Wednesday, March 14, 2012

From A Word of Grace—3/12/12

by Kent Hanson

Dear Friends,
It seemed like a good idea when I started out—my destination was clearly in mind, and the brisk walk there and back through downtown Washington, DC would cleanse me of the fuzzy residue from my ‘red-eye’ arrival.

It was 80-degree weather when I left California. I checked the weather, but the reports hadn't counted for a late winter storm blowing in and dropping the temperature into the 30s with a wind-chill.

Neither had I figured that the circle rotaries on the DC thoroughfares would be so disorienting to an inexperienced pedestrian.

A cell phone call for directions to my assistant back in California yielded only that she was on break. On I strode.

Something familiar to my ear rose over the wind and the traffic. It was the sweet sound of Amazing Grace, played on a trumpet with a rich tone and fluid technique that identified the soloist as a professional.

The street, lined with brick and brownstone row houses, conducted the melody with nearly fiber-optic precision. There is no better homing signal than John Newton's old hymn and I followed it into the stiff wind.

The praise sharpened my senses. My surroundings up to now had seemed like a dreary winter-fatigued gray. Now I noticed yellow daffodils in planters and some white blossoms on still leafless trees silently protesting the lingering winter.

The still-unseen trumpeter warbled a transition from Amazing Grace into a genuine surprise of Master, The Tempest is Raging, a dramatic, old gospel song that immediately transported me back heart and soul into the little church that my grandfather had built beside the creek in Soquel, California.

That's where I learned the song fifty years or so ago. That's where I learned about Jesus who commanded the wind and the waves.

Master, the tempest is raging! The billows are tossing high! The sky is o'ershadowed with blackness, No shelter or help is nigh; Carest Thou not that we perish? How canst Thou lie asleep, When each moment so madly is threatening, A grave in the angry deep? . Refrain . The winds and the waves shall obey Thy will, Peace, be still! Whether the wrath of the storm tossed sea, Or demons or men, or whatever it be, No waters can swallow the ship where lies The Master of ocean, and earth, and skies. (Mary Baker, 1874)

When people who love you teach you a song and sing it with you, the words become your own, a connection between heart and home and Our Father, regardless of the immediate circumstances.

That reminder took my mind off of the cold and unfamiliar surroundings. I pushed ahead through Dupont Circle and up Connecticut Avenue. I spotted a gleam of brass on a street corner across the busy way and I crossed over to the source of this blessing.

The horn player was a grizzled, old black man dressed in jeans, a checked shirt and a down vest. He was wearing a wool watch cap. It was 37 degrees according to a bank sign that I'd passed— much colder than that with the wind factored in as my stinging bare hands attested.

He had not missed a note the whole time that I'd been listening. His tone was clear and his phrasing was articulate and elegant with a hint of the blues. He was holding the horn and fingering the valves with his right hand.

There was a hymnbook in his left hand. At first, I thought that he was sight-reading from it, but the smoothness of his playing indicated a comfortable familiarity with the melody. It occurred to me that he was reading the words in worship as he went along.

It is extremely difficult to play a brass instrument in frigid weather. Your lip loses elasticity. The cold brass makes it difficult to stay in pitch. The valve oil thickens and makes the action sluggish. Icy fingers lose their dexterity. I know this as a veteran French horn player.

What I was hearing was nothing short of a miracle of heart and talent. I was delighted.

The battered trumpet case was open and there were a few coins and bills inside. I pulled a five dollar bill from my wallet, folded it several times to protect it from sailing off with the wind, and dropped it in with a ‘Thank you.’

The horn player paused for about two beats. He grinned at me and exclaimed, ‘Thank you, Jesus!’ Then he went right back to playing his testimony. He segued back into Amazing Grace as I walked away.

In a hundred years, I wouldn't have thought to put those two songs together. It took an artist listening to the Creator's heartbeat to do that.

A couple of days later I struck up a conversation with a cab driver that picked me up in Georgetown. I could tell from his demeanor, deep warm voice and picture of Jesus on the dash, that he too was on first-hand speaking terms with the Lord.

The cabbie told me that he'd gone to work at age ten in the tobacco fields of Southern Virginia. He'd been a driver all his adult life. He and his wife had raised and educated three children all of whom were professionals.

Somehow we got on to the topic of music, and I told him about the trumpet player and the hymns. The cabbie knew Master, the Tempest is Raging. ‘I always liked that song,’ he said.

I told him where I'd learned it and talked about the good people who had taught it to me. I said, ‘The thing about the old hymns of the church is that once you have learned them, no matter where you have wandered off, if you hear those melodies or sing them, they will always lead you home.’

‘That's right,’ the cabbie said, ‘that's right -- all the way home to Jesus.’


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