There is an activity that characterizes every age group. There is an age when all your friends are getting married and getting jobs. There is an age when they are all having children and getting promotions. And then the one when they are all retiring and planning, or in some cases, actually taking, vacation trips. It’s the bucket list era. Then there’s the age when they are mostly dying.
Now if you are old, like me, and if you are an attentive reader like me, you will want to point out that at the age I am referring to, the bucket list and the dying off are both prominent activities. That is true and I find my attention moving back from one to the other. One is in the foreground; the other in the background. Then they trade places. But always, both are true.
The Recycle Box
I had an experience recently that put the dying part in the foreground. This is what it was. Recently three people have died who were members of the choir at my church or notable friends of the choir. The choir is not called upon to sing at memorial services as a rule, but these three were “our people” so we did. That’s three quick reminders that death needs to be thought about.
For each of the services, the choir director prepared a packet of music. We put it in a three ring binder and used that binder for rehearsals and for the service. That’s not just a detail in this account. I want you to be able to see ahead of time what came to me only in the moment. That’s important because it is the moment I want to tell you about.
We finished the music we were asked to sing and at the end of the service, we went back to the choir room. If we had been using music from our regular files, we would have put it back on the table so it would be there when we needed it next. But this packet was a one-time use and when that event was over, we would have no further use of it. Ever. So I popped the binder open and took out the contents and dumped them in the recycle bin.
I could still hear in my active memory what had been said about this person at his memorial service. He was an avid golfer or a respected physician or a long time member of the church. The widows in both cases sat in the service listening to these words. And then I clicked open the binder and dumped the contents in the recycle bin. “Well,” I thought, “That’s that.” All perfectly appropriate.
Then I had a quick vision of another choir member doing that same thing with the materials that had been printed out for my memorial service. I have held, as had the members of the church whose lives we had just celebrated, a number of positions of trust. I have made friends and enemies. I have worked consistently at what I think of as the work I have been given to do. That’s how I experience my own life as a rule. But for that moment, I experienced it as that choir member will and as I, myself, did so recently. It goes into the recycle bin so the binder will be ready for the next one.
Nothing I have written here has come as news to me. When I began by saying that there is an “everybody’s doing it” phase to every age, I knew I was going to say that dying is one of the two that belong to my age. But there are moments when you experience that phase with extraordinary clarity. This was one of those. For that moment and several that followed it, there were not the two views whose reality I am committed to, but only the one view. Finish the service and dump the papers in the recycle bin.
That is why, if I can find a way to arrange it, I will have a piece from Brahms’ German Requiem sung at my service. Brahms set a text from Isaiah to some striking music. I am not fool enough to try to convey the music to you except in this one way. The text (Isaiah 40:8) goes like this: The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God remains for ever.’
There are two sentiments there; one before the word “but” and one after. The section before sounds like a dirge. It is slow and pulsating; the tympani go on and on (and on) with the same five stroke pattern, Then, after a pause, the choir erupts fortissimo, “…but the word of our God remains forever.” I want it in German because I learned to care about it is German. “..aber des Herrn Wort bleibet, bliebet in Ewigheit!“
The experience with the Requiem and the experience with the recycle bin are both true and I value them both. On behalf of the choir member, I know there will be another service next week and the space in the binder will be needed for the new music. For me—if I am the guest of honor—or for my friend whose service we just sang, it is true that the word of the Lord abides forever.
Since, in my judgment, both are true, I think it is perfectly appropriate that I feel each one and the occasion presents itself.