Music, Lambs and Craftsmanship
I’ll probably get in trouble for writing this. Well, maybe more for posting it than writing it. But if we expect umpires to call ’em like they see ’em, and Simon Cowell can call ’em like he hears ’em, maybe I can say this without being shot at sunrise tomorrow. Hopefully you’ve seen enough posts here on Vibrance to know I don’t go around stirring up trouble in the body of Christ just to get a rise out of people. I try not to be a trouble-maker. But this has been riding around in my wire-bound binder long enough I know I really need to say it. Don’t shoot me, but
What do poor craftsmanship, blemished lambs
and poorly-written music have in common?
Quite a bit, I’m afraid.
Have we forgotten that God is “particular”? That He has perfect pitch and perfect grammar? That he told the children of Israel – the lambs and doves they brought Him were to be their best? I mean perfect. No exceptions. We’re under grace now, not law, thankfully, but God hasn’t gone tone-deaf or thrown out meter and rhyme in a new quest for poetry in name only. Has He? I think not. Last I read, He’s the same yesterday, today and forever. He cares about the jot – and the tittle – those tiny little marks in the score.
Friends, I would like to suggest that much of what we are presently offering to God in public worship does NOT represent our best efforts. I’m not talking style or preference; I enjoy a wide spectrum of music, enough to be considered “eclectic” by those who know me. I’m talking quality. We know we’re singing songs that still have musical problems and need a few more re-writes before they’re finished. Still we sing them. Give them air-time and broadcast hype. Reward the mediocrity. Please. No more!
I was a voice major with an emphasis on conducting, so it’s been enlightening with Jared majoring in composition. He’s helped me see more of what happens behind the scenes in song-writing. When I hear him tell how he works for days on a composition, plays it for his mentor, and hears “Do you like these measures? Me too. Keep those, scrap the rest.” (and he does), it sets me thinking. “Simon Cowell would have been less kind, but … mayBE.” I find myself wishing someone would say that same thing to some of today’s writers.
It’s a highly subjective question, has a lot to do with motive (which makes it difficult to discuss), and we look on the outward appearance while God on the heart. But we mustn’t shrug and look the other way.
How profound, how deep are the texts of some of these songs?
(I am SO tempted to include some of my least-favorite lyrics right here!!)
In the American Civil War wool was scarce and uniform suppliers had to figure out a new source of fiber. Wool rags were collected door to door to be turned into yarn and then into new cloth. This reclaimed wool was called “shoddy” from the Saxon “to shred or tear apart.” Cloth made entirely of shoddy may have looked good, but it stood up poorly to the demands of war. Soldiers issued shoddy uniforms watched them unravel in the wind or dissolve in the rain. [source/source] After the war, “shoddy” became the word to use for anything second rate. I believe we’re recording it, singing it and over-valuing it in the church. There. I said it. Please don’t shoot. Not yet.
A while ago I wrote about Psalm 136. Its antiphonal call and response helped Israel praise the Lord who performed so many great wonders. The repetition served a purpose; drove home a truth. Guess how many there are like Psalm 136? Just one. One in a collection of 150 Psalms.
It can be moving when we repeat a chorus to let God’s people say something one more time. I’m old enough to remember when a song-leader (that’s what we used to call them) sensed the Spirit’s moving and made the call half way through what was going to be the final refrain. I’m also young enough to have led planning meetings where we decided ahead of time how many times we’d repeat the chorus and how many times we’d tag the last line on our way out. Sad to say, we frequently decided to do it that way simply because we liked it, or because that’s how it is on the recording.
It’s fine to repeat a phrase for emphasis. How stirring is it (you’ve perhaps experienced this) to sing “Great is Thy faithfulness, Great is Thy faithfulness, GREAT is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!”
Can’t you just see Elijah tapping a determined, let-me-at-em cadence on his knees while he waits for the prophets of Baal to give up? I can. “There’s no God like Jehovah. There’s no God LIKE Jehovah. There’s NO God like Jehovah. There’s no God like JeHOVah! Do you give up?! I want to SHOW you!!”
But to write eight average measures expecting to get credit for thirty-two? C’mon! Let’s be honest, how many Christian songs do you suppose are written to climb their way up the charts and onto royalty spreadsheets? Can you do that and write for God’s glory and the encouragement of the church at the same time? Didn’t Jesus say something about how difficult it is to serve God and mammon?
How many of these are really our best? Musically. Technically. Poetically. (Not enough!) If we bring Him only our best —I’m still talking about public worship— what should we do with the rest? Leave them on the bus, I say. We can sing them to ourselves while we trim the hedge, run, drive, mow, rake and shovel, but let’s bring only the best into the house of God for public worship. We assume these days that everything on Christian radio is worship. It isn’t. Most of it isn’t.
Why do some songs endure the test of time? There are many variables, but I know for sure it isn’t not because they’re poorly written.
I remember one late-night conversation in my college years. My room-mate Jim and I were both music majors. Jim’s been by here a time or two; he’s also been in church music since we graduated and currently teaches music in a Christian High School in Santa Rosa, California. We were talking music late at night (again) as we stared up at the ceiling in the dark. I remember saying that I hoped something I wrote or arranged would be good enough to endure the test of time and be useful to the church. He asked me:
“If it’s good, I mean really, honestly good, why couldn’t you use it Sunday morning? Why does it have to wait twenty-five years before it’s highly regarded?”
God used his insightful question to change my mind that night. Good is good. Today. Excellent is excellent. Right now. But not everything written right now is excellent. In truth, there may have been as much musical shoddy in days gone by as there is today. But do we need to bring a song to church just because we carry it around all week on an I-pod? (You know what I’m going to say, don’t you? —No.)
I hope you get what I’m trying to say.
Sometimes God gives us the beginning of a song strumming a guitar at the foot of the bed. Usually it’s a start, not the best you have – not yet. He expects us to develop it. Invest in it. Like the men with the talents in Jesus’ stories, multiply it.
Granted, now and then a song arrives on planet earth intact. Complete and profound, needing little if any editing. Those are exceptions, not the norm. O Love That Will Not Let Me Go came to George Matheson in five minutes, but it’s an exception. In 1874 When Ira Sankey couldn’t find the right hymn in the hymnal or in his memory for the closing song after D.L.Moody preached about the lost sheep, he took to the organ a poem he’d torn from the paper that day, and set The Ninety and Nine to music – on the spot. It wasn’t how he wrote his other 999 hymns, however. We are Standing on Holy Ground was written by Geron Davis at midnight the night before the dedication of the new building where his dad was pastor, but he doesn’t expect all his songs to come to him that way.
If you write songs or lyrics, resist the temptation to say “God gave it to me, don’t mess with it.” Take the time to finish it. Don’t let yourself write a good lick and call it a song, even if your family does tell you it’s the greatest thing since “Messiah”. Re-write and edit. Revise and tweak. Sand and polish it until it fairly sparkles when you open your tired hands and offer it to the Lord Jesus. If you’re a worship leader, don’t ask God’s people to offer up things that need more work. Don’t bring Him the incomplete, flawed and blemished. Bring Him the best.
Okay, I’ve irritated you enough, I think. Just promise me you’ll look at Sunday’s worship order one more time before you print it? Is this the best we have to offer? How many of these songs are we singing because WE like them, even though they’re less than excellent? Set those aside and bring the Master Musician your best. Your very best. Work on it. Really work on it in rehearsal so when you give Sunday to Him in an act of expensive, costly worship, it’s the best you can find, prepared to the best of your ability with the best of the skills you have at your church. Watch for His smile. Listen for His “Thank You, Children, that was beautiful.”
He may even ask you to sing it again.
©2007 Philip L. Ransom
(BTW – These principles apply to the things I write too so I kept track this time. This post has endured thirteen re-writes and edits so far. God reads the stuff I write. Yours too. Excellence matters. )