Lilac Orchestra: Story Under the Song
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"Story Under the Song" for “Lilac Orchestra”
track 7 from Child Coming Home (album, 2019)
WHERE DID THE SONG COME FROM?
“Lilac Orchestra” has two seeds. The first seed is about lilacs and came from my wife. The second seed is about orchestras and came, like the chorus of New Apartment, from the online songwriting group that my friend Davis started.
Here’s the first seed. Shortly before getting married, I sat down with Kate in my parents’s living room to tell her about my past relationships. Parts of the story were hard for her to hear. At the end, I asked her for forgiveness. Through tears and much prayer, she did forgive me, and together we committed to our future marriage.
During our first year of marriage, Kate and I often visited my parents. On one such visit, in a warm, private moment standing by the piano in my parents’ living room, I remember reflecting with Kate on that earlier time of confession and forgiveness. It had been painful, but it had prepared the ground for our trust in each other to grow.
As we talked, Kate told me that her favorite flowers were lilacs. She also shared a dream about a future home with a front yard full of lilacs, and the implication to me was clear: I want to plant these with you. I was moved, and went to the piano and wrote the beginning of the chorus of "Lilac Orchestra":
I want to help you plant
a hundred lilacs in our front yard
There were other lyrics too — something about going on a date to a botanical garden— but those lines didn’t make to the final song.
The song’s second seed came from Davis’s songwriting group. The prompt he gave us to work with in the summer of 2018 read: “scrape your knee / it is only skin; hear the sound of violins.” In response, I wrote a song called “Rooftop” which connected the story of King David committing adultery with Bathsheba to my experience of looking for pornography while listening to violin music.
Most of the music for “Rooftop” was forgettable, but its bridge had a beautiful tune. In it, I expressed the life-giving beauty of Jesus, a beauty which, along with my wife’s, captured my heart and freed me from pornography:
Oh, for the music I hear in his voice—
A million orchestras playing in tune—
Today I’ll put to death any sin that he died to save me from
So I’ll be ready when he returns soon.
Nearly a year later, I’d carry that bridge from “Rooftop” almost verbatim into the bridge of “Lilac Orchestra.”
HOW DID THE SONG GROW?
Both seeds of "Lilac Orchestra" lay dormant for several years until I’d written most of the songs on Child Coming Home. By that point, I’d figured out that the album’s story was about a man learning that his desires for relationship, family, and home are pointing toward his need for a relationship with God.
I also knew that the album's final track list would include “New Father,” the song in which the Singer has his first child (a partial fulfillment of his desire for family). Obviously, the Singer couldn’t get that son without a mother, so I figured I should write a song where he meets her. That's why when, in the spring of 2019, I dusted off that song seed about planting lilacs, I was intending to turn it into a straightforward love song.
But the song didn't grow like I hoped. Throughout that spring, I wrote multiple versions of the chorus and tried to write verses, but none of them felt quite right. None fit the story.
And though I recognized the close links between the album’s story arc and my own experiences-- simply put, like the Singer, I’d been a “prodigal son"-- I wasn't interested in revisiting my own past. Instead, I was treating the story of "Lilac Orchestra" as more of a puzzle to be solved than a place to be true.
"But all things, when they are reproved, are revealed by the light, for everything that reveals is light." - Ephesians 5:13, WEB
That summer I drove to a college friend's wedding. It was a long drive, and because I was alone and had no cell phone reception. I took the time to sing through what I'd written of "Lilac Orchestra" so far. I also started praying about it. As I neared the wedding venue, the breakthrough finally happened.
In prayer, it became clear to me that my approach to the song needed to be more confessional. If I really believed that "there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1, WEB), couldn't I be honest about my past for the sake of telling how I'd been saved? I'd been a slave to sin-- was I willing to admit that to shine a brighter light on how I'd been freed? The "yes" I gave to God as I drove flowed into writing the first verse of "Lilac Orchestra".
Upon arriving at the wedding, two striking things about the people at the event helped me figure out how the chorus of "Lilac Orchestra" should go. First, from a physical perspective, I noticed the beautiful fact of families. I saw my friend's grandmother and uncles. I saw young dads and moms. I saw little cousins and babies. Everyone was dressed their best, and it was like looking at a garden radiant with flowers at all stages of maturity. My friend and her husband were young and vibrant, and I realized that the wedding was a public statement that they intended to join this pattern of growth and reproduction.
Second, from a spiritual perspective, I noticed the beautiful fact of Christian community. During hors d'oeuvres, I heard other guests' stories of raising their children in the Lord. In the reception, I witnessed my friend and her husband intentionally honor their parents. And, best of all, throughout the afternoon, I heard hundreds of people singing hymns of praise. The diversity of those ordinary people within the unity of their Christian worship felt more stunning to me than any professional orchestra's performance could.
"Most certainly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit." - John 12:24, WEB
In short, as at my own wedding back in 2015, the idea of a legacy became visual to me. The married couple's past and future life was only possible because of other people. It was humbling to realize that my individual life and choices may not matter for much taken by themselves. But that being said, within a community of love and in a relationship with God, I saw that my life could be suffused with meaning. My life, if surrendered as a seed in God's hands, could be an eternal thing from which other lives could grow-- whether physically, spiritually, or both.
That's why, to the chagrin of my wife, I started to rewrite "Lilac Orchestra" so that wasn't a straightforward love song. Instead, "Lilac Orchestra" became a song sung to and from Jesus about the work of legacy-leaving-- of fruitfulness-- that he calls us to when he saves us. The Singer's wife doesn't enter until verse 3, because, as with the Singer's desires for family and home, even the beauty of his marriage is itself a picture of a bigger reality. In other words, his marriage matters within the context of discipleship to Jesus.
I finished the final structure for the song while vacationing in Maine that summer with my wife's family. All of her siblings are married, and most have kids. That summer, the beautiful fact of our growing families and our mutual Christian faith reminded me a lot of my friend's wedding, just at a smaller scale. The memories of all I'd thought and felt at the event rushed back, and I snuck away to my bedroom with a guitar and hammered out the rest of the lyrics and chords. That's also when I reintroduced that bridge from the second song seed that I mentioned before.
Soon after finishing the song, I got the chance to sit in with my father-in-law on a string quartet's dress rehearsal. I soaked up the sound of their music with deep attention and appreciation. After vacation, I drew on that beauty to program the strings in "Lilac Orchestra" for the final mix of the song.
WHAT'S THE BIGGER STORY?
By this point in Child Coming Home, I picture the Singer with his initial desires nearly fulfilled. He’s gotten almost everything he was longing for back in “New Apartment,” seeing that he owns a home where he lives with his pregnant wife.
I imagine the Singer leaning on a rake in a small garden beside that home and noticing the beautiful gift his life journey has been. Full of strong memories and emotions, he writes a poem called “Lilac Orchestra,” and he sings it to Jesus.
The song is retrospective; in it, the Singer sums up his journey so far. It’s been a complex journey, so in telling it, the Singer uses multiple ways of speaking.
First, the Singer draws together the symbolic worlds of flowers and orchestras. Using flowers as an image, he can express the mystery of moreness— the mystery of parent plants making tiny seeds which sprout and grow and make more plants. With orchestras, the Singer’s able to get at the glory of moreness— at the awe of many different things united toward one expressive end, such as when violins and violas play in harmony, or when a hundred violins play the same melody as one violin.
"You were made alive when you were dead in transgressions and sins... But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus..." (Ephesians 2:1,4-6, WEB)
Second, the Singer uses the Biblical language that he’s learned in his pursuit of Jesus. He uses that language to name spiritual conditions that were invisible to him earlier in his journey.
For instance, in verse 1 of "Lilac Orchestra," the Singer has in mind what the Apostle Paul says so starkly in Ephesians 2:1 about being "dead in sins." In verse 2, the Singer's reflecting on what Paul says in Ephesians 2:1-11 about how the resurrection of Jesus gives believers new spiritual life and frees them to serve God. In verse 3, the Singer talks about his wife's noble character, and together they pin their hope for raising godly offspring on the power of God's will, not on their own human capacity.
The Singer also uses the Biblical language to understand his own story as fitting inside the story of Jesus. In essence, though, in the words of Lilac Orchestra, "it should have been all we willful men who were fruitful," Adam and Eve turned away from their vocation to be God's representatives who reproduce his glorious image and his wise rule. Rather than discard humans, God promised a "seed"-- a divine child who would be born into their family to serve and save them. God promised that those who submit to the "seed" would be restored to the spiritual equivalent of Adam and Eve's vocation in the present age and, at the resurrection, to a full and glorious vocation of rule with and worship of Jesus.
With all this rich language, the Singer is struggling to express a vision both of the beauty of Jesus and God’s love and a vision of God’s people— the Church— unified with God as the Bride of Jesus.
The Singer is awed by the mystery that, through discipleship, we aid Christ in making his family bigger and bigger— a family of all nations, a brilliant array of “many sons brought to glory.” The Singer’s also awed by the glory of those innumerable purified souls shining with love for their Savior (that’s what the “orchestras” in the bridge are, in my interpretation).
The discipling Church in love with Christ, the Singer has realized, is what the most fruitful family and what the most populous nation, in all their glory, are only pointing at. And redeemed humanity’s “marital” union with God’s Son is what the intimacy and ecstasies of married love and the joys and rewards of fruitful parenthood only hint at.
Through all of this, the Singer is also expressing his gratitude for being saved by and united to Christ. By the end of "Lilac Orchestra," in a way that's very real but not yet fully realized, the Singer has "come home" to God. The Singer's not yet "in the arms" of the Father, though he is able now to name this longing (as he does in "(Reprise) Aching to Be Had" and "Passing Through.")
That said, the Singer is willing to do the Father's work with Him now. In "New Father," that will mean having the family that he's always hoped for. But for now, that's the story of "Lilac Orchestra."