My sister-in-law Pat plays great old hymns on the upright piano in her living room when we have family gatherings, and it lifts my spirits and takes me back to the little church where I grew up. Four of Regina’s seven siblings live in this area, and we get together with them and their spouses a few times a year to play fiercely competitive Rook games, laugh a lot, catch up on family news and enjoy some good food. When Don and Pat host the activities, we get the additional treat of Pat playing some of our favorite hymns on the piano. We have all been church-going folks since childhood, and that sacred music has seeped into our souls. Sometimes I send special requests for hymns a few days before the gatherings.
A few weeks ago, I texted asking for At the Cross, Blessed Assurance and In the Garden, and she played them all. Pat found the songs in the green Baptist Hymnals and the stacks of sheet music that she keeps in the compartment of her piano bench. I like to look through the music when we are listening to the hymns. We usually play a couple of games of Rook, take a break for dinner, listen to the piano music while we have dessert and play another game of cards. As much as I like sweets, the hymns are even more satisfying than the pies and cakes. The Rook games are pretty intense, and they remind me of all those summer nights that my parents had neighbors over to play Rook on our screened-in front porch. I can still hear echoes of the laughter and the accusations that my dad was cheating. He would flap his arms just a little to let his partner know that he had the Rook, or the bird as they called it, and stick out the tip of his tongue to indicate that he had a lot of red cards. Regina’s family members are outdoors types who like to show each other their new handguns, rifle scopes and skinning knives, so I am deeply afraid of being caught cheating in a Rook game. The sounds of old hymns ringing through the house when we play Rook remind me of my boyhood days at Calvary Baptist Church in Springhill where I fell in love with that kind of music.
A lady in a big hat played the black upright piano while Brother James Carraway led the congregation in his booming bass voice on hymns like Old Rugged Cross and What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and the thin wooden walls of the church would shake. Called the Singing Engineer because his main job was driving a train for the local railroad company, Brother Carraway did solos every couple of weeks of Nail Scarred Hand to satisfy church members who kept requesting it. We have a really good pianist at our church in Natchitoches, and there are musicians there from time to time who play guitars, cellos, drums, flutes and other instruments. All those different sounds mixed in with hymns just expand my appreciation of church music. My sons and grandson brought tears to my eyes when they played guitars and sang I’ll Fly Away at my mother’s funeral. Regina’s cousin, who played the piano with flourishes like Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley, did Precious Memories at her mother’s services, and I loved it. I am inspired and heartened by any kind of church music. Old hymns like Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, Great is Thy Faithfulness and such modern sacred songs as In Christ Alone, 10,000 Reasons and Because He Lives are powerful and touching.
Words to many hymns stick in my heart, like the chorus that my friend Tom Murchison quoted to me so often, “But I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded, that He is able, to keep that which I have committed, unto Him against that Day.” I have memorized those words as Tom did. The history and background stories of some old hymns add to the power of the songs. After his son died and he lost a fortune in real estate holdings in the Chicago Fire in the 1870’s, Horatio Spafford had four daughters drown in a shipwreck on a voyage to Europe.
As Spafford later sailed over the area in the Atlantic Ocean where the tragedy occurred, he wrote the hymn that includes the words, “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.” That will be on my list of requests for Pat to play at our next family get-together.