Hymns Created For/During the COVID-19 Pandemic

“music” by Robert Couse-Baker is licensed under CC BY 2.0

On 31 March 2020 I posted a notice to the PrayTell blog that I had composed a prayer-song based on Psalm 23 entitled “Shelter Me,” intended for use during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Since that time a number of different versions of the composition have appeared on YouTube demonstrating that the song has been used in worship in the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and the Philippines for the last few months.  I have been heartened that God might be using the song to bring comfort and encouragement in these troubled times.

The speed with which “Shelter Me” has appeared in the social media world led me to wonder about other hymns that have been created for and during the pandemic.  It might seem odd that lyricists and composers would create pieces intended for group singing precisely at a time when such group singing is all but banned in public worship.  But just as I have received a fair number of comments that the sentiments evoked by “Shelter Me” are not limited to the pandemic, so I am fairly confident that other hymns produced during these turbulent times will not only speak to our present situation but may become part of our worship repertoire when we return to more “normal” worship.  This survey is limited to hymns written during the pandemic published by GIA Publications, Inc.  I hope to explore similar hymns from other publishers in later contributions to PrayTell.

David Bjorlin and Benjamin Brody: “Christ Still Rises”

The first hymn to consider here is “Christ Still Rises,” whose text by David Bjorlin was set to a lilting 12/8 melody by Benjamin Brody:

1. Christ still rises
when fear grips our city,
when death takes no pity,
when much is unknown.

Christ still rises
when friends are divided,
when joy feels misguided,
when we are alone.

Christ still rises
when churches are shuttered,
when praises are muttered,
when prayers go unsaid.

Christ still rises
when peace has all faded,
when we are most jaded
when faith turns to dread,
when faith turns to dread.

 

2. Christ still rises
when we give to neighbors,
when we share our labors,
when strangers belong.

Christ still rises
when we come together,
when love is our tether,
when hope is our song.

Christ still rises
when grieving is ended,
when bodies are mended,
when beauty heals pain.

Christ still rises
when fear has retreated,
when death is defeated,
and joy will remain,
and joy will remain.

© 2020 GIA Publications, Inc.  All rights reserved.

Stanza 1 succinctly articulates the situation in which most of us find ourselves in the light of the constricted contact we have with each other, trying to keep the novel coronavirus from spreading. Especially difficult for believers is the fact that even the church buildings where we have found strength in praying together are “shuttered.” Church musicians may find this even more difficult since the prayers we had learned to sing together are “unsaid” or “muttered.”

The first half Stanza 2 challenges those singing to enact Christian faith even in a time of social distancing because “hope is our song.” The second half of Stanza 2 looks forward to the time post-pandemic, creating a powerful act of faith envisioning how “beauty heals pain.” Appropriately the answer to the challenges of the Stanza 1 are found in faith in Christ’s Resurrection, “when fear has retreated, / when death is defeated, / and joy will remain.” Although perfectly suited as sung prayer during the pandemic, I suspect that “Christ Still Rises” will still be sung during the Easter Triduum and season, long after the pandemic has become just a memory.

David Bjorlin kindly confirmed my analysis above and added the following details about the creation of “Christ Still Rises”: “…I wrote this basically because I was incredibly disappointed to be missing the Easter services with my community…. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was exactly the time to be proclaiming the resurrection. If Christ’s resurrection is not good news in the face of death, then it is not good news. Christ still rises, maybe especially rises, in the places of sorrow and death, proclaiming death’s final defeat.

So, as I looked over the landscape of COVID, I started thinking about where Christ’s resurrection is still being enacted, even in fearful cities, divided friends and families, shuttered churches, etc. I originally wrote it in four stanzas, so the final stanza (or the second half of the second stanza in its final form), I transitioned to the eschatological perspective–when grieving ends, bodies are healed, death is defeated. When I sent it to Ben, he crafted the beautiful tune that combined stanzas 1-2 and 3-4.”

 

Adam M. L. Tice and Bex Gaunt: “I Am Not Alone”

Bex Gaunt has created a gently syncopated hymn tune SOUTH STREET to match Adam Tice’s powerful text “I Am Not Alone”:

1. I am not alone
even when you are not with me.
You are not alone
even if you’re far away.
We are not alone
when in our hearts we are together.
I am not alone,
you are not alone,
we are not alone;
we are together when we pray.

2. Holy Spirit, come
through the distance now between us.
Holy Spirit, breathe;
be the blessed tie that binds.
Holy Spirit, heal
and bring our lonely songs together.
Holy Spirit, come.
Holy Spirit, breathe.
Holy Spirit, heal
our fragile bodies, hearts, and minds.

© 2020 GIA Publications, Inc.  All rights reserved.

 

Stanza 1 strongly declares that humans are social animals.  Even when we perceive ourselves as cut off from one another (as during the COVID-19 pandemic), the truth is that we are together especially when we pray since what ultimately binds us together is our common status as creatures of the Creator God.  (I confess that I was thrown off when I first sang the opening sentence of this stanza.  Since I knew it was a hymn, I assumed that the addressee of the first stanza was God.  While it might be barely possible to interpret the text this way, I think it is more likely that “you” could be either singular or plural, referring to [an]other human being[s].)

Stanza 2 directly petitions the Spirit of God to be present to scattered human beings.  Hearkening back to the image of the ruah (breath) of God hovering over the tohu va-bohu (formless waste), serving as the means by which adam becomes a living being in Genesis, the hymn asks the Holy Spirit to breathe/enliven believers and by asking the Spirit to serve “as the tie that binds,” the petition alludes to the text of John Fawcett’s hymn extolling the unity of hearts and minds in Christian love.  Finally the hymn asks the Spirit of God to heal bodies, minds and hearts, a sentiment certainly appropriate during the time of the pandemic.

Adam Tice offers further insights into the creation of “I Am Not Alone”: “It was a bit of an experiment for me–I was aiming for something that really exists in and for video, and probably won’t need to make the transition to in person worship. What does it look like to design a song about singing together–that we don’t expect to sing together?”

In spite of Mr. Tice’s disclaimer, I think “I Am Not Alone,” like “Christ Still Rises,” will find use even after our present fraught era.  It would clearly be appropriate for the second half of the Easter season when we focus on the gift of the Holy Spirit to and in the Church; it could also find a place in any celebration where the global reach and unity of the Church is emphasized (e.g., All Saints, All Souls, Mission Sunday).  The simplicity of the text and tune would make it especially useful for children’s services.

 

Chris Shelton: “I Will Sing for You”

I am frequently delighted by discovering parallels among hymns responding to the same social situation, even if the musical settings are quite different.   Concerning “I Will Sing for You,” Chris Shelton writes: “My heart sank, along with the hearts of so many other musicians, as we learned more of the dangers of corporate singing during the COVID-19 pandemic.  This song followed – a prayer for harmony, amidst it all.”

1. I will sing for you –
Will you sing for me,
Even when we cannot sing together?
Sing of what is true;
Sing of what can be;
Let’s sing our songs of pain, or hope, of joy.
And till all this is through,
Let’s live in harmony
Even when we cannot sing together.

2. Holy Spirit, breathe
Sighs too deep for words,
Groaning for renewal of creation.
Holy Spirit, breathe,
Let your song be heard;
Let stones cry out, with cries of prayer and praise.
O Holy Spirit, breathe,
And let our hearts be stirred,
Even when we cannot sing together.

© 2020 GIA Publications, Inc.  All rights reserved.

 

Like the stanzas of “I Am Not Alone,” “I Will Sing for You” begins with a declaration of the importance of corporate song in Stanza 1 and moves to an invocation of the Holy Spirit in Stanza 2. The text beautifully highlights the use of “harmony” to refer both to musical tones of different pitches sounding together and to social life lived in mutual amity, imagery in Christian usage that goes back at least as far as Clement of Alexandria. Yoking the familiar scriptural texts of Romans 8:22-27 and Colossians 3:14-16, Stanza 2 begs the Holy Spirit to “intercede for us with cries too deep for words” in the “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” of our interrupted corporate worship. I especially appreciated the allusion to Luke 19:40 where Jesus declares that if human voices are impeded from singing praise (“when we cannot sing together”) the very stones will cry out.

Clearly the texts of both “I Am Not Alone” and “I Will Sing for You” exhibit the same deep structure and movement of thought, while the musical settings provide a real contrast. As mentioned above, “I Am Not Alone” is set to a lightly syncopated, lilting melody. As I read the score for “I Will Sing for You,” this musical setting is more anthemic; certainly returning to the opening stanza after the invocation of the Holy Spirit with a new keyboard accompaniment gives it more musical interest.

 

Delores Dufner: “God, Faithful Through the Years”

The final entry in this short survey is a new text from Sr. Delores Dufner, OSB, a member of the Benedictine community in St. Joseph, MN, and a Fellow of the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada.  Set to the hymntune LEONI, “God, Faithful Through the Years” is a touching meditation on Isaiah 43:1-7, highlighting God’s faithfulness and mercy, especially in times of suffering and distress:

1. God, faithful through the years,
Amazing is your claim:
“Put fear aside, for you are mine;
I call your name.
Though danger stalks your path
And death is close at hand,
Be not afraid, for I am near;
With you I stand.

2. “Your life is threatened now,
Your world in disarray,
But I protect and care for you;
I hear you pray.
On strange and painful paths,
In dark of lonely night,
I’ll lead and guide you safely home;
I am your light.”

3. Our shelter from the storm,
Our God, we trust in you.
From birth to death, your blessings flow
Each day anew.
Though plagues may shake our faith,
Though troubles never cease,
We hope in your enduring love
And promised peace.

© 2020.  GIA Publications, Inc.  All rights reserved.

 

Stanzas 1 and 2 present God directly reassuring the community of his constant care and protection, even when the accustomed order of human life has been shaken.  (I will not enter into the debate about whether or not it is appropriate for a singing congregation to assume the vox Dei.  Suffice it to say that the way Sr. Delores manages divine speech within the context of scriptural paraphrase keeps the worshiping assembly from taking on God’s persona.)

Stanza 3 turns from quotation of divine assurance to a declaration of the community’s faith in the God who is their “shelter from the storm,” highlighting God’s “enduring love / and promised peace.”  The allusion to Isaac Watts’ famous paraphrase of Psalm 90, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” is especially skillfully done.  The vigor and expansiveness of the LEONI hymn tune powerfully support a sung act of trust in which we acknowledge that “death is close and hand” and “plagues…may shake our faith,” yet keep our eyes fixed on the light that will “lead and guide us safely home.”

Sr. Delores herself notes that, while “God, Faithful Through the Years” may certainly be used as a “prayer during a pandemic,” it may also be appropriate in other times of danger or crisis.

 

One comment

  1. Thanks for this post. I used “Shelter Me” every week, all during Lent and many times since. And I used “Christ Still Rises” during the EAster season. Both are beautiful, evocative, consoling and prayerful and are perfect vehicles of comfort during these days. I will certainly check out the others you mentioned

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