Accompany Them with Singing

The Apostolic Constitutions are a series of 4th century documents that give insight into the early Christian church. In it, Christians were instructed, “In the funerals of the departed, accompany them with singing, if they were faithful in Christ” (6.30.2).

It has become my custom to conclude every funeral sermon by singing a hymn stanza. Often, it has been one of the last stanzas I sang with the person before they died, if we had that opportunity. Other times, it was simply appropriate to the sermon text, theme, or to the life of the person. In either case, it is my way of taking one small gem of our beautiful hymnody and passing it on to the congregation and the gathered family and friends. Our hymnody is so rich that I’ve hardly, if at all, had to use the same stanza more than once.

This week I had two funerals, a wife on Monday and her husband on Friday. On Monday it was “Lord, let at last your angels come” for we had spoken of the angels at Jesus’ tomb who were there to roll the stone away and announce the resurrection. But it is over us that God has given his angels charge, until they carry us to His side. Today, it was “In peace and joy I now depart” in regard to a husband who was ready to depart in peace, not only because he knew his bride was safe in the arms of Jesus, but also and more importantly because he knew that Jesus was his life, and “death is but a slumber.”

I’m pretty sure I’ve done this with all sixteen of the funerals I have conducted since coming here (I counted today). On these days, while I am filled with sympathy for those who mourn, I am also unspeakably grateful to have been able to serve these dear saints with Jesus’ Word and Sacrament, and now to speak the comfort and confidence of the resurrection to those who mourn.

Lutheran Public Radio – Music for the World

I’ve been listening to this whenever I can. Check it out!

The reformer Martin Luther had this to say about the Holy Spirit, God’s Word and music:

The Holy Ghost himself honors music as an instrument for his proper work when in the Holy Scriptures he asserts that through her gifts were instilled in the prophets, namely, the inclination to all virtues, as can be seen in Elisha (2 Kings 3:15)…The gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming the Word of God through music and by providing sweet melodies with words.

The Holy Spirit is working through God’s word put to music on Lutheran Public Radio, Sacred Music for the World. You’ll hear hymns like “Thy Strong Word,” “The Church’s One Foundation, ” “Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart,” “God’s Own Child I Gladly Say It,” “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less” and more.

You can listen to sacred music 24/7 at Lutheran Public Radio. You can also listen on mobile devices like an iPhone or iPad or any Android phone.

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A Faithful God—From Generation to Generation

The story goes in my family that my great-grandmother, Anna Schindeldecker Linkert (pictured right), sang to her mother as she was dying. According to the story, she sang the stanzas of Johann Heerman’s hymn, O Gott, du frommer Gott (O God Thou Faithful God – TLH 395, CW 459, LSB 696). The hymn closes with these stanzas (omitted from CW):

If Thou a longer life
Hast here on earth decreed me;
If Thou through many ills
To age at length wilt lead me,
Thy patience on me shed.
Avert all sin and shame
And crown my hoary head
With honor free from blame.

Let me depart this life
Confiding in my Savior;
Do Thou my soul receive
That it may live forever;
And let my body have
A quiet resting-place
Within a Christian grave;
And let it sleep in peace.

And on that solemn Day
When all the dead are waking,
Stretch o’er my grave Thy hand,
Thyself my slumbers breaking.
Then let me hear Thy voice,
Change Thou this earthly frame,
And bid me aye rejoice
With those who love Thy name.

By the time the hymn was over, her mother was with Jesus. Great-grandma Linkert must have taught the hymn to her children (perhaps all 15 of them). At least one of them, my Grandpa, knew it and sang it often. In fact, when my mother was in her early teens, Grandpa even offered his family an incentive to learn this hymn by heart: one dollar for each stanza. On Saturday nights, Grandpa was ready with his dollar bills, ready to listen to his daughters or foster sons recite their stanzas.

Because my mother knew that hymn by heart, she could easily sing it while rocking each of her seven babies to sleep, or by their bedside. Because this hymn was frequently heard and sung in our home, it now has the chance to make it one more generation (despite the fact that half of it isn’t even in our hymnal).

While I was up in Minnesota I had to chance to stop at the cemetery in Eagan where my Mom’s parents and grandparents are buried. The mortal remains of those generations who sang “O Gott du frommer Gott” now lie beneath those stones, still resting, still waiting for stanza eight: “Then let me hear Thy voice, Change Thou this earthly frame.”

But I am so grateful that they sang the hymn while they were here. Not only did it teach them and comfort them, but to this day their song continues to teach me and comfort me by the words they passed from their generation to the next. And they have given a voice for me to pass on to my children the fountain of gifts which come from this faithful God, and to prepare them for all of life that is ahead of them.

Until He Comes

I just love the last Sundays of the church year. I am especially fond of the texts from Matthew 25 that bring the year to a close and point us to the end. The Sheep and the Goats. The Wise and Foolish Virgins. And on top of it, we’ve been given hymns that illustrate and illumine these texts. I’m thinking especially of Philipp Nicolai’s Wake, Awake, “The King of Chorales”. This Sunday I’ll be spending the Bible class hour leading people through the scriptural references and historical background of this hymn. I initially thought it wouldn’t nearly take up the whole hour, but now I’m wondering how we’ll get it all in.

But there’s another hymn that has become just as meaningful to me. “O’er the Distant Mountains Breaking” (CW 220) also refers to this week’s Gospel in the final stanza:

With my lamp well-trimmed and burning,
Swift to hear and slow to stray,
Watching for your glad returning,
Waiting for the blessed day.
Come, my Savior, Come, my Savior,
O my Savior, quickly come!

I just love that phrase, “swift to hear and slow to stray.” So often we have it the other way around. And we always want to emphasize the “watching” for Jesus. But does it look like he’s coming? When the night of watching day waiting grows long and it seems like he may never come, then we can do nothing but cling to his word, his promise that he will indeed return. Hurry up and listen.

In Bible class at church we just finished up a course on Christian vocation. Last week as we were wrapping it up I mentioned the third stanza of this hymn which has also been very dear to me over the past few years:

Nearer is my soul’s salvation;
Spent the night, the day at hand.
Keep me in my humble station,
Watching for you till I stand,
O my Savior, O my Savior,
In your bright, your promised land.

I just discovered today that the author of this hymn, John S. B. Monsell, died from injuries he received while watching or inspecting workers who were repairing the roof of his church. Either he fell off the roof, or he was hit by a falling object. Maybe he would have been better off staying in his study (in his “humble station”) and not crawling around on the roof. That may be a reminder I need from time to time. I’ve been known to do dumb things like that which I have no business doing. It’s a reminder that the station(s) in life into which I have been placed is the best place for me to be while I wait for Christ’s return. Even though it might not always be the place I want to be, or it might not always be the most comfortable place to be, it is the place where I will find “one of the least of these brothers of mine” (Mt 25:40) behind whom Jesus promises to hide himself. I would always like to take the shortcut to get my life more like it will be when Jesus returns, but no, not yet.

Another favorite phrase from this hymn is in stanza two:

Come, O Long-Expected; weary
Waits my spirit anxiously.
Life is dark and earth is dreary
Where your light I cannot see.

O my Savior, O my Savior,
When will you return to me?

It reminds me of Psalm 73: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you” (vs 25). And then that last phrase shows a trust that the Lord Jesus is not just coming back to raise everyone and judge everyone, but I’m looking for when he is coming for me. As though he would go through all the trouble of coming back even if it were only for me.

And  then there’s the delightful image in the first stanza of the return of Jesus like the dawn of a new day:

O’er the distant mountains breaking
Comes the redd’ning dawn of day.
Rise, my soul, from sleep awaking;
Rise and sing and watch and pray.
’Tis your Savior, ’Tis your Savior,
On his bright returning way.

So I think of that every time I see the sun pushing up over the mountains to the east. Each new day is a day to rise and ready ourselves for Jesus’ return. I snapped this picture one Sunday morning out the car window (I stopped first) as I was on my way to church.

All of these thoughts and images fill my mind during these last days of the church year. They all lead me to one unending cry, which the Church has been crying for nearly 2,000 years. “Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly.”