One morning in June 1872, Annie Sherwood Hawks (1836-1918) was doing her housework in Brooklyn, NY, when a poem began to take shape in her mind.
Hawks did not postpone her creativity. She seized the moment, took a break from her busy list of things to do, sat down, and penned the words to “I NEED THEE EVERY HOUR.”
Nor did Hawks modestly tuck her poem away. She honored her creative talents and spiritual longings by taking them seriously. Hanging up her apron, she took the poem to her pastor, Robert Lowry, at the Hanson Place Baptist Church. Dr. Lowry promptly set her words to music and saw to its publication later that same year.
SHE PERSISTED IN THE CREATIVE LIFE
Annie had been writing poems since age 14 and was regularly published in newspapers. She attended public schools and the Troy Seminary, but never earned a diploma.
On her own, she continued to read, study, and write, even after she and her husband moved from the small town of Hoosick, NY to Brooklyn to raise a family.
“I need thee” is repeated 20 times in this intimate hymn about the nearness of Jesus. By her own admission, Hawks didn’t understand “why this hymn had touched the great throbbing heart of humanity” until years later, during a period of loss and grief. Then, at last, she felt “something of the comforting power” of words from her own pen.
After her husband’s death, Hawks moved to Bennington, VT to live with her daughter and son-in-law. By the end of her life, she’d penned lyrics to 400 hymns.
MARY, MARTHA, AND MALE PRIVILEGE
The anecdote of how Annie briefly put aside her housework for a soul-nourishing moment of creativity recalls the story in Luke 10: 38-42.
Martha was eager to make Jesus and his disciples feel welcomed in her home. The work she was doing was essential. Who can blame her for worrying about details and feeling resentful that her sister wasn’t helping?
Mary, seemingly oblivious, remained seated beside the male disciples — a brash act, rare for a woman in first century Palestine.
Counter-cultural Jesus defied patriarchal expectations when he gave Mary the nod of approval, signaling that women have the right to be part of the conversation.
The story of Mary and Martha has been used to shame and divide women, as if we had to choose between doing the work (often unpaid) of providing nurture and comfort or engaging in the world of ideas. In reality, we are both Mary and Martha.
The false debate diverts attention from the radical point Jesus was making — that women are entitled to pursue our potential, fully engaged in the world.
CARPE DIEM, SEIZE THE DAY!
“If only I had time I’d…” and then we name the creative impulse tugging at our sleeve — write a book or a song, sew a quilt, bake a cake, run a marathon, learn to snowboard, brush up on a foreign language, think up new computer software, dance, paint, study, do a yoga stretch or hip hop move, meditate, pray, dream.
Sometimes the options remain out of reach due to economic hardship or the demands of basic survival in the myriad nightmares which distort human life around the globe. Silences imposed by war, violence, abuse, or poverty are expressions of societal sin which Christians are called upon to lament and remedy.
But other times, our calendars overflow with work or social obligations, or the trivial and mundane, precious moments spent in front of the TV, cellphone, or computer screen, scrolling, scrolling, or too many hours spent shopping.
Or we give in to worries that we’re not good enough. The impulse to create or grow may feel self-indulgent or foolish in a society of experts, where creative success is measured by monetary reward or recognition. We hang our children’s artwork on the refrigerator and call it a day.
The example of Annie Hawks and the story of Martha and Mary, however, tell us that we are entitled to honor our creative impulses, our yearning for insight and expression. It is our birthright to use the gifts God gave us. Carpe diem!
TO GO DEEPER
“History of Hymns: I Need Thee Every Hour” by C. Michael Hawn, UMC Discipleship Ministries
hymnary.org — Words and music to “I Need Thee Every Hour”
“martha & mary: jesus the feminist & the destruction of privatized religion” by Matt Anslow, at life.remixed (because theology should turn the world upside down)
“On Scripture: Mary and Martha, Use Your Gifts — Whatever They May Be” by Sister Mary Perry, Sojourners, 7/16/13