Today Rev. James Douglas is generously sharing his new song, “Free agents” (download the sheet music at the end of this post).
I interviewed James about “Free agents” and songwriting vs preaching:
Tell me about “Free agents.” Where does the title come from?
One reason for the title is that it’s about an expression of freedom. Christ has set us free. There’s an idea in Christian thought of obedience to Christ – a kind of chosen slavery, if you like, in Christ – bringing a true freedom, because it’s a chosen obedience rather than the kind of slavery that the world offers to an unnamed and often unrecognised set of powers. We’re slaves to the economy and we’re slaves to the social expectations of our culture, and often we don’t recognise that; but we’re supposed to be set free to exist without being a slave to those things when we truly embrace our servanthood, in Christianity.
Agency is the power to enact what you want to do, but here it’s not about doing our own will, but rather taking part in enacting something that is beyond us and also for us and for the world. “Free agents” is inspired by songs that I’ve sung and found energising, uplifting, encouraging, in what can be a difficult thing to do: to go out and freely engage in trying to enact the kingdom of God in a world that, particularly in our Australian context, can be a vast sea of apathy.
As a preacher, you’re a professional wordsmith, in a sense. In what ways is writing a song different to preparing a sermon (reflection)?
A sermon usually gets heard once, whereas a song gets sung – hopefully – more than once, but we can’t be sure of that! Even in the process of writing a song, you’ve got to live with the words more than you do with a sermon. Typically, a sermon, or reflection, is designed to engage with a particular Biblical text in a way to help us understand it and to inspire reflection upon it and action from it. It usually is much longer than a song. You’ve got more space in a sermon to expand on what you mean; whereas, in the song, you have to be more economical, and either be clearer or accept that there will be ambiguity in how people will read the song, and you need to be comfortable with the ambiguity that’s available there.
The song can also take far more advantage of people’s existing understandings; it can assume more. In “Free agents,” the lyrics “the great rearrange for the Kingdom that’s being unfurled” are utterly opaque to anyone who’s not heard a sermon about the Kingdom of God.
The other difference is that usually the sermon is one person who speaks. So you speak, and you’re offering an interpretation for others to consider, whereas in a song, you’re inviting someone to sing your interpretation with you. I know that there are many people for whom a song can be difficult because of its lyrics. The hymn “And can it be that I should gain” expresses something that everyone was happy to sing along to back in the time of Charles Wesley, but which is now a theology that people are less comfortable singing.
This is your first song?
Yes, I’ve written poetry down before, but this is the first time I’ve tried to write down the music that’s in my head and put some words to it with the intention of having someone else sing it.
How was the Local Voices workshop a help to you in being able to go through the whole process of writing a song?
The poetry end of it – I loved the freeing-of-thinking exercises that Felix had us do. Trying to disconnect us from that ‘assessing’ voice that says it should be done a certain way, and allowing our minds to embrace whatever the next word might just be, rather than beating it into submission. I also really appreciated the exercise where he took us through a couple of examples of other composers’ songs and helped to open up why it was that they were striking as examples of poetry; helping us to see where the layering of imagery or the particular words and stress patterns and rhymes made the whole thing work better. It helped to develop what I was doing. It didn’t make me think “well, if I can’t write like that, I can’t do it,” but rather “if I’m writing something, these are things that could help improve what I’m writing.”
Any final thoughts about this experience with songwriting?
I find that music tends to take up residence in my head, and songs run around in it. I’d been reluctant to commit to writing a song, and this has been a good discipline, and one that I’ll be looking to continue and expand. The acid test comes when people hear it – to find whether they’ll want to sing it again or not.
How do you feel about presenting it to the congregation for the first time?
I’m getting past the feeling that it’s a massive exercise in ego. When I put together a poem for Palm Sunday, I had to get over a hump of actually sharing it, because – despite the fact that I stand up and talk every Sunday – it seemed somehow a more presumptuous thing to do. There’s an invitation in this song to sing it along with me, and that makes my words someone else’s words, and that gives it a real sense of being on the edge of arrogance…. Although it never stopped the Wesleys, or Graham Kendrick, or any of the other hymn-writers that I admire.
“Free agents” will be sung at the 9:30am service on Sunday 22nd May
download the sheet music: free agents