Home History of Hymns: "We Need a Faith"

History of Hymns: "We Need a Faith"

"We Need a Faith"
John Thornburg
The Faith We Sing, No. 2181

John Thornburg

We need a faith so colorblind,
so free form timeworn lies,
that when we look from face to face
we see the eyes of God.*

The Rev. John Thornburg (b. 1954) is a fourth-generation United Methodist minister. Following 22 years in pastoral ministry, most recently at Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, he began “A Ministry of Congregational Singing,” an itinerant ministry of song leading and worship consultation. Mr. Thornburg has written well over 100 texts for use as hymns, choruses, anthems and vocal solos.

Some of Mr. Thornburg’s hymns have also been published in three collections, Can God Be Seen in Other Ways (Abingdon, 2003), The One Who Taught Beside the Sea (Wayne Leupold Editions, Inc., 2003), and Family of God (Abingdon, 2008). For more texts by Mr. Thornburg, see www.congregationalsinging.com.

Mr. Thornburg wrote the hymn in 1995 when he was pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church to honor a staff member, Linda Brown, on the occasion of her graduation from Perkins School of Theology with a Master of Divinity degree.

He comments: “So, quite simply, it was meant to express my thanks to her for all she had meant to me as we worked together, and I hoped it would speak more broadly to situations in which persons or congregations were ready and willing to shed stereotypes and parochialisms.” Before appearing in The Faith We Sing, the hymn was published in the UM periodical Church Music Workshop.

In this hymn Mr. Thornburg addresses issues that define what it means to be the people of God. In the first stanza, he hopes for a “color-blind” faith, reminding us that in looking into any face, “we see the eyes of God.” In the second stanza, he pleads for “an ethic of respect” and “an honest pledge of trust” so that we might “feel the warmth of God” in our relationships.

The third stanza asks us to “act as well as speak.” I am reminded of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who noted on a Civil Rights March with the Rev. Martin Luther King, “now our prayers have feet.” In our “sweat” and “labor side by side” we experience “the work of God.”

The final stanza is a summons for Christians to “look for character and not for shade of skin.” In confronting the demons of race that divide many, “we live the peace of God.”

Characteristic of many of Mr. Thornburg’s hymns is a carefully laid out sequence of propositions that address the key issues with which he is grappling. This hymn is an excellent example of this technique in which three of the four stanzas begin the same way, with the challenge “We need….”

All stanzas conclude with parallel ideas that express the fruits of taking on this challenge: We will “see the eyes of God;” “feel the warmth of God;” “do the work of God;” and “live the peace of God.” In essence, this hymn is a lyrical sermon on overcoming racism.

Linda Brown, an African American, served as an intern at Northaven UMC, a dominantly Anglo congregation, with grace and distinction. The hymn articulates the gifts that she brought to this church.

*© 1995 Abingdon Press, admin. by the Copyright Co. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

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