Plenty of Christians have their own favorite Biblical passage ranging from their Confirmation life verse to a magnet they saw on someone’s refrigerator or a bumper-sticker on some random car, but there are many that have stuck with us because they appeared during a pivotal moment in our life. It was read by our loved one’s bedside as they gradually faded away. It was spoken at a funeral of someone we still cherish to this day. Over thousands of years the twenty-third psalm has arrived on the scene of much turmoil and anguish, to say the least. The imagery provides this sense of calm and security with Jesus being right there beside us, not to mention with our close family and friends as they walked through the darkest valley of the shadow of death. The words have a way of restoring our soul, just as the psalm goes.
For me the psalm came to life in a much more powerful way in college as our choir made our spring break tour through the southeastern portion of the country. It was a song that began with the words of the twenty-third psalm, but it ended with a breath-taking setting of Abide with Me, a hymn that was written centuries ago. That’s the thing not just with Biblical passages, but with music, and literature in general. Each work of art speaks to us differently. Each one of us comes to Scripture and worship from our own unique perspectives, from our own life backgrounds, and whatever else we may be going through that particular day when we hear the Word or a song of any sort. Sometimes it hits people to the core, and sometimes it’s a complete whiff for whatever the reason.
Now the benefit from being up front in worship, whether that be as a lector, or a preacher, or as a choir…you can usually tell whether or not you have people reeled in at all. You can tell based on the eye contact, or lack thereof, the facial expressions, and the all-around body movement. Sometimes we just know. And the choir knew, night in and night out, we had them with that song. There’s no way for me to describe it. I can’t do justice to the harmony with all the voices combined. We just knew we had ‘em. We knew the song spoke to them, for whatever the reason may be.
But I have a feeling it was a song that spoke to vulnerability, to reality. You see the hymn Abide with Me is a perfect companion to the twenty-third psalm with this wonderful imagery of God being right there beside us as comforts flee and we are completely and utterly helpless in the face of our humble mortality. Those nights we sang to hundreds of people, “Abide, o faithful Savior, among us with thy love. Grant steadfastness, and help us to reach our home above.” Nothing overly extravagant to end the song, just all these voices combined to proclaim hope in the most assuring way naïve college students could. We weren’t professional singers by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, we could tell, we had ‘em. The words spoke to their humanity those nights.
And as I think back and still wonder why, I think it’s because the church has failed a central role in its ministry to the world. We don’t allow people the space to be open about their fears and their worries, especially when it comes to death, until they are already coming up on that darkest valley. When we see it on the horizon, then we’ll talk about it. Until then, it’s too depressing to speak of at all. It’s too dark. It’s too scary. It’s too sad. We human beings are trained to do absolutely everything possible to preserve life in all its fullness with all the help the medical world has to offer. We will avoid the end, including even mentioning a word of it, as much as humanly possible, as if God didn’t already take care of it on a cross and out of an empty tomb.
However, the church does have a role to play in our life story. God most certainly had the church in mind to be there for the conversation. We are here for brutal honesty. We are here to talk about people’s fears and worries and trepidations. We are here to embrace people in their vulnerabilities. If the church can’t be the place and the people of the Resurrection dawn, of that gift of new life to the world, who else will? We have something to offer: a hope that God instills in us to proclaim through the Word, through song, through our ministry.
We have a song to sing out in spite of death. Yes, we recognize its presence still. We know human beings were not shaped and molded to last forever. We know there’s pain and anguish along the way. We honor the people who endure it by being the presence of Jesus Christ to walk right alongside them as they approach the darkest valley of the shadow of death. But we also know that the only way the Resurrection works is by chasing down death itself.
We have a Resurrection song to sing out to the world. We have a hope that we can no longer wait to sing just for funerals and Easter Sunday. We have this Greatest News of all time that can no longer be kept to ourselves. It has to be unleashed in all we say and do. We have too great of eternal life-saving news to keep it inside our own soul. God incites us to proclaim it in the nursing homes, in the hospitals, in the rehab centers, in people’s homes, in the workplaces, in Relay for Life events, and every street across the world.
We know this God abides with us throughout all the pain and suffering in this life, and even in the valley of the shadow of death. We have learned Jesus knows that place all too well. We know our Risen Lord and Savior invaded it with an arsenal of love and mercy, and came out with the victory of the Resurrection. We know Christ is still Risen then, now, and forevermore! And for that journey that still saves us all, we give thanks to God indeed! Amen.
St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Rev. Nan Dehnke, Pastor
Office: Mon - Thu: 9 a.m. - Noon