I wrote my first hymn because I had to. An old friend had moved
back to the Bay Area and wanted to rejoin St. Gregory’s.
She said, “Make a fuss over me…I want it to be a party!”
At the time we merely announced that someone had joined the church,
they stood and were introduced, and then the Presider read a beautiful
prayer written by Rick Fabian. I wanted to add a musical element,
like the Russian “As Many” we sing at baptisms. In
a rush (we needed it the next Sunday!) I set out to write a brief
hymn to celebrate joining St. Gregory’s.
At the time I was studying American church music around the time
of the Revolutionary War. By far the most published tune was “Old
Hundredth,” familiar to us as Thomas Ken’s hymn beginning
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” Connoisseurs
consider the tune perfect. I thought we should find a use for
it at St. Gregory’s. It was a familiar tune good enough
to stand up to monthly use. So for my members’ welcome piece
I had a tune with its associated “long meter” (four
lines of eight beats per line, with the accent falling on each
What text could I use? The baptismal hymn “As Many”
is based on Corinthians, but St. Paul is silent on the theology
of joining St. Gregory’s. Then I realized that we already
had in effect distilled a mission statement: St. Gregory’s
Church invites people to see God’s image in all humankind,
to sing and dance to Jesus’ lead, and to become God’s
friends. I made it my purpose to turn this sentence into rhymed
long meter to be sung to “Old Hundredth.”
If you can’t talk
to your attractive and foxy friend God, to whom can you
Now, after having worked to learn the art and craft of writing
hymns, I see that I start with the experience I want singers to
have. Even in this first hymn I declare our collective belief
about membership, so “St. Gregory’s Church invites
people to” becomes “we.” The mission statement
suggests I start, “We see God’s image in all humankind.”
Ugh. I need duh-DAH-duh-DAH-duh-DAH-duh-DAH, and I have duh-DAH-DAH-DAH-duh-duh-DAH-DAH-duh-DAH—too
many syllables by two, and bad rhythm. The word “humankind”
should only be found in unread anthropology texts; in a hymn it
just draws attention to a decision to avoid “mankind.”
And what does “image” really mean? From the parable
of Caesar’s coin we discover that the image of God stamped
on us (as a coin is stamped) is a face, God’s face, the
face of Jesus. Taking all this into account, I write, “We
see your likeness in each face.” Seeing an attractive image
(God is surely beautiful!) leads to desire: “Your friendship,
God, is our desire.” I like that because direct address
to God reinforces the theme of friendship: if you can’t
talk to your attractive and foxy friend God, to whom can you talk?
With two good lines, I need the paired rhyming lines. After some
experimentation I have: “We see your likeness in each face.
/ You freely give all holy grace. / Your friendship, God, is our
desire: / Inflame our hearts with holy fire.” “You
give grace” does not add much, but “all” emphasizes
God’s indiscriminate love, and “grace” is the
best rhyme I can find. “Inflame our hearts” is good,
I think, because the sequence suggests passionate love growing
from friendship with God, a spiritual path available to everyone.
(Just try telling God you want to be his friend and wait to see
how she responds.) I am not sure about using “holy”
twice: reinforcing repetition or flagging inspiration? I opt for
the former and move to the second verse.
St. Gregory’s member Christopher St. John, a copywriter,
once commented on the power of the image of being called to “sing
and dance to Jesus’ lead.” Yes, and it’s what
we do every Sunday. For the phrase to be a line of long meter
it lacks only an opening beat; this is how “invites”
becomes “come.” The final task is to turn the invitation
to become God’s friend into a hymn. “Our precious
church invites you to become God’s friend” seems mawkish.
The invitation is not St. Gregory’s, I realize, but God’s!
“My joy in you will have no end / because I call you each
my friend” comes suddenly to mind, and I have a beautiful
couplet in the voice of Jesus. So all I need to finish the second
verse is a rhyme with “lead,” and since lines 3 and
4 are in Jesus’ voice, why not the second line too? Jesus’
usual entrance line is “Don’t be afraid.” In
the context of Gregory of Nyssa’s amazement at the endless
generosity of God, the reassuring greeting becomes “The
Lord provides for every need.”
I showed the result to Rick Fabian to get his reaction. “I
like it, but I would reverse the two verses so you see Jesus’
likeness after he speaks.” And this is how my hymn for a
returning member became “Come Sing and Dance to Jesus’
Lead,” which now welcomes all new members.
Come sing and dance to Jesus’ lead!
“The Lord provides for every need.
My joy in you will have no end
because I call you each my friend.”
We see your likeness in each face.
You freely give all holy grace.
Your friendship, God, is our desire:
Inflame our hearts with holy fire!