The following sermon was offered as part of the celebration of life for Shirley Stewart, who passed on July 4th after a short but intense battle with cancer. Shirley had a long-time connection to St. George's, and had a deep love for singing--especially classic hymns. Shirley will be deeply missed.
July 23, 2015
Memorial for Shirley Stewart
"How Can We Keep from Singing"
Rev. Ryan Slifka
Our scripture passage for afternoon comes from the book of Psalms. Which is the song and prayer book of the bible. It’s stood at the center of Jewish and Christian worship for thousands of years. Which we still sing and say today.
The 30th Psalm is not just any prayer, though. It is a prayer of thanksgiving for deliverance. “I extol you, O Lord,” it says,” for you have drawn me up.” “I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.” “You restored me to life from among those gone down to the pit.” “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” And “You have turned my mourning in to dancing.”
While this is one of my favorite of the Psalms, I have to admit that it is a strange text to be reading for a Memorial Service. Any Memorial Service. Because when it comes to the death of a loved one, offering praise and thanksgiving for deliverance is probably the last things on any of our minds.
I met Shirley Stewart three times. A couple times at church—before her diagnosis. And once late last month. In the hospital room, only days before she died. While the psalmist may have seen recovery, and may have the light of day break into the darkness of a seemingly endless night, Shirley did not have such a privilege. We are not able to see beyond the point of our own deaths. We go down to the pit. But we have no way in seeing a way out. Either when we die. Or when our loved ones die. The singer of this psalm may sing joyful praise with confidence. But how can we sing this same song? It’s hard to hear reassurance that things will get better for us. When in death, the face of God remains hidden.
But it was a curious thing when I went to visit Shirley that last time. When I walked in to her room she was asleep. She was on oxygen, intravenous and all those other things that come with an illness like hers. Since she was sleeping, I wrote a note for her saying I was there. I went to leave it on a pile of books by her bedside. Which I assumed were there to pass her time in the hospital. What I noticed, though, was that it wasn’t just any pile of books. It was a pile of old hymn books. After a polite *cough* *cough* to see if she was in a deep sleep, her eyes opened. I apologized, telling her that I didn’t mean to wake her up. And then we got to talking a bit. I asked about the hymn books. And Shirley told me she was having trouble deciding which hymns would be sung at her Memorial Service.
We got to talking some more, and I learned about her passion for music. About how she loved singing. And that she loved the church choir at St. George’s, and at Kyle United Church in Saskatchewan. And just about every person I’ve talk to has mentioned how much she liked singing. And how much hymns meant to her. Especially the old ones.
There’s this sense that, for Shirley, music was her closest connection to the divine. Singing brought her close to God in a way that other things didn’t. And singing no doubt helped carry her through life’s struggles—from multiple sclerosis. To cancer the first time. And then to this final time. Even though Shirley did not have the privilege of seeing what awaited her beyond death, she faced her own death with such dignity, such calm, and such courage. Even when she couldn’t sing any more, even the idea of singing could still bring her such joy. And lift her up. Even in the midst of such troubles.
Truth be told, neither the singer of these songs, nor I knows what—if anything—lies for us beyond death. For us, or for Shirley. As the Apostle Paul writes, “we see as through a glass darkly.” But in the Christian tradition we continue to sing these songs of praise even in our darkest times, not because hope in the face of death is common sense. Or that we have airtight proof or irrefutable evidence. Or even just because the Bible tells us so. We do so because we have encountered a mysterious love and a grace that has carried us through the worst of times. A redeeming love. An unbreakable love. And because we have met this love, we believe that it promises to carry us, to hold us, and to never let us go. The same love that carried Christ to the other side of a cross. Even when we go down to the pit of death.
Brothers and sisters, gathered friends and family. We can stand here today, even in the midst of our own pain, and sing songs, give thanks, and offer praise, even in the midst of our hurt and our sorrow because we have seen this love in the flesh. This is the love that touched and shone forth in Shirley’s life. And continues to shine forth in our own in times of darkness. One that is already at healing our pain. One that is pulling us out of our deepest pits. One that is at work turning our own morning in to dancing. And so we entrust ourselves in life to God’s love and keeping. As we now entrust Shirley to God in death.
Because in life. And in death. And in life beyond death. God is with us. We are not alone. So how can we keep from singing? Amen.
 From Robert S. Lowry’s famous gospel hymn “My Life Flows On,” which was the beautiful solo following the sermon performed by our musician Eve Mark: “My life flows on in endless song, above earth's lamentation. I hear the sweet, though far off hymn that hails a new creation. Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing: It finds an echo in my soul -how can I keep from singing?”