CategoryThe Church

Order of Worship (6): Lord’s Supper

The dialogue of worship continues.

Ordinance or Sacrament?

As an ordinance, the Lord’s Supper is a memorial.  We remember Christ’s death on the cross.  As a sacrament, we commune with the risen Lord and receive from his hand the life he extends to us.  All churches who celebrate Communion do so “in remembrance of what Christ did for us on the cross.  The question is, is that all it is?  Is it just a memorial?

This is where I started thinking about God’s involvement in worship.  If it’s an ordinance, Communion is just a memorial, an act of human remembering.  In this scenario, human beings do all that there is to be done in Communion–they remember.  This seemed to me to be a contradiction because if you argue ordinance it seems silly to proclaim God’s active sovereignty from the pulpit.  How can God be active in our lives, when he’s inactive in Communion.

The essential difference between an ordinance and a sacrament is whether or not God is doing anything in the event.  You already know where I am going with this.  I have been arguing that God is active in our Sunday gatherings, so of course he’d be involved in the supper we’ve named The Lord’s Supper.

God is active in Communion and his first act is to invite us to the table.

Invitation to the Table

It is fitting that the first action belongs to God.  In the establishment of the First Communion, Jesus was very active.   He found the room, gathered his disciples, washed their feet and moderated the sacramental meal.  God does the same for us and his Invitation is an act of Grace.

Communion

God is active in The Holy Supper.  What does he do?  He speaks.  He says, “Take” and then he extends something to us.  What does he offer?  Well, we are not exactly sure, but if we read the symbols, it might have something to do with nourishment and sustenance.  Literal bread and wine are basic foods that nourish our physical bodies.  Spiritually we need sustenance as well.  His body and blood are nourishment for our spiritual life.   Perhaps he is conveying unity; all Christians eat and drink of the body and blood of Christ, and in so doing, we are united in him.  The bread and wine are symbolic, but this term is not understood by those steeped in Modern reasoning.  The communion elements aren’t “just symbols.”  (The allusions present in the sacrament itself ought to be enough to convince us of this.)

In some way we receive Christ and Grace by the Holy Spirit through faith.  What actually happens at the table is a mystery.  Modern secularism doesn’t like mysteries, and neither do modern Christians–we like to have clear explanations for spiritual things.  But we don’t get to have clarity here, and I don’t think we should want it.  A ritual engaging in a spiritual mystery will teach us that reality is comprised of mysteries that we can neither understand nor control.  We simply receive and accept by faith.  This might go a long way to counter the secularizing pressures of living in the Modern world.

In Communion, through the physical elements of bread and wine, Christ signifies our salvation through his sacrifice on the cross.  The really interesting thing here is that we are presented with a convergence of the spiritual and the physical reality.  Modernism wants to make distinct and separate categories, again, so do Modern Christians.  But the two are not as distinct as we naturally conceive it.  That Word became flesh, and yet never ceased to be God.

All of worship, all of life, all of reality is both physical and spiritual–sex is a spiritual communion, Kraft Dinner is morally reprehensible, coffee tastes terrible in Styrofoam, the first thing we do when we wake up in the morning is likely an act of worship, and we ought to fold our hands when we pray, and possible consider kneeling or lying prostrate.

Screwtape, senior tempter (demon if you will) in C. S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters tells us why.

At the very least, [humans] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls. It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.

Because we struggle with seeing the spiritual reality in our ordinary lives, we find it easy to dismiss it from Communion.

But this is the very reason why we should emphasize divine agency in the Lord’s Supper.  We need to be be trained out of the foolish view that the physical and the spiritual are separate.  We are trained by ritual.  By regularly entering into the mystery of the Eucharist, we again and again experience an incarnational reality.

Because we struggle with seeing the spiritual reality in our ordinary lives, we find it easy to dismiss it from Communion. But this is the very reason why we should emphasize divine agency in the Lord's Supper. Click To Tweet

A Sunday encounter with the mystery of the incarnation in Communion can perhaps be the vehicle by which we begin experience the nearness of the Holy Spirit on Monday.

The Order of Worship (1): Call to Worship

The Order of Worship (2): Confession

The Order of Worship (3): The Sermon

The Order of Worship (4): The Creed

The Order of Worship (5): Pastoral Prayer

The Order of Worship (7): The Benediction

 

The Liturgy of Worship (5): Pastoral Prayer and the Offering

Prayers of Intercession/Pastoral Prayer

In the dialogue of Sunday worship, the people continue to speak in this section. The Pastoral Prayer is a continuation of our response to God’s word.

This prayer is primarily intercessory.   In it, we petition God for the needs within the church, the universal church, and the world.

This was the killer for me as a kid.   It was “the long prayer,” and for some reason, I could not be fortified with a peppermint as I had been for the sermon.  It was interminable because there was a lot of need in our particular church, but this prayer’s scope was global.  It was long but learned a lot about reality from the Pastoral Prayer even when I was very young.

What I learned from the Pastoral Prayer
Seven things I learned from 'Pastoral Prayer.' Or 'the long prayer' as I called it. It was interminable, but its lessons have stuck with me. Click To Tweet
  • We can speak to God about all of our needs.
  • God is big.  My father was the pastor, and he was talking to God whom he addressed as “father.”  He talked to God like he was big.  When I was a kid, my father was big too–so to hear my father speak to God this way was revealing.  He prayed like God could really do something for the missionaries in Africa or the victims of flooding in China.  All my father prayers started, and still do, with praising God for who he is.
  • God is Father.  My father talked to God with familiarity and sincerity as well as respect.  This paradox was not lost on me as a young child.  I learned that God is big, but he is also good.  A heavenly father.
  • God cares.  He cares about this person who had this ailment, and that family who has lost someone.  He cares about the people in the world who didn’t have clean water or food.  He cares about the missionaries who are bringing good news.
  • I learned that he wasn’t just the God of people in my church, and not just the God of Christians, but of everybody.  We prayed for our town and about the leaders of the country, and for the leaders of other countries.  That they would be wise and that they would be obedient.
  • I also learned that God could do something about these things we were praying about.  My father prayed with expectation.  But I also learned that the prayer wasn’t some kind of a magic trick.  The prayer wasn’t valuable for its utility–there was something else going on.  That prayer was, in large part, for the sake of the one who prays.
  • At some point, I figured out that I could send my own small requests to God during the Pastoral Prayer.  My father had opened the conduit, as it were, so I figured I could still fire up some requests alongside his.

There are more things that I learned, but the important thing is that I learned them because they were repeated every week.  They have stuck with me for many decades now, because of the repetition.

My current church always prayers for another local church, and a missionary.  I love this ritual it shapes us.  we come to know, among other things, that the Body of Christ involves other congregations and denominations in this town.  These other churches are not in competition with us but are all trying to achieve the same thing–the learning and spreading of the Good News.

Offertory Prayer and the Offering

We continue in our response to the Word with the offering.

The offertory prayer is a regular reminder that God has blessed us richly.  All that we have comes from him.  He gives the gifts through which we love our neighbours.

Giving is both a sacred duty and a “joy.”

These terms seem contradictory, but they are not–when you fully understand that God has given you everything, and everything you have belongs to God, giving is quite easy.  When you think that what is your’s is your’s, cheerful giving is impossible.

Just as your parents always gave you a nickel to drop into the collection plate, the weekly giving, and the prayer that goes along with it, is a training exercise that is meant to train us into joy. Click To Tweet

Just as your parents always gave you a nickel to drop into the collection plate, the weekly giving, and the prayer that goes along with it, is a training exercise that is meant to train us into joy.  The joy that comes from understanding that all we have belongs to God and are to be used for his purposes.

Other posts in this series:

The Order of Worship (1): The Call to Worship and Greeting

The Order of Worship (2): Confession

The Order of Worship (3): The Sermon

The Order of Worship (4): The Creed

The Order of Worship (6):

The Order of Worship (7):

 

Order of Worship (4) The Creed

pixagod / Pixabay

The dialogue continues.  God contributed most to the conversation in the Proclamation section of the liturgy.  In this section, we do most of the talking as we respond to the Word and the Grace we received from our Father’s hand.

Song or Hymn of Response

The song we sing after the sermon is not just a song.  At least it shouldn’t be.  It should be a song that articulates musically and poetically, the appropriate response to God’s Word and Grace.  Which song we sing depends on the sermon, for the service is a unified whole.

In some churches, a great deal of thought goes into the choice of this song.  The content of the lyrics is a significant determiner.  Some churches just sing one of the ten songs that we’ve been singing for the last few months.  What the song says doesn’t matter as much as the feelings the song generates.

The concern here is the dialogue of worship.  God says something, presumably significant–let’s say today’s sermon was about “Gracious Giving”–and our response is, “Glorious Day.”  It’s nice to have conversations each Christmas with dear Aunt Martha, they are beautiful and relational, but because of their lack of coherence, they don’t really go anywhere.  In this analogy, we are dear Aunt Martha.

The Apostles’ Creed

Although many proclaim it, there is no such thing as a “No Creed But Christ” church.

Either you affirm one of the traditional creeds, or you will affirm another more organic creed that rises up out of your context and your interpretation of the Bible within it.  The problem here is that culture tends to influence the formation of this creed.  Either way, you will be a “creedal” church.  And your creed will be reinforced with ritual.

I suggest that we might as well adopt the traditional creeds of the Christian tradition.  The Apostle’s Creed is the one that reviews the foundational doctrines of orthodox Christianity.

The Apostle’s Creed affirms

  • the Trinity,
  • the historical facts of the gospel,
  • the person and work of the Holy Spirit,
  • the existence of a “holy” universal church,
  • the communion of saints,
  • the forgiveness of sins,
  • the resurrection,
  • and life everlasting.

This creed is not infallible, but it is based on the Bible within a long tradition.  It is old, and in this, there is some merit.  New is not necessarily improved.

Even with the regular recitation of a traditional creed, we are still in danger of ritualizing other non-biblical cultural beliefs.  But without this practice, what is to prevent the church from sliding away from the basic tenets of Christianity without even being aware of having done so?

In the absence of a Creed (or despite one), here are 12 organic creedal statements that some churches may have passively adopted. Click To Tweet

Here’s a partial list of organic creedal statements that rise out of context and a particular interpretation of the Bible.

  1. “New means improved.”
  2. “We experience the Holy Spirit in worship through our feelings.”
  3. “The most important aspect of the Bible is its inerrancy.”
  4. “It is better to be married than to remain single.”
  5. “There are spiritual things and then there are sacred things.”
  6. Sin is doing bad things.”
  7. The worst sins are sexual.”
  8. Christian living is about striving.”
  9. “All people are created equal” 
  10. The worshiper’s experience is important in the Sunday service”
  11. “Worship is singing and singing is worship.”
  12. “Efficiency and practicality are Christian virtues.”

Would you add anything to this list? The comment section awaits.

If you don’t recite a creed, take a long hard look at the implicit creeds that have been ritualized in your church.   This is a good practice for every church, even those who regularly recite a traditional creed.

Either you affirm one of the traditional creeds, or you will affirm another more organic creed that rises up out of your context and your interpretation of the Bible within it. Either way, you will be a 'creedal' church.Click To Tweet

Other posts in this series:

The Order of Worship (1): The Call to Worship and Greeting

The Order of Worship (2): Confession

The Order of Worship (3): The Sermon

The Order of Worship (5): Pastoral Prayer

The Order of Worship (6):

The Order of Worship (7):

Order of Worship (3): Proclamation

If the liturgy is a dialogue between God and his people, in the Proclamation section God does most of the talking.

God speaks to us primarily through his word–the Bible.  The sermon is an encounter with, not just the Bible, but God as revealed in its pages. What we find in the Bible is a collection of ancient texts that were written for us, but not to us.  The Bible is a story.  That’s not all it is, but it helps us to understand how to approach it.  It is not our story, but it is the story in which we live, not just Christians, but all of humanity.  It is a story centered on Jesus Christ–the Word as spoken of by John in the first verses of his gospel.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Prayer for Illumination

Rituals are not empty, they are full in the sense that they train us on the deepest level.  What sort of training is provided by the weekly repetition of the prayer of illumination?  It trains us how to approach the Bible.  This prayer is an admission that we need God’s help, to understand what we find in scripture, an admission that we can’t rely on our own reason and knowledge to understand.  This is an acknowledgment that the Bible is a book that must be read with spiritual assistance–the Holy Spirit.

This prayer focuses our attention beyond ourselves as readers, indeed, beyond the text to our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Word of God.  In this prayer, we anticipate the working of his Grace through our encounter with the text.  In a real sense, then, we are preparing for a supernatural event.

The Sunday Prayer of Illumination will change how we approach daily devotions on Monday, for it is a reminder that the words of the Bible are a site of miraculous encounters.

The Sermon

The sermon is, or ought to be, about the Bible.

What is the Bible?

What the Bible isn’t is an encyclopedia, or an instruction manual for life, or a rule book.   It’s hard to resist looking at the Bible in these ways because our cultural default is set to view everything as an object that might have a use.

In a recent Tweet, Tim Keller said, “It is impossible to understand a culture without discerning its idols.”  This applies to our culture as well.  And one of our idols is Reason.  Rationalism is the idea that the best, or even only, way to know things is through human reason.  Our confidence in human reason has taken some blows in the last century, but we still stubbornly hold onto our faith in it.   It is so powerful that it has effected how we read and understand the Bible.

As Christians, we believe that the Bible is true.  As Westerners, we believe that truth is an object of human Reason.  The Bible, then, becomes nothing more than an object that we study and use as rational subjects. We look for “applications,” instead of implications.   We get too wound up about biblical inerrancy.  But truth is much bigger than fact or useful information.  The Bible becomes something more like an encyclopedia than a story, or a poem, or a painting.   As Western Christians we must resist this limited notion of Truth.

So what is the Bible?

Rather than give a long rational treatise on what the Bible is, let me do what the Bible does and offer a picture of what a sermon, rooted in the Word, can be.

The image is found in Ezekiel:

37 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lordsays to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army

We are dry and lifeless.  The Word of God, preached by inspired human authors, brings life.  God could himself speak directly to the bones, but he chooses an intermediary–Ezekiel.  He uses the preacher before us.

This image presents the Word, not as an object that we approach as rational subjects, but as active agent.  We are the passive pile of dry bones–we are the object; the Holy Spirit is the subject.  He brings life though the hearing of the Word.  God is active in the sermon.

Do we listen to the sermon to learn about life or to receive it? The former is a happy by-product. The sermon is not simply the knowledgeable reflections of a pastor. The sermon is an act of Grace, and we receive the life that flows from it.Click To Tweet

Other posts in this series:

The Order of Worship (1): The Call to Worship and Greeting

The Order of Worship (2): Confession

The Order of Worship (4): The Creed

The Order of Worship (5): Pastoral Prayer

The Order of Worship (6):

The Order of Worship (7):

 

Order of Worship (2): Confession

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In some churches, there is only an occasional song of confession, but somebody usually includes a confessional element in a prayer at some point, but confession isn’t a very big part of what I call modern, non-liturgical church services.

Confession is important.  It is about sin, and sin is a big thing in Christianity.  We all sin more or less continuously, so we need to repent again and again.  And when we do so honestly and regularly, we get a much better picture of who we are.  And how much we need forgiveness.

In the traditional liturgies of most denominations, we practiced confession weekly, and in this repetition, garnered long term beneficial effects.  These benefits are derived from turning our love toward God, through ritual.  Rituals have the power to shape our identities, and if we are not deliberate, cultural liturgies will shape them instead.

The Law

The liturgical worship service is structured around a dialogue between God and his people.  God calls us and Greets us, we respond with praise.  Then God speaks through his word; we are reminded of God’s expectations for us in the reading of the Law.  This is often the Ten Commandments, but there are many suitable passages, like Micah 6:8.  The point here is that we need to be reminded that God has expectations, and we have failed to live up to them.  We are disobedient and rebellious.

Thus, we need to repent.

Call to Confession

We are called to confession.  We have to be called because we don’t really want to do it.  True confession is hard because we have to look at who we really are.   An honest look at oneself does not happen easily.  We might need some practice–maybe even a thousand cracks at it.  But if you deliberately practice confession in church every week, it will begin to be a daily rhythm, and you’ll be good at it in less than 20 years.

The call to confession reminds us that what’s wrong with the world is not out there somewhere but within me.  I need a reminder, especially if I look at social media occasionally.  The sins of others are so obvious on Twitter.  The call to confession repeated weekly can begin to remind me that I am the problem with the world.

Until we realize that our biggest problem in life is not out there, but in us, we haven’t really come to a Christian understanding of reality.  The repetition of ritual helps us to accept this reality in ways far deeper than intellectual consent.  This is the power of ritual.

Prayer of Confession

If confession is just a mention in a prayer by the worship leader, then I might quickly confess the first sin that comes to mind.  I can usually remember one.  But, this is inadequate.  I have committed a lot more sins than this one.  Then there are the sins of omission.  Then there are the sins that I would have committed in different circumstances.  All of these damn me.

Our appreciation of God's Grace is proportional to the degree we understand our need for it. Click To Tweet

Our appreciation of God’s Grace in Redemption is proportional to the degree we understand our need for it.  The only way for us to understand our need for God’s salvation is to meditate on our sin, and then confess it.

This past summer I was in England and I worshiped in Anglican churches.  Praying in unison each week a prayer of penitence from the Book of Common Prayer is a moving experience when you attend to the words.  Here’s an example:

Most merciful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we confess that we have sinned in thought, word and deed.

We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be; that we may do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you, our God.

Amen.

Ritual Confession

“But if you confess every week it is no longer moving, or special.”

We overemphasize experience in our culture–in church, we have a danger of emphasizing religious experience.  Occasional experiences don’t shape us as regular ones do.  The function of the liturgy is not to be new and special, but to shape us into a particular people.  To conform us to reality, if you will.

It’s almost a given that we must avoid “empty ritual.”  But what we must realize is that there is no such thing.  Rituals are full.  We give a child a quarter to drop into the collection plate every week.  We insist a child say the words, “I’m sorry,” even when they clearly don’t mean it.  These are important things to do, for they shape the identity of the child.  The shaping isn’t intellectual–in the head–nor is it a changing of the heart.  In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith says that routines and rituals affect us in our gut or bones.

We are shaped into a certain kind of people by a liturgy of confession.

The ritual reminds us of two things--it reminds me that I am no worse than anyone else, and it reminds me that I am no better.Click To Tweet

Then, in the dialogue of worship, God speaks again.

Assurance of Pardon

As difficult as confession is, before we even start the confession, we know what’s coming.  Amazing Grace.  The assurance of pardon.

Human sinfulness is a big deal in Christianity, but God’s pardon and adoption into his family is the other half of the story.  Both should, then, be a significant part of our weekly gathering.

God’s pardon is really good news.  In the Old Testament, regular blood sacrifice established a pattern of purification.  Sacrifice was God’s way of removing human uncleanness so that people could be restored to fellowship with God.  The sacrifices reinforce the idea that death is the penalty for sin. But it’s clearly an act of Grace that God even allows for a substitute.  Old Testament animals functioned as a substitute death.  The inadequacy of these sacrifices is evidenced by the need for repeated sacrifice.

The death of God himself on our behalf is a once and for all sacrifice for our sake. We do nothing to earn it.  It is a free gift.  We do nothing but open our hands and receive it.

At this point in the liturgy, God gives pardon.  And we receive.  Repeated every week we become persons and a people of Grace.

In the prayer of confession, we come to realize and admit that we are in a hard place.  We cannot save ourselves.  We are unworthy to be anywhere near a holy God.  When we get honest about our sin, we come to an understanding of how much I need Jesus, and then we experience his Grace.

Response of Thanksgiving

We confess, God pardons, and then we express gratitude.

This is to be the pattern of the Christian life.  Like inhaling and exhaling.

But in order for this to become the pattern, it needs to be reinforced.

If we don’t practice it weekly, we won’t ever get the hang of it.  We will spend a lifetime not knowing ourselves, and worse yet, not knowing the extent of God’s Grace.

Occasional confession is a liturgy of omission.  A church that occasionally confesses is not much better than one that never confesses.  The repetition is where the shaping occurs.  The church that has a significant confession element every week will more effectively disciple the people into experiencing a pattern of confession and forgiveness that will alter their lives. The Sunday confession models the prayers we can offer on Monday and beyond.

If your church does not practice regular Confession and Assurance, is it time to consider including it in our weekly worship services?  If it does, allow the power of ritual to turn out love towards God.

Other posts in this series:

The Order of Worship (1): Call to Worship and Greeting

The Order of Worship (3): The Proclamation

The Order of Worship (4): The Creed

The Order of Worship (5): Pastoral Prayer

The Order of Worship (6):

The Order of Worship (7):

The Order of Worship (1): The Call to Worship and Greeting

pixagod / Pixabay

When I was a kid, Sunday church services were interminable.  I thought that it might be a lot easier to endure if I had some idea as to where we were in the service.  So I asked my dad, the pastor, if he could write out the service elements, in order, onto a piece of paper so that I could track along.  I reasoned that the long bits, like the congregational prayer and sermon, might be easier to suffer if I knew where we were in relation to the end.

Being the child of the pastor, I thought I had privileged access to this information. He chuckled and showed me last week’s bulletin.  There it was–The Order of Worship–a list of all the elements in the worship service.  It had been there all along, for just anyone to follow.  So every Sunday, I followed along and found that the church became less arduous when I knew where we were.

I discovered something else–every service followed the same pattern.  The order of worship wasn’t this week’s order.  It was every week’s order.  Eventually, I didn’t need to look at the bulletin.  I always knew where we were and the pattern became a comfort.

The Pattern of Worship

For a long, long time, all Christian church services were liturgical.  They followed a regular and predictable pattern.  Even after the huge disruption of the Reformation, services were still governed by a liturgy regardless of denomination.

I am only speaking from my own experience, but I began noticing some congregations were abandoning formal liturgies in the late 80s.  I started seeing church signs announcing “Liturgical Services” at a different time from the “Regular Service.” Now we have lots of these modern, non-liturgical churches.

These have a very simple order of worship.  If they did publish one, it would look something like this.

Songs

Sermon

Songs

I’m being a little facetious because there are a few prayers and an offering, but these events have been shortened and are now rather streamline.  It should be noted that the songs will sometimes connect to elements of the old liturgy they’ve supplanted–songs of praise certainly, sometimes confession or Thanksgiving or even a re-worked apostles’ creed–but when we rely on songs to carry these liturgical elements, they are no longer weekly occurrences and this is significant.

I suppose we’ve simplified things so as to avoid confusing visitors to our Sunday service.  After all, many of our neighbors are no longer familiar with church.  This may be reason enough to keep the Order of Worship simple.

But perhaps we’ve lost something.

An Active God

What does God do during the church service?

In the modern, non-liturgical churches it is easy to get the idea that God doesn’t do very much.  At least little is implied about his actions.  During the songs, he might be sitting there listening and smiling.  And what does God do during the sermon?  He is of course speaking, but do we frame the sermon in such a way as to leave the congregants no doubt that it is not just the preacher who is speaking?  Are the faithful are allowed to think God is listening indifferently–after all, he knows it all already.  How many people would say that His attention is drawn to another church somewhere else in the world that happens to be singing at the time because God likes the singing part the best?

In modern, non-liturgical churches, it’s easy to think that the people are the main or only actors in the Sunday service.   We arrive, we sing, we pray, we listen, we eat and drink and then we leave.  (There is another scenario, which is a concern for worship leaders, were only the worship band is active, and the rest passively consume, but this is a topic for another day.)

God merely receives human worship.

Passivity is not a characteristic of God as presented in the Bible.  The passivity we attribute to him is a product of secularization.  In the West, we have created artificial categories between physical things and spiritual things and then we marginalize the spiritual things.  The Western church is not immune to secularism.  Lot’s of people still believe that God is there, but they aren’t really sure what he does.   It seems like he’s a long way off, no doubt hearing our prayers, but is he really acting on them?  Christians influenced by Modernism experience a narrowing and weakening the presence and power of transcendent things in the immanent frame.

By stepping away from traditional liturgies, we’ve not eliminated liturgies, we’ve just adopted new ones.  If we haven’t been deliberate, we’ve simply replaced tratitional liturgies with secular ones.  Thus promoting and perpetuating secular ideas through corporate worship.

Some churches are promoting secular ideas through corporate worship because they've replaced traditional liturgies with secular ones. In secularized Christian worship, God is passive. Agency lies primarily with people.Click To Tweet

Habits and Rituals

Habits, rituals, and liturgies are important.  They shape how we think and they shape who we are.  We can ritualize God’s passivity and the weekly repetition will eventually shape how we think, and even who we are.  God’s passivity won’t just stay in church, we will eventually come to think of God as passive in our lives and in the world as well.

The converse is also true.  If we shape our worship service around God’s active interaction with his people, this idea will leak into Monday and beyond.

Traditional liturgies shape worship as an active dialogue between God and his people–(all his people, not just the ones with instruments.)

The Call to Worship and God’s Greeting

The first words the worshipers hear in the service are important.   At one service, the first words I heard were,

“I want to thank you all for coming to church this morning.”

Seriously?

Who greets us?  This greeting is all about the actions of the worshipers.   We have decided to come to church this morning.  Apparently with some inconvenience, for we have earned gratitude from somewhere.  Who owes us this gratitude?  The worship leader?  God?  Does God owe us something because we chose to come to church instead of watching the first half of the football game?

The Call to Worship suggests that someone is calling.  It is God himself who draws us to church.  He gets the first word.  We are not there because we chose to be there; we are not there because our parents made us come; we are not there because we are trying to impress that cute girl with our religious zeal; we are not there because this is what we always do on Sundays.  We are there because God has drawn us there.

Our bodies are there, but where are our hearts and minds?  The call to worship marks a turning toward worship, toward the throne of heaven, toward God.  The preceding week was full of joys and challenges involving relationships, obligations, worries, and diversions.  In the call to worship we are turned from ourselves, toward God.

And The Greeting is his.

What kind of people do we become if we are regularly thanked for deciding to come to church?  What kind of people do we become if we repeat, week after week, God’s active calling to corporate worship?

Acts of Praise

Next comes an act of praise.  Our action follows God’s action.

Importantly, this act of praise is not the result of the worship leader asking us to stand and sing nor is it caused by the first cords of music.  Praise is the result of our attention being directed toward God.

Praise is not the result of the worship leader asking us to stand and sing. Praise is the result of our attention being directed toward God.Click To Tweet

This may not be automatic for everyone.  But it’s what the liturgy teaches through repetition.  With ritual repetition, this will eventually come to be our natural response.

To make the Sunday worship service just a bunch of human activity, well, that’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit without Roger Rabbit.  Our Sunday worship needs to show God’s activity because he is active.  If we can’t see what he does in Church, how can we see him as active in our lives, let alone the world?

God doesn’t just sit up in heaven waiting for Sunday when some people will sing songs at him.  A weekly reminder that God calls us to worship will begin to change how we view ourselves, the world and the God who sustains it all.

Other posts in this series:

The Order of Worship (2): Confession

The Order of Worship (3): The Sermon

The Order of Worship (4): The Creed

The Order of Worship (5): Pastoral Prayer

The Order of Worship (6):

The Order of Worship (7):

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

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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)

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

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)

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

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)

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