Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen Wiberg

The destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11, like the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the assassination of John Kennedy, is another of those national tragedies that are stamped indelibly on our minds as a memory we will never forget. Recalling that day, the shock of it summoned a host of Americans to seek out a church or synagogue or mosque to lament as a community the tragedy on the day of the event, as well in the days following.

In the afternoon of 9/11 I received a phone call from Pastor Don Johnson inviting me to prepare a liturgical response for a service at Salem Covenant Church that would be held that evening. At first I froze wondering where I could begin to respond liturgically to this immense, cosmic tragedy. Then I remembered that the Covenant’s hymnal commission had the foresight and wisdom to prepare both text and music for such an occasion. For the first time in the history of Covenant hymnody we had included Psalter readings with laments as well as common prayers, and there were 20 such hymns of lamentation from which to choose.

I have never been as grateful for any book of worship as I was that day for our hymnal. On such occasions, when one’s whole being is shaken, the liturgical leader needs to find the right words that provide the complex mixture of shock, anger, desire for revenge as well as the comfort and hope that only the presence God can give. When the hymnal commission was looking at laments in the hymnal and the Psalter in particular, I recall the lively discussion that followed as whether or not to include Psalm 137. This is the Psalm that begins:

By the waters of Babylon there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps…

Then asking how the exiles could sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, the psalm ends with a blood-curdling cry of revenge:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

John Weborg – may his name be honored! – made, as I recall, the courageous argument to the hymnal commission that Bishop Desmond Tutu makes in his lovely recent book, Made for Goodness, co-authored with his daughter Mpho Tutu, that speaks of our angry prayers:

The Psalter is a wonderful resource for just this reason. We are reminded that our rage does have a place in our prayer life as it does in our emotional life. In their wisdom the compilers of the book of Psalms did not edit out the ugliest of sentiments. Instead, the bloody violence of one psalm is set next to the irenic lyricism of the next. The gift of the Psalter is that it permits us to pray our most murderous feelings and not act them out. The Psalter attests to the fullness of human experience. In the psalms we see what is so often our operational theology: the actions that show what we believe about God.

The commission, unfortunately in hindsight, failed to rise to the courage of John’s and the Bishop‘s argument and in so doing failed to trust that whatever dark prayers we may offer, God is not of our human making, nor a lesser god; rather God is God and He can take it. Thank you brothers John and Desmond!

As for the evening prayers at Salem, without public announcement the church was filled with wounded, seeking souls. I don’t recall the Psalms of Lament we prayed, nor the common prayers offered that evening, but I do remember one of the hymns of lament because it was written by a former member of Salem, Jeanette Lindholm. It was hymn 445:

We search for language to explain the sorrow of our years, The pressing, never ending strain of cashing loss and fears.

God’s seeming deafness to our cries can lead us to despair, and yet a suff’ring Spirit sighs though we are unaware.

God’s silence stretches like the sea, consoling ev’ry shore, Safe-guarding tears of memory, of happiness, remorse. God’s still calm presence still sustains when words come to an end. Our God has promised to remain a loving, list’ning friend.

Glen Wiberg (d. 2017), was a Covenant pastor and writer. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

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