Sunday, February 22, 2009

Am I Nearer to Heaven Today?

Praise for the Lord #28

Words: Jessie Brown Pounds, 1916
Music: Fred A. Fillmore, 1916

Jessie Brown Pounds (1861-1921) was a prominent and respected writer among the Disciples in Ohio, editing such prominent journals as Christian Standard and Christian Century. She wrote hundreds of hymns, dozens of short stories, and six historical novels about the Disciples on the Western Reserve.(Thomas) The following hymns by Pounds are included in Praise for the Lord:

Anywhere with Jesus (#48)
Are you coming to Jesus tonight? (#61)
Beautiful isle of somewhere (#69)
I know that my Redeemer lives (#283)
I know that my Redeemer liveth (#284)
Soul a Savior thou art needing (#587)
The way of the cross leads home (#653)
Will you not tell it today? (#783)

Some of these are still standard fare in the traditional worship music of the Churches of Christ, and all of them were in common use at one time. Pounds's texts are well-written, though their musical settings do not always do them justice; and sometimes, they have simply been sung so much that they are "worn out". (Consider, for example, "Why not tonight?", and imagine you haven't heard it a million times before--it's really a pretty good text, it's just been over-used, and the music is so-so.) "Am I nearer to heaven today?" is one of her hymns that has not been over-used, but unfortunately the reason is (most likely) the music, which is not very friendly to a cappella congregational singing.

Stanza 1:
O the yesterday's moments for pleasure or woe,
Have been stealthily carried away;
I am nearer the valley of shadows, I know--
Am I nearer to heaven today?

Am I nearer today? Am I nearer today?
Am I nearer to heaven today?
Am I nearer the gate where the blessed ones wait?
Am I nearer to heaven today?

The refrain is a bit of a throwaway, and I am tempted to think it was contrived by Fillmore in the same way that Robert Lowry tacked on a refrain to Isaac Watts hymns in the cases of Alas! And did my Savior bleed?(PFTL#12) and Come we that love the Lord(PFTL#111).

The point of Pounds's text is well taken. Ecclesiastes 2:16 offers the sobering observation, "For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!" For better or worse, the days that have gone by cannot be recalled. Likewise, we know that every day that passes brings us one day closer to that appointment that no one will miss: "it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment."(Hebrews 9:27) Jesus also said, "And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?"(Luke 12:25) We can prolong our lives (sometimes) by taking proper care of our bodies, or by medical science, but in the end "we bring our years to an end like a sigh. is soon cut off, and we fly away."(Psalm 90:9-10)

But we need not "grieve as others do who have no hope." (1 Thessalonians 4:13) If we are daily drawing nearer to the end of life on this earth, Pounds points out, we are also drawing nearer to our hope of heaven. The question then becomes not one of despair over our inevitable end, but of anticipation and preparation for the life to come. "The time that is past suffices", says 1 Peter 4:3, for living according to the ways of this world and following our own desires. "The hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed."(Romans 13:11)

Stanza 2:
I am nearer the time for the breaking of ties,
That are holding my loved ones to me;
I am nearer the time for my latest goodbyes--
Am I nearer, O Father, to Thee?

Even for those who put their hope in heaven, parting with loved ones is one of the most difficult things to bear. In Acts 8:2, for example, we read that after the martydom of Stephen, "devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him." These "devout men" no doubt had assurance of Stephen's spiritual destination, and had hope of meeting him there one day; but they had lost a good man, an inspiration and a friend. It would be impossible for the human heart to be untouched by such a parting.

Likewise, we do not wish to be parted from our loved ones. But lest we dwell too much on this natural human emotion, we need to remember Christ's words in Matthew 10:37, "Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me." This is hard to hear, but He said it and we need to come to terms with it. As Pounds rightly points out, we need to cultivate and cherish our relationship with the Lord, even more than our relationships with our loved ones whom we someday must leave.

It is the wonderful truth, of course, that we need not love them less because we love Him more. In fact, we will love them better. The godly man, for example, who loves his Lord first and best of all, will in the process be a man who can love his wife more generously and unselfishly. He can love his children more tenderly and raise them more wisely, and he will have done all he can to guarantee a heavenly reunion of his loved ones after this life.

Stanza 3:
I am nearer the close of my labor below,
I am nearer the end of my way;
I am nearer the edge of the valley, I know--
Am I nearer to heaven today?

Whatever God has given us to do on this earth, we need to get about that business. "Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil."(Ephesians 5:15-16) First in that order of business, of course, is to be "buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life."(Romans 6:4) Once we have started that walk, we are moving closer to a destination. 1 John chapter 1 encourages us to "walk in the light" and not "in darkness", and each step we take, each day, is either one or the other.

A dear friend has a saying, "Life is a series of choices." When I am traveling home from my workplace in South Dallas, I have to make many correct choices on the freeway. If I do not take the correct exits at the major junctions (two right exits, then two left exits), I will end up going around in circles in downtown Dallas. At certain points, if I do not get in the correct lane well ahead of time, I will stand little chance of making the exit no matter how hard I try. The difference between a safe, relatively easy trip and getting completely lost is making the right choices at the right times.

The Christian life is a lot more complicated, of course, but we are all a day closer to our destination today than we were yesterday--it deserves our full attention.

About the music: Fred A. Fillmore (1856-1925) was the son of Disciples preacher Augustus Dameron Fillmore (1823-1870), and a partner in the family music business, Fillmore Brothers Publishing, established in Cincinatti in 1874.(Osborne) This tribe increased in both sacred and secular music, and was such a major force in gospel song during the late 19th century that they deserve their own post. Fred A. Fillmore also composed "I know that my Redeemer lives"(PFTL#282), "In the desert of sorrow and sin"(PFTL#332), and "Sowing the seed of the kingdom"(PFTL#589), thus showing the family penchant for the military march style (his nephew James H. Fillmore, Jr., would become one of America's most prominent bandleaders).

"Am I nearer to heaven today?", though, has not aged as well as some of his other efforts. It was probably intended as a choir piece, with the stanza sung by a soprano-tenor duet, and it might have worked in that format; but the melody is simply too awkward for congregational singing, from the unexpected downward leap of a sixth in the first measure, to the (over)use of successive chromatic steps. It might have done well enough in the era of American pseudo-Victorian art song, but that style has long passed from fashion, and this is not a particularly outstanding example of it to begin with. For comparison, see "I come to the garden alone"(PFTL#805), which (in its original format with soprano-alto duet on the stanza) is very similar in style but more musically satisfying.


Thomas, Theodore N. Jessie Brown Pounds. Encyclopedia of the Restoration Movement. Eerdmans, 2004, p. 600.

Osborne, William. Music in Ohio. Kent State University Press, 2004.

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