After a disaster or tragedy, says the Rev. Canon Dr. Lizette Larson-Miller, some of the most common questions that people ask are also the most difficult: why did this happen? Why did God do this?
“Without theologized faith, we only have platitudes to offer,” Larson-Miller told attendees at a plenary session of the National Anglican and Lutheran Worship Conference in Victoria, B.C., July 18. “And our answers must be careful. They’re linked to what we as individuals, groups and churches believe.”
The conference’s theme was “Responding to Disaster: Prayer, Song, Presence.” Larson-Miller was the keynote speaker for the conference, and over three plenary sessions explored how worship can respond to tragedy and violence.
After a disaster, Christians fall back on their faith, which Larson-Miller said “comes without words.” Theology is articulating that faith, she said. This “theologized faith,” to Larson-Miller, is the key to offering a response that aims not simply to comfort but to confront those fundamental questions about why disasters happen and how to deal with them. “Rather than beginning with a collection of created rituals,” she said, “we need to start with asking ourselves…what do we know of God?”
During the session, Larson-Miller offered several examples of prayers and litanies that demonstrated a theological depth, including a prayer for a hurricane from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) collection of prayers and a version of the Great Litany from the online Anglican Church of Canada resources (Book of Alternative Services).
Catering to context
When creating worship rituals, it’s important to know who will be gathering, said Larson-Miller.
“Not everybody prays with words, especially words printed on a page,” she said. “If you’ve got many languages, they’re not going to be able to read them. If you’ve got kids under the age of five, they’re not going to be able to read them. If you have people who can’t see well, they can’t read them. Not all prayer is verbal.”
In these instances, she suggested, the repetition of a litany may be a helpful tool.
Similarly, Larson-Miller asked attendees to consider the ways in which people outside an immediate church community can be incorporated into the church’s spaces and rituals.
“How is liminal space created so that those who do not ‘go to church’ can enter, to a certain degree?” she asked.
Larson-Miller cited as an example a church in a suburb of Los Angeles, Calif., that has the largest Armenian population outside of Armenia. Inside the church, an area with Armenian icons has been set up in the narthex. “The Armenians will come to the narthex and light candles and pray, but don’t always go all the way in,” said Larson-Miller. In addition to this, the church was gifted a statue of Jesus carrying the cross, which they have installed outside.
The church’s Armenian neighbours, Larson-Miller said, “come with a bucket of water, and they wash Jesus’ face…That image of the suffering Christ is, for them, where the kind of liturgical response to disasters begins. Often it never goes inside the church. It stays there, with the washing of Jesus’ face.”
In addition to considering who is gathering, it is important to consider the purpose of the gathering, she also said. “Is it to lament and to grieve together? Is it to comfort in solidarity? Is it to name what has happened and to who?”
The purpose may also be to “repent and commit to transformation,” Larson-Miller added, noting that liturgy can lead to a political response. “Another way to ask this question: what is the purpose of the ritual liturgy? Where are we going with this—what is the desired ethical response?”
At times, what is needed after disaster is a time of healing. However, Larson-Miller warned, “there’s a huge difference between Christian healing and ‘curing.’ ” While curing addresses symptoms, she said, healing is “always about wholeness”—mental, emotional, physical and spiritual.
Larson-Miller cautioned against blurring the lines between pastoral counselling and therapy. “Therapy, of course works towards diagnoses and treatment to solve [a] problem; prayer is not, first and foremost, problem solving…Therapeutic counselling is a separate field. Training in pastoral care does not automatically include expertise in psychiatry or psychology,” she said.
As Christians, she said, “What we have to give…is our presence, our time, our listening with the ear of our heart, the naming of the sorrow or the violence, praying to God for those who hurt, sacramental ministry and referral to other experts when that is needed.”
One of the reasons theology can often be sidelined when responding to a tragedy is a reticence to talk about sin, said Larson-Miller.
Larson-Miller challenged conference attendees to identify and name the sins that lead to disaster. “The ancient tradition of the church of Christianity…is to talk about the solidarity of the suffering of Christ with the suffering of those who have been sinned against…who have been caught up into disaster.”
As an example, she led an ELCA prayer that names racism as a sin with tragic consequences.
“You can see, actually, the theological movement,” she said of the prayer, which begins by calling on God to forgive sins of racism and ends with asking God to “Empower us to speak boldly for justice and truth and help us to deal with one another without hatred or bitterness.”
Responses should still vary by context, Larson-Miller said. “Public rites of penance may be what’s called for. Sometimes…patience is called for. Sometimes claiming personal responsibility is what’s called for. Sometimes naming complacency in sin is called for.”
She also challenged churches to name “not just the evil we’ve done directly, but what’s been done in our name.” Like sin, evil has “fallen out of polite conversation,” Larson-Miller said, “But it is in the centre of many disasters to which we respond.” As an example of this complacency, Larson-Miller played a video showing the dire working conditions in mines where cobalt is extracted for use in smartphones.
Larson-Miller also reflected on a recent trip to visit the Swampy Cree in northwestern Manitoba. In a community plagued by suicide, poverty and violence, Larson-Miller was struck by how Indigenous Anglicans responded to these disasters. “I think one of the things that I learned, I’m still processing, is the hope that in all of this, it is God who gives us the ultimate victory over death, over suffering, over tragedies.”
A gospel jamboree, which Larson-Miller described as “not unlike an extended wake,” featuring songs, silence and testimony, is one response used by the Swampy Cree, which is intended to help heal the community. Another is a “Walk to Remember,” a “stational liturgy of mourning” in which sites of violence or suffering are visited. At each place, Scripture and prayers are read and Holy water is used. “Each place is restored, and in each place, evil is banished,” said Larson-Miller.
“Walking and praying and extolling God. It seems like a perfect response—a perfect Christian response—to disaster.”
At the root of all responses, Larson-Miller said, is “our hope in Christ.” All Christian liturgy must point to hope in God, “trust and faith, embedded in the love of God.
“This is not the same as resolving everything into a neat package…we often have trouble leaving things open. But the worship of God is always an acknowledgment of God as God; God with us, in whom we rest.”