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?