History of Hymns: 'Lord, Have Mercy'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Lord, Have Mercy”
by Swee Hong Lim
The Faith We Sing, 2277
Lord, have mercy;
Christ, have mercy;
Lord, have mercy on us.
Swee Hong Lim (b. 1963) is a native of Singapore, a tiny, but influential city-state in southeastern Asia. Lim received his education in composition from the Asian Institute for Liturgy and Music (AILM) (Manilla, B.C.M., 1989), church music from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, M.S.M., 1995), and liturgical studies from Drew University (New Jersey, Ph.D. 2006). His thesis at Drew University was on the life and work of his mentor: “An Appraisal of the Pioneering Work of I-to Loh in the Area of Congregational Song.” Lim’s professional experience is varied, serving congregations in music and worship ministries in Singapore and the United States, and academic posts at Trinity Theological College, Singapore (1997–2000; 2006–2010), Asbury Theological Seminary, Kentucky (2005–2012), and School of Music, Baylor University, Texas (2010–2012). He is currently the Deer Park Associate Professor of Sacred Music and Director of the Master of Sacred Music Program, Emmanuel College of Victoria University, University of Toronto (since 2012).
Composition has been a long-time passion for Dr. Lim since his study with noted Filipino composer Francisco Feliciano (1941–2014) while at AILM in Manilla. His contributions to congregational song are noted, with several of his tunes appearing in current hymnals. The collection Faith, Hope and Love: Songs for the Church (Carol Stream, 2017) features his settings of several recent hymn writers. He especially enjoys preparing fresh musical settings of Charles Wesley’s texts. Most recently, he has published two texts on the history and practice of Contemporary Christian Music with Duke University scholar Lester Ruth: Lovin’ On Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship (Nashville, 2017) and A History of Contemporary Praise and Worship (Grand Rapids, 2021).
Most recently, his talents have found a place on the world stage where he is Director of Music for the 11th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Karlsruhe, Germany (2022). Previously, Lim was the Co-Moderator of the Worship Committee for the 10th General Assembly of WCC in Busan, South Korea (2013), and a member of the Worship Planning Committee for the WCC’s Ecumenical Peace Convocation that convened in Kingston, Jamaica (2011). From 2006–2011, he chaired the Committee on Worship and Liturgy for the World Methodist Council, designing and supervising the 20th World Methodist Conference’s worship services in Durban, South Africa (2011) (Huang and Ojiri, Canterbury Dictionary).
“Lord, have mercy” (1988) was an early composition completed while Lim was a student at AILM in Manilla. It first appeared in Sound the Bamboo (1990), a hymnal edited by his mentor Dr. I-to Loh for the Christian Conference of Asia. Lim describes the composition of the hymn:
This liturgical prayer expands from an inward self-focused orientation to an outward, other-focused perspective. This Kyrie Eleison (Greek for “Lord, have mercy”) reflects the various stages of the Christian life: the forgiveness of sin, the emergence of a life lived within God’s grace, and the growing desire to proclaim God’s grace to others. This song [based on a] six-tone scale (6 7 1 2 3 5), was composed in 1988, one of several works featured in Swee Hong Lim’s graduation recital at the Asian Institute for Liturgy and Music, Philippines. The tune name SINGAPURA is the Malay word for Singapore. (Loh, 2011, p. 189)
The composer supports the melody with an arpeggiated-guitar-like, eighth-note continuous pattern that contrasts with the more sustained quarter-note and whole-note melody. Regretfully, hymnals have carried only the refrain and not the five stanzas and thus lose the spiritual development described by the composer in the quotation above. The words of the stanzas are as follows:
- 1. Though red like crimson is our sin,
greater yet, the forgiveness found in Christ.
- 2. Freed from the grip of fear and death,
given power through the Son’s redeeming work.
- 3. Life hid with Christ in God is peace,
and a witness to those who search for faith.
- 4. Walk straight along the path of God;
you’ll be guided with mercy and God’s grace.
- 5. Ask God to make our church a light,
we’ll be shown how to shine for others’ sake.
The “Kyrie” refrain rests on the home tone of D. The stanzas begin on the home tone of F and follow a descending arpeggiated progression in each measure (F, Eb, D, Bb, A), the final chord preparing the return to the home tonality of D minor.
Singapore consists of people of Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian descent. Reflecting the cultural diversity of the metropolitan city-state of his birth, Lim composes in no single Asian musical style but has adopted what he has called a “pan-Asian” compositional approach. “Lord, have mercy” reflects this. This has been described as follows:
Swee Hong Lim’s compositions draw on various musical genres—from traditional four-part hymns, contemporary praise and worship, Western and Asian styles, and hybrid expressions that blend Asian and Western techniques. This diversity reflects his multicultural Singaporean background. His ability to compose music in various styles offers a significant contribution to global hymnology in the twenty-first century. His efforts challenge a stereotypical understanding of “Asian” church music. (Huang and Ojiri, Canterbury Dictionary)
Dr. Lim’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, honored him with the Soli Deo Gloria MSM alumni award (2020) and The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada recognized him with the Society’s highest distinction, Fellow of The Hymn Society (2022).
Ching-yu Huang and Saya Ojiri, “Lim, Swee Hong (林瑞峰),” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/l/lim,-swee-hong-(林瑞峰) (accessed August 6, 2022).
I-to Loh, Hymnal Companion to Sound the Bamboo: Asian Hymns in Their Cultural and Liturgical Contexts (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2011).
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.