When my mother died at the age of 91, the family was unanimous in wanting her memorial service to be a joyful celebration of her life. Immediately, though, we encountered headwinds from her rector: “No eulogies by family members. Please no babies in the church, or at least take them out if they make noise. And we certainly cannot sing ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ during the service!” We did what we could with flowers and invited a visiting priest, who knew our mother, for the eulogy. The great-grandbabies were there and were angels.
But mostly we counted on three vigorous hymns – “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” “Shall We Gather by the River,” and “Amazing Grace” – to set the tone. When the day came, however, the organist played the hymns at such a dirge-like pace that the congregation soon abandoned any effort to sing them at all. We were acutely disappointed: our joyful celebration was lackluster and flat.
A while later, I had a conversation with our dear Ben Hutto about this occurrence. Over time, there followed a continuing discussion of the hymns we had chosen. “Shall We Gather by the River” is like an invitation, like being asked on a date. “Joyful, Joyful” cannot be anything but energetic and triumphant. We discussed the whole history of “Amazing Grace” – even considering the (in my view) grating, ungrammatical phrase “no less days” in the final verse.
Ben remembered to alert me when any of the three hymns was to be sung at St. John’s so that I could enjoy hearing and singing it “the right way.” Eventually, sitting in church and listening to the music, I began to experience my mother’s service, not as it was but as it should have been, as we had envisioned it. I remember thinking with gratitude, “This is how it happens; this is how God’s peace and God’s love pass from person to person. This is how God dries every tear.”
Appointed readings for today: Jeremiah 20:7-13, Psalm 18:1-7, John 10:31-42