Tell Me the Story of Healing from Trauma

In March of 2021, I posted a blog (Tell Me the Story of Trauma) that announced a research project for the writing of a book, which I have begun. I have chosen to re-post portions of this blog with some additions since the deadline for receiving new participants is March 31, 2022.

The statistics are grim. RAIN reports:

  • Every 73 seconds another American is sexually assaulted.
  • 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted).
  • About 3% of American men—or 1 in 33—have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.[1]

But rather than only nameless, faceless statistics, the #MeToo movement has assisted in bringing to light stories of sexual assault. These types of stories have appeared in all sectors of life from Hollywood to the Olympics; from politics to religion; from universities to seminaries; and among pentecostals. It is a part of pentecostal history as in the public story of Recy Taylor, a young black woman who was walking home from a pentecostal church service when she was kidnapped by seven white teenagers and raped by six of the seven in 1944.[2] More recently, many stories were heard at the first gathering of #pentecostalsisterstoo at the 2018 meeting of Society for Pentecostal Studies as many women and young men indicated that they, too, had been sexually violated. Some women indicated that such violations continue in actions and innuendos as well as through the lack of respect from their male counterparts. These stories may be called “countertestimonies,” as described by Stephen Torr. According to Torr, these are laments that are aided by the Holy Spirit.[3] It is necessary to lift up these voices in our cultures and churches for we as a culture and a church remain incomplete without them. For too long, survivors of sexual violence have been silenced, their voices marginalized as the perpetrators continued to remain in power. Today these voices are beginning to be heard.

With that being said, it is now time for stories that speak of the courage to heal from sexual violent acts. In an interview, Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too movement, states she wants to move beyond the stories of trauma to stories of healing.[4] It is here that I believe pentecostal theology may be helpful. It goes without saying that pentecostals are known for their theology of healing, and they are also known to be people of stories. This is evident as some pentecostals have begun to relate their stories of healing (whether these stories be miraculous or ongoing) from sexual violence.

  • Amy, a Classical Pentecostal missionary, was brutally raped in her home in Senegal in 2014. After spending time in daily counseling for eight months, she now continues to serve on another field. She stated, “I’m not the person I was before the attack, even through all the grief and pain. I like much better who I am now. My love for the Father is so much deeper, my love for people is so much greater, and my faith is so much stronger.”[5]
  • Another pentecostal, Jeanette Salguero, who is an associate senior pastor and chief operation officer at Calvario City Church in Orlando, speaks of ongoing healing: “As a Pentecostal pastor, I know about the laying on of hands and the sprinkling and the handkerchiefs and all that good stuff. But it’s a lot more than that . . . We cannot link hands and say, ‘Woman you are healed go.’ ‘Man you are healed, go on your merry way.’ This is a process.” About her own healing process she said, “I’m not denying the power of the Holy Spirit, but I do know, as a thriving victim, that therapy is a must.” [6]
  • For others, there is healing that includes a divine intervention as I presented in Who Is Present in Absence?: A Pentecostal Theological Praxis of Suffering and Healing. One of the participants of my study experienced theophastic prayer, receiving a powerful experience of healing as he envisioned Jesus Christ being present during the abuse that he experienced as a child.[7]

It is in the spirit [Spirit] of this type of healing, that I am conducting a qualitative research project about healing from sexual violence among pentecostals/Charismatics by striving to answer two questions:

  • “In what manner is healing demonstrated in the lives of pentecostals/Charismatics who have experienced sexual violence?”

and

  • “How may we, as pentecostals/Charismatics, participate in Christ’s healing ministry to those who have been sexually assaulted?”

I am endeavoring to answer the aforementioned questions by interviewing pentecostals/Charismatics who are either survivors of sexual violence OR licensed counselors who are involved in the healing process of survivors of sexual violence.

IF YOU ARE A SURVIVOR:

I am seeking personal stories of pentecostals/Charismatics who have experienced/are experiencing healing from sexual violence. These stories of healing may include experiences of healing that are ongoing AND/OR those that are the result of an instantaneous divine intervention.

Potential participants must be:

  • A male or female adult over the age of 21. Please note that this research is not limited to those in the West;
  • Those who currently classify themselves as Pentecostal/Charismatic;
  • Those who have experienced sexual violence (such as rape, sexual childhood abuse, etc.);
  • Those who have started their healing journey.

If you meet the above criteria and are interested in participating in this research project, please contact me by March 31, 2022 (this is the FINAL deadline) to begin the screening process at:

healing101.research@gmail.com.

The screening process for a survivor involves a questionnaire, which is followed up with a short phone conversation. If you are selected as a participant, you will be invited to tell your story in an extended interview (approx. 90 minutes) via a video call (such as Zoom, FaceTime, etc.). Participants will have the main questions in advance to assist in providing a sense of safety and security. You are telling your story during the interview, so you may say as much or as little as you desire or refuse to answer a question if you so choose. You may also stop the interview at any time. The focus is on the story of your healing journey. While your healing journey will be conveyed, any information that is obtained in connection with this process, that can be identified as you, such as your name, will remain confidential and will not be disclosed. Since I take concealing your identity very seriously, pseudonyms will be used for such information as names, dates, and locations.

IF YOU ARE A LICENSED COUNSELOR:

I am also interviewing licensed, pentecostal/Charismatic counselors who are involved in the healing process of survivors of sexual violence. Unlike a survivor’s story, I am asking counselors to provide their own story of how it is they became involved in this type of work and to offer some generalities concerning the healing process from sexual violence for pentecostals/Charismatics.

For counselors, there are two main steps involved in order to participate in this study. First, the counselor indicates his/her willingness to participate by answering three questions via email by March 31, 2022 (the FINAL DEADLINE):

  • What is your name and the location of your practice?
  • What are your credentials/education/training and years of experience as a counselor, particularly one who counsels survivors of sexual violence?
  • How long have you been a pentecostal/Charismatic?

If chosen as a participant, the second step involves a more extensive interview via Zoom (approximately 60 minutes), and once again the participant will receive the questions in advance. Any information that is obtained in connection with this process, which can be identified as you will remain confidential and will not be disclosed. This includes such information as names, dates, and locations.

Once again, I remind you: If you desire to participate, the final deadline to contact me is March 31, 2022. Please contact me at: healing101.research@gmail.com

WHO AM I:

My name is Pam F. Engelbert, PhD, and I am ordained with the Assemblies of the God and am currently a pastoral caregiver/teacher/researcher/author. I previously interviewed Classical Pentecostals who had experienced extended suffering while hoping/expecting/praying for a divine intervention that did not come to pass and published their stories in a book Who Is Present in Absence?: A Pentecostal Theological Praxis of Suffering and Healing. I recently published a journal article entitled “How Jesus Communicates #Metoo: A Perspective on Intergenerational Trauma and Healing in the Atonement.

Regardless of your interest in being a part of this study, I appreciate the attention that you give to this request. I look forward to hearing from you.

#metoo #pentecostalsisterstoo


[1] “Scope of the Problem: Statistics,” RAIN, https://www.rainn.org/statistics/scope-problem (accessed March 18, 2021).

[2] Sewell Chan, “Recy Taylor, Who Fought for Justice after a 1944 Rape, Dies at 97,” The New York Times December 29, 2017, accessed April 5, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/29/obituaries/recy-taylor-alabama-rape-victim-dead.html?fbclid=IwAR27MauSvas3wKCpuPK2BN4hsHyx_t3r3e4cFDfgtfU5CU34d0z9Kyipyyo.

[3] Stephen C. Torr, Dramatic Pentecostal/Charismatic Anti-Theodicy: Improvising on a Divine Performance of Lament (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013).

[4] Aisha Harris, “She Founded Me Too. Now She Wants to Move Past the Trauma,” The New York Times, October 15, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/15/arts/tarana-burke-metoo-anniversary.html (accessed May 27, 2019).

[5] John W. Kennedy, “Back from a Traumatic Experience,” News, Assemblies of God (August 1, 2019) https://news.ag.org/News/Back-from-a-Traumatic-Experience, (accessed August 16, 2019).

[6] Morgan Lee, “ Max Lucado Reveals Past Sexual Abuse at Evangelical #MeToo Summit,” Christianity Today (December 13, 2018) https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2018/december/metoo-evangelicals-abuse-beth-moore-caine-lucado-gc2-summit.html (accessed August 16, 2019.

[7] Pamela F. Engelbert, Who Is Present in Absence?: A Pentecostal Theological Praxis of Suffering and Healing (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2019), 112-113.

When A Story Appears Mundane…


The Blog That Speaks: When A Story Appears Mundane…


It was a rainy, humid Monday in June when I walked into her room for the first time since her stroke, which had occurred just three to four days earlier.

Photo by geralt on Pixabay

Since the stroke, her eyes had been closed, her left side had been paralyzed, and she had been on oxygen. I was struck how much she looked like her own mother when she, too, laid on her bed having had a stroke. I realized that if family genes had any say in the matter, this would be how I would appear when I became her age . . . I have been told after all, “You look a lot like your mom.”

As I sat by her bedside, I related to her about my graduation since I had just graduated on Friday with a Master of Divinity. When I relayed the story of my husband yelling, “That’s my wife” as I received my degree, I saw a small smile appear on her face, signaling to me that she had heard me. There were other signs, too. When I asked her questions like, “Do you want more cranberry juice” or “Do you want the radio on,” she responded, “Yeah, sure.”

If her verbal interactions were minimal that Monday, they were even less the next day. And by Wednesday, we were placing her on hospice, not knowing if she would live days, weeks, or months. I cognitively knew what to expect as the staff explained about hospice since my husband was a hospice chaplain; however, my acquaintance with hospice did not mitigate the pain of this grim situation.

Placing her on hospice was a harsh reality-check: my mom was dying.

When the phone rang at around 8:00 AM on Friday, I instinctively knew it was about Mom. The nurse on the other end of the call informed me that there was increasing evidence of my mom’s impending death. As she described the new developments, a sense of urgency rose in her voice as she spoke. If the family wanted to say their goodbyes, now was the time for Mom would probably die that day or the next.

As a friend and I walked into the room with the nurse that Friday morning, it was evident that death was in the shadows, standing in wait. Perhaps it was death’s loitering that induced us to sing Christian hymns at Mom’s bedside. Former professor, David Augsburger said to me later when he heard of this: “You sang your mom into glory.” And sing we did. Hymn after hymn after hymn. As we sang “Blessed Assurance” (a song I no longer can sing without thinking of Mom), I smiled as I saw her lips move. She was aware of her surroundings. When her pastor and his wife came, making the duet into a quartet, we sang “Victory in Jesus” and witnessed her lips moving once again. When the song was over and knowing my mom loved quartets, I said, “Mom, you just had a quartet sing to you!” I smiled with pleasure as I watched her raise her eyebrows in response.

By mid-afternoon, I was exhausted. Waiting is exhausting and perhaps waiting for death’s door to open even more so.

As my dad and I waited by her bed, only the sounds of Mom’s breathing alongside the muffled clamor of the noise outside her room could be heard. We watched as her chest went up . . . down . . . up . . . down. Then . . . it didn’t. We waited . . . My dad was the first to break the silence: “Is she gone?” But before I could answer, Mom responded with a shudder while she took another breath. Her breathing had slowed so that 10 to 15 seconds passed in between breaths.

One breath.

Wait.

Another breath.

Wait.

Another breath.

Wait . . .

Nothing.

Just as quickly as her breathing had slowed, it stopped. No announcement proclaimed, “This is the last breath.” Only a void of breath remained as death had emerged soundlessly from the shadows.

No tears were shed as feelings of ambivalence washed over me. Joy, sorrow, and peace simultaneously entwined around my soul. It felt surreal as my words still to this day fail to form an adequate rendering of that moment.

Her breathing had been mundane . . . until it wasn’t.

A sense of the sacred flooded my soul. As if I was in the sanctuary of an ancient cathedral, this sacredness demanded silence, and if I had to speak, it was not to be above a whisper. On this day, June 18, 2010, I stood in the presence of something profoundly holy, the moment Mom died.

I have told the above story of my mom’s death multiple times in various versions.

The hyper-abbreviated version of “My mom died” was reserved for strangers, such as the unfortunate man who sat beside me in the plane or the clerk at Target. Longer versions were relayed to acquaintances, but the most extended version was told to close friends, such as my husband, to whom I repeated the story again and again. Despite his hearing it over and over so that the story became more or less unremarkable, not once did he say, “You said that already.”

Unfortunately, this is not the case for many of us as we have a propensity toward impatience with repetition. We are more accustomed to changing channels when a television story becomes too pedestrian. We will say to no one in particular, “I have seen this show multiple times” while we click on the remote in search of something more novel and fresher. For many of us, repeatedly hearing the same story borders on pedestrianism. The newness has long worn off, leaving us longing for an imaginative and vibrant quality.

But it is precisely in this ordinary retelling of a story of loss and grief in which something sacred occurs . . . healing. That is, the telling of the story appears mundane . . . until it isn’t . . . as healing emerges.

When there is a death or a trauma, our being is unable to acknowledge the reality of what has transpired (see When There’s an Empty Chair at the Table). We struggle to make sense of that which has just occurred. From having an embarrassing moment to having an up-and-close-personal encounter with a moose (ask me about that someday and I will tell you the story . . . again) to experiencing a death, our whole being needs to make sense of it and what has happened. And so  . . . we tell and retell the story.

I heard from one grieving woman that the most important thing that she had learned so far in her grief journey was, “The telling of the story again and again. It does not matter if you have told it previously because it is in the retelling of the story that the brain processes the death.”

The telling of the story appeared mundane . . . until it wasn’t.

And really . . . one does not relate the same story twice. As my husband commented once after hearing me tell the story of Mom’s death yet again: “Each time you tell the story, it is told a little bit differently.” Part of these differences in telling is also linked to the one who is listening. Lisbeth Lipari writes about research that demonstrates speakers are dependent on the listener’s body movements when they relate a story. The more attentive with his/her body that a listener is, the more the speakers remember about their stories and the better they relay them. Research also indicates that the listener and the speaker tell a story together. That is, a good listener becomes a partner in the telling of the speaker’s story.[1] In short, physical attentiveness matters in listening, no matter how prosaic the story may appear to the listener. The telling of the story may appear mundane . . . until it isn’t. This is difficult to grasp amidst today’s techno-focused world in which we continually seek for something newer and more invigorating.

Yet, ironically, we tell the same stories or enact the same rituals every year during our holiday seasons.

From American Thanksgiving to Hanukkah, Christmas, or Kwanza, rituals and stories are repeated annually. Many of us draw comfort from the rituals and the repeated telling of stories surrounding them.

As one who celebrates Christmas, I am not only struck by the retelling of the birth of Jesus Christ, but also the mundane aspects that appear both explicitly and implicitly, which are weaved within the story, such as in Luke 2:

  • A census issued by a government
  • A crowded city
  • A stable
  • A feeding trough
  • Labor pains
  • Blood
  • Placenta
  • A cry
  • A nursing baby at his mother’s breast
  • Shepherds watching their sheep

Many of the above details are so commonplace that they are omitted in our annual storytelling. The version is frequently sanctified and spiritualized to avoid the mundane and center on the WOW-factors:

  • The dark sky brightly illuminated
  • Angels appearing
  • Angels’ declaring (not necessarily singing) that a Savior is born, Christ the Lord

The sign to the shepherds, however, is rather commonplace: a baby wrapped in strips of cloth. New Testament scholar James Edwards comments,

“[A] newborn is commonplace . . . Apart from the angelic announcement, this sign could easily be overlooked or mistaken for something other than it is.”[2]

The sign from God was in the mundane, a human being, and it would be a sign that would be rejected (2:34). Edwards notes “that signs are ordinarily given to resolve contradictions,” but this sign will be a focus of the “contradiction.”[3]

Luke’s use of the word “sign” in his Gospel, as in the other Synoptics, demonstrates being “skeptical about the value of signs for faith”[4] as it includes people seeking a supernatural sign, the WOW-factor:

  • 11:16, 29, 30—The people ask Jesus for a sign, but Jesus responds, “[This generation] looks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah”;
  • 23:8—Herod “was hoping to see him perform some miraculous sign.

However, the sign is the appearance of the mundane, a human being, where healing comes to the world.

The story in Luke, then, not only informs us of the WOW-factors where we find an encounter with God, but it is both in

  • divinity and humanity
  • eternity and time
  • supernatural and ordinariness

 . . . where God is encountered.

Similar to the people in Luke’s Gospel, I too continually long for the supernatural (after all, I am pentecostal), but may I not miss God in the pedestrianism . . . the ordinariness . . . the mundane of being human . . . such as in the retelling of a story again and again . . .

It is here in the appearance of the mundane . . . which really isn’t . . . one may experience healing . . . that is, God.


[1] Lisbeth Lipari, Listening, Thinking, Being (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014), loc. 3376-3384, Kindle Edition.

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 2015), 78.

[3] Ibid., 87.

[4] Ibid., 77.

When There’s An Empty Chair At The Table . . .


The Blog That Speaks: When There’s an Empty Chair at the Table . . .

Tears rolled down her cheeks as she said, “I mentioned Mom, and they said nothing.”[1]

I heard feelings of frustration, confusion, and disappointment pour out of her story.

Photo by Casey C from FreeImages

Madison, as I will call her, had longed for, and expected, a shared connection—that is, a shared reality, but instead, her longing remained unfulfilled as she was greeted by the coldness of disconnection, producing feelings of loneliness and fueling her sense of isolation.

Her story could actually occur in any family celebrating any holiday after a death. Hers revolved around a family Christmas celebration, the first after her mother’s death. She, her father, her siblings, and their families had gathered in the parents’ home just as they had done year after year to be with one another during “the most wonderful time of the year,” or so it was commonly billed.

Sure, she knew it would be different, even hard, but she was unprepared for what greeted her that Christmas. Mom was absent, but she was also present . . . In every nook and cranny . . . In every spot in the house . . . In each place she looked, Madison saw her mother. Her china. Her collectibles. Her home décor. The sofa she selected. The chair that was hers. The spices in her cupboards. Her favorite coffee mug. Family photos displayed by a handy piece of Scotch tape. Even her holiday recipes were in her handwriting. As Madison saw item after item, they seemed to emanate her mother.

Being in the parents’ house made it appear as if her mother was alive again . . . but not. It gave the impression that the lines between death and life were blurred, leaving Madison in a state of bewilderment.

Never before had these objects in the house meant so much to this grieving storyteller . . . including those she had disregarded and some she had despised (like those plaques with the cheesy clichés). The all-pervasiveness of the objects calling attention to her mother was overwhelming for Madison, making it seem that her mom was not dead but alive. It seemed that at any moment this bereaved daughter would see her mother standing by the stove making more Christmas sweets or whipping up a favorite family recipe or walking through the dining room. But in the light of the acute sense of her mother’s presence, her absence also became more palpable. Like a splotch of black on a white canvas, so was her mom’s absence, becoming more conspicuous on a canvas of objects that exuded her presence.

Yet, when she mentioned Mom, the members of her family only stared, saying nothing. This was baffling to Madison. How could one not be propelled to speak of Mom when she is everywhere but not? It seemed impossible to ignore the elephant in the room: Mom’s chair was empty at the table this Christmas.

As the holidays quickly approach, many, like Madison, find it confusing on how to manage them after the death of a family member.

Are we to forge ahead, upholding every aspect of the holiday’s traditions while attempting to convince ourselves, “He wouldn’t want us to be sad” or “She would want us to celebrate per usual”? After all, isn’t that what culture expects? But it isn’t like we can simply wish things back to normal. Besides, business as usual seems to disrespect the person who died and our love for him/her. So then, how are we to navigate the holidays when a person’s absence is obvious?

These are the types of concerns that surface when I participate in facilitating a virtual workshop on managing the holidays for mourners. Underneath these concerns are mourners’ attempts to find meaning during the holidays now that there is an empty chair at the table. It is natural to wonder about finding meaning in a holiday when it loses its luster after a person has died. The holidays may seem empty and shallow in contrast to the depths of the pain of the loss, causing mourners to experience an internal emotional incongruency to the giddiness and temporary happiness of the holidays. A person has died. A chair is empty at the table. Life as they know it has changed, which indicates that the holidays have also changed.

In the desire to find meaning in the holidays and gain a perspective, mourners wrestle with the disparity that exists between the customary high energy of the holidays and the lethargy of grief. The internal sluggishness due to grief blots out the inflated expectations of fun, laughter, and magic that ordinarily accompany the holidays. If time travel were possible, many would consider it a valid alternative to the holiday hoopla. It would allow mourners to move ahead in time to mid-January, a season perhaps more suitable to their current emotional state . . . the winter blues. But since time travel is not yet possible, some may be tempted to think hibernation is a feasible option.

Such thoughts and feelings of dread are common, but if we are to move towards finding meaning in the holidays, it calls for us to pause and step back to gain a perspective. Finding meaning implies taking a broader view through re-evaluation and reflection, which moves at a slow, unhurried pace unlike the busyness of the holidays. It is pausing to reconsider the why of the holidays and our family traditions. It asks:

  • “What is important and why?”
  • “What is the meaning of this holiday and the reason for these traditions, such as lighting these candles and singing these songs?”
  • “Why are we gathering together?”
  • “Who will be gathering together?”
  • “What will we be doing?”

Many mourners mention the importance of acknowledging the reality of the death by embracing the pain of the loss[2] in order to find meaning in the holidays.

Acknowledging the reality of the death may be an overwhelming experience, as described by Madison, and may create an impulse to run and hide, either literally or figuratively. This is when mourners seek courage to embrace the pain of the loss by becoming present to their grief, crying if they desire. Embracing is not the same as clinging to the pain but rather is similar to befriending it. Embracing the pain of the loss occurs by feeling the feelings such as naming them and sitting with them for a few moments, empathizing with the experiences of grief.

Finding meaning for many mourners involves remembering the person who died, such as speaking his/her name or telling stories during the holidays.

Walking down memory lane through the telling of stories or looking at pictures is a way in which mourners go backwards so that they may move forward in their grief journey. Whether the stories produce laughter or generate tears, both are necessary to integrate the loss into a mourner’s life and to find meaning during the holidays.

Finding meaning for many mourners also includes reflecting on what roles to fill during the holidays, including those that are left vacant by the person who died.

Determining what roles to fill necessitates planning ahead, such as deciding which traditions will remain and who will do them, and which ones will be completely discarded. In this type of re-evaluating, some mourners decide to forego a family tradition for a year, or they jettison it all together and start a new one. Mourners underscore their freedom to pick and choose in order to determine what is most meaningful to them while accepting the lethargy that grief brings.

Many mourners additionally speak of the significance of supportive friends and family as they try to discover meaning during the holidays.

Mourners underline the need for friends and family to provide understanding for their choices, such as not sending holiday cards; not decorating; not preparing the usual holiday feast; or eating from disposable plates. A mourner particularly appreciates friends and family who support his/her decision to drive to an event alone so that he/she may depart when the mourner deems it is necessary, be that after ten minutes or sixty.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, being supportive of mourners by joining alongside them in their losses is how Christians may participate in the kenotic ministry of Christ.

This can be challenging when we recognize that, similar to the culture at large, the Christian can equally romanticize Christmas by being mesmerized by the twinkling bright lights, the glowing angels, and the sanitized decorative nativity scenes; thus, it is tempting when encountering a mourner to select from our bag of Christianese such phrases as “She is in a better place so be happy for her. Don’t be sad!” “God has another angel in heaven.” “He gets to celebrate Christmas in heaven!” Unfortunately, these phrases convey how we are mirroring our mourning-avoidant culture by Christianizing quick-fix responses rather than participating in Christ’s ministry. Amidst our celebrations of Christmas with the singing angels and the bright shining stars, it is also crucial to not overlook the broader theological picture of Christmas: Jesus’s coming to earth is an act of ministry of entering into our death (our void) and now we are invited to participate in that ministry.

Jesus Christ’s ministry to the world involves acknowledging the reality of our death and embracing the pain of our death, similar to a mourner who is seeking for meaning amidst the holidays. The triune God recognized humanity’s helplessness to overcome death; thus, because it is the very nature of God to empty God’s self— that is, be a minister— and to enter into the other’s death (impossibilities, nothingness, void), God entered into humanity’s death by becoming human and dying. As Andrew Root emphasizes,

“The cross is not a unique outlier to God’s own act and being but rather its very core.”[3]

In other words, Jesus entered into the pain of the empty chair at the table through his own birth and death.

If we are followers of Jesus Christ, we are invited to participate in this ministry of Christ in the presence and the power of the Spirit by entering into the others’ impossibilities, their deaths. As Christ entered into our death, we too are invited to participate in his ministry by acknowledging with mourners the reality of the death of a person and sitting with them in the pain of their loss. That is, we mirror Christ by emptying ourselves. Root writes,

“To be a minister is to be kenotic, self-emptying . . . If it is not kenotic, then ministry is disconnected from the divine being and is something other than ministry.”[4]

As the Apostle Paul describes in Philippians 2:5-8:

You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had,
who . . . [because][5] he existed in the form of God 
	did not regard equality with God 
	as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself 
	by taking on the form of a slave, 
	by looking like other men, 
	and by sharing in human nature.
He humbled himself, 
	by becoming obedient to the point of death 
	—even death on a cross! 

Thus, this holiday season when we hear of an empty chair at the other’s table . . .

  • May we sit with the mourner in his/her pain of the loss, emptying ourselves by dying to our desire to quickly fix the other’s pain.
  • May we accept that there is no reward for speed, resisting any attempts to rush in and hurry the person in his/her grief journey.
  • May we perceive this as sacred space for this is where the Spirit is moving to bring consolation and healing into which we are invited to join.

As a Christian, this is an integral part of the meaning of Christmas.


ATTENTION: If you have experienced a death of a person and would like to join a virtual, non-religious, 10-week support group that is open to any mourner no matter of his/her location, you may inquire or register by contacting: CGES@seasonshospice.org OR 507-285-1930. It will meet: Tuesdays, 6:00-7:30 PM CST, January 11-March 15. The cost is free, except for the purchase of Alan Wolfelt’s Understanding Your Grief, 2nd edition. It is sponsored by Seasons Hospice Bereavement Center in Rochester, MN, and the group will be guided by two trained co-facilitators who will help to provide a safe environment for individuals to explore their grief experiences.


[1] This story was used by permission, but some details are changed to protect the identity of those involved.

[2] I am drawing from Alan Wolfelt’s six needs of mourning as found in Understanding Your Grief. These six needs are:acknowledge the reality of the death; embrace the pain of the loss; remember the person who died; develop a new identity; search for meaning; and let others help you—now and always.

[3] Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 163.

[4] Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, 166.

[5] I am following the lead of some NT scholars translate this as “because” rather than “although” so that it carries a sense that a characteristic of God is to empty God’s self. See Root, Faith Formation in a Secular, 163.

Here Lies . . . An Unlikely Candidate


The Blog That Speaks: Here Lies . . . An Unlikely Candidate

Have you ever considered the epitaph you want on your headstone after you die?

Consider a woman named Kay who had her recipe for Kay’s Fudge on her headstone (side note: Does this mean that she literally took her recipe to her grave? … Yes … you may roll your eyes and groan). However, be forewarned that the recipe’s placement does not mean it is mouth-watering delicious. According to Stacey Conradt in “29 Unforgettable Epitaphs,” the recipe was tried and found wanting.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Then there is the use of humor like Merv Griffin. According to Conradt, the well-known talk show host and creator of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune chose the following epitaph: I will not be right back after this message.

A number of years ago, I had my own musings about my epitaph. It resulted in selecting a phrase that would impact how I lived out my life today when I chose the words: Here lies a woman of grace.

Becoming a woman of grace is not easy for a person like me who is intense, has a bend toward perfectionism, and has a little OCD to boot. Perhaps any one of those characteristics could eliminate me as a likely candidate to be a woman of grace. So, in my pursuit of such an objective, I began to implement some practices. One of the practices involves repeating three concepts to myself each morning:[1]

  1. Because I tend to take on too much responsibility for others and seek tangible outcomes, I say, “Pam, you are participant in Christ’s ministry. You are not responsible for the outcome.”
  2. Because society emphasizes speed, tying it to intelligence and success, I tell myself, “Pam, there is no reward for speed today.”
  3. Because God’s Spirit is continually moving in the world, I say, “Pam, every interaction you have today, whether it be verbally or by text/email, is sacred as the Spirit is moving in you, the other, and the space in between to bring healing.

An epitaph that centers on grace may seem to kick against the goads in a culture that embraces a system of meritocracy.

Such a system is heard in common phrases like, “You earned it” or “You deserve this.” Michael Sandel argues in his book The Tyranny of Merit that we live in a nation built on meritocracy in that we are to distribute rewards based only on merit, producing winners and losers. This results in attitudes of hubris for the winners and humiliation for the losers,[2] creating a divide between likely and unlikely candidates based on merit and cultivating a culture of honor and shame.

Some of us carry attitudes of pride because, based on our societal rank, title, degree, income or ethnicity, we are blessed by God because we have worked so hard or because we have won the ethnic lottery. Others of us struggle with shame because we are not good enough. We are not deserving based on our merits nor our ethnicity. We compare ourselves and compete with others, but when we are labeled “not good enough,” blame and envy emerge.

Yet, as Sandel points out, merit does matter. If we need a contractor or a surgeon, we want persons who are competent, who are the best for the job. However, as Sandel notes, a system of meritocracy may also foster human agency in that we believe that we determine our own fate in life. This may spill over into our theology by believing that God rewards us when we are good, but God punishes when we are bad. That is, in Sandel words:

“Although God is the one who bestows the rewards and punishments, he does so according to people’s merits, not arbitrarily.”[3]

This theology, however, is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus enters the world that he created, being the only one who comes from outside societal systems, thereby being able to break the powerful grasp of the entrenched rules of society.[4] He is described in John’s Gospel as being full of grace and truth (1:14), which implies abundance (see also 1:16). As Patrick Oden indicates, this grace is displayed when Jesus empties himself and resists the established conventions of society by being crucified by the world’s ruling system. When Jesus Christ defeats death, the resurrection becomes an invitation by Jesus for us to reject the world’s patterns and experience a full life, lived out in the Spirit’s power.[5]

The fact that Jesus does not cling to a higher status is exemplified in John 4 in a story that centers on a Samaritan woman, an unlikely candidate to participate in God’s grace in the world. To have a fuller understanding of the portrait John paints of this woman, it is necessary to highlight the context in which this story is placed.

The world of antiquity into which Jesus came was not unlike contemporary culture. It adhered to the importance of achieving a higher status as dictated by having a proper bloodline and by maintaining the rules of meritocracy, fostering comparison and competition. John opposes the world’s value of having the right bloodline when he writes:

“But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name —he has given the right to become God’s children—children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God” (italics mine; see 1:12-13).

He then challenges the significance of a proper bloodline or nationality when he repeatedly emphasizes “the world,” such as God loving the world (3:16-17; see also 1:29).

John’s Gospel also exhibits the priority placed on higher status by alluding to comparison and competition. In 3:25-26, John the Baptist’s disciples complain that everyone is now flocking to Jesus. They are envious of Jesus’ success while John’s popularity is waning. In 4:1-2 this theme of comparison and competition continues when it is being said that Jesus is baptizing more people than John the Baptist, but it really is Jesus’ disciples who are baptizing others. John’s assertion about who is doing the baptizing is a possible attempt to avert a sense of superiority if some had been baptized by Jesus.[6]

By the time readers arrive at John 4, they have been introduced to a grace that defies the importance of both having the right bloodline and a system of meritocracy, and this story continues this theme. It begins quite simply: Jesus asks a Samaritan woman for a drink. This is an unexpected request so much so that the woman is quite direct in naming the cultural barriers:

I am a Samaritan woman, and you are a Jewish man.

This story bears witness to Jesus’ crossing of three cultural barriers: ethnicity, theology, and gender.[7] His crossing of these barriers shows the nature of grace: it is willing to risk one’s reputation to offer the gift of God (v. 10).

First, Jesus crosses the barrier of ethnicity by talking to a Samaritan.

The conflict between the Jews and Samaritans revolved around ethnicity: a disagreement about the Samaritans’ origins.

  • The Samaritans believed they were the direct descendants of a faithful group of ancient Israel. In short, they were pure and the faithful ones.
  • The Jews believed that the origins of Samaritans occurred when the Assyrians colonized the Northern Kingdom with people from several other Mesopotamian towns, and then some Jews in that region intermarried with them. In other words, the Samaritans were impure and the sinful ones.[8]

Like the Jews and Samaritans, when we are in conflict with others, we tend to cling to “information that affirms” our previous conclusions about our opponents (see When Enemy Images Emerge). If we are presented with positive information about them, we tend to disregard it and center on the negative that supports our views. And so it was with the conflict between Jews and Samaritans: Jewish stories painted the Samaritans in a negative light and Jews in a positive light, and vice versa. Thus, it is understandable that this Samaritan woman would see herself as an unlikely candidate to converse with a Jewish man.

While perhaps this barrier between Jews and Samaritans could be early signs of xenophobia, for Jesus, it is an opportunity to participate in the ministry of grace by offering grace to someone of a different ethnicity.

But it’s not only because of her ethnicity that she is an unlikely candidate; it also is because of her religious beliefs.

This unfolds after 4:16 in which Jesus instructs the woman to go call her husband, and she responds with: “I have no husband.” Jesus says to her, “Right you are when you said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the man you are living with now is not your husband.”

This is not the first time John’s Gospel underscores Jesus’ supernatural knowledge about another person; it also occurs in 1:47-49 with Nathaniel, resulting in Nathaniel calling Jesus the Son of God. In the case of the Samaritan woman, she determines that because of his supernatural knowledge about her, Jesus is a prophet; thus, it is possible that the woman perceives an opportunity to obtain answers to some of her theological questions[9] since theological issues have contributed to the divide between Jews and Samaritans:

  • The Samaritans centered on worshipping physically on Mount Gerizim;
  • The Jews focused their worship in Jerusalem on Mount Zion.

And each was convinced their beliefs were correct and the other was wrong. But how does Jesus respond?

As New Testament scholar, R. G. Estrada notes, Jesus addresses the issue, but he does so in such a way that completely reconfigures the idea of the place of worship.

  • Jesus indicates that true worshippers worship God in the Spirit. This indicates that the realm of the Spirit is the most important place of worship, not Mount Gerizim nor Mount Zion.
  • Thus, if we are worshiping in the realm of the Spirit, we will reject practices that generate hatred that are based on differing ethnicities or philosophical views.
  • This does not mean we will agree, but neither will we exclude the other on the basis of differences in philosophy or ethnicity.[10]
  • Worship in the Spirit is worshipping in grace, willing to respect who we are and who others are in the body of Jesus Christ.

But there is a third reason this Samaritan is an unlikely candidate. It is pointed out in verse 9 and also stressed in verse 27: it is because of her gender, her being a woman.

In some Jewish circles, rabbis are to avoid conversations with women, and the disciples knew this, so when they returned from buying food, they are shocked to find their teacher alone talking with a woman. Here we see the rules of status in society: be of the right gender, and you have more power and respect.

Yet, Jesus dispenses with such rules. Instead, in v. 26, he reveals his true identity: he is the Messiah. It is one of the rare occasions in the Gospels that he does so, and it occurs here with an unlikely candidate, a Samaritan woman.

At this point, the woman returns to the village where she declares in v. 29: “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Surely he can’t be the Messiah, can he?” And the townspeople begin to come.

John’s story is one that undercuts the weight that is placed on status by portraying an unlikely candidate as a recipient of grace. It is upon receiving grace that she invites others to come and see.

The story then closes with the Samaritans persuading Jesus to stay with them an additional two days, resulting in their saying that Jesus is the savior of the world (v. 42). It is a reminder that becoming children of God is not based on ethnicity, theological tradition, nor gender but on the generative gracious power of God (v. 12-13).[11]

This is God’s ministry of grace in action that usurps the importance placed on higher status through a system of meritocracy and proper bloodline. It brazenly appears in the face of categories that mark some deserving and others undeserving. This story beckons us to rethink about the cultural categories of likely and unlikely candidates and how we pigeonhole ourselves and others within such categories based on our current world’s systems. 

Like the Samaritan woman, status does not matter in the realm of grace. There is no winning of the ethnic lottery nor is there meritocracy; thus, no shame. Christ’s ministry of grace is currently at work in the world in the power and presence of the Spirit, and we are invited to participate in it, to see the Spirit working:

  • In the checkout line;
  • With the person restocking shelves;
  • With the driver who is waiting at a stoplight;
  • With the neighbor who has the dog that barks incessantly;
  • With the server at the restaurant, whether the service is great or mediocre;
  • The person at the office, the military base, the senior center, or school.

As recipients of God’s grace in Jesus, we are being called to be participants of God’s ministry of grace, vessels of healing in the world.

And it may simply begin by asking for or giving a drink of water.


[1] These are original with Dr. Alan Wolfelt which I have fashioned for my purposes.

[2] Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 29-30, Kindle Edition.

[3] Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit, 41.

[4] Patrick Oden points this out in Hope for the Oppressor: Discovering Freedom through Transformative Community. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2019).

[5] Oden, Hope for the Oppressor.

[6] Marianne Meye Thompson, John: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015), 97.

[7] I am drawing from Marianne Meye Thompson who writes, “neither her gender, nor her ethnicity, nor her religious commitments or practices are a barrier to Jesus’ gracious gift to her.” John: A Commentary, 99. See also Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 585.

[8] H. G. M. Williamson, “Samaritans,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downers Grove: IVP, 1992), 725, Accordance edition.

[9] Thompson, John: A Commentary, 103.

[10] For fuller development of these thoughts see paper presented by Rodolfo Galvan Estrada, III at Society for Pentecostal Studies in 2017 called “John 4:23–24: The Spirit and Ethnoracial Tension in Worship.”

[11] Thompson, John, 32.