We have all heard the haunting melody of “Taps.” The poignant sound of “Taps” being played by a lone bugler somewhere off in the distance can put a lump in our throats and bring tears to our eyes. But do you know the rest of the story? Do you know what happened in our nation’s history that gave birth to this song? The following account may be apochryphal, but it makes for a good story.
It all began in 1862 during the Civil War. Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe was on the front lines with his men near Harrison’s Landing in Virginia. The Confederate Army was on the other side of the narrow strip of land. During the night, Captain Ellicombe heard a painful sound... the moans of a soldier who was severely wounded on the battlefield.
He did not know if the injured man were one of his, a Union solider, or one of the enemy, a Confederate soldier. But still those cries for help were so heart wrenching that Captain Ellicombe decided to risk his own life and go out and bring the stricken man back for medical attention.
Crawling on his stomach through the gunfire, the Captain reached the wounded soldier and pulled him back toward the Union soldier’s encampment. When they finally made it back to camp, Captain Ellicombe discovered that the young man was actually a Confederate soldier and that the soldier was by now dead.
The Captain lit a lantern and suddenly gasped for breath and went numb with shock. In the dim light of the lantern, he saw the face of the soldier, a face he knew so very well. It was his own son! The young man had been studying music in the South when the war broke out. Without telling his father, the boy enlisted in the Confederate Army and now had been killed at the Battle of Harrison’s Landing.
Captain Ellicombe was absolutely heartbroken. The next morning, the Captain asked his superiors for permission to give his son a full military burial with an Army band there to play the service... despite the fact that his son was in the Confederate Army.
His request was denied since the soldier was a Confederate. But out of respect for the father, they did say they could give him one musician. The Captain chose a bugler. And he asked the bugler to play a series of musical notes he had found on a piece of paper in the pocket of his son’s uniform. The wish was granted and the bugler played the notes just as they were written... and the haunting melody of Taps was born.
Now though the song has a sad and sorrowful sound, the words resound with the good news of the Bible. The words remind us that God is always with us, that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God and His love:
Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky;
All is well, safely rest,
God is nigh.
Most of us have felt chills running up and down our spine while listening to the sound of Taps, but really... the thrilling thing here is found in the words. Listen again to that last line: All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
God is always near. God is always here. God is always in charge. God is always with us wherever we may be. That’s the thrilling thing about this song. It’s the same message the Risen Christ was giving in Matthew 28 when He said, “Lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age.”
What does that mean? Where can Christ’s presence be felt? Well, in a sense, he is everywhere, but his personal presence is especially felt and his personal power is especially evident wherever his people are worshipping, serving, and suffering.
At first glance, it seems like it would be so easy to find Christ in the beautiful, sacred, lovely places of life... or in those situations where all the breaks are going our way... but the truth is that the Risen Lord is never nearer to us than when we are hurting. Time after time, I have heard people say it, “This is the hardest thing we’ve ever gone through; our hearts are broken... but we will be all right because God is with us as never before.”
Did you hear those last three words? “As never before”... God is with us as never before. Why do we feel God’s presence with us so vividly when we are suffering? Probably for two reasons.
First, when we are hurting, we are more open to God. We are more willing and anxious and ready for God to come and help us. And second, God is like a loving parent and all good loving parents want to be with their children when they are hurting. When our children are suffering, everything else goes on the back burner.
Once I was at the hospital visiting a little girl who was very sick. Her mother had been at her bedside for days and days. The doctor called me out into the hallway and said, “Fred, see if you can get that young mother to go home for a while. She hasn’t slept, she hasn’t eaten, she’s got to be exhausted. See if you can get her to go home.”
I went back in and said, “Why don’t you come and let some of the family take you home for a while?” She looked up at me and said, “Fred, you don’t really want me to leave her when she is sick, do you?” Being a parent myself, I understood. “No,” I said. “Let me go get you a sandwich.”
God is like that mother... a loving parent who wants to be especially close to His children when they are suffering. Isn’t it something, how we can find the Risen Lord wherever his people are worshipping, wherever his people are serving, and wherever his people are suffering.
The hymn writer put it like this:
I serve a Risen Savior, He’s in the world today;
I know that He is living, whatever men may say;
I see His hand of mercy, I hear His voice of cheer;
And just the time I need Him, He’s always near.
He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me
Along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives:
He lives within my heart.
Dr. Fred Andrea is pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.