The Lyric that Saved My Life
- Sunday, November 01, 1998
In the 1960s, I was a graduate student in English literature at the University of Wisconsin. There, as in other universities in the country, despair seemed to permeate the student body, especially those in the humanities. A fellow graduate student summed it up cynically, "Playwright Samuel Becket is right. Man is just a piece of trash in a universe that's running down."
I rebelled against this thinking. I grew up attending the church where my father was organist, so I knew about God. But Jesus was merely a historical figure to me. I never heard that he died on the cross for my sins.
In college, atheism became my religion. Yet when I got into grad school, I found myself seeking to fill a spiritual void in my life. I began practicing Transcendental Meditation (TM).
I met periodically with a TM supervisor. After a year or so of meditating, I mentioned that I had a recurring thought when I was trying to concentrate on my mantra.
"It's a line from Handel's
To me, the words weren't disturbing; they brought back wonderful Christmas memories from my childhood.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, I loved the Christmas season. Two holiday musical events were highlights. Each year, the Pittsburgh Symphony presented Handel's
The second event took place at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Music Hall. This Christmas carol festival called "United We Sing" celebrated the immigrant diversity of our city. Colorfully costumed choirs representing different nationalities filled the auditorium, spilling off the stage and into the audience.
Their native costumes dazzled my eyes and they sang carols in strange languages. A tenor sang "Deck the Halls" in the baffling Welsh language (I couldn't understand how anyone could speak it, much less sing it); bagpipers piped their piercing "O Come All Ye Faithful"; Chinese women rose in vivid Oriental silks and sang; a Russian men's chorus roared.
My heart soared when the festival organizer told us the program was being broadcast over Voice of America. I pictured people in communist countries with secret radios listening to the same music I was hearing live.
But the high point was when the choirs rose together in their colorful costumes to sing Handel's great "Hallelujah" chorus. My father, up front in coat and tails, directed the mass international choir. The hall reverberated with the triumphant refrain, "He shall reign for ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!"
Against my TM supervisor's instructions to ignore the words, I told myself, "These aren't just random thoughts." It suddenly hit me. The phrase And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed was an invitation from a personal God of glory to seek him! Why couldn't he be "Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace"?
Within months, I met a woman who explained how I could have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It made perfect sense. The words I'd listened to in Handel's choruses had pointed to Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
As I heard the words from the Bible, the words from the musical score made sense. The Holy Spirit convinced me of the truth: the God I'd hungered for, the personal God, loved me. "Hallelujah! for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth."
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