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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Epiphany 02/05/2012

I got a new CD a few weeks ago of legendary jazz pianist Hank Jones and bassist Charlie Haden playing hymns and spirituals, even a couple of Christmas carols.  It’s called “Come Sunday” and it’s the second album like this that they’ve made (and it will be the last one since Hank Jones died back in 2010 not long after this one was recorded; he was in his 90’s).  I love jazz and have a pretty large collection of records and CD’s that I’ve accumulated over the last 40 years or so, but Kathy hates jazz so when we’re in the car together she won’t let me play any of my CD’s, but even she likes this one so we were playing it while driving to Jon Magnuson’s retirement celebration last Sunday evening. 

One of the songs on it is “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” so having listened to it the night before, I already had the tune running through my brain when I first read this week’s gospel text last Monday.  The text begins with Jesus’ healing of Simon’s mother-in-law and includes the phrase, “He came and took her by the hand…”  With the song already in my head, I couldn’t help but notice that phrase, “Jesus took her by the hand,” and it made me think, (especially seeing as how I couldn’t come up with any other ideas)  “Maybe this is a sign; maybe this is what I’m supposed to preach about this week.”

I kept letting the phrase “Jesus took her by the hand” roll around in my head, and if you do that, if you let your mind play with a phrase like that, it can create a pretty powerful image, in this case the image of Jesus reaching out to take us by the hand, to lead us, to guide us, to support us.   It becomes pretty powerful, but also very comforting, very personal whatever situation you happen to be in.  It’s not an effort to try and figure anything out, it’s not an intellectual thing; it’s just letting Jesus take your hand. 

For me anyway, as I played with this image, it made Jesus’ presence very real.  Like I said, the song “Precious Lord” was already playing in my brain too, so I started to wonder if there was a connection between this verse from today’s gospel and the song?  Did this play a role in the writing of the “Precious Lord?”  What I found out is that there isn’t a connection, at least not directly, but there is a story.

“Precious Lord, Take My Hand” was written by Thomas Dorsey, not Tommy Dorsey the big band leader, but Thomas Dorsey who was a jazz and blues pianist and singer and is sometimes called “The Father of Gospel Music.”  He was the choir director at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago but also played and sang in other venues as he became quite well known.  He was scheduled to sing at a revival in St. Louis (this would be back in the early 1930’s) but he was somewhat reluctant to go because his wife was in her final days of pregnancy.

He started out though, but then realized he’d forgotten some of his music so he went back home.  His wife was asleep when he got there so he didn’t wake her but just stood by her for a few moments and (as he told the story) something was telling him that he shouldn’t go; he should stay home; but he went to St. Louis anyway; they were expecting him.  The next night, just after he had finished singing at the revival, he was handed a telegram that told him his wife had died in childbirth.  He drove home to Chicago and not long after he got there the baby son that had been born died too.

As you can imagine, these events caused something of a crisis of faith for Mr. Dorsey, all the “Why God?” questions, but also feelings of guilt.  Had that feeling that he should stay home been a sign from God that he ignored?  Would things have played out differently if he’d been there?  Would his wife and child still be alive?  In his distress and questioning he was tempted to give up his church work and just play piano in bars and clubs.

It was sometime later though that Dorsey describes a time when he sat down at the piano and a sense of peace all of a sudden came over him, a feeling he hadn’t had for a long time; and a melody was playing in his head, a melody that became “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”  He wasn’t planning to write anything that day, but there it was, a hymn that became the best known song he ever wrote.  Dorsey wrote, “As the Lord gave me these words and melody, He also healed my spirit.  I learned that when we are in our deepest grief, when we feel farthest from God, this is when He is closest, and when we are most open to His restoring power.  And so I go on living for God willingly and joyfully, until that day comes when He will take me and gently lead me home.” 

As something of an aside, what Thomas Dorsey may not have known is that he wasn’t actually a Baptist but a Lutheran because what I just read is a pretty good summary of what Luther called the theology of the cross which has to do with God’s presence with us and made known to us most clearly not when things are at their best but when we are weak and vulnerable and in pain.  Long, complicated books are written about the theology of the cross but Dorsey sums it up pretty well in those few sentences.

Anyway, I didn’t find a direct link between today’s gospel and the hymn “Precious Lord,” but in the story of Thomas Dorsey I did find another healing story and it’s one that we might be able to identify more closely with than we can with some of the Bible stories.  Most of the healing stories in the Bible tend to be quite dramatic, like this one today: Jesus reaches out to touch the woman and immediately her fever is gone and she gets up.  It is dramatic but most of us don’t know what that’s like.  All of us have experienced physical healing in some fashion but it usually takes awhile and frequently involves doctors, medical procedures and drugs.   We tend to be skeptical about faith healers who claim to perform such immediate healings; we assume they’re charlatans and it’s a hoax.

So that kind of thing may be foreign to most of us, but it may be that you have experienced something like the spiritual healing that Thomas Dorsey experienced where all of a sudden out of whatever darkness it is that has taken over your life, the light goes back on and life is worth living again.  It can be just as sudden as the healings we hear about in the Bible; you’re not looking for it; it might happen while you’re doing something you do every day like Thomas Dorsey playing the piano.   It’s unexpected but there it is; the world looks different, much more hopeful.  You can get back to being who you’re supposed to be.

That’s another thing about the healings Jesus did; they returned people to the community; having been healed, they’re no longer outsiders, they’re back in the game.  In today’s gospel story after being healed, Simon’s mother-in-law began to serve those gathered.  Now when pastor’s get together to talk about this story, we sometimes joke that the only reason Jesus healed her was because they needed someone to make the coffee. (that would be the male pastors)  The intended point is more likely that it was her house and having been healed she was extending the hospitality that a gracious host would offer.  She was doing what she was called to do.

For Thomas Dorsey it was the same thing.  With the healing he experienced he could return to serving God through his music.  That’s what he was called to do.

Another connection between today’s gospel and the Precious Lord story has to do with prayer.  In the gospel, Jesus goes away to a deserted place and prays; so this is one of the texts that’s used to highlight the need to find time to be quiet and pray, not necessarily just offering up your wish list to God, but spending time maybe more like what I mentioned earlier, letting a phrase or an image roll around in your mind just to see where it takes you; that’s prayer.  It might be words or an image from the Bible or from a hymn like “Precious Lord,” but maybe not; it might be anything and God’s presence might surprise you.

In the Thomas Dorsey story there was no direct mention of prayer, but when he went through the grief surrounding the loss of his wife and child, when he went through his anger at God and his feelings of guilt, he may not have thought of it as such, but it was prayer.  He had to confront the disorientation he was feeling before he could experience new orientation.  He probably wasn’t consciously praying for healing but Jesus found a way to sneak in there and take him by the hand providing a new beginning that Dorsey himself would perhaps have said was impossible; Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

At this point we have to sing it don’t we?    

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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