In recent weeks here at TGC, there have been a couple posts on the subject of death and death panels. I wanted to add to that conversation with some personal reflections on the topic as it relates to worship.
Saturday, January 15, marked the six-year anniversary of the sinking of The Big Valley, a crab fishing vessel lost in the Bering Sea. Of the seven crew members aboard, only Cache Seel survived. Gary Edwards, Danny Vermeersch, Josias Luna, Carlos Rivera, and Aaron Marrs all died. The bodies of Aaron, Gary, and Josias were lost at sea. Faithful fans of Deadliest Catch may recognize the name of the boat, as its sinking was covered in season one.
My connection is much more personal. Aaron Marrs was one of my closest friends, though to be honest, there are probably several hundred people who could make that claim about Aaron. That’s the type of person he was. More than a thousand people showed up for his funeral in Louisville. He was absolutely larger than life: an artist, graphic designer, punk rock singer, and filmmaker. It was his work in film that led him to Alaska, shooting his own documentary about the crab fishing industry. His work led to a friendship with The Big Valley’s captain, and that friendship led to a spot on the crew. The sizeable earnings from his journey would have funded the remnant of his film project.
At the time of the boat’s sinking, I was working on a recording project called These Things I Remember. It was our church’s attempt to embrace the language and emotions of the Psalms, exploring themes like confession and lament that were often absent from the praise choruses with which we’d grown up. Aaron’s death gave the project a whole new sense of urgency. One song read:
So I ask, “How long,
Will you hide your face,
from your child who desperately wants to see?”
So I ask, “How long,
will I wait for your hand?”
I will wait, no matter how long I will wait.
From the depths I cry
In the darkest night of my soul
Though I know your light will soon break through.
We began that project months before, with a somewhat vague sense of the necessity of embracing biblical language. Those words were my comfort in the aftermath of losing Aaron.
On January 15, my wife texted me a photo of Aaron with the caption “six years ago today.” The emotions hit me afresh, and in an instant, I re-experienced the ache of losing my friend. My mind flashed through the things he’d missed—the birth of my children, the weddings of friends. Words failed me. I thought of darkness of that night on the Bering Sea, the cold waters, and anger boiled at the knowledge that the accident was probably preventable. Spafford’s line—“sorrows like sea billows”—means far more if you’ve ever lost a loved one to the deeps.
Kevin Twit, founder of Indelible Grace Music and a pastor with Reformed University Fellowship, once told me about a forum he attended. A collection of publishers from Christian contemporary music were on a panel, including Kevin, and each was asked to share what they looked for in a song. The answers were largely what you often hear in songwriting forums—“melodies that stick with you,” “good hooks,” and “catchy choruses.” But Kevin’s answer was different. “I look for songs that help my students prepare for their encounter with death.”
Harold Best once commented that in the wake of 9/11, Contemporary Christian Music had almost nothing to say, and churches had to return to the hymns to give voice to the emotions that surfaced in the aftermath of that dark day.
The Psalms stare death in the face. They cry out against it, asking God not to abandon them. Our historic hymns make death and resurrection common fodder. And though I’ll be quick to admit that there are some wonderful exceptions to this truth, most contemporary praise music avoids the topic like the plague, as they do repentance and lament.
Just days ago, as the Sojourn band was preparing to record another record, one of our singers unexpectedly lost her father. In a few days, she will record her parts, singing Watts’s majestic text: “My God has broke the serpent’s teeth, and death has lost its sting.” In the back of my mind, I can’t help but think that as much as I need her to sing those words (so I can finish the record), she needs to sing them even more.
In the world since Adam, we’re faced with the reality of death. One can be distracted from it, but no one cannot avoid it. Of all the places that provide such distraction—the endless white-washed posturing of social media, mind-numbing consumerism at the mall, and the plastic noise of entertainment—the church should refuse to join suit. Instead, we need to faithfully equip the saints to see death for what it is, simultaneously seeing it as the mark of sin on a fallen world, and as merely a gateway for those who trust in the risen Savior. Tragic, but not final. Inevitable, but defeated.
The news streams with tragedy, and it will continue to do so. As our congregation gathers on Sunday, they come from tragedy. They hear a bad prognosis, or receive terrible late night phone calls. Places at the dinner table or bedroom are suddenly unoccupied, and the hardship of daily life is now a little colder, darker, and weightier. What are we asking them to sing? What words are we putting in their mouths? How do they pray in a dry and weary land, where there seems to be no water?