Rock of Ages will guide you in the new year

Published 4:56 pm Sunday, January 1, 2017


Welcome, Georgia friends, to our last “front porch” visit of 2016. We’ve really only gotten started, so we’re looking forward to 52 more times together in 2017.

Over the past two decades, we have been so blessed to share many memories and stories – some funny, some nostalgic – here where the clay is still red and sticks to you for a lifetime, kind of like the accents and values that are as real as home itself. There’s no place like it, even if it from afar.

Of course, at this time of the year we all look back more than usual, and we’ve been rehearsing some of our old “red clay” stories and others that inspired us – I still laugh at myself for being inspired at some of our own pieces – and one of my favorites is one we shared in our 2007 “Inspiration Point” book regarding the best way I’ve ever seen to turn the page from one year to the next. By the time you read this, the hundreds of folks you are about to read of will be warming up their voices to “sing in” the New Year in perfect harmony. Hope you enjoy the scene …

Excitement has filled the air every New Year’s Eve for as long as I can remember. It’s not the balloons and horns sounding and “Auld Lang Syne” and kissing.

It’s something better.

It’s the singing of “Rock of Ages” …

I’m reminded of this inspirational moment every New Year’s when I – along with 1,000 others – go up to Oklahoma City for a church meeting similar to the July fourth one in Sulphur, Oklahoma, except this one is often accompanied by snow and ice while Sulphur’s trademark is heat and sweat.

Still, folks come from all over just the same to get a glimpse of what heaven must be like with all the preaching and singing. Those thousand folks – coming in from Georgia to California – will congregate in a high school auditorium there in Oklahoma City the last few days before the old year reluctantly passes the banner on to the new. With so many people there, it’s a fine chance to see people you only see a couple times a year.

The renewal of old acquaintances is a nice part of the meeting, but it’s not the best part.

You’ll also get a chance to hear a fellow named Lynwood preach, should you happen up there for the meeting one year. Lynwood is in charge of the meeting and has been for most of the fifty years the meeting has been going on. Without a doubt, he’s the best storyteller I’ve ever heard. He can describe a scene better than you’ve ever seen, such as that wayward prodigal boy headed home to his father with his father coming out to meet him. He draws the picture so well that you’re bound to see the smile on the father’s face from way off and the dust on the boy’s feet, all at the same time. Naturally, he takes every opportunity he can to say a few words and dip down into his deep well of nostalgia (he’s in his seventies now, so that well is plenty deep). If you need some inspiration, Lynwood could supply about a year’s worth right there in Oklahoma at the end of the year.

But, still, that’s not the best part.

One of the most inspiring scenes you’ve ever seen occurs at about 11:30 on New Year’s Eve. Everybody gathers in the auditorium for the last time during the meeting and for the last time of the year, and a friend of Lynwood’s named Johnny Elmore leads the singing of just about every old hymn you can think of. The Elmores are well known for their singing ability, but – in my way of thinking – Johnny is the best of all. Lynwood sometimes calls him the “sweet singer of Israel,” and for good reason, too. On that last night at 11 p.m., Johnny will lead the thousand plus crowd in singing those old hymns – and it’s all done a cappella, of course.

One by one, a gentleman from the crowd will suggest a good old hymn he’d like to hear, and Johnny will lead it and those thousand tongues will fill the air with the most inspirational sound you can imagine. If the apostle Paul himself could attend, I imagine he’d say that the singing is so beautiful that it’s not lawful to utter it.

But, still, the best part is yet to come.

About five minutes before the bell tolls midnight, Lynwood will reflect a moment on the past and a moment on the future, reflecting on the victories and defeats that both contained, just like it was with the children of Israel. If you can listen to him get nostalgic that way – with his seventy years back in his rearview mirror – without a little tear popping up in your eye, then you’re a bigger man than I am.

But even that’s not the best part.

At 11:59, Lynwood will pass the baton back to Johnny who’ll lead the people in a final song to sing the old year out and the new year in. The crowd, sometimes with choked voices and always with blurry eyes, will blend their voices to perhaps the grandest old song of them all, and in so doing will usher in another year full of victories and defeats, and joy and sorrow, all the things that a new year brings with it.

I bet you’ve sung that old song yourself a time or two:

“Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee. Let the water and the blood, from thy wounded side which flowed. Be of sin, the double cure. Save from wrath, and make me pure.”

And now you know the best part of all. ~ January 5, 1998.

*We must add a 2017 footnote, Brother Lynwood will not be leading the way now, as he left us almost ten years ago now. But his good friend Johnny – now well into his 80s – will still lead the singing. (You can even hear it on the internet if you google Johnny’s name – my, how things have changed!) But if you listen really close at midnight Saturday, you may be able to hear the sweet sound of “Rock of Ages” all the way down home. And our prayer for you is that Rock will lead you and your family safely on in the coming year.

Steve Bowen, a former Granger, lives and works in Red Oak, Texas.