I was 9 or 10 when my maternal grandfather died. We made the trip from Texas to North Carolina to celebrate his life and to lay him to rest. I knew him as a kind, soft-spoken southern gentleman (my mother has different memories, as usual).
I’m not sure how a 10 year old interprets “death”. Though I had visited him and spent a little time with him, we grew up in Pennsylvania before Texas, and so I didn’t have the connection I had with my dad’s parents, who grew up two houses down the road (my uncle lived in between us). My mom was pretty devastated, and it hurt to see her so torn up, but we did our best to keep it together and to mourn in a healthy way. Meals were brought; hugs were given and received; stories were through moist eyes and shaking voices.
There was a viewing; I’d never been to one before (my maternal grandmother died when I was probably 4 or 5, and I don’t remember anything about that except hearing my mother receive the phone call and knowing instantly as I heard her cry, “What?!?!?!” that something was seriously wrong. (Is there a word for that tone of voice? The tone where the unthinkable has happened? It’s not “sad”; it’s not just “shocked”; it’s something from beyond. Beyond the pale of normal, “safe” human interaction.)
Anyway, the viewing. To say it disturbed me is to understate things. The casket was open, but I was, well, horrified, as I realized what I was supposed to do: walk up and look and “pay my respects”. Shamefully, my parents had to virtually drag me up to the casket; I’m sure my mom was so embarassed, but something irrational had captured me, and I couldn’t get past it.
Somehow we got through that night. The next day was the funeral proper. I remember a typical rural southern church: white wooden walls, vaulted ceilings, pews with cushions, everything very clean and arranged. I sat down next to my mother and the service began. Everything was fine until…
… They started playing, “How Great Thou Art,” an old hymn. I don’t know if it was one of my grandfather’s favorite hymns; I don’t know if it was an afterthought: “Hey everyone knows this one!” All I know is that as the music began and people started singing, I lost it.
I mean, lost it.
I mean, not like you get the, “Fa-fa-fas” or the tears stream silently down your face. I mean irrational, super ugly, uncontrollable wailing.
Even to this day my mom says, “We didn’t know what was happening! It was just beyond the normal level of human weeping; you were unconsolable!”
I couldn’t tell you what had happened, except that in that moment, I realized the power of music. I was experiencing something that was communicating to me beyond words, beyond speech, beyond even a human embrace. There was something in the combination of melody, rhythm and words that drilled its way so far beyond my defenses that I was devastated before I even knew what was happening.
It was like being attacted by emotional/spiritual ninjas.
That, my friends, is “soul music.”
Believe it or not, I think in that moment I was captured by music: its power and its ability to break down walls and defenses; to speak the unspeakable and express the unexpressable.
Once you touch a moment like that (theologians might call it numinous or transcendent) you really can’t go back. It changes you; lets you know what’s truly possible, beyond this world that we can see and touch. There was something beyond all of that, and I wanted it. Not only did I want to experience it again, I wanted to be a part of creating it for others.
It’s been a long road since then, but a few days ago I stood up in a small chapel—only 45 people or so—where family and a few friends had gathered to remember “Grandma Alice.” Alice passed away at 94, the grandmother of some friends of mine from my community. Amazingly, I was also Grandma Alice’s worship pastor. Somehow, this woman in her 80s (at the time) worshiped under the leaership of a rock and rolling, guitar playing, melancholic and introspective pastor (that’s me). She was great at giving hugs and giving encouraging words, and I was honored to be a part of remembering her.
The family chose two songs for the service. I don’t know if she had a part of picking them or not. The last song in the service was “I’ll Fly Away.”
Any guess as to what the first one was?