Detail of Elenita de Jesús our Shekinah, by by Puerto Rican artist and art therapist Tamara Liz, LMHC, from Wikimedia Commons
Arjuna: Tell me all your divine attributes, leaving nothing unsaid. Tell me of the glories with which you fill the cosmos. (BG, 10:16)
When we start trying to talk about God, we quickly realize a couple of things: 1) God is indescribable, and 2) most language—even when it’s not about God—is metaphorical. The Bible is full of metaphors about God. God is a rock, a stronghold (2 Samuel 22:2-3), a master-builder and architect (Psalm 127:1), a mother eagle caring for chicks in her nest (Deuteronomy 32:11).
The second half of Chapter Ten of the Bhagavad Gita is mostly a series of metaphors. Among stars, he is the sun; among weapons, a thunderbolt; among mountains, he is the Himalayas; Among bodies of water, he is the ocean; among rivers, he is the Ganges. All of these metaphors are comparisons, and usually Krishna is the biggest, best, or most spectacular. He also uses examples from history, myth, and legend: Among priests I am Brihispati, and among military leaders I am Skanda (10:24).
Occasionally Krishna throws in a comparison that breaks the metaphor or that forces us to reconsider the pattern: Among the forces which restrain I am Yama, the god of death (10:29). Toward the end of this section, he makes a turn: Among the Vrishnis I am Krishna, and among the Pandavas, I am Arjuna… I am the silence of the unknown and the wisdom of the wise (10:37-38).
He bookends this section by pointing, again, to the divine Atman in every being. He says at the beginning of his monologue: I am the true Self in the heart of every creature, Arjuna, and the beginning, middle, and end of their existence (10:20). And he returns at the end: I am the seed that can be found in every creature, Arjuna; for without me nothing can exist, neither animate nor inanimate (10:39).
I think the author intends us to bump up against the limits of language. How do we describe the Great Mystery in which we live and move and have our being? Even the verb “describe,” which means to put into writing, indicates the limits of language. The etymology of “scribe” is to cut or to trace, to outline. Similarly “define” is to limit or place a boundary, to make finite. By definition, God is limitless, that without boundary. We often think of God as “The Supreme Being,” but Paul Tillich pointed out that God cannot a being, but Being Itself. God is not like a large river among rivers, like a things among other things.
I believe that is why God’s enigmatic name in the Hebrew scriptures is simply I am who I am (Exodus 3:14). There is no boundary we can place around God, no point at which we can say God ends and something else begins.
All of this sets up the cosmic vision which comes next.
Prayer: Divine and Indescribable Word, our faltering words can reflect you, but they cannot hold you.
The fruit of a pomegranate, by fir0002 (flagstaffotos [at] gmail.com), from Wikimedia Commons
Discrimination, wisdom, understanding, forgiveness, truth, self-control, and peace of mind; pleasure and pain, birth and death, fear and courage, honor and dishonor; nonviolence, charity, equanimity, contentment, and perseverance in spiritual disciplines—all the different qualities found in living creatures have their source in me. (BG, 10:4-5)
Compare the above passage to this one from the Bible:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires. (Galatians 5:22-24)
There is an important difference in these two lists. The Gita includes, in the middle of its list of virtues, a set of “pairs of opposites”—pleasure and pain, birth and death, fear and courage, honor and dishonor. All of these are things which Krishna has encouraged Arjuna to see as illusory opposites, things which are neither good or bad, but which anyone pursuing an enlightened path will experience as part of life.
These illusory opposites are nested within a list of virtues that we see as good: wisdom, forgiveness, self-control, nonviolence, charity, self-control. Moreover, the illusory opposites of pleasure and pain, birth and death, fear and courage are things that happen to us, whereas the others are descriptors of character.
Instead of being “found in living creatures,” which is a passive phrase, the Feuerstein translation says that all of these things are “states of existence” of the beings “who arise in all of their diversity from Me.” For Krishna, this is our “natural” state of being, when we see things as they truly are.
Paul likewise calls these virtues “fruit” of the Spirit, something that grows naturally. The natural growth of this fruit is compromise by our lower, deluded “self” that wants stupid, temporary things. Once we let that self die, we can have what the Spirit wants to grow in us.
We sometimes refer to this type of writing as a “virtue list” (contrasted with “vice list,” like Galatians 5:19-21). But I think it’s important to point out in both of these that the authors are arguing that these qualities are natural. They emerge from us as qualities of the God who created us, and the Spirit who lives inside of us. They are not qualities we have to grit our teeth and strive for, because they are already part of us. If we tend to the root, staying connected to the One who Pervades the Universe, God will take care of the fruit.
Prayer: Root of all that is lovely and good, grow your virtues within me.
The ceiling of Sagrada Familia Cathedral, Barcelona, Spain, by Alvesgaspar, from Wikimedia Commons
Chapter Nine of the Bhagavad-Gita is a hymn to the divine. Listen to some of these verses by reading them out loud, and compare them to some of the poetry of the Bible. I’ll use italics for the Gita, and plain text for the Bible:
All creatures find their existence in me. …They move in me as the winds move in every direction in space. (BG 9:4 & 6)
For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said. (Acts 17:28)
I am the goal of life, the Lord and support of all. I am the only refuge, the one true friend; I am the beginning, the staying, and the end of creation. I am the womb and the eternal seed. (BG 9:18)
I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me… Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one. (Isaiah 44:6-8)
I am heat; I give and withhold rain. I am immortality and I am death. I am what is and what is not. (BG 9:19)
The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. (1 Samuel 2:6-7)
I look upon all creatures equally; none are less dear to me and none more dear. But those who worship me with love live in me, and I come to life in them. (BG 9:29)
I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. (Acts 10:34-35)
There are some important differences in these passages, of course, especially when we examine them in context. But many of the metaphors and images we use for God, regardless of religion or culture, are similar. They express some intuitive truths: God is omnipresent and we “move inside” of God. God incorporates the beginning and end of creation. Life and death are part of the same process, and both belong to God. God pours out God’s love indiscriminately, and accepts those who seek God. God is both transcendent and imminent.
Prayer: Beginning and End of All Things, root me in your life; bring me into your presence.
Okay, I’m going to make people mad with this post because I’m writing about music.
Songwriters, if you want a congregation to actually sing along with your cool new worship song, you need to know what this is. These few pages in the back of a traditional hymnal are called a metrical index:
from Church Hymnary, Canterbury Press, 2006
You see some little numbers in bold, and under those numbers are some tune names. Those little numbers show how many syllables comfortably fit the meter of a tune.
For example, in the above photo, John Bell has written some lyrics to fit his tune called “Lincoln.” The first line has five syllables, the second has five, the third has six, and the last has five: 5-5 6-5. The most natural way to fit lyrics to this tune is to write one phrase of 5-5 syllables and one of 6-5 syllables, like this:
Now that evening falls,
gently fades the light;
moon replaces sun and
day takes leave of night.
Judging from most of the contemporary worship music produced these days, I figure writing lyrics that fit a meter is either passé, or people just plain don’t know what a meter is.
Here is an example of lyrics that fit a meter:
The very first lines convey information about the rest of the song, and listeners can immediately predict the pattern of the verse: 9-4, 9-4. This makes it easy to sing along, clap, gyrate your booty, or whatever you do when you hear such stuff. Nearly every syllable has it’s own note in every phrase.
Here is an example of lyrics that are irregular or have no meter at all:
Now, as much as I like the song “Jeremy,” there is no way to sing along with it the first time you hear it. You cannot predict where the syllables are going to hit the notes, if they hit at all. Rhyme, which also helps people predict how to sing, is totally absent in this song. Again, I like this song, but it isn’t singable on a first (or second, or third) hearing. You wouldn’t actually use this song in worship, but it would be nearly impossible to do so for the simple fact that the lyrics are unpredictable.
U2, a band a lot of contemporary musicians try to emulate, also sing a lot of irregular lyrics. Now, if you listen to the words often enough and memorize them, you may be able to sing along with them, but if you try to get a group of diverse people who have never heard the lyrics before to sing along, you are pretty well guaranteed to fail.
I’ve heard artsy-fartsy songwriters criticize metrical tunes as being too “singsongy.” YES!!!!! Exactly! Singsongy predictability is what you need if you want a group of people to sing along. Using an irregular meter says to visitors, “You need to be a regular attender, an insider, to know and understand this music. Maybe you’ll be able to sing along after you’ve been coming for a few weeks.” No, thanks.
I’m going to go ahead and lay this out there—this is one of the reasons contemporary Christian music in white churches is so white. African-American musicians don’t seem to have this problem. In most African-American churches, the roles of the soloist and the choir are clearly spelled out, and anyone who wants to can sing along at least with the chorus. In addition to meter, there is a tradition of call and response:
Even funky lyrics that play with irregularity can be predictable. You can use rhymes and rhythm to create a predictable pattern, and then layer your soloist’s unpredictable lyrics over the top:
The ironic thing is that I’ve heard worship musicians say that the above songs are too much like performances. When I’ve said that worship music should be more like Ben Harper and Lenny Kravitz and less Bono, they make the same comments. Really? Who is easier to sing along with?
Even the most rhythmic and inspiring of white-people worship songs lend themselves not to groove, but to swaying gently with hands in the air partially because they have irregular meters. Check this one out by Chris Tomlin, and if you don’t already know it, try to predict how to sing it even when the lyrics are projected in front of you:
Here is how the meter goes:
First verse: 12-10-12-12-4
Chorus (first line): 5–5-13-6 (cheating because “Amazing” actually hits four notes)
Chorus (second line): 4–4-13-6
Second verse: 12-12-12-12-4
Not only are the lyrics complex, there are just too dang many syllables in each line. Again, I want to point out that I like the song just fine, I just think it’s lousy as a congregational song. It may have a place in worship as a special musical offering or a solo.
Here is a song that I really like. It has great lyrics, consistent imagery, and is just plain beautiful. But if you’ve never heard it before, try to figure out where to sing, even if lyrics were projected in front of you.
Again, I will say that I like this song. It is just not a good congregational song. This is where many music leaders object that if you hear it enough, you can sing with it, but that’s like saying an auditorium full of 20,000 Pearl Jam fans can sing along to Jeremy.
People often talk about the distinction between “worship” and “performance,” and they can get into all sorts of abstract arguments about it, most of them dealing with the subjective emotional experience of the individual. But when you worship you are dealing with a community, and the more relevant questions are things like, “What enables this body to act as one in praising its creator?” I think it’s primal stuff: bread, wine, water. Rhythm, call, response, melody, harmony. I wish more contemporary songwriters understood this.
One more thing with regard to meters: My pet peeve is the song “Hungry.” This song has a meter, but the syllables hit the notes in odd places.
I’m FALLing on my knees
Of-FERing all of me
Je-SUS you’re all my heart is longing for.
As a friend of mine from high school used to say, your emPHAsis is on the wrong sylLABle.
It drives me nuts that we have such a rich musical heritage in Birmingham churches, black and white, high church and low, mainline and independent, secular and sacred—and we keep singing stuff like this. It’s not that I don’t like songs by Chris Tomlin and David Crowder, it’s just that as a pastor and worship leader it’s my job to help a community work, pray, and sing together. It’s hard to do that with lyrics that are not easily singable.
I went to Innerchange UMC last Sunday (which I will talk about in my next post), and I loved the fact that they write a lot of their own music. The last song they sang was instantly singable and it had lyrics relevant to their own community. I would love to have such music in our new church.