I wept in church recently. Didn’t see it coming, but during the refrain of “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” there it was.
No one sings the old gospel songs like that anymore. Evangelicals perform what they call “praise music,” a kind of dreamy meditation that makes few demands musically and even fewer theologically.
We Episcopalians go for more dignified fare, with reliable standards like “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies” or “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.” “Wonderful Grace of Jesus,” with its rumbling bass lines is a tad too raucous for “God’s Frozen Chosen.”
A message on Facebook had altered my plans for the weekend. I had agreed months earlier to attend my 50th high school reunion, a stretch for someone who was shy and introverted 50 years ago and only marginally less shy and just as introverted half a century later.
The reunion itself was lovely, as we traded reminiscences among ourselves. It was both satisfying and alienating, though less of the latter than I’d expected. A few of those in attendance actually professed to remember a nebbish classmate whose fundamentalist scruples ruled out any social activities in high school.
My original itinerary for the weekend had me leaving the reunion and heading more-or-less directly to the airport for the journey home. Then a message arrived from a name I hadn’t heard in decades.
The church where my father served as pastor in the mid-1960s was having an anniversary celebration — 130 years — and would I be interested in coming?
The Evangelical Free Church in Bay City, Michigan, was looking to replace its longtime pastor back in 1963. We were living then in rural southern Minnesota, literally surrounded by corn fields, and the move to the “big city” had been traumatic for nine-year-old me.
The parsonage on South DeWitt Street was bracketed on both ends of the block by three-lane, one-way streets, each headed in the opposite direction. The sound of sirens pierced the night, and for months after our move, I willed myself to stay awake to warn my family about the inevitable intruder.
The church in Bay City had begun a building program in the early 1960s, but it had stalled, and my father saw an opportunity. The congregation was meeting in the basement of the unfinished structure when we arrived in the summer of 1963, and Pastor Balmer soon rallied the troops. He produced a banner that read “Above the Floor in ’64,” and the contributions began to trickle in from this predominantly blue-collar congregation.
Agreeing to attend the church’s commemoration, my younger brother picked me up at the Detroit airport early Sunday morning, and we headed north to the lovely church and a flood of memories.
David and I found an empty pew halfway up the gospel side and settled in for the anniversary celebration. Sandwiched among the praise music, the announcements, the sermon and recognition of visitors, the pastor decided to lead the congregation in a medley of songs from the hymnal.
After a couple verses of “Send the Light” and “Faith Is the Victory,” the piano segued into “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” and the tears began.
I remembered singing that hymn many times in that space; the song was one of my father’s favorites. “When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time will be no more / And the morning breaks eternal, bright and fair / When the saved of earth shall gather over on the golden shore / And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.”
The refrain turned to water. I cried for my father, a farm boy from Nebraska, whose discovery of Jesus altered the direction of his life. He boarded a train for seminary in Chicago and became a hard-working preacher whose name was spoken in reverent tones on this Sunday and who, despite our sometimes-troubled relationship, I missed just as acutely as when he migrated to that golden shore 25 years ago.
I cried for my longsuffering mother, deceased more recently, whose defining task in life was caring for a workaholic husband and their five sons, and who struggled to find an alternate identity in the years following their departure.
I wept for my parents-in-law, both facing their final, uncertain journey, and for one of my long-ago acquaintances at the Bay City church, a man slightly older than I who had a wicked sense of humor and who, I learned recently, had died alone of AIDS in his Chicago apartment.
I cried for a woman in the congregation just a couple of rows in front of me. Her family had endured unspeakable tragedies. Job had nothing on that family, and yet she was cheerful as ever, grateful for God’s goodness.
“On that bright and cloudless morning when the dead in Christ shall rise, / And the glory of His resurrection share; / When his chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies, / And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there,” we all sang.
I’m no theologian, but my rudimentary understanding of the faith assures me that somehow the bubble of grace encircles us all. Despite the troubles and sorrows and disappointments of this life, we can look for better days ahead — because somehow Jesus takes our sad, broken lives and makes us whole.
When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.
An Episcopal priest, Balmer is John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and the author of more than a dozen books, with commentaries appearing in newspapers across the country. He is a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.