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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Meet a hymnwriter

Susan Cherwien shares ‘old truths in new words’

In warmer months, Susan Palo Cherwien works in a greenhouse helping people plan gardens and care for their plants. During the winter, she writes hymn texts at her desk or kitchen table with a pen and notebook paper.

When she writes a hymn text, such as “O Blessed Spring” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 447), she spends weeks preparing: reading Scripture, studying and praying. Then she jots words, images, Scripture references, synonyms and rhymes along the outer edges of a page. The actual text takes form in the center of the page. “Sometimes I weave acrostics into hymns. I love playing with words,” she said.

performing hymns
Susan, a hymn writer, and David Cherwien, a cantor and music composer, live a life of Lutheran music. Together the couple lead hymn festivals where they encourage people to sing and reflect on the meaning of hymns.

“When I look at someone as prolific as Isaac Watts or Fanny Crosby, I have no idea how they did it,” Cherwien added. “I can only write three or four hymn texts a year.” 

But taking her time is important. “My task as a poet is not to duplicate the texts of the past. My task is to put old truths in new words so that we recognize them again, or to fill in the gaps where nothing has been written.
 
“I always keep in mind seven questions: Is it true? Is it beautiful? Is it excellent? Does it give God glory? Can it bear the weight of mystery? Is it appropriate? Does it replace something of greater worth? And if I have done my task well, then perhaps someone will find a place for themselves in the singing of that hymn, and perhaps a door will open to show us how to be Christ in the world.”


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