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  • Writer's pictureMark McMinn


As a 20-something assistant professor beginning my academic career, I attended a weekly worship service hosted by students in the green room of our campus chapel. Almost every week we sang a then-popular worship song, “As the Deer,” based on Psalm 42. As worship songs often do, this one shaped my affections and my faith, helping me see how deeply I yearn for God.

Though not a piano player, I learned to plunk out a few chords and a melody line for this chorus. To this day, when I sit in front of a piano keyboard, it’s “As the Deer” that flows through my heart, into my fingers, and out into the whatever small portion of the world is within hearing distance. It’s the only song I know how to play, and it is enough.

As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. (Psalm 42:1)

It's tempting to make this into a feel-good song about a beautiful deer lapping contently at the mountain stream, as if we always turn to God first in times of need, and then God responds by solving all our problems.

It's not.

Thirst is at the heart of Nystrom’s praise song and the Hebrew psalm on which it is based.

The songwriter, a young, heartbroken school teacher named Marty Nystrom, knew something about longing because he had been fasting from food for 19 days when he sat down at his piano and began putting chords and music to this psalm. [1]

Without water, we perish. We wander through spiritual wildernesses longing for streams of water to quench our thirsty souls. The thirstier we are, the more beautiful the water.

The Old Testament prophet offered another enduring metaphor about water to a people emerging from captivity in Babylon:

Oh, that you had listened to my commands! Then you would have had peace flowing like a gentle river... (Isaiah 48:18)

Many centuries later, another group in captivity, in this case horrifically enslaved, drew on Isaiah’s river metaphor in writing a lively Black spiritual that has been adapted and sung at churches and camps ever since: “I’ve got peace like a river in my soul.”

Water keeps showing up when people are thirsty and weary and utterly depleted.

In 1873, tragedy visited a once-wealthy family when Maggie, Tanetta, Annie, and Bessie Spafford were all killed in the sinking of Ville du Havre, a luxury French liner, in the Atlantic Ocean. Their parents, Horatio and Anna, had already lost a son to scarlet fever and a fortune in the Chicago fires two years earlier. As Horatio was crossing the Atlantic to be with Anna, who had miraculously survived the shipwreck, he grieved the place where his children had been lost to the ocean’s fierceness and still affirmed, “It is well; the will of God be done.” Later, he penned the words to a hymn:

When peace like a river attendeth my way When sorrows like sea billows roll Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say It is well, it is well with my soul.

Phillip Bliss put Spafford’s lyrics to music, then shortly after he and his wife, Lucy, were killed in a train wreck. Phillip was 38 years old when he died. [2]

The metaphor keeps showing up, pain and peace intermingled. Amidst the turbulence of protests over the Vietnam war, musician Paul Simon wrote a song titled Peace Like a River.

It showed up again in a 2001 bestselling novel by Leif Enger, Peace Like a River, who sang Horatio Spafford’s hymn one Sunday morning in church while beginning to ponder his book.

Enger later described it this way:

It’s a beautiful old hymn that you find in lots of different hymnals, and that phrase just jumped out at me… I thought, “what a marvelous book title that is,” and it just seemed to personify something about the book: a peacefulness, the sadness, it’s all there. And so I wrote toward that title—that was the title I always wanted the book to bear. [3]

The peacefulness, the sadness, it's all there in Enger's novel, and it's there in our lives, too.

It's lovely to imagine a serene stream on a quiet summer morning, but the metaphor seems to hold more complexity. There’s white water in this river. Peace keeps showing up in the midst of captivity, enslavement, tragedy, conflict, and sadness. This river is about serenity, yes, but also about struggle and challenge and pain.

We come to this river because we're thirsty, because we yearn for peace and civility and hope, and because we've been searching a long time.


NOTES [1] Lindsay Terry, “Story Behind the Song: ‘As the Deer’”. The St. Augustine Record (January 7, 2016). See also, Songfacts, “As the Deer.” I don’t know Marty Nystrom, but I think I would like him. From his webpage and Facebook profile I gather he enjoys humor, loves words and music, and is a person of deep faith and humility. For more, see C. Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: ‘As the Deer’”. Discipleship Ministries (November 12, 2014).

[2] Robert J. Morgan, Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), pp. 185, 193.

[3] Jody Ewing, “Faith, Miracles and a Profound Story of Love and Tragedy.” Jody Ewing (February 20, 2003).

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