As a fire service chaplain I have been exposed to extreme forms of crises most pastors never encounter. Frequently I have been called upon to minister to the victims of these tragedies as well as to the firefighters themselves.
To better equip myself for this unique ministry, I have attended several conferences dealing with trauma and stress. The first one I attended years ago was sponsored by the Michigan State Police Chaplain Corps. Dozens of police and fire service chaplains participated. The featured speaker was a psychologist affiliated with the University of Maryland and the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. For two days he talked about techniques to alleviate the negative psychological impact of traumatic situations.
During a break, I enjoyed a personal conversation with this gentleman. He asked me several questions about my involvement in emergency service chaplaincy. When he learned that I did not simply hear about tragic events from firefighters, but was often present on scene, he told me, “I’m concerned about your mental health.” I suppose he had good reason to be. I am certainly not immune to the effects of trauma. However, I assured him that I regularly took the pressure and grief of what I experienced to the Lord in prayer. Through meditation on Scripture and reliance on God’s comfort and grace I found peace in times of stress. I shared with him such verses as I Pet. 5:7, “Casting all your care upon him for He careth for you,” and Phil. 4:7, “And the peace of God which passeth all understanding shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus our Lord.”
When the break ended, the instructor stood up in front of the group and related some of our conversation. Then he asked, “For how many of you does your faith orientation help you deal with stress in chaplaincy?” Everyone raised a hand. The psychologist seemed surprised. He paused, stroked his chin, and said, “This is a whole other aspect I am going to have to investigate.”
A recent Dallas Morning News article addressing the problem of post-traumatic stress disorder in the military cited some disturbing information. Included was the fact that the Veterans Administration guidelines for dealing with PTSD make no mention of spirituality – this in spite of studies that show its profound effectiveness in helping PTSD sufferers. The article’s author, a physician, argued that veterans should be informed that spirituality can significantly help those negatively affected by trauma. The First Amendment may not allow prayer and the Bible to be required by the government, but it does not prohibit it being mentioned as a resource.
In I Sam. 30, David experienced a traumatic event. Upon returning from a military excursion, David and his men discovered their homes burned, and their families taken captive. The emotional response to this tragedy was so intense that David and his men “wept until they had no more power to weep” (I Sam. 30:4). Added to David’s shock and grief was the accusation that he was responsible for this disaster. His own men talked of executing him for his alleged culpability. Classic signs of what is called a “critical incident” were present: personal loss, distressing sights, contrasting details (expecting a welcome home only to find home burned), uncertainty, and the perception of personal blame. “David was greatly distressed,” but his response was to fortify himself with the resources available through his covenant relationship with God (I Sam. 30:6).
The biblical prescription for the Christian disquieted by the worst imaginable life situations is to hope in God. Even if inner impulses of grief reoccur long after the event, triggered by sights and sounds that call to memory the critical incident, the prescription is the same. “Cast thy burden upon the Lord and He shall sustain thee” (Ps. 55:22).
To the grieving, the fearful, and the traumatized, this “whole other aspect” demands investigation.