Songs, oh the songs. I am back in the car on a trip with my parents and two sisters to see Grandma and Grandpa on the North Dakota prairie or perhaps cousins who lived on a lake in Minnesota. My dad loved to travel and he loved to sing with enthusiasm. When the two were combined it was a lovely day. His eyes would twinkle, his face would light up and he’d say, “Let’s sing!” Often it was an old spiritual like “In the Hollow of His Hand.” I still sing that to my granddaughter when I tuck her into bed. “In the hollow of His hand, in the hollow of His hand, I know my Lord will hold me in the hollow of his hand. Well I may not preach like Peter and I may not pray like Paul, but I can tell the love of Jesus and say He died for all.”
Another favorite was “Rock-a-my soul.” “So high you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it, so wide you can’t get around it, you gotta go in at the door.” And of course the always popular “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.” He sang with all his heart.
Life had been hard for him growing up on a North Dakota homestead. One of eleven children raised by German immigrants, he did not start school until he was eight and usually walked the two miles to get there. Their father lost his farm during the Depression because he couldn’t pay the taxes, and was never the same. Dad talked of asking his father for a nickel. His father said no, because he didn’t have even a nickel to give him.
He spent a short time staying with and working for a farmer who had promised him new clothes if he would herd his cattle for him. A few weeks later he was overwhelmed with homesickness when his father stopped to see him. Ultimately his family meant more to him than the new clothes and he returned home.
I knew my dad as a patient and gentle father, so I was surprised to learn that he had quite a temper growing up. One of his worst moments came when he threw pumpkins down on his younger brother. A pumpkin stem gashed his brother’s cheek and left a permanent scar. In those days he could tease unmercifully too. Some time later, at a country church, he heard preaching that troubled him. He asked God to change him from his mean, angry and selfish ways. He was 16 when he made a lifetime commitment to a different life. That commitment never waivered.
Dad was past 20 before he was able to finish high school. World War II found him in the Navy as a radio operator. His ship transported soldiers to the front lines in Italy. He talked of the violin he wished he had bought while there; instead his extra money went home to the family on the farm. He was able to attend and graduate from college when he left the navy.
He went to seminary for a time, but was told he would never be a preacher. They thought he wasn’t cut out for it. He never worked full time as a preacher, but he still found opportunities to use that training. He often filled in for the preacher in the little church we went to. Some Saturday nights he would preach at a mission that was sandwiched between two bars downtown. Sometimes the family went with him. Often he went alone. Occasionally he would bring one of those men home to get a meal and a warm bed for the night.
Dad and mom had a heart for hospitality. Sunday would find whatever visitors had come to church following us home for a family dinner. He often brought international students home from his job with the agricultural research station at the local university. We welcomed people into our family from The Philippines, China, India, Taiwan and Brazil.
My dad lived his life with zest. He was glad to be alive, but there was another tug on his heart. It came out in songs of another place, another life. He talked about Enoch, the great grandfather of Noah. The Bible explains how Enoch was taken up to heaven without dying because of his faith. (Genesis 5:24/ Hebrews 11:5) Dad insisted that if he walked close enough to God he could be translated from Earth to heaven just like Enoch. My sisters and I argued with him, “That’s not how it works, Dad. That was an unusual circumstance and not likely to be repeated.” He continued to live his earthly life with his eye on eternity and the God who had won his heart when he was a teenager.
This man who had told us all he would live to be 100 and then sail around the world, died when I was 30. A brain tumor stole him away before we were ready for him to leave. Here it is 25 years later and I can still hear his voice booming out songs like, “Have a Little Talk with Jesus,” “Give Me That Old Time Religion,” “Do Lord” and “Sit Down Brother.”
“Sit down brother, won’t you sit down. Sit down brother won’t you please sit down. Sit down brother won’t you sit down. Well, I just got to heaven and I can’t sit down!” I can guarantee that there is no sitting down going on for him. He is too busy running around serving this God he was so anxious to walk with.