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 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.

Mercer, Elmo. Composer information page. Fred Bock Music Companies.

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.

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