As I start to talk with pastors about why ACEs matter and why they should inform themselves and their congregations, I regularly hear something like this: “But why does it matter? What difference should it make in ministry? Can’t I simply preach and teach the Bible and leave the results up to God?”
By way of answer to these questions, I am starting to put together a training called “10 things that kid with ACEs would like you to know: moving your church toward greater empathy.” The following is from my second point in the presentation: “The traumatized are biologically wired to worry.” I hope you find it helpful, and if you pass this on to a pastor-type person, please do so in the context of want to raise their awareness to an issue, not in a judgmental way. Having been a parish pastor, I know all the demands on their time. The hurt that a pastor might do to someone with ACEs is unintentional… they just don’t know what they don’t know! Finally, this was prepared as a spoken presentation rather than written, and rather than have to rewrite the whole thing, I hope you picture the setting and glean the same truths.
Thanks, Chaplain Chris Haughee www.intermountainministry.org
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While we may have all been created equal, that does not make us the same, nor does it change the fact that we have all had different childhoods.
Toxic stress wires a child’s brain to be in constant vigilance against potential threats… Pastor, consider your most stressful situation, perhaps a time you really thought or knew your life was in danger. Remember that adrenaline rush? Now, imagine that in even a heightened, regular rate, let alone anything close to constant. Can you see how this might affect a child’s brain? Can you see why toxic stress–a prolonged heightened sense of fear from a potentially life threatening situation–can be so damaging?
So, because of what we know about ACEs, especially here in Montana—where 17 percent of children have experienced three or more ACEs, and 1 in 10 have four or more (the “tipping point” for all sorts of negative consequences statistically, including a 1200% increase in suicidal behavior) how might that change the way you preach and teach?
Raise your hand if you have ever taught, preached, or heard taught or preached a message on Jesus’ teaching about worry from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:25-34)? How many? Look around.
Okay… next question: How many of you, leave your hands up if this is you… How many of you heard from those messages, or taught from that passage that the main lesson was: “Worry is bad. You should worry less?” Look around… lots of hands.
Telling the survivor of ACEs to worry less, and that’s what Jesus wants you to do, is about as sensitive as telling the child in the wheelchair that they need to stop using their wheelchair and that Jesus wants them to walk. (Unfortunately, having had a brother with Muscular Dystrophy, confined to a wheelchair most of his life until his death at age 20, this message is sometimes taught from ‘Christian’ pulpits).
Think I am overstating the case? Then ask yourself, “Do I lend more validity to the child in the wheelchair, considering their limitations because I can see them while discrediting the limitations of child with ACEs?” And, if so, ask yourself the follow-up question: “Is this because the effects of their trauma are in their nervous system and endocrine system, remaining unseen and hidden?” Pastor, teacher… if someone’s infirmity doesn’t scream out to your sense of sight, touch, or hearing you shouldn’t assume it is less significant. The child with six or more ACEs dies 20 years early than the rest of the population. That’s significant.
As you prepare your sermon, remember this: your worries and anxiety, as someone without a rewired brain or a hyper-vigilant endocrine/nervous system, cannot be compared to those who have experienced toxic stress as a result of ACEs. It just can’t.
Back to Matthew 6: Jesus was teaching less on worry than on recognizing our dependence on God. What did Jesus speak to? Worry about food and drink, about clothes. Does anyone without a traumatic childhood REALLY worry about these things? We worry about our jobs, our mortgages, our children’s behavior. There are few in our churches that truly worry about food, clothing, and their thirst (though that may be another issue to address… our missional impact… but that’s for another time and place).
Food, drink, and clothes are not pressing issues for us. But, for the child who truly didn’t have enough to eat as a child, who learned to hoard when food was available, just might have food issues in adulthood… and, that’s just one common example I see in my ministry. Try preparing a lesson on this passage for these children rather than the kids that argue about how many stalks of broccoli they might have to eat in order to get dessert. Changes things a bit, yes?
Lastly, the same person that gave this teaching about worry also prayed in Gethsemane, troubled (“depressed and dejected”-ademoneo in Greek) to the point of sweating blood! Dare we say that Jesus was “worried” or anxious about the manner of death that lay before him? This level or worry or anxiety is a better corollary to what children with numerous ACEs might have experienced.
Imagine if those sleepy disciples in the garden had quoted Jesus back to himself: “Jesus, why are you so worried? Can you add a single hour to your life? You said it yourself!” I am not so sure that would have gone over well, and I don’t think our admonishing those with anxiety issues from very troubled childhood experiences goes over any better.