See with the Eyes of God

The Music of Dan Damon

Dan Damon is an author/composer who knows and understands the tradition of hymn-writing but is able to infuse it with creative post-modern thought—and vice versa. While his texts are to the point, they do not indulge in stark language merely for shock value or to prove their “relevance.” And Damon’s tunes, notable for their diversity, are singable and supportive of the text.

Daniel Charles Damon was born on July 2, 1955, in Rapid City, South Dakota. He received his education at Greenville College in Greenville, Illinois (BME, 1977), and the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California (M.Div., 1987). He has been pastor of United Methodist churches in the Californian cities of Sutter, Meridian, and Modesto; and is currently minister at the First United Methodist Church of Richmond, California. He also serves as associate editor of hymnody for Hope Publishing Company.

In addition to his ministry activities, Dan is an accomplished jazz pianist who can be heard in many venues in the San Francisco Bay area.

Dan Damon writes hymns and songs in a variety of forms. Many are in what might be called standard hymnic structure: a collection of stanzas with or without a refrain, set to a strophic tune. When a refrain is present, it is often a “burden” (a refrain sung at the beginning as well as after each stanza), as is the case with “Hear the Call of Jesus” (Garden, 10). The Palm Sunday hymn “Blessed Is the One” (Faith, 4) contains two refrains, one a burden and a second that is sung to conclude each stanza.

Some of Damon’s hymns are more in the nature of a chorus or Taizé song, containing a single stanza of text with a simple melody, such as “You Will Seek Me and Find Me” (Fields, 36). Others are in responsorial (call-and-response) mode (“The Love of God Receives Us,” Sound, 15). A number of hymns have written-out instrumental introductions and/or interludes (“Love Knocks and Waits for Us to Hear,” Garden, 20; “Blessed Is the One”).

Where to Find Dan Damon’s Work

A writer of both texts and tunes, many of Damon’s hymns have appeared in the single-author/composer collections Faith Will Sing (1993), The Sound of Welcome (1998), Fields of Mercy (2007), and Garden of Joy (2011)—all issued by Hope Publishing Company—and To the Thirsty World (Abingdon Press, 2002) and two self-published volumes (A Place of Prayer, 1989; A Place of Meeting, 1991).

Damon also provided tunes for texts by Gracia Grindal in A Treasury of Faith: Lectionary Hymns Series A (Wayne Leupold Editions, 2011), and edited Patrick Matskinyiri’s Njalo: A Collection of 16 Hymns in the African Tradition (Abingdon Press, 2006).

Individual tunes have been published in one-author collections by other writers, and a number of his works are found in hymnals of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, including The Chalice Hymnal (1995), The New Century Hymnal (1995) and Worship and Rejoice (2001).

Damon’s texts explore an array of topics. A few are retellings of biblical stories or scriptural paraphrases, such as his hymn on the resurrection, “Woman, Weeping in the Garden” (Faith, 24), which is based on John 20, or his version of Psalm 137, “By the Rivers Far from Home.” A particularly fine example of Damon’s biblicism is his “Eat This Bread and Never Hunger” (Faith, 6), in which the refrain (a burden) has obvious communion implications but the stanzas relate to the scriptural stories of the woman at the well, Jesus healing the man born blind, and Jesus’ sorrow over the death of Lazarus. His texts also explore topics that are often ignored in hymnody, such as the flight into Egypt (“New Year Dawns on Our Darkness,” Faith, 17; “When Jesus Was a Refugee,” Garden, 32).

Damon’s hymns have much to offer in helping the contemporary Christian “See with eyes of God, feel with the heart of Christ, act with the Spirit’s power, and live as a child of God.”

In addition to the Scriptures, Damon’s hymns are inspired by his personal experiences in everyday life. “Speak to a Tattooed Man” (Garden, 28) draws upon experiences the hymnist had with people sporting “body art” and reminds us that “Love does not lightly pass him by,/but takes his tattooed hands.” “Venus and the Moon,” subtitled “A Hymn for Epiphany” (Fields, 25) and echoing Psalm 19:1 (“The heavens are telling the glory of God”), grew out of a nighttime drive in California: just as the planet and satellite reflect the sun, they also “reflect their Maker’s glory.”

Some of Damon’s hymns have a doctrinal cast. “Jesus’ Death Was Not God’s Need” (Faith, 11) critiques certain interpretations of the penal substitution theory of the atonement: “Jesus’ death was not God’s need,/but to offer grace;/anger did not make him bleed/for the human race.” We are to “Find no fault with Jewish law,/nor with Roman rule” but to “fault the love that blessed the straw/with a priceless jewel,” or “better still to place no blame,/human or divine”; instead of placing blame, we should “learn to share in Jesus’ name:/water, bread and wine.”

Other hymns on the crucifixion and resurrection contain individual lines that stand out because of their axiom-like character: “Death did its worst and lost” (“Eternal Christ, You Rule,” Faith, 7), “God forgave us Jesus’ death” (“The Spirit Filled the Tomb with Breath,” Sound, 16), and “fisted force and gleaming might” (“If Christ Is Risen from the Dead,” Garden, 13). More conventional is Damon’s modern gospel song “When Jesus Touched My Heart” (Fields, 28), which puts the singer in the place of Peter having his feet washed by Jesus. Balancing such seriousness are touches of humor, as in the ecology hymn “Give Thanks for Wolf and Bird” (Sound, 2):

“Sing praises for the shark/who swims the sea./(But don’t eat me!).”

A particularly remarkable text is “like a child” (Faith, 15), which, in a manner reminiscent of e. e. cummings, contains no capitalization except for the name of Jesus. In many respects, the lyric is the essence of simplicity. It is written in three-syllable phrases: the hymnic meter is listed as, though the rhyme scheme and a suggestion of anaphora (beginning successive lines with the same word or phrase) implies a meter of, creating an interesting juxtaposition of impressions. Of the 104 total words (not counting “Jesus”), ninety-four contain only a single syllable; the remainder are two-syllable words that stand out from their surroundings both by their length and because of their importance: “reveal,” “claiming,” “ragged,” “dirty,” “coming,” “into,” “anew,” “receive,” “conceive,” “believe.” While—as is often seen in his other hymns—Damon is not afraid of false and eye rhymes, in this one the corresponding sounds are all true rhymes, adding to the strength and inevitability of the text. Rather than taking a narrative approach, the lyric gives the impression of a series of brief snapshots that have been assembled into a collage; however, careful reading reveals an inner logic and the powerful message that “Jesus comes . . . like a child.”

Like his texts, Damon’s tunes demonstrate considerable diversity of style. Some, such as HAWLEY (“In a Lonely Place,” Sound, 7), are in what might be called “conventional hymn tune” style—a straightforward melody with a largely diatonic setting (see also DORNAN, “God, We Praise You for the Women,” Garden, 8). Others are reminiscent of a Baroque chorale (LOVE'S NEED, “Jesus’ Death Was Not God’s Need”; GUTFELDT, “Jesus Saw the Path to Death,” Sound, 9), while still others are folk-like in both tune and harmonization (like a child [the tune name is expressed thus in Faith]; JOSEPH, “Joseph, Son of an Ancient King,” Faith, 12).

There are also musical bows to international hymnic idioms, including African (STEPPINGSTONE, “The Love of God Receives Us”) and Hispanic (TWENTYNINE PALMS, “Hear the Call of Jesus,” Garden, 10), and tunes in popular styles: MANY GIFTS(“Many Gifts, One Spirit,” Garden, 21) and the jazz-inflected PEACE CHILD (“Three Kings,” Garden, 29), which ends with an Eb-Bb-F-G-D chord. Some of the tunes are in the nature of a solo song (CLARK, “If I Take the Wings of the Morning,” Sound, 5), while others have characteristics of the gospel song (MERCY SPRINGS, “When Jesus Touched My Heart”; LOVE FEAST, “Come in from the Cold, My Friend,” Faith, 5).

The text and tune “Shadow and Substance”/TWILIGHT (Sound, 13; ex. 1) may be taken as typical of Damon’s hymns, yet at the same time it is singular in its message and effect. The hymn has the unusual distinction of having been inspired by a television program: the first three words were derived from the opening narration of The Twilight Zone (see Damon’s notes on the hymn in Sound). From this germ the author spun a poem about the “wonder and mystery” of the God who made everything, including humanity and its quest for understanding and knowledge. As with “like a child,” the text is largely non-narrative in approach, instead creating a series of sensations that reflect the inexplicable nature of the divine. The gentle tune is easy to sing and is folk-like in its simplicity, with a plain harmonization that supports but does not get in the way of the melody. Damon subsequently used the tune with another text, “Strong, Gentle Children” (Faith, 21).

A gifted poet and an equally gifted composer, Damon’s hymns have much to offer in helping the contemporary Christian “See with the eyes of God, feel with the heart of Christ, act with the Spirit’s power, and live as a child of God” (Fields, 20).

(Note: All lines and stanzas quoted in this article are © Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, Illinois. All rights reserved. Used by permission.)

David Music is professor of church music at Baylor University, Waco, Texas.


Reformed Worship 114 © December 2014, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.