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Theology Slam winner: Wandering from pain to healing

07 October 2022

In the winning entry of the Theology Slam competition, Amanda Higgin considers how the Letter to the Hebrews can inform recovery from trauma


THIS world is no longer the paradise God designed; nor is it yet the secure, golden city which God promises. In this world, we will have trouble. People get hurt, and people carry that hurt with them on their backs. I know this too well.

If you had met me last May, you would have seen a successful, well-adjusted, University of Oxford Master’s student, in training to be a Baptist minister. What you wouldn’t have seen was the trauma I was carrying from an abusive relationship I left two years before. In June, my legs gave out under the hurt I was carrying. I had my first series of flashbacks. As my mental health declined, I was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or c-PTSD; I stopped my hobbies, baled on plans with friends, and eventually suspended from university.

As I found myself in recovery, I also found myself holding the Letter to the Hebrews. This text was the subject of my aborted Master’s dissertation, and, as I struggled with my own pain, I started to see how uncertainty and trauma underpinned this masterful, anonymous, theological address.

Shelly Rambo calls trauma “the suffering that does not go away”. It is the harm that remains and repeats in our souls and bodies after events of violence.

THE author of Hebrews, in chapter 10, tells us that they are addressing a traumatised congregation. They remind their audience how they suffered beatings, looting, and imprisonment: experiences which the members of the congregation carry in their souls and bodies as they listen. A young man rubs the scabs on his arm from being beaten in the street, and his partner sits anxiously by him, shaken by the cries for help that still ring in their ears.

Even those who weren’t targeted themselves, Hebrews tells us, shared the burden of those who were. This community holds trauma; as Rambo says, their suffering has not gone away.

As if I sat in the audience, I heard Hebrews speak to me: “as the Holy Spirit says: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the wilderness, . . . For I declared an oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”

If Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later on about another day. There remains, then, a sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his.

Hebrews draws those words from Psalm 95, which makes an example of that generation of Israel who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years after God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. The psalm calls its hearers to obedience, unlike that grumbling generation who never managed to enter the promised land.

Hebrews uses this text differently, though, reading in light of Jesus’s life. In chapters 3 and 4, they show how “a sabbath-rest remains for the people of God”: not a geographical Canaan-rest, but an eternal sabbath-rest, which we enter following behind not Joshua, but Jesus.

Hebrews does this because they receive scripture as the voice of God. I first learned this from Madison Pierce; her work demonstrates how Hebrews reads Old Testament scripture as the voice of a triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Where other New Testament authors introduce their quotations with the formula gegraptai, “It is written”, the author of Hebrews uses forms of legei: “He says.”

We’ve just heard how they introduce Psalm 95 with “as the Holy Spirit says”: “kathos legei to pneuma to hagion”. Later in this same chapter, Hebrews calls the word of God “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword”. By reading Psalm 95 as the living and active voice of God, the author of Hebrews discovers a message of rest and endurance for their traumatised congregation.

IN HIS book The Wandering People of God (Wipf & Stock, 2002), Ernst Käsemann shows how this image of wandering in the wilderness underpins everything Hebrews says. The author encourages their congregation to endure as if they are stuck in the wilderness: “Let us hold fast to the hope we profess,” they say. “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

Do you ever feel like you’re stuck between the pain of slavery and the promise of rest? I know I do.

In Spirit and Trauma (West­minster John Knox, 2010), Shelly Rambo describes trauma as a Holy Saturday experience, caught in the uncertain “remaining” between death on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter Sunday. While Rambo’s language of remaining emphasises time, I believe Hebrews is expressing the same thought using this geographical language of wandering. We know pain; God has promised us eternal rest. In the space between, we carry trauma.

Trauma is static. It makes us feel like we are still stuck on the wrong side of the Red Sea. But healing looks to the future: rest in the Promised Land, resurrection on Easter Sunday. For that reason, the word “recovery” can actually be unhelpful: it implies going back for something we’ve lost. But, in the same way that Hebrews goes back for old scriptures and reads them in new, life-giving ways, we can retrieve our wholeness while moving forwards to that promised rest.

In the book of Revelation, John shows us a picture of the New Jerusalem. That final vision is not a return to the Garden of Eden. Instead, it is a new way of dwelling with God that transforms all the hurt and pain of a fallen world. The Israelites were afraid to enter Canaan because it was new and strange; but eventually there they found a home. In the wilderness between pain and healing, God speaks: a living and active voice of hope, renewal, and Christ.

So, as we encounter people and communities carrying trauma, Hebrews shows us a way. Recovery is a wandering from pain to healing. Recovery for ourselves and our communities is guided by the living and active voice of God, if “today” we will hear that voice.

I am here today to tell my story, and to share the role Hebrews has played in it, as part of my own journey to remake myself into a transformed wholeness that tries to put Christ at the centre. And, like the author of Hebrews, I am standing in front of an audience, inviting you to do the same.

We do not need to be afraid of the newness and uncertainty of wandering. In the space between brokenness and redemption, Egypt and Canaan, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Eden and the New Jerusalem, there is new life to be recovered from old traditions if only, like Hebrews, we receive them as the voice of God. Recovery from trauma is a remaking of ourselves and our communities as we pay attention to that voice.

Amanda Higgin is training as a Baptist minister at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, while working towards a Master’s degree in New Testament theology, with a focus on the Letter to the Hebrews.

Watch a recording of the Theology Slam final here

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