A time for mourning, a time for healing


(Part 2 of Reflections on the Aurora, CO, shooting)

All healing is of God… Healing is not magic, but underlying it is the great mystery of God’s love… God does not promise that we shall be spared suffering but does promise to be with us in our suffering. Trusting that promise, we are enabled to recognize God’s sustaining presence in pain, sickness, injury, and estrangement. (From the Introduction to Services of Healing, Book of Worship, p. 613)

As Christians, we are fortunate to bear witness to God’s healing mercy in a broken world. And yet, as the above passage points out, God neither promises that we shall be spared suffering, nor that the suffering we do bear will be “magically” erased. What does it mean to pray for healing in a time of mourning? What does healing look like?

Before healing can occur, one must grieve, and as the oft-referenced passage from Ecclesiastes implies, this process takes time. While there are certain stages of grief that many people experience (acceptance of loss, allowing oneself to feel the physical and emotional pain of grief, adjusting to living in the new landscape of life after the tragedy, and eventually moving on) each person’s journey through grief is unique, as is the time frame for that journey.

I think the tragedy that was unleashed in Aurora, Colo., can be an opportunity for all of us to both examine our own grief (we all have experienced loss on some level) and to think together about how we support one another in our individual and communal losses. We can pray for the healing of our internal wounds, and pray that our communities would be healed of the things that divide us. Sometimes, the most important role clergy play is not that of the healer, but simply one who is witness to someone’s grief, who lets others know that they are not alone.

The other side of grief is the reality that tragedy often reveals to us just how resilient people, and communities, can be.  I was reminded of this while listening to an interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition the Saturday morning following the shooting. On the program, host Scott Simon spoke with Tom Olbrich, the disaster response coordinator at the Jefferson Center for Mental Health in Denver. Tom provided counseling through organized support groups after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, which took place mere miles from Aurora.

In the interview Olbrich reminds listeners that a community response to tragedy is more a marathon than a sprint. People are numb and in shock initially, so while it is important to offer immediate response to those directly impacted, other people might need time to process the situation before they are ready to receive services. Olbrich reiterates the importance of normalizing the range of human emotion that arises in response to grief, and of letting people know that there’s not something “wrong with them” if they are having a hard time processing something.

Ultimately, Olbrich points out, tragedy can have the effect of clarifying our priorities and revealing our strength:

People can do very well and get through these things and come out of it on the other side with a better perspective on life and feeling stronger — maybe not happier, but stronger as individuals… We understand now what’s really important — how to take care of ourselves and how to take care of each other.

(To hear or read the full interview, click here.)

-Caren Swanson

Top photo by Flickr user CaptPiper (via Creative Commons)

Lower photo used with permission via WikiMedia Commons


Reflections on the Aurora, CO, shooting


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.

–Caren Swanson

Images used with permission via flickr and the Creative Commons.