Songwriting Tip: Only One Thing

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One of the biggest challenges in writing a worship song is to narrow the focus.

Many times novice songwriters in particular have way too many unrelated ideas. A song bounces from God’s love, to his power, to his forgiveness, like a man in a shooting gallery at the fair – firing first at the row of ducks, then up at the targets, then over to the bears, then back at the ducks.

One way to focus is to state in one sentence what the song is about.

For example, you might say, “I want to write a song about how God is faithful to us when we are suffering.” Or “I want to write a song about how God is true to his promises.” Sometimes when I’ve floundered for hours on a song I’ve asked myself: “In one sentence, what do I want to say?” and it has brought clarity to the process.

After stating a clear theme sentence, make every verse and every line about that theme.

Go through your song line by line and ask yourself if each one is about the topic. Do any lines take the song in a different direction? Be ruthless. Don’t settle for filler lines or easy rhymes that don’t fit the theme.

Work hard to craft the best song you can for God’s glory.

photo by holeymoon

Don’t Eat The Chocolate Ones

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Ok, maybe the fake M-80 was not such a good idea illustration for Children’s Ministry.

How could I know the kids would take me so seriously? I thought they might get a little nervous, but how could I anticipate some would run out of the building, terrified, as if being chased by an enraged rhinoceros? Hey, we made a memory, didn’t we? And that was part of what Celebration was all about – making memories as families, singles and churches from all over came together for 3 days of worship, teaching and fun.

The second evening the three hundred 4th through 6th graders came back, excited for another night of games, worship, teaching and skits. The theme of the evening was temptation. My goal: teach that when the devil tempts us, he shows the bait and hides the hook. He doesn’t come prancing in wearing red tights with a pitchfork.

So that’s what we began with – a guy wearing red tights, horns and a cape, gliding around the room, hunched over, saying in an Elizabethan English accent, “May I tempt you? May I interest you in some…evil?”

The kids howled. The guy was brilliant. Snidely Whiplash-like, he’d occasionally let fly a sinister, “Nya-ah-ah-ah-ahhhhhhh!” then slither up to the next person to try to tempt them.

Point made. “The devil doesn’t tempt us like this, does he kids? No, what does he do?”

“He shows the bait and hides the hook.”

“Alright boys and girls, we’re going to have a little snack right now.” Applause. “I have to go do something in the other room, but Mr. H will be in charge of snacks.”

Out came trays laden with mostly golden brown cookies, but on every tray a few chocolate ones.

Mr. H said, “Boys and girls, let me warn you, you shouldn’t eat the chocolate cookies.”

Perfect. I came back in for Temptation Part 2. Mr. H had warned the kids NOT to eat the chocolate cookies – and for good reason. I’d had them baked with laundry detergent in them. I figured when the trays came back to the stage, they’d have only chocolate cookies on them, since the kids would heed Mr. H. Then I’d try to tempt one or two of the boys to eat one, saying, “Look how good it looks. Doesn’t it smell delicious?”

But something wasn’t right. When the trays came back to the stage, there were no chocolate cookies on them. I began to get that vague “lawsuit” feeling again.

“Hey kids!” I yelled. “Did anybody eat the chocolate cookies?” Dozens of hands shot up in the air.

“You ate those? Do you know what was in them?”

“YEAH!” They yelled in chorus. “SOAP!”

The “LAWSUIT” sign was flashing again.

There went my illustration. I couldn’t tempt them to eat the chocolate cookies – they’d snarfed them down quicker than I would be able to say, “You don’t have to fire me, I’ll resign. Why didn’t they listen to Mr. H?

Now I knew what Paul was talking about when he said he never would have coveted till the Law said, “Do not covet.”

Fortunately, there was no harm done, no lawsuits, and only a couple kids got stomach aches later that night. Hopefully it taught them not to neglect grown-ups warnings. All was well. And we still had pickled pigs feet to eat the following night…

photo by wenday :D

Music Review: “Watch the Rising Day” and “The Medicine”

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Watch the Rising Day is the latest album from Matthew Smith. Matthew is a singer-songwriter who writes songs largely based on centuries old hymns, and is also a founding member of “Indelible Grace”. According to the Smith, his latest album:

…explores the tension of living in that brokenness [of a fallen world] while awaiting the day when Earth and Heaven will meet and be made new.

I recently got my hands on Matthew’s latest album and had a chance to sit down and listen to it. Here’s a quick review:

Lyrics:

This album is very strong lyrically. Because Matthew bases most of his songs on hymns, the lyrics are rich and thoroughly biblical. The beauty of the lyrics is that they are very poetic and yet still full of sound doctrine. As a songwriter, I know how difficult that is to accomplish. If you buy this album, you will benefit from the deep, biblical lyrics.

Lyrics Rating: 7.75

Music:

The music for this album is pretty good. Unfortunately, I didn’t walk away from the album with any particular melodies running through my head, which is one way I gauge the creativity and catchiness of the music and melodies. But, the music isn’t bad either.

Music Rating: 6

Recommendation:

This album is worth buying, particularly if you enjoy old hymns redone. You can pre-order the album here (if you pre-order you immediately get to download it as well). Enter the coupon code “BLAZING” for 25% off the album.

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I’ve also been listening to John Mark McMillan’s latest album, The Medicine. Here’s my take:

Lyrics:

I’m not sure how I feel about the lyrics for this album. Some of the songs have really gripping, poetic phrases to describe our relationship with God. For example, in the song “Death In His Grave”, he says:

So three days in darkness slept
The Morning Sun of righteousness
But rose to shame the throes of death
And over turn his rule

That’s a really cool way of talking about the death and resurrection of Christ. But then you also have phrases like:

Peel back the veil of time
And let us see You with our naked eyes
We just wanna’ love you
We just wanna’ love you

That sounds cool, but I’m not really sure what it means. We’ll see Jesus with our eyes in heaven, but we’ll never see the Father with our naked eyes. So I’m not sure what he means by this phrase. If you buy the album, listen with discernment.

Lyrics Rating: 5

Music:

This album has a really cool feel. It has a raw, under produced, folk-rock feel that I really like. Personally, I think a lot of Christian music sounds very similar, and is actually a bit boring. The Medicine does not feel like a standard CCM album.

John Mark McMillan also came up with some really good melodic hooks that have stuck with me for several weeks now. He knows how to write a song.

Music Rating: 8

Recommendation:

Buy the album, even if it’s just for the music. You’ll enjoy it. You can buy it here.

No Wasted Suffering

Does it ever feel like your suffering is a waste?

It can be really hard to see through suffering, because it’s always right in our face, demanding that we look it in the eye. The headache. The difficult job. The tight budget. The constant conflict with your unsaved spouse.

We can be tempted to think, is God doing anything? Why am I going through this? How can any good come out of this absolutely awful situation?

But thankfully, our suffering isn’t for nothing. God has a reason, a purpose, the smile of providence behind the dark clouds. James tells us:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)

Do you notice how James tells us to count it joy when we encounter trials of various kinds? Not just big, “I’ll probably give a testimony about this someday” kind of trials. All trials. Even the little, annoying things, that don’t seem exactly like trials but still tempt us to grumble and complain. Yeah, count those as joy too.

Why? Because God is using every trial to produce steadfastness in us. God doesn’t want us to be weak, easily knocked down, weak-kneed Christians. He wants steadfast, strong, faithful, promise-believing Christians, who have had their faith tested and strengthened by trials.

He doesn’t waste suffering. Not one minute of heartache or one bit of headache is wasted by God. It’s all ordained by him for the purpose of making us steadfast.

So don’t give up. Don’t give in to despair. You can count your trials as joy because God is using to harden your faith.

And The Children Were Running And Screaming

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I’m looking forward to this week, for I get to do a few messages at the Youth Camp of our sister church in Knoxville, TN.

Last week when I put in some requests for props to use during my messages – a large rock with a face painted on it, the arm of a mannequin, a dead octopus – I remembered some great times teaching 4th – 6th graders at “Celebration,” an event our churches used to hold each May on the local campus.

One of my favorite memories is the time I taught on anger. I created a fake M-80 firecracker by wrapping black construction paper around a prescription bottle and attaching a 3-foot fuse to it. The fuse was a kind that is impossible to extinguish. You can blow on it, stomp on it, even dunk it in water and it will keep burning.

I told the 300 kids that night that if we keep giving in to anger, eventually it will lead to much worse things. Like this firecracker, I said, producing my fake, yet very real looking prop. This is an M-80, which is 1/8 of a stick of dynamite. Once some friends threw one into a room I was in and when it blew up it was so loud I couldn’t hear afterward for a few seconds. It felt like it sucked out all the air in the room and I couldn’t breathe.

Now I had the rapt, if not somewhat nervous, attention of every single child in the class. I continued:

Now if I were to keep lighting this and putting it out, eventually it would get down to the firecracker and it would blow up. That’s the way anger is. It leads to worse and worse things. Now I’m going to light this fuse just once and let it burn for just a few seconds, but don’t worry, I’ll put it out before it gets down to the firecracker.

Now I definitely had their attention. A few kids shifted in their seats. Some of the adult helpers began to look at one another with slightly nervous looks on their faces.

Alrighty, here we go, I said, striking a match and lighting the fuse. The 3-foot fuse blazed, crackled and smoked like a sparkler. I let it burn 6 inches, then a foot. The tension rose in the room. Lots of nervous shuffling.

Don’t worry kids, I’m going to put it out in just a second. I waited till the anxiety level reached maximum height, then put the firecracker on the stage. Ok, I’m going to stomp it out now. Stomp, stomp. The fuse kept burning. Stomp, stomp, stomp. What’s going on? I yelled, panic in my voice. Looking over at fellow-pastor, Bill, who was serving with me, I yelled, Bill, it won’t go out! It’s gonna blow! Then I jumped off the stage.

Pandemonium broke out. Kids screamed and covered their ears. Some bolted past the adult helpers and out the door and out of the building onto the campus, chased by the helpers who had been given charge of their safety.

At that point I deduced that perhaps I had gone a bit far with my illustration. I could see the word LAWSUIT flashing in large neon letters in my mind. I could see me starting my new job as a poop scooper in the local kennel, after being released from prison, saying to people, Yeah, I used to be a pastor until I scare the living wits out of 300 kids.

Fortunately, all the kids were corralled, no one was hurt and no one sued me. I learned my lesson. At least until the next night, when I gave out cookies with laundry detergent in them…

photo by gaptone

Win Free Books!

Today I’m giving away three new books that were released by Crossway Books. They are…

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The Glory of God edited by Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson. This book is described in the following way:

Few topics are more crucial or central to the doctrine and daily life of a Christian than the glory of God. Despite its importance, however, few exhaustive books have been written on the subject. Andreas Kostenberger, Tremper Longman, Richard Gaffin, and other evangelical scholars and theologians have now collaborated to fill the void and help the church teach and protect this precious doctrine.

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A Way with Words: What Women Should Know about the Power They Possess by Christin Ditchfield. This book is about:

In A Way with Words, author and veteran speaker Christin Ditchfield challenges women to embrace God’s gift of words and to think carefully about how they use it. She looks at twelve timeless principles as she calls all women to examine their hearts, recognize when words are their weapon of choice, and learn how to steward this blessing to bring life, healing, and encouragement. Each chapter includes wisdom from influential women throughout history and a Bible study for individuals and small groups.

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Meaning at the Movies: Becoming a Discerning Viewer by Grant Horner. This book is about…

By exploring the relationship between Christianity and art, the theology of biblical discernment, and a brief history of filmmaking, as well as through analysis of popular films, Meaning at the Movies equips readers for careful discernment in the cinema. The book does not simply list criteria for judging film art; instead it encourages Christians to develop biblical and critical discernment in regard to not only film, but all aspects of culture.

Here’s how to win one of these books:

  • Leave a comment saying which book you want to win.
  • On Monday I’ll arbitrarily choose three winners, based on the content of their comments.

That’s it. Get it on like Donkey Kong.