Sermon: Precious Lord
Texts: Psalm 139; I Corinthians 13:12; Revelation 22:5
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, 1-14-2018)
As a boy, I did not like Psalm 139 (portions found at end of the sermon). I heard it as a threat – that God was some kind of relentless divine watchdog tracking my every step. I already had enough external oversight from two doting parents and a doting grandmother who lived in our home. I did not need or want God as an additional ever-vigilant watchdog parent.
Whenever this psalm would be read in church – which seemed like every Sunday – I would cringe. I thought, if God has “searched me and known me,” then I am toast. God must know about the day I faked being sick because the day before our postman had left a slip that he would be delivering a package the next day, my new APBA Pro Baseball Game.
If God could discern “my thoughts from afar,” then God must have a heavenly bead on my less-than-kind thoughts about my pain-in-the-rear older brother. Even scarier, God must know every hidden thought that I was harboring about my first true love, Betsy. If this Psalm is true, I thought, well, my eternal fate will be sealed before I hit puberty. So, before I was old enough to drive, I made myself sick worrying about a prying and busybody God. Trust me – Psalm 139 is no friend to a paranoid child or youth.
Now that a few more sands have dropped through the hourglass, I find few psalms that I appreciate more. Psalm 139 has become like that old friend whose company you seek when life comes at you like a battering ram. I love the rousing confidence of the Psalmist: “Lord, you have searched me and known me” and the humble prayer at the end: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!”
An illusion of the young, at least for some, is that one day we will roll out of bed and wake up with a clear case of self-knowledge. We will understand ourselves completely, what God wants us to do with our lives, why we do what we do or say what we say, why we do not do what we know we should and not say what we surely should say.
Frankly, I am no fan of the aging process, but one gift of growing older for me is that I am long past believing that I will ever fully know myself, but I take tremendous solace in that God does. I am long past tormenting myself, worrying if my sins are being tallied on some divine calculator for severe punishment in the hereafter, but I do take tremendous comfort in that “if I make my bed in Sheol, you art there.”
Now that my parents and all those other caring adults who used to keep an eagle’s eye out for me are no longer alive, I give thanks that there is One who watches over me, not like a vulture ready to strike when I am at my weakest, but One who watches over us such persistent and pervasive love. It is about this God that the Psalmist can ask: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”
There is something about this particular Psalm and its unyielding insistence on God’s provident, tender mercy that brings Thomas Dorsey to mind. Thomas was from Villa Rica, Georgia, just outside Atlanta, and he was a preacher’s kid. His dad was a Baptist preacher and his mom was a church organist at the turn of the 20th century. Like most preachers’ kids, Dorsey had more than just two parents watching over him; he had a whole congregation. Trying to flee their persistent oversight, Dorsey escaped into the world of music, and not church music.
While still a very young man, Dorsey left the safe confines of Villa Rica, Georgia and headed to Chicago. There he played the blues piano for the famous Ma Rainey and her Wild Cats Jazz Band. He suffered a nervous breakdown at age 21 and his mom advised him to “serve the Lord” and stop playing the blues. He ignored her, returned to Chicago, married, and had another breakdown at age 25. After this second bout with mental illness, Dorsey recovered his faith and began to wed secular blues to sacred texts – what came to be known as black Gospel music.
He began to achieve some level of fame when in August 1932, Dorsey’s wife and newborn son died during childbirth. In his despair, Dorsey lashed out at God initially, but soon found the God about whom John envisions at the close of Revelation, the God who brings light even when there is barely a crack in the darkness. Dorsey found the God who finds us even when we are lost beyond all fathoming, as the Psalmist announces: “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” Amid his devastating loss, Dorsey took his faith to the piano where he composed, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”:
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, Let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light.
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.
When my way grows drear, precious Lord linger near
When my light is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my hand, lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.
Earlier this week, I lost a friend, Craig Powell. He was the husband of Mary Hill, a former colleague of mine in Alexandria and in many ways the sister I never had. Craig died far too young and I shared that opinion with God on multiple occasions over the past couple of weeks.
I was railing at God one afternoon in the ICU at Mission Hospital in Asheville, N.C., when an old friend paid a surprise visit. Psalm 139 slipped into the critical care unit, largely unnoticed, amid all the tubes and beeps, all the mechanical sounds of machines at work. She sat on the bed next to Craig and started singing, softly at first, “O God, you hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.”
Her song soon pierced through all the beeps as she sang: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
After a while, since I knew the song, I started to sing with her: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
After she left, I kept praying for Craig to climb out of that bed, get back on his bike, and take his rightful position with Mary when their two seniors graduate from High School later this year. Somehow, though, after her song, I knew that whatever the outcome God had already laid a hand on Craig and would be with Craig forever. Just before I left Asheville to return here and it was increasingly clear that Craig was not going to climb out of that bed, I started singing another song, one that grew out of the first song. I joined Thomas Dorsey in his musical prayer, this time for Craig: “Take my hand, Precious Lord, lead me home.”
You see, in this life, there are times to just stop talking, to be still, to keep silent. There are other times, though, when no matter how deep the darkness and no matter how many the pleas to be quiet, you just have to sing.
[Tommy Viar will sing the first stanza of Precious Lord and then the congregation will sing stanzas 1 & 2.]
NRS Psalm 139:1 <To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.> O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,"
12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them-- they are more than the sand; I come to the end-- I am still with you.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.