Memorable Music

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His shrunken frame and age-diminished voice were almost lost at the front of our large church auditorium. He had been a medical intern at a small hospital in Arnhem when Hitler’s war machine rolled through the Netherlands and set up a puppet Nazi government. Radios were destroyed to prevent BBC “propaganda” from demoralizing folks who needed nothing other than German “truth.”

But among the clutter of equipment in one surgical suite, someone had managed to hide a shortwave radio. At 5 p.m. each Sunday afternoon the doctors and nurses gathered secretively and tuned softly to the worship service of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields in London. My friend could not remember a single sermon heard in those covert assemblies, but one thing he never forgot. At the close of each broadcast swelled the choral power of Henry Lyte’s magnificent melody “Abide with Me.”

“In the distance we could hear the guns,” the old doctor whispered, “and the cupboards of medical supplies rattled with falling bombs. We huddled together, standing close to the single speaker, weeping as we were transported for a few moments into the congregation in London, and with it to the very throne of God.”

“This,” he said, as we turned our own hymnbooks to the song, “is how we survived those dark and awful hours.” And so we sang with him:

Abide with me! Fast falls the eventide!
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide!
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
O, Thou who changest not, abide with me!

I think of him often when my students walk into class with buds in their ears linked to phones and MP3 players. “What are you listening to?” I ask them, and they tell me of the latest hits and greatest groups and hottest tunes and newest metal. I love music and share their passions, often playing videos of recent songs for classroom discussions.

In the noisy archives of all the wonderful melodies I’ve loved and shared with pounding intensity or heart-throbbing intimacy, I wonder, sometimes. What music actually changes my life? What music helps me enter another realm in order to remember what this one is truly all about? What are you listening to?

About the Author

Wayne Brouwer is a Christian Reformed pastor who teaches at Hope College and Western Seminary, both in Holland, Mich. His latest books are Martyr's Manual and Splitting the Day of the Lord.

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For about ten years now, I and a group of friends have been leading live music sessions once a week with dementia patients at Holland Home and other facilities in the area. Music seems to be their sole connection to the past; they remember the words to their favorite songs even after all other memories have faded. Even people in the advanced stages of Alzheimers will "come alive" when they hear the music.

The residents' faces light up and they sing along with great enthusiasm when we sing the great old hymns of the faith. They still take parts and harmonize, they still have good tone and rhythm; sometimes we silence the instruments just so we can listen to the beautiful choir they form.

Most importantly, I think, it gives them an opportunity to re-connect with their faith when they can remember little else from their past. It reminds me of Psalm 119:11, "I have hidden your Word in my heart."