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A Voice of Hope from an Urban Wilderness

For Christians, we have entered into that Season of Advent, a season of anticipation of the coming of the Christ Child and a season of expectation of the second coming of Christ. It is a season of hope.

Recently, I found this true story about hope in my files. I have lost the footnote so I cannot quote its source. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
In 1971, Gavin Bryars, one of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />England’s leading musicians and composers, agreed to help his friend, Alan Powers, with the audio aspects of a film Powers was making about street people. The filming took place in an area around London’s Waterloo Station.
 
Powers filmed various people living on the streets. Some were obviously drunk, some mentally disturbed, but a few were articulate and easy to talk with.
 
As Bryars made his way through the audio and video footage, he became aware of a repeating sound that always accompanied the presence of one older man. At first the sound seemed like muttered gibberish. But after removing the background street noise and cleaning up the audio tape, Bryars discovered the old man was in fact singing.
 
The song he sang under his breath was a simple, repetitive tune which he quietly sang uninterrupted for hours on end. Like a film loop, the song’s final line fed into its first line, starting the tune over and over again without ceasing.
 
“Jesus’ blood never failed me yet/ Never failed me yet/ Jesus’ blood never failed me yet/ There’s one thing I know/ For he loves me so…”
 
One day, while playing the tape as background to other work, Bryars left the door to his studio open while he ran downstairs to get a cup of coffee. When he returned several minutes later, he found a normally buzzing office environment eerily stilled. The old man’s quiet, quivery voice had leaked out of the recording room and transformed the office floor.
 
Under the spell of this stranger’s voice, an office of busy professionals had grown hushed. Those who were still moving around walked slowly, almost reverently about the room. Many more had taken their seats and were sitting motionless at their desks, transfixed by the voice. More than a few were silently weeping, tears cascading undisturbed down their faces.
 
Bryars was stunned. Although not a believer himself, Bryars could not help being confronted by the mysterious spiritual power of this unadorned voice. Sitting in the midst of an urban wilderness, this John–the–Baptist voice touched a lonely, aching place that lurks in the human heart, offering an unexpected message of faith and hope in the midst of the darkest, most blighted night.
 
This old homeless man had a gift; it was the gift of hope, a hope that sustained him, a hope that he gave away to others, without even knowing. To many he was brushed off as a half-crazed, homeless man. That day in Bryars’ office, many professionals gathered round to hear that voice and wondered where that homeless man found his gift of hope, whether it was real, and whether they could find it too.
 
Bryars, the English composer, started yearning for the confidence and faith the old man’s song celebrated. He began to face what it meant to feel homeless and alone even when we are sitting in the midst of family. Bryars vowed to respect the homeless person by creating a recording that would celebrate and accentuate his simple message.
 
In 1993, England’s leading contemporary composer, along with Philip Glass, one of America’s leading composers, created and produced a CD entitled “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.”
 
What convinced these leading musicians/composers to create a musical framework to preserve this old man’s song? Why did an office full of busy people find themselves reduced to tears at the sound of his voice? How did this tiny scrap of audiotape from the cutting room floor ever survive to live on for hundreds of thousands to hear?
 
It survived because hope is a gift. It survived because God comes to us in mysterious, unpredictable, and surprising ways. During this season of Advent, if we listen closely enough, we might hear the cry of a baby in a stable in Bethlehem, a baby that had been the hope of generations and generations and generations. Such hope is embodied in the verse in Isaiah where the prophet wrote, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you.” Isaiah 64:1 (NIV)
 
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. His column appears in The Moultrie Observer.