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Songs for Lent and Easter

Jesus Is Lord; Have Mercy on Us, Lord; Don't Be Afraid; Far from Home We Run, Rebellious; Gospel Acclamation: Hallelujah, Hallelujah

None of these songs can be called traditional hymns. Three of them are very short—just right for inviting churches (and schools!) to introduce them to children and for repeated use by the congregation during Lent or Eastertide. The other two songs are longer; they’re directly tied to Scripture passages scheduled for Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary that begins with Advent 2009.

During Lent and Eastertide this coming year, these songs may help your congregation sing a balance of shorter songs that can be easily committed to memory and longer songs that offer more opportunity for biblical and theological depth and reflection. We need both in our worship!

Jesus Is Lord

We begin with a song for the First Sunday in Lent, based on a concise confession of faith from Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

That confession may bring other passages to mind as well, such as “Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess,” found in Philippians 2:10, when Paul breaks into song extolling Christ as Lord. Paul uses that expression again in Romans 14:11, but as a direct quote from Isaiah 45:23.

All of these passages and more are imbedded in the song “Jesus Is Lord.” Given its four-stanza structure, this song could certainly be called a hymn, but it is crafted like many other contemporary worship songs—for unison singing and with accompaniment by a band, including keyboard and possibly guitar and bass.

I discovered this song in the bilingual Chinese/English hymnal Songs of Universal Praise, published in Hong Kong in 2006, but I have an idea this song was conceived in English, not Chinese, since the English text matches the melody so beautifully. Virtually every phrase is rooted in some Scripture passage; and the final line rings with the repeated confession of faith: “Jesus is Lord!”

This song was composed by Daniel K. L. Chua, head of the School of Humanities and professor of music at the University of Hong Kong. He has also spent time teaching in England. In fact, this song, one of several he has composed, is well-known and popular in England right now. When I contacted him for permission to reprint it, he wrote the following:

I had the tune first and the words “Jesus is Lord.” That’s it. So I just kept it on the back burner for several months. Then one Sunday evening, on a train journey from London to Cambridge, after a sermon series based on Ephesians, all the words suddenly came. So in a sense, the words were written in an hour. The song was published in a Spring Harvest Worship Song Book in 2003, and I think that it is for this reason that it has circulated around.

This song would be appropriate for many settings, including these:

  • the First Sunday in Lent 2010, since the Revised Common Lectionary appoints Romans 10:8b-13 for this Sunday.
  • any Sunday during Lent or Eastertide
  • Ascension Sunday
  • a service including profession of faith.

Have Mercy on Us, Lord

One day, as a child, standing on the sidewalk next to our home, I and other neighbors witnessed a sad event. We were mostly quiet, not knowing what to say, but one of our African American neighbors gave voice to this sadness: “Lord, have mercy,” she murmured, over and over. She had learned to give expression to lament in that ancient cry of faith, and she taught me that I too could offer short appropriate prayers in times of distress. I never forgot that day.

The roots of this ancient prayer of lament are found in the psalms (for an example, see Psalm 51:1). They’ve been sung throughout history since the earliest days of the Christian church, even kept in the Greek translation “Kyrie eleison” through more than a millennium of Latin liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church.

This lament comes to mind often today while reading the news of other very sad events. In February 2009, I had the privilege of visiting Pakistan, offering worship workshops for members of different Christian churches. My visit took place before conflicts deepened and more than a million refugees fled from the northwest part of the country close to the Afghanistan border. The young Pakistani Presbyterian pastor who hosted me was later attacked and wounded in an attempted kidnapping at gunpoint. He’s passionate about singing the psalms, and has worked on preparing recordings of the psalms to provide hope and strength for his people during these difficult days.

This lament is set to a Pakistani melody that was included in a small collection of songs with an accompanying CD, entitled Sing with the World: Global Songs for Children (see review on p. 46), prepared by Alison Adam and John Bell of the Iona Community in Scotland. Children as well as adults need to pray this ancient lament. The song notes include the statement “As we sing this song from Pakistan, we stand in solidarity with our Christian brothers and sisters worldwide, whether they speak Urdu, Spanish, Arabic, or countless other languages.”

Note the “slides” between some of the notes, indicating that the voice should slide from one pitch to the next. Don’t be too concerned about everyone doing it exactly the same. Rather, pour your heart into this prayer for God’s mercy on the Pakistani people, and on people everywhere who are suffering from all kinds of grief. Sing it either in English or Urdu, the two official languages of Pakistan.

This song would make a very appropriate response to prayers of confession or as a refrain in prayers of intercession. Perhaps you could use it throughout the season of Lent so that your congregation would be able to sing it during the week too, when reading or watching news or experiencing sad events that call for God’s mercy.

Note: Urdu pronunciation guide: “koo-da-ya ra-himm kar.” Sing “koo” with a soft “k”; on the “m,” close right away to a hum.

Don’t Be Afraid

Another short song in the same collection of global songs for children is one of comfort. One of the most comforting words of Scripture comes again and again, especially in times of danger: “Don’t be afraid,” or, in older translations, “Fear not.” This little song comes from John Bell, well-known composer from the Iona Community in Scotland and co-compiler of this collection. The song notes here suggest use in Sunday school as well as in worship:

This little song from the Iona Community in Scotland reminds us of Jesus’ promise to be with us always. It was originally written after a fatal accident in a school. It can be sung as a response in prayer or as encouraging words for ourselves or any who are struggling and afraid. It is ideal for use as we reflect on transitions such as moving from elementary school to high school. The children could be asked to think about their fears of upcoming change, and then invited to share those fears aloud. The group might respond in song, “Don’t be afraid.”

Far From Home We Run, Rebellious

The fourth Sunday in Lent in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary includes that most famous parable of the “prodigal son,” or as some prefer, “two prodigals”—referring to both sons, or “the father and his two sons,” since the parable is as much or more about the love of the father as it is about the rebellion of the sons.

The story is retold in a hymn text by Herman G. Steumpfle (d. 2007), the Lutheran poet, theologian, and professor who wrote more than five hundred hymns.

The hymn is set here in two sections of three stanzas each, to two versions of the same tune. The first three stanzas are set in a minor key, playing out the sad story of running from home to chase dreams of excitement and glitter. But rather than casting this text in the past tense, telling the old story, Steumpfle sets this in present tense, placing each one of us in the story—speaking of our own craving for a more exciting and glamorous life, all too often at the expense of leaving the love and responsibilities that come with faithful living. The second half switches to a major key, as the father is now the one who is running, rejoicing, to meet and embrace his son.

If you would rather combine these six stanzas into three, there are many 87 87 Double tunes—BEACH SPRING, for example—that would fit very well.

Since the final stanza speaks of the feast, this song would be an excellent response to a sermon on this passage, preceding a celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Gospel Acclamation: Hallelujah, Hallelujah

One more short song for worship, this time for singing during Eastertide: a joyful “Gospel Acclamation” from Zimbabwe (also recommended in the service plan “A Love Stronger Than Death,” p. 39).

Consider using this song in the context of several historic traditions:

  • Join the churches that don’t sing “Hallelujah” (or “Alleluia”) at all during Lent, in effect “fasting” from that joyful expression and then on Easter Sunday explode with this glorious gospel acclamation “Hallelujah” sung with great joy.
  • Assuming your church reads more than one Scripture passage before the sermon (historic practice includes both Old and New Testament readings, traditionally ending with a reading from one of the gospels), precede the gospel reading with this hallelujah, standing to sing.
  • Continue standing during the reading of the gospel lesson, a practice continued today by millions of Christians around the world. Stand for the reading throughout Eastertide, until Ascension Sunday.

The hymnal and worship book Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006) includes a brief way to extend this act of acclamation, by having a soloist or everyone singing the brief quotation from Peter in John 6:68: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words to eternal life.” And then, in joyful response, sing the hallelujah one more time! If you add this brief quotation, you have prayed one of the shortest and best “prayers for illumination”—perhaps the only prayer for illumination you’ll use during Eastertide.

During Lent, have your choir or worship team get to know this acclamation very well so that they can lead with joy from memory on Easter Sunday. They can easily lead this song by rote, having the congregation repeat after them after hearing it only once.

Savor the song by adding a bit each week: on Easter Sunday, sing the melody only. On succeeding Sundays, right up to Ascension Sunday, layer on the choral accompaniment, adding a djembe (an African hand drum). Don’t be shy about moving your bodies
during the singing of this song!