I was scrolling through Facebook while heading home during the short train ride after church one Sunday last September. There were several posts of photos and comments regarding the gathering hymn for that morning. These posts were being liked and commented on pretty extensively and I thought, “Wow! That’s a first.”
Later emails started arriving from parishioners who shared comments and positive responses to the hymn. I’d never seen this kind of response to something sung in worship in the three decades I’ve been a church musician. Feedback is usually someone sharing a specific reaction or comment about a hymn, but this type of immediate response by many to a hymn was a new experience.
The hymn is “Build a Longer Table” by David Bjorlin (a North Park University professor). Its melody, “Noel Nouvelet” is associated with a favorite of this community, the Easter hymn “Now the Green Blade Rises”.
We sing at worship — hymns, psalms and liturgical songs of a variety of styles. Some are found in the hymnal while others come from different resources. The body of available hymnody is huge – and expanding regularly. Why do we sing what we sing?
There is much written on music – particularly singing – in Lutheran worship. We sing hymns for the glory of God and the good of the neighbor. When we gather to worship each brings their own tastes and preferences for hymnody. As cantor, it’s a challenging – and humbling — task to recognize and honor these preferences when selecting hymns to enable us to sing as one voice.
Numerous resources are available to help with hymn selection. They are a starting point. Hymn selection is driven first and foremost by the text of a hymn – and then the melody. Does the text reflect the lessons for the day/season? Does the text reflect the values of St. Luke’s and our mission as followers of Christ to build a powerful church, transform lives and change the world? Is the text one that glorifies God and instruct us how we can share God’s love with our neighbor?
Once a hymn is selected that meet these criteria, its melody is considered. Factors I look at: Is it singable by our community? Is it a favorite melody that the community knows well and likes to sing? Can we instrumentally embellish the singing? (And, of course, can I play it correctly!) Next comes the hardest task – culling down a huge selection of possible hymns to get to the four or five that we sing each week!
When I was browsing through a new collection of hymns (“Assembled for Song, GIA), I immediately knew that this one would work well for the Sunday in question – September 9, when we had a focus on refugees and we were “kicking off” the new school year.
One reason this hymn generated such a strong response is that it reminds us that because “Christ breaks walls to pieces….breaches jail walls…tears down fences…and is our doorway to the reign of God”, St. Luke’s can build a powerful church that transforms lives and changes the world.
Build a Longer Table Text: David Bjorlin, b.1984 © 2018 GIA Publications
Build a Longer table, not a higher wall,
Feeding those who hunger, making room for all.
Feasting together, stranger turns to friend,
Christ breaks walls to pieces; false divisions end.
Build a safer refuge, not a larger jail;
Where the weak find shelter, mercy will not fail.
For any place where justice is denied,
Christ will breach the jail wall, freeing all inside.
Build a broader doorway, not a longer fence.
Love protects all people, sparing no expenses.
When we embrace compassion more than fear,
Christ tears down our fences; all are welcome here.
When we lived as exiles, refuges abroad,
Christ became our doorway to the reign of God.
So much our tables welcome those who roam.
None can be excluded; all must find a home.