The man I thought was dead

[This post is courtesy of Phillip Jensen, Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney.]

I once saw a man who I thought was dead. It was a little unnerving to see him walk over to a microphone and start singing although it was on screen. I presumed that it must have been an old film but it was a live broadcast.

It was so strange that I spent the first few moments trying to remember where I had read the announcement of his death. Then I tried to work out how old he was—because he was an old man when I first heard him sing in the 50’s and this was the 90’s. Even if he were still alive—and he certainly seemed to be alive—he would have to be too old to sing publicly with the strength of voice he still had.

While I was struggling with this shock, I failed to notice the little miracle that was happening around me. Finally towards the end of the song I realized that most of the audience was more affected by the sight and sound of this old man than I was, and for completely different reasons.

We were sitting in ‘Clancy’ the biggest of the lecture theatres at the University of New South Wales. It held 1000 and it was about 80% full. I was a tad disappointed that we had not filled it completely, but pleased that it was as full as it was.

Up until this point in the programme, I had been underwhelmed by the show we were watching on the big screen and disappointed by the crowd’s lack of interest. I didn’t blame them for talking continuously through the performance as the music was loud and the lyrics indistinct and difficult to hear. In the Christian world the musicians may have been famous but to the many non-Christians in the audience they were nobodies. And what kind of rock performance is it without sexualized aggression? The show became background music to a social event as the audience members steadily lost interest and spent the time talking to each other.

I was not looking forward to the speaker taking over the microphone. This audience was already disengaged with the music of their own generation, what chance would the speaker have of capturing their interest—especially since he was as old as their grandfather. He was a great one, but a simulcast into a lecture theatre on the other side of the world to an audience already bored by the music… I was somewhere between anxiety and prayer.

And then the miracle happened. Not the miracle of a dead man singing but the miracle of a live man singing. As this old man sang the audience was transformed. He sang in a very old fashioned way, a slow, sentimental, religious song that was too old for even the Christians in the crowd to know. His voice wasn’t as strong as in his younger days (whenever they were!) but was still powerful. There was nothing in his presentation other than his kindly old visage, his tender expression, his voice and the microphone. But on the other side of the world, in a university lecture theatre full of high-spirited students who were paying no attention to the screen just a few minutes earlier, you could have heard the proverbial pin. Everybody seemed enthralled by the man whom I thought was dead—not because they thought he was dead but because his singing broke through the cultural barriers to arrest their attention and touch their hearts. The speaker had no difficulty in following on from there.

Last week I read with sadness that, at the age of 104, George Beverly Shea had died. The ‘old man’ was 50 when I first heard him in Australia at the 1959 Billy Graham Crusades.

It is hard to work out the reason for his impact on audiences. His lovely baritone voice would soothe and stir. But it was more than his voice and the music—it was the man as well; it was his patent commitment to the words that he so clearly and lovingly articulated; it was the affection that he shared with the other team members, the respect he had for the speaker and the importance he gave to the gospel message being preached. He was an example of the gospel in his servant heart. He didn’t sing to gain applause or to big note himself, but to serve the gathering. He was there to help the audience listen to the message—the message of his song; the message of the speaker. Somehow he conveyed that he was there for us, to help us understand something very important.

It was a strange evening that I have not forgotten. Now, his death has been publicly announced and is not part of my faulty memory. Now I am right in not expecting to see him walking onto a stage to sing to us. But one day I will see him again and then I will have the privilege of singing with him the praises of the Lord who loved us and died for us; the praises of the Lord whom he so manifestly loved to praise in song.

I’m not sure I will mention that I thought he died a decade or more before he did—I guess it won’t matter then.

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