Finding The Feminine Voice: On Being a Woman Composer in the Church
(this article originally written for NPM Magazine)
“We have seen Him! He is risen!”
These were the first words proclaimed by followers of Jesus after his resurrection, the words that would spark the Christian faith, echoing for the next two thousand years; the words that would compel the hearts and souls of 11 discouraged men in hiding – and, eventually, much of humankind - to belief in the risen Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
These were the first words. And they were spoken by women.
To understand the heart of a woman writer in the church, one must begin by understanding that proclamation is in the marrow of our bones. For since this singular moment in our Christian history, it has been the desire of millions of women to sing the song of Savior, God, Friend. Women have prolifically written their love for, trust in, doubt of and fear of God for centuries. Women have proclaimed the name of God in peace and in war, through plenty and through famine, in suffering and in rejoicing; by tongues of fire, or pen to paper, or hearts of service, or solitude of prayer.
Women are proclaimers.
When I was asked to write this article for NPM (by the way, I am so grateful!), the prompt I was given was this: “What I Look for in Composing Texts and Music”. What is interesting to me is the scripture that immediately popped into my head when I read that prompt: “I have found the one my soul loves”. (Song of Songs 3:4…how very stereotypical for a woman to go to the most romantic book of scripture, right?) Hear me out…I believe that the reason that particular verse popped into my head is this: God has found me; and, thankfully, I have found God as well. Therefore, I don’t imagine I am ever “looking” for anything as I write; rather, each day as a writer I’m simply living in what I know, ever listening, always open. And so I write from that space. Not from a head space, but from a heart space. I am a “heart” writer. This may be the greatest gift to the church that women writers offer. This is not to say that women only possess this gift (David the Psalmist and Leonard Cohen come to mind), but just that by virtue of who we are intrinsically, and who women were created to be (nurturers, caretakers, consolers), we write not just how we THINK about God, but what we FEEL about God. We write our hearts. And this voice is desperately needed in our worship.
I would have to, in all honesty, say that in the body of songs I personally have written, there are no earth-shattering pieces of theology. But then, they are not meant to be. Writing songs, for me, has always been simply a reflection of my personal journey. So my songs are, for lack of better terminology, love letters to God. All of them, in some fashion or another, even those that make no mention of God or of my faith. To be frank, as a composer I am keenly aware that I’m not usually saying anything terribly new. Thousands of other composers with great depth of mental acuity and talent for melody could write (and have written) circles around my lyrics and music, of that I am certain. And composers have been writing on the theme of faith for thousands of years. So then, what is the approach? What more is there to say? What can we offer? We must offer our hearts.
The “heart” writer cannot write to mimic current trends, or to try to be like a certain other writer they may admire. We, the “heart” writers, must write from our personal experiences - drawing from the beautiful wells of our own history, the melodies and poetries woven into us by our childhoods, our cultures, our relationships - because what we have to offer is exactly that: what WE have to offer, our very particular voice in a vast body of sons and daughters. That voice is important. That voice is the one that connects.
The Universal Experience
Early in my writing history, I was an explainer. To a fault. Having been a student of both music composition and poetry in college, the aim was to observe something, and then explain it within an inch of its’ life in song. If it wasn’t complex enough to be compared with a Sylvia Plath poem or a Charles Mingus composition, I didn’t write it down. I quickly learned that not many people could relate to what I was saying and singing (hint: if people ask “what does that mean?” in relation to your songs, you’re trying too hard). I wasn’t doing myself any favors, and was certainly not connecting. I was also not writing to my own experience, which is the first rule of writing (“write what you know”).
So, I slowly began a shift, writing about my own experiences, from my feminine heart, a woman and a believer. My gladness, my pain, my belief, my doubt, my struggles, as uncomfortable as it was at first. I wrote about marriage, motherhood, family, friendship. I poured my heart out in lyrics of brokenness, self-worth, addiction, grief and death, and over melodies and structures that matched those difficult topics. I wrote my feelings about war, societal outcasts, the poor, the disenfranchised. I wrote my abiding love for God and my equal defiance of God. I just wrote, and didn’t ask too many questions. I proclaimed, and did it honestly.
And this is how I discovered what I hold that the Church needs the most from all of her artists and writers: honesty. Beautiful, blessed honesty. I would go farther, and say that this is what God desires of all his people: to be honest and transparent in our faith. For it is in doing so that others are given the gift of discovering they are not alone in their own gladness, pain, belief, doubt, struggles. The human experience is universal. We write not from an island, but from a city on a hill.
A Voice Crying Out In The Wilderness
Women writers understand – I understand, deeply – that we stand on the shoulders of the creative women who have gone before us, crying out in wildernesses of their own, brave enough to write their hearts in a time when their words and music were mocked, or hidden, or not received as worthy simply because of gender. It is no secret that finding women in the annals of historical composers is a game of ratios (and infinitesimally small ones). Those who rise – Hildegard of Bingen, Clara Schuman, Lily Boulanger – make up a tiny percentage of our musical history. In the classical world, the ratio is – sadly – not much changed, though it is moving slowly upward. In popular music, however, the media has officially declared this “the decade of the woman”. With great joy, we know, it is a new day, where our voices are – at last – being not just heard, but truly welcomed. Hallelujah.
In writing music for the church, as Jesus so beautifully said, “it cannot be that way with you”. The Lord spoke this weighty phrase during the last supper, immediately following an argument amongst the disciples as to which of them was better than the others. If we are to survive as a body, truly as one body in Christ, it cannot be that way with us. Gender does not dictate the ability to craft something beautiful that points hearts to God. There must be room in our body of sacred music for masculine and feminine, for heart and intellect, for belief and doubt, for tradition and modernity, for glory and introspection. All of these are of the creator; all of these are necessary.
So looking back at this article, I realize it has become a love letter as well. If you are a woman writing for the church, know that you are needed, you are appreciated, and your voice is so terribly important. Do not be afraid to bring your heart, the heart of a beloved daughter, to the church; for the church needs it. We desperately need your feminine voice, your spirit, your compassion in what we sing and how we worship. Create, because the creator has given you a passion to do so. Give your full honesty, look to others for encouragement, and be brave.
We write not only for us, but for others. As writers we must challenge ourselves to consider, “who might hear this? What do they need to hear and know?” Always remember that you are writing to my heart, and to the hearts of my daughters, and to the body of Christ. We need your voice. You are a proclaimer.