Closing Hymns were always my biggest challenge whenever preparing an order of worship. This challenge was based on my understanding that the closing hymn should bring resolution to the theme and drama of worship, especially as it is a response to the sermon.
From the comments of parishioners over the years I have come to a tentative conclusion that rather than remembering any of the sermons I have preached, most will remember those occasions when I have made a dash to the piano to play with the organist the closing hymn, if it was a heritage hymn or a gospel song.
Where did this spontaneity come from? I think it was inspired by a story I read years ago about the American visit of the archbishop of the Church of Sweden, Nathan Söderblom, in the 1920s. Either in the middle of a sermon or lecture or as a closing hymn he had the custom of going to the piano and singing and playing one of the revival hymns of Lina Sandell or Oscar Ahnfelt. Well, if the archbishop could do it perhaps, if moved by the Spirit, I could also do it!
More recently the closing hymn has taken on a different time, setting and significance. On a recent visit to a former congregation I served, Jane and I were informed that a dear friend of ours, much younger than we, was in an Alzheimer’s unit at a nearby nursing home. We went with a couple who were also her friends for a visit, not knowing what to expect. Soon our friend was brought into the visitors lounge. This beautiful woman, once fun-loving wife and mother, great cook, loyal church member, was damaged in body and mind by a damnable disease, unable to respond with little more than gibberish sounds without sense. We were devastated.
Though we spoke with Lenore of our years of friendship, it was mostly because of our own need to remember. Then recalling from similar visits with those suffering a similar fate, I did the pastoral things of doing a brief Bible reading, a prayer and closing hymn. The hymn was the one taught to her by her Swedish mother, the one Nathan Söderblom sang to an American audience years before, and which Covenanters have sung countless times. I sang it in Swedish, Tryggare kan ingen vara (Children of the Heavenly Father). Then, as if from some silent chamber inside her mind untouched by the disease, Lenore sang the hymn with me in a strong and clear voice, sang every word both in Swedish and English as the rest of us were choked with tears. It was as if she had come back from her prison of isolation for a few precious moments. Perhaps a neuroscientist might provide an explanation, but whether or not, it was Lenore’s gift of grace to us.
Now Lenore is at rest. Free at last! But whenever I relive that afternoon, it is with wonder and amazement that I continue to believe there is something in the old hymns and traditions, born out of heartache and suffering, that has the power to break through the fog of medication and dementia to unite us with the ever-blest communion of saints. And, glory be, so often in the least likely times, places and people, we are given witness to a faith strong enough to carry us all the way home. Tell me, where is there a piano?