“O Lord, I want you to help me”

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If you were confined to jail for several months, and you were allowed to get together in the jail chapel with the chaplain and a few other inmates for an hour once every two weeks to have a time to read the Bible, share your thoughts, pray for each other, and sing a couple songs, what songs would you want to sing?

I’ve been thinking about that very question quite a bit over the past several weeks. As you may know, I join the women in the jail chapel about twice a month to play the piano for their worship service. The chaplain chooses the songs we sing, based on the Scriptures we’re reading for that service, as well as knowing some of the songs the women really like to sing. The women always sing enthusiastically, but it’s pretty obvious which songs are their favorites. “Amazing Grace” is on top of the list. “How Great Thou Art” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” are other favorites.

At the end of every service, while we’re waiting for the guards to come to escort the women back to their cellblocks, I play an informal “postlude.”  I usually improvise on a couple upbeat spirituals like “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand” or “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” or “Standin’ in the Need of Prayer.” The inmates are chatting during this time, and sometimes one or two of them come over to the piano to talk with me while I’m playing, often to request a song for me to play.

hands-on-the-pianoSeveral weeks ago a young woman asked me if I knew a particular song. She didn’t know the name of it, but it went something like – and she started to sing it. I stopped playing and listened to her sing. She didn’t remember many of the words. What she remembered was, “O God, help me, help me, help me. O God, help me.” I told her I didn’t recognize the song, but I’d try to find it on the Internet. She said she’d really like to have us sing that song at worship sometime. When I got home that evening I googled the words, and I thought I’d found the lyrics and a few youtube performances of the song. Unfortunately, I concluded that I wouldn’t be comfortable trying to incorporate that song into our worship experience. The overall message of the song was one of hopelessness and the ultimate triumph of evil.

Two weeks later, the young woman was at the worship service again, and she asked me if I’d found the song. I said I’d looked for it, but I wasn’t sure about it, and I asked her to sing it again. This time, another inmate also knew the song, and together they remembered more words. They sang, “O Lord, I want you to help me, help me on my journey, O Lord, I want you to help me.” When I got home I googled those words and found the lyrics to a different song along with several youtube videos. This is a song that could be very meaningful for anyone who is turning to God for help with their life circumstances, especially for women who are incarcerated.

I’ve searched everywhere I can think of to try to find sheet music for the song so that we can sing it together in jail, but I haven’t been able to find it. If anyone reading this blog knows where I can find the print music, please let me know. Here’s a link to one of the youtube videos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ss1R0TdkbUI

I’ve copied the lyrics below, however, this seems to be a song that lends itself to the substitution of phrases for whatever the singers want God to help them with. I haven’t been able to find a writer of the song – most sources list it as “traditional.”

Oh lord I want you to help me 
Oh lord I want you to help me 
Help me on my journey, help me on my way 
Oh lord I want you to help me 

While I’m waiting I want you to help me 
While I’m waiting I want you to help me 
Help me on my journey, help me on my way 
Oh lord I want you to help me 

Oh lord I want you to help me 
Oh lord I want you to help me 
Help me on my journey, help me on my way 
Oh lord I want you to help me 

While I’m singing I want you to help me 
While I’m singing I want you to help me 
Help me on my journey, help me on my way 
Oh lord I want you to help me 

Just as for all the other songs we sing in the worship service in jail, this song could be just as meaningful for those of us who are not in jail. We can substitute our own phrases, as well.

Back to my original question, if you were sitting in jail, what songs would you want to sing? For me, one of my favorite songs to play, wherever I am, is “Surely the Presence of the Lord is in This Place.” Here’s a youtube performance of this song for you to enjoy, wherever you are right now.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzDGvDZxnuw

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