The Singer and the Drunk

Martin Ross was a drunk.

He wanted no part of religion.

But Bertha Ross was a praying wife.

She didn’t condemn her husband, nor did she give up on him. She loved him, remained faithful to him through his frequent bouts with alcohol – and she never stopped praying for Martin.

Bertha trusted God for Martin’s salvation and deliverance.

So did her family and friends.

One day, Martin gave his life to Jesus Christ. He finally found his deliverance from those inner demons. But Martin Ross didn’t believe in going half-way. Not only did the man become a Christian. He entered the ministry and became pastor of the Baptist church in Brooktonville, New York, a small upstate community about eight miles outside Ithaca.

Some years later, Martin’s daughter, Rhea Miller, was taking a stroll through the beautiful back fields of their Brooktonville home. She reflected upon her father’s life, her difficult childhood while he was drinking and God’s miraculous rescue of her dad.

Rhea recalled his stirring testimony. Martin Ross often said he would rather have Jesus than all that the world could offer; he would rather walk with his Lord and be guided by him than to possess all that money could buy.

This was, Rhea knew, her dad’s full and unconditional commitment to Christ – his unending gratitude for God’s gift of a new life and a fresh start. The world’s material wealth could not begin to compare to what Pastor Martin Ross had found while in the depths of his own despair: the overflowing abundance of God’s amazing grace.

Martin was a truly rich man. He would never forget that.

Moved in a strange way, Rhea, who loved poetry, later wrote some verses about her father’s devotion to Christ.

It was 1923 and Rhea Miller was 30 years old.

More than a decade later, in another update New York home, another praying woman was asking God’s certain guidance for her young son. He was dashing and musically gifted, possessing a rich baritone voice, perfect diction and a confident yet humble presence.

The son had auditioned on some secular radio programs. Fred Allen’s NBC radio show was very impressed. This young man was wowing both critics and fans alike. Gifted and attractive, he was told he could really go places.

It was heady stuff for one so young.

He had been raised in a Christian home. While the lucrative opportunities tugged at his pride and ambition, he was still uncomfortable in this secular setting. The pressures were not only on the outside, he struggled within.

He was torn.

His saintly mom observed; she knew and she prayed.

Then somehow, somewhere, she came across a poem. Reading it, she prayed to God that its powerful message might have an impact on the undecided boy she loved. So one night she placed it gently on the piano she knew he would play. When he read it the next morning, he was so struck he decided to put music to its words.

His mother urged him to sing it in church that next Sunday.

He did.

I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold,
I’d rather be His than have riches untold;
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands,
I’d rather be led by his nail-pierced hands.

I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause,
I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause;
I’d rather have Jesus than worldwide fame,
I’d rather be true to His holy name.

Than to be a king of a vast domain
Or be held in sin’s dread sway.
I’d rather have Jesus than anything
This world affords today.

It was the poem written by Rhea Miller as a tribute to her dad.

When Mrs. Miller died in 1966, George Beverly Shea, the young man who had been influenced by her words to choose a career in Gospel music, had already sung her poem to millions around the world. In 1940, Shea had met another young man named Billy Graham. Graham told Shea he liked his singing and invited him to join his fledgling evangelistic team. Before he died at the age of 104, George Beverly Shea had sung before an estimated 200 million people worldwide.

One of his signature songs was I’d Rather Have Jesus.

It’s a song taken from a poem written by the daughter of a Baptist preacher in a small town in upstate New York – a preacher who used to be a drunk.

The Bible tells us that God alone declares “the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10, KJV).
His plans – made in eternity past – are inscrutable to mortal man. Human eye cannot see, nor can the ear hear the extraordinary things God has prepared for those who love him.

What an ironic God! What a surprising and sovereign Creator! In what divine ways he works! What rich and indescribable grace!

When we wait on him, when we trust him, when we deliberately choose to follow him, God will never cease to amaze us.

Paul said it well in his letter to the Romans:

“O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33, KJV).

Martin Ross and Bev Shea would give a unanimous “Amen” to that.

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