Wednesday
Mar042015

A Great Invocation to Kick off Good Friday...or any Service

For our Good Friday service at Coral Ridge this year, we will begin the evening with an Invocation for piano, strings, and voices (though it really could be reset in a bunch of different ways, from choir and organ to folk). It's called "Come Witness This Gospel to Me," off our new album, Come and Make Us Free. Personally, it's my favorite on the album and probably took the most out of me to write, which is saying a lot, given how emotionally charged the album is.

The truth is that this isn't just a Good Friday text. It's an Invocation for any service of the year. After all, worship is nothing more and nothing less than God's divine service to us, where the Father showcases the glory of the Son through the witness of the Spirit.

Below is the text, but if you want a peek behind the curtain to see what I was thinking theologically and experientially when I wrote it, check out the article just published on LIBERATE: "He Saw the Whole Bloody Thing Go Down."

One little note about the recording: I love the way the strings always sag on the underside of the pitch. It makes the song feel more heavy and grievous. It's like they're both the mourning of the Spirit and our straining to believe.

Happy Remembrancing.

Come Witness This Gospel to Me

chord chart | lead sheet | piano music

Lyrics 

1. O Holy Spirit, O One who was there
To witness the anger that God didn't spare
To witness a verdict both just and unfair
O Holy Spirit, O One who was there 

2. You saw on His face all the judgment of hell
My story of shame that I cannot untell
How heavy my burden of blame when it fell!
You saw on His face all the judgment of hell 

Come witness this gospel to me
Remembrancer, this is my plea:
Preach Christ till He's all that I see
Come witness this gospel to me 

3. You saw in His dying the death of my sin
The Son's bleeding body, I'm hidden therein
Where all of my poison He drank deep within
You saw in His dying the death of my sin 

4. You're preaching a grace that is forever free
There's no condemnation, no wrath left for me
I hear "It is finished" from Calvary's tree
You're preaching a grace that is forever free 

Now witness this gospel to me
Remembrancer, cause me to see
That Christ is my one victory
Now witness this gospel to me 

You witness this gospel to me
Forgiveness eternally free
And always Your child I will be
You witness this gospel to me 

O Spirit, the truth I now see
You witness this gospel to me

Words & Music: Zac Hicks, 2014
©2014 Unbudding Fig Music (ASCAP)
Thursday
Feb262015

Why Studying Cranmer Can Be Valuable for Worship Leaders Today

Periodically, I will be blogging over at Reformed Worship, a broad and thoughtful home for deep reflection and great resources. My first submission is a plea for folks in our Reformed tradition (and beyond) to take seriously the investigation of Thomas Cranmer, sixteenth century English Archbishop and architect of the Book of Common Prayer.

In the article, I discuss why we're tempted to overlook him as one of the Reformation's best worship thinkers and why he should be considered as someone who was laboring within the Reformed tradition (theologically, he's been unfortunately pegged all over the map). Then I offer takeaways for how his work as a "missional liturgist" (someone who thought about how to contextualize historic Christian worship for the people his day and age) can inform our practice. Go check it out!

Tuesday
Feb242015

Come and Make Us Free EP - RELEASES TODAY

Cages. We’re well pedigreed engineers of them. We construct them, we think, for comfort. We believe they will save us, either by protecting us from the cruel blows of the world or by protecting the world from us. They keep the world in check, or they keep us in check. Either way, they are wrought-ironed evidence of humanity’s slavery to self-salvation, self-justification. Riffing on Calvin: the human heart is a cage factory, skillfully engineering ten thousand self-made prisons.

Come and Make Us Free is our latest five-track EP exploring our cage-making obsession, entertaining every theme that sits between its diagnosis and deliverance. To get right to the point, the album is about the slavery of sin and the freedom of the gospel. It plays like a mini worship service:

Invocation: “Come Witness this Gospel to Me”

Confession of Sin: “Come and Make Us Free”

Confession of a Savior: “Christ Surrendered All”

Assurance of Salvation: “It is Finished”

Summary & Praise: “Gospel Doxology”

A New Path in Songwriting 

Those who have followed my recording journey over the last five years will note (no surprise) that I love hymns. I’ve spent the bulk of my energies recasting those old gems in new settings. Come and Make Us Free is my first album where all the texts are original (except for the third verse of the doxology). As I said to a friend recently, “It feels like I’ve been now bathing in hymns long enough that I can begin stepping out of the water with the confidence that I’ll honor the heritage.”

Therefore, you’ll hear some songs that are very hymn-like. They’ve got older, poetic language and odd words like “Remembrancer” (thanks, Charles Wesley, for that theologically loaded descriptor of the Holy Spirit). Other songs, though, are a move toward deeper enculturation—pop melodies and more immediately accessible lyrics (“It is Finished”). In any regard, a heavier hand at lyric-writing is probably a sign of where I am headed, though I will never quite be able to let go of hymns (or, probably more accurately, they won’t let go of me).

Probably the principal reason I’m able to step away from the lyrical safety net of hymnody is because I have a great songwriting partner in my co-leader at Coral Ridge, Julie Anne Vargas. She has given the album a lyrical and musical focus and tightness, which have made all our songs sharper. In the craft of putting a song together, she’s the better technician.

I Believe in Every Song

There’s no track on this one that I consider filler. Not every song will fit every context, but I think there’s something for everyone. We taught four out of the five songs to our LIBERATE 2015 attendees last week, and they were all picked up quickly and sung passionately. That gave me great confidence in their integrity.

I also think the production on this album is more consistent than previous albums of mine, largely because of the help of one of South Florida’s best musicians, Matt Calderin, whose own show-stopping bluesy funky rock everyone should check out.

The first track, “Come Witness This Gospel to Me,” is a classically influenced poem that gets at the heart of what I think true “charismatic” worship really is. The middle three tracks are pop-rock worship songs all built on drums, bass, and Rhodes. The final track, “Gospel Doxology,” is a short anthem weaving pipe organ and strings into a big rock ending. In the weeks to come, I will post song stories and descriptions that delve into the music and theology of each track.

For now, please enjoy the album, and tell your friends about it! Gift the album to people you know who are weary of the do-more-try-harder “Christianity” that leaves us all caged and exhausted. Point them to the finished work of Jesus!

Resources

 
Buy the Album

Bandcamp | iTunes | Amazon 


Full Songbook


Lyrics, Charts and More

"Come Witness This Gospel to Me" lyrics | chord chart | lead sheet | piano

"Come and Make Us Free" lyrics | chord chart | lead sheet

"Christ Surrendered All" lyrics | chord chart

"It is Finished" lyrics | chord chart | lead sheet

"Gospel Doxology" lyrics | chord chart | lead sheet

Wednesday
Feb182015

Liberating Worship: Notes from My Worship Breakout at LIBERATE 2015

If I had 30 minutes to talk about worship, this is what I'd say.

  • Worship is Divine service, where God serves us from the riches of the benefits of Christ's death and life for us.
  • The Reformation offered some very helpful distinctives in thinking through how the gospel "works" in the human being during worship (i.e. incurvatus in se, the Old and New Adams, and a Theology of Glory versus a Theology of the Cross)
  • The Reformation offered a theology of change that is key to understanding how worship works: the gospel alone (God's justifying word of pardon to the ungodly) has the power to birth faith, worship, and works in us, and it does so through a renovation of our affections (in the thought-tradition of Augustine, Melanchthon, and Cranmer). Therefore, worship is an affectively charged event where the Spirit proclaims Christ to the Father's children.
  • These above ideas give us a grid to analyze how well our worship is doing in creating a context for these Spirit-filled realities to thrive. 

And that's exactly what I said, with a lot of commentary. For those interested, I've fleshed these points out in the four-page handout I gave to those who came to the breakout. Get the PDF on my breakout here.

The breakout was recorded, and I will post the audio (and or video) when it comes available.

Wednesday
Feb182015

The Songs of LIBERATE 2015

We'll be singing a LOT at LIBERATE 2015, which starts tomorrow here in sunny, warm Ft. Lauderdale. We're expecting to gather over 2000 people from every state and over twenty countries. In addition to leading a worship workshop tomorrow, my great joy will be to lead music. We're singing a bunch of gospel-saturated songs, including several from our new EP, Come and Make Us Free, which releases tomorrow at the Conference and Tuesday everywhere else. 

Hop on over to LIBERATE to find the complete setlists and lots of resources for all the songs we'll sing. One of the fun things we're doing is rounding out every time with our "Gospel Doxology." It's a nice summary of what LIBERATE is all about.

Thursday
Feb122015

A Trinitarian Call to Worship Song

Posted yesterday over at LIBERATE was my song analysis of our opening track, "Father, How Great Your Delight in the Son" on our November EP, The Magnifcent Three.   

I wanted to write a hymn in Trinitarian shape, similar to "Come Thou Almighty King," though with a bit more focus on the roles of the Persons and their mutual delight. The ultimate goal was to give the Church a song that began worship by looking at how we join into the already-happening delight of the Trinity, pulsating through heaven and garnering earth. 

Go check out my description at LIBERATE for an inside look on the thinking/artistic process and theological vision behind it. As you listen, keep in mind that it can be sung very successfully (we sang it last night at Coral Ridge) to a 6/8 rhythm that doesn't sound anything like the recording. The recorded arrangement was more of an (attempted, at least) artistic statement.

 

Father, How Great
Your Delight in the Son

listen/buy | lead sheet | chord chart

Lyrics

1. Father, how great Your delight in the Son
Infinite joy ere the worlds were begun
The fullness of Love found in Him, with You one
Father, how great Your delight in the Son

2. Jesus, You reign at the Father’s right hand
In pleasure You rule o’er His sovereignty’s span
You joyfully follow the Father’s commands
Jesus, You reign at the Father’s right hand 

And, now called into Your delight
As we strain to gaze at Your light
With the hosts of the heavens all veiling their sight,
We cry,”Holy, holy, holy”
We cry,”Holy, holy, holy”
We cry,”Holy, holy, holy” 

3. Spirit, You light up the Father and Son
With pleasure You join their affections in One
So pour out their glory as we humbly come
Spirit, You light up the Father and Son 

So we join Your myst’ry divine
As we sing Your Love before time
And we lift up our voices midst glory sublime
And cry,”Holy, holy, holy”
And cry,”Holy, holy, holy”
And cry,”Holy, holy, holy” 

4. O worship the Father, immortal, in light
O worship the Son, at His right hand of might
O worship the Spirit, eternally bright
With saints, angels, elders, and martyrs in white 

So we join the great One in Three
In the praise that ever shall be
And in Christ, through the Spirit, our Father we seek.
And cry,”Holy, holy, holy”
And cry,”Holy, holy, holy”
And cry,”Holy, holy, holy”

Words & Music: Zac Hicks, 2013
©2013 Unbudding Fig Music (ASCAP)
Monday
Feb092015

A Book on Rock that Both Melts Your Face and Slays Your Soul...Just As It Should

I hope every worship leader is a lover of rock n roll. I hope they love its history, development, pivotal artists, and diversification. I hope these things because, as I’ve said elsewhere, thoughtful, intentional worship leaders should recognize that the musical ideas, idioms, expressions, and foundations are part of a now rich sonic tradition. Church musicians who lead various forms of contemporary/modern worship would find their skills blessed and strengthened for having taken the time to delve into their tradition’s musical heritage.

Simultaneously, I hope every worship leader is passionate about the deep human questions we all have about guilt, grace, abandonment, belonging, and identity, because those questions lie at the heart of our journeys in faith and ministry.

All these hopes collide for me in one amazing book that I’ve been reading and soaking in. It’s culturally savvy, intelligent, informed, deep, honest, and provocative. It’s A Mess of Help: From the Crucified Soul of Rock N’ Roll, by David Zahl, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. David heads up a motley crew of folks who weave together insights like nobody’s business over at Mockingbird—my favorite site for discovering how the dynamics of grace and law work, well, everywhere.

It WILL Mess With You

A Mess of Help reads like a compilation album, journeying from band to band, artist to artist, excavating the wisdom their music provokes. It would be much too simplistic, and probably close to an insult, to describe this book as a “Gospel according to [name that band]” volume. Zahl is actually more deep and honest than that. It’s probably more accurate to describe A Mess of Help as teasing out of all the glory and grime of rock n roll history, all of which beg for answers that can only be found in the grace of God in Christ. And the best part is that A Mess of Help doesn't use the artists as a platform for something else. It operates out of a deep knowledge and love of all the musicians and music at hand, and it journeys through the very questions that those musicians ask in their lives and work.

Each chapter highlights a different artist/band—Nirvana, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, ABBA, Belle and Sebastian, The Who, Guns n Roses, The Replacements, The Rolling Stones, Big Star, Lindsey Buckingham / Fleetwood Mac, Elvis, Scott Walker, Morrissey, and Michael Jackson. I think it would be safe to say that one could jump in (after reading the killer Introduction) to any of these chapters with ease. It doesn’t have to be read sequentially. It’s also probably safe to say that the more deeply you know and love these musicians and their music, the more you will appreciate and absorb Zahl’s insights. On the flip side, though, reading chapters about artists I hadn’t paid much attention to has pressed me a bit more into their music.

I want to zoom in on a few chapters to give you a taste of this wonderful, soul-opening read. I choose these chapters for no other reason than I love them and they left a good wound in my flesh and ache in my soul—wonderful preliminaries to gospel salve.

Pete Townshend and Online Self-Curation

In “Searching Low and High for the Who Behind The Who,” Zahl announces that “their very name announces a preoccupation with the subject” of identity. Zahl’s journey into The Who bring us to the point of some very incriminating insights about the online “curation of self” we work so hard to do.

A nagging discrepancy exists between our status updates and our browser histories. “Anxiety” is a word we use to describe what that discrepancy feels like...To fend off potential judgment [that anxiety brings], we manage appearances. We spin reality. Social media has simply given us non-stop opportunity to do so. The venue never closes. The modern word for this phenomenon is “curation.” It used to be that only art galleries were curated. Today, people are curated; lives are curated…Our unvarnished self, whatever it may be, is not acceptable, either to others or ourselves. You can find plenty of pictures of people vacationing on Instagram, fewer of them fighting with their spouse or microwaving pizza. (pp. 80-81)

As if that weren’t indicting and painful enough:

Rosa Smith observed in The American Reader that we are “uncomfortably conscious of the fact that your created, curated self is not really you—you’ve played up a few things, kept a few others hidden, put on a mask for your digital friends. And what would they think of you if they found out about—well, you?” In other words, because we know what is receiving love is a reduction, i.e., it’s not actually us, we may even feel lonelier than before. The various “lifesuits” we don don’t bring life. (pp. 81-82)

This line of exposing thought is woven into the fabric of the complicated and brilliant music and antics of Pete Townshend. And it had me going deep.

Axl Rose and My Slavery of Success

Some rich reflection accompanied especially the discussion of how Guns n Roses strained against the un-replicatable success of their first album, Appetite for Destruction. Zahl traces Axl’s haunted past, having grown up in a home that felt to him like the worst kind of Christian oppression. Appetite was Axl’s liberation from that bondage, but its overwhelming success brought new chains:

If Appetite was born out of freedom (from Lafayette [Axl’s hometown], the church, authorities of all kinds, etc.), then its success reintroduced the albatross of judgment…a band’s struggle with the Law of Success. (p. 100)

It was easy for this chapter to make me squirm because of its penetrating cuts swiped straight through the heart of my own idolatry as someone who weekly stands in front of others to lead them in euphoric “events” that are supposed be awe-inspiring and life changing. The Law of Success is ever before worship leaders, ever before me. Lord, have mercy.

The Chapter Worth the Price of the Book

But the chapter that I think every lover of (every kind of) music should read is, “Confessions of a Former Music Critic.” It cuts to the heart of musical snobbery, elitism, and the “Law of Uncool” that constantly haunts so many of us listeners and musicians alike. I couldn’t stop laughing at Zahl’s moment of self-sickening discovery: “Oh, my God, I like Celine Dion!” Zahl explains how he journeyed through being a Coldplay fan before Coldplay was cool and all the subsequent mind-games that get played by indie music lovers and too-hip music reviewers when a once secret band blows up.

It moves on to discuss how musical subcultures get formed and the guilty psychology behind it, ending by pointing to “the grace that allows a person to come clean about their guilty pleasures” (p. 218). I don’t want to disclose too much of the chapter’s journey because it must be read! It is powerful and humbling.

One final blessing: A reference (p. 197) to a forgotten Michael Jackson song that brings together two loves evidently shared by Mr. Zahl and myself—MJ's music and The Simpsons. I'm taking about Jackson's "Do the Bartman" (1990). It brings together the synthy, Jacksonian funky beats with early hip-hop rap style. Word.

I would encourage everyone to grab a hold of this terrific book. Its clever and witty style leaves you laughing, and its penetrating and incisive reflections leave you crying. That’s the kind of book that I want to read! 

Get it on Amazon and Createspace. Read Mockingbird's announcement/description HERE.

Thursday
Feb052015

How EDM is Changing the Form of Song Structure in Pop Music...and Maybe Congregational Music

The New EDM "Chorus"

Anyone who has been listening to pop music especially the last five years can note the spilling of electronic dance music (EDM) into the mainstream. More and more collaboration is occuring between major EDM artist/DJs/producers (think David Guetta, Avicii, Skrillex [I'll lump him broadly in]). Songs like Avicii's "Wake Me Up" and Guetta/Usher's "Without You" are the kinds of things I'm talking about.

One notices, though, a clash of forms as the two genres of vocals-driven pop and instrumental EDM collide. The chorus becomes a battleground where the sensibilities collide, and the more ground EDM takes, the more we're noticing that the climactic "chorus sections" of songs are instrumental, preceded by various EDM mutations of builds and drops.  Current radio hit "Blame" by Calvin Harris (feat. John Newman) is a great example. The "Blame it on the night" section "works" like a Chorus but in actuality, it functions as a Pre-Chorus. It's really the instrumental section that follows (at about the 0:56 mark) that feels to be the Chorus:

Pop music perhaps began with either a strophic (verse by verse) or Verse-Chorus form (inherited from folk and blues). Then Bridges were introduced. Then Pre-Choruses. Then alternate endings. Over time, pop strucutres have complexified. Most people say, though, that the reigning pop form is still, roughly, Verse1-Chorus-Verse2-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Chorus. Many, many songs are structured this way. It is the "sonata form" of modern music that most composers/producers in the genre are striving for and aiming toward.

But now, with EDM, more and more "choruses" (perhaps it's debatable that we can call them that) are not sung verbally but felt instrumentally.

Complexification in Recent Worship Music History

Moving on to worship/congregational music, we're noticing this phenomenon on the latest "young" worship records, like Hillsong Young & Free's weeks-old, This is Living (EP). Here's the title track:

The drop and ensuing chorus are instrumental, with interspersed "This is living now" phrases. (The second time, there is a "you take me higher" section that contains more words, but the effect is still the same.)

It's too early, in my opinion, to see what this shift will do to both pop and congregational music inside and outside the church. Some may say it's heralding a move further away from a word-based culture and more into a post-literate, perhaps more feeling-based (therefore less concrete) sense of truth, which could have consequences for the never changing Christian message. (It might be a tad ironic that the second track on Young & Free's EP includes the phrase "Your Word rewrites my destiny.")

So why point this out? Contemporary worship historian Lester Ruth has noted that shifts in congregational singing have occurred with the introduction of new song form structures. He observes a turning point in 1994 when, on the top CCLI reports, we witness the first song that contains more than a Verse and a Chorus: "I Could Sing of Your Love Forever," complete with Verses, Chorus, and Bridge. (Worship songs certainly did this before, but this is the first instance on a CCLI top-25 report.)

From there, we notice in the charts (based on Dr. Ruth's forthcoming research) more and more songs that have Bridges:

  • "Better is One Day" (1995)
  • "Days of Elijah" (1996)
  • "Open the Eyes of My Heart" (1997)
  • "The Heart of Worship" (1997)
  • "Trading My Sorrows" (1998)
  • (It goes on with increased frequency)

Then, the first instance of a Pre-Chorus hits the top CCLI records: Chris Tomlin's "Forever" in 2001. What follows in the charts are an increased number of four-part songs. Quickly we've seen, too, the rise of "regularly scheduled" instrumental sections and surprising new sections (new melodies/progressions altogether) at the end of songs.

Many, in answer to the question, "Why aren't people singing anymore on Sundays?", have said, "Well, if it looks like a rock concert, and smells like a rock concert, of course people will know that they're there to listen and not sing." Perhaps another reason people struggle to sing is because of the "complexification" of worship music song-structure. It simply takes more effort for the congregant to learn, imbibe, and sing forth a modern song with four and sometimes five different sections. As one friend recently quipped over email, "A worship song isn't a worship song unless it's a maze."

EDM's Answer: Hopes and Hazards

Suspending judgment on some of the things I'm poking at above and going back to the task at hand, perhaps on the positive side, EDM could be giving a two-fold gift to worship music right now.

First, perhaps it could force some of the worship songwriting back in a more simple direction, when it comes to texts and melodies. An instrumental chorus means that there's one less of the five potential sections where congregations are having to learn a new melodic and rhythmic pattern. 

Second, because EDM stands at the top of musical genres which evoke dancing, it just might break open a part of our souls (and bodies) that gets locked up when we gather with the people of God. I'm a firm believer in full-throated, whole-bodied, "shalom-y" worship, and I notice EDM tapping into a realm of the human affections of which worship music tends to only tiptoe on the borders (at least in my contexts and traditions).

On the flip side, EDM might carry with it some baggage that we need to receive with wisdom. First, though the genre doesn't have to, it is culturally associated (often) with some not so wonderful human practices that we can all guess based on EDM's connection to "club life." (Though check out this countercultural "morning rave" practice happening in the UK.) Second, again though the genre doesn't have to, it's associated often with text-less triviality. For most EDM songs, you can really take or leave the scant vocalisations that are interspersed here or there. DJs and Producers don't so much use them to send a message through the text as "sample" them as another kind of instrumental sound. This can have a trivializing effect on text in the genre.

Finally, I might say that, in addition to checking out Hillsong Young & Free's engagement with the genre, check out what my amigo Alf Bishai is thoughtfully doing up in New York.

Oh, and check out my "exegesis" of EDM over at LIBERATE, too, for some reflections on the intersection of the music with the gospel.

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