Give Thanks to the Great Musician and Poet

The Music of John Thornburg

John D. Thornburg is a United Methodist minister whose father, grandfather, and great-grandfather also served as Methodist ministers. Born in Southampton, New York, in 1954, he graduated from DePauw University in Indiana and the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Thornburg served four appointments in the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, the last as pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas (1991-2001). One of his parishioners at this church was Jane Marshall, with whom he has frequently collaborated. He later began serving as a consultant in song leading and worship.

In 2013 Thornburg joined the staff of the Texas Methodist Foundation, serving as a clergy coach and resource consultant for United Methodist churches in the state. He has also served as an adjunct professor in preaching and worship at Perkins and collaborated with a group of Cameroonian United Methodists in the publication of their first hymnal/worship book, Mille Voix pour Chanter Tes Louanges. For more on this work, see the RW 83 article “If You Sing It They Will Come.”

John Thornburg has published three collections of texts: The One Who Taught Beside the Sea (Wayne Leupold, 2003, texts only), Can God Be Seen in Other Ways (Abingdon Press, 2003, with tunes by Jane Marshall), and Family of God (Abingdon Press, 2008, tunes by a variety of composers). These volumes demonstrate a remarkable range of technical features, expression, and subject matter.

The creativity of Thornburg’s poetic technique is particularly evident in his handling of rhyme. Some texts employ blank verse, such as “Is There a Nathan for Our Time?” (The One, 10). “The Dawn of Life, the Breath of God” (Can God Be Seen, 17) includes an internal rhyme in the last line of each stanza.

Perhaps the most unusual rhyme scheme is found in “Birth Is a Door” (Can God Be Seen, 7). The way the text is laid out indicates that there are no rhymes at the end of lines, but that each of the first three lines contains an internal rhyme, a feature that does not occur in the last line. It is also possible to read the text as eight-line stanzas in the meter 95556665, in which case the rhyme scheme would be AABBCCDE. Either way, the pattern is exceptional! Attention should also be directed to “The Crafty Foe” from the same collection (34), which rhymes the last word of line three with the interior of line four.

Thornburg sometimes uses what might be termed “unconventional” rhyming words, such as “tools” and “fuels” in “The Symphony of Mortal Life” (The One, 23) or “spent” and “orient” in “You Use the Parted Sea, O God” (The One, 36). Though he sometimes writes in standard hymnic meters (Long Meter, Common Meter, etc.), many of his texts make use of singular meters, such as 56864 (“This Is a Light Year,” 25), 6.10.6.8.6.3 (“When Love Is So Profound,” 32), and 10.10.8.6.2 (“When Every Impulse Tells Us to Retreat,” 31), all from The One Who Walked Beside the Sea.

The language Thornburg employs is generally plain, but he is not afraid to use an occasional biblical reference or English word that is not part of everyday parlance. “Is There a Nathan for Our Time” references Shiphrah, one of the Hebrew midwives who saved the male babies of the slaves from pharaoh’s death sentence (Ex. 1:15). Other hymns employ words such as “mutable” (“She Was So Young,” 31), “nascent” (“The Day Is Coming, Says the Lord,” 35), and “plait” (“When Hope Is Frayed,” 47), all from Family of God.

Even when Thornburg uses common words, they are sometimes combined in ways that are not often found in hymnody and can even bring a smile to the singer’s face. A prime example of this is in “One Among the Thorny Sayings” (Family of God, 55), a hymn based on Jesus’ sayings about taking up the cross and following him, beginning first by becoming a servant, and welcoming children in his name. Among the remarkable combinations in this hymn are “backward logic,” “hoarding has no dividend,” “‘last’ and ‘losing’ make no sense,” and the humorous reference to “Jesus’ holy mathematics.”

Thornburg’s hymns use a variety of Scriptures from both the Old and New Testaments as a point of departure. Some of these are passages that are quite familiar and have often served as the basis for the church’s song, like the Magnificat (“When Mary Searched for Words,” Can God Be Seen, 25; “She Was So Young,” Family of God, 31), while others deal with biblical themes seldom encountered in hymnody. An especially provocative example of the latter is “The Puddles Lingered on the Earth” (Can God Be Seen, 13), which has as its subject Noah’s post-flood drunken stupor. “A Crowd of Mourners Walked Beside” (Family of God, 15) paraphrases the story of the widow of Nain, whose son Jesus raised from the dead (Luke 7:11-15). “I Will Take Some Time to Pray” (The One, 11) is written from the perspective of Jesus in Gethsemane. Two other hymns outline the life of Jesus: “The One Who Taught Beside the Sea,” from the collection of the same name (20), is ballad-like in its approach and structure. “Jesus, Promise of an Angel” (Family of God, 27) approaches the subject in a series of brief snapshots: “Jesus, promise of an angel,/Jesus, tiny refugee,/Jesus student in the Temple,/Jesus, bound for Galilee . . . .” “On Pentecost” (The One, 15) describes the “sudden roar” of the descent of the Holy Spirit, but goes on to mention the fellowship and sharing of the early believers that was followed by “doubt, mistrust, and pain,” asking “to which condition are we heir?”

Pentecost, of course, is followed by Trinity Sunday in the Christian calendar, and several of Thornburg’s hymns are appropriate for this festival. “Family of God” (5) and “Gracious Creator of Sea and of Land” (23)—both from Family of God—make use of a shortened form of Trinitarian hymn structure, with one stanza for each person of the Trinity, while “You Use the Parted Sea, O God” (The One, 36) uses full-fledged Trinitarian structure by including a fourth stanza about the “One in Three.” In a sense, however, these are not hymns about the Trinity so much as they are texts that have a Trinitarian framework. “Gracious Creator of Sea and of Land” and “You Use the Parted Sea, O God” are essentially prayers, while “Family of God” asks “how can we ever say thank you?”

Other remarkable hymns or individual lines from these three collections may be mentioned briefly. The One Who Taught Beside the Sea includes a lyric titled “I Cannot Find the Words of Prayer” (9) that deals with the death of an unborn child. “The Symphony of Mortal Life” (23) critiques our penchant for using people for our own ends through the lines “We long to be fit laborers/and not just someone’s tools.” “We Gather Together” (28) is a “reworking” of the traditional text by that title to be sung to its usual tune, KREMSER. The variety of forms and types that speak to different people of faith is explored in “When Do People Sense the Power” (30): “Who can fathom why the prayer/that warms me to the core my neighbor cannot pray?” Two hymns deal with music: “What Song Can We Sing?” (29) was written to be sung to Jane Marshall’s ANNIVERSARY SONG, while “When Words Alone Cannot Express” (33) suggests that the answer to our lack of words is to “bring music.”

The title hymn from Can God Be Seen in Other Ways (4) reminds us that while we often imagine God “crowned and seated on a throne,” he can also be “glimpsed/in ordinary time and space” and “in every human face.” “The Tiny Feathered Pilgrim” (22) is a paraphrase of Psalm 84. In Family of God, “Thank God for Those with Mason’s Skill” (10) points out the value of walls for providing humans with protection and shelter, but also their downside when we use them to “divide, restrict, and segregate,” concluding that “Jesus comes when human hands/are calloused as their frightened hearts,/and, with the sledge of love in hand,/he breaks the fear-stained wall apart.”

Though not necessarily typical of Thornburg’s hymns, his text “The One Who Taught Beside the Sea” may be quoted in full as a fine contribution to the relatively small number of hymns dealing with Jesus’ earthly ministry.

The One who taught beside the sea,
who set the demon ridden free,
the friend of every refugee
is Jesus Christ our Lord.

The One who fasted forty days,
who valued children’s simple ways,
the source and goal of all our praise
is Jesus Christ our Lord.

The pastor of the simple folk
who offered them his easy yoke,
the One who died without a cloak
is Jesus Christ our Lord.

The One obeyed by wind and wave,
whose very name means “He will save,”
whose rising frees us from the grave
is Jesus Christ our Lord.

© 2003 by Wayne Leupold Editions, Inc. Used by permission.

Here we see child-like simplicity joined with profound biblical truth. Though the 8886 meter of the text is not particularly common in hymnody, it can be sung with several 8686 American folk hymn melodies, including DOVE OF PEACE and LAND OF REST, by adding two repeated notes to the end of the second phrase. By combining the four four-line stanzas into two eight-line stanzas it can also be sung to an adaptation of GARDEN HYMN, as in the hymnal Celebrating Grace (2010, no. 153). Folk hymn tunes such as these are a natural fit for the ballad-like nature of Thornburg’s lyric. Like others of the author’s texts, “The One Who Taught Beside the Sea” provides a vehicle for us to “Give thanks to the Great Musician and Poet/who tuned at creation and still makes things new” (“What Song Can We Sing?”).

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