ANNISTON, Ala. — It was an inspiration born out of concern and occasional frustration.
In May 2008, while preparing a sermon, Anniston First Christian Church pastor Rebecca Littlejohn wanted to use a hymn that she truly loved titled “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus.” But there was one problem, a line in the second verse — “Christ is near us, faith believes, nor questions how” — just didn’t work.
“I couldn’t in good conscience ask them to sing that because it felt like a violation of what we believe,” she said. “I think that kind of statement is harmful. I’m not going to ask a person to sing something that’s destructive to their faith … asking questions isn’t destructive to faith.
“If that line hadn’t been in there, I wouldn’t have messed with it.”
But Littlejohn did, replacing “nor questions how” with “and conquers fear.” And that made all the difference.
“That’s a much more important statement about faith,” she explained. “And it’s much more true.”
Littlejohn didn’t stop there, either with that selection or of future hymns, having since rewritten the lyrics to a handful of hymns and even turning to her Facebook friends for advice in polishing the poetry.
“While I very much love our hymnal — The Chalice — I can’t always find exactly what I want because the hymns aren’t based on specific Scripture passages,” she said. “So whenever that happens, I just decided to start doing it for myself.”
Littlejohn makes a concerted effort to match hymns with her sermons. In late July, she was searching for the perfect song to accompany her sermon on “The Feeding of the 5,000,” but nothing worked. Last Sunday, after getting a bit of help polishing the poetry on Facebook, Littlejohn presented “God’s Surprise” to her congregation. Set to the tune of “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ” — because Littlejohn writes lyrics, not music — the new song embodied the communal spirit while focusing on Jesus’ miracle of feeding the masses with only two small fish and some loaves of bread. The tune also incorporated a Jamaican melody.
“I wanted that kind of layered background where, when you’re singing, it’s bringing up almost subconsciously the communion experience,” she said. “Honestly, it’s not that difficult. If you’re already attuned to the rhythm of language and familiar with the tune, it’s all about finding the right words and the right emphasis.”
And with about one-third of her Facebook friends being pastors, posting these hymns just made sense, Littlejohn said.
“It was a great way to polish them,” she said. “I’m pretty picky, so I wouldn’t send it out there with a bunch of things that wouldn’t work. Plus, I’ve got an informed audience, who can look at what I’m doing and understand my theological point of view. So if there’s a line that doesn’t work, they won’t suggest something that’s off-topic.”
The new lyrics are printed in the Sunday church bulletin and, thus far, Littlejohn hasn’t heard any complaints.
“They know me pretty well,” said Littlejohn, who will soon celebrate 10 years as pastor for First Christian Church. “So I think they’re taking it all in stride.”
Gerald Roberts, who serves as First Christian’s organist, loves the idea of Littlejohn writing updated lyrics to existing hymns. He suggests other congregation members give it a try because it helps add to the communal spirit of the service knowing that a community’s voice and vision is setting a modern tone for worship.
“Rebecca’s really taken the ball and run with it,” Roberts said. “And I’d like to see other people give it a try because I bet a lot of people have the talent and just don’t know it. A good lyricist has to be a musical poet with an ear for pitch and sound. Rebecca’s got that, and I bet there are a lot of others who have it, too.”
Of course, given a hymn’s necessary brevity and precision in terms of message, it’s easy to make a sermon feel a bit … well … overwritten.
“It’s almost this sense of, ‘What’s the point?'” Littlejohn said, laughing. “You’ve distilled your point down to such a succinct, well-packaged message now that anything longer than about three minutes feels like babbling, which isn’t exactly true but can sure feel that way.”
Having already posted several hymns on Facebook, Littlejohn doesn’t mind letting other pastors or churches use what she has written — as long as credit is given where credit is due.
“Just put my name on it somewhere,” she said. “I’m not real worried about copyright. Maybe I should be, but I’m certainly not doing it for the money.”