Singing our lives

Bird on a wall singing

I have no memory of life without God, and the reason this is so, I believe, is because of my mother’s singing.

I do have a memory—it must surely be one of my earliest ones—of being rocked in my mother’s arms as she sang. My mother has a beautiful voice, and she loves to sing. She sang in her church’s choir before her children came along, and I have seen photos of her in her choir gown, long brown hair curling, cascading to her shoulders, smiling broadly.

The Old Rugged Cross  and In the Garden were two of her favourites. I think I’ve known their words and melodies and of the God who inspired them, thanks to her singing, my entire life.

I’ve always loved my mother’s voice.

I still do, and I count it a blessing to stand beside her in church Sunday after Sunday and hear her sing. Her 86-year-old voice doesn’t have quite the strength or range it once did, but it’s still butter-rich and smooth. Sometimes, I try to harmonize with her, the way we used to when I was a girl as we did the dishes in the kitchen after dinner. I always harmonized badly in spite of her heroic efforts to teach me otherwise; in the vocal department it seems, I inherited more of my father’s gift for making a joyful noise unto the Lord, than my mother’s ear, pitch, and tone.

Given that I trace the beginnings of my faith to my mother’s music-making, it felt appropriate that the final chapter in Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People should consist of Don E. Saliers essay, “Singing Our Lives.”

Describing music as “the language of the soul made audible,” Saliers says that “human voices, raised in concert in human gatherings, are primary instruments of the soul.”

I’ve long been self-conscious about my voice. When, in my teens, I had the opportunity to sing back-up vocals as part of a Christian pop band for a teen television program, I auditioned, shyly, by singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I got the part, much to my amazement, but I spent the next three years convinced that I was unworthy of it (in spite of my ability to keep up with the nifty dance moves.) Whenever our rehearsals would be interrupted because “someone” was flat, I just knew the someone was me.

And yet, I loved to sing.

When my husband and I were dating, and I mustered up the courage to suggest we sing one day while making the 90-minute drive to his parents, I knew he was the man for me when he joyfully joined me in singing “You Are My Sunshine,” and didn’t wince at all upon hearing my voice. “Here is a man,” I remember thinking, “who won’t mind my singing in the kitchen.”

Later, hoping to pass on the gift of faith to our three children, as my mother had done to me, I rocked and sang to them all. Our firstborn’s bedtime routine consisted of “three stories and three songs.” By the time our third came along, I’d cut back to “one story and one song,” for each of them, but the songs and hymns were an ever-present part of evenings in our home for many years. I had my own copy of our church’s hymnbook so that I could expose my children to a broader range of the music of our faith than my limited repertoire would allow. Usually, it went well, although I have a vivid memory of my son clapping his hands over his ears one night as he pleaded,“Mummy! Stop singing!”

But singing is in more than just my  DNA.

Singing is also the lifeblood of the church and it has been from the beginning. (We may not sing many hymns any more, and using hymnbooks is not the contemporary way. Today, congregational singing at my church largely consists of following the words to choruses projected onto a screen, while accompanying tunes played by instrumental and vocal “worship leaders.”)

The music has changed over the centuries, but, it has always been an integral part of Christian faith and worship. “The Christian church was born singing the songs of ancient Israel, the synagogue, and the Greco-Roman world,” writes Saliers. “Psalms and canticles formed the heart of prayer and the music of the earliest Christian assemblies.”

Embodying theology  is what we do when we sing our faith.

“Where people sing of God, an embodied theology—a way of living and thinking about life in relationship to God—is formed and expressed,” writes Saliers. “Through this practice, music lends its power to all the other practices that shape and express who we are.”

It seemed fitting then that I should conclude my musings on 12—out of possibly hundreds or even thousands—of practices of my Christian faith, with this reflection on the importance of singing our faith. For it was in my mother’s singing of her  faith, that the seeds of my own relationship with God were planted.

I’ve written previously in this series about singing hymns with and to a loved one who is dying, and of how doing so seems to be reminding her of important truths to which she has assented her entire life. It’s also affirmed my  faith to sing these songs of worship with her.

So when our church was seeking, recently, to dispose of the old hymnbooks that once graced our pews and guided our congregation’s worship for so many years, I asked for three, one for each of my children.

Because some day, God willing, they will sing to me.

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Practicing My Faith, Part 14 – This post is fourteenth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

Dying well

Hand holds sign saying It Is Well

I suppose I first began to think about what it means to die well 19 years ago, when my mother brought my father home from the hospital to die.

She knew he was dying and he knew it. We all did. After battling colon cancer for almost five months in hospital, a doctor had confirmed our worst fears; the cancer had spread and there was nothing more they could do for Dad than to keep him comfortable.

Mom believed she could do a better job of that at home, and so that’s where Dad went joyfully, to a hospital bed set up in their living room. Together our mother, my siblings, and I established a 24/7 care team. Supported by hospice volunteers and visiting nurses we looked after dad until he died two weeks later. He passed away peacefully, holding my mother’s hand. I remember being overwhelmed by the feeling in the moments after he had taken his final breath that his was not an “ending” but a “leaving.”

Doing things with and for one another

Almost a decade later, I enrolled in a 10-week training program with my own community’s hospice organization. I thought I’d like to help others the way that the hospice volunteers had helped our family throughout my Dad’s final days. I completed the program but concluded I wasn’t ready for that kind of work just yet.

But I’ve once again been thinking—a lot—in recent months about what it means to die well. First, because I helped to usher a friend to eternity’s threshold this past summer, and more recently still, because my mother-in-law is now receiving palliative care.

“In the Christian practice of dying well,” writes Amy Plantinga Pauw in “Dying Well,” her essay composing chapter 12 in Practicing Our Faith, “Christian people do things with and for one another in response to God’s strong love, translating into concrete acts our belief in the resurrection of Christ, and for ourselves.”

Our culture has a different idea of what it means to die well. Personal autonomy reigns supreme, and so our laws today grant people help and support in ending their lives prematurely.

The Christian way

I do not believe that is the Christian way. However, faith and trust in God does allow for the “conscionable category,” as Pauw describes it, “of ‘ceasing to oppose death,’ making room for caring for the dying.”

It means recognizing that God gives and takes life. And when bodies signal that life is drawing to a close, loved ones can listen. Medical interventions that merely prolong a life that has been reduced to suffering may not be heroic but horrific.

We will all die; that is certain. And faith is not a guarantee that we will die serenely. “Christian practices hold no magic formula for transforming premature, tragic, or unjust deaths into good deaths,” Pauw observes. “When a life is cut short—by accident, suicide, disease, or violence—Christians view it as an evil.”

Dying well, then, is not something that we carry out on our own. But it is something that, in community, we can help to give to others. And if this is true, then we can also live our lives in such a way that we can hope that there will be others to help us to die well when the time comes.

Then, when we are gone, there will also be others whom we leave behind who will mourn and remember and tell the stories of our lives.

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Note: When I saw the image at the top of this post, I knew I wanted it to illustrate the subject of this blog. One of the hymns I have been singing with my mother-in-law over the past couple of weeks has been the 1873 hymn by Horatio G. Spafford, “It Is Well With My Soul.” The words in the first verse of that hymn are:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul!

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Practicing My Faith, Part 13 – This post is thirteenth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

The power of testimony

Hymn book photo by Kelly Sikkema

We’d teased that she was the Energizer bunny; she just kept going and going. An athlete in her younger years, she overcame a fall and broken ribs at 97, and two more falls—due to congestive heart failure resulting in a fractured hip and collar bone—at 101. Then, in November, just after her 102nd birthday, another fall, and another broken hip, which led to a long period of hospitalization and rehabilitation.

Two weeks ago, the hospital said they’d done all they could for her, and maybe she’d be more comfortable at home. So, we moved her back to her lovely retirement community. In spite of better food (she’d found the hospital’s pureed options insulting) and familiar surroundings, she has made it clear that no, thank you very much, she really isn’t very hungry or thirsty.

On Friday morning, her nurse called to say that she isn’t taking in enough food or fluid to sustain her. Later that day, the doctor signed the necessary forms to admit my mother-in-law to palliative care.

When my husband and I sat with her on Friday afternoon, we began our visit by communicating in the only way we’ve really been able to communicate over the past number of months—by writing on an erasable white board. We reminded her that she has much to look forward to: she is headed for eternity, where she will be reunited with loved ones. We listed them by name. She shrugged.

But then we thought we’d try her “Pocket Talker” (sound amplifier) again; she had been refusing even that while in hospital. This time, she allowed us to put on her head phones. I held the microphone close to my mouth and spoke into it directly, trying to engage her, asking her questions that might provoke happy memories. What was her favourite game as a girl? Who was her best friend in high school? Again and again she just mumbled, “I don’t remember.”

A light comes on

“Well, let’s see if you remember this,” I said, and I started to sing Jesus Loves Me. It took just those three words sung for the light to come on in her eyes, and soon she was singing along.

With that kind of success, I invited her to sing another song with me, In the Garden. And then, How Great Thou Art, Amazing Grace, and The Old Rugged Cross. Next we recited The Lord’s Prayer, The Apostles’ Creed, and the Twenty-Third Psalm. She spoke them all in the loudest, clearest voice I’d heard from her in a while.

I reached for the hymn book on her night stand and began flipping pages, looking for anything even vaguely familiar, giving silent thanks for all those years of hymn singing in church where I’d learned to make my voice follow the direction of the notes on the page, and to hold some notes longer than others. O God, Our Help in Ages Past;  Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise;  Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee;  Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God, Almighty;  Come, Thou Almighty King; and Be Still My Soul.  We three sang them all, me holding the mic millimetres away from my lips so she could hear, Doug chiming in with whatever he remembered, both of us amazed by how much she recalled.

“Aren’t you getting tired of hearing my sorry voice?” I asked her.

“No, don’t stop,” she commanded. “I love it.” And so we sang some more.

After we’d been singing about an hour, it was clear she needed to rest. So we kissed her and said our good-byes. But I sensed a peace and contentment in her that hadn’t been there when we’d first arrived.

The dimensions of Christian testimony

At home that evening, I read Thomas Hoyt Jr.’s essay, “Testimony,” composing chapter 7 of Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People.  In it, Hoyt describes Christian testimony as “a deeply shared practice,” in which “people speak truthfully about what they have experienced and seen.” Hoyt further describes song as “one of the most precious forms of the practice of testimony.”

“Christian testimony has two dimensions,” Hoyt writes concluding his chapter. “One is testimony to the church and the world, where witnesses tell others about the action of God. The other is testimony to where witnesses tell God the truth about themselves and others.”

It was then that the penny dropped. Through our singing that afternoon, we had been reminding one another of the truths of God, even as we reinforced them in our own hearts and minds. We had simultaneously been singing the truth of our own sins, failures, and frailties to God, while expressing our trust in His inestimable mercy, saving grace, and love for us.

No wonder she seemed at peace. No wonder that we felt it too.

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Practicing My Faith, Part 8  – This post is eighth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.