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Words: Lucy Elizabeth Georgiana Whitmore (b. Jan. 22, 1792; d. May 17, 1840)
Music: Longwood (Barnby), by Joseph Barnby (b. Aug. 12, 1838; d. Jan. 28, 1896)
Note: Lucy Whitmore was a member of the British aristocracy, the only daughter of Orlando, 2nd Baron and 1st Earl of Bradford. She wrote a number of hymns.
The story’s been repeated in countless families. A painful, heartbreaking one. It could be about a son or daughter, but since we’re going to look at a story about a son, let’s make it that.
In spite of parents doing their best to love and care for him, a rift somehow develops between parent and child. The young person rejects the values of dad and mom, there are heated arguments, and finally an angry blow-up, resulting in the unhappy son leaving home. Where he goes and what he does will depend in part on the funds available to him. Likely there’s a desire to get as far away from home as possible.
Perhaps there are instances where this has worked out, but the ones we hear about are fraught with tragedy. Parents grieve, and endlessly wonder if they could have done better. If they are familiar with Jean Vajean’s moving solo in the musical version of Les Miserables, they may be brought to tears each time they hear it: “God on high, hear my prayer…bring him home.”
Meanwhile, the son finds someplace to live, often hooking up with companions that will sympathize with his revolt, and convince him that good times are ahead. But if he doesn’t have wise counsel, and find a job that gives a living wage, a downward spiral can begin. This often includes drugs, alcohol, crime, immoral liaisons, and more.
It’s an old story, and too many times it doesn’t end well. There is a family estrangement that never fully heals. But that’s not always so. Two thousand years ago, the Lord Jesus told a parable about a prodigal son (Lk. 15:11-24).
The young man asked for, and got from dad, the money that would have come to him when the old man died. Then he was off to “a far country.” It’s not difficult to imagine that he gathered around him the kind of social leeches that were quite ready to help him spend his money.
The Bible says he “wasted his possessions with prodigal [reckless, extravagant] living” (vs. 13). Then there came a time of famine where he was, and he ended up in a field feeding some pigs–a repulsive job for a Jew! He got to the place where he’d have been willing to eat pig feed, but “no one gave him anything” (vs. 16).
At that point, the Lord says, “he came to himself”–he came to his senses and started thinking more clearly than he had in a long while. He reasoned that even his dad’s employees were faring better than he was. Why couldn’t he go back home and become one of the hired help. With sincere remorse for what he’d done, he determined to say to his father, “I have sinned….I’m no longer worthy to be called your son” (vs. 18-19).
But, when he got there, dad would have none of it. He’d been looking down the road, hoping to see his boy coming back. And “when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him” (vs. 20). There was forgiveness and a full restoration of his place in the family, followed by a celebration of his return.
Hymn writer Lucy Whitmore saw this old story as a powerful picture of the sinning Christian repenting, returning to the Lord, and finding full forgiveness (cf. I Jn. 1:9). In 1824 she published a hymn about it.
CH-1) Father, again in Jesus’ name we meet,
And bow in penitence beneath Your feet;
Again to You our feeble voices raise,
To sue for mercy, and to sing Your praise.
CH-3) Alas, unworthy of Your boundless love,
Too oft with careless feet from You we rove;
But now, encouraged by Your voice, we come,
Returning sinners to a Father’s home.
CH-4) O by that name in whom all fulness dwells,
O by that love which ev’ry love excels,
O by that blood so freely shed for sin,
Open blest mercy’s gate and take us in.
1) Are you a prodigal, wandering away from God? Or do you have one in your family?
2) What can be done to heal the rift with our heavenly Father (or to help the one who has strayed)?