The Body Keeps the Score


Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

In the name of God, from whom all blessings flow.  Amen.

Last week, after church, I was chatting with a couple of people, and this story came up that I’ve told many times – I’ve probably even used it in a sermon before, I don’t remember.  But it’s worth sharing again.

When I was engaged in trainings necessary to be ordained, one of the aspects of that training was a residency in a hospital as a chaplain.  In the course of that residency I worked at Overlook Hospital in Summit from September to May one year.  Over the course of that time, one of the most memorable patients that I worked with was an elderly, African-American woman who had moved from the Deep South to northern New Jersey so she could be cared for by her son and his family.  I was just a few years into my life in northern New Jersey, so she and I had some common ground on which to build a connection.

She was in and out of the hospital throughout the year that I was there, and the nurses learned to call on me when they were having trouble with her.  She could be a bit of a pill, but it was largely because of cultural differences.  She had expectations for how an elder should be treated, and to the young nurses from New Jersey, she might as well have been speaking another language.  But I speak Southern, so I could communicate with her in a way that made her feel validated and respected, but also that helped the nurses get done what they needed to get done.

We developed a friendship over those months.  Toward the end of her life, however, she became less and less mentally present.  The last time I visited her, she was in Intensive Care and had become almost completely non-communicative.  Even so, I visited her.  I sat by her bedside for a few minutes talking with her: rehearsing some of the things we’d laughed about in the past about differences between New Jersey and where we’d grown up.  Seeing that she was near the end of her journey, I assured her that God was with her, that she had lived an important and good life, and I tried to comfort her as she prepared to make the transition from life to unending life.

Through it all, she never gave any indication that she even knew I was in the room, so after a few minutes, I decided to start wrapping up.  In previous visits, she’d asked me to say the 23rd Psalm with her, so I did that again this last time.  To my surprise, she started saying it along with me.  She never opened her eyes, and her speech was weak, but she was clearly participating.  Then, when I prayed with her, I concluded my prayer for her by saying the Lord’s Prayer.  Once again, she joined in.  Again, never opening her eyes, or moving in any way, other than the pulse of her breath and forming the words in her lips.

As I left, she never responded in any other way.  The only things she said were the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer.  A life-long, devoted Christian and church goer, these two spiritual tools seemed to have been built in to her DNA.  They were in her bones.  And when she heard them, she almost involuntarily joined in.

I thought of that this week, hearing this passage from the Gospel where Jesus teaches what we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer.  How many of us have that prayer embedded in our bones?  Even if we don’t think of it every day – even if we catch ourselves following along with the printed words as we say it, it’s one of those prayers that we say so much that it’s become a part of us.  As sure as any part of our body is a part of us, the knowledge of these familiar words has become a part of us, too.

Earlier this week I encountered a book called The Body Keeps the Score.  It was written by a medical doctor about human responses to trauma.  He suggests that similar to the ways that physical traumas can leave physical scars, that emotional trauma can also leave scars – that they shape us, and how we behave and who we come to be long after they become a part of our past.

Left unresolved, these scars can be debilitating throughout our lives.  But in the same way that trauma can leave lasting scars, healing can also have lasting effects.  Healing after trauma can actually make us better prepared for similar traumas in the future.

The trauma becomes a part of who we are.  It gets into our bones and shapes us into the future.  But so does healing.  It also gets into our bones and helps us to stay healed when harm comes again.

It’s interesting that this sharing of the Lord’s Prayer is paired, in our reading with the rest of the passage.

The disciple, seeing that Jesus is a person of prayer, asks him to teach them how to pray.  Share this gift with us, so we can benefit, too.  And Jesus does.  He lifts up an example of how prayer should look.  But beyond the example, he goes on to tell a story that drives it home.  If you have a need, ask.  Even if the one you’re asking doesn’t want to help, you’re likely to get the help you need just from sheer persistence.  Dare to ask.  Dare to seek.  Dare to knock.  Don’t sabotage yourself by refusing to even try.  Trust that God loves us more than we understand.  Trust that God wants to support and encourage us. 

Thinking about the way the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm became built in to the deepest recesses of the hospital patient that I cared for, I wondered, what else do we store “in our bones”?  What else do we internalize to the point of it becoming a part of who we are?

In today’s reading, it feels like Jesus is calling on us to put this trust and daring that he’s advocating for alongside this prayer that we know so well.  It seems like Jesus wants that built into us and stored “in our bones”, too.

What we store in those deepest recesses – what we store at the cores of our identities and selves – will come out.  If it’s the words of the Lord’s Prayer, those words will come out.  If it’s a pattern and practice for speaking with God, that will come out.  If it’s daring to trust in the loving kindness of God, that will come out, too.

So what are we storing?  What, through our regular lives, are we “programming” into ourselves?

Coming to church, whether it’s here in this room, or through the benefit of technology, isn’t about meeting an obligation.  It isn’t about avoiding guilt.  It certainly isn’t about appeasing a God who is prone to anger and punishment – that’s not what we understand of God.  It is, however, at least partially about developing habits – about programming ourselves with tools to lean on when the challenges come.  Because they will come.  And when they come, what is at our core will come out – whether it’s beneficial or not.  So, at its best, some of what this community is meant to do is to build those beneficial responses into our cores, so that they will be what comes out when circumstances make us lose control.

What is the score your body is keeping?  What are some ways that you can change it, if you don’t like the look of it?  What do you want to hold on to and nurture?

Jesus points us in the direction of bold prayer.  Jesus points us toward being more daring and being more trusting.  Through it all, Jesus points us toward lived and embodied love.  Jesus points us toward love and faith that is embedded in our bones.  Amen.