Updated: Oct 20, 2019
It was late fall, 1979, and Mother Teresa had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I saw her on TV and was so deeply moved I needed somewhere to put all my emotion. I sat down to “pray” the piano, as I do sometimes, and came up with a simple, tender melody that helped express what I was feeling.
Weeks later, I was trying to write a special song for a New Year's Eve service at church—a song to exhort people to emulate Mother Teresa. But it felt forced and wasn't flowing, and time was running out. I threw down my pencil and cried out in frustration, “Okay, God, if not this, what do you want to say to your people?”
Immediately these clear, gentle words dropped into my spirit: Tell my people I love them.
I felt so ashamed. I'd been way off track. But there was more: And the words and music have already been written.
I thought back to my recent Mother Teresa melody and then opened the scriptures, where my eyes fell on the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30, "Come unto me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest unto your souls." The words matched the melody to perfection. I had only to add one extra line of music to finish the verse, "for my yoke is easy and my burden is light," and the song was complete.
On a lush spring evening the following May, my friend Linda Metz and I prepared to do a music program at the YWCA in Lancaster, Pa., for a social club of people with mental health disabilities. We had performed for them the year before and knew to expect that folks would probably get up and walk around or talk out loud during the concert.
Musical conditions were not ideal that night. We knew there wouldn’t be microphones or great acoustics. But we didn’t expect they’d assign us to a different room with a big ol' honker of an upright piano painted olive green and pushed up against the front wall with a sign on it: DO NOT MOVE UNDER ANY
CIRCUMSTANCES. Our hearts sank a little.
A couple folks with nervous tics wandered around as we set up our gear and peppered us with personal questions. One of the men from the club came up to us and wanted to show us his appendectomy scar. (We stopped him when he started to unbuckle his belt.) Finally they settled, about 40 of them, and we began our program.
We had a carefully prepared song list, and when it came time for us to perform “Come Unto Me,” Linda stood at my side with her flute, facing the audience, ready to play the introduction. I hated that my back would be to everyone, so I turned around to explain how the song came to be. But when I looked at their faces, I was flooded with so much compassion that I choked up and couldn't speak. This peculiar and disarming bunch, some of society’s rejects, the ones my mother trained me as a kid not to gawk at on shopping trips downtown, needed the mercy of God, just like Mother Teresa's poorest of the poor.
I turned back to face the piano (and the wall) and gathered myself. Jesus, these are your words; this is your music, I whispered. Please—you sing it to them.
We had finished the intro, and I had started to sing when I realized someone was singing with me. I looked over at Linda, whose mouth was closed. The song had only ever been sung once in front of a small group; no one could possibly have known it, nor been able to match its complex intervals. But this voice was singing in perfect unison with me, almost like it was another me. Was it a man or a woman? I couldn’t tell. Certainly it wasn’t one of the club members, was it?
After the first verse, the voice left the room as imperceptibly as it had arrived. And because we had the rest of our program to do, I actually forgot about it—until after the concert, when Linda and I were sitting outside, debriefing in the warm, fragrant night air. “By the way,” she said, “you’re going to think I’m crazy. But did you hear someone singing with you on ‘Come Unto Me?’”
I looked at her wide-eyed. “You heard it too?”
“Yes," she said, as incredulous as I. "Lisa, I looked all around. Those people were completely quiet. Not one mouth was moving.”
We took a moment to absorb what had happened. She went on to say that she couldn’t tell, either, whether the voice was male or female, but that it was unforgettably pure and bell-like in timbre.
Whether it’s a mass choir of angels astonishing shepherds in a field, or just one joining in at a room at a YWCA, angels know when and how to bring it.
I am still in awe.
Listen to these earth angels magnify the Lord! Special thanks to the Lancaster Bible College Chamber Singers, under the direction of Dr. Robert Bigley, for recording the choral version of "Come Unto Me." (To purchase "Come Unto Me" for your choir, please click here.)