She’s on my mind tonight — she being the old song — just notes on a piano, no singing, no need. If there is a more powerful song in the history of all songs, I don’t know of it.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Is it that line? Is it that somewhere in the cycle of ups and downs during any given year, we feel like wretches, and therefore unworthy? Is it that this one line gets the needle in the main vein of Christianity; that we need saving … that we can’t earn saving … that only the gift of Amazing Grace saves … and that every once in a while we’re ripe to feel how vulnerable we really are?
If you were writing this you might be picturing a great cathedral of a building, some great choir, stained glass and some maestro on a grand piano, and “Amazing Grace” would still be bigger than the setting.
But I’m writing this, and my mind is in a little country church, gravel parking lot. First folks there park under the oak tree. Old pews that were passed down decades ago from a bigger church, and now you’re sitting in grandma’s spot on the family pew. When she passed, nobody dared sit there for a few Sundays, but one day it just felt right for you to hold the place.
The lady playing the piano is a second grade teacher. She’s never had formal lessons, just plays by ear, and she misses a note every once in a while. But she’s dependable, and cuts her little getaways short to make sure she’s on duty on Sunday mornings.
The congregation is small. Leaning towards the older end of life. Lot of farmers. A loan officer at the little bank. Teachers. Manager at the Western Auto.
When it’s time for songs, the preacher says “Let’s make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” and it’s part of the inside joke of the congregation, as if that verse was meant for little churches like this, where talent is a little thin on the vocal end.
“I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” Is it that line? Who among us has not been lost? Lost trust, lost hope, lost clarity, lost confidence, lost our foundation? Or seeing, yet knowing that you’re not seeing it All, or seeing Enough, or seeing it Clear or seeing it Right or seeing Too Many Trees and Not Enough Forest?
One of my most precious memories of my mother was her singing “Amazing Grace.” Her father died, and off we went to Alabama for the funeral. I was old enough, but not old enough … death was still a little to the edge of my emotional radar. At that age, I mostly took cues from the adults around me. I knew that this was Big and Sad, but I didn’t feel it, yet.
My grandmother’s home was filled with strangers and casseroles. On the day of the funeral I was starting to get It. My mother and her siblings were tense with emotions, making small talk over breakfast, everybody trying to keep the cork pressed tight over the tear spigot.
The men went off that morning to wash the cars. Seemed important, I guess. Not long after we were seated in the bereaved section at the funeral home. I hated the layout. They had the family set apart, like a choir sits apart, with their face to the congregation. They had one of those sliding wall partitions. The family was seated and the mourners start filling up the chairs.
And then Mom excused herself. She was gone a few minutes and I asked my father where she had gone and he didn’t know either.
And then on the other side of that partition I heard the first note of “Amazing Grace” and I knew it was her. Mom was impulsive and oooh the times this trait embarrassed us to no end. It was a strong trait, and as with all traits, when it’s wrong, it’s Very Wrong, but man-o-man, when it’s right, it’s Very Right.
She just got up and went to find a piano, like someone would go off looking for help. She’d found it, on the other side of that partition.
We couldn’t see her. Was her lower lip trembling? Were tears running? I don’t know. She ran through the intro and didn’t sing a word. Maybe that was a clue. And now here comes the intro again, and POW — it’s my mother’s voice saying “Amazing Grace,” saying it to her father in the casket and her Father in heaven, not performing, not entertaining, but bleeding out the words of “Amazing Grace.”
We’re small and unworthy. We’re dirty and undeserving of the cost of the bath. We offend You and offend You and offend You and then one day we see and in seeing we kneel and in kneeling we open and in opening we ask, ask You for Amazing Grace.
Mom had no microphone over there on the other side of the partition. Oh, but we could hear her. She pushed some air through that wall. Part of the power of it was that we — and so many of the mourners did not know my mother — we knew that there was a certain-someone singing, but not being able to see her, left it all up to the imagination of each of us. To sing “Amazing Grace” is one thing. To feel “Amazing Grace” is another. To sing and feel “Amazing Grace” at the goodbye moment between daughter and father, her handing off her father to the good hands of her Father and feeling hope, because that’s what Christianity is, it’s hope, man … even all these decades later, just writing this … it remains one of the most powerful emotional moments I’ve ever been gifted with knowing.
“When we’ve been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing His praise than when we’ve first begun.”
I think about heaven a lot. Sometimes I’m silly and playful about it: like worrying that it’ll only be I Love Lucy and the Andy Griffith Show Up There, and I won’t be able to watch The Godfather, or Pulp Fiction or The Outlaw Josey Wales because they won’t be rated H, for Heaven. And sometimes, I ain’t kidding here, but I wonder if I’ll get bored in heaven. Like: is it like church, church, church, like forever? Are we really gonna sing hymns for eternity?
But, there’s this one song that I really, I mean, REALLY, REALLY, want to hear sung in heaven. It’ll just be all of us. No angels — they’re disqualified from “Amazing Grace.” It’s all of us, forgiven for stealing a pack of Dentyne and forgiven for murders, forgiven squanderers of time, talent and opportunity, we who could’ve been better, nicer, more of more and less of less, and we’ll be up there and He will be up there, the source of grace, the payer of debts, the Always and Evermore, and we’ll raise our voices, all we no-telling-how-many and we’ll make a joyful noise of “Amazing Grace” and it will be loud and pure and true.
That; that, folks, will be the Song of Songs, the Performance of all Eternity.
I bet I’ll be able to pick Mom’s voice out of the crowd.
This edition of Uncle P’s Bedtime Stories is brought to you by Eighty-one, where we’re especially proud of Uncle P’s line, “My grandmother’s home was filled with strangers and casseroles.”
Uncle P can be reached at email@example.com.