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, 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, in our times 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.