Writing Prayers

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

- attributed to St. Francis

Perhaps the oldest, most practiced form of writing as worship is writing prayers.

For lent several years ago, I wrote my prayers down every day, for forty days. Rereading it, I was surprised that most of my prayers were giving thanks and asking for more—I rarely prayed for others. Learning that about my prayers helped me to be more purposeful in my prayer life, and more globally focused rather than under-my-own-roof focused.

31  Days

Five Minute Free-Write: Write down a prayer for today—perhaps use this first prayer to start a notebook of prayers. See how what you pray for and how your prayers are answered change overtime.

Writing Exercise: Retelling the Story

Choose a story from the Bible—some suggestions: the story of Rahab, of Ruth, of Esther, Abraham and Isaac and the sacrifice, Jonah and the whale, the battle of Jericho, the plagues of Egypt, the feeding of the five thousand.

Reread the story several times, noting key elements of the story. Ask yourself who are the main characters? What is the conflict? Who is the antagonist, the protagonist? How does this story fit into the overarching narrative of the bible?download

Brainstorm a few different possibilities for modernizing the story—for example, placing the battle of Jericho story during the U.S. Civil War or in modern day Iraq or in the navy during WWII.


Once you settle on a setting for the story, start writing your short story! Try to incorporate as many details as possible from the original, while modernizing them. Keep in mind how the story shows the character of God and points to Jesus, and try to have your version do the same.



31  Days

What story are you updating? Feel free to post your stories in the comments below!



Modernizing a Biblical Story

Always, the day or two before the first short story is due, I’ll have a panicked email—Mrs. Emerson, I do not know what to write about! The advice I always give them: choose a story from the Bible and modernize it. It’s surefire—never fails. And often it is the very best story the student writes all semester.

Why modernize a biblical story? Just like persona helps us understand a character better by trying on their emotions and their experiences, modernizing a biblical story forces us to study what is at the heart of the story. To rewrite it, after all, you need to know what it is about!

Hollywood does this all the time with classic literature. O Brother Where Art Thou = the Odyssey. 10 Things I Hate About You = The Taming of the Shrew. Clueless = Jane Austen’s Emma. They take a storyline that is solid—can’t go wrong with Austen!—and put it in a time period that more viewers can relate to.

Francine Rivers does this in the book Redeeming Love. She take the story of Hosea and sets it in the wild west—it’s a best seller.

Sometimes looking at a story that you are familiar with—Cain and Abel in Genesis, for example—and setting it in the language, setting, and culture of today, can deepen your understanding of what is going on in the story.

31  Days

Five Minute Free-Write: List five stories from the bible, and write a two to three sentence summary of each—you are looking for the heart of the story. Brainstorm ways you could modernize each of these.


The Marriage of Text and Tune

Today is going to be a little different.  After a brief “how to worship God with our writing” exercise (song lyrics), I will be mainly exploring a way to take that writing a step further (setting it to pre-existing music).

In the last three posts, I introduced three different ideas to explore for possible song lyrics.  Today, I challenge you to implement one of these and write a song, but first it would be a good idea to brush up on meter.

For those of you who have never written lyrics before (and especially for those of you who don’t know anything about music theory), I would suggest sticking to an iambic (common meter), iambic (long meter), or iambic (short meter).

Once you are satisfied with your lyrics, choose a tune from a hymnal you have lying around for the tune.  You don’t have a hymnal?  Go ask your pastor or music minister, chances are you will walk away with 3 or 4 different hymnals from the boxes and boxes of them your church has in storage.

In the back of the hymnal are several indexes listed the hymns by author, title, tune title, and tune meter (plus or minus one or two other criteria depending on the hymnal).  When you finish your lyrics, start looking through the tune meter index to find all of the tunes listed with the meter you chose.  Try singing your song to a few familiar and a few unfamiliar tunes (if you can’t read music, type in the hymn name into www.nethymnal.org to listen to a midi version).

It is very important to find a tune that matches the lyrics well.  You have a specific feel in mind when writing the lyrics, so you should find a tune that best gets that feel across.  One example I like use a lot is Oh the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus.  This link takes you to see the lyrics and hear my favorite tune for it: EBENEZER.  In 1991, however, the Baptist hymnal decided to change the tune from EBENEZER to HARRIS.  In 2008, the Baptist hymnal kept the HARRIS tune.

In my opinion, switching from EBENEZER to HARRIS was a huge travesty.  First of all, the lyrics to the song are filled with water imagery, and the rhythm of the tune EBENEZER feels like waves crashing on the shore.  The HARRIS tune, however, feels like a pub song.  It seems to me that the editors of the 1991 Baptist hymnal wanted to shy away from tunes in minor keys, so this song was given a tune that made it feel more upbeat and “happy”.  What it loses, though, with this is change is a proper marriage of tune and text.

When you are selecting your tune, do not think about which tune makes you feel happiest.  Think about which tune carries the same message that your lyrics carry.  Only then will a song truly work to speak the message it was meant to speak.

31  Days

Connecting Multiple Passages

While taking a single passage of Scripture and meditating on it (as we do when Christianizing the Old Testament and paraphrasing) is an excellent spiritual discipline, we can really learn how the Bible connects as a single work when we seek out connecting multiple passages together.

It has been said that the best way to begin interpreting Scripture is to take a look other passages of Scripture.  This can be seen most commonly by Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies (a great place to start studying these is in the first few chapters of Matthew) and in Paul’s letters to the various first century churches.

One of the fundamental Christian beliefs is that all Scripture is divinely inspired and without error; that God wrote the entire work through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by the hands of His chosen instruments.  If, then, the whole cannon has one author, it is only logical to believe that the best person to ask any questions about a particular passage would be that same author.

downloadWhen we seek to study the Word, then, we must look for these connections.  In my first post on defining worship, I used Romans 12:1 and John 4:23 to reiterate Deuteronomy 6:5.  This is but one example of how all Scripture fits together.  The more we study and the more content of Scripture we know, the easier we can make these connections.

This practice is one of my favorite inspirations for songwriting.  One of these song, Into The Water (actually written by Renee and me) takes the story of Peter getting his feet washed by Christ from John 13 and compares it to the walking on water from Matthew 14.  The connection we ran with was the fact that Peter’s feet got wet in both passages.

While this may seem too simple a connection to work with, we feel that it really brings out the main message of the John passage: “The maker of the water, the one who walks on the waves made himself into a servant and rescued me, a simple fisherman”.

 Peter’s objection to Christ washing his feet becomes more justified to us when we remember all that Peter had seen Christ do.  Christ, who had mastery of the laws of physics, had “no right” to wash Peter’s feet, but that act of washing shows us such a strong picture of grace.

I personally find that the more connections I see like the one above, the more beautiful God’s grace appears to me.

31  Days


Five Minute Free-Write: what connections do you find in scripture that you may want to write about one day?


Scripture Paraphrase

by Bryan Emerson

Scripture paraphrase is a longstanding church tradition, especially considering the Psalms.  The Jewish church sang the Psalter regularly in their worship practices, so it was only natural for the Christian church to desire to carry on the tradition.

During the Reformation, John Calvin had a nearly completed Psalter translated and paraphrased into meter.  It was immensely important to Calvin to sing only Scripture during worship, but he considered a good paraphrase to be quite edifying.

There are a few things to take into account when paraphrasing Scripture, though:

  1. A paraphrase is not authoritative.  Only the original manuscripts are without error, and while we trust that God has kept His word safe through the translation processes, all paraphrases are skewed toward the beliefs of the paraphraser, no matter how sound those beliefs may be
  1. A good paraphrase will always focus on the main idea of the passage.  Each Biblical passage has a primary message, and many will often have secondary and tertiary messages as well.  These secondary and tertiary messages may sometimes be used to help back up theological ideas, but they should never be used to base a theological argument.  In the same way, a paraphrase should never be built on the secondary or tertiary messages of a passage.
  1. Paraphrases may be strict or loose, so long as they do not stretch into heresy.  When trying to put Scripture into meter, you may go line by line and try to keep as much of the original text as you can; but you may also take the main ideas and details from the passage and make it more personal or poetic as you wish, as long as the main ideas are kept intact and still reflect good theology.

These are not the only things to take into account when paraphrasing, but these three will take you a long way.  Here are some of my favorite examples of Scripture paraphrases, in songwriting:

Jon Foreman – Equally SkilledMicah 7

Matt Redman – 10000 ReasonsPsalm 103

Martin Luther – A Mighty FortressPsalm 46

31  DaysFive Minute Free-Write: Have you ever paraphrased scripture in song-writing? What are the difficulties you found, when attempting to paraphrase?

Christianizing the Old Testament

by Bryan Emerson


A good writing practice to cultivate is to write as a direct response to Scripture.  This can be done by taking multiple passages and explicating theological connections, by taking long passages and paraphrasing them, or by Old Testament passages and re-telling them through the lense of Christ and the New Testament (to name a few).  All three of these ways are also commonly used when writing songs.

The latter may possibly be the oldest recorded form of writing responsively as a Christian worship practice, as we have several examples recorded in the New Testament epistles.  One of my favorite instances is the Church’s response to Isaiah 60 through the lense of Christ found in Ephesians 5.

Isaiah heard from the Lord and wrote in chapter 60:

Arise, shine, for your light has come,

   and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,

   and thick darkness the peoples;

but the Lord will arise upon you,

   and his glory will be seen upon you.

And nations shall come to your light,

   and kings to the brightness of your rising.


After witnessing this light through Christ, and with an intimate knowledge of this passage, the first century church wrote a hymn which was recorded by Paul in Ephesians 5:

Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the

And Paul, who knew this hymn as well as the Isaiah passage, wrote in response (also in Ephesians 5):

For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.

As a response to this passage, there have been hundreds if not thousands of songs written as worship.  A quick YouTube search found these (plus several very loosely inspired songs I did not include):

J.S. Bach – Sleepers, Awake!

Jason Crabb & Third Day – Wake Up Oh Sleeper

Gungor – Wake Up Sleeper

Graham Kendrick- Wake Up, O Sleeper (HeartCry)

As well as my own song: Bryan J Emerson – Wake Up! Sleeper!
For more examples of First Century hymns, look up 1 Timothy 3:16, Philippians 2:5-11, and Colossians 1:15-20.


31  DaysFive Minute Free-Write: What are your favorite scripture response songs/hymns?