(Christian Courier column, April 28, 2014)
While I was snowbirding in Florida this past winter, I made a habit of attending vespers at our park. Imagine a huge hall. On Saturday morning it seats about 500 or more for coffee, donuts, announcements and singing. On Sunday night, it’s set up much more modestly for vespers — attendance about 100. You walk in and you’re greeted by smiling, nicely-dressed older people with name tags. You put your donation in a basket. You pick up a Celebration Hymnal and sit down. On stage a white-haired pianist is playing gospel songs. There’s a huge American flag beside a portable lectern. A plain wooden cross on a pedestal stands in the centre.
Normally I choose a seat in the middle somewhere. I like having singing voices all around me, hopefully some alto, tenor or bass. Normally I introduce myself and chat with the folks near me. I don’t know many of them yet. One Sunday night I was slumped under a weight of sadness. Back home, my brother-in-law had been rushed to the hospital. His cancer was spreading. I felt guilty, so far away from my family. Despite my mood, I wanted to go to vespers. I found a seat in the middle, but, preoccupied, I didn’t speak to the lady next to me. Just nodded a quick reserved hello. On my other side were two empty chairs.
Minutes before the service started, a very old, very shaky, very stooped man tried to sit in one of the seats beside me. He moved precariously. No cane or walker. I quaked at the spectre of a hard fall on the tile floor. Behind me arms reached out to steady the two chairs on my left. Voices encouraged him, “You’re almost there. You can do it.” It wasn’t clear which of the two empty seats he wanted. He hovered for an eternity. Then, ever so slowly, he folded his frame into the chair beside me. Once upon a time he must have been quite a tall man; now, even seated, I towered over his crumpled form. I smiled at him and the service started.
Enter his courts with praise
The guest pastor was from Zeeland Reformed Church in Michigan. He was confident and gregarious. Retired, but not really. Still does administration for his church, he said. Still preaches.
“Please stand for the opening hymn,” he boomed. Not his first time preaching at a 55+ park, I guess. I hoped the gentleman beside me would stay seated, but no. Shakily, using the chair in front of him as ballast, he rose. It was a gradual lift-off; I held my breath. At last he was up. It took all his concentration to stand. I shared my hymnbook, leaning in so he could see the words.
He sang beautifully. He knew all the words by heart. This old, old man, for whom every movement required supreme effort, was singing, ardently, about God’s goodness and grace. And suddenly, though I had expected to be too weepy to sing at all — suddenly, I was singing with deep joy and peace. I was holding the hymnbook, but he was holding me up.
The sermon was about Sarah’s laughter at the surprising announcement that she was going to have a child at her advanced age. God’s emphatic rebuke: The Lord can do anything. The Lord is powerful. The Lord has a plan and he will accomplish it. Age is immaterial. After the message, the Harmony Notes, a ladies’ choir, sang a few numbers. The tempo was a bit slow for my taste, but they performed with sincerity. Then our ebullient pastor invited us to sing again. My partner rose creakily to his feet, his frame pitched so forward that his nose almost touched the page. “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” we sang.
After the service, I told him that it was fun to sing with him. I asked if he needed any assistance as he prepared to exit our row. He pointed at one of the choir ladies and quavered, “That’s my wife. She’ll come and get me.”
I walked home in the darkness softly singing the song again — the everlasting song, singing with the old man and all the sacred throng: “And crown him, crown him, crown him; Crown him Lord of all.”
* My brother-in-law, Tim Gravelle, is now among the sacred throng in glory. He was called home by his Saviour on April 8, 2014.