Sometimes the news media can be a little late to the party when it comes to prayer, but like the father welcoming home the prodigal son, I’m hardly disgruntled when they arrive.
And they did the other day when on the New York Times front page, a reporter talked about audiences singing “Blessed Assurance” on Broadway, joining Cicely Tyson as she sings that beloved hymn onstage in the revival of Horton Foote’s great play The Trip to Bountiful.
Joining in? How could you not? What I love about the great hymns of the church is that they are meant to be sung by all of us, not just to be chanted by a select few or listened to in rapt attention while a gifted soloist intones. Sure, I love hearing talented singers perform and Sunday after Sunday, both my wife and I proudly take our seats in the choir, in the tenor and soprano sections, but what we do there is not performance. It’s worship, every note intended to help all of us in our walk of faith.
At first Tyson didn’t even notice that the Broadway audiences were singing along with her, she was so focused on being in her role, but it seemed from the article that she doesn’t mind it at all. The hymn has special meaning for her: It was her mother’s favorite hymn. “I don’t remember any Sunday, when she was in the kitchen making family dinner, when she wasn’t singing a hymn,” she said. She even gave a pew at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem that says: “To Mother—Blessed Assurance.”
I recently experienced my own hymn sing-along in a secular setting. I was giving a talk at the Barnes & Noble store in Manhattan on East 86th Street, speaking about prayer and my book 10 Prayers You Can’t Live Without. I went on for about 20 minutes, read a bit, answered some questions and then at the end—I can’t tell you what prompted it except to say it must have been heaven-sent—suggested that we sing a verse of “Amazing Grace.”
I was in the front so I got to hear the group. Wow, it was terrific. Must be what “Blessed Assurance” sounds like to Cicely Tyson. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound…”
Indeed it was, the perfect prayer to end the talk, all of us on the same page. Then I settled down to signing books.
The store manager came up to me and said, “That was a first.”
Hope it’s not the last.