I’m sitting just behind the last pew, hunched over the Dell laptop, tinkering and adjusting because this is the way the new generation sings their praises: Point. Click. Worship.
I have playlists ready with Chris Tomlin and Lincoln Brewster and Tenth Avenue North, but as the pews fill in, I reconsider. I move the mouse down and to the left, to find the 200-year-old songs in my iTunes library.
On this day, might we hear songs of praise composed in 1905 and 1832 and 1768? I find the m-peg hymns, and with a click, the pianist inside the Dell begins.
With my forefinger, I nudge the master volume two notches higher than I usually do for a church prelude. My heart is thumping praise, and the notes of the cyber-pianist crescendo. Yes, I love TobyMac and Aaron Shust, but my soul also reverberates praise with songs of Katherine Hankey and William Fischer, Charles Wesley and Martin Luther.
For I Love To Tell The Story.
And I cling to The Old Rugged Cross.
And I know the One who breaks the cruel oppressor’s rod, for He is the Mighty Fortress.
And oh, oh, oh! What a Friend We Have in Jesus!
The old farmer is sitting alone, at the end of the empty row, and he lifts his head to the familiar. He turns slowly to catch my eye. I’m already looking his way, and I smile back. On the second verse he rises, using the back of the pew to steady himself. He shuffles down the row, and he finds his way to the back of the church.
I meet him part way, and he’s already mouthing thanks. I shake the hand of a man who’s sung these songs for more than 80 years, right here on this same hallowed ground, and I think, “I ought to be thanking you, sir.”
We talk about how these old hymns carry timeless truths on the treble clef. And how it would be a shame for children to grow up without knowing them. And how these songs have withstood the centuries, bound in books and hearts.
They were the songs of the slave,
and the grieving widow,
and the errant child,
and the soldier in the foxhole,
and the pioneering father,
and the circuit-riding preacher,
and the martyr,
and the missionary,
and the old farmer, four pews back who stood to offer thanks,
and the woman at the Dell computer who whispers “thank you” back.
That’s when he points to the computer, and asks if I’ve got that song he loves to sing the most.
“It starts like this,” he says, and the song rooted in the heart becomes the overflow of his mouth.
I grab a hymnal, and turn to hymn 474, because praise is contagious.
He’s singing now, right there in the middle of the aisle as the ushers hand out the bulletins. His gruff voice wobbles on the quarter notes, and he inches up the scale to the B then back down again.
“Children of the heav’nly Father
Safely in his bosom gather;
Nestling bird or star in heaven
Such a refuge ne’er was given.”
I join him on the second verse, my notes an octave higher than his, and we’re worshipping before worship has begun, singing a song that doesn’t match the accompaniment on the speakers. (A worship-filled heart should know no boundaries, should it?)
I’m singing words printed in the hymnal. He’s singing words printed on a heart.
He knows all the words, because he knows all the words.
We finish the second verse, and he launches into the third. A teenage girl stands beside us, along with her mother — as silent witnesses to the worship. (Even in the silence, we can praise.)
And I’m afraid the lump in my throat might just rise up, and I’ll never be able to hit that D with tears so close to the surface. We finish the song, and worship is about to begin. But for us with the songs imprinted on the soul, worship has already begun, hasn’t it? And does it ever really end? Are we worshipping still today, for this day is holy, too?
Twenty-four hours later, I sit here at a screen, with his song playing on YouTube, and my hymnal open to 474.
That old farmer, week after week, follows the words on the screen with the flashing pictures and the driving beats. We Point. Click. Worship. He worships with us. Because he knows that worship is not about a style, or a song, or a beat, or a volume, or a guitar, or a pipe-organ.
Worship is not about a song at all. It’s about a Person.
The old farmer sings the songs I play.
And on this day, I sing his.