We Sing of an Unfailing Love

The Music of John Core

John Core, a layman in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), was born on February 17, 1951, at Camp Rucker (now Fort Rucker), Alabama. After attending public schools in Cicero, Illinois; and Morgantown, West Virginia; he graduated from West Virginia University with a B.A. in speech communication in 1974. He began working for the university in 1975, first in the division of music, then in the university libraries as lab assistant in music theory (1975-1985), paraprofessional supervisor of a branch music library (1985-1999), and library associate in a consolidated campus library (1999-present).

Core began writing hymn texts on a regular basis in the early 1990s, partly through the influence of his experiences at conferences and workshops of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. A number of his lyrics have been selected as winners in hymn competitions and searches. To date, he has published three collections of texts, all issued by Wayne Leupold Editions: Shores of Thought and Feeling (2000), Through the Ceaseless Web (2006), and Within the Maddening Maze (2010).

Core’s hymns are notable for their use of colorful language and imagery. A prime example is the first line of the Christmas hymn “The Night Went Wild with Angels” (Shores, 62). In a few short words this hymn captures the combination of confusion and exhilaration the shepherds must have felt in the fields outside Bethlehem. A similar example of a vivid first line occurs in the Pentecost text “God Turned the Spirit Loose in Wind” (Shores, 26), which suggests a pent-up force suddenly being released.

The texts often contain words that are seldom encountered in religious verse, such as “kaleidoscope” (“God of Every View and Vision,” Ceaseless Web, 16-17) and “spittle” (“A Dab of Earthly Things,” Shores, 2). Nor does the author shy away from expressions reflecting life and technology in the twenty-first century, as in his hymn on music, “Praise God for All the Singing” (Ceaseless Web, 44). Structured around Paul’s three-fold formula of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16), the text relates spiritual songs to modern music that will “retell” the story “in new manner,/a modern, diff’rent style/to match the age of scanner/web, e-mail, and sound file.” One can also find colloquial expressions that are almost humorous in their effect, including an allusion to the shepherds on their way through Bethlehem waking “the sleeping out-of-town crowd” (“Angel, Bursting out through Starfields,” Shores, 6) and God being the source of “ev’ry sound and silence,” including “antique chants and jazzy jives” (“God of Every View and Vision”).

Core’s creative language is matched by his rhymes, both in the rhyme schemes and in the sounds that are chosen for duplication. In “At Dawn of Grace” (Shores, 8), each stanza consists of four lines with the first three (of eight syllables each) rhyming and the fourth (six syllables) standing by itself. One of the rhyming words in stanza four is “crèche” (matching “enmesh” and “flesh”), while stanza five rhymes “holocaust” with “frost” and “crossed.” The fifth line of every stanza in “Booming Gong and Clanging Cymbal” (Shores, 10-11) contains three double rhymes (e.g., “not reflected, but connected and perfected” from stanza six), while lines five and six in each stanza of “Christ, You Came to Join the Dancing” (Ceaseless Web, 11) include internal rhymes. Internal rhyme is also featured in the first line of each stanza in “Clap Hands, All Lands” (Ceaseless Web, 12); the compactness of this paraphrase of Psalm 47 is also notable (each stanza contains between thirteen and eighteen words). A unique rhyming of “God” with “applaud” occurs in “The Wilderness and Desert Shout” (Shores, 66). While Core exploits an occasional false rhyme, eye rhyme, or near rhyme, the vast majority of the sounds he employs are true rhymes.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Core’s writing is the way he relates Scripture to modern issues and concerns. The four stanzas of “A Transient, Chosen People” (Shores, 5) successively mention the Israelites as homeless (wandering in the desert), the Son of Man having “nowhere to lay his head,” the despair of modern homelessness, and the calling of Christ for us to show “love, justice, and compassion.” In like manner, “The Night of Nights Had Passed Now” (Shores, 61) begins with the exodus from Egyptian bondage, but in the second stanza we are confronted with the binding of “a different race” in an obvious reference to chattel slavery in the United States. Stanza three is a prayer for forgiveness, and stanza four is a call to commitment; both stanzas prominently employ the word “dream,” perhaps reflecting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

A particularly poignant example of this relation of Scripture to recent events is Core’s “Here By Our Own Home Waters” (Ceaseless Web, 22), written “For the victims, heroes, and survivors: September 11, 2001.” Using Psalm 137 as the backdrop, the “waters of Babylon” are now “our own home waters,” and we still cannot “sing the Lord’s song/in land made new and strange.” The psalmist’s lamentation over the loss of Jerusalem has been turned into mourning over the destruction in New York City (though the city is not specifically named). The imprecatory conclusion of Psalm 137 is redirected into an assurance that though things look bleak, God is not absent: “mid ashes with the people/our God sits down and weeps.”

Core’s text “From Shadowed Canyons of the Soul” (Shores, 19) captures well the lamentation implicit in the Scripture passage on which it is modeled, Psalm 130: stanza one paraphrases verses one through four of the psalm, while stanza three does the same for verses five through eight. Stanza two is not based directly on the biblical text but serves as a commentary on it. If it is desired to sing only the psalm text (for instance, as a response to the lectionary Old Testament reading), this stanza can be omitted without unduly harming the sense of the words. Note the manner in which the “shadowed canyons” of the first line return at the end of stanza three, but now the two words are separated, and “morning light” “redeems” the soul of the singer:

From shadowed canyons of the soul

I lift a weary cry,

and God, you turn your ear to me

and sense my inmost sigh.

If you should mark my faults and sins,

I could not hope for heaven;

yet even here I find your grace,

and know I am forgiven.

Temptations called me to these wilds,

and walk beside me still;

they offer yet the vacant high,

the transient, hollow thrill.

The desert Christ, who knew such wastes,

shall guard and guide me through;

and strengthened for the journey now,

O God, I wait for you.

I wait for you, and wait in hope,

and trusting in your word,

watch eagerly for each new dawn

with spirit undeterred:

for God, you bathe with morning light

these canyons I have known,

where love redeems my shadowed soul,

and claims me as your own.

Linked with the suggested tune (Tallis’s THIRD MODE MELODY) or other appropriate music, this hymn effectively captures the sense of the psalm in language and imagery that are both natural and gripping. In addition to its usefulness in church settings, one can imagine it being helpful for individuals who are suffering from depression or undergoing trials of various sorts.

John Core’s hymns demonstrate originality, significant knowledge of the Bible, poetic expression, and refreshing directness. Singing these texts will enlarge our vision and help us, as one of his hymns puts it, “sing of an unfailing love,/and tell of heavenly might,/of all the good things done for us/who struggled in the night,/of God, who brought us through the gloom/into the present light” (“We Sing of an Unfailing Love,” Shores, 75).

(Note: All lines and stanzas quoted in this article are © Wayne Leupold Editions, Inc., and are used by permission. “From Shadowed Canyons of the Soul” and “We Sing of an Unfailing Love” are both © 2000.)

Reformed Worship 113 © September 2014, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.