Today we sang hymns while gathered around my mother-in-law’s sickbed. Even the hospice nurse joined in. Everyone loves the hymns. Everyone.
As a boy my favorite songs were the ones found within the white-covered hymnals kept on the backs of the wooden pews. These weathered books were full of rich melodies. Half my childhood took place in those books.
I come from people who never called it “worship music,” neither did we have Power Point lyrics projected on screens, or on-staff graphics designers handling all 18 of our social media accounts.
No. When it came to music, in those days we just called it “song singing.” Plain and simple. You stood; you sang reverently with fellow Baptists. No stage lights. No fog machines. If some unfortunate soul mistakenly clapped during an uptempo number, he or she was dragged behind the church and beheaded.
Everyone has their favorite hymns, of course. My granny’s favorite was “Old Rugged Cross.” Another golden standard is “In the Garden.” And you can’t beat “Amazing Grace,” “Blessed Assurance,” “How Great Thou Art,” or “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”
And then you have the deepwater Baptist specific hymns of my childhood. We sang these songs at the end of service when we begged sinners to repent so we could all go to lunch.
We sang songs like “Almost Persuaded,” and “Eternity, Eternity, Where Will You Spend Eternity?” and “Lord, I Don’t Want to Burn In Hell.”
But no hymn—and I mean no hymn—does it for me like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” It is one of my all-time favorites.
I began singing in church when I was 8 years old. I started playing piano at age 9. I can’t read a lick of music, and I’m not a great musician. But in a tiny congregation with a median age of 75, you don’t have to be. If you show one nanoscopic shred of musical talent in a small church, they make you sing at every wedding, funeral, offertory, Wednesday night meeting, youth group car wash, and bowling tournament.
Thus, I have played hymns at one thousand-and-one funerals. I’ve picked guitar at countless gravesides. I have sung at so many weddings that I don’t care if I ever see another chocolate fondue fountain again.
And even after all that singing, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” remains my favorite hymn.
I first memorized the tune when I was a 12-year-old. I learned it for a wedding held at a rural Methodist church. A young widow and widower were getting married and asked me to sing at their ceremony. Their spouses had recently died and they had lots of children—nine kids between them both.
The most touching elements of the humble service were the framed photos of the deceased spouses beside the altar. Each photograph was adorned in white flowers and lit candles. I remember there was a unique mixture of grief and love within that chapel. Everyone could feel it.
Anyway, I had one job during the ceremony. I was supposed to sing all three verses of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” with Miss Hazel playing piano behind me.
My cue was to wait for the preacher to give me The Nod.
My big moment came after the vows. When the old preacher nodded, I cleared my throat.
I totally blanked out.
My body froze. I couldn’t remember anything. No words. No melody. Squat.
In this moment of horror, don’t ask me why, but I started weeping. And even at this age I’m not sure if I was crying because I was embarrassed or because I was moved. Or maybe it was because my own father had recently died.
Either way, when a 12-year-old starts sobbing onstage at your wedding, your special day has pretty much gone to heck.
Except that didn’t happen.
Without missing a step, the old Methodist preacher sidled up beside me and put his arm around my shoulder. He began singing in a baritone voice. As he sang, I could see his eyes were bright and a little moist.
“What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
“Leaning on the everlasting arms…”
I began signing along. So did the happy couple. Then the whole congregation. And I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but it was a profound experience that I never forgot.
When the ceremony was over, the preacher came to find me. And I just knew what he was going to do. He was going to do what preachers do: make an object lesson out of the whole ordeal.
He was going to act pious and say something about how unseen arms were holding us during our hours of great need. He was going to say that just when we thought we were finished, a miracle arrived and pulled us through.
But no. Instead, the old Methodist slapped my shoulder and said, “Boy, kid, you really muffed that one.”
And we both started laughing.
Then he pulled me into a hug with his two spindly old arms and said, “That old song always makes me cry.”
And even after all these years, today I realized that the song still does the same to me.