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.
When my father passed away tragically four years ago and we were planning his service with ministers at his home church in Staten Island, New York. I had only one request. I did not want to speak, preach, or pray. I did not want to give a eulogy or read scripture.
All I wanted was one congregational hymn to be played since I knew that the rest of the service incorporated contemporary music. I chose Be Still, My Soul, set to the tune of Finlandia.
Be Still, My Soul certainly seemed out of place at the time. The rest of my family did not know it. Its slow–(and, I would argue, haunting)–cadence threatened to slow down an otherwise long funeral. Why sing something nobody heard of, and why sing a song that was set to Irish, nineteenth-century music? We even had doubts that the minister of music would be able to play it, let alone fit it into the Order of Worship. But, as I mentioned, it was my one and only request.
During the funeral, people spoke. The pastor preached for a good while. We did have praise and worship, and rightly so, for all funerals for believers are worship services to the God who is giver and author of our lives. But it was Be Still, My Soul that made me feel right at home, right where I belonged. It was my way of bringing my tradition–my church family (nearly 800 miles away)–into our worship of God that day.
When we sang the song it was lovely. It was indeed haunting, and it did invoke a theological voice that otherwise would have been lacking. I barely sang it, and most of the time I held my nephew who wept in my arms.
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to your God to order and provide;
In every change God faithful will remain.
Here I was, stricken into speechlessness at my father’s death, nearly drowning under a deluge of thoughts that things will never be the same, and the hymn communicated what I did not have the words or strength to say: That although my family and I were facing the worst situation we had ever faced–in the midst of change and grief and pain–God is faithful and God would provide. We worshiped God together that day, but only this song, this hymn, reminded us about who God is and who we are to God.
The second verse goes on to declare that life is full of mystery, that in darkness we can still stand solidly on Christ who upholds our confidence and hope, to whom waves and wind–the chaos of life–still obey. The song nurtured me as I nurtured my nephew. My father died in a dangerous world, but in the embrace of God and each other, we were “safe and blessed.”
I have heard it said that the songs shared at funerals touch the lives of so many people who sing those same songs on random Sunday mornings in worship services and churches across America. People still cry, for example, when we sing I Come to the Garden Alone because it reminds them of Grandma’s funeral or Father’s celebration of life.
For me, Be Still, My Soul will forever have that peculiar hypnotic hold upon my life. It is more than captivating, it holds me captive to the Spirit–for it is within this song that I find myself as beloved, as hopeful, or rather hope-filled: “Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past, all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.” Until that day, we have a song to sing, and that’s good enough for now, especially when words fail us.