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Words, Music, and Surprises in Lent

Blogger Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.


Right now we are in the middle of Lent, the season when we take a closer look at our hearts and ask what we need to change to be closer to God. One of the many enjoyable parts of my job as a church musician is being able to sit and read (a re-read, and re-re-read) the words of the songs we sing. I get to savor the beautiful poetry in a way that you can’t while you’re singing it in worship. After reading David Bjorlin’s recent blog on songs and contexts, I became aware of several instances where the hymn I selected clashed with the context in ways I had not anticipated. Below are a few examples involving songs I love, in contexts where they served to divide– either by race, age, or sex– rather than unite us. My hope is that these stories will jog your own memory, get a conversation going, and maybe, in this Lenten season, get us closer to the beloved community God intends for us.


Dividing by Race

Last month my church’s adult Sunday School class was blessed to have a guest speaker come tell us about her experience in the 1950s, being one of only a few black children to integrate one of the local public high schools. Dr. Patricia Turner (video below) is in her 70s now, and she recalled for us walking alone each morning to school, where she was taunted, spat on, and pushed down the stairs by her white classmates. Some teachers even joined in calling her disparaging nicknames. Despite all this she did quite well in school, eventually earning her doctorate and having a successful career in education. The images from her testimony were still bouncing around in my brain when we began the opening hymn at worship: “Christ is the world’s true light,” with words by George W. Briggs (1875-1959). The second stanza begins this way:

In Christ all races meet, their ancient feuds forgetting.

On the one hand, this is a wonderful sentiment to follow up a Sunday School class on the evils of racism, that there is indeed a shining day when we can give and receive forgiveness for the hurt we have caused. The church where I work, however, is predominantly white, so singing these words after a presentation like that made me think how easy it is for white folks to proclaim we can let go of the past, when we were not the ones pushed down and spat upon. Dr. Turner wasn’t present in worship, but I wonder, how would the hymn have struck her?


Dividing by Age

In January, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., day, I taught the children in my weekday music classes the song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” (video below) a favorite of Dr. King and his friends during the freedom marches of the 1950s and 60s. It’s a rousing song that I love to crank up and sing at the top of my lungs at home when I’m feeling depressed by the headlines of the day. Ain’t gonna let no hatred turn me ‘round! No lying! I launched into it with gusto for the children in my three- to five-year-old class, and I instantly thought to myself how different it feels to sing it with a group this age. “Ms. Ginny, what is hatred?” I imagined them asking. It’s hard to answer that question, since they’re so young. What does a song about hatred and bad people mean to a child? In what way are we shaping their understanding of hatred and our response to it, when we teach them a song like this?


Dividing by Gender

I am a part-time music minister and part-time stay-at-home mother, and I find these two jobs often overlap, since I am keen to bring up my own children to follow Jesus (and be surrounded by music!). In doing some online research recently on how much screen time is appropriate (such a huge topic for parents these days), I came across an article on television consumption and self esteem in children. The study, involving 396 children, concluded that “[T]elevision exposure predicted a decrease in self-esteem for White and Black girls and Black boys, and an increase in self-esteem among White boys.” I can’t say as this was a huge surprise to me, but I guess somewhere in my mind I hoped that the Miles Morales and Moanas of the world had changed this for children of the 21st century. Now I am hyper aware of everything my children consume that consists of mostly white and male characters, which, as I’m sure you know, includes all the beloved children’s Christian songs I sing them each day. “He” rescues me, saves me, loves me…. I don’t begrudge Jesus for being male any more than I begrudge Spider Man, but at some point, clearly the focus on men, especially white men, is causing harm. Where do we go from here?


One Positive Example

Those were three examples of ways beloved songs can worsen our divisions, but there are positive surprises in my work as well. On Ash Wednesday this year, for instance, my adult choir sang “Dust and Ashes,” with music by David Haas and words by Brian Wren (1989).

Dust and ashes soil our hands–greed of market, pride of nation.

Holy Spirit, come, walk with us tomorrow

as we pray and struggle through the meshes of oppression.

This will be the second time we’ve sung this together and we have to laugh every time because it’s so difficult to spit out all the words. Try saying “meshes of oppression” ten times fast! It’s difficult to sing at first because you don’t expect words like that in a piece of music for church. When is the last time you heard the phrase “greed of market” in a song? It jumps out at you all the more because it’s sung. The music gives the phrase more power; it allows it to pierce the heart in a way that isn’t possible when it’s just spoken. What was at first a funny tongue-twister for the singers eventually became something to really ponder, I think.


Rising from Ashes

Sometimes I worry that all the “he’s,” the children I’m potentially disturbing by singing about segregation, and the casual mentions of racial harmony are too much for me to sift through as just one little church musician/mother. The “Dust and Ashes” example gives me hope that our communities are bending toward justice, in spite of our setbacks. When our hearts are moved, hopefully we will then be moved to repentance and action. That’s exactly what we need to be doing in Lent. Thank goodness for words, music, and surprises: the good and the bad!



A Capella Sunday Hymn Suggestions Year C


A Cappella Sunday is when worshiping communities from across the world commit to singing a cappella in their Sunday morning worship service. For communities where this is a new concept, it could just be one hymn, but for communities that are more comfortable singing unaccompanied, they are encouraged to sing their entire service a cappella. Below are why we do it, when we do it, and some resources to help make it successful.


Spending one Sunday a year to focus on your congregation singing a cappella (without instrumental accompaniment) has many benefits and purposes.

  • It connects us to the history of the church. For thousands of years, a cappella singing was the mainstay of the church’s song. By recognizing this and exploring this way of music-making, we are acknowledging and honoring the saints of the past.
  • It connects us to many Christian denominations, traditions, and regions of the world that continue to use a cappella music as their primary mode of music-making in corporate worship. Those include but are not limited to many Mennonite denominations, the Church of Christ, many Orthodox traditions, the Church of God in Christ, and South African Methodists.
  • It offers to God something that is, for many congregations in the United States and Canada, a gift that is different from our usual music-making. Psalm 96:1 tells us to “Sing a new song to the Lord,” which can be achieved for some of us by singing a cappella.
  • It encourages the congregation’s song by building up confidence in their own voices. Many in our congregations believe that they can’t sing, or can’t sing well. Singing a cappella presents those people with the best opportunity to hear themselves and others singing, giving them a fresh perspective on their assumptions of their own abilities and the ability of the congregation’s combined voice.
  • It emphasizes the unique ability of instruments to enhance the congregation’s song. By showing the congregation that they can sing without instrumental accompaniment, instrumental accompaniment can then begin to enhance and empower the congregation’s voice rather than acting primarily as a crutch.
  • It allows the instrumentalists to spend a Sunday listening carefully to the congregation to assess where their voice needs support. Often times it is hard to listen carefully to the congregation when you are focusing on playing your instrument accurately and musically. This gives the instrumentalists permission to step away for a Sunday without feeling like they are leaving the congregation stranded.
  • Finally, singing a cappella is fun! By removing our typical means of accompanying song, our minds are often challenged to come up with new and creative ways to sing together that maintains energy and vitality. It can bring out the best in not only the congregation, but in the musician’s leadership.



Each year on the first Sunday of Lent (2019 is Sunday, March 10th)


Let us know you’re participating!

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Participants Include:

St. Rita Catholic Church – Ranger, TX

St John UMC – Augusta, GA

Trinity Lutheran Church – Bend, OR

Minnetonka UMC – Minnetonka, MN

Vienna Baptist Church – Vienna, VA

Aldersgate United Methodist Church – Alexandria, VA

Blythefield Christian Reformed – Rockford, MI

First Baptist Church – Vancouver, BC, Canada

San Rocco Oratory of Chicao Heights – Chicago Heights, IL

Pilgrim Lutheran Church – St. Paul, MN

Emmanuel Lutheran Church – Pittsburgh, PA

Church of Our Saviour Lutheran Church – Fond du Lac, WI

St. Catherine of Siena R. C. Church – Corpus Christi, TX

Rainbow Mennonite Church – Kansas City, KS

East Hill Church of Christ – York, NE

First UMC – Boerne, TX

Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church – La Mesa, CA

Fleetwood Christian Reformed Church – Surrey, BC, Canada

First Friends Meeting – Greensboro, NC

Ridgefield-Crystal Lake Presbyterian Church – Crystal Lake, IL

Gethsemane Lutheran Church – Columbus, OH

Fifth Avenue Baptist Church – Huntington, WV

Berkeley United Methodist Church – Austin, TX

North Chevy Chase Christian Church – Chevy Chase, MD

The First Baptist Church in America – Providence, RI

St. Luke’s Evangelical Lutheran Church – Dedham, MA

Grace Episcopal Church – Lexington, VA

First Baptist Church Vancouver – Vancouver, BC, Canada

Westminster United Church – Whitby, ON, Canada

Rejoice Ministries Christian Church – Oakland, CA

First Presbyterian Church – Rapid City, SD

Aldersgate UMC – Alexandria, VA

Cathedral of Mary Our Queen – Baltimore, MD

Storrs Congregational Church UCC –  Storrs Mansfield, CT

Truth Worship Centre, Sovima Logos Bible College –  Dimapur, Nagaland, India

Little Zion Lutheran  –  Telford, PA

First Baptist Church –  Rapid City, SD

St. John Lutheran –  Angleton, TX

Winterville Christian Church –  Winterville, N.C.

Village Church on Antioch –  Overland Park, KS

St James Lutheran –  Pottstown, Pa

Westminster United Methodist Church –  Westminster, MD

First Baptist Church –  Rapid City, SD

Friedens United Church of Christ –  St.Charles, MO

All Saints’ Anglican Westboro –  Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

St. Philip’s Anglican Church –  Etobicoke, Ontario, Canada

Trinity Episcopal –  Mattoon, IL

NuValley Presbyterian Church –  Rural Valley, PA

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church –  Akron, OH

SouthWest Church of Christ –  Ambarvale, NSW, Australia

Boulevard Church –  Oklahoma City, OK

NPM-Chapter of the Archdiocese of San Antonio              –  San Antonio, TX

Mayfield Central Presbyterian Church –  Mayfield, NY

Port Stanley United Church –  Port Stanley, Ontario, Canada

Vestavia Hills Baptist Church –  Vestavia Hills, AL

St. Peter’s Lutheran Church –  Northfield, MN

Grace Community Church –  Angier, NC



Download Our Guide for Lectionary Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Download our Guide for Lectionary Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)

Download Our Guide for Lectionary Year C (2016, 2019, 2022)


Friend of The Center, D.J. Bulls from the Dallas/Ft. Worth area has spent his career in an a cappella singing denomination the Church of Christ.

Below are three resources he suggests to check out if your interested in a cappella hymn singing:

1. Is a website that provides a cappella, four-part congregational arrangements for a number of different types of modern hymns and contemporary worship songs/anthems/choruses. Available in round and shaped notes, many with rehearsal recordings and projected notation as well.
2. This is a group that has done 20 something albums of four-part, presentational, and congregational a cappella worship. Folios with arrangements and individual pdf’s are available on their website and recordings are available on the iTunes store, Amazon Music, and google play.
3. This is a site that is a compendium of digital, projected four-part arrangements for congregations of thousands of hymns.


Supporting Organizations:

The Hymn Society, The Center for Congregational Song, Hymn Singing, Hymn Society in America




The Center for Congregational Song









Felicia Patton is a lifelong Chicago native and worship leader at Urban Village Church. Felicia received an undergraduate degree from North Park University followed by two graduate degrees from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.




“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10


Give me a clean heart, so I may serve thee.

Lord fix my heart, so that I may be used by thee.

For I’m not worthy, of all these blessings.

Give me a clean heart, and I’ll follow thee.

Verse 1:

I’m not asking for the riches of the land,

I’m not asking for high men to know my name.
Please Lord give me a clean heart, so that I may follow thee.

Give me a clean heart, a clean heart, and I’ll follow thee.

Verse 2:

Sometimes I am up and sometimes I am down.

Sometimes I am almost level to the ground.

Please Lord give me a clean heart, so that I may follow thee.

Give me a clean heart, a clean heart, and I’ll follow thee.

(Give Me a Clean Heart by Dr. Margaret Douroux. The Faith We Sing, #2133.)



I am constantly busy between running from rehearsal to rehearsal, learning new music, and preparing for the next service or performance. That is the life of every musician and worship leader. Just as pastors are called to be leaders of the flock, we too have to submit our lives to leading our congregations, while struggling at times to maintain our own spiritual life that is focused on God and God’s people.

Church leaders often follow the liturgical calendar (also known as the church year) as a way to keep focused on the triune nature of God through the biblical story. Each liturgical season points us toward the revelation of God, the incarnation of Christ, and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. One of those liturgical seasons is Lent which lasts for forty days, not counting Sundays, symbolizing Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and the preparations of his ministry. This season marks an opportunity each year for fasting, repentance, and a time of renewal for spiritual lives. It is not a journey we take alone. Many churches participate in fasts as a community, so that they may grow together; some start up initiatives to help their congregations give back to community; others add services of reflection where they can dive deeply into the Scriptures. These are all wonderful ways that we renew and offer our hearts, minds, and spirits during Lent.

I am constantly busy between running from rehearsal to rehearsal, learning new music, and preparing for the next service or performance.

Give Me A Clean Heart

The song, Give Me a Clean Heart, has always been a favorite of mine. For me this song functions as a prayer for renewed focus. While refocusing ourselves during the time of Lent, we may better commune with God and each other with greater intentionality. If we were honest, we would admit that monotonous day-to-day tasks prevent us from being attentive to interior silence, so that we can hear God. A clouded mind can be a distraction for worship leaders, causing them to plan worship as a part of a weekly checklist, rather than taking time to discern what the needs of the community are and what the Scripture is stating.

Psalm, Felicia Patton, Create In Me a clean heart


I use songs for inspiration. I listen to a song, identify the things I like about it, and then try to figure out what the song is saying. Are there any lessons to learn? Are there any topics that I should look into more carefully? For me, working this way is great practice when I am vetting what music to use in worship. A song that has been particularly inspiring to me in this season is, Give Me a Clean Heart, by Dr. Margaret Douroux. Although this song is not new to me, it took on new life when I analyzed it through the lens of the Lenten themes that I see in the piece. The melody line is as beautiful as it is intentional to showcase the dichotomy between the action of “rising” and the longing for more of a relationship with Jesus. Instead of keeping the melody line true to lyrics with a literal rise to higher notes, the melody line drops at the end of the phrase, accentuating the need. That is about as far as I will go into score analysis, but the music major in me could not resist!


Four Themes

There were four themes that stood out as I analyzed the lyrics of this piece. Starting with the obvious, the question that can be raised is, “what is a clean heart?” I want to empty myself from any distractions; perhaps through fasting from anything that is clouding my connection to God or not allowing me to hear the voice of God. I can also clean my heart by allowing healing. Healing is needed in many different ways that includes careful attention to our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual lives. If we are not careful, anger can cloud decision-making. Additionally, healing from disappointment and loss is important to deal with and offers opportunities for growth and reflection. Directly connected to healing is the need of forgiveness for yourself and others. This might be a time to revisit things that may have hurt or harmed you. It could also be a time to reflect on the ways you may have hurt others. Two additional ways to have a clean heart are through humility and the act of surrendering. I often ask myself, why I make certain choices when I am leading. Is it because the Spirit led me to choose them, or is it to highlight myself? Am I grateful for the gifts that God has given me? Have I thanked and prayed to God today? Am I listening to what the Spirit is saying?

I want to empty myself from any distractions; perhaps through fasting from anything that is clouding my connection to God or not allowing me to hear the voice of God.


The second theme of this song is that of prayer. The first verse speaks as if it were a prayer with the sole request of getting a clean heart. It is not attained through materialistic things but in a way that the composer can be “used” by Jesus. This is so important, as we need to pray not just for our own needs, but that we can be better stewards and leaders. Prayer can often be distracted or relegated to a task that we are to complete each day. Intentional prayer that displays our humility and gratefulness and asks for deliverance from our distractedness is when we truly focus on hearing the voice of God and not searching for a response to our individual needs.


The third theme is humanity. Through this song, Dr. Margaret Douroux acknowledges her humanity and the limitations of human emotions. We are not perfect, and sometimes we need help in order to hear Jesus, but we acknowledge this and allow ourselves to clearly hear, see, and follow Christ. If our minds are not clear, if we do not acknowledge our mistakes, how can we ever grow? So in this time of renewal, what actions have you seen in yourself that need to change? Have you lashed out at anyone? How can you fix this?

Dr. Margaret Douroux acknowledges her humanity and the limitations of human emotions. We are not perfect, and sometimes we need help in order to hear Jesus…


The fourth theme is that of discipleship. How do you follow Jesus? Clean your heart from all of the distractions that do not allow you to hear Jesus’ will. This may not always be possible, or clear, but taking some time to renew ourselves can allow us time to refocus; not just focusing on what the next steps of our careers are or our deadlines, but giving ourselves some grace to admit that we too are followers of Christ who constantly need to rebuild our spiritual lives and that connection.  Admitting my own humanity and limitations can actually be a relief to me. At times, serving in leadership can make us feel as though we cannot make mistakes while leading worship or while speaking publicly. This can sometimes make leadership like that of a coat that we wear in order to show our strength and perfectionism. However, we are not Christ, and we should take off our “coats” and focus as the composer states on having a “clean heart,” so that we can follow Jesus.

Psalm, Felicia Patton, Create In Me a clean heart