Maybe you’re like me, stunned, saddened and angered by the news of the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, struggling to know what to think, do or say.
By now many of us are saturated with the news from Las Vegas of 59 people dead at the time of this writing and more than 520 others injured at the hands of one man. It’s a heartbreaking tragedy and the incidence of these sorts of events appears to be on the rise. But this isn’t the only way in which lethal violence seems to reign supreme among us. The death toll in Chicago due to violence last month is just two individuals fewer at 57. These weren’t lost all at once in a headline-grabbing hail of bullets, but day by day, an insidious carnage unless it’s happening in your neighborhood.
Perhaps you resonate with Conan O’Brien who was struck Monday by his head writer coming to him with the file of his previous remarks following mass shootings. In response, he said, “…we’re all tired of hearing reporters, let alone comics, discuss mass carnage in the most affluent and influential country in the world. Something has got to change.”
These are not the sorts of places we had planned for ourselves. We know the kind of world in which we’d like to live; we can describe the peace and contentment we would wish for ourselves and our neighbors. And yet, this vision continues to elude our grasp.
God it’s so painful / Something that’s so close / And still so far out of reach1
Awareness of all of this violence can leave us speechless and consequently, feeling helpless.
Frequently, when we don’t know what to think or say, reaching for the words of others, especially songwriters, can help us find ways to come to terms with ourselves, the world around us and the tasks that lie ahead. Their words can not only express our grief and anger, they can also call us back to those truths we hold most dear.
This morning, as I was thinking about all of this and we were preparing to begin Morning Prayer when Deaconess Valerie, the pianist, began playing the notes of the melody “Finlandia.” For many hymn singers, this melody supports a lyric written in the 18th century, itself an adaptation of an older lyric, the 42nd Psalm.
My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
These things I remember, as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.2
I had gone into our time of prayer, thinking about this lyric from the hymn “When Aimless Violence Takes Those We Love,” written by Joy Patterson3. The third and fourth stanzas tell the truth.
Our faith may flicker low, and hope grow dim,
yet you, O God, are with us in our pain;
you grieve with us and for us day by day, and with us, sharing sorrow, will remain.
Because your Son knew agony and loss, felt desolation, grief, and scorn and shame,
we know you will be with us, come what may,
your loving presence near, always the same.
Where is our God in times like these? God is there in the middle of the suffering. God is there confronted by evil and bearing the agony that is evil’s intent but not only as an act of divine empathy. God in Jesus bears this evil as an expression of defiant love and life.
When the lyricist’s words bring us to the suffering of Jesus – a suffering for which these days have increased our sensitivity (we can add every other tragedy and natural disaster of which we are aware), they also bring us to an awareness and celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Just as our grieving finds resonance in the suffering of Christ, so Jesus’ resurrection draws our sorrow and anger into hopefulness – perhaps not all at once; we may need to be patient with ourselves.
We who sit slack jawed, sometimes not even fully believing the news we’re reading, are called again and again to the hope that violence and death will not have the last word. This last word belongs to life – Jesus Christ has made it so.
With that, we — having begun to find our words again and in our words, hope — begin to put the pieces together that will result in action. We pray. We talk with one another. We seek to learn and understand the nature of the world in which we are called to serve. Then we take up the vocations anew and work for life. Each of us will go at this differently – our vocations are not exactly alike – but none of us will do this alone. If God in Christ Jesus is with us in our pain, then we who are with the Body of Christ – the people of God – are with Jesus in the hopefulness of life. There can be a tenaciousness to the hope of those whose trust is in God.
Well, I won’t back down / No, I won’t back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell / But I won’t back down4
Oct. 3, 2017
1 Tom Petty, American Girl, 1976
2 Psalm 42:3-6
3 Lutheran Service Book #764 Text (c) 1994, 1997 Hope Publishing Co. Reprinted with permission under OneLicense.net A-702845.
4 Tom Petty with Jeff Lynne, I Won’t Back Down, 1988
Rev. James A. Wetzstein serves as one of our university pastors at Valpo and takes turns writing weekly reflections.