Words That Matter

The planning of worship always deserves our best efforts. When it comes to congregational music, we are blessed with an overwhelming abundance of hymns and songs for our people to sing. Lifting our voices together is one of most amazing and unifying activities in which we engage. Yet, too often, we choose from a very small pool of music for Sunday worship and miss the riches that are available.

As a pastor and worship planner, it may surprise you that I spend just as much time each week choosing what the congregation will sing as I do in researching and writing my sermon. The congregation’s song and voice are that important! While I’m blessed to have an excellent personal library of hymnals and songbooks, there are wonderful and comprehensive resources online that anyone can consult. For instance, www.hymnary.org is available to all of us and is a treasure trove of information about hymns and congregational song. Check it out!

In this blog posting I want to share a superb hymn text from one of our newer hymn writers. I’ve mentioned Jacque B. Jones before – she is currently the president of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada (www.thehymnsociety.org). Her first book of hymn texts was published just this year, and debuted at the Hymn Society’s annual conference this past July, in Columbus, Ohio. Songs Unchanged, Yet Ever-Changing (GIA Publications, 2014) includes fifty texts on a variety of subjects, some of which have few (if any) previous hymns written about them: adult baptism, exploring our faith by asking questions, the story of Ruth and Naomi, how we regard our enemies, Mary Magdalene, and affordable housing, just to name a few.

So, one of my favorite hymns by Jacque (which convicts me every time I sing it) is “Hear This from a Homeless Stranger.” My congregation, First Baptist Church of Berkeley, meets at ABSW, right across the street from People’s Park, where several dozen homeless and marginalized people gather daily. It’s impossible to read these words or sing this hymn without picturing our neighbors. As you read this hymn, I invite you to be in prayer for all those who struggle to find warmth and shelter, who simply wish to be noticed by those who pass by.

Hear this from a homeless stranger, nameless face in shadowed crowd,
makeshift bed and scant possessions, nothing here to make me proud.
It’s so easy to ignore me, hasten steps and hurry by:
better not to glimpse my struggle, better not to hear my sigh.

There are times you pass my pallet on your way to sing and pray.
In the church you join with others thanking God for each fine day.
I can hear your joyful music from my joyless hiding place.
I am thankful just for shelter, gentle word, or knowing face.

I hear God deplores injustice, calls for change in thought and deed.
I thought Jesus lived compassion: reaching first to those in need.
Seeing me, you all fall silent, you who worship, pray, and sing.
You have vision. You have voices. You have influence to bring.

But you’ve places you must go to, you have people you must see;
busy lives and tending families, giving little thought to me.
Yet I wonder what would happen if our roles should rearrange:
you’d be sleeping on this threshold, I would be a voice for change.


Jacque B. Jones, 2005; © 2011, 2014 GIA Publications Inc.
Printed by permission, OneLicense #A-716222

Yes, we can sing about the homeless when we worship. We should! When we sing we embody our calling, our mission, and our values. Friends, let’s be singing about things that matter.

I invite you to contact me or to offer a comment here about expanding the congregation’s song.


Rev. Dr. Nancy E. Hall is Associate Professor of Ministry and Congregational Music and Director of Contextual Education at American Baptist Seminary of the West.

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