According to my Facebook page I have a number of friends, but I suspect that few know that a major part of my early life was spent in church, specifically evangelical Baptist churches such as the Calvary Baptist Church in Cedar Falls. As such there is a whole set of experiences that I have had that few share, and, since I have not dragged my child to Sunday school, church, Sunday evening services, and Wednesday night prayer meetings, he will never know.
One of those experiences is the moment when the pastor says “and now let’s turn to page 554 in our hymnals and sing ‘The Old Rugged Cross.'” At that point there would be a rustling as fellow churchgoers extracted thick red hymnals from the tiny shelves that clung to the back of the pews ahead of them, and opened them to the proper page. And then an organist would start the tune and the sound of some song, well-known or not, would rise above the crowd.
My mother and siblings were adequate and in some cases, really good singers. My father, the most avid church adherent, endowed with church soloist and choir direct0r sisters, was not. But he would gamely struggle through the verses.
To a churchgoer the origin of a bible tune is an accepted mystery, but someone had to write them at some point, and each tells a story, usually of some insight, or a personal or inspirational moment. Some are designed to go with a particular holiday or church event, while others play a role within the church service, such as an “invitation hymn,” which is designed to encourage people in the audience to “come forward, confess their sins and be saved” – the ne plus ultra moment of the Baptist church.
But for someone who has listened to and participated in thousands of bible tune renditions, such songs are an indelible part of the memorial baggage that can float up to the conscious mind for no apparent reason years later. The same is true, in my case, of advertising jingles from the Howdy Doody cartoon days, and songs by the Brothers Four, or songs like “the Ghost Riders in the Sky” by Johnny Cash.
This morning I awoke with a song named “I am Satisfied” in mind, which has these lyrics
“I am satisfied, I am satisfied, satisfied to know that my savior loves me so”
But it could have been anyone of the following, (and many more):
- He lives, he lives
- Just a closer walk with thee
- The old rugged cross
- In times like these
- I love to tell the story
or any of two invitation hymns
- Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling
- Just as I am without one plea
My one remaining sister will know all of these, as will anyone else whose childhood was spent in the insular world of an evangelical Christian family.
One thing about those tunes is that they were not an intellectual but more of a sort of emotional support to that ethos, and, at this distance, part of a secure and calmer time where my family was all together, my parents and siblings lined up in the pew, all on our best behavior in our good clothing, and the world fits into a narrative where we are the good people going to heaven, though we little knew the long and complicated path ahead and how far our lives, our thinking and our perspectives will travel from that early home.
And, in later years, when the demise of this or that marriage left me alone and struggling to understand why my heart and even the nerves running down my arm were in physical pain, those tunes would sometimes be there as a baseline of comfort, not for the words, or the shared sense of an exclusive community, but as something that once made sense, a sort of reassurance of order, right or wrong, in a simpler time.