July 19, 2021

Songs of the Soul

The pondside concert featured a folk duo, “The Chatham Rabbits.” It was the last of their Covidtide “Stay At Home Tour” that started in May 2020, when their regular shows were cancelled. They realized they could keep things going and lift the spirits of others by singing from their van in cul-de-sacs and neighborhoods across the county. And pass a tip jar.

For The Church of the Advocate, the concert served as part of our gradual return to in-person gatherings. We could be outside without masks. We could even sing! The evening also provided an opportunity for folks to invite guests, and many did. My own household invited my daughter’s godparents, including her godfather, whose accelerating dementia increasingly limits his activities to the memory care and assisted living building where he now lives. He gets easily confused, can’t keep his thoughts straight, and his steps are unsteady. Nonetheless, his wife thought a relatively small outdoor concert might work well. It did.

The “Rabbits” performed their own good songs for an hour, lifting our spirits indeed. And as the concert was winding down, they offered some old chestnuts for a church-going crowd: “Leaning On The Ever-lasting Arms” and “Will the Circle be Unbroken”. They encouraged the audience to sing along. They didn’t need to work at it; we were ready. My daughter’s godfather, a longtime Episcopalian, had been raised a Methodist in Tennessee. He joined right in with his resonant bass voice. It was so good to hear him sing. For the last song, “I’ll Fly Away,” we were on our feet, clapping and singing. The energy on a hot North Carolina summer evening was vibrant.

When the concert was over, we packed up our chairs and coolers and headed to our cars. My daughter took one of her godfather’s hands, his wife took the other, and we carefully wound our way across the grass to the parking lot. I don’t know who started it, but soon our little pod was singing together:
I’ll fly away o Lordy,
I’ll fly away.
When I die, hallelujah by and by,
I’ll fly away.

It was something about the occasion, being back together again.
It was something about hearing the godfather sing the words with gusto when gusto is scarce in his life these days.
It was something about the words.
It was the Spirit moving among us and within us.

People who provide pastoral care for elders with memory loss often tell stories of joy and wonder when the fog of dementia is pierced as certain prayers are prayed or songs are sung. The Lord’s Prayer (traditional words), the 23[1] Psalm (King James Version), are recited without a hitch. The doxology, Christmas carols, Amazing Grace, all sung with every word. The connections are deep with these songs of the soul.

I wonder what songs I will know when my memory slips away. What are the songs of my soul? What songs will my daughter know? What about the children growing up in the church today? I am moved to realize that part of our work, part of our practice, is to teach and sing often the songs that will give solace and joy decades hence. And while we need to be attentive and responsive to the Spirit moving in new music, new words, I am freshly alert to the ways in which we also need to sing the songs that sing in the souls of the elders who are still with us.
Leaning, leaning,
Safe and secure from all alarms
Leaning, leaning,

Leaning on the everlasting arms.

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