by: Denise Robinson
Singing Our Faith: The Gaithers
Matthew 9:18-26; Romans 3:21-27
There are few people in this world who are identifiable by only one name. In the gospel music field, the past had Watts and Wesley and Crosby; the present has the name, Gaither. Bill and Gloria Gaither are songwriters, but they are also much more than that. The Gaither Homecoming concerts feature everything from traditional hymns to southern gospel music to the harmonies of the Gaither Vocal Band. Now well-known contemporary Christian artists began their careers while touring with the Gaithers, including Michael W. Smith, Sandi Patti, Steve Green, and Amy Grant. The Gaithers’ compositions and performances have earned them awards year after year, but as Bill Gaither once said, “I’m not much of a singer, and not that great of a composer, but I know how to get good people together.”
Our prelude for our service, “He Touched Me,” was composed in 1963. One of the defining things about most Gaither songs is that they are so singable that the songs quickly became adapted for congregational use. Bill Gaither has said that his inspiration for the writing of the song “He Touched Me” came very late one night. He had been asked to play the piano for a revival meeting in Huntington, Indiana. He was accompanying [award-winning gospel singer] Doug Oldham, who was providing the music for his father, Dr. Dale Oldham, the speaker for the evening. After the meeting, as the three rode back to Bill’s home in Anderson, Indiana, they discussed how deeply they had felt the Spirit at the meeting. Dr. Oldham dropped Bill off at home and his parting words were, “You should write a song that says, ‘He touched me, oh, He touched me.’” Gaither completed the song, working throughout the night, and revised it with Gloria the next morning. Doug Oldham first recorded it in 1964, followed quickly by the Bill Gaither Trio and even Elvis Presley. Bill said once: “People often ask us how we write our songs. . .. Often they have the idea that we sit down at the piano a certain time each week and stay there until we have produced a song. This is far from what happens. Songs are more like whispered answers to the questions of the heart ... We seem to have very little to do with how often or at what time a song is written. When it is there, we simply stop everything and record it on paper”
Touch is an important part of our human experience. Extroverts freely hug, but even introverts need the occasional touch connection. If nothing else, the coronavirus has certainly reminded us of the importance of touch and the negative effects of the absence of touch. Touch was also a significant part of Jesus’ healing ministry, both touching others and others touching him. As Ethan read for us this morning, Matthew 9 tells us the story of a father whose daughter had just died. The father comes to Jesus in grief saying, “If you come and lay your hand on her – touch her – she will live.” As Jesus prepares to go to the daughter, an unnamed woman, suffering from a long-term illness, appears out of nowhere, determined to touch Jesus for she is convinced that if she just touches even the cloak which he is wearing she will be healed. She is healed and Jesus goes on to take the hand of the girl who has died, raising her to life. Throughout the Gospels. those who are sick beg Jesus to let them touch the hem of his cloak and the blind and lame beg Jesus to touch them. Matthew 8 and Luke 5 tell the story of the leper who begged Jesus to, as the song says, touch him and make him whole. The strength of this song lies in its combination of personal witness and biblical narrative. On the one hand, this song is a first-person account of an encounter with Jesus who transformed the singer’s life stained with “guilt and shame” to a life “cleansed and made. . . whole.” On the other hand, this song bears witness to several biblical narratives and extends them to the present day. As we sing this hymn we step into the biblical story and have a wondrous and unexplainable encounter with Jesus: “Something happened, and now I know, he touched me and made me whole.”
Our opening hymn for this morning is "Something Beautiful," written in 1971. Our hymnal only has the chorus to this song which is, I think, a shame because the stanza has the most meaning for me: “If there ever were dreams that were lofty and noble, they were my dreams at the start; and the hopes for life's best were the hopes that I harbored down deep in my heart; but my dreams turned to ashes, my castles all crumbled, my fortune turned to loss, so I wrapped it all in the rags of my life and laid it at the cross!” Then comes the chorus: “Something beautiful, something good —All my confusion He understood; all I had to offer Him was brokenness and strife, but He made something beautiful of my life.” Gloria Gaither relates that this song came from an incident when Suzanne, their firstborn child, was about 3 years old and painting on her little table in the corner of the family room. From the kitchen, Gloria watched as she confidently made great strokes of strong colors across the large sheet of paper that covered the whole surface of her table. She kept dipping into water and paint, as children love to do, when — on one trip from paint to paper — a big black blob dropped from her wet brush right into the middle of her picture. At first, Gloria watched as Suzanne tried to make something out of the blob. But because the paper was soaked with too much too-wet paint, the black paint just spread out in little rivulets in all directions, invading the lovely yellows, reds and greens. It wasn’t long before the painting was a mess and the daughter was in tears. Suzanne brought the mess to her mother saying, "I tried to make you something beautiful but just look!" Gloria said that from that simple statement, her mind went to how often we are like a child who is painting. We start out with noble dreams and aspirations. We harbor high hopes and lofty ambitions. We make up our minds not to make the mistakes others have made, to do better, to be better. And then we make a mess of things and our world collapses. What can we do? Where can we turn? Perhaps the best thing that can happen to us is to realize that we are not self-sufficient. As a child, we can take the mess we've made of things to God and say, "Oh Lord, I wanted so to make something beautiful of my life, but just look..."
The amazing thing about Jesus is that he doesn’t just patch up our lives. He doesn’t just “make do” out of what we have left. We’re not forced to continue to live with the mess of a painting we have made. Instead, we are given a new sheet of paper, a clean slate to start over with. This is a miracle called “grace.” We don’t deserve it and we can’t earn it. We might say, “You made your bed, now lie in it.” But Jesus doesn’t say that. Jesus says, over and over and over again, start again. All of your past mistakes are forgiven. Now let’s work together to make something beautiful of your life.
In 2000, the Gaithers released the song, Sinner Saved by Grace, based on the life of George Younce, bass singer for the Cathedral Quartet. George’s story is one of a country-boy from Mississippi who lied about his age and left home to join the Army. George later said, that he, unfortunately, got in with the wrong crowd and soon was introduced to alcohol and marijuana. He began to work special duty as a bartender, which led to a personal struggle with alcohol. After George finished his tour of duty in the service, he went to Alaska, looking for adventure, but soon returned home. He said, “I was restless and searching when one night the Lord spoke to my heart, and I realized there was no hope for me without Jesus. I got down on my knees and rededicated my life to Him, and I’ve never looked back.” Younce sang for almost forty years with Glenn Payne and the other men who made up the Cathedrals. One night after a concert, George said to Bill and Gloria, “The Cathedrals are going back into the studio to record soon. I’d love it if you two would write me a song. You know my story; I’m just an old sinner saved by grace.” The song that Bill and Gloria wrote from that one comment sums up much of my life and probably the lives of many of you here today: “If you could see what I once was—if you could go with me. Back to where I started from, then I know you would see. The miracle of love that took me in its sweet embrace and made me what I am today—a sinner saved by grace. How could I boast of anything I’ve ever seen or done? How could I dare to claim as mine, the victories God has won? Where would I be, had God not brought me gently to this place? I’m here to say I’m nothing but a sinner saved by grace. I’m just a sinner saved by grace. When I stood condemned to death, He took my place. Now I grow and breathe in freedom with each breath of life I take; I’m loved and forgiven—back with the living—I’m just a sinner saved by grace.”
The words of this song and the simple statement of George Younce, remind me of the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 3:21-27. Under the law of the Old Testament, a future with God was dependent on following the rules (all 613 of them), offering the right sacrifices, and worshipping the right way. It didn’t take long before the law, meant to make all one us equal before God, began to be used to make us unequal. It became too easy to look at others and judge ourselves in relation to them. It became too easy for me to judge others and boast in myself. Paul makes it clear what he thinks of this in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” All of us sin. All of us fall short. The only thing that can save us is grace, the gift given to us in Jesus Christ on the cross. So, what becomes of boasting? None of us can boast. Paul says boasting is excluded. As the song says, “How could I boast of anything I’ve ever seen or done? How could I dare to claim as mine, the victories God has won? Where would I be, had God not brought me gently to this place? I’m here to say I’m nothing but a sinner saved by grace.”
Our closing hymn is according to UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young, “one of the five most requested... to be included in our Methodist hymnal.” It is based on John 14:19 where Jesus says, “Because I live, you also will live.” “Because He Lives” was during a time in our nation of social upheaval, threats of war, and betrayals of national and personal trust. Sound familiar? Bill Gaither said that all those things were happening in the world it was also the time of the birth of their third baby, a son. How could they bring a new child into the world? What kind of world would that child grow up in? He said, “Holding our tiny son in our arms we were able to write these words,” words that come from the second stanza: “How sweet to hold our newborn baby, and feel the pride, and joy he gives; but greater still the calm assurance, this child can face uncertain days because He (Jesus) lives.”
“Because He Lives” is often seen as an Easter song. Stanza two is about hope, even in uncertain days; hope that we can have because of Jesus’ Resurrection. Everything looked very dark and hopeless when Jesus died on the cross and it stayed that way until the third day. The discovery of the empty tomb on the third day and the reappearance of a living Jesus for 40 days after that meant an end to darkness and death. Stanza three takes us to heaven where we will “see the lights of glory and... know [Jesus] reigns.” This gospel song offers us hope because of its connection between the Resurrection of Jesus and our lives. Because Jesus lives, we can face tomorrow. Because Jesus lives, our fear is gone. Because Jesus lives, we know who holds the future. And life is worth the living because Jesus lives.
Our closing hymn for today reminds us that the final chapter of the book hasn’t been written yet. While life is worth the living today, it is a reminder that greater things are still to come. The King, Jesus, is coming again. Let’s pray.