During a welcome address to the freshman class at Boston Conservatory, pianist and director of the music division at Boston Conservatory, Karl Paulnack, brought to light this fascinating point, “The Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us.”
Sometimes, worship leaders are tempted to leave the more complicated theological issues to the senior pastor. There is a mistaken dichotomy, one that says music is feeling and sermons are thoughts. But music can be a deeply theological revelation of truth. And when it is used as such, God’s many dimensions have the possibility of pouring forth in rich ways that mere words fail to convey. So is the trinity in the realm of the worship leader? Absolutely. The deepest mysteries of God are exactly where the artists and musicians of the Church can express and reveal our deepest humanity and its relationship to God.
Okay, but How
One key to powerful worship songwriting is to let the images flow beyond the words and infiltrate the form. Here are a couple examples. With the repetition of the words, “blowin’ in the wind,” Bob Dylan was able to physically help us to sing as though our words are blowing silently. Then when we sing “On Christ the solid Rock I stand, All other ground is sinking sand; All other ground is sinking sand,” we even sink down the musical staff in pitch and tempo. Brenton Brown uses a similar effect in “Everlasting God”: “Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord, we will wait upon the Lord, we will wait upon the Lord.” Quite literally, when worshipers sing this song, they wait upon the Lord.
So how do we bring this idea into our songwriting to incorporate the trinity? The song “Holy, Holy, Holy” is another fine example. The poetic language does a wonderful, subtle job of mirroring the trinity, getting beyond explicit teaching and naming. It’s worth noting that the “God in three persons” is mentioned explicitly twice; however, the poetic images mirror the trinity throughout the song, penetrating our subconscious. The lyricist, Reginald Heber, made use of the number three throughout. Obviously, we have the opening stanza statements ‘Holy, holy, holy.’ But Herber didn’t stop there: “Who was, and is, and evermore shall be,” He is “holy, merciful, and mighty,” He is praised by the saints, but also the Cherubim and seraphim. He is “Perfect in love, power, and purity,” and His own works will praise His name, including the “Earth and sky and sea.”
Writing trinitarian songs is a special commission, but remember, we don’t necessarily have to say the word “trinity” for our music to underscore the vast trinitarian beauty of God.
God’s Story in Song
To create art that is essentially trinitarian, a good place to start (and even finish) is with God’s complete story. In fact, this is what we do in services of worship every Sunday. We retell the story of God, His creation, and His act of redemption in Jesus, the gift of the Holy Spirit and His work in changing us into the likeness of Christ. He does this through and with our songs, our baptisms, our prayers, the reading of Scripture, all of our practices. William Dyrness the author of the book A Christian Primer on Worship, says, “Worship is the celebration of a believer’s relationship to God through Christ, by the work of the Spirit.” In that book, he also offers these two examples: first, this graph of the story of God. Below that is a prayer that the Huguenot believers (16th and 17th centuries) used in baptism. This prayer is a poem of sorts which tells the story of God and, in that, is completely full of the trinity. It’s a fine model for us to consider in writing songs for our services of worship.
For you, baby Maria, God made the world out of nothing.
For you, baby Maria, God called Israel out of Egypt.
For you, baby Maria, God brought Israel back from exile.
For you, baby Maria, Christ came into the world to teach the children.
For you, baby Maria, Christ died on the cross and rose again.
For you, baby Maria, God sent His Holy Spirit to give you strength to live as you ought.
For you, baby Maria, Christ will come again and take us to God.
Baby Maria, you know nothing of this.
But we promise to tell you the story until you make it your own.
And so I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Jeremy Armstrong is the managing editor of Worship Leader magazine.