Posted by: rcottrill | October 28, 2016

The Last Mile of the Way

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Words: Johnson Oatman, Jr. (b. Apr. 12, 1856; d. Sept. 25, 1922)
Music: William Edie Marks (b. July ___, 1872; d. Nov. 20, 1954)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Mr. Oatman worked for awhile in his father’s mercantile business, and later became an insurance salesman. He was also a preacher, filling the pulpits of churches around where he lived, but it’s as a hymn writer he is best known. Still found in evangelical hymn books today are songs such as his: Count Your Blessings; Higher Ground; No, Not One; and Under His Wings.

The last mile. It’s an expression that means we’re on the last leg of a journey, or in the last stage of a process. It signifies the end is in sight.

It has been used in prisons where capital punishment is still legal, to describe the condemned individual’s walk from a cell to the place of execution. However, San Quentin Prison, in California, has adopted the words to mean something quite different. The Last Mile program there is the final stage of rehabilitation preparing for the prisoner’s release into society. Instead of marking the journey to a tragic and dreadful end, it instills new hope for the future.

We all want to finish well. And any athlete will tell you that it’s the individual or team that presses on with all-out effort to the finish that has the best chance of winning. Whether it involves a long journey geographically, or a complicated project, seeing it through to the finish, and being able to enjoy the end result, is what we want.

And what about life? In that case, it gets a bit more complicated. How long is this mortal life? We used to speak of three-score years and ten. But the average length of life in North America has been increasing. Now, it’s about eighty-two, and it’s not as unusual as it once was for seniors to live past the century mark.

But there’s a key word in that last paragraph that needs to be taken into account. The word “average.” You and I are not averages, we are individuals. That means our lives may not fall in line with the overall average, and we do not know when the end may come. Think of what that means with regard to the concept of the last mile.

Today may be the last mile of the journey for you or me. God knows; we don’t. It’s necessary, and wise, to make plans for the future. But we also need to make today count, as though it could be our last–because it could be. If it is, let’s determine to finish well.

Praying to His heavenly Father, the Lord Jesus said, “I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do” (Jn. 17:4), and His final cry from the cross was, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30). Near the end of his life, Paul’s assured testimony was, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (II Tim. 4:7).

Someone asked Methodist founder John Wesley how he would spend today, if he knew he would die tomorrow. His response (to paraphrase) was that he’d spend the day serving the Lord, exactly as planned. Such a question does invite an assessment of both our values and our morals. If this is the last mile of the way for us, and we are to stand before our Maker tomorrow to give account, will we do so with joy?

That question was pondered by hymn writer Johnson Oatman. His 1908 song, The Last Mile of the Way, speaks of his determination to finish well.

CH-1) If I walk in the pathway of duty,
If I work till the close of the day;
I shall see the great King in His beauty,
When I’ve gone the last mile of the way.

When I’ve gone the last mile of the way,
I will rest at the close of the day,
And I know there are joys that await me,
When I’ve gone the last mile of the way.

Having said all of this, I feel I must point out a major flaw in this song that would likely prevent me from using it. It’s Oatman’s repeated use of the word “if.” Whether or not it was his intention, he seems to make our entry into heaven dependent on our own good works. Four times we see the word in the first two stanzas.

CH-1) “If I walk in the pathway of duty…
If I work till the close of the day…
(CH-2) “If for Christ I proclaim the glad story…
If I seek for His sheep gone astray…

(CH-1) Then, “I shall see the great King in His beauty…
(CH-2) Then, “I am sure He will show me His glory.”

But once we make our acceptance by God dependent on what we do, and not on what Christ has already done, we are on theological quicksand. How much “duty” is enough? How much “work” is enough? Could I possibly miss heaven by failing to do one more good deed? Who knows!

Such a conditional salvation is heresy. Eternal life is a gift of God’s grace, already earned for us by Christ on the cross. It is never, not even a little bit, based on our own works (Eph. 2:8-9; Tit. 3:5). Through faith in Christ, we have a righteous standing before God because His perfect righteousness is credited to our heavenly account (II Cor. 5:21).

As believers, we ought to faithfully serve the Lord. No question about that. Serve Him because we love Him. And we will certainly receive rewards for our service, but that does not seem to be what Mr. Oatman is talking about. In the final stanza he does seem to come around to the idea that our service will bring us rewards in eternity, but again there’s an “if” to contend with. Is he suggesting that those who haven’t striven enough, or tried hard enough, will not be as happy as some others?

CH-4) And if here I have earnestly striven,
And have tried all His will to obey,
’Twill enhance all the rapture of heaven,
When I’ve gone the last mile of the way.

1) Do you see the difficulty with the song the way Oatman wrote it?

2) If he doesn’t mean what he seems to mean, what does he mean?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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