Singing Different Words

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Singing songs isn’t always easy, especially when you don’t really like the song. This wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t have to put so much time and effort into learning a song you don’t like because it’s not over once you sing it. The time you spent preparing for it seems to blaze that song forever into the hard disk of your brain.

I used to tease my friend and fellow worship leader Lisa about songs she was trying to learn by intentionally singing the wrong words while she was working on memorization. For some reason she didn’t see the humor.

Words Matter
Words really matter in songs, and especially in worship songs. The songs we sing in worship are essentially prayers that are sung to God, about God and for God. It’s not an “anything goes” exercise. There are words in worship that are right and others that are wrong, the same way it would be wrong of me to praise my wife for her beautiful blue eyes. Why? Because her eyes are brown. The words we sing are not only expressions of our affections and intentions toward God, they are statements of belief about his character and works that inform and reinforce our understanding of who God is and who we are in relationship to God.

I have probably developed the reputation of being a hyper-critical lyrical analyst among those who know me and work with me, but I don’t really care. I promise I don’t mean to be overly negative or needlessly obsess over semantic trivialities. But I can’t in good conscience turn a blind eye to something so important and dismiss it with “well, the writers probably meant this…” or “don’t sweat it, people will get the overall point.” Words matter, and they matter too much for us to be careless. If worship leading is a pastoral task (which it is), and we are teaching and discipling people as we lead them in song (which we are) then James 3:1 applies: we as worship pastors will be held accountable for the words we are putting in people’s mouths (and hearts) to sing to and about God. Theologian Gordon Fee has famously said, “Show me a church’s songs and I’ll show you their theology.”

Worship Shapes Us
One scriptural example of this importance can be found in Psalm 115:

Their [the unbelieving nations] idols are silver and gold,
    the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
   noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
    feet, but do not walk;
   and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.

Psalm 115:5-8

In other words, whatever we bow down to (or put “before all things” in our lives) will shape who we are. If you worship an idol that can’t hear, you will lose your ability to hear. If you worship a blind idol, you will eventually become totally unable to see. We become like the thing we worship.

When we read statements like these about false gods, we can also infer that the Psalmist means to say the opposite is true of God: God does speak, he does feel, he is not the work of human hands but is the One who made human hands. Worship him and you can grow to become like him. Worship shapes who we are.

Two Examples
Because the words we sing in worship are so important, pastoral leaders want to be selective about the songs we choose. What is popular isn’t always what is best. When you listen to a song with a theological filter, you begin to recognize traits in songs that are helpful and others that are either overtly wrong or at least could be misleading. The last thing we want to do is contribute to a skewed view of the nature of God. We’re all doing just fine with that on our own! But what do when you come across a very well-written song that declares powerful truths in a beautiful and engaging way, but has one line that ruins it for you?

We only have two options: either we don’t sing the song or we change the lyric. If a song has a lot of personal pronouns (“I” or “my”) we might just change those to “we” or “our” to help stress the corporate nature of the Bride of Christ. More emphasis on We are the collective body of Christ instead of “it’s all about me and Jesus.” Probably the most well-known example of this is the song “How He Loves” by John Mark McMillan:

        Heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss
        And my heart turns violently inside of my chest

As this song grew in popularity, many people wanted to sing it in church but were uncomfortable singing about a “sloppy wet kiss.” Thus the alternative lines “beautiful kiss” and “unforeseen kiss” were used to replace the undesirable lyric.

I personally don’t find this line offensive or distracting and certainly not theologically inaccurate. The lavish nature of the love of God expressed in sending Jesus to earth can rightly be compared to a passionate kiss. Because this love was (and is) radical, no holds barred, holding nothing back. But some find it distracting and want to change it. No problem.

A similar and more recent example (although I only know of one church so far who has made this change…ours) is the song “What a Beautiful Name” by Hillsong. I find this song to be incredibly powerful and full of rich truths about the person and work of Jesus. But there is one line in the song that throws a theological red flag:

        You didn’t want heaven without us
        So Jesus You brought heaven down

The issue here is the implication that the purpose for Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was that he was lonely. And it all hinges on the little word “so.” So let’s think about it: Did (and does) God want us in heaven? Yes! Did Jesus bring heaven down to us because we could never get there on our own? Yes! Praise God for the gospel! But was the reason God sent Jesus to earth his desire for us? Nope. I hate to burst your bubble, but if we terminate the purpose of God in salvation on ourselves or even the world, we miss the mark. God did not create the world or send Jesus out of a want or a need or any lack whatsoever. His work in creation and salvation was and is out of an overflow of his goodness and love and for the display of his glory. The chief end of God is his own glory. Period. Isaiah prophesied of this purpose:

 “I will say to the north, Give up,
    and to the south, Do not withhold;
bring my sons from afar
    and my daughters from the end of the earth,
  everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
   whom I formed and made.”
Isaiah 43:6-7

Jesus spoke of this purpose as he prayed:

“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

John 12:27-28a

Paul preached of this purpose in the gospel going out to all the nations:

“For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”

Romans 15:8-9a

Because of the preciousness of this truth that God exists for his own glory, we chose to change the lyric of the song:

        You’re ever faithful to your promise
        So Jesus You brought heaven down

This song is a wonderful gift. We felt that making this change would allow us to enjoy the gift that God has given the church without risking confusion or misdirection as we celebrate and delight in God’s redemptive purpose (worship). Does it seem like a lot of trouble over one little word? Maybe. But I assure you it matters.

Motivation matters just as much as action. If someone gave you a new car, wouldn’t you want to know whether they were doing it to bless you or because they were trying to blackmail you? When we understand that God does all things for his own glory, it does not make us unimportant. When we take ourselves out of the center and put God there, it frees us to worship because we rightly see ourselves in light of who God is. It increases our awe and our joy that God would invite us to join him in the experience of his glory. God is for us because he loves us. He’s just not about us. He is, and will always be, all about his glory. And how do we see his glory?

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 4:6

Jesus Walks

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Some things are hard to explain. Before I got married, I would often ask people who were married how they knew when they met “the one.” The would say things that barely made sense: “When you know, you just…know.”

Before I had children I didn’t understand what it was like to love a little human more than your own life. People would say things about how it felt to become a parent, especially the feeling when seeing their child for the first time. I probably just stared blankly at them. Then, on one sunny morning in July of 2013, it all made sense. When I looked at my daughter for the first time, I finally understood the phrase “love at first sight.” There are lots of things in life like that. In case you didn’t know, going to the Holy Land belongs on that list.

Before going to Israel, I wouldn’t have had much to say to someone who had been there. I probably would have stared blankly at the ever-so-cliche phrase that I have now repeated a few dozen times: “You just have to go.” Oddly enough, I had never thought much about going before I went. But the experience can only be described as life-changing.

How do you explain the things that defy explanation? All you can do is try. Sometimes it’s so overwhelming that my functions of articulation all but shut down. For me, that’s a strange feeling. If I put thought into something I can usually find words for it. But lately I’ve struggled to express the important things because the weight of all the feels presses so hard against the bottleneck pathway from heart to brain to mouth (or hands) and I get stuck. I guess it’s like the old expression: The best way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time. (DISCLAIMER: I have never eaten, nor would I ever attempt to eat, an elephant).

It’s funny how perspective changes everything. You can live your whole life thinking you know what good food tastes like, which is obviously those special occasions when you go to Ryan’s all-you-can-eat buffet. And then one day you go to Ruth’s Chris and your eyes are opened. “Good” suddenly has a different meaning. When you see Israel for yourself, your perspective is radically changed. I’ve spend a lot of time reading the Bible over the years, and I’ve always felt like I took it at face value, like I believed what it said. But when I saw those sights and stood in those places, I realized that there was more theoretical distance in me than I imagined, more space between what I understood and what I knew. Sometimes the gap between concept and reality stares at you with incredible severity.

One of my favorite movies is the classic comedy The Three Amigos, starring Chevy Chase, Martin Short and Steve Martin. If you haven’t seen it, shame on you. Actually, you should probably stop reading this and go watch it. In the movie, three has-been movie actors get mistaken for injustice-fighting heroes and are called on by a poor village in Mexico to defend them against their local guerrilla bully named “El Guapo.” The irony of the situation is hilarious: the actors, although in immediate mortal danger, think they’re filming a movie. Because they don’t see the reality, they face off against the bandits with a careless bravado. It’s easy to be brave when you’re pretending.

Things come to a screeching halt when one of the (real) gunfighters fires a shot which grazes the arm of one of the actors (Steve Martin) and suddenly he sees the truth: this isn’t a movie. The danger is real. In an unforgettable scene, Martin walks up to the other two actors and says,  “Uh…This is real. They’re going…to kill us.” And everyone starts to cry.

It may be a crass comparison, but I stood in so many of those sacred spots in the Holy Land and the phrase that kept coming to mind was “Uh…this is real.” I thought to myself, how could I have been so careless, thinking I understood so much more than I do? When you look out at the Sea of Galilee and imagine Jesus walking on the waves, it changes your perspective. When you see the garden where he prayed before his arrest, the reality comes crashing in: this is real. HE is real. A real man walked on these real streets and really died to rescue the world from sin.

I’ll be digesting the experience for some time, probably for the rest of my life. You’ll probably see a few reflections on this site as I process my thoughts. I can tell you two things: I’ll never read the Bible the same way, and, of course, you have to go.