Monday, March 23, 2009

Be With Me, Lord

Praise for the Lord #40

Words: Thomas O. Chisholm, 1935
Music: Lloyd O. Sanderson, 1935

This is yet another collaboration between Chisholm and Sanderson (the first I reviewed was "All things work together for good"(PFTL#27). Sanderson's own account of the origin of this hymn is fascinating:

"Be With Me, Lord" is perhaps my most popular hymn. In Springfield, in 1934, I was working on my first hymnal for the Gospel Advocate Co. At about 2 a.m. one Tuesday a melody came to mind. I found it difficult to get rid of it. So I stopped and wrote it down, lest I forget. Even then, I kept seeing or sensing the harmony, which bothered my work; so I turned and wrote it out completely. It is a rare meter - 11 notes in a phrase, 10 in the next, 11 in the third, and again 10 in the fourth. I couldn't come up with or find words to fit it. About eight days passed when I received a letter from Thomas O. Chisholm, who had long written words for me. He wrote that he had retired on the same night I was working, and a theme for a poem seemed to command his attention. Finally after midnight of that same Tuesday, he got up and wrote out the poem. He was sending it to me to see what I thought of it. It was an exact fit for my music. I bought the poem, and the twain have been together since.(Sanderson)

This would be hard to believe if it did not come from such a trustworthy gentleman. Perhaps this brother, who so often wrote of the workings of Providence in his life, experienced it in this case as well. Sanderson introduced this hymn in Gospel Advocate's 1935 hymnal Christian Hymns.

Stanza 1:
Be with me, Lord--I cannot live without Thee,
I dare not try to take one step alone,
I cannot bear the loads of life, unaided,
I need Thy strength to lean myself upon.

The frank humility of this hymn is summed up in the first line. It is an admission that we have tried, and failed, to manage our lives ourselves; it is a plea for God to show us the way, now that we know we cannot go it alone. It recalls the words of David in the brief little jewel that is Psalm 131:

O Lord , my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.

The realization that we cannot direct our own lives successfully comes to some people early, and others late. Solomon, as a young man, had the perceptiveness to ask God for wisdom, saying, "O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in."(1 Kings 3:7)

Most of us, however, have to learn this the hard way. Jeremiah expressed the hard-won wisdom that many of us have found: "I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps."(Jeremiah 10:23) We learn as well that we cannot take what life dishes out, without God's help. As Psalm 124:1 says, "If it had not been the Lord who was on our side--". This hymn speaks to those who have realized this truth, and have found the sweet peace of Jesus' promise,

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."(Matthew 11:28-30)

The thoughts expressed in this stanza, and the hymn as a whole, may have to be "grown into". When I was a child I thought this hymn had pretty music but was rather depressing. As an increasingly middle-aged man I have learned to understand it a little better. I have not done well in my life when I have relied on my own understanding, chosen my own steps, and tried to carry the burden by myself. I know now (though I sometimes forget!) that I can't do it; and now I see the relief and joy in these words.

Stanza 2:
Be with me, Lord, and then if dangers threaten,
If storms of trial burst above my head,
If lashing seas leap ev'rywhere about me,
They cannot harm, or make my heart afraid.

We probably all have a particular storm that comes to mind. For me, it was a night when I was coming through the pass on Interstate 35 in the Arbuckle Mountains north of Ardmore, Oklahoma, through sheets of driving rain and an electrical storm. I was actually glad when those bolts of lightning came, because for a moment I could see enough to get my bearings. Then, of course, I had a flat tire. (Did I mention that my bride-to-be was with me?) I determined that if I could make it to the next town, I would get her a motel room and I would sleep in the car--with a preemptive phone call of explanation to her parents--but I would not drive a mile further in that storm than I had to. Oklahoma weather being what it is, it had stopped by the time we reached Ardmore.

I had been in bad storms before, but my Dad was always driving. In fact, on some of those two-lane roads in the Missouri Ozarks or in southeastern Oklahoma, we had probably been in considerably greater danger; but it would never had occured to me to worry much. It was the sense of responsibility for our fate, and the isolation that brings, that made it so much more frightening. Will I make the right decisions? Will I see the way to go? Will my reactions be quick and accurate enough? Will I keep it on the road?

It is too easy to live our lives in that frame of mind. We become isolated and fearful, trying to carry the burden of responsibility alone. Can we recapture that childlike trust that a Father is "at the wheel" during the storms? The Bible assures us that however powerful the literal or figurative storms in this life, God is more powerful and is Master over them:

For He commanded and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;
they reeled and staggered like drunken men
and were at their wits' end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and He delivered them from their distress.
He made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
(Psalm 107:25-29)

Matthew 8:23-27 tells us the wonderfully illustrative incident in which the disciples learned that Jesus viewed storms very differently from the average sailor:

And when He got into the boat, His disciples followed Him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but He was asleep. And they went and woke Him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” And He said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then He rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of Man is this, that even winds and sea obey Him?”

It is interesting to me that even though the disciples had Jesus physically present with them, that was not enough; they wanted Him to get up and do something! How much more are we tempted, who "have not seen, yet have believed"?(John 20:29) Sometimes we have faith in God, but we want Him to do something, and quickly! We can be assured that He will, in His time; and we can be assured that "neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."(Romans 8:38-39) And in the end, His love abiding in us is all that matters. As Paul said in Philippians 3:8, "I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."

Stanza 3:
Be with me, Lord! No other gift or blessing
Thou couldst bestow could with this one compare--
A constant sense of Thy abiding presence,
Where'er I am, to feel that Thou art near.

This stanza has become my favorite over the years, and I am always glad when songleaders see its value and decide not to skip over it. The knowledge of the presence of God is a healing comfort and a sobering admonition. In Exodus 33:14 God told the Israelites that "My presence shall go with you", a promise that meant both blessings and responsibilities: God would provide their food, water, and protection from enemies, but His presence was not to be treated lightly, as some found out to their destruction. The pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night were a 24-hour-a-day reminder that you cannot live in the presence of God, and have His presence in your life, without being forever changed. And lest anyone think this was a feature of "Old Testament theology", in John 15:4-6 Jesus taught the very same principle:

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

The indwelling Spirit is a part of this "abiding presence" in our lives, both collectively and individually. Paul discusses this in a rich metaphor in 1 Corinthians: "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?"(1 Corinthians 3:16) "Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?"(1 Corinthians 6:19) In the first passage, the plural "you" is clear in Greek; he is referring to the church as a body. Both as congregations, and as individual Christians, God's presence is abiding in us. It is a wonderful comfort to know that God is not somewhere far off, but "He is actually not far from each one of us."(Acts 17:27) It is also a solemn reminder that we are His temple; and just as the ancient Israelites had to respect that presence, and ignored it at their peril, so we must remember that "a man's ways are before the eyes of the Lord."(Proverbs 5:21)

Stanza 4:
Be with me Lord, when loneliness oe'rtakes me,
When I must weep amid the fires of pain,
And when shall come the hour of "my departure"
For "worlds unknown," O Lord, be with me then.

The first line of this stanza cannot help but remind us of our senior brothers and sisters, who have lived long and seen the companions of their youth pass away. Irene Batey, a wonderful Christian lady of Nashville, Tennessee, was heard to remark after one of her many birthdays, "I have noticed the peer pressure dropping off lately." (She lived well past 100.) Miss Batey was blessed with a wonderful friend and caregiver who lived in her home; but many others find themselves neglected in their later years, when they are likely to be facing ever-greater challenges of physical pain, financial need, and spiritual weariness. Let us never forget them!

Even in younger days, there may be times when we find ourselves alone in a time of severe trial. Perhaps it is in a hospital emergency room in the wee hours of the morning, watching over a loved one in pain, for whom we can do nothing to help. In those hours let us remember that our Savior, too, passed through these hours in Gethsemane, when He "fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from Him."(Mark 14:35) He knows, and He cares.

Chisholm's quotation of "my departure" almost certainly refers to Paul's statement in 2 Timothy 4:6, that "the time of my departure is at hand." Here too we can recall Paul's frustration at his isolation and the hindrance of the work that was his passion, and yet be encouraged by his confidence in the following two verses:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

"Worlds unknown" is likely a reference to this stanza of Augustus Toplady's "Rock of ages":

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyes shall close in death;
When I rise to worlds unknown,
And behold Thee on Thy throne,
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.

Death is that great, final unknown of human existence. It is, as Shakespeare put it in Hamlet's famous soliloquy,

The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns.

Or in the words of Whitman, from his poem "Darest thou, O soul",

I know it not, O Soul;
Nor dost thou--all is a blank before us...

They are fine poets, and they do us a service in telling us what the world knows but does not want to admit. But when our time comes to make that passage, let these words be our guides instead:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me;
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.(Psalm 23:4)

But I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.(2 Timothy 1:12)

About the music: The meter is uncommon but not unheard of; it appears in nine other texts in Praise for the Lord, the better known of which are probably "Come, ye disconsolate"(#114), "O perfect Love"(#493), and "While on the sea"(#774). Still, it seems unusual to think of a tune in that meter, and even more unusual to think of a tune like "Be with me, Lord", without a text in mind.

This is easily my pick for Sanderson's best work. The melody has a variety of motion, from the chant-like opening words to the soaring arpeggio of the third phrase. After the quiet beginning, the successive phrases reach higher and build in intensity until the final phrase brings the melody to rest again, concluding with a delicate pause on the same G that began the tune. The harmony is rich and varied without distracting; the chromatic line in the alto during the first phrase is especially nice, and the plagal cadence ending that phrase contributes to the sense of resignation expressed in the text. The emotional content of the text matches happily with that of the music, and it is all the more remarkable that the two men conceived them separately.


Sanderson, Lloyd Otis. "The Lord has been mindful of me": an autobiography of L.O. Sanderson. Gospel Advocate CXLVI/9 (Sep 2004), pp. 26-28. Available online at

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