The Beauty of a Single Hymn, and What No. 707 Means to Me

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Hymn of Promise

Growing up here in the Brazos Valley, I was exposed to a lot of great church music. Most of our hymnals were red books (6” x 9”). They were heavy; at 700+ pages, it took both hands to hold one.

In 1986, a woman named Natalie Sleeth wrote a song that has become a favorite, of mine and so many—“Hymn of Promise.” You know, it starts, “In the bulb there is a flower, in the seed an apple tree; in cocoons, a hidden promise, butterflies will soon be free!” Have you heard it?

What an amazing feeling to hear it played and sung in worship. The lyrics of the third verse are so poignant: “In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity; in our doubt, there is believing; in our life, eternity…” It’s a song of hope and joy in the face of death.

Sometimes in evening service singalongs, I’d really like it when someone would shout out, “707! Let’s do No. 707!” I may not have known its “real” title, “Hymn of Promise,” or the writer, Natalie Sleeth, back then, but I knew how I felt when I heard it. That’s what music does for us, isn’t it? One song may define a courtship, as “Our song.” Another song may define a wedding ceremony, or an anniversary as “our song.”

For me, it was just fine to hear No. 707 at a funeral, or a wedding, or anytime really. I could really hold onto the second line, “There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody…” How powerful is that? A song in silence. “There’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me.”

It is our mission to bring this feeling of hope to you and your loved ones as you entrust your family and friends to our care, when earthly life ends. Ask those you love—today—seniors and not-so-seniors alike, what is your favorite hymn? What music would you like us to have played, sung or performed “one day when the time comes?” You’ll be glad you asked.

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Thinking back on my earliest days in worship, where I didn’t have to leave the sanctuary after the children’s message, I loved singing the hymns along with my parents. Until I could really read, though, I’d just listen to the people around me sing, and I’d come in on the chorus like I’d been there throughout the entire song! I liked hymns and everyone around me seemed to as well. With apologies to my early church pastors, my favorite part of the service was usually the hymns because I’d get to stand after sitting patiently (some Sundays longer than others).

Those hymnals were eventually pretty well-worn, and eventually new ones would appear in the backs of pews. I’d often enjoyed discovering the treasure inside all those hymnals written in very nice script letters on the inside book jacket. A sticker-label carried the inscription of the person(s) who “gave” the hymnal to the church and the life remembered in the memorial gift. A hymnal given in honor of someone’s life—I always remembered that as a lasting and precious gift. I’d see a name of someone who’d passed away many years before I was born. If I sat in the same pew each week, I’d open the same hymnal, and somehow seeing their name again, made them unforgettable to me. I often ask, “How do you want to be remembered?” and yet, “Just” to be remembered permanently is an amazing gift by itself.

As you know, a funeral director is frequently asked many questions, among which are “What kind of music should I have at the service? Do you have any recommendations?” And, absolutely, yes I do. After many, many years attending different churches wherever life took me, I started my own favorite collections. And yes, I will suggest to friends and families to consider is to remember what songs are “their songs,” as in their most favorite songs during their lifetime, before they need that information, but I can definitely help if that has not been done.

What do we offer? It could be you like “anything” by Pat Boone or it might be Bill Gaither. Not only do we have their music in our library, we are fortunate to have many CDs by my contemporary, Christian music writer and performer, Ross King. As many from here know, Ross has been writing music about as long as he could write the alphabet, and most people in the Brazos Valley in the past 20 years are familiar with his songs. “Hallelujah for the Cross” is his most recent nationally famous composition but he has more. Songwriters always have “more” as their creative souls must be heard.

Which brings me back to Natalie Sleeth. A good friend introduced me to her music many years ago and I shook my head to think that she was the one who wrote “Hymn of Promise.” I have to admit that I had not started looking up things about songwriters before. If I like a song, I buy it or play it on the radio or on my iTunes. Frankly, I just knew it as “707”; if you’d have asked me, “What is that favorite Methodist hymn we all like to sing?” I’d have been able to say “707.”

Isn’t it amazing how integral music is to both worship and to ceremonies in which we honor the lives of our loved ones?  Who are the people who write these great songs that we, ashamedly, sometimes take for granted that we’ll remember as our parents’ favorites? We have so many songs in our collection to be picked out by someone when there is sufficient time to give deep thought to recalling the favorites that were integral parts of their lives. But sometimes there is no time to recall when a death occurs and you need to make decisions “now.” That’s where our family can help you.

One day I had to know more about the woman who wrote “707.” Found a web site that noted she was a native of Illinois, who studied music theory, and sang in the choir at Wellesley College. She married a Methodist minister, Ronald Sleeth, and played organ in their church in Glencoe, Illinois, while studying organ at Northwestern University.

When they relocated to Dallas, Natalie directed children’s choirs at one of the largest churches there, Highland Park Methodist Church. At SMU, she studied with two people who, I am told, are “premiere” at choral music, Lloyd Pfautsch and Jane Marshall.

Learning this fact, you might think that I’d have just said, “Okay, thanks,” and that would have been the end of it. It wasn’t. It was in a Sunday morning worship service that my eyes stared blankly at the bottom of the page we were singing, and I became fixated on the name Natalie Sleeth. Natalie Sleeth. “707.” “Hymn of Promise.” When she wrote this song I’m convinced that even if I haven’t got all the words to all three verses memorized, I’ll never forget she wrote it, because it is a song that brings such comfort to so many people in so many different settings.

Whether it is on a quiet Sunday morning in church after an Aggie football game that we hear her words or are moved by her melody, or whether it is a funeral in which I am present, this song often comes up as many people’s “favorites.”

I’m pretty sure I’m right when I say that Natalie Sleeth never once had any idea at all that just one of the many (180 or so) songs she’d written and published would become so legendary, at least in my mind. Wish I’d have had a chance to say thank you to her in person.

What are your favorite songs that people would know right off the bat are “yours”? Are they hymns from church? Are they songs from classic rock, metal rock, early country-western, Southern gospel? What songs make your world go around?

Feel free to post your favorite songs here on my blog. I want to hear what your favorites are, just to make sure I have them in our collection.

 

Cody D. Jones ‘02
Owner and Community Member

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