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Heartbeats & Hymns
"In our own lives the voice of God speaks slowly, a syllable at a time. Reaching the peak of years, dispelling some of our intimate illusions and learning how to spell the meaning of life-experiences backwards, some of us discover how the scattered syllables form a single phrase."
-Abraham Joshua Heschel
I saw my Dad’s headstone for the first time a few days ago. We buried Dad in 2016 but I hadn’t been back to the graveyard since. I was in Kington, Ontario, the city where he is buried, for about an hour on Saturday. The reason I was in Ontario, which is about 3500 km/ 2175 miles from where I live, is because my mother found herself away from home and in the hospital with unexpected heart trouble. Thankfully, she is now recovering and I got her home to Kingston before having to quickly return home.
“For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Those are the words that are written on the bottom of my Father’s headstone. How can a person echo Paul’s utterly astounding words with their life? How do you arrive at such an astonishing place? I’m becoming more and more convinced that we arrive there in a different way than most of us think.
Two Sundays ago my Mother was missing church. Because of her massive heart rate fluctuation, they had her heart hooked up to a machine which beeped her heart rate out loud. She told me that she sang hymns to herself to the rate of her heart that Sunday morning and it comforted her. She was amazed because certain hymns she hadn’t sung or thought of since she was a child came to her. As my friend Bob Osborne says, “we know more than we know.” What he means is that there are certain things that get stored somewhere in us that come to the surface at surprising times and places. We remember, precisely because the moment calls for remembrance, a line from that one book that we read twenty-eight years ago yet can now somehow recall that the line which we remember was written on the left page, three-quarters of the way down, about midway through the book. We know more than we know. I wonder, thinking about those almost forgotten hymns, what the services were like when the little girl who is now my Mother learned them. I didn’t ask her but if I were to guess I’d say she probably doesn’t remember. Perhaps they were in some incredibly moving moments where she, as a child, felt the presence of God. Maybe. But it wouldn’t surprise me if some of these services were spectacularly boring. Or maybe they weren’t boring, maybe they were the kind of service where something dreadfully funny happened and it was pure torture trying to not laugh out loud. The truth is, it doesn’t matter now. What matters is that those hymns, regardless of how mundane or momentous the service in which they were sung was, made their way into her bones.
I presided over a funeral about two weeks ago for a man I’d never met. As I gathered with the family to plan the service and learn his story, it struck me how important the oddest things become when a person dies. The family talked about a particular color that their father painted for a project which became significant in their memory. They laughed as they talked about a building project not properly calculated. They remembered that one Christmas where they laughed together like they had never laughed before. And it really struck me as I prepared the sermon that it’s the small and mundane moments which become graced and thus end up becoming the story of our lives. (These stories, we will someday see yet again, are graced and taken up in ways that are now above all that we could ask or even imagine). A eulogy is rarely about big moments, rather, it’s about small moments that only in retrospect become important.
When it comes to our own lives, we are far too easily convinced that it is the really big moments which make our lives count for something, and that counting itself is supposed to be one of life’s primary tasks. We work and strive (and count) and often miss the crucial fact that the life of faith comes alive precisely in the moments which only become important in retrospect. Faith is expressed not only, or even primarily, in prayers for mountains to be moved, but is more profoundly expressed as we laugh together over a meal, weep together over a loss, or sing together in mostly unmemorable church services. Faith, and the Kingdom if we’re paying attention, is kneading dough and planting seeds. “For me, to live to is Christ,” Paul says. But what does it mean to live? And here is the truth that we need to hear again and again: if we really become a people of prayer we will not, as some hope, be lifted off the ground to at last become more spiritual. Rather, we’ll become more and more deeply rooted in the very soil of life and slowly come to learn that all of life is, in ways unfathomable, in Christ. Or, more radically, Christ.
How do you arrive at the place of being able to say, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain?” I think we arrive not by some momentous act of extraordinary faith, but by actually living our lives and opening ourselves up – or allowing ourselves to be opened up – to the possibility that life itself can become prayer. All of life. The valleys and plains, not just the mountains; the dishes and the car rides, not just the religious ceremonies, all of it can be prayer The saints are not, after all, those who achieve “great things for God.” Saints are rather the people who understand the greatness of God in each moment and live deeply into that awareness.
And so, when we come to the moment where our own heartbeat becomes uncertain, we astonishingly find that the forgotten hymns which we learned in the mundane church services, and perhaps later hummed as children when we walked a well worn path on a boring afternoon, somehow find their way to us and strengthen us.
To live is Christ.
And when our heartbeat wears out, the hymns do not. They are sung at our funerals where it is remembered how God was faithful with each beat of our heart and is faithful before and beyond each beat of our heart, too. Our lives are taken up into the very Song of God. And therefore,
"We remain confident because we know, but do not know how we know, that however it all ends, everything that exists and everything that ceases to exist remains nonetheless always open to the God who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. In that sense, and in that sense only, we can say with Julian: 'but all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.'"
-Chris E. W. Green
To die is gain.
Our life and death, in all of its everyday simplicity and complexity and unfathomability is Christ from beginning to end. Paul’s statement, I am trying to say, is not some accomplishment, or at least not our accomplishment, but an awakening which we can all can come to speak and sing and live, and which is lived, spoken, and sung over us. We can, therefore, each one of us, join Paul’s “for me,” even in the monotony of this very moment.
“For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955), 174
Chris E. W. Green, All Things Beautiful: An Aesthetic Christology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2021), 119