Theology Through Music

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Singing-worship on Sunday morning is a difficult time for me to worship; I have a tendency to let my mind wander and not focus on the Object of our worship.

I used to blame it on seven-eleven songs,1 musical arrangements built for vocal acrobats, or skinny-jean worship leaders. As I’ve matured a little, I’ve realized that while these may be factors, the lion’s share of the blame rests on my own two shoulders. I’m not very good at this worship thing.

One way that I’m trying to combat this is by reflecting on the truth (or lack thereof in some unfortunate cases) of the lyrics that are being sung. As a sermon to myself as much as anything else, I want to take a moment to do this with some of our modern-day hymns.

Build Your Kingdom Here

By the Rend Collective

This is a song of Supplication– of pleading with God to do something- in this case build up the Kingdom promised by Jesus. The entire song is essentially a prayer asking God to work through His Church to do good in a fallen world.

On one hand, it stands as a reminder that while we may (and should) seek to be a force for good in this world, such efforts must be rooted in Christ. If we try to bypass Him or replace Him with something, our efforts are doomed to failure and corruption. The best case scenario is for this pseudo-savior (be it humanistic optimism, mere affection, or tradition) crumbles and dies under the weight of a God-needing world. However, C.S. Lewis hints at a darker possible outcome where this false-Love reveals itself as a metaphorical demon which devours and twists the Church into something evil. This song reminds us that even in times of optimism we are dependent on Christ.

On the other hand, this song is also a reminder of the Church’s responsibility to act, and to act like Christ’s body. In case you were distracted by the gaggle of dancing Irish hipsters2, here is the final verse:

Unleash Your kingdom’s power
Reaching the near and far
No force of hell can stop
Your beauty changing hearts
You made us for much more than this
Awake the kingdom seed in us
Fill us with the strength and love of Christ

We are Your church
Oh, and we are the hope
On earth

Notice the last two lines? “We are the hope on earth”? To me this line always seemed profoundly arrogant. I’m in the midst of explaining to my family how a religion which claims to be Jesus’ body, to be “the hope on earth”, can have voted a wicked man into office. I recognize that many of my church brothers and sisters voted this way in a conscience-rending choice between two perceived evils, and that the election deserves a discussion of its own. Nevertheless it leaves  it made it very difficult for me to sing this song in good conscience and to many outside the Church this line comes with a bitter taste.

At the same time, it’s not wrong. Having read Ephesians and the glorious description of what Jesus has done and what His plans are for the Church, I have come to see this last verse more as a solemn reminder: We are His Church; we are the hope on earth. Paul tells us that God is working all things for our good, to make us like Jesus.3 We’re the hope on earth because of what Jesus is doing.

10,000 Reasons

By Matt Redman

This is a song of Self-Exhortation. I believe it is based off of Psalm 103, and it differentiates itself from the last hymn in that the singer is addressing not God, but his own soul:

Bless the Lord oh my soul
Oh my soul
Worship His Holy name
Sing like never before
Oh my soul
I’ll worship Your Holy name

Contemporary wisdom is convinced that we should be ourselves. To the “Old Man” this is a false gospel of self-actualization. To the “New Man” it contains an element of truth. God made us each differently with different roles in His Church. He gives us different temperaments and personalities, strengths and weaknesses, gifts and abilities. I think embracing how God has made us (as opposed to coveting how He made others) is key to serving Him.

However, there are still times when we find that “the old man is not as dead as we thought”4 and I need to tell myself what to do. These are the times when I need to remind myself of what Jesus has done. In order- odd though it may sound- to stop my old self from controlling me. On Sunday mornings this is often a reminder to worship.

That being said, for some reason the first verse always reminds me of Rebekah Black’s “Friday.” It’s hard to un-hear. You’re welcome.

One Righteous Man

By King’s Kaleidoscope

This is a song of Lament. It’s a song that mourns the evil in this world (which we have perpetrated). You don’t hear these songs as often- the minor key and wailing guitar solos don’t feel encouraging and uplifting. They are, however, necessary.

The reality is that our world is deeply, profoundly broken. There are natural disasters which ruin lives. There are families and churches ripping themselves apart through sin and selfishness every day. There are sins which we ourselves have committed or have been committed against us

The greatest evidence of this world’s brokenness is in the way it treated Jesus. Think about it: Jesus came on a mission of mercy. He didn’t compromise the Truth, but He also practiced profound love. He lived a perfectly moral life, but also associated with the lowest of society. He humbled Himself to the point where He not only became part of His own creation, but He suffered under its abuse. And Abuse we did. We killed Him. This is the message of this song. It’s lamentable.

When I sing this song, the part that kills me the most is that deep down I know that if I had been a first century Jew, I would have been yelling “Crucify Him!” along with the rest. If I had been a Roman centurion, I would have coldly discharged my executional duty. Deep down, I am a bad person. Heck, if it weren’t for God’s grace at work in my life, I would still be a 21st century Pharisee under a different banner; I’ve been one most my life. It’s lamentable.

There are many of us in the Church who are sensitive to this brokenness to almost a prophetic degree. We feel the brokenness of this world as a weight on our own shoulders in a way that is difficult to articulate in words. This difficulty is compounded in a culture where it’s not OK to not be “fine”; where we often get written off as merely depressed.

Lament surprises the worshiper by revealing itself as a mechanism by which Jesus blesses those who mourn and comforts them. By lamenting the state of the world in worship, we recognize our utter dependence and need for Jesus’ grace. By recognizing our need for grace, we find that it has been given to us before the music fades away- the burden has been lifted (at least in part) in a way that an optimistic or “encouraging” song never could.

This is only possible because the Christian lament does not end in dispair. This song ends with the line “One Righteous Man has many more righteous men made.” The lamentable treatment of Jesus was not a victory over Him, and there is a happy ending to the story, even if the journey to that end is long.

We Have not Loved Thee

By Thomas Pollock, re-arranged by Team Strike Force or the Northern Conspiracy5

This is a song of Confession. If you’re Catholic this means going into a little wood booth and talking with a priest about all the bad things you did. If you’re Protestant, it means saying “I’m sorry.” For us, it means saying “I did this. It was wrong and it hurt you. I wish I hadn’t. Please forgive me.”In general, people have become good at saying sorry without confessing. We have phrases like “I’m sorry that happened” (but it wasn’t really my fault), or “I’m sorry. I only did it because …” (It was a necessary evil), or “I’m sorry you feel that way” (It’s really your fault for reacting that way). None of these are confession, and when directed towards God none of these are recognizing the Gospel. Conversely, when we do it properly as part of worship, we recognize our need for Jesus.This song in particular has been an immense blessing to me. Our church used to sing it frequently and it always brought me closer to Jesus. It’s actually a hundred-plus year old hymn which has aged well thanks to a re-arrangement thanks to our ex-Mars Hill brethren. An excerpt below:

We have not loved Thee as we ought,
Nor cared that we are loved by Thee;
Thy presence we have coldly sought,
And feebly longed Thy face to see.
Lord, give a pure and loving heart
To feel and know the love Thou art.

First, this song makes confession personal. In the same way that lament mourns the condition of the world, confession mourns the condition of our own hearts. Mere lament would allow us to lament what the world has done, or what our Christian brothers and sisters have done. Confession strips us of our deflection or excuses and makes us admit that we need forgiveness just as much as everyone else.Second, this song does not permit a superficial confession. I’m pretty good at hiding the bad things I do (at least I think I am). The things that truly distress me, that truly make me feel ashamed are buried down deep inside. Each verse of this song shines light into the heart and illuminates these things- not appreciating God, not fearing God, not loving God, not serving God. I find that when we sing this song it allows me to start crying out to God for the help I really need.

It is Finished

By Dustin Kensrue

This is a song of Proclomation. It announces God’s victory to ourselves, each other, and the world.

Periodically I suffer from depression. I maintain that it is the proper response to a depressing world where leaders abuse, people suffer, Adam’s Curse works against us, and brother murders brother- even in the Church that’s supposed to be “the hope of Earth.” At the same time, it is not a healthy place to pitch one’s dwelling.

Recognizing that I am prone to these times of despondency, and that their causes aren’t going away this side of eternity, I’ve been assembling a musical treatment to help me process these emotions in a healthy way. This song is the conclusion. Listen to the first part of the chorus:

It is finished! He has done it!
Let your weary heart rejoice
Our redemption is accomplished
Raise a shout with ragged voice

It is finished! These were Jesus’ dying words, and they summarize the victorious paradox of the cross: The Sovereign [absolute king] of the universe has been (voluntarily) reduced and humbled to the point of becoming one of us. Having come to His people as promised, He is rejected. His teachings are misunderstood and ignored, His friends have deserted Him, His enemies are mocking the savior for His inability to save Himself as He is crucified.

At this moment, when it should be apparent that the Enemy has won by scattering Jesus’ followers and turning His people against Him, Jesus declares that He has accomplished His work. It is finished. The game of cosmic chess (if I may be permitted this poetic liberty) is not concluded, but the Chess Master has declared that there are only so many moves left before His certain victory. The game is finished- at this point He is just playing out of courtesy.

While this song is focused on the redemptive work that Jesus finished on the cross, this principle can be extended further:

Are there wars, natural disasters, and political strife? It is finished.

Is my family coming apart? It is finished.

Are my friends abandoning me? It is finished.

Is there infighting within the church? It is finished.

In theological terms, I’ve known of God’s sovereignty (how could the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good, all-wise King not be in charge?), but this song has helped me to begin to appreciate the depth of this truth and make it real in my life.

This seems a good hymn to conclude this reflection on. I hope this kind of reflection is beneficial to you as you worship.

  1. Songs with seven words sung eleven times. []
  2. A term I use with affection; it honestly reminds me of my own church six years ago- a time I remember fondly. []
  3. Romans 8:28-29 []
  4. C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves. Yeah, I referenced it twice. It’s that good. []
  5. It’s not clear which band sang this song; if you know, let me know in the comments! []