Sunday, January 20, 2008

January 20, 2008 - The Song Goes On

During the worship service this morning, I pick up the hymnal that’s been set out for me on my chair, and I realize it’s got a name gold-stamped onto the front cover. It’s not my name. The name belongs to Carol, a former member of our church’s Chancel Choir, who died several years ago.

There aren’t too many personalized hymnals in our church, but the Chancel Choir does have a nice tradition of offering one to choir members who are celebrating significant anniversaries of singing with the choir. In Carol’s case, she qualified for that award a very long time ago, indeed: at the time she died, she had been a choir member for more than 50 years. I believe someone asked her sister, Ginny, if she’d like to have Carol’s personalized hymnal as a keepsake, and she declined – so, it made its way into the general supply of hymnals that we use in the sanctuary. From there, it made its way somehow onto the pulpit platform, and ultimately to my chair.

As I sing the first hymn, I find myself thinking about Carol. How many Sundays, I wonder, did she hold this hymnal? Now, it’s found its way into my hands. In a certain sense, I’m carrying on her song today.

That’s the way it always is with worship. Week after week the congregation gathers, but each Sunday it’s a slightly different group. As we lift our voices in song, a first-time visitor may be sharing a hymnal with someone who’s been a regular worshiper for dozens of years. When church members die, and – in the old euphemism – “join the choir celestial,” they’re no longer a part of our community here. But, we remember them fondly, and like to think of them as joining their voices with that company of which the book of Revelation speaks:

“Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’”
(Revelation 5:11-13)

Ever since I unwillingly accepted the label of “cancer survivor,” I’ve become acquainted with certain other survivors who, well, didn’t survive. I remember them, though: their courage, their perseverance, their grit, their humor. One of the things you have to get used to, in cancerworld, is that there are a certain number of goodbyes. They go with the territory.

There are people I’ve become acquainted with through their cancer blogs, who are no longer with us. Some of these blogs I’ve monitored on nearly a daily basis, but then there comes a day when the entries abruptly stop. Usually, a family member posts a kind message, thanking all those who have followed the loved one’s progress, but informing them that the journey is ended. I’ve felt some sadness on such occasions – even though my acquaintance with the blogger was limited to cyberspace exchanges of mutual support.

Claire just learned, the other day, of the death of a man who had been part of our little band of cancer survivors who addressed the Genentech national sales meeting in Las Vegas a year ago (see my January 27, 2007 blog entry). I remember feeling impressed at this man’s positive attitude, despite the heavy odds he was facing (odds that were greater than mine, since he had a relatively rare cancer, and had already undergone a number of different rounds of treatment). He spoke to Claire and me about his church community that meant a great deal to him, and also about the joy he’d found in his relatively new marriage. The man was fairly bursting with life. Yet, now, death has claimed him.

Do such vibrant voices simply die away, like a forlorn echo? Or do they go on, in the providence of God?

As I look down at Carol's name, gold-stamped onto the hymnal's cover, I feel certain that they do. I can muster no evidence that would convince a determined skeptic. Yet, I feel that I know it to be true. "Blessed assurance," as they say.

We come round to the final verse:

"For Thy church that evermore
Lifteth holy hands above,
Offering up on every shore
Her pure sacrifice of love,
Lord of all, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful eulogy for both Carol and the all those who pass from this world to glorious heaven. One of my wishes on this earth is to be able to sing and not cause others to cringe. Your words assure me that one day I'll be in a heavenly choir. I'm sorry for the loss of congregants, friends and cyberspace acquaintances.