Aurora is the Roman goddess of dawn, spoken of in such texts as Virgil’s Aeneid: Aurora now had left her saffron bed / And beams of early light the heav’ns o’erspread / When, from a tow’r, the queen, with wakeful eyes / Saw day point upward from the rosy skies.
While the name Aurora is synonymous with beauty, for those of us who casually turned on the news Friday morning, or opened a Saturday newspaper, it instantly became tainted with senseless violence and terror.
Clergy are often asked in times of national tragedy to answer seemingly unanswerable questions: “How can this be?” or “What would I have done had I been in that dark, suburban movie theater?” or “What could have caused someone to do such a thing?” or “How can a loving God allow such a thing to happen?” Clergy are asked to lead the rest of us in our mourning and to assuage our fears. Especially in a culture where many of our social supports and structures have eroded, people often turn to religion when national news shocks them out of the lull of their day-to-day lives.
As pastors, how do you help your congregations make meaning from this event? And how do you navigate the pressure to answer for the existence of bald-faced evil in our world without allowing that pressure to become a permanent source of stress?
There are, of course, many answers, but in the rawness of the current moment, the rich Christian tradition of lament seems an appropriate place to begin.
In a very thoughtful post on his Patheos blog, “Slow Church,” Christopher Smith shares an excerpt from Reconciling All Things, by Chris Rice and Emmanuel Katongole of the Center For Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School:
The first language of the church in a deeply broken world is not strategy, but prayer. The journey of reconciliation is grounded in a call to see and encounter the rupture of this world so truthfully that we are literally slowed down. We are called to a space where any explanation or action is too easy, too fast, too shallow — a space where the right response can only be a desperate cry directed to God. We are called to learn the anguished cry of lament.
Another prayer, beautifully rendered for the people of Aurora, was shared on the blog of Rachel Held Evans on Friday:
Gracious and loving God, You watch the ways of all of us and the utter destruction of which our hands are capable. We implore you to weave goodness and grace in the lives of those destroyed by senseless violence. Surround those whose lives are shattered with a sense of your present love. Wrap them in the worn quilt of your compassion. Though they are lost in grief, May they find you and be comforted. AMEN
Truly, when something like this happens, there are no words, and silence can be an important part of honoring the loss of lives and loved ones in this and any tragedy. And yet, God has given us words to help us “weave goodness and grace” back into life. I’ll close with this liturgy of lament, pieced together from many Scripture passages by Laurence Hull Stookey. And my prayer for each of you is that you would be given the words that are necessary, and the courage to offer your own silence and grief when it is appropriate.
Prayer of Lament
O God, you are our help and strength,
our refuge in the time of trouble.
In you our ancestors trusted;
They trusted and you delivered them.
When we do not know how to pray as we ought,
your very Spirit intercedes for us
with sighs too deep for words.
We plead for the intercession now, Gracious One.
For desolation and destruction are in our streets,
and terror dances before us.
Our hearts faint; our knees tremble;
our bodies quake; all faces grow pale.
Our eyes are spent from weeping
and our stomachs churn.
How long, O Lord, how long
must we endure this devastation?
How long will destruction lay waste at noonday?
Why does violence flourish
while peace is taken prisoner?
Rouse yourself! Do not cast us off in times of trouble.
Come to our help;
redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.
For you are a gracious God
abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
By the power of the cross,
through which you redeemed the world,
bring to an end hostility
and establish justice in the gate.
For you will gather together your people into that place
where mourning and crying and pain
will be no more,
and tears will be wiped from every eye.
Hasten the day, O God for our salvation.
Accomplish it quickly! Amen.
From Let the Whole Church Say Amen! A Guide for Those Who Pray in Public by Laurence Hull Stookey, pp 94-95 (Copyright 2001 by Abingdon Press). Scriptures from which the above prayer comes are: Psalm 124:8, Psalm 37:39, Psalm 22:4, Romans 8:26, Isaiah 59:7, Job 41:22, Nahum 2:10, Lamentations 2:11, Isaiah 6:11, Psalm 91:6, Psalm 44:23, Psalm 44:26, Exodus 34:6, 1 Corinthians 1:17, Ephesians 2:14, Amos 5:15, Revelation 21:4, Isaiah 60:22.
Yes God, accomplish it quickly indeed! And may that day “point upward,” as Virgil wrote so long ago, “from the rosy skies.”
Part 1 of a 2-part series. Further reflections here.
Images used with permission via flickr and the Creative Commons.
Very well put Caren. I enjoyed reading this and agree that lament is the first stage of coping with this tragedy. Only God can lead us all through ……
Great to see you writing!
Thanks for the comment and encouragement, Liza! It was encouraging to put this post together and find such a vast number of Christians who have been moved to pray in such a time of tragedy.