“If The Path I Travel” by M. E. Barber
#321 in Songs and Hymns of Life
This perhaps is one of M. E. Barber’s most precious products. In this hymn, we taste the certainty of the Lord’s leading, the loneliness of the pilgrim’s pathway, the sincerity of her longing for the Lord, and her trust in the sure answer to her prayers. For her, this path was real, the challenge of the choices before her were real, and the belief that the Lord would make up for the losses that His choices excluded was real.
Read and sing through this hymn below. Notice how verse one and two list many ‘if’ statements followed by ‘let’ requests. She is somewhat bargaining or wrestling with the Lord in these verses.
If the path I travel
Lead me to the cross,
If the way Thou choosest
Lead to pain and loss,
Let the compensation
Daily, hourly, be
Blessed Lord, with Thee.
If there’s less of earth joy,
Give, Lord, more of heaven.
Let the spirit praise Thee,
Though the heart be riven;
If sweet earthly ties, Lord,
Break at Thy decree,
Let the tie that binds us,
Closer, sweeter, be.
The ‘if’ statements make it clear that this hymn is composed under the Lord’s hand in a difficult decision: “If the path I travel lead me to the cross.” The cross confronts her in the path. “If the way Thou choosest lead to pain and loss.” This path is the Master’s choice for His servant. In verse 2, “If there’s less of earth joy,” and later “if sweet earthly ties, Lord, break at Thy decree…” This path the Lord has laid out for Barber involves the breaking of earthly ties. This image could apply to common joys of this life such as security and comfort in food, clothing, and housing, but the thought of “sweet earthly ties” could also mean bonds of friendship and love. And while ties of friendship do not always need to break even when persons are separated by oceans, a view of her personal history will show us that the bond of potential marriage could not have fared as well while on different continents for the next 30 years.
Some sources state that this hymn was written in the wake of her departure from England for China in 1909. Her two years away from China were turbulent times and revolutionary times for her spiritual life. In two years, she had resigned from serving with the Church Missionary Society, left the Church of England, was baptized by immersion, and joined an undenominatioal church in Norwich pastored by David Morrison Panton.
The ministry of Panton likely slaked her weary spiritual thirst, after years of hard labor and bearing so much of the cross amidst controversy within the CMS mission in Fuzhou. We know that when she returned to China, it was to shepherd new believers with a pattern much different than her Anglican days, with believer’s baptism and without ecclastical titles, membership roles, or other formalities. Her poems declare a clear perspective of the believer’s overcoming in this life unto a subjective reward in the Kingdom. All these are clear influences of the ministry that flowed from Panton’s pulpit, and it seems that a dear friendship had grown between them and that the potential of marriage was considered. But we know that this was not to be, apparently being ended mutually with each clear as to their callings to China and England. Both lived out their lives celebate, married only to the Lord.
This, in the view of these sources, is the lonely pathway the Lord had chosen for Barber to follow. This poem then sheds light on her honest struggle, diligent searching in prayer, and proper demand from the Lord that he compensate her with a fuller union with Him.
Reread or sing the poem in light of this background.
Lonely though the pathway,
Cheer it with Thy smile;
Be Thou my companion
Through earth’s little while;
Selfless may I live, Lord,
By Thy grace to be
Just a cleansed channel
For Thy life through me.
Although she was lonely though the pathway, the Lord was able to sustain her. His cheerful smile met her often, and her ministry and poetry display a deep and valuable life spent not for the satisfaction found in this life. Barber lived for the reward found in that city that has foundations which her pilgrim fathers had trod onto before her. (Hebrews 11:10)
This sober poem helps me realize that God may very well ask similar sacrifices of me. It may not be in the form of family or friends, but there may be just as real a sacrifice my Master may require for His kingdom to be furthered on this earth. Consider that fiery band of new believers in Fuzhou: Watchman Nee, Leland Wang, Faithful Luke, and many others. How would they have developed to spearhead much of God’s revival move in China if they had not been protected by such a mature soul, separated unto God from all the trappings of religious success among the missionaries?
Consider where might the saints, neighbors, and friends around you be in ten years, if you resist the Lord’s choices in your life. We don’t know what the Lord can gain from us. We rarely realize how God’s move in or communities spring from investments hidden under the soil of obedience years before. If the Lord makes a choice in our life, be slow. Be slow to react, be slow to change the topic, and be longsuffering in prayer. The Lord will hear your struggling, and will meet you in your bargaining. Pray like M. E. Barber. Let this trial purify your prayers, so that you settle for a compensation from Him, and not the world He is separating us from.
I appreciate your insight given into this hymn, and the hymn writer’s heart in writing it – I am sure the Lord has many hidden gems like her which only He is aware of – “they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels” (Malachi 3:17)
Amen and thanks. If the Lord alone knows about these hidden jewels, that is value enough. But I hope more of these anecdotes and connections can be found for our encouragement.