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, and I don’t know that he ever raised his hand to pick it from the Psalter in a hymn sing. The fact is, 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 get 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 that moment in no other way—don’t ask for more. 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, interestingly, for different reasons but a similar theme.
So when I sing “Blessed Assurance,” 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. Few 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. “Nearer” is 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 out of the bloody mess of the Thirty Years War by a Lutheran pastor who conducting 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. That hymn makes my own Thanksgivings more meaningful.
“Peace Like a River” makes me cry, I swear, 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.
Diet Eman, a Resistance hero during the Nazi Occupation of the Netherlands, lost her fiancé, Hein Seitsma, during the war. When the war ended, he didn’t come back from Dachau.
Weeks passed before people could sift through the rubble, make sense of the ledger books of a hundred Nazi death camps, before anyone who survived could know which of their loved ones didn’t.
Finally, she heard from those who were with him at the end. He died. Starvation or whatever. Dachau. Mid-winter, 1945.
Those who made it out of Dachau alive wanted her to know what a witness he’d been in those darkest hours, what a glory he’d spread on their way. She heard the stories 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.”
On my very speaking gig, in an out-of-the-way place in northern Ontario, I got bunked with a family of 17, the Veldhuisens, just plain tons of kids on a dairy. As if there weren’t enough around a football-field sized breakfast table, they made room for me, as well as a half-dozen kids from some other churches here for the youth shindig at which I had to speak.
In that short weekend, I found that farm family unbelievable, in part because they were so resolvedly self-sufficient, so blessed with a work ethic, and so lovingly genuine. On Saturday morning, when they told me that the guts of the steer they slaughtered (as I watched) would simply get lugged out to the bush behind the barn and dumped, I asked why. “Bears’ll scarf it all up,” the boys said.
Bears, they said.
I wrote a story and proposed a series to the Banner—this was 1980, years and years ago. Huge farm family, royally warm in one of the coldest spots on the continent. Resulted in a book actually.
Through the years our paths continued to cross—I was back up north to speak now and then, and the Veldhuisens were here for kids and grandkids who’d come to college in Iowa. I thought the world of that couple.
When Mom died, years later, I attended the funeral, and when I told his daughter how much I’d respected her parents, she smiled radiantly, proudly. “But you didn’t know them as they got older,” she said, wincing a little. “Dad was really conservative.”
“How do you mean?” I said.
“Like about music,” she said.
I hadn’t thought about her parents being uptight or close-minded. They’d immigrated from the Netherlands after World War II, raised eleventy-seven kids in the cold Canadian bush, and built a home unlike almost any other I’d ever been in. They were serious about their faith, but they could laugh like kids.
“You mean about what music you sing in church?” I asked her.
She just rolled her eyes and took a deep breath, as if she was carrying scars.
“Seriously?” I said.
“Only the last few months of his life,” she told me very pointedly, “he started finally to change.”
She looked around as if she might be overheard. “He even told me that he’d come to really like ‘In Christ Alone.’ We’d have never sung it at Mom’s funeral otherwise.”
Ever since I heard that story, I see the old Veldhuisens when I sing “In Christ Alone” I think of them—their faith, the lines they drew in the sand, and the way, eventually, they crossed them. Every time I sing it, that’s what I see.
I appreciate theological battles, and I think we’re far too lax about what we sing and how; but the brouhaha that surrounds “In Christ Alone” belongs to others because in a way that hymn’s strength has already transcended whatever weaknesses it might carry.
Every time I sing it I see that old couple with a hundred grandkids, warm as toast in a cold Ontario winter, singing a brand new song.