History of Hymns: 'When We Are Called to Sing Your Praise'
By C. Michael Hawn
“When We Are Called to Sing Your Praise”
By Mary Nelson Keithahn
The Faith We Sing, 2216
When we are called to sing your praise
with hearts so filled with pain
that we would rather sit and weep
or stand up to complain,
remind us, God, you understand
the burdens that we bear;
you, too, have walked the shadowed way
and know our deep despair.*
*©2000 Abingdon Press.
This hymn extends the cry of the psalmist who said, “How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? . . . But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (Psalm 13:2, 5-6, NRSV).
The movement from despair to hope is also evident in the more familiar passage from Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. . . Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (Psalm 23:4a, 6, NRSV).
Mary Keithahn (b. 1934) wrote this hymn after participating in a “Relay for Life,” sponsored by the American Cancer Society. The worship service that ended the event caused her to reflect on the spiritual needs of those around her who were dealing with the pain and suffering or loss of loved ones from the disease. Having lost her husband unexpectedly a decade earlier, Keithahn understood their common need to lament. She dedicated the hymn to Chris Horman and Karen Meyers, two women who showed courage and faith in their long struggles with cancer. Chris Horman died on February 7, 1999. Karen Meyers died on September 12, 1999, and this hymn was sung at her Mass for Christian Burial (Keithahn, email, August 13, 2020).
The opening stanza sets the hymn’s theme in direct language—when faced with pain, we often choose to “sit and weep” or “stand up to complain.” The honesty of the opening four lines draws the singer into a reflection that rings true to experience. The declaration moves to a petition in the remaining lines of the stanza with the words, “remind us, God . . .”. Paralleling the psalmist’s assurance in Psalm 23, the hymn writer addresses God directly in the second person: “you understand / the burdens that we bear.” Keithahn chooses images that evoke Psalm 23:4— “shadowed way” and “deep despair.” Each of the three stanzas maintains this parallel structure. The first four lines set a scene of pain and fear; the final four lines offer hope and solace for the difficult journey.
The second stanza explores loss that is so deep that we “cannot find our voice.” Losing one’s voice is a powerful image because it speaks to the actual loss of the ability to speak when in shock and the metaphorical loss of a song that gives life meaning. Once again, the hymn writer turns to a petition— “remind us, God.” God hears our “sad laments in prayer.” These words echo the thoughts of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972). He links lament and the power of song—literally and metaphorically. In his commentary “On Prayer” (1969), he observed, “There are moments when the clamor of all sirens dies, presumption is depleted, and even the bricks in the walls are waiting for a song. . . Every one of us is a cantor; every one of us is called to intone a song, to put into prayer the anguish of all” (Heschel, 1969, n.p.).
When “life ahead looks grim,” Keithahn invites us “to break forth in a hymn” in stanza 3. Singing “a thankful hymn” reminds the singer that the “great God of Love” is “everywhere” and “walk[s] the shadowed way with us and / keep[s] us in [God’s] care.”
Though composed in the context of personal grief and loss, this text has spoken poignantly in other circumstances, including the attacks in the U.S.A. on September 11, 2001. The hymnwriter finds it relevant to those suffering losses in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The original tune set for this text was an expressive melody, TAKE COURAGE, by longtime hymn writing partner and musician John Horman (b. 1946). This text was first published in The Faith We Sing (2001) with KINGSFOLD. More recently, it appeared in the hymnal Community of Christ Sings (2013) to VOX DILECTI.
Mary Nelson Keithahn, a native of Minnesota, is an ordained pastor and certified church education specialist in the United Church of Christ (U.C.C.). She received degrees from Carleton College (B.A., 1956) and Yale Divinity School (M.R.E., 1959). She and John Horman have collaborated on numerous projects, including musicals, anthems, and hymns. Abingdon Press published two collections of their hymns, including Now Is the Time to Gather: New Hymns for the Church Family (Nashville, 1998) and Come Away with Me: A Collection of New Hymns (Nashville, 1998). A third collection, The Song Lingers On: New Hymns for Our Journey of Faith (Webster, New York, 2003), was published by Zimbel Press. A fourth collection, Faith That Lets Us Sing: Fifty New Hymns and Short Worship Songs (Colfax, North Carolina, 2016), was published by Wayne Leupold (Horman, “Keithahn,” n.p.).
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
Abraham Joshua Heschel, “On Prayer,” (1969), https://opensiddur.org/miscellanea/pedagogy/on-prayer-by-abraham-joshua-heschel-1969/ (accessed August 13, 2020).
John Horman, “Mary Nelson Keithahn,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/m/mary-nelson-keithahn (accessed August 13, 2020)
“Hymns Etc.: Hymn Based Resources by John D. Horman and Mary Nelson Keithahn,” http://www.hymnsetc.com/index.html (accessed August 13, 2020).
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.