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When Our Words Fail

Praying during seasons “…when sorrows like sea billows roll” can be difficult. The words seem elusive, and faith often falters. Caring for my wife, Gracie, for nearly forty years through a relentless and painful journey of severe disabilities, those seasons of sorrow often seem interminable. What do I petition God to do in those times: ease her pain, grow her legs back, or guide the surgeon’s hands on her upcoming 86th operation?

All those questions (and many more) have flooded over me countless times. Yet, in those moments, I find solace in the hymnal. A pianist longer than a caregiver, I regularly retreat to the piano in dark moments when words fail. Picking up a hymnal, I find comfort, strength, and resilience in the prayers of those who penned the cries of their hearts and set them to music.

The stories behind those hymns add an even greater poignancy to the lyrics. Horatio Spafford’s timeless “It Is Well,” written over the watery grave of his children in the Atlantic Ocean, continues to comfort people worldwide. Reverend Cleland McAfee wrote “Near to the Heart of God” after disease took the lives of his young nieces in the same week. When penning, “In seasons of distress and grief, my soul has often found relief,” William Walford pointed the world to the “…Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Despite being deserted by his father during childhood, Henry Lyte gave us the incomparable “Abide With Me,” and William Monk wrote the tune for that hymn – after the death of his three-year-old child.

Those are only a few of the countless hymns written by those who took their agony to God.

We all face moments when our heartache overpowers the ability to speak. During those times, I sit at the keyboard and use the music and words of others. Sometimes I played them in a hospital chapel, and other times, in an empty church sanctuary – particularly in a large church we attended years ago when we lived in Nashville, TN. While playing in that sanctuary, I discovered I wasn’t alone. The church’s custodian, Mike Hill, swept, organized hymnals, and frequently sat in the back to listen as I poured out my heart at the piano. I often stopped and asked if there was something I could play for him.

His simple response was always, “Just keep playing.”

Those times remain etched in my heart because an assailant at the Covenant School in Nashville shot and killed that custodian. I flew back to Tennessee to play for Mike one last time – at his funeral. The opening hymn, Great is Thy Faithfulness, includes the line I often use in my prayers, “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” Sitting at the piano, just a few yards from the casket of that dear man, I purposed to play that hymn with zeal and passion – as a believer, not just a mourner. He would have wanted me to do so.

“Just keep playing.”

Even when our words fail us, a treasure trove of words remains in our church hymnal. The writers and composers of those hymns left us a legacy that provides text to our grief and strengthens our weary and troubled hearts.

The closing hymn of Mike’s funeral in Nashville echoed lines from Pastor Ray Palmer’s “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.” When waking in the “…valley of the shadow of death”, this hymn settles my soul and fixes my eyes forward.

“While life’s dark maze I tread
and griefs around me spread,
be Thou my guide.
Bid darkness turn to day.
Wipe sorrow’s tears away,
not let me ever stray from Thee aside.”

While prayers seem easy to some, I often struggle to express my heart to God. In those times, I remain deeply grateful that so many took time to journal their anguish – and leave exquisite prose for those of us who often feel at a loss for words.

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