Hymn of the Week: Precious Lord, Take My Hand

February 27, 2015 Comments Off on Hymn of the Week: Precious Lord, Take My Hand

121757“Take My Hand Precious Lord” is au courant after Beyonce’s performance at the Oscars, and Ledisi’s moving version in Selma. Recalling its meaning for Dr. King is a beautiful way to close Black History Month. Thomas A. Dorsey, famous for incorporating the rhythms and spirit of the blues into gospel music, wrote this hymn in his grief after his wife died in childbirth. So many insightful things have been written about it that it’s slightly intimidating to take up. For example, in her recent NPR piece, Ann Powers notes how earlier hymns that helped people survive by envisioning a transcendent future Promised Land “lacked earthiness, literal earthiness — the acknowledgment that we don’t live ‘over there,’ even when we want to.” In contrast to the transcendent escape we long for, especially in suffering, “‘Precious Lord’ requires a singer to stay within her body while reaching heavenward, calling to God as a bereft blueswoman calls to a straying lover.”

In the spirituality of the cross, the totality of God’s decision to be with us, within our world and the darkness of our struggles, within human embodiment and all of the vulnerability and humiliation that goes with it, I feel like I am always a learner, drawing from others’ wisdom. I spent most of my life feeling that I was floating above my body, and struggling to connect with other people in it.

But when I heard “Precious Lord” this week, and suddenly felt it for the first time, the word that especially struck me is home. The images that came to mind were all of doors. The dark doorway that I pictured as a kid when going “into my heart room” to be with Jesus, while praying Teresa Donze’s classic meditations for children. The “doorway that belongs / to you and me” in Mary Oliver’s poem, “Coming Home“. The kind of home that the doorway represents, the home of memory and imagination, is inherently shared. I think that’s what makes home a painful thing to think about sometimes. It reminds us of the people we’ve lost, as Dorsey had lost his wife. It can remind some of us (and especially LGBT people) of awkward holidays, of family who have rejected us or with whom we aren’t able to share our full selves. Exactly because coming home sounds like such a warm thing, it can bring out the thin sliver of grief in even our happy relationships — the realization that nothing lasts forever, that children grow up and parents age, that lovers change and friends move away. Home hurts most when we are lonely, when we are feeling the lack of loving relationships in our life.

The Precious Lord in this hymn isn’t pointing ahead to otherwordly bliss, or even to the specifics of what practical restoration of relationships, of health, of whatever is lost, will look like. He is already there in the dark, close enough to touch and hold on to. He isn’t offering a map. He invites trust. He doesn’t wait for us to find and follow him. He grabs onto us and pulls us with him.

 – Aaron Miner

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