History of Hymns: 'Creation Sings!'
By C. Michael Hawn
by Shirley Erena Murray
Worship and Song, 3018
Creation sings! And we are in the music,
the movement of God's energy and art,
a liturgy that links our life to angels,
a litany that rises from the heart.
The Spirit sings! Through love and lamentation,
from Pentecost to joy of Easter Day
the universe is resonant with music,
the smallest creature dances to its play.*
*© 2000 Hope Publishing Company. Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
New Zealander Shirley Erena Murray (1931–2020) contributed many hymns on creation theology. She was intensely aware of humanity’s impact on the environment and the ethical implications of overuse and abuse of the earth’s natural resources. Earlier hymns such as “I Am Your Mother” (The Faith We Sing, 2059; see “History of Hymns” article at https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-i-am-your-mother) composed in 1996, and “Touch the Earth Lightly” (Worship and Song, 3129; see History of Hymns article at https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/articles/history-of-hymns-touch-the-earth-lightly), written in 1992, articulate emotions on this topic ranging from desperation to cautious hope.
Rather than focusing on humanity’s abuse of creation, “Creation Sings!” considers humanity’s oneness with the natural created order. Music is the unifying metaphor. Humanity is one with the cosmos—or, as astronomer Carl Sagan (1934–1996) famously said in an episode of his PBS series Cosmos (1980), “We’re made of star-stuff.” Murray skillfully combines current astronomical theories with classic biblical understandings to produce a sublime paean of praise to the Creator.
The incipit (opening line)—“Creation sings!”—is an exuberant exclamation of joy echoing a reference in the book of Job. God is speaking to Job, reminding him of his place in creation: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" (Job 38:4, NRSV) The passage relevant to this hymn is the third rhetorical question posed by God: "[Where were you] . . . when the morning stars sang together, and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?" (Job 38:7; NRSV, Updated Edition) Earlier translations of Job 38:7 state, “and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” Murray correctly alludes to “heavenly beings” in her phrase, “links our life to angels.”
The singing creation manifests “God's energy and art.” Skillfully, Murray parallels two words related to worship: “liturgy” and “litany.” The alliteration of these two words is melodious. However, the intent is more than sonorous. Rather than the more common word “worship,” liturgy and litany indicate rituals that shape the gathered worship of the faith community—a profound expression of communion between humanity and God—the creation and the Creator.
While Murray puts her imprint on this idea, the concept of “the music of the heart” in the final line of stanza 1 is a reverberation of Charles Wesley’s paraphrase of Psalm 150, “Praise the Lord who reigns above” (The UM Hymnal, 96). In this hymn, Wesley coined this phrase in the second half of stanza 2:
Praise him, ev’ry tuneful string;
all the reach of heav’nly art,
all the powers of music bring,
the music of the heart.
The beginning of stanza 2 parallels stanza 1: “The Spirit sings!” Once again, the poet employs a melodious alteration—“love and lamentation”—a reference to Christ’s passion. She reverses the liturgical pattern of the Christian Year (Easter followed by Pentecost) in line 2: “from Pentecost to joy of Easter Day.” Murray may be referring to Pentecost in a broader sense of the Spirit of God (Ruah Elohim) moving over the waters at creation (Gen 1:2) rather than the narrower understanding of the formation of the church during the apostolic era (Acts 2). This interpretation would be consistent with line 3: “the universe is resonant with music.” Note how the author employs antithesis, contrasting the expanse of the universe (line 3) with the “smallest creature” (line 4) that dances playfully.
Stanza 3 begins, “Creation groans at our discordant clashing.” Rather than the melodious alliteration found in stanzas 1 and 2, the strident consonants in the words “groan” and “discordant clashing” reflect the author’s allusion to two verses in Romans 8:
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning together as it suffers together the pains of labor.” (Rom 8:22, NRSV, Updated Edition)
“that very Spirit intercedes with groanings too deep for words.” (Rom 8:26b, NRSV, Updated Edition)
Music soothes the pain of groaning, “bring[ing] the harmony of peace and beauty” (line 3), and instructs, “teach[ing] the textures of the way to blend” (line 4).
The final stanza brings the singer full circle—a tour de force of amazement and gratitude. The Source of the singing creation gives human beings the capacity to be “instruments of song.” Indeed, we are “made of star-stuff.” We are one with creation.
O God, you draw the melody from silence,
you make of us the instruments of song!
We offer thanks in worship and in wonder
that such a gift to human souls belong.*
This hymn was written for a Hymn Search for the Presbyterian Association of Musicians to celebrate the gift of music. It was first published in four, four-line stanzas (184.108.40.206) in the author’s collection, Faith Makes the Song: New Hymns Written between 1997 and 2002 (Hope Publishing Co., 2003). This collection paired the text with the tune CREATION SINGS by Hal H. Hopson (b. 1933). It appeared in the collection Hope Is Our Song: New Hymns and Songs from Aotearoa New Zealand (2009), a publication of The New Zealand Hymnbook Trust, without music. Worship and Song (2011) set the text with the traditional Irish melody LONDONDERRY AIR, a tune requiring two stanzas to be combined, forming two, eight-line stanzas (220.127.116.11.D).
Shirley Erena Murray was born in Invercargill, New Zealand. She and her husband John lived in Raumati Beach, New Zealand. Ms. Murray had Methodist and Presbyterian roots, but her work is ecumenical in spirit. Her hymns have been published in more than one hundred collections worldwide. They started to appear regularly in hymnals published in North America after 1995. More than thirty composers have set her hymns to music.
The wife of Presbyterian minister John Murray, Shirley Erena Murray, studied Classics and French at the University of Otago in Dunedin in the far south of the lower island, receiving an MA with Honors. Her career included experience as a teacher, researcher, and radio hymn program producer.
In 2001 Shirley Murray was honored on the Queen’s birthday by being made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) “for services to the community as a writer of hymns.” She is the first New Zealand hymn writer ever, so honored. This recognition was followed by two others: an Honorary Fellow of the Royal School of Church Music (2006) and a Fellow of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada (2009).
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.