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I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light

Music Notes

16 August, 2015

“I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light”  During a relentless heat wave during the summer of 1966, Kathleen Thomerson and her family, in an effort to escape the rolling brownouts of St Louis, elected to return to the comfort of her mother’s air conditioned home in Houston. Although a musician, not a poet, by training, and certainly not intending to write a hymn, Thomerson’s recent meditations on scripture passages dealing with childlike faith unexpectedly began to evoke the first stanza of this hymn, which she composed, phrase by phrase both in text and tune, instead of packing for the airport. She composed the remaining stanzas in the same fashion after arriving in Houston, hence giving genesis to the tune name. Originally conceived as a choral anthem, its first use as a hymn was at Church of the Redeemer, Episcopal, in Houston, where congregants routinely purloined the copies that had been placed in each pew. The popularity of this hymn grew appreciably within the next few years, necessitating its copyrighting in 1970. Although originating in the Episcopal Church, the hymn has been appropriated within the hymnals of numerous mainline denominations and has been translated into Welsh, Japanese, Spanish, Dutch and Hmong. 

Although placed within the hymnal’s Epiphany section, the text, which has been used even for weddings and funerals, bears a pronounced Advent theme, evidenced particularly by the second stanza which references Malachi 4: 2, “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” Nevertheless, the distinct emphasis on light contrasted with dark not only suggests an Epiphany usage, but links it not only to the hymnological tradition of Luther, for whom such theological dichotomies were of primary importance, but even back to Greek hymnody with its frequent allusion to the “light” of Christ to the Gentiles. The hymn’s original extra-liturgical composition, as well as its devotional character, suggests general congregational use beyond one or two liturgical seasons.

            The incipient theme of Christ abiding within the heart of the Christian was inspired by Ephesians 3: 17, “. . . so that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.”  Michael Hawn posits that, like in a gospel song, the hymn’s refrain encapsulates its theological meaning, in this case culminating in the final words, “Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus,” not only gaining inspiration from Ephesians, but also alluding to I John 1: 5, “This is the message we have heard from Him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” Thomerson contends that her meditation on scripture inspired this hymn, with its rich scriptural metaphor and imagery even conveying an eschatological tone in the penultimate phrase, which is nearly verbatim from Revelation 21: 23, “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” The hymn may manifest a theme of childhood, alluding to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18: 3, "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” but it was initially composed for adults to nurture their childlike faith.  Its length may seemingly belie its childlike simplicity, but the text’s amalgamation of subjective, first-person pronouns with profuse scripture references seem to have been elemental to its popular success, much to the surprise of the composer, who originally harbored only modest aspirations for her choral anthem. 

Thomerson originally wrote this hymn in D-flat, although performance concerns have normally resulted in its transposition to C-major in most hymnals. The gracefully simple melody and text effortlessly “composed themselves,” Thomerson recalls, but she later had to work out a harmonization feasible for choral singing. Some settings include a fermata at the end of the third line of the refrain simply to allow for a breath when singing it in four parts; however, this is not necessary for unison, congregational singing.  At the beginning of the last phrase, all four voices intentionally converge on the C of “shine” in order aurally to highlight that word which forms the focal point of the final and culminating phrase of the hymn. 

 

 

 

 

Personal interview with Kathleen Armstrong Thomerson.  9 July, 2009.

Hawn, Michael.  “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light.” United Methodist Hymnal Companion, edited by Carlton Young.  Nashville:  Abingdon, 1993.

Posted by Benjamin Kolodziej with

Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah

LORD OF LIFE LUTHERAN CHURCH

Music Notes

2 August, 2015

 

“Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”   This hymn was written by William Williams (1717-1791), a Welshman and writer of 800 Welsh hymns as well as 100 English hymns.  As a wee lad, Williams received a good education and almost studied medicine.  However, after hearing a particularly moving sermon one day, he decided to enter the ministry.  He was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church in 1741, but was refused full ordination as a priest because of his evangelical fervency!  Williams spend the next 50 years traveling through Wales with his wife singing the Christian faith and evangelizing.  He became greatly influenced by Methodism and Calvinism.  This hymn we sing today was written in Welsh but translated into English by Peter Williams (no relation to William Williams) and William Williams’ son, John Williams and published in his Hymns on Various Subjects, 1771. 

            This text is based upon Ex. 13: 21:  “By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.”  Obviously, this verse relates the visible and tangible leadership God gave His people during the wanderings of the Exodus. 

            In setting an Old Testament theme in a hymn, Williams demonstrates his unconventional means of theologizing (as might be expected from a missionary.)  Most better hymns, either modern or ancient, are based upon the themes the New Testament and on the life and teachings of Jesus.  Many more are more loosely based upon New Testament themes such as love, the Church, fellowship, etc, which often tend to stray rather far from what the New Testament actually said.  Then, of course, there are numerous hymns based on the psalms.  Yet, we would have difficulty finding many hymns taken from Kings, or Judges, or Numbers, or Leviticus, or even Genesis.  Somehow, the writers of our hymns through the ages have gravitated toward the seemingly more comprehensible themes of the New Covenant. 

            Yet, Williams is not afraid to exegete upon this Exodus text.  The first phrase uses the word “Jehovah,” which immediately places the singer in the mindset of the Old Testament, for that address to God was traditionally used by the Hebrew people.  He relates the wanderings of the Hebrews to the wandering of the Christian in the midst of unbelievers, “Guide me, o thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land.”  How descriptive also of the life of a wandering missionary!   Williams does not finish the first stanza before he introduces a sacramental concept:  “Bread of heaven, Feed me till I want no more.”  Whilst literally referring to the manna provided by God to the Hebrews, this also refers to the eucharist.   Similarly, the second stanza observes the “crystal fountain whence the healing stream doth flow.”  Whilst directly referring to the numerous instances of water being provided the Hebrews throughout the Exodus (particularly Moses’ drawing of water from the rock), this also echoes baptism, which is often characterized as a “healing stream.”  I cannot also help but think of the water and blood which poured from Jesus’ side after his death and which provides healing from sin.  From a eucharistic viewpoint, this is a vivid realization of Jesus’ words in the Last Supper, “This is my blood, shed for you.” 

            As with any good Methodist hymn, the last stanza “personalizes” the preceding stanzas.  Williams prays, “When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside;  death of death and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canann’s side.  Songs of praises I will ever give to Thee.”  Interestingly, the River Jordan symbolizes not only the Hebrews’ destination, it was also the river in which Jesus was baptized, the account of which was read earlier in the service.  Whilst this is not primarily a baptismal hymn, its use in the service today reminds us of God’s promises fullfilled not only through the exodus, but also through the gift of His Son, whose baptism we specifically recall today.      More about Welsh hymnody can be found on my hew blog, www.lutheranorganist.blogspot.com

Posted by Benjamin Kolodziej with

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