Tag: The Poetry of Worship

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 that makes it hard to understand our relationship with him.   It’s all an enigma wrapped in, well, you know . . .  God and his ways are way beyond literal language to even begin to explain anything about these.  So how in the world are we supposed to write songs about it all?

The same way that the biblical authors help communicate the mysteries of the God we worship. They use poetry.  It’s what you need to use when you are trying to say something that cannot be said. And a key tool that poets use in their songs is  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.  A lot of things cannot be expressed or understood directly or simply.  In order to express what is inexpressible, and explore the unknowable, we make comparisons to something else.

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 explanations 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 thing you are comparing it to (B).  In the metaphor, “The wind howled,” the wind (A) is compared to a wolf (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.

Importantly, the B part of the comparison is very important–if you say the wind howled, you are communicating a feeling that there is something sinister about it.  If the wind is whispering, it’s a lot less lonely.

Mixed Metaphors

When you write a song, you want to be careful with metaphors.  You don’t want to accidentally write (or select) a song for worship with a mixed metaphor.  These are embarassing, because there are still people out there who know one when they see one.  So what is a mixed metaphor?

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.  Bread doesn’t lay down its life for anything, let alone sheep.

Unlike a metaphor, this silly comparison does not lead to deeper reflections on who Jesus is, it just leaves us puzzled, or shaking our heads.

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.  Both of these are mixed metaphors.

Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace: My Chains Are Gone” also suffers from a problem with a 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, but if we are going to write poetry to be used for the glory of God, it ought to be good.  And mixed metaphors are not good.  They are bad.

The Magic of Metaphor

When metaphors are done correctly, they can be magic.  Let’s start by looking at a poem written by a pro.  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 this is personification.  There is more personification in the “sombre” clouds.  All these metaphors combine to suggest turmoil within the speaker and a sense of some sort 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–loneliness mixed with existential fear.  Even if we’ve never before experienced this feeling ourselves, we know just a little about what it feels like because we’ve read the poem.  Frost has described an indescribable feeling to us through metaphor.   That’s the power of metaphor.  Can you imagine how much more profound our singing-worship would be if we used metaphor in this way?

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 to 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 or divorce.  What stirs up these waves is a lack of trust.  The forces behind these turbulent waters are wrestling, doubts, questions, failures, and God’s silence–a lack of trust in God.  The metaphor invites us to look beyond our troubles to hat which 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; the lighthouse will guide us “safe to shore.”  Christ and his promises are 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: Unity and Focus (4)

Photo by Rachel Lynette French on Unsplash

Purpose

A praise and worship song must 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 central purpose.

All our songs are generally about God and the Gospel as it intersects 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.  Music and instrumentation will serve the purpose and most songwriters have a good handle on this because they are musicians.  But every aspect of the lyrics will serve this purpose as well.  We’ve already discussed diction here and here; diction serves the central purpose.  But there’s more.   Rhyme, sound, imagery, figures of speech,  rhythm, and meter, and everything else that constitutes the song, will contribute to this central purpose, or at least not detract from it.

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 in a thousand different directions.  You might think about the ocean, or a glass of ice water, or the rain running down the road, or about that time the dishwasher hose burst.  These are all interesting, but because they are undirected, your thoughts flit from one to the other and never settle anywhere.

Now imagine a small stream in a misty forest, flowing through, and over, and around grey rocks and pebbles.  Some are covered with dewy moss and strewn with yellow and red leaves.  With this specific manifestation of water, I have a directed an 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.

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. Click To Tweet

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 we’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 within and outside of me.  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 more holistic worship–one where the mind and imagination have a particular idea, story, feeling, object on which to meditate or experience.

To review last week’s lesson: this song also has one word that doesn’t quite work.  Did you see it?

“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 specific 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 and amateurish.

I read a lot of artless writing.

I do it professionally.  The amateur writer doesn’t know that the monosyllabic and ordinary word, “shows,” is sometimes the best word, as in this quote from the last lines of Hamlet:

                                                   such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.

In this case, as in almost every case, “shows” is always better than “exhibits,” often better than “displays,” and usually better than “reveals.”  When I encounter the word “discloses,” I know that someone has been abusing their thesaurus.   It all depends, of course, upon the poem, and the line within the poem, but these words, usually, don’t quite make it.  Amateur 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 Father’s Love”), than it is in the line, “He is the ransom for my life” (“King of my Heat”)?

How do I know that one way of saying something is a lot better than another way of saying something?  I don’t know, 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, Robert Frost, the Brontes, Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy, Christina Rossetti, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Percy Bysshe Shelly, John 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, or even the whole song. 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, these songs 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 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.

In this poem, the speaker is walking past a field on a winter evening.  But the speaker is lonely.  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–doesn’t it hint at a sense of alarm, even panic?  The rest of the first stanza partially allays this impression with a peaceful description of the snow-covered field.  But we can’t shake the disturbing effect of the first line, 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. Then, another group of words reinforces the idea of absence:  “absent-spirited,” “blanker,” “no expression,” “empty,” “desert.”   It is clear, the speaker doesn’t just lack friends.  We are talking about existential loneliness.

The word “scare” is an intriguing word near the end of this poem.  It lacks the sophistication of the other words–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 in bringing the reader into an imaginative experience, even while they sit in the wingback chair before the fire.

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 on the list.  And this contained lyrics from an old hymn. I did not expect to find anything close to the density of effective word choice that we find in Robert Frost’s poem above, but it is clear that selecting words for effect is not a priority for praise-and-worship songwriters.

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 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 likely increase with the repetition, as will the volume of the singing as these meanings enter the imagination.

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 by a bit of bad theology.  Yesterday, I chuckled because a line was just weird.  Other times, it’s because I notice the words don’t really mean anything or are cliche.  And then there’s the mediocre, or even bad, poetry.

It is clear from their enthusiasm that the worship leaders and many of the worshippers either don’t notice or don’t care.  They seem to be able to look past the lyrics, to the recipient of our praise.  I am not always able to.

Does the whole worship song thing need to change because of me?  No, I don’t think so.

Might the whole worship thing be improved in such a way that the experience of the participants is enhanced in a way that they never before imagined?  I think, yes.

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 led into 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 of the Lord, 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 take this gift seriously so as to honour the Giver.
  3. My third argument is more complex, and it is contained in the series of posts that follow.  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 all offerings of a sincere, but fallen people.   God needs neither our sheep nor our songs.  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 an attempt to edify 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 corporate worship 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.  If Malcolm Gladwell is to be believed, the typical worship leader took at least 10,000 hours to develop their skill at playing the piano or guitar.  To write the lyrics of that song will require another 10,000 hours to develop the poet’s skill.

It is sadly obvious that many would-be praise-and-worship songwriters are uploading songs to YouTube before having made the time investment in the poetry of worship.

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.  These posts and plus the 10,000 hours of practice might one day lead to a lyrically decent worship song.

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)

Now those are some good lyrics . . .

I’m a big fan of Josh Garrels and his latest album, Home, was just released.

He’s giving it away! Click here to download. Don’t forget to give a tip.

I often lament that the lyrics of so many of the songs Christians sing are artless.

Not so with Josh Garrels.

Here are a few fragments of Josh’s lyrics from this new album.  This artful poetry combined with his incredible talent as a musician (and his unique voice) make Josh Garrels my favourite singer songwriter, Christian or otherwise.

From “Born Again”:

Instincts are guiding me

Like a beast to some blood

And I can’t get enough

From “Born Again”

Running scared in between what I hate

And what I need

Savior and enemy are both trying

To take my soul

From “Colors”

So let all the creatures sing

Praises over everything

Colors are meant to bring

Glory to the light

From “A Long Way”

There’s a time in our lives

To return, sacrifice

Wild grass has grown high

On the path between our lives

From “The Arrow”

How on earth did it all go down like this? I’ve got no words to make sense of it My shield, my fight for righteousness Could not protect me from myself

From “At the Table”

‘Cause I lost some nameless things

My innocence flew away from me

She had to hide her face from my desire

To embrace forbidden fire

But at night I dream

She’s singing over me

Oh, oh, my child

From “Benediction”

As the days unfold

Hold your breath to see

Life is a mystery

And joy, it is severe

When the way is rough and steep

But love will make your days complete

Praise Songs and Higher Times

Praise 1

Why Men have Stopped Singing in Church

In a recent post, David Murrow explains “[w]hy men have stopped singing in church.”  He says that there are some positives in the switch from hymnal to the projection of lyrics onto a screen in front of the sanctuary, but he concludes that “the negatives are huge.”

One of these negatives is that “[s]ongs get switched out so frequently that it’s impossible to learn them. People can’t sing songs they’ve never heard. And with no musical notes to follow, how is a person supposed to pick up the tune?”

[W]e went from 250 songs everyone knows to 250,000+ songs nobody knows (Murrow).

 I experienced some frustration this past Easter for this very reason.  The songs that were chosen for the Easter service were all appropriate thematically, but almost all were new to me.  I’m pretty quick to catch onto songs, so it wasn’t really an issue of not being able to sing them.   I am obviously not the same as the men who don’t sing in the Murrow post.  But there was something else that I realized that we’ve lost since hymnals have become obsolete.

 And it has to do with the way we view time.

Higher Time

 In our culture, we understand time to be exclusively chronological.  So much so that many who are reading this are saying, “Well, what the heck else would time be?”  Chronological time, or “secular” time, is the idea that one thing happens after another.  There is no meaning behind this ordering of events–it is ordinary time.

 Higher time (kairos) is infused with meaning.  It doesn’t replace ordinary time but complements it.

Higher times “gather and re-order secular time” (Taylor 55).  If you think of chronological time as a long rope, higher time takes that rope and ties it in a knot so places on the rope that are usually further apart, are now touching.  These “kairotic knots” (54) meaningfully reorder time.

 So, your birthday 2013 is closer in kairos time to your birthday in 2012, than it is to the other days that lie between them.   This is because your birthdays all share the same meaning and the ordering of kairos time is one of meaning.

 In the secular world, this is the only sort of time there is and I think we lose something if we view time as a mere sequence and neglect this other way of experiencing higher time.

Praise and Worship Singing and Higher Times

 What does this have to do with praise and worship songs?  I think the songs we sing in church can go a long way in helping us to experience higher time.

 Back when we sang from a hymnal, we’d sing the same songs every Easter  In this way, the songs helped to connect all this Easter with every Easter I was alive for.  But all these Easters were connected to every Easter all the way back to the first when Jesus asked Mary Magdalene, ” Who were you seeking?.”

 The principle is the same with Christmas. We also sang the same songs at every funeral, and after the offerings were collected.  The songs linked these events to each other in higher time.

 The modern, secular view of reality is an impoverished view.   This view of reality ought to be countered at every point if people are going to experience a life of fullness available in Christ.  Certainly, the songs that we sing can help us to experience time as meaningful, but all aspects of communal worship can be looked at.

Perhaps a little more attention given to the traditional church calendar is worth a look.

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.

 

 

Praise Songs: Meaningful Metaphors

Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

Katheryn Scott’s “At the Foot of the Cross” contains these words:

Trade these ashes in for beauty

And wear forgiveness like a crown

Coming to kiss the feet of mercy

I lay every burden down

At the foot of the cross

I’ve sung this song quite a few times and I have never sung it in the same way twice.  That’s a good thing; we won’t always experience good poetry, good art of any kind, the same way.  We will, however, experience bad poetry the same way every time.

I’ve read Hamlet many times and it still surprises me.  The same can be said for the songs of Josh Garrels and the book of Genesis.  The best church songs will have the same quality.  The presence and power of the figurative language contribute to the effectiveness of a song to bring some listeners into worship.

“At the Foot of the Cross”

 One of the first times I sang “At the Foot of the Cross” I was caught by the idea of trading “ashes in for beauty.”

The next time I noticed that this phrase was preceded by the word “these.”  This demonstrative pronoun puts the ashes  I’m singing about right here–I walked into church covered in them.  In Biblical language, to wear ashes, or “sackcloth and ashes,” is to demonstrate grief or repentance; importantly, it is an act of humility.   This song, if sung honestly is a song of confession where the worshiper acknowledges his or her sin and the need for forgiveness.

By grace, these ashes are exchanged for beauty the song reminds us, for we are transformed to royalty as a crown is placed upon our heads.  We aren’t just forgiven but received as children of the King.  This transformation occurs, not by our merit, but by the death of Jesus on the cross.Praise 1

 We sang this song in church again a few weeks ago.  I was caught by the line “Coming to kiss the feet of mercy.”  In Luke 7:38, there was a woman who had “lived a sinful life”–Luke doesn’t say she was a prostitute, but this is certainly likely.  When I sing this line, I am placed in the position of a prostitute.  This is the point and the power of the line.  I cannot judge others when I remember that my sin is no less than that of the woman in Luke.  But my guilt, as well as the woman’s, is, nonetheless, erased by Jesus death on the cross.  She wept and wet his feet with tears and wiped them with her hair.  This is the response that this line can evoke in those who sing it–overwhelming gratitude.

This is only one verse: there are two more that are just as powerful.

Not all the songs that we sing in church use metaphors like this–nor need they.  Metaphor and allusion are but two tools that the poet might use.  And there are many tools.  However, when figurative language is used in a song, it should work to achieve the purpose of the song–in this case, lead those who sing it into confession–an awareness of one’s guilt and gratitude in complete forgiveness.

This is an example of how figurative language (and allusion) can work powerfully in a song.

But then there are those praise and worship songs where the figures of speech get in the way of, well, praise and worship.

Bad Metaphors

Here are some of the metaphor issues that completely distract me from engaging with the song:

  • one dimensional comparisons just lie there with no meaning to explore in the comparison
  • cliché–these metaphors are so overused they’ve become meaningless
  • barrage–when figures are so numerous that there is no opportunity to receive them
  • metaphor mosaic–when figures are so completely unrelated that I don’t know if we are talking about clothing, branches,  wind, or wineskins
  • And then there are the dreaded mixed metaphors

For more of the tools to write (and select) Praise and Worship songs for corporate worship, please check out The Poetry of Worship.

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