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Two old friends ringing in a new year again

Some scenes stick with you for a lifetime, kind of like that old Georgia red clay. Proceed carefully today because the scene of which you are about to read will stay with you a very long time. I am sure of it.

I began sharing this particular one with you many years ago. We shared it with you the first January that we met, back in 1998. And we included it in our ‘Inspiration Point’ book 10 years later.

But something’s different this time around, different than ever before. But, as you’ll see at the end, I guess that difference is what makes today’s telling of it even sweeter. So, let’s stroll back to January 1998, and to the special singing of a grand old hymn.

For as long as I can remember, excitement has filled the air every New Year’s Eve just before midnight. Oh, no, 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 and a thousand 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 from all over come just the same, just to get a glimpse of a little of what heaven must be like. Those thousand folks — coming in all the way from the red clay of Georgia to the pristine beaches of 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 Smith 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 Mr. Twain, such as when he describes a wayward prodigal boy headed home 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.

Naturally, he takes every opportunity he can to dip down into his deep well of nostalgia. (He’s in his 70s now, so that well is plenty deep). If you need some inspiration, Lynwood could supply about a year’s worth right there in Oklahoma the last few minutes 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. (You can now even see that scene yourself by googling Johnny’s name).

The Elmores are well known for their singing ability, but — in my way of thinking — Johnny masters them 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 hardly lawful to utter it.

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

About five minutes before the bell tolls midnight, Lynwood will take the podium and reflect a moment on the past, and look wistfully toward the future — reflecting on the victories and defeats that both would know so well. If you can listen to him get nostalgic that way — with his seventy years back in his rearview mirror – without a little tear rolling down your face, 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, joy and sorrow and all the things that a new year brings with it.

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 that, friends, is the best part of all. ~ Jan. 5, 1998

But it’s not 1998 anymore, so you must know by now there’s a footnote to be added. Brother Lynwood with his poetic reflections left us almost a decade ago, leaving Johnny behind to carry that particular torch alone. But Johnny began to age, too, and at the last few New Year’s singings other men would step in to assist Johnny in leading those great songs.

This year, just before the bell tolls away 2019 and ushers in 2020, other singers will have to step up to lead those songs alone. Our brother Johnny will not be there to usher in another year. Early this past Sunday morning, our brother took his own flight, leaving others to provide those blissful New Year’s tones.

I’ve thought about those scenes many times through the years, and about Johnny. I can still see him standing there — vibrant and red-faced — leading “Rock of Ages,” just as before. Brother Lynwood was right those years ago, you know. He was right when he reached deep down into his poetic well and described his friend as the “sweet singer of Israel.” And I think he ever will be.