Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Songs We Sing

My kids regularly remind me that I'm a parent, and that I am carefully watched to see if I practice what I preach. The other day I used the word "hate" in a sentence. I think it was something like, "I hate it when I forget to flip the eggs, and they burn." 

Lucy quickly reminded me that, "No, Daddy. We don't say 'hate.'" 

My 3-year-old had a fair point (for a 3-year-old), and so I thanked her for correcting me. It was a petty thing to hate, anyway. There is a place for hate, but it shouldn't be directed at eggs. And really, I don't hate it when that happens, so it was the wrong word to use. Of course, I did not explain all of this for her at the time. For now, I'm glad that she's making an effort to remove "hate" from her lexicon. That's a good thing.

Words are important. The right words in the right order can communicate profound truth, or make difficult concepts easy to understand. Proverbs contains some great verses on the power of the tongue, the power of words:

  • Gentle words carry great power (25:15)
  • Words can bring life or death (18:21)
  • Words can bring healing or harm (15:4)

Words also shape a person. The reason we don't want our 3-year-old using the word "hate" is because we want her to learn to love others, to see the good in situations. We're teaching her through the language that we allow in our home that hate is not a good thing.

The other night I had a conversation with a group of people over the hymn "In The Garden." I apparently came across like I had a vendetta against the classic hymn (which I could probably sing by heart). What I said was that the line, "The joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known," is theologically weak and potentially misleading. In a culture that already promotes and celebrates the individual, I think this line suggests a privatized faith and dismisses any consideration of the faith of others. I have seen amazing transformations happen when people live faith in community, and I've seen disastrous and tragic descents when people separate themselves from a faith community in favor of a "just Jesus and me" mentality. Faith is meant to be lived in community.

You might disagree with my take on a classic and beloved hymn, and that's fine. But I'm in a position where I have the responsibility to choose the words we sing each week as a faith community. We have a limited amount of time, and a finite number of Sundays, during which I must choose songs that will shape our community and our shared values. So I tend to scrutinize songs and pick the best words for us to sing. It doesn't mean I'll reject a beloved song out of hand, but I'm constantly weighing songs against one another. In the vast expanse of the history of Christian worship, there are so many songs to choose from! I'm interested in choosing the best songs, no matter their style or origin. What words should we sing as a community, and how will it form us to live out our faith? 

This is an important question to ask, because songs are a powerful way to learn and recall story. In the case of sacred music, songs help us learn the story of God. They let us respond to God or proclaim Jesus' name and power. Sometimes they are corporate prayers. Other times they are God's words to us, inviting us to draw near.

No song will be perfect, of course. Even some of the most popular contemporary worship songs contain theology that is, well, at best... confusing.

  • "Revelation Song" by Jennie Lee Riddle (CCLI Song #4447960) contains the line, "Sing a new song to Him who sits on heaven's mercy seat." Romans 3:25 refers to Jesus as the mercy seat (lit. sacrifice of atonement, referring to the cover for the ark of the covenant). So who is sitting on whom?
  • "I Need You" by a number of great worship leaders (CCLI Song #5925687) sings, "My one defense, my righteousness, oh God, how I need You." Without the commas (and we all know how we hate punctuation on song slides in today's churches), it could be read that my one defense is my righteousness, instead of my one defense and righteousness being Christ.
  • "God's Not Dead (Like A Lion)" by Daniel Bashta (CCLI Song #5675274) compares God to a lion, roaring on the inside. This is scriptural (Isaiah 31:4). But so is a comparison of the devil to a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8). Lacking context of a passage from scripture, this song could be confusing.

So what's my point? Should we throw out these songs, never speak of them again? 


Should we label these artists and songwriters heretics?

Of course not.

I think a better solution would be to teach to the extent that the songs are sung. 

If these songs are regulars among your congregation, make sure you're talking about the imagery a lot. We should understand what we mean when we sing about Christ being our righteousness. Frequently when we sing the original second verse to "Come Thou Fount" I explain that Ebenezer is a place in the Old Testament whose name means "stone of help," not a Dickensian character that we somehow raise.

If these songs are not sung as often, they probably don't bear as strongly on your congregation's theology. Maybe you don't need to worry about it as much.

It's reasonable to believe that 20-30 years from now, you'll still be carrying around in your head the lyrics to songs and hymns you're singing frequently today.

As a Pastor of Worship, I want to make sure you're singing the songs that tell the story well, for those times when you'll need to remember the story.

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