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

Hymn of the Week: How Did You Feel When You Come Out of the Wilderness

March 21, 2014 § 1 Comment

Like most of us, I love old church music, and I also love new-to-me church music. Last week I had that rare, delightful experience of hearing an old and beloved hymn for the first time: How Did You Feel When You Come Out of the Wilderness

There are quite a few variations on the lyrics circulating now, and even more variations recorded back at least to the nineteenth century – including some that began, “Go into the wilderness.” Generally it goes something like,

Tell me how did you feel when you come out the wilderness, come out the wilderness, come out of the wilderness

How did you feel when you come out of the wilderness

Leaning on the Lord

This hymn poses a question which, on the face of it, sounds pretty easy to answer. I felt fantastic! My soul felt happy! I felt like shouting!  I’ve personally felt a rush of joy making it out of the woods at dusk with dying flashlight batteries, or out of Indiana after visiting family in Kansas. Forget forty years in the desert.

But the striking thing about the form of a question is that it brings to mind the immediacy of experience, the immediacy of memory. It brings to mind the moment of existing in-between: not only in the joy of reaching what was promised and hoped for, but also shaped by the long road of struggle which sometimes seemed impossible to make it through. The experience of God, present amid people who are suffering and as one who suffers, but also leading us into liberation and rebirth, is most vivid in this in-between moment. Remembering urges us back to this deep connection with God.

The question, in evoking a response (Did you love everybody? Did you tell everybody? Did you feel like clapping?) , is also a call to action.  One version of the hymn includes the lines,

My hands looked new when I came out of the wilderness

My feet did too when I came out of the wilderness

 Something is lost, or more often everything seems lost, but the body in solidarity is stronger. Deeply enmeshed in God and embodying God’s action, it becomes something new, beautiful, and communicative.

– Aaron Miner

Lenten Hymn of the Week: Hymn 145, Hymnal 1982

March 7, 2014 § 1 Comment

Hymn 145, Hymnal 1982


Words: The Very Reverend Percival Dearmer (1867-1936)

Music: Besançon carol “Quittez, Pasteurs”, harmony by Martin Shaw (1875-1958)

It seems that many think of Lent as a time of denial, or penitence, of giving up foods and actions even the use of “Alleluia”. And indeed our liturgy reflects this time of self-reflection and fasting. Just yesterday we were called “to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

It would not surprise you to note that many of our Lenten hymns reiterate this “reflection” and “repentance” theme.  Phrases like “wilt thou forgive” and “ [Christ] himself has fasted and has prayed” and “teach us to mourn our sins” and “grant that we in penitence may offer you our praise” and various other hymns entreating us to “keep vigil with our heavenly Lord in his temptation and his fast” are found throughout this section of the hymnal. In fact there may be more cheer getting a paper cut or stubbing your toe than in a lot of hymns.

This indeed is only half of the true meaning of Lent. The other half is one wherein we turn our focus from inward reflection and preparation to one of outward action in the world helping those in need—putting action to our words rather than just reflection.  That is not to say the reflection is not important—but it is likely that it is fulfilled in action. One hymn, and one hymn only in our traditional Lenten section pulls us out of the inward reflection and puts us into the world’s need for help and justice, and that is Hymn 141.

PercyDearmer 1911The text was written by The Very Reverend Percival Dearmer, an English priest born in 1867 in Kilburn, England. A member of the Alcuin Club (an Anglican organization dedicated to preserving church liturgy) he is best known for his work on the Parson’s Handbook which had the intent of offering Anglo-Catholic liturgical practices and worship that were compatible and complementary to the Book of Common Prayer.  He implemented much of the liturgy in a London parish well known to us, St. Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill, where he was serving as Vicar.

In 1906, working with greats like Ralph Vaughn Williams, he published The English Hymnal. In 1926, the two were joined by Martin Shaw (the person who arranged the tune we use for this hymn) to produce Songs of Praise and, in 1928, the Oxford Book of Carols.

After serving 15 years at St. Mary the Virgin, he became a volunteer and activist. He served with the Red Cross in World War I with his first wife (who died in service).  He then worked with the YMCA in France and later worked with Mission of Help in India. He married a second time to Nancy Knowles.

He was avid socialist who served as Secretary of the Christian Social Union for eleven years. He incorporated a lot of his socialism in his writing and teaching in what he called a “Litany of Labor” which was incorporated in his handbook for communicants called The Sanctuary. He was appointed canon of Westminster Abbey in 1931 and used his position to run a soup kitchen for the unemployed. In 1936 he died and was buried in the Great Cloister at Westminster Abbey.

Looking at Dearmer’s background, one can see his call to action and social justice reflected in this hymn. The text is based on Isaiah 58:5-12 (text below), and was set to a French Christmas carol called “Quittez, pasteurs”. I would be remiss if I didn’t say, that’s probably why it is also one of the few “cheery” hymns we have for Lent.

The text, and indeed the passage from which it is pulled call us from the fast and ashes into actions of social justice: to break the yokes of oppression, to feed the hungry and house the homeless, to clothe the naked and to reconcile with family.  In so many words, Isaiah writes that if we fast and do not do these actions, our fast is dead and pointless. Indeed verses 1-5 talk about people oppressing their workers and quarreling while they fast, missing the point of God’s call to us to make the world a better place. It is plain: do this and then healing will come; vindication will come; you will call to God and God will answer; but only by removing the yoke–the burden from among us—the oppression around us in the world.

For me this hymn is a call to action. It is a call to not be silent—to stand up and make a difference and help fight oppression. And we are all acquainted with the oppression around us. We see it in racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, and all other isms, in politics and the church. It is rampant. As I write this, I am reminded of the laws passed in Nigeria, Uganda, and Russia that oppress LGBT people—oppress and endanger their very lives. As essayist James Addison said, “No oppression is so heavy or lasting as that which is inflicted by the perversion and exorbitance of legal authority.”

As Mother Stacy often says, we do not need to look far to see those at risk and oppressed by the world – our outreach programs, especially the youth in “the Church” are examples of oppression within families, friends, and communities that are presented to us at our doorsteps on Hudson St.

I do think, if Dearmer were to visit St. Luke’s today, he would likely find himself at home, not just with our liturgy, but also with our outreach.  Yet he would still push us to continue to break those bonds of oppression, and to bring about a new day where God’s glory adorns us with love as the prize. “Arise! Arise and make a paradise!”

 Isaiah 58:5-12

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am”. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

– Chap Day

Lenten Hymn of the Week: Hear my Prayer, Oh Lord

March 9, 2012 § 1 Comment

As a long-time chorister, you tend to sing the same repertoire over and over again, year after year after YEAR. Some of it tends to get old and repetitive, but there are some pieces that you never tire of and can’t wait to reconnect with. Just as singing Christmas carols can put me in the holiday spirit, Lenten hymns and anthems can bring me to a place of deep humility, penitence and connectedness with God. One of my absolute favorite Lenten pieces is by Henry Purcell (10 September 1659 – 21 November 1695): Hear my Prayer, Oh Lord. Purcell, a Baroque organist and composer of both secular and sacred music, is considered to be one of England’s greatest native composers. This heart-wrenching anthem was written for eight voices and continuo (organ) around 1682. The text is taken from Psalm 102, verse one, and is the opening fragment of a work that was never completed. It is one of nearly 70 anthems and services that Purcell composed from 1679 until his early death in 1695. Purcell, together with Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederic Handel, is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church on July 28.

Take a moment to listen to this piece in its entirety. REALLY listen to it. Close the door to your room, turn up the speakers, hit “play” and close your eyes. If you’re at the office, take three minutes out of your day and put your headphones on. Wherever you are, put yourself in the presence of God and listen to it with Him in your heart.

Hear my Prayer, Oh Lord as performed by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

“Hear my prayer, oh Lord, and let me my crying come unto thee…”

Even after many years of having performed and heard this piece, I’m still amazed at how it has the power to connect me with God. It’s so mournful and dissonant and stinging—just as is the time we spend in our collective season of grief, waiting with Christ before He sacrifices Himself for us. This time is supposed to sting, isn’t it? We lose things during Lent. For forty days, we experience a period of extreme loss. We verbally, physically and visually “lose” ourselves from the words and prayers and icons that bring us into relationship with God. But throughout our loss and separation, we continue to cry unto God for his mercy and kindness and salvation. Hear my prayer, oh Lord, and let me my crying come unto thee… What are you “crying” to God for in your life?

– T.J. Houlihan

Lenten Hymn of the Week: Come Ye Disconsolate

March 2, 2012 § 1 Comment

St. Luke’s School is learning a new hymn for Lent. “Come Ye Disconsolate” (by Thomas More, pub. 1816, arr by Thomas Hastings, 1831) is found in Lift Every Voice and Sing II. In my mind it enacts the spirit of Lent, announcing God’s welcome to us and love for us in the midst of our deepest sorrows and sins, and promising healing at every turn and for every hurt; what Alexander Schmemann called the “sad brightness” of Lent.

 – The Rev. Mary Foulke


Come Ye Disconsolate

  1. Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish,
    Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
    Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
  2. Earth has no sorrow that heav’n 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 heav’n cannot cure.”
  3. 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 heav’n can remove.

Lenten Hymn of the Week: Wilt Thou Forgive That Sin, Where I Begun

February 24, 2012 Comments Off on Lenten Hymn of the Week: Wilt Thou Forgive That Sin, Where I Begun

wilt thou forgive that sin, where I begun

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