What Language Shall I Borrow?

Worship is a public event in which a group of people share an experience of language and contemplation rooted in the Biblical text. Other literary forms—hymns, litanies, responsive readings, dramas, stories and poems—can play a role to enhance our experience of the Word. However, it is easier for most worshipers in a public setting to find resonance between scripture and familiar narratives than between scripture and much contemporary poetry. How often we hear a text matters in our capacities to appropriate it.

Many more strategies are needed for congregations to use poetry, in particular, in the context of worship in ways that can actually speak to the hearts, minds, and souls of the worshipers present. I hope that worshipers, preachers, and poets—and those who plan worship—will be able to recognize, and possibly trust more readily, this back-and-forth relationship between scripture and literature as the result of this article.

In Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre challenges us to becomes good stewards of language.[1] North Americans are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of words daily coming at us dulling our minds and souls. To awaken us from the ensuing stupor, Marilyn sets out twelve strategies to help those who care about words to “retrieve, revive, and renew our precious language resources”.[2] The language stewards of contemporary worship need the same challenge that Marilyn has set before us. The language of worship—spoken, read, heard, and expounded— reverberates through the Body of Christ, shaping our experience with God, our identity and shared beliefs, as well as the future toward which we orients our common life.

People come to worship expecting to participate in something that will have meaning. More often than necessary, they go away disappointed that worship lacked vitality or purpose. Debra Rienstra writes

My passion for the topic of language in worship comes from deep hunger and thirst. I understand that at its heart, what I am feeling when I go to worship is spiritual longing – the hunger and thirst of my soul for the presence of God, for Jesus, the Bread of Life and the Living Water . . . . All of us need, perhaps not a gigantic banquet feast of delectable words at worship every week, but at least a steady diet of a few wholesome morsels to sustain us.[3]

Of course, worship is not limited to words alone, but in most North American Protestant, Evangelical, and Mennonite worship settings, words bear enormous responsibility for holding the service together. Worship leaders and preachers must pay attention to how their words function in forming their congregations. When words are chosen with intentional care, the flow of thought and cadences guide worshipers into a dwelling place that reveals God’s presence. Thoughtfully selected stories, poems, hymns, or congregational responses, from the Bible or complementary sources, can draw people to a deeper experience of hearing God’s Word as it resonates through old and new literary forms.

In planning worship I start from the assumption that the biblical text, with its multi-voiced, layered, and recurring narrative themes, serves as the grounding point for all literary art used in that context while poetry, hymns and stories can provide invaluable commentary on biblical texts. Drawing inspiration from McEntrye’s stewardship practices, I identify six significant functions that literary texts serve in corporate worship. My persistent questions are: What is this text doing? How is it doing it? After a brief description of each function, I list a few of the many possible texts to illustrate it. Scripture and hymns are the literary forms read and heard most consistently in Mennonite worship. I have also included references to several poems that, to my mind, demonstrate the function as well.

#1: Words for worship provide a primary means for Christians to affirm what we know and believe about God – God’s nature, character, purpose for the world and all creation, and abiding presence.

Communities of faith and the people in them are formed by the literature of scripture, hymns, story, poetry, and short readings. The language of faith is fed by a pool of images, metaphors, and narratives that express worshipers’ changing experience with God over the large arc of time. This language shapes identity and provides a sense of belonging to a people who look to God as the foundation and reality of their lives. Relationships between the images, metaphors, and narratives are constantly being rearranged, giving rise to new depths of feeling and insights.

Affirmations about God

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in generations,

before the mountains were brought forth,

or ever you formed the earth and the world,

from everlasting to everlasting you are God.[4]

God of the Bible, God in the gospel, hope seen in Jesus, hope yet to come,

You are our center daylight or darkness, freedom or prison, you are our home.

Fresh as the morning, sure as the sunrise, God always faithful, you do not change.[5]

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.

There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty . . .

For the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind,

And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind. [6]

Affirmations about Jesus Christ

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;

For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…[7]

Ask ye what great thing I know that delights and stirs me so?

What the high reward I win? Whose the Name I glory in?

Jesus Christ, the crucified.[8]

Jesus taught us to speak of hope as the coming of God’s kingdom…

We believe that goodness and justice and love will triumph in the end

and that tyranny and oppression cannot last forever…

True peace and true reconciliation are not only desired,

They are assured and guaranteed in Christ.[9]

Affirmations about the Holy Spirit

In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions,

And your old mean shall dream dreams.[10]

There are many gifts, but the same spirit.

There are many works, but the same God,

And the Spirit gives each as it chooses.

Praise the Lord. Praise God. [11]

Affirmations of the Church

. . . you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.[12]

In Christ there is no East or West, in him no South or North,

But one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.[13]

Poetic Examples that Express Affirmation

Linea Geiser, “Creation Myth” and “On Easter in the Sweet Spring Rain” in Caught in the Light (AuthorsHouse 2003).

Jean Janzen, “Three Frescoes Fra Angelico” in Tasting the Dust (Good Books 2001).

Mary Oliver, “This World” and “Logos” in Why I Wake Early (Beacon Press 2005).

R.S. Thomas, “Suddenly” in Collected Poem 1945-1990 (Phoenix Press 2002).

David Wright, “A Map of the Kingdom,” “The Prodigal Mother Suspects,” and “Lydia’s Song” in A Liturgy for Stones (Dreamseeker 2003).

Worship leaders, preachers, and worshipers can become content with a very shallow pool of words to express the wonder, wildness, and mystery of God’s relationship with the whole creations and, perhaps especially, human beings. Complacency, arrogance, and idolatry are constant temptations; it takes effort to keep feeding the language pool of faith. Affirmations drawn from stagnant pools cannot adequately name the challenges of daily life in ways that deepen love for God, neighbor, and self. Rather, they shrink the wideness of God’s majesty and mercy to the size of a single person can control. With a small pool of words, God easily becomes a quantity or a commodity that finds a place among all the other idols that clutter contemporary life.

#2: Words for worship must name the questions, doubts, and feelings of absence that arise in the midst of life.

Any person seriously seeking to understand how the claims of Christian faith provide an orientation for daily life will surely be overcome by contradictions. If God is just, why do the unjust prosper when frequently the just do not? Why do human beings suffer? How can we faithfully choose between two evils? Why does God seem so far away? What is the meaning of work? Is life really a vanity, one big joke? Doubt, fear of God’s absence, the abandonment by friends, and despair can be the most persistent companions.

Naming Absence

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?

Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? [14]

O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?

Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.[15]

Naming Abandonment

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done…”

When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”[16]

Jesus walked this lonesome valley; he had to walk it by himself.

Oh, nobody else could walk it form him; he had to walk it by himself.

We must walk this lonesome valley; we have to walk it by ourselves.

Oh, nobody else can walk it for us; we have to walk it by ourselves.[17]

Naming Despair

When from the darkness comes no light,

When from the weeping comes no laughter;

When in the day we hope for night nor any comfort coming after: grant us your peace.[18]

So much wrong and so much injustice, so you shouldered a wooden cross.

Now like you, my best dreams are shattered; all I know is weight of loss.[19]

In the midst of persecution, stand by me; in the midst of persecution, stand by me.

When my foes in in war array, undertake to stop my way,

Thou who saved Paul and Silas, stand by me[20]

Poetic Examples that Express Questions or Doubt

R. S. Thomas, “In Church,” “Mediations,” “The Absence,” “The Combat,” “The Empty Church” in Collected Poems 1945-1990.

Questions and quandaries can be overpowering. They often cast us into a place beyond the realm of words where silence takes over. This place tests the breadth and depth of the language pool from which our affirmation is framed. We need words found by other pilgrims, who have passed to the other side of despair, suffering, and death, to give voice to the questions, lament, grief, and frustration.

#3: Words for worship must extend and deepen our wonder at God’s power, mystery, and steadfastness.

Creation, the reality of human life, the unearned gifts of love and grace, and the eternal presence of God in all things are mysteries. In more ways than we care to acknowledge, we sit at the edge of what we know and wonder at what is beyond what we can imagine. Paradox abounds. God’s Spirit gives us glimpses, flashes of insight, uncanny intuitions, and a knowing beyond words into realities beyond our grasp. Metaphor and poetry live fully here at the edge of certainty.

Poet Jean Janzen says “good poetry raise the mind and heart above the mundane patterns of patterns of everyday life. Unexpected and surprising images jolt us into noticing something new.” Poetry is the heart of the prayer.[21] Janzen contributed eight hymns texts for Hymnal: A Worship Book (1994); her hymns are a good place to start for anyone seeking to integrate poetry into corporate worship. Paper House, her most recent poetry collection, explores a number of theological themes.

Extending the Mystery of the Word

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

He was in the beginning with God.

All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being.

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.[22]

Extending the Paradox of Blessedness

Blessed are the pure in heart, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth…

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and

utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…[23]

Deepening the Mystery of the Trinity

Mothering God, you gave me birth in the bright morning of this world.

Creator, Source of every breath,

You are my rain, my wind, my sun.

Mothering Christ, you took my form, offering me your food of life

Grain of life and grape of love,

Your very body for my peace.

Mothering Spirit, nurturing one, in arms of patience hold me close,

So that in faith I root and grow,

Until I flower, until I know.[24]

Extending the Wonder of God’s Immensity and Intimate care

Nothing is lost on the breath of God, nothing is lost forever;

God’s breath is love, and that love will remain, holding the world forever.

No feather too light, no hair too fine, no flower too brief in its glory,

no drop in the ocean, no dust in the air, but is counted and told in God’s story. [25]

Poetic Examples that Expand wonder

Jean Janzen, “A Catechism,” “Instructions,” “Liminal,” “Bread” in Paper House.

Mary Oliver, “Where does the temple begin – Where does it end?” in Why I Wake Early

R.S. Thomas, “Praise” in Collected Poems 1945-1990.

David, Wright, “Wonder” in Lines from the Provinces (BookSurge 2001).

The awesome beauty and wisdom of creation boggles the mind. The paradox of the incarnation shatters neatly defined categories of experience. The presence of God as Father, Son, and Spirit or Lover, Beloved, and Love comforts and confounds. Christian hope in a future in which all will be redeemed and at peace seems laughable. At this edge, where Christians peer into the cloud of unknowing, we know hunger and thirst with Debra Rienstra. Rooted in the testimony of God’s faithful witnesses, who over time have caught glimpses into God’s improbable possibilities, our worship language must expand the horizons of our imaginations and shatter the neat categories that delude us into thinking that we have everything figured out.

#4: Words for worship must tell the truth about our sin, failures and human limitations.

In twenty-first century North America it is very difficult for Christians to name sin, failures, and limitations. Confession threatens self-esteem and public perceptions. The mature, self-reliant, competent, and successful adult is always right. A person’s merit is measured by her productivity, his contribution to the company or organization, her usefulness, or his resourcefulness. This same adult is often overwhelmed with anxiety, stress, fear, and depression. To confess the truth of our lives is to be vulnerable. We may feel we don’t meet the standards we set for ourselves, or those set by our families, employers, governmental agencies, or congregations. It is equally difficult to confess the truth of our collective sin as communities and societies. The burdens of guilt and shame drain joy and pleasure from our lives.

Telling the Truth about Sin

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you alone have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,

so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.[26]

While I keep silence, silence, silence in my flesh, my merest body fails.

My sins grow bitter, bitter, bitter in my mouth. My bones return to dust.

O God, I groan both day and night, beneath your heavy hand.[27]

Show me, as my soul can bear, the depth of inbred sin;

all the unbelief declare, the pride that lurks within.

Take me, whom thyself hast bought, bring into captivity

every high aspiring thought that would not stoop to thee.[28]

Telling the Truth about Failure and Limitations

In the stillness of the evening inner restlessness befalls me which I cannot overpower.

In the midst of joy and gladness at the day’s abundant blessings, silent pain is ever near me.

My defeats loom large before me, and I know the day now passing

has been crushed to many pieces.

But as day draws to its closing I surrender all my unrest to the One who is beside me.[29]

Poetic Examples of Telling the Truth

Wendell Berry, “Original Sin” in Given. (Counterpoint 2006).

Linea Geiser, “Cry for the World” in Caught in the Light.

Todd David, “Migration” in The Least of These. (Michigan State Univ. Press 2010)

R. S. Thomas, “Asking” in Collected Poems, 1945-1990.

Speaking the honest truth about ourselves to God or a trusted person is a relief. And when the worship words spoken back affirm God’s mercy, forgiveness, and love, repentance becomes possible: freedom is the fruit. Confession does not destroy self-esteem. Confession recalibrates it and releases the energy spent in suppressing honest-to-God truth for living in confidence, peace, and trust.

#5: Words for worship must give God thanks in all things.

Expressing gratitude is almost as difficult for self-sufficient and competent North Americans as confession. Thanking anyone – God, family members, friends, other people – acknowledges vulnerability and our inability to meet our own needs. Many Christians hate to be “beholden” to anyone. In congregations where “sharing time” or “joys and concerns” is a regular feature of corporate worship, take note how often testimonies of gratitude for what God has done are spoken. In most Anglo congregations, concerns far outweigh gratitude on a routine basis.

Gratitude for God’s Constant Love

O give thanks to the Lord, for [he] is good,

For [God’s] steadfast love endures forever.

O give thanks to the God of gods,

For [God’s] steadfast love endures forever.[30]

We give thanks unto you, O God of might, for your love is never ending…

You remember your promise age to age, for your love is never ending;

You show mercy on those of low degree, for your love is never ending.[31]

Gratitude for the Presence of Christ

…let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.[32]

Gratitude for Good Gifts and Life Itself

All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above.

We thank you, Lord, we thank you, Lord, for all your love.[33]

I owe the Lord a morning song of gratitude and praise,

For the kind mercy he has shown in lengthening out my days.[34]

Many hymns written for Thanksgiving Day celebrations express gratitude for the bounty of the earth. Some hymns express gratitude for God’s many saving acts of salvation, especially expressed through Jesus. But the immediacy of gratitude – for acts of service and kindness, for release from a great burden, for a reconciled relationship, for the beauty of a sunrise that breaks upon a night of worry and grief – requires a reservoir of words on the tongue and in the heart to capture in the moment God’s abundant goodness.

#6: Words for worship must express love - God’s love for us, and our love for God, neighbor and enemy.

Worship must focus our affections to what is true, holy, righteous, and just. These qualities of God’s shalom orient our love for God, for all of God’s people, and for the created world. Within the contours of human nature resides the propensity to love the wrong things or to love good things wrongly. Idolatry has been a persistent temptation throughout God’s history with humankind, as much in the present as ever before. Christians mix their affections for families, sports teams, economic theories, nation-states and the militaries, religious traditions, technological advances and so forth, in ways that replace the call of their first love and allegiance.

The worship leaders’ and preachers’ task of orienting the love and affections of Christian worships toward God and living in the love and promises of God is enormous. Yet, with the Holy Spirit’s power, it is ministry that must be taken up each time all or part of the congregation gathers for worship.

God’s Love for Us

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[35]

The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell;

It goes beyond the highest star, and reaches to the lowest hell.

The guilty pair, bowed down with care, God gave his Son to win;

His erring child he reconciled, and pardoned from his sin.

O love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong!

It shall forever more endure the saints’ and angels’ song.[36]

God’s Love Shared in Us

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.[37]

Our Love of God

“You shall love the Lord your god with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[38]

Love, I will love you Lord, with all my heart.

O God, I will tell the wonder of your ways and glorify your name.

Lord, I will love you Lord, with all my heart,

In you I will find the source of all my joy. Alleluia.[39]

Poetic Examples of Expressing Love

Wendell Berry, “Sabbaths 1998 I, V” and “Sabbaths 2000 III” in Given.

Todd David, “My Son, in Love for the First Time” in The Least of These.

George Herbert, “Love III” in The Temple.

R. S. Thomas, “Alive” in Collected Poems 1945-1990.

The language chosen for worship matters. Words can liberate God’s people or hold them in bondage, open the heart’s door to healing or inflict deeper pain. They can challenge the idolatries that circumscribe relationship with God or evade the truth-telling necessary to love God truly. They can project vistas of hope or limit vision of the tragedies of the here and now. Ultimately, well-chosen words open the soul to a place that is too deep for words, a place where we can find ourselves lost in wonder, love, and praise.

[1] Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009) , 1.

[2] McEntyre, 10.

[3] Debra Rienstra, and Ron Reinstra, Worship Words: Disciplining Language for Faithful Ministry. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2009), 10.

[4] Psalm 90:1-2, New Revised Standard Version.

[5] Sing the Journey (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Faith and Life Resources, a division of Mennonite Publishing Network, 2005), 27. Author: Shirley Erena Murray

[6]HWB 145 Author: Federick W. Faber

[7] Colossians 1:15a

[8] Hymnal: A Worship Book (HWB) (Elgin, Illinois: Brethren Press, 1992), # 337. Author: Johann C. Schwedler; translator: Benjamin H. Kennedy

[9]Excerpt from HWB 711, South African creed

[10] Acts 2:17; Joel 2:28-32

[11] HWB 304 Author: Patricia Shelly

[12] 1 Peter 2:9.

[13] HWB 306 Author: John Oxenham

[14] Psalm 1:1

[15] Psalm 88:13-14

[16] Luke 22:42, 45-46

[17] Sing the Story (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Faith and Life Resources, 2007) #80 traditional spiritual

[18] Sing the Journey, #102 Author: Brendan McLaughlin

[19] Sing the Story, #84 Author: John L. Bell.

[20] HWB 558 Author: Charles A. Tindley

[21] Jean Janzen, conversation on Monday, April 4, 2011.

[22] John 1:1-5

[23] Matthew 5:3-12a.

[24] HWB #482 Author: Jean B. Janzen

[25] Sing the Story #121 Author: Colin Gibson

[26] Psalm 51:3-4

[27] Sing the Story, 66, based on Psalm 32-3 Author: David Wright

[28] HWB 140 Charles Wesley

[29] HWB #551 Author: Svein Ellingsen, translator. Hedwig T. Durnbaugh

[30] Psalm 136:1-2

[31] HWB #161 Psalm 136 Author: Mary Haugen

[32] Colossians 3:15-16

[33] HWB #96 Author: Matthias Claudius Translator: Jane M. Campbell

[34] HWB #651 Author: Amos Herr

[35] Romans 8:38

[36] Sing the Journey, # 44 Author: F.M. Lehman

[37] 1 John 4:16b

[38] Matthew 22:37-39

[39] HWB #76 Author: Claude Frayssé, Additional verses by Kenneth I. Morse.

About the Author

Rebecca Slough

Rebecca Slough is Associate Professor of Worship and the Arts and Academic Dean at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. She collaborated with Shirley Sprunger King on Nurturing the Spirit Through Song: The Life and Legacy of Mary K. Oyer (2006) and with June Alliman Yoder and Marlene Kropf on Preparing Sunday Day Dinner: A Collaborative Approach to Worship and Preaching (2005). Rebecca served as managing editor of Hymnal: A Worship Book from 1989-1992. She and her husband, Joe Miller, enjoy motorcycling whenever the weather is good, and they have time.