I don’t really know how generally well-known Be With Me, Lord is—or was! This beautiful prayer hymn was a standard hymn in the churches I grew up in, often used as a closing song/prayer, but I remember it best from smaller group devotionals.
We sometimes played with the words and turned the singular pronoun me into us in order to express greater fellowship in the community—something I sometimes miss in the most individualistic praise music of today.
L.O. Sanderson (1901-1992), one of the great hymnists to come out of the Restoration Movement, wrote this particular hymn in 1934. In his autobiographical sketch The Lord Has Been Mindful of Me, he describes in his own words how this hymn was the result of providential circumstances:
“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.
Life had not been easy for Sanderson. He was born and raised in a log house in Arkansas. His parents were musical, but they could afford no instruments. Sanderson was gifted, so he began school at age 4 and was in the 4th grade by age 6.
He finished what schooling was available before he was old enough to quit school—probably at about 11 years old because that is when he says his father “put me on my own,” meaning at least he had to buy his own clothes and earn the money for any further schooling.
He began picking cotton so he could afford to attend music normal schools, and by the age of 15, he was certified to teach his own singing school clinics. No doubt Sanderson had often experienced the dependency expressed in the opening stanza of this hymn, and therefore quickly identified with the words given him by T. O. Chisholm .
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 second stanza is a more physical description of the “loads of life” and how dangerous those loads can be.
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 do know about storms and crashing lightening bursting above our heads—or tornadoes dropping out of clouds—but we are much less familiar with “lashing seas.”
The events to which I now relate those words are the Asian tsunamis, those mortifying pictures of the sea crashing through the man-made barriers and sweeping away homes and cars and people!
Did you see The Impossible (2012) starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, the based-on reality story of a family swept apart in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami? The calm peaceful scene on the beach followed by instant, unexpected, and total devastation—those can make your heart afraid!
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.
“A constant sense of Thy abiding presence”—that’s the difference between those swept away by fear and those who lose their fears in faith! No wonder His Presence is the incomparable gift!
And then we always sang the last stanza very quietly:
Be with me, Lord, when loneliness o’ertakes 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.
I always thought the last stanza was a little disjointed—but I understand it better now.
As a teenager and young adult, I didn’t understand how loneliness and pain had anything to do with “the hour of my departure.” Forty or fifty years later, I have seen the loneliness that creeps up on you as you grow older. I’ve seen friends who have lost their spouses-their best friends. I’ve watched the row of “ widow ladies” at church slowly grow shorter and shorter until only one remains. I’ve returned to familiar places where the history of your life has happened in detail, only to discover that it has all been replaced with new and shiny –and you feel like very little of you is left there.
Loneliness and the accompanying pain are perhaps some of the fiercest storms that “burst above my head.”
The last two phrases are the prayerful expression of confidence that we are not left alone—that our last hour will not be our loneliest; rather, our last hour will deliver us from the “constant sense of Thy abiding presence” to be supplanted by the comforting Presence itself!
Be with us, Lord.