(Today’s entry is a personal story that may not hold any deep or lasting lesson-for-life. Still, you might find some resonance in this experience that comes my way once a month.)
For years now, “Hymn Sing With Bob” has gathered together a sturdy group of assisted living residents for an hour with old favorites. Some observations from a recent visit….
As usual, these good folks walk and wheel their way into the activity room, taking their places around my piano bench like any other choir would. The singers enter quietly—they live this way most of the time—so my first task is to warm them up for what’s to come. Some banter, some procedural reminders, some welcomes for newcomers. The entertainer part of me works well here—engaging these good souls at a positive emotional level right away. Soon enough we’ve all gathered and we’re ready to sing.
We start with “Amazing Grace”—our routine when Bob L. is there. (We will end this time in the same way—one of the rituals that bonds us as a group.) Another Bob—our consummate wag—arrives a little late today. I depend on him to help set the tone for the day.
Today the group seems highly engaged—even those at the edge of dementia are sharp and eager. Hymn selection begins with an animated set of requests. It takes awhile for all the participants to hear, understand and find each hymn number, but eventually we’re ready to sing.
Where it adds enjoyment, I offer a few comments about the songs and hymns—our songbook includes everything from Luther to Bill Gaither. I talk about the witness of 19th century hymnist Fanny Crosby and the group’s memories of George Beverly Shea. We reminisce about our first experiences with “Away in a Manger.”
This crew sings well. Not quite belting out the hymns, but certainly not shrinking away from the delightful act of singing. Today we have to repeat a couple of verses or songs—“I don’t remember if we sang that one yet”. Long silences give singers a chance to decide whether to offer a song-suggestion.
It’s true once again today that most of these favorite hymns deal with end-of-life matters, an ageless piety for these elderly singers. Words that have long been part of Protestant Christian hymnody somehow ring and sing differently here. I wonder what must be going through their minds as they sing about marching in with the saints, crossing the river, going to be with Jesus, holding on, rejoicing as the sheaves are being brought in, carrying burdens or standing on the promises (of God).
It occurs to me today—as it often does—that this activity time is not just about singing and all the good that comes from it. For these older adults, the hymn sing might also be a time of quiet reflection about thoughts that are perhaps difficult to consider otherwise. What’s happening inside their spirits is probably profound beyond words. I’m honored that my presence—as pianist, entertainer, observer, preacher or friend—is a gift to them and a cherished part of their day.
The same is true about the gift they offer me. Seeing and hearing these precious saints sing old hymns reminds me of who I am at my core and who I might become when I reach their age. I take comfort from each Hymn Sing, and today has been no different.
We end with Bob L.’s favorite, “Amazing Grace”, packed full of remembered emotions and identity.
Our spirits have been inspired by our singing….