George Beverly Shea died last Tuesday (April 16, 2013) at the ripe old age of 104. He is mostly remembered for his resonant baritone voice singing gospel songs for Billy Graham’s evangelistic campaigns.
Because he was so well known for his singing voice and his association with Billy Graham, few people realize that he composed a number of very well-known hymns as well; “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” and “The Wonder of It All,” to name a few. One of his lesser-known hymns; “I Love Thy Presence Lord,” is a favorite of mine.
When I was in college, our choir sang this hymn as a call to worship. I was immediately attracted to the music. If the music is done well, I am often more attracted to music than to words. I nearly forgot about the beauty of this hymn until I heard it on a CD produced by Hesston College. To celebrate their centennial, they recorded choir music that spanned the decades.
As I listened to this hymn repeatedly, I became attracted to the words. They describe an experience of prayer with God; a prayer that evokes a presence so close that one feels and sees Jesus beside them. It is a prayer that doesn’t happen by chance; it happens because there is a relationship that involves time and depth.
I love thy presence Lord, The place of secret prayer.
My soul communes with thee, and gone is earthly care.
I love thy presence Lord, to me thou art made real
As when on Galilean hills, thy loving touch didst heal.
The first verse gives the sense of time alone with God in a special place. In such a time and place, like centering prayer, God draws near. The weight of the day dissipates, as we are touched by God’s presence.
I see thy nail-scared hands, outstretched in love to me,
I know thou art working still, thy hidden plan I see,
I love thy presence Lord, this very present power
That makes me know my prayers are heard, in heaven this very hour.
The second verse brings to mind active imagination. As one’s “soul communes” with Jesus, one can imagine the physical presence of Jesus. With this presence and touch, one can speak with Jesus and discern his “hidden plan.” This physical presence also makes one know that one’s prayers are being heard.
O burden bearer kind, with power all divine,
The fears that tear my heart, are gladly borne by thine,
And as I seek to live, a life of ceaseless prayer,
Let not this child of thine, forget to meet thee often there.
God’s presence, with divine power, takes away the cares of the day, the week, the year. This assurance should make one return time and again, ceaselessly, to this “place of secret prayer.” Unfortunately, the cares of our normal lives pull us away from this potential haven of rest, discernment and comfort.
The time of prayer described in these short verses parallels closely my own experience of silence and centering with God. Unfortunately, I too often forget to meet him there. Life-giving and life-changing potential awaits us, if only we take the time.
I love thy presence Lord. Help me to remember to take time to be with you.