Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'As the Waters Rise Around Us'

History of Hymns: 'As the Waters Rise Around Us'

By C. Michael Hawn

Mel Bringle
Mary Louise Bringle

“As the Waters Rise Around Us”
by Mary Louise Bringle
Voices Together, 708

As the waters rise around us
and the winds rage overhead;
as destruction’s wake confounds us
with its mounting toll of dead:

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Hear your people’s yearning cry.
Hear your people’s yearning cry.*

*© 2006 GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Hymn writers have long responded to immediate crises. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the events of 9/11 in 2001 resulted in an outpouring of hymns. Classic hymns were sung with a renewed fervor as they found new meaning juxtaposed against the sense of loss and terror that followed that fateful day. Annual commemorations are still held. A site of “Hymn Suggestions for September 11 Anniversary Worship Services” (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/hymn-suggestions-for-september-11-anniversary-worship-services) contains a list of hymns in United Methodist resources that may be fitting for such an observance. Very few of the new hymns, though powerful at the moment, have become a part of the repertoire in the years that followed. Often, the specific references to the destruction of that day suggested that they were intended as a theological response to the immediate event and not a hymn for future generations. Hymns composed in the wake of catastrophic events, even if their useful life is short, are still valid expressions of faith. In reality, only a tiny percentage of hymns written find a broader voice in the sustained sung faith of congregations.

Mary Louise Bringle (b. 1953), a theology professor and hymn writer, wrote a hymnic response to a natural disaster that traumatized thousands of displaced people and exacerbated patterns of systemic oppression that had been set in motion for decades. This event was Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Bringle describes the context for the hymn:

In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast of the United States. Scenes on the nightly news showed waters rising to unimaginable heights, flooding cities, destroying lives and livelihoods. The “dirty secret” of poverty in our country emerged in stark relief, as the “poorest of the poor” had no way to escape the wake of destruction. The weekend after Katrina, I had been supposed to lead a retreat at Montreat Conference Center [North Carolina] for Central Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, but church members were cautioned not to attempt the trip because gasoline was in such short supply. They elected to stay home instead and ready their shelter to receive refugees from the storm. I wrote this text and sent it to them to use in church on the Sunday when we would have been worshiping together (Bringle, 2007, p. 16).

Bringle, who often writes a text with a particular tune in mind, chose the sturdy minor-mode tune by Welsh musician William Owen (1813–1893), BRYN CALFARIA. This musical setting in classic Bar form (AAB) is the ideal vehicle to articulate the pathos of the text. Why has this text found a place in some collections. while others, written at times of national crisis, do not survive?

My primary response is that the metaphors and biblical images of this hymn, while inspired by a specific circumstance, resound beyond Hurricane Katrina. Knowing the circumstances of a hymn’s inspiration is often helpful in appreciating its origins. Still, poetry has a life beyond the impetus that shaped it and even the poet who offers it. In a world reeling from the effects of climate change, the increasing frequency of natural disasters—hurricanes, floods, forest fires, famines, and the migration of peoples that results from these—demands hymns of lament and petition. In a social environment where the most vulnerable are preyed upon and suffer disproportionately, we need to sing hymns that label systemic oppression and demand justice. Bringle’s refrain situates her lament deeply in the traditional liturgy of the Christian church, “Kyrie eleison”: “Lord, have mercy . . . Hear your people’s yearning cry.”

The hymn’s opening line—“As the waters rise around us”—connects singers immediately with the flood narrative in Genesis 7 and the verse in Isaiah (43:2) that was immortalized in the fourth stanza of the eighteenth-century American hymn, “How firm a foundation”:

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
for I will be near thee, thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

The second phrase of Bringle’s first stanza— “winds rage overhead”—recalls the episode when Christ calmed the storm at sea with his disciples (Mark 4:35–41; Luke 8:22–35). John Wesley’s translation of a hymn by German Pietist Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676), “Give to the winds thy fears” (1739), used this metaphor effectively:

Give to the winds thy fears,
hope and be undismayed;
God hears your sighs and counts thy fears;
God shall lift up your head.
Through waves and clouds and storms,
he gently clears the way;
wait thou his time, so shall the night
Soon turn to endless day.

Carlton Young suggests that the “first stanza [of Gerhardt’s hymn] may have been a comfort to Wesley during the stormy voyage to Georgia” (Young, 1993, p. 352).

The second stanza captures the shock of the moment— “Numb with grief.” With candid clarity, the hymn writer concludes, “the harshest cost is levied / on the poorest of the poor.” Once again, the images of Katrina’s destruction are seared into the minds of those who watched the tragedy unfold in the media. This brief stanza, like a newspaper photograph caption, captures the drama and struggle of those days in 2005. Yet, this stanza could be the caption describing a newspaper photo almost daily.

Stanza 3 delves into the magnitude of the destruction: “Homes and city streets are ravaged, / many lost beyond repair.” Over a century ago, Methodist minister Frank Mason North (1850–1935) vividly described the chronic plight of those experiencing poverty in American cities:

In haunts of wretchedness and need,
on shadowed thresholds fraught with fears,
from paths where hide the lures of greed,
we catch the vision of your tears.
(stanza 2)

Bringle’s description applies equally to those whose loss is the result of sudden natural disasters or systemic neglect and corruption.

Bringle concludes her hymn with a prayer in the second-person voice that recalls scriptures cited above: “Gracious God, your strong compassion / stilled the storm and parted seas.” This petition addresses the systemic cause of the devastation of Katrina and the suffering of the most vulnerable among us: “Free and lead us till we fashion / worlds of justice, hope, and peace.”

This hymn appears in three collections since its initial publication in the author’s second collection, In Wind and Wonder (Chicago, 2007): New Wine in Old Wineskins (Chicago, 2007) and One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism: An African American Ecumenical Hymnal (Chicago, 2018), both collections edited by James Abbington (b. 1960), and the Mennonite hymnal, Voices Together (Harrisonburg, Virginia, 2020).


Mary Louise Bringle, In Wind and Wonder: 75 Hymn Texts (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2007).

Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).

C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

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