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What Impact Has Terrorism Had on Worship and Music?

The question about the impact of the September 11 terrorist attacks upon worship and music is of great importance to many people with whom I've communicated in recent weeks. There are two related aspects:

  1. How does what we do with music in worship help people to cope with the tragedy? and
  2. How have the attacks actually affected worship leaders and musicians as they seek to lead in worship?
As I thought about the first question shortly after September 11, and as I spoke with musicians and pastors around the country and asked that question, it became clear that this is one of those seminal events in human history and experience by which we make divisions in time and which help us to define and understand who we are and our place in this world. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the JFK assassination would be other such events.

By noon on September 11, 2001, it became clear to us in the Discipleship Ministries Center for Worship Resourcing that we needed to drop our other work immediately and concentrate on developing and making available worship and music resources that would allow the church to speak with and for our people in worship and prayer, both corporate and private. We also recognized that this kind of trauma experienced on such an intense level by an entire population and then relived over and over through television replays, car radio, newspaper, magazines, e-mails, phone calls, and private conversations, is really new ground for most of us. Of course we can turn to The United Methodist Hymnal, Book of Worship, The Faith We Sing, and other available resources and recommend specific titles for prayer, Scripture, singing, meditation, preaching, and teaching; and we did that. But we discovered that many people who were familiar with Psalm 23, "O God, our help in ages past," and "A mighty fortress" found these inadequate to express the pain, fear, loss, and suffering that resulted from the unspeakable acts of September 11. What do we pray or sing upon watching a human being standing in the gaping hole of the World Trade Center building before its collapse, surrounded by flames and smoke, flapping his arms in the futile hope that he will be able to fly out of the terror? What do we pray or sing as we see that human being jump off the ledge and plunge to the ground below? The hymns we sang at Uncle Joe's funeral just do not serve well at this time.

And so we (the Center on Worship Resourcing staff) began to compose prayers and worship resources for our website where people could find and use them. We began to receive other hymn texts and resources, unsolicited, from all across the church — resources written immediately following the attacks. We also contacted some noted hymn writers such as Ruth Duck, Carl Daw, Jim Strathdee, Jane Marshall, and others and asked them to compose something for our site that could be freely shared with the church and the nation. They responded with a new kind of hymn and resource, one that makes an immediate connection to the attacks and the aftermath. These resources, by virtue of the directness of their language and the use of images and language that we have all become familiar with since September 11, have allowed individuals and congregations to verbalize and express those horrible feelings that we all have felt. It is a first step toward emotional recovery. The shock, grief, and fear will undoubtedly remain with us — music and poetry will not remove those. But by speaking the words, praying the prayers, reading the responses, and singing the hymns, we are somehow able to begin to express — to God, to others, and even to ourselves — the depth of what we're feeling; and we are able to hear what these compositions may have to say to us. It is through this marvelous communication through music that healing begins.

We know this to be true because many people have told us so in letters, e-mails, telephone calls, and in personal conversations over this past month. We also know it to be true because in the month of September, our worship website saw a quantum leap in the number of site visits — nearly a quarter of a million. Many of those visitors sought our new resources that were posted on the site in response to the attacks. We know from the length of time that visitors spent on each web page they accessed that they were reading, downloading, and preparing to use these pieces in worship.

Shortly after the attacks, I posted a message to the Discipleship Ministries Methodist Musicians' Listserv, an electronic mailing list that brings together United Methodist musicians, liturgical artists, worship planners and leaders, and pastors in an interactive e-mail discussion forum. I asked the Listserv members to tell me what churches that regularly worshiped in a contemporary praise style did following September 11. Often, this style of worship makes use of upbeat, celebratory, fast tempo songs; and often their hymn texts are designed to contribute to a sense of feeling good with one's self, with one another, and with God. Sometimes there is no opportunity in these services for grieving or for lament; hence, these human emotions don't find expression very often in contemporary praise services. I wondered what these churches did following the attacks to help their people understand and cope and hear any word the Lord may have for them in this tragic time. This style of worship does not make use of "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded," "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," music of the Taize community, or similar music. I asked how they helped people express grief, fear, and loss — to mourn, to overcome depression.

The responses were of two camps. Some sang songs that were of a slower, expressive nature — quiet, meditative, though not particularly tied to texts of grief, loss, or fear. Titles mentioned included "More Love, More Power" by Jude Del Hierro, "I Have Decided to Follow Jesus," and "Thy Word." One local church musician listed titles for Sunday, September 16, which included "A Mighty Fortress," "Praise to the Lord the Almighty," and "My hope is Built" — traditional hymns of a more positive, uplifting, celebratory quality; songs that, given the nature of the events, might be seen as almost leading the people into denying any deep feelings of pain and grief.

The second camp was made up of those churches that sang mostly patriotic songs, hymns of national and civic celebration, and hymns that made use of images of militarism and warfare. These included "Mighty Warrior," "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "The Battle Belongs to the Lord," "America," and "God Bless America." A few mentioned that they opened their worship with a posting of the American flag by a military honor guard, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the singing of the national anthem. One church sang a medley: "Lord, I Lift Your Name on High," "God Is the Strength of My Heart," "I Stand in Awe," and "In His Presence," a medley that might have been sung on any Sunday of any month. This same church had a soloist sing Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA," and an instrumental playing of "Fanfare for the Common Man."

Thus, there were really three main reactions of churches to the tragedy in how they selected music: those that sought out songs that spoke directly to the tragedy; those that sought to deny the expression of fear and anxiety through music; and those that sought to identify with a strongly patriotic and nationalistic theme.

Just this past week I have come to see yet another aspect of how the attacks have had an impact upon worship and music leaders in the local church. One very capable music director in a large United Methodist Church with a large and well-trained adult choir wrote to the Methodist Musicians Listserv on October 12 — one month and a day after the attacks — to say that he, himself, was feeling frustrated and depressed. This was, in part, because of the same ongoing feelings we all continue to experience following the original event; but also because of how his choir has changed since September 11. One month after the attacks, his choir members are not as emotionally incapacitated as they had been on September 11. The tears don't come as often or in such quantity as before. Some semblance of a routine has returned to most of their lives. People are working, shopping, going to school, and gradually returning to normal activities. There is even joke telling, laughter, and discussion of things other than terrorism. But this choir director observed that his choir had lost its edge. Their attacks and cut-offs were not as precise. Their attention wandered. Their posture and body language was somehow heavier and lower. The great joy and delight they formerly took in conquering together a challenging piece of music and of singing it to the very best of their ability in worship is not there now. And he is frustrated because he can't seem to fix the problem. He was asking other list members for suggestions about how to deal with the problem.

There were many suggestions, but among the most perceptive and useful was one that advised him to recognize that his choir, right along with each and every one of us, is still in a condition of emotional trauma, maybe shock. This kind of shared experience can not be cathartic. All of the flag saluting and national anthem singing will not change how we feel and, therefore, how we act. Relief and healing will come only with the passing of time and the gentle and gracious working of God's Spirit. In the meantime, we should provide opportunities — in prayer, in song, in sermon, in social interaction, in private devotion — to reflect and to share, to express, and to listen. If that means the choir's pitch this Sunday morning is a bit under that of the accompanist, then let's take note of it and go on. If it means that you have to change your selection of "On Eagles Wings" to something else because that particular song will incapacitate your singers, then set it aside for another day. This is what it means to minister — to our people and to one another — through music. We are ministers first, musicians second, and performers last.

This is all new ground for most of us, and it remains pretty shaky ground, at that. Although most of us were hundreds or thousands of miles away from New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania on September 11, we are all still to be counted among the walking wounded; but with God's help on the way to recovery.

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