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Songwriting Workshop 2: Lyrics Done Right

We can learn a lot from mistakes and errors, and we'll see our sample song has lots of those learning opportunities!

But it is also valuable to learn from something that is done right. Plus, after all our hard work this session, it's nice just to relax and enjoy something really good.

So let's look at an excellent example of a beautifully balanced show-and-tell song: Blessings, by Laura Story.

Do you think it would be good for God to say 'yes' to all your prayers? Health? Wealth? Happiness?

Well, this song talks about how God loves us too much to always give us what we ask for. What we pray for isn't always what we truly need - even the trials we have prayed to avoid can be things God uses to bring us ever closer to him.

You've maybe read the wonderful C. S. Lewis book, The Problem of Pain, which a sage reviewer suggested might be better titled Why stuff that seems bad happens to you. In any case, Lewis and Laura Story both take the same important theological message to the world, but in different ways that complement each other beautifully. Far from being angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin, we can highly recommend both the book and the song as intensely practical. The book is more thorough, but harder to sing along to.

We might think tackling such a tough topic would guarantee that a song would not be popular. If we did, we'd be wrong. This song was not only #1 on the Christian contemporary music charts, but in 2012 it also won the first Grammy ever awarded for CCM.

So let's take it apart, and see what we can learn about how she did it.

Starting Where Listeners Are At

The song could have been just one sentence long. It could just quote scripture, and say all things work together for the good of those that love the Lord. But we know being hit on the head is not that fun, and it's also not always the best way for us to learn.

To actually get that truth through to our hearts, the song starts in a subtle way, listing many things we all commonly pray for. Who here hasn't prayed for many or all of these things? She's gently corralled us into her group of 'we'.

She goes on to acknowledge that mighty hand we'd all like God to use to help us out, and confirms the truth that God does indeed hear every one of our prayers. She has us all nodding in agreement.

We pray for blessings
We pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
All the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things

But before anything too predictable happens, by the last line she changes tack, and throws in an odd statement: He loves us too much to give us lesser things. Now that's unexpected, and we're intrigued and interested.

Well And Truly Hooked

Just where is she going with this?

The music is pretty, but Wow! There is no way this is happy news, folks: We are going to pray, and God is going to say 'no', and leave us in our tears, all because he loves us too much to leave us as he finds us? Yes, and that's really not what we want to hear.

She doesn't wander around, but immediately goes on to answer our unspoken question:

'Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You're near
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise

Closing A Tough Sale

For the 'telling' part of this song, the songwriter knows she needs to be very gentle and careful. She leaves the big rocks alone, and instead she has used a question instead of a statement to introduce her real point: "But what if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know you're near?"

Now that is one really good question. We were just thinking about all the suffering God's mighty hand might not be easing for us... But before we get lost in self-pity, she closes the sale, or even better, she gets us to close what is a very difficult sale: What if the suffering, his saying no, is truly better for us?

Would we really rather have earthly comfort from God, when what our souls might need are years of sleepless nights before we can finally yield to him, trust him, and have true peace? Maybe with a good deal of fear and reluctance, any one of us that knows the Lord would still eventually say "Of course not."

She has convinced us of one angle, but she's not done. There are lots of other areas where we may not be as ready to accept God's best for us as we'd like to think. Her progression builds on her first verse, and she's ready to try some words that are even harder for us to hear:

We pray for wisdom
Your voice to hear
We cry in anger when we cannot feel You near
We doubt your goodness, we doubt your love
As if every promise from Your Word is not enough
All the while, You hear each desperate plea
And long that we'd have faith to believe

This is great progression, moving from those everyday generic prayers to more difficult times, finally reaching the stage where friends betray us, darkness seems to win, and facing our greatest disappointments. Yes, even in these times God is still in control, and answering our prayers with love as he alone knows best. But she has stayed pretty tightly focused on her original theme, and on her message.

She still has us improbably agreeing with her - she's made it impossible to disagree, even though we want to - and she's working well behind the defenses that she has quickly outflanked. She sees just how much further she can push this lesson in the bridge:

When friends betray us
When darkness seems to win
We know that pain reminds this heart
That this is not our home

She shows us the situations we face, how we pray automatically, and how we think we'd like God to act. But the real masterstroke is that she then gets us to tell ourselves what is true: We can depend on an all-powerful, loving, and merciful God to give us what is truly best for us, even to the point of using trials and suffering for our good.

What if my greatest disappointments
Or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can't satisfy
What if trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are your mercies in disguise?

It's also interesting to look at the perspectives that Laura Story used in this song. There is 'we' to get the writer and listener together, and together 'we' fall into the trap of asking and being disappointed. For the really hard parts, she switches to 'I'. She does use 'you', but only for God, nicely bringing him in as the ever-present person that loves us more than we would like. Of course the song is actually meant for 'you' as the listener, but that's the one perspective she never uses. We can see how the right choice of perspective can help present the difficult topic - and we can imagine how easy it would be to write this song from some other perspective that would just alienate our listeners. Feel free to try it at the end of class - you may be surprised how changing the perspective can turn this into a really terrible song very easily.

Bullseye!

These lyrics form part of a great song on so many levels. They are personal. They are biblical. They deliver a message we need to hear, but we don't want to hear. The song is gentle, yet it is at the same time tough and crystal clear.

We could even go further and see the song as offering correction to the wider church, where some believe that nothing but earthly prosperity and health await the truly faithful servant, even though this is not something we can find in scripture. When trials come to a person that believes this, faith may be destroyed because they may incorrectly see trials as a punishment, and they may mistake lack of suffering as a reward for faithfulness or good behaviour.

So this song works as a message of challenge and encouragement to the individual believer, and even as a gentle correction to a dangerous and unscriptural belief in some of the wider church.

Coming back down to earth, and thinking of songwriting again, we could pick pretty much every lesson of songwriting, and in particular every lesson of Christian songwriting, and this song would tick off all the boxes. When we come to the end of the workshop, try taking a great Christian song, and run it through the checklist yourself: There are reasons that these songs are good, and you can learn many of those reasons and apply them to your own songs too.

What's not to like?

Could we nitpick? Yes, as we noted earlier, it is our human nature to find fault with pretty much anything.

While many would say this is indeed an excellent song, we know we cannot claim it to be a perfect song. (And we know even if it was, we could still choose to find fault with it.) There is no doubt that we could ask deeper theological questions here that the song does not address - does God cause this suffering, or merely permit it? What if the suffering is a result of evil, does that mean he willed it? Perhaps it could have pointed more clearly towards specific scripture, but the reality is that we've heard enough of the verses she's thinking of that we know that it is scriptural, even when we would rather not think about it, and there is no need to quote chapter and verse.

In any event, would a three-minute song be the right place to address these topics that take many chapters to address in the bible? No, and the songwriter does not fall into the trap of attempting to put the whole truth of the bible into a single song. What is in the song is true, it is helpful, it is important, and it is clear.

Of course, Laura Story's audience here are those of us that already know the Lord, or at least think we do. These might be thought-provoking questions for others too, but she has targeted her audience carefully, and faithfully delivered God's truth. No confusion for her intended listeners, and no painful boulders of obviousness being dropped on them either.

Go in peace, serve the Lord!

If you can achieve this kind of balance, comforting and encouraging individual believers, while even helping correct a false and destructive belief within the wider church at the same time, you'll be well on your way to being an amazing and faithful Christian songwriter. What a nice way to wrap up our first session on lyrics (remember we will be returning to lyrics again later).

Who here is surprised we've done a whole session on lyrics, and we still don't have a single complete line yet? Well, be surprised, but don't worry! We have all the critical elements of our lyrics, and that is exactly what we'll need.

So that's it, until we get together for our next session on structure.

See you next month!

What if it takes a thousand sleepless nights to know God is near?

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