Home History of Hymns: "I am Your Mother (Earth Prayer)"

History of Hymns: "I am Your Mother (Earth Prayer)"

“I am your mother,” by Shirley Erena Murray;

The Faith We Sing, No. 2059.

I am your mother:
Do not neglect me!
Children, protect me -
I need your trust;
my breath is your breath,
my death is your death,
ashes to ashes,
dust to dust.*

*©1996 Hope Publishing Company; Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Shirley Erena Murray (b. 1931) was born in Invercargill, New Zealand. She and her husband John live in Raumati Beach, New Zealand. Ms. Murray has Methodist and Presbyterian roots, but her work is ecumenical in spirit. Her hymns have been published in over 100 collections worldwide. They started to appear regularly in hymnals published in North America after 1995. More than thirty composers have set her hymns to music.

The wife of Presbyterian minister John Murray, Ms. Murray studied Classics and French at the University of Otago in Dunedin in the far south of the lower island where she was granted an MA with Honors. Her career has included experience as a teacher, researcher and radio hymn program producer.

She began to write hymns in the 1970s to undergird the theology of her husband’s progressive theology and the work of Amnesty International. The first independent publication of her hymns was In Every Corner, Sing (1987), a collection that featured many themes that she would continue to develop. Fellow New Zealander and hymnwriter, Colin Gibson (b. 1933) highlights these themes: “the search for peace, justice and human rights, inclusiveness, the honoring of women and the feminine element in spirituality, celebration of the natural world and the New Zealand environment, a call to social responsibility and a life of faith lived out with compassion and hopefulness.”

The Christian community desperately needs to sing this hymn. “I am your mother,” subtitled “Earth Prayer”, is one of the most articulate and poignant hymns on ecology in this generation. A lament on humanity’s abuse of the earth, this hymn reflects the growing awareness of mutual interdependence and reliance on God’s creation for our survival. As I write this, recent announcements made from the scientific community state that the earth has a diminishing window in which to made significant changes in order to avoid global catastrophies that will affect all humanity. See http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/science/future.html for more specific information.

In conversations with the author in 2004, Ms. Murray expressed the impact of nuclear testing that took place on the Bikini Atoll in the 1940s and 1950s. These tests, as well as a history of adverse ecological effects brought on by the nineteenth-century settlers from Great Britain, have made New Zealanders very sensitive to ecological issues. “I am your mother” reflects this awareness. For the complete hymn text, see http://www.hopepublishing.com/html/main.isx?sitesec=40.2.1.0&hymnID=5003.

Why should we sing “I am your mother” in worship? The use of this song within Christian liturgy may challenge not only our understanding of Christian liturgy, but also our understanding of ecclesiology – our understanding of what it means to be the church. Singing this hymn will not necessarily leave you feeling better. Singing this hymn may challenge one’s understanding of God. Singing this hymn may, for some, cross a line between worship and politics.

I suggest that at the heart of Christian worship is our desire to fulfill the twin commandments expressed in Mark 12:30-31: “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. The second is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” (ASV) This concept is so fundamental to New Testament faith that it also appears in the other synoptic gospels: Matthew 22:36-40 and Luke 10:27.

One way to view this hymn and its theological implications is that it calls into question whether the human race has taken care of the precious gift of this planet that God has given us. Does our care for the earth reflect both our love of God and love of our neighbor?

One of the most unusual aspects of the text is the perspective of the hymn; it is written from the first person singular perspective of the earth suffering because of humanity’s abuse of her resources. Yet, it is not entirely clear to whom the pronoun “I” refers in the first three stanzas. In correspondence with the author, Ms. Murray explains, “I wrote it in the first person out of a sense of desperation that eco-theology was not being regarded seriously in 1993. Maybe that’s changed.”

The author stresses our mutual interdependence on God’s creation for our survival throughout the hymn. In addition to references in stanza one cited above, successive stanzas continue this theme: “my good is your good, my food is your food” (stanza 2); “my health is your health, my wealth is your wealth” (stanza 3). Swedish pastor and musician Per Harling (b. 1948) provides music that feels like a love song, or perhaps even a lullaby between God, the home that God has provided for us, and the life that inhabits this home.

At the same time, each stanza has a sense of urgency in the second line:

Do not neglect me. (stanza one)

Do not destroy me. (stanza two)

Do not abuse me. (stanza three)

The final stanza reveals the referent to the pronoun “I” – “Do not deny God.” This clarifies that “I” is not Mother Earth or Gaia – a Greek personification of the earth, but that our tendency to “neglect,” “destroy,” and “abuse,” is directed toward our Creator. By postponing the reference to God until the final stanza, she increases the dramatic poignancy.

Shirley Murray gives much attention the structure of her hymns. This is evident in the urgency in line two of each stanza. But it doesn’t stop there. The last two lines of each stanza have a progression of thought – they literally lift our eyes:

. . . ashes to ashes, dust into dust. (stanza one)

. . . water and flower, branches and fruit. (stanza two)

. . . shining with promise, set among stars. (stanza three)

Thus she moves us from humus with the words spoken at graveside services, to the greening of the earth through its water and flora, to the hope of humanity “set among stars.” There is a wonderful sense of returning to our roots by referring to the heavens as science tells us that we are literally made of the stuff of the stars.

As amazing as the overall construction of the hymn is, the final line, however, sets this hymn apart from earlier hymns on this theme. Classic hymns in stanzas structures usually wrap up the theme of the hymn in some fairly conclusive way. Shirley Murray defies traditional hymn structures to make her point. She concludes poignantly

I am your mother, tears on my face . . .

Reprising the first line of the hymn, she then concludes with an ellipsis (. . .) rather than the expected final punctuation mark that signifies closure. Regretfully, hymnals do not preserve this feature of her original poem, an alteration that weakens the hymn considerably. The use of an ellipsis indicates that as abusive as humanity has been to one of the most precious gifts we have been given and therefore to each other, we literally still have the opportunity to write the final stanza. What will our final stanza look like?

In 2001 Shirley Murray was honored on the Queen’s birthday by being made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) “for services to the community as a writer of hymns.” She is the first New Zealand hymn writer ever, so honored.

She was also designated an Honorary Fellow of the Royal School of Church Music (2006). Her hymn “God, in your grace” was chosen as the theme song for the IX Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Porto Alegre, Brazil (2006), and she has been chosen as a Fellow of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada (2009).