June 27, 2016

Partly cloudy

Simple Gifts

Special to The Gazette

One phrase that comes to mind when reading Bill Henderson’s book, “Simple Gifts: One Man’s Search for Grace,” is, “never realized something like that was in a hymn.”

At first, readers may lazily turn pages while Henderson extravagantly unravels his family’s memories associated with a few favorite hymns — seemingly sentimental, we figure. And we may nod through his preface as he suggests, “Music is transcendent theology.” Yes, we could buy that. What readers are not prepared for is that those memories of his became, over a lifetime, waves of energy coursing through his blood. Neither are we expecting the book’s three sections — “Songs of Simplicity,” “Songs of Wonder” and “Songs of Love” — to be reality encounters.

It takes a while to realize what we are in for. For example, we are jolted from a peaceful Aaron Copland performance of “Appalachian Spring” into its underground history in the Shaker Movement’s hymn, “Simple Gifts.” By this point, curiosity demands to hear how Shaker puzzle pieces fit, even though Henderson seems reluctant to tell us. Finally, he relents, and we wonder, what was his problem? Quickly, however, he pulls out all the stops. We find ourselves engrossed in the song’s birth, adolescent period of acceptance and the passion it has ignited for several hundred years. Fully engrossed by now, we can’t help paging back to those 72-word lyrics, said to be “gifts” from spiritual experiences — simple gifts from heaven.

After a taste of the first section, we no longer mind if Henderson meanders through his personal life in between. We eventually catch on that his life is entwined with every single person who was ever touched by those words, and that we, the readers, are invited to step inside the hymn with him.

Henderson accomplishes this by using three sample hymns as centerpieces: The Shakers’ contribution, “Simple Gifts”; John Newton’s spiritual confession, “Amazing Grace”; and the prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that became the hymn, “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.” (A contemporary arrangement of the latter was sung at Princess Diana’s funeral in London.) Through these three hymns, readers are offered a spiritual banquet.

The “Simple Gifts” section, for example, is a not-so-simple overview of lives changed by entering into a song, a hymn. Soon, we are engrossed in its origin, chronicles of acceptance and, ultimately, grace to those who cherished it. We stay hooked as Henderson uses little-known details to “celebrate” the histories of several other favorite hymns, as well.

Warning: Be prepared for a sensational celebration throughout; especially so as we walk through John Newton’s unmerciful adventures in the slave trade and St. Francis’ dealings with the church of his times, which often weren’t much better. Not the light-hearted overview we may have encountered before, the journeys of these ideas make an impression on us.

Whether you believe the writer, that some of the energy is heavenly inspired, or not, is beside the point for Henderson. His unique perspective is a brave, honest offering. You may never take hymn singing for granted again.

Popio is a freelance writer from Wadsworth. Write to her at religion@ohio.net.