Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Each Step of the Way

Praise for the Lord #130

Words & Music: Thelma M. Jordan, 1962

Thelma M. Jordan was a gospel songwriter active during the 1960s, who published through the R. E. Winsett Company in Dayton, Tennessee, and the Stamps-Baxter publishing house in Dallas, Texas. Her songs that I have been able to discover so far are these:
In Vict'ry Songs her name is given as "Thelma O. Mullinex Jordan." The copyright entry mentioned above places her in Palestine, West Virginia in the 1960s. Based on this information, I believe she can be identified with Thelma O. Jordan (1901-1988), who is buried at the Bethesda Baptist Church Cemetery in Palestine, Wirt County, West Virginia, and also the Thelma M. Jordan recorded by the Social Security Administration with the same dates of birth and death (SSDI record). At the time she wrote these songs she was married to Lester M. Jordan, and like my own wife, sometimes used the initial of her given middle name and sometimes the initial of her maiden name.

According to the 1910 U.S. Census, Thelma was born to Jason L. and Mary J. Mullinex of Washington, West Virginia, in 1901. She married Holly Rhodes when she was 18, on 15 December 1919 (Marriage certificate). In 1930 they lived in Curtis, West Virginia, between Parkersburg and Charleston (1930 U.S. Census). According to a family group sheet at the West Virginia Pioneers site, they had three children, one of whom lived in Palestine, West Virginia, as late as the 2000s.

Thelma and Holly separated in the early 1930s; by 1932, the Polk's City Directory for Parkersburg, West Virginia, shows "Thelma O. Mullinex" boarding near the American Viscose Corporation's rayon milling plant (Ancestry.com). In the 1940 census her occupation is given as a "spooler" at the rayon plant, which employed both single and married women in a variety of roles. Holly Rhodes remarried in 1935 (Marriage certificate). I have not found a date for Thelma's marriage to Lester Jordan, but it was at least by 1937, when they were listed together in the Parkersburg city directory (p. 285, Ancestry.com). The 1940 census record for the Jordan family also indicates that an adult child from her previous marriage lived with them for a time (1940 U.S. Census). Successive Parkersburg directories showed Thelma and Lester remaining in that city at least through 1960, the latest directory examined. Since Thelma's 1968 copyright on "Only the best" was submitted from Palestine, one may assume they had retired to that more rural spot.

Thus far I have not found evidence for other Thelma Jordan songs in current use, though presumably some are in the collections published by the Brentwood-Benson company, which owns her catalog. "Each step of the way" probably came into the repertoire of the Churches of Christ in the southern U.S. by way of the Howard Publishing books, beginning with Songs of the Church in the 1970s and continuing through Songs of faith and praise.

A perennial danger of blogging through a (nearly) alphabetically arranged hymnal is the chance of coming upon two or more songs in a row with nearly identical titles and themes. My previous post on Elmo Mercer's "Each step I take" exhausted most of what I have to say on the subject of "walking with God;" but looking at Jordan's lyrics again, there is a different focus that bears examining the subject again. The CCLI page for this hymn notes 1 Corinthians 15:50-52 as somehow connected:
I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.
Though I do not know whether this passage was associated with this hymn by Jordan herself or by another, it does fit with the general theme of the lyrics. Where Mercer's "Each step I take" dealt broadly with the idea of "walking with Jesus" on a day to day basis, Jordan's song is more focused on the assurance that Jesus will lead us step by step through the end of life and into His glory.

Stanza 1:
I walk with the Savior each step of the way,
I trust Him to guide me by night and by day;
Not dreading tomorrow nor what it may bring,
I'm safe in the keeping of Jesus the King.

How do you think about tomorrow? Most of us, probably, have some plan in mind; I try not to be excessively tied to a schedule, though many people like having everything planned to the minute. But regardless of our level of planning for tomorrow, James 4:13-14 reminds us,
Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit"--yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.
The week gone by in the United States has been a solemn reminder of this fact. No one expected the famous Boston Marathon to come to an end with two bomb blasts, and the death and maiming of innocent people. My brothers and sisters in the Church of Christ in West, Texas did not expect their Bible study Wednesday night to be interrupted by a terrible industrial explosion that cost many of them their homes, and took the lives of friends and family. On Friday, as we paused to remember the bombing in Oklahoma City on 19 April 1995, I was reminded again of an acquaintance who missed his 9:00 appointment with eternity at the Murrah Federal Building that morning--because his automobile would not start. Though we have to make sensible plans and preparations for the future, we obviously cannot control what happens tomorrow. People who deny this fact are kidding themselves. Isaiah 56:12 describes them as those who say, "tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure;" but Proverbs 27:1 said long ago, "Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth."

Among those who accept the uncertainty of tomorrow, however, there are many who follow a philosophy that is not much better: they focus only on the present, and what pleasure they can find in it. Though there is a proper contentment and gratitude to be found in receiving "our daily bread," Isaiah 22:13 identified the common abuse of this principle even in ancient times: "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." That isn't much of a philosophy, and we know it. That is the principle by which my cat lives, and it is fine for her, because that is the existence God has appointed for animals. But the heavenly part of us, that image of God that is not spoiled, tugs at us and tells us there must be more to life. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:32 that, "If the dead are not raised, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'" But if we believe in a life beyond this existence, then tomorrow becomes a very different matter.

What lies ahead in that life, how do we get there, and how do we prepare? For as long as human history records, people have wondered about these matters and made their conjectures. Job 14:14 asks bluntly, "If a man dies, shall he live again?" Ecclesiastes also asks, in 3:21, "Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?" Though both these books contain statements that support an understanding of some sort of reward or punishment after this life, there were clearly many more questions than answers.

How different is the viewpoint of the Christian! Though we still cannot know, without personal experience, what it is like to pass beyond the veil between this life and the next, we know Someone who does. And here, I think, is the message of this first stanza: "Not dreading tomorrow." Whatever may happen to us in this life, if our future life is secure with Christ, we need not fear. Like Paul we can say, "I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day" (2 Timothy 1:12). Many things in this life will fail us--riches, status, health, even family and friends--but there is one trust in which we can be certain. Jesus promises to be there "each step of the way," in this life and into the next.

Each step of the way, by night and by day;
Leads nearer the home eternally fair,
Where we shall meet loved ones, awaiting us there,
Who walked here with Jesus each step of the way.

The refrain reminds us that this step-by-step guidance is not just something to help us through our daily lives (though it is that as well); we are going somewhere purposefully. We "do not run aimlessly" (1 Corinthians 9:26), but instead are directed toward a goal. It is true that we do not see the goal ahead ourselves, but that is why we have a Shepherd to lead us.

Abraham understood this when he left the sophisticated and urbane culture of ancient Ur, to take up the nomadic life of a shepherd in a land he had never seen. Hebrews 11:8-9 tells us,
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.
It would be interesting to know how many friends and family members tried to talk him out of this. But the next verse from Hebrews 11 tells us why Abraham did it: "For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God." In the same way, we go through life toward a goal none of us has ever seen with our own eyes; but like Abraham, we trust the One who leads us there.

Paul understood this idea too, and spoke of it often:
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith--that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8-14).
The refrain of this song also reminds us of one of the blessings of heaven that ranks among the dearest in our anticipation--reunion with the saints who have gone before. Those who followed "each step of the way" to the end of this road have become an inspiration and encouragement to us in our own walk with Jesus. Hebrews 12:1 encourages us to think this way: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us." And those who have set a good example before us, though they are still far below the greatest example, Christ, are an extra encouragement to us when we falter. As Paul said in Philippians 3:17, "Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us."

Stanza 2:
With joy we shall enter the city, up there,
Of wonderful beauty and mansions all fair;
His own shall be changed and made like Him that day,
Because we've walked with Him each step of the way.


Where is your home town? The whole concept of a "home town" is complicated to me, because I am a preacher's kid, and we moved fairly often. Each of us siblings spent early childhood in a different state, and we moved away from the town of my birth when I was six. When people ask me where I am from, I say Tulsa, Oklahoma, because that is where I attended school and grew to adulthood, but deep down I know I don't share the attachment that others feel to a place where they have always lived. I can't even imagine the attachment felt by those whose families have lived for generations in the same community.

In that sense it is perhaps easier for me to accept the truth of 1 Peter 1:17, that we are just "sojourning" in this life; but there is a place promised to the Christian that will be a permanent home. We will belong there, and we will never have to say goodbye again. John's description of the heavenly city in the 21st chapter of the Revelation gives us some idea of the beauty of the place. In verses 19-20 he lists twelve different precious stones that serve as its foundations. In verse 21 he tells us that each of the twelve gates is made of a single pearl. The dominating image, however, is that of pure reflective surfaces such as crystal or polished gold. The most pure, precious, and rare materials we know from this life are expanded to immensities that are beyond the limits of our natural world. (At the very least, it would take a prodigious oyster to produce those gates made of single pearls!)

One lesson from this description of heaven's beauty, I believe, is that not only is heaven beautiful, but it is composed entirely of the most precious and blessed things we can experience in this life. Looking at it spiritually, we have relatively few of those "golden moments" in life; we seek after "pearls of wisdom" and may have just a few treasured friends who we consider "precious gems." But the sweetest and rarest joys we know from this existence, are just an "average day" in heaven!

The other future blessing explored in this stanza is one that is even more mysterious to us. Paul hints at it in Philippians 3:20-21: "But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to himself." What kind of body is it? The most extensive discussion of this idea is found in 1 Corinthians 15, the passage with which we began discussion of this hymn.
But someone will ask, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body (1 Corinthians 15:35-38)
One part of this I understand completely: it is a "foolish person" who expects to understand this in its entirety, and to compare it to anything in our prior experience. Paul's point, however, is simple: a seed is planted, but the end result is amazingly different. We see this all around us. Pick out the nearest tree you can see, and look at its structure: how tall is the trunk, and how much is its weight? How many branches, and of how many sizes? How many leaves? But all of this came from a seed small enough to fit in the palm of your hand (unless it is a coconut palm, of course). Something rather plain and unimpressive is replaced by something unbelievably more complex and beautiful. Paul continues a little later,
So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).
In Genesis 1:11 we read what Pasteur later identified as the law of biogenesis: every seed reproduces after its kind. Our fleshly bodies are mortal and limited, because we are reproduced after the "kind" of our original ancestor. In the same way, the spiritual body will be reproduced after the "kind" of its Original: "Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the Man of heaven" (1 Corinthians 15:49).

Paul brings the theme to a climax with these powerful words that have given so much comfort over so many years:
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:51-57).
In view of these promises, what should we do here and now? Paul tells us in conclusion: "Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:58). "Each step of the way" leads us nearer to that wonderful transformation, and to that blessed home where we will be forever with our Shepherd who led us.

About the music:

Jordan's musical setting of this text is simple and functional, lending itself easily to congregational singing. The melody stays almost entirely within the range of a 6th above the tonic, and moves predominantly in stepwise motion. The soprano and alto are harmonized in parallel 3rds throughout the stanza, with the exception of just two or three notes. The bass supports the typical three-chord harmony by supplying the roots of the chords, but is saved from monotony in the stanza by walking up from dominant to tonic ("by night and by day"), and then from tonic to subdominant ("what it may bring").

The alto lead in the refrain is written in the same extremely simple style, moving almost entirely by step and remaining within a narrow range. In such a spare style of writing nearly any deviation will stick out; a melodic "hook" may be seen in the sudden leap up and stepwise descent. This occurs in the stanza with the text, "by night and by day," and again with, "nor what it may bring." It is echoed in the alto lead on the words, "eternally fair."


Thelma M. Jordan song list. Brentwood, Tenn.: Music Services. http://musicservices.org/song/list/%20/0/thelma%2Bjordan

Library of Congress. Catalog of Copyright Entries. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1968, series 3, part 5 (music).

Bethesda Baptist Church Cemetery [Wirt Co., W. Va.]. Find-A-Grave.com. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=cr&GRid=106354331&CRid=2327950&

Thelma M Jordan, 17 February 1988. United States Social Security Death Index. FamilySearch. https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/J191-RW5

Jason L. Mullinex. United States Census, 1910. FamilySearch https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/MPNH-B4B

Holly Rhodes & Thelma Mullinex marriage certificate. Vital Records Research. West Virginia Archives & History. http://www.wvculture.org/vrr/va_view.aspx?Id=11191617&Type=Marriage

Holly W. Rhodes. United States Census, 1930. FamilySearch. https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/XMC7-TPY

Holly Wilson Rhodes. West Virginia Pioneers, ed. Betty Briggs. http://wvpioneers.com/getperson.php?personID=I9353&tree=WVP

Holly Rhodes & Edna Hester Knapp marriage certificate. Vital Records Research. West Virginia Archives & History. http://www.wvculture.org/vrr/va_view.aspx?Id=10263053&Type=Marriage

Lester M. Jordan. United States Census, 1940. FamilySearch. https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1942-27898-3630-83?cc=2000219&wc=MMYH-7BZ:n1152680990

"Each step of the way." Song Search. Christian Copyright Licensing International. http://www.ccli.com/Licenseholder/Search/SongSearch.aspx?s=1299682

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Each Step I Take

Praise for the Lord #129

Words & Music: W. Elmo Mercer, 1953

The songwriting career of W. Elmo Mercer (b. 1932) is proof of how a little opportunity and encouragement can pay off in a huge way. His formal musical training consisted of two years of piano lessons in the 4th-5th grades. At age 14 he wrote his first gospel song, which was published by the John T. Benson company in Nashville, Tennessee; by age 19, he had a contract as a staff writer. At age 29 he became the music editor, a position he held for more than two decades. He also arranged music for the Gaithers for nearly a decade. Mercer has written more than 1,600 songs, which have been recorded by many of the most famous names in commercial gospel music (Fred Bock). So, parents, if your child asks to take piano lessons...

Mercer actually wrote "Each step I take" when he was just 19 years old, an amazing accomplishment for such a young person. And though he went on to write many other songs that have been popular, this remains the song by which he is best known. It was a commercial success, first recorded by Slim Whitman, the cowboy crooner, in 1959. It would later be covered by George Beverley Shea, Ira Stanphill, and others (Fred Bock). Of more lasting impact, however, has been its worldwide popularity for use in worship. The video below is one of many posted to Youtube by the Church of Christ in Ipoh, Malaysia; the song leader is brother Ting Kong Eyo.

Mr. Mercer has received many awards during his long career, but I can't think of a better honor to a gospel songwriter than for one of his songs to give voice to the praises of Christ on the other side of the world, more than a half century after that 19-year-old boy set pencil to paper! We greatly need to encourage musically talented young Christians (and older ones as well) to try their hands at songwriting; the blessings could be more than we imagine.

Stanza 1:
Each step I take my Savior goes before me,
And with His loving hand He leads the way.
And with each breath I whisper "I adore Thee,"
O, what joy to walk with Him each day.

One of the distinctive ideas in this song is that Jesus is not only with us, but leading us. When I think of leadership, I am reminded of some of my early work experiences on custodial cleaning crews. One of my crew chiefs considered his duties fulfilled if he sat and watched the rest of us work, usually while smoking a cigarette and swearing profusely. On my next assignment, however, I had a crew chief who worked alongside us just as hard as anyone else, setting the pace and showing us what was expected. He made his instructions clear and took time to train the new employees. Need I say which crew was the happier group, or which crew did better work? Looking at it from a different angle, it is helpful, when we have to go through a difficult or uncertain situation, just to have someone with us for moral support; but it is an even greater blessing to have someone with us who has been in the situation before and can lead us through it.

Jesus described His own style of leadership in John 10:2-4.
But he who enters by the door is the Shepherd of the sheep. To Him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear His voice, and He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When He has brought out all His own, He goes before them, and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice.
Americans, used to herding on a larger scale, tend to think of driving livestock rather than leading them. But in the shepherding practice of ancient Palestine, a herder led his sheep, and the sheep learned from their infancy up to follow him by sight and by voice. (Odd as this sounds to those of us who have not been around sheep, research published by Kendrick et al. in Animal Behaviour, June 1995, confirms that some breeds of sheep are quite good at distinguishing faces and voices, both of their own kind and of humans.) The ancient shepherd led his sheep to good pasture and water, brought them to places of safety for rest, and protected them from harm. This is beautifully applied to God in the following passage from Ezekiel. It describes His restoration of the exiles to their homeland, but also looks forward, perhaps, to the application of this metaphor by Jesus:
For thus says the Lord GOD: "Behold, I, I myself will search for My sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out My sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.
And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the Shepherd of My sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD.(Ezekiel 34:11-15)
We see Jesus doing this from the beginning of His ministry; though he would later send His disciples out on their own, He first told them, "Follow me." He showed them the character He wished them to have, and gave them the teaching He wished them to teach. Every day He presented Himself as an exemplar (John 13:15) for their imitation, and through their record of His deeds and character He remains so for us today. Even His last recorded words in the gospel according to John were, "Follow Me!" (John 21:22).

This command is equally incumbent on His followers today. There are no exceptions to the Lord's statement, "If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there will My servant be also" (John 12:26). But where else would we rather follow, than in the steps of that gentle Shepherd? He promises again, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12). Every day Jesus leads His sheep, in His infinite wisdom and love; and every day, we sheep are blessed to find light and life under His care.

Each step I take I know that He will guide me;
To higher ground He ever leads me on.
Until some day the last step will be taken,
Each step I take just leads me closer home.

The theme of walking with Jesus has inspired many, many songs; a search of the keyword "step" in Hymnary.org returns 802 hits. Though most of these songs have fallen by the wayside over the decades, many Christians are still familiar with "Stepping in the light" by Eliza Hewitt, "Only a step" by Charles H. Gabriel, or "One step at a time, dear Savior" by T. J. Shelton. The term "walk" results in 2,980 hits, and the term "follow" yields 1,907, giving further evidence of the prevalence of this idea.

It has strong roots in Biblical language as well. The best of the ancient Hebrews were described as those who "walked with God," such as Enoch (Genesis 5:24) and Noah (Genesis 6:9). Jacob spoke of "The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my Shepherd all my life long to this day."(Genesis 48:15) Perhaps it is the fact that a walk is a journey composed of many individual steps, that makes this such an appropriate metaphor; a "walk of life" is the result of many individual decisions, moment by moment. It was not a single "leap of faith" that defined these godly men, but rather their daily choices, step by step, to follow God's will.

King David spoke in these terms often in the Psalms: "My steps have held fast to Your paths; my feet have not slipped" (Psalm 17:5). He understood that the walk of a righteous person had to be according to knowledge of God's will, for when "the law of his God is in his heart, his steps do not slip" (Psalm 37:31). He also knew that it was necessary to trust in the Lord's guidance, even when the way ahead was not clear. In Psalm 26:1 he said, in a time of trial, "Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering."

David knew that it was only in God that he could walk in safety through life: "You gave a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip" (Psalm 18:36). Was he thinking of the rocky paths through the hills around his native Bethlehem? And though David committed grave sins at one stage of his life, his character overall was one of humbly seeking to follow God's ways. It is a testimony to David's walk with God, that his descendant Josiah was thus described: "And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left" (2 Kings 22:2).

As we live day by day we will "walk" through life whether we mean to or not; it may be in a determined direction, or simply in circles, but we all will walk after some fashion. How many people are walking aimlessly, or in the wrong direction? How many people can identify with the saying of "going nowhere fast?" The image presented in Mercer's song is one of a deliberate following of Jesus, looking to His guidance, and trusting in the direction He leads. It is always in a determined progression toward "higher ground." God help us not to "turn aside to the right or to the left!"

Stanza 2:
At times I feel my faith begin to waver,
When up ahead I see a chasm wide.
It's then I turn and look up to my Savior;
I am strong when He is by my side.


What makes our steps falter in the Christian walk? The apostle Peter gave us a lesson in this, however unwittingly, when he walked across the sea of Galilee to Jesus. Though he alone had the faith and courage to step out of the boat--for which he deserves our admiration--"when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, 'Lord, save me!'" (Matthew 14:30). The perilous circumstances overcame his faith; even though he had been walking on the sea a moment before, his doubt and fear took over.

Fear in itself is not a bad thing; a reasonable amount of fear about the right things is healthy, and keeps us from taking senseless risks. Reasonable fear causes me to slow down when I am driving in the rain. Reasonable fear causes me to be careful handling a knife, and keeps me from petting an angry dog. But in spiritual matters, we seem habitually to fear the wrong things. Jesus told us this in the shockingly blunt statement,
I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke 12:4-5)
This is all the more powerful when we remember all the times Jesus said instead, "Be not afraid." Part of coping with fear and doubt in this life is learning to keep our attention focused on what is of eternal, not temporal concern.

But Jesus "is not unable to sympathize with our weaknesses" (Hebrews 4:15). He does what all good leaders do: He stays close to those who are following, to make sure we can see the safe path and are not left behind. In Mark 10:32-33, when the Savior began to explain to His disciples that they must go up to Jerusalem where He would be killed, "Jesus was walking ahead of them." He did not send them on any path where He was not willing to go first. And before His crucifixion, preparing them for the persecution they were about to endure, Jesus said, "If the world hates you, know that it has hated Me before it hated you" (John 15:18).

In this way we "look up to our Savior" when we are faced with trials, and stay close to His side; we know that He has endured the same things, and is leading us through them with the assurance of One who has traveled this way before. In a passage from Hebrews that sounds very much like one of Paul's sports metaphors, we are given this picture of following Jesus:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the Founder and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured from sinners such hostility against Himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted (Hebrews 12:1-3).
If I may be permitted to extend the racing metaphor, it is as if we looked ahead in a moment of weariness at the distance yet to be run, and became discouraged. But then in the distance we see the finish line--and there is Jesus, having already finished the race, cheering us on and exhorting us not to give up. We have come too far to quit now!

Stanza 3:
I trust in God, no matter come what may,
For life eternal is in His hand.
He holds the key that opens up the way,
That will lead me to the promised land.


Perhaps Elmo Mercer was thinking of John 10:27-28, in which Jesus continues the Good Shepherd theme to its heartwarming conclusion: "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand." The image of a key that opens the way to eternal life may have been borrowed from the risen Lord's words to John in the Revelation: "Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the Living One. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades (Revelation 1:17-18).

We trust in Him, "no matter, come what may," because He is "the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end" (Revelation 22:13). And when it comes to the question of the end of this mortal life, who else is there to trust? Shakespeare called what follows, "The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns." Whitman called it "the Unknown Region," and admitted,
I know it not, O Soul;
Nor dost thou—all is a blank before us;
All waits, undream’d of, in that region—that inaccessible land.
("Darest thou now, O soul," bk. 30, Leaves of Grass)
Though the poets offer no answers, they do at least acknowledge the question, which is more than can be said for the modern materialist worldview. But compare now the words of Paul:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).
This is not the raving of a lunatic, or the wishful thinking of a man confronting oblivion; this is a reasoned answer, given within a framework of understanding our God, our existence, and the relationship between the two. "Life eternal is in His hand," because it is part of His inherent nature. But the wonderful news is that it is meant for us as well; it is this life that is the obscurity, the bad dream. In His mercy, God sent His own Son to lead us, a step at a time, "out of darkness and into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9). May God help us all to follow!

About the music:

To tell the truth, this style of music is not my favorite; I am not much fan of the commercial Southern gospel style. But Mercer's song has obviously been a favorite for many decades, and I can see why. He tied the tune together in a surprising number of ways, and showed an innate skill for melody even at such a young age. 

"Each step I take" has certain musical "hooks" that give it a coherence and logic. I could not say whether or not these things are done consciously. In my own limited experience of composing, sometimes a certain turn of melody or rhythm will stick in my head as the beginning of something larger, and I will consciously develop a piece of music around that idea. It certainly seems, however, that the great melodists can do this almost without thinking; perhaps it is a level of intuitive skill in which the same process happens without conscious effort.

Whatever the answer may be to that question, there is something in the music of this song that sets it apart from the average gospel song. As I look at it more closely, I see at least two unifying features. To begin with, the first four notes of the stanza ("Each step I take") is a tonic chord outline, beginning and ending on the 5th of the chord (SOL-DO-MI-SOL). At the musical and textual climax of the refrain ("Un-til some day") there is another four-note outline of the tonic chord, but now in root position (DO-MI-SOL-DO). This may seem like a small thing, but the placement of this broad chord outline within the musical and textual structure, and its sense of fulfilling an idea stated at the very opening, creates a powerful moment.

The second recurring idea is the three-note descending chromatic line first heard in the second phrase of the stanza ("lov-ing hand"), on MI-RI-RE (G / F-sharp / F-natural). In the corresponding spot in the second phrase of the refrain ("high-er ground") there is a similar motif, SOL-FI-FA (B-flat / A-natural / A-flat). And in the last phrase of the refrain, on the textual hook "Each step I take," the idea returns on the original pitches, the same as in the stanza (MI-RI-RE or G / F-sharp / F-natural). As is so often the case, a simple reference to an earlier idea gives the music a satisfying unity, even if many singers do not appreciate the fact consciously.


"Biography." Elmo Mercer Music. http://www.elmomercermusic.com/bio.html

Mercer, Elmo. Composer information page. Fred Bock Music Companies. http://www.fredbock.com/Promo.asp?page=262

Kendrick, Keith M., Khia Atkins, Michael R. Hinton, Kevin D. Broad, C. Fabre-Nys, Barry Keverne. "Facial and vocal discrimination in sheep." Animal Behaviour 49:6 (June 1995), 1665-1676.