Making Songs For Saints
‘The Holy Spirit: shy member of the Trinity’ (Bruner & Hordern) is a much-loved book of mine. The title could have been applied to a famous icon of the Trinity, where they’re seated around a table. Each one is leaning toward another, as if to say, ‘Don’t look at me. Look at him!’ Inter-dependence personified!
Song makers can take a leaf out of that book. Like any other Christian, they ‘are merely servants, doing their duty’ (Lk 17:8). This isn’t meant to down-play their role, but to understand that they have been given a gift, and their job is to use it. Not for their own good or glory, but for the good of the community.
This particular servant was going to be a minister, but an angel called Dorothy showed me a better way! I’ve been making songs for over 40 years, mostly for Christian communities to sing together. I understand my job to be not very different from that of the preacher/worship leader. In fact, I find it hard to separate the role of writer from worship leader. I do both of course, & each role complements the other.
In our circles, we don’t use the term ‘pastoral musician’, but I think I’d place myself in this category. And when it comes to making new songs, I’d say I’m a ‘pastoral songwriter’. I’d also put quite a few others there: John Bell. John Ylvisaker, Bernadette Farrell, Leigh Newton, Dave Brown …. I’d better stop, because most of the current writers I appreciate are in this bunch!
The songs I write are predominantly to nurture the faith of Christians, to explore, discover, deepen the relationship with God, the understanding of the many different aspects of God. And I know that the journey I’m on is as much a personal one as it is for the good of others.
I think that’s how God get’s things done.
So along with the gift of writing for the people of God lies a dissatisfaction with previous efforts, my own, but probably more of others. Yes, a certain arrogance is needed as well (like the 9 lead guitarists watching the one change the light bulb, all saying, ‘I could do that!’)
My making songs for the saints has involved some of the following — they’re important for me:
♪ Singable tunes. This probably means in today’s culture that they won’t be as ‘pop’ as some songs. Not too syncopated, in a good range. A bit ‘plain-jane’ perhaps but I think many of the simplest tunes work best of all. ‘Amazing Grace’ we all know about. The so-called children’s song, ‘If you’re black or if you’re white’ is simplicity itself & yet endlessly singable & enjoyable. Likewise, ‘The Blind Man’.
Our Australian culture seems determined to leave behind community singing, to put it in the dustbin of history. Yes, there are some good efforts being made in quite a few places, but singing is for professionals (listen to footballers ‘singing’ their club song in victory; or try getting a bunch of high school kids to sing together. Yes, there are exceptions!). One of my aims is to get under the guard of supposedly non-singers & get them singing unawares.
♪ Understandable words It’s always impressed me that Jesus used the ordinary language of his day. And he used everyday images to speak of the profound truths about God & God’s love & concern for us all. Not holy words, but everyday words & pictures.
I’m pleased that one of the well-known melodies of mine is for Aub Podlich’s ‘A Christmas Blessing’ (May the feet of God walk with you). A very simple tune to support simple but profound words — God-present is emphasised by the use of body parts (feet, hand, eye, ear) & expressions (smile, cry). Words to be appreciated by churched & unchurched people alike.
♪ It’s the Gospel! All kinds of subjects, a whole range of approaches, but the good news about Jesus — his death on the cross & us made saints by it — has always been at the forefront of my thinking & writing. More than any other feedback I get is an appreciation for this message coming through in the songs. Some examples:
§ ‘Father welcomes’ of course — the prodigal welcomed
§ ‘You are invited’, a song I wrote for KUCA (Kids of the Uniting Church) in Victoria: You are invited to God’s party, to God’s feast … You are invited to the life that never ends’.
§ ‘Comfort, comfort’ is full of promises, so much at the heart of the good news: ‘Though your tears be rivers running … every night will have its morning’.
♪ Be real, be true I wrote a wedding song of this title for our god-child, Luke Christian. It’s another theme I try to follow in all the songs:
Now you’re together forever, starting a journey that’s new,
Can you be honest & open & straight, be real, be true?
Romance is nice, but it passes, just like the fresh morning dew.
Everyday living needs everyday love – be real, be true.
Or, an older example, in ‘Pentecost Prayer:
If I’m rough, make me gentle
if my words are hard and sharp, soften this heart
Escapism is rampant in our culture. There’s plenty of technological & chemical avenues as well as many other ways. But God calls us to be in touch with ourselves & our world, not to be afraid of everyday dangers or wonders. It’s another reason for using plain language
♪ Water & Word, Bread & Wine Coming from Lutheran roots, & still firmly in this tradition, it’s not surprising that I’ve made a lot of songs that are directly or partly about baptism & communion. ‘Father welcomes’ & ‘Feed us Now’ are the best known, and personally I’d be happy to sing either or both of these every day.
But there are many other things to explore in the sacraments. So, for example, I made a baptismal song called ‘From the air & from the light’.
It grew out of the name given to a ‘miracle’ baby, born to a couple childless for 15 years. Airdre Luka means ‘of/from the air, of/from the light’. The name led to a song celebrating creation & the new creation:
God, you gave this world its shape, made it smell & feel & sound ….
… born of closeness, two made one, you are heaven’s pride and joy!’
I’ve done more communion songs, including ‘Bread of Angels’, which grew out of Ps 78, but leaned on many other texts, especially Wisdom 16. All songs, I think, are partly praise in one form or another, but this has more elements of that, and adoration:
You are the heart of laughter, the beauty we’re all after,
the perfect joy in every dream, you are the bread of angels.
♪ Celebrating a Down-To-Earth God At the heart of the Christian faith is the incarnation, God becoming a real human being, God with us, God one of us. Luther loved to celebrate it endlessly, and it came out in songs like ‘From heaven above to earth I come’. The church, throughout its history has seemed keen to leave it behind. But without it, we’re not Christian. It’s been a constant inspiration for me and, most controversially, was celebrated in the song ‘God. Version 1.0’:
I don't believe in a watchmaker above,
set this world going but now is not involved,
who from a distance is watching as we fall —
I believe in Jesus' God who suffers with us all.
♪ Listening to the Word It’s hard for me to think of many of my songs that don’t come out of a story, a text, a psalm in the Bible. I’m being true to my tradition here. The original Lutheran hymnbook, containing 14 pieces by one M Luther, was a musical catechism, teaching the Christian faith. Music is great for that. I’m a total non-fan of the current crop of love songs to God that might as well be about your lover or your dog for all they say about the object of devotion.
So I make songs that sing the word, reflect it, pray it. Sometimes that means confident, joyful songs. Sometimes it means sad, mournful ones. And that’s just a modest reflection of the Old Testament songbook. The Psalms have a whole range of human experience in them. So should our songs today. Here’s a cross-section of lines from mine:
So I’m walkin down the road with you … When I feel miserable, down and depressed … Everything we got you give us … You can come and join him at the party, Jesus said, It’s like a wedding feast … You must have heard the crying ground, come down and make it rain! … When his time was over, the palms lay where they fell … I have seen the Lord – Mary told them all
So, what do I hope to achieve with all this?
I hope I’m a helpful servant, that the songs I write nurture people, teach the faith, inspire, provide food for thought, help people to focus on what’s important in the faith. I hope that, above all, they help people to know Jesus better, and to trust him with their whole life.
I hope I’m making good songs for the saints.