What can we sing at times like these?

Living on the West Coast of the U.S., I was up early to do business with my East Coast clients—including those in Manhattan, NY—and before leaving the house I usually checked email and national headlines. But the news that morning was anything but usual, as confusing headlines and horrifying pictures of one of the Twin Towers belching flames and black smoke sent me running to the bedrooms to wake my wife and our four grade school kids. Arriving in front of the TV, we were horrified to see the second tower explode into flames, as a jetliner hit it like a guided missile.

As we stared in disbelief, the kids asked questions for which we had no answers. Actually, words were failing everyone—reporters, commentators, people on the streets—as events quickly unfolded to snuff out the lives of nearly 3000 souls from 90 countries, as suicide hijackers piloted four passenger airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon building in Arlington, Virginia, and a fourth plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania as passengers fought against the hijackers.

This weekend in sermons, testimonies and prayers at church services and public events, we look back ten years and still ponder those tragic events, and to some extent words still fail, and there will need to be moments for complete silence. We might also ask, what can we sing at times like these?

Songwriter and worship leader Matt Redman writes as part of "How Evangelical Leaders Have Changed Since 9/11" in the recent ChristianityToday forum,
My wife and I were due to fly from England to the United States of September 12, 2001 for a few months of sabbatical… But the horrific events unfolded, and of course our plans shifted. Later in the week, international flights resumed, and we managed to get on one of the first flights out….

[But] what could we sing to God at a time like this? It was as if our worship songs were missing some important vocabulary—the language of tragedy and struggle, of the valley at the bottom of the mountain—which I found surprising, as the Psalms are full of lament. Soon after the tragedy, my wife and I wrote Blessed Be Your Name. It is a simple worship offering about choosing to worship and trust God no matter what the season.

September 11 taught me that when it comes to worshiping God, we must trust, of course. But we can also be real, raw, and honest. We can lay our frustration and confusion before God and still rejoice. Doing so tells God we know he is bigger than all of our issues—and also provides a window of hope to a watching world.
Agreed. As Matt’s song says, we can still bless the Name of the Lord even when we are in the “desert place” and walk “through the wilderness,” and also on “the road marked with suffering” where there’s “pain in the offering.” The good news we discuss on this worship blog is that the Suffering Servant became the Perfect Offering we could never be. Bodily risen and ascended, He lives and as the Spirit reminds us, is still with us and for us, in spite of appearances to the contrary—even during the times for which we have no words, no answers.

While not designed for congregational singing, millions have been touched by the ballad Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning, penned by Country Music entertainer Alan Jackson soon after the events of 9/11, and performed in early November 2001 at the CMA Awards telecast, where the song was widely considered the highlight of the show, and was soon released as a single.

The first verse speaks of shock, anger, fear and crying, the then asks, “Did you look up to heaven for some kind of answer?” Later verses ask, “Did you dust off that Bible at home” and “Did you go to church and hold hands with some strangers.”

In later interviews Jackson said, “I’ve always been careful to try not to get too preachy,” but as to how the song has deeply touched listeners, “it’s about what’s important to people.” Absolutely. There is nothing more important than the love of God revealed in person and work of Jesus, even in—no, especially in—the midst of unspeakable loss.

In trauma and tragedy we face our limitations. Life is fragile and short. But in grieving and turning to God, we have faith and hope that is not simply ours alone. It is perfect faith and hope that belongs to the living Son of God, who has ever trusted the Father on our behalf. It’s the unfathomable simplicity of Christ that the ‘everyman’ Jackson points to in the song’s simple but profound chorus.
I'm just a singer of simple songs
I'm not a real political man

I watch CNN but I'm not sure I can tell you
The difference in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God

And I remember this from when I was young

Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love.
Our words may fail. But because of Divine love, the Word became flesh (John 1:14), and by the Spirit the Living Word in heaven tells the Father all the things that weigh on our hearts. That love, and that Living Word, never fails. As the singer of simple songs would say, it’s the story of those good things He gave us.

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