Longleaf Stories

full circle in the hundred acre wood

As a child of seven or eight, I began to pester my Daddy for a piano. Like most children, cost and inconvenience to my parents were inconsequential elements in the cosmology of my momentary desires.

Naturally, he had to find a way.

It came in the form of a much-traveled upright. At $75, a good solution for a hard-working father to satisfy his little girl. “When you learn to play Sweet Hour of Prayer,” he told me, his gentle, hammer-scarred hand on my shoulder, “we’ll get you a real piano.”

True to his word in all things, W. T. bought me the promised spinet. I had played the old upright until the tops of many of the white keys came off, leaving my fingers sticky with dried glue. It must have sounded awful, but he would beam with pride as I banged out that old tent revival favorite.

W. T. died when I was twelve, but not before bequeathing to me his love of sacred music — a lifelong relationship, even when a relationship with God has often eluded me. In times of distress, grief, and yes — great joy, too — it is to the old hymnals that I turn, their particular musty scent and soft pages oh, so comforting. Better for me than the Psalms, speaking to my heart through the music.

I hope to live to be at least one hundred, but even at 52 the summers no longer seem endless, and my own personal spiritual journey has become more important to me than going to Spain or Portugal. Raised a Southern Baptist, and confirmed by choice as a doubting Episcopalian, I go down to the little Methodist church in the valley sometimes when they ask me to fill in for their vacationing pianist. I’ll go early and play an extended medley for a prelude, the elderly congregation slipping respectfully into their regular pews. I might start with “For the Beauty of the Earth”, then sandwich in a Chopin nocturne, followed by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Sound of Music”, and finish up, naturally, with “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” When the service has ended, at least a half dozen come to hug me and say “thank you, we love you”, no matter what I play.

That interior journey of the heart is very present with me tonight, as my stubborn spirit paces the floor of my mind. And so let us turn to Hymn number 138, “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart”, verse 4 only. Please stand as we sing.

“Teach me to feel that thou art always nigh;
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear,
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh;
Teach me the
* patience of unanswered prayer.”

Words by George Croly (1780-1860), based on Galatians 5:25

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