I’ve been thinking about this post for quite a while. Maybe it seems like an odd thing to post after years with no updates, no writing here at all since the piece about my mother-in-law’s death. But it has laid heavy on my heart amidst everything else that’s going on in my life (and you may be certain there is more than plenty going on).
I cannot help but address this.
Please, for the love of God (quite literally), keep singing “Oceans”*.
You may not know what I’m talking about; most of you who read my blog probably have no idea what this song is or who should keep singing it, or why it’s even an issue. Well, it’s only an issue for Christians, I suppose, and particularly those who attend churches with contemporary or modern style church services. The song in question is this one: Hillsong United “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)”. It’s a beautiful, compelling song, and one that pretty much anyone with a Christian radio station on their car tuner has heard at least once (a day, an hour?).
And in summary, the argument against it goes something like this:
When you sing that song, you don’t really realize what you’re asking God to do; and if you do, you probably don’t actually mean it, you hypocrite. It’s not comfortable, and it makes you/us/me feel guilty. So stop singing it.
Most of the people who are saying this are quick to say that it’s not necessarily the song itself that they have an issue with: the theology is fine, the music is great, the sentiment is admirable. Their objection is its use in congregational worship, that it doesn’t apply to enough of the people in the pews (or rows of detachable plush-cushioned chairs) to be a valid and useful piece of corporate worship.
I call shenanigans.
That’s right. Shenanigans.
Listen, I get it. As Christians, we’re called to integrity–literally, to be integrated people, wherein all the various aspects of our lives are consistent with one another, from thought to word to action, in spirit, mind, emotions, and body. And if you’ve got a room full of people singing along with the music without knowing “where they are” spiritually, you could be “making them” sing something that doesn’t reflect their current reality. I mean, if a room full of people is singing, there’s something in human nature that wants to sing along, whether the song is a hymn or a drinking song. So I can see where you’re coming from, trying to argue that we should take everyone into account and not make them lie in order to participate.
The thing is, maybe the right answer here isn’t to stop singing a song, but to make it clear that everyone can sing or not sing as they need or want to. If we’re going to stop singing songs because they don’t reflect everyone’s immediate situation or conviction, I can list you a dozen off the top of my head that should get cut from traditional and contemporary services alike.
Except that the point of worship is not solely to express each individual’s current state to God. Sometimes worship does that, certainly. But sometimes it expresses what we know to be true (regardless of whether we’re doing very well at living in accordance to it), or what we desire for the future. Sometimes it reminds us of things we already know, like when you first stayed home alone overnight and you jumped at the sound of the furnace coming on and had to say out loud, “That’s not a terribly large man in a ski mask coming to suffocate me with my pillow, it’s just the furnace.”
Worship, and music in particular, lifts us up when we have fallen or stalled out, and gives us a bit of momentum to carry on. The very nature of a song is that it sticks in your head. I can’t count the number of scripture verses I’ve come across in reading the Bible, that I had no idea I’d memorized, but which aligned themselves to a song in my head that I’ve heard for years as I read the words on the page. Song provides a resource to draw on when we don’t know what to do next.
For goodness’ sake, one children’s program that my daughter enjoys watching taught a catchy little jingle about going to the bathroom just the other day. I don’t even have to look up the episode to quote it here: “When you have to go potty, stop, and go right away. Flush and wash and be on your way!” It gives clear, memorable instructions about what to do when one faces the problem of needing to go potty.
How much more important is it, in the life of a believer, to have clear, memorable instructions about our responses and course of action when we don’t know what to do, when we find ourselves in unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or threatening territory?
You call me out upon the waters;
The great unknown, where feet may fail.
And there I find you in the mystery,
In oceans deep my faith will stand.
Your grace abounds in deepest waters,
Your sovereign hand will be my guide.
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me,
You never fail and you won’t start now.
So I will call upon your name
And keep my eyes above the waves.
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in your embrace
For I am yours, and you are mine.
When I find myself “out upon the waters”, in a “great unknown” where I feel my feet failing, by knowing these words I can remind myself that “there I find [God]” and that despite the feeling of slipping, “my faith will stand.” I am reminded that in this place where I feel so helpless, grace abounds and I have a reliable guide who will not fail me. There is someone I can call–always, any time, in any situation–and get actual help. I am reminded not to focus on the dangers and distractions looming that will discourage me and drag me under, but on the safe harbor of the arms of the One who gives me rest.
But Betsy, you say, that’s not the bit these bloggers calling for the banishment of “Oceans” from the worship repertoire have a problem with. It’s the bridge. The bridge is the problem!
Fine. Let’s address the bridge:
Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders,
Let me walk upon the waters where ever you would call me.
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger in the presence of my Savior.
“You don’t know what you’re asking for!” they say. “Do you know what your life would look like if you went beyond your borders?” they ask. “Do you really want that? No? Ha! I didn’t think so. Stop singing the song.”
One writer actually says they feel uncomfortable when they sing the bridge because they know they aren’t living outside their comfort zone, so they don’t think we should sing it in church because most of the people there are also not living outside their comfort zones. There are so many things wrong with that logic, my head almost exploded just now as I typed.
- That uncomfortable feeling you get when you sing something you know should be true about your life, but it isn’t? That’s called being convicted by the Spirit.
- You have no idea whether the people around you are or aren’t staying inside their comfort zones.
- Regardless of either of those two things, this isn’t necessarily literal.
- The song (including the bridge) follows a long biblical and ecclesiastical tradition.
So here’s the bottom line: we should not stop singing “Oceans”.
Are there people singing it who don’t mean it? Yes. Whether that’s because they don’t understand and they just sing whatever words come up on the screen, or because they’re actively ignoring the twinge of conviction that accompanies the bridge (or whichever section they’re not living in accordance with), or because they just have no idea how to get started walking across the water into that great unknown, it is inevitable that not everyone who sings along will be living consistently with the words that come out of their mouths. And these discrepancies are important issues that need to be addressed within the church, whether by instruction and discipleship or by calls to accountability.
But we should not stop singing “Oceans” any more than we should ban Horatio Spafford’s “It Is Well With My Soul”, Matt Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name”, or Peter Scholtes’ “We Are One In The Spirit”. Doing so would help to silence the voice of conviction, would quiet the voice that rouses the thoughts:
Am I living in a way that honors God in every particular?
Does my life need to change?
How can the kind of trust described here be my reality?
I find myself standing beyond anything I recognize. What can help me? Who can help me?
Lord, I am so far out of my depth that You are my only hope of safety. I cannot do this on my own. Lead me on.
No, removing “Oceans” from our corporate worship is not the answer. But maybe adding more songs like it, intentionally and in conjunction with wider teaching and discipleship, is a part of the solution.
*Also, for the love of the people around you who know grammar, please learn how to punctuate song titles properly. It matters, even on the internet. Really, really. It does.