Worship as a response to disaster was the theme of this year’s National Anglican and Lutheran Worship Conference, which took place July 16-19 in Victoria, B.C. For conference musician Chad Fothergill, the topic has weighed on his mind.
“How are we to sing the Lord’s song when language fails us as readers, or when all we can seemingly do is cry, ‘How long, O Lord?’ ” Fothergill asked a conference plenary session, July 17. Fothergill, who holds a university fellowship at Temple University in Philadelphia, added, “As a citizen of the United States, this cry has flown from my lips on many occasions these past several months.”
School shootings, immigrant children detained and separated from their parents and rising neo-Nazism were among the recent tragedies in the United States that Fothergill called a “never-ending” litany, “unspeakable, because…there is simply too much to name.”
In considering how worship could respond to such violence, Fothergill told the conference that his thoughts “returned again and again to the Psalms.”
The Psalms, “according to theologian Walter Brueggemann, explore the full gamut of human experience, from rage to hope,” he said. They also “abound with images of natural disaster and violence”—fire, hail, snow, lighting, earthquakes, floods and more.
“The point is not the disaster or the violence itself, but God’s actions in these moments; of saving the psalmist from the sea, itself a metaphor for enemies, or providing shelter, asserting ultimate sovereignty over the sea and its creatures…Similarly, the psalmist’s individual and communal responses to violence and disaster confirm God’s agency,” said Fothergill.
Among the insights offered by the Psalms are the range of the psalmist’s expressions, he said; their candour and honesty provide “language for identifying and giving voice to feeling.
“Just as we might pass through the stages of grief…we can also move along the gamut of experience within the Psalms.”
Fothergill highlighted as an example the anger present in the so-called “vengeance Psalms,” such as Psalms 69 and 109. These Psalms, Fothergill says, should not be read as actions undertaken by the writer, or encouragement of such behaviour. Rather, their raw anger is a supplication to God, “that justice might be restored in God’s creative order.”
Despite the lamentation and frustration present in these texts, “at their core, these Psalms praise,” said Fothergill. “From the depths of the pit, they affirm God as creator and manager of all things, give the final adjudication to God and God alone.”
Fothergill also outlined some practical lessons the Psalms can teach leaders for worshipping in their own communities.
The Psalms’ rich use of language, for example, should provide a map for worship. Psalms themselves can be used in song and liturgy, Fothergill suggested, giving the example of using verses as refrains in Taizé-style worship.
He also advocated that the language of the hymnody be carefully considered to match the themes and messages of each service. “Choosing a hymn…because it’s ‘just nice’ or ‘an old favourite here’ ignores the pivotal role that music plays in faith formation and ritual action,” he said.
In addition, Fothergill suggested finding hymns and Psalms, perhaps those that have been traditionally omitted, that speak to the present time. He also stressed the importance of preparation, suggesting when it comes to disaster, one should think “in terms of ‘when,’ not in terms of ‘if.’ ” A response to disaster best serves the community when it is prepared, oriented and grounded, he said.
“We certainly will not prevent disaster or violence, but how we pray, sing and are present truly does matter.”