It happens often. I will be driving, folding laundry, trying to sleep, or any other normal task, when I start “randomly” singing a song I haven’t heard in a relatively long time, without any conscious thought. I’m usually half-way through the chorus when I stop and think, “Now where did that come from?” The truth is, I know where it comes from. The question is really “Why?” instead of “Where?”
While the Holy Scriptures are the only sovereign texts we possess, I believe God has inspired people throughout the ages to write songs to be used for His glory, and I believe He uses these to speak to His people. Today He put a song in my heart from one of His greatest poets, Fanny Crosby. I was on my way to Starbucks for a mid-day treat when I recognized the words of “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” on my lips (listen to the audio clip above). It has a beautiful melody (the music was composed by William Doane in 1870) and a pleading tone. For the first time I actually thought about the petition of this song. I started to examine if there might be some error in singing a refrain that expresses doubt that God will be available to us when we call.
Pass me not, O gentle Savior,
I wondered if knowing the origin of the hymn might help resolve the thought, and I found some help for my questions on the Discipleship Ministries website of the United Methodist Church. There, I read an article titled “History of Hymns: “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior””, written by professor of sacred music at Southern Methodist University, C. Michael Hawn.
Mr. Hawn wrote, “The late hymnologist William J. Reynolds discovered that the inspiration for this hymn was the result of a visit to a prison by the poet during spring 1868. He notes: “After she had spoken and some of her hymns had been sung, she heard one of the prisoners cry out in a pleading voice, ‘Good Lord, do not pass me by’;””
The account described above sounds like the plea of a man who had enough faith to understand that he needed God, but was not yet acquainted with God enough to understand he could trust Him. This reminds of the father in Mark Chapter 9 who, wanting Jesus to heal his son, proclaimed, "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief." That story has always given me hope. Although the man admitted to having a measure of unbelief, Jesus healed his son based on the measure of faith he did have. (The last line of the second verse of "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior" is "Help my unbelief".)
The tone of the song also reminds me of King David and how he pleaded with God in despair, yet he ended his petition with a praise acknowledging God's faithfulness. In Psalm 13:1 he said, “How long wilt thou forget me, O LORD? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?” But, just five versus later he says, “I will sing unto the LORD, because he hath dealt bountifully with me.” Even a man well-acquainted with the provision of God, who is described as a man after God's own heart, struggled with whether or not God would be present in his situation, but because of His knowledge of the nature of God could ultimately be at peace.
After a bit of reflection, I am reassured that when I sing the great hymn that has been our topic, I am not alluding to any personal concern that Jesus could in some way pass me by. The words "do not pass me by" are an expression of every sincere heart that has longed to be close to the Almighty, yet in human frailty can hardly comprehend that the God of the universe lends His availability and concern to sinners such as us. The song has a tone of humility that serves to amplify the truth of God's holiness.
Why the Lord gave me this particular song today I may not know. Maybe I will need its message in the coming days. Maybe I should lead it as our "Invitation" song during Sunday morning worship. Maybe I was just supposed to think on it and write this blog post to share with you. Whatever the reason, I am thankful that He speaks to me through the classic hymns He inspired so long ago.
Read the full lyrics for "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior".
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