Soon after Dad graduated from Bible school in Toronto in 1947, he assumed the pastorate of a church in Ontario. As his first charge, it was an ideal opportunity for him to put into practice the things he had learned. At the same time, he would learn many lessons he had not been taught. One such lesson revolved around a parishioner’s unusual song request.
One Sunday morning, Dad asked his congregation, “Does anyone have a favourite hymn or chorus you’d like for us to sing?” Such requests were not unusual in public meetings. Congregants would respond with various titles. The choices were limitless, and Dad thought he was ready for almost any selection. It might be “Amazing Grace,” an all-time favourite, or “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” “Faith of Our Fathers,” “Near the Cross,” Just As I Am,” or any number of others.
A lady timidly raised her hand.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Dad said, looking in her direction. “What is your selection?”
“Pastor,” she began, “can we sing that wonderful little chorus, ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’?” Dad was taken aback. “It’s been going over in my mind all week,” she continued, “and I’d like for the congregation to sing it. It would really bless me.”
Thinking he had misheard her, Dad said, “Pardon?”
She repeated her request, “‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ pastor, if you don’t mind. That’s what I’d like for us to sing.”
Dad had spent four years in Bible school preparing for this? Appealing to his congregation for favourite hymns or choruses, he had been thinking in terms of selections chosen from the hymnal, not nursery rhymes! Not that he didn’t know “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” for he recalled it very well from his childhood. But as for being a parishioner’s choice of a chorus to be sung in a church service, well, it just didn’t seem appropriate. A litany of questions flashed into his mind, Where’s the spiritual content? How does it relate to God, to Jesus Christ, to the Holy Spirit, to the Church, to heaven? No, he decided, it doesn’t fit the bill. But how to handle the sincere woman’s unusual request?
Ever the suave one, Dad responded politely, “Thank you for your selection, Ma’am. But I don’t think it would be appropriate right now.”
Dad eventually left Ontario for his Newfoundland home, married, had four children, and spent his entire professional life pastoring in the province. He often told this story to his children, to their keen delight.
I often asked him what the woman in his first church must have been thinking when she had made such an unusual request. Dad didn’t have a definitive answer, but over time we concocted a reasonable scenario.
The nursery rhyme makes repeated reference to a “Mary.” Well, wasn’t the mother of Jesus also named Mary? A not insignificant detail. The rhyme also makes equal reference to a “lamb.” Ah-ah, we thought upon reflection. The New Testament refers to Jesus as “the Lamb of God.” Suddenly, it made sense in a reverse sort of way. “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” A clear reference to Jesus, the Lamb of God, and his mother, Mary! How else could she have understood the nursery rhyme?
How often Sherry and I regaled our young children with this nursery rhyme, “Mary had a little lamb, / Little lamb, little lamb. / Mary had a little lamb, / Its fleece was white as snow.”
At one point, I even added my own stanza, “Mary had a little lamb, / Its feet were black as tar. / It followed her to school d’day, / Gonna do it agin d’mar!” Apparently I wasn’t concerned about grammar at the time.
For some reason, my original stanza was never incorporated into the original composition.
Meanwhile, we as a family never cease to laugh whenever anyone mentions this unforgettable nursery rhyme.