The Cup of Salvation

The urban Baptist Church that nurtured my childhood faith is fondly remembered for its congregational singing of gospel choruses. Led by our deacon, Howard T, we heartily learned and repeatedly sang so many choruses before we dispersed to our respective Sunday School classes that the church eventually produced a booklet of choruses containing close to fifty of these lively tunes. Those mimeographed sheets took their place in the pew-racks alongside hymnals and copies of the King James Bible.
 
Deacon Howard eagerly conducted our singing. He had a unique way of leading, clinging to the sleeve of his suit jacket with three or four fingers pressing the fabric into the heel of his palm and pumping his forearm up and down at the elbow like the lever of a drilling rig or an auto shop’s jack. His arm never wavered: up-and-down in the identical pattern of beats with only an occasional stop at the top to hold a sustained note. He didn’t wave or point; he never changed his facial expression nor made grand flourishes to mark dynamics. The deacon dutifully and joyfully sang as he led his congregation of all ages.
 
The deacon’s favorite chorus was a four-line ditty of thanksgiving:
 
Thank you, Lord, for saving my soul;
Thank you, Lord, for making me whole.
Thank you, Lord, for giving to me
Thy great salvation, so rich and free. (1)
 
The church, faithful in preaching its gospel message of salvation, boasted its evangelistic slogan: “We preach the Book, the Blood, and the Blessed Hope.”
 
The book, of course, referred to the King James Bible, and any mention of wine in the scriptures became interpreted as being sweet juice.
 
The blood, which represented Jesus’ sacrificial death on a cross shed as a substitute for our deserved eternal death, rarely was referred to during once-a-month communion services outside of Jesus’ reference at the Last Supper, when he said, “This is my blood, shed for you.” The reference at my church meant Welch’s Grape Juice that had been pre-poured into tiny glasses and distributed in silver serving trays by the deacons and trustees to the congregation seated during the service.
 
The Blessed Hope referred to the promise of salvation given to anyone who repented and made a profession of faith and became “born again.” I remember no connection between the blood and salvation during our communion service.
 
My faith changed dramatically as a collegian who gradually shed his fundamentalist Baptist upbringing and as a young adult became attracted to the liturgy, graciousness, and The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.
 
A young couple in my Episcopal parish and I became good friends through church meetings and socials. The wife, a mother of two boys—Andrew, aged six, and Timothy, aged four—one night shared with our fellowship that her boys often played “church” at home.
 
Using a mop-handle set across two back-to-back chairs, the boys built a makeshift altar with the handle serving as a rail. Andrew, wearing his bathrobe as a clerical surplus and a striped dish towel or a winter scarf as a stole, acted as the priest and server, while Timothy and his mother knelt at the rail and cupped their hands to receive the “sacraments.”
 
At the appropriate moment during an episode in their church play, the mother related, Andrew presented Timothy with a small wine glass containing a tiny amount of liquid (water or juice), saying the appropriate words from the prayer book: “The cup of salvation,” which Timothy raised to his lips and poured down his throat.
 
At this point, a distressed Andrew screamed to his mother: “Mommy, Timothy drank all the salvation!”
 
Indeed, that is precisely what occurs at the Eucharistic rail: a penitent and confessing believer kneels to be fed “all the salvation.”
 
As I’ve aged in my confirmed Episcopal life, when I kneel at the Eucharist rail to partake of the body and blood of Christ, before I rise I thank God for the lesson of a six-year-old and I silently recite the lines of deacon Howard T’s favorite chorus:
 
Thank you, Lord, for saving my soul;
Thank you, Lord, for making me whole.
Thank you, Lord, for giving to me
Thy great salvation, so rich and free.
 (1) The song is attributed to Seth and Bessie Sykes, itinerant British singing evangelists of the 1930s. It contains three verses in addition to the well-known chorus, but I have no memory of ever singing the verses in Sunday School. Some references to the chorus replace the word “rich” in the final line with the word “full.”
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