Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Time Propels Us Like a Current'

History of Hymns: 'Time Propels Us Like a Current'

By Karl Utz, Guest Contributor

Andrew Donaldson 72px
Andrew Donaldson

“Time Propels Us Like a Current”
by Andrew Donaldson
Voices Together
, 507

Time propels us like a current,
yet it turns, a spinning sphere;
now a moment, then it passes,
gone like breath on frozen air.
Time is ours to mark and measure,
not to grasp, or understand.
Holy Presence, we receive it,
gift and myst’ry, from your hand.*
*©2017 Andrew Donaldson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

“Time Propels Us Like a Current” was written by Andrew Donaldson (b. 1951), a Canadian composer, hymn writer, and leader of congregational song. He has directed music at Presbyterian churches for over two decades, taught guitar and music theory at multiple universities, and been involved in producing several hymnals for the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Along with his wife, Wendy, Donaldson founded Hilariter, a musical group with whom he has made several recordings of world music and has conducted workshops on congregational song across the USA and Canada.

Donaldson has long been involved with world music, including serving as a consultant on Worship and Spirituality for the World Council of Churches (WCC) from 2011–2016. During that time, Donaldson was involved in arranging the music for the Tenth Assembly of the WCC (Busan, South Korea, 2013), and he edited the songbook Hosanna! Ecumenical Songs for Justice and Peace (Geneva, 2016). Donaldson was the president of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada between 2004 and 2006 and was elected a Fellow of The Hymn Society in the US and Canada in 2021.

The author describes the origins of this hymn as follows:

It was commissioned in 2016 by Rev. Rebecca Larson to mark her husband Stephen Larson's retire-ment from ministry, which spanned three countries in two continents, and included work for local churches in Chicago and Geneva, as well as the Lutheran World Federation. He worked with Terry MacArthur at our church in Geneva for something like eighteen years.

ST HELENA, with Jeanette M. Lindolm’s [b. 1961] text, “Unexpected and Mysterious,” was a hymn that Stephen Larson suggested to me for the first service we did together at the Ecumenical Centre chapel. It is, I think, his favourite hymn tune. (Email from the author, March 15, 2024)

“Time Propels Us Like a Current” centers around the concept that human beings cannot control time, for time continually marches onward. Instead, the hymn calls people to live in the ever-present “now” in a dance with the Eternal God who reigns over time. Stanza 1 introduces this theme and calls people to receive the gift of time from the “holy Presence,” one of several evocative names for God used throughout the hymn. In the second stanza, the “Eternal One,” “silent Voice,” and “inviting Presence” calls the congregation to trust that God is in control and invites us, the singing assembly, to walk with God. The hymn is written in first person plural, placing the congregation at the center of the drama. We need not fear the passage of time because God dwells in every moment.

While we should not be afraid of time, stanza 3 voices our fear of the rising injustice we see in the world around us. Just as God brought order to the chaos of time in Genesis 1, this third stanza calls on God to empower us as agents to bring justice and grace to the world today. The fourth and final stanza develops the idea of working alongside God as a friend, using the imagery of a dancing partner to describe how God leads God’s people through time to accomplish God’s work in the world.

Four scripture references are foundational to this hymn: Genesis 1, Isaiah 41:4, Revelation 1:8, and Revelation 21:5. The rich imagery employed throughout the text draws upon numerous additional scriptural motifs that enliven the song, such as the uncontrollable nature of time (Eccl 8) and being God’s friend (John 15 and Jas 2).

“Time Propels Us Like a Current” is set to the hymn tune ST HELENA in Voices Together (2020), composed by composer and church musician, Calvin Hampton (1938–1984). Hampton was known for the creative innovations used in his liturgical compositions, and he wrote numerous hymn tunes. Erik Routley (1917–1982) reportedly named Hampton “the greatest living composer of hymn tunes.”

Hampton wrote ST HELENA in 1978 specifically for the hymn, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” by Anglican clergyman Frederick William Faber (1814–1863). The tune is named for the Sisters of the Order of St. Helena, and several other hymns, including “Unexpected and Mysterious” and “Time Propels Us Like a Current,” have been written for this unique hymn tune. It has become more familiar for its pairing with Jeanette M Lindholm’s “Unexpected and Mysterious” (2002).

“Time Propels Us Like a Current” is included in one hymnal, Voices Together, which was published in 2020 for Mennonite worship. In Voices Together, the music does not indicate a time signature, with 4/4 and 3/4 measures flowing at an uneven pace, although the meter follows a standard pattern of D. The melody can be difficult for a congregation to quickly pick up but has the complexity to remain engaging even after multiple repetitions.

“Time Propels Us Like a Current” was placed by the editors of Voices Together in the “Sharing Our Stories: Morning and Evening” section of the hymnal, indicating the song’s appropriateness for morning or evening prayer. The hymn’s theme of God reigning over chaotic time would fit for seasons of lament or loss, and the references in the third stanza to injustice make the hymn suitable for services concerning social justice.


Andrew Donaldson, “Andrew Donaldson,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/a/andrew-donaldson (accessed January 7, 2024).

“Andrew Donaldson,” Andrew Donaldson. https://www.andrewdonaldson.ca/ (accessed January 7, 2024).

C. Michael Hawn, “Andrew Donaldson Honored as Fellow of the Hymn Society,” The Hymn Society of the United States and Canada. https://thehymnsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Press-Release-Andrew-Donaldson-FHS.pdf (accessed January 7, 2024).

“Time Propels Us like a Current,” Hymnary.org. Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, https://hymnary.org/text/time_propels_us_like_a_current (accessed January 7, 2024).

“Friday Sing-a-Long August 19, 2022,” Orrville Mennonite Church. YouTube, August 19, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-BWLbfFq2c (accessed January 7, 2024).

Michael Silhavy, “Calvin Hampton,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/c/calvin-hampton (accessed January 7, 2024).

Christopher Reynolds, “Favorite Hymns of the Church,” Liturgy and Music at Saint Paul's Church. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Liturgy-and-Music-at-St--Paul-s.html?soid=1000855274065&aid=e1BD553Dbjw (accessed January 7, 2024).

Karl Utz is the English Language Coordinator and lecturer in church music at Sabah Theological Seminary in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. After graduating from Oral Roberts University (BM) and Baylor University (MCM), he moved to Sabah, Malaysia, in August 2015 to train church musicians at a large Anglican church. Karl is a candidate in the Doctor of Pastoral Music program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, where he studied hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn. He hopes to further his skills as a lecturer and learn how to better contextualize church music education for students in Malaysia.

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