Wonderful Words of Life

March 11, 2023


Some parents dream their daughters will become the Mayor or a heart surgeon, but mine longed for the Doxology with a side of the Hallelujah Chorus — all from memory if possible. They would have traded me to the hippies, if it meant I came home a church pianist. 

“Reading two different staffs is like trying to read two books at once.” I protested. “It’s not natural. I think this is what the Bible means when it says not to be double-minded.” 

I played everything my teacher taught, except I played by ear, and reasonably transposed everything to the key of C — no pesky sharps or flats to get in the way. 

The only time I ventured out of C (for “comfort”), was when I found the hymn, “Wonderful Words of Life.” For some reason, it clicked and came naturally. It was a bouncy tune, with happy words and one exotic F-sharp. The confounded Circle of Fifths said this made it G-major, but I’m still not sure. I only know that for some reason, this one hymn was something I could handle.

And handle it I did. I jammed on Wonderful Words of Life.  I could play this hymn fast, slow, as a waltz, or a Jimmy Buffet beach tune. I could play it with the pitiful aching of a hungry child or with the throaty soul of Bourbon Street. At 10 years old,  I became an expert on Wonderful Words of Life.

Mrs. Bateman asked me to play the piano for our Sunday school class. 25 children, sat in rows, with the boys in back punching each other in the arms and the girls in front wearing pretty dresses and bouncy hair, the result of Saturday night  pin curls.

When asked to come to the piano, everyone would snicker because they knew what was coming next. Every single cotton-picking week.

“What shall we sing this morning?” Mrs. Bateman would ask. 

“Wonderful Words of Life!” My friends would whisper. 

“How about Wonderful Words of Life?” I’d suggest. 

After we sang, “words of life and buuu-teee, teach me faith and duuuu-teee” I’d bring it on home with a flourish of arpeggios. 

Then with hope in her heart, Mrs. Bateman would ask, “How about something else?”

And every Sunday, I’d stare at the terrazzo floor and say,  “Mmmm, that’s all I know.” 

“How about number 265?  It is well with my soul?” 

“That has 5 flats!” I’d say, totally shocked. I mean, who did she think I was, Liberace?

“What about the very first page? Holy Holy Holy?”

“Too many sharps. But I know The Music Box Dancer and The Entertainer.”

“Well, look right here, page 505 is in the key of C” she’d triumphantly say as if it were a game of “gotcha.” 

“Acc-ident-als” I’d hiss like a kitten staring at a Rottweiler. 

The few times I attempted a new song with a heart of hope and silent prayer, it would all come crashing down by the second stanza. My friends would squirm with laughter and snorting noises. 

I was in huge trouble when Mrs. Bateman told my parents the 5th graders were laughing at her. When I explained the source of our giggles came from having to sing Wonderful Words of Life every single Sunday of the year, they saw their dreams of raising a church pianist crumble like a Steinway made of Saltines. 

It was a true miracle when my friend Gloria began piano lessons and took over all accompaniment duties. She played sharps, flats and accidentals. And I was never again asked to play Wonderful Words of Life. 

Sometimes, when I’m alone., I still pull out the hymnal and let it naturally fall open to the overused page 181 - Wonderful Words of Life.  I warm up like a fifth grader in Sunday school, then tackle it like a late night jazz set. I think God loves both arrangements. And I love not being the church pianist. 

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