Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Expandable Lutheran Funeral Hymn List

Trigger warning: Some of you may be uncomfortable with the following topic. Feel free to click away to Jimmy Kimmel Lie Witness News videos or cheerful Facebook updates.

If you do, you’ll be in good company. When I brought up this topic at dinner the other night, our daughter promptly excused herself.

“How can you be talking about your funeral? Depressing!” (Off to Jimmy Kimmel.)

Actually, the subject was funeral hymns, specifically, hymns that I’d put on my own list.

Ever since my dad died and the family had to plan his service (Hymns? Uh…“Beautiful Savior” sounds okay), I’ve been thinking that a go-to list would be handy.

Fellow Type-A personalities: You get this, right?


Here’s what I’m looking for:

1. Something more useful than my current list, which basically looks like this:
NOT: “How Great Thou Art,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Amazing Grace,” “On Eagles
Pardon me if these hymns are on your list. They’re popular, I know. I’m just aiming for something a little different.

2. Hymns that say the right thing, theologically

What does this mean? Rev. Jonathan C. Watt offers these insights:
It is important to understand that a funeral is a worship service. We do not worship the person lying in the casket; rather, we worship the One who died and rose again. Jesus Christ is the center of all Lutheran worship—especially a funeral—because Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and the devil is clearly proclaimed. The whole funeral service echoes this truth over and over, reminding us of what Jesus did for us at our Baptism.
Based on those guidelines, “A Mighty Fortress” is in. Pharell’s “Happy” is out.

Also probably out: One of my favorite hymns, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” It’s fine, theologically, but if I can have only 3-4 hymns, there’s probably not room for one about safe transportation.

3. Something singable.

If you’re musically inclined, you probably have a few things to say about this. According to advice from McFarland Lutheran Church, you should “select hymns that are both easily sung and commonly known.”

Whether you’re a musician or not, you likely have thoughts about what counts as “easily sung” (e.g., Simple melody? Doesn’t make you wince?) or “commonly known.”

“Children of the Heavenly Father” seems to meet the standards. “O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth,” on the other hand, might be too unfamiliar and/or challenging, at least at this point. (Maybe in 20 years? I have heard this hymn sung well, but I still stumble over the melody and can’t for the life of me remember the title.)


Now comes the hard part. The Lutheran Service Book (LSB) contains 636 hymns. The number of hymns at a typical funeral: 3-4.

So many good hymns. So many possible combinations.

But here goes—a short list, chosen after a semi-thorough family vetting process. (Husband/pastor: Polite nod = “That one? Oh, well.” Me: “Okay, maybe not that one.”) Numbers that follow are from LSB.
Praise to the Lord the Almighty, 790  
Built on the Rock the Church Doth Stand, 645 (an uncommon choice, maybe, but if I had to have just one hymn, this would be it)
Jesus Christ, My Sure Defense, 741 (v. 1-4) OR Jesus Lives! The Vict’ry’s Won, 490 (same tune, similar sentiments) 
Abide with Me 878 (optional 4th hymn; could be replaced by a solo or dropped entirely)
Possible Solo/Group Piece
My Heart Is Longing,Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary 61 (love, love, love this hymn, but Im not sure about congregational singing, since it’s not as familiar; maybe if the Augustana choir happened to be in the area…LISTEN)
Other contenders: Thy Strong Word, 578; Glory Be to God the Father, 506; O Love, How Deep, 544; Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands, 458; What Wondrous Love Is This, 543; Our God, Our Help in Ages Past, 733, My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less, 575
So let’s see: Christ? Check. Sacraments? Check. Hope and comfort? Check. Eagles’ wings?

Check! 10 points for you if you can name that hymn. And 10 points if you expand this list with a hymn of your own.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Why Do We Suffer?

The stories are heartbreaking.

Julianna Snow. Lane Graves. Akyra Murray.

I find myself asking, “Why? I want an explanation for the pain and suffering.

Why does a 5-year-old have to spend her short life in and out of the hospital, suffering as she battles an incurable disease? And her family? What about the pain and suffering they’ve endured? (Julianna’s “Heaven or Hospital story is recounted here.) 

Why does a 2-year-old boy’s life come to such a horrific end, as he’s dragged away by an alligator—an alligator!—in front of his family?

Why does an 18-year-old woman, a recent high school graduate, end up getting gunned down by a madman in a nightclub?

It’s hard to imagine being in the situation Akyra Murray’s mother describesShe called to tell us she had been shot, and at this point shes frantic. Shes screaming, shes crying, shes [saying] Mommy please help me, Im bleeding so bad. Please call the cops. Please help me, Mommy, please. 

Heartbreaking—much like the stories in this month’s book selection, The Problem of Suffering: A Father’s Hope, by Gregory P. Schulz. In the book, Schulz writes about the loss of two of his children, Kyleigh and Stephan, who endured a lifetime of pain and suffering before they were called to their heavenly home.

I was hoping to find some neat and tidy answers in this book—a justification, really—for the suffering and evil in this world. I was looking for a pithy comeback to challenges like the one posed by philosophers like Epicurus: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? The why call him God?

If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll need to look elsewhere. You can find “reasons we suffer” lists online, or you could try C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain. Schulz’s aims are different, as he notes in the early pages of the book:
Lewis wrote as if the problem of pain can be solved intellectually, as if we can acquire equilibrium by thinking about suffering in a certain way. I have learned from Job, and from St. Paul, and from the father of Magdalena Luther (who died at age 13), that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in my Lord or come to Him. More, I cannot find a satisfactory intellectual answer for the suffering and pain my children have been through. As a Lutheran pastor and theologian of the cross, I know that my responsibility is to preach Christ crucified, not suffering justified. As a philosopher, I recognize the obscenity of arguing by means of calculations of consequences or instrumentality that the pain of others can be explained. As a parent of children who have suffered and suffered before their deaths, I know that there is no equilibrium to be had this side of heaven. (pp. 9-10)
No neat and tidy answers. No closure. No smiley faces.

But there IS that memorable nutshell statement on suffering: “We preach Christ crucified, not suffering justified.” That’s what you’ll find throughout the book: encouragement to look TO Christ and AWAY from demands to understand His ways. (“Behold, God is great, and we know Him not…” Job 36:26.)*

You’ll also find a brother in Christ who’s honest about his suffering. He expresses thoughts that all Christians can relate to on some level, whatever our experiences:
To be honest with you, there were months when the last thing I wanted was to be anywhere near the Lord, my God. (p. 10).
We cry out (or cry in), Lord, I believe, but . . . how can you keep doing this?” (p. 45)
“Lord,” I find myself praying in disbelief, “Not my little boy! What about your other miracles—children with epilepsy and demon-possessed? You cured them! What about Stephan? Please! Please! Please!” (p. 48)
For all my training and experience, what a terrifying realization: Am I such a slow student that this is the only way God can get through to me, through my children? More: Do they have to learn by suffering so much? Can’t God come up with a different curriculum? (p. 39)
In an early guest post on this blog, Pr. Peter Lange identified books that have been most formative in his work as a pastor. Schulz’s book was in his top three. As Pr. Lange explained, I think in a nutshell Schulz says, ‘God does this. God becomes your enemy. He does this to you. But this is why it’s good for you to know that.’ It’s pretty radical. I should reread this one.”

I’m betting I’ll be rereading it, too, especially when that bedeviling why” questions pops up again.

* For a similar perspective on suffering, check out the blog post, “The Earthquake in Haiti: Again, the Why’ Question,” by Rev. John T. Pless.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Gift of Satire

After reading the Babylon Bee for the past couple of months, I’ve been thinking that maybe Paul’s passage on gifts needs to be extended.

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. . . . For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues, and to another satirical wit. (1 Cor. 12:4-11, unauthorized addition in bold).

If you read the Babylon Bee or LarkNews or watch Lutheran Satire videos, this proposed addition might get your vote.

That is, unless you’re a good pious sort who says, “No additions or subtractions to God’s Word!”

Fair enough. It’s possible that satirical wit is already covered by the idea of “uttering wisdom.” I suspect that’s the reason I’m laughing, anyway, when I read headlines like these:
Pope Francis Escapes HandlersAttempts to OK Polygamy, Unitarianism  
LeBron James Invokes Imprecatory Psalms Against Curry, Warriors in Postgame Interview  
Benny Hinn Miraculously Removes Lump from Woman’s Purse  
Local Family Attending Church on Easter Just in Case God is Real  
Stone-Hearted Man Scrolls by Jesus Meme Without Sharing It  
Everything Local Man Feels Led to Do He Coincidentally Really Likes  
Man of God Perfects the Side Hug™  
Author Models Humility by Retweeting only 75% of Compliments
This might not be quite what God had in mind with “uttering wisdom,” but it is conveying wisdom of a sort, no? The purpose here: to expose human shortcomings and foolishness in a humorous way. The means: irony, sarcasm, mockery.

I’m a fan, but satire does have its critics, or at least those who raise questions about its appropriateness. When does mockery cross the line? (For one perspective, click here.)  Should certain topics be off-limits? Is the risk of offending readers (some of whom might even miss the satirical intent) worth it?

You’ve all probably seen satire that misses the mark or goes too far. That’s the case not only with Christian satire, but satire, generally. When it works, though, it’s delightful (and often more persuasive than familiar arguments and observations).

Take this list of “Jesus Action Figures,” put together by Joel Spencer. Spencer’s goal is to get readers to think a little harder about who Jesus really is (as opposed to the myriad ways we perceive him), and he warns readers to “prepare to be offended.”

I can see how some of the descriptions might ruffle a few feathers (“GI Jesus?”), but I laughed at figures like “Emergent Jesus” and “Traditional Church Jesus,” described here:
This Jesus is specifically designed to never fade, wear or change in any fashion, ever. He is made of space-age-grade polymers that will assure His longevity. He comes with several clothing options to match your specific service attire from the classic suit-and-tie look to the more modern polo and khaki ensemble. He doesn't do a whole lot, but He sure is predictable and scheduled and isn't that what really matters? * Can only be activated on Sundays from 10:00AM to Noon and Wednesday nights 7:00-8:30PM local time.
Ha! I might not be thinking differently about Jesus, but I did appreciate the laugh. (And Ill probably think about this description when I attend my next Wednesday night service or activity.)

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Lutherans in Eleuthera

Eleuthera: It’s Not for Everyone.

That’s the motto, anyway, of this charming, seahorse-shaped “out island” in The Bahamas.

They’ve got it right—it really isn’t for everyone. If you’re looking for lots of big all-inclusive resorts, a party atmosphere, low-priced grocery stores, or quick travel on well-maintained highways, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

And if you’re looking for a Lutheran church, well, you’re out of luck there, too. There are no Lutheran churches on Eleuthera. The nearest LCMS congregation is in Nassau—about a $125 flight away. 

Eleuthera may not be Lutheran, but it IS very Christian. You know those figures we’ve been hearing recently about “nones” (the religiously unaffiliated) in the U.S.? The figure here in the States is 23%; in The Bahamas, it’s just 1.9%, with nearly 70% identifying as Protestant, 12% as Roman Catholic, and 13% as other Christian.  

Churches are everywhere on Eleuthera. Any time you jump in a car, you’re likely to run into churches like these:

St. Luke’s Parish (Rock Sound)

St. Columba Anglican Church (Tarpum Bay)

St. John’s Anglican Church (Harbour Island, where the primary mode of transportation is the golf cart)

Love the St. John’s tagline:

St. Agnes Anglican Church (Gregory Town, home of the Pineapple Festival)

Wesley Methodist Church (Governor’s Harbour)

At this point, you may have noticed that these pictures are all exteriors. Didn’t we ever go in?

Nope, and this picture helps explain why.

We had thought about attending a service at St. Patrick’s Anglican Church in Governor’s Harbour. It sounded like home when we walked by, with the sounds of “The Church’s One Foundation” coming out the windows.

But in these clothes?

Uh, no.

Church is a dress-up affair in Eleuthera—suits, dresses, hats. Beach attire? Not so much. (We actually had no intention of attending on this particular morning, but even in the best clothes we brought we probably would’ve felt underdressed.)

Instead, we stayed outside in the quiet streets, watching people filing into church while acolytes and clergy gathered on the lawn, with no other activity in the whole town.

“Elect from every nation, Yet one o’er all the earth…”

A good reminder of the powerful reach of “the God Who is Great.”