Friday, March 4, 2016

SOFTLY AND TENDERLY

It was Saturday night in the late spring of 1958 and the world was coming to an end soon.  Very soon.

Our church was crowded with regulars as well as with interested visitors who, encouraged by extensive marketing in local media, had come to hear the final in a two-week-long series of sermons given by one of Seventh-day Adventist's most charismatic evangelists, Pastor Wilson.  I would have preferred staying home to watch Gunsmoke or Perry Mason, but as a 13 year old I didn’t have any choice but to accompany my parents and my older sisters to the service.


Wilson, with his meticulously coifed, graying hair, was dressed in a conservative suit well tailored to his portly, middle-aged frame.  In most of his sermons he had focused on all the strange events—wars and rumors of war, natural calamities, and bizarre, inexplicable occurrences—that foretold the approaching End Times.  Accompanied by a slide show of vivid, and often lurid, depictions of Bible prophecies projected on an overhead screen behind him, Wilson painted a picture of the coming tribulations for God’s true followers.  And he spoke of Christ’s glorious Second Coming for those who were saved and of the tragic and horrendous end for those who were not.  

This final sermon, though, would be different, more personal.  Tonight Wilson appealed directly to those who might have regretted things they had done and who had ignored the Holy Spirit and had tried to hide their sins from God.  He asked them to open their hearts to allowing Christ back into their lives and to make a declaration of their recommitment to their faith and to the kind of life they would need to lead to be saved.  Raising his arms toward the congregation, Wilson’s voice took on a commanding quality as he challenged them as part of that rededication to stand and come to the front of the church and by that act to publicly profess their faith.

Then Wilson paused, and an exceptional contralto, a member of his traveling entourage, rose to sing.  And the congregation sat transfixed by her clear, emotional rendering of one of the most powerful hymns in the Protestant repertoire.  


Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me . . .

I could feel the hymn’s almost palpable appeal, and maybe I had a little lump in my throat as I listened.  But it was all just a bit beyond me.  I knew that I was generally a good kid who believed in the Resurrection and saw myself more as an observer than a participant in this emotional scene.  

Why should we tarry when Jesus is pleading, 
Pleading for you and for me . . .

It was then that I noticed a man in his early 30s, sitting a couple of rows in front of me and on the other side of the aisle to my left.  The man, dressed more casually than most of the other congregants, sat alone at the end of the pew.  His face hidden in his hands, he was leaning forward in his seat, silently sobbing.

Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing—
Passing from you and from me . . .

I looked down at my hands and then at the singer on the stage, embarrassed for the man and for myself for watching him in this moment of crisis.  I just could not imagine what he might have done that would fill him with such anguish.  Loss of his faith?  Alcohol?  Drugs?  Infidelity?  I’d never had experience with any of those things and hardly understood what they were. 

O for the wonderful love he has promised, 
Promised for you and for me  . . .

I again glanced at the man, watching as two middle-aged men in dark suits quietly approached him.  One sat next to him and put his arm around him.  The other knelt in the aisle.  Both men, leaning toward him, whispered to him as he continued to weep.

Come home, come home; 
You who are weary come home; 
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, 
Calling, O sinner, come home!

As the soloist finished the final refrain, the man rose, tears streaming down his face, and made his way slowly but with resolve toward the front of the church to join others who had assembled there.

After that night I never saw him again.

© 2016 John M. Phillips

5 comments:

  1. John, that is so very well written, Was the man who you never saw again or Wilson. I am pretty sure you mean the sobbing man, That is quite a touch with the words SOFTLY AND TENDERLY interspersed with your writing. Thanks so much for sharing. I will read the next episode this coming Monday.

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  2. I recall being an observer to moments like that, John. For a child who was fairly well protected and did not have much knowledge of the "bad stuff" out there, wasn't sure what those displays of repentance were about. On a somewhat different vein, I remember some of the entertainment of the revival meetings - such as rapt fascination with the skill of an artist who completed a black-light drawing which illustrated the theme of the talk, and finished the composition right before our eyes. Also remember a woman who played a big carpenters hand saw with a violin bow, holding the handle between her knees and bending the blade ...think this woman may have been a member of the church as she was "special music" more than once. Hadn't thought of those meetings for a long time; thanks for bringing them to mind

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    1. Dennise, I enjoyed your recollections. Thanks for responding. I too recall hearing "musical saw" performers, though not specifically at one of the revival meetings. In the memoir vignettes that I have written, including the Baptism piece as well as the Softly and Tenderly one, I have tried to be as factual as I could, but where I simply couldn't recall, I frankly supplied some details that were plausible but could be, and in most cases probably are, wrong. i tried to do so in the spirit of getting across the "truth." In the case of this memory, I thought the general revival scene, the power of the hymn, and my witness to the young man in anguish were important to my experience. I could be wrong about the year, time of year, name of evangelist, etc., but I didn't think those details were important. On the other hand, I do want to be as accurate as possible where that information is available. If you have a memory or information that would correct some of those facts, I would be happy to be informed. Otherwise, I do think there is a underlying message that, while personal, speaks to a broader point.

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  3. You have described quite well the acceptable-to-Adventists version of hypnosis. The skeptic in me cannot help but be amused by such a well-honed practice of increasing the suggestibility of an audience, while all the time declaring that hypnosis is "evil." In midlife I remember well a night when I had such a strong negative emotional reaction to this practice that I decided to get up and walk out of the meeting. I had recently written a research paper on the Adventist position on hypnosis, and had found gross misunderstanding, misinformation and ignorance, both about the supposed "evil" and about the prevalence of the use of hypnosis in mass evangelism. I suppose it was the cognitive dissonance which no longer allowed me to be just an uncomfortable observer.

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    1. Interesting analysis. I think I was 12 or 13 at the time described in this post. I think I would have had a very different attitude toward the experience at a later age.

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