By Marie MacPherson
The prelude for “Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me?” piped out of the organ as I walked toward the altar for the Lord’s Supper. As soon as I recognized it, I knew the rest of the service would be difficult to navigate without tears. Years ago, I struggled to memorize all eight verses of Gerhardt’s rich theology applied to each and every life circumstance, singing it twice daily as I rocked my fourth living child to sleep. Having just experienced a miscarriage a few weeks earlier, cross and trial were deeply embedded in my heart.
As I knelt at the rail to receive Christ’s body and blood, I barely whispered, and the congregation boldly sang, verse three:
God oft gives me days of gladness;
Shall I grieve
If He give
Seasons, too, of sadness?
God is good and tempers ever
All my ill,
And He will
Wholly leave me never.
I returned to my pew and offered a prayer of thanksgiving. Then, with the congregation, I sobbed out verse five:
Death cannot destroy forever;
From our fears,
Cares, and tears
It will us deliver.
It will close life's mournful story,
Make a way
That we may
Enter heav'nly glory.
As I sang, I prayed. I prayed for myself and the still-fresh pain of my baby’s death, and my own husband’s barely spoken grief. I prayed for others: for my mother, who no longer remembers, and my father who does, which makes love so painful. I prayed for my relative’s father who is wasting away from disease. I prayed for my friend, who at that very moment was sitting at her adult son’s deathbed vigil. I prayed for my mentor awaiting her cancer results and the little girl at church just diagnosed with leukemia.
I honestly had no business singing, for I was merely weeping the words. But though my voice was cracking, my spirit insisted I shout (if only to myself) the Truth in these words, broken-hearted sobs notwithstanding.
I’m a firm believer that God wants us to be happy. However, when Jesus took on flesh for our sake, He also fully entered into our disappointments, sorrows, and despair.
Because of the Doctrine of Objective Justification, we Lutherans often consider our emotions irrelevant—we’re saved, no matter how we feel. Others outside of Lutheranism may consider our liturgy to be rote and unfeeling. However, I would posit that liturgical Lutheran worship, both in an individual service, and throughout the church year, respects the full spectrum of human emotion. The liturgy and hymnody of the church takes on new meaning each time you say it or sing it based on your own personal trials, and yet still sings the same eternal song of the One Who redeems all of our emotions and works everything together for good (Rom. 8:28).
Within the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the major and minor keys in both weekly worship and also throughout the seasons of the church, we find that a wide range of emotions can be good and desirable and normal. We don’t have to feel “happy” all of the time, as some in praise-song-centered worship might have us feel. And for those times when our emotions are truly not good, but rather self-centered and sinful, the words of the liturgy and music of the hymns point us away from our naturally depraved selves, and toward redemption, hope, eternity. And by practicing these words in church, when we find ourselves in a situation where there are no good human words to comfort us, we use what we have learned and know: the God-given balm in the words of Scripture, hymns, and the liturgy.
Within a single service, we liturgical Lutherans are never stuck long with the minor key and the burden of the Law; we are always comforted soon after with the major key and the freedom of the Gospel.
· Invocation: We begin with the invocation and an opening hymn, celebrating the joy of togetherness and the power of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit in the promising and hopeful chords of hymns like “Blessed Jesus, at Thy Word,” or the driving triplets of “Thy Strong Word.”
· Confession: We experience grief and pain over the guilt of our sins, crying out “Kyrie, Lord Have Mercy!”
· Absolution: We receive forgiveness with relief and joy from the pastor as from God Himself, shouting out praise in “Gloria, in Excelsis Deo!”
· The Lord’s Supper: We receive the Lord’s Supper, singing with quiet and holy reverence “Agnus Dei, Christ the Lamb of God, Have Mercy Upon Us,” remembering Christ’s death and His forgiveness.
· Benediction: We leave the solace of the church in peace, singing a resolute tune, such as “God’s Word is Our Great Heritage,” “Abide with Me,” or “On My Heart Imprint Thine Image,” equipped for every good work (Heb. 13:20-21).
Over the course of the entire year, we liturgical Lutherans are never stuck with the theme of the burden of sin for longer than a season, nor are we ever forced to feel the perpetual high of praise music when our hearts are hurting.
· Advent: We know the new church year has begun with the bold, chant-like opening notes of “Savior of the Nations, Come,” one of the oldest preserved hymns in Christendom.
· Christmas: We rest in the peaceful solace of the lullaby “Silent Night,” rocked in the arms of Someone bigger and stronger than ourselves.
· Lent: We become nostalgic for grade school and our first piano lessons, bursting out in “Glory Be to Jesus,” dreading this season’s culmination in death.
· Palm Sunday: We thrill at Jesus receiving His due glory, shouting “Ride On, Ride On in Majesty,” but shudder by the ironic words of the last verse, “Ride on, ride on, in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die. Bow Thy meek head to mortal pain.”
· Good Friday: We anguish with the full weight of the burden of our sins as we miserably sing out, “O sorrow dread/Our God is dead!” from “O Darkest Woe.”
· Easter: How can I choose just one joyous hymn to summarize the sweet bliss of this season?! Our voices join together in the lilting waltz of “Awake, My Heart, with Gladness,” the glorious irregularity of “Hail Thee, Festival Day,” and the bursting trumpets with “I Know that My Redeemer Lives.”
· Ascension: We harmonize in the sure, stalwart tones of “On Christ’s Ascension I Now Build,” reminding us of our future in Heaven.
· End Times: We chant the haunting “The World is Very Evil,” marveling at the irony of the well-loved, embedded verse “Jerusalem, the Golden.”
Back on Easter 4 (Jubilate), I was so grateful that singing the hymn “Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me” popped the cork of the ache and angst long kept bottled up in my heart and gave me a vehicle for navigating pain in the proper context—faith in Christ. Whether you find yourself happy or sad, joy-filled or sorrowful, elated or bereaved, the liturgy and hymns of the church will give expression to those emotions.
However, the beauty of liturgical music is not just that it recognizes the full range of human emotions throughout both the service and the church year, but rather that the focus is never really on our own feelings, or lack thereof. Instead, the focus of liturgical worship is on the person and work of Christ, who came to redeem us all, regardless of our emotional state. The liturgy and hymns remind us, finally, of the one emotion we all truly desire: eternal bliss with Jesus in Heaven, where “God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, [and] there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying” (Rev. 21:4).
Marie is wife to Ryan, homeschooling hausmutter to their five living children, and redeemed child of God. She used to actively participate in theater, debate team, choir, and international travel, but realizes now that those were merely a foretaste of the joys of her current vocation: managing children’s dramatics, arbitrator of kids’ arguments, singing hymns and lullabies, and sharing unbelievable mission stories. When she’s not caring for her own children, Marie reads extensively, researching natural health, marriage, and parenting. She is the editor of the upcoming book Mothering Many: Sanity-Saving Strategies from Moms of Four or More. Follow her blog at: www.intoyourhandsllc.com/blog