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Songs of Searching and Salvation

As the Deer Runs to the River; Lord, to Whom Shall We Go; Surely It Is God Who Saves Me

The three songs chosen for this Lent/Easter issue are all directly taken from Scripture or based closely on it. One is very short; you might call it a refrain. One is in a traditional hymn structure with a refrain, and one follows a more contemporary structure, also with a refrain.

As you use these songs in worship during Lent and Easter, consider ways for these passages of Scripture to reach deep into your hearts and memories. The Holy Spirit can then use these songs to bring you comfort and direction not only during a church service, but at any time and anywhere—that is, after all, one of the reasons to sing, because melodies bring lyrics deeper into our souls.

As the Deer Runs to the River

There are three reasons for the choice of this new hymn:

  • it is a very appropriate hymn for Lent;
  • it is an example of a text by Herman Stuempfle, one of the finest hymn writers of our day;
  • it is an example of a hymn found in a brand-new hymnal, certainly worth mentioning, since new denominational hymnals are big events!

Like many good hymns, the first line of this new Lenten hymn sets the tone and provides the imagery that runs through the entire text. The word “run” suggests urgency, and the word “water” connects us to our need for Christ, the source of living water.

Right away, you will recognize that the opening stanza comes from Psalm 42. Many Christians have sung that psalm in times of discouragement and struggle, especially when oppressed by an enemy. There are times in our lives when we come to worship “from hurt and hurry.” But as you ponder this text, consider what it must be like for Christians who try to gather for worship in Lebanon , which has suffered so much recently, or Christians in Afghanistan , Iran , Iraq , Indonesia , the Sudan . . . . The litany of suffering is greater than ever in our world. The refrain brings us to Christ, the one to whom we run, the source of living water.

Stanza 2 continues the imagery of water, remembering how God delivered his people from their enemy when Israel was thirsty in the desert. In stanza 3 we reach the prophet/poet Isaiah, who wrote that beautiful invitation, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isa. 55:1, TNIV). Here the water flows to satisfy the need for forgiveness and mercy.

The fourth stanza sums up all our thirst: for healing grace, for refreshment, for forgiveness, with a reference to the water that flowed from Christ’s side when he was crucified.

This combination of biblical sources commends this hymn especially for Lenten services in churches that follow the lectionary. For Year C, Exodus 17 and Isaiah 55 are both scheduled for the third Sunday in Lent, and Psalm 42 and Isaiah 55 are both scheduled for Easter Vigil.

The tune chosen for this hymn in the new Evangelical Lutheran Hymnal comes from the early Lutheran tradition. The stanzas are in two long identical phrases, moving solidly by quarter notes throughout, with a third related line for the refrain, so this tune is very accessible. (As an alternate and probably more familiar tune, consider picardy.)

The second reason for choosing this hymn is to introduce you to one of the best hymn writers of our day. Herman Stuempfle retired after serving as professor of preaching, dean, and finally president at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. GIA has published three collections of his texts, which are thoroughly biblical, pastoral, and beautifully crafted.

The third reason for including this recent text is that it is found in a brand-new hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW), released in October 2006. This hymnal is a successor to the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW) that served the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America since its release twenty-eight years ago in 1978. The LBW has often been considered the first in a new generation of hymnals in North America, breaking new ground in the areas of design, language change, and ecumenicity; many are eager to explore the new book. Like LBW, ELW is called a worship book, not a hymnal, and contains a great deal of liturgical material for Lutheran worship.

Many other denominations have studied the extensive process the Lutherans followed in preparing this hymnal (see www.renewingworship.org), and are interested in learning how it will be received in the churches. This is certainly a hymnal that any serious church musician and pastor will want on his or her shelf.

Lord, to Whom Shall We Go

This little refrain comes straight from John 6:68. In this long chapter, John recounts several events, including Jesus feeding five thousand people, walking on water, and then teaching his disciples things that were hard to understand. He spoke of himself as the bread of life, and said, “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” This was too much for many of his disciples, and many turned away from following him. So Jesus asked the Twelve, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Then Peter spoke these humble words of confession and trust.

Don’t pass over this song just because it is small. This is a wonderful confession to make, and one worthy of teaching your children (of all ages!). Consider the following possibilities:

  • Sing as a short prayer for illumination before reading Scripture during the entire Lenten season. The first time, have one person sing it, representing Peter. Or have the choir sing the response, introducing it to the congregation.
  • Gather the children up front, and if they leave for their own worship time, send them off with this refrain. Have someone ask the question, and teach the children to sing the answer. Teach it without any accompaniment; it can stand well on its own.
  • Or have the whole congregation sing the response. The song is so short that the melody will fit easily in your bulletin (using your OneLicense.net). Even better, learn it by heart so no music is needed.
  • Sing as a psalm refrain to, for example, different sections of Psalm 119, a wisdom psalm.
  • Use as a prayer refrain when considering some of the great needs of the world.
  • Sing anytime during the day or night when you are trying to discern God’s will and don’t know where to turn. This reminder that God is in control of our lives is very comforting. We need to develop the habit of having particular songs at our fingertips, or, rather, at the “fingertips” of our hearts.

Surely It Is God Who Saves Me

Isaiah the prophet was also Isaiah the poet. More songs have been composed on passages from Isaiah than any other book of the Bible, apart from the psalms. Chapter 12 is even called “The First Song of Isaiah,” and is a passage that has become much loved throughout Jewish and Christian history.

Here is the place where we read that God is our song! And so this passage has often been set to music in Latin choral settings of “Ecce, Deus.” It also has a long history in Anglican liturgy; the Book of Common Prayer suggests it as a canticle for Morning Prayer on Mondays, to be sung after the Old Testament reading, and this passage has historically been included in Easter Vigil services.

Consider using this for a festive congregational anthem with choir next Easter Sunday. Or consider singing it on any of the “little Easters” that we celebrate every Sunday as an assurance of pardon or in response any time we are assured of God’s love.

Actually, Isaiah 12 is like two short psalms, each three verses long, start ing with “In that day you will say . . .” Easter day is certainly a day that we can sing “In that day . . .” of salvation and joy!

The first three verses are praise for deliverance, filled with language very familiar to Christians: God is our salvation, our strength, our song, our comfort. Calling God “our song” certainly invites singing this passage! The second three verses begin the same way, this time with words of thanksgiving and an invitation to sing and shout this good news among the nations.

When visiting the Philippines and Singapore this past summer with a team from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, we met with representatives of different churches, schools, and seminaries (see www.calvin.edu/worship/philippines and www.calvin.edu/worship/singapore). One of the events was an informal songfest where we taught each other some of our favorite songs, songs we wanted to commend to our brothers and sisters in different countries and cultures. We came home with some great songs! For our part, one of the songs we chose was this recent setting by Jack Noble White, published thirty years ago this year, and sung around the world. This song is biblical, festive, musically flexible in terms of instrumentation, and liturgically very useful. There are several choral versions available, as a search on the web will quickly reveal. The original edition (Belwin Mills #CMR 3347) was composed for piano, bass, drum, organ, brass, and timpani; in other words, the possibilities are very flexible. A festival edition on the 20 th anniversary added even more instruments.

White composed it not in a traditional hymn style, with three stanzas, but opted for a refrain everyone would sing, and then three stanzas to be sung by a choir or a soloist. Actually, everyone could sing stanzas 1 and 3, since the words are placed over the same melody as the refrain, even though the number of syllables differs. But stanza 2 has its own melody.

I know one congregation for which this has become a favorite. The music for the refrain is in the pew edition of Sing! A New Creation, but only the text for the verses are given there; the music is in the Leader’s Edition. They sang it every Sunday for a season, with the choir singing the stanzas and the congregation joining on the refrain. But after a few times, the congregation wanted to sing the stanzas too, and they joined right in! By the end of the Easter season, many of them knew this canticle by heart. This is a comforting song to have in our memory bank, ready to sing anytime and anywhere.