‘Emergency’ Worship for Terrorism, Tragedy and Pandemics or Worship for Real Life?
Rev Malcolm Gordon
I remember church after the Christchurch Mosque shootings. I was leading worship that coming Sunday. Just two weeks before I had begun work on my Ph.D, exploring the spirituality of suffering. As that Sunday loomed, I wondered: what do we sing, what do we say, how do we pray?
I remember an anecdote in a book by John Witvliet, an American thinker on worship, about a church music leader who introduced a new song one Sunday. He asked her why they were learning that song, and she replied that it had a good tune, was singable, had good scriptural lyrics and it was on theme. And then she added, “And one day, we’re going to need this song for a really sad funeral.” This song leader was putting something into the congregation’s kete, not something that they needed then and there, but something they would need, and something that when they did need it, they would already need to know how to use it.
The congregation I was leading at on the Sunday after the Mosque shootings was one I was regularly leading while they were without a minister. About 5 months before, in November of the year before, I had led a whole service on the concept of lament. It was one of those indulgent services where the visiting preacher rides his hobby horse because it’s what he’s working on and caring about, and he wants everyone else to care about it as well. So I introduced songs of lament, some ways of praying lament, and spoke about why we might cry out to God in agony and hope, and why it might be ok to do so. That following summer that little parish was rocked by 3 separate untimely deaths. Two suicides, and a heart attack. One teen, and two folk in middle-age. So I returned in the new year, and held a service where we revisited those prayers, those songs, but, this time, I didn’t need to say as much about why we might lament, or why it might be ok to lament. I just reminded them of the headlines.
Then a month or so later the Mosque shootings happened. And I was due back with that parish that Sunday. It happened on the Friday, so everything was already organised, but you know you couldn’t stick with the script (although I’ve heard that some did). That Saturday I was bombarded with emails and phone calls from ministers around the country asking for ideas of what to sing and how to pray. And dutifully I sent them links and files and ideas. But in my head, I was thinking, if you haven’t taught your people how to cry out to God by now, it’s too late. You need to have practiced the drill before the real thing happens. You want to have tried the defibrillator before someone’s heart stops.
When it comes to lament, we have so many hang ups and hesitations about getting angry with God, about expressing our sadness before God and the community of faith – and the day when we are all heartbroken is not the time to try and tackle some gnarly new theological idea. Like that wise church musician, we need to already have that in the toolkit. For that congregation I was leading, we simply returned to those songs, and those ways of praying, and I had to say even less this time about why we might lament, and why it’s ok that we lament. We simply did lament.
Those sudden, acute experiences of suffering require us to have put away some supplies in the basement, so to speak, songs that are robust enough for times of great sorrow and inexplicable hardship, prayers that are not afraid of the dark. And the contemporary practice of praying off the cuff really needs to have some help when we are disorientated and bewildered by what has happened to us. We need a spiritual handrail to hold onto.
But Covid is different. What is different is that it has not been sudden at all. It has not flared up out of nowhere and then left us to pick up the pieces. Instead, it has gathered like a brooding storm on the horizon, and it has come and it has stayed. We are not shocked as much as we are worn down, not so much gutted as we are exhausted. And so, experiences like Covid insist that we do some hard and urgent work, but in an ongoing way, developing ways for our community of faith to continue to communicate meaningfully with God, with each other, and with the world around us.
One of the gifts of lament is that it does not pretend to have the answers to life’s great questions, but it also does not feel a burden to have those answers, because it believes so firmly in a God who is the answer. Lament is the opening to an unresolved conversation with God. It asks questions that God must turn up and answer, or… or what? Or what indeed. You see, I suspect that lots of Christians are nervous about asking God these difficult questions in an open-ended, unresolved way.
We are nervous of asking ‘How long O Lord? Are you going to forget me forever?’ like the Psalmist does in Psalm 13. Because if God doesn’t show up, God will look bad, and we will look stupid. But, I suggest, that if our God is a God who doesn’t show up when God’s people cry out, then we ought to want to know that, because we are interested in truth. The fact that these prayers have been written down, and preserved over millennia, ought to tell us that people have used them and have found something of worth to have come from them. For certain, not always what they wanted, hoped for, or expected. But something of value, nonetheless.
But there is another aspect I want to explore. Sudden suffering confronts us with no warning, like the Mosque Attacks, or the White Island eruption, and we must draw upon what we already have stored away. Covid comes and stays, wearing us down, but also giving us time to adjust and form new ways of being community together. But for all their differences, there is something that links these forms of suffering. They are shared. We are all on the same page.
It was after the Mosque attacks, when I had all those churches asking me for resources so they could lament, that I finally realised: we all want to lament this week because we are all suffering. We are all on the same page. We are all sad about the same thing, and that is a unifying, galvanising experience. But the reality hit me – there are people going through something that has ripped a hole in the side of their life every Sunday – but all these leaders are only reaching for the language of lament when the whole congregation, the whole country in fact, is in the same boat.
I realised that we need language for suffering every week in worship, not just when something bad has happened that is big enough to impact all of us. Because in that situation, the solidarity is a form of comfort. We are all bewildered, together. We are all shocked, together. But think of the person who is dealing with ongoing unhappiness in a job. Think about the person whose marriage is unhealthy, and it doesn’t seem curable. Think about the person whose kids aren’t sleeping, or are sick, or aren’t doing great at school. Think about the myriad of ways that life finds us wanting, and exposes our weak points as parents, friends, spouses, and children. There are people suffering all around us all the time. And too often the Church has been guilty of only singing happy songs for the happy people.
I wonder if Covid has exposed something of the triumphalism of contemporary Christianity. Covid has given us a challenge that we cannot control, one we cannot be shielded from by our wealth or position, one that we cannot solve – all things which we are so used to doing. Covid has, in many cases, revealed that Christianity has become, for many of us, a fair-weather faith (trademark pending – I just came up with that).
Long before Covid, long before the Mosque attacks, I heard a teacher in my theology programme speak about her experience of going to church. She talked about how so often she went into church feeling the need to hold “a funeral for the world,” such was her grief at the state of things. But instead, she found, week after week, she was forced into singing happy songs, and only happy songs. Even back then, a decade ago, there were those in our faith communities who had sniffed out our lack of realism, that worship had become a form of escapism.
When Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message, was interviewed about the importance of the Psalms in Christian worship, he pointed to a cross hanging in the room. He said, “We have a lot of crosses in this house, and that’s to remind me that there are a lot of crosses in this world, a lot of violence. And I don’t want to escape the violence.” The Psalms, for Peterson, did not sugar-coat reality, or deny it, or overwhelm it with spiritual rhetoric. The Psalms take a long hard look at the reality of things, and do not blink or flinch. Instead, they keep looking, in the mess, through the mess, for God. And those Psalms have been kept because people have kept using them to reach out for God in the midst of dark, confusing times. Contemporary worship could do with learning from these ancient poems.