December 17, 2015—The word “liturgy” means “the work of the people.” One of the most important works that we do in our worship is join together in song to give glory to God. However, many congregations struggle with finding their communal voice either because of their smaller size or perhaps because we live in an increasingly musically illiterate culture.
As a pastor of a small congregation on the east end of Long Island, I am continually searching for ways to craft liturgy and music that challenge the people to explore scripture and our God made known through it. One of the most effective ways I’ve found to do this is in the writing of new hymns to be sung to common tunes.
The most practical benefit of doing this is that the people sing a new text to a tune that is well known in their congregational repertoire. For example, in the average church you would be hard pressed to find many congregants who are not familiar with the tune NETTLETON, commonly used to sing “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” (#475 in Glory to God). A quick replacement with the following words reveals a new discovery embodied within a tune that requires little, if any, instruction.
Death has died, no longer holds us; God’s embrace and love endure.
Never ceasing, always blessing, grace has found us, made us sure.
God the Alpha and Omega gives us life anew each day.
Christ has died and Christ is Risen; all our fears have passed away.
(Stephen M. Fearing, 2013)
This is not a new concept. In fact, Michael Morgan, has been doing this for several decades and other folks for many centuries prior. Michael first introduced me to this historic practice during my time at Columbia Theological Seminary. (His paraphrases of the Psalms in his Psalter for Christian Worship are an indispensable resource for any congregation.)
This year, as I was preparing for the season of Advent, I remembered something my wife, Tricia, has often said. She loves to remind me that, although most of us think of Advent as a four-week preparation before Christmas, Mary’s advent was nine months. How good to be reminded of this during the hectic weeks that precede the coming of the Christ-child!
With that in mind, on a recent business trip to New Jersey, I sat down in a sandwich shop and wrote the following hymn for the season of Advent. It is sung to the tune, VALET WILL ICH DIR GEBEN, commonly used to sing “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You” (#104 in Glory to God).
Nine months was Mary’s advent, nine months her blessed wait.
Her travels long and toilsome, her path a joyful fate.
She carried Christ our savior within her blessed womb,
the journey just beginning would reach an empty tomb.
With Joseph, Mary pondered these things long in her heart.
Her trust was true and faithful, would guide them from the start.
Her Lord had chosen Mary to bear God’s only son,
this advent wait of blessing where grace had just begun.
With courage may we follow this Mary’s faithful feet,
and trust our God to save and to make our joy complete.
Help us to wait like Mary as when her tale began.
May we, like her, give fully ourselves to serve God’s plan.
(Stephen M. Fearing, 2015)
I truly believe that anyone can take part in this liturgical practice – pastors, choir directors, and congregants young and old! You would be amazed what a dash of imagination, a cup of coffee, a smidgeon of wonder, and a rhyming dictionary can produce!
Happy singing, folks. Remember Zephaniah’s call to “sing aloud, O Daughter Zion…[for] the LORD is in your midst!”
Stephen Fearing, MDiv and MAPT ’14 is a Presbyterian pastor, husband, hymn-writer, musician, and liturgist who ministers to and with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Having been ordained for almost a year and a half, he is currently navigating this tricky and blessed journey known as being a Teaching Elder (although most days he prefers to consider himself a “Learning” Elder!). In 2010, Stephen graduated from Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC. In 2014, he completed my studies at Columbia Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in worship, music, and liturgy. In his free time, he loves going to the beach with his Golden-Doodle, Elsie, and exploring New York City with his wife, Tricia Garrett Fearing. In addition to his work at Shelter Island he serves as the Moderator of the Missions Team for the Synod of the Northeast. You can find original lectionary liturgies and hymns at his website, www.stephenmfearing.com. All original resources found at his website are free for congregational use! You can follow Stephen Fearing on Twitter @stephenmfearing.