Some Ways Hymns Are Born

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, September 18, 2016

Psalm 5 ESV

At the 10 am service on September 11, Ed Blakeman sang a new hymn I had recently written to the familiar tune Finlandia.  A number of our members requested that I share the words, which I did send out this past Monday as an Inspirational Moment of a different order. Someone asked how such a hymn comes about.  And as I thought about the question and an answer I might want to give, as well as the influence that the Psalms had on the composition of that hymn, an idea for a sermon evolved.

“All Through the Night” is not the first hymn I have written.  We sang another one of my hymns, “God Whose Face Shines Through Creation” (to the tune Austrian Hymn), in April in observance of Earth Day.  Like a few others at the United Church, I have also written several dozen poems.  And in many respects, writing words for a hymn is very similar to writing a poem, except in the case of a hymn you have to work within the restraints of the number of beats or measures in each line of the hymn tune that is chosen.

I can’t speak for anyone other than myself when it comes to writing words to a hymn or a poem, but for me the idea for either a hymn or a poem is born with an image that strikes me in a particularly strong way.  Once I have an image in my mind, a phrase takes shape around that image which sets the cadence and rhythm for the entire piece. To give a few examples from poems I have written, watching a cardinal out a bedroom window one cold, winter’s day inspired this image and first line:

“A Cardinal with an apple-colored coat,” a line having ten syllables (called iambic pentameter), which set the tone for each of the lines that were to follow.

The image of yellow forsythias blooming in a fence row inspired this beginning stanza:

“Forsythias blaze

With the yellow of sun

Along property lines

On this early March morning.”

One more example of an image that set the pace of a poem—spring raindrops:

“Big Spring raindrops holding fast to bare trees,” another image that developed into a phrase or line of ten syllables.

And so, to reiterate, for me most often a poem or words to a hymn are born with an image that gives rise to a phrase, which charts the course for the entire piece.

But another source of inspiration obviously can be some dramatic event or experience that profoundly speaks to the soul.  In the case of the hymn, “All Through the Night,” the image was the violence and massacre at the Orlando nightclub earlier this year, which gave rise to the lines,

“How long, O Lord, I cry and often wonder,

shall violent men, their hateful deeds impart?

And evil win over the good that men do?

And senseless killing rage throughout the land?”

And so, in that case it was an event and an image that gave rise to the hymn which expresses dismay over the growing violence in our land, but also the prayer and longing that someday things can be different.

Such brings me to the thought of the psalmist and Psalm 5 that served as today’s reading.  As I thought about the inspiration for “All Through the Night,” I had in the back of my mind the spirit of the psalmists who in several different psalms speak of evil men, violent deeds, nighttime restlessness, crying out to God, asking “How long?” and so on.  One might even say that I was channeling the general spirit of the psalmists without actually quoting any particular psalm in speaking of acts of violence.  And many of the psalms, you know, were originally meant to be sung as hymns in Temple worship.

As I reviewed some of the psalms, Psalm 5 seemed to be very close to the spirit of “All Through the Night.”  But what was it that inspired Psalm 5? we wonder.  The threat of “enemies” seems to have led to this particular prayer—and possibly hymn—of the person who penned Psalm 5.  Images that he uses to describe these enemies are evil, deceitful, bloodthirsty, and destructive.  Perhaps these enemies had posed a personal threat to the psalmist in some way.  Or maybe he saw these enemies in a general sense as enemies of God because of their evil deeds, violent acts, deceitful ways, plans of destruction, and what appeared to him to be blatant disregard for the laws and ways of God.  Or maybe the psalmist had in mind some national crisis which threatened the peace and well-being of the Jewish people.  No doubt but what some tangible event inspired the psalmist to pen these words that, by their very subject matter and nature, have had a universal appeal.  The Psalm can even be seen as relevant for us today as we think about acts of terrorism and continued violence in the news every day.

As already noted, often, a visual image coupled with some emotion-stirring event gives rise to a poem, prayer, or hymn.  For instance, a few years ago, a visual image connected to an emotional experience led me to write a little poem titled “Bird’s Nest.”  It was a terribly cold, blustery February day, about 10 degrees the best I can recall, with a stiff wind blowing, when I was assisting in the burial of a former church member in a country cemetery.  As we drove through the cemetery to the funeral tent, I spied an empty bird’s nest—completely void of life, of course—in the top of a bare, prickly bush.  The bird’s nest—empty and void of life—served as a fitting metaphor, I thought, for the lifeless body we were returning to the earth.

In many cases, it has been an image of the senses—some moving scene witnessed with the eyes, some unsettling sound heard with the ears, some traumatic experience that struck the emotions—and event together that inspired many of the hymns that we hold dear.

For instance, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was moved by the sound of church bells ringing on Christmas Day in 1864 contrasted by canon blasts of the Civil War.  Those auditory images—Christmas bells and blasting canons—inspired him with the phrase, “I heard the bells on Christmas Day,” the first line of a poem that has become a popular Christmas carol.  But the canon blasts was a solemn reminder that there was no peace on earth that Christmas Day, at least not in the war-torn American states or in Longfellow’s life.

Julia Ward Howe was touring Washington D.C., also during the Civil War, and as she observed the image of Union troops gathered around their campfires at night, that image gave birth to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  One has to wonder if it was the phrase, “the watch fires of a hundred circling camps” that set the entire hymn in motion.

Katherine Lee Bates was taking a train ride from New England to Colorado when the visual images of wide, spacious blue skies; fields of grain; and purple mountains gave birth to the lines,

“O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties Above the fruited plain!” developing into a hymn that in the opinion of many should be our national anthem.

You get the picture—a striking image coupled with some moving experience or event has been the genesis of many a beloved hymn and poem.

And then for the most part, we want our poems and our hymns to end on a note of hope.  Such is the way that many, if not most, of the psalms conclude.  The author of Psalm 5 concludes his poetic prayer on a positive note:

“Let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy,

and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you.”

Such is what I sought to do in “All Through the Night”:

“At break of dawn I lift my eyes and sunward; and see the rays roll back the clouds of gloom.

A gleam of hope shines through to give assurance that kindly deeds shall in the end prevail!

That humankind can someday live together in perfect peace and harmony and love.”

And so, a striking image, that gives rise to a phrase that sets the tone for rhythm and cadence that progresses to an expression of hope—such is the way that poems and hymns take shape in my mind.  And doing such, I believe, is following a pattern we see in many of the psalms.  Of course, I would never compare my paltry writings to the beauty and majesty we find in the Psalms.  But I hasten to acknowledge the inspiration I have gained from the Psalms for over 40 years, in my life, my ministry, and the pieces I am inspired to write.

So thank you for letting me share my experiences with you.  But sources of inspiration are all around us.  May we be open to the inspiring images that life sends our way.  Amen.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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