An Echo of the Voice of God

The Hymns of Adam M. L. Tice

Adam Merrill Longoria Tice was born in western Pennsylvania on October 11, 1979, and was raised in Alabama, Oregon, and Indiana. He is a graduate of Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, (2002, major in music composition), and the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana (2006, M.A. in Christian formation). From 2007 to 2012 he served as associate pastor of Hyattsville Mennonite Church in Hyattsville, Maryland (near Washington, D.C.), and since 2012 has lived with his family in Goshen, Indiana. Though born into a Mennonite family and educated at Mennonite institutions, Adam did not officially join the Mennonite Church until 2007.

Adam has been active in the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. He was named a Lovelace Scholar for the society’s 2004 annual conference and served from 2007 to 2010 as a member of the organization’s executive committee.

Adam began writing hymn texts while he was a seminary student; indeed, by his own admission he wrote some texts during lectures by his professors! To date, four collections of his hymns have been compiled, all issued by GIA Publications in Chicago: Woven into Harmony (2009; “Woven”), A Greener Place to Grow: 50 More Hymn Texts (2011; “Greener”), Stars Like Grace: 50 More Hymn Texts (2013; “Stars”), and Claim the Mystery (2015).

One prominent feature of Tice’s hymns is their economy of expression. Each word is carefully chosen and appropriately placed, and “filler” is avoided. The texts are often characterized by few stanzas, few—and mostly short—words, with single-syllable words predominating. An example is the first stanza of “As the Birds of the Air” (Woven, 12), which contains only three multi-syllables among its 39 words.

As the birds of the air
trust in God for their care
       without fear, for they know they will feed,
so in faith we should trust,
knowing God will be just,
       and provide us with all that we need.

Note particularly the directness of meaning in these lines. The author says what needs to be said without any wasted or extraneous words. On the other hand, he is not above writing an occasional tongue-twister, such as “spill through shades of dreary night” or “with flames of wind-whipped heat” (“Grace beyond Our Brightest Dreaming” and “The Spirit Is a Dove,” Woven, 48, 88).

The stanza from “As the Birds of the Air” quoted above demonstrates another characteristic of Tice’s craftsmanship: the rhythmic smoothness of the lines. Once he has set up a poetic pattern—in this case, anapestic meter (uu/)—there is seldom a “bump” in the rhythm. His occasional and judicious employment of alliteration also gives life to the rhythm, as in a hymn that “draws upon the various feminine descriptions of Wisdom/Sophia in Proverbs,” “She Moves Where She Wishes” (Woven, 78, stanza 3).

Her feather-soft footfalls are soundless and sure.
Her movement is melody, seamless and pure.
       She reaches for branches that bend as they bear
       the succulent apples that grow in her care.

Tice’s skill is also evident from the consistent use he makes of true rhymes. He often chooses rhyme schemes that can be difficult to sustain, such as cross-rhyme (ABAB) or variations on that pattern, but the results are natural and unforced, with few uses of false rhymes.

When Jesus read the Word
the Spirit filled his voice.
He spoke and people heard
God’s liberating choice—
       Good News, proclaimed to set us free:
       this is the year of Jubilee! (Greener, 105).

Sometimes Tice’s rhymes explore words that are seldom encountered in hymn texts, as when the line “sounding God’s delighted laugh” is rhymed with “to the treetop-tall giraffe” in “Earth Is Full of Wit and Wisdom” (Woven, 36). This hymn is a veritable catalog of earthly creatures, including the roly-poly, gecko, penguin, platypus, and sea slug—to name only some of the more unusual ones—reminding us that we are “born of soil to live as stewards,/called to love and serve the earth.” On the other hand, the author has some hymns that use no rhyme at all (“An Open Hand, a Willing Heart”; Stars, 8).

Several of Tice’s hymns make use of unusual forms or devices. To choose only three examples from Woven: “An Echo of the Voice of God” (10) calls for the singers to hum at the beginning and end of the hymn as well as between each stanza; “At the Pulpit, Font, and Table” (14) includes an acrostic in its first stanza; and “beyond” (18) contains no capital letters except for the words “God” and “I AM” in each stanza.

Occasionally, Tice writes a hymn that contains no subject/verb combination. “This Dreadful Cross” is one such text, giving the impression of a series of snapshots rather than a continuous narrative.

This dreadful cross of rough-hewn wood;
       this ring of hammers nailing;
              this barren hill where scoffers stood;
                     this stricken mother wailing;
                            this veil of darkness as he died;
                                   this Suff’ring Servant, crucified;
                                          this broken human body. (Woven, 94)

The subjects of Tice’s hymns vary widely. A number of them are scriptural paraphrases, such as “How Good and Sweet It Is” and “I Saw a River Flowing,” based on Psalm 133 and Revelation 22, respectively (Stars, 36, 38). He is often drawn to irony and sometimes to a tongue-in-cheek approach to a topic. His “No Mistletoe or Christmas Trees” (Stars, 70) gently pokes fun at our Christmas traditions and celebrations, while “Come, Join in Mary’s Prophet-Song” (Woven, 28)—inspired by the Magnificat—calls Mary “the maiden . . . not so mild,” reversing a typical characterization of the mother of Jesus.

Two other texts from the same collection are similar in outlook. “Impatiently, We Wait for You” observes that while we wait anxiously for God to give us “just what we seek,” God instead works “beyond the here and now” (42). “Lying Lips That Falsely Flatter” (58; also in Lift Up Your Hearts, 644), is a paraphrase of Psalm 12—written, the author notes, in a semi-Broadway patter song idiom—includes the word “blather,” which, he claims, “should not be sung with a straight face.”

Among other less common subjects Tice explores are God as musician and care of the land (“Composer of the Universe” and “The Earth Belongs to God Alone,” Greener, 24 and 80); God’s ongoing acts of creation (“As Breath Swept Over Formless Sea,” Stars, 10); healing, natural disasters, and Jesus’ identification with “the broken” (“God, Bless the Doctor’s Art,” “In Floods of Chaos, Seas of Grief” [written in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita], and “Who Is This Who Breaches Borders,” Woven, 43, 60, and 114).

In addition to “Lying Lips That Falsely Flatter,” Lift Up Your Hearts includes Tice’s hymn “The Church of Christ Cannot Be Bound” (266; Woven, 80). This text was the winning entry in an annual hymn contest sponsored by Macalester Plymouth United Church of St. Paul, Minnesota. The 2005 appeal called for hymns that “call the church and its people to greater awareness of the plight of the homeless, and to the need for affordable housing for all people.” As is characteristic of Tice’s lyrics, the writing is terse and direct. The text is in Common Meter and can be sung to a variety of familiar or new tunes.

Another fine text of Tice’s is “What Kind of Shepherd Seeks the Sheep” (Stars, 100). The author questions the “logic” of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to seek the one that is lost, but also the “wisdom” of the sheep that leaves the safety of the shepherd’s care, ending with a prayer for the singer to be led “safely home.”

What kind of shepherd seeks the sheep
       that wanders far away
when there are ninety-nine to keep
       that have the sense to stay?
Why track the one that left the flock
       to try its luck alone?
And who would search through scrub and rock
       of wilderness unknown?

What kind of sheep would be so bold
       to shun the shepherd’s care
when rod and staff protect the fold
       from lion, wolf, and bear?
Why leave the peaceful field and creek
       for shadow-shaded lands?
And will the sheep return to seek
       its loving shepherd’s hands?

Come, faithful Shepherd, be my guide,
       and lead me safely home.
Forgive the self-sufficient pride
       that causes me to roam.
Then with the wand’rers and the strays
       that you have sought and found,
contented, I will live my days
       where grace and peace abound!

© 2013, GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Here again the author brings out the irony and paradox of the gospel story. In this and other texts by Adam M. L. Tice, one can truly hear “an echo of the voice of God” that calls Christians to worship, love, and service.

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


Reformed Worship 118 © December 2015 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.