When an entire community is stunned and shocked by large-scale loss, most recently the explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, a kind of collective grief envelops everyone touched by the tragedy. Usually this grief is exponentially more intense in small communities where there are far fewer than six degrees of separation between neighbors, friends, and family. People know each other personally and intimately, many related by birth and a shared geographic heritage.
It was inspiring to see a news report on Sunday about members of a large church there worshipping outside together in the bright sunshine of a spring day. There were tears. There was sadness. There was determination. There was hope, “And hope does not disappoint us because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5 NRSV). Life’s extremes collided in the lives and hearts of those gathered in a field to share their collective and individual grief. And there was joy – joy to be alive and connected, safe amid the public and private outpouring of love and care that is God’s inspired response of the human heart.
The nature of collective grief is that sometimes it lifts rather quickly, such as when a suspect is apprehended. All of Boston, indeed the entire country, was relieved, jubilant when the manhunt for those responsible for a senseless act of violent terrorism ended after days of dire searching. Yet in Newtown there will always be a collective grief that lingers forever in the hearts of those who sustained unimaginable loss and suffer deep heartache. It could not be otherwise. There will always be grief - always - for the children and adults capriciously slain that December day, for their tender age, their innocence, their self-sacrifice. Those who survive live daily with the circular projections of the mind about a future that will never be, the “what if” and “if only” at the core of the great, unanswered “why?”
When grief blankets an entire community, the rites and rituals of collective grief comfort and reassure. Yet the work of grief that ultimately leads to healing demands that we acknowledge our pain and loss and engage with ourselves at a deep spiritual place where we encounter what it is we’re feeling and what it is we believe.
In 1 Peter 5:10 we’re promised that we’ll only suffer for “a little while”, that our grief will not last forever, “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you” (NRSV). God promises to restore us, to support us, to strengthen us, and to establish us – and the best part is that God promises to do it himself. God does not delegate God’s intentional care for you or for me. God is a hands-on God who uses many of our earthly resources and opportunities to comfort and encourage us through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, especially at times of great sorrow, loss, and human tragedy in the worst of our collective grief.
On the last occasion my beloved husband was in the pulpit, he offered this pastoral prayer: “We have come this far by faith, and we will continue to walk with our hand in yours wherever you lead us.” I cherish this spiritual affirmation, the promise of our faith that in life, in death, in life beyond death, and in our grief, God is with us. We are not alone.
We know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.
Romans 5:3-4 CEB
Keep me this day, O God, in the comfort of your care. Amen