Wild Air

Sometimes, when God speaks, we have no choice but to pay attention.

I was in the fourth grade.   My mother had received a note from the music director at our church inviting me to join the children’s choir, which met every Friday afternoon after school.   Thad Reynolds, age 10, had absolutely no interest in this.   Mom thought it was a good idea.   I went.   End of story.

Well, not exactly the end.

The music director was Martha Dougherty.   At the time, I thought she was what we would have called an “older lady.”   Actually, she was then about the age I am now.   She is one of the few people I have known of whom I can truly say that she did not age one year in the more than 35 years I knew her.

Martha (aka “Mrs. D”) would become one of the most influential people in my life.   She has now been gone from the scene for over a decade, but her presence remains a constant in my life, part of my “cloud of witnesses.”   Much, much more about Martha and her music later.   Suffice it to say here that she was the right person, placed by God in my life, at the right time.

My relationship with this wonderful (and formidable) teacher and friend did not start out perfectly.   To put it bluntly, I was a 10-year-old RAT.   I hated sitting in the neat and perfectly arranged choir room at the end of a long week of school.   I did everything I could to be disruptive.   To my shame and embarrassment, I remember many of the awful things I did.   My nemesis was imperturbable, and never raised her voice to me.

The biggest things in life creep up on us.   We don’t know when the light is about to strike us.

It was a Friday afternoon after choir practice.   I think it was a fall day, dark and rainy.   Mom was to pick me up at the church at 5, but she had somehow been delayed a few minutes.   I knew I needed to be waiting at the Seventh Street entrance to the church, so, of course, I was wandering around the huge building, exploring.

Martha usually spent an hour or so after choir practice finalizing her organ music for the upcoming Sunday service.   After spending an hour with me and 30 or so other children, it’s a wonder she could still play!   While I was busily nosing around the dark church, she had made her way to the console of First Methodist’s (we weren’t “United” yet) 1922 Moller organ (3 manuals, 22 or so ranks), set up her music, started the blower, and selected a robust combination of stops.

Lightning was about to strike a 10-year-old.

I remember opening the side door to the sanctuary… the one right across the hall from the Choir Room.   It was dark.   There was a faint glow of light coming from the door to the choir loft.   A faint noise (swell shutters?).

Then a great noise, and all was thunder and light.   The hymn was “Holy, Holy, Holy,” number 1 in the (1935) Methodist Hymnal.

I didn’t know that the hymn was in E.   (It would later be demoted in keys in later hymnals: E flat in the 1964, and, if I remember correctly, D in the latest edition.   I really dislike the latest UMH, but that’s also another post).   I didn’t know the old Moller was on its last legs, had no discernible ensemble, and had a Choir division that was duplexed from the Great.   I would learn all these things much later.   Sometimes, sophistication just gets in the way of experience.

What I DID know, in that moment, was that this music was the voice of God.   Not the Word, but to me, the Voice.   I don’t know how long I remained rooted to the spot.   It was long enough that my mother, who by now had been waiting in the car at the Seventh Street door for some time, was worried and a bit annoyed.   In fairness, Mom had to contend with a husband, four boys, and two dogs, and didn’t know I had just had a life-changing experience.

The pipe organ would become a life’s work.   Like the weary organist in Sir Arthur Sullivan’s song, I would spend my life searching for the Lost Chord.   My interest (all right, obsession) with the pipe organ would become my career.   All the while, after all these years, though, I still hear that great old hymn.

So, if you happen to find the Lost Chord in one of my organs, please let me know.   It’s probably in the key of E.   I want it back.

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