Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During August, John Wilkinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring where we are as a church through the lens of the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God — what are we thinking about? how are we worshiping? what matters to us? where are we headed? Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!
By Melissa DeRosia
“The service should have lots of music, and most of it, if not all of it should be congregational song. Accompany them with singing!” Thomas G. Long reminds the church in his book by the same title.
When meeting with a family to plan the funeral or memorial service for a loved one, there are hymn requests a Presbyterian pastor becomes accustomed to hearing. “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “In the Garden” are at the top of the list for a generation dying in their late 80’s and 90’s. I have noticed over the past few years there is a generational shift taking place. On more than one occasion a spouse or adult child says to me, “That hymn reminds me of mom/grandma’s service, can we sing something else?”
For years I have assured families there are plenty of hymns, aside from the ones they normally hear at funerals. I confess, early in ministry my suggestions were not very creative and rarely steered from the section labeled “Funeral” toward the end of “The Presbyterian Hymnal.” A few years before the release of the Glory to God hymnal, I distinctly remember learning from the congregation I now serve in Rochester, New York that the church need not be bound to one section of hymns to witness to the hope of the resurrection and give thanks to God for the life of their loved one.
On one of my first Sunday’s I chose a favorite hymn of mine, the one played at my ordination, “Here I Am Lord.” (Glory to God, 69) The organ began to play and the congregation sung the words of the refrain:
Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard You calling the night.
I will go, Lord, if You lead me.
I will hold Your people in my heart.
I gazed out over the congregation to see tears traveling down cheeks and tissue dabbing at the corner of eyes. This was not exactly the reaction I anticipated. I leaned over to the Associate Pastor with a perplexed face and she responded, “This is a funeral hymn for this church.”
For a generation now in their 70’s, “Here I Am, Lord” was sung through most of their adult life. The hymn echoes the confirmation of God’s grace made in made baptismal vows and fulfilled in death. Only one page in the Presbyterian Hymnal separated the “Funeral” section from the “Ordination and Confirmation” section. A reminder to me how intimately connected these two moments are for God’s people.
When the Glory to God hymnal was discussed for purchase in my congregation, “Here I Am, Lord” was at the top of the list of most inquired about hymns to be sure it had a place in the new hymnal. Indeed it found a home in Glory to God, though in a new section of the hymnal, “God’s Covenant with Israel,” a reminder that God’s promises remain for all those seeking assurance of God’s presence in life and death.
With Glory to God, a new generational of hymns are finding life at funerals, though most begin with an introduction on a Sunday morning. On the typically sparsely attended Second Sunday of Easter, when the majestic triumphant sounds of Easter comingle with the promise of spring after a long cold winter, I introduced “In the Bulb there is a Flower.” It was tucked safely in the order of worship where the awkwardness of a new hymn does not set the tone of worship or serve as the parting melody in their heart. The congregation caught on to the simplicity of the tune. They were moved by the note at the bottom of the page that “shortly after this piece was completed, the author/composer’s husband was diagnosed with what proved to be a terminal malignancy, and the original anthem version of this hymn was sung at his funeral.” Standing at the door to greet the congregation following the service, a number of church members in their 50’s and 60’s said to me “Can we sing that again? I would like that hymn for my funeral.”
There is no “Funeral” section in the Glory to God hymnal. There doesn’t need to be. Generations continue to gather in worship to discover through the tears of grief the hymns that boldly express our faith and hope we have in Christ’s resurrection.
 Thomas G. Long. Accompany Them With Singing, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 172.
Pastor, Gates Presbyterian Church
Rochester, New York