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.

—Selah

—PLR—

©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. )


7 Replies to “Music, Lambs and Craftsmanship”

  1. Jonell

    Phil,

    Nicely said, even if it did take 13 re-writes.
    Whenever I walk into a room that’s decorated with great taste I say to myself, “Nicely done!” And that’s how I felt about this entry. I know you and I know the editing work you put into your entries on Vibrance to make sure that your written word conveys your heart thoughts as clearly as possible. It takes work when we can’t hear any voice inflection or see any facial expression or body language.

    I also know the hours you would spend practicing and preparing for a musical number so that you might present it with excellence (not only for an earthly audience) but as a gift to your Creator.

    As a child I used to listen to our Dad reading out-loud the Sunday morning Scripture reading at home … practicing it over and over until it flowed smoothly for him. That way when he read it on Sunday as part of the morning service, he didn’t stumble over words which might distract or draw attention away from the message of that scripture.

    Another example: When President Gerald R. Ford passed away, the military troops involved in his funeral recognized that the eyes of the nation and world would be on them. I read somewhere on the web that the military would practice until they all felt comfortable with their duties of marching and carrying the casket upstairs and downstairs and until they could do it to perfection.

    I have in my head a tune to Isaiah 41:11 that I made up in high school, but it’s not been perfected so it is one of those little songs I sing to myself (like you mentioned) when I trim the hedge, drive, mow, rake and shovel.

    We are singing and/or playing for the King of kings, and we should present to Him our very best.

    Jonell

    P.S. You’ll never get in trouble here for writing what’s on your mind. It’s your blog site … you can say anything you want! 😉

  2. Phil

    Why thank you, Jonell! In a class I took from Jerry Jenkins he said a person has to be a better re-writer than writer to do well.

    I’m convinced the same holds true of musicians and other artists. Re-work. Re-hearse. Re-tune. Re-make.

    Generally speaking it seems the church is giving the Lord less than her best much of the time. “Just as you are” has become the prevailing mindset for too many of us, dulling and tarnishing the quality of what we MIGHT bring to the Lord if we would spend the energy to finish the things we start in His name. Good enough often isn’t.

    Always glad for your encouraging comments!
    Phil—

  3. ExPreacherMan

    Hello Phil — and Jonell,

    Well written post…

    But do you suppose the Lord makes allowances, in His Grace, for the scribbling of an old half-blind ex-Preacher?

    On my Blog, I usually have Mom check it for me before it goes out and even then once posted it can be edited — but it is still my responsibility.

    But commenting on someone else’s Blog is a bigger problem because once posted it is out of the writer’s control.. Broadcast to all the world, warts and all…

    No re-writes on this comment. 😉

    Jack

  4. ExPreacherMan

    Phil,

    Don’t you think that music in a church should be, first and foremost, the Pastor’s responsibility?

    I believe if he allows junk he should be held accountable.

    But lots of folks don’t know good from bad and simply accept the music offering of the church.

    Mom and I attended a conservative Bible church, arriving late to avoid the “contemporary” music. We were surprised to be greeted with an African singing/playing/dancing group rocking, swinging and swaying the place. We left before they were finished performing.

    Arriving home I checked and found the group originated from, was sponsored by charismatic and pentecostal groups.

    The pastor justified it by saying he should have checked them out better — but the audience was “blessed.” 🙁

    That is a terrible excuse.

    Jack

  5. Phil

    Hi Jack,

    😀 I think there’s a difference between blogging and public worship, don’t you? Excellence is still a desirable thing, but … well, you know where I’m going. I’m thinking in this post about public or corporate worship.

    In the scenario you described, it sounds to me as though there was a combination of taste/preference as well as a departure from what that local church had said it supports and endorses. In my mind those two factors each contributed to one rotten morning for you!

    I’ll answer the larger questions with questions, albeit rhetorical ones, and a bit of perspective so you can follow my logic.

    Who is responsible to see that what he releases for use in general, public worship is the best he has to offer? Meets acceptable standards and can potentially make a difference in the church at large? I believe that’s the songwriter’s responsibility.

    Who is responsible to see, like Asaph and company did in 2 Chron. 5, that what is presented is the best we have as a local fellowship? That falls to the worship-leadership in a local church and the pastor’d better be on that team, even if he listens most of the time. You’re right – most folks don’t know, and in many parts of the country you can find anything you want to hear on the radio. 😆 I’ve met pastors who haven’t a clue either – that makes for interesting goings-on in services!

    Who is responsible for the flock? Guarding, teaching, serving, helping recover from the enemy’s onslaughts? (Thinking of 1 Peter 5 in particular) Those God has asked to shepherd His flock.

    Who is responsible for teaching and equipping God’s people toward maturity and stability? (Thinking of Ephesians 4) The pastors and teachers. I’ve had considerable responsibility for the worship life of churches I’ve served through the years. It was entrusted to me by the pastor and elder leadership of the congregation as I began, and I took very seriously my responsibility to teach worship and music participants the principles behind my decision-making so they could serve well also. The hardest aspect of “in spirit and in truth” (John 4) is the word “and”.

    Who is responsible for modelling how things ought to work when something goes wrong? I can’t find where he’s quoted in the Bible but Bear Bryant always used to say, “If it went great you-all did it. If it went so-so, we did it. If it was terrible, I did it.” (or something to that effect.) No excuses. Own it, recover, and press on (Paul said something about that as I recall) We saw a pair of great leadership examples last Sunday. They coached across the field from each other, and the world is still talking about how they treat their teams and each other. The church can too, I believe.

    Who is responsible for teaching the younger as sons in the faith? (thinking of 1 Timothy, especially 1.2 and 5) Those of us who’ve been around a while. It gets complicated when someone’s not teachable, but the Lord has a way of intervening before long in those settings. How commendable it would be if we could help and teach each other, “let me show you a better way, may I?” teaching and training each other toward godliness! I’ve been in congregations where people are afraid of being criticized and cut to shreds. It paralyzes ministry. When those who fail or fall are treated unolvingly (instead of intentionally being brought back into fellowship, obedience and usefulness) the church becomes a place to avoid after a while. Or if you attend, you make sure you wear your full armour -the self-protective kind, not the armour from Ephesians 6- cuz someone may just let you have it before you can get back to the car!

    (Nuff questions … )

    I believe it is the responsibility of a church’s pastoral staff, whether there’s one or a dozen, to know God. Really know Him.
    Know their people. Really know and understand them (more on that in a forthcoming post)
    and in a loving, balanced way, effectively teach their people (because they know them well)
    how to love and honor God all day every day, with their best, doing what He asks, honoring one another, bringing new ones into the faith as a regular part of spiritual growth and development.
    That would include music, teaching skills, evangelism methods and techniques, personal holiness, financial responsibility and stewardship, how to preach effectively, how to send, and how to serve the subdivision where the church building sits, — everything.

    God doesn’t ask any more of us than our best, but it is what He expects of us. And if we’re growing, moving from “fruit” to “more fruit” to “much fruit”, our harvest will exemplify that same growth over time.

    God expects a lot of us (my opinion). The point I hoped to make in this post is that we’re slacking off, at least musically. We’re letting less than our best slip through the filters, and the Lord of All deserves better than what we’re bringing Him.

    There’s a guy here at work who wears a T-shirt now and then that says:
    Slackers do TOO give 100%
    Just not all on the same day. 😆

    We can’t let that mindset creep into our public worship!

  6. wonderfulexchange

    Dear Phil — so glad you found my blog earlier and that the return jouney led me here. Superb blogging performance. And while I’m sure God’s sense of humour makes up for our musical sins, you’ve given us an important reminder of the importance of offering our best.

    Kimberly

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