Article

History of Hymns: “God of the Sparrow”

by C. Michael Hawn

"God of the Sparrow"
Jaroslav J. Vajda
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 122

Jaroslav J. Vajda

Jaroslav Vajda (1919-2008) was one of the leading hymn writers in the 20th century and arguably the preeminent Lutheran hymn writer of his day.

Vajda (pronounced vaheeduh) was born in Lorain, Ohio, the son of a Lutheran pastor of Slovak descent. Thoroughly Lutheran, he was educated at Concordia College and Concordia Seminary, and he pastored several bilingual parishes (German and English) in Pennsylvania and Indiana. Jary (as his friends call him) served as the editor of several Lutheran magazines and retired as a book editor from Concordia Publishing House.

Vajda began translating classical Slovak poetry at the age of 18, and his work was published in the United States and Europe. He wrote his first hymn at age 49, followed by more than 225 original and translated hymns that now appear worldwide in more than 60 hymnals. He served Lutheran Church Missouri Synod congregations between 1945 and 1976. In 1963 he became the editor of the This Day magazine and later served as book developer/editor for Concordia Publishing House in St. Louis. He served on the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship that prepared the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), one of the most important later twentieth-century hymnals. Elected a Fellow of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada in 1988, Vajda has received numerous honorary doctorates validating his contributions to hymn singing.


“God of the sparrow God of the whale” is one of the most popular new hymns in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989). His motivation was the result of a commission from Concordia Lutheran Church in Kirkwood, Mo., “to compose a hymn text that would provide answers from the users of the hymn as to why and how God’s creatures (and children) are to serve him. The Law of God demands perfect love from every creature; the love of God and the Gospel coax a willing response to live as an expression of gratitude.” 

A noticeable feature of this hymn is its lack of punctuation and rhyme. To the singer this creates a sense of openness—a text that is not bound by the conventional patterns of poetry. Each of the six stanzas is perfectly balanced: the first two lines of each stanza offer a glimpse into the actions of God in the world and the bond God has with God’s creatures. The last two lines of each stanza ask two rhetorical questions: “How does the creature... ” The lack of a question mark gives one the sense that these questions are not so much expecting an answer as making a statement of profound wonder about the relationship between the Creator and the Creator’s creatures. 

The first two stanzas focus on God as manifest in the natural world. The third stanza links the Creator with the Incarnation—“God of the cross God of the empty grave.” Stanzas four and five draw upon biblical images of relationship with God’s children: “God of the hungry God of the sick God of the prodigal,” “God of the neighbor God of the foe.” The final stanza is the “God of the loving heart” whose children can only respond by saying “Home.” 

Carl Schalk (b. 1929), a leading Lutheran organist and composer, recognized the poem’s potential as a hymn. The relationship between b Vajda and Schalk has been one of the most enduring poet/musician teams of the twentieth century. As the author noted, “Carl Schalk’s collaboration with me on this hymn and others prompts an expression of appreciation to him and to all musicians, without whom... hymn texts, no matter how good, would die.” 

Schalk’s tune ROEDER, the maiden name of the composer’s spouse, was composed for this text and was originally included in Hymnal Supplement II (1987) and first sung at an annual meeting of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada in Forth Worth, Texas in July 1987. 

Upon Vajda’s death in 2008, Schalk commented, "Ultimately, the texts of Jaroslav Vajda are a sign to God's people – a sign of hopefulness, expectation, and promise that the Holy Spirit still gives us songs to sing along our pilgrim way until the time when all our singing is joined to the last great song of the Lamb in eternity."

Vajda’s hymns are available in a recent comprehensive collection, Sing Peace, Sing Gift of Peace (2003), published by Concordia Publishing House.
 

Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary's sacred music program.

Categories: History of Hymns