Peace of Our Praying
by Terry W. York
Worship & Song, No. 3022
Peace of our praying,
Song of our singing,
Truth of our telling,
Love of all loves,
Health of our healing,
Gift of our giving,
Life of our living,
Light of all lights.*
*Words Copyright © 2004 Abingdon Press, admin. by The Copyright Company. Used with permission.
It’s a fascinating and enlightening endeavor to learn about academic backgrounds, theological perspectives, and quirky tidbits of personal history concerning the great hymn writers of the past: Christina Rossetti, Francis Bland Tucker, Isaac Watts, Fannie Crosby, Cecil Frances Alexander, and of course, Charles Wesley. But what of our contemporary writers? How much do we know about the newer names that now parade across the pages of our congregational song collections?
Terry York, the author of “Peace of Our Praying,” is a man of many talents; and it turns out, no single snapshot from his biography will offer a complete picture of his life. He is the associate dean for academic affairs for Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary, where he has been on the faculty since 1998. York is a Baptist pastor who has served the Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and has worked as a minister of music in Arizona and California. For nearly ten years he was in Nashville at what is now LifeWay Christian Resources (formerly called the Baptist Sunday School Board). While there, he was the project director for the 1991 Baptist Hymnal. Dr. York has written many hymn texts (his hymn, Give Us Courage, was named the official Truett Seminary Hymn in 2006!), as well as choral anthem texts, with more than sixty published works set to tunes by composers such as Joe Martin, Mary McDonald, Benjamin Harlan, Tom Fettke, and many more. Sixteen of his hymns (including this one), with music by David Bolin, appear in the 2005 Abingdon Press collection, God in Time.
Born in 1949 in Atchison, Kansas, Terry York earned his bachelor of arts degree from California Baptist University, and he received both master of church music and doctor of music arts degrees from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. An excellent choral conductor, he has a deep passion for enabling the voice of the people; in fact, in his keynote address to the 2015 Baptist Church Music Conference, Terry quipped that “Oh, there was a time (and what a time it was) when armed with nothing more than a Baptist hymnal and a Bill Reynolds conducting pattern, I could turn the whole congregation into a choir.” His books include several published by Abingdon Press: Rehearsing the Soul (1999), Observing the Rests (2003), and The Voice of Our Congregation, co-authored with David Bolin (2005). He also wrote America's Worship Wars (Hendrickson Publishers, 2003).
Rather like the author himself, perhaps, “Peace of Our Praying” is a collection of individual phrases—snapshots—that together create a collage that can then be viewed as a whole. Somewhat reminiscent of “God of the Sparrow” (Jaroslav Vajda, United Methodist Hymnal, 122) or “For One Great Peace” (Shirley Erena Murray, The Faith We Sing, 2185), these individual snapshots are juxtaposed against one another, layered one upon another, patiently and rhythmically building a vision that can be itself an experience of communal Christian prayer.
But as with all good hymns, the text alone is not the end of the story. It must be not merely set to music, but sung in community to come fully alive. Terry York and David Bolin have a long history of collaboration. Bolin seems to “get” exactly what is needed in a good partnership: a tune that supports the text but doesn't outshine it, allowing the poem to maintain its own worth and integrity. York’s texts are frequently simple but not simplistic; Bolin offers tunes that are easily sung without being trite.
In this case (the tune is titled PANHOA), Bolin chose to exactly reproduce the natural meter of the poem; there are no melismas, no syncopation, no rhythmic surprises—nothing to distract from the mantra-like repetition of the phrases (eight in each stanza). Similarly, the melody seems to take great pains to say to the singer, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to do anything to trick you or trip you up! Just relax and I’ll lead you through this.” The entirety of the melodic movement is contained in either seconds or thirds. Harmonically, it is the same story: the solid, gentle progression of I, VI, IV, V, I is only interrupted once by what seems to be an ‘exotic’ II chord, which in standard analysis functions more like a secondary dominant (V of V). The music is doing everything in its power to ensure that the entire focus is on the words, which gradually seep into the soul of the singer until finally the singer becomes the prayer.
Here’s the irony of this pairing of text and tune: even though the music seems to have been crafted with the single purpose of fading into the background, it is absolutely essential to the efficacy of the hymn. These words do not by themselves articulate any meaty theological concepts—they do not even form a complete sentence! But sing these simple phrases with this simple melody, and something unexpected occurs. The music, which is so apparently unremarkable when taken at face value, combines with seemingly random phrases (which are actually not the least bit random), and gradually a picture of a complex God emerges.
There’s another important point here, one that may be easy to miss. The word “our” is used seventeen times in this three-stanza hymn. Despite the sense of intimacy conveyed by the stream-of-consciousness style of the poetry, this is a hymn designed to be sung in community. The God-picture revealed by a congregation singing in unison will likely be different from the one revealed by the single hiker offering a prayer of thanksgiving alone on top of a mountain. In Christian worship, we are both called by God into community and shaped by God into the body of Christ. Songs such as “Peace of Our Praying” offer us the opportunity to sing our way into a more vibrant vision of the Life of all life.
About this week’s writer:
Laura Jaquith Bartlett is an ordained deacon in the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. She has a passion for enabling congregational singing, and founded the “Great Hymns of the Faith” series at the Alton L. Collins Retreat Center near Portland. Laura served as the Worship & Music Director for the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, and is the immediate past president of The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.
This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.
For more information about The Fellowship, visit UMFellowship.org/Hymns.