Saturday, April 21, 2012

Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus -- Helen Lemmel

Helen Lemmel had a moment in 1918 when she must have thought ‘this is it.’ Someone has called such a moment an “epiphany”. Webster’s defines it one way as “an appearance or manifestation, especially of a deity.” That Helen Lemmel thought she’d sensed such a moment was really a testament to its enduring power, first for a missionary named Lilias Trotter years before, and then later through a song “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” that Lemmel wrote and which still is widely known nearly a century later.

“Focused…”  was the name of the written message Helen Lemmel read that stopped her in her tracks. As an English missionary to Algeria, Lilias Trotter’s whole life was a discourse about focus, the words of which spoke so powerfully to Lemmel that she made them the refrain of the song she composed. Trotter heard the Lord’s calling during a pivotal moment in her life in 1879, when she could have chosen a life of giftedness in art versus a humble ministry to the London inner city and later abroad  in north Africa. Later in life, she would capsulate her life experience in the “Focused” story that touched Lemmel so deeply. In effect, Trotter told Lemmel the mode of focus—looking at Jesus intently—and Lemmel described the reasons and results of the connection to that mode in her song.

Lemmel’s verses tell us she was tired, needed wise guidance, and found the solution in Lilias Trotter’s lifelong discovery, her epiphany. Lemmel must have been like many of us in our complicated, busy world, often lured toward what’s ultimately corrupt. What do you listen to most? Into what things do you pour your energy? How can one be certain of what to choose? Lemmel has us vocalize Trotter’s recipe for success, developed perhaps among some desert scene in Algeria. Examining some of Trotter’s artistry (see the link below) may help me walk in her shoes, at least briefly, to see in her handiwork what she saw of the Creator’s gifts to us in nature. They are stunning, these testimonies of His creation on canvas. In “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”, it’s as if Lemmel is turning one of Trotter’s paintings into a musical poem, to show us Him. It’s reenergizing, and encouraging in its simplicity. It’s circular…He made all I see, Trotter painted it, Lemmel composed it, I sing it back to Him. Got it?     

Information on the song was obtained from the books  “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990; and “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006.

Also see this link to story of Lilias Trotter, the author of the chorus phrase in the song:

1 comment:

Vicky R. Benson said...

Thank you, David, for your Song Scoops. This is the second one I have been blessed to discover and read. I love the stories behind the hymns, and love this feature on BBN at 8:00 am EST after the news every Sunday morning. I set an alarm on my smartphone to listen to the song story by Al Smith ("he being dead yet speaketh"!) on the BBN radio app, then a musical rendition of the song. Always a blessing! I have been able to find two hymns by Anna Shipton (English poet, songwriter, and author who died in 1901) in an 1800's hymnal, but not the story behind them. Would love to know that, because the men who wrote the music for those hymns (Ira Sankey and George Stebbens) were both associated with D. L. Moody, who did minister in England before he died in 1899.