Nearly a century ago, preachers often traveled from city to city and town to town, setting up tents and preaching every night for a week or more, depending on how things were going. One of those preachers was Byron Conley, who toured Central Florida. He was responsible for the beginning of many of the churches in that area. One of those congregations was in a small town called Winter Garden, about 10 miles west of Orlando—at least in those days. Now you can't tell where one ends and the other begins.
All of my grandparents lived in Winter Garden, the typical Southern town with a train track running down the middle of the main drag, and diagonal parking in front of storefronts like Piggly Wiggly, McCormick 5 and 10, a barber shop, and a drug store complete with soda fountain. My father's mother, Thelma Ayers, attended one of those tent meetings and was converted to the Lord, and eventually became a member of the new congregation there. Although her husband, my grandfather, was never baptized, she taught her three sons and all of them followed in her faith.
My daddy was the oldest. At 17, he took his high school sweetheart to church with him. She had been raised a Methodist, mainly because it was the closest church to the house and they could all walk. She told me that all she heard were slow dirges on Sunday morning, so that morning when she went to church with her boyfriend Gerald, she was in for a shock. "They sang happy music!" she exclaimed. The first song she heard was "Heavenly Sunlight," and the day she told me that story she added, "And I want that sung at my funeral." And we did.
So let's consider a few things this morning. This was a small Southern town. As is our custom and belief, they sang a capella. It may have been "happy" compared to the slower organ pieces she was used to, but I imagine there were a few places, especially by the end, where the music dragged a bit. I imagine there were a few flat Southern altos and a tenor or two that stuck out like a sore thumb. This was not a performing choir, certainly not a pro or semi-pro praise band. So why did the singing impress her so?
Because it wasn't just a happy song. It was sung by happy people, people who knew they were saved and pleasing to God, people who believed they were going to Heaven, people who, despite the trials of life, knew it was all worth it. I have heard it said that our singing can be an evangelistic tool. It certainly was for my mother. But if the people do not match their songs, it is just another form of hypocrisy.
"Heavenly Sunlight" isn't as deep as some of the other older hymns but it certainly doesn't sit in the wading pool with the babes either. It takes a mature spiritual mindset to see the "Sunlight" even in the "deep vale" and to have the faith to know that no matter what happens He will "never forsake thee." She could see that faith in the faces of those people and eventually it became her own faith, a faith she passed on to children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Many of these thoughts ran through my head that afternoon as we sang for her the song that made all the difference in her life. A small town southern church sang it like they meant it, and she wanted to know more about how they could do that when so few other places did.
Would your singing begin the journey of conversion for a visitor? It does not have to be ear-catching, toe-tapping, and rhythmically complex. You just have to sing it like you mean it, and then live it that way too.
But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you. (Ps 5:11).