A Modern Trinitarian Confession Song, with Some Tradition Sprinkled In

In my chapter, "The Worship Leader and the Trinity," in Doxology and Theology, I try to give feet to how the people of God encounter Him as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in worship. Sometimes, as church leaders we think too narrowly about the ways in which people can learn of and actually know God more deeply. We can think that our only recourse for people understanding and engaging God as Trinity is didactically, in the wooden sense of imparting knowledge and ideas through teaching and hearing. "Here, let me teach you that God is Triune, and let me unpack what that means"...kind of like a textbook, a chapter in a systematic theology, or a catechism. Classroom-style teaching like this is wonderful, but it is not the only way that people learn of and experience God as Triune. 

I began to wrestle with all of this several years ago, and it led me to several questions, including: 

  • What would it look like for the people of God to confess our sins in a Trinitarian shape?
  • Are there qualities of the Three Persons worth highlighting in the moment of confession?
  • What would three-ness-in-oneness look like in our confession?

My friend, Bruce Benedict of Cardiphonia, and I began answering those questions in the form of a song. It became a confession that pulled in some historic words that the church has used in moments like these, as well.  It's called, "Father, Only in Your Power." We sing it all the time at Coral Ridge, and it's always powerful. Listen here, and allow me to explore the text.

Confessing to God the Father

1. Father, only in Your power
Can we ascend to You.
Help us, Father, we are helpless
To pay our righteous due.  

Among other things, God the Father is Law-maker, Law-articulator, source of Justice, and (along with Christ) Judge. He sets the standard and shows us the bar. As Father, he sets the pace for His household of kids (us). It makes sense, then, to highlight the helplessness which is immediately exposed when we encounter God the Father.

Confessing to God the Son

2. Jesus, only in Your weakness
can we your kingdom claim
Help us, Jesus, we are reckless
in self-destruction’s chains

Jesus, as Son, is our picture of Divine humility. He demonstrates God's love and power as self-sacrifice and submission. In His ministry on earth, Christ turned our concepts of power upside-down (well, really, rightside-up), exposing that we go about life all the wrong way. He gave us a vision of THE Kingdom that looks completely different than all the kingdoms we erect and admire, both in our individual hearts and in our corporate institutions. Our recklessness in seeking our own kingdom's gain is ultimately self-destructive, and it is the antithesis of the "abundant life" of the Son's Kingdom. We are exposed, again.

Confessing to God the Spirit

3. Spirit, only in Your presence
can we true union find.
Help us, Spirit, we are restless
Our soul’s divisions bind.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of peace and unity. He joins and unites the affections of the Father and Son (think about the fact that when Jesus prayed His most intimate prayer to the Father in John 17, he did so in the Spirit; or think about how at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, the Spirit descended when the Father declared His pleasure in the Son). He joins us in union with God the Son that we might have fellowship with the Father. He unifies the Church as the Spirit of Truth. His presence exposes our discord, factiousness, barriers, and walls. He reveals our penchant for division with the other members of Christ's Body, and He casts a spotlight on all our internal division and self-conflict. We are internally and externally restless. We confess these things and more to the Spirit who is actively working to pursue the opposite in our lives and in our Church.

The Kyrie and Agnus Dei

Lord, have mercy
Christ, have mercy
Lord, have mercy 

Lamb of God,
Who takes away the sins of the world
Have mercy on us
Lamb of God,
Slain before the dawn of the world
Have mercy on us 

The Church, historically, had one very simple response to the problem of sin...the ancient cry, "Lord, have mercy." It's a cry that acknowledges helplessness, and it is the soil in which sola gratia (the doctrine of grace alone) grows. It is translated from the Latin, Kyrie, eleison.

Then, sung three times, the historic Agnus Dei (Latin for "Lamb of God"), which builds off Revelation 5 & 13, intensifies the plea of the Kyrie.

The Unifying Solution: The Blood of Christ

4. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Our ancient curse we own
Broken in the blood of Adam
The blood of Christ now show

As the song finishes, we "own our curse" by acknowledging we are culpable as blood-heirs of the first Adam, yet seeing hope in the blood of the Second, Greater Adam. As a true confession, it does not offer the words of God's gracious pardon to us (many modern songs of confession go there), but anticipates and demands them. This song needs to be followed up with God's gracious Word. We often sing "Nothing But the Blood" after a song like this.

"Father Only In Your Power"
Words & Music: Zac Hicks & Bruce Benedict, 2013
©2013 Unbudding Fig Music (ASCAP) / Cardiphonia Music
CCLI song #7006730

Advent as God's Gracious Declaration of War

When we think of Advent (if we have any thoughts), we are usually drawn to the comforting images of Christmas--Jesus as a baby, peace on earth, good will toward men, etc. If we've gone deeper into Advent, perhaps we recognize it as a season of pain, longing, unmet expectations, and hopeful waiting. But have we ever thought of Advent as God's declaration of war?

Ancient Christians passed to us a formula to describe this war, formalized especially in the vows taken by adult converts being presented for baptism. The questioning goes something like this: "Do you renounce the devil, the world, and the flesh?" It's a beautiful summary of our three-front war. Against this triple threat, a mighty Warrior has been called out from the Triune community to come down and clean house. The Incarnation of the Son of God--the Father's declaration of war.

I was reminded of all this last week as our nation wrestled, shouted, ignored, and wept over Ferguson. Many of you probably felt like me after having gone through various emotions...helpless. Really, truly, what can we do? These kinds of moments aren't solved by changes in governmental policies or even our own willpower to somehow become better, less (individually and/or institutionally) racist people. It seems pretty helpless when our divided reaction ranges from "We don't have a problem" to "We have a serious problem!" And so, if we're a Christian, we throw our hands up and look to the sky, crying, "Help us, Jesus!"

Interestingly, that's the cry of Advent: "O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel." God has a powerful sense of liturgical timing.

Last week, I was reminded of and comforted by Jesus' Warrior-ness when I heard The Modern Post's new Advent EP, The Low-Born King, with it's violent, glitchy, dubstepy final track, "This is War":

This is war, like you ain't seen
This winter's long, it's cold and mean
With downcast hearts, we stood condemned
The tide turns now at Bethlehem

This is war, and born tonight
The Word as Flesh, the Lord of Light
The Son of God, the Low-born King
Whom demons fear, whom angels sing

Alleluia, the child is born
He is the rescue we've waited for
The throne of David, He will restore
And reign with mercy forevermore

This is war, on sin and death
The dark will take its final breath
It shakes the earth, confounds all plans
The mystery of God as man 

This reminds me of a piece of music written over 70 years ago by Benjamin Britten as a part of his "Ceremony of Carols." Not suprisingly, given our discussion, he wrote it during World War II, a season of national and international unrest:

This little Babe so few days old, is come to rifle Satan's fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake, though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise the gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field, His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries, His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns Cold and Need, and feeble Flesh his warrior's steed.

His camp is pitched in a stall, His bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes; of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound, the angels' trumps alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight; stick to the tents that he hath pight.*
Within his crib is surest ward; this little Babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

*"pight" = pitched

This song goes further into what ancient Christians (even the apostles) called "the mystery of our faith"--that God wins by losing, defeats by being defeated. 

Friends, this is our Warrior-King. Look upon this baby, for He is our salvation. And He WILL make all things new by the Word of His power. Happy Advent.


The Worship Leader's Central Musical Task: Build Up the Body

My time at the Doxology and Theology Conference two weeks ago was rich and filling. My team and I were inspired by the messages, leaders, conversations, and camaraderie. In many ways, I felt my vocation come full circle, especially around one man, Harold Best, whose influence on me can't be overstated. His was the first book on worship and music I'd ever read. This morning, I cracked open Music Through the Eyes of Faith (my version is the sweet "vintage" edition with the dated fonts and 80s haircuts on the cover), and I scanned through the markings of the 19- or 20-year-old me and came across this, underlined:

When a Christian musician goes about making music, the concept of the community/body should drive every note and every moment in which every note is heard. And the only object for every Christian musician is to build the body up into the stature and fulllness of its head, Jesus Christ.*

Could it be that this vision rings just as true today as it did when it was published over two decades ago? Maybe even more true? This statement is clarifying and crystalizing. It cuts through the sea of "tips of the trade" found in books, posts, seminars, and workshops. 

Pastoring Through Music

This little statement says many things (even beyond the Christian musician's task in the worship service), but what should not be missed is that the worship leader's job, when it comes to music, is first and foremost a pastoral one. The objective, for music in worship, is ultimately not great art or flawless production (as important as those things are to strive for), but formed disciples. If this is true, then a bunch of dominoes fall from this first push, and we then must have an ordered set of priorities. Though I won't answer the questions here, what follows are the types of questions one begins to ask when one thinks of music-making and music-leading as a pastoral enterprise:

  • How shall our music serve the emotional maturity of our congregations?
  • What is the relationship of congregational music to its texts?
  • Is there a place for instrumental, presentational, or "performance" music in a worship service, and if so, what is its function?
  • If "building up" is part of a spectrum of both challenging people and comforting them, how can music serve that vision?
  • How much should the music feel familiar and cultural versus different and other-worldly in any given context, and how might that balance/tension be a part of disciple-making?
  • How does music assist the end game of pointing to and exalting the body's Head, Jesus Christ?

How the Pastoral Objective Covers a Multitude of Sins

Yesterday at Coral Ridge, I was blessed yet again to sit under the preaching of my favorite elder statesman of all things grace-filled and Jesus-saturated, Steve Brown. He reminded me of this simple yet profound statement of the apostle Peter (1 Peter 4:8):

 Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.

Now, our temptation with verses like these is to jump through several theological hoops when we read the words, "covers a multitude of sins." We want to go to Jesus, the cross, and atonement. And we should. It's there. But before we arrive at Calvary, Peter would have us stay a while in the nebulous, messy reality of Christian community. By "covers a multitude of sins," Peter means more than that our sins are forgiven and "covered" (a Greek word with Hebrew atonement-overtones, for sure). He means that when we put loving others at the top of the playbook, we avoid several lesser skirmishes that often plague a church's body-life, and we start to get at, I think, what Best is implying about the objective of our music-making.

In short, if in my music-making as a worship leader, I am aiming at loving God's people, I will avoid a whole host of pitfalls, dangers, snares, and landmines that often plague the worship leader's life and labor. When love becomes the overwhelming aroma in a church, it really has the power to cover up the lesser smells, which aren't gone, but overpowered. 

Congregants can tell the difference between a worship leader who leads out of self-love versus one who leads out of church-love. And when they do, they're just flat-out more tolerant, forgiving, and forgetful of all the big and small mistakes you and I make. 

So, music-leaders, consider what you do as a dietician considers meal planning for their clients. Plan and lead so as to build a healthy, strong, functioning, high-capacity spiritual body, and love the mess out of them!

*Harold Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 36.

Lamentation: A Necessity, Not an Option

A month ago, I introduced Coral Ridge to her first (at least to my knowledge) full-blown congregational song/Psalm of lament (Karl Digerness' fabulous "How Long O Lord [Psalm 13]"). It got me thinking about the relationship of lamentation to the gospel and how it all works both in corporate worship and in our daily lives. Go over to LIBERATE and check out the post: "Why Lamentation Must Precede Liberation."

SIDENOTE: That piece of art at the top of the post is "The Lamentation" by Ludovico Carracci (c. 1582). I was in NYC at the Metropolitan Museum of Art several weeks ago, and that painting arrested me. 


The Magnificent Three EP is Released!

Several years ago, I was floored by a shocking exposé. No, the article wasn't about a political scandal, a pastoral failure, or even a Kardashian. It was a revealing study about how "under-Trinitized" our worship songs are. Now, to be sure, in one sense, you can't "under-Trinitize" anything. Whether or not we are aware of the all-encompasing, ever-productive, supremely glorious work of the Great Three-in-One, if we are a Christian, we are inescapably "Trinitized." The effectiveness of God's work is not dependent upon our ability to perceive it. Still, Lester Ruth's "How Great is Our God: The Trinity in Contemporary Christian Worship Music" left an indelible mark upon my conscience when it concluded that if all evangelicals had were its most popular worship songs over the last few decades, it may not be clear that the God we worship is Triune (!). It left me burdened as a songwriter and leader to add to the pool a handful of songs saturated with Trinitarian theology. The six songs that comprise The Magnificent Three summarize much of the fruit gathered on the journey toward more "ancient paths" carved by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Please listen. Please enjoy. Please sing them in your local churches. And, if you can, please support the project by purchasing it! 

Track Listing & Links to Lyrics, Charts, & More 

  1. Father, How Great Your Delight in the Son
  2. We Look to You (a co-write with Julie Anne Vargas)
  3. Father, Only in Your Power (a co-write with Bruce Benedict)
  4. Before the Father
  5. Open Our Eyes (a co-write with Bruce Benedict)
  6. God Has Decided

The Magnificent Three FREE Songbook



Worship Leader Magazine's 2014 Editor's Pick of Top Blogs

I'm very grateful to be on a small list of select blogs honored this year by Worship Leader Magazine's Editor's Picks (Nov/Dec 2014 issue). What a blessing! I'm not sure how I got there, but I'll keep doing what I'm doing. 

Blogging is an interesting medium. It's leveled the playing field in some ways, and it's made discourse and deep thought harder in others. But, if you engage with blogs as one of the several ways you process worship-related issues, you will hear voices and thoughts that you would not hear otherwise. I can attest to how powerful the blogosphere has been in impacting the worship world, and mine.

Here's what Worship Leader had to say about my blog:

Zac points to Scripture, other bloggers, leaders, information sources as well as delivering his own pithy and passionate take on the state of worship and the Church. Pastoral, passionate, creative, wise, recording artist, worship leader, theologian, author, and a National Worship Leader faculty, Hicks' blog often uncovers the intersection of "new" and "old" worship practices. A great resource for tapping into important worship conversations, and an essential bookmark for thoughtful worship leaders.

The Vision of this Blog

The vision of this blog has always been to process and further dialogue in how we can think more deeply and critically about worship so that, in turn, our practice might be affected. I've always wanted worshipers and worship leaders alike to find this blog accessible, sometimes challenging, sometimes provocative, sometimes academic, sometimes comforting, sometimes prophetic. I've always aimed to process out loud what I'm doing in my little corner of the world and to display a particular model of intentionality in the practice of worship leading. I'm grateful that this blog has had a reach and impact!

I want to give a shout out to my very good friend, Dave Farmer, who is the singular reason I started down this whole road. Thanks, Dave!

The Other Great Bloggers

Here are the others on the list. They're all worth checking out: 


The Only Two Albums You Need This Christmas

Sovereign Grace, Prepare Him Room

The music of Sovereign Grace always has to be included among the top content out there being written for the modern church. They've been doing it for years, and they've been committed to engaging lyrics, profound theology, and a dogged Christocentrism. Their new Christmas album, Prepare Him Room, does not disappoint their legacy. In fact, I think the production on this record is some of the finest to date. The instrumentation and melodies are beautiful, the arrangement of some traditional carols and hymns are fresh and fitting (I love what they've done with the underlying structures of "O Come All Ye Faithful"), and the new texts are incredible contributions (ones that I hope are lasting) to the hard-to-expand corpus of Advent and Christmas songs. If you read the credits, you become very aware that the albums sound and style is largely due to their producer, Neil Degraide, who seems to know how to play almost every instrument, and play each well. Every part is tasteful and purposeful, and the choices are unconventional but not jarringly quirky. The arrangements are sophisticated and creative. I love listening to this album, and I will love introducing these songs to our people.

Really, all the songs are excellent. Here are the ones that keep jumping out at me:

Come All Ye Faithful: Again, I love the arrangement and progression choices underlying the classic melody (esp. the ii-vi under "behold him"). They expand/elongate the final line, "O come, let us adore him..." and while I think it's awesome, if I were to lead this congregationally, I'd be inclined to shrink it back so that people don't trip up. I don't think it destroys the integrity of the arrangement to do this.

God Made Low: Unless things change, I'm planning on introducing this fabulous new song to Coral Ridge this Advent. It's an epic song, and the chorus summarizes the song's explication of the incarnational paradox:

Emmanuel has come to us
The Christ is born, Alleluia!
Our God made low to raise us up
Emmanuel has come to us 

Who Would Have Dreamed: Wow. Powerful. The Chorus:

Who would have dreamed or ever foreseen
That we could hold God in our hands
The Giver of life was born in the night
Revealing God's glorious plan
To save the world 

There Blooms a Rose in Bethlehem: I have always desperately wanted the traditional hymn "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming" to be a little easier for congregations to sing, not many Advent songs say what it says. Neil Degraide has rewritten its words and melody but kept the essence...and I think the song is actually better. This song is nice for congregations and choirs...very lyrical.

The Unbelievable: A perfect way to begin a Christmas invitation to come and see the One who will "Heal the unhealable" (what a line!). I love this song.

Cardiphonia, Songs for the Incarnation

Church music is always in need of needle-movers and boundary-pushers. Cardiphonia continues to be one of these entities with its eclectic output, exemplified in its latest, Songs for the Incarnation. Music which sounds unconventional often causes us to think and emote's one of the great gifts of how art takes the soul places it wouldn't normally want or think to go. In this anthology, Cardiphonia has gathered 20+ artists and commissioned them with re-setting a bunch of forgotten gems of Advent hymnody. Not all songs are congregational, but they're all edifying and a great way to engage the season this December. In Cardiphonia's post on the album, they thank the artists for "stretching even their own conceptions of what constitutes music of the 'season.'"

Songs I'm really digging:

JG Hymns' "In the Night a Heavenly Song Came Down": Nothing on this track sounds copied or imitated. Everything from from its swung groove, to mixed meter, to its minor-to-major shifts, to its glassy vocals, to its space-age FX, to its swanky horns: it's just simply awakening, like smelling salts for the soul...which is, well, what the incarnation was!

Holy City Hymns' "Love Came Down at Christmas": I love this simple arrangement of a great hymn, and it is supremely singable for congregations.

Jered McKenna's "Hark a Burst of Heavenly Music": I'm a sucker for groove. And I'm a sucker for slap-happy crisp, disco-pop electrics paired with strings. Takes me to a a Jackson-Fiveian place of innocence and freedom. :)

Coastland Commons' "In the Bleak Midwinter": I love this very haunting arrangement of this now classic tune to a classic Christmas poem. 

Michael Van Patter's "Jesus Came, Jesus Comes": The text of this song is incredible, paring Christ's first advent with the "personal Advent" of our experiencing of His coming to us in salvation.

Also check out the many different versions and twists on the has a way of refreshing old meditations.

My Contribution: "Come See a Child of Low Estate"

Being in South Florida, the land of EDM, I've been listening to a lot of dance music. I've also been in conversation with a new friend, Alf Bishai, a NYC-based artist and composer who is taking a serious stab at exploring the intersection of EDM and worship music (support his work here!). The sum total of all of this is my own desire to see how the genre's strong suits can speak into how the church sees, understands, and expresses her worship. And I believe EDM has something to offer (I've offered some theological reflection here). So...this song was my attempt at melding an Avicii-inspired style with a riveting old text. My friend, Dan Diaz, mixed it. Hope you like it! 

Even if you don't care for the recording or style, it's flexible and could be done it a bluegrass or rock format with a lot of integrity, I think. Set down a step or two, and it's in the congregation sweet spot. 

One final thought: A great experiment in what songs can do to the character and affect of a text would be to listen to my version alongside Karl Digerness' equally wonderful (but different) version of the same text. Ask how the nuances of the text and its message change with the musical setting. Answering that question starts to poke at how music joins text to create (not just accompany) meaning.




Luther's Case for Psalm-Singing

Ligonier on Luther and the PsalmsWorship leaders and thinkers who stand in the Reformed worship tradition emphasize the importance and necessity of Psalm-singing. In fact, there are several smaller Reformed denominations who are chiefly known as "psalms-only" worshipers, meaning that the only songs they sing in worship are tuned translations and versifications of the Psalms. John Calvin, the father of the Reformed tradition of Protestant Christianity, was an outspoken champion of the supremacy of Psalms in worship. He encouraged Psalm-singing in the Genevan Church of his day, and he commissioned well-known artists to craftily set Psalm-versifications to rousing, rhythmic tunes.

Though Calvin was by far the most outspoken of the Reformers on this subject, it's worth bringing up the fact that Luther also had a very high view of the Psalms. And though he would never argue for a Psalms-only approach in worship, we can derive from his emphasis on Psalms that he would have thought that Psalm-singing would be a healthy, centering practice for the Church. I was reminded of all this as I plod my way through a very dense book on Luther's theology, Oswald Bayer's Theology the Lutheran Way:

In Luther's opinion, the Psalter contains the whole Bible in a nutshell and can therefore be called "a mini Bible." He lets it stipulate the "manner" and "practice" of his relationship to God, the world, and himself, not only in general but also in particular, as in the development of his concept of meditation. It is no accident that Psalm 119, the very psalm that teaches Luther the true practice of meditation and its true understanding, is also the psalm that teaches him how to understand theology as a whole.*

One of the things I'm learning about Luther's understanding of theology and the Christian life (those two are one and the same for Luther) is that the Psalms were central. If we have any thoughts of Luther's theology, we immediately think that, for Luther, his biblical ground zero would be Galatians, Romans, or some other Pauline epistle that distills the essence of the whole of Scripture in the concept of justification by faith alone through Christ. And while this is fair, we could equally say that, for Luther, the Psalms are where this theology is done, practiced, and lived.

It would make sense that the only inspired songbook for Christians (and Jews) would very much be a "mini-Bible." And though not direct, enclosed in this emphasis is a case from another reformer besides Calvin for Psalm-singing. So let me point out a few choice resources/avenues:

  • For more traditional, hymnbook-oriented congregations, check out this great one-stop-shop, Psalms for All Seasons.

  • For contemporary/modern stuff, check out this wonderful post at Cardiphonia, cataloguing both specific psalms and then some collections/projects at the end.

  • Write your own: there's nothing like a local worship leader setting Psalms for his or her own congregation. Google search "metrical psalms," look up Isaac Watts' psalm-settings, and add tunes to them!

*Oswald Bayer, Theology the Lutheran Way (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 52.

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