As we embark on our Lenten journeys each year, we often think of those journeys as personal and private. We enter into a somewhat solitary season of reflection, prayer, fasting, reading and meditation. Indeed, the liturgical season of Lent gives us opportunities for personal reflection like no other time in the church year. Perhaps we have been influenced in our quest for an individual journey by the African-American spiritual:
Jesus walked this lonesome valley,
He had to walk it by himself.
Oh, nobody else could walk it for him,
He had to walk it by himself.
We must walk this lonesome valley,
We have to walk it by ourselves.
Oh, nobody else can walk it for us,
We have to walk it by ourselves.
You must go and stand your trial,
You have to stand it by yourself.
Oh, nobody else can stand it for you,
You have to stand it by yourself.
The hymns that we sing have the power to strike a chord deep within that often shape our theological and spiritual approach to being a faithful child of God. So the hymns that we choose to sing are vitally important and must be selected with care. Upon reflection, the hymn “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley” overemphasizes the individualistic nature of our Lenten journeys. Perhaps that is why it is not included in our newest Presbyterian hymnal, “Glory to God.” The truth of the gospel message is that we are not alone in our faith journey. God is with us and has created the church, that we may offer support and encouragement to one another in community.
I recently read a new Lenten hymn, written in October 2017 by J. Barrie Shepherd, retired senior minister from First Presbyterian Church in New York City. This hymn called “Deep in the Heart of Winter” better reflects the balance between an individual Lenten journey within the context of community:
Deep in the heart of winter, when days seem cold and bleak,
Our faith calls us to enter this space of seven weeks.
We turn to prayer and fasting, take scripture as our guide,
Prepare our souls for Easter, and joyful Eastertide.
A time of deep reflection, a time to search the heart.
Yet more than introspection calls us to do our part.
We turn our thoughts to others, our kin both far and near,
Our families, sisters, brothers, the ones we hold most dear.
Our prayers reach further out now, and think of all whose needs
Cry out for our attention, yearn for our faithful deeds.
The sick, the poor, the hungry, all those who are oppressed,
Those folk our Savior taught us to see as truly blessed.
So mark these days as holy, our truly Lenten time.
Let every seeking soul be restored, renewed, refined.
Till in our Savior’s footsteps, beneath his cross we pray,
Then meet him in the garden, rejoice on Easter Day.
A key phrase in that hymn (the phrase that actually made me take notice and examine my own approach to the Lenten journey) is: “A time of deep reflection, a time to search the heart. Yet more than introspection calls us to do our part.” As I prepare for Lent, I want to do my part to help provide the members of my congregation with opportunities for an individual journey within the context of community. It is my prayer that their collective journeys will enable them to contribute their individual gifts to a common effort to make a difference in the broad community of God’s people. Singing hymns during Lent is an important way to provide opportunities for members of our congregations to engage fully as the worshipping body and to inspire them to the work of the church. In collaboration, pastors and musicians are in a unique position to guide their congregants’ Lenten journeys by selecting excellent hymns for them to sing.
The very act of singing is mysterious. Often, our individual voices are not what we deem to be worthy of singing our praise to God. Yet, each week we join our voices with others, and somehow the Holy Spirit gives us a collective voice to rival that of angels singing God’s glory. Perhaps it is a foretaste of the day when all will gather around God’s throne singing “Alleluia!” But during Lent, when we forego the “Alleluias,” what should we sing? Of course, that may be different for each congregation. Some congregations cherish the old, familiar hymns. Others relish fresh new language and tunes. We all likely need both. When singing hymns that are familiar, we have opportunities to be transported by the music itself since we don’t have to think too much about learning the tune and text. Many of us even have the tune and text of a very familiar hymn memorized, so that we may sing from deep within our souls. On the other hand, when singing hymns that are new, we have opportunities for God’s spirit to provide new insights into the very nature of God and God’s church.
Each congregation has its own favorite familiar hymns. One way to determine those may be to take a survey. Ask your members to list their five favorite hymns and their five least favorite hymns. When compiling the answers, don’t be surprised to find the same hymn on both lists. Often, even within a congregation, individual members may have widely varying opinions of what constitutes a “good” hymn. We need to remind them that is why we sing a variety of hymns, and that we need to support each other in singing even if it is not our favorite hymn — because it is likely someone else’s favorite!
There are many time-tested hymns appropriate for Lent in “Glory to God.” Some that have been retained from prior Presbyterian hymnals include:
#166 Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days (Claudia Hernaman, 1873)
#209 My Song is Love Unknown (Samuel Crossman, 1664)
#212 Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed (Isaac Watts, 1707)
#213 In the Cross of Christ I Glory (John Bowring, 1825)
#215 What Wondrous Love Is This (American folk hymn, 1811)
#218 Ah, Holy Jesus (Johann Heermann, 1630)
#221 O Sacred Head, Now Wounded (Latin, 12th or 13th century)
#442 Just As I Am, Without One Plea (Charlotte Elliott, 1834)
#649 Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound (John Newton, 1772)
#829 My Faith Looks Up to Thee (Ray Palmer, 1830)
#836 Abide with Me (Henry Francis Lyte, 1847)
#839 Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine (Fanny Jane Crosby, 1873)
During Lent, one reason that we increase our personal reflection, prayer, fasting, reading and meditation is to be open to God’s Word and to the Holy Spirit within. It is a time when we seek to receive new insights and to be stretched theologically and spiritually. New hymns can certainly facilitate that process. Fresh, more modern language may speak to us in ways that 18th-19th century hymns may not. New hymns may be new texts set to familiar tunes, or they may be new texts paired with new tunes. The former is more comfortable, but Lent is a time for getting out of our comfort zone, so it is a good time to introduce both types of new hymns.
Some of the late 20th century and early 21st century hymns express more fully the community in which we live as God’s people. Many of these newer texts are set to familiar tunes and are appropriate during Lent. A few that are included in “Glory to God” are:
#53 O God, Who Gives Us Life (Carl Daw, 1980)
#181 Silence! Frenzied, Unclean Spirit (Thomas H. Troeger, 1984)
#217 On a Barren Hilltop (Christopher L. Webber, 2008)
#410 God Is Calling Through the Whisper (Mary Louise Bringle, 2003)
#694 Great God of Every Blessing (David Gambrell, 2009)
#796 We Come to You for Healing, Lord (Herman G. Stuempfle Jr., 2002)
Other new hymn texts set to familiar tunes are paraphrases of Psalms. The use of Psalms has long been a Presbyterian tradition, and of course predates Christianity. Psalms were the hymns of the Old Testament. Some newly paraphrased metrical Psalms, set to familiar tunes, work particularly well during Lent, especially Psalms which are essentially prayers and pleas to God. A few newer metrical Psalms in “Glory to God” include:
#74 When God Restored Our Common Life — Psalm 126 (Ruth Duck, 1981)
#211 Hear, O Lord, My Plea for Justice — Psalm 17 (Michael Morgan, 2010)
#214 You Are My Refuge, Faithful God — Psalm 31 (David Gambrell, 2009)
#421 Have Mercy, God, Upon My Life — Psalm 51 (David Gambrell, 2009)
#847 Our Hope, Our Life — Psalm 49 (Martin E. Leckebusch, 2006)
While new hymn texts paired with new tunes may seem to be a daunting combination to use during Lent, there are ways to introduce new hymns with new hymn tunes to the congregation that allow them to participate and enrich their spiritual life in the process. The choir may sing the first verse or two on an initial hearing of the hymn, with the congregation joining on the latter verses. I’ve had success in teaching new hymns to children and youth, who in turn “teach” the hymn to the congregation. Children and youth are quite enthusiastic about new hymns and their enthusiasm can be contagious when presenting a new hymn to the congregation. The following newer text and tune combinations from “Glory to God” work particularly well during Lent:
#79 Light Dawns on a Weary World (Text: Mary Louise Bringle, 2001; Music: William P. Rowan, 2000)
#183 Come to Me, O Weary Traveler (Text: Sylvia G. Dunstan, 1991; Music: William P. Rowan, 1992)
# 314 Longing For Light, We Wait in Darkness (Text and music: Bernadette Farrell, 1993)
# 423 Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God — Psalm 51 (Text and music: John Carter, 1997)
# 433 Sign Us With Ashes (Text: Mary Louise Bringle, 2003; Music: William P. Rowan, 2003) — Suggestion for #433: congregation sings refrain, soloist sings verses.
#543 God, Be the Love to Search and Keep Me (Text and music: Richard Bruxvoort Colligan, 2004)
#751 From the Nets of Our Labor (Text: Mary Louise Bringle, 2004; Music: John R. Kleinheksel, 2004)
#769 For Everyone Born (Text: Shirley Erena Murray, 1998; Music: Brian Mann, 2006)
#771 What Is the World Like (Text: Adam M. L. Tice, 2009; Music: Sally Ann Morris, 2009)
Many churches offer additional worship opportunities during Lent. These may be mid-week services, Sunday evening services or early Sunday morning worship services prior to the Sunday school hour. Many of these alternative services are contemplative in nature, some modeled after Taizé services, providing time for contemplation and prayer. “Glory to God” has many hymns appropriate for contemplative worship. They are short, intended to be repeated several times as the Spirit leads, and are meant to bring us into closer communion with God and with each other. Some of the Taizé hymns suitable for contemplative services are:
# 204 Stay with Me
# 205 Live in Charity (Ubi caritas)
# 227 Jesus, Remember Me
# 466 Come and Fill Our Hearts
# 471 O Lord, Hear My Prayer
# 544 Bless the Lord
# 654 In the Lord I’ll Be Ever Thankful
# 814 In God Alone
During our individual and corporate journeys as God’s faithful people, may we be inspired by the hymns that we sing during Lent, listening for God’s voice in the music that surrounds us. May we sing with gratitude for individual insights received during our Lenten journey, as well as for the opportunity to worship in community. May we carry God’s light into the world around us, ever widening that community of love and faith.
Anne McNair serves as director of music at First Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia. She is also president of the Presbyterian Association of Musicians.
Editor’s note: J. Barrie Shepherd’s hymn “Deep in the Heart of Winter” is available on the Outlook’s website at www.bit.ly/shepherdhymns and is quoted here with permission.