Abstract group of crowded colorful people illustration. Generati

Our Beautiful Fragility

by Joni Sancken

It is hard to find words to describe our experiences of stress and trauma in today’s world. We have survived a global pandemic, a time which has also been marked by intense racial reckoning, financial challenges, increasing impacts of climate change, and global conflict. We are bombarded with horrific reports from wars in Israel/Gaza and Ukraine. Where does one crisis end and another begin? How many experiences can be called “unprecedented” before the word is drained of meaning? More importantly, in this time of collective upheaval and strain, how can we weather the compounding effects of ongoing traumatic stress for our families, our neighbors, and our world? If you’re feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, you’re not alone. 

Trauma refers to circumstances in which one’s own life or the life of a loved one is under threat, where one loses a loved one suddenly, or when the ability to process the experience is exceeded by the magnitude of the experience itself. The global experience of COVID-19 means that everyone in the world has, to some degree, suffered trauma. Individuals, families, congregations, and communities have dealt with this trauma in varying ways and with diverse levels of resilience. Resilience refers to the ability to withstand, adapt, and in a qualified sense bounce back following an experience of trauma.

Ministry in the aftermath of trauma does not seek to forget or somehow move past or “get over” the pain and suffering so many have experienced and continue to experience. However, the promise of the gospel is that we are not sentenced to be forever stuck. The gospel of Jesus Christ promises to liberate creation from that which binds and harms, to save us—even at times from ourselves. This is the greatest treasure the church can offer in the aftermath of intense crises and trauma. God’s people are powerfully resilient. The God who has been with God’s people throughout history draws especially near and continues with us. Resurrection life is erupting even in the midst of death.

Our faith offers us tools and practices that can help with processing trauma. Among these are lament, storytelling, and blessing. One could easily write many books on each of these practices. Lament, storytelling, and blessing are multifaceted and may be contextualized to speak to survivors with a variety of experiences. These actions are rich and laden with meaning. These practices also engage body, mind, and spirit; resilience; and creativity. Experimentation with these tools can inspire local ideas and responses that become channels for God’s presence and leading.

Therapist Resmaa Menakem writes about the necessity of moving through “clean pain” to clear space to grow.1 Working through pain is very hard. However, this is the way modeled for us by Jesus, who faced the powers that sought to kill him and end his healing ministry on 

the cross. Jesus’ own path through this pain clears a space for us to also face our brokenness, sin, and finitude with courage and hope.

The truth is that there is much we do not know or understand and cannot predict. People were not built to withstand this immense breadth of traumatic stress. Many of us have experienced nothing close to this in our lifetimes. Social media brings a horrific immediacy to global experiences of trauma. Images and video taken during recent natural disasters as well as the wars in Israel/Gaza and Ukraine give us front row seats to suffering on the other side of the world.

And yet, the Holy Spirit can inspire resilience and renewed calling. While many traumatic experiences and events are outside of our control, social-systemic brokenness and sin catalyze and deepen trauma for many. This is a time for passionate prayer, lament, truth-telling, forgiveness, compassion for self and others, and action.

The incarnate Christ, wounded and risen, leads the way, drawing us toward each other, creating spaces where we can experience healing, and empowering witness as leaven and salt in a world that has become flattened by pain and bitter on our tongues. May the Holy Spirit spark in all of us a desire to not only engage in healing care in the aftermath of trauma, but also actively work for a more just and peaceful world. May our beautiful fragility be upheld by God’s strength.

1 Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press, 2017), 19–20.

Joni Sancken is Professor of Homiletics at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH and was previously Assistant Professor of Preaching and Practical Theology at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, VA. She is also VST’s incoming Butler Chair of Homiletics and Hermeneutics. Her approach to preaching is interdisciplinary and theological. Recent books include Words that Heal: Preaching Hope to Wounded Souls (Abingdon, 2019), All Our Griefs to Bear: Responding with Resilience After Collective Trauma (Herald Press, 2022,) and Getting to God: Preaching Good News in a Troubled World (co-authored) (Cascade, 2023.)

This article is excerpted from All Our Griefs to Bear: Responding with Resilience after Collective Trauma (Herald Press, 2022). All rights reserved. Used with permission.