Posted by: rcottrill | September 9, 2012

Fit for the Occasion?

Yesterday we had a Memorial Service at the church for an elderly gentleman, a long-time member of the church. There were the usual tributes paid–well deserved. He was a godly man who’d lived a good life. And since the family is musical, there was lots of music. But it’s with some of that that I take issue. (I was tempted to call this article, “Not at My Funeral You Don’t!”)

I had no control over the planning of the service. But, knowing something of the family, I was aware of what might happen–though harbouring the hope that perhaps restraint might be shown, given the occasion. My arrival disabused me of that hope.

The family had taken over the front of the church. There were speakers and large amplifiers everywhere, with an array of instruments scattered about–a keyboard, drums, several guitars, a harp–and wires running everywhere. And a whirlwind of setting up, testing equipment, and talk, swirled around the open casket where loved ones were trying to have a quiet moment of reflection and prayer. When it came time for me to make my way to the platform, I had to negotiate a veritable obstacle course.

I’m tempted to set aside criticism of a mistake-ridden duet, accompanied by the harp. After all, funerals are often highly charged emotionally. From experience, I know singing at a funeral isn’t always easy. And we all make mistakes. However, one of the women made a point of telling us all they had practised and prepared. But they still stumbled again and again, at least twice beginning the song with the wrong stanza, and having to start over. And since the electronic gear wasn’t putting them across quite to their liking, they moved off the platform to another set of microphones, and began yet again–a couple of times!

More serious in my view was the fact that the songs the family used were mostly light, sentimental selections that didn’t convey strong doctrine or a clear gospel message–Where the Roses Never Fade, and Sweet By and By and, for a video presentation, Precious Memories, How the Linger plus a bit of In the Garden. Not that these are heretical, but they at least needed other, stronger songs with them. If the musicians were unsaved people hunting for something “religious” to sing and play, that would be one thing. But they are all professing Christians, one of them a pastor.

Several of the songs were marred by the accompaniment, or musical styles, that descended to raucous rock and honky tonk (by definition, the noisy, garish music of sleazy bars). Several of the family sang the chorus Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God. Fine. But they were accompanied by drums inexpertly handled, emphasizing beats in odd places, and overall played much too loudly.

And, while I’m on the subject, just a word about the volume of almost all the music. The church has a small sanctuary. To house about one hundred and fifty people for the service,  some had to be seated in an adjacent Sunday School room. I’m sure that all would have been able to hear without any amplification (though the support of a little would have been fine). However, there was no need for us to be assaulted by sound as we repeatedly were.

Ask yourself, why is the rock music of the world so often played at a deafening volume? Here is one answer. The musicians have designed the music to be an adrenalin-pumping sensual experience–because that is all the world has to offer, a transitory experience. But Christians have an imperishable gospel, a gift of grace from our glorious Lord (Tit. 2:11-14). We don’t need to stir up an “experience” by artifice and manipulation.

Unfortunately, the family saved the worst for last. A gentleman gave us his own garbled and repetitive version of When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder, accompanying himself on the guitar. Throughout the song, he stomped and danced an energetic jig on the platform, twisting and turning himself like a demented dervish. Meanwhile the guitar accompaniment, and his virtually shouted “singing” got louder and louder.

It was an appalling exhibition. And again, was this an unsaved person who had rarely darkened the door of a church? No, he allegedly has a strong Christian testimony, and frequently talks about how Jesus or the Holy Spirit has revealed things to him. But if there was any doubt about the impression he left, a man from the neighbourhood settled it for me. As he was leaving, he said, “We gotta get them for a [community] concert. They were really rockin’!”

I realize some will dismiss my critique with the argument that “this is just the fashion these days.” But aren’t Christians to live differently from worldly fashion (cf. II Cor. 6:14–7:1). This may be the kind of music the world enjoys, but should we not be calling them to something different? Something higher? Too often, “what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Lk. 16:15). Others will tell me these things are “just a matter of taste,” but I strongly disagree. There are key biblical principles involved. I discuss this in more detail in the article, The Total Message of a Song.

Music is a language, all on its own, and it sends its own message. If the music is appropriate for the words, the overall message of the song is strengthened. If it’s not, the message is weakened, or completely obliterated. As I sat on the platform, a few feet away from the man last mentioned, watching his unseemly gyrations, I thought to myself, what is more prominent in this performance, the message, the music, or the man?

What made the strongest impression? It was the man, first and foremost, with his odd antics. Then the music, with the dominant rhythms and loud amplification so typical of many of the songs of the godless world. From my perspective, this was an ugly display of ego, far from the testimony of John the Baptist that “He [Christ] must increase, and I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). When the message could be heard amid the din, there wasn’t much of it! Yet it was vitally important. When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there. Will you? That is what we needed to ponder.

Am I saying that funerals should be sombre and dreary affairs, with music to suit that mood? No, definitely not, especially when the departed loved one had a strong a Christian testimony as this gentleman did. We could rejoice in the way God blessed his long life, and in the fact that He is now present with the Lord. Even the loss we’ve experienced is mitigated by the great reunion day coming at the feet of Jesus (I Thess. 4:16-17). But that’s just the point–Jesus.

A Christian funeral should be filled with praise to God, rendered in a manner appropriate to both the message and the occasion. “Rejoice in the LORD, you righteous, and give thanks at the remembrance of His holy name” (Ps. 97:12). Such a service should focus our thoughts on the Lord Jesus Christ, and the eternal salvation offered to us through His sacrifice on the cross. If it doesn’t do so, it becomes a tragically missed opportunity to bear witness.

For what I believe is a more acceptable mix of hymns and gospel songs, see my article on Funeral Hymns. I’m sure some will question a few of the selections I’ve included, but I tried to strike a balance and cover ones that are reasonably familiar, as well as thinking of the overall content.

In conclusion, and with relation to the kind of thing I’ve described, consider the prayer hymn by John Greenleaf Whittier:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind;
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.


Responses

  1. I could not agree with you more! Thank you for posting!

    • I appreciate your encouragement. God bless. Drop by any time.


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