Tag Archives: creativity

7 Marks of a Decent Worship Song

So you’re a musician, worship leader or songwriter. At its best, what’s a song do? Worldmaking.net tries a riff.

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#7: Pan-generational
Gathering infants and elders.

There are two types of people in the world: those who like to divide people into groups and those who don’t. [Wait for chuckle.]

A decent worship song sings us into harmony across generations, noticing our diversity in age and blessing us together.

One of the fallouts of so-called “contemporary” worship since the 80’s (I was there– the one with the mullet and the fiery red strat) has been the dis-integration of the multi-generational worshiping assembly.

We think we’re smart to niche-market our worship. We try to give people what they want according to their preferences. We imagine teens desire something different than their parents and grandparents.

One result can be a fragmented (or neatly divided) worshiping community. It’s the biggest reason people call me for consultation.

A good worship song presents us as one global Christ-body, to use Paul’s metaphor. And it’s not only so we kindly include people in the room. It’s that we deeply affirm that there are gifts and challenges for each season of life, including tender babyhood, passionate adolescence, ambitious young adulthood, transitional “half-time” mid-life and wise elder years.

When we are together in worship, we pay attention to all that we are– tender, ambitious, transitional, wise. When our moments of song and prayer do not speak to all of these, we find ourselves in a body without an arm or an ear.

Contrary to what our surrounding pop culture preaches, it’s good to get old. Youth need to know this, as well as our elders. Imagine the alternative that is happening now.

Contrary to what our culture says, it’s good to be kids. Grown-ups need to know this, as well as youths. What happens to a civilization where this isn’t true?

Is your community’s repertoire speaking to all the seasons of life?

#6: Expansive
Because Christ-life is more than we think.

When I first heard Marty Haugen’s Psalm 23 song, I cracked open.

“Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears from death into life.”

Jesus Christ. [Don’t you love non-blasphemous invocations?] Psalm 23 will never be the same for me.

That song was both instructive and expansive. That is, it both taught the Psalm and expanded my reality. The song helped the Holy Spirit break through the borders I had set up around what was true.

In singing, we embody more than theology. We make the sound of a world-wide community transforming. Listen closely, and you can hear boundaries breaking.

Ask any United Methodist, they he or she will tell you a good song can be a sermon. The Wesleys had it down to a science. Some 21st-century writers are working at it, too.

A good worship song not only unpacks and prays our scripture, it takes a wrecking ball to our idolized ideas.

In worship we are meant to offer heart, mind, soul and strength to the Holy One of which we are a part. And you can bet these hearts, minds, souls and strengths won’t come back to us the same. I’m thinking of Jesus’ irritating, holy habit of saying, “You have heard it said… but I tell you…” and his metaphor of wineskins. Sometimes that old container has to go.

Take a careful look at your congregation’s singing repertoire. Are there enough songs that blessedly expand our ideas?

#5: Integrative
Some re-assembly required.

When Psalm 25 sings, “To You, O Lord, I lift up my soul,” the Psalmist is not chipping out a wedge of life’s circle graph. In fact, in Hebrew there is no word for a separate spiritual part of the self. For it to ring true, the spiritual life is integrated with all dimensions of one’s experience. A better translation might be, “To You, YHWH, I open my life.” (Hear a progressive rendition of Ps. 25: “To You.”)

A good worship song helps us integrate aspects of our lives that are otherwise dis-integrated. Because our surrounding culture and the weather of life can fragment us, right?

A few examples: In a time of such fear as we are in right now, we may be told that certain people or particular nations are the problem. Worship snaps us out of such fear, antagonism and superiority, leveling us with the least of Jesus’ brothers- and sisters-in-Love.

In an era of global power struggles, we may be tempted to see our nation– wherever we may reside– in competition with the rest of the planet. Sunday morning offers us the vision of everything created and belonging to One, our common citizenship to the One Holy City (Ps. 87).

In a TV/mag/online culture celebrating individualism, we may feel alone. Experiencing spiritual community wrecks our walls and invites us to a powerfully vulnerable part of the Holy Whole.

A good worship song helps us integrate Holy Reality into our conscious lives. It pushes against the surrounding culture, and, as we sing it, helps us rehearse this integrated life and practice it with breath, words and gesture.

What great old hymns, Taize chants or new rock songs help you integrate Holy Reality (aka Kingdom of God, emerging Christ, Holy Spirit) into your life?

#4: Focused Function
We’re beings doing.

A worship song is folk art in the traditional sense.

When I took a Norwegian Woodcarving class at college (doesn’t everyone?), Harley Refsal taught that a true piece of folk art has a specific function. A beautifully crafted chair is meant to be sat in, not just to look pretty. That gorgeous quilt is for the bed, not the wall. A hand-thrown pottery bowl wants to contain soup, cereal or ice cream.

The design of the piece is not arbitrary; its form serves the needed function.

Same with decent worship songs. Songwriters take great care to craft a song that serves the community in a particular way. Where some songs are meant to proclaim grace or invite celebration, others stretch our minds and invite resistance. Good worship songs don’t parrot scripture or repeat a line eight times to force meaning. They make our imaginations pop around a specific point.

Worship leaders, knowing this, take great care to select songs that serve our transformation. He or she may choose a song to help us embody passionate praise in one moment, surrender in another. It’s not shoving any old song into the slots. Good worship leaders intentionally select music that engages our mind-body-spirit experience and carries us further into it.

But back to songs. Consider your most moving musical experiences, whether they be in church, on the dancefloor or driving your car. It was specific, right? The perfect song at the right time. Not general. A good story doesn’t mention tea; it’s a steaming orange mug of Earl Grey.

A Gathering song is inviting. It might remind us we re all in the same boat, and are welcome for exactly what we are. Maybe it sets up the theme for the day.

A good Offering song might remind us it’s good to share, and we all have a part.

A Prayer song offers sound to hold delicate spoken petitions. Or they disrupt our idolatrous ideas of how we think prayer works.

A Sending song might remind us that we bear the Christ out to the world, and we are each unique in the ways we are faithfully doing that.

A good worship song functions for a particular occasion, the right tool for the job at hand. Review the current Top 25 CCLI songs and test my theory amid the awful ones and the brilliant ones. (Here’s your pass to be judgmental. Enjoy.)

By the way, good worship songs are in every genre and form– liturgical, pop choruses, ancient hymns, contemplative chants, etc. Don’t resist any when they are called for.

The next time your worship team has an hour to kill, together make a list of the best songs that serve the movements of worship: Gathering, Proclaiming, Responding, Sealing (the Sacraments) and Sending. Listen carefully to one another’s experiences with the songs. Honor the differences. When you see functional gaps — “Hey, we don’t have a really good song for _________,” email your local songwriters and we’ll get right on it in the workshop.

#3: Prophetic lyrics
Words that comfort us and mess with us.

The role of an artist in a community is to stir up imagination, invite people to stretch their minds.

A decent worship song does, too.

Just as scripture contains vital tensions of law & gospel, grace & discipleship, “easy as pie” & “give up your life,” our worship music challenges us to grow to maturity in Christ.

A good worship song wonders over our sense of what we’re sure of.

When I was in seminary, Marty Haugen helped me see that at the time I was good at writing songs that brought comfort and grace, but that I was short on the prophetic edge that offers the holy gift of bewilderment. (By the way, my friend Bono always tells me not to name-drop. It’s tacky.)

For example, it’s important for our growth to be reminded that our pet names for God aren’t the only game in town. As much as God may be like a father to us, God is also like a crooked judge, a woman kneading dough, and a still, small voice in the breeze. The alternative is the prospect of idolatry: worshipping a hedged-in idea about God instead of the Ever-Living God.

Does this mean we will not always agree with the words we are singing? Does this mean we won’t like all our songs?

It seems to me Jesus’ ministry was centered not in teaching information but delivering provocations that were seeds of renewal, forgiveness and restoration.

We need a steady diet of songs that don’t just reinforce the way we are thinking presently. Spiritual life is built to stretch.

Is your congregation’s repertoire sufficiently challenging?

#2: Singability
Because that’s the point, right?

A song enacts unity, and as such invites all present to participate.

This may be closer to the number one slot, because if a congregational song is not a place we can all meet, it’s useless. Scrap it for parts. We usually know a decent song when we hear it, but here are a few suggestions to an intentionally singable community song:

  • It’s in a good key for most voices to sing energetically. Otherwise, people are frustrated at the get go. This, however, doesn’t mean a song can’t ask you to stretch for a few notes. Sung prayer requires energy, after all. Christmas and Easter hymns call us up to a high D. The Star-Spangled Banner is sometimes done in a key leading us to a high E or F, making it, ironically, a lousy community song. Mostly, we sing well together between C and C.
  • Accessible melody. Whether it’s a chant from Taize, a Bach hymn or cutting-edge rock song, the tune engages all ages and all abilities. Rhythms are regular in pattern or at least This means contrary to what your praise band guitarist says, not everything you hear on the radio will work in your circle.
  • …But not too easy. If the song is simplistic, it’s not gonna last. A good song needs a little work to get right.
  • Vocabulary check. Our songs use language we understand or can come to understand. Sounds simple, but often with ancient texts or present-day jargon, we may not be on the same page without a little education. Not a bad thing if we’re aware.

#1: Ancient-Future Tension
So what time is it?

A decent community song reminds us that we have a heritage of faith going back generations. It also engages our present-day reality and pitches our imaginations into the future.

The number one mark of a decent worship song is also among the most important descriptors of faithful worship.

Tradition

A good song connects us to ancient things. Does your community know that faith is old? Roots are important. It’s a disservice to faith to have it look like a trendy thing, something we just discovered with the latest pop singer. Why? Because that’s so today’s media culture– here today, gone tomorrow– and it’s just the tip of the iceberg we are about subverting in worship.

Does your community’s repertoire have good old ground we can sink our roots into?

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Innovation

While our roots of faith are deep and ancient, we have 21st-century imaginations. Let’s not pretend we don’t have cell phones.

Aren’t we genuinely curious how the spiritual life is faithfully lived in us, you know, now? If so, won’t we be experimenting constantly with the freshest language and music to pray, celebrate and lament? Our songwriters will be always riffing on the culture, asking us to attend to changes in our jobs, families, bodies and politics. A decent worship song always invites us to pay attention to our spiritual life, both communally and individually.

All this puts us in the now, leaning into the future. Inventive, adventurous words, grooves and symbols will always be part of our music.

Put another way, a good song does not parrot our ancestors. It honors our lineage by always reforming, always evolving into God’s future.

So. Discuss.

This article is a gathering of individual pieces around Worldmaking.net’s “Top Ten Marks of the Decent Worship Song” developed in the Worldmaking.net newsletter.

Thanks to the photographers giving permission to use their work above. From bottom to top, the photographers are Mircea Preda Struteanu, Aaron Schwab, Enrico Nunziati, Robert Linder, Adriana Cikopol, and anon.


The Emotional Lives of Ten-Year-Olds

Why are thousands of ten-year-olds sad today? Lego Universe, the amazingly bright, whimsical, smart and fun interactive adventure MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game)  game, closed up shop last night. Not enough revenue from subscribers, we’re told.

Our son Sam had tears in his eyes as in the late hours many avatars posted their final good-byes. “Good-bye, Lego Universe. I’ll miss you.”

Sam was sad. So was I, but he had some real grief. For the past four months, he had played with his pal Nathan to the brink of his parents’ allowance of screen time– an hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But I let him plug in for extra rounds yesterday, the Last Day.

As eschatology was fulfilled and the stars went out one by one, I was reminded how passionate kids are.

And how adults sometimes forget to pay attention.

Sure, the occasion is not tragic in the scope of the world’s deepest problems, but feelings are feelings.

So I thought about my role as a dad. I want to listen carefully and guide our son who is inexperienced with the power of emotions. Strong feelings can be disorienting and it’s helpful to have a mentor. What’s at stake? Picture the grown-up child with a sense of personhood that either accepts emotions as a vital, chemical, good part of his or her life or something peripheral to stuff and resist.

Treating kids with respect is making a new world.

Jeez, I’m getting all preachy now.

What would your life have been like if you’d had a respected adult honor your emotions when you were ten? How would your life have been different if a grown-up had helped you understand the nuances of anger, sadness, joy? And maybe you did. And maybe you’re grateful.

If you’re a grown-up, you can help kids explore what emotions feel like and what they mean. Invite them to feel them and sort them out. When you do that, you serve this world today and also you’re helping with the formation of a fully grown homo sapiens sapiens. Maybe a someday President, doctor, bus driver or artist. You’re helping to shape the world toward health and integrated wholeness.

You maybe don’t remember having feelings for the first time, such as grief, confusion or delight, but when the moment comes for the kid in front of you, maybe you’ll be one to witness it. How you choose to handle this moment may instill some confidence and guide that person on the road to an integrated sense of self.

And now I’m getting all Buscaglia on you.

Sam and I talked about how he had come to know this game and the characters, the great symphonic music, the stories, the colorful play. The whole context had become like a friend, and we miss friends when they go away.

Let me be honest.

Part of me was tempted to diminish this. To point out there are worse atrocities on our planet than the shut down of an online game he played for free in our warm house. Part of me wanted to remind him of the holocaust and show him pics of Bosnian refugees. I guess that part of me wanted to give him wisdom and some sort of speech about not being self-centered. You know, perspective. That’s part of my job as a parent, too, but I’m reminded that Douglas Adams wrote that a sense of perspective can crush us. Okay, he said it much funnier.

There’s lots of ways to love a kid. These days, I am learning about keeping it simple.

How do you think about nurturing emotionality in the young people in your life?

We’re sad about Lego Universe, and that’s good for now.


Richard’s Christmas Fudge

It’s that time of year again. Oh, the goodness.

Fudge is one of the first things I learned to make well, and my recipe has evolved for two decades.

It requires patience, so cooking a batch each Advent for me is a spiritual practice of the season.

Share and enjoy, share and enjoy.

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Richard’s Christmas Fudge

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups sugar
  • 12 oz evaporated milk
  • 1 cup butter
  • 12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 8 oz. unsweetened baking chocolate
  • 1 7-oz. container marshmallow creme
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Slather up a 13x9x2 pan with butter and set aside. Reflect a moment at the wonder of butter.

Butter sides of a 3-quart saucepan, humming as you do so. In it, combine sugar, butter and milk.

Cook and stir over med-high heat to boiling. Stir more, changing now from humming to singing. Stir, my friend. Stir like the wind. Stir until cows actually come home. Cook and stir to 236 degrees, soft-ball stage (about 14 minutes).

Remove pan from heat. Add chocolate, marshmallow creme and vanilla. Stir until it all melts. Feel your tricep and bicep muscles and nod at your buffosity.

Spread the chocolatey goodness into the pan. (Optional: If you like peanut butter cup flavor, sprinkle peanut butter chips in the bottom of the pan before adding the fudge. Sprinkle more on top and run a spoon through it a few times to spread as you desire). When finished, lick spoon like a 6-year-old, allowing some chocolate to remain on your nose and chin all day.

Cool in fridge or on that shelf on the porch. Do not neatly slice into cubes. Instead, chisel generous odd-sized slabs to serve in a big pile on a platter.

Makes 3.5 pounds or so. Just enough.

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Legos and Losing My Religion

My young son opens the box and giggles with delight. This! This is what it’s all about. The familiar little plastic envelopes fly as each is emptied into a gladware cup awaiting assembly. The color glossy booklet, folded by robots at the Worldwide Lego HQ, is opened and spread out on the floor.

We’ve had the Mars Mission phase. We’ve done Power Miners. Now it’s all Star Wars.

Lego, from the Danish phrase leg godt, which means “play well.”

If my son had a flowchart for the creative lego-playing process he has arrived at, it would be:

  1. Follow assembly instructions carefully with bomb squad precision.
  2. Enjoy this lego creation for a period of 2 hours to 2 weeks.
  3. Mutate lego creation. With the imagination of gods, add, subtract, demolish and rebuild to heart’s content.
  4. Ditch original assembly instructions forever.

Kids and legos. Grown-ups and spirituality.

When you grow up immersed in any spiritual tradition (or no tradition), that’s your reality. The language, symbols and culture of your tradition is the truth your family offered you.

What else could there possibly be?

In a very real sense, every moment of your life is mapped in relation to the elements of this Reality Story. That’s a good thing, the first seeds of trust in a friendly universe, as Howard Thurman put it.

At some point, we each come to the edge of that given map.

That Story of Life, the Universe and Everything as we understood it begins to be tested. For some of us, it’s an intentional intellectual curiosity– like a scientist examines her hypotheses and allows the scientific method to show the Truth. For others, it’s some real-life experience– a break-up, cancer, a bad pastor– that does not comfortably fit that reality. Or sometimes the Story just starts to feel old and it kinda. Just. Fades form our consciousness. Maybe sleep in on Sunday mornings, or decide to change your Bible study to bowling night.

Holiday TV ads have begun.

So much of the Christmas pomp is geared to kids, that if you are around kids, you may find yourself pleasantly regressing to the old, old story that you have loved so long. At the same time you may notice that faith wants to grow up. You may feel the contrast.

That original instruction book is in a drawer somewhere. It’s not what’s important now.

In the gospels, Rabbi Jesus is irritatingly consistent in his teaching: “You’ve heard it said…” (insert a bit about murder, adultery, sin, hatred, etc.) he spoke, serious as a heart attack. And then- was that a wink?- he’d continue, “But I tell you…” (insert a disturbingly different theology about integrity of the heart). He unwaveringly claimed was not destroying his beloved Jewish tradition but fulfilling it, evolving it.

What can I make of my life now that the letter-of-the-law instructions are no longer the important thing?

What evolution is possible now that our obedience to  human-crafted institutional structure is wrecked, and we are now paying attention to the holy Spirit-wind-breath hidden in every cell of creation?

It’s a terrifying and wonder-full thing.

But my lego-fanatic son knows now all things are possible, and the fun is just beginning.


Stealing From Van Morrison

[Note: The following is offered particularly for artists: writers, musicians, preachers, painters, dancers. You are really,really important. If you don’t have time to read this, please watch the video below for a breath of fresh air. Thanks.]

I heard it as I was grooving to Van’s Greatest Hits Volume 2 one morning: the chord progression I had so carefully crafted in my own original song months ago.

Van doesn’t mind. Do you know how many songs in history use the same chord changes? (Honestly, Van seems to be ticked off at just about everyone, but me more no more than anyone else.)

Paul Simon knows he borrows from Bo Diddley and the Moonglows. Pete Seeger once said in an interview for songwriters, “Don’t be so all-fired concerned about being original.”

So is my life derivative or original?

As the Buddhist koan goes: What’s the shape of your original face?

What original?

Liz Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” says the way our culture thinks about creativity is not so helpful. There’s pressure to perform. So many artists in despair, crushed by expectations. Fear of the sophomore slump, the drive for the buzz and money. This mindset is what’s been killing off our artists for the last 500 years, she says.

Can we thrive as artists without cutting off an ear?

If you have time, watch Elizabeth’s whole brilliant talk via TED, below. For a smaller dose, I want you to see 6:15-15:35 and 17:40-19:06. Don’t miss the Tom Waits story.

You are an original. Yes, fingerprints like snowflakes and all that. You have a special way of looking at life and we need your ideas, your songs, your words, your shapes and colors. You’re saving the world by both making it beautiful and challenging it to wake up.

At the same time, there is no need to put the pressure of one-of-a-kind genius on ourselves. Humans are designed to borrow and share among creation and not even know we are doing so. Kind of like my neighbor Ev and I have lost track of repaying each other’s favors over time. Plus, you probably have a sense of being plugged into a Source, that your work is co-created. Dylan said if he didn’t write down the songs that came to him, someone else would. Whether you name this Creative Energy (aka genius, God, Muse, daemon) or not, trust that it’s not all on your shoulders to produce.

We are not alone as we show up to do our work.

Now that I think about it, maybe Van was stealing from me.