I’m a pastor who writes hymns on occasion. I do this because I enjoy the creative outlet; because it’s an extremely edifying exercise to turn spiritual concepts over in my mind looking for just the right word, and therefore really contemplating what a doctrine or text means; because I think having fresh expressions of biblical truth for worship is a good thing. However, my songs tend to be rhyming sermons. In my estimation, they have all the subtlety of a jackhammer. They are lessons, and if they make people think of biblical doctrine, I’m thrilled.
But I think this is true: I’m much more pastor than poet. Eileen Berry is a poet. Consider her beautiful portrayal of human need and divine salvation in Carol of Joy:
Green leaves all fallen, withered and dry;
Brief sunset fading, dim winter sky.
Lengthening shadows, Dark closing in…
Then, through the stillness, carols begin!
Oh fallen world, to you is the song—
Death holds you fast and night tarries long.
Jesus is born, your curse to destroy!
Sweet to your ears, a carol of Joy!
Pale moon ascending, solemn and slow;
Cold barren hillside, shrouded in snow;
Deep, empty valley veiled by the night;
Hear angel music—hopeful and bright!
Oh fearful world, to you is the song—
Peace with your God, and pardon for wrong!
Tidings for sinners, burdened and bound—
A carol of joy! A Saviour is found!
Earth wrapped in sorrow, lift up your eyes!
Thrill to the chorus filling the skies!
Look up sad hearted—witness God’s love!
Join in the carol swelling above!
Oh friendless world, to you is the song!
All Heaven’s joy to you may belong!
You who are lonely, laden, forlorn—
Oh fallen world! Oh friendless world!
A Saviour is born!
Reflect on that imagery for a while. Think about it. Muse on the picture of the lost world in spiritual winter being contrasted with the warm hope offered by Christ. Even better, consider the simultaneously subtle and pleading invitation for the fallen, fearful, and friendless world to embrace the Savior. Beautiful.
Once you’ve digested the text, listen to it sung here. Dan Forrest has provided for it a setting that matches the text turn for turn, capturing its tragedy and triumph, despair and hope. The music is stunning; I almost want to say haunting.
That’s good stuff. Again, think about it. I didn’t appreciate the nuance of the piece until I had read it and heard it several times. Nice.
As I said, I’m a pastor. I could probably improve as a poet, and I should. Preaching with thought-provoking images and carefully-chosen words is a good thing, or at least can be if it sheds light on the biblical text and doesn’t get in its way. Furthermore, part of the secret of fine (or even just useful) poetry boils down to effort—refusing to “settle.” (So Eileen tells me.) Of course, that’s not to say there’s not a God-given “knack” that factors into it, as well, but diligence goes a long way.
On the other hand, I could probably work long and hard at the sort of imagery Eileen has captured in Carol of Joy and not succeed. That’s okay. I’m fine with writing explicit “sermons in song.” There’s a place for truth that slaps you in the face rather than subtly sneaking up on you, especially for congregational singing. But that said, I sure admire the work of a real poet.
This is a great Christmas meditation. Thanks, Eileen. And thanks, Dan.
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