Refusing To Be Comforted: A Meditation on Psalm 77 after Uvalde

Weeping Naked by Edward Munch
  The horrific murder of 19 elementary school students and 2 teachers in Uvalde, Texas by an 18-year-old with an AR-15 has brought us once again to grief, pain, fear, and anger. Maybe you feel some of those and not others. Certainly, those most impacted by this massacre (family, friends, the local Uvalde community) are affected in ways that are difficult for us to comprehend. 

Often after tragedies like these (and they are often and too many) we find rituals of comfort to help us through: prayer, lighting candles, naming names, holding silence, etc. These are appropriate responses and can be helpful. But it seems to me at this point, whatever rituals and prayers we offer should not aim to comfort us. They should bring us deeper into the pain and anguish of these unspeakable acts of violence, because we know there are laws and social expectations around guns that can be changed to make these events less likely to happen.

Comforting ourselves too quickly keeps us from taking action. When we take away our pain, we no longer pay attention to the cause of the pain. A recent Washington Post article stated that the average time it takes for Americans to move on from a mass shooting is 4 days. That’s it. We find a way to comfort our deep hurt and we get distracted by the next news cycle, even if it is the next mass shooting. 

I am taking direction for my response to this crisis in our society by listening to Psalm 77, one of many psalms of lament in the Old Testament. The psalm begins with a startling proclamation:

I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
(Psalm 77:1-2)

 The psalmist refuses to be comforted. I suspect that the tragedy befallen the psalmist and their community is too great to first find comfort. Why? Maybe it makes too little of the tragedy. Maybe it makes light of the pain. Maybe any comfort that comes that quickly and easily will be trite and shallow and short-lived. The psalmist refuses to be comforted (even by God!) because the pain is too real to be easily dismissed. 

Guernica by Pablo Picasso
I think we are in a moment when we can refuse to be comforted because it makes our current tragedy smaller than it really is. We can sit in our grief, pain, and anger longer than we might think is pious or socially acceptable, even when our grief, pain, and anger are directed at God. One of the powerful witnesses of the Old Testament is its openness to people of faith expressing their anger and pain toward and at God. Surely, we have room in our faith for that in such a terrible time as this. Psalm 77 certainly does:

I commune with my heart in the night;
I meditate and search my spirit:
"Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love ceased forever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?"
(Psalm 77:6-9)

 My motivation for sitting in my own anger longer is to spur me to take more action, getting deeper in the mud and muck of politics and social change. I’m not here to tell you what you must do or agree with, but I am here encouraging you to refuse to be comforted long enough to be part of a much-needed change in our society. 

The psalm begins with refusal to be comforted, but it does not stay there. The Bible is an honest book when it comes to human suffering and sin, but it is also a hopeful book when it comes to the possibility for God to create new realities. The psalmist sits in grief long enough and ponders who God might be for us to be able to earn the right to say:

And I say, "It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed."
I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD;
I will remember your wonders of old.
I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.
Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?
You are the God who works wonders;
you have displayed your might among the peoples.
(Psalm 77:10-14)

 Communities of faith tell stories of how God has been faithful in the past and done wonders we cannot easily dismiss. We tell biblical stories and personal stories and cultural stories and say: This is who God is for us! So maybe, after we have done the hard work of grief, and we have let anger keep us focused long enough, maybe we can find comfort and look to God to change this awful life we are living. 

One thing is clear from the biblical story: Our hope is in God alone, not in human power, institutions, or politics. But that clarity and focus on God empowers us to participate in God’s healing and restoration of this world to one of life and love. We participate in institutions and politics and confront human power because of who God is for us and for this world: A God of love, compassion, and justice.  

The psalmist remembers God’s past deeds even when it was not obvious that God was active in them. Consider this ending of the psalm and how it speaks of God’s great act of liberation of God’s people in the Exodus:

Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
(Psalm 77:19-20)

by Jim Janknegt

The entire Exodus was an act of God’s love and liberation, but even in crossing the parted sea on dry ground, God’s “footprints were unseen.” It was a profound act of faith to see God in the Exodus working through Moses and Aaron.

Perhaps we can summon up such profound faith even today. Perhaps we can see God’s footprints as God walks with us through this liminal moment as we cross to the other side and find safety and true freedom. Who is working to get us to the other side that we can see as God’s agents of change? How can we participate in this moment as the body of Christ suffering with and for our broken world until healing and resurrection come?

I don’t have all the answers by any means. But I trust that sitting in our grief and pain long enough, not being comforted too quickly, and turning to God as our hope, can lead us to answers and new hope.

-- Michael Coffey


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