By Joe LaGuardia
A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church. By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present. This article concludes the series.
Benedictions are important in every Order of Worship. Whether tied to a traditional or contemporary service, the last words that a pastor or music leader says to her congregation or the final words that a congregation sings together is often remembered long after the words of the sermon fades.
For some pastors, the benediction is a blessing–a final word echoing the blessings of the Bible like those from St. Paul for the churches to whom he wrote, or the one that God commanded Moses to say to the people of Israel:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you…
And give you peace” (Numbers 6:22-27).
For others, the benediction is a charge or commission to empower people for the week ahead. Reminiscent of the Lord’s “Great Commission” in his blessing to the disciples in Matthew 28, this type of benediction serves to inspire confidence that God is active in the world. It is a final reminder that the real work of the church happens beyond the church campus where people spend a majority of their time.
For many of us pastors, the benediction is a little bit of both: We bless our churches with a word of peace, but we also encourage each parishioner to see that they too are agents of blessing and peace for others. We hope that in blessing and charging our congregation, people will live for Christ, represent Christ, and put faith into action–that they may live the Gospel, not merely believe in it.
Benedictions are often coupled with benediction hymns. One such hymn is a classic in Baptist life- Blest Be the Tie That Binds. I guess it is a Baptist classic precisely because a Baptist minister wrote it.
In the mid-1700s, John Fawcett served a poor congregation in Wainsgate, England. He was offered a job at a larger, more affluent church but was grieved to leave Wainsgate. He declined the offer and, instead, stayed with that little church until his death in 1811.
Legend has it that it was in the throes of indecision and anxiety over leaving Wainsgate Baptist that Reverend Fawcett wrote this brief hymn. It expresses charity and unity of the Body of Christ, the power of prayer and intercession, of mutual encouragement — even unto “sympathizing” tears — and includes the hope that believers will come together whether in this life or the next.
The song balances the longing we have of sharing time with our church family, as well as the call to bear the burdens of others in the world. All of this, of course, is to take place in the posture of blessing and “kindred minds,” a clarion call for any benediction hymn worth its salt.
Another favorite benediction hymn is the concise “Christian goodbye”* hymn, God Be With You, by Congregational pastor Jeremiah Rankin. The song was first sung in Washington D.C., making it a perfect chorus to conclude worship, as well as a treasure born in the heart of a nation still healing from Civil War.
The words speak of Old Testament images of a Shepherd-God who provides, secures, protects, and guides. It is a perfect addendum to Psalm 23 or the Exodus story, in which the provision of God’s promises and blessings to Israel take center stage.
A last type of benediction hymn is that which challenges and commissions. A contemporary hymn by Ken Medema, penned in 2003, Let Truth and Mercy Find Here*, charges the church with putting feet to faith. It is not enough for people to meet at church–they must transform that time of fellowship into friendship and push the bounds of justice beyond brick and mortar.
The last verse is particularly challenging:
So now let peace and justice be never far apart,
but flowing like a river for every thirsty heart.
These two shall be united, a mighty moving stream,
Upon whose bands we gather to work and pray and dream.
Set to the tune of AURELIA, the words may be foreign but the tune familiar.
That is what benedictions are, after all–familiar. They are the earworms that stick with people, the melodies that carry us into a new week, and the words that ring over and over again for a people who are defined not always by their diversity, but their unity in spite of it.
*William Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1976): 72.
*Let Truth and Mercy Find Here is hymn # 692 in the Celebrating Grace hymnal published by Celebrating Grace, Inc., Macon, GA.