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Songs for the Season: Singing Through the Hard Times

When hard times come, lines of familiar hymns often leap out at us, catch us unaware, and stick in our throats. At times we cannot sing, we cannot pray. It is then that we need the fellowship of believers more than ever. We need the comfort of knowing that others are singing and praying on our behalf, bringing before God the prayers and songs we cannot sing.

Other times we’re amazed at how suffering people are able to sing and find strength in their songs. The African-American spiritual arose out of suffering (see p. 32). Many of the psalms are laments, and the church is gradually once more recovering the psalms, including the laments. Far fewer hymns are laments (see p. 6).

Here are a few songs that may be helpful to your community in times of struggle.

Psalm 116: I Love the Lord

Click to listen [ Recorded live from Symposium 2004, led by James Abbington ]

Psalm 116 speaks of sorrow and sickness, with a desperate call to God for deliverance. The psalm is also one of gratitude, thanking God for hearing and answering that call. This song includes only the first two verses of the psalm, a song of testimony and love for the God “who heard my cry and pitied every groan.” I love the story of the origins of this gospel song. Here’s the story:

The text: The text came first. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many Presbyterians sang the psalms set in poetic form by Isaac Watts; some sang only the psalms in worship. Watts’s psalm versifications are still found in every hymnal (for example, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” for part of Psalm 90 and “Joy to the World” for Psalm 98). African-American slaves sitting in the balconies loved many of those psalms, often speaking of their beloved “Dr. Watts” who gave voice to their struggles.

The spiritual: These opening verses of Psalm 116 became the basis for a spiritual. Spirituals were passed down aurally, and a very complex version of this tune as lined out by M. Adams and Louis Sykes is included here as found in the African American Heritage Hymnal (see box on p. 24 for part of this song). The music appears almost unsingable, because this is a transcription of one way this song has been sung, with all the variation that can come from an aural tradition. John Work III (1901-1967), chair of the music department at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, home of the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers, wrote about the phenomenon of variation and improvisation in the spirituals:

In the city churches, among literate worshipers where hymns are sung from hymnals, there is almost a uniform reliance upon a single melody. But among the rural folk, where the transmitting of songs is entirely oral, not only does the melody undergo some change with each performance but there are frequent changes in the words also. When a collector transcribes a folk melody from an individual folk singer, he knows that he is writing the melody as that particular singer sang it that time. . . .

He goes on to describe the music of rural churches in the Negro Primitive Baptist Church in the early part of the twentieth century:

The music in the worship service consisted occasionally of spirituals and the wonderful hymns of Dr. Watts never heard outside of worship. These latter hymns began with a verse intoned by a leader and repeated by the congregation in a long, drawn-out melismatic melody, the original of which might or might not have been taken from the New England hymnody. . . . [T]here is no meter and to me the original melody is not distinguishable. Each singer . . . adds to it. . . . When a hundred aroused singers so intone, the resultant sound is indescribable and impossible to transcribe (from “The Negro Spiritual” in Readings in African American Church Music and Worship, pp. 18-19).

The gospel song: In 1990 the famous gospel artist Richard Smallwood wrote new music for this psalm text, which he probably learned in some version of the spiritual. He said, “People need to know Someone can heal their hurts. I take no credit for the work we do. I owe it all to God and I feel blessed that for some reason he has chosen me to make a difference in people’s lives.” Smallwood is one of the best-known gospel artists today; he has won many awards and performs around the world (see www.richardsmallwood.com). “I Love The Lord” was also sung by Whitney Houston in the film The Preacher’s Wife.

Here the ancient psalm text, as set in poetic form by Isaac Watts in the eighteenth century and filtered through a rural spiritual that nurtured the African-American experience, comes to yet another expression in the urban gospel sound born of ragtime, jazz, and blues. What a delightfully complex mixture bringing together different parts of the body of Christ! And every time we sing it we add our own voice to this story, which becomes our own testimony.

One way to sing this gospel song would be to simply sing the notes on page 23 without additional accompaniment; it would sound more like a modern spiritual or a hymn. But the music here is incomplete. To sing in the gospel style requires a more substantial piano accompaniment; one by Dave Maddox is found in the Leader’s Edition of Sing! A New Creation. Another by Nolan Williams Jr. is provided in the African American Heritage Hymnal. Yet a third is provided in a live recording with James Abbington playing at the 2003 Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts (see interview on p. 32); click on the link above to hear it.



My Only Comfort, Now, Always

Click to listen [ full version ]

As I get older, I am attending more funerals. I’ve been struck at how often the service includes the opportunity for everyone to recite the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism (see p. 9). I’m not surprised, and welcome it each time. This text is profoundly comforting.

Like countless others in the Reformed tradition across the world, I memorized this statement as a child, and it often comes to mind. I even wrote a song (Psalter Hymnal 549) using the exact text, because I didn’t want to change a word, and thought perhaps a tune would help others memorize this beautiful and comforting confession of faith. But because the text is not in a regular meter, that setting is not easily accessible for congregational singing.

The versification provided here was written by Marlene Veenstra, a member of First Christian Reformed Church, Sioux Center, Iowa. She adapted it to a more regular metrical form so that it could be sung to a familiar tune. Of necessity, some words had to change, but her arrangement is a very singable and faithful rendering of this beloved text. She chose the familiar folk hymn tune resignation, a common meter double (CMD) tune. And while the text does not exactly match that meter, it fits quite well and therefore sings well. If members of your congregation would like to sing rather than speak this beautiful expression of faith, consider this setting.



Don’na Tokidemo/Anytime and Anywhere

Click to listen [ full version ]

This simple hymn text was written by a young Japanese girl who died of cancer at age seven. Junko Takahashi died young, and her faith grew stronger even as she suffered in the hospital. What a testimony this young child has given to a nation where less than 2 percent of the population is Christian! The music is by Shin’ichi Takanami, Associate Professor of Music Education at Kunitachi College of Music in Tokyo.

This hymn was recommended for Sing! A New Creation by Dr. Yasuhiko Yokosaka, a professor of music at Niigata University in Japan. He served on the committee that prepared The Hymnal 21, the fourth Christian hymnal in Japan based on ecumenical efforts (21 stands for the 21st century; the earlier hymnals were published in 1903, 1931, and 1954). Many hymns in The Hymnal 21 have been translated from English into Japanese.

When we were working on Sing! A New Creation, I contacted Dr. Yokosaka and asked for recommendations of new Japanese hymns to translate into English. This was one of the hymns he suggested, saying that it had captured the heart of the Japanese people.

We asked Harvey Smit, then editor-in-chief of CRC Publications, to provide a prose translation of the text. He was a former missionary to Japan and was himself suffering from cancer; he died before Sing! A New Creation was completed. His daughter Nancy Smit completed the prose translation, and then James Brumm and I worked on setting the text to the Japanese melody.

The text encourages us not to fear, but to trust Jesus’ love and God’s steadfast care. The gentle melody, in a tradition as much Western as Eastern, is in the simple style of children’s songs of earlier generations. It reminds us of God’s lovingkindness to generations before us as well as to our own. Like the words “anytime” and “anywhere,” the tune uses parallel phrases that build on each other. Sing at an andante tempo (q = 100), accompanied by guitar or keyboard, with instruments (flute, violin) playing the melody in unison with the singers.

The song is appropriate “anytime and anywhere”—consider having your children learn it and teach the adults during Lent, for a healing service, or for a funeral. Also consider singing one stanza at the beginning and another at the end of prayers of intercession.



Look and Learn

Click to listen [ full version ]

Next we turn to a cheerful Korean song that matches the theme of the banner on the back cover of this issue. This paraphrase from the Sermon on the Mount soars like the birds it pictures. Its instruction is gentle but firm, reminding us of what we know but so often forget—that we can safely put our trust in our God, who provides all that we need.

Use a choir to teach this song to your congregation, although the melody is not at all difficult. For a simple anthem, select a solo or all the sopranos on the text for the first half of stanza 1, with the other voices humming the harmony. Everyone can sing the harmony in the second half of the stanza. Similarly, use other voices on the first half of stanzas 2 and 3. The Leader’s Edition of Sing! A New Creation provides more background:

The rising and falling pentatonic melody perfectly reflects the text, as it moves with an appearance of being carefree, but is firmly held within five tones. Play with a bright and lyrical tone (dq = 48). This song may be accompanied with Western-style harmony, provided here. For a more Eastern flavor, accompany with unison flute or another C-instrument, and add wind chimes (used sparingly, perhaps sounding lightly throughout or struck once on the first beat of every second measure). This song is an excellent “bridge builder” for congregations that sing classic hymnody, but want to begin learning songs from around the world.

This text and tune are by Nah Young-Soo, member of voice faculty at Hanyang University College of Music, Seoul, Korea. The text was translated and arranged by John Bell of the Iona Community in Scotland.



When Eyes That We Once Knew as Keen

Click to listen [ full version ]

The loss of an elderly person to Alzheimer’s disease is one for which probably no hymn had been written until this new and powerful text by John Core (see his article in RW 68). Core wrote this text in 2003 in response to a call by the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada for “Hymns to Fill the Gaps.” Of 129 entries, this text was chosen as the winner. (For more information about the Hymn Society, see www.hymnsociety.org.)

RW 62 included the haunting hymn “We Cannot Measure How You Heal” by John Bell set to the tune ye banks and braes (also found in Sing! A New Creation 69). Core chose that same tune for his text.

If you know of people in your congregation or perhaps among friends or family who have loved ones with Alzheimer’s Disease, consider sending them a copy of this hymn, perhaps as you would a greeting card, indicating your prayer and support for them. And suggest that their own congregations sing it so the larger community of faith can help share the burdens of those who often are very isolated.