“Touch the Earth Lightly”
AUTHOR: Shirley Erena Murray, 1992
TUNE: AI HU
COMPOSER: Swee Hong Lim, 2005
SOURCE: Worship & Song, no. 3129
SCRIPTURE: Genesis 1:26-30; 28:10-17
TOPIC: animals and birds; awe and wonder; care; children; danger; death; Earth; environment; forgiveness; gentleness; tenderness; hope; human; hunger; life; new birth; new life; peace; reconciliation; regeneration; stewardship; unity; world
Shirley Erena Murray (b. 1931) was born in Invercargill, New Zealand. The wide-ranging subject matter of her texts, including the sacraments, inclusiveness, the liturgical year, nonviolence, personal faith, social justice, and ecology, has resulted in her hymns being included in more than 100 collections from all over the world. Prior to her achievements as a hymn writer, Murray was a teacher, and she produced hymn programs on radio. Her middle name is derived from the Greek word for peace (eirene), and peace and peace-making are prominent themes in her texts. In 2001 Murray was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit on the occasion of the Queen's birthday "for services to the community as a writer of hymns," the first New Zealand hymn writer so honored. She has been an editor with the New Zealand Hymnbook Trust and received international acclaim for her writing, including being made a Fellow of the Royal School of Church Music (2006). In 2009 she was honored by being named a Fellow of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada in recognition of her contributions as a hymn writer to the international community of congregational song. Also, in 2009, she was awarded the title of Honorary Doctor of Literature (D.Litt.) from the University of Otago. She is married to a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, the Very Rev. John Stewart Murray. They have three sons and six grandchildren and now live in active retirement at Raumati Beach, near Wellington.
Her texts in The Faith We Sing include:
- 2048, "God Weeps"
- 2059, "I Am Your Mother"
- 2095, "Star-Child"
- 2123, "Loving Spirit"
- 2128, "Come and Find the Quiet Center"
- 2177, "Wounded World that Cries for Healing"
- 2185, "For One Great Peace"
- 2225, "Who Is My Mother, Who Is My Brother"
- 2255, "In the Singing"
Her texts in Worship & Song include:
- 3018, "Creation Sings"
- 3020, "God of the Bible"
- 3084, "O Christ, You Hang upon a Cross"
- 3126, "Everything that Has Voice"
- 3129, "Touch the Earth Lightly"
- 3149, "A Place at the Table"
- 3159, "Let Our Earth Be Peaceful"
Swee Hong Lim is the Deer Park Assistant Professor of Sacred Music and Director of the Master in Sacred Music program at Emmanuel College of Victoria University in the University of Toronto, Canada. Previously, he served as Assistant Professor of Church Music at Baylor University, Texas, and Lecturer for Worship, Liturgy, and Music at Trinity Theological College, Singapore. He holds degrees from the Asian Institute for Liturgy and Music, Manila (Bachelor in Church Music), Southern Methodist University, Dallas (Master in Sacred Music), and Drew University (PhD, Liturgical Studies). He has contributed articles on church music to the Oxford Handbook on Methodist Studies and the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization. His work has also been published by Hope Publishing, GIA music, and GBGMusik.
His hymns can be found in various hymnals, including Worship & Song, Psalms for All Seasons, and Celebrating Grace. His favorite past time is working at creating global song-based anthems and rendering new tunes for the hymn texts of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts. At present, he serves as the co-moderator for the worship committee of the Tenth General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in South Korea in 2013. He was the chairperson of the Worship and Liturgy committee of the World Methodist Council in the past quinquennium (2006-2011).
The command in Genesis to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" has been carried out to excess by humanity to the point where we have endangered the gift of the earth. Murray's text is a call to recognize our excesses and learn how we might return to responsible stewardship:
- Stanza 1: Touch lightly, use gently, nourish the life in our care, hold in trust for the children of tomorrow
- Stanza 2: God, forgive and forestall our actions that endanger, create hunger, kill off life, foster disaster.
- Stanza 3: Regenerate green, birth, blessed water, sweet air, healthy life, hopeful children, and complete it all with peace.
- Stanza 4: God of all the earth and all that lives and loves, teach us, reconnect us, use us, make us one.
The melody divides into two halves of equal length that repeat melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically except for the final close. The accompaniment presents a sparse and simple arrangement that should be played, as the song implies, gently. A guitar-friendly key would be D Major (capo 3), with chord changes at the beginning of each measure:
// D / A / Bm / F#m / G / D / Em / A / D / A / Bm / F#m / G / D / A7 / D //
The composer writes of this tune:
This tune was among the first fruits of my effort in setting Shirley Murray's texts. I had known Murray since the late 1990s and had always been fascinated by her lyrical theology. In this particular song, I was drawn to how Shirley conveyed the image of gently caring for a fragile earth. Lest one is lulled away by the sentimentality of it all, in the second stanza, she points the proverbial finger at callous humanity and challenges all to rise to the occasion of faithful stewardship. As I read the words, I sense this simple tune coming forth from the text. Through the process of music scoring, I deliberately kept the accompaniment simple so that it does not overshadow the words. Personally for dramatic effect, I think the second stanza ought to be sung without accompaniment to fully experience the full impact of those indicting words of Shirley Murray. Thereafter a modulation could usher in both third and fourth verses or just the fourth verse. If an acoustic or classical guitar is available, this might be a more effective accompanying instrument, particularly if the strings are plucked instead of strummed. The tune name, AI HU, conveys the meaning of protection and tender care.
- Dr. Swee Hong Lim (Baylor)
- Murray, Shirley Erena (Hope Publishing)
- Swee Hong Lim, personal correspondence, April 28, 2012