So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.
~ Romans 10:17
It began when he was so little he couldn’t remember the first time. But there it was: his mother, singing to him. She had a small voice, with a light, smooth sound, and he realized with some embarrassment much later that he had always associated it with angels. How childish. But still. Well into his teens, at least, the memory of being held in her arms while she crooned him some song or other could bring him to a sense of well-being few other things could match.
Go to sleepy, little baby.
Go to sleepy, little baby.
And when you wake,
we’ll patty-patty cake,
and buy you a pretty little pony.
When he was 17 and the very first girl he’d ever loved broke his heart, a song came on the radio that expressed, not only his sadness, but also a kind of restlessness, a new feeling that he was in a box too small for him. “Runaway.” He knew that “While our hearts were young,” sounded strange on someone who still wasn’t old enough to buy a beer, but the loss of that girl had made him feel somehow older, wiser, like someone who had lived.
Two years later, in the middle of basic training at Fort Drum, someone put a new 45 on the record player after personal time had commenced at 20:00 hours. “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” the Beatles sang, and a new door opened. The energy spun around the barracks while the recruits wrote their parents and their sweethearts and laughed at each other’s jokes and cleaned their weapons and practiced bouncing quarters off their beds. Within five years, all the men in that room had seen action in Viet Nam, and a third of those had come home with military escorts, carried into their parents’ churches, draped in the stars and stripes, and buried to the plaintive sound of Taps on a bugle.
He came home with his gear on his back and married the second (and last) girl he fell in love with in her parents’ church, watching her come down the aisle while Wagner was played on an organ, and swelled and filled the room. Forever after that stupid music made him tear up; he just couldn’t forget how hard his heart was pounding when he saw her. How beautiful she was. The music was all mixed up with her beauty, all tied together with his heart.
And then, at some point in his thirties, after two kids had come along but before they were in school, after he’d gotten his first promotion at work but before he’d decided to go out with his buddy and start a new firm, the beautiful girl said, “You know, we should get these kids to church some time. They aren’t even baptized.”
He wasn’t sure. It wasn’t native to him. The first visit was awkward, and they felt lost in the great crowds of people at the second service. But the minister didn’t seem like a complete dope, so they tried again. Over coffee afterwards they talked to the buddy from work and his wife, who was a great girl, really smart, and what do you know, they had a couple of kids, too. And the kids didn’t kill each other, so that was good.
And they settled into a weekend routine at that church. They learned names, and their names were learned too. They even baptized the kids, both at once. The baby didn’t like it much, but it was just what big brother loved: splashing water, being the center of attention, and a big fuss with cake afterwards.
And there was a song… a song that somehow hit him, like a bee sting, really, he wasn’t sure why. He was in the thick of office politics at the firm, and he was feeling that every weekday had stresses he was wearing in all the muscles of his shoulders and back, and some in his stomach, stresses he couldn’t even articulate to his wife, who had stresses of her own—taking care of the kids and trying to figure out how and when to start teaching again. But there was this song, this hymn, it came after the baptism, and it gave him a lump in his throat, he couldn’t even say why.
I heard the voice of Jesus say, come unto me and rest.
Lay down thou weary one, lay down thy head upon my breast.
I came to Jesus as I was, weary and worn and sad.
I found in him a resting place, and he has made me glad.
It hit him so hard, he was afraid he might actually start crying there, in that church full of people. As the service ended he looked back in the hymn book, to make sure he'd gotten those words right. And it felt as if somewhere in him a tiny key had been placed into a lock he didn’t even know he’d had on his heart, and it had been turned, and… well, he didn’t really know what. But something had happened.
He listened then. He listened harder. Sometimes the sermons… well, one would go by, and he’d realize he’d spent the whole time wondering which lawnmower to buy to replace the old rusted out push one. But every once in a while, that ok pastor who was not a complete dope would say something that made him feel maybe the guy had hidden cameras in his office, or had been talking to his wife. He knew that wasn’t true, of course. But still. It was uncanny. The things he heard.
Then there was the call. He got a call from the principal, telling him to meet her at the emergency room. His wife had been taken by ambulance; she’d passed out while teaching an Emily Dickinson poem to tenth graders… the kids were older, now, first and third grades, and they’d been hoping for another for a while… The principal wouldn’t say what had happened, causing a terror in his gut to burst into flower as he slammed down the phone and grabbed his coat.
And there he was, alone in the car, for what was probably the longest twelve minutes of anyone’s life. He remembered what they had learned in high school about rockets re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, that something happened to them that blacked out all communications for a few minutes. Supposedly it was normal. It sounded terrifying. And that was how this felt—he could imagine it all, the G-forces on the body, the ungodly burn around the rocket, the claustrophobia of those awful spacesuits. And the silence. He had no idea, but he imagined a silence so profound it might make you lose your mind.
And in that silence, he prayed.
“Lord…Lord…” and then he broke off, incapable of going on. But the awful silence had been broken, because he knew that some One was listening… he knew he had been heard, all his terror, and all his questions, and all his imagining. He knew God had heard it all, maybe even before he’d spoken it aloud.
It was an ectopic pregnancy. She lost the tube, but she was ok. When he finally saw her she was shaky, not long out of surgery, pale and a little teary-eyed, but smiling. He leaned in close, and said, “Honey…. honey…” and they both closed their eyes, and listened together to the sound of one another’s breathing. And she said, “Thank God.” And he said, “Thank God.” They both knew it was the truest prayer they’d ever prayed or heard. And holding tight to her, not letting go her hand, he hurried alongside the gurney, as its squeaking wheels carried her down the hospital corridor to the safety of her room, where there would be nothing more terrifying than an IV bag being changed.
He sat next to her bed, and he realized it was back. That same sense, that old familiar sense of well-being he knew, from the most ancient of his days. And after the nurse left them alone with the lights dimmed, with a voice scratchy from fatigue, he sang to her.
His first instinct was to sing as his mother had sung to him.
Go to sleepy, little baby…
But then he realized which lullaby he wanted to sing to his wife, his sweet wife, after this near-miss, after this day of terrible silence and grateful prayers; to his dear and only one, whose face was relaxing already into an exhausted, healing sleep.
I heard the voice of Jesus say, I am this dark world’s light,
Come unto me, thy morn shall rise, and all thy day be bright.
I came to Jesus, and I found in him my star, my sun,
And in that light of life I’ll walk ‘til traveling days are done.