When I sit down to write a song, it’s often a solitary exercise. I tend to write both music and lyrics at once, fitting them together closely. But I also enjoy shaping melodies around existing texts or poetry. It helps when the poem I’m working with already has a rhythm to it. I’ve practiced this over the years with 18th-century English hymn texts, especially the gems you can find in old poetry books or hymnals that just have the words in metered form. Occasionally, I’ll co-write with a friend in present-day collaboration where I just add music to a poem, or a story, or journal entry they’ve written.
Last year, Don Carson sent me a poem to see if it might be a good candidate for congregational singing. I sat down with the words at the piano and sent a voice memo version to get some feedback from Don. After a few small edits, I recorded a final version with a friend and producer, Lucas Morton, whom I met while working on an Indelible Grace project a few years ago.
I was compelled by Don’s text because it’s a confessional and Psalm-like subject, and because confession isn’t en vogue in our contemporary church songs. I wonder if we often resist this subject in our corporate songs because, like our first parents in the Garden of Eden, we’re swamped with a low hum of guilt as we go about our everyday life. We hide out in fig leaves of blaming and resenting and counting up our losses. When we cover ourselves with anything but Jesus, we get stuck in the shadows of our own hearts and feel powerless in our broken relationships.
If you’re living in community, don’t be surprised when you experience these lurking shadows within your own heart and the hearts of those you love. When we hide out, we miss out. We miss out on the community of love we were made for. Rather than covering and shifting to nurture our bitterness and loss, the way to abundant life is to let God turn on the lights. He summons out of hiding. He calls things what they are.
Confession is even more challenging when we encounter unsafe people; especially those who’ve wounded and attacked us. But there’s good news! When we go deeper into honest confession, God himself proves to be our defender. He is our true safe place. We can trust him with all things. When we confess, the Spirit brings the gospel’s cleansing power to bear on our guilty souls. And when we confess, he both purifies and heals, shedding his resurrection light into every dark shadow.
The more deeply and specifically we confess, the more the gospel is specifically applied to bring forgiveness and wholeness to our hearts and minds and relationships. Confession is the threshold we cross to become unburdened from guilt. Forgiveness mends our relationships, seven times seventy-seven, or as long as it takes. And that’s something to sing about.
‘I Am Ashamed’
Lyrics by Don Carson; music by Sandra McCracken
I used to nurture bitterness,
To count up every slight.
The world’s a moral wilderness,
And I have felt its blight.
Self-pity ruled, resentment reigned;
No one understood my pain.
I spiraled down in murky night,
Insisting that I had the right
To hate and hate again.
I am ashamed;
O, my Lord, forgive.
But then the gospel taught me how
To contemplate the cross.
For there Christ died for me—and now
I’ve glimpsed the bitter cost.
He bore abuse, and blows, and hate;
He did not retaliate.
Triumphant malice sneered and tossed
Blind rage at him—he never lost
The love that conquers hate.
I am ashamed;
O, my Lord, forgive.
To make no threat, to smile, forgive,
To love—and not because I must,
For Jesus showed me how to live
And trust the One who’s just;
To suffer wrong and feel the pain,
Certain that the loss is gain—
O God, I want so much to trust,
To follow Jesus on the cross,
To love and love again.