New Lent and Easter Songs from the New Testament

My Elder Son, Go Work Today; Shadows Lengthen into Night; Neither Death, nor Life

The three songs presented here are taken from the soon-to-be-released collection Singing the New Testament—a wonderful new resource based on texts from Matthew to Revelation and jointly published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Faith Alive Christian Resources. In RW 85 we introduced three Advent and Christmas songs from this collection. Here are three more songs: two from the gospels and one from Romans 8.

All three songs are by living authors who have been or will be presenters at the annual Calvin Symposium on Worship. In January 2007 Mary Louise Bringle presented many of her hymns; Marty Haugen and Rae E. Whitney will introduce some of their songs in worship and workshops at the next Symposium (January 24-26, 2008).

For more information about the upcoming Symposium on Worship, visit and click on “Symposium.” Better yet, register and come to meet these hymn writers and many others.

My Elder Son, Go Work Today

The parable recorded in Matthew 21:28-32 tells of two sons who were asked by their father to go to work in a vineyard. One said no but changed his mind and went anyway; the other said yes but then didn’t go. Jesus then asked the crowd, “Which one did the will of his father?”

Rae E. Whitney took that narrative and placed it in three stanzas, one for the first son, one for the second, and the third for the crowd.

One reason the scribes and Pharisees were so angry at Jesus is that they were unwilling to change, and they knew this parable was directed at them. Jesus said to them, “John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him” (Matt. 21:32). The scribes and Pharisees didn’t change, but the prostitutes and tax collectors did. The final two lines provide the heart of what is needed to change:

Our minds can change; love sets us free to serve our Father joyfully.

In this hymn, especially in those two final lines, Rae Whitney preaches a little sermon; in fact, her hymns have been described as “bite-sized sermons.” David Schaap, her publisher, writes: “Rae E. Whitney’s hymns speak volumes about being a Christian and give us new insights into Bible stories we’ve grown too accustomed to hearing.”

Originally from England, Rae moved to Nebraska after meeting an American pastor who became her husband. She remained there after his death in 1992 and continues to write hymn texts that are found in many hymnals. Two collections of her texts have been published by Selah: With Joy Our Spirits Sing (1995) and Under the Fig Tree (2007). In addition, nearly a hundred of Whitney’s hymns have been set to tunes by about forty contemporary composers and published in two volumes by Selah: Fear Not, Little Flock, Vol. 1 and 2 (2006, 2007).

The committee for Singing the New Testament chose SUSSEX CAROL, a folk tune often associated with Christmas that also serves very well to carry this narrative text. This song could be sung between the reading of the Matthew passage and the sermon or after the sermon. This passage is assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary for the end of September in Year A, so if you choose not to sing it during Lent, tuck it away for fall, a time when young and old alike will enjoy singing this story.

Shadows Lengthen into Night

Many churches plan Tenebrae (“shadows”) services during Holy Week. The pattern for a Tenebrae service is a series of Scripture readings and songs that focus on the suffering and death of Jesus, each section followed by the extinguishing of a candle until the worship space is left in darkness. Tenebrae services have been observed in the Christian church since the fourth century, most often on Good Friday but sometimes on Maundy Thursday.

Mary Louise Bringle wrote the text “Shadows Lengthen into Night” specifically for a Tenebrae service. Each stanza relates to a specific passage of Scripture. The congregation sings each stanza prior to a Scripture reading and the extinguishing of a candle. The stanzas are based on the following passages:

St. 1: Shadow of Betrayal (Matt. 26:20-25)

St. 2: Shadow of Impending Faithlessness (Matt. 26:31, 33-35)

St. 3: Shadow of Unshared Vigil (Matt. 26:36-41)

St. 4: Shadow of Christ’s Agony (Matt. 26:42-45)

St. 5: Shadow of Arrest (Matt. 26:47-50)

St. 6: Shadow of Desertion (Mark 14:48-50)

St. 7: Shadow of Denial (Luke 22:54-62)

St. 8: Shadow of the Cross (Luke 23:33-34, 44-46)

Bringle wrote her first hymn in 1998 almost “accidentally,” in response to a request from a former student to create something to be sung at his wedding. When she first heard her hymn sung in worship, she became “sufficiently hooked by hymn-writing as a practice that I wanted to learn more about it. I launched into a study of hymnody . . . a great deal of it in preparation for teaching an adult Sunday school class on the topic of hymnody.”

Rarely has a writer emerged so quickly as a major contributor to hymnody. Today she has two collections of seventy-five texts each published by GIA: Joy and Wonder, Love and Longing (2002), and In Wind and Wonder (2006). She continues to write hymns not only in English but also to collaborate with others, including Pablo Sosa, in translating many Spanish hymns into English.

Bringle’s background in philosophy and theology (she has a PhD in systematic theology) and her love of Scripture and language have prepared her well to be a hymn writer. She also serves as professor of philosophy and religion and chair of the humanities division at Brevard (North Carolina) College. As an indication of the esteem in which she is held, she has been named President-elect of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.

The tune is by Sally Ann Morris, also from North Carolina. Sally is Director of Music Ministries at Parkway Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Giving Thanks in Song and Prayer, a collection of her hymn tunes, was published by GIA in 1998. Sally wrote this tune for Mel’s text, even providing optional keyboard introductions (p. 27). Since each stanza is sung separately, Sally has provided creative ways to make fresh little introductions for each.

After living with this text and tune, Sally recently asked Mel to consider adding stanzas based on Old Testament texts. And so this fruitful collaboration between author and composer has generated yet another text, this time a lament based on passages in Lamentations, to be sung to the same tune with the same little refrain (see sidebar).

Neither Death, nor Life

Romans 8 is one of the most loved passages in all of Scripture; many people have committed all or part of this chapter to memory.

The chapter begins with the comfort of knowing that in Christ we are freed from the law of sin and death—there’s no more condemnation! It goes on to explore our life in the Holy Spirit, who leads and guides us, and who prays for us since we do not know how to pray. The chapter ends with Paul’s poetic outburst testifying that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Those closing verses have been used at countless funerals, providing deep comfort to those who grieve.

Contemporary songwriter Marty Haugen took those final verses to create a joyful and memorable refrain in gospel style, “Neither Death, nor Life.” Like any good refrain, it invites repetition: sing it once, and you’ll want to sing it again. By the end, the refrain will be etched firmly in your minds, hearts, and voices. Like all good worship songs, “Neither Death, nor Life” internalizes truths of Scripture so that you’ll be able to remember them and sing them anytime and anywhere.

In between the statements of the refrain are stanzas constructed out of the main themes of Romans 8. The instructions say “Leader or All.” The music is not difficult, so the whole congregation will be able to jump right in. But to introduce this song for the first time, consider having a soloist, worship team, or choir sing the stanzas—perhaps men on 1, women on 2, the entire choir or worship team on 3, and the whole congregation on 4. GIA has published an octavo version for choirs (G-5650) as well as a guitar edition (G-5650G).

Marty Haugen’s songs continue to reflect his passion for helping congregations sing their faith. His Lutheran background with its strong tradition of congregational song served him well when he started his career in a Roman Catholic parish (see interview with Haugen in RW 58). Since then he has written hundreds of songs for worship and offered workshops in countless churches, helping especially Roman Catholics find their voices after the changes in Vatican II. His songs are sung around the world. Sing! A New Creation (2001, Faith Alive Christian Resources) includes ten of his songs, including the much-loved “Gather Us In,” “Bring Forth the Kingdom,” and “Shepherd Me, O God,” a setting of Psalm 23.


Stanzas based on Old Testament texts:

St. 1: God who rules the waning day, darkness steals across the land.

Hear your people as we pray. Hold us, trembling, in your hand.


St. 2: Lonely roads to Zion mourn, as her enemies prevail.

All her priests and elders groan; all her young girls grieve and wail.


St. 3: Shackled with a heavy chain, sorely broken by the rod.

Days of sorrow and of pain: can this be the hand of God?


St. 4: Look, O Lord, on our disgrace: captive people live as slaves;

heartsick, hung’ring after grace. Be for us the God who saves!


St. 5: Look: the Lamb of God appears, sinless, to the slaughter led.

For our sins and griefs, his tears: stricken, beaten, bruised, and dead.


St. 6: Lifted high upon a cross, Perfect Love hangs pierced with nails.

All creation grieves its loss, as the very sunlight fails.


Text: Mary Louise Bringle, 2006, based on Lamentations 1:1-16; 3:1-18; 5:1-22; Isaiah 53:4-9

© 2006, GIA Publications, Inc.

Emily R. Brink ( is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.


Reformed Worship 86 © December 2007, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.