Originally published in the St. Francis Newsmagazine for May 2019
There is a wonderful old hymn in the Lift Every Voice and Sing hymnal called “He Lives!” Composed by Alfred H. Ackley, it was published in 1933. We sang it on Easter Sunday as our Gospel hymn, and it made me smile. It has a lively and cheerful melody, and it truly expresses the joy that I feel in my heart every Sunday, especially during the Easter season.
I serve a risen Savior, he’s in the world today; I know that he is living, whatever others say;
I see his hand of mercy, I hear his voice of cheer, And just the time I need him, he’s always near.
He lives, he lives, Christ Jesus lives today! He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way. He lives, he lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.
I’ve always enjoyed a good “gospel” hymn, and our LEVAS hymnal has many great ones from which to choose, a good many of which are traditional Negro spirituals. It turns out that Mr. Ackley was a gifted cellist and talented composer who wrote more than 1,500 secular and sacred songs in his 73 years! He was also an ordained Presbyterian minister who served congregations in Pennsylvania and, towards the end of his life, in California. Some of his hymns were used in the famous Billy Sunday revivals.
Music is one of several ways that I connect with God on a deeper level, and it is a very important part of my spiritual life. Most people have one or two favorite hymns that touch them deeply. Some are connected to sadness and loss, bringing back poignant memories of a loved one. Quite frequently, people tell me that a certain hymn moved them to tears “because it was my mother’s favorite” or “We sang that at my dad’s funeral and I always think of him when I hear it.”
Shortly after I graduated from seminary in 2006, I went on a ten day trip with other students to explore mission work in the Los Angeles area. We were allowed to choose where to worship on the two Sundays we were there, and we had to attend at least two different services each day. Some of us went to the Crystal Cathedral, where the music was astonishingly good but frustrating to listen to. The massive choir would sing a wonderful anthem such as How Great Thou Art but only sang two verses. Why? Because they had to allow time for commercial breaks because the service was televised live! The whole experience felt contrived. (The Crystal Cathedral, founded by Pastor Robert Schuller in the 1950’s, went bankrupt in 2012 and was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese.)
By contrast, visiting First African Methodist Episcopal Church in L.A. was an awe-inspiring experience. The music was exciting and energetic, and I will never forget watching a petite woman in her 80’s singing a wonderful gospel hymn, “You can’t hurry God; you just have to wait” while she literally danced up and down the main aisle of the packed sanctuary, as we all clapped and danced in the pews. Remembering that day still gives me goosebumps.
But the most memorable worship experience I had was on the second Sunday, when I attended All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills. After experiencing worship in many different contexts, coming “home” to that familiar Holy Eucharist Rite II service was so emotional, I found myself in tears every time we sang a hymn. I still don’t know why it moved me so much, but I suspect that since it was early in May, we were still singing those lovely Easter hymns which are some of my favorites. The fact that I had finally finished a challenging Master of Divinity program while fighting for my right to be a priest in a diocese that did not allow women’s ordination may also have had something to do with my emotions. Hearing the rector of All Saints, The Rev. Carol Anderson, preach that day, I was sure, more than ever, that I was on the right track.
One of the reasons I enjoy singing “He Lives!” so much is because I first heard it sung enthusiastically, a cappella, by an elderly priest who was serving as an interim at St. Dunstan’s in Modesto. Like many of my favorite hymns, this one does not need a 300-member choir with a full orchestra, or a massive pipe organ, or even a piano to get the message across, although Phil’s brilliant accompaniment makes it so much better! I always thing of “Fr. Mac” when I sing it, and hope that wherever he is now, he is doing well and still singing:
Rejoice, rejoice, O Christian, lift up your voice and sing
Eternal hallelujahs to Jesus Christ, the King!
The hope of all who seek him, the help of all who find,
None other is so loving, so good and kind.
He lives! Thanks be to God!