Three weeks ago this past Thursday (March 21), I decided it was probably best, because of my mother's serious health situation, for me to head home to South Carolina after worship on the coming Sunday to be with her. The next day, Friday, I received a text from my brother telling me that things had suddenly declined with my father's health. Although his health had not been great, he was not on our radar as far as being our imminent family health concern.
Early the next day, a Saturday morning, I sat on a plane contemplating the sudden turn of events, determined to get as many texts out as possible before having to put my phone on airplane mode. My heart and mind were a jumble of worry, fear, and potential anticipated tasks. One minute all things had been carrying on as always--and the next minute I faced the real possibility that both of my parents might be gone, just like that. I was struck at how hard it was for me to think, much less write, anything that seemed like a sensible sentence.
As I stared out the window, without warning, the melody and words of hymns--so many, rich, precious hymns--began running through my mind. Overwhelmed with emotion, I texted a friend:
The comfort, especially in light of the Latin origin of the word, that solid hymnody brings in times like this is a beautiful, poignant irony. When I cannot find words in my heart to bring to my lips, these truth-laden, Scripturally-rich hymns rise in my spirit! It is as if they are an incarnation of the Spirit's intercession to embrace my groaning, wordless heart. Now I can voice within what cannot form in my mouth--and not only am I sure that the Father has searched and known my heart, I am strengthened by his glorious Gospel with music that carries me back to his never-failing Word.
It was suddenly so clear to me how important the great hymns I had learned had been in building up my faith and driving home the essential biblical truths I so needed to rest upon at that very moment. Hearing and feeling through song what I knew to be true from God's Word both settled my heart sent my spirit soaring, even as the tears flowed.
Within 24 hours my father was with the Lord. By his goodness I was able to be with him as he crossed that threshold, entering into the glory he had so longed to see. In the days that followed, as we began to plan his funeral, I again found that it was the comfort of the great hymns of our faith that buoyed me. Though I had planned so many funerals before, it was in pulling together my father's service that I realized that "my" funerals are hymn heavy--incorporating alongside the comfort of God's Word, three, sometimes even four hymns. I have never really articulated a pastoral philosophy of funerals, but my practice revealed to me that I believe that singing solid truth at times of mourning--or hearing that solid truth being sung when we are able only to weep--is an act of faith, hope and love.
Singing God's truth at times of mourning is an act of faith because we are proclaiming that death is not the victor--Christ Jesus is! He who is life itself by choice experienced what is inevitable for us, and by that death he dealt death itself a deathblow.
Singing God's truth at times of mourning is an act of hope because we are affirming that though we have grief we have assurance that we will again see those who have crossed into the presence of God's glory.
Singing God's truth at times of mourning is an act of love because, as we sing, our hearts rise with gratitude to the God who loved us first, making it possible for our dead, dry hearts to beat with life and love in return.
Of course, it is not merely at times of grief that the great hymns propel us in the progress and joy of our faith. In every step of our faith's journey, sound, beautiful hymns become a highway in our hearts for exhortation, encouragement, assurance and even accountability--and this is only a meager list of how tightly rich hymnody is intertwined with our sanctification. They give us a theological touchstone that speaks deeply to us, not in place of Scripture, but in support of the precious truths it reveals to us.
One week after he died, family and friends gathered and we glorified God as we honored my father's memory. His grandchildren shared their favorite memory of Papa or Granddaddy. I preached from Philippians 1 about the "gain-gain" situation my father had faced--and through Jesus, had entered into. And then some of us attempted to sing with our mouths what we shouted in our hearts:
No guilt in life, no fear in death--This is the pow'r of Christ in me; From life's first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No pow'r of hell, no scheme of man, Can ever pluck me from His hand; Till He returns or calls me home-- Here in the pow'r of Christ I'll stand.
Rev. Rob Looper is the Senior Pastor of McIlwain Presbyterian Church in Pensacola, FL.