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It is a true gift to be able to carry these songs with us!

I was planning the music for a church service a few weeks back. I lead a small ensemble and was thinking about the flow of the service centered on Psalm 129. Everything was in place except for a postlude that would fit the joyous theme. As I looked through our hymnbook, I saw “There Is a Redeemer,” by Melody Green. That would be a great choice, I thought.

That Sunday, after the closing song, the congregation was dismissed with God’s blessing, and the ensemble began to play and sing “There Is a Redeemer.” There are always a few people who stay to listen to the postlude, but this week something else happened. Twenty or so people remained and soon started singing along. We did not have the number from the hymnbook listed, nor were the words projected on the screen, but we soon heard them joining us on the chorus: “Thank you, O my Father, for giving us your Son and leaving your Spirit ’til the work on earth is done.” Many of the congregants knew all three verses too.

“There Is a Redeemer” has a rich text and a memorable melody. When leading this song, I always want to slow down a bit on the third verse so we can savor the words “When I stand in glory, I will see your face.” Singing that song with my brothers and sisters in Christ, many of whom I’ve now known for decades, often brings a lump to my throat.

Songs do that. Artfully composed texts matched with beautiful melodies speak to us in a unique way. The message of Scripture expressed in song sticks with us often more easily than in any other form. Many of us can sing multiple verses of Christmas carols, for example, without looking at the words or the music. Hearing these songs over and over through the years has placed them firmly in our minds and our hearts. There is a good chance that you can sing much of Joy to the World without looking it up. The message of Psalm 98—the basis of that carol—is in your memory whether you realize it or not.

That’s the power of song in the Christian life. It is a true gift to be able to carry these songs with us! As I reflect on the songs that have shaped me, I find that I often turn to them to comfort me or to lift me up when I need to be reminded of something. The often-beautiful texts remind me of how dear certain Christian truths are.

Thinking about why certain hymns are important to me has helped me come to love them even more, so I offer this short list of songs, old and new, that live in my memory. I encourage you to make your own list and to think or write briefly about why certain songs have meaning for you.

‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness’ (words by Thomas Chisholm, music by William Runyan, 1923): As I get older, I recognize the importance of God’s faithfulness in my life and in the lives of those I love. The repetition of the title in the chorus and the musical phrases rising along with the words lift the message up and invite us to proclaim it loudly. Many Christians, regardless of denomination, know this hymn well, and it’s great for singing with a group.

‘I Sought the Lord, and Afterward I Knew’ (words by Jean Ingelow, 1878; music by Jean Sibelius, 1899): Like many hymn tunes, Sibelius’ FINLANDIA has been used with more than one text, but this is the one I grew up with. The hymn helps me articulate the complex story of how we come to faith by succinctly expressing the mystery of how our search for God begins with God’s Spirit moving in us first. As with “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” the language is not modern, but its beauty coupled with the lilting melody adds weight.

‘In Christ Alone’ (words and music by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, 2002): Compared to the previous songs on this list, this one is quite new. It is well known, though, because the melody is easily singable by a congregation and the text speaks powerfully of one of the most comforting messages of the gospel: “No power of hell, no human plan, can ever pluck me from his hand.” Almost as soon as this song came on the scene 20 years ago, people recognized what a gift to the church it was.

‘My Soul in Stillness Waits’ (words and music by Marty Haugen, 1982). This is another relatively recent song (if you can consider 45 years ago recent!). It’s usually sung during Advent. I remember singing this at a worship conference, and each time we sang the refrain “For you, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits; truly my hope is in you,” we waited longer on the word “waits” each time we came back to it. I’ve never forgotten that, and it has placed that refrain in my mind, especially during Advent when I read Psalm 130 (“I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning”) or when I struggle to understand what God is doing. The haunting melody reinforces the idea of a God who moves in mysterious ways yet is the One in whom my hope is found.

I could go on and on, but space limits me to listing just a handful of the hymns I carry with me. How did all these songs get into my heart? Simply through repetition. I have been singing some of them for as long as I can remember. Others have been added to my life more recently. I did not try to memorize any of them. But I sang them often enough that I started to learn them. Over the years those memories are refreshed, and now I hardly have to look at the hymnbook or screen.

There is a lesson here for those of us who help select music for worship. We are tasked with choosing songs that fit what is going on liturgically, but we also want to pick songs with rich texts that will endure in the lives of our congregations—regardless of the song’s age. If the churches I have belonged to sang only old songs, I would not have learned two of the songs on my short list. We shouldn’t only sing the old hymns. On the other hand, if my churches constantly added new songs to their repertoire, I would not have sung any of them enough to have learned them well. It’s a tricky balance and, with the flurry of new songs being written for congregational singing over the past few years, it is becoming more challenging for worship leaders to choose well.

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