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History of Hymns: "Who is my Mother, Who is my Brother"

"Who is my Mother, Who is my Brother"
Shirley Erena Murray
The Faith We Sing, No. 2225

Shirley Erena Murray

“Who is my mother,
who is my brother?
all those who gather
round Jesus Christ:
Spirit-blown people,
born from the Gospel
sit at the table,
round Jesus Christ.”*

Human nature seems to focus first on differences, separating us from those unlike us and keeping us from uniting as a human family. The gospel offers a different model for human relationships. In a world that focuses on fear and alienation, Shirley Murray asks the questions, “Who is my mother, who is my brother?”

Shirley Erena Murray (b. 1931) was born in Invercargill, 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 30 composers have set her hymns to music.

The questions that begin this hymn come from an important passage cited in the three synoptic gospels. In Matthew 12, after addressing the people for some time, Jesus was made aware that his mother and brothers were on the fringes of the crowd and wished to see him. Jesus turns the situation on end: “And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matthew 12:49-50, KJV)

This Scripture and an experience at the seventh assembly of the World Council of Churches, Canberra, Australia, in 1991 provided the context for this hymn. Ms. Murray explains: “The fierce stimulus for writing this hymn came from sharing worship with two quite different groups who felt neglected and excluded at the WCC Assembly, namely, the ‘differently abled’ (their own term) and the gay/lesbian members—neither of which groups felt welcome. I realized that when I wrote of ‘sitting at the table,’ most singers would assume this to be the table of the Church. But my intention was to widen our perception of the table of the world, and all the kinds of people Jesus ate with and counted as family. This is to express, too, that the Spirit is not confined to the people or rituals of the Church, but brings together whoever will ‘sit with Jesus’ and be accepted.”

Ms. Murray answers the questions “Who is my mother, who is my brother?” for the current generation, specifying in detail the kinds of concerns that separate us from “sit[ting] at the table, round Jesus Christ.”

Stanza two addresses specifically the topic of disabled persons, one rarely mentioned explicitly in hymns. Beginning the stanza, “Differently abled, differently labeled,” she invites us to “widen the circle round Jesus Christ.” In what has to be a singular rhyme in the history of hymnody, she continues the idea: “Crutches and stigmas, cultures’ enigmas” are unified in Christ. This metaphor includes for Ms. Murray the rejection felt by gay and lesbian Christians.

In stanza three the author includes racial and socio-economic differences in only 10 syllables—“color or status can’t segregate us”—as well as domestic difficulties—“Family failings, human derailings.” Christ accepts all regardless of life’s circumstances.

The final stanza turns to those things that bind us together. In Christ, we are “Bound by one vision, met for one mission.” Like Christ, we look at those around us and say, different though we are, “Here is my mother, here is my brother.” We are all one family, “kindred in Spirit, through Jesus Christ.”

In 2001, Ms. 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 hymnwriter ever so honored. In 2006, she was elected a Fellow of the Royal School of Church Music—the first woman text-writer to have been so honored.

*© 1992 Hope Publishing Co. Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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