I recall seeing my grandfather sitting in a chair in the family room of the old Lubber’s farm, it must have been 1965 or so. It was a Sunday and I recall hearing hymns on the radio, he was sitting there quietly with his eyes closed, his hands folded loosely over his belly. I wasn’t sure if he was sleeping or peacefully listening to the music. “Come home, come home, it’s suppertime” – the words tumbled out of the old, green, Motorola radio. I can still see the gold tuning dial with the pointer facing both 10 and 4 o’clock.
Last night I was at the evening church service and that flashback hit me somewhere between the second and third verse of “Softly and Tenderly”... why should we linger and heed not his mercies… It was a warm, beautiful memory that was prompted by a tune that I despised when I was a teenager. For my grandfather, as a young boy that would have been a relatively new song. Written in the 1880’s and no doubt played by my grandmother on the old pump-organ at the church in East Saugatuck, a contemporary tune that had some “stickiness”.
I’ve seen that same warm memory wash back over residents in nursing homes, people who you’d think were “in absentia”, no longer mentally in the building. As a deacon, I had the duty of occasionally delivering a Wednesday evening service at the home in Hudsonville. I learned quickly that two items were more important than whatever words I thought the Holy Spirit was imparting on my lips: children and music. Many times I witnessed a resident who was wheeled into the room, strapped into a chair, drool falling from her lips, eyes closed, body slumped heavily to the west, legs – spindly and twisted beneath her and held aloft only by the foot pads of the wheel chair. The attendant would lock the wheels of the chair, as if this woman may suddenly awake and decide to make a break for it. Head off to the river for one last dip in the cool water – one last mouthful of plump blackberries, one last stolen kiss from the young boy that she’d eventually end up spending the next 70 years with.
This woman would be there, unresponsive and uncaring of the activity around her. After an opening prayer, the gent who agreed to play the organ would play the first 8 chords from “The Old Rugged Cross”, and a most amazing transformation would occur. She and a half-dozen like her would immediately open their mouths and sing. Every word perfectly formed, each stanza coherently recited. The beauty and strength of the voices coming from the physical void before me was dissonant, a seeming contradiction, like she was reverse lip-synching the hymn. While I stumbled along in the hymnal, they worked without a net, having spent their lives memorizing each song, each refrain, each rest – perfectly timed.
Even my holding their hands and talking with them had little effect, but have one of my children’s voices warble up and a second coming was in the offing. Like the voice of the Lord at the rapture, these incoherent and apparently spent individuals would sprout new growth, come to life. They’d chat with my sons, laugh with joy, clap their hands. To see the sparkle in their eyes was more refreshing to my soul than the sparkle of sunshine on water. They spent a lifetime absorbing things were meaningful, letting them seep deep into their soul like water in a barrel cactus – waiting for the coming dry season.
Perhaps that’s what my grandfather was dong on that Sunday afternoon – he was investing in his future, storing away that precious water for a day when it would be the only hope of survival. For me, the flashback of that day, prompted by a service that’s dwindling in popularity with music that’s disappearing at an equal pace – was a reminder of the dry times to come. For me, I have the peace of knowing those old hymns. I worry for my children, their music – the message filled with feel-good chants of “la, la, la, fill me, fill me, fill me, now here, now here, Lord” while contemporary and necessary, are simply insufficient.
Our world is rapidly dismissing the sufficient for the necessary, choosing convenience over cultivated, a warm body in place of a discerning choice. Perhaps my grandfather had it right – sit back, close your eyes, listen to some music – a much wiser investment.