“I will sing to the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.”
Before the formation of the ELCA in the late 1980′s, I was a pastor in the American Lutheran Church. In those days we had district presidents, a rather straightforward institutional title that always rankled those with episcopal pretensions. My ‘DP’ was Cecil Johnson. With a name like Cecil you just know he was a down-to-earth fellow who reeked of common sense and good judgment. And he did. Cecil had recommended me to the folks at Concordia Lutheran Church in Fertile, Minnesota.
Prior to Concordia Lutheran I had been an associate pastor in two very large congregations. Now I was the only pastor in a congregation of 650 members, in a town of just under 900. You do the math. I had a captive audience for better or for worse. Cecil was voting for better. He leaned over to me at the installation pot-luck following the service, while several cubes of red Jello wobbled on his spoon, and said in his adroit, fatherly manner, “Go slowly here, Mark. Take your time.” Then he gave me an excellent piece of advice which has served me well for many years. He suggested that I spend a lot of time the first year with shut-ins and the older members of the congregation. Get to know them. Get to know what they care about. Ask them about the congregation, the community, their faith. I took his advice and got to know some of the finest people I have had the privilege to have known in all my years of ministry. And in getting to know them they taught me something about the church and it’s business.
What I learned on those many afternoons while sipping coffee with those old Norwegians – and a few misplaced Swedes – was that faith in Jesus Christ and His promises was the marrow in their lives. And they had not come to this faith because some clergy person stuck his\her finger in the air and blathered on from the pulpit about politics, being relevant or the indelible wonderfulness of now. The message that gripped them was the old, old story of Jesus and His love and forgiveness delivered in Word and sacrament. The faith they held gave voice to their favorite hymns; Beautiful Savior, The Old Rugged Cross, Abide with Me, I Know that My Redeemer Lives, A Mighty Fortress.
During the years I was their pastor I had to bury some of these folks. Often, in those last days before the end, sitting by their bedsides, we would sing those old hymns accompanied by a guitar, read passages from the Bible, share the sacrament. It was during those hours of ministry that they taught me something essential about the hymns of the church; if they can’t be sung at our deathbeds they probably shouldn’t be sung at all.
“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”