Special arrangement of the late pastor's favorite hymn, “It is Well with My Soul.”
In Acts 20:35, bidding farewell to the Ephesian Elders, the Apostle Paul said, in part, “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
With Paul’s words in mind, the Calvary Baptist Church will present a special arrangement of the late Pastor Richard M. Avant’s favorite hymn, “It is Well with My Soul.” The Dec. 17 presentation will be part of the annual Christmas Cantata, choir director Dion LeMon said. It’s a way of giving back for having received Avant’s guidance and mentorship for more than 34 years and for his dedication to helping others, he said.
In February 2015, LeMon visited Mack Wilberg, music director of the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir, asking if he might create a special choral and orchestral arrangement of the piece. To LeMon’s delight, Wilberg agreed.
"I am honored to play a role in celebrating the life and influence of one so important and revered at Calvary Baptist Church," Wilberg said in an email.
Unfortunately, however, because of his schedule, he was unable to complete the work before Avant’s death April 1, 2016.
“The hymn lets you know that whatever you go through in life, God is our foundation,” LeMon said. “And so whatever we go through, as long as he is with us, we’re OK.” This one had special meaning for Avant, facing mounting medical issues. He realized his time was becoming short.
“In spite of all this, he’d say, ‘It is well,’” recalled Avant’s wife, Bridget. “He felt that he’d done all he could do.”
“It is Well with My Soul” was penned by Horatio Spafford, a successful Chicago attorney more than a century ago.
In 1873, beset by financial setbacks, Spafford planned a family getaway to Europe with his wife, Anna, and their four daughters. Circumstances delayed his departure and he sent the family ahead. Crossing the Atlantic, their ship collided with another and all four girls drowned; Anna survived and was rescued while floating on a piece of wreckage. Boarding another ship to join his wife, Spafford was moved to write the hymn as he passed the site where his children had died.
Seven years later, they moved to Jerusalem, then part of the Ottoman Empire, and founded a philanthropic group known as the American Colony. Spafford died there in 1888.
The solemn yet peaceful song has additional meaning for Bridget Avant, who struggled to accept her husband’s passing.
“It helped me to heal because now I understand why he would say, ‘I’m ready,’” she said. “I used to get angry because I wasn’t ready. Now I understand that it’s OK.”
LeMon has nothing but admiration for Wilberg, particularly after he agreed to do the special arrangement. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is, he said, “as close to hearing angels as you’re going to get on Earth.” Considering all the demands on his time, Wilberg’s willingness to write the new orchestration came as a bit of a surprise, LeMon said.
“He immediately, without hesitation, said he’d do it,” he said. “He asked me what I wanted and he said he’d make it work.” The score for Wilberg’s arrangement always will carry the notation it was done in Avant’s memory, LeMon added.
“He was able to take everything I wanted to express about our pastor and set it to music,” he said.
“This is going to be our gift to the community.”