Surrounded by the old hymns

by Bill Pearson

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. — Proverbs 22:6

I did not understand the way I was feeling this day. I was stopped up. My throat felt constricted. Yes, I had had a bad go with allergies this entire summer. My eyes were constantly running. I had taken all the usual remedies but with no relief.

It would soon be my time to speak and I tried again to clear my throat. I was unsuccessful this time as I had been all day.

For many years, my voice had been my work, radio and television for a large part of it. My voice had never failed me. Lately, I had felt my voice betraying me. “I told them I could do this segment of the program,” I whispered to myself. Good. At least I can still whisper. I wondered if at age eighty-one I had spoken my last clear word. How can that be?

It was time. It took an eternity to take the couple steps to the lectern. I hit the on-switch on the battery pack attached to my belt. I wanted to flee the premises. I feared the sound of my voice. A squeak perhaps. A groan cloaked in gravel. Run! Speak! The audience awaits.

The sound I heard was that of a strained croak. But at least it was still understandable. I continued on with opening remarks, seeking out the face of my wife to discover any fear or concern there, or perhaps I can’t see

her because she has hidden beneath the table. No. She was sitting up straight, looking reasonably normal. There were over ninety seniors in the audience. Most were part of the Senior Bible Study at our church, and some had brought guests. This was a special event, a time to come together and sing the old hymns.

After I announced how the hymn sing would proceed and introduced the musicians, I began to read the history of the first hymn, “Amazing Grace.” My reading told the story of John Newton, the converted slave trader who wrote the song.

Next was a hymn by Fanny Crosby, and I spoke of the countless hymns she wrote, throughout her life, without sight. “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. O, what a foretaste of glory divine”! After retreating again to my chair behind the lectern, my eyes went to the back of the big room and I saw a hand raised, fingers outstretched. Her eyes were closed as she sang and prayed. It’s not about me and my voice issue. Pastor Dick Peterson was leading the singing of this hymn with his big voice. His eyes were also closed as he sang the praises to his Lord and Master. Pastor Dick is in his late 80s, and listen to the passion in his voice!

My turn again. I introduced “Thanks to God for my Redeemer,” written in the 1890s by August Ludvig Storm, a firm believer in thanking God. In this hymn he

offered thanks to God twenty-six times in the three verses! I reminded us to pay attention to the many things for which we can say, “Thanks to God.”

“How Great Thou Art” came next. In preparing for the hymn sing, I learned that it was first translated from Swedish in 1925 by Professor E. Gustav Johnson. That caught my attention because “E. Gus,” as I called him, was my faculty advisor three decades later at North Park College in Chicago, when I was editor of the school newspaper. I remember him very calmly asking me, as we were discussing my weekly editorial, “Are you sure you want to say this?” And every week my answer would be “Oh, yes sir. It must be said.” I’ve re-read several of those columns in recent years and can only shake my head.

As I sat down, I was smiling with the memory of E. Gus, and those days at North Park. I was feeling better.

Pastor Greg Iverson came to the podium for a short devotional. He talked about singing hymns, those we sing about God and those we sing to God, and how easy it is to become emotionally involved even to the point of shedding tears. It is at those times we are in close contact with God—we are worshipping the Great God who created everything, and we can scarcely believe where we are, and with whom we are speaking, and then we are reminded that

He loves us, including me. The emotion is real and so we cry. It feels good to learn to let it happen, to enjoy those moments of closeness.

My thoughts are taken back seventy-five years to our Mission Covenant Church in Galesburg, Illinois. I am six or seven, sitting on the organ bench next to my mom and she is practicing for church on Sunday morning, or Sunday evening, or the prayer meeting Wednesday night. She loved the hymns. I’d be watching her hands, her feet, listening to the beautiful sounds and then realize she was crying, tears rolling down her cheeks into her cotton dress. And then she’d hit that one chord and she couldn’t continue. She’d put her arms around me and pull me close. I remember that she would rest her chin on the top of my head while holding me, her tears baptizing me again.

During those moments, I would look up into the choir loft to where dad always sat. He was a tenor and his best friend, Arvid, sat next to him. This church that was founded in the 1860s was our second home. The hymns surrounded us always, whether in church or not. Mom’s grand piano at home kept us in church music every waking moment.

The next hymn we would sing was, “Jesus Loves Me.” All the years of my life, how many times have I sung this hymn, hummed the tune while driving somewhere or walking into a meeting? This one has been a part of me since those days on the organ bench, or in the third pew on the left. My sister and I sat in that pew alone until the choir came down to sit with family for the message. Mom and Dad would join us. Mom would pass me a note—“How’d I do?” I’d usually print “U did good,” or “herd one bad one.”

By the time Pastor Greg concluded his devotional, I had experienced a heaven of memories back in Galesburg. Was it allergies that had constricted my throat, or was it my history with the hymns of the church?

As I was saying the last words of introduction to “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” I saw my folks sitting out there, Margaret and Cliff. As the singing began, I turned for another look—no, it wasn’t them.

Horatio Spafford, a Chicago businessman, wrote the next hymn following a horrendous personal loss—four daughters drowned when their ship sank into the Atlantic. How the man could write, “It is Well with My Soul,” after such a loss! He must have known Jesus well. Beautiful words that fill the heart, mind, and soul with thankfulness. It is equally hard to sing when the heart is filled with thankfulness or grief.

Our final hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” was an Easter Hymn, Charles Wesley’s meditation on Matthew 28:6. As we began, everyone slowly rose to their feet. The Alleluias rolled through the hall. “Made like him, like Him we rise; Alleluia. Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia.”

I sat down in the chair behind the lectern. I took a deep breath and then I knew. Bring up a child in the right way and he will never forget. I’m right where I want to be. It matters not if my voice is clear as a bell. Today has reminded me of how my Mom and Dad raised me, in the church, music, tears, listening to the good words whether spoken or in song, the right and proper feelings, a passion for God. Margaret and Cliff, thanks for bringing me up as you did.