Higher ground

Jeff enjoys the view from higher ground, Acadia National Park, June 2012

Jeff enjoys the view from higher ground, Acadia National Park, Maine, June 2012

My heart has no desire to stay
where doubts arise and fears dismay.
Though some may dwell where these abound,
My prayer, my aim is higher ground.

 –Johnson Oatman, Jr.

Growing up in a church where a cappella singing was a vital part of every worship, I was exposed early and often to verses that carried encouraging thoughts or stirring challenges. I learned to love many of these hymns, which play inside my head to this day and help me face times of trial.

As we have moved around to different churches in different parts of the country, I have come to associate particular hymns with places, people or times in my life.  When we moved to Virginia in 2004, I missed northern California terribly, and took longer than usual to start thinking of our new location as “home.” Times seemed uncertain at best, with a husband serving in the military with two wars underway, and a school system that completely rejected the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that Matt’s California special education team had spent countless hours refining.

Somewhere during those first months in Virginia, this song I learned in childhood came back into my head and heart, and I decided to adopt its words as my theme for this phase of my life.  I printed out all the verses to the song and hung the print inside my linen closet door, where I saw it daily, and actually still see it each day we are in York County.

In 2004 I had no idea of the challenges that would lie ahead during the years to come. Multiple cardiac hospitalizations as Matt’s heart condition grew worse, the suicide of a dear friend, and Jeff’s diagnosis of stage IV cancer were only a few of the heartaches that awaited us. Despite this, the determination to rise above the unpredictable assaults of life continues. I know very little about Johnson Oatman, but I thank God that he penned words that have served me so well.

Do you have any favorite songs or hymns that help you head for higher ground in your mind, when things are pulling you down? If you can’t think of any, perhaps you can take some time to choose a few to learn and sing, aloud or in your heart, when your courage starts to fail. It’s hard to feel afraid when singing words of cheer, faith and hope.


  1. “We walked not with the chosen few who saw Thee from the earth ascend,
    Who raised to heav’n their wondering view; then low to earth, all prostrate bend

    But we believe that human eyes beheld that journey to the skies,
    But we believe that human eyes beheld that journey to the skies.”

    John 20:29

    • That’s another favorite song of mine, which includes maybe my all time favorite verse from the Bible: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Thanks for the reminder!

  2. gloria

    Good morning, Julia:
    I so appreciate your blog and Grady’s page. Among all your trials, you are sharing your encouraging thoughts to the UR family and beyond. I love seeing Jeff with Grady – what a delight and gift from our Lord to your family! Abundant blessings to you and your family and continue to pray for Jeff’s health.

    • Gloria, thanks so much for your kind words and encouragement! Yes, Grady has been a wonderful gift to us. It’s almost as if, no matter what comes, God finds ways to tell us “I will bless you even through this, just trust me.” We really appreciate your prayers, and truly believe that the prayers are making a big difference for us. I’m so happy you like the blog!

  3. maggie clure

    Good morning, Julia….You talked about the hymns and I have hymns that enter my head and heart at different times….Don’t know that I have a favorite one, but the old hymns from my childhood are my favorites…What a friend We Have in Jesus, In the Garden, The old Rugged Cross and many others! Depending on my prayers, my thoughts during the day, a hymn will enter my head and I will sing it off and on during the day! I love them! My prayers continue for Jeff, Matt and you! I admire your strength and your faith! I know it is difficult at times, with the issues you are having to go through, but God is with your every step and He will make you even stronger, both in your faith and your ability to get through the darkest of days! I so enjoy your blogs and you are definitely an inspiration to me. Love and prayers continue!!

    • Maggie, thanks so much, I love the songs you mentioned, and wish I heard them more often. Today as Matt and I were driving to church (Jeff felt too sick to attend; chemo side effects), a song came into my head that I have not heard in years, and I sang it for Matt. I don’t know if he could remember ever hearing it. The song is “He’s my friend” and what reminded me of it was Matt’s comment about how beautiful the sunshine was. Almost without realizing it I started singing “He sends the sunshine and the rain, he sends the harvest’s golden grain, he’s my friend…” Music is such a blessing! No wonder we are commanded to rejoice and sing! Thanks so much for your prayers, and for being here.

  4. Carolyn

    I just checked out Grady’s page and there was Jeff with Grady. I’m so happy that he was able to have time with him. I see he has hair again. we had to pay for hair cuts again. I still wear mine short but it still has to be cut, but we have hair. Mine came back salt and pepper and no curls. I think I have more salt than pepper. What is the next step for Jeff? He is in our prayers and the family. No song come to mind right now, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. Give your guys a big hug, does Matt, by chance, remember me? I could send you a new picture. Better stop and see what Terry is up to. I pray for a great week for you all. Love to all. Grady’s is so cute!!!

    • Hi Carolyn, I have been thinking of you! Glad to hear from you. Jeff really didn’t lose much hair at all with his first course of treatment, but what he did lose is starting to come back, thin and fuzzy and soft. Mostly he lost hair on his arms, legs and face, but he’s getting all that back, and is having to shave daily again. I asked Matt whether he remembered you and he seemed uncertain; I’ll have to find some of the photos of him with you and that might help jog his memory. Glad you liked the video. I couldn’t decide who was cuter in that clip, Jeff or Grady! 🙂 Jeff has always enjoyed babies. Thanks for visiting today, and hope you have a great week!

      • A new favorite hymn begins “Teach me Lord to wait, down on my knees . . .”

        • Jeff and I first learned that song at the Highland Street church when he was in dental school. Of course you know the verse it closes with is Carla’s favorite, and is also featured in a lovely hand-stitched gift Jeff’s assistant gave him when he pinned on his birds over 10 years ago. It is hanging in the kitchen of our York home.

  5. In Heavenly Love Abiding:
    In heavenly love abiding, No change my heart shall fear;
    And safe is such confiding, For nothing changes here.
    The storm may roar without me, My heart may low be laid,
    But God is round about me , And can I be dismayed?

    Green pastures are before me, Which yet I have not seen;
    Bright skies will soon be o’er me, Where the dark clouds have been.
    My hope I cannot measure, My path to life is free;
    My savior has my treasure, And He will walk with me.

    • Carla, do you remember that I featured that very hymn in this post? I was intrigued to read about the woman who wrote it; I seem to recall that someone speaking at the church service at Falls Church one Sunday had mentioned her. I really love those words. Did you try to call me earlier? If you want to call back, we’re home now. I thought it might be about Gina. We will certainly keep her in our prayers!!

  6. MaryAnn

    Oh! What a blessing! Higher Ground is a song I learned at church camp in the Scandia Mountains above Albuquerque! (Higher Ground on the mountain…) Jeff looks terrific! Grady is IN TUNE w/ his grandpa! What a gorgeous smile on Jeff’s face & Grady smiling back!!!
    A new song for me:
    “When I don’t understand, I will choose You,
    When I don’t understand, I will choose to love You, God!”
    rolls around in my head at the RIGHT time! Thank You, God!

    • Mary Ann, I’m not familiar with that song, but it sounds lovely. Thanks for sharing it! It echoes another favorite of mine, which is my other theme song for the past 9 years. You can hear it here. “You give and take away; my heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name.” I can hardly sing those words without tears in my eyes, especially since our dear friend Ben died, remembering all the times he was with us singing it over the years. In the end, we really do choose the spirit with which we will face life — and death too.

  7. merry

    Julia…hello. Just visited Grady’s page again. He has a beautiful family. Glad jeff was able to visit and hold him. Great photos.
    You, Jeff, Matt and Grady’s family is in my prayers.
    One of my favorite songs is “My Lord is near me all the time. I’ve seen it in the lightning, I’ve heard it in the thunder, I’ve felt it in the rain; My Lord is near me all the time…” I often sing this to myself as I’m relaxing for sleep.:}

    • Wow, that is really beautiful, Merry. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it! Now I will have to go look it up online and hear what it sounds like. Isn’t it great how we can find songs online? Thanks for your kind words about our family. We certainly need and appreciate your prayers! Thanks for being here and also being part of the family at Upper Room.

  8. My wife and I chose “Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing” for our wedding and also for all our children’s baptisms. The lines I find particularly compelling are — “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it./ Prone to leave the God I love./ Here’s my heart, O take and seal it./ Seal it for Thy courts above.”

    • Tony, I love that song too! In fact, as I mentioned choosing songs that symbolized times in my life, that song is the one of two I especially connected when we moved back to the mainland from Hawaii. We had faced many challenges while there (including Matt’s second open heart surgery, with a medevac back to the mainland so it could be done at Emory) and had a lot of challenges ahead of us as well. The words that I connected with at that time were “hither by Thy help I’ve come.” The other was one I am sad to say I never hear anymore, “Lead Kindly Light.” This is really fun, it’s almost like a virtual song fest tonight. I wish we could just have everybody who commented here sitting in our living room singing right now! We could try another of my very favorites, The Greatest Commands. We used to sing this in a small home Bible study group that included an especially talented musical family, and it was an amazing experience to sing this through with the 4-part harmony. Gave me chills every time! Thanks for joining in the songfest.

  9. When I was a baby Christian, I attended a small church. We sang “I Love You, Lord” and “In Moments Like These” every week. Those songs still resound in my head, especially when I need a pick me up.

    • Barb, thanks for joining in the song fest here tonight! I too have fond memories of singing those songs. Isn’t it a joy to sing together in a small, friendly setting where talent and performance are not the primary aims? Not that it doesn’t sound beautiful, but that’s not what is most cherished about it. Such a gathering carries a special blessing of togetherness when it’s just a group of believers encouraging one another with songs. Thanks for sharing those!

  10. Sheila

    Julia, I so love the song “It Is Well With My Soul” and find it even more meaningful now, having recently learned the origin of the lyrics, by Horatio Spafford. Oh, such faith!
    I think of y’all so often. The video of Jeff and Grady enjoying each other was so precious. Thank you for sharing. Sheila

    • Sheila, that song is definitely on my top ten list. It’s one I love to sing, especially the triumphant ending — “Even so!” 🙂 Thanks for including it here in this list of favorites. I’m happy you liked the video of Jeff and Grady!

  11. I like that verse too, thanks for sharing it Julia. I have so many songs that feel special in different ways. I actually love a song called ‘Higher Ground’ by the band UB40 both for the music and the words. Heres my favourite verse: The moon and stars sit way up high, the earth and trees beneath them lie, the wind blows fragrant lullaby to cool the night for you and I. On the wing the birds fly free, leviathan calms angry seas, the flower wait for honey bee’s, the sunrise wakes new life in me. Very poetic. You can hear it here:

    • The link didn’t come through, but I found it on YouTube – it’s a very happy sounding song. I love the words “the more I learn, the less I know.” The song has almost a calypso beat in my ears; reminds me of the Caribbean music I always liked. I had never heard of that group or that song – thanks for sharing it!

  12. Nancy

    Always…Amazing Grace! I’ve learned many Negro spirituals too since we’ve been at Schrader Lane.

    • We sing quite a few at church, and also did at our California congregation I love them. One of my favorites from our CA church is “I’m Gonna View that Holy City.” I have a tape of some others I love – “Deep River” and “A Rock in a Weary Land” and “Soon I Will be Done” and “Sit Down, Servant!” to name just a few.


  1. Solaced and refreshed | Defeat Despair

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