My maternal grandmother (1917-2014) was a brilliant person. She had a mind without end, and her faith was shaped by her intellectual curiosity. Herself the oldest child of a pastor, she studied Scripture and theology deeply. She learned Greek and enjoyed entering discussions about biblical translation. And she loved the music of the church.
My family is very Lutheran. On my mother’s side, most of us can sing all four verses of the hymn “Beautiful Savior” from memory. We’ve done that in church basements, in hospital rooms, in graveyards. Music is a major way my faith has been formed.
When it came time to gather for grandma’s funeral, I knew we would be gather in part to sing our faith in the face of death and loss. I didn’t know I would discover another side of my grandmother in the act of singing.
Grandma expressed her faith very often by questioning theology and church doctrine. Her questions went so deep that she wasn’t certain she wanted us to recite the creed at the funeral! (We did.) I wondered what we would sing in honor of her.
I was surprised to find one particular old American hymn in the service folder, “I Look Not Back.” Each verse describes looking in a certain direction and finding nothing but evidence of sinfulness all around. It’s pretty bleak imagery until the fifth and last verse: “But I look up into the face of Jesus, for there my heart can rest, my fears are stilled.” Other than that final proclamation, it’s a sad song about the fallenness of the world. And singing it was a peek into the piety of my grandmother’s heart. Amid all the study and pursuit of truth, she still held a fear that death would remove her from closeness to God.
We also sang another song, much more centered on proclaiming the good news of God’s embrace. “O Day Full of Grace” is a Scandinavian hymn often sung at Christmastime. The version we sang that day includes a verse that directly speaks to death, and to the act of singing our faith:
When we on the final journey go that Christ is for us preparing
We’ll gather in song our hearts a glow, all joy of the heavens sharing
And there we will join God’s endless praise with angels and saints adoring.
It’s festive tune and strong images of grace were such a comfort on that funeral day. And that’s the amazing thing about good church music at funerals: they transform a day that could be all shrouded in loss and grief into an occasion of rejoicing and consolation. At grandma’s funeral, I learned something new about the faith that lived within her, and I joined the chorus of saints in light as I sang out the promise that holds us all together.
Join SpokaneFAVS for a Coffee Talk forum on “Faith and Music” at 10 a.m., May at The Community Building, 35 W. Main Ave.