Beechgrove Church was a large parish church and its parish was enormous. Some of the families with whom I dealt after the death of a loved one were active members of the church and I knew them well; some only showed up for Christmas Eve; some had not entered the doors of any church since their baptism; some had never been baptized. According to Scottish law, we were required to provide the essential ecclesial services of funerals and weddings for anyone in the parish who asked.
Some ministers chafed at this law. And, for good reason. In a large parish, it meant that you had multiple funerals on many weeks. And this did steal away valuable time ministers might have dedicated to so many other aspects of the life and ministry of their congregations. But I came to appreciate the wisdom of this law.
It gave me an opportunity to serve as the minister to people who otherwise might never hear the comfort of the gospel, who might never be exposed to the power of God’s love expressed in the Psalms and the hymns of the church.
What particularly struck me was that when given the choice of biblical texts (and I always wanted the family to choose biblical texts important to them), every single family, whether active in church or not, asked for Psalm 23. It was so deeply embedded in the culture that even the unchurched knew about it.
We would read it, and pray it, and we always sang it. And the hymn version of Psalm 23 I came most to love was the great paraphrase by Isaac Watts.
“The sure provision of my God
“There would I find a settled rest,
For so many of the families who gathered to bury loved ones, this text sounded a theme previously unfamiliar to them. In the House of the Lord, we are not strangers, nor even welcome guests, we are God’s beloved children, “at home.”
Those who came to bury their loved ones heard, sometimes for the first time, that their relationship with God is not defined by keeping some sort of contract whereby God will act graciously toward us if and only if we enter into a legal transaction with him, promising to believe certain things, and do certain things, and reject certain other things. Instead they heard the great good news that Jesus Christ came into the world to reveal God’s loving heart toward us, a heart more abundantly gracious than we can imagine. Our relationship with God, in the terminology of one of Scotland’s greatest theologians, is filial, not legal.
This coming Sunday is our annual Scottish Heritage Sunday. It coincides with Reformation Sunday which commemorates the beginning of the Protestant Reformation which swept across Europe in the sixteenth century. Today of all days, it is important for us to remember: It isn’t guilt or fear that drive us to God, it’s love that draws us. And this Sunday we will sing what I suspect is the best-known hymn in Scotland.