Symposium presenters call for return of power and meaning to Christian funerals The seeds of Bethel’s second Worship and the Arts Symposium, Accompany Them with Singing, held Nov. 16, 2013, began sprouting soon after the first one in 2011.

At the inaugural event, presenters Thomas Long of Candler School of Theology and John Ferguson of St. Olaf College were so universally well received we decided they should come back one more time, said Dale Schrag ’69, chair of the symposium planning committee.

Long’s latest book at the time was Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral. Ferguson’s enthusiastic affirmation for making that the topic sealed the decision.

Long opened the symposium with a plenary address he titled Re-claiming the Christian funeral.

I’m absolutely convinced it’s not a dark or down topic, he said. Hope in the gospel reverberates in our death practices. In an incarnational faith, those who learn how to care tenderly for the dying and dead can do so for the living.

The second plenary session opened with Ferguson’s response to Long’s book and his address.

My basic question is, What does this have to do with the arts, especially music? Ferguson said. Are we [church musicians] background music? Is the musician reduced to being an organ grinder, grinding out what we’re told to play? Am I a musician who plays in churches, or am I a church musician who is a theological resource?

A good funeral gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be—and the music accompanies us, Long added. Music serves as a stabilizing, anchoring influence. Sometimes we are so fragmented theologically that only music can hold things together.

The second part of the symposium consisted of two sets of concurrent workshops—preceded by a 45-minute hymn sing from Hymnal: A Worship Book with Ferguson leading from the organ and piano in the Administration Building chapel. Workshop topics were Anabaptist Responses, Bedside Liturgy: Rituals of Healing and Dying, Medical Ethics and the End of Life and Telling Our Funeral Stories. 

The climax of the symposium was an evening worship service, open to the public, called A Thousand Ages. This was done in the hymn festival style for which Ferguson is widely known, and included congregational hymns chosen from Hymnal: A Worship Book as well as original work by Ferguson.

Hymns, choir pieces and Scripture told a story of time, from creation as depicted in Genesis and moving through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus is the Lord of time, Long said in his sermon, titled Learning how to tell time. It’s despair, not hope, that’s running out of time.