Everybody, I think, has at least one piece of music which brings the memories flooding back. It might be a song you listened to over and over again during a lonely patch when you were fifteen. It might be the tune from the first dance at your wedding. It might be the final hymn at your mother’s funeral.
There is no doubt that music has a great power to move the soul and stir the emotions, and that’s why music is often so closely associated with what we might call “significant life events”.
Having just moved 321 miles to Crowborough (which surely counts at least as a moderately significant life event!) I was thinking back to the time 15 years ago when I moved 130 miles to Newcastle upon Tyne. That’s when I first went into full-time church music ministry. More than one friend commented at that time that they imagined there would be lots of funerals to do. (Their reasoning, I think, was that the church is full of old people; and old people tend to die more than young people do.)
But it turned out that they were wrong, on both counts. Our former church in Newcastle, like All Saints, has a rich spread of ages right across the spectrum; and the members who were older seemed to keep in tip top health! In fact, two of the first funerals for which I provided music were for children: young members of the church family with disabilities who were tragically overtaken by sickness.
It has been a privilege to be involved, because of music, in more than my fair share of these significant services, such as weddings and funerals.
As far as weddings go, I have found it so helpful to hear the vows repeated at least a hundred times. Why? Because they are the exact same vows that I made to my wife in a Devon chapel fifteen years ago. They are extraordinary promises; not easy promises to keep; and I have needed to be reminded of them. (If you are married and haven’t had the opportunity to revise your wedding vows as often as I have, then I’d encourage you to look them up and look back over what you actually said.)
It is obvious that weddings are a joy; but over the years I have also come to appreciate funerals more than I thought I would. I have heard stories of incredible lives of the past. I’ve shared in deeply personal moments with families I love. And I’ve also come to appreciate the wisdom of these words from the bible’s book of Ecclesiastes:
“It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man. The living should take this to heart.”
During my years in Newcastle only one member of our Music Group ever died ‘in active service’. And she was not one of the older members but a girl in her early twenties. On Tuesday night she was at our rehearsal as usual, full of life, and by Wednesday morning she was dead. It was a tough time for us all, and a reminder that none of us knows when our time to meet our maker will come. “The living should take this to heart”. We were so glad that over the previous year she had come to trust in Jesus Christ and follow him, and so would have nothing to fear.
A few years later I would be playing the organ at the funeral of four murder victims, two adults and two children, members of the same family. I will never forget either the grief of their grandmother, who had just seen most of her family struck down, or her faith. Despite her appalling circumstances she refused to blame God for the evil, as she said, along with Job in the bible, “The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
But the most significant life events, I think, have been not weddings and not funerals, but baptisms. They are the church’s ‘visual aid’ of being washed clean from our wrongdoing, and also a picture of the burial of an old way of life. I’ve been at baptisms or dedication services for children born into church families; and there have been great celebrations as people of all ages have turned back to God.
They’ve all been special occasions. But the most moving baptisms, without a doubt, have been those of people due to return home to a communist or a Muslim country, having decided while in the UK to follow Christ. We knew that trouble might not be far away. In our baptism services the minister always said:
“I sign you with the cross, the sign of Christ. Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified.”
Those words were so meaningful when spoken over a person who might well be ostracised from his family, cut out from his work, or even threatened with death once he got back home.
So, I’ve had the privilege in sharing in many people’s ‘significant life events’. I’ve seen how music has helped them to express themselves in joy and in sadness, and how it has become part of their memories.
But ultimately, why am I involved full-time in Christian music? It’s because I believe music has great power to bring God’s thoughts and judgments into all the circumstances of life. It is a privilege for me to be part of a church like All Saints which doesn’t just see itself as providing essential services at ‘significant life events” such as birth, marriage and death, but believes in bringing people new life and hope in Jesus Christ. And also believes in bringing that to bear on every part of life.
Chris Edwards, October 2011
This article first appeared in “Word on the Street”, Crowborough