Battle Hymns for the Fight of Faith

“Look at all these people!”

As my dear 97-year-old grandmother was brought into the room in her wheelchair, it was clear that she did not recognize that “all these people” were her family. I reintroduced myself as her oldest grandson, along with my wife and the three great-grandchildren we brought to see her.

It was difficult to believe this woman could have lost so much. She had been an avid reader, but her failing eyesight gave her difficulty with even the largest print books. She had played the piano and the organ for decades in church, but her failing hearing prevented her from enjoying the music that played overhead in the nursing home room.

Armed for the Final Fight

“The world wants you to forget one very obvious, unavoidable thing: you are going to die.”

And yet, buried deep within the recesses of her mind, my grandmother still had a sweet communion with Jesus. And this communion was rarely so evident as when she began to sing hymns. The ravages of memory loss had somehow missed the part of her mind that held hymn lyrics and melodies so near. And out they came.

Oh, how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
Oh, how bright the path grows from day to day,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

The family sang together, and her voice slid to the alto harmony. Here, during the last days of her fight of faith, she was not unarmed. She had treasured up the truth of the gospel in the hymns that were etched in her mind and heart.

What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms?
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Trying to Ignore the Obvious

Our world is spending untold dollars this year to try to make you forget one very obvious, unavoidable truth: you are going to die. Countless ads and cultural touchstones will attempt to convince you that youth is eternal, you are immortal, and death is something that no one should think about.

And the forces distracting us from death are not just commercial. Socially, mentioning death in small talk is incredibly awkward. People often look away and change the subject, as if talking about death were itself a death wish.

“The Bible teaches us to let the certainty of our death in the future shape how we live now.”

But the Bible will not ignore death with the hope that it will simply go away. Indeed, Scripture actually goes the other direction, asking God to “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Biblical wisdom longs to think about death rightly, to let the certainty of our deaths shape how we live now in the present.

What Truths Are We Etching on Our Souls?

As a worship pastor, I wonder how our churches are doing in this. Do we follow the world’s thinking here? Or do we believe that “it is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2)?

How are we preparing for our last moments of life? Or our final years? Among other things to consider, are we preparing our hearts now for our last days by learning and singing songs that etch gospel truth deep into our hearts? John Witvliet reminds us, “As we sing, we learn the songs that we will hum to ourselves in moments of deep despair. Our songs of lament and hope form us as people of faith and hope.”

As we contemplate and inevitably encounter death, songs are one way that God graciously enables us to persevere. Death certainly seems like something each person faces alone, but memories of corporate worship remind us that we are not alone. We are part of Christ’s glorious, worldwide church. “Singing together,” Witvliet writes, “is the one act that protests this solitude of suffering.”

Re-Mind Yourself Through Song

Many of us can testify of times when facing intense grief, a song lyric has bubbled its way into our minds. But what song lyrics have etched into the deepest memories of our souls? Will the songs we know help us in our fight for faith? Will they remind us of things we’ve forgotten, even re-minding us when the strength of our minds departs?

“If you spent your life leaning on Jesus, consider how happy those last days will be. He will be closer than ever.”

In large and small ways, many of us are already experiencing the effects of age. Unless Jesus calls you home earlier, you will end your life with a faltering body and mind. And if your life has been about your accomplishments, your vigor, and your fame, your final days will be very sad ones. But if your life has been one of leaning on the Lord Jesus, consider how happy those days will be. Jesus will be closer than ever.

With a song on your lips and joy in your heart, you will take your final steps of faith into his everlasting arms.

(@mwesterholm) serves at Bethlehem Baptist Church as a pastor for worship and music. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and three sons.