Every Sunday the same song. No, really. Every Sunday. Every time there was an opportunity for what Black Baptists call “devotions,” the opening during which everyone could participate with a hymn or a prayer, a scripture or a testimony. I noticed that most people chose the same type each time. And within that choice, it was usually the same thing. The same scripture. The same testimony. The same prayer and, my goodness, much to my chagrin, the same song.
I was the eight-year-old church musician who’d pretty much conquered the hymnal and liked them all. One of my favorite pastimes was to sit in my Grandma Sue’s parlor and play through the Baptist Standard Hymnal, the green one with the orange edges on the pages – from Holy Holy Holy to the chants in the back that we hardly ever used at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Baltimore.
So how could these people, my elders, many of them my relatives, sing the same song every Sunday.
For Grandma Sue, it was “Thou Thinkest Lord of Me.” For Mrs. Hattie Childs, it was “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad.” For Deacon Melvin Norman, it was not in a song, but in his prayer, “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah.” For Deacon George Childs, it was the spiritual, “Shine on Me.”
And for someone who came into my life much later, Deacon Harvey Johnson, it was “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine.”
Every Sunday the same song. I couldn’t imagine the reason for such a narrow choice. I couldn’t imagine how one of them hadn’t been captured by the poetry of “How Tedious and Tasteless the Hours When Jesus No Longer I see,” or the symmetry of “Stand By Me.”
I couldn’t understand how not one of them had gotten caught up in the history of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” or the promise of “I Dreamed I Went to a City Called Holy.”
But then I grew up. And got married. And then my Herbie and I began to raise our four children. And then they became teenagers. And life began to throw curves at us and create unseen bends in the road. And I sang in the happy times, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” And I sang in jubilant times, “Oh Happy Day.”
And I sang in turbulent times, “The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow.” I groaned in excruciating times, “Oh Lord, Remember Me.”
And as I grew into the realization of God’s majesty, I turned to page one, which was already in my heart by then, verse after verse, “Holy Holy Holy,” and I humbly bowed heart and knee in His presence. Or I offered a wave along with “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.”
I grew into the realization that the songs freely emerged from the saved repertoire as tide and times demanded and that each brought the joy or relief needed.
And I began to understand the time of “devotions” that doesn’t exist in many churches any more. And my thoughts went back to the Elders of my childhood and their one song. And I began to understand the necessity of the one song.
And it couldn’t just be any old song. It had to have been the one that they’d serenely hummed in the night while their child was desperately ill. It had to have been the one that calmed the savage breast while racists lobbed life threatening expletives. It had to have been the one that propelled them down the aisle as they gave their hands to the preacher and their lives to the Lord. It had to have been the one that kept them company when they were all alone in a brand new job, on a train to a new city, on a path to a new and challenging exploit.
It had to have been that one.
And when the saints when home to be with the Lord, at the service of triumph, the ones who were left behind knew exactly which song to choose for Deacon Johnson, for Deacon Norman, for Hattie Childs, for Susan (Grandma Sue) Fuller.
It was that same song. And it was sung with new understanding as it saluted the life that had been well lived, the life that had been a testament to the goodness and mercy of God, the life that had been a sign of the kingdom and had enticed many a soul to get on board.
It was that same song that gave the final salute as the gates of heaven opened up to receive the triumphant Saint whose song had saved an entire generation.