History of Hymns: "God the Sculptor of the Mountains"
By C. Michael Hawn
"God the Sculptor of the Mountains"
The Faith We Sing, No. 2060
"God the sculptor of the mountains,
God the miller of the sand,
God the jeweler of the heavens,
God the potter of the land:
You are womb of all creation,
we are formless; shape us now. *
Where do hymn writers get their inspiration? Inspiration can come from almost any place; but, in this case, the author was inspired by a trip to the wilds of Alaska.
John Thornburg (b. 1954) is a fourth-generation United Methodist minister. Following twenty-two years in pastoral ministry in Dallas, he began "A Ministry of Congregational Singing," an itinerant ministry of song leading and worship consultation .He joined the Texas Methodist Foundation in 2013 as an area consultant for the North Texas Annual Conference. The Rev. Thornburg has written well over 150 texts for use as hymns, choruses, anthems and vocal solos.
The Rev. Thornburg's ministry has taken him to South Africa, Côte d'Ivoire, and numerous times to Cameroon where he joined with the nascent United Methodist Church there to develop their first official French/English hymnal. The Cameroon Hymnal Initiative, developed in partnership with the Global Praise Project of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, not only resulted in a hymnal, but new hymn compositions by Cameroonians, and training events that prepared pastors and musicians in Cameroon to lead congregational singing more effectively in their churches.
The author comments on the formation of the text: "I got the commission just before traveling to Alaska, and while there, got to see all manner of things I'd never seen before including bald eagles, moose, salmon running, etc. I got to pondering the relation of the wind to the eagle’s wing, and found myself saying, 'God, the updraft of the eagle....' When I got home, I disciplined myself on paper to write, 'God, the...' and then to see how many things I could name. It all started with that. Interestingly, the original phrase didn't make it into the final draft."
Stanza one focuses on God, the Creator of the natural order. Stanza two summarizes God’s acts of deliverance in Exodus. Stanza three draws upon images of food in the New Testament — "vineyard," "wheat," and "harvest" — leading ultimately to an image of the Eucharist.
The final stanza, beginning with "God, the unexpected infant," traces the birth and ministry of Christ in four short phrases. The author comments on this phrase: "I've been criticized for the use of the phrase 'unexpected infant' in stanza four, to the effect that some think I've never read the prophecy of Isaiah. I customarily respond, 'I have read the prophet Isaiah, but I've also read the Gospel of Luke, and according to Luke, Mary was surprised!'"
This hymn employs a catalog technique found in a number of hymns by recent hymn writers. In this poetic approach, an author collects several images -- snapshots -- that engage our imagination, and then ties them together with a thematic or theological thread. Such hymns usually make frequent allusions to passages of Scripture and employ an economy of language. This is in contrast to longer lines of thought or a theological narrative developed over several stanzas found in the hymns of earlier centuries. The singer needs to bring a spirit of adventure to work with the author to discover the message.
This hymn is perfectly shaped. The first four lines of each stanza describe God’s actions in creation and throughout history. The fifth line of each stanza refocuses the singer from references to God in the third person to a direct address to God in the second-person, "You." The last three words of each stanza form a petition: "shape us now," "lead us now," "feed us now," "meet us now."
Several well-known composers have set this text. The Faith We Sing sets Thornburg’s text to a rousing tune by Amanda Husberg (b. 1940), a Missouri Synod Lutheran musician who has led music at St. John the Evangelist Lutheran Church, predominately multicultural congregation in New York City, for nearly 50 years! She has composed 190 hymn tunes that appear in hymnals both in the United States and internationally. Her most popular tune, JENNINGS-HOUSTON, provides a wonderful black gospel swing that supports the Rev. Thornburg’s text beautifully. Not only does the melodic contour respond beautifully to the theological and poetic structure of the hymn text, the slower relaxed gospel style allows the singer more time to absorb the meaning of the text.
"God the sculptor" is the Rev. Thornburg’s most published hymn. It was commissioned in honor of James E. Kirby upon his retirement as Dean of Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, in 1993.
Other hymns by John Thornburg have been published in two collections, Can God Be Seen in Other Ways (Abingdon, 2003) and The One Who Taught Bedside the Sea (Wayne Leupold Editions, Inc., 2003).