Old and New Songs for Lent

O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days; Lord, Have Mercy; We Are People on a Journey; Tree of Life and Awesome Mystery

O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days

The haunting and singable tune for “O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days” is known by several names; it appears in the Psalter Hymnal under the name morning song (referring to the tune’s most common match—Isaac Watts’s text for the break of day, “Once More, My Soul, the Rising Day”) as well as consolation and kentucky harmony. The tune first appeared in 1813 in the Repository of Sacred Music collected by John Wyeth.

This particular text is newly matched in the latest edition of the hymnal Evangelical Lutheran Worship with the morning song tune. The text was written in 1873 by Claudia F. Hernaman and originally published in the 1892 hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States. The text was more recently reworked by Gilbert Doan and fit into Common Meter for inclusion in ELW.

The text is an obvious fit for the season of Lent, linking the forty-day period that Jesus spent in the wilderness with the forty days of the Lenten season (the Revised Common Lectionary gospel texts for the first Sunday in Lent are the wilderness/temptation scenes in Matthew, Mark, and Luke). The hymn text also links the pilgrimage of Jesus toward the cross with the church’s pilgrimage toward Christlikeness and our final journey to a better home.

The first half of stanzas 1-3 call to mind various aspects of Jesus’ temptation and mortification, while the second half of these stanzas call the community of Jesus to imitate the model of our Savior through the practice of various Lenten mortifications. The fourth and final stanza breaks this pattern and simply asks Christ to be with his church during the Lenten, and ultimate, journey.

Musically, the most obvious accompaniment is to use a keyboard instrument to render the four-part harmonies. Alternatively, the melody line of morning song is strong enough on its own be sung in unison, perhaps accompanied by a drone. The notes to the right illustrate one possibility; notice that the drone shifts midway through stanzas three and four.

It would highlight the Jesus/community of Jesus contrast of the text if a solo voice were to sing the first half of stanzas 1-3, while a larger body (choir/congregation) were to join on the second half of those stanzas. The logic of the text implies that stanza 4 be sung by all.

The themes of pilgrimage, resisting temptation, and self-denial make this text a strong introduction for the church on the first Sunday of Lent. The song suggests some homiletical possibilities as well. Preachers could leverage the content of the first three verses to teach and inspire the church in the practice of the classic spiritual disciplines appropriate to the season. For an example, see the sidebar at right.

Lord, Have Mercy

This more recently composed song by Steve Merkel comes from the well of Christian contemporary music

(© 2000, Integrity’s Hosanna Music). Though it is a product of the new millennium, the song is a combination of the classic Eastern prayer “Kyrie Eleison” (chorus) and a deeply personal confession (stanzas).

The song was popularized in 2003 by Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant when it was released on Smith’s recording Worship Again(see sidebar below for the full lyrics as they appear on Smith’s CD). The recorded version features vocals by Smith and Grant set to an accompaniment of piano, classical guitar, and string quartet, along with various hand percussion instruments.

One possible rendering for congregational worship is to follow the example on the recording and allow soloists or lead worshipers to sing the song in its entirety, and by their example to guide the congregation into a moment of personal confession. Another possibility is to have a lead worshiper sing the verses and then to include the voice of the congregation on the refrain, “Lord, have mercy.” The simple three-part harmonization included here has been lowered from the original key of A-flat to F to make it more readily singable for congregational singers.

I have also used the song as part of Compline (or end-of-the-day) prayer services during the opening moment of confession. In that capacity, the song can simply be stripped down to its chorus. I will often introduce the song by playing the melody against the bass, two octaves apart. The simplicity and starkness of this contrast offers a picture of the contrast between our behavior and the holiness of God. The song can then be rendered in Taizé-like style, singing more slowly with multiple repetitions. Sprinkling in a verse where congregants hum or using a solo instrument to allow additional time for worshipers’ reflection and meditation are also possibilities.

At our church’s Maundy Thursday service, we used this song during the opening portion of worship as we made our confession and received God’s forgiveness (see sidebar next page). A different arrangement of this refrain is found in Contemporary Songs for Worship #13.

We Are People on a Journey

This text reflects various aspects of the spiritual transformation the people of God are designed to experience during the season of Lent. There is a cumulative and climactic trajectory to this transformation as the song unfolds. Stanza 1 focuses on the basic commitment of discipleship: following in the footsteps of Master, Rabbi, Savior—Jesus. Stanza 2 peers more deeply into this pilgrim journey, into imitatio—imitating the direct example of the Master.

In order to serve in Jesus’ name, disciples must undergo the continual rigors of dying to self in deeply personal ways: to those behaviors that have special appeal to us, to putting the reputation and glory of Jesus above our own. Stanza 3 takes us into the narrative of Triduum (the three days) in which Jesus demonstrates the extent of his love and servant leadership through the washing of feet and the offering of the Eucharist. The final stanza describes pilgrimage on its deepest level—the journey into the mystery of eternal life.

Because the energy of singing and musical accompaniment necessarily ought to reflect the energy of the text, consider the following dynamic trajectory:

Stanza 3 ought to be rendered most starkly in texture, out of respect to the great deeds of sacrifice enacted by our Lord, which are recounted in the text. Stanza 4 subsequently bursts forward in celebration of the consequences of Jesus’ great acts, which are tasted in the present and ultimately realized in the life beyond.

The simple melody of “We Are People on a Journey” keeps the possibility of varied accompanying instruments wide open. As the song was written for a relatively intimate retreat setting (see sidebar on p. 27), I have most often used minimal piano or guitar to facilitate it; but I have witnessed everything from an organ to a drum circle supporting the easily singable melody. The one exception is in measures 11-12, where the melody descends a perfect fourth from C-sharp to G-sharp before resolving on the third of a D-major chord. This spot can be a challenge for those who don’t read music. Keyboard accompanists would do well to help guide congregational singers in singing this descending interval, perhaps by way of introduction or by way of extra melodic emphasis at the proper moment.

The song was conceived to be sung in unison in order to reflect the unity of those who make pilgrimages in Jesus’ name. Altos and tenors may instinctively harmonize at the sixth below the treble melody, especially over the first, second, and fourth lines.

Here are two other musical considerations:

A climbing in the bass/chord structure of the accompaniment in measure 8: the third chord of this bar (E/G-sharp) can be given an extra accent followed by a beat of rest on the four count. The melody then has an unaccompanied pick-up into measure 9, upon which the accompaniment rejoins on a dissonant and more intense A2 harmony.

The song can be played continuously (no break between the end of a stanza and the beginning of the next) by utilizing the “turnaround chords” of C#m7 and Bm7. For a few possible renderings, see the top of page 27. Depending on the setting, using this turnaround mechanism keeps the song in a popular/folk music vein rather than in hymn/stanza format. Employing the turnaround chords allow musical time and space for the accompanist to set the new energy level for succeeding stanzas even before the congregation has begun to sing.

We introduced “We Are People on a Journey” at several Wednesday night worship gatherings that are more intimate in nature and focused especially on healing prayer, restoration, or the service of the Lord’s Supper. The song was also more widely introduced to our local community on Maundy Thursday during worship, where it functioned as the common thread that wove the three aspects of the service together (confession, footwashing, and Eucharist). The verses nicely mesh with these three elements traditionally included in Maundy Thursday worship. See the sidebar on

page 26 for the order of worship from ECRC’s 2010 Maundy Thursday worship.

A piano accompaniment for this song is available for download in the Faith Alive store at www.hymnary.org.

Tree of Life and Awesome Mystery

This is a little-known musical gem from the pen of Marty Haugen, composer of such favorites as “Gather Us In” and “Shepherd Me, O God.” While the key signature suggests the key of D-minor, the melody is actually in the mode of D-dorian with the sixth of the scale being raised to B-natural, one half-step higher than the B-flat that we’d expect to find in D-minor.

The modal tonality of the melody gives “Tree of Life” a reflective and mystical air. In keeping with the other Lenten songs covered in this article, this selection eschews the raised seventh or “leading tone” characteristic of so much western tonal music. The pilgrim spirit of Lent seems to resist the resolution implied by that particular note of the scale and the dominant harmonies that it implies.

The opening image in the text of “Tree of Life” is powerful and multifaceted. Haugen invokes both the “tree” of the cross, which stands at the penultimate stage of the Lenten journey, as well as the tree of the Old Testament wisdom literature tradition, which personifies the fruitfulness of the ways of a righteous person. In both cases, the image of the tree speaks deeply to the work and person of Jesus.

Haugen composed a set of Lenten verses whose imagery corresponds directly to the gospel readings of year A of the Revised Common Lectionary (see below):

If your congregation’s Lenten preaching ministry is guided by the Revised Common Lectionary, consider using “Tree of Life” as a song of response throughout succeeding weeks. The song could be taught on Ash Wednesday and then brought back as a common musical theme in Sunday worship.

The Lenten verses are significantly stronger than the standard verse texts included in the most recent version of ELW. Indeed, Haugen’s third verse includes the line “we the river, you the sea” which is objectionable on two levels: (1) it connotes the imagery of a universalist theological tradition, thus detracting from the unique sacrifice of Jesus, and (2) river/ocean imagery strays from and competes with the central image of the tree of life.

Consider introducing the melody with a recorder, oboe, or bassoon. The timbre of the double reeds seem especially well-suited to the modal flavor of the melody. A trio of two oboes and bassoon (or cello) could render the entire accompaniment quite winningly.

Week Example of Jesus Practice of the Community of Jesus
Week 1 Prayer and fasting in the desert Practice repentance, relinquishment of sin, and regret for sin via prayer and fasting.
Week 2 Struggle with Satan Combat the evil one as we struggle to deny ourselves those sins, habits, and practices that especially tempt us, both corporately and individually.
Week 3 Self-denial The old practice of “giving something up for Lent” comes into play here. The tradition is one that calls the church to give up easy gratifications for deeper satisfaction with God. Rather than simply giving up something that you like (chocolate, tea, TV), considering naming an object or practice that regularly pushes you from the presence of God, or something that acts as a surrogate for the presence of God, and give that up. The old word for this is “mortification,” that is, giving up what our flesh desires so that an infinitely more real desire may take deeper root.
Week 4 Pilgrimage in community Every spiritual journey is made in community. Note that this hymn text uses the first person plural exclusively when referring to the church.

Jesus, I’ve forgotten the words that you have spoken

Promises that burned within my heart have now grown dim

With a doubting heart I follow the paths of earthly wisdom

Forgive me for my unbelief

Renew the fire again


Lord have mercy

Christ have mercy

Lord have mercy on me


I have built an altar where I worship things of men

I have taken journeys that have drawn me far from you

Now I am returning to your mercies ever flowing

Pardon my transgressions

Help me love you again

(repeat chorus twice)

I have longed to know you and your tender mercies

Like a river of forgiveness ever flowing without end

I bow my heart before you in the goodness of your presence

Your grace forever shining

Like a beacon in the night

(repeat chorus twice)

Text: Steve Merkel, © 2000

I confess to God Almighty,

the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,

that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed

through my own grievous fault.

Therefore I pray to God to have mercy on me.

Almighty God, have mercy on us.

Forgive us all our sins and deliver us from all evil.

Confirm and strengthen us in all goodness,

and lead us to the life everlasting. Amen.

Song: “Lord, Have Mercy” RN 84, WR 375

Before God, with the people of God,

I confess my brokenness, the ways in which I wound my life,

the lives of others, and the life of the world.

May God forgive you, Christ renew you,

and the Spirit enable you to grow in love.

Let us in silence confess our faults and admit our frailty.


Before God, with the people of God,

I confess to my brokenness,

to the ways in which I wound my life, the livesof others, and

the life of the world.

May God forgive you, Christ renew you,

and the Spirit enable you to grow in love.

And now we pray with the words that Jesus taught his disciples, saying,

Our Father, who art in heaven . . .

Opening Song: “We Are People on

a Journey” (st. 1 solo, then st. 1


Part 1: Confession and Forgiveness

Responsive Liturgy

Song: “Lord, Have Mercy” WR 375

Reading from Exodus 12

Song: “We Are People on a

Journey” (st. 2)

Part 2: Footwashing

Reading: John 13:1-17


Footwashing ceremony (use multiple stations)

Songs to accompany footwashing:

“Nothing but the Blood of Jesus” CH 337, TH 307

“As I Have Done for You” SNT 97

“We Are People on a Journey” (st. 3)

Part 3: Eucharist

Pastoral introduction

Service by intinction

Songs to accompany the Lord’s Supper:

“Eat This Bread” PsH 312, SNC 254, WR 697

“Bless the Lord, My Soul” SNC 256

“Knowing You” SNT 197, WR 357

“We Are People on a Journey” (st. 4)

Closing Prayer

Sending: John 13:31-37

We Are People on a Journey

This text and tune are newly composed by the author of this article. The song emerged in conjunction with the retreat communities of the Transforming Center in Mundelein, Illinois (led by Ruth Haley Barton), and the Deeper Journey in DeWitt, Michigan. These retreat communities invite ministry leaders to meet quarterly for a forty-eight-hour period to practice silence, solitude, and observance of the daily office of prayer, all while fasting from technology, communication, and professional responsibilities. Many experience these two-day retreats as a mini-Lent: voluntarily minimizing desire for lesser things (professional accomplishment, ministry success) and stoking the flames of desire for the presence of God. The underlying conviction behind keeping this quarterly rhythm is that every local church needs and deserves a leader who has been transformed and refreshed by the intimate presence of Jesus.

Date Gospel Reading “Tree of Life” Text
March 13, 2011 Matt 4:1-11, Jesus’ temptation “Stay with us through all temptation . . .”
March 20, 2011 John 3:1-17, Jesus and Nicodemus “May we live and die confessing Christ . . .”
March 27, 2011 John 4:5-42, the woman at the well “Living water of salvation . . .”
April 3, 2011 John 9:1-41, healing of a blind man “Give us eyes to see you clearly . . .”
April 10, 2011 John 11:1-45, raising of Lazarus “God of all our fear and sorrow . . .”

Gregg DeMey is music pastor at Granite Springs Church in Lincoln, California.


Reformed Worship 98 © December 2010, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.