Lent is upon us, and for many it’s a time to practice discipline and sacrifice, often personal and private, entering into a somewhat solitary season of reflection, prayer, fasting, reading and meditation. Indeed, the liturgical season of Lent gives us opportunities for personal reflection like no other time in the church year. There’s an African-American spiritual that comes to mind:
“Jesus walked this lonesome valley, He had to walk it by himself. Oh, nobody else could walk it for him, He had to walk it by himself.”
The hymns that we sing have the power to strike a chord deep within that often shape our faith so the hymns that we choose to sing are vitally important and must be selected with care. Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley emphasizes the individualistic nature of our Lenten journeys, but if you look at our Glory to God hymnal you’ll find the truth of the gospel message is that we are not alone in our faith journey.
I recently read a new Lenten hymn by J. Barrie Shepherd, retired senior minister from First Presbyterian Church in New York City. This hymn called Deep in the Heart of Winter better reflects the balance between an individual Lenten journey within the context of community (can you guess the tune by reading?):
Deep in the heart of winter, when days seem cold and bleak,
Our faith calls us to enter this space of seven weeks.
We turn to prayer and fasting, take scripture as our guide,
Prepare our souls for Easter, and joyful Eastertide.
A time of deep reflection, a time to search the heart.
Yet more than introspection calls us to do our part.
We turn our thoughts to others, our kin both far and near,
Our families, sisters, brothers, the ones we hold most dear.
Our prayers reach further out now, and think of all whose needs
Cry out for our attention, yearn for our faithful deeds.
The sick, the poor, the hungry, all those who are oppressed,
Those folk our Savior taught us to see as truly blessed.
So mark these days as holy, our truly Lenten time.
Let every seeking soul be restored, renewed, refined.
Till in our Savior’s footsteps, beneath his cross we pray,
Then meet him in the garden, rejoice on Easter Day
A key phrase in that hymn -the phrase that actually made me take notice and examine my own approach to the Lenten journey- is: “A time of deep reflection, a time to search the heart. Yet more than introspection calls us to do our part.” As I prepare for Lent, I want to do my part to help provide opportunities for an individual journey within the context of community. It is my hope that their collective journeys will enable them to contribute their individual gifts to a common effort to make a difference. Singing hymns during Lent is an important way to provide opportunities for members of our congregations to engage fully as the worshipping body and to inspire them to the work of the church. In collaboration, pastors and musicians are in a unique position to guide their congregants’ Lenten journeys by selecting excellent hymns for them to sing.
So…what should we sing during Lent? The old, familiar hymns, or fresh new tunes? To speak my truth, we’ll likely need both. When singing hymns that are familiar, we have opportunities to be transported by the music itself since we don’t have to think too much about learning the tune and text. Many of us even have the tune and text of a very familiar hymn memorized, so that we may sing from deep within our souls. On the other hand, when singing hymns that are new, we have opportunities for The Spirit to provide new insights into the very nature of God and God’s church.