You might not think that the NPR show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" would spark a blog entry about church music, but you'd be wrong. One of the reasons I love the show is that its witty humor encompasses not only the main headlines from the news, but also the quirky stories from around the world. For instance, this week included news of the outrage that greeted a British crematorium that is replacing their organist with a karaoke machine. (You can read the Telegraph's article about it here.)
I suppose there are some benefits to prerecorded music. With 24 hours notice, you can have almost any piece played in almost any key - from ancient hymns to modern songs of any kind - without worrying about whether the musicians are sight reading something they've never heard before. You can control the volume, and you certainly never have to worry about wrong notes.
But there are downsides too. The music can be tinny and the arrangements weak. The vocal tracks can be almost unbearably bad, and if someone does try to sing along karaoke style we all know what a nightmare that can become. Plus, you lose any personal touches and the ability to lengthen the musical interlude of a communion service running a minute longer than the selected hymn.
The bottom line, though, is that a funeral should celebrate the life of the deceased, the family, and the congregation (in that order). People turn to the great hymns of faith because not only because they are great texts set to great music, but also because they represent the familiar and comforting tunes we have sung for generations and throughout our own lives. This past Saturday, members of Bethany gathered with friends and family to remember and celebrate our friend Harry's life in words and music, especially his favorite hymn "A Mighty Fortress." It was so fitting that a man of such faith should have such a strong association with a favorite hymn.
Whether they get sung, played on the organ, or piped through a sound system, ask yourself what hymns means the most to you. The hymnal, like the Bible, can express the joy of a beautiful day, the sorrow and the hope inherent in a funeral, and the celebration of a wedding. With that song list, who needs a karaoke machine if you have a good Lutheran organist?!