Living Lutheran invited readers to share their favorite hymns and why they hold special significance. Some told us how hymn singing is a shared experience that forms connections among people. Others sent messages about hymns that have helped them articulate their Christian identity and tenets of faith. Many wrote about a special hymn that has defined a memory that will last a lifetime.
But nothing was made clearer than this: Favorite hymns become etched onto hearts, providing a prayer to sing when words escape us.
May the reflections that follow remind you of the prayer on your heart. —Megan Brandsrud
“God Be With You Till We Meet Again” (ELW, 536)
Grace Lutheran Church, Minneapolis
Growing up, I spent lots of time with my grandparents. Often, my sister and I would pass the day at their pizza restaurant or house. As we grew, we would spend Sunday evenings at their house too. We played cribbage, ate dinner … but most importantly, before we left, my grandfather would sit at the piano and play “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.”
This song became special—it meant family time. It was played not only for Sunday visits but also when celebrating holidays with my extended family. We always sang it before leaving, with my grandpa on piano. It also represented the bond I had with my grandpa—him on piano as I learned violin. This song became representative of all music in my life.
Now this song is sadder to sing. My grandfather died when I was 10. This was hard on me because I was so close to him. We sang this hymn to end his memorial service, and later my sister and I played it at his burial. This song, which had always meant so much to me—the sound of family and togetherness—became almost impossible to sing anymore. Memories come rushing back with waves of emotion, yet the words remain a comfort.
I’m currently living and teaching in Japan. This hymn is common for events such as graduations and going-away ceremonies. It’s extra special singing it in another language, saying goodbye to students.
Each part of my life’s journey has brought me closer to so many people, and for that I’m blessed. My prayer is that this hymn will remind you that God’s deep, unconditional love protects us throughout our lives. May you feel this love until we meet (again) at Jesus’ feet.
“O Jesus, I Have Promised” (ELW, 810)
Larry D. Herrold Jr.
Zion Lutheran Church, Sunbury, Pa.
I sang “O Jesus, I Have Promised” for the first time on a cool September morning. I had arrived in England to complete my master’s degree on a Fulbright fellowship, and the shock of the move from rural Pennsylvania had disoriented me. I had felt so sure I’d made the right decision to move abroad, yet there I was doubting myself.
I went to church that first Sunday morning needing to hear the word of God that had guided me before. The organ of Westminster Abbey came to life, the choir and clergy processed, and the words to a hymn I had never heard before flowed from me as if I were singing a childhood favorite.
Oh, let me see Thy footmarks,
And in them plant mine own;
My hope to follow duly
Is in Thy strength alone.
These words of the original final verse brought me to tears amid a sea of strangers. My singing, transformed into a prayer for God’s guidance, joined the voices of countless people over the abbey’s thousand-year history. I could sense my words being carried off to heaven by the saints and sinners who had come to that place in times past, seeking the very comfort I was now in search of.
I sang this hymn to myself every day I was abroad. I struggled with culture shock and vocational discernment, which manifested in a depression. Why had God led me to this place? The words to this hymn, though, were a daily reminder that wherever I walked, God had walked the path before me.
I discovered in those feelings where God was calling me. I believe I am following in God’s “footmarks” into rostered ministry in the church. God and his church have guided and preserved me, and I’m called to bring others along this pathway.
“Borning Cry” (ELW, 732)
Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Gaithersburg, Md.
“Borning Cry” is my favorite hymn. I’m a single mom who adopted two daughters from China. As I prepared to adopt my first daughter, Laura, 24 years ago, this hymn took on a new depth of meaning. As a soon-to-be mom, I was focused on this little 11-month-old baby almost 8,000 miles away.
This hymn provided great comfort and reassurance, reminding me that God was with Laura when she was born and watching over her as I prepared to travel to meet her. I chose it as a hymn at her baptism to celebrate with God. It became a favorite of Laura’s, too, as she recognized that it talked about God being with her as she grew in faith.
Laura’s dear grandpa died after a long illness when she was 7, and we knew this hymn would be part of his funeral. Laura danced to it in a celebration of his life, knowing that Grandpa was with God. Two years later, when I was in the process of adopting her soon-to-be little sister, Laura gained a deeper understanding of the sentiment of the hymn. As she waited, Laura trusted in God’s care for her faraway sister, Annie, and she continued to do so later, as they grew in faith together.
Laura got married last summer—she found someone to join her heart with—and I pray that this hymn will continue to be closely tied to her life. “Borning Cry” profoundly touches my heart because of the deep, personal connection it shows between God and the life of my family. The hymn is a beautiful reminder—especially to a single mom—of God’s ever-present love in every stage of our lives.
“Earth and All Stars!” (ELW, 731)
Lord of Life Lutheran Church, Fairfax, Va.
My favorite hymn is “Earth and All Stars!” Although the hymn isn’t an ancient one, it’s one that stresses “loud” and “new.” It has all the earthly elements that we are used to, such as planets; cymbals; hail, wind and rain; loud, cheering people; and loud, boiling test tubes.
This hymn uses our everyday objects and stresses that they can be used in praise. We can take the mundane and turn it into a new song. This hymn always leaves me happy.
“Thine Is the Glory” (ELW, 376)
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Port Angeles, Wash.
My favorite hymn is “Thine Is the Glory.” I’m sure I had sung it in church before my junior year in high school, though I have no memory of this. But during that year, a classmate who attended my church died in a motorcycle accident.
This was the first time someone my age whom I knew had died. It was a difficult time for my group of friends and classmates. It was decided that the Luther League would sing at his funeral. Approximately 50 of us packed the balcony to sing “Thine Is the Glory”—an Easter hymn but also a powerful funeral or memorial service message. Our friend was no longer in death’s bonds but risen with Christ!
It has been 50 years, and I still can’t sing that hymn without tears in my eyes. There are many other hymns that I love and that have significance in different ways, but none as profound as this.
“I Am the Bread of Life” (ELW, 485)
Family of God Lutheran Church, Buckingham, Pa.
My favorite hymn, hands down, has to be “I Am the Bread of Life” because it’s so weird.
It really shouldn’t be in the hymnal at all, if you think about it. In almost every other hymn you can name, the text and the melody line up perfectly and the harmonic range is fairly modest. Not this puppy.
Its five verses follow a common melody, but the first and fourth sit out the opening quarter note; the range is an octave and a half, which makes the hymn as challenging to sing as the national anthem. It’s more of a solo than a hymn. Fortunately, as a professional musician and one-time church music director, I eat this sort of thing up, even at that hour of the morning when my voice would rather be in bed.
Listening to the congregation sing this hymn reminds me of going to a karaoke bar and hearing some poor soul try to sing Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City.” They’re really strong on the chorus but totally at sea during the verses. So it is with this hymn.
After a while, my fellow worshipers give up and leave the bulk of the singing to me, and because I know the Family of God sanctuary so well after singing in it for decades, I know where to aim my voice for maximum effect, and that high E rings out.
Singing is a joy on so many levels, and isn’t that what hymn singing should be about?
“My Life Flows On in Endless Song” (ELW, 763)
United in Christ Lutheran, Lewisburg, Pa.
I’m a musician at heart (not necessarily a good one, but a musician nonetheless), which may be the reason one of my favorite hymns is “My Life Flows On in Endless Song.” I hesitate to call it my absolute favorite because we have so many good hymns—from the oldest to our more contemporary and multicultural hymns—but it reflects how I worship, how I praise God, how I live life.
There always seems to be a hymn to articulate how I’m feeling toward life and God. When I don’t have words, songs speak for me. Songs, in general, help me to express my deepest feelings. Songs can lift me up or calm me down. Songs can bring joy and sadness. Songs bring praise and lament. I hear song in creation—in birds, trees, flowing waters. No matter where I am, what I’m doing or how I’m feeling, how can I keep from singing?
“Morning Has Broken” (ELW, 556)
Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, La Mesa, Calif.
Back in the 1970s, Dan Erlander, then the pastor of our church, requested that my seven preteen and teenage daughters (Cheryl, Charlene, Maureen, Marian, Renee, Rachelle and Elene) perform an interpretive dance to the hymn “Morning Has Broken” during the Easter service. Pastor Dan was aware that my girls all studied took different types of dance classes, so he was interested in including this type of workshop at Easter.
My oldest daughter, Cheryl, choreographed the dance. I sewed matching, flowing pastel outfits for all my girls to wear. My son, Brad, operated the tape player. The performance was beautiful and well received. It gave more meaning to the hymn, Easter and God.
My children were invited by other Lutheran churches in the San Diego area to perform. They were even asked to perform on a television morning show.
I was very proud of them. For me, the hymn and dance gave me deep feelings of wonder and joy at Easter! Whenever I hear that hymn, it brings back fond memories. One daughter felt good that she and all her sisters used their dancing talent to worship. It was a way of expressing faith through movement. Another daughter felt a “togetherness” with her sisters. One more daughter felt spiritual and happy dancing to that Christian hymn.
Their picture was shown at our church’s anniversary celebration. Many thanks to former Pastor Dan! Praise be to God!
“Borning Cry” (ELW, 732)
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Port Charlotte, Fla. Currently serving on internship at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, Gettysburg, Pa., as a Word and Sacrament candidate.
I have been Lutheran my entire life. As a child, I spent many hours at church. I would lie across the pews in the balcony with a blanket and coloring books, hidden from view as my mother led the choir. She had the voice of an angel. I never liked to sing very much, which, I was aware, hurt my mother. She never got to hear me explore the depths of my voice in my youth. However, I saw it make her cry when, as a grandmother, she watched me sing my babies to sleep.
This past July, I lost my dear mother to a swift battle with cancer. When I began planning the arrangements for her graveside burial, I kept remembering the hymn she sang at so many funerals over the years in our small South Dakota congregation—”Borning Cry.” For my mother, there was no other choice of hymn to celebrate Christian life.
I remember hearing my mother sing those words about creation that brought families to tears, remembering the faithful journeys of their loved ones as they were laid to rest. The hymn reminds me of every step of our life’s journey in a never-ending relationship with God.
As a child, I often wondered why my mother sang the same song all the time. I wondered if people were as tired of that song as I was. Today, all these years later, I will never tire of “Borning Cry.” I would give anything to hear my mother’s angelic voice sing that hymn just one more time. In my future life as a pastor, I’ll recommend it to those remembering the beautiful lives of their family members who have completed their baptismal journey.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” (ELW, 841)
Ascension Lutheran Church, Wilson, N.C.
Over my 71 years (46 as a Lutheran), I have declared my favorite hymns to be “Amazing Grace,” “For All the Saints,” “Lift High the Cross,” “Earth and All Stars” and others.
But about 20 years ago, our pastor and choir director introduced our mostly white congregation to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which I immediately loved. I heard it called “the Black national anthem,” but it spoke to me, an aging Euro-American, with every word.
I learned that the song was written more than 100 years ago by two brothers, James Weldon Johnson (text, originally a poem) and J. Rosamond Johnson (music). Words such as “the blood of the slaughtered” recollect Black slavery, but other parts of the text speak clearly to all Christians: “Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee; lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee; shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand, true to our God, true to our native land.”
I would argue that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” makes a better national anthem and Christian hymn than “The Star-spangled Banner,” with its bellicose images of battle. In this era of racial reckoning, a national sing-along (designating one Sunday out of the year for congregations to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing”) could enhance racial understanding.
“When Peace like a River” (ELW, 785)
Louise Dodenhoff Hauser
St. Armands Key Lutheran Church, Sarasota, Fla.
One of my favorite hymns is “When Peace like a River.” The words of the refrain, “It is well with my soul,” tie in with a favorite Bible verse: “Give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). My husband and I call the little blessings “pinky things.” When it seems as if everything is crashing around you, there is always a pinky thing for which to be thankful and which calms my soul.
That term comes from having fallen down a flight of icy stone steps in Prague, which left me sore and purple everywhere. “Everything’s bruised!” my husband said, and for some reason I responded, “Not my pinky.” It was well with my soul (if not my pride).
As we plod through pandemic distancing, we regularly take account of the blessings that pop up—happy memories of years living overseas, being able to keep in touch with friends through social media and so on. It is well with my soul.
I’ve asked that this hymn, along with “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” be sung at my funeral, when “faith shall be sight.” It will be well with my soul.