A Monotone Saint

I have a little story to tell that has nothing to do with world or national events, much as these have been on my mind. It has to do with my father. Recently I was reminded of some things I loved about him, and of why I’m thankful for the blessing of those who have gone before us in the faith. Since Dad was a Lutheran Pastor, you may find yourself nodding or smiling if you are one of my Lutheran friends, but even if you are not, I hope a few moments reading this will be time well spent!

During a visit last weekend to our son’s apartment, my husband asked Ted if he had a hymnal.  Ted immediately hopped up, went to his bookshelf, and pulled down a copy of the Lutheran Service Book.  He held it up for a moment so that we could see that it also had his name printed on the cover.  Then, as he flipped it open to the inside front cover, my eyes suddenly blurred with tears.  There, in Dad’s familiar handwriting, was a message he had inscribed to Ted when he and Mom presented the hymnal to Ted for his confirmation. 

It was a note like countless notes Dad had written inside of birthday and anniversary cards, in correspondence on half-sheets of paper, or—as in Ted’s hymnal—inside the covers of books, Bibles, hymnals, and catechisms that he and Mom gave as gifts over the years. Dad seemed never to miss an opportunity to offer a few words of encouragement in faith and in life—sometimes presenting us with resources to reinforce that encouragement, and sometimes simply with his words alone.

The message he wrote inside Ted’s hymnal was characteristic—nothing earthshaking, perhaps, but it was typical that he would remind us of God’s blessings, point us to Jesus, and add a few words to build us up in our life of faith:

Confirmation 2008

Dear Ted,

God has blessed you by giving you a good Christian father and mother and two fine sisters.  But you are especially blessed by the love he has shown you by making you his child.

May this hymnal be one way you keep fresh in your heart and mind the love God has shown you in Jesus.

Much love,

Grandma and Grandpa Lange

And there was always “much love.” His spoken equivalent to this greeting was, “Love you much!”  I really miss hearing him say that….

Dad died in July, 2017. That’s more than three years ago, and the early days of grief in which tears flowed at every reminder of him have mostly passed.  But a memory, even—or maybe especially—a fond and joyous one, does still knock me back a bit with a wave of emotion. To be reminded of Dad’s inscriptions is one of those fond and joyous memories, but perhaps it was especially moving to see it in a hymnal, and one for my own son. Hymns were a big part of our family life when we were growing up. Dad loved to sing, and he loved hymns. Hymns of substance, with lots of stanzas to fully elaborate on their Biblical basis, were some of his favorites but he would sing them all with gusto.

My brothers and I were still quite young when Dad and Mom began the practice of singing a hymn verse as part of our devotions around the dinner table—something I know had also been done in Dad’s childhood home. We took turns choosing a different hymn each week and over time developed favorites, of course, but we steadily learned a good portion of the hymns in the “old” hymnal. It may have been something of a miracle, though, that we learned them properly because without benefit of accompaniment Dad often changed keys several times during the course of a song, and—as I say—he sang with gusto (probably we have Mom to thank for keeping things on track, even if we did not hear her voice over Dad’s).

I don’t think Dad had any illusions about his singing. When Ted was in college, he interviewed Dad about his life—part of a project for a sociology class. Dad related that his family was musical, with many of them playing instruments and singing.  Dad played an instrument, but “couldn’t hold a tone” when it came to singing. While he was in high school, in fact, he was in the “monotone choir.” Ted had a chuckle about that. Dad’s high school was a prep school for future Lutheran pastors and teachers (now St. Paul’s Lutheran High School in Concordia, Missouri). All the students were boys in those days.  As Dad told it, the monotone choir was for people who liked to sing but weren’t chosen to be part of the school choir. There apparently were quite a few of these singers! Being in this choir, he said, was lots of fun, and clearly added to his enjoyment, musical knowledge, and confidence—not to mention the repertoire of hymns and songs that remained with him throughout his life.

As a pastor, Dad was always eager to add to the musical experience of church services, but I think he especially enjoyed festival services.  These included holidays during the church year as well as special services for special events.  In all three of the places where he served while as I was growing up, Dad was involved in the building of a new church building. I sometimes think new buildings were exciting to him partly because they were an opportunity to have special services for groundbreaking, cornerstone laying, and dedicating of the new facility.  These celebrations of the beginning, progress, and completion of a building where God’s people would gather for worship always seemed to get Dad’s blood pumping.

This Sunday, November 1, is the church festival of “All Saints Day” throughout the Christian world, as it has been for centuries.  It is a day when we remember and give thanks for those who have died in the faith, recognizing that we are made holy, and therefore saints, by the perfect life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus.  Trusting in his promise that this work of Jesus brings forgiveness of our sins, we celebrate the departed who held fast to this promise, themselves.  

Our church has a tradition, on All Saints Day, of reading the names of members who have died in the year since the previous All Saints Day. This simple reading of the roll becomes a moving and emotional process as groups of names are read, interspersed with the singing of this verse,

“All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song:  Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!” 

One of the final names on our list this year will be that of a precious young boy, whose accidental and tragic death just a few days ago has affected many in our congregation—a saint who, according to his classmates (as told me by their teacher), can now ask God all the questions they’ve been wondering about!

In the last three years, as I’ve listened to the names being read and as we sing the verse and the “Alleluias,” my thoughts have always gone to Dad—Dad who is now singing to his heart’s content, and no doubt in perfect tune as he “makes his song” in the heavenly choirs—no longer a monotone. It occurs to me that, just as Dad had no illusions about his singing, he never had any illusions about his own goodness or perfection. He would readily admit that, left to his own devices, he was a “monotone” in life as well, having no ability of his own to live as God would want him to, and certainly no ability to merit heaven. But now, by God’s grace, Dad is enjoying a perfect existence as “St. Bob” for all eternity. 

Dad was sure that even a monotone can sing with gusto, and that even a sinner—as he knew he was—can live with gusto for God and for others, because of Jesus. As evidenced by notes like the one in Ted’s hymnal, he was eager to encourage that same certainty in others.  

One of the hymns we sang on Sunday was a favorite of his, and I’m sharing it here, as a bit of encouragement from St. Bob to you:

Christ be my Leader by night as by day;

Safe through the darkness, for He is the way,

Gladly I follow, my future His care,

Darkness is daylight when Jesus is there.

Christ be my Teacher in age as in youth,

Drifting or doubting for He is the truth.

Grant me to trust Him; though shifting as sand,

Doubt cannot daunt me; in Jesus I stand.

Christ be my Savior in calm as in strife;

Death cannot hold me, for He is the life.

Nor darkness nor doubting nor sin and its stain

Can touch my salvation:

With Jesus I reign.

Dad and I waiting patiently for a festival service to begin