Singin' about Dyin'

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.

[node:bio/aaron-blumer body]

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DavidO's picture

Good thoughts here, Aaron.  That stanza from "Our God, Our Help..." has been a favorite of mine for a while now.

A couple other good ones:

 

It is not death to fling
Aside this sinful dust
And rise, on strong exulting wing
To live among the just.

(It Is Not Death to Die)

 

Abide with me from morn till eve,
For without Thee I cannot live;
Abide with me when night is nigh,
For without Thee I dare not die.

(Sun of My Soul)

 

 

 

Barry L.'s picture

It is a tradition in my family for this song to be sung at funerals. I especially enjoy the third verse.

 

My Savior First of All by Fanny Crosby

When my life work is ended, and I cross the swelling tide,
When the bright and glorious morning I shall see;
I shall know my Redeemer when I reach the other side,
And His smile will be the first to welcome me.

I shall know Him, I shall know Him,
And redeemed by His side I shall stand,
I shall know Him, I shall know Him,
By the print of the nails in His hand.

Oh, the soul thrilling rapture when I view His blessèd face,
And the luster of His kindly beaming eye;
How my full heart will praise Him for the mercy, love and grace,
That prepare for me a mansion in the sky.

Refrain

Oh, the dear ones in glory, how they beckon me to come,
And our parting at the river I recall;
To the sweet vales of Eden they will sing my welcome home;
But I long to meet my Savior first of all.

Refrain

Through the gates to the city in a robe of spotless white,
He will lead me where no tears will ever fall;
In the glad song of ages I shall mingle with delight;
But I long to meet my Savior first of all.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I think it is just part of human nature that as more people we know and love go on before us into Heaven, it feels more like home. I was a kid when my dad passed away, and it was hard to watch him go, to see him fight for his life, but his last words were "I'm alright, I'll be OK". And I know he was and is.  

We do need to be reminded that this life is not all there is for us, and the best part still lies in eternity.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I'd lost some loved ones to death before my dad passed. But when it was his turn, there was something quite different about it. Because he was the strongest, fittest and healthiest person I knew since birth, he was sort of my definition of vitality. So deep down there was this assumption that he was indestructible and would live forever. (Only saw that idea challenged a little bit once: when he got a kidney stone when I was a kid. Don't think I ever even saw him in real pain before that... or after, until cancer.)

So the whole cancer thing flipped a switch for me. Paradigm shift.

I still have some mixed feelings/opinion about a lot of the songs. I wish more of them were better than they are. They tend toward the sappy/syrupy. But there is always a kernel of truth there better faced and embraced than avoided.

A favorite of mine below. We used to sing it as a family in three or four part harmony. In the chorus, Dad felt the need to do a little theological editing because "Heaven is not 'The Promised Land'" (that's Israel). Makes me smile now, because to me there's a clear metaphor there with life, "Jordan" and "Canaan" (though I don't like the notion that this life is just circling in a "wilderness" where we're kind of stuck until we cross over.)

There is coming a day, when no heartaches shall come
No more clouds in the sky, no more tears to dim the eye
All is peace forever more, on that happy golden shore
What a day, glorious day that will be.

 

Chorus:
What a day that will be when my Jesus I shall see,
And I look upon his face,
The One who saved me by his grace;
When he'll take me by the hand,
And lead me through the Promised Land,
What a day, glorious day that will be.

There'll be no sorrow there, no more burdens to bear,
No more sickness, no more pain, no more parting over there,
But forever I will be with the one who died for me,
What a day, glorious day that will be.

 

Michelle Shuman's picture

There are several songs when I hear them sung or sing them myself I am automatically taken back to a point of death for someone. 

Be Still My Soul - a grad school roommate who is now dead because of Hodgekins

What a Friend We Have in Jesus - the death of a 10 month old daughter of some close friends

There is a Fountain - the murder of one of my grandfather's cousins

Amazing Grace - 3 of my 4 grandparents whom I was very close to and lived well into my adult life.  As well as Zion's Hill and When They Ring Those Golden Bells.

When He Cometh - the sids death of a family friends' baby when I was a child

Last year after the sudden death of a friend, I would sit with his 90 year old Grandmother in church and watch her struggle through several songs that otherwise wouldn't bother us.

To me these songs bring back pleasant memories of people from my past and hope of a future promise.

 

 

Michelle Shuman

David R. Brumbelow's picture

Good article.  Nothing like the death of a close loved one to bring out the meaning in hymns.

Some of my favorites:
Through the gates to the city in a robe of spotless white,
He will lead me where no tears will ever fall.

There’s a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar.

And forever I will be with the One who died for me,
What a day, glorious day, that will be. 

I’ll fly away, isn’t so bad either. 

David R. Brumbelow

M. Osborne's picture

Luther has a full song, "This Body in the Grave We Lay." It's comforting, bracing, instructive, all at once.

In late summer 2009 an area pastor died of a heart attack after a church softball game. Our church had just cooperated with theirs for an Easter presentation, so we had really gotten to know them. It was also the summer my third child was due. It made the line from "In Christ Alone" especially meaningful: "From life's first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny."

Good article.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I know that feeling, Aaron. My dad worked at Ashland Oil as an electronics tech, climbing towers and hanging from who knows what to check gauges and stuff. I remember one time there being a news flash about an explosion, and we didn't know until he got home that he was OK (in that time before cell phones). He was very strong and a work-a-holic, and I never saw him sick except once  when he reacted to some medication and his head swelled to twice normal. He was also very smart and commanding, and everyone I knew did what he said without question. My dad said "Jump" and the entire family booked a flight on the next Apollo mission.

He died at our kitchen table on Thanksgiving morning of a heart attack. He held on for a bit with us taking turns doing CPR, but even at high speed, it took the ambulance 45 minutes to get to our house. He was gone by then. So when I would hear about people surviving several heart attacks and strokes and triple bypass and cancer etc... it used to really bother me that he went so quickly and suddenly. That's when we learn to say "The Lord gave and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord."

My dad's favorite songs were "It is Well" and "Wayfaring Stranger", and "Wayfaring Stranger" was my favorite lullaby, and singing it makes him feel close again.

I am a poor wayfarin' stranger
Traveling through this world of woe
There's no sickness, no toil, no danger
In that fair land to which I go
I'm going there to see my father
I'm going there no more to roam
I'm just a goin' over Jordan
I'm just a goin' over home

I know dark clouds will gather 'round me
I know the way is rough and steep
Yet golden fields lie just before me
Where God's redeemed shall ever sleep
I'm going there to see my mother
I'm going there, no more to roam
I'm just a goin' over Jordan
I'm just a goin' over home

I want to wear a crown of glory
When I get home to that good land
I want to shout salvation's story
In concert with the blood-washed band
I'm going there to meet my Saviour
To sing his praise forever more
I'm just a goin' over Jordan
I'm just a goin' over home

handerson's picture

I too have heard the theological correctives given for songs like Beulah Land and Jordan's Stormy Banks. But like you, Aaron, I'm not so sure they are necessary. This life can often feel like we're in a dry, dusty land and the promise of milk and honey on the other side is just too glorious not to find comfort in it. Also, my husband and I tease that we'll never really retire until we get to heaven and then we'll finally get some rest. Rest from all the labor, rest from all the pain, and rest from the struggle against sin. 

Thanks for touching piece.

x_delete_jhowell's picture

When grief has a face ... and eventually it always does. I can echo Aaron's views about some of the "oldies but goodies" when it comes to word choice and so on. But when I go the nursing home and minister each month, those songs breath hope into the despairing minds of those who feel bound and even trapped by circumstances they don't like. So, I sing loudly, and I smile and I have learned much from them as they weep and nod their heads in agreement when we reflect on the words we have just sung.

I have had the privilege of doing the memorial services for 3 grandparents and 1 sister. When my sis, who was graced with spina bifida along with other problems, went into the presence of Christ at 39, the song that ministered greatly to our family was Chris Rice's "Untitled Hymn" and especially the words ... 'run to Jesus and live.'

Aaron, thanks for the reminders ...

David R. Brumbelow's picture

Aaron,

Someone could do an interesting study of the most popular songs sung at funerals in 1900, 1950, 1970, 1990, and today.

 

The songs at funerals when I was a kid were different than the songs sung today.  Interesting how that changes through the years. 

David R. Brumbelow

Joel Tetreau's picture

Aaron,

Great thoughts. I have needed oxygen at times listening to various brethren explain to me how this song and that song's "genre" simply are not consistent with "theology" or somehow don't fit the right "experience for the child of God" for the moment. These comments typically leave me - (well to use a music term) - flat!

I'm sure there have been hymns and songs that have missed badly - but my observation is that usually these songs that speak of the believer and death, emphasize a warmth and experiential relationship between Christ and His child. If you dismiss the whole notion of "experience" then I suppose you run from that kind of hymnology. I stand with the Puritans who embraced both a rich and (dare I say) experiential theology.

Especially at a funeral where most of us are grateful for the Holy Spirit's continual experiential ministry of comfort is present - you would think that a hymn that emphasizes that aspect of God's love for his child would be wanted! 

Aaron - God bless you my brother as the Spirit of God continues to bless you with the sweet memories of your father. I'm so grateful that God has helped you through this process - and thank you for sharing some of the journey with us bro!

Straight Ahead!

jt

Dr. Joel Tetreau serves as Senior Pastor, Southeast Valley Bible Church (sevbc.org); Regional Coordinator for IBL West (iblministry.com), Board Member & friend for several different ministries;

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I don't really know what "the answer" is to the problem of sincere, heart-driven expressions of faith and love that also have theological errors. You have pretty much the same problem in devotional writings (some of the medieval mystics come to mind), in preaching and in the testimonies believers share in services or small groups.

I'm sure that sometimes we who are zealous for sound doctrine are being overly analytical and overthinking these things. But the answer is certainly not to ignore bad doctrine either. Sometimes its possible to rejoice with someone (or grieve with him/her) even though the doctrine isn't quite right (maybe even in serious ways) and plan to chip away at the doctrinal issues later (or just leave them alone, depending on where your responsibilities lie).

gdwightlarson's picture

Strangely, to some I'm sure, I began to notice this even when I was young.  Lost a brother suddenly when he was just four years old.  This weekend a boyhood friend, college and seminary classmate was memorialized (part one; part two in Rockford, IL Tuesday).  We who verge on or are already in our 60's think that's OLD(!!!), don't we?  Well, many of his own thoughts were read at the service and they commend to us this same sobering, yet comforting, reminder:  "Only one life, 'twill soon be past, only what's done for Christ will last."  "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain."

   

gdwightlarson

"You can be my brother without being my twin."

handerson's picture

I was thinking about this article this weekend because my six-year-old son come down with a fever. Whenever my little ones get sick, I can't help but have this connection with all other mothers throughout time and geography who have found themselves in the exact same position--trying to care and comfort a weak, little body at the same time that you feel completely helpless. And I think about how many mothers ended up burying not only infants but toddlers and young children--today in the western experience, a child's death is so tragic in part because it has become rare.

How many of these songs gave comfort not only to people themselves facing death, but to mothers and fathers who had to say goodbye to their children?

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

This is probably another part of why have fewer songs about death and a lower comfort level with singing them. We don't have the infant or child mortality rates that we used to. Back in 'the day,' everybody had lots of kids and just about everybody lost one or two. Now we have fewer but are blessed to keep far more of them.

Of course, to those who have lost little ones, the lower rate doesn't mean a thing. Maybe it's a good reminder to us all that we have folks in our congregations for whom songs about death and heaven have much, much more personal meaning than they might to the rest of us.

 

Here's another death stanza from yesterday's worship... though it's far less direct and physical than many songs that talk about death dew on the brow and that sort of thing.

Long as my life shall last, teach me Thy way!
Where’er my lot be cast, teach me Thy way!
Until the race is run, until the journey’s done,
Until the crown is won, teach me Thy way!

James S. Lowery's picture

Amen! to the original post and the concepts behind it.

Allow me to respond as a Minister of Music (Col. 1:28 / Col. 3:16) to the subject of "Canaan being Heaven" . . .

Is there war in Heaven (apart from Rev 12 of course!)? Is Heaven itself an occasion for idolatry- trusting in "The Temple of the LORD!" rather than The LORD Himself? Is there sin in Heaven? Is Heaven a place of continuing tears? Can Believers who enter "Canaan" ever be exiled from it?

Heb. 3-4 teach that Joshua's "Canaan" is a picture of a life lived on earth in the rest of faith; therefore it is 'equal' to The Abundant Life/Salvation that The Lord Jesus came to give us. Is there warfare in The Christian Life? Subtle Idolatry? Sin? Tears? Periods of "dryness"

Yes, at certain times in the life of The Church certain writers (and even theologians) become confused in their imagery and, if their songs are sung, they need to be sung while exercising a certain amount of mental gymnastics- "Don't park your brain when you enter the building." Perhaps if we really practiced what we believe about The Word being our final authority in faith and practice, our songs would be uniformly "true, honest, just, pure, lovely . . ." (Phil 4;8)

One of my favorite hymns that sings of life in "Canaan" as well as looking forward to Heaven points to The Great Shepherd:

O Thou in whose presence my soul takes delight, On whom in affliction I call,
My comfort by day, and my song in the night, My hope, my salvation, my all.

Where dost Thou at noontide resort with Thy sheep, To feed on the pastures of love?
Say, why in the valley of death should I weep, Or alone in the wilderness rove?
 
O, why should I wander an alien from Thee, And cry in the desert for bread?
Thy foes will rejoice when my sorrows they see, And smile at the tears I have shed.
 
His voice, as the sound of the dulcimer sweet, Is heard through the shadows of death;
The cedars of Lebanon bow at His feet, The air is perfumed with His breath.

His lips as a fountain of righteousness flow, That waters the garden of grace,
From which their salvation the Gentiles shall know, And bask in the smiles of His face.

Love sits on His eye-lids, and scatters delight Through all the bright mansions on high;
Their faces the cherubim veil in His sight, And tremble with fullness of joy.

He looks, and ten thousands of angels rejoice, And myriads wait for His word;
He speaks, and eternity, filled with His voice, Re-echoes the praise of her Lord.

Dear Shepherd, I hear and will follow Thy call; I know the sweet sound of Thy voice.
Restore and defend me, for Thou art my all, And in Thee I will ever rejoice.   [Joseph Swain  (1761 — 1796)]

. . . because The Good Shepherd WILL lead us through The Valley of the Shadow of Death to the place where we will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

May the LORD grant us to keep singing His song- by His grace and for His glory.

Jim Lowery

 

 

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