The Lifted Voice…
As far back as I remember, I have always enjoyed singing. I love music in most of its forms, and the voice has always been my instrument of personal choice. How could I listen to the lovely tones of my mother’s song without also desiring to sing? In my youth I hoped that I perhaps could sing professionally one day. I dreamt of singing in great halls with vaulted ceilings to standing applause, touching the ear and the heart, but greater purpose for me would come in other works, other callings. Now, with the passage of years, adjusted aspirations, and reduced time to practice, my voice fades with time and age.
As I have written before, my love for singing began when I was very small. Following my mother’s voice around the house, singing in Sunday school, and participating in school glee clubs, I was devoted to making song. In my own mind I thought my voice was something very special, but I eventually lost some of my confidence in that belief.
When I was a child of about nine years of age, I was practicing music with a group of other children from my church for an upcoming talent program called “Spring Sing.” As I recall, we were rehearsing to perform “The Candyman” from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” There I was singing away as happy as could be, when all of a sudden the sister directing the music halted us all. She exclaimed in a harsh tone, “Danny Malcolm, if you don’t stop singing like that, we are going to kick you out of here.” I did not know what to say. Although I could be a very restless child, on this occasion I was just singing and enjoying the music as I thought was appropriate. I figured in that moment since I was not goofing off, I just must be a terrible singer. I still enjoyed singing, but for fear that I would offend someone else, after that I sang in much more quiet tones so I could not be as easily heard.
Years passed and few people were aware of whether I could really sing or not, including my own mother. During the summer before my freshman year of high school there was another church talent show in which I wanted to participate. I signed up to sing a song solo called “Paper Dream.” Before I left for the church building that afternoon my mother took me into my bedroom, sat on my bed and asked me to sing the song for her. I did not know why she wanted me to do that, but I trusted her, so I started out enthusiastically singing for her. I sang a few phrases from the first verse of the song. She suddenly stopped me. With a big smile on her face she said, “You are going to do great.” She sent me on my way, confident that I had sufficient talent to share. The event was a wonderful experience. There were a lot of fun prizes given, but the one I received was my favorite of all. I was awarded the “Sneaky Snake” award, because nobody knew that I could sing until that night.
After that experience I began to sing a lot more often in church and in school, being asked to do solos, duets, trios, and I even was part of the formation of a barbershop quartet with good friends. We performed everywhere. We were called “Moroni’s Angels” and had so much fun singing together. It was quite a thrill to sing fun music of all kinds for many audiences and in many capacities. I felt really blessed for the gift of music and for my opportunities to sing.
Between my mother and a good and talented sister named Pat Larsen, I learned much about performing and increasing my talents. My high school choir director, Norman Wiens, encouraged my gifts and along with my fellow choir members increased my excitement for singing all the more. I eventually started taking voice lessons from an opera singer by the name of Dean Rhodus. He taught me so much. I felt empowered to expand my vocal range and repertoire. I started to believe that perhaps with work and practice I could one day sing professionally.
By the time I was in my mid-teens, I received my first invitation to sing at a funeral. One day after church services, a really kind old gentleman in our congregation, C.W. (Jim) Reed, took me aside and asked if I would sing, “Oh, My Father” at his funeral. I was a bit taken back. I had never been asked such a favor before, and it made me tremble in my heart to think of this kindly man asking me to perform an honor such as this. I humbly agreed to the request. In the years that followed, Brother Reed reminded me many times of my commitment. On each occasion, I assured him that he would live forever, nevertheless I recommitted.
When I was 19 years old I received a call from from the Lord to teach His gospel to the people of Paraguay. Just before I set out for missionary service I received an invitation from a voice I had not heard for more than 10 years. It was the sister who had so sternly scolded me as a child at that music practice, causing me to recoil and doubt that I should ever sing aloud. She was organizing a significant musical performance in the Central Valley of California, had heard me sing over the years, and offered me the lead performer’s role. I was touched and thrilled to be asked, but the path I was on was the one I needed to take, it was the one the Lord had prepared for me. Personal aspirations would have to wait.
In the early days of the ministry of Jesus, on the Sea of Galilee there were fishermen, Andrew, a disciple of John the Baptist, his brother Simon, also known as Peter, and the sons of Zebedee, James and John.
After a night of poor fishing conditions these men had fallen short of bringing in the catch that they had sought for the support of their families. The Lord beckoned unto Simon to launch his boat into the deep, and cast out his nets one time more. Simon responded, “Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at Thy word I will let down the net” (Luke 5:5). So Simon and Andrew went back onto the water, their partners James and John nearby, and they cast out their nets again, because he had come to trust the word of this man from Nazareth. “And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake. And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken: And so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon” (Luke 5:6-10).
Fishing is an honorable trade through which these good men could support their families. In order to prosper in such a trade they would have to become proficient in the art of fishing, sailing, and the crafts of maintaining their ships and nets. One would by reason correctly deduce that these were skills learned from their youth in which they had become quite expert, so much so to have their own boats. Hard work it truly was, but good and honorable work was both admirable and desirable, a thing to which one should aspire. It would be hard to walk away from such an opportune life to take another path, even one so elect as following the Savior.
“Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And He saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets, and followed Him. And going on from thence, He saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them. And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed Him” (Matthew 4:18-22).
My voice teacher Dean Rhodus was a very gifted tenor who had retired young from a very successful career singing in operas around the country. While his voice was still very beautiful, he had suffered some health issues and was forced to step back from the stage. I asked him one day how he felt about that, and if he still longed for the experience singing before great audiences. He admitted that it was something he never wanted to quit, but the trials and challenges gave him the opportunity to have greater perspective in life, and with his God-given talents. He said to me, “If not for my health issues I would have continued on the opera stage for a long time. I learned through that dark and bitter trial to have faith in Christ and His plan for me. He called me to a different path, and now I am just grateful to sing songs of praise to God for the saints.” Dean’s words inspired and never left me. They helped me to understand a more perfect path for me to follow.
By the time my old friend C.W. Reed passed away in August 1996, I had sung at many funerals, including that of my own father. At brother Reed’s funeral I did sing, and it blessed my heart. I have since sung at dozens of funerals, more than I have kept count, yet they are all in my heart. Each passing has given me the blessed opportunity to mourn with those who mourn and provide some small comfort to the departed’s family and friends in an hour of grief, longing and celebration. I am just so grateful, as limited my talents may be, that I have been able to lift my voice in praise to God for all of these years, most especially to provide unique comfort in times of trial for those left longing.
As my voice fades with time and age, I will continue to lift as best I can that my prayerful songs may provide comfort, reach the heavens, and pierce the light of His love shining down for all to feel and see. I felt that warmth this past week as at one funeral service on Wednesday my son Matthew sang songs of praise to comfort, and at another memorial on Saturday my daughter Simin lifted her beautiful voice to do the same for another family.
Let us listen for the Master’s voice, a voice beckoning us to follow Him, to be fishers of men, to become singers of praise, testifiers of truth, and purveyors of His love. May we follow the path that He has laid, not necessarily the path we had set out to trod, but the way that will lead us to His light and eternal love, our lifted voice to His. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.