E arlier this year, a Hastings man’s labor of love gave voice to his faith community’s aspirations for a fruitful season of renewal.
Robin Koozer, former music coordinator and current Chancel Choir director at First Presbyterian Church, reworked his favorite hymn, “Come, Labor On” — the tune is “Ora Labora,” which in Latin means “pray and work” — to reflect a theme adopted by the pastor, the Rev. Greg Allen-Pickett; the associate pastor, the Rev. Damen Jensen-Heitmann; and Parish Associate Kili Wenburg for the Lenten season leading toward Easter.
The unique theme supplanted the usual Lenten message of self-sacrifice, calling to action a congregation that had been distanced from one another for many months by the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, pandemic.
The words of the hymn, with rich agrarian imagery, were written by Jane Laurie Borthwick in 1859 as a poem, which was revived in 1863. The musical arrangement for the hymn was added by Thomas Tertius Noble in 1918.
The hymn was adapted as a choral anthem by Koozer’s close friend Jeremy Bankston, director of music at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Dublin, Ohio, who gave Koozer permission to re-work the song for a virtual performance.
Koozer embarked on the project in March and April, with the adaptation performed virtually to musical accompaniment provided by First Presbyterian organist Linda Vollweiler and trumpeter Louie Eckhardt, Hastings College professor of music.
More than 40 singers from multiple states with ties to the church lent their voices to the performance via internet recordings, which were then mixed and blended by Tom Michalek, Watson Elementary School music teacher and choir director at First United Methodist Church.
The virtual performance was part of the Palm Sunday worship service at First Presbyterian on March 28.
The end result was the self-commissioned work shared on the FPC’s Facebook page.
“Rather than giving up something for Lent, our staff developed a theme of ‘Let’s do something to make the world better,’ ” Koozer said. “They put together quite a few facets of a program with that theme, so I thought we needed a musical component.
“I felt moved by their work to write a new text to this hymn centered around serving each other and building a better world of love and community.”
Koozer said he felt called to write the new lyrics in support of what he perceived as an appropriate addition to the old and familiar Lenten theme of self-denial.
“I was very motivated by what I had seen being done,” he said. “It just seemed we needed a musical piece, so this provided that.
“I felt very positive about it. I certainly thought it touched a lot of people’s souls and had a positive response to it. The bottom line was I was very glad I did it and was able to help people during what I would call a special time during a special season.”
Pickett said the new lyrics and their call to unity seemed an especially appropriate topic at Lent in 2021, during a time of upheaval and conflict worldwide fanned by political, social and pandemic flames.
“I was preaching a sermon series for Lent about the power of self-sacrifice and a Lenten study guide on Christian unity, and Robin was inspired by both themes and how they are related,” Allen-Pickett said. “Using his God-given creativity, he was able to write new lyrics to a beautiful old hymn and ended creating a work of art that stunningly expressed both the call to Christian self-sacrifice and our call to Christian unity.
“We felt the need to reflect on Christian unity because we felt there was so much division present in our country and our world. The song reminds us of our call to Christian unity, both in the gospels as well as in our theology.”
As pleased as he was with the finished product, he said he has no plans to resurrect his adaptation of “Come, Labor On” for future Lenten services. It was a song for a season — one he’d like to think served its purpose well.
“The publisher gave permission to do it just this once,” he said. “I don’t want to infringe on that. I’m just glad I was able to do it and be part of that process.”
These are the words applied by Robin Koozer to the old hymn “Come, Labor On,” adapting the work for performance by a virtual choir on Palm Sunday 2021:
Come, labor on.
Who dares stand idle in this world of pain?
When others suffer what have we to gain?
Now is the time to heed our Master’s call
To care for all.
Come, labor on.
Following Jesus in our daily life,
Transform the world by living sacrifice.
Living like Jesus in our love and work
With acts, not just words.
Come, labor on.
Engage the world in Christian unity,
Serving the Lord to build community,
Sharing the Word, our faith,
and Christ’s bright light in love to unite.
Come, labor on.
Trusting in Christ to lead us on our way,
Building a world much different than today,
Filling God’s world with love for everyone,
Revealing His Son.
Come, labor on,
Knowing God holds us in His loving hands
As we engage, serve, trust in his commands,
Caring and sharing endless love and joy
To build, not destroy.