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I don’t believe I will ever sing “Blessed Assurance” without thinking of my father. He never mentioned that hymn as being among his top ten or certainly his all-time favorite. I don’t know that he ever raised his hand to pick it from the Psalter in a hymn sing, and the fact is that I don’t even know that he liked it. But to my mind–and even to my senses–that hymn will always conjure him. We sing it, and I see him.
I like that. I like rich associations, which is probably one of the reasons–plus ordinary old- age orneriness -that I sometimes roll my eyes at 17-year-old troubadours mouthing a microphone and telling us we’re all going to try another new song this week because, golly-gee, we like it.
I watched my father sing “Blessed Assurance” once upon a time when his singing that old hymn, lovingly, simply taught me grace. I can explain it in no other way. Those two words are on his gravestone as a matter of fact. My mother must have had it carved there. We sang it at his funeral. My sisters and I all wanted it sung.
So when I sing it, I think of him and his legacy of faith. The hymn is a medium, an avenue to a long and treasured story.
Others hymns have similar resonance. None are quite so personal, but images arise every time I turn the hymnal to “Nearer my God to Thee” because I was just a little boy when I saw some old rendition of the Titanic story. It’s hardly among anyone’s favorites anymore, but all I need is a mention the title and my mind plays the scene on deck when passengers ready themselves for their Maker, an effect revisited, in fact, by a solo violin in James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster.
“Now Thank We All Our God” was written from the bloody mess of the Thirty Years War by a Lutheran pastor who conducted as many as 50 funerals a day because of the horrors within the walls of a besieged city in which he was the only pastor to survive. I swear that hymn makes my own Thanksgivings more meaningful.
“Peace Like a River” makes me cry every last time it’s sung. The man who wrote it was doing what he thought to be God’s work, when he lost his daughters and his wife at sea, on their way to help Dwight Moody with his evangelistic outreach. That he could wrote those words–“it is well with my soul”–is to me as unthinkable as it is unforgettable.
Reciting the first q and a of the Heidelberg Catechism has similarly eternal echoes. I can’t do it without half my life replaying.
I see Martin Luther on his bloody knees or hurling his ink well at the devil when, sometime in late October, we often sing “A Mighty Fortress.” Once, years ago, when our entire community worshiped together on Reformation Day and the Lutherans were in charge, I felt like a rich man, not only because I loved that old hymn, but also because I was in the presence of two Lutheran congregations who almost had to love it even more than I did. What a treasure.
Last week I listened to Diet Eman tell her story of the Dutch Resistance again, on tape, after nearly twenty years, a story I wrote for her in Things We Couldn’t Say. It’s really amazing what I missed, what I heard as if for the first time.
Hein Seitsma, her fiance, was arrested for underground work. He didn’t come back. At the end of the war, weeks passed before people could sift through the rubble, make sense of the ledger books of Dachau and a thousand other death camps, before anyone who survived could know which of their loved ones didn’t. She never talked much about that span of months, about what she was feeling when Hein didn’t show up. The war had made her a realist, enough of a realist not to fantasize. Even so, she must have held out possibilities; but with every day that passed, the truth became more defiant.
Then she heard. He had died. Starvation or whatever. Dachau. Mid-winter, 1945.
Then the stories started. Survivors who didn’t succumb wanted her to know what a witness he’d been in those darkest hours, what a glory he’d spread on their way through the horrors. She heard from those who must have pledged themselves not to forget, to remember, to bring whatever peace they could to those who loved the men and women, the millions, who didn’t return.
And one of them told her he loved to sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” One of them told her that sometimes in the barracks, hope pretty much gone, he’d lead them in yet another rendition of that fine Lutheran hymn, “a bulwark never failing.”
When I listened once again to her tell her story, I hadn’t forgotten the way she treasures the stories about him she heard from those survivors. I remember her great comfort.
But I didn’t remember the story of that particular hymn. Now, having heard it again, I don’t think I will. I don’t think I can.