Lenten Music as Pastoral Care

by Victor E. Gebauer

You probably will read this posting during Lent with its familiar themes and moods. Lent also plunges us into complicated, intense pastoral realities. The forty days invite us to admit our private or public grief, anger at God, confusion at injustice and pain, need for reconciliation, and despair over sin. The pastoral use of music in these deep-toned times of confession and renewal can be a true challenge.

This pastoral challenge may lie behind the church’s ambivalence about music in Lent. Repentance and renewal often created a somber mood that led to the suppression of music. Even recently, musicians were urged to play only the simplest accompaniments in Lent. Preludes and postludes were eliminated along with the use of mixtures or bright sounding registrations, even 16’ pedal stops! Congregational singing was limited to penitential, slow hymns. One pastor was visited by an angry parishioner who announced that he would no longer attend church during Lent because of the unhappy hymns. The pastor’s attempt to explain the purposes of Lent was met with the declaration that “worship was supposed make me feel good, and if I don’t feel good I’m not coming.” What is the proper song for Lent? Must it always be musical minimalism, even silence, when we lament over sin?

This old debate about music was recently evoked by William S. Smith writing in Worship (September, 2012; p. 419ff.). Smith argued that true lament cannot be sung, that song is always praise, and thus some things cannot be sung. A rather sharp disagreement by Stephanie A. Budwey in The Hymn (Winter, 2013; p. 37f.) asserts that hymnody can and should express the full range from lament to joy. Smith seems to miss the fact that “song” and “lament” may be distinct categories in the psalms but that both are music. Budwey misses the importance of silence, which is after all a fundamental element in music. Don Saliers once referred to Rabbi Heschel’s three stages of mourning: tears, silence, then song; and the tears, as we all know, may come only after despair, grief, contrition.

A few suggestions may help overcome the tug between song and silence in Lent.

  1. Music planning beginning with the lectionary and church calendar can reach beyond to discover how lectionary themes address the congregation pastorally. Confer with the pastor, worship planners, or others to discover what needs to be confessed and what forgiveness should be proclaimed in this community, in this place and time?
  2. Plan Lenten music with modesty that accepts pastoral service and attention to lectionary rather merely maximizing or minimizing musical possibilities. Modesty may mean restraint in preludes and postludes, choral offerings, organ registration. It may also mean using powerfully expressive music (including bright mixtures) that cry out with penitent sorrow (as opposed to mumbling mp).
  3. Observe silence where we can face our often painful need for forgiveness. As an example, “Out of the Depths I Cry to You,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) No. 600, begins with a cry to God. There, is however, a vast spiritual distance between the first and second stanzas. Silence after stanza one would give space to name those “depths” before God. Then we can sing of God’s grace.
  4. During Lent the hymns in the Confession and Forgiveness section of ELW (Nos. 599-609) are quite useful, but the Lament section should not be overlooked. Susan Cherwien’s “In Deepest Night” (ELW No. 699) truthfully laments our pain and need while gently reminding us of God’s own tears, song, and love. Such a hymn touches us so deeply that our rigid silence against pain or guilt can open into the song that begins our healing. That is the pastoral power of music in Lent.

Posted on Mar 4, 2013 9:17:05 AM
Filed Under: Planning, Filed Under: review-prelude,

Victor E. Gebauer

Written by Victor E. Gebauer

Dr. Victor E. Gebauer, a Lutheran pastor, is Professor emeritus of Theology and Music, Concordia University, Saint Paul, and past Executive Director of Lutheran Summer Music. He has edited a number of journals and newsletters (including the ALCM's "Grace Notes") and authored articles for such periodicals as Church Music, Response, Cross Accent, and The Hymn.