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Hymns for December, January, and February

The three songs in this issue are all built on short repetitive refrains. None are in the typical hymn structure; two are simply refrains, and one is intended for leader and congregation.

One of the appeals of short refrains and choruses is that they are easily committed to memory. All three songs are short enough so that most worshipers will find themselves singing them during the week, long before the month is over. All three will also be included in Songs for LiFE, the new children's hymnal to be published this fall by CRC Publications.

DECEMBER
Prepare the Way of the Lord

What better Advent text than this one, first found in the poetry of Isaiah (40:3) and quoted in all four gospels? John the Baptizer saw his calling in these words. When he was asked who he was, he replied by quoting from Isaiah, "I am the voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way of the Lord.'"

That is our calling too. Advent is a good time to remember that each of us is called to prepare the way of the Lord, for surely the Lord is coming—again.

This simple refrain is from Taize, the ecumenical community in eastern France that has become a place of pilgrimage for thousands of people each year (see RW 8) who gather to participate in beautiful and simple worship. Since people come with so many different languages and from so many worship traditions, the community has developed a profoundly rich and simple style of worship music. Its simplicity lies in the short repetitive structures (see also "Eat This Bread" in RW19). Its richness lies in the varied textures that can support the singing.

Many Taize songs are constructed as canons, or rounds, with different instrumental descants that can be layered on in kaleidoscope fashion to build a shape that can rise and fall in intensity. The worship leader/music director must determine the "right" moment to end the singing, a choice that depends somewhat on the congregation, on the role the hymn plays in the service, and on the number of instruments. If only keyboard is used, two or three repetitions may be sufficient. Using additional instruments creates the potential for building up and sustaining the singing for more repetitions.

Try using "Prepare the Way" as the call to worship for the month of December. It would make an excellent prelude if your congregation sings "gathering songs." It would also make an excellent processional. If you wish to develop a plan for a month of singing this refrain, consider the following suggestions:

The first week, the prelude concludes by moving into the "Basic Accompaniment." After a pianist or organist plays the song two or three times, a male soloist from the back of the church sings the refrain in a firm voice. (There is nothing wimpy about John the Baptizer or about this call—sing it with strength!) Then a choir' (childrens and/or adult) could pick it up and sing it through once or twice more, perhaps going into the round. If the choir is in the front of the sanctuary, this antiphonal call to worship will surround the congregation.

The second week, again begin with soloist or choir singing one time through, and then bring the congregation in. Depending on how adept your congregation is at reading or singing in harmony, have them sing once in unison, and then once more in canon. (For more on congregations singing in canon, see RW 30.) This time add one or more instruments.

The third week and fourth Sundays, have the choir add the alleluias, layering them on top of the congregations singing after the singing is going well. Add more instruments too.

On Christmas Day, drop the "Prepare" text, and have the choir only sing the 'Alleluias" during part of the service, perhaps after the reading of the gospel lesson.

JANUARY
When Jesus the Healer

The gospels tell many stories of Jesus' healing ministry. This hymn includes several of those accounts, giving one or two lines to each story, along with two short refrains that bring us into the stories.

Not only do we remember the love and compassion of Jesus as he went about healing people; we see increasing need for healing all around us yet today. Many churches are responding to that need by scheduling more services where prayers for healing are prominent.

This song's English composer, Peter Smith, is a Methodist minister, classically trained pianist, folksinger, and guitar player. He composed this song when leading a course on contemporary worship for the Iona Community (see KW 27 for an interview with John Bell of the Iona Community). His diverse preparation is distilled in this disarmingly simple song.

I can testify to the power of this song as sung prayer. This past year the Calvin Seminary Choir, which I conduct, sang it several times—in chapel, in church services, and at a few nursing homes. The song grew on us all year, and spoke afresh in each situation. It spoke especially powerfully at the nursing homes, when those who were feeble and frail joined their voices with ours on the refrain, "Heal us, Lord Jesus."

The narrative sections are best sung by soloists or choir or by alternating between women and men, with all on the final stanza. Diction is critical, especially if the congregation does not have the entire text. The two refrains are short and similar enough so that congregations don't need the music; the refrains can be printed in the bulletin. And don't "worry about singing all seven verses; they go quickly, and the congregation needs time to enter into the response. Add a measure at the end of each stanza for a bit of a break, but keep the rhythm going throughout.

The Scripture references the song is based on are as follows:

st. 1: Luke 4:31-41
st. 2: Mark 2:3-12
st. 3: Mark 5:22-24,35-43
st. 4: Mark 10:46-52
St. 5-6: Matthew 10:5-15, Isaiah 35:6

FEBRUARY
Psalm 1

May be sung as a canon

Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord
and on his law they meditate day and night. Refrain

They are like trees
planted by the streams of water,
Which yield their fruit in its season.
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper. Refrain

The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish. Refrain

Text: from Psalm 1 (NRSV); refrain by Robert J. Thompson.
Music: Robert J. Thompson, arr. Emily R. Brink.
Refrain and music © GIA Publications. Arr. © 1994, CRC Publications.
For permission to reproduce this song write to GIA Publications, 7404 S. Mason Ave., Chicago, IL 60633 708-496-3800.

FEBRUARY
Psalm 1: Happy Are They

Tim Brown (see pp. 8-12) encourages Christians to memorize Scripture. Psalm 1 is certainly one passage worth memorizing. It begins the Psalms by setting out two ways of living: one that involves finding delight in the Lord and one that doesn't. Only one of these ways leads to happiness.

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) chose the word "happy" rather than the more familiar and older "blessed." As in all such choices, something is lost and something is gained. Perhaps "happy" will speak more clearly to our culture, which is certainly engaged in the pursuit of happiness.

This psalm setting follows the "re-sponsorial" style of singing, in which a short refrain is sung at the beginning and at intervals throughout the reading or chanting of the entire psalm text. "Re-sponsorial" simply refers to the response character of the structure.

The refrain is very simple: one or two hearings, and everyone should be able to join in without the need for printed music. (And the teaching of the refrain provides a good opportunity for the children to lead the congregation!) Here are some suggestions for singing this refrain:

  1. Start with Orff instruments (or piano, or bells, or any other instruments that would help set the pitch clearly). Play the "alto" pattern twice, then add the "soprano" pattern twice, then have the children sing the refrain, followed immediately by the congregation singing it as well. The director of the children should turn to bring in the congregation.
  2. Precede each statement of the refrain by having the instruments play their pattern, twice together.
  3. After a couple of weeks, if the refrain is going well, repeat the final statement as a two- or three-part round. The children could do this on the third week, extending the final congregational refrain by singing it two or three more times. On the final week the congregation could also be divided into groups for the final refrain.
  4. Make sure that the reader of the psalm practices with those who are leading the singing so that both psalm and refrain become one act of worship.

Many churches end the service of confession by reading the Ten Commandments or another passage that gives instruction in how we are to live before the Lord. This month, try using Psalm 1 in that place.