“If the imagination is shackled, and nothing is described but what we see, seldom will anything truly great be produced either in Painting or Poetry.”
Thomas Cole, painter, poet, essayist.
Here’s an American folk staple, that’s been done countless times by an array of musicians. “Hard Times Come Again No More” was written in 1859, by Stephen Foster. Foster wrote some songs you might also know – “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and “Swanee River” among others.
“Hard Times” has a tone of lament that some of Foster’s other songs don’t have. It also has an enduring, universal quality in the lyrics, in the call to “pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears, while we all sup sorrow with the poor.”
This is a fun tune to search for, and listen to a mix of covers. It has also lived up to a certain mark of true “folk” music, in that it’s been passed around as a cultural possession, in a sense. But here’s one of my favorites by Iron and Wine. Enjoy!
If you’re interested in the craft of writing at all, the following video is filled with some pretty great stuff. It’s Doug Wilson, Alan Jacobs, and N.D. Wilson (son of Doug), talking about all kinds of writing-related miscellany. Some of it is a little rough and extemporaneous in the back-and-forth, but taken on its own terms, makes for a fun time. Enjoy.
In his collection of essays What Are People For, Wendell Berry writes about the role of despair and sorrow in producing hope and joy. It’s just great.
Reading these essays has gotten better and better the further in I’ve gotten. It’s really some beautiful stuff. I only wish I was reading the physical copy of this collection, and not a kindle version on my iPhone…
Anyway, on suffering, Berry says,
“[S]omething more is involved that is even harder to talk about because it is only slightly understandable, and that is the part that suffering plays in the economy of the spirit. It seems plain that the voice of our despair defines our hope exactly; it seems, indeed, that we cannot know of hope without knowing of despair, just as we know joy precisely to the extent that we know sorrow…
“Is it necessary, as some appear to have supposed, to cultivate despair and sorrow in order to know hope and joy? No, for there will always be enough despair and sorrow. And what might have been the spiritual economy of Eden, when there was no knowledge of despair and sorrow? We don’t need to worry about that.”
Wendell Berry, from an essay entitled “A Poem of Difficult Hope.”
In complicity with my last post, on metaphors and what-not, this may be my favorite John Mark McMillan song. Gloriously heavy on metaphor, this song, as far as my experience goes, does the very best job I’ve heard of understanding what’s meant when God speaks of the Church as the “bride of Christ.” How does the redeemed family of God relate, somehow, to Christ as a bride does to her husband? Give this tune a few listens and you might get a sense of it. The themes in McMillan’s poetry here of redemption, longing, and resurrection, are powerful.
An added note (inspired by my “Oceans” post) on the poetic nature of these lyrics – we HAVE taken the chorus of this song and tagged it in corporate worship at our church, because it lends itself so well to that type of a setting. The verses, however, I wouldn’t use for corporate singing. I think the misunderstanding that happens in church music sometimes, is that because a songwriter produces some songs that are written more for corporate church worship than others, we superimpose one song’s nature over onto others that aren’t as well-suited for the same things, and think we can do them all in church. But some songs may just always be more well-suited than others, for certain contexts. Worship leaders, choose wisely. Gray areas abound here, so that’s all the self-conscious, self-explaining I’ll do for now.
All that to say, I think this song may be the under-appreciated masterpiece from McMillan thus far.
I’ve had a few good conversations this past week, with friends who plan and lead corporate worship, about evaluating the songs we choose to sing together in our churches. I think these conversations ultimately edified all parties involved, though not everyone ended up in mutual agreement. It all serves as a good reminder to me of some of the dividing lines right now in corporate worship, as well as a reminder of the reasons we pick the songs we do at our church. It might not be surprising that my conversations centered around the merits of Hillsong’s “Oceans” and John Mark McMillan’s “How He Loves,” and whether or not these (and songs like them) are good choices for gathered, corporate singing.
First of all, “Oceans” has proven much more popular than “How He Loves,” though both have been pretty huge the past few years. “Oceans” has really been the “silver bullet,” “hip new thing” of the past year, placing as one of the top 10 most-searched-for, and most-downloaded songs of 2014 from the CCLI database; and judging from what I read on The Worship Community and what I see and hear about from other local worship leaders and churches, this song has been played quite a bit the past year. It really resonates with lots of folks, and I’ve gotten quite a few suggestions for it too. But we don’t play it at our church for corporate worship. Here’s why. Please don’t write me off as a curmudgeon.
Just know at the outset that I really do love both “Oceans” and “How He Loves.” My heart has been drawn to worship Christ through listening to, and being led to sing along to these songs. I think they’re beautifully written, and pretty well-crafted in melody and in lyric. But these are two very current examples of a “type” of song that I find unhelpful to include too often in the gathered worship repertoire of a local church.
The problem I do have with these songs, is that they’re so heavy on metaphor and figurative language, that meaning is obscured. This is a problem in corporate worship. As a worship leader, I’ve grown to be uncomfortable leading songs that don’t speak clearly enough for themselves, at face value, through their lyrics. The category lines are a little fuzzy here; but certain songs make me feel the need, if I’m the one leading the singing, to explain the meaning of the lyrics every time we include the song in a worship set. I think songs like this are potentially dangerous for Christians, in a corporate singing context, because the time will inevitably come when the worship leader decides not to, or forgets, to explain the lyrics. And I’ve learned that poetic metaphors are not, I repeat NOT always clear to everyone present. When the metaphors aren’t clear, our fallible human intellects and emotions are “prone to wander” and take our thoughts places the songwriter didn’t intend. Or, in a more worst-case scenario, we can erroneously fill a self-centered and/or heretical meaning into lyrics where the meaning is fuzzy or veiled to begin with.
Again, “Oceans” and “How He Loves” are two popular songs that aren’t wrong to sing and worship with. But I think there are definitely better songs to build into our churches’ regular rotations – songs that are clear, and where the Gospel truths are rock-solid and gloriously expressed. Like I said to a friend (who thankfully agreed with me!), I think “Oceans” is a song that might be best worshiped-with on an individual basis, at home or in your car, when you know exactly what you mean when you sing along – not in a corporate setting with a couple hundred people gathered and singing together. If you’re interested, Thabiti Anyabwile’s book The Life of God in the Soul of the Church has a super helpful chapter on evaluating the lyrical style and content of church music.
I don’t think that was too curmudgeonly. I hope not.
There is no ideal polity, or political system, in the world the way that it is now. Really good stuff from Jonathan Leeman. Read his whole article here.
“[T]here is no ideal polity apart from renewed and regenerate hearts. You can have God’s chosen king and a divinely revealed law, and still a nation will lurch toward idolatry, injustice, child sacrifice, oppressing the poor and foreigner, and ruling by bribery.
The truly ideal polity combines not only righteous laws, but hearts that actually want to obey those laws. And that ideal polity can in fact be found in the new covenant, regenerate church.
Really, this is the topic for another article. But for the record, it is the local church that should act as God’s ideal polity on planet earth. Churches are Christ’s kingdom embassies of God’s justice and righteousness, and they are to provoke the wonder and envy of the nations.
Where will swords first be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks as enemies learn to love one another? Where should we look for “the just and lasting peace” that Abraham Lincoln pined for in his second inaugural? Where should we expect to see little black boys and girls sitting down with little white boys and girls, as Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed? In your church and mine. There the end of history has broken into the present, and we find God’s version of the ideal polity.”