History of Hymns: "Living Spirit, Holy Fire"
“Living Spirit, Holy Fire”
Ruth C. Duck
Worship & Song, No. 3109
Living Spirit, holy fire,
burning bright to light our way
blaze among us and inspire
lives that praise you day by day. *
“Daddy, Daddy! Sing me that song—you know, the one about my story!”
As a 6-year-old child, I had no idea about the theological depth of Fanny Crosby’s “Blessed Assurance.” What I did have was a fascination with this idea of singing a story, my story. As the modern-day church seeks to navigate the murky waters of a culture in transition and changing understandings of ministry and discipleship, a sense of story provides an anchor on which to hold fast.
Stories pervade the United Methodist Hymnal—from the background story of each hymn writer, to scriptural stories put to music, to the story set to rhyme of the Christian identity of those who have gone before. Yet, for all the gems held in the great repository of historical hymnody, what about the story of the church in the 21st century? Who’s writing our story into song?
One present-day hymnist who has taken up this cause is Ruth Carolyn Duck (b. 1947), who is retiring this year as professor of worship at United Methodist-affiliated Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.
Born in Washington, D.C., Dr. Duck spent most of her childhood in Annapolis, Md., before moving with her family at the age of 16 to Memphis, Tenn. While attending Southwestern-at-Memphis College (now Rhodes College) in the 1960s, she witnessed the events of the civil rights movement and was deeply affected by the ministry and death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In this social crucible, Dr. Duck forged the belief that justice is at the heart of Christian faith and practice, a theme that imbues the majority of her hymns.
In 1972, as she finished coursework at Chicago Theological Seminary and began preparing for ordination in the United Church of Christ, Dr. Duck discovered the many injustices still faced by women seeking ordination in the church. In an effort to make a difference, she volunteered for a committee putting together a collection of hymns using inclusive language. Out of this experience, Dr. Duck wrote her first two hymns, “Arise, Your Light Has Come” and “Lead On, O Cloud of Presence.”
Inspiration for composing a hymn comes to Dr. Duck through a variety of avenues. While some hymns are born out of personal experiences, others are commissioned by individuals, congregations or hymnal committees. “Living Spirit, Holy Fire,” included in the United Methodist collection Worship & Song (2011), stems from her interaction with Pilgrim Congregational Church, UCC, in Oak Park, Ill.
In an attempt to reorient the narrative fabric of the congregation, the church sought to be multicultural in life and spirit by going beyond singing.
In “Living Spirit, Holy Fire,” Dr. Duck describes the work of the Holy Spirit through the metaphor of fire. The Holy Spirit illumines the path ahead, warms the fearful soul, and “melt[s] away the masks we wear” that hinder the church’s greatest ministry, enacted love. Though the use of fire to illustrate the Holy Spirit is not new in the Christian tradition, the naming of fire’s various functions serves to nuance the story of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling in this particular congregation and the greater Body of Christ. In blazing, the Spirit grabs the imagination. In warming, the Comforter gently prods. In melting, God’s fire exposes vulnerable places.
Yet, the story does not end with the revelation of sharing “love in action, love that’s real.” Rather, the end is not an ending at all, but a new beginning. In unity, the many parts do not burn out, but grow stronger and brighter, affirmed in the journey.
Though there may be milestones and rest stops along the way, the work of the Holy Spirit, and thus the work of the church, is an ever-continuing action of hope in God’s redemptive purpose. This is the church’s tale told in many tongues for over 2,000 years, told now by Ruth Duck in simple and powerful images that voice the concerns, the dreams and the challenges of new generations discovering a place in God’s story.