When I was in eighth grade, our English teacher gave us the assignment to celebrate National Library Week by writing a poem about books. In general, I was a good student, and I liked to write. But I didn’t (and still don’t) like to write poetry. I complained to my mom about the stupid assignment, and she told me about a trick for writing poetry. She said, “Just make up new words to a song you like. It will turn out to be a poem.” She said the song that always worked best for her was the Stephen Foster song “Oh, Susanna.” I decided to try it, using that song. I remember I started the song with, “I went downtown the other night to get myself a book…” I think I wrote half a dozen stanzas, the teacher loved it, and I got an A. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I don’t remember the rest of the poem.
I’ve thought about that poetry-writing experience periodically throughout my life. I’m sure my mom and I aren’t the only people who know about that trick for writing a poem – or a hymn. A lot of contemporary hymn writers seem to use it, although I don’t think they use “Oh, Susanna.” A lot of them use the hymn tune called BEACH SPRING. I’m not particularly fond of the tune, although it’s okay. It’s not hard to sing. It’s just not all that pretty, in my opinion. But it must be a good tune for fitting lyrics to. One of my favorite hymns that uses this tune is “Come and Find the Quiet Center,” a hymn by Shirley Erena Murray of New Zealand. Here’s the first verse of the hymn:
Come and find the quiet center
in the crowded life we lead,
find the room for hope to enter,
find the frame where we are freed;
Clear the chaos and the clutter,
clear our eyes that we can see
all the things that really matter,
be at peace, and simply be.
Another contemporary hymn writer that has used this tune is Ruth Duck, an American theologian. Here’s the first verse of a hymn she wrote for this tune:
As a fire is meant for burning
with a bright and warming flame,
so the church is meant for mission,
giving glory to God’s name.
Not to preach our creeds or customs,
but to build a bridge of care,
we join hands across the nations,
finding neighbors everywhere.
The reason I’m thinking about “multi-purpose melodies” this week is that last weekend (Labor Day) we sang a relatively new hymn in church, one that uses one of my favorite melodies. The tune is FINLANDIA, composed in 1899 by Jean Sibelius. As a hymn tune, it is most commonly associated with “Be Still My Soul.” The hymn we sang this weekend was “This Is My Song,” a different kind of patriotic song. Verses 1 and 2 were written by American song writer Lloyd Stone. Verse 3 was written by another theologian, Georgia Harkness.
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
So hear my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.
This is my prayer, O God of all earth’s kingdoms,
your kingdom come; on earth your will be done.
O God, be lifted up till all shall serve you,
and hearts united learn to live as one.
So hear my prayer, O God of all the nations;
myself I give you; let your will be done.
As I was preparing the music for church this weekend, I was reminded of another new hymn written to this tune, “When Memory Fades” by Mary Louise Bringle. Basically it’s a hymn about aging and Alzheimer’s Disease, and where God fits into this picture. Here’s the first verse:
When memory fades, and recognition falters,
when eyes we love grow dim, and minds confused,
speak to our souls of love that never alters;
speak to our hearts, by pain and fear abused.
O God of life and healing peace, empower us
with patient courage, by your grace infused.
I love all three of these hymns – Be Still My Soul, This Is My Song, and When Memory Fades – and this tune is the perfect complement to the message of each one. As I was looking for a piano arrangement of FINLANDIA to play for the offertory to subtly remind people of the opening hymn we had sung, I came across an arrangement by Anne Krentz Organ, currently the music director of a church in Chicago. The arrangement begins with a bold phrase from FINLANDIA, which is followed by soft and tender phrase from “Jesus Loves Me.” The arrangement moves back and forth between the two hymns, phrase by phrase. Although a piano arrangement has no words, the juxtaposition of musical phrases from these hymns emphasizes the point that Jesus cares about me and loves me always – whether I’m praying to God to “still my soul,” or praying to the “God of all earth’s kingdoms” for peace, or praying for comfort “when memory fades.” God is always near – “Jesus loves me.”
I’m not sure exactly what God created when She created music, but I’m sure glad She shared the same trick with many hymn writers that my mom shared with me – that melodies are multi-purpose, and that using a tune is a great way to write a poem, or a hymn.