Monday, July 28, 2008

Precious Lord, Take My Hand -- Thomas Dorsey

He was an accomplished blues pianist and music minister at a Baptist church in 1930s Chicago, but Thomas Dorsey had plenty of reasons to grieve and surrender to depression. When his wife and newborn son died in 1932, Dorsey might have quit then, giving in to the physical reminders in the depression-era city-life around him and to his own deep emotional pit. He went to perform at a revival meeting, and while preparing to sing there one night, he learned his wife had died while delivering their child. Dorsey wonders himself how he was able to go on that night, while others around him, unaware of his tragedy, were rejoicing in song. Maybe, as the Psalmist writes (Psalm 42:7), this was when Dorsey’s pain, crying out to God, tapped into the strength that only He can provide. “Deep calls to deep” the Psalmist writes, and he also adds a term at this psalm’s beginning that has puzzled me, until I thought about it and read some more Psalms like it, and thought some more about Dorsey and his experience. (I have provided a link to Dorsey’s complete story below, as it relates his experience most powerfully.) It seems like his story is like this Psalm term….

Consider the term ‘maskil’, when you read the Psalms. Perhaps you’ve never heard of it, and have read over it in the superscription of some Psalms without noticing it, as I did. It’s a Hebrew word, which my Bible’s commentary says probably indicates the Psalm with this obscure word contains an instruction in godliness. There are 13 Psalms that are maskils (Psalms 32, 42, 44-45, 52-55, 74, 78, 88-89, and 142), and in most of them the Psalmist is crying out to God, in anguish. Like Thomas Dorsey must have been doing in the 1930s. So, if I am to learn something from a maskil, it seems I must wail, and I must be very desperate for God. But it blows me away to think that when I’m an emotional wreck, that’s when I am more godly, if I believe what the maskil Psalms seem to be communicating. Dorsey was, understandably, a wreck emotionally, and even withdrew from his music for a time in the wake of his loss. But, left alone with nothing but himself and a piano one evening, Dorsey composed this potent song “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”. It’s not hard to imagine him being in that room with just the music and his God. Dorsey says the tune just came to him from nowhere, and he felt peaceful…with the God he could have blamed for his struggle. As I read the very personal cries of Dorsey’s words, they say something I can identify in my life too.

 When I read the words Dorsey wrote in verse one of his contemporary maskil, he’s anxious for God’s presence – begging for communion with the Holy One, longing for home. That sounds a lot like Jesus’ cry when He was torn from His Father’s presence (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). None of us naturally equate tragedy with opportunity, but the maskils I read have me reconsidering life’s troubles. And, an article a friend and church leader sent me recently proposes that churches can and should be ministering to saddened worshippers, helping them navigate through calamity. The point of recognizing sadness and hurt when we sing is not to be maudlin, nor to wallow in self-pity. …it’s to call upon the one who can help, as the Psalmists did. If we avoid admitting these feelings when we worship, how genuine are we toward each other, and do we really trust that God hears us? Thomas Dorsey’s song has power because it’s authentic, and when we sing it together as God’s body, we minister to each other’s wounds. A maskil draws me toward God, where my burden and God’s become one, and my life is renewed by His. That’s what happened for Thomas Dorsey, and amazingly for the rest of us music-lovers, and God worshippers too, when we think about and sing this composition . Dorsey’s song, a ministry to himself in his hurt, has been translated into 32 languages, and he admits was his greatest effort. It’s amazing what God can do through us from the bottom of a deep pit.

You can link to the song’s story as written in here

You can link to the article about churches, and celebration versus sadness in our worship here

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Because He Lives - the Gaithers

Life. It’s a cereal that Mikey likes, remember? Do you consume life the way Mikey does – with gusto, or endure it because you have nothing better to do? A form of that word appears nine times in the song ‘Because He Lives’, a rhythmic message that makes one wonder why the composer chose it. Bill + Gloria Gaither, the song’s composers, relate that this song was a celebration of birth – of their son Benjamin in 1970. It was also a reminder about life. Just months prior to Benjamin’s birth, the Gaithers were bombarded with one thing after another -- sickness, the breakup of Bill’s sister’s marriage, a depressing accusation of a friend, and drug abuse and racial tension in the surrounding culture. All these things are evidence of decay, of a disease that would make most of us despair about existence itself. How do we endure these things, and is it wise to expose others, including an infant, to them? But, maybe that’s why God gives us births to behold, because He knows we need vivid reminders of life and how miraculous it is, and of how great it will be when we all have the life that Jesus is living right now. That’s how we endure, and that’s why we take a risk to bring others into this life. The next time you whine about daily inconveniences, or worse yet despair about the more serious matters of your relationships, or your health or safety, try thinking about life, and especially about the glorious life that awaits you as a God-believer. Communicate that to others you meet, and see how that affects attitudes, yours and theirs, and how it might make others choose life -- now and for the future. Try emphasizing the words ‘life’, ‘lives’, ‘lived’, or ‘living’ in the song, and see if it doesn’t change how you live, at least in those few moments you spend singing the song. The apostle Peter writes about a living hope (1 Pet. 1:3). God’s life makes me able to hurdle the life here, especially when it taunts me that I’m mortal. You can link to the song’s story as written in  

or see it here:

Monday, July 7, 2008

How Great Thou Art - Carl Boberg

The hymn ‘How Great Thou Art’ was written by a Swedish pastor, Carl Boberg, in 1886. It is said he became caught in an intense thunderstorm that lasted only a short time, followed by brilliant sunshine and birds singing in the surrounding trees. What a contrast! If Boberg’s thoughts were meant to laud God, then he might as well have said ‘How Diverse Thou Art’. Boberg’s words were eventually translated into English and supplemented with additional thoughts by a missionary Stuart Hine, but it is Boberg’s experience in a great storm and a bucolic aftermath that really comes through in this great hymn. It shows us we cannot ignore God, no matter how much we might try. He speaks to people, who otherwise do not recognize Him, through awesome displays of thunder and lightning, as well as through acts of kindness. Just check it out the next time you see someone out in a storm…are people who are caught without an umbrella or some other protection calmly walking? No! They’re running, and if there’s a thunderclap, to casually turn one’s head and yawn means they’re either deaf or inhuman. But the awesome God is also compassion, in the face of Jesus. The same God whose voice sounds like thunder (John 12:28-29) and who will come with a loud voice (1 Thess. 4:16) is the same person who wept (John 11:35). I often am unnerved if I see two polar opposite personalities in someone in the space of a few moments, and perhaps that was Boberg’s reaction as well. He saw the terrifying God Almighty, and then the beautiful, peaceful, Great Shepherd. I think my God must know why I run from Him sometimes, and yet return later as He draws me close. This hymn’s background reminds me that mine is a pendulum existence, with God at the center. I may swing to one end or the other and feel that God is distant, but He’s too obvious for me to dismiss.
Information on the song was obtained at:

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

You Are God Alone - the Footes

“…that’s just the way it is”. Does that sound like a sigh of resignation? If you heard Billy Foote sing those few words, or rather try to sing them, you might think so, for you see Billy has a rare disorder known as hyperdysphonia (hi–per-dis-fon-e-ah). He finds it difficult or impossible to use his singing voice, because the muscles in his voice box behave erratically, causing his voice to crack or sound strangled. There is no cure. Billy Foote has been a worship leader since graduating from college in Texas in 1990, and 10 years later he discovered he had this condition. His wife Cindy is also a musician, and has become the “voice” for Billy’s compositions, including “You Are God Alone”. I wonder, what would I do if something so crucial for my livelihood was stripped from me? Could I adapt, or would I be muted, frustrated? The great composer Beethoven became stone deaf, yet continued to create – an awesome thing you might even label as a miracle. Indeed, with God, all things are possible, an axiom we accept as believers. When Moses forgot that, God’s exasperation was evident -- (Exodus 4:11-12) 11 The LORD said to him, "Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD ? 12 Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say." Finally, the Lord consented to Moses’ complaint, and allowed Aaron to be his speaker, his voicebox. The way God has worked in the Footes’ lives, you might say that Cindy Foote has become Billy’s “Aaron”, a providential gift. ‘God provides’, the Footes could well say. But, let’s say ‘God provides’ with the emphasis on GOD, and not the provision He gives – that’s the outlook Billy Foote seems to have throughout “You Are God Alone”. ‘When Billy writes ‘that’s just the way it is’, he’s not suggesting that we groan, or shrug about our fate. Instead, it’s our trust, our confidence in Him, our freedom from futile striving, that we lay at His feet as we sing.
The information on the Footes was obtained at: The information on dysphonia is at: