The great thing about grace is that it comes, by its very nature, unexpectedly. We expect late-summer Sundays in East Texas to be sluggish. With weather close to 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity, you move like a literal slug when you walk out into it. Half the congregation has retreated to cooler climes and the last hurrah before school starts.
It's a time of great lethargy that often leaves my pastor husband and me depressed. Why did we ever move here behind the Pine Curtain of East Texas 25 years ago, and why have we stayed so long? I never expected a Sunday in August to hold what the old hymn calls "showers of blessing," but a few weeks ago, it was in fact the old hymns and songs that brought gifts of grace.
It started with the prelude, when our church's gifted pianist, Mary, played a jazzy version of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." My mother, who died a few years ago, had an extraordinary soprano voice, and this was one of her songs.
As Mary played, I could see and hear my mother as if she were standing in the pulpit singing a solo, poised and present and in perfect control over that voice. I could also hear the choir that sang a swinging version of "Sparrow" at her funeral, as well as Mahalia Jackson in black-and-white footage and scratchy recordings, making her contribution to the civil rights movement. Such is the power of music to connect us across time and space, a gift of grace.
Then the first hymn was the "Diadem" version of "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name," one that transports me every time. Just getting all the words in is a sort of glorious game -- say "let angels prostrate fall" 10 times fast -- and the basses sliding around on "crown him" while we sopranos soar is just more fun than anybody should have in church. I always find myself going up on my toes and beating time like a fool.
As we sang, I remembered going with my husband, Kyle, to a Baptist meeting a few years ago and slipping late into a back pew next to our friend Mel Williams, retired pastor of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, during the singing of "Diadem." I quickly realized it was a privilege to be singing next to Mel, and when I later turned to Kyle and said, "Wow, he has a terrific voice," he said, "Oh yeah, he sang with the Robert Shaw Chorale."
Later on that recent summer Sunday, at another church in town, I went to an evening hymn sing directed by a guy Kyle knew from Baylor, and we sang "Diadem" there, too. For me, it was about as close to heaven as it gets, singing that hymn twice in one day. Singing at our small church is about great acoustics, our director's fabulous voice, and how good a family can sound singing together. That evening hymn sing, however, was more about the power of many voices swelling in huge sound, singing beloved hymns, many with brass accompaniment along with the piano and organ.
Our own church had formed in the 1960s out of the one hosting the hymn sing, dividing over the issue of welcoming black people to church. Now, my friend and I, both left-leaning, she in a longtime committed relationship with a woman, represented more diversity than that congregation probably realized was there. Still, we all joined in singing the great old hymns, proclaiming our faith together in beautiful arrangements and settings.
We sang "Blessed Assurance" with "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" in the accompaniment. We sang "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty," and suddenly I was standing beside my husband at our wedding, singing praise to God with all our hearts, just before we gave them to one another.
We sang "It Is Well with My Soul," and I was at too many church members' funerals -- our faithful, hilarious friend who died of AIDS; our gentle deacon declared the picture of health one week at age 57, then dead the next of an aortic aneurysm; the cigar-chomping emeritus history professor and local hero; the dairy farmer matriarch. "It Is Well" brings them all back, and I sang with my eyes filled with tears and my heart filled with gratitude.
At the end, the director spoke of how, in singing hymns, we link arms with Christians across the ages. We also link arms with those who have gone before us in our lives and our personal histories, those who have taught our hearts to sing, and those with whom we just sing, Sunday after Sunday.
All that practice prepares us to be ready when grace shows up, sometimes grace upon grace. Praise God from whom all blessings flow, for showers of blessing, infinite grace, even on a Sunday in August when we feel we might not have that much life left in us.