History of Hymns: “As a Fire Is Meant for Burning”
As a Fire Is Meant for Burning
by Ruth Duck
The Faith We Sing, No. 2237
As a fire is meant for burning
with a bright and warming flame,
So the church is meant for mission,
giving glory to God’s name.
Not to preach our creeds or customs,
but to build a bridge of care,
We join hands across the nations,
finding neighbors everywhere.*
*© 1992 GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Ruth Duck (b. 1947), a contemporary author of hymns, is ordained in the United Church of Christ. She holds several degrees (MDiv., Chicago Theological Seminary, 1973; DD., Chicago Theological Seminary, 1983; and ThD., Boston University School of Theology, 1989) and is professor of worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. A prolific author, she has been writing hymns since 1974 and has published several books, including her comprehensive book Worship for the Whole People of God: Vital Worship for the 21st Century (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).
According to Dean McIntyre, retired staff member of Discipleship Ministries, “Duck’s hymn texts are the leading edge of the search for hymn and worship language that is fair, just, reverent and relevant, expressive, uplifting, and universal.” All of this, and more, is evident in her hymn text “As a Fire Is Meant for Burning” through images of purpose, thoughtful action, and hope.
The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology marks the origin of this hymn as 1982, following Ruth Duck’s visit to a United Church of Christ Mission in Turkey and lists its first publication in Duck’s Dancing in the Universe (1992). According to The Faith We Sing: Worship Planner, Duck built her hymn text from a variety of sources. It says, ‘Using 2 Corinthians 4:7 and Matthew 4:14-16, Duck’s text paraphrases and develops Emil Brunner’s observation that just as a fire is meant for burning, so the church is meant for loving” (Hook, 2000, 20). The statement referred to as Brunner’s reads:
Mission work does not arise from any arrogance in the Christian Church; mission is its cause and its life. The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission, there is no Church; and where there is neither Church nor mission, there is no faith (Brunner, 1931, 108).
Certainly, in the first stanza, we read and sing of the metaphor Brunner outlines; however, instead of scripting it in his terms of dependency, Duck uses terms of purpose. In her language, fire and church as existing bodies are meant for thoughtful, loving action. The fire’s action (in this case) is that of warmth and light; the church’s action is meant to reveal the commandment that we love one another as we love ourselves – building bridges between us rather than creating division through proselytizing. Her vision of mission calls us to gently work among those in need and to allow the light of Christ to be apparent through our action.
This bridges to the second stanza where she references 2 Corinthians by her language of “vessels made of clay…showing Christ is light.” This image of Christ’s light is one that is housed within us. Eugene Peterson paraphrases the Scripture in this way, “If you look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives” (2 Corinthians 4:7, The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson).
In Duck’s hymn text, the light is carried within us as learners, teachers, pilgrims, seekers, and givers who point to the One who transforms lives as we work in mission. But the language of clay pots also helps us remember that we are fragile; it may even remind us that we all – Christians and non-Christians – are made of this same ordinary, breakable stuff and that only gentleness in action may ensure we don’t fracture others as we light the way to God.
In the third stanza, purpose and action turn toward hope– the hope of new life, the hope of renewed life, and even the dawn of God’s grace. The image of light used here is a complex and radiantly beautiful metaphor of a rainbow lighting heaven after a storm as a parallel to our lives as reflections of the love and forgiveness of God. This is the light of hope that, after Christ’s light begins to be known, leads all of us out of the darkness of the world and into the love of God.
The original hymn tune composed by Marty Haugen for this radiant text is that of JOYOUS LIGHT, which has an ABCB phrase structure and highlights the third line of each stanza by leaping up an octave before returning to the B phrase. The hymn tune paired with this text in The Faith We Sing is that of BEACH SPRING from the Sacred Harp tradition. With its AABA phrase structure, it helps to draw a musical comparison of the first two related phrases of each stanza.
A wonderful opportunity arises with its 87.87 D syllabic structure in that this text can pair with many other hymn tunes as well. My favorite is that of ABBOT’S LEIGH. It moves the text into a triple meter to add buoyancy, preserves the paralleling of musical lines to the paralleled sentiments of the opening lines of each stanza, but allows the fourth line its own independence of musical performance.
Whatever hymn tune is chosen, the light of God is sure to shine forth through these words of purpose, action, and hope.
As we walk forward in serving others through music, worship, and mission, may our lives indeed “reflect the radiance of ‘God’s new and glorious dawn.’”
For further reading:
The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, https://hymnology.hymnsam.co.uk
McIntyre, Dean, “Celebrating Women’s History Month #6: Hymn Writer Ruth Duck,” https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/celebrating-womens-history-month-6
Hook, Anne Burnette, Ed. The Faith We Sing: Worship Planner, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000, 20.
Brunner, Emil, The Word and the World, New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1931, 108.
About this week’s writer:
Victoria Schwarz is the Recording Secretary of The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts, Director of Music at Berkeley United Methodist Church in Austin, TX, and a Master of Arts in Ministry Practice student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.
For more information about The Fellowship, visit UMFellowship.org/Hymns.