The Truth We Sing

A couple of posts back I took a gibe at some of the songs we sing because, if we really took the lyrics seriously, I’m not sure all of us could sing them, or if we did, we could not sing them all the time. I really did not intend to suggest they were bad songs (many of them are quite good!), only to get us to think seriously about the lyrics we sing, and if we are going to sing the words to God and to each other, let us at least admit that what we are singing is a goal, or a statement of the way things ought to be, not the way we actually live.

On the other hand, and getting back to a phrase that is axiomatic with me (a statement of truth that needs no evidence or support), very often we sing far better theology than we teach. In this post I want to share some song lyrics that are not only biblical, but are also deeply meaningful – at least to me – and hopefully you can have a better picture of what I look for in a good hymn or spiritual song.

(Nerd alert – you will notice the majority of these songs are decades, if not centuries old. I like to stay up with the latest in worship hymnody!)

Perhaps my favorite illustration (although not my favorite over-all hymn) is Rock of Ages. A.M. Toplady just nailed it with this hymn. Every verse is chock-full of theological insight, but the first verse is worthy of an entire sermon:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood, from Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure, cleanse me from its guilt and power.

There you have a theological statement that doctors of theology will spend pages trying to explain: the blood of Christ cleanses us both from the guilt of sin, but also protects us from the power of sin in the future. That, my friends, is pure gospel and a beautiful song as well.

One song that is certainly in my top ten favorites of all time, and maybe in the top five, is O Sacred Head. When you combine words originally composed by Bernard of Clairvaux with music composed by J.S. Bach, how can you go wrong? But, more to the point, consider these words in the second verse:

What language shall I borrow to thank Thee dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine for ever; and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.

Wow. Just wow. What a prayer. Lord, do not ever let me live so long that I lose my love for you. Now, THAT is a song that deserves a long period of silence so that the congregation can cogitate on those words!

Just to prove I am not a total dinosaur, there are a couple of the newer worship songs that are solid both in theology and in musical quality. The first is a special song to me, because when I hear it I can still hear the voices of two young ladies in Aztec, New Mexico, sing this song so clearly and beautifully. Once again, the second verse:

If words could fall like rain from these lips of mine,
And if I had a thousand years, Lord, I would still run out of time.
If you listen to my heart, every beat will say: ‘Thank you for the Life,
Thank you for the Truth, Thank you for the Way.’
So listen to our hearts, hear our spirits sing
A song of praise that flows from those You have redeemed.
We will use the words we know to tell You what an awesome God you are.
But words are not enough to tell You of our love, so listen to our hearts.

And, finally, a song that is clearly in my top five favorites of all time, and maybe all the way to number one. Very often I cannot even sing it because I start weeping when I think of the young students who have made this song so special to me. I so look forward to the day when these words will be reality:

We shall assemble on the mountain, we shall assemble at the throne.
With humble hearts into His presence, we bring an offering of song.
Glory and honor and dominion, unto the Lamb unto the King.
Oh hallelujah, hallelujah, We sing the song of the redeemed.
And at the end of the journey, we shall bow down with bended knee,
And with the angels up in heaven, we’ll sing the song of victory!
Glory and honor and dominion, unto the Lamb unto the King.
Oh hallelujah, hallelujah, We sing the song of the redeemed.

We sing so much better theology that we sometimes preach and teach. I am firmly convinced that those who sing congregationally (with none of those obnoxious “praise teams”) and those who sing acapella (Churches of Christ are one, but by no means the only, such groups) have a special gift that other religious groups do not have. We can actually hear the lyrics, and we can fully and completely sing to one another.

Let us never surrender those gifts!!

 

The Lies We Sing

I have often said, and firmly believe, that we as Christians sing a much more faithful and robust faith than we teach. In part, I think that is why singing (and congregational acapella singing at that) is so critical to our worship services. Without the rich history of some of our best songs, our theology would be utterly bereft of any significance. But there is another, much darker, side to our singing. We sing far, far too many lies.

I suppose this post could end up being thousands of entries long, but here are just a few of some of the lies I think we sing – I don’t have a song book in front of me, so these are just off the top of my head –

“All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give . . .” Well, except for my checkbook, my political affiliation, my resentments, my anger, my racism, my hatred.

“It is well with my soul . . .” Well, maybe my soul, but not my IRA, my retirement, my house, my car, my kids, my marriage, my job, even my dog has issues.

“I stand in awe of you . . .” Never mind that the image of standing in awe is unbiblical – peoples in ancient cultures knelt or bowed or fell prostrate to show honor, respect and awe. The point is we don’t stand in awe of God. We have everything all figured out – scientifically, philosophically, sociologically, politically, militarily. It’s just that we are really, really, into that emotional high that standing up while we sing this song gives us.

“Jesus, let us come to know you . . .” Just don’t get to know me all that well, and seriously don’t make any uncomfortable demands on my life.

“Take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to thee . . .” Wait, what?

“King of my life I crown thee now . . .” You’ve got to be kidding. God, you can be my co-pilot, but just sit over there and don’t you dare touch any of the controls.

“Just as I am, without one plea . . .” Well, I really dig the ‘just as I am’ part, but, God, regarding the request thing – do you have a minute, ’cause I have quite a few issues that you really need to deal with.

Sadly, I could go on. These are just a few of the songs that make me pause when I see the title or read a few of the lyrics. I’m not suggesting that we cannot sing these songs. It’s just that I have to be conscious that when I sing a song of praise or devotion, I am singing both to God and to my fellow Christians.

Am I singing the truth, or a lie? Obviously no man or woman is perfect, and we are not expected to live perfect lives before we come to worship. I don’t want to make too big of a mountain out of this – but still, it is troubling.

Do we really think about the meaning of the words as we sing them? Or do we just put our brain on autopilot and thoughtlessly mouth the words?

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Praise Teams (Again)

I was mildly rebuked following my last post. I knew I would be, and I really don’t mind. “Praise Teams” are a touchy subject. Those who have them, or want them, cannot see any harm or fault in having them. Those that do not want to have a “praise team” in their worship are pretty firm in their convictions. There really is not much of a middle ground.

I am going to make a generalization based on my experience, but it is my belief that those who argue for “praise teams” do so for one simple reason: it makes the song service sound better. There is no biblical or theological reason for the addition of “praise teams.” The issue is either that there is a large, but basically empty, auditorium that kills the sound of the congregational singing, or that the congregation is getting old and feeble and therefore cannot sing as vibrantly as they once did, or that the congregation doesn’t know the new songs and therefore cannot sing them very well. Whatever the specific issue, the argument for “praise teams” revolves around aesthetics. It is all about making the song service sound better for human ears. At the risk of offending – it is all about entertainment.

We are a nation of pragmatists, virtually every decision we make is based on one bottom line – does it work, or does it work better, than what I am currently doing? The church is particularly stricken with this disease. Because of our (I speak as a member of the Churches of Christ) aversion to theology, we have surrendered our commitment to deep theological thinking long, long ago. When a church surrenders its theological foundation, the only thing left for it is pragmatism – what works. So, if a congregation is faced with a problem (poor singing) it does not search for a reason that can be found in the realm of the Spirit, but only what will “work” to fix the problem, ergo, “Let’s form a ‘praise team’ of some really good singers, give them all a microphone, and our singing will improve overnight.” The problem is, it doesn’t. Having a “praise team” is putting a band-aid on a cancer. A “praise team” might make the auditorium singing sound better to human ears, but it does nothing toward engendering a more spiritual worship service. It is all a part of the “Seeker Sensitive” movement that caters to the whims and fancies of the world at the expense of theological content. In a sentence, there is no “there” there.

I pointed out in my last post where I think “praise teams” violate the spirit of Scripture, if not the letter. I will not rehearse those reasons – none of those who took the time (and I thank them!) to converse with me attempted to address those issues. However, I want to add another voice to the conversation, one who speaks with the theological understanding of which I find so abysmally lacking in so many conversations about the church today:

The essence of all congregational singing on this earth is the purity of unison singing Рuntouched by the unrelated motives of musical excess Рthe clarity unclouded by the dark desire to lend musicality an autonomy of its own apart from the words; it is the simplicity and unpretentiousness, the humanness and warmth, of this style of singing. Of course, this truth is only gradually and by patient practice disclosed to our oversophisticated ears. Whether or not a community  achieves proper unison singing is a question of its spiritual discernment. This is singing from the heart, singing to the Lord, singing the Word; this is singing in unity. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, vol. 5 of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch and James H. Burtness, [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996], p. 67. Additional note Рthese words were written in 1938.

This is thinking theologically. This is looking to the Spirit for answers to questions of the Spirit. This is taking a human, temporal problem and seeking to discern the moving of the Word and Spirit. This is the kind of thinking that is virtually non-existent among Churches of Christ today. We use John 4:24 as a textual battering ram and yet when everything comes down to a point we are all about what works; what looks, sounds, and what feels, “better.” We have attained all the spiritual depth of a thimble.

Bonhoeffer goes on to add words that could have been written yesterday:

There are several elements hostile to unison singing, which in the community ought to be very rigorously weeded out. There is no place in the worship service where vanity and bad taste can so assert themselves as in the singing. First, there is the improvised second part that one encounters almost everywhere people are supposed to sing together. It attempts to give the necessary background, the missing richness to the free-floating unison sound and in the process kills both the words and the sound. There are the bass or alto voices that must call everybody’s attention to their astonishing range and therefore sing every hymn an octave lower. There is the solo voice that drowns out everything else, bellowing and quavering at the top of its lungs, reveling in the glory of it own fine organ. There are the less dangerous foes of congregational singing, the ‘unmusical’ who cannot sing, of whom there are far fewer than we are led to believe. Finally, there are often those who not not join in the singing because they are particularly moody or nursing hurt feelings; and thus they disturb the community.

In case you missed it – Bonhoeffer is arguing for pure unison singing – as in no parts – no soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Unison singing, because it is only in unison singing that we sing in the unity of the Spirit. Unison singing, because if God can take Jew and Gentile and make out of two nations one family, then he can certainly take four vocal ranges and make them into one voice. Unison singing, because it is in unison singing that we all, old and young, male and female, soprano, alto, tenor and bass, can submit our voices to each other and join in one ephemeral voice to lift our praise to God. These are radical words – restoration type words – of which the Restoration Movement should be able to hear. But I doubt that we can.

We are too wrapped up into what works.

To my conversation partners: I get it! What I said about “praise teams” can also be said about single song leaders. What I also did not say, but also firmly believe, is that we have created, or are dangerously close to creating, a “professional” class of preachers who are approaching idolatrous standing. (Maybe my next series of posts?) But this is what I don’t get – if someone points out that driving over the speed limit is dangerous and illegal, and then someone else points out that driving too slow is also dangerous, that does not make driving over the speed limit less dangerous or more legal! If a congregation worships a song leader, that does not make “praise teams” more acceptable. Just because a single song leader can be in love with his voice and dominate a song service, that does not absolve “praise teams” from that very same sin. I still maintain the basic premise of my first post: “praise teams” are inherently divisive, they are elitist, they elevate one member’s position to praise above another’s for the simple reason of their natural singing ability.

I happen to believe that the church has a higher calling than just to have a song service that is aesthetically pleasing and entertaining.

I happen to believe that our song service is supposed to be praise to God, and not to human ears.

And, yes – if that means a total and complete return to unison singing, count me in.

I happen to think that is ascending higher by climbing lower.