History of Hymns: “In the Desert, On God’s Mountain”

by Joshua Zentner-Barrett

Susan Palo Cherwien “In the Desert, On God’s Mountain,”
by Susan Palo Cherwien;
Worship & Song, No. 3029


In the desert, on God’s mountain,
Moses saw the bush aflame,
wondered at the fiery foliage,
heard the crackling call his name.
May we notice bushes burning;
may we wonder at the flame.*


Though biblical stories are rife with the powerful events that signal an encounter with God, there are just as many in which an intimate relationship marks a powerful transformation in salvation history. In Susan Palo Cherwien’s hymn, “In the Desert, On God’s Mountain,” we witness the startlingly personal encounter between God and Moses through the story of the burning bush. This paraphrase of Exodus 3:1–4:17 and 34:29–35 borrows a technique from sixteenth-century German poets, such as Ludwig Helmbold (1532-1598), in which each stanza begins with a vivid description of Moses and the burning bush and concludes with two lines that recast Moses’ personal experience into one of prayer, specifically directed toward the community.

Each stanza advances Moses’ story, emphasizing the immediacy of his experience, from the “crackling” of the bush in stanza one to the “pulsing” of God’s presence in stanza two to the language of “burning” that pervades the entire hymn. By contrast, the final two lines are at once a prayer (“may we”) as well as a signal, inviting us to parallel Moses’ encounter with our own lives: to “notice bushes burning,” to “wonder at the flame,” to “honor holy ground,” to “hear God’s burning voice.”

Cherwien values these attributes in congregations, and they appear often in prayer form in her hymn texts. She avoids explaining stories in her texts, preferring for the congregation to be involved in the acts of noticing and questioning that allow the intimate encounter with God to take place. As she explains in the article “With Mind in Heart: Wholeness in Hymnmaking” (Cross Accent 13, 2005, 22-25), it is the “poet’s task…to remind people of what they already know to be true, to call people to remember what they may have forgotten or mislaid, to help call it forth from the depths of being.”

First appearing in her collection O Blessed Spring: Hymns of Susan Palo Cherwien (1997), “In the Desert, On God’s Mountain” emerged out of a time of renewal in the Lutheran Church with the 1978 publication of the Lutheran Book of Worship. The adoption of the three-year Common Lectionary meant the new Lenten readings emphasized transformation and growth. Cherwien challenged herself to write several new hymn texts, drawing the story of the burning bush from the readings assigned to the third week of Lent, Year C.

There is a sense in this hymn of the intimacy of Moses’ experience. However grandiose and fiery the encounter might be, in this specific moment, it is Moses who is in relationship with God. The hymn’s construction, however, demonstrates that such an intimate relationship also reflects a communal experience. Love pervades the universe, flowing throughout all creation. The intimacy of love and community is a theme that appears in many of Cherwien’s other hymns, each intending to uncover the oft-forgotten truth about love and its role in binding us together. Just as Moses offers his objections to the task before him, we, too, beg to be excused from the difficulties of our close relationships. But God calls us to “take the task before” (stanza four) and, in so doing, become “beacons of divinity” (stanza six).

Susan Palo Cherwien (b. 1953) is a freelance poet and musician. Born in Ashtabula, Ohio, she studied voice at Springfield University, the Berliner Kirchenmusikschule (Spandau), and the Hochschule der Künste (Berlin), and earned a Master of Liberal Studies from Mundelein College, where she focused on spirituality, ritual, and the arts. Her hymns have begun to appear more frequently in denomination hymnals, such as Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006) and Glory to God (2013). In addition to her two books of hymns — O Blessed Spring (1997) and Come, Beloved of the Maker (2010) — she has also published two books of poetic meditations: Crossings (2003) and From Glory Into Glory (2010), which often serve to accompany hymn festivals.

An intentional writer, Cherwien produces three or four hymns a year, following a careful process for each hymn. She begins with Scripture, sometimes using a word from a sermon or a class to jog her ideas. As she reads, she writes down her initial thoughts in black ink on a piece of white lined paper — words, images, connections to other texts, and so on. The “worksheet” for “In the Desert, On God’s Mountain” is included with this article, and shows the multitude of layers that make up her writing — experimenting with various rhymes, crossing out lines or words. The purpose is not to find the perfect word but to say what needs to be said; Cherwien is well aware of how deeply we are affected by the words we sing.

Her reflection, “Seeing Freedom,” from Crossings: Meditations for Worship (MorningStar Publishers, 2003, 154) is a companion piece to the hymn, lending a particular perspective to Moses’ experience. Just as the story is both past and continuing, the call to be transformed — to see with new eyes — plays a part in our own liberation. In the “may we,” we are reminded to listen once more — and again after that — for the crackling voice that calls us to love one another.

God is always calling us to freedom
But we forget that we have a part to play in our own liberation.
We want to settle back and let a magical God whoosh us out of Egypt.
But God said to Moses, not “Poof!,” but “Go.”
Four excuses by Moses, four rebuttals by God
and Moses went.

Moses said to the people, not “Whoosh!,” but “Go.”
Complaints, hesitations, grousing, accusations
And the people went.

Moses could have remained.
The people could have stayed.
But liberation lured
and muddy feet slipped across the Red Sea
to dry land
to beginning
to covenant.**


*Text copyright © Susan Palo Cherwien admin. Augsburg Fortress. Reproduced by permission. No further reproduction allowed without the written permission of Augsburg Fortress.

** © 2003 MorningStar Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.[CC1] 


For further reading:

“With Mind in Heart: Wholeness in Hymnmaking,” CrossAccent (Journal of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians), 2005, Volume 13

Cherwien, Susan Palo. “Seeing Freedom,” Crossings: Meditations for Worship. St. Louis: MorningStar Publishers, 2003.

Note: Special thanks to Susan Palo Cherwien for graciously providing me with information about herself, the text, and her hymnwriting process via email.

About this week's writer:

Joshua Zentner-Barrett is an M.S.M. graduate of Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, who studied hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn. He is the Director of Music at Kanata United Church in Ottawa, the Canadian capital.

Categories: History of Hymns, Hymnals By Name, Worship & Song