Adapting Psalms, Honest Lyrics, A Writer’s Heart: My Joe Day Interview

by Bobby Gilles

in Interviews,Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Joe Day Band publicity photograph Joe Day Band, featuring Mars Hill Worship Pastor Joe Day

Mars Hill Church contains one of the most vibrant songwriting communities in the church today. Worship Pastor Joe Day is a key member of this community, and his music extends from Seattle to congregations around the world. I first heard of Joe Day when my church in Louisville, Sojourn, began doing his Psalm 25. Since then I’ve worshiped God while singing many of his songs, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know him online and following Joe on Twitter.

Not only has he agreed to an interview here on My Song In The Night, but Joe Day has a killer deal for each of you right at this link, on his fantastic album Grace, chord sheets and more. You should check it out before or after this interview.

Bobby Gilles: How do you overcome the challenges in writing an adaptation of a psalm, since the psalms don’t follow the western European poetic devices like rhyme, or modern pop song contructs like verse-chorus-verse?

Joe Day: I see my role as a translator, more so than a scribe. Adapting a Psalm while attempting to copy word for word (as a scribe) will almost always lead to an awkward and unsingable song. It may seem to have a textual fidelity, but the song will suffer in most cases. Not to mention that if the source text is the ESV or NIV, it’s already been translated, so if you’re going for super crazy high-fidelity, you’re already a step removed. Why not go to the source Greek or Hebrew nerd!?

So, the job of the songwriter is to translate into the forms and structures that allow us to sing the song as a gathered body and interact with the meaning of the text today. Many of the Psalms contain numerous ideas in one Psalm (119 anybody?) which introduces difficulty into our modern song structures which are primarily built to deliver variations on one big idea (verse, chorus, verse 2, and so on…). Pop songs are structured in such a way where the chorus usually captures the central idea while verses expand the idea and approach it from different angles.

I am usually looking for the idea that we can focus on, more than trying to fit an entire Psalm into a song.

Bobby Gilles: How did you decide to focus on verses 8-10 in Psalm 25? Did you think about incorporating more of the psalm or did you specifically want to be laser-focused?

Joe Day: What I remember about writing this song is that I took my bible and my guitar and scaled down the cliffs by Rosario Beach near Deception Pass, WA. I sat on a rock just above the waters of the Puget Sound as the tide was coming in, reading the Psalm and strumming my guitar. I must have been there for 2 hours by the time the basic template for the song emerged.

The idea of verses 8-10 is very complete: God grants grace to the humble, and instructs us in His ways. The entire Psalm paints a much more complete picture, but as far as the song goes, I wanted to hone in on the miracle that our God who is Holy actually grants us the ability to learn His ways if we come to him with a humble and teachable heart. That is astounding and was particularly poignant for me in the moment while sitting on a rock over the waters of the beautiful Puget Sound that He created!

The choice was focus on one idea rather than trying to fit the entire Psalm 25 into the song.

Bobby Gilles: Your lyrics are very gutsy, in ways that we don’t often see in modern praise songs. For instance in “What Have We Done” you say “Judas sold you for thirty; I’d have done it for less” and “Peter denied you three times; I have denied you more.”  Do you deliberately think “I want to put words in the mouths of worshipers that they’ll find shocking”?

Joe Day: Very interesting question. I never really think about whether or not something will be shocking. I do think about whether or not it is honest. The reality is our sin is what put Jesus on the cross. So, even though we didn’t physically drive the nails in, we are implicated. I think if we can’t in some way relate to Judas’ betrayal, we probably have a low view of our own sin. Likewise, who hasn’t denied Christ like Peter?

Secondly, the church lacks a library of honest, real Good Friday songs. This is for good reason. Every Sunday is Easter Sunday in that we celebrate the reality that Jesus rose from the grave and conquered death. But, that good news is in stark contrast to the reality that if Christ is not raised, our faith is futile and we’re still in our sin. Imagine that for a moment…what if Christ was dead? What if he didn’t rise? That was the reality for 3 days for the disciples & followers of Jesus. Even though Jesus explained he would die and rise again multiple times before it happened, they never understood it until he actually did it. Those three days, I can only imagine, were deeply devastating and confusing for those who truly believed Jesus Christ is the Messiah.

Grace by Joe Day album cover Joe Day’s “Grace” is a must-have for your collection

So, I think it’s important for us to understand both our implication in the killing of Jesus, and the implications of a dead Jesus. From that horrific picture we can rightfully move to the glorious act of resurrection and salvation.

Bobby Gilles: You’re also a worship pastor. I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) you were a songwriter before you became a pastor. Have you always thought pastorally, when writing songs for worship? Do you think “I need to write a song about _____ because the people in my congregation need to learn/remember/celebrate this?” Or do you write based on what moves you personally? Is there a correlation?

Joe Day: True. I was a songwriter long before I was a pastor. As a songwriter, especially as a lyric writer, I’ve always been drawn to the deep mysteries of truth. God’s attributes are infinitely explorable, and I’ve never been one to find His truth narrow or confining, rather in Him the depths and mysteries of Love and Grace simply expand. So, when He called me to pastoral ministry it wasn’t a stretch to write songs for gathered worship. I do try to write from what moves me because I think if I can’t sing it in such a way that I’m not moved, then I’m not sure anybody else will follow me when I lead. Our hearts have to pour out to God in our songs for them to be convincing. My friend Kate York wrote a song called For Your Glory where the chorus sings

Your songs are stored inside my heart, so break me apart, it’s for Your glory, let it pour out of me, it’s for Your glory.”

I think that is a fantastic portrait of the heart of a songwriter who writes songs for gathered worship.

Bobby Gilles: Who created the Grace album cover? What can you tell me about it?

Joe Day: Yes! Jordan Butcher did the art and he did an amazing job. I love how passionate and thoughtful he is. The process of landing on this particular design was long, with many iterations that were rejected and I think we pushed him to the brink. We knew we wanted it to be all about Grace as opposed to an album cover with my name in big type over a picture of my face. The story is Grace, the story is bigger than us, and we wanted it to represent that. So, he finally nailed it with the Grace explosion!

Bobby Gilles: “Passover” is also the kind of song that is rare in modern praise music, outside of “Lord of Creation” songs — the song that uses Old Testament typology and stories. And of course it speaks of blood, wrath, sacrifice. Was that written by friends of yours? What would you say to people who would look at a line like:

 “Paint my doorway with the blood of the Lamb”

and say “We shouldn’t sing songs that modern people can’t really grasp?”

Joe Day: Such an important question. Passover was written by my friends Luke Abrams and Jeff Bettger. I think people’s objections to singing this song would be correct if the Exodus was simply a story confined to the Israelites liberation from Egypt. But it’s not. It is directly tied to the cross of Jesus and is the template that would enable Israel (and eventually us) to understand the true significance of the Blood of the Lamb who takes away sin.

For us, it’s really another opportunity for translation. Because the blood of lamb is so central to the Christian faith, we need to translate it’s meaning so that modern hearts can interact with the glorious love of the Father seen in Jesus Christ crucified and risen. Avoiding it leaves the power of the Cross in the margins and we’re left with only our own strength in preaching and ministry. Since we can’t heal ourselves, make ourselves new, or save ourselves, it seems pretty silly to assert that we can do better than Jesus.

If modern hearts couldn’t be moved by Passover and the Blood of Christ, the church would have died a long time ago. The Holy Spirit loves to illuminate Christ, so our preaching and ministries must place the highest value on the cross. It’s not a leap to value Passover if we value the Cross.

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