Words that Heal: Preaching Hope to Wounded Souls (Joni Sancken) -- A Review
WORDS THAT HEAL: Preaching Hope to Wounded Souls (The Artistry of Preaching Series). Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019. Xv + 122 pages.
Some Sundays, the task of preaching is rather easy. The text and the context are joyous. Everything is great! Praise the Lord! But such is not the case every Sunday. More often than we would like (speaking as a preacher), the text and the context poses a challenge. Something in the text or context is traumatic, and we must attend to the wound. It is not easy. We may not have the words handy. Often, it seems, the traumatic event occurs even as we are finishing the week's sermon (or perhaps it occurs after we’ve gone to bed on Saturday evening). Now, it seems, we must turn on a dime and offer words that comfort and heal. It might be something that happens some distance away, perhaps in a foreign land, but it has a universal impact. On the other hand, it could also be something that occurs within the congregation or in the local community. Whatever is the case the congregation feels the impact of the situation. So, what do you do?
Joni Sancken, a Mennonite pastor who serves as an associate professor of homiletics at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, has written a book designed to help us address these and other kinds of situations that call for a response from the preacher, but which are difficult to deal with. She refers to these situations as "soul wounds." They come in different forms, requiring different responses from the preacher, but they cannot be ignored. The goal here is healing, which often involves not a cure but resilience.
There is a growing number of books written by theologians and teachers of homiletics that focus on the nature of trauma and the appropriate responses to trauma. Shelly Rambo, whose books I've not read, is often cited. Serene Jones and Deanna Thompson have also written important books, which I’ve read, that also deal with trauma. What I've not read to this point is a book that deals with trauma that addresses the concerns preachers take into the pulpit. This is what Sancken offers us in an accessible format.
Sancken describes trauma as "circumstances in which a person survives a life-threatening experience or loses a loved one suddenly, where one's ability to process experience is surpassed by the breadth or depth of the experience itself" (p xiii). While the book deals with traumatic events, it also addresses events that may not reach the level of trauma but cause pain and brokenness. Whether these “soul wounds," rise to the level of trauma, they are "the unattended and unhealed effects of trauma and other pain that impact individuals and communities physically, mentally, relationally, sociologically, and spiritually" (pp. xiii-xiv). We who preach are required to address.
The book begins with a chapter exploring soul wounds, offering definitions and guidance as to how to attend to them. She acknowledges the difference between curing and healing. Curing is most likely eschatological in nature, while healing is a process that can be "understood as a fruit of the resurrection breaking into our world here and now" (p. 3). So, she offers definitions and guidance to developing understanding.
In chapter 2 she takes a step back into the Bible, for preachers are apt to engage the Bible in their preaching (in my mind they ought to do so). The Bible is filled with traumatic experiences including the Exile, the crucifixion of Jesus, and the persecution of the early Christians. She affirms the Bible as God's Word that "serves as means of holy access to our God who accompanies and sustains in the midst of trauma, takes on suffering on our behalf, heals, and transforms us into the likeness of Christ" (p. 25). She offers us a brief introduction to some of the interpretive tools useful to preachers, including assigning blame (yes God gets blamed in Scripture), typology (an ancient tool), and the cross and resurrection as a lens. She reminds us that there are texts that unless handled carefully can themselves lead to trauma and wounding. One of those passages is Genesis 22—the binding of Isaac. It is a passage preachers may want to avoid and yet it plays a significant role in Christian theology. I greatly appreciated her approach to this story that doesn't shy away from the challenge but allows the text to be preached in a way that doesn't lead to further wounding. If we use these tools, we might contribute to God's act of healing of wounds.
Unfortunately, the church itself can produce wounds. The institution can inflict pain and suffering, even if it isn't intentional. Sometimes it is the product of human acts, priestly/pastoral sexual abuse. She addresses this in rather personal ways, noting the case of John Howard Yoder, a leading Mennonite theologian (she's Mennonite) who inflicted great harm through sexually abusing women, both students, and non-students. She offers ways of addressing this so as to bring healing of wounds. It is not easy, but necessary. It takes a wise hand to guide us. She provides that wise hand.
The fourth and final chapter of this brief book, which is part of Abingdon Press's "The Artistry of Preaching Series," is simply titled "Healing for Wounded Souls." In this chapter, Sancken brings home the conversation about trauma, wounds, healing, and the preaching task. She provides guidance on listening to the needs and concerns of the congregation, of attending to issues and concerns the emerge from outside, but which need to be answered. She gives guidance as to how to structure sermons that might bring healing.
It is a small book that can be easily read in a few hours (I read most of it sitting in a jury assembly room). I've been preaching regularly for over twenty years, and have confronted my share of traumatic and non-traumatic events so I could have used this book in my early days of preaching. It might have given me guidance that could have prevented inappropriate responses. In fact, I wish I had read this book before I was called upon to address 9-11 from the pulpit. It might have made for a more effective response. It's too late for that to be addressed, but I believe Sancken's book will help us not only be better preachers but also be agents of God's healing touch.