Sunday, December 21, 2008

Oh, Happy Day

This past Friday I sang an Episcopalian funeral at my home church. Over the years I've sung lots of Episcopalian services and plenty of funerals. I often handle funerals in a somewhat detached, auto-pilot kind of way, because it is all too easy to get engulfed in the sorrow, making singing a difficult task.

This particular funeral was different in many ways. It was for a member of our church, but she was an 8 o'clock-er, so I didn't particularly know her or see her much. She was also African-American, and this service took its cue from a more traditional black funeral. I was told there was going to be a lot of singing and rocking and rolling and rejoicing, and boy, they weren't kidding. When I got there and grabbed a bulletin, I counted 6 hymns and 4 solos, preludes, postludes, a sermon, several speeches plus communion. To put it bluntly, we were going to be here awhile.

My duties in this particular funeral were pretty easy, really. I only had one hymn as a solo, and that was "How Great Thou Art." I was trying to reconcile this oldy moldy hymn (ok, I'll say it: not my favorite, stuffy, repetitive with lots of those "seasicky" chords) with rocking and rolling and rejoicing, and I wasn't coming up with much. But really, it didn't have to be my favorite. What I had to do was find and share the message given to me by the composer and the poet. All I had to do was love the song for what it was.

The other soloists were family members and they sang in a much more relaxed jazz-influenced Baptist style. In a word, it was fabulous. The piano accompaniment was free-form and done by memory. At the end there was applause mixed in with lots of "Amens!" and "Praise Jesus!" offered by the congregation. Being a life-long Episcopalian, that was hugely different. We'd turn one hundred shades of ecclesiastical purple before we clapped for anything, and, I believe it is the eleventh commandment that proclaims, "Thou shalt not speak out of turn unless so indicated by Bold Italics Only in the currently approved Book of Common Prayer. And then, thou shalt say it all together, for there shall be no speaking in any other rhythms than stodgy corporate Episcopal Prayer." AMEN.

I loosened up "How Great Thou Art" as much as I thought I could get away with, considering my constraints. I -- or rather, the song -- got lots of "Amens!" but I still felt very, very white. Despite the fact that I consider myself a seasoned professional, a small, insecure part of me hoped it was OK, and felt rather honored and humbled to have been included in the musical portion of the service. I wasn't like everybody else in the congregation, but I hoped they would just love me for what I was.

At the end of the speeches given by family and friends, a son got up to speak. It quickly became apparrant that he was consumed with grief and guilt in equal portions. Evidently he had made a promise to his mother that he would be there with her when she passed. And although he, and the rest of the family had been with her nearly constantly, he had left briefly to change his clothes for church...and she passed. The son apologized over and over again to his family and asked them not to shun him, and that he would indeed be there for them. Over and over again he promised.

This was one of those speeches where you weren't sure if you should cover your eyes and ears because this seemed to be a family's private pain, or if you should go and offer consolation. In the midst of my not knowing what to do, a grandson came back up and stood next to the son. He put his arm around him, and let him finish speaking. And then the grandson said, "They say, if you want to make God laugh....just tell him your plans." He continued by saying, "This is not your burden to bear. This was God's plan, and you are a part of that plan. You are living in God's plan. This is NOT your burden to share."

Right then and there I knew I had heard the sermon, and before I could stop to remember what was proper, I found myself saying, "Amen! Amen!" just like everybody else. It occurred to me that what I do with songs, the grandson was doing with people -- he was loving them for who they were, and he was able to find the message and share it with everyone.

At the end of this very long traditional black service, the final musical number was a piano solo version of "Oh Happy Day" that was played while the final sentences were spoken. I admit when I saw that choice in the bulletin, my eyes got very large in a very disapproving "REALLY??" kind of way. But after listening to all the songs, reading the tributes and witnessing the love that came pouring out from family members across several generations, it suddenly seemed so appropriate. At every funeral we hear, "All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia" but in all honestly that never really happens because grief makes it seem both inappropriate and impossible.

This time, we actually did it. Funerals are a hard, tough, emotionally draining thing. But this one was different. This funeral was loved for what it was. It wasn't just an afternoon of grief and loss. It was the celebration of a life lived and the hope of joy to come. In the end, I think we were all better for it. I know I was. And what else can you say to that, except Oh, Happy Day.

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