Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree

According to Wikipedia, Jesus was first referred to as an “apple tree” in a poem written by “R.H.” in the London Spiritual Magazine of September, 1761.  The poet was presumed to be Rev. Richard Hutchins, a Calvinist Baptist preacher.  The text is as follows:

The tree of life my soul hath seen,                                                                                            laden with fruit and always green,                                                                                                the trees of nature fruitless be,                                                                                            compared with Jesus Christ the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excel:                                                                                                      by faith I know, but ne’er can tell                                                                                                        the glory which I now can see                                                                                                            in Jesus Christ the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought,                                                                                                and pleasure dearly I have bought;                                                                                                  I missed of all, but now I see                                                                                                                ’tis found in Christ the apple tree.

I’m weary with my former toil,                                                                                                    here I will sit and rest a while:                                                                                                  under the shadow I will be,                                                                                                              of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,                                                                                            it keeps my dying faith alive;                                                                                                    which makes my soul in haste to be                                                                                            with Jesus Christ the apple tree.

The first American appearance of these verses came in 1784 in the Divine Hymns and Spiritual Songs, compiled by Rev. Joseph Smith of New Hampshire.  A possible biblical inspiration for them comes from the Song of Solomon: 2:3: “As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men.”

Were one to search for “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” on youtube, one would discover a half dozen musical settings of this elegant text.  Easily the most familiar piece of music in this regard is by Elizabeth Poston (1905-1987), a British composer, whose music has several performances on the internet.  Her very nice setting of the poem is for unaccompanied voices and is in four parts.  There are also other settings of the text on youtube by Stanford Scriven, John Purifoy, and K. Lee Scott.  My favorite presentation, however, is by Malcolm Archer (b.1952). His piece is simply titled “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” and was published in 2008 by Oxford University Press.

Malcolm Archer is the Organist and Choirmaster of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, and is the Director of Chapel Music at Winchester College.  That first title alone makes him one of the most prominent church musicians in England. I found this Malcolm Archer anthem at the Musical Resources store in Toledo, Ohio, and this one discovery made the entire drive from Chicago worthwhile.  The structure of the piece matches that of the poem.  In other words, it is strophic.  The first verse is sung in unison, the second verse is in four parts. The third verse is for men only, while the fourth verse is set for women only.  tTe final stanza brings everyone back together.  The piece is composed with an organ or piano accompaniment, and the choral parts are not hard at all.  The choral line moves mostly by step.  In short, the work is simple and lovely.

A limitless number of descriptions of Jesus are scattered throughout the Bible.  “Lamb of God,” “Prince of Peace,” and “Son of Man” come to mind.  He called himself the “Way, the Truth, and the Life.” And yet my attention is arrested by Jesus Christ “the apple tree.”  Perhaps it is the distinctiveness of this designation that attracts me.  I did not grow up around apple trees so familiarity with them cannot explain the allure.  I have only been apple picking once or twice in my life.  Maybe it is just that the text has inspired such beautiful music that keeps drawing me to it.

When I had finished selecting anthems for my church choir for our current season, I was actually worried that I would not be able to find any music even remotely as good as we are singing right now.  However, on that recent trek to Ohio I found some 20 gems for next year.  Several titles come to mind, but the cream of the crop was this Malcolm Archer anthem.  And, although one anthem does not a season make, I was overjoyed to include this piece in next season’s schedule for my church choir.

Almost nothing gives me greater musical satisfaction than finding music the singers in the choirs I lead will like to sing.  But the Malcolm Archer anthem goes even further.  It speaks to my soul like no choral work has done in a long time.  Perhaps I am compelled to  feel that we all have been picked by God for a certain calling in this life.  In our core as Christians, we go forth nurtured by Jesus Christ in all of His splendor, blossoming because of the tree He bore for us.  We know that “under the shadow I will be of Jesus Christ the apple tree.”


My Curious Relationship With Food

“There would be an army of fried chickens, Virginia hams, potato salad, blackberry pies, huckleberry pies, vanilla puddings, devil’s food cakes, angel food cakes–in the matter of cakes a general ratio of one cake per person seemed to have been aimed at, and arrived at too, for that matter, and everything was fried in butter or fat and (my wife says) had sugar poured all over it.  Such cooking ruins country people’s palates forever, I suppose.  I have absolutely no taste for fine food.  The best French restaurants in the world are wasted on me.  All I want is a few ham hocks fried in bacon grease, a little mess of turnips with sowbelly in it, and a hunk of corn bread, and I’m happy.”

That wonderful prose was written by a man who would be known today as Anderson Cooper’s father.  When he wrote those words in 1974 in his book “Families A Memoir and a Celebration,” (page 9) he was known as Gloria Vanderbilt’s fourth husband.  His name was Wyatt Cooper and he died in 1978 at age 50.  His book is an absolute treasure.

I like to think that my palette is not ruined, but I completely empathize with Wyatt Cooper with regard to food.  I fantasize that I can enjoy a nice glass of wine, but the allure of fine food escapes me.  To put this another way:  I eat to live, I don’t live to eat.

Wyatt Cooper grew up in Mississippi.  I grew up in Texas eating almost everything my mother put in front of me.  I think of her as a good cook, but certainly not a fancy one.  In south Texas we ate plenty of meat, such as steak and hamburgers, pinto beans, fried okra, and Mexican food.  Other things like mashed potatoes, occasionally squash, beans, green beans, cabbage, corn on the cob and fried chicken come to mind. At Thanksgiving Mama made cornbread dressing, which I have come to regard as a southern delicacy.  In the north people think stuffing is good, but they have never eaten or even heard of cornbread dressing.

One of Mama’s specialties was pecan pie, the pecan being the state tree of Texas.  The pecans were bought from a stand out in the country, brought home, and shelled while watching a football game.  Mama’s pie crustswere homemade, and she used white Karo syrup in her pie filling.  In the north people don’t even know how to say the word “pecan,” much less make a pecan pie.

In 1983 I was dating a girl from Ohio.  We went to a restaurant and saw green cardboard hanging from its ceiling.  The place was having an asparagus festival. I had never eaten asparagus, so my girlfriend proceeded to try to educate me.  I countered her futile efforts by extolling the fine qualities of fried okra.  Naturally she had never tasted one bite of that southern gem.  To this day when I see asparagus in a grocery store or on a restaurant menu, I think of that girl.  I wonder if she ever sees okra and thinks of me.

My Aunt Selma made the most wonderful, mouth-watering bread every day at seemingly every meal.  I have absolutely no idea how she did it, but that is one of the things I recall about her.

So this is what food is for me:  A trigger of memories, but not a present preoccupation.  I had a bit of breakfast this morning, but for the only other meal I will eat today I will eat stop by a salad bar at a restaurant.  I’ll take my plate and read while I am eating. A waitress will bring me iced tea, which I drank every day while growing up.

Perhaps eating is like sleeping for me. Life calls for both.  I wish I could appreciate fine food, but come to think of it,  I have never been a sound sleeper either.  Let’s go talk about books and music.

My Bach Room

One could call this area where I am writing a bit of blog my “Bach” room. Housed herein are a Bach bust that my parents purchased for a mere $10 in June of 1976 when they came to Ann Arbor for my master’s degree recital, a framed poster of the Bach statue outside of St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, a Bach medallion with his image that is maybe 2″ in diameter that my sister purchased in Vienna, several issues of “Bach magazin”  published in Leipzig four times annually, five or six Bach biographies, some Bach scores, and a few cds of his music.  Of all my Bach memorabilia, however, probably the most distinctive item is a full score in book form of the “St. Matthew Passion.” It is roughly 7″ tall and 5″ wide .  I purchased it in a now departed used bookstore in Evanston, IL for a mere $5.  Had its price been ten times that number, I would have paid it.  As it was, I paid the $5 and walked out of the place quickly and quietly before the proprietor realized what a gem he had on his hands.  I carried this marvel to Germany and followed along while listening to a performance of the “St. Matthew Passion” at St. Thomas, Leipzig.

I cannot pretend to know or understand a great deal of the “St. Matthew Passion,” but its opening chorus fascinates me.  It has a sweep and a grandeur that sets a marvelous tone for the entire work.  Apparently its first performance was on Good Friday, 1727, at St. Thomas.  Two choirs in the west balcony were vying with each other as they sang their respective opening parts.  Above this musical foray was a boy choir located in what was a “crow’s nest” in the east end of the church above and in front of the chancel.  The boys were singing a chorale tune that was a portent of the message to follow.  One can imagine the original performance was astonishing.

One year the “St. Matthew Passion” was part of the annual BACHFEST in Leipzig.  A reason I am studying German is so that I can attend this festive series of concerts and understand the language of the people hosting it.  The idea in my head is that if I can understand Bach’s native language, then I am one step closer to understanding his music. If one accepts the premise that both the language and the music of a culture reflect the people therein, then I am compelled to be all the more intent about learning the German language.

I have read that Bach probably never heard a good performance of any choral work he wrote, and that he would be pleasantly astonished at the time and effort put into presenting his pieces today.  It is instructive to realize that Bach wrote for voices as if he were writing for instruments, and the result is often a challenging vocal line.  I have imagined Bach, after composing one of his solo cantatas, for example, handing the manuscript to a singer, and advising him or her that the performance was a in a week or so.  The singer might have been honored, or overwhelmed, to sing such a premiere, but doubtless would not have realized that the manuscript in his or her hands would someday be priceless.

A woman of my acquaintance has told me that the choir she leads sings nothing but Bach’s choral works.  I cannot say that my fascination with the man and his music is carried to that extent, but my study is ongoing.  I am wondering just what bit of memorabilia will attract my attention for my Bach room when next I visit his homeland.

Of Art and War

(I wrote this piece in 1991, but it is no less relevant now than it was then.)

Over the radio just now the new prime minister of Great Britain addressed the British Parliament about the war in the Persian Gulf.  His remarks made matters musical seem extremely irrelevant.  In response to a question the prime minister noted that the military forces are instructed to be careful not to damage sacred or cultural sights.  This caution suggests that in the long run artistic concerns are not so irrelevant after all.

God has nourished the soul through the centuries via the lives of uniquely creative people.  Names such as Shakespeare and Chaucer, Bach and Mozart, Raphael and Rodin come to mind.  Rodin created “The Thinker,” for example, while Chaucer was the father of English literature.  Indeed, in his or her own way every great artist makes a singular contribution to both his era and to every age thereafter.

1991 happens to be the 200th anniversary of the death of Mozart.  (I am entering this piece into my blog on the 262nd anniversary of Mozart’s birth.) One amazing distinction that Mozart holds is that he is the greatest known example of a musical prodigy in Western music history.  He was a touring concert pianist at age 4 and a composer of symphonies at age 8.  In his relatively brief life of 34 years he created an incredible amount of fine music which, along with the music of Haydn, personifies the Classical Era in music history. 200 years after his death the ongoing recognition of Mozart’s creations would lead one to believe that his life mattered.

1985 was the 300th anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach, and that year was celebrated with festivities worldwide.  Lutherans have particular reasons to remember his contributions, but that music history itself has sometimes been demarcated as pre-Bach and post-Bach indicates the measure of his greatness.  To relate the composer to another important event, it is interesting to note that the reunification of Germany was a boon to Bach scholarship because Bach lived in what we knew for 45 years as East Germany.

Great art makes men immortal and ultimately relevant for every era. (Sir Thomas More being called “A Man for All Seasons” comes to mind.)  Current events temporarily draw our attention to other important issues.  But when humanity seeks to recover from the ravages of war, may it recall the creative efforts which have stamped the ages with distinction.

God grant us the ability to return in peace to pursuits of whatever persuasion when war is done.

Choral Music

Today was my annual trek to Toledo, Ohio from the northern suburbs of Chicago.  The weather was fine, the roads were dry, and the traffic was light.  The trip took about 4 hours each way and my car behaved itself.  Of course, I timed my departure and arrival to avoid Chicago rush hour traffic, but such is life near a big city.

I go to a very fine music store in Toledo having thousands of pieces of choral music that the people who own and work at the place allow me to peruse.  They have gotten to know me over the years and our relationship is cordial. I hang around for 4 or 5 hours, and leave with perhaps single originals of  20 anthems.  Later on I order multiple originals as needed for either the church choir or the community chorus I lead.  By the way, I had a very satisfying rehearsal this week with each of those groups, and the reason for the success was the same in both instances:  Each choir was singing the correct piece of music, i.e. pieces that suit their abilities.  As a result, the people made progress in learning the music and everyone left happier than when they had arrived.

I am not a singer, and so rarely address the matter of the vocal mechanism.  However, experience has taught me that if a piece of choral music has one essential quality, then it can compensate for both my shortcomings and those of the singers. That quality is what I call “singability.”  You will not find that word in a musical dictionary, or any other book for that matter, but it is profoundly important nevertheless. I really cannot define “singability,” but I can play one phrase of a piece and tell if it possesses this special quality.  Of course, I am also looking for a suitable text so am able to eliminate many pieces by just glancing at them.

The image of a circle helps me in planning the music for a choral season.  Each piece is represented by a dot:  Dots in the middle of the circle represent the easier works, and those closer to the outer rim of the circle represent the harder ones.  If my circle has dots spread throughout, then chances are that I will have a successful several months of rehearsing and performance.

Two subjects really disturb me with regard to choral singing.  The first is a choir that is singing the “wrong” piece of music. In most cases a “wrong” piece means that it is too difficult. The second bothersome subject  is illegal copying of music.  “Illegal” is the operative word here.  Illegal copying is more than not OK.

So anyway, I went to Toledo today and had a grand time. Lest you think Toledo is a long distance to go to look for choral music, please know that I have also looked for choral works in the German cities of Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Hamburg and Koln, and in Budapest, Vienna, and Prague.

Composers throughout the world are turning out thousands and thousands of choral works.  Surely if one looks long and diligently enough, one can find the “right” music for a choir of any sort.  The Bible says, “Seek and you will find.”


Encounters Not Forgotten

I liked the rector at the small Episcopal church in Waco during my college years. I had played at his church on occasion and we had a cordial relationship.  One summer when I was home with my parents, I asked my mother if we could have this man and his wife out for dinner. So Mama graciously prepared a fine meal and they drove to our house in the country.  Over dinner, conversation naturally turned to church matters.  I have no idea what led to this remark, but at one point point the rector said to me, “You’re the hired hand, boy.” And he never heard me play another note for as long as he lived.

Playing the organ or piano is not a demeaning thing to do per se.  However, some situations in which I have been involved were less than inspiring.  For example, I was playing for a community theater production of “Damn Yankees” just west of Chicago.  (I have no idea how I got the gig.)  The director of the show was loud and profane, perhaps because he deemed it “professional” to act like he did.  He did not throw words at me personally, but observing his conduct was very uncomfortable.  The cast and I were being paid so we tolerated things.  When the show was done, we washed our hands of the entire experience.

I have also accompanied choir rehearsals for two choir directors who were angry people.  Neither was demeaning to me, but one of them humiliated a girl during a rehearsal in a way I will never forget. The directors were angry for completely different reasons, but the effect on those around them was the same:  Tension was in the air.

I played for 13 months at a church where the organ was lovely and the choir members were delightful.  However, there was political strife between the pastors, and the choir director was ignorant.  One of the pastors had a pleasant baritone voice that people enjoyed hearing, while another had a tenor voice that was not as easy to listen to.  The content of their sermons was irrelevant. The choir sang one particular anthem for 5 Sundays during my relatively brief tenure at that church because the choir director was incapable of looking through the fine choral library that the church owned.  He could not play one note on the piano.

On the other hand, I am reminded of a musical that I actually played on two different occasions that was a delight in both rehearsals and performance.  The show was “Working.”  It is based on the book of the same title by Studs Terkel, a celebrity in his day  in Chicago.  His book celebrated the working lives of all sorts of people.  Included were a checkout girl at a grocery store, a housewife, a mason, a waitress, a retired salesman, and others I am forgetting. The characters and their jobs were uplifted throughout the book and the show.

Probably the finest pastor I ever worked with was Rev. Karl Landgrebe.  He was not a great preacher and he was not brimming with warmth.  But, he was honest, decent, apolitical, and truly interested in conveying God’s Word to his congregation.  He could have read the telephone book as a sermon and nobody would have cared because he was such a good person.  When we worked together, he was serving as an interim pastor in a church that had gone through a political nightmare.  Pastor Landgrebe was the perfect shepherd to heal a fractured flock.

Miss Perry often said the following:  “The Church is bound to have been divinely ordained to have withstood the corrupt clergy through lo these many centuries.”  When she arrived at the word “lo,” she raised the fist of her right hand in the air and shook it.  Pastor Landgrebe was a profound exception to Miss Perry’s message.

I did not remember taking exception to the clergyman that night at dinner.  The words were said, and the damage was done.  He probably did just fine without my playing.  But, although I have made mistakes in my life, I try, in spite of my reserved and introverted nature, to treat people with as much dignity and grace as I am capable.  Perhaps one who is blessed the gift of playing has a responsibility to conduct himself properly.    Rarely do I feel like some other people would have me sometimes feel.



I was in Texas one summer during my college years and noticed in a music journal that an organ professor from Yale was shortly giving a concert in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  I was thinking about going to Yale and wanted to meet him.  At the same time Daddy wanted to borrow a disc plow from Uncle J.L. in north Arkansas.  So, I drove Daddy’s El Camino, which was a kind of car with a truck bed in back, to north Arkansas and picked up the plow .  Then, for the only time in my life, I drove through Memphis on Elvis Presley Boulevard and went south of Memphis, stopping to a visit a college friend who lived in Olive Branch, Mississippi.  Then I went further into Mississippi, turned east and drove on to Tuscaloosa.  After the concert I headed straight west across half of Alabama, and through Mississippi and Louisiana, and finally returned to central Texas.  Daddy got his plow and I met the professor.  Of course, I did not end up going to Yale, but did see New Haven when I went to audition.

The plow did not bother the professor from Yale.  But he was astonished, utterly amazed, at the distance I had driven to meet him.  On the other hand, I thought nothing of it really because, being from Texas, my perspective on distance was so much different than his. There are counties in Texas bigger than states in New England.

Earlier this evening I was randomly scanning the offering on youtube and came across a woman, who I think was Pakistani, but who grew up in Norway, talking about the profound problems of young Muslims in Europe.  I think she was saying that often their cultures are telling them one thing, and life around them is saying another.  The speaker gave a very graphic example of a woman of about 20 who was killed by people in her culture because she violated its ethic.  The speaker said that there were countless other examples of this sort.

When I hear about such situations, I feel that I have had a charmed life indeed. And it is difficult for me to almost justify my blessings.  While this person in the lady’s example was brutalized and killed at a young age, I am here at age 66 doing not too badly.  So, the question is, “How do I put the great disparities in life in perspective?”

I was attending a seminar at which a Protestant pastor, a Jewish rabbi, and a Muslim man of faith were speaking.  A young lady very calmly and politely asked them, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  Two of the men had no real answer, but one, the rabbi, replied, “It is a mystery.” And, as inadequate as that answer might sound, it is perhaps the best we can do from a human perspective.

My perspective on travel has broadened so much that I almost fly to Germany with the comfort level that I fly to Dallas.  And yet, except in a big airport like Frankfurt, I cannot testify to having been around a lot of non-Germans in Germany.  For example, this past summer I attended a gathering at a huge beer garden in Schwabisch Hall, a town of about 25,000 people, and do not recall seeing one person with brown or black skin.  I have heard that assimilation of one culture into another is not easy.

I played at church this morning so maybe tonight is a textbook example of what my friend was talking about when he said, “On Sunday evening your life passes before you.” My thoughts may wander everywhere before I fall asleep.


My Wish List

I have a program here in front of me from a solo violin concert I attended during the only time I have been to Salzburg.  I was traveling with a group from my church and left them, per my custom, to wander around, and ended up hearing a violinist.  His name was Luz Leskowitz and he was accompanied on the piano by a woman named Tunde Kurucz.

The performers played sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Debussy.  The playing was fine, but I remember most of all that the audience members clapped between every movement of each piece, much to the exasperation of those on stage.  One would think people from Salzburg would know better, but this audience was not mainly from Austria.  They were tourists who may have been at the concert out of curiosity, but were not acquainted with concert etiquette.  Anyway, the lady at the piano was a fine accompanist, and I left wanting to take a few lessons from her.

One of the tourists, of whose musical acumen I had no knowledge,  was from Heber Springs, Arkansas. We met quite randomly before the concert and she told me she was from there. When I then mentioned the most famous landmark in her hometown, she knew that I had at least visited the place. That thing, which at least a while, put Heber Springs on the map was a “swinging bridge.” I don’t know that anyone from our family actually went on it, but we saw it and knew that it was the pride of Heber Springs, that is until it collapsed and some people were killed falling from it.

Of course, Salzburg is famous for being the birthplace of Mozart, and along with Vienna, is a must-see, musical place in Austria.  There is an apartment in Salzburg that is advertised as Mozart’s home in his early years.  It is on the upper floor of a building in downtown Salzburg, but I did not go in.  Recently I learned a Mozart piano sonata and my appreciation of that most famous child prodigy in western music history was renewed.

“Lauras Wunschzettel” (Laura’s Wish List) is a German movie that I have watched on-line several times that is set in Salzburg.  The movie is a romance set in the modern era, and from what I can tell it provides a satisfying view of various parts of the city.  The story is mostly about a relatively poor woman who meets a rich man, and by the end of the movie they are together.  Of course, the “Sound of Music” spends a precious few minutes in Salzburg, and its scenes in the lovely gardens of the city are easily recognizable.

I would move to Austria in a heartbeat for love, music, and/or money.  Suffice it to say that over here I have those elements in varying amounts.  Perhaps I could gather all three together in a village in Austria.

For now I shall just keep working on my German and practicing piano every day.  I am spending a month in southwest Germany this summer.  Perhaps I shall swing by Austria on a train one weekend with a Wunschzettel of my own.



On a Tuesday afternoon during my sophomore year in high school I was accompanying a choir rehearsal of junior high students.  The director, a man in his late 50s, had apparently made a mistake and said, “I’m sorry.”  One of the young singers replied, “You sure are.”  That was 50 years ago and, either because of the rudeness or cleverness of the remark, I have never forgotten it.

I suspect the disrespect is what struck me, primarily because of the way my parents reared me.  That is another word with a dual meaning.  My mother often used the word “rear,” whereas most people would use “raise,” as in raising their children.  Apparently people “reared” their offspring in Mama’s native northern Arkansas.

Probably the most distinctive expression I ever heard my mother use was, “I’ll bet you a pretty.”  I have never heard anyone else use it.  Ever. And I really cannot provide a specific example of her saying it, but a fabricated one might be, “I’ll bet you a pretty that it rains tomorrow.”

Mama had a sister-in-law (Aunt Lillian) in north Arkansas who used a word as part of her every day speech that I may have heard Mama’s sister use one time. The word was “yonder.”  Most people know the word, and it appears in a hymn and a song I know, but “yonder” is rarely a part of one’s normal vocabulary.  It conveys a sense of distance as in “over yonder” or “down yonder.”  The old hymn I know in the Baptist hymnal of my childhood is “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.”

All the members of my mother’s generation have gone “up yonder,” and with them has passed a colorful way of life. Uncle J.L. answered the telephone by almost shouting “Alright” into the receiver, held at arm’s length.  Aunt Lillian would say that she would do something “d’rectly.” We washed the family car in the creek that ran not far from their house.   The children slept on “pallets” in the middle of their house because that was simply the way it was.  We ate Aunt Lillian’s dill pickles made from cucumbers they, of course, had grown in their garden. Mama and Daddy played the card game “Rook” with Uncle J.L. and Aunt Lillian in the evening.  Nowhere else did our parents play “Rook.”  (There is a sophisticated English anthem with the word “rook” in its title and I think of Uncle J.L. and Aunt Lillian every time I see that piece of music.)   We visited Bear Creek Cemetery where Mama’s parents and some of her brothers are buried.

Perhaps the primary reason that Uncle J.L. and Aunt Lillian were our very favorite relatives to visit was because they alone had an outhouse.  One of my fondest memories is of going into the backyard to “help” Uncle J.L. get water from the well.  He would drop a cylinder on a chain into the well and I would listen for that cylinder to hit bottom and gurgle full.  I “helped” by trying to pull it up, but left Uncle J.L. to do it by himself after maybe one tug.  The very first time I saw running water in their house was in August of 1974.  I was driving from Waco, Texas to Ann Arbor, Michigan to attend the University of Michigan so I stopped by to spend the night with them because they were on the way.  Memories of my time with them helped me through my early days “up north.”

There is a story in our family lore that when my sister and I were about 3 or 4 years old, Carolyn was apparently looking around their house and said, with the innocence of a child, “Y’all are poor, aren’t’ you,” I cry now when I think of how rich they were, and how abundantly wealthy I am for being their nephew.

We were not able to attend Aunt Lillian’s funeral so Carolyn and I sent a spray of flowers.  When the florist asked me how much I wanted to spend, I almost yelled, “I don’t care!” Our relationship with them was priceless.  We learned all about the abundance of life from Uncle J.L. and Aunt Lillian, and the only thing I am sorry about is that we did not see them more often.

Evening and Beyond

“Evening” is a gentle word, lambent with possibilities.

A fellow church musician once said to me, “On Sunday evening your life passes before you.”  He was describing the cycle of life we church musicians experience every week as we look forward to playing on a Sunday morning, then come down afterward. Sunday evening is the nadir of that fall.

Or Miss Perry used to say to me, “The evening is still a pup.”  She was a “night owl,” and of her many expressions, this may be my favorite.  I would have arrived at her house for my twice-weekly 8:15 p.m. organ lessons and would be still listening to her at 9:30 p.m..  When I offered a yawn in response to her topic of the moment, she would declare that, “The evening is still a pup.”

And then there is “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.”  Those words were offered by an English minister by the name of H. F. Lyte in a sermon not long before his own death.  Of course, he altered”evening” a bit so it would rhyme with “abide,” but the meaning is the same.  Thus:  “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide.  When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.”  When combined with the tune composed  by another English minister, William H. Monk, “Abide with me” became a world famous hymn.

I am currently 66 years of age, and might honestly be regarded as in the evening of my life.  Of course, I like to think that my dusk has hardly been approached, but the fact is that I am no longer even middle-aged.  I played for a memorial service just last week of a woman who died four days short of her 91st birthday.  I did not know her at all, but if the number of people crying at her service was an indicator, she was a wonderful person who touched many lives in a meaningful way.  So my thinking about the evening of life is no accident.

One of the most fascinating commentaries on life I have ever read appears in the essay “Children in the Woods” by Barry Lopez (b.1945).  The essay appear in his volume, “Crossing Open Ground.”  Barry Lopez has taken some children into the forest to see what they can discover, trees, flowers, animals, and detritus, and he is trying to show the children how all of these elements fit together.  And so he writes:  “The indestructibility of these associations conveys a sense of permanence that nurtures the heart, that cripples one of the most insidious of human anxieties, the one that says, you do not belong here, you are unnecessary.”(p. 150)

Although “Children in the Woods” is uplifting, the second half of that sentence captures the dark side of life.  And for those people who feel they “do not belong” or are “unnecessary,” their very lives are spent not in the evening, but in the nighttime of their existence.

“God that madest earth and heaven” speaks of even “night” in a positive manner. Discussed on p. 440 of the John Julian “Dictionary of Hymnology,” all of its stanzas are a consolation, no matter the time of day indicated.  Just the opening verse will suffice:  “God that madest earth and heaven, darkness and light; Thou the day for work has given, for rest the night.  May your angels guards defend us, slumber sweet your mercy send us, Holy dreams and hopes attend us all through the night.”

The discerning words of Barry Lopez notwithstanding, the night has possibilities, too.