Sydney Avey

Dynamic Women — Changing Times

Creative Joys: Anatomy of a Hymn

Mar 12, 2019 | Uncategorized, Writing life | 2 comments


One of the creative joys of being a writer is repurposing a work. In a Hymnology class at Christ Church in Goodyear, AZ, Dr. David Wilson challenged us to write a hymn. I took the challenge.

Because many hymns begin life as a poem, I chose to expand a short verse into a poem and then into lyrics. Here’s what the project looked like at the start:

Dust I was and dust I’ll be
til I rise again and see
Angels serve the Holy Leaven,
He, who made our earth His heaven
Pleased He’ll be to make me whole
Christ the Lover of my soul 
Holy, holy, angels sing
as He brings me to the King.

It is finished.
It is done.
Praise! I did not lose this one.

From poetry to lyrics to hymns

In the new poem, I developed the Lenten themes of confession, repentance, hope, and restoration. Next,  I reworked the new piece into four stanzas, the standard grouping that fits on a hymnal page. Finally, I added the music. The easiest way to set a lyric to music is to find a familiar tune that suits the song’s meter.  I wrote Dust and Ashes in Long Meter (LM), and chose Tallis Canon. 

The hymn’s purpose is to lead the congregation through a range of emotions that begin with sorrow and repentance and end in victory and joy. David introduced the song at Ash Wednesday service 2018. 

“Dust and Ashes” 

From dust I was and dust I’ll be
Until the day I rise and see
The Angels serve the Holy Leav’n
To He who made our earth His heav’n.
“Most Holy, Holy,” angels sing
As they bring me to Christ the King.

Mark well with ash my sin-stained brow
Remind me where I stand right now
Prepare my heart to feel the loss
The life He gave upon the cross.
“Most Holy, Holy,” angels sing
As they bring me to Christ my King.

Then lift my eyes towards heav’n above
To praise the Son for His great love
Sustain my hope, His face I’ll see
The day that He returns for me.
“Most Holy, Holy,” angels sing
As they unite me with my King.
For on that day I will be whole
And see Christ, Lover of My Soul 
His work now finished. It is done.
Sing praises! He lost not a one.
“Most Holy, Holy,” angels sing
As they bring us to Christ our King.

WORDS: Sydney Avey © 2018

Finding an original tune

I want to see artists create new works we can incorporate into our worship. My dream was to see Dust and Ashes set to original music. However, finding musicians who can compose music for lyrics is difficult. 

This year, our choir accompanist and ASU doctoral candidate Vitaly Serebriakov wrote a beautiful tune in four parts (SATB) for Dust and Ashes. The music is through-composed in a continuous non-repetitive melody. He set each stanza to different music. The congregation will sing this version five Sundays in March.

Notes about scriptural references

On Ash Wednesday, we consider who we are when we acknowledge our sin and our fallen state by receiving the ashes. This hymn comprises composite scriptures. 

  1. Genesis 3:19: God lists the consequences of sin and tells Adam, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground since from it you are taken; For dust you are and to dust you will return.”
  1. Genesis 18:27: Abraham addresses God with great respect saying, “I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes.
  1. Job 30:19: Job describes his situation, saying, “He throws me into the mud, and I am reduced to dust and ashes.”
  1. Ecclesiastes 3:20: Solomon says, “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.”

Additional references

  1. “His work now finished. It is done.” recalls to Christ’s words on the cross. 
  1. “He lost not a one” refer to John 6:39, where Jesus says that His father wills “that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.” Other verses that support this phrase are John 17:12 and 18:9
  1. “Christ, Lover of my Soul” references Charles Wesley’s hymn, Jesus, Lover of my Soul.
  1. The familiar phrase, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, is not in the Bible. It appears as metrical text in the Book of Common Prayer (Burial Rite).

What I’ve learned

Why do we sing? Because it stirs our emotions and connects us to the heart of God. Poetry and music are at the heart of worship. 

Writing a hymn has been an amazingly creative and spiritual experience. Never did I dream I would have the opportunity to collaborate with talented people like David and Vitaly or hear my words performed as a choral piece.

Dust and Ashes is a gift—from God to me, and from my collaborative team to our choir and congregation.  Poets and musicians, do try this at home! You’ll be blessed, and you’ll bless others.


  1. Karen

    Sydney, Absolutely beautiful! Thank you for sharing your hymn. Please post the music to your blog once you have recorded it. Wishing you a beautiful Resurrection Sunday! Karen

    • yosemitesyd

      Hi Karen, Just saw your comment. I’ve been away from my blog for a bit. Thank you! Getting a decent recording is difficult, but I’m sure it will happen in God’s time.


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