TagPraise and Worship

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

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Songs that are written just to teach a moral lesson or some theological principle are not very good songs.  Written just for the head, such songs are more like a sermon or a lecture.

Because our culture is no longer a thinking culture, we don’t have too many didactic songs turning up in our worship sets.  Our culture is a feeling culture;  many of our songs are written for the heart.  At their worst, they are meant to manufacture worshipful feelings, and little else–this is sentimental worship.

Sentimental worship is no better than intellectual worship because it engages only a part of the worshiper.Click To Tweet

Holistic Worship

Human beings are complex creatures.  According to Jesus, we are heart, soul, mind, and body (Mark 12:30).  But these aspects are not distinct.  They are involved in everything we do in life–in the meals we eat with family, in conversations with friends over coffee, when we visit a museum or attend a concert.

Each of these aspects can be evoked in our imagination.  I can imagine being thirsty.  I can imagine frustration.  I can imagine temptation.  Poetry can evoke these in our imagination as it engages our hearts and our souls and our minds and our bodies.

Our experiences are richer if they involve our emotions and spirit and intellect and body.  The most meaningful worship of the Lord our God, will be the worship of the whole engaged worshiper.

Holistic worship should be the ideal for which we aim.  It is not enough to say that the singing will be emotional, the sacraments and offering will be physical, and the sermon will be intellectual.  For the most meaningful worship, each element will seek to engage more of the aspects of the worshiper, more significantly.

Bad poetry does not deliver the experience.  If it is didactic when it delivers only an idea.  When it goes directly for the emotion, it is sentimental.

Sentimental Worship

Sentimentality is indulging in emotion for emotion’s sake.  It seeks to stimulate the emotions directly, rather than through experience.

A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it. — Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde talks about the cost of emotions–emotions are paid for through an experience.  We feel grateful when given a gift.  We feel sad when someone we love is sick.  In these instances, a price is paid for the emotion.

I chose the picture at the top of this post because it is a beautiful example of sentimentalism.  Anyone who has experienced actual love, knows its cost.  The whole hand-heart thing can create a flutter in the chest (when it doesn’t evoke nausea).  I understand this hand gesture to mean, “Here, have some of my love,” or “Loving this!”  But it’s cheap.  It cost nothing to give it.  It costs nothing to receive it.

We obviously want to avoid singing praise and worship songs that are the equivalent of the hand-heart gesture. Click To Tweet

The poet/songwriter seeks to communicate experience through their words.  With physical, intellectual and emotional dimensions, experiences are holistic.  While we sing, the emotion will be a by-product of this experience.  A sentimental song will seek to evoke the emotion, by-passing the experience.

With some praise and worship songs, the emotion, not the experience, is the goal.  The music builds, the instruments blend with soaring voices, the lyrics repeat and the melody rises in a perfectly orchestrated conquest of our emotions.

How can we avoid such sentimentalism?  By offering worshipers a holistic experience.  Our songs will certainly engage the emotions, but they ought not to leave the mind, spirit, and body in the foyer.

Emotions should not be the object of sentimental worship. Emotions should be a by-product of holistic worship. Click To Tweet

7 Ways to Avoid Sentimentalism in (the Singing Part) of Worship

  1. Be very selective when it comes to lyrics.  Words are important.  They can bring the heart, soul, mind, and body into worship through significant experience in the imagination.
  2. Make sure the song is unified around a specific purpose.  When it is, our heart, mind, and body are directed to a particular experience.  Without unity, we begin to ask questions, not the kind that leads to deeper worship, but the kind that draws one out of worship.
  3. Fill out music sets with songs that are more concrete.  This is where the body comes in.  Experience is made up of physical interactions, therefore, songs with physicality will engage the imagination.
  4. Use metaphor effectively.  Effectively used metaphors can engage our spirits as we can catch glimpses of higher things.
  5. Use symbolism.  In symbols, the spiritual indwells the material.  It is here where we might encounter the transcendent.
  6. We must avoid Cliché — a cliché is a phrase we’ve heard so often that it no longer has meaning.  We don’t want meaningless lyrics.  Only a few of the big-name writers are letting clichés slip into their lyrics, but many amateur writers have a real problem here.
  7. We must avoid nonsensical phrases.  I recently came across the phrase, “release the chains.”  Instead of experiencing gratitude for the unearned freedom I had in Christ, I was thinking of the plight of oppressed chains.  Engaged minds experiencing the words that we sing.  These words must make sense.  If they don’t, we are thinking, “That doesn’t make sense.”
7 ways to avoid sentimentalism in worship.Click To Tweet

The Modern church was guilty of attending too much to the desires of the mind.  In an attempt to right this imbalance, churches (indeed our whole culture) are now creating a space for feelings in the songs we sing.   However, the pendulum has swung too far.  Balance can only be achieved if we appreciate holistic worship.

It doesn’t do for us to fragment the worship, any more than it does to fragment the worshiper.   Holistic worship does not consist of intellectual parts, the sermon; emotional parts, the singing; and physical parts, the offering and sacraments.  Consider all parts of the worship service holistically.  A preacher thinks his sermon a failure when it touches only the head of the hearer.  So too the worship leader dispairs when the singing falls only on the hearts of the singers.

I hope that this series helps songwriters write more powerful lyrics and helps those who select the songs for singing in church services to choose the good ones.  By signing only good songs, more good songs will be produced.

My ultimate hope is that the body of Christ would be edified as we bring the best of our flock, the sacrifice of our praise, to the altar before our Saviour and Lord.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and  Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbolism (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbolism (8)

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Symbol Basics

Symbols are objects, actions or persons that evoke meanings beyond their literal significance.  They are literal, but they more than literal as well.

Where a long explanation might satisfy the mind, poets use symbols because they can evoke complex ideas in the imagination without all the explanation.  Sometimes a symbol carries a single meaning. but they can also signify many.

There are conventional symbols–we all know that the red rose is a symbol of romantic love and that a wedding ring is a symbol of faithfulness and unity.  But sometimes symbols are contextual.  The One Ring is a complex symbol found in the context of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

The Bible is full of symbols.  Joseph’s coat was a literal coat, but it was much more than that–it symbolized his father’s preferment.  The Hebrews regularly piled stones up to commemorate significant events, like the crossing of the Jordan River.  Elisha wanted Elijah’s cloak, not because he was cold, but because of what it symbolized.

One of the most significant symbols in Christianity is the bread and the wine of Communion.

“Behold The Lamb”

“Behold the Lamb” by Keith Getty, Kristyn Getty, and Stuart Townend makes more use of symbolism than do many other Communion songs.   Here is one verse of this song:

Verse 2
The body of our Saviour Jesus Christ
Torn for you eat and remember
The wounds that heal the death that brings us life
Paid the price to make us one
So we share in this Bread of Life
And we drink of His sacrifice
As a sign of our bonds of love
Around the table of the King

The bread in communion is symbolic.  It is literal bread (or wafers, or crackers, or gluten-free Rice Chex), but it is more.  Symbolically it is the body of Jesus that was, in the words of the song, “torn.”  The literal “wounds” and actual “death,” symbolically “heal” and “bring us life” respectively.  The sharing of bread and wine is a symbolic reflection of  “the bonds of love” that unite us in Christ’s “sacrifice.”

Compressed into Symbol

The cool thing about symbols is that meaning is compressed into them and then it expands out from them.

All kinds of meanings are crammed into the object, action or person.  Into the communion symbols, all the meanings of Christ’s Crucifixion are compressed into the bread and wine.

Symbols are packed so full. they explode by way of the worshipers' experience. Singing symbols can lead us into powerful and transforming worship experiences.Click To Tweet

Jesus begins the process when he says, “This is my body,” and, “This is my blood.”   He speaks of his body being “broken” and his blood “poured out.”  The events that follow these statements, called The Passion of Christ, make symbolic meaning of bread and wine.  This is a partial list of all that is compressed into the Communion elements:

  • Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
  • Judas’ betrayal
  • The scourging and crown of thorns
  • The struggle toward Golgotha
  • The nails in his hands and feet
  • The mockery of the onlookers

The literal objects of bread and wine contain all this and more.  And then all this compacted meaning expands.

Expanded by Experience

The communion symbols are packed with meaning, and, simultaneously, they are expanded by the personal experience that every worshiper brings to the Lord’s table.

  • We know that, had we been there, we might have been numbered among those who shouted, “Crucify Him!” (Luke 23:21).
  • We know that, by word or deed or omission of word or deed, we have said, “I don’t know the man!” (Matthew 26:72).
  • We know the place from which Jesus cried, “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me!” (Matthew 27:46).
  • We have prayed, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom'” (Luke: 23:42).
  • We desperately want to hear the words, “You will be with me in paradise” (Luke:23:43).

The action of compression and expansion that comes with symbols can be a very powerful experience.   The songs we sing in preparation for partaking in Communion can enhance the experience of communion by helping us unpack these traditional symbols.

Some might argue that congregants don’t think about these things in communion, or while singing songs about communion.  I’m not sure of my response.  I have a few:

Some do.

Why not?

If there is some value in this type of experience, perhaps worship leaders can teach engage symbols in this way.

It will lead to deeper worship.

Singing Symbols

This compression and expansion occur whenever we sing symbols.

When we sing symbols, it’s obviously not just our emotions that are engaged, nor even our minds–our imaginations enter into the act of worship.

We don’t sing symbols very often.  So I don’t have another, non-Communion example of effective use of symbol in a praise and worship song, So I’ll provide another example of the use of symbol, let us turn to one stanza from Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rain.”

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

The speaker’s son is “blue-eyed” symbolically suggests innocence.

In line 5, the son has “Heard one person starve” but “many people laughing.”  What or whom is compressed into the symbolic one person who starved?  Into the symbolic many?  How is this symbol is expanded into your experience?

In line 6 a poet, symbolic of wisdom or the ability to see what others cannot, is dead.

Think about that clown in line 7.  What does the clown represent?  What is significant about his being alone.  In an alley.  Crying?

This rain is not hard just in the literal sense.

Compression and expansion.

With almost a symbol per line, no one can hear this song the same way each time they listen to it.

I’m not suggesting this density of symbolism in all of our praise and worship songs, but you can see how even one can add powerfully to a song.  Symbolism is a powerful, and underutilized tool in popular, contemporary praise and worship music.

It is my hope that some future songwriters would take on the challenge and add symbolism to their writing toolbox.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and  Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

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Music has sound, but so do lyrics.

Yes, even without music, the words themselves have sound.

And the sound of the words can carry meaning.

Onomatopoeia

One way that words have sound is called onomatopoeia.  This, as you probably remember, is when the word sounds like what it means.  Words like crash, crackle, and smack are examples of onomatopoeia.

But onomatopoeia can be way cooler.  Here’s a line from John Keat’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

In this case, the sounds of the whole line echo what is being described.  Read it out loud a few times.  Do you hear the hum and buzz of the bugs?  The sounds and the combination of the sounds that we use to make words, make the sound of those kinds of evenings.

Music has sound, but so do lyrics. Yes, even without music, words have sound. And the sound of the words can carry meaning.Click To Tweet

But this is only the beginning–the sounds of words and lines of verse can be even more suggestive.

Phonetic Intensives

Phonetic intensives are onomatopoeia on steroids.

Here are examples of what Arp and Johnson call phonetic intensives (excerpted from Perrine’s Sound and Sense, Eighth Ed.)

  • the sound fl often suggests moving light, as in “flame,” “flare,” “flash,” “flicker”
  • gl often suggests unmoving light: “glare,” “glow,” “gleam,” “glisten”
  • sl is often associated with wetness: “slippery,” “slick,” “slide,” “slime,” “slushy”
  • st often suggests strength: “staunch,” stalwart,” “sturdy,” “stable,” “stern,”
  • short i often indicates smallness: “inch,” “imp,” “thin,” “little,” “bit,” “kid,”
  • the tt in the middle of a word often suggests sudden movement, as in “spatter,” “scatter,” “shatter,” “rattle,” “clatter,” “batter”

This list is just the beginning of the incredible sound resources that are available to the poet to add meaning through the sound of words.  You don’t have to memorize this list in order to write poetry, for one think the list is incomplete.  The other reason is that you already know it.  We all do.  This isn’t stuff that a bunch of poetry nerds invented.  They discovered it–it’s in our language.  We just don’t think about it.  Poets think about it.  Good songwriters are poets.  Good songwriters will consider how their lyrics sound.

We all know that sounds have meaning; we just don't think about it. Poets think about it. Good songwriters are poets. Good songwriters think about how their lyrics sound.Click To Tweet

If you want to communicate a peaceful beauty, don’t use too many r or k or t sounds because these sounds are not peaceful or beautiful.  If you want the worshipers to feel happy don’t use “slow,” “deep,” “moon,” or any others that sound sad like these do.

Read the lines of your song out loud and listen to them.  Use your ears and feel them coming off of your lips–are the sounds of the words in combination consistent with what you are trying to communicate?  They don’t have to directly line up all of the time, buy the sounds certainly shouldn’t work contrary to your purposes.

Rhyme

I remember thinking it was funny that “love” was rhymed with “prove” in Joy to the World.  I used to sing “And wonders of his lūve” to make my brother laugh.  He always did.

John Stackhouse wrote a blog post some time ago in which he criticized Chris Tomlin’s lyrics, including his use of rhyme, or lack thereof.

The man either doesn’t care about rhyming and settles for the merest assonance, or he lacks the skill or patience to actually craft rhymes.

Perhaps it is true that Tomlin’s rhymes are not as thoughtful as they should be, but the fact that they don’t rhyme perfectly is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.

Perfect rhymes, that is, rhymes that repeat the final vowel and consonant sound exactly, can suggest things like innocence, stability, simplicity, certainty,  and order.  Imperfect rhymes, also called slant rhymes, can suggest the opposite.  If you are writing a song of confession, slant rhymes might be just what you want.  What song are you writing?  How can you use rhyme to reinforce the meaning?

Songs that rhyme suggests an order is reflective of the Christian worldview--indeed, one of the reasons we are worshiping in the first place. That despite seeming chaos, God is in control.Click To Tweet

I like rhymes, not just because I am a Classicist, but because of what they suggest about the world.  Songs that rhyme suggests a pattern of order and control–a stability and predictability.  This order can be reflective of the Christian view of reality–indeed, one of the reasons we are worshiping in the first place.  We are acknowledging and finding comfort in God’s Providence.  The order suggested by rhymes, despite the seeming chaos that surrounds us, suggest that God is in control.

Common Rhyming Problems

Don't use these rhymes in your worship songs: love/above, jewel/fool, feet/seas, out/out, name/fame, up/cupClick To Tweet

There is such a thing as a bad rhyme.  And there are other rhymes require caution in their use.  Here’s my partial list:

  1. feet/seas: the “close enough” rhyme — the fancy word for this sort of thing is “assonant rhyme.”  Assonance is the term that describes a repetition of vowel sounds.  A rhyme is created by both the vowel and consonant sound. I’ve not made up my mind how much of a sin I consider “assonant rhyme” to be.   Stackhouse thinks they indicate a lack of skill or patience.  Perhaps he’s right.
  2. out/out: the same-word rhyme — there can be a good reason for rhyming a word to itself.  Repetition is used for emphasis, so the word you rhyme with itself must be a pivotal word, poetically speaking.  If it is not a word of significance, then take this opportunity to create a powerful effective rhyme.
  3. love/above: the cliché rhyme — the love/above rhyme is a cliché.  This pair has appeared in hymns for centuries.  Cliché is never OK.
  4. name/fame: the bad-diction rhyme —  don’t sacrifice diction for rhyme.  Don’t sacrifice rhyme for diction either.  The point is, don’t sacrifice.  I always wince in that song that uses the name/fame rhyme.  Yes, God is interested in his glory, in being known in all lands, but this is not the same as seeking fame.  That’s what people on American Idol do.
  5. jewel/fool: the forced rhyme — the bad diction rhyme is when you use an inferior word, just because it rhymes with a good one.  A forced rhyme is when you bring in two inferior words just because they rhyme.
  6. up/cup: the “Oh, Come On” rhyme — this means you’re not even trying.
Types of rhymes to avoid in the worship song you are writing: the *close enough* rhyme, the same-word rhyme, the cliché rhyme, the bad-diction rhyme, the forced rhyme, the *Oh, Come On* rhyme Click To Tweet

Rhythm

All songwriters know about rhythm.  I think rhythm is a requirement for corporate worship–some rhythmic consistency contributes to the “singability” of a song.

Rhythm can be restrictive, but real poets seem to be able to use the perfect word in the perfect place, without sacrificing meaning or rhythm.

Sometimes we find metrical variations in poems.  In the best poetry, these variations are purposeful.  In an inferior poem or song, the metrical variation is a result of the “close enough” mentality.

“Nature’s First Green is Gold”

To illustrate the function and power of sound and rhyme, I offer Robert Frost’s “Nature’s First Green is Gold.”

Nature’s first green is gold, 
Her hardest hue to hold. 
Her early leaf’s a flower; 
But only so an hour. 
Then leaf subsides to leaf. 
So Eden sank to grief, 
So dawn goes down to day. 
Nothing gold can stay.

Again, there is so much that we could talk about in this poem.  The first line alone includes personification, metaphor, and paradox, and does so in such a simple and subtle way, that all this poetic activity doesn’t interfere with the simple sense of the line.  I will offer a short analysis focusing only on the sound, rhyme, and rhythm.

There is alliteration in the first line: “green is gold.”  The alliteration is not simply for the sake of alliterating; these words carry the central purpose of the poem.

Line 2, alliterates the h sound.  This is the lightest, most ethereal sound in our phonetic collection, and it’s describing the ethereal beauty of nature’s first green.  Contrast this line with line 7; where the d sound is alliterated.  This sound is the heaviest, most terrestrial of sounds.  See how the sounds echo the sense of these lines?

The whole poem is filled with long vowels.  Read line 4 out loud.  The sounds are of the same sad regret that the words convey.

The rhythm is regular, except for in the first and last lines.  The metrical variation  emphasizes “Nature’s first green” and “Nothing.”  These words frame the poem and carry the movement from elusive beauty to its loss.

Poets utilize every possible resource to communicate an experience to their readers.  What is their motivation?  Surely none have a purpose more important than the poets who write lyrics that will be used in the praise and worship of the King of the Universe.

Some thought, then, might be given to the sound of the lyrics even before the music is added, some thought to the rhymes and rhythms and what they communicate above and beneath the meaning of the words.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and  Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

We sing to and of a transcendent God.  We cannot fully understand who he is or what he does.  And it’s not easy to understand our relationship with him.   We have his Word which is a start.  How do the biblical authors help communicate the mysteries of the God we worship?

They often use metaphor.

This is because metaphors are the best tools for dealing with complexity and mystery.

In Isaiah 64:6 God is the potter and we are the clay.  God is compared to a hen in Psalm 91:4.  And in Isaiah 42:14, to a woman in childbirth.

Even Jesus Christ, wholly God, used metaphors to explain who he was.

“I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35).

“I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11).

“I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:5).

“I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12).

Most of life is mysterious and complex.  Most things cannot be expressed or understood directly or simply.  In order to express what is inexpressible, and explore the unknowable, we make comparisons to familiar things.

But metaphors do more than help us explain and understand things.  In the hands of a skilled poet, they activate our imaginations.

Understanding Metaphor

Before we get into some examples, we need to get some of the technical explanation out of the way.  This is very important, for if you don’t make the comparisons correctly, they will be ludicrous, not magical.

A metaphor has two parts: the thing you are describing (A) and the familiar thing you are comparing it to (B).  In the metaphor, “The wind howled,” the wind (A) is compared to wolves (B).  Note that you can name or imply either part of the comparison.  In this case, A is named and B is implied.

Just a few other related terms, that you probably remember from high school.  A simile is a comparison, but it is indirect, usually using the words “like” or “as”: “The wind sounded like the howling of a wolf.”  Personification is a type of metaphor when B is a person–“The wind whispered through the leaves.”  The term metaphor can be used to refer to the general category that includes the metaphor proper, as well as simile and personification.

Mixed Metaphors

I’ve only sung Needtobreath’s “Multiplied” one time, and it was memorable for all the wrong reasons.  I remember it because of the problems with metaphor.

Your love is like radiant diamonds
Bursting inside us we cannot contain
Your love will surely come find us
Like blazing wild fires singing Your name

In this verse, we have God’s love (A) being compared to “diamonds bursting inside us” (B).  It makes sense to compare God’s love with something as beautiful, multifaceted and long-lasting as a diamond.  It also makes sense to compare the feeling of being loved by God as a “bursting” sensation.  But it doesn’t make sense to compare anything to a bursting diamond, because that’s not what diamonds do.

In the last line has a similar problem: “blazing wildfires” don’t sing.

Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace: My Chains Are Gone” is a more well-known example of the problem of the mixed metaphor.

If you don’t get these metaphor basics right, you might write lyrics that lead to confusion rather than to worship.

The Magic of Metaphor

When metaphors are done correctly, they can be magic.

Here is Robert Frost’s “Bereft”:

Where had I heard this wind before
Change like this to a deeper roar?
What would it take my standing there for,
Holding open a restive door,
Looking down hill to a frothy shore?
Summer was past and the day was past.
Sombre clouds in the west were massed.
Out on the porch’s sagging floor,
Leaves got up in a coil and hissed,
Blindly struck at my knee and missed.
Something sinister in the tone
Told me my secret must be known:
Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God.

As with all great poetry, there is so much more going on here than metaphor, but the metaphors are wonderful.

In line two, the sound of the ocean turns into a roar, which suggests a lion, and in line 11 the tone is “sinister.”  In line four, the door is “restive,” meaning it’s unable to keep still–like a person, so it is personification.  There is more personification in the “sombre” clouds.  All these suggest turmoil within the speaker and the suggestion of danger.  The threat increases as the leaves are metaphorically compared to a snake in lines 9-10.

When the stormy conditions are described metaphorically, we can imaginatively understand the complex feeling the speaker is experiencing–it is a particular kind of loneliness–a loneliness mixed with profound fear.  We experience it a little ourselves.  When we understand his feeling, we understand the final line.

A Metaphor that Works: “My Lighthouse”

I’ve written previously about the wonderful metaphors used by Katheryn Scott in  “At the Foot of the Cross.”  Scott’s metaphors are great examples of how to effectively use standard comparisons that lead into deeper worship.

Metaphors in our worship songs can help us express what is inexpressible, and explore the unknowable, but they can also activate our imaginations.Click To Tweet

“My Lighthouse” from Rend Collective Experiment employs an extended metaphor, a comparison that is extended through the whole song.

 

Verse 1
In my wrestling and in my doubts
In my failures You won’t walk out
Your great love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea, whoa
You are the peace in my troubled sea
Verse 2
In the silence You won’t let go
In the questions Your truth will hold
Your great love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea, whoa
You are the peace in my troubled sea
Chorus
My lighthouse, my lighthouse
shining in the darkness I will follow You whoa
My lighthouse, my lighthouse
I will trust the promise You will carry me safe to shore
Tag
Safe to shore, safe to shore, safe to shore
Verse 3
I won’t fear what tomorrow brings
with each morning I’ll rise and sing
My God’s love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea, whoa
You are the peace in my troubled sea
Oh You are my light
Bridge
Fire before us, You’re the brightest
You will lead us through the storm

Sometimes our life is like a “troubled sea.”   Notice that the troubles aren’t general and abstract.   They are of a particular kind of trouble; they are not in the categories of lost car keys or bankruptcy and divorce.  It is not these trials that stir up the waves; it is a lack of trust.  The forces behind these turbulent waters are my wrestling, doubts, questions, failures, and God’s silence–a lack of trust in God.  The metaphor invites us to look beyond our troubles to the one we can trust to take us through them–to the lighthouse.

Lighthouses have two functions: to warn ships of danger and to guide them to safe harbour.  Remembering God’s promises will shift our focus from the dangers of doubt, and they will guide us “safe to shore.”  Christ and his promises a guiding light when we are on the dark and stormy seas, when we struggle with trusting God.

The metaphor doesn’t simply tell us that we can trust in God in our troubles, it places us on a boat, caught in a storm off of the coast (of Ireland I imagine) and it shows us a lighthouse through driving wind and rain.  We can trust the lighthouse to guide us.  And then, as we sing, we discover we will be all right, not by our own strength, but by looking to him.

That is the magic of metaphor.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and  Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

I was in a worship setting a few weeks ago and we sang a few songs that I was quite familiar with.  Songs we’ve sung enough for me to start thinking about the lyrics.  They were perfectly fine,  but there wasn’t much there to consider–neither my mind nor my imagination was not stimulated.

What was going on?  The words were fine, the music was fine.  Then I realized what the problem was.  All the songs in the set were about abstract ideas.

Are our praise and worship sets too abstract? Click To Tweet

The lyrics of a lot of our praise and worship songs are abstract.  They are about grace and freedom and fear and sin and victory and you get the picture.  These are really, really good things to sing about, but we need to think about them more concretely.

Let me be clear.  There is nothing inherently wrong with songs about abstract ideas.  Psalm 145, a psalm of praise, is mostly abstract.  If David can write a song like this, so can you.  But a steady diet of this type of song is a problem–and we sing a lot of them.

We need also to sing songs that are concrete.  In Psalm 98 we find harps and trumpets, the sounds of singing, ram’s horns, and geographic features: the sea, rivers, and mountains.  In Psalm 103, we have “diseases,” “the pit,” “eagles,” “the east,” “the west,” “father,” “children,” “dust,” “grass,” “flowers,” “wind,” “children’s children,” “angels” and “servants.”

We interact with the world of concrete things with our bodies.  Our songs, too, will engage ideas through our imaginative connections with our bodies.

Imagery

The definition of imagery that my students often recite is, “When the poem evokes one of the five senses.”   This is a good definition, but it is limited because it doesn’t take into account the evocation of other physical experiences, such as nausea or cramps, that aren’t one of the five.

The word imagery is linked to imagination.   When Frost writes, “The woods are lovely dark and deep,” we do not see the woods with our physical eyes, we see them with the eyes of our imagination.  We have a whole body in our imagination that can experience all sorts of physical sensations.  This is imagery.

Imagery is a common literary device.  It’s so common because writers have long realized that we experience the world, first and foremost, through our bodies.

Poets use imagery to create vivid and realistic experiences in our imagination.   To illustrate, this is Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

There is so much to say about this poem, but we will look at just a few lines.  In the last line of the first stanza we watch, though the eyes of the speaker, the “woods fill up with snow.”  This short phrase communicates, without explicitly saying it, exactly the type of snowfall we are imaginatively experiencing.  For the woods to “fill up,” the snow is falling straight down and it’s heavy–you know, those big fluffy flakes that fall slowly when there is no wind. All this meaning is packed into a few short words–meaning is beyond the words, so to speak because it’s all happening in our imagination.

To contrast the peaceful picture before us, the sound of the harness bells come from the impatient horse who doesn’t have any conception of a beauty that would stop a journey home to hay and oats.  The three “k” sounds in, “He gives his harness bells a shake/To ask if there is some mistake,” reinforce, though sound, the contrast of the jarring bells with the soft muffled sounds of the snowy surroundings; “The only other sound’s the sweep/Of easy wind and downy flake.”  Our imaginations are guided by the poet to a very specific, concrete experience.

Dark and deep woods might feel creepy, but for the word “lovely.”  With this word, the image that is evoked is one of beautiful peacefulness.  Taken together, readers imaginatively experience this very particular, beautiful and peaceful setting.

We have physical bodies and we are surrounded by physical things.  It makes sense that our poetry would use imagery in order to communicate experience.  Are there physical experiences that writers of praise music might wish to evoke in order to lead us into worship?

Imagery gives us concrete experience.  Our understanding of abstract ideas comes to us through physical things as well.   A good example comes from the chorus of “Great Are You Lord.”

We interact with the world, both spiritually and physically. So, our worship songs will engage our heart, mind, soul, and body. Abstract ideas of salvation will be accessed through the concrete images of lungs and bones, mountains and flowers, harps and trumpets, etc. Click To Tweet

The Concrete Chorus of “Great Are You Lord”

One of the reasons I like “Great Are You Lord” by All Sons & Daughters is because it is so concrete–embodied even.  Most of the verses are fairly abstract, praising God for giving life and being love, and bringing light to the darkness.  But the chorus and the bridge bring our physical bodies into the song.

Chorus:
It’s Your breath in our lungs
So we pour out our praise
We pour out our praise
It’s Your breath in our lungs
So we pour out our praise to You only
Bridge:
And all the earth will shout Your praise
Our hearts will cry, these bones will sing
Great are You, Lord

While we sing the song, we confess that the air in our lungs, the one we just inhaled a moment before, is a gift from Him.  And we use that very air to praise him.  I think that’s amazing.  If you think about it for a second, we owe him our very breath.  And what else can we do in response to this realization but use that gift in worship?   This little line is incredible. In the very act of singing, we are doing what we are singing about.  And it’s so biological.

Isn’t this breath-to-praise pattern part of our everyday worship?  Any and every gift from God can be just as seamlessly turned into praise of the giver.  This is what holistic worship is.  We worship God with our all the gifts he’s given us.  Everything from the most basic breath, to our time, money, talents and passions, are turned into praise in the same seamless beauty in which we breathe and sing.

Wow!  When this dawns on you, it changes the way you sing the song.  It’s an idea that moves from the body, through the imagination to the mind and it evokes the emotion of gratitude and the desire to worship.  That’s what I’m talking about–holistic worship.  That’s what I am advocating for all songs that we sing in church.

The bridge is just as biological, and just as spiritually profound.  It states that “All the earth will sing your praise.”  The earth is that physical reality in which we live and it praises God in all its physicality.  What would be more natural than the crown of creation joining the terrestrial chorus in praise of our creator?  But it’s not our voices this time, nor our feelings or thoughts.  It’s not even our souls or spirits.  In league with the rest of the material world, our very bones–the core of our physical being, will sing praise.  This is profound in every sense of the term.

Again, the repeated singing of these lines brings you deeper into worship as the profundity of this idea sinks into our understanding.

Our whole life is about interaction with the world, both spiritually and physically.  To worship with our whole heart, mind, soul, and body would naturally involve songs about abstract ideas of salvation, accessed through the concrete images of lungs and bones, the cross, bread and wine, mountains and flowers, harps and trumpets, rain snow, and . . . a horse and bridle?

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and  Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and Focus (4)

Photo by Rachel Lynette French on Unsplash

Audience

Audience and purpose are foundational considerations for any piece of writing.

The audience of a praise and worship song is certainly our Creator, Lord, Redeemer, and Comforter.  Having God as our audience will certainly impact our writing; we’d probably want it to be as good as we can make it, not necessarily for his sake, but for ours.

The audience also includes those who will be singing the song.  The song will be different, both musically and lyrically, if it is meant to be sung by fidgety five-year-olds who tug on their ears and put their dresses over their heads.  The group which we call “youth” have different requirements for a worship song.  They like self-focused and angsty songs and ones that repeat words like “gonna.”   For most of the songs we sing on Sunday the audience is multi-generational and are written accordingly.  The point is, know your audience, and write accordingly.

Purpose

A praise and worship song must also have a purpose.  This seems obvious.   Of course, they all have one general purpose: to bring a group of people into the praise and worship of the triune God.  For a song to effectively achieve this general purpose, it needs to have a narrower one as well.

An excellent praise and worship song will hold together; it will be unified around a purpose--a very specific purpose.Click To Tweet

An excellent song will hold together; it will be unified around a purpose–a very specific purpose.

All our songs are generally about God and some aspect of the  Christian life.  If you are writing a song that praises God, narrow it to praise just one of the persons of the Trinity.  But you can be still more specific.  If you are writing about God the Father,  narrow it to one which praises God as a father, or for his Creation, or for his strength to overcome what opposes us, or his grace to save us, or his providence, or his love, or any number of specific things for which we could praise him. Of course, this narrowing of purpose might mean your song won’t be sung as often, but it will be sung longer because it will lead to more meaningful worship.

Once you’ve settled on a narrow purpose, everything in the song will serve it.  We’ve already discussed diction here and here.  Diction serves the central purpose.  So do music and instrumentation.  Every aspect of the lyrics is also oriented toward this purpose:  rhyme, sound, imagery, figures of speech,  rhythm and meter, and everything else that constitutes the song.

Why a narrow focus?

After we sing a song a few times and get past the worshipful feelings it generates, the words of an excellent song will take us more deeply into worship.   It will do so because it will guide our thoughts and imaginations to specific ideas and images upon which to meditate.

If I ask you to think about water, your mind can go into a thousand different directions.  I think about the ocean, and then about the rain running down the hill in front of my house, and then about the water lines I need to drain before the first freeze.  These are all interesting, but because they are undirected, my thoughts flit from one to the other and never settle anywhere.

Now imagine a small stream in a misty forest, flowing through, and over, round grey rocks and pebbles.  Some are covered with dewy moss and strewn with yellow and red maple leaves.  With this specific manifestation of water, have a directed imaginative experience.  Hopefully, you saw the beauty, a particular kind of beauty–for this was my purpose.  Particular kinds of water can evoke ideas of peace, or awe, or fear, or cold, or discomfort, or cleansing, or sadness, or any of a hundred other ideas and images to experience.

Singing in church certainly will involve emotions, but worship should be about more than feelings.  A specific focus directs engages minds and imaginations more effectively than do generalities.

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Is “Holy Spirit” too General?

“Holy Spirit” by Francesca Battistelli brings praise to the third person of the Trinity.  Musically, it will serve well to bring congregants into the worship of God, but I wonder if it is too unfocused to result in the deeper worship I’ve been talking about.  You can decide for yourself and leave a comment.

Verse 1
There’s nothing worth more, that could ever come close
No thing can compare, You’re our living hope
Your presence Lord
Verse 2
I’ve tasted and seen of the sweetest of loves
Where my heart becomes free and my shame is undone
Your presence Lord
Chorus
Holy Spirit You are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere
Your glory God is what our hearts long for
To be overcome by Your presence Lord
Your presence Lord
Bridge
Let us become more aware of Your presence
Let us experience the glory of Your goodness

While singing this song we praise the Spirit for his worth and glory and goodness.  We also sing about the longing we feel and the hope he gives.  We also celebrate the freedom from shame and our own loving feelings toward him.  We also confess he is the presence of God, both in me and in “the atmosphere.”  And, lastly, we offer a prayer for awareness of his presence.

There is a lot going on in this song, so much so that my thoughts don’t settle on one idea because they are rapidly rushed off to the next one, and then the next.

We can sing about all of these things, but we might need four or five songs to do it in such a way that brings people into a more holistic worship–one where the mind and imagination have a particular idea, story, feeling, object on which to meditate or experience.

“Blessed Be Your Name”

A song that illustrates the benefits of a more focused purpose is “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord” by Matt Redman:

Verse 1
Blessed be Your Name in the land that is plentiful
Where Your streams of abundance flows
Blessed be Your name
Blessed be Your Name when I’m
Found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed Be Your name
Pre-Chorus
Every blessing You pour out I’ll turn back to praise
When the darkness closes in Lord, still I will say
Chorus
Blessed be the name of the Lord, blessed be Your name
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your glorious name
Verse 2
Blessed be Your name when the
Sun’s shining down on me
When the world’s all as it should be
Blessed be Your name
Blessed be Your name on the road marked with suffering
Though theres pain in the offering, blessed be Your name
Bridge
You give and take away, You give and take a -way
My heart will chose to say, Lord blessed be Your name

This entire song is unified around a single idea found in Job 1:21: God is worthy of our praise in both the good times and the bad times.  The bridge proclaims the first part of the verse: “You give and take away.”  The title and refrain carry the central idea–“Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  The rest of this song does nothing but imaginatively expand on this theme.

The first verse is about praising God for the good times and the bad times.  The second verse repeats this pattern.  The pre-chorus gives two lines to blessing God in the good times and two lines to doing the same in the bad.

There is not a line or a word in this song that doesn’t clearly serve the purpose.

I have sung this song in times when it felt as if I was alone in the wilderness and other times in bountiful circumstances.  It’s like it’s a different song.  Its claim is that both the good and the bad times are blessings for which we praise God.  Meditating on the nearly spontaneous movement from receiving to praising has brought me into deep worship.  The act of singing itself becomes a testimony to the song’s truth.

I believe that the simple unity and specific focus of this song is one of the main reasons this song has been sung so often, and for so long in Christian gatherings.

My thesis in this series on The Poetry of Worship is that most of the songs we regularly sing in church are good songs.  But with repeated singing, a great song will bring us into deeper worship.  A specific focus can direct the hearts and minds of those who sing the song to a particular aspect of the nature and character of God, or of the Christian life.  This leads, of course, to an edification that lasts far longer than the Sunday service.  Perhaps a week.  Perhaps a lifetime.
Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

I have had the privilege to act as a consultant for aspiring praise and worship songwriters.  It was a great experience.  I was inspired by the creativity and passion that the writers brought to these songs, and I was happy that I could help to make these already good songs even better.

When giving, “cool feedback,” I found that one of the hardest things for me to communicate was why a particular word made the writing sound awkward or even amateurish.

I read a lot of artless writing.   The amateur writer doesn’t know that the monosyllabic and ordinary word, “shows,” is sometimes the best word, as in “Creation shows the power of God.”  “Shows” is always better than “exhibits,” and it is often better than “displays,” or “reveals.”  When I encounter the word “disclose,” I know that someone has been abusing their thesaurus.   It all depends upon the poem, and the line within the poem, of course, but these words, usually, don’t quite make it.  Writers will use them for various reasons–to make a nice rhyme or to maintain a rhythm, or because they think it “sounds” better.  It doesn’t.

And it’s hard to explain why.  Most simply, it’s because it’s just not the perfect word.

It’s not too difficult to say why the use of the term “desire” is better in “It is my desire to honor you” than it is in, “You are the love of my desire.”    But it is not so easy to explain why the word “ransom” is better in the line, “His wounds have paid my ransom” (“How deep the Fathers Love”), than it is in the line, “He is the ransom for my life” (“King of my Heat”)?

Why?  I just know.  And it’s not just me.  Many other people also have this mysterious power.  And you can have it too.

Developing a “Poetic Ear”

If you want to use words powerfully and beautifully you need to develop a poetic ear.  Teaching literature for over 30 years has trained my ear.  I read a lot.  I read the work of amateur writers, and I read the best writers of poetry and prose in the English language.  Consequently, I know where a piece of writing is on the continuum.  It is no surprise, then, that I am sensitive to lyrics in our worship songs that more closely resemble my students’ writing than it does that of Robert Frost.

You too can develop this poetic ear.  Read and study great poetry.  My guess is that the poetry with which most praise and worship lyricists engage is that of other praise and worship lyricists.  Even the big songwriters are often writing with unremarkable diction.  Reading these won’t help to develop the poetic ear.  If you really want to develop a sensitivity for good diction, read the very best wordsmiths–Seamus Heaney, Frost, the Brontes, Austin, Hardy, Christina Rossetti, Tennyson, Shelly, Keats, etc.

If you want to write great praise and worship lyrics, don't use other praise and worship songs as your model. Develop a poetic ear by reading the best poets and writers of prose and poetry Click To Tweet

It will take time, but if you start reading the best novelists and poets, in ten years time, you will be writing much better lyrics than you would if you didn’t.  “Ten years?!” you cry.  Well, if you are 36 now, I’m telling you that by the time you are 46 you will have moved a long way down the spectrum toward being a poet.  That gives you 30 years to write great songs.  That’s lots of time.

Lyricist or Poet?

Good writers never compromise diction for the sake of rhyme or rhythm, or anything else.  They strive to use the perfect word in every instance–they don’t settle.  The perfect word will have the precise denotation and connotation, and serve the rhythm and rhythm perfectly.  If they just can’t make it work, the poet will rework the line or the whole verse.  They don’t stop until it is perfect.

You can’t start here, however.  Before you know what the perfect word is, you need to have developed the poetic ear.  Even then, it will tie you into knots at times, but that’s the challenge of poetry–and I don’t think we have any choice.

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What I am asking is not easy, but if we aspire to write songs in praise of our King, they need to be excellent.  Not for his sake, but for ours, and for those whom we lead in worship.  We need to strive to be poets, not just lyricists.

And becoming a poet takes at least as much time and effort as it takes to become a great musician, and how long did that take?

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

In my last post, I introduced my project to help songwriters and worship leaders to write and select more meaningful songs for corporate worship.

Words are the poet’s primary tool so let’s start with diction–the author’s choice of words.

Denotation and Connotation

Words can carry meaning beyond the definition(s) we find in the dictionary, the denotations.  Many words also have strong connotations–the associations, or imaginative meanings they carry.  Connotation can be a very effective tool for writing powerful lyrics, but they can mess up a song too.  When choosing words for your song, consider not just what the words mean, but also what they suggest.

Word Choice: A Literary Example

What can a sensitivity to diction do for my songwriting?

We will start by looking at a poem and discussing the effect of diction, then we will look at a praise and popular worship song that does a pretty good job with diction.

“Desert Places” by Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it–it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less–
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars–on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

This poem is the reflections on the loneliness of the speaker as he walks past a field in the evening.  But the words of the poem don’t simply explain the speaker’s loneliness–they allow us to imaginatively experience them.

In the first line, the words “falling” and “fast” are repeated.  Consider the effect of repeating these words in such close proximity–does it hint at a sense of alarm?  The rest of the first stanza partially allays this impression with a peaceful description of the snow-covered field.  But we can’t shake their disturbing effect, even in the peaceful context of a snowy evening.

When selecting worship songs, look for where the words are used in unexpected or unusual ways--these can make think again about what we know and reconsider meanings. Click To Tweet

After the first line of the second stanza, where the trees take possession of the field, we read, “All animals are smothered in their lairs.”  This line really shows the power of diction in the hands of a master.  Consider how different the effect would be if Frost had written, “All animals are cozy in their dens.”  Big difference.  The connotation of “smothered” is to murder someone by suffocating them with a pillow.  A “lair” where beast and monsters live.  Frost’s lines are disturbing, and this is the work of his choice of these particular words.

After this comes “The loneliness includes me unawares.”  This line, occupying the central position of the poem, carries the central idea.  The waves of loneliness come in four recurrences of the words lonely or loneliness.   Another group of words reinforces the idea of, for lack of a better term, absence:  “absent-spirited,” “blanker,” “no expression,” “empty,” “desert.”  The diction in the second stanza strongly emphasizes the ideas of loneliness and absence.  It is clear, the speaker doesn’t just lack friends.  We are talking about an existential loneliness.

The word “scare” is a most intriguing word in the context of this poem.  It lacks the sophistication of the other words used in this poem–it’s like he’s scoffing at the vastness of space, (“You can’t scare me!”)claiming his interior loneliness is far more profound.

This is not all we could say about this poem, but it’s enough to illustrate that the author’s choice of words can have a tremendous effect.

The best praise and worship songs will have words that excite our imaginations.Click To Tweet

Word Choice: A Worship Song Example

When I went looking for a praise and worship song that provided a good example of diction, I went to the list of most popular songs from CCLI.  I found very little until I got to the twenty-second in the list.  And this contained lyrics from an old hymn. I did not expect to find anything close to the density effective word choice of Robert Frost’s poem above, but it is clear that selecting words for effect is not a priority for worship-song writers.

Here are some lines from Stuart Townsend’s “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.”  This song, provides us with some examples of how diction can be used in a worship song.

How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many sons to glory
. . .
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

In the first stanza, we find the word “wretch.”  The connotations of “wretch” are not simply that of a pathetic victim, but of a deliberately villainous rascal.  Words like ingrate, knave, liar, and lowlife, are its synonyms.  But in an amazing reversal of expectation, this villain is considered the Father’s “treasure.”  Here the connotations are of heaps of gold and jewels.   Meaning pulses at the intersection of “wretch” and “treasure.”

The second stanza shows us Christ’s suffering from the rejection of his Father on our behalf.  The pain of loss is “searing.”  It’s not just pain that this word communicates, but a very specific kind of pain.  The connotations of this word suggest the deliberate burning of flesh associated with medieval torture.   In spite of being ungrateful lowlifes, he pays our “ransom,”–another word loaded with meaning.

The first several times we sing this song, the music or some of the lines will bring us into worship quite easily, but after we sing it five or six times, we begin to experience a deeper conviction through the power of these words.  The gratitude that results will be even greater, and probably the volume of the singing.

My desire is that almost every song we sing in church gets more powerful every time we sing it, rather than less.  Diction is the first, but it is not the only step toward this end.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice Of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

Occasionally, during corporate worship, my focus is taken away from the God who is deserving of all my praise and drawn to the words upon the screen.  Although I try to resist the distraction, it’s not easy.  Sometimes I am diverted from a bit of bad theology.  Yesterday, I chucked because a line was just weird.  Other times it is because I notice the words don’t really mean anything.  And then there’s the mediocre, or even bad, poetry.

It is clear from their enthusiasm that many worshippers either don’t notice or don’t care.  Maybe the words don’t matter as much to my fellow congregants as they do to me.  They might have some way to look past the lyrics, to the recipient of our praise.

The Test of Repetition

I too am able, for a time, to ignore unremarkable lyrics.  When we sing a new song in church, I don’t begin by scrutinizing every phrase, word, and rhyme to see if it is worthy of my voice.  Unless the words are truly silly or empty, I can be lead to worship several times with almost any song.  It is only at that point when the repeated singing of a truly great song begins to open up deeper worship through its inspired lyrics, do I notice the inadequacies of those of an inferior one.

It is at that point when the repeated singing of a great song opens up deeper worship through inspired lyrics, do I notice the inadequacies of those of an inferior one.Click To Tweet

After this happens, every recurrence of the so-so song impedes, rather than enhances worship.

Is it My Problem?

Some have told me that I have a problem, that I shouldn’t be so critical.  This may be true, but I believe I have three legitimate defenses against this accusation:

  1. Does not our creator deserve the best that we can offer up?  As we bring the sacrifice praise to the altar don’t we want it to be the best of the flock?  Should we not strive to present songs of praise that are excellent, not just musically but lyrically as well?
  2. God gives good gifts for the edification of the church and the world.  One of his gifts is the ability to create beautiful things–this includes poetry.  Some have only the gift of appreciation, but even so, I think we need to make as much of these gifts as possible so as to honour the giver.
  3. My third argument is more complex, and it is contained in the series of post that follows.  In essence, better lyrics lead to deeper worship, even if you don’t care about the lyrics.

It is certainly true that God probably doesn’t notice the difference between our best attempts and our blemished ones, for they are offerings of a sincere, but fallen people.  But does God need our songs and sheep?  When  God’s people are commanded to sacrifice the best lamb, grain or ox, it is for our sake.  It is a reflection and a reminder of how we are to think of him.

The Poetry of Worship

In the name of edifying the church, I will write a series of posts to help would-be lyricists take some steps toward becoming poets.   These posts will also be useful for those who choose the songs we sing each Sunday, as they too will be equipped to better judge the poetic from the prosaic.

As we bring the sacrifice praise to the altar don't we want it to be the best of the flock? Should we not strive to present songs of praise that are excellent, not just musically but lyrically as well?Click To Tweet

My assumption is that most of those who write the songs we sing in church started as musicians.  Some of the more passionate and gifted move on to writing their own music.  It is natural that some of these would, then, try their hand at writing a song, lyrics and all.  What they may not realize is that developing the skills to write great lyrics takes at least as much time as it takes to master an instrument.  A poet’s skill is in the same category as the composer of music, who has to acquire a whole set of new skills.

Developing the skills to write great lyrics takes at least as much time as it takes to master an instrument. Click To Tweet

This series of posts, called The Poetry of Worship, is designed to challenge would-be lyricists to consider some principles of poetry that will start them on a journey toward writing songs that will evoke, not just the emotions of worshipers, but their imaginations as well.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

Adding To Hymns? Do So Carefully

 

Tama66 / Pixabay

John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” (1779) tops almost every list of the most popular hymns of all time.

It’s been covered by Whitney Houston, Al Green, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Steven Tyler, Alan Jackson, Carrie UnderwoodElvis Presley and thousands of others.

Why this popularity?

The tune is beautiful, even when played by bagpipes.  The poetry is rich.  The song presents the Gospel of Grace.  Its significance is both cosmic and individual. It takes us from our present, through death, into eternity.  It’s the complete package.

New Choruses to Old Songs

Feelings are becoming more and more important in our culture.  Have you noticed that people no longer say, “I think” anymore?  They always say, “I feel.”  Although emotions are important, they are often given too much authority in our culture.

We can see this swing in contemporary worship music.  Choruses are added to the old favourites to give them the emotional lift they lacked in their original form.  The music goes higher, the vowels go longer, hearts rise up, hands join hearts . . .

There is nothing wrong with the addition of new choruses.  We can critique older styles of worship for not engaging enough of our emotions and these new choruses actually lead to more holistic worship.  The new choruses do go wrong when they are emotion for emotion’s sake–one of the indications that the mind is not invited into this emotional climax is that the words don’t really mean anything, or worse, they fail to connect to the rest of the song, or worse, they are incomprehensible.

Why the need to add to the good ol’ hymns?

I get it.  Times are different.   We like choruses now.  The old hymns don’t have choruses.

Why do we like choruses?  Why does a song without a chorus just feel incomplete? It’s because, these days, we are very emotional.  Not just Christian culture, but the culture at large.  More and more it is our feelings that matter, sometimes at the expense of everything else.

We might feel let down if worshipful feelings aren’t are not evoked by the songs we sing.   Consequently, many of our songs are designed to generate worshipful feelings.  The original “Amazing Grace” was not written with an emotional climax, so Tomlin gives us a chorus with a building and rising melody that pulla our feelings up, along with our hands, to that place where we feel worshipful.

Our worship is becoming more sentimental; if we don't feel worshipful, we feel as if we have worshiped adequately.Click To Tweet

It is not wrong for the songs we sing to evoke worshipful feelings.  Nor is it wrong to add refrains to old songs to serve this purpose.  I like Todd Agnew’s “Grace Like Rain” which also adds such a chorus to Amazing Grace.

Our emotions ought to be involved in worship, but so should the rest of us.

The choruses that Tomlin adds to the best of our traditional hymns are designed to make us feel worshipful–more worshipful than we would feel if we sang the hymn in its original form.  Fine.  Unfortunately, these additions are often shallow and trite.  They can make us feel worshipful, but they do little for our mind or imagination.

Traditional hymns were not structured to provide an emotional climax, but they can be fixed with the addition of a sentimental refrain.Click To Tweet

Metaphors are Magic

Metaphors are amazing things.  They are comparisons.  Properly executed something magical can happen in the comparison.   “Amazing Grace” has many metaphors including:

  • Life is a path with hidden snares.
  • Heaven is home.
  • Our heavenly bodies will be like the sun.
  • Because of Grace, death is a mere veil.
  • God is our shield.

These metaphors engage our minds, our emotions, and our imaginations.  And they contribute to holistic worship.  Let’s look at one of these metaphors.

He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.

Here the poet metaphorically compares the Lord to a shield.  All kinds of meaning flow from this comparison.  Most clearly, the Lord protects us for our entire lives.  But a little deeper is the idea that life is a war, and that we are in desperate need of protection.  It’s interesting that the song doesn’t name the threat, only the shield; this song is about God and his Grace; our foe can be the subject of other songs, not this one.  This is the power of metaphor–it is layered and complex and they can surprise you even after you’ve sung them a hundred times.

Mixed Metaphors are Ludicrous

Mixed metaphors are not magical.

On the surface, a mixed metaphor looks like a metaphor, but it is a comparison that doesn’t work.

First, here are two wonderful metaphors that Jesus uses for himself:

“I am the good shepherd, . . . and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

“I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never grow hungry.”

These are both legit metaphors, but if we mix them we have

I am the bread of life, and I lay down my life for the sheep.

The comparison is nonsensical.

Unlike a metaphor, this silly comparison does not lead to deeper reflections on who Jesus is–it has no magic.  It just leaves us puzzled.

Jesus did not say, I am the bread of life, and I lay down my life for the sheep.Click To Tweet

Tomlin’s Mixed Metaphor

The chorus that Tomlin added to the most beloved of hymns climaxes on a mixed metaphor.

My chains are gone
I’ve been set free
My God, my Savior has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy reigns
Unending love, amazing grace

“Like a flood, his mercy reigns” is a mixed metaphor.   It is saying that God’s mercy is like a reigning flood.  But floods don’t reign.  This is like saying, “Like a flood, his mercy shines.”  Or soars, or melts, or skates.

Floods flow.  They overwhelm.  They cover and destroy.  They glut, stream, spate and surge.  For various reasons, none of these work very well as a replacement for reign–but, hey, it’s very is hard to write good poetry.

If we are going to add choruses to the old hymns, indeed if we are going to write worship songs at all, they should be the best we can make them, in every way possible.

Tomlin attempts to provide an emotional high in the singing of “Amazing Grace,” but this mixed metaphor makes this possible only if the worshipers don’t think about what they are singing.  It seems to me that we ought to sing songs that are like a symphony firing on all cylinders.

It seems to me that the songs we sing in worship should help to draw out whole being into the worship of our Gracious God: hearts, minds souls and imaginations.Click To Tweet

In my series The Poetry of Worship, offer ways we can improve the lyrics of the praise and worship songs we sing.  More importantly, I explain why we ought to.

 

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