by Ken Nafziger
John Paul Lederach, after telling a most amazing story about the “God of grace and God of glory” in chapel at Eastern Mennonite University encouraged the students with these words:
When you choose to walk in the path of justice, peace and reconciliation, take heart in knowing the path has been walked by others before you. Make sure to hold the hand of good friends who will walk at your side. Take a song with you. Put it deep inside so that no matter what happens, its seed can burst forth when you most need it. And know that it is the God of grace and the God of glory who breathes life into the seed and light onto your path.
Saint Paul, in Romans 8, wrote: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
Here is a description of the worship service at Community Mennonite Church (Lancaster, Pa.) on August 15, 2010–an example of the need for song to do what little else could do, functioning as the voice of the Spirit for a congregation longing for comfort and healing. On that afternoon, the congregation held the memorial service for Glen Lapp, MCC worker killed in Afghanistan, whose body was found on August 6.
It had been at least four months earlier that I was invited to lead a Sunday morning worship service there to introduce the contents of the newly acquired Sing the Story. The song list was ready and instrumentalists were chosen well before Glen’s murder. Astonishingly, no hymn was taken off or added to the list; every hymn seemed like an appropriate memorial, lament, or affirmation of faith. Each hymn was intensified because of Glen’s death. Singing became a space for the gathering of spirit and thought and strength.
There are times when we do not know how to pray together as a congregation, times when language by itself simply fails. To know how to pray and act in the twisted and tortured history of the destructive war in Afghanistan may well be one of those times. The congregation at worship on the morning of Glen Lapp’s memorial service sang with rare intensity for about an hour, reminding us all that the songs we carry with us can indeed burst forth when we most need them.
Here’s what we sang, with a few “footnotes.” All titles are from Sing the Story (copyright 2007, Faith and Life Resources, Scottdale, Pa. and Waterloo, Ont.). This hymnal supplement contains hymns about Jesus; I’ve taken to calling it a “Jesus Book.” If my recollection is correct, my introductory comments noted that following the One about whom we would be singing can be a dangerous thing and can get you killed. Singing was without interruption, the only words used were minimal instructions.
Singing together on the morning of August 15 was akin to singing our songs in a strange land. Texts and images that seemed to have a bitter edge because of the tragic events that touched the congregation deeply miraculously turned sweet on the tongue when they were sung.
Praise the One who breaks the darkness 1
The One described in this hymn is the One who summons others to do kingdom work; it got the One killed, and it has gotten others killed as well.
Prepare the way of the Lord 14
“…and all people will see…;” not some people, all people!
Jesus, what a wonderful child 19
The gift of this exuberant spiritual on this particular morning was an incredible burst of energy and joy and strength. No other song and no other subject (Jesus) might have given us quite the same experience.
Helpless and hungry (+ What child is this) 26
This most amazing text will not allow us to leave the baby lying in the manger, but describes Jesus as one who is completely willing to get his hands dirty in the world of human events. Such behavior can get one killed.
Oh, beautiful star of Bethlehem 32
The beautiful star of Bethlehem is seen first by the Magi, representatives of another religious tradition, and coming from and through lands with which the U.S. is now currently at war.
Vin pran 46
Daryl Snider, who had worked for a period of time in Haiti, led the congregation in singing this hymn. He is a former student of mine, and for me on that Sunday morning was a living example of one whose passion led him to do kingdom work in another difficult place on earth. That in itself moved me deeply.
Woza nomthwalo wakho 50
“…for Jesus will never say no.”
Here to the house of God we come 53
Unless a grain of wheat 56
“Unless” is a very difficult word to grasp in this context. Is there no other choice besides “unless”?
Abre mis ojos 65
To see like you see, hear like you hear, love like you love are three impossible tasks, even on a joyous day. How can this be possible today, or tomorrow, or in a couple of weeks?
Khudaya, rahem kar 67
A prayer for God’s mercy in the Urdu language from Pakistan. It was reported that the murderers escaped across the border into Pakistan.
Lay down your head 85
Nothing is lost on the breath of God 121
Never an easy hymn to sing, this one became nearly impossible for many on this Sunday. The combination of imageries is almost unbearable: the completely vulnerable (the breath, the glimpse, the love from the heart), and the fundamental assertion that nothing is lost.
My soul cries out 124
An affirmation of the triumph of life over death, of hope over despair, of giving rather than saving one’s life that concluded the morning worship service.
My heart shall sing for the day you bring.
Let the fire of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn.
The benediction Pastor Susan Gascho-Cooke chose that
Sunday was from Sing the Story (176):
Go into the world
with a daring and tender love.
The world is waiting.
Go in peace.
And all that you do,
do it for love.
It was my sense that we were on holy ground that morning,
and that we were quite aware of the place to which song
brought us for renewal.
At any rate, it was my sense that we were on holy ground that morning, and that we were quite aware of the place to which song brought us for renewal.
Ken Nafziger is professor of music at Eastern Mennonite University.