Songs are Musical Time Machines
Songs are musical time-machines. You hear the melody, the words wash over you, and in the blink of an eye, you’re “there.” There, hearing the song playing over the radio as your teenage girlfriend sits beside you and takes your hand in her own. There, mom and dad in the rear-view mirror, car packed to the gills, a college dormitory awaiting you. There, crying your eyes out over the break-up you thought would never happen. The music plays on and on, and you go back and back. Songs, transcendent melodies that harbor the past, pull you toward the memories of yesteryear like they were yesterday. Such is the muscle of music, holding tight in your heart the grip of the past.
For me, among the many memories that songs elicit, one that always comes back to me involves a dear elderly lady named Alvena Stein. She was a lifelong member of the congregation where I served as pastor in Wellston, Oklahoma. And she was one of those dear saints whom I could visit on my darkest, I-just-wanna-throw-in-the-towel days in the ministry, and leave an hour later with a smile on my face. Talking with her had a way of putting life in perspective, and restoring joy to my heart, every time. Her life, as with every life, had had its ups and downs. A bride at the ripe old age of sixteen, and a widow at the young age of forty-eight, Alvena knew joy and sorrow. With four daughters, and thirteen grandchildren, and plenty more great-grandchildren and other family members, she was enveloped by those whom she loved and who loved her. Such was the love of Alvena’s family that they adopted me and my family into their own while we lived among them.
The psalmist writes that our earthly lives last “seventy years, or eighty, if we have the strength.” As if proving the poet right, and showing the world that she did have that kind of strength, Alvena fought on to her eightieth year. But after a series of battles, and a gradually weakening body, it became clear that the time of her departure was drawing nigh. I visited her at home, and in the hospital, bringing her the nourishment of God’s word and Christ’s meal. And I also sang songs to her and with her, hymns that poetized the faith she held dear and the hope of victory disguised as death, hymns and songs that she had had on her lips and in her heart from infancy. When the inevitable day came, the 29th of July, 2000, with two of her daughters in the room with her, Alvena was ready. Ready because the Lord had readied her with his love, and now stood to meet her face-to-face in the heavenly fatherland.
I arrived at the hospital shortly after Alvena had passed beyond this world. She lay at peace in her bed, surrounded by her four daughters, their husbands, and others who had been blessed by her love. We prayed the Our Father together, and the 23rd Psalm. And in that room replete with both sadness and joy, gain and loss, but above all hope, I sang the stanza of a hymn that I had sung to Alvena many times in the months leading up to this day.
Lord, let at last Thine angels come,
To Abram’s bosom bear me home,
That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
My Savior and my Fount of grace,
Lord Jesus Christ,
My prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end.
Home. That’s where Alvena had gone—to her true home in the presence of Jesus Christ. Her pilgrimage here in this vale of tears was complete. And now she rested, awaiting the resurrection of her body. She was in the bosom of Abraham, of whom she was a daughter. She had fought the good fight, she had finished the race, she had kept the faith. And in so doing, she had been a true martyr—a witness—to me and so many others who journey still, who long for the bosom of our father Abraham.
Over the years, every time I sing that hymn stanza, I go back. I go back to that hospital room, back to the family that grieved their loss and rejoiced at Alvena’s gain, back to the woman who was such an encouragement to me, even though I was supposed to be an encouragement to her. The man who, over four hundred years before, wrote the hymn I sang that day, could never have imagined the power his words would wield for good in the lives of countless multitudes, of whom I am but one. His words take me back, but they also point me forward—forward to the day when, like Alvena, I will close to my eyes to this world, unfearing, for I know that I will open them to see my Savior and my Fount of grace, arms open wide, receiving me as his own.