Praise in the Low Notes

As the emergency room nurses gently placed the brace around my 94-year-old Uncle Tommy’s neck to relieve some of the neck pain from his fall, Uncle Tommy spoke, “I’m worried people are going to mistake me for a priest with this collar on.” We all laughed. Even this hadn’t taken away his dry sense of humor. My cousin Allison, who’d come with me to the E.R. on this New Year’s Day and brought his hearing aids, glasses, and phone, said, “Uncle Tommy, people are going think you were in a car accident with that neck brace.” He smiled the gentlest smile and said, “I am so glad you kids are here; thanks for coming.” We hadn’t been called kids in decades, and it was our honor and blessing to be there, whether we fully knew it or not.

Uncle Tommy is unique. His way and his life have much to teach us. And it seems God had invited us to his bedside to set our hearts on the right course for the coming year. We were getting a live tutorial on the power of thankfulness and praise, even in the low notes of life. Uncle Tommy truly is a living embodiment of thankfulness. He has practiced speaking praise almost as much as he has practiced drumming. Not only is he an accomplished drummer, but he also grew up playing nearly every musical instrument with two of history’s most famous jazz musicians, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey. Their father, Mr. Dorsey, was his teacher. Under his tutelage and that of his own father, Tom senior, who was also a member of the Dorsey brothers’ original band, Uncle Tommy became a spectacular drummer in his own right. He even played for the soldiers during WWI and the Korean war as part of the USO. But it is not his musical talent that makes his way of life the teacher that it is for me. It is his continual thankfulness and the honor he gives to all people.

Uncle Tommy shows respect to every person simply because they are made in the image of God. Despite becoming increasingly unstable on his feet in his 90s, Uncle Tommy still insisted on standing whenever a woman would enter the room. He insisted on shaking the hand of every man who approached him in greeting. And despite my encouragement for him not to stand up when he’s with us on the bleachers of our pool deck watching our kids swim their meets, Tommy still stood up whenever the doors nearby opened and someone entered. Respect and thankfulness are deeply ingrained in the fibers of his soul.

This year at his 94th birthday celebration at my parent’s house, Uncle Tommy shared how confused he’d become of late. He said he couldn’t even remember what he did for Christmas, which happened to be the day before. Still, he said he was glad he had us to remind him it was his birthday today, or he would have missed it himself. Only now, here in the E.R., did we learn that his rapid decline wasn’t some inexplicable thing based only on his age but rather an infection that caused such extreme confusion, sudden memory loss, and greater instability and which landed him in the E.R after falling on New Year’s Day.

My younger brother Tommy, Uncle Tommy’s namesake, sent a text about the priest joke, saying, “Tell him he is pretty close. You can go to him for confession, and you won’t have to worry about him repeating it.” Uncle Tommy loved the joke and chuckled joyfully at his own expense. He loves to laugh and does so often, even here, despite the dreary hospital setting or holiday being upended. Uncle Tommy’s attitude set the tone, and I became aware, sitting at his bedside, that God had been inviting me all day to consider the power of praise and thanksgiving, especially in the low notes of life.

Earlier that morning, my husband, Scott, had asked our whole family, “What do you want your song or anthem to be in 2023?” Scott has faced tremendous loss in the last few years, having buried his father and his mother, had painful career setbacks and is now walking through the final days of his brother Norm’s life. Still, he set the tone of our home by sharing his anthem of praise while in the low notes and then encouraged us all to do the same.

Life is indeed like a compilation of many different kinds of songs. Some songs are happier than others, played in the major keys rather than minor ones. But nearly every song in life has its high and low notes. It is the variation in the music scale that makes life exciting and even beautiful. Like everyone else, I had hoped this year would begin with my life in the high notes or at least be marked by a transition into the higher notes. Instead, it began with a living picture that revealed a more profound truth, reminding me about the power of choosing thankfulness and praise in the low times.

Taqa means to praise by applauding, clapping hands, blowing the shofar, hammering a tent peg, or beating a drum. It references an ongoing and consistent way of keeping rhythm by being thankful throughout a thing until its end – it is what keeps the tempo of a Life Song. It was Taqa that brought the walls of Jericho tumbling down. It also taqa that can unleash the power needed to break down the walls that are hindering your growth and movement in the promised lands of your life. Thankfulness had become the drumbeat of Uncle Tommy’s life. He kept time by it over many years of heartache and through many valleys of suffering. When he lived far away from us, my parents would share how hard it must be for him to live with his wife with dementia when she no longer knew who he was. Yet, whenever we saw him, whether here or there, his words were filled with gratitude, not self-pity. Though she no longer remembered him, he still remembered her and treated her as the bride of his youth, worthy of his presence, love, and honor. A thankful heart before God is a powerful thing. “I am under vows to you, my God; I will present my thank offerings to you.” Psalm 56:12.

My Uncle Tommy’s life is an anthem of thanksgiving, with praise abiding within him as an inextricable part of his essence. He has long practiced it like he practiced beating the drum. More than any other instrument that he played, he played the drum of thanksgiving most of all. So, even though Uncle Tommy’s eyesight is failing, along with his strength and hearing, he still sees far more clearly than most, and his life is helping us all to see more clearly. In Revelation 3:18, the Lord says, “I counsel you to buy from me salve to put on your eyes so you can see.” We buy that heavenly salve through praise. Our praises are meant to be like an exhale of the warm air of love from a soul who knows its Maker. The exhale of praise calls upon the new cool breath of the Spirit to inspire and fill our souls. The word teaches that praise and thanksgiving are also like master keys to the presence of God when he feels far away in the dreariness of the low places. Enter His gates with thanksgiving; go into His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him and praise His name.” (Psalm 100:4).

Annika, the youngest of our crew, had a surprise waiting for me when I returned home from the hospital last night. She had written and recorded her anthem for 2023. I was so surprised because she had begun the day in tears herself, but now she was playing her song of hope with joy. I want to learn from the drumbeat of my 94-year-old Uncle and the song of my ten-year-old daughter so that no matter what 2023 has in store, I can experience it in the presence of God’s empowering grace by praising. You can listen to Annika’s little heart song of praise, where she drummed upon the backboard of her bed, in case you need a little hopeful reminder to remain in sacred rhythm yourself.

Lord, You Keep me Safe” by Annika Hasenbalg
Annika, my younger praise teacher
Uncle Tommy, my elder praise teacher, with his twin sisters, Georgie & Gerry
Celebrating Tommy Richards’ 94th birthday

3 Replies to “Praise in the Low Notes”

  1. Thank you for these words. Wishing you and your family many blessings in the New Year


  2. Thank you, perfect timing~ I needed to read this. Rhythm of thankfulness.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s