Old Texts, New Sounds

Kind and Merciful God

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Too many churches today omit confession of sin from the worship service. This year, especially during Lent, if your congregation has gone “light” on this part of worship, consider ways to approach God with prayers for forgiveness so that you may celebrate the forgiving and atoning love of God.

Some churches offer a prayer of confession, perhaps by the entire congregation, after which the pastor gives an assurance of pardon and the congregation responds with thanksgiving—in some cases the traditional Gloria Patri (“Glory Be to the Father”). In earlier days in the Reformed tradition, the prayer of confession was often sung.

This hymn is a reworking by Brian Jeffrey Leech (b. 1931) of the classic text from The Book of Common Prayer:

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us,
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Leech (b. 1931) knew this text well; he was born and educated in England before emigrating to the United States in 1955. Since then he has served as a pastor in several different churches and was also a member of the commission that prepared the 1973 edition of The Covenant Hymnal for the Evangelical Covenant Church. Here is what Leech said about writing this text:

As a freelance minister, I have had the opportunity to visit many churches in my own denomination and beyond. One very obvious omission in many services is the opportunity to confess one’s sins. When we come in from the world to worship God, we are like children summoned from play and told that dinner is ready, but before we come to the table we need to wash. What a wonderful reassurance it is that if we own up to what we have been, God provides us with lots of hot water, scented soap, and large fluffy towels, so that the grime and dirt can be quickly removed. Of course, what God actually uses is the blood of Christ as the means which continues to cleanse us from sin.

—The Worshiping Church, leader’s edition (Hope Publishing Co., 1990)

Leech adapted a traditional Swedish melody for this text. The simple melody with its repeated rhythmic pattern is easily learned. If you’re tempted to sing only some of the stanzas, be sure to include the last one, which should be accompanied with brighter sounds to await the good news of forgiveness.

Psalm 51: God, Be Merciful to Me

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Psalm 51 is probably the best-known prayer of confession from Scripture. The psalm opens with the familiar prayer for mercy; that opening line is the basis for the ancient Greek Kyrie Eleison that has been part of Christian liturgy since the earliest days of the New Testament church, so much so that the Latin liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church retained those Greek words.

The familiar hymn tune redhead 76 was named after the English composer Richard Redhead, who composed it for the text “Rock of Ages.” But the tune has since become associated with the Lenten hymn “Go to Dark Gethsemane” and “God, Be Merciful to Me.”

The setting here is by Christopher Miner (www.christopherminer.com), one of the composers involved in the Indelible Grace project (see RW 66, p. 42). The website now has several new hymns by young musicians who have returned to the spiritual depth of older psalm and hymn texts, with many now available free for the downloading (http://igracemusic.com/igracemusic/hymnbook/home.html).

Rock of Ages

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Here is another well-known nineteenth-century English hymn text, using the same meter as for “God, Be Merciful to Me”—77 77 77 (that is, six lines of seven syllables each). Many current hymnals have dropped this old hymn, but when I first heard it to a new tune by James Ward, the hymn took on new power and strength. This old text set to his jazz-influenced tune has now been included in more than one hymnal, including the Trinity Hymnal (1990).

Ward (see interview in RW 3, p. 2) is a songwriter, pianist, recording artist (with eleven albums to his credit), and music educator who has spent most of his adult life in a creative courtship with black music including jazz, gospel, and blues. This in turn has extended the boundaries of his musical quest to include Latino, African, and his own original form of bridge-building compositions for the church. From the naiveté of post-college urban ministry to the present, Ward’s musical experiments have taught him what works and what doesn’t work in a multicultural vision.

Ward named his tune for New City Fellowship, a church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that began as a mission to urban children in 1971. A charter member, Ward was involved from the start, but in 2002 he became their full-time music director. For more on his music, check out www.jameswardmusic.com. (He is scheduled to speak about his experiences at New City Fellowship at the Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts in January; see inside front cover and p. 47 for conference details).

Psalm 27: The Lord Is My Light and My Stronghold

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Probably few readers of Reformed Worship have even considered, much less introduced, improvisational jazz in worship. Just as adding musical styles that called for piano or guitar a generation ago was controversial—and still is for some congregations—adding jazz may be a stretch for your congregation. But short refrains offer a good opportunity for your congregation to try a new sound to a favorite psalm of trust.

On page 42, Ron Rienstra writes about the pattern of creating new psalm refrains for jazz vespers. One of the psalms mentioned is Psalm 27; here is the refrain composed by Calvin College student Angel Napieralski for one of those services. Typical of jazz, only the melody and chords are provided, since the arrangement is largely improvised from that chord chart. In fact, the arrangement would probably be a bit different every time it was played. But the chords are essential, and those provided here by Dan Richardson are what create the jazz sound.

The improvisational skills required of jazz musicians are similar to the old ways of accompanying psalms and hymns in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The hymnals contained the melodies, and the organist was expected to create the harmonies. That improvisational requirement largely disappeared during the twentieth century but is making a comeback today, so that organists and other musicians are once more learning the craft of accompanying a melody without reference to a notated score beyond a melody and series of chord symbols.

One of the challenges of much contemporary worship music is to create melodies that are friendly to large groups singing them, rather than soloists. Though the recording of this song (available on our website) is sung by a soloist, this melody is very accessible to congregations, and the familiar old text helps bridge the gap between the words of confession and the music to which they are set. This past summer, Ron Rienstra told me about trying it out at the annual general assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:

I helped to lead morning prayer one day. As we planned the service, I had some trepidation as I suggested this jazz psalm. After all, these were classically-trained, German-chorale-loving musicians. But I was very pleased with how well we were able pray this close-to-the-ground jazz psalm without it sounding forced or square. Our ensemble was modest: a pianist, a bassist, and two lead vocalists. We taught the refrain to the congregation by playing it through twice and then inviting them to sing along the third time. When we moved on to the stanzas, one of the vocalists read the text from the psalm while the instrumentalists played the chords. We didn’t pay close attention to keeping a pulse through the stanzas—we merely listened to where the reader was and used a nod of the head or some other simple gesture to be certain we changed chords at the same time. In the last chord, we regained a beat (through some simple subdivisions in the piano), and then offered a repetition of the chord as a cue to return to the refrain.


Jazz Psalms

A collection of jazz psalms by Dan Richardson and Angel Napieralski is now available on CD through the Calvin College bookstore ($15; 1-800-748-0122; www.calvin.edu/bookstore). Pour the songs into your heart while listening to the CD, or use them in your own congregation’s worship. Printed music, like Psalm 27 here, can be found at the Jazz Vespers website (www.calvin.edu/admin/chapel/worship/jazz/music.htm).

Emily R. Brink (embrink@calvin.edu) is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.


Reformed Worship 70 © December 2003, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.