Amazing Grace – that 92 year-old Down East organist
Over the years I’ve learned that every small church has its own special ways of doing things. Thirty-five years ago, I learned that fact the hard way.
I was a still wet-behind-the-ears divinity student at Maine’s Bangor Theological Seminary when my friend Mark Alley, who is retiring this year, was a student minister serving the Down East “Schoodic circuit” of three small Methodist churches – North Sullivan, Prospect Harbor, and Gouldsboro. Mark was called away suddenly and asked me to fill in for him.
I did, and things went smoothly – until I got to the Prospect Harbor service. I was running a little late from the previous service and had to hit the ground running, unaware of how things worked at Prospect Harbor. And Mark hadn’t had time to fill me in.
I flew in the front door and was hustling toward the pulpit when the morning’s lay leader grabbed my arm and insisted on a two-minute detour so I could meet the organist. She was Prospect Harbor’s pride and joy. At 92, he pointed out, she was the oldest living active church organist in the Maine Organists’ Guild.
As we were introduced, I could see the pride in her beaming face. But when I went to shake her hand, what I saw was crippling arthritis, fingers like gnarled tree roots. We traded smiles and nods and I turned and ascended the pulpit, aware that I was already a couple minutes late in starting.
As she began the prelude, I couldn’t help noticing that she missed about every third note. Even sadder was the obvious fact that she had become almost totally deaf. It was a difficult combination for an organist to overcome – deaf ears and stiff fingers – but, oh, how she glowed as she touched the keys.
When the prelude ceased, I led the responsive Call to Worship, offered an Invocation, and announced the first hymn, #92 Amazing Grace. But the congregation didn’t seem to respond in the expected way; they held their hymnals in their hands, not bothering to turn to the page. I simply assumed they must all know it by heart, so I waited for the first familiar notes from the organ.
The music began—a tune that sounded vaguely (just vaguely) familiar – and, backed by my never-quite-on-key voice, my lips and mouth tried to sing the first verse: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. But the sound I was making wasn’t sweet at all! My lyrics were accurate, but they didn’t match the tune.
I glanced out at a smiling congregation in collusion – in cahoots, I’d say. They were flipping quickly to the back of their hymnals to an appendix called Index of First Lines, where they could quickly locate the page number for whatever hymn the old organist was so haltingly playing. In no time they caught up and sang along. They were used to this, of course, but I wasn’t. This congregation was playing Name that Tune – at my expense. The organist wasn’t playing my song at all! She hadn’t heard or hadn’t understood what I announced.
As I stood there lost and uncomfortable – childlike – the morning’s lay leader calmly stepped out of his pew, walked up to the pulpit, and handed me his own hymn book – turned to the correct page. “Here you go,” he said stage-whispered. “Sing it with us.”
A few minutes later, with the hymn over, my face still beet red, I recovered enough to ask for prayer concerns then launched into my pastoral prayer. The congregation sat solemnly in their seats, eyes closed, heads bowed as I spoke. We were back on familiar ground, in territory that everybody, including the organist, would know. After my Amen everyone would automatically rise and we would sing the Gloria Patri together.
But either my prayer was too long or too quiet, because right in the middle of it came the first notes of a song. Except it wasn’t the Gloria Patri, it was the Doxology, what Sunday schoolers called The Ushers’ Marching Music, the Collection Tune. That jerked everyone to their feet as two men grabbed the collection plates from the little altar table and scrambled to pass them. We all sang “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” and had the money back on the altar table before the song ended with a sung Ahhhhh mennnnn. Good-natured chuckling rippled through the church. I simply shook my head.
It was the same with all three of Prospect Harbor’s hymns that morning; the organist and I never managed to coordinate anything.
But it was then and there in that little rural community with a congregation of perhaps 18 souls that I learned something about the intimate caring nature of the small church. After the service I quietly asked the lay leader and several other church members why they didn’t gently ease the elderly organist into retirement, give her a gold watch to seal the deal?
The Prospect Harbor folks took into account that I was young and inexperienced rather than simply insensitive. They were gentle with me.
“As you can see,” the lay leader said softly, “We’ve adjusted. Perhaps our next organist’s playing will be heavenly, but for now it’s more important that this lady keep playing. Besides,” he said, “she’s not just an organist, she’s our organist.”
Prospect Harbor’s 92 year old organist is long gone and I myself am retired now. But my memory of that morning and what I learned lingers still. It’s one of the reasons I continued to serve small churches throughout my career.
Lessons of love, well learned, have a way of staying with us, finding a home in our hearts.