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Hymns for Lent, Easter, and Pentecost

MARCH
I Love the Lord...(Psalm 116)

Lenten worship services usually include a time of confession. If they don't, they certainly ought to. This year consider beginning your Lenten worship not in the typical way—with strong praise-filled singing—but rather with a subdued liturgy of confession and assurance of pardon. The people first come confessing, are assured of God's forgiving love, and are then eager and ready to approach God in praise and thanksgiving.

Psalm 116, set to the tune Genevan 116, works very well as part of such a confession/assurance liturgy. It is a beautiful psalm of praise for deliverance, for answered prayer. Helen Otte's unrhymed versification, one of several she prepared for the 1987 Psalter Hymnal, speaks in clear, direct language.

The service might be arranged something like this:

Prelude: [Use one of several available preludes based on Genevan 116 (see Bibliography of Organ Music, available from CRC Publications). As a simpler, shorter alternative, play the tune through twice— once as written on one keyboard, the second time with left hand and pedal on the lower three parts, the right hand playing the tune on a pleasant solo stop. The latter is short (about 1 minute), but effective.]

Call to Confession: [After the call to confession, pastor and people respond in these words from Psalm 116:1-2:]

I love the Lord, for he hears my voice.

He will hear my cry for mercy.

Because he turned his ear to me

I will call on him as long as I live.

Prayer of Confession: [Print a prayer (composed by the pastor or another worship planner) in the bulletin for all to read.]

Silent, Personal Prayers of Confession: [The pastor should invite the congregation to pray silently. Twenty to thirty seconds is suggested, though it may seem long to some.]

Singing of Psalm 116: (unannounced)

stanza 1: [soloist, possibly unaccompanied, right out of the silent prayer time.]
stanza 2: [choir joins in unison with organ playing harmony. After the first Sunday, you may want to try this stanza unaccompanied, in parts.]
stanzas 3-5: [Entire congregation, organ accompaniment.]

Assurance of Pardon: [After the pastor reads appropriate Scripture, pastor and congregation read the following responsively (based on Psalm 116:5-7):]

The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion.

The Lord protects the simple- hearted;
when I was in great need, he saved me.
Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the
Lord has been good to you!

Friends, believe the good news of our faith.

In the life, death and resurrection of
Jesus Christ, we are healed and forgiven!
Amen!

Prayer: (all stand) [This should be a thankful, uplifting prayer of praise by the pastor.]

Congregational Response: (standing) [Choose a doxology or similarly brief, well-known hymn. Given the length of Psalm 116, this song can be strong but brief.]

With a few adjustments, this opening section could lead directly into your normal order of service. You should feel free to adjust the amount of congregational response/involvement according to your preference. Remember, though, that reading psalms responsively is as old a practice as the psalms themselves and should be encouraged.

My congregation has used this basic format and similar material during the past two Lenten seasons. We plan two complete versions with the same order and format, but with different responses and songs. These two versions are then used alternately on the first five Sundays of Lent. The value of this opening liturgy of confession is reflected in remarks from the congregation:

"It focused my attention on the need to confess my sin regularly, and showed me how to do so."

"It demonstrated how responsive readings and a hymn/song can complement each other."

"It focused my attention on how God's love for me never fails—even though I fail him."

"It prepared me to better praise God, after I had confessed my sin and received his peace."

The fine Genevan 116 tune, as harmonized by Seymour Swets, is eminently singable and easily learned—a tune which first appeared in the 1562 edition of Calvin's Genevan Psalter and still speaks today with majestic beauty. Organists should be particular about keeping the rhythm moving and flowing (J = 69-72 works well). The two half notes in the middle of each of the four phrases must be accurate, or the flow will falter. Allow the quarter-note groups in each phrase to move ahead just a bit. At the end of the first phrase, a concise quarter rest is needed to prepare for phrase 2. The unaccented final notes (and words) of phrases 2 and 3 should be shortened to quarter-note values, followed by a quarter rest to prepare for the emphatic first notes (and words) of phrases 3 and 4.

APRIL
The Lord is Risen, Yes, Indeed

At first, this delightful Easter song appears to be just for children. A closer look, however, reveals a wonderful congregational song for all ages.

Both text and music first appeared in a Dutch song collection Alles Wordt Nieuw, volume I (1966). The Dutch text is by Hanna Lam, whose material for children is widely used by Reformed churches and schools in The Netherlands. The present English translation was prepared by Sietze Buning, the pen name of Stanley Wiersma (1930-1986), professor of English at Calvin College from 1959 until his death. Wiersma translated thirty of the songs in All Will Be New, volume I (Paideia Press, 1982). Wim Ter Burg, composer of the music in this popular collection, is a music therapist as well as cantor/organist at the Reformed Church in Maarn, The Netherlands.

Based directly on the Easter story, the language of this song is clear and direct. As Mrs. Stanley Wiersma has observed, Hanna Lam's material "is childlike, not child-ish." Stanza 1 states a tremendous theological truth in very few words, while the often-repeated refrain echoes the traditional Easter greeting: Christ the Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

The music of this song is clearly designed to be sung in unison, with no breaks between stanzas and refrain. It sings well on a half-note pulse (J = 76), with no slowing down until the final refrain. Play and sing it with a cheerful bounce!

You might consider using the first stanza again as a stanza 6, followed by a final refrain. This repetition nicely frames the Easter story of stanzas 2-5 between the strong theological statement of stanza 1. If you need to shorten the song, drop stanza 1 rather than breaking up the complete story of stanzas 2-5. Never omit the refrain, as the repetitive music of the stanzas needs contrast.

You may also wish to give some attention to varying the accompaniment. The descant provides opportunity for a number of solo instruments—bells, flute, trumpet, or recorder would do nicely. It also works well to have children sing this descant on a nice vowel sound like "oo".

As a secondary instrumental descant on the refrain, use the bass line, up an octave, for a neat, imitative counterpoint. (When used in this way, the final note should be an "a", rather than an "f" —it will sound better.)

More creative use of handbells or Orff instruments may be effective and will provide more people, especially eager children, with opportunities to participate. I sketched out a few basic ideas that add a bell-like, jangling, joyous sound to this hymn. Any or all of them may also be played on a keyboard instrument. Play through these examples on the piano to get them in your ears. You will hear how they can be mixed and matched in any combination and will, no doubt, come up with many better ideas of your own!

Following are some of my ideas for accompanying this song:

  1. To get things going in the introduction and first stanza, you'll need strong leadership from a keyboard.
  2. A second person at the piano can play the ostinato material an octave higher.
  3. Play ostinati on the organ, with bright, bell-like sounds (8', 2' 13/5, mixture). Experiment!
  4. Play ostinati on handbells or choir chimes (bells transpose an octave higher).
  5. Play ostinati on Orff instruments, dividing up notes according to the instruments you have.
  6. Play in creative combinations of the above.

Since the repetitive quality of the song needs to be downplayed, not highlighted, you should plan to vary the accompaniment as you go. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Start simply with no ostinato, allowing everyone to become familiar with the song.
  2. Add a simple ostinato and another instrument on stanza 2.
  3. Add or change ostinato and instruments as the song progresses, even mixing up the ascending and descending patterns.
  4. Beginning with the second time through, add a tambourine to the refrain. This preserves the contrast between stanza and refrain. Trill on beat 4 with a crescendo, then hit the tambourine on the downbeat of each following measure.

It doesn't take a congregation long to learn a song like this. But, to avoid problems, you must take the time to figure out what you are going to do ahead of time. Choose your players carefully (a mix of 4-6 upper elementary children and youth in addition to a strong keyboard player is good). Don't forget the small children's descant ensemble and /or an instrumental descant soloist. Then all practice together so there are no distracting surprises on Sunday morning.

The entire effort will be particularly successful if you can be sure the children in your congregation already know this song from church school singing and/or choir rehearsals. Getting your ostinato band together during church school singing time would provide excellent practice for the players too.

Let the children teach the congregation this song. After the children know it, sing it antiphonally with the congregation on the stanzas or refrain. Very few adults remain uninspired to sing themselves when they hear eager young voices singing all around them! Use the song on Easter Sunday and during the Easter season that follows.

MAY
Eternal Spirit, God of Truth

Alluding to the familiar words of Psalm 51:10-12,17 and Romans 8:9-17, the hymn "Eternal Spirit, God of Truth" may effectively guide worshipers in sung prayer.

This song is a prayer for renewal and for comfort, a prayer that expresses the desire to be controlled by the Spirit and to be more effective witnesses of Christ's redeeming power. What an ideal hymn to use during the season of Pentecost!

The text, by Thomas Cotterhill (1779-1823), was originally published as part of a collection entitled Selection of Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Use, Adapted to the Festivals of the Church of England (1810).

FOREST GREEN, a well-known English folk tune, was arranged in its present form by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1906. Often associated with the text "O Little Town of Bethlehem," at least in English circles, the lovely tune has been joined with a number of other texts as well. The combination of the tune with this text in the Psalter Hymnal is a first.

The tune's simple, easy-singing character beautifully carries the text without calling attention to itself—a mark of any good tune-and-text combination. If your congregation does not know the music, its AABA form is quickly learned—only two lines of music to master, with special attention to the first note of the last line. If your congregation is familiar with the tune, chances are you'll need to draw their attention to that last line as well. Though most American hymnals end line three with a dotted half note, beginning the last line with a quarter note, the original (and I think more interesting, once learned) is as the Psalter Hymnal has it: the third line ends with a half note; the last line begins with a half note.

Organists will want to lead boldly here by shortening the last note of the third line to a quarter note, with a quarter rest, then moving confidently to the last line.

Despite the beautiful harmony, do not overlook the exceptional quality of the melody. Whether sung by a soloist, a section of the choir, a children's group, or the entire congregation, the loveliness of the melody alone will inspire all.

Once your congregation knows the hymn well, try stanza 2, using Vaughan Williams's alternate harmonization with a choir or instrument on the descant by Thomas Armstrong. The arrangement was first published in Carols for Choirs, vol. I, (Oxford University Press) to the text "O Little Town of Bethlehem."

The general playing and singing style of the hymn should be smooth and flowing yet have a steady rhythm. A moderate tempo works best, perhaps thinking in 2/2 rather than 4/4, with the half-note at J = 48-52. The hymn must not move so fast that it sounds trite and leaves singers breathless, nor should it be allowed to plod along in heavy quarter notes.

A number of useful organ pieces are based on FOREST GREEN. I enjoy the meditative quality of Paul Manz's setting in 10 Choral Improvisations, set 7, (Concordia 97-5308), now available from Morning Star, (MSM 10-101) as Improvisations for the Christmas Season (Set 2). Wilbur Held's brief prelude in Six Carol Settings (Concordia 97-4985) is quite nice when played in a meditative fashion, ignoring the composer's indication to play "whimsically."