When we were kids, on Sunday mornings about once every couple of months, Mom would make bakin’ powder biscuits from scratch. She would begin before we were up and timed it so just before the aroma of the biscuits climbed the stairs to our rooms she would sit at the piano and play these hymns which signaled the coming treat. Then the single word command “Biscuits!” was followed by the sound of ten or twelve feet swiftly rushing down the stairs to gather under the kitchen table.
Hymns have always been part of my life. From the earliest moments of Sunday morning biscuits, to family devotions, to children’s choirs to college choirs and beyond, hymns are the mortar of a spiritual foundation.
In the trying times I often find comfort in the hymns of the faith. The rich soil of their language is solid ground upon which to regain a foothold and re-center. Do you ever go there?
I’m not talking about the “Look at me, You’ve got me feelin’ real good lately” show tunes that pass as worshipful today. (Sorry, I haven’t been able to make the switch.) Rather, I’m speaking of the meat and potatoes hymns served with hearty sauces and beefy words you can sink your brain into with rich chords that bind them to our hearts. Add in some gospel songs written with complete paragraphs and it’s there I find a higher ground.
When I checked in as a patient on the fifth floor of the cancer wing at the Cleveland Clinic in 1988, it was clear this area would be a set aside space for my lengthy stay. It was a highly restricted area. Visitors were carefully screened to reduce the possible risk of infecting the vulnerable patients. Every guest was special because they made it through the screening but mainly, as I was so far from home, each one brought the fragrant memory of my family and my young children whom I missed so much.
In that hospital room that would be home for the next seven weeks, I set up my props from home: photographs, a leather notebook, some books and my electronic keyboard. (I couldn’t play much but thought I could brush up on my chords to keep myself occupied. Turns out just laying in bed was a full-time job.) The nurse gave me a funny look when I brought in the keyboard. She wasn’t concerned the sound might bother other patients, she was worried about theft in this big city hospital. She warned me it would likely be stolen and maybe I should have the family take it home. “It’s OK,” I said. “You’re going to hear my mom play this thing and the music will be worth far more than the keyboard. I think I’ll keep it here.”
When Mom came to visit, to give Sue a break to return home to the children, I asked her to play some hymns while I was bed-fast. She’s amazing at the piano – she can arrange most any tune and play it masterfully by ear – no notes. Even today, at 87, it’s a remarkable thing to hear and to watch her cover all the keys. When she plays, the hymns become a part of you – it’s always been that way.
Now, in my hospital room in Cleveland, she started out at the keyboard with the volume turned very low so as not to disturb the other patients or evoke the smell of biscuits. “Louder, mom. Crank it up a bit,” I said. “I don’t want to bother the others, she replied.” “Mom,” I added, “I’ve been here for weeks. If I can listen to their vomiting all night long – they can listen to my hymns.” Mom became a favorite visitor on the floor as they loved her music and even sent requests to my room.
Having been on this medical merry-go-round for a number of years, I’ve been back to the hymns many times. Sue would often read them to me in the hospital room in Cleveland. Here’s a short sample of one written by Hank Spafford with music by Phil Bliss. It’s always been on the top ten list when I find myself near the bottom.
When Peace, Like a River Attends my Way
When Trials like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well it is well with my soul.
Well, tonight, I’m lost in the hymns again and I could go for a biscuit about now.
I received the one phone call for which I had been both hoping and dreading. Nurse Becky phoned and I heard the news in the tone of her voice before she finished her greeting. The report had just arrived and the viral load is climbing again.
On top of last week’s blood test to monitor my anemia, an HCV count was added ahead of the official one scheduled for late March and the numbers now reveal that the bad counts, once dropping dramatically, are climbing again. A few more weeks on the medicine won’t make a difference and Dr. Bacon is pulling me off the protocol. The stubborn virus won again.
During these few months when the virus count was dropping, my liver received some momentary relief from the steady assault of the virus. But for now, as the numbers climb again, we’ll get back in the waiting line that leads to the promise of the next drug to break the code and beat the virus.
Sue and I began this leg of the journey on November 30th last year. We’ve been through chemotherapy often enough that the emotional and physical routines are almost familiar though each one presents new challenges. As I reflect on this most recent chapter, I can’t say I know what new thing I’ve learned, but I can say I know what I know. And that is that in times of uncertainty and discomfort and illness and pain, that simple touch, the card, the call, the smile, the email, the blog comment, the “how ya doin?”, the “what can I do to help?” – each of these are His hands in my care. Sue and I are so grateful for the kindness of your many expressions of support. When you reach out to someone in need you may wonder if you said or did the right thing – You did.
Thanks for stopping by the blog. I believe it was key in keeping me mentally tough against the potentially serious depression side effects of the medicine. The creative outlet and your kindness in checking in – over 5,000 hits on the site – gave me a sense of companionship and encouragement.
We’re fine. I’m going to take some time to rebuild my energy and muscles while dropping some recently accumulated “no activity” pounds. We’re looking forward to being out and about and on the road again in a few months. I’m looking forward to romping with the grand kids.
We are loved and you are loved. Thanks for your hand in the Master’s work – you’re good medicine!
In closing, here’s a treat for you. Just a few years back at a time Mom was visiting in our home, I was experimenting with connecting my computer to my electronic piano. The software would allow me to receive the input from the keyboard and alter it to then play back as any number of instruments and I could even print out sheet music of every note played.
I asked Mom if she would help by playing something on the keyboard as I tampered with the software. It was a spur of the moment request but she gladly obliged and sat down at an unfamiliar electronic keyboard. They have a different feel than a baby grand. Without a note she began to work through a list of some favorite hymns we share. I realize that when I hear these songs they are filtered through a lifetime of her caring for my coughs and sniffles, and scrapes and broken hearts but I think you’ll agree there is both a magic and a ministry in her touch.
Old Rugged Cross (After clicking on each link you’ll need to click on the next link provided.)