Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21
(Quoted scripture is New International Version)
Oprah Winfrey is shifting her perspective on how childhood trauma impacts people’s lives. For today’s, March 11, “60 Minutes,” Winfrey traveled to Milwaukee, where she grew up, to learn about a revolutionary approach in the city to early trauma. She spoke to Dr. Bruce Perry, a world-renowned expert in the field who has treated survivors of high-profile events like the Columbine shooting. He said a child’s brain gets wired “differently” when they’re raised in a chaotic or violent environment.
“If you have developmental trauma, the truth is you’re going to be at risk for almost any kind of physical health, mental health, social health problem that you can think of,” Perry told Winfrey.
Winfrey said she believes the conversation could be a ‘game changer.’ “This story is so important to me and I believe to our culture that if I could dance on the tabletops right now to get people to pay attention to it, I would. It has definitively changed the way I see people in the world, and it has definitively changed the way I will now be operating my school in South Africa and going forward with any philanthropic efforts that I’m engaged in,” she said Tuesday on “CBS This Morning.”
“What I recognize is that a lot of people working in the philanthropic world, who are trying to help disadvantaged, challenged people from backgrounds that have been disenfranchised, are working on the wrong thing,” Winfrey added.
“While there have been plenty of job and training programs to help the disadvantaged,” Winfrey said, “If you don’t fix ‘the hole in the soul,’ the thing that is where the wounds started, you’re working at the wrong thing.”
The shift in perspective comes down to what Winfrey calls a ‘life-changing question.’ “See, we go through life and we see kids who are misbehaving. ‘You juvenile delinquents,’ we label them. And really the question that we should be asking is not ‘what’s wrong with that child’ but ‘what happened to that child?’ And then have the resources to be able to address what happened to them. The most important question you can ask of anybody, which is what I now say even for the Parkland [school] shooting – instead of what’s the matter with that kid, I say what happened to that child?”
As a result of her reporting, she said she went back to her school board [in South Africa] and said, “Hey, we’ve been doing it all wrong. We need to be a trauma-informed care institution.”
CBS This Morning co-host Gayle King pointed out that this was a personal story for Winfrey herself. “Number one, it’s in Milwaukee where you were raised. You certainly suffered trauma there. You weren’t physically abused in your home, but you talk very candidly about –” King started.
“I got enough whippings to call it [abuse]– we just didn’t call it physical abuse at the time,” Winfrey said. “Today I would have to report my mama.”
“Today it would be. But you’ve certainly been very candid about the sexual abuse. And a lot of these kids suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I marvel, Oprah, with the environment you grew up in, that you don’t seem to have suffered from PTSD. Are you rethinking that?” King asked.
“No, I – I definitely do not have PTSD,” Winfrey responded. She said she asked Perry why some people like herself, “raised in chaotic environments,” turned out OK.
He told me it’s directly proportional to relationships. So, he was saying for me, for instance, it was school. I found my refuge in school,” Winfrey said. “I found my place in school from teachers. So, everybody needs somebody growing up that says, ‘I believe in you, you’re OK, things are going to be all right.’ And that can be a teacher, that can be a coach, that can be somebody in Sunday school.”
Years ago, Parade magazine featured an interview with comedian Steve Allen and his wife, Jayne Meadows, on their many years together in marriage. Much of the article focused on Steve’s unstable and dysfunctional family background. In a final comment about his childhood, Jayne said, “We are who we are because of where we’ve been.”
Often, you hear me say, ‘In this very moment in time, we are whom we have been.’ What happened to us in our past; the words spoken to us, the things done to us, the decisions made and the lessons learned, have made us who we are right now.
Psychologists tell us that by the time we reach two years of age, 50 percent of what we ever believe about ourselves has been formed. Think about how you were raised, and how you raised your children. Think of the importance of those first two years of life. By the age of six, 60 percent of our self‑belief has been established, and by the age of eight, about 80 percent. By the time we reach the age of fourteen, over 99 percent of us have a well‑developed sense, either correctly or incorrectly, of who we are.
In ministry I meet people who just can’t overcome what has happened to them in the past. They have learned to manipulate other people, simply to survive. Early on, I judged them harshly. Through the years I have learned to look at people as God looks on His ‘Created in His image’ human beings. I’ve learned to look at others with love. John 3:16-17, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
This is our focus for today. We are loved, not condemned! Some adults were raised in homes where they heard angry hurtful words, spoken to them or to the people they love. Some have been raised in homes where they were abused; physically, and sometimes sexually. Or maybe they were abused by an authority figure outside their home; a teacher, a priest or pastor, a coach. These adults only know what they have experienced, so they raise their children and treat others the same way.
Men who do the prison ministry tell of prisoners who have never been told they were loved, by the people in their life, or by God, and some who have never even had a birthday party. The Keryx (prison) ministry, does both. They tell the men that God loves them, He isn’t a condemning God. When they ask forgiveness, by God’s grace it is granted. And they have one big birthday cake that they write all the prisoners’ names on and sing “Happy Birthday” to them. They also demonstrate their love for the prisoners, by spending their weekend with them, and many prisoners recognize that as being a demonstration of God’s love living through the men who come in from the outside. It is this kind of sacrificial love which will break the chains of sin that bind the hearts of the men in prison.
They may still have to suffer the consequences of the sinful crimes they have committed, yet when they ask forgiveness and receive it through the grace of God, they discover a freedom which repairs the, ‘hole in their soul’ as Oprah put it.
The people of Israel, who Moses was leading to freedom from their slavery in Egypt, were a sinful complaining people. They were traveling to the promised land, and they began once again to complain. Numbers 21:5-6, ‘They spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.’
The Israelites repented, asked God’s forgiveness. God forgave them and gave them a way to be healed from the bite of the poisonous snakes. “The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”
God readily forgave their sin by having them look up towards Him. Jesus tells us in John 3:14-15, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” This is just what happened. Jesus was crucified being lifted up on the cross. And those who believe Jesus gave His life for them; and confess that Jesus is the Son of God and God raised Him from the dead, will be saved! Saved from death and given eternal life! Eternal life is complete healing!
Every time I am tempted to judge and condemn someone, I remember Billy Graham’s quote, “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge and my job to love.” I try to live my life and do my ministry by this mantra.
People are whom they have been. Each of us has a past that made us who we are today. I agree with Oprah Winfrey, we must ask ourselves, ‘what kind of environment did that person grow up in? What happened to this person as a child? We cannot change people’s past, yet we can change their future by loving them with the love of God, rather than condemning them.
The Apostle Paul, was the Pharisee Saul, who condemned followers of Jesus, until Jesus brought him to his knees on the road to Damascus. As Paul he wrote to the church in Thessalonica in 1 Thessalonians 5:11, “Therefore encourage on another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”
May we be the church who encourages one another, who loves one another as God loves us. May we be the church who does not judge or condemn, but a church who loves!
Preacher, theologian, and Christian writer Fred Craddock tells the story of his father, who spent years of his life hiding from the God who was seeking him out:
“When the pastor used to come from my mother’s church to call on him, my father would say, ‘You don’t care about me. I know how churches are. You want another pledge, another name, right? Another name, another pledge, isn’t that the whole point of church?
My nervous mother would run to the kitchen, crying, for fear somebody’s feelings would be hurt. I guess I heard it a thousand times.
One time he didn’t say it. He was at the Veteran’s Hospital. He was down to 74 pounds. They had taken out his throat, put in a metal tube, and said, ‘Mr. Craddock, you should have come earlier. But this cancer is awfully far advanced. We’ll give radium, but we don’t know.’
I went in to see him. In every window—potted plants and flowers. Everywhere there was a place to set them—potted plants and flowers. Even in that thing that swings out over your bed they put food on, there was a big flower. There was by his bed a stack of cards 10 or 15 inches deep. I looked at the cards sprinkled in the flowers. I read the cards beside his bed. And I want to tell you, that every card, every blossom, every potted plant from groups; Sunday School classes, women’s groups, youth groups, men’s bible class, were from my mother’s church—every one of them. My father saw me reading them. He could not speak, but he took a Kleenex box and wrote something on the side from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. . . . He wrote on the side, ‘In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.’ I said, ‘What is your story, Daddy?’ And he wrote, ‘I was wrong.’”
May we be a church like this. May we also speak encouraging words to the young people in our lives. Remember, we do not know what goes on behind the doors of their homes, or what they have experienced in their life.
Some years ago, the great boxer, Mohammed Ali, was asked by a ghetto youth how he could quit college and start a boxing career since he had bad grades. Ali smiled at the young man and said in his poetic fashion: “Stay in college and get the knowledge, and stay there! Til you’re through. Cause if God can make penicillin out of moldy bread, He can make something out of you.”
This is the good news of John 3. Because God so loved the world, He sent His only son to make something out of us through His love. Not to condemn us. When we accept Him into our lives and commit our hearts to Him, then He gives us new life in this world – and new life in the world to come.
May we believe, live out in our lives, and share this truth: We are loved and not condemned.
Pastor Rosemary DeHut