Strange how old melodies suddenly come to mind. And if they are hymns, somehow those cadences are not only locked into our grey matter, but into our souls as well. A childhood memory bubbled up of wheezy notes from an old pedal organ, leading our little congregation through a hearty rendition of ‘Tell me the old, old story of Jesus and his love.’
The words were there in my memory, but there were foggy patches so I googled. As I read them through I thought, ‘whoever wrote this understood storytelling.’ The fusty hymn came to life when I discovered the author was Kathryn Hankey, a girl with a passion for teaching children all across 19th century London. She was a social activist teamed up with the group fighting for the abolition of slavery with William Wilberforce. Her heart for sharing the story of Jesus saw her head overseas to serve as a nurse in South Africa.
Long convalescence from a serious illness stopped Kate from standing or travelling and so she poured herself into writing a long poem urging others to take up the role of being storytellers. Wow! I felt I had met a mentor! She loved the story of Jesus in particular and advised;
Tell it simply, as to a little child,
Tell it slowly, so I can take it in,
Tell it often, for I forget so soon,
Tell it softly, in earnest tones and grave,
Tell me always…
Musician W. Howard Doane was inspired to set her words to music after watching a leather-face Major-General of the British Army break into tears as he read it at a Young Mens’ Christian Association rally in 1867. It’s been sung a million times since then and no doubt mobilised storytellers across the world.
I figure I must have heard that same old story of Jesus’ birth thousands of times in my life, and I realise it’s never frayed around the edges for me, never faded in the telling, never degenerated into pious fairy tale. For me as a teacher, historian and grandfather, its remained bright, vigorous and believable.
I’m so grateful to the long chain of faithful men and women like Kate who, for over 21 centuries have told new generations the same old story. And as I look at my grandchildren I ask myself, am I telling and living that old, old story simply, slowly, often, softly, always?
In the guise of the Outback Historian I’ve tried to do that this year, uncovering and telling the stories of men and women of faith who’ve shaped Australia. I’m not ashamed to admit that, like that hard-bitten soldier, many of them have made me cry. I hope and pray they will not simply raise your curiosity, but stir you to tell these stories to new generations. I’ll give Kate Hankey the last word.
Tell me the same old story
When you have cause to fear
That this world’s empty glory
Is costing me too dear;
And when the Lord’s bright glory
Is dawning on my soul,
Tell me the old, old story,
“Christ Jesus makes thee whole.”
Robyn and I hope you enjoy telling the same old story this Christmas!
Join The Outback Historian, Paul Roe, on an unforgettable journey into Australia's Past as he follows the footprints of the Master Storyteller and uncovers unknown treasures of the nation.