Nancy J. Schaaf : An interview with Martha Butler
Although Martha Butler learned to play the piano and viola, she does not consider herself a composer. Yet, in 1974, she wrote Alleluia He Is Coming, a hymn that has endured for over 39 years and is still sung at worship services today. How did she accomplish this? In an interview, Martha says the hymn was a “love letter from God and that he used me as a vessel for the creation of the hymn.”
The lives of many people have been touched by the melody and lyrics of this inspirational hymn. Martha has received numerous letters from people throughout the world. She disclosed contents of one letter from a woman serving in prison ministry who said that the women she worked with adopted Martha’s song as their “theme song because it touched them and they felt hopeful.”
Martha related a story from another letter she had received. It was written by a young man who, on his way to class, walked by a room being used for a prayer session. He passed by this room on three different occasions. Each time Alleluia He Is Coming was being sung. The third time, he stopped, went into the classroom, and joined the group. “He revealed to me that later he became a Christian due to the impact of that hymn,” added Martha.
Asked about the inspiration for the hymn, she replied, “I had been reading the Bible as part of a devotional lesson.” The passage was “Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him” (Luke 8:40). She expressed that, “I was mystified as to why the church had selected such a mundane statement to be an inspirational message.” So she asked God to speak to her. Later that day, “as the verse kept running through my mind, I wrote some phrases in a process I refer to as an exercise in imagination.”
Martha recalled, “I felt this feeling of anticipation that the crowd must have felt while waiting for Jesus to arrive and preach. As I prepared to attend a Saturday evening worship service, this feeling of expectation grew.” Martha remembers that at the service she could hear the words and melody and a voice telling her to stand up and sing. “Shyness and the remembered words of my mother that I ‘could not carry a tune in a bucket’ prevented me from following the directions of the voice,” Martha laughingly declared. “I realized later that I have perfect pitch and it was really my mother who could not carry a tune!”
Martha told her husband and two dearest friends of this event and her hesitation to sing. Encouraged by their support, Martha, along with her friends, sang this beautiful new melody at the next Saturday evening worship and “we were amazed that by the second chorus, the entire congregation was singing.” Since then, “I have heard my song sung live about 12 times.”
Why is this hymn so popular with musicians? In a telephone conversation with Martha, Tony Funk, a music professor at Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford, British Columbia, told her that he likes the song because it is “pure and simple.” Terry Schmitt, a worship leader at Grace Episcopal Church in Port Orange, Florida, agrees and stated that “musically it is easy to play and therefore enjoyed by many. If we seek Jesus, he will be found; He is always coming toward us.”
Martha has only written three hymns. The first is Alleluia He Is Coming, and the second is, according to her, “just for myself. I have not shared that song.” Her third hymn is Alleluia Noel that she wrote because she wanted to involve many children in a Christmas program through the verses and chorus. Martha added that “this hymn is a Christmas lullaby telling of the greatest gift of all, the birth of Jesus.”
Asked if she thinks hymns are important in a worship service, Martha answered “I do because more of our self is involved; our spirit is engaged.” She related how easy it is to learn and remember when we sing as she recalled that we teach our children their ABCs by song and it becomes “imprinted.”
Martha states, “My favorite hymns are I Am the Bread of Life written by S. Suzanne Toolan and Be Not Afraid composed by the Jesuit priest Bob Dufford as it tells the story of a rural ministry using that hymn in prayer prior to entering the wilderness of South Africa to preach.”
Currently, Martha lives in the small town of Roxboro, North Carolina, with her husband. She is retired from careers as a K-3 grade school teacher, a technical writer and an administrative assistant for several churches. She volunteers her time for ministries in her church and community and enjoys working in her garden, cooking and reading.
“All that God requires of us is to listen and receive and then share his spirit with each other,” Martha says. For those whose lives have been enriched by the hymn, Alleluia He Is Coming, there is gratitude that Martha Butler listened to the Lord and shared her melody with the world.
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