Columnists > Judgment Calls

How sweet the sound

Enjoying an amazingly graceful interruption

Issue: "The $10 billion gamble," April 6, 2002

We have things to pray about, my friend and I-personal concerns, national concerns-so we meet at the park to bear each other's burdens to the Lord. Fall is upon us, and the air almost too chilly for comfort, but we find a table under a picnic shelter, discuss the matters weighing on our hearts, share a few Scripture passages, and join hands to pray.

I am easily sidetracked; rather than levitate into the spiritual realm, I'm much more likely to remain firmly planted in the here and now, as my thoughts go skittering after trifles. Even while clasped in prayer with a dear friend, irrelevancies intrude: Is my hand sweating? My elbow's getting sore-should I move it? Oops-forgot to mention so-and-so when it was my turn; should I add a postscript to this prayer? A jogger cuts across the park and passes nearby, a maintenance man makes broad swipes in our direction with a lawn sweeper. Since we live in a small town with a strong Baptist influence, no one intrudes-all understand what we're here for, and, we presume, respect our mission.

Then, an interruption; and it's not the sort either of us could have predicted. On the other side of the lagoon, out of sight but certainly not out of earshot, the opening wheeze of a bagpipe charges at us-not rudely, but bumptiously. Bagpipes?! Who comes to the park to practice bagpipes? (I've since learned that practicing this particular instrument outdoors is much preferable to indoors.)

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Despite its lack of nuance, I have nothing against the pipes (my maiden name is McRee, after all). But it's a most unexpected sound to interrupt a prayer. After a glance around to see where it's coming from (we can't see), and asking each other if we know who it is (we don't), we continue our prayer service with accompaniment. The piper begins with a conventional highland air, followed by "Amazing Grace" (popular at funerals and memorial services these days). But after that, the tunes that squall across the lagoon like gusty breezes are not the sort commonly associated with this medium: "The Old Rugged Cross," "Softly and Tenderly," even "Whispering Hope." The pipes lay them on a little thick, like peanut butter spread by an elbow.

But after the original jolt, we settle into the music. Anyone who knows the words can't help thinking them as the familiar melodies roll out: "I once was lost but now I'm found ..." "So I'll cherish the old rugged cross ..." "Ye who are weary, come home ..." Thoughts and longings going back 300 years or more, now freshly remembered.

I grew up on gospel songs, sung from a blue-backed hymnal with dog-eared pages and shaped notes. In time I grew away from them: "Messiah" they're not. My affection for them now owes something to nostalgia and fond memories of grandparents long gone-but the bagpipe rendition brought another dimension to mind.

Believers wrote those songs, and believers have sung them: in smoky camp meetings, in overstuffed parlors, in clapboard church buildings with creaky floors, with underconfident pump organs and overconfident sopranos. The notes haven't always rung pure and the theology was sometimes inadequate (surely that Old-Time Religion is much more than "good enough"!). Even so, those old tunes, warbled and trilled through the ages to be picked up by wheezing pipes on the shore of a park lagoon, spoke for untold thousands of a hope beyond this world.

We were going through some tough times, my friend and I, yet we still believed. Throughout the ages God has raised up believers like us, many of them called to believe through difficult times, uncertain times, even terrifying times. They wrote songs to encourage or admonish each other. Most of these songs have followed their authors to a well-deserved oblivion, but others have survived, as a testimony to the Lord's continuing work of building a church by building faith in each believer. From William Cowper and Isaac Watts to the unknown country hymn writer whose heart was broken, the old tunes look forward to a city not made with hands and a multitude no man can count, their purified voices raised in a heavenly theme: "Worthy is the lamb."

We continue in prayer, as the piper plays. An unseen cloud of witnesses may be hovering nearby, humming along. I hope so. As dark as the world may appear, as unlikely or transient our faith, we journey on, looking forward to the day we'll be singing with them.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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