by Susan Palo Cherwien

I have been writing hymn texts for 30 years now, and over these years I have refined a list of seven questions that I ask when I have finished a hymn text—a sort of sieve through which each text must pass. The very first question is: Is it true? Are the words true?

Not every hymn that I have sung in my life has been true, and at some point as an adult I made a decision not to sing words into myself and into the universe that I didn’t feel were true. When our sons were little and sitting next to me in church in South Minneapo­lis, I would catch sight of them in my peripheral vision, watching me to see what words I might not sing that day. Questionable words, false words, ugly words would just trip me up and momentarily silence me.

Now as a hymn writer, I know that it is my great responsibility to ensure, as much as possible, that the words I weave together for all of us to sing are true. Words shape us.

Words, when wedded to music and spun out on our living breath into the world, have power. We will sing them into ourselves, some­times over and over. We will sing them into those around us, into the walls, into the creation. Modern physics teaches us that nothing disappears without a trace. Matter is transformed into energy. Energy coalesces back into matter. The thoughts that we are singing into our hearts and out into the world do not disappear without a trace. They continue to vibrate and shape us—and the world.


Into what are we being shaped by the songs and hymns we are sing­ing together?

A few years ago I read a fas­cinating study: In the last few decades, scientists have found the place where empathy resides in the brain—an area called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is sort of a mediating layer between the rap­id-fire, instinctual emotions of the limbic system in the center of the brain, and the prefrontal cortex: the thinking, logical, reasoning part of the brain just behind our forehead.

In the anterior cingulate cortex there are special neurons called spindle neurons. When we think compassionate thoughts, when we do compassionate acts, those cells grow and multiply; we become more compassionate people. When we meditate on or pray to a com­passionate God, those spindle neu­rons also grow and multiply, and we become, as a result, more compas­sionate people. Pretty startling.

But when we are angry, bitter, hate-filled and resentful, those cells are actually destroyed, and the an­terior cingulate cortex decreases in size. When we meditate on or pray to an angry God, a God of whom we are afraid, then, too, those spin­dle neurons are destroyed, and we become angrier, less compassion­ate, less empathetic people.

When I look at these studies, I think: What kind of God did Jesus the Christ embody? What kind of God was Jesus trying to reveal to us? And what kind of God are we singing about in our hymns and liturgy? Can you begin to see the implications here for the words that we sing and pray together? Into what are we being shaped by the words and the music we sing?

Susan Palo Cherwien is a musician, poet, gardener and hymn writer for denominational hymnals across the United States and Canada.

This article is excerpted from the October 2017 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.