The other day while I was pedaling away on my exercise bike listening to my Pandora folk station on the Amazon Tap, Ola Belle Reed came on singing "Higher Ground". As I listened to that old song, I got downright happy and, I believe, even pedaled faster. I went about my day with the song in my head and, at times, on my lips. The upcoming Sunday (yesterday) was my day to sing a song at Church, so I chose that one.
Before I sang it, I explained to the folks that this song took me back to the Eagleville, Missouri, Church of Christ. "Higher Ground" was a song I particularly liked, even then, at the tender age of ten. Looking back, I realize now that I was always drawn to peppy, happy, optimistic songs. Higher Ground wasn't so peppy when we sang it at Eagleville, so maybe it was the words and tune I loved.
The Church of Christ doesn't have musical instruments in their worship. Now, in the larger, big-city congregations, the acapella singing is lovely, with the song leader using a pitch pipe to get the song in the proper key and everyone singing their parts. But the congregations in north Missouri were all in farming communities and thus, smaller. The regular song leader at Eagleville was an older man named Joe Bartels. I thought then he was REALLY old, but now I realize he was probably in his 60's.
Most of the songs started slow, and it seemed as though the longer a song went on, the slower it dragged. I learned to hate "Trust and Obey" early on: It was song number one in "Christian Hymns", so maybe that's why we sang it so often. I swear, it felt like that song lasted twenty minutes every time we sang it. Billie Jo McCallister didn't take that long to decide to jump off the Tallahassee Bridge; Marty Robbins could have gone to El Paso and fallen in love with several Mexican girls while we were singing "Trust and Obey". Yes, the song has wonderful, meaningful words. But I was ten years old, and perhaps my priorities were a little twisted.
And here's a thing Brother Bartels did: Just when we got to the third verse of a song, he would decide to skip it, stop singing entirely, and say "Laaaaaast verse", drawing it out slowly. Then we would resume, singing verse number four. This was so common that when we kids played church (do kids play church any more?), whoever was the pretend song leader would always throw in "laaaaaast verse" in imitation of Joe.
Here's something, though, that came to me yesterday afternoon: Growing up, we went to church three times a week at various congregations we attended as we moved from one location to another. We never missed the once-a-month, all-day meeting where the best song leaders came from miles around and led us in glorious song for two hours (I loved those Sunday singings). I've probably seen 500 different men lead songs at Churches of Christ. But I only remember the name of one of them.
He'd probably enjoy knowing that someone remembers him at all, after all this time.