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

No comments:

Post a Comment