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Difficult Psalms for Difficult Times

One Church's Response to the Haiti Tragedy

Early this year I began working on an article for RW on the liturgical use of difficult psalms. Then on January 12 we received the news that an earthquake had struck the island nation of Haiti. By Sunday it was evident that the number of people killed, injured, or homeless would be measured in the hundreds of thousands. That Sunday morning I worshiped with two different congregations. The first congregation offered impassioned prayers for Haiti, but in a liturgical context that did not deviate from the plans laid out earlier in the week.

Later that morning, worshiping at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey, I experienced a service that was turned on its head. By scrapping plans for sermon and music, by turning our hearts and minds to the voices in the psalms, our worship leaders led us all to a place where we could cry out to God. I likewise scrapped my plans for what would inevitably be an article in the abstract. Instead I interviewed my pastor, David Davis, and minister of music, Noel Werner, to find out about their process for responding to tragedy in the worship life of their congregation.

Martin: On the Sunday after the Haiti earthquake you made substantive changes in worship. I found it interesting that in every instance we reverted to a psalm. Did you coordinate this, or was it a sort of reflex?

David: It was coordinated, but it was coordinated in phases. It’s fair to say that the first part was coming to the realization that I would not be able to preach the lectionary text we had chosen. The text from 1 Corinthians had been planned for several weeks. By Thursday it was clear to me that I would not be preaching that text. I didn’t say anything to anybody at that point because I didn’t know what I was going to do. My own reaction as a preacher was one of lament. I began to be frustrated with what I was hearing on the news—people trying to explain or give reasons for the tragedy, both theological and otherwise. I wasn’t looking for reasons. I was personally going through my journey of lament. Finally, on Friday, I was drawn to the psalms of lament. We happened to have a gathering of staff on Friday night, and I said to Noel right up front, “I’m changing what I’m going to preach, and there’s no way we can sing ‘Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee’ as the opening hymn.” That’s when Noel’s mind started churning about for a different opening hymn. Did I tell you then that the preaching text was Psalm 42?

Noel: You did. And then I said, “What about ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past’?” [CH 686, PH 210, PsH 170, TH 30, WR 84]. Before I could get the title out you said yes. So we turned to Psalm 90, which is this stark contrast between God and our mortality. Using that as the opening framework was an interesting start. It felt like a reflex more than an intuition.

Martin: “O God, Our Help” is an interesting choice in that I think it’s a song most people in the congregation knew. It certainly set the tone. The fact that it was not what we saw printed in the liturgy was an early indication to the congregation that we were departing from the set course. What led to Psalm 42, in particular, as the sermon text?

David: What I kept running up against in my own devotions on Friday was how often these lament psalms turn to the “enemies.” In the case of the Haiti earthquake, not only is it not clear who would be the enemy, but I didn’t want to be aligned with some of the explanations coming from Christians. So I think I was drawn to Psalm 42 mostly for the refrain: “Put your hope in God, I shall again praise God.” While there is some “enemy” language in the psalm, it was the combination of “my tears have been my food day and night” and the weeping that we were all witnessing, together with this refrain, that led me to preach this text. As I said in the sermon, I experienced the refrain differently than when I have used it on other occasions, mostly at funerals and gravesides.

Martin: We often read this refrain as defiance in the face of death: “I will yet praise; I will praise anyway.” But I sensed immediately in the tenor of the sermon that the “I will yet praise” was not so much defiance as suspension—sometime in the future, but not right now.

David: That’s right.

Martin: Noel, the tragedy happened on Tuesday. Choir rehearsal was on Wednesday. I think many people assumed you had made all these changes midweek. I take it this was not the case. What happened?

Noel: The plan was to sing Handel’s “Hallelujah, Amen.” I chose this as a general anthem of praise. In fact, we did sing this at the early service, but I immediately knew it was not right. Choir members, and my student singers as well, approached me afterward to ask, “Can we do something about reversing the order of the anthems, or is there something else?” They were sensing the same thing. I thought maybe we could sing some of Psalm 23, or maybe Psalm 22. So as the choir came in I announced there would be some changes. Right there we looked at the hymnal setting of Psalm 22. We agreed to follow this immediately with “I Love the Lord Who Heard My Cry” from Psalm 116. The choir had sung this on a few occasions and the congregation knew it as well—it’s part of our vocabulary. I hear echoes of Psalm 22 in Psalm 42, and David actually referenced Psalm 22 in his sermon in terms of Jesus’ words on the cross.

Martin: I was not only struck by the role of psalms that morning, but also by the role of the choir. These are the cries that arise out of human suffering, but ours is not the deepest human suffering. We observe it and are moved by it, but the lament in this instance is not authentically ours in terms of the first-person “why have you forsaken me?” I would have been uncomfortable singing this text, but it seemed completely appropriate, in fact it was stirring, to have the choir do that for us. I could hear the voices of other people. The choir was taking on the voice of the psalmist, the voice of Christ, and the voices of suffering people far away from here. The voice of lament seemed very real.

Noel: According to our Book of Order, one of the choir’s functions is to pray on behalf of the congregation. Sometimes those words are more appropriately rendered by a group that’s prepared to respond in that way.

Martin: But “prepared” in this case is different than preparation through rehearsals of complex repertoire, such as the Handel piece you scuttled at the second service. Prepared, here, meant standing at the ready, being flexible, adaptable.

David: In that rehearsal, when the choir was receiving these instructions for the first time, you said, “I need you guys on board; let’s go.”

Noel: I told them, “I need you to really read the intervals and mark these things in. No time to polish. I absolutely need you to step up and give 100 percent. Here we go.”

David: In a way, their ability to be flexible and to respond in an appropriate way was a companionship to the proclamation. It caught me off guard, and it was deeply moving. The lament was being shared in the moment, and in the sharing, the burden was lessened.

Martin: What have you learned from all of this?

Noel: I’d like to further build on the vocabulary of the psalms as a spiritual reflex for our church. We’ve been teaching shorter songs to the congregation. Together we can pick them up at a moment’s notice. They are in our hearts. They provide our “reflex repertoire.” And perhaps we are creating enough of a culture of flexibility within the choir and within the congregation as a whole to be able to say, “We have a wealth to draw on here. Whatever’s down on paper, we’re not bound by it.” In a way, our program of introducing the shorter, memorized psalms and songs was modeled on what I’d seen in many African-American congregations. They have a good number of songs, maybe forty or fifty, that they collectively know, so that even in the progression of the sermon or prayer, the people can react by singing. We’re beginning to sense this sort of freedom. It was heartening to know that I could turn to the choir and they were with me. That was a gift.

David: Because of the work we’ve done in the congregation, all you’d have to do is stand in front and start something, and people would join in. What would be sacrificed at that point would be an element of hospitality for the uninitiated. At that point you have to make a call.

Noel: The flip side of that is witness. To have people say, “I came to this church that sang and prayed as community. I’d love to be a part of that.”

David: I came away from this experience with two things—three, counting the deep personal journey this has been for me. First, within the ardor and the order of worship planning we have more flexibility than we are aware of. If we’re going to do something different, there is space for that. If I had gotten my head around these changes even a day earlier, on Friday somebody would have been feverishly reworking and reprinting bulletins. There are all kinds of stewardship issues at stake. No. We learned again that we have the ability and the trust within the leadership and the congregation. By God’s grace we’ve earned that trust, even from those who would prefer that we stick to our plans. Second, I came away with a deeper appreciation for how the liturgy and the psalms run deep, especially when there are no explanations. Last night we worshiped at the session meeting. Again we took up the psalm “I Love the Lord Who Heard My Cry.” One of the elders testified, “I’ve been singing that all week, because I heard it on Sunday.” As he listens to the car radio or hears the latest update from CNN, he has a psalm to sing. He’s not quoting my sermon as he’s driving to work. He’s singing something from the liturgy.