From the Archive: Singin' About Dyin'

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Aaron Blumer's picture
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From the Archive: Singin' About Dyin'

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Originally posted 10/3/12.

When my dad was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer a few years ago, quite a few changes occurred in my perspective on life and death. The brevity and fragility of life were no longer abstractions. I truly felt them. One result of this new awareness was that I began to notice all the hymns and songs with stanzas about dying.

I recall selecting some songs for Sunday school one day. As I glanced down the list of songs in our database—those we hadn’t sung in a long time, I came to a title I’d passed over many, many times. This time it gripped my attention. A song that had seemed frivolous and silly to me before now moved me deeply as words and music played involuntarily through my mind.

Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away
To a home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away.

The congregation sang it in Sunday school. It’s providential that I was at the piano because I don’t think I could have sung it. Though it had never been more than a light, peppy trifle to me before, it was now too strong to sing.

For a while, quite a few songs were hitting me like that.

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan’s fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie.

Now that I’ve had more time to adjust to my new perspective on death, I have to admit that I’ll Fly Away and On Jordan’s Stormy Banks aren’t especially weighty songs. But at the time it didn’t matter. They were about dying. That made them heavy to me.

The neglected stanzas

It was during that period that I began to realize how many hymns in our hymnal had a verse (often the last) about dying. I’d sung them for years without really noticing them. I realized something else, too: that I had been avoiding leading the congregation in singing those verses. More often than not, we’d been skipping them.

And say when the death dew lies cold on my brow, If ever I loved Thee…
While I draw this fleeting breath, When mine eyes shall close in death…
When I tread the verge of Jordan, Bid my anxious fears subside…
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, And mortal life shall cease…
When ends life’s transient dream, When death’s cold sullen stream shall o’er me roll…
E’en death’s cold wave I will not flee, Since God through Jordan leadeth me.
Then shall my latest breath whisper Thy praise; This be the parting cry my heart shall raise…

Some of the death-stanzas in our hymn tradition rise far above the rest. Isaac Watts gave us these moving lines in O God Our Help in Ages Past:

Time, like an ever rolling stream, Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream Dies at the opening day.

Sadly, this fine verse from O Sacred Head Now Wounded is usually omitted from hymnals:

Be Thou my consolation, my shield when I must die;
Remind me of Thy passion when my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfolds Thee. Who dieth thus dies well.

It’s here we return to the point. Why were we avoiding the death stanzas in our hymns? I suspect our habit is not all that unusual. Newer hymnals seem to be omitting more of the death stanzas, and few contemporary songs seem to deal with death and dying. Why? Since nearly all of us will die (1 Cor. 15:51), shouldn’t we give intentional thought to how to die well?

I suspect that part of the answer is that we so often view worship—and the singing part especially—as feel-good time, and thinking about death just doesn’t feel good. It’s not “uplifting.”

Part of the answer may also lie in the fact that in the US at least, we’ve enjoyed many decades of peace and plenty (relative to most of the century or so before). Unlike in times of famine, plague, and war, today we only see corpses at funerals—and seldom more than a few times a year. Death doesn’t seem like something we really have to think about much.

In addition, maybe this life is something we just love a little too much. Surely I’m not the only one who has sung the words below and experienced a “What in the world am I singing?!” moment.

Our fathers, chained in prisons dark, Were still in heart and conscience free:
How sweet would be their children’s fate, If they, like them, could die for Thee!

I could gaze toward heaven, keep singing, and pretend otherwise, but the truth is I don’t want to die for the faith. I don’t want to die at all, ever, for anything.

But that’s exactly why we need to be singin’ about dyin’. Though we don’t like to think about it, life—this life—is short and fragile. And it’s a trust, a loan to us. We put it to use for a little while as stewards then return it to Him from Whom all life flows. We should be thankful for it and enjoy it. But we should not let ourselves think it is permanent or truly ours.

“Nor do I count my life…”

I’m reminded of the attitude of the apostle Paul. As he began his journey to Jerusalem, he revealed his heart to the Ephesian elders.

[T]he Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me. But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20:23-24)

Somehow, part of the uniquely-Christian joy of life lies in calmly accepting the immanence of death—along with thinking rightly about death in many other ways. But we can’t think rightly or feel rightly about death if we avoid looking at it squarely. It needs our attention even in our worship, even in our songs.

Aaron Blumer Bio


Aaron Blumer, SharperIron’s second publisher, is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in a small town in western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. He is employed in customer service for UnitedHealth Group and teaches high school rhetoric (and sometimes logic and government) at Baldwin Christian School.

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From Jonathan Edwards

From Jonathan Edwards Resolutions:

"9. Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death."

Good article.

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Jesus Lover of My Soul

We happened to sing "Jesus Lover of My Soul" last Sunday and I was reminded of this post. I'll have to post the words later when I've got a few minutes. Just another example of putting life in perspective -- as a piece of something much bigger.

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Aaron:

Aaron:

Excellent article!  I resonate with it very well.  I too have wondered why our church songs today have largely omitted the fact of dying, what it means, how to prepare for it biblically, etc.  You are right: music in church is considered or supposed to be "uplifting," joyful, happy, "practical" for the daily grind, et al.  I have noticed that southern gospel, in its various forms, is heavily interlaced with the thought of dying, heaven, and he like, despite what is disliked or objectionable about the genre. (I'm only commenting here, nothing more; please, no threads, inferences, or analyses [spiritual, psychological, psychiatric] needed.)

 

As I noted on SI when Art Walton went to Glory recently, I try to imagine what the Celestial City must be like. I always conclude, as all finite beings must, now and in eternity, that the subject is infinite and, in the end, incomprehensible except to the triune God.

 

My mother's favorite song was "Because He Lives," sung at her funeral, naturally. I react as you have described your own feelings when I hear it or occasionally sing it in some group. Thanks again for the thoughtful and very "practical" article.

 

For Christ and the Cause,

 

Rolland McCune

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ADDENDUM ON DYING

A few more musings related to Aaron's appropriate thoughts about dying. (Maybe the near approach to my 80th birthday explains everything.) I have found increasing  wisdom and a certain kind of encouragement from the Book of Ecclesiastes in recent years, thanks to the outline and commentary on this book by my good friend and former colleague, Dr. Robert V. McCabe of  DBTS. I have found myself giving various homilies, talks, and even sermons on the subject at hand , especially from Ecc 7:1-4. 14. I have gone through the book in several Sunday school classes, probably for my own recollection and benefit as much as anything.  So far no one has observed that I am morbid or macabre. Yes, I know all about the "blessed hope," but I also always remember Dr. McClain's oft-repeated cautionary refrain that death is still an "enemy" biblically, albeit the last one.

 

My advice: don't wait until you are "old" to teach and preach on this subject.  I hope Aaron adds more to his post.

 

 

Rolland McCune

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It is not death...

I know that SGM concerns some, but this song of theirs on the topic of death is one of my favorites.  A reminder of the great hope we have!

 

VERSE 1 
It is not death to die
To leave this weary road
And join the saints who dwell on high 
Who’ve found their home with God
It is not death to close
The eyes long dimmed by tears
And wake in joy before Your throne 
Delivered from our fears

CHORUS 
O Jesus, conquering the grave
Your precious blood has power to save 
Those who trust in You
Will in Your mercy find
That it is not death to die

VERSE 2 
It is not death to fling 
Aside this earthly dust
And rise with strong and noble wing 
To live among the just
It is not death to hear
The key unlock the door
That sets us free from mortal years 
To praise You evermore

 

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Wonderful Article!

My father-in-law recently went home to glory after 85 years. My dear wife was at his bed side in his last hours. For some reason she decided to start singing to him as he went through the final struggle. She sang:

"When ends life transient dream, when death's cold, sullen stream shall o'er me roll,

Blest Savior, then, in love, fear and distrust remove--Oh bear me safe above, A ransomed soul!"

As she sang the last note, his labored breathing ceased, and he entered into the rest that he had preached about for many years.

Major lesson: For the Christian "It is not death to die!"

Minor lesson: It pays to memorize hymns!

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

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Thanks

Thanks for your thoughts and for sharing your experiences.

As in so many things, us latecomers to the faith can gain so much from our forbears in this--in deepening our notion of what is "uplifting." The pattern in many of the Psalms is fascinating on this too: there often has to be an honest facing of the pain and struggle before there can be a genuinely encouraging response of fresh faith.

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