Precious Lord, Take My Hand

Have you ever had one of those seasons when it seems everything you touch crumbles and everything you try to do fails?  Me, too.  Have you had the kind of tragedy in your life that took your breath away, shook you to your core and you couldn’t imagine how to go on? I have, and if you haven’t yet, the reality is that you likely will someday. Things happen to us and around us as the part of life that is real and difficult and painful.

Rev. Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993) knew that kind of pain.  In 1932, while in Chicago leading a church service,  he received a message saying his wife died in childbirth. Their infant son died shortly afterwards, and Nettie and the baby were buried in a single coffin.  Although Dorsey had written many hymns, he now questioned God and felt he could never write another gospel song.  In time, with peace came a new song.  At a piano, playing a hymn tune familiar to him (MAITLAND, by George N. Allen) Dorsey began to sing new words, words of confession, a cry for help, and comfort from God’s presence:

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When my way grows drear
Precious Lord linger near
When my life is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When the darkness appears
And the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand
Guide my feet, hold my hand
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

Psalm 139:7-12 (NIV) also speaks of God’s persistent presence:

Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.  If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

The Psalmist knew it,  Dorsey knew it, and I hope you do, too:  God simply will not let you go.

This clip is of Mahalia Jackson singing the hymn.

Comfort, Comfort Ye My People

The hymn, Comfort, Comfort Ye My People, has been around for hundreds of years, but it may not be as familiar as some hymns of the same age.  Why?  Maybe because we only sing it once a year, during Advent.  Maybe because some congregations do not observe Advent.  Maybe, sadly, because some congregations no longer sing hymns.

French Renaissance composer Louis Bourgeois (1510-1561) wrote the tune GENEVAN 42, also known as FREU DICH SEHR, to accompany the text of Psalm 42.  In 1547, Bourgeois moved to Geneva and became the choirmaster for John Calvin.  His responsibilities included compiling, composing, and arranging music for the Genevan Psalter.  There was much controversy surrounding Bourgeois and his work.  He learned what we are still learning today  – change does not come easily.  He was jailed in 1561 for making alterations to popular hymn tunes “without a license.” After his release, he left Geneva, eventually moving to Paris where he died in 1561.

Bourgeois is credited with many of the tunes in the Genevan Psalter, a source for music in both the Reformed Church and the church in America.  Of all his compositions, perhaps the most famous is OLD 100th, which many protestant churches sing weekly as the tune for the Doxology.

The text of this hymn is a paraphrase of Isaiah 40:1-5, in which the prophet looks forward to the coming of Christ. More specifically, the coming of the forerunner of Christ,  John the Baptist, is foretold.  German hymn writer Johann Gottfried, better known by the Latin version of his name, Johannes Olearius, versified the biblical text into a hymn in 1641 in honor of Saint John the Baptist day.  In addition to being a hymn writer of over 300 hymns, Olearius was at one time a court chaplain, a professor of philosophy, and the author of a commentary on the entire Bible.

Olearius’s text was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) and published in her Chorale Book for England (1863).  For a time, Winkworth lived in Dresden, Germany, and there developed an interest in German hymnody.  She is known for her well-crafted English translations of German hymns including Praise to the Lord, the Almighty and Now Thank We All Our God.  In addition to her translation work, as a pioneer in promoting women’s rights,  Winkworth did much to encourage higher education for women.

The text of this hymn was meant to show the promise of better days ahead with the coming of the Messiah.  After the opening words of “Comfort, comfort ye my  people,” the remaining text describes how to impart that comfort.  This is not “comfort” in the sense of being “comfortable.” It is more like the comfort that a parent gives a misbehaving child after the consequences of his actions have been administered.   God’s comfort is more than empathy.  It removes the cause of the discomfort through healing.

“Comfort, comfort now my people;
tell of peace!” So says our God.
“Comfort those who sit in darkness
mourning under sorrow’s load.
To my people now proclaim
that my pardon waits for them!
Tell them that their sins I cover,
and their warfare now is over.”

For the herald’s voice is crying
in the desert far and near,
calling us to true repentance,
since the reign of God is here.
O, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way.
Let the valleys rise in meeting
and the hills bow down in greeting.

Straight shall be what long was crooked,
and the rougher places plain.
Let your hearts be true and humble,
as befits God’s holy reign.
For the glory of the Lord
now on earth is shed abroad,
and all flesh shall see the token
that God’s word is never broken

Eternal Father, Strong to Save

I’m nervous around water.  Not the water-in-the-sink kind of water, but the it’s-over-my-head-and-I-can’t-swim kind of water.  Water makes a lot of people nervous.  Storms make a lot of people nervous.  Storms on the water can be downright terrifying.  Have you ever had any storms in your life?  Those can be terrifying, too.

William Whiting was the headmaster of the Winchester College Choristers’ School in England.  In 1860, a student confided to Whiting that he was afraid of the ocean voyage he would soon be taking to America.  From a childhood on the coasts of England and a near tragedy at sea, Whiting’s faith in the God who ruled the oceans had grown strong.  He wrote the hymn poem Eternal Father, Strong to Save  to “anchor the faith” of his student.

Whiting found inspiration for his hymn in the words of King David.

Some went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters.  They saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep.  For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves.  They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away.  They reeled and staggered like drunkards; they were at their wits’ end.  Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,  and he brought them out of their distress.   He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.  They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven.  Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind. (Psalm 107:23-31NIV)

Whiting’s hymn became widespread throughout England.  Through the years, some verses of the hymn were modified and others added as the song was adopted by various branches of the armed services of the United States and the United Kingdom.   The version found in many hymnals today is an 1869 revision by Whiting.

In 1861, Anglican clergyman and composer John B. Dykes composed the powerful tune MELITA to accompany Whiting’s hymn.  “Melita”, now known as Malta,  was a colony of the British Empire, and significantly, the site of a shipwreck of the Apostle Paul, described in Acts 27-28.

During World War II, the hymn was used at the funeral for almost all sailors buried at sea. If there was no band or recording available, it was sung a cappella by the crew or the words were read by the commanding officer.  The song was used in services for Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Walter Cronkite.  It has been performed at memorials for the crews of USS Maine, USS Cole and many more.  It was the last hymn sung at the funeral of Claude Choules, the last living fighter from WWI, at his funeral in 2011.  It is sung at shipboard Sunday services on many vessels, and is said to be the last song sung during the Sunday Church Service on April 14, 1912, aboard the RMS Titanic, just hours before it sank.

Whether we are experiencing the storms of weather or the storms of life, there is no reason to fear.  We serve the God who is greater than the forces in and of the earth.




Come Ye Disconsolate

Turn on the evening news and your home will be invaded with the horrors of war, disease, famine and cruelty.   These stories aren’t just from some foreign land.  It doesn’t matter where you live.  Every nation, state, province, county and town has its own version of corruption, lawlessness and injustice.  And if that isn’t enough, many families turn on one another leaving hurting individuals to suffer alone.

Sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it?

Life’s journey has never been and nor ever will be easy.  In the early 1800s, Thomas Moore (1779-1852) wrote a hymn that declares the answer to all problems is to come to Christ for healing and comfort.  He called his hymn “Relief in Prayer.”  Today, we know this hymn of invitation as “Come, Ye Disconsolate.”   Although the words have been modified through the years, the message has remained the same – one of hope and salvation.

Moore didn’t write very many hymns.  A friend of the famous poets Lord George Byron and Percy Shelley, Irish Catholic Moore was better known for his romantic ballads, including “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms” and the patriotic song, “The Minstrel Boy.”   The son of a prosperous merchant, Moore studied law, but did not find fulfillment.  He was awarded an Admiralty in Bermuda, but that didn’t work out for him either.  He eventually devoted his life to literature, was successful and profitable, but he was a poor business manager and died in poverty.

The lyrics found in modern hymnals are two stanzas written by Moore and altered by Thomas Hastings (1784-1872), with a third stanza added by Hastings.

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish,
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,
Hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure!
Here speaks the Comforter, tenderly saying,
“Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot cure.”

Here see the Bread of Life, see waters flowing
Forth from the throne of God, pure from above.
Come to the feast of love; come, ever knowing
Earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove.

“Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ.” (II Corinthians 1: 3-5, KJV).


Shall We Gather At the River

Multi-talented Robert Lowry (1826-1899) was a professor of literature, a Baptist and a music editor at Biglow Publishing Company.  Dr. Lowry once said, “I would rather preach a gospel sermon to an appreciative, receptive congregation than write a hymn,” yet he wrote nearly 500 hymns and gospel songs, including Shall We Gather At the River?I Need Thee Every Hour, Low in the Grave He Lay, and All the Way My Savior Leads Me.
The tune is named HANSON PLACE in reference to the Hanson Place Baptist Church Lowry was serving when he wrote this hymn.  The text refers to the scripture passage that says,  “Then the angel showed me the river of life, as clear as crystal, flowing form the throne of God and of the Lord…” (Revelation 22:1)

Lowry described the writing of the hymn this way:

“One af­ter­noon in Ju­ly, 1864, when I was pas­tor at Han­son Place Bap­tist Church, Brook­lyn, the wea­ther was op­press­ive­ly hot, and I was ly­ing on a lounge in a state of phys­ic­al ex­haust­ion…My imag­in­a­tion be­gan to take it­self wings. Vi­sions of the fu­ture passed be­fore me with start­ling vi­vid­ness. The im­ag­ery of the apoc­a­lypse took the form of a ta­bleau. Bright­est of all were the throne, the heav­en­ly ri­ver, and the ga­ther­ing of the saints…I be­gan to won­der why the hymn writ­ers had said so much about the ‘riv­er of death’ and so lit­tle about the ‘pure wa­ter of life, clear as crys­tal, pro­ceed­ing out of the throne of God and the Lamb.’ As I mused, the words be­gan to con­struct them­selves. They came first as a quest­ion of Christ­ian in­quiry, ‘Shall we ga­ther?’ Then they broke in chor­us, “Yes, we’ll ga­ther.” On this quest­ion and an­swer the hymn de­vel­oped it­self. The mu­sic came with the hymn.”

Shall We Gather at the River
Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

On the margin of the river,
Washing up its silver spray,
We will talk and worship ever,
All the happy golden day.


Ere we reach the shining river,
Lay we every burden down;
Grace our spirits will deliver,
And provide a robe and crown.


At the smiling of the river,
Mirror of the Savior’s face,
Saints, whom death will never sever,
Lift their songs of saving grace.


Soon we’ll reach the silver river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.