History of Hymns: 'Living Spirit, Holy Fire'
By Megan Mash
“Living Spirit, Holy Fire”
By Ruth Duck
Worship and Song, 3109
Living Spirit, holy fire,
burning bright to light our way,
blaze among us and inspire
lives that praise you day by day.*
*© 2005, GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission. Al rights reserved.
I could not believe what he was suggesting. I thought the idea was preposterous as I listened to him speak what I later learned would be truth into my life. My organ professor at Simpson College was suggesting I consider pursuing a master’s degree in organ. I was very insecure with my abilities because of my lack of experience. The Holy Spirit was blazing a pathway that I was too blind to see. Because of the relationship I had with my professor, I was able to speak with him openly about my hesitance. Later, I was able to see how the Holy Spirit was guiding me through his words. The compassionate, encouraging nature of my professor allowed me to gradually trust the pathway on which the Holy Spirit was leading me.
Ruth C. Duck (b. 1947) approaches the theme of the Holy Spirit with a fresh vibrancy that articulates the transformative nature of this person of the Trinity in our lives. The four stanzas of “Living Spirit, Holy Fire” were completed in 2003 and first appeared in Duck’s collection Welcome God’s Tomorrow (2005). She had been doing research at Pilgrim Congregational Church, a congregation working to be multicultural. Duck writes, “the congregation desired to go beyond singing one another’s songs to hearing each person’s story and developing true respect and inclusion in the way they lived together. They were learning to trust the Spirit among them, leading them to new ways to be together” (Duck, 2005, p. 28). Each stanza reflects a step toward bringing this mission to fruition. In Worship and Song (2011), “Living Spirit, Holy Fire” is found in the “Rebirth and the New Creature” section.
The primary metaphor Duck uses to express the power and renewal of the Holy Spirit is fire. The radiance a fire emits provides the dominant image for stanza one. Light illuminates and guides us down the path the Holy Spirit presents, a familiar metaphor used throughout scripture and songs. We are in constant need of guidance throughout the course of our lives. This directly reflects the purpose Duck had for writing this text. Finding new ways to live together requires forging a new path and constant reliance on the Holy Spirit to reveal the best way forward. The second half of the stanza reminds the singer of the dynamic “living” nature of the Holy Spirit by seeking the Spirit to “blaze . . . and inspire” us, continually offering lives of praise.
The theme of the second stanza begins with a petition to the Holy Spirit to “warm us.” The poet contrasts the warmth of love with the iciness that can occupy our hearts. The Holy Spirit spreads its warmth when the community gathers. Duck asks for the Holy Spirit to draw those near who are finding it difficult to love their neighbor. The singer is reminded that fear is a leading emotion that causes us to have “frozen hearts.” Fear of the other, especially those we do not understand, causes us to withdraw. Fear can prevent us from listening to the story each person has to tell. When we are willing to listen—not just hear but truly listen—to each person’s story, we develop a common bond in love that creates a stronger community. The poet explores the metaphor of heat in the third stanza. Duck writes, “Melt away the masks we wear, / hiding what we know and feel.” This one statement is crucial to understanding and embodying the message the hymn offers. When we rely on the Holy Spirit for courage to take the risk of removing our masks, we are empowered to be vulnerable with one another to create a stronger, more authentic community.
The fourth and final stanza departs from the fire metaphor but continues seeking the Holy Spirit for renewal. Duck reminds us that even though we are many, we are one in Christ. When we allow the Holy Spirit to open our hearts, we become open to hearing the call placed on our life. As “we embrace the work,” we become active partners with the Holy Spirit’s transformative potential—“making all things new”—a reference to Revelation 21:5 (NRSV). The congregation of Pilgrim Congregational Church was seeking to change the way its membership related to one another. It was seeking an integrated congregation where stories were not simply heard but embraced, valued, and created new, meaningful relationships. Each stanza has an urgency that is evident in the use of imperative verbs: “Blaze us;” “Warm us . . . Free our frozen hearts,” “Melt away,” “Open hearts, affirm us.” As we sing, we are petitioning (praying for) the Spirit to transform us.
This scripture reference—Revelation 21:5—provides the tune name, ALL THINGS NEW (2007), written by Lori True (b. 1961), found in Worship and Song. This gentle, folksy tune in C major uses mostly stepwise motion to create an intimate atmosphere. The highest note in the melody occurs at the third phrase, which is the climax of the text in each stanza. In Duck’s collection, Welcome God’s Tomorrow, the tune used is THE CALL by Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872–1958). This tune, in E-Flat Major, also highlights the climax in each stanza with the highest note. Additional emphasis is created by making the pitch a D-flat, which is a flat seven, harmonized with a G-flat major chord, which is a flat major III. The measure-long melisma in the fourth phrase detracts from this and appears to be necessary only to allow the text to fit the tune. The accessible nature of all things new allows the singer to hear how each unique voice blends together to create a new song of love and acceptance.
Vulnerability is the key to creating a strong, loving community. We all wear a multitude of masks based on the situations in which we find ourselves and the community that surrounds us. The masks we wear allow us to hide behind the assumptions we make about ourselves and other people. We hide behind the fear of change and the awareness of our insecurities. We become accustomed to pretending and we lose sight of who we are. Allowing the Holy Spirit to melt away these masks is a risk that can lead to great growth. As we discover our true selves, we are able to offer love more authentically.
Ruth Duck was born in Washington, DC, and received degrees from Southwestern-at-Memphis University (now Rhodes College) (1969), Chicago Theological Seminary (1973 and 1983), University of Notre Dame (1987), and Boston University School of Theology (1989). In 1974 she was ordained in the United Church of Christ, and the first congregation she served was Pilgrim Congregational Church UCC in Oak Park, Illinois. Duck was professor of worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, from 1989–2016. She was named a Fellow of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada in 2013. Some of her well-known hymns include “Wash, O God, Your Sons and Daughters,” “As a Fire Is Meant for Burning,” and “Arise, Your Light Is Come.” Inclusive language is a trait of Duck’s hymnody and worship resources (Watson, “Ruth C. Duck,” n.p.). In Welcome God’s Tomorrow (2005), Duck emphasizes this about her process for writing hymns: “I seek to write truthfully to the situation I am addressing and to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I have always felt that my hymn texts must be authentic to my experience of faith and life” (Duck, 2005, p. 4).
Ruth C. Duck, Welcome God’s Tomorrow. Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, Inc., 2005.
J. Richard Watson, “Ruth C. Duck.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/r/ruth-c-duck (accessed January 2, 2021).
Megan Mash has served as Minister of Music at Sebastian United Methodist Church since 2010. She holds a BA in religion and music from Simpson College (Iowa) and a Master of Sacred Music from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (SMU). She is currently a candidate in the Doctor of Pastoral Music program at SMU, where she studies hymnology with C. Michael Hawn.