, however, I was surprised to discover some new green shoots sprouting from the truncated limbs of even the most damaged trees.

What is the difference between beautiful flowers that turn ugly and rot and ugly stumps that blossoms in new life? New life emerges where the branch remains connected to its life giving root.

Abide in MeJesus compared himself to a vitis vinifera – a common wine-grape vine found throughout Europe and the middle east. As the grapevine grows vertically from the ground, it eventually reaches the height of the trellis or frame, to which the gardener ties its outstretched branches. A single grape vine looks something like a cross, with its horizontal members spread to either side. Was this visual image one aspect of Jesus’ intent?

Grape vines can live very long lives and they are not much to look at. Over the years they become twisted and knotty. Old branches are pruned away. Even new branches are trimmed to maximize grape production. Old vines bear the scars of generations of growth and pruning, but they still live on. Old vines, it seems, produce fewer grapes, but the fruit they do produce is more flavorful and intense. That sounds hopeful to an old guy like me.

Jesus compares himself to a grapevine. Vine branches only bear fruit, Jesus says, as they remain connected to the vine. That is demonstrably true for grape vines and tomato plants and all sorts of living things. Is it also true for people?

Resiliency after Trauma

I recently returned from a retreat with my professional colleagues. at which we talked about resiliency in the experience of trauma. We were talking about the trauma of war, but we could have talked about death, disease, divorce, physical or sexual assault, job loss, or any other of a host of traumas. Trauma has a way of beating you up. We like to think that we will express our faith in profound ways and have a meaningful spiritual experience in the middle of trauma, but the fact is that trauma just pretty much kicks you in the teeth.

We learned a lot this week about how trauma affects the brain. When the brain senses a threat, higher brain functions get left out of the loop. In the midst of trauma, the brain is not capable of either reason or what we would normally identify as meaningful spiritual experience. The brain is overwhelmed by the threat of danger or pain. Very basic survival reactions take control when life is threatened. The ability to think religious thoughts or have religious feelings is severely limited.

How, then, do you mentally and emotionally and spiritually survive trauma? Theologically, for me, that question means, “How do I stay connected to the spiritual source of life even when life is kicking me in the teeth?”

Abide in me, Jesus says. Remain connected to me. We might imagine that Jesus meant, “Cultivate the inner experience and awareness of closeness to me.” As we have seen, however, there are many circumstances in life in which can obscure the inner experience of connection with Christ.

John identifies a few components of abiding in Christ in John 15. Prayer is a part of it (John 15:7). So is living in Jesus’ words (also John 15:7). So is obedience (John 15:10).

Abide in me, Jesus says. How do I accomplish that when I’m experiencing and recovering from trauma? If my connection to Jesus is limited to what I can think or feel or accomplish, trauma dooms me.

During our retreat, we each had to come up with a written plan about how we would remain resilient. Here is mine. It consists of three words: go to church.

Go to Church

Being a Christian may be more than going to church, but it’s not less.

Going to church is what helped me the most when I came back from Iraq. Being in church with God’s people, singing hymns, hearing the word of God read aloud, reciting the Apostles Creed, chanting the Sanctus, praying the Lord’s prayer, eating bread and drinking wine at the Lord’s table: all these things helped me immeasurably more than all the reunion and reintegration classes the Army offered.

So why didn’t I list all those things in my plan? Why did I simply say my plan is, “Go to church?”

After nearly 54 years, my experience of being a Christian has evolved over the years. I would have never thought when I was younger, for example, that chanting the Psalms would be a terribly enriching experience for me. It is. At one point in my life, I thought fasting was an important spiritual practice. I have to tell you, it’s not important for me any longer. Your mileage may vary. There was even a point in my life when it was extremely painful to read the scriptures!

So I don’t know what lies ahead in terms of what we normally call the spiritual disciplines. I do know that I intend to stay connected to Christ and that objectively means staying connected to his church.

It’s not that prayer and the word of God aren’t important; they are. Staying connected to the church at worship, I pray even when I don’t feel like praying or know how to pray. When I am too weak or ignorant to pray for myself, others pray for me and with me. Staying connected to the church at worship, I live in God’s word even if I don’t understand it or can’t immediately absorb it.

Remaining or abiding in Jesus, then, is not just an inner experience; it is an objective reality. If the church is the body of Christ – if he is present in the worship of his church – then going to church and participating in the church’s worship is a way of staying connected to Christ apart from my feelings or thoughts. Going to church is the way to stay connected to the source of life no matter what I might be going through.

I recite the Psalms and pray the Lord’s prayer for the those who are hurting, for example, not to give them a better understanding of their place in God’s plan or to help them reframe their situation, but to maintain the connection between those who are wounded and the one who gives them life. I don’t expect my actions always to “work” in the sense of relieving pain or providing immediate comfort. I’m glad they do sometimes work that way. Rather, I expect my actions to make the life-sustaining communion of the saints objectively real for the faithful even if their mental faculties can’t process the information.

I served as a pastor for ten years, mostly in little country churches. There I spent much of my time visiting nursing homes. Frail, tiny bodies that spent most of the day staring at the walls would sometimes burst into song when our choir would sing its country-church hymns. Somewhere buried deep within the brain was a connection to Christ through his church. Sometime in the past these saints had sung these songs repeatedly until they had become a part of their very being. Not much else in the mind or body worked anymore, but the connection to Christ remained alive.

Year after year of staying connected to Christ prepares us for whatever life throws our way, and then when life does become too much for us, we remain connected to the source of life. The Psalmist’s words are true:

How blessed is the one who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand in the pathway with sinners, or sit in the assembly of scoffers! Instead he finds pleasure in obeying the LORD’s commands; he meditates on his commands day and night. He is like a tree planted by flowing streams; it yields its fruit at the proper time, and its leaves never fall off. (Psalm 1:1-3)

Choosing to Abide

I have to ask myself, why would anyone voluntarily separate themselves from source of life? Flowers don’t vainly yank themselves from the plant that produced them. Tree branches don’t voluntarily jump off the tree and walk away. Tomato vines don’t uproot themselves and take a stroll. Why don’t we have the sense of a tomato plant? There are many reasons, I’m sure, but unlike grapevines and tomato plants, we do have a choice.

John tells us that many abandoned Jesus at one point in his ministry. Jesus said,

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats from this bread he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Then the Jews who were hostile to Jesus began to argue with one another, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood resides in me, and I in him. (John 6:51-56)

The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood resides in me and I in him. This caused such a controversy, that,

After this many of his disciples quit following him and did not accompany him any longer. So Jesus said to the twelve, “You don’t want to go away too, do you?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. (John 6:66-68)

Lord, to whom shall we go. You have the words of eternal life. We say these words every Sunday before the gospel reading. We choose to remain connected to Jesus because his words are life. We choose to remain in the community where his words are proclaimed from pulpit and celebrated at the table.

Communion is the sacrament of staying connected. It encapsulates everything I have said up to this point. The act of communion doesn’t rely on understanding or emotion. Its purpose is not simply to illustrate a theological truth or to create religious feelings. In communion, God gives himself to us in Jesus. Those who come to the table are choosing to remain connected to him.

Going to church: where Jesus’ words are proclaimed, where the sacraments he gave us are shared, where he is worshiped and glorified in spirit and truth – this is my spiritual plan.

It’s a plan that can see me through even when my own faith is weak or my mental and emotional faculties overwhelmed.

Jesus says, “I am the vine. You are the branches. Abide in me.” As we share the fruit of the vine this morning in Jesus’ name, may the Lord nourish our souls, confirm our faith, and strengthen our relationship to him and to each other.