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Funerals and Contemporary Worship

When I was ten years old my grandmother sat me down and in a matter-of-fact way told me the hymns she wanted sung at her funeral. The abruptness of the moment caught my ten-year-old self off guard. “Is she getting ready to die?” I wondered. “Why is she telling me this?” “Oh my goodness, she’s been planning out her death!?” All normal things for a ten-year-old to think. After I calmed down she went on to gently reassure me that this was an ordinary thing for an elderly person like her. Now, as an adult working in the church, I better understand why she told me, “Musicians are important for people who are dying.” I’ve never forgotten that wisdom.

In my work as a chaplain working primarily with college students, funerals aren’t a regular part of my job, though there can be unspeakable tragedy. Still, I know that worship is part of what forms us for our encounter with death. John Witvliet captures this reality:

Dying well requires a vivid, biblically shaped imagination about the coming kingdom of God. Worship inspires and shapes that imagination. Dying well requires a community to nourish and sustain it. Worship forms that community. Dying well requires song to comfort and sustain it. Worship rehearses those songs. Dying well requires hope. Worship inspires it. Dying well requires honesty. Worship demands it (Witvliet, “How Common Worship Forms Us for Our Encounter with Death,” in Worship Seeking Understanding: Windows into Christian Practice, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003, p. 301).

At Hope College I help plan and lead more than 130 services each school year with a musical diet drawing primarily from the repertoire of contemporary worship. But within this vast repertoire I’ve never found a resource for explicitly using the genre in funeral services. I find this deeply troubling. With the immense number of churches existing on a strict diet of contemporary worship songs, I imagine that people would want some of these songs in their funerals. This service was inspired by a gathering hosted by Todd Billings at Western Theological Seminary in 2017, where Jamie Smith talked about “the new cultural liturgy of dying.” As part of that presentation I was invited to explore how contemporary worship engages issues of death and dying. One of the realities I found was that major resources for contemporary worship such as CCLI and praisecharts.com were largely neglectful of how their databases could serve the church in moments of lament. Surveying the tags in praisecharts.com, you might discover 28 songs tagged “snow,” but zero songs tagged “lament.”

Working with millennials and now Generation Z, I wonder what songs their generations will sing for comfort in moments of grief and suffering. Will it be songs from the church or resources from other places?

I’ve tried here to provide some starting points for choosing songs from the contemporary worship genre that are appropriate for times of suffering and tragedy. Many of the songs included in this service don’t appear on the CCLI Top 100 Songs list, but you should recognize some of the associated artists and songwriters, and perhaps you will discover a number of new songs and resources.

Based on an order suggested by Howard Vanderwell and Norma de Waal Malefyt, the songs are organized around three movements of a memorial or funeral service:

  1. Songs of Lament: If you were to divide the psalms into types such as praise, thanksgiving, wisdom, lament, and royal, the largest category would be that of lament. The psalms are full of laments that teach us how to take our grief and anger to God.
  2. Songs of Comfort: Scripture is full of saints singing to God as a form of spiritual comfort, reminding themselves of God’s faithfulness, promises, and future delivery.
  3. Songs that Celebrate Christ’s Victory and Our Hope: Every funeral should proclaim the victory that Christ secured in his resurrection and ascension, as well as what Christ’s victory means for our future.

OUR COMMUNITY LAMENTS

Prelude

“I Shall Not Want” Assad
“Cornerstone” Maher/Hillsong
“Before the Throne” Bancroft, LUYH 682
“Your Labor Is Not in Vain” Zach/The Porter’s Gate

Call to Worship

Watch now, dear Lord, with those who watch or weep,
      and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend your sick ones, Lord Christ,
      rest your weary ones, bless your dying ones,
      soothe your suffering ones, pity your afflicted ones,
      shield your joyous ones, and all for your love’s sake.
And may the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing,
that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

—based on Psalms 3–5; 121; 130; Romans 15:13. The Book of Common Prayer, according to the use of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, © 1977, Charles Mortimer Guilbert as custodian; public domain.

Prayer

 

Songs

“Blessed Be Your Name” Redman, LUYH 343 (composed by the Redmans after a family tragedy)
“Rock of Ages” Toplady, arr. Latifah Allatas/Page CXVI (a meditative arrangement of the classic hymn)
“In Christ Alone” Getty, LUYH 770 (a beloved new standard)
“Come, Ye Souls by Sin Afflicted” Swain/Indelible Grace (a plaintive call to worship in this retuned hymn)

Prayer/Psalm of Lament

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
      How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
      and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O LORD my God!
      Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
      my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
      my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
      because he has dealt bountifully with me.
—Psalm 13 (NRSV)

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
—Romans 8:38–39 (NRSV)

Songs

“In You, Lord, I Refuge Take” Kimbrough (a plaintive folk arrangement of Psalm 31)
“How Long (Psalm 13)” Dennison, Cosper, Robins/Sojourn Music (a bluesy rock arrangement of Isaac Watts’s text for Psalm 13)
How Long, O Lord (Psalm 13)” Doerksen, PfAS 13C

Prayer/Psalm of Lament

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
      to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
      Lord, who could stand?

But there is forgiveness with you,
      so that you may be revered.
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
      and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
      more than those who watch for the morning,
      more than those who watch for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
      and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
      from all its iniquities.

—Psalm 130 (NRSV)

Song

“Out of the Depths” City Hymns (a simple folk rock arrangement of Psalm 130, retuned)
“Out of the Depths I Cry to You” Digerness, PfAS 130D

Other Resources

UKirk Worship—A worship resource book for campus ministries from the PC(USA). Includes two services of lamentation for personal or public tragedy (ukirk.pcusa.org/page/uworship/).

For an expanded list of contemporary worship songs with the themes of lament, death, comfort, peace, and eternal hope, please see additional resources at tinyurl.com/y4gmjn8l.

OUR COMMUNITY GIVES THANKS

Community Prayers of Thanksgiving

 

Scripture

Psalm 136 (Consider using “Dance without Music” by Julia Start Fletcher, in RW 104)

Music for Reflection

The following are contemporary worship songs that meditate on themes of death and dying with hope. They are likely not for congregational singing but offer profound meditations.

“When My Heart Is Torn Asunder” Wickham (a moving contemporary worship song of lament and hope)
“Oh God” Bolen/The Modern Post (modern worship song including the language of Psalm 23 and Romans 8)
“Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul” Steele/Indelible Grace (text by Anne Steele with new folk arrangement)
“My Soul Finds Rest in God Alone (Psalm 62)” Keyes/Townend, LUYH 370
“Now and at the Hour” Arndt and Gungor/The Brilliance (a song of comfort in calling on the Holy Spirit)
“I Called to God (Jonah 2:2–9)” Schlabs (The Song of Jonah is a classic choice for a service of lament. This simple folk arrangement is by Holy City Hymns artist Patrick Schlabs.)

My eyes weak with sorrow grow,
and my body fills with grief.
All my years pass with a groan;
my strength fails, my bones are weak. But I trust you are my God;
all my days are in your hands.
Let your face upon me shine;
make me in your love to stand.
—”In You Lord I Refuge Take (Psalm 31)”, Wendell Kimbrough, © 2011, CCLI Song # 7023040, wendellk.com

OUR COMMUNITY CELEBRATES CHRIST’S VICTORY AND OUR HOPE

Scripture and Reflection

 

Song of Response

“Come to Me” Kimbrough (keeps the words of Christ in Matthew 11:28–30 in the first person)
“Wisdom and Grace (Psalm 90)” McCracken/Bifrost
“Give Me Jesus” Spiritual, arr. Ortega
“He Will Hold Me Fast” Merker, arr. Shane & Shane/The Worship Initiative (a new song based on an old hymn text)
“Hallelujah (Help Us Pray)” Trinity Anglican

Prayer of Thanksgiving

God of love, we thank you
      for all with which you have blessed us
      even to this day:
      for the gift of joy in days of health and strength
      and for the gifts of your abiding presence and
      promise in days of pain and grief.
We praise you for home and friends,
      and for our baptism and place in your Church
      with all who have faithfully lived and died.
Above all else we thank you for Jesus,
      who knew our griefs,
      who died our death and rose for our sake,
      and who lives and prays for us.
And as he taught us, so now we pray.
—“Prayer from Eucharist Service in a Funeral,” The United Methodist Book of Worship, © 1992 The United Methodist Publishing House. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Affirmation of Faith

There are many affirmations of faith that might be appropriate, and multiple options for singing a creedal statement.

Apostles’ Creed: “This I Believe (The Creed)” Hillsong
Heidelberg Catechism: “My Only Comfort” Zeyl (“Jeremy Zeyl on Singing the Heidelberg Catechism,” goo.gl/h6YNBs)
Psalm 23: “I Shall Not Want” Assad/Fortunate Fall

The Lord’s Prayer

There are multiple ways to embody this prayer by speaking or singing. Here are three musical arrangements from the contemporary worship repertoire.

“Our Father” Johnson/Bethel
“Our Father” Anderson/CentricWorship
“The Lord’s Prayer” LaFollette

Litany

Let us turn to Christ Jesus with confidence and faith in
      the power of his cross and resurrection:
Risen Lord, pattern of our life forever:
Lord, have mercy.
Promise and image of what we shall be:
Lord, have mercy.
Son of God who came to destroy sin and death:
Lord, have mercy.
Word of God who delivered us from the fear of death:
Lord, have mercy.
Crucified Lord, forsaken in death, raised in glory:
Lord, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, gentle Shepherd who brings rest to our souls, give peace to (N.) forever:
Lord, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you bless those who mourn and are in pain.
      Bless (N.’s) family and friends who gather around him/her today:
Lord, have mercy.
—Excerpts from the English translation of Order of Christian Funerals © 1985, 1989, International Commission on English in the Liturgy Corporation. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Sending Song

“We Will Feast in the House of Zion” McCracken (a rich meditation on our future hope inspired by the language of Isaiah)
“I Will Rise” Tomlin, Reeves, Giglio, Maher, LUYH 468
“Jesus, Remember Me” Taizé, LUYH 169
“Come, Lord Jesus” Sovereign Grace
“You Hold Me Now” Crocker, Morgan/Hillsong (a song of future hope using images from Revelation)
“Psalm 126” Bifrost Arts Music
“He Always Wins” Hammitt
“What Wondrous Love” traditional, arr. Reagan
“Be Thou My Vision” Ascend the Hill (modern worship arrangement of the traditional hymn with an added chorus)

Prayer

Remember, Lord, your Church, to deliver it from every evil,
      and to make it perfect in your love.
Praise to you now and evermore!
Gather together from the four winds this sanctified Church
      into the kingdom that you have prepared.
Praise to you now and evermore!
      Come, Lord, and let this world pass!
Amen.
Hosanna to the house of David!
Amen.
Let him who is holy come!
Amen.
Let him who is not, repent!
Amen.
Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!
Amen.
–adapted from Didache, 10:5–6, 2nd century, P.D.

Blessing

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!
Blessed be God’s Name!
By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope
through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
He has given us an inheritance that is imperishable,
      undefiled, and unfading,
      kept in heaven for us.
By the power of God we are being protected through faith
      for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

—adapted from 1 Peter 1:3–5 (NRSV)

Postlude Options

“On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” Stennett/Indelible Grace
“When We See Your Face” Kauflin/Sovereign Grace
“It Is Not Death to Die” Kauflin/Sovereign Grace
“When God’s Perfect Plans” Clark/Resound Worship

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