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Wednesday
Mar152017

Short Thoughts On Lamentation (Part 2)

We're in a series of posts during Lent on the topic of lamentation in worship.

2) Lamentation is the prayer language of suffering.

Scripture recognizes seasons of human experience: "For everything there is a season; a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance..." (Ecc 3:1-4, ESV). When we read the Psalms, we gain the sense that they provide prayers for these various "times." They offer a complete array of emotional prayer languages.

How does one pray joy? Through praise. (Psalm 100)

How does one pray prosperity? Through thanksgiving. (Psalm 30)

How does one pray personal need? Through supplication. (Psalm 86)

How does one pray for the needs of others? Through intercession. (Psalm 5:11-12)

How does one pray their guilt? Through confession. (Psalm 51)

Praise, thanksgiving, supplication, intercession, confession—these are all languages of prayer for various circumstances. They are the various pigments of prayer to be painted on the wildly colorful canvas of life. 

So how does the Christian pray her suffering? She prays it through lamentation. Lamentation is how suffering expresses itself Christianly. To be sure, there are other ways that suffering could be prayed to God. One could accuse God. The Bible has something to say about that, though (James 1:13). One could aim despair "at" God. The Bible also seems to address that (Rom 9:10-11). One could hurl up curses to the heavens. Though this very suggestion by Job's wife didn't appear to get much approval (Job 2:9). We might consider these types of prayers "non-native" prayer languages for the Christian, bastardized dialects borne in the areas outside the borders of Zion, in the compromised regions where other tongues have commingled with the original language.

So it appears that though there are many ways to return our suffering to our sovereign God in prayer, the Christian way is through lament. It is the purer language of suffering, whose wording, grammar, and syntax best fit creature crying to Creator. Interestingly, just because we differentiate this language from that of accusation, despair, and curse, it doesn't seem to diminish the mother tongue's colorful nature. There's plenty of shouting. Every time we read "Arise, O God!" in the Psalms, we should hear it as a scream (e.g. Psalm 3, Psalm 10). Much to the chagrin of therapists that discourage hyperbolic language in relational conflict, exaggeration seems to be allowed: "Why do you cast us off forever?" (Psalm 74:1). There's even a bit of provocative taunting thrown in there: "Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself!" (Psalm 44:23). And there's certainly a lot of moaning and groaning (e.g. Psalm 31:10).  

Lamentation as a language, therefore, doesn't sound proper or refined. It's probably less like smooth French; more like gritty Arabic—lots of gutterals, lots of spit. It is clear, true, raw, and beautiful in its own messy kind of way. 

Like any language, unless you grow up with it from birth, it takes practice and study. And it just might be, too, that lamentation requires a "cultural immersion"—moving into territories where that language is the dominant language. 

Lent just might be that annual opportunity for such an immersion.

Thursday
Mar092017

Short Thoughts On Lamentation (Part 1)

Jumping off from last week's post, we're allowing the context of Lent to provide an opportunity to offer seven thoughts on lamentation. The first is this:

1) Lament trains our spiritual muscles for the day of testing.

Part of the concern about incorporating lamentation into corporate worship and one's private devotional life is that we're not always "there." We're not always in a place where lamentation feels natural or right. Lamentation is for those who are suffering, oppressed, and downtrodden, and perhaps that's not our experience right now. Briefly noting that this is a very privileged thing to think or say (there are many whose lives are nothing but movement from one sorrow to the next), we still recognize that this is true on the ground, in many of our experiences serving and worshiping in our local churches. "If we engage in lamentation in corporate worship, or if I engage in it now devotionally, it will feel forced and unnatural...it will stick out like a sore thumb." We can call this "untimely lamentation"—lamentation that doesn't fit with where we're at.

We need to recognize that sometimes, for us, lamentation in a given moment will be untimely...more like going to the gym and less like running the actual marathon. Leading thinkers in the spiritual disciplines tell us that those disciplines work like this—they train our "spiritual muscles" for the day of testing much like training at a gym prepares us to actually get on the field and beat the opponent. Lamentation, even when we don't feel like it or think we need it, offers our souls that kind of training.

The reality is that if we live long enough, we will all experience suffering in one form or another. Suffering is the great moment of testing, the arena where all the training (or lack thereof) reveals itself. If lamentation has been a part of your worship and prayer training regimen, chances are that it will offer its spiritually muscular response in that moment: "How long, O Lord?" Lamentation is one of the significant muscle groups of our spiritual anatomy. The Psalms spill an extreme amount of ink over the sufferer's cry. Lamentation is significant because suffering is simply unavoidable for every last human being, and the scriptures point out that there is a Christian way to suffer. That way is lamentation. 

So again, if we learn to join in lament, to pray those prayers with other sufferers who perhaps are feeling it more acutely than we are, we learn to put those kinds of words on our tongues: "How long, God?" "Why, God?" "Where are you, God?" "When will you act, God?" And if they're on our tongues on a regular basis, they are more likely to be on our tongues when we need them most.

If you're looking for some gym time, try on Psalm 13 by praying it repeatedly and aloud, or singing this great setting from City Hymns.

Friday
Mar032017

The Big Idea of Lent: Jesus Did What I Couldn't Do

The call to fasting and repentance is as ancient as the prophets. Just read Joel 2. There's nothing like a good fast to, like a defibrillator, shock the unbeating heart of our spirit out of its complacency. However, of monumental, make-or-break importance is to recognize that the season of Lent is far more about Jesus and far less about us.

If we fast, we fast to remember the fasting of Jesus in the wilderness, to, in a tangible way, "be found in him." And it is precisely Paul's point in Philippians that being "found in him" means that we recognize that we are found not in ourselves, "not having a righteousness of my own" (Phil 3:9). This is the opposite of fasting to test or flex our spiritual muscles. Now don't get me wrong. Testing our spiritual muscles is a wonderful thing to do; it is part of the Christian's life, in response to the gospel, that we would engage in spiritual disciplines like this. But this is not the "big idea" of the Lenten fast. The big idea of Lent is to embrace this truth: Jesus did what I couldn't do.

Recall that Matthew records Jesus' 40-day temptation in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11) in order to parallel Israel's 40-year temptation (Num 32:13). What happened with Israel? They grumbled. They made and worshiped idols. They did not rely, by faith alone, on the Word of God. In short, they failed. Matthew sets up Jesus as the new and true Israel...the kind of Israel that Israel could never be. Jesus, succeeding in the wilderness, proclaims to us, "I came to do for you what you could never do for yourselves." The Lenten fast is here to remind us that Jesus came "to fulfill all righteousness" where we crashed and burned (Matt 3:15).

What is the victorious Christian life? Lent answers: Jesus.

All this puts our fast into context—the context of the gospel. If you find yourself tempted this Lent, as we all are, to pat yourself on the back for the good and faithful work you're doing: repent. Change your mind about yourself. You aren't doing as well as you think. You need a righteousness "not of your own;" you need to be "found in him."

One great Lenten worship practice I commend is lamentation, because lamentation is the cry of one who can't find righteousness on their own. And I do mean "righteousness" here in the full-orbed sense of the Bible. The biblical language of "righteousness" certainly speaks to my personal holiness, my pursuit of just actions. And as we've said, we need to remember that we don't have a righteousness of our own. But "righteousness" in Scripture also has to do with justice in the national and global sense.

Lamentation is therefore a double-cry: Things are not right with me, and things are not right with the world. The former is lamentation in the form of personal confession. The latter is lamentation in the form of global confession. Only the victorious ChristianJesus himself—can solve these kinds of problems. Throughout Lent, therefore, I'll be offering a series of seven posts on lamentation, on what it means and how to engage it. And hopefully, even in our lament, as we groan with the Spirit (Rom 8:22-27), may it be yet another way we can find ourselves in Christ this season.

Thursday
Dec082016

On Worship's Boundaries

Just yesterday, Reformed Worship put up a post of mine on worship's boundaries. Next year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and I've been thinking a lot about the pastors, thinkers, and theologians who ministered in the wake of Luther's posting of the 95 theses.

One real "aha" moment of my reading of Luther for doctoral work came in the idea that Luther's articulation of simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinful) isn't merely a statement about the human condition, but a statement about eschatology. In other words, it's a statement about the cosmic reality in which we find ourselves. We find ourselves in an overlapping of ages, a "simul" of worlds--the Old World, which is passing away; and the New World, which is breaking in by the power of the Spirit through Christ.

A lot of our errors in worship--a lot of our over extended emphases--can be categorized as attempting to break through the boundaries set by either reverting back into purely "Old World" thinking (forgetting that Christ has come and inaugurated a Kingdom) or pressing too victoriously into "New World" realities (forgetting that the Old World, while passing away, is still here).

Luther's lesser known work, Only the Decalogue is Eternal, is mind-blowing. He is so vivid, so clear, in how he articulates the human experience of this overlapping of worlds.

So...go checkout my post, "Luther and the Eschatological Boundaries of Worship," over at Reformed Worship. Happy Advent.

Monday
Nov142016

A Brief Theology of Volume Levels in Worship

Regardless of your tradition, volume may be one of the top three perennial “unsolvable” problems in worship planning and leading. No matter which way you go, someone is unhappy. Too loud? People feel discouraged from singing because they can’t hear themselves. Too soft? People feel discouraged from singing because they can hear themselves! And this isn’t merely a problem for churches with million-dollar sound systems and rock aesthetics. It’s a problem I’ve heard articulated by folks who feel the organ is too loud (or too soft) in a traditional service. There are people with hearing problems or hearing sensitivities that complain about how worship can be literally painful to endure. Yet others don’t have a formulated reason beyond “I don’t like it.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received a prayer card disguised as a complaint about volume: “Please pray for the drummer who feels it’s his job to make us all deaf” is a paraphrase of one “prayer card” I received years ago on a Monday morning. So, yes, volume is a hot issue.

No Resolution?

And it also seems like it’s not a resolvable issue. Inevitably, if you make a decision which sides with one group’s persuasion, you are deciding directly and actively against another group’s persuasion. For those of us in charge of making these decisions, it feels lose-lose. My general opinion about volume levels has been a kind of happy medium: loud enough that the music fills the space, encouraging the people to sing out without feeling exposed, yet in the quieter moments offers key times where the congregation can clearly hear themselves singing mightily. For me, when I have strived for that, it seems that the complaints have gone down to a minimum (not completely gone!) and musical worship has been most strengthened. However, I think there’s something slightly more nuanced—more pastoral—at play here.

If you’ve read my book, you know it’s my belief that every decision we make in worship is a pastoral one, whether we know it or not. In other words, nothing in worship—not even decibel level—is outside the governance of faithful, biblical reflection. I’d like to offer some brief biblical and pastoral reflections on volume level in hopes that worship leaders, sound technicians, and congregants alike can see that they are all participating in real, biblical, pastoral work as they process and facilitate the “sound environment” of their worship spaces. And to do this, we turn once again to worship’s great biblical barometer—the Psalms.

1. The Bible tells us worship should be LOUD.

Listen to these commands: “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts” (Psalm 33:3); “Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!” (Psalm 47:1); “Praise him with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150:5). Joy, again and again in the Psalms, seems to be associated with pushing the faders up, pressing the organ volume pedal to the floor, and turning the amps up to eleven. The joy of salvation and deliverance is expressed in shouts (Psalm 20:5; 27:6; 32:7, 11; 33:1; 35:27; 42:4; 47:5; 65:8; 66:1; 81:1; 89:15; 126:2; 132:9). Trumpets (no mutes in the ancient Near East) were blasted (Ps 47:5; 98:6; 150:3). So it seems that the loud end of the dynamic spectrum is appropriate for worship music. 

2. The Bible tells us worship should be SOFT.

Equally present in the Psalms is the expression on the other end of the sonic spectrum. “I have calmed and quieted my soul” is what one worship song sings (Psalm 131:2). Psalm 95 provides that contrast. Verses 1-5 express loud, thankful, jubilant worship. But Verses 6-7 encourage a different posture: bowed, quiet, reverent. Alongside the admonitions to leap, clap, and shout are the edifying words that whisper “be still” (Ps 37:7; 46:10) and “wait” (Ps 25:5, 21; 33:20; 37:7; 130:5). As one desperate worship song puts it, “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Ps 62:1,5). In the Psalms, therefore, we hear that low decibels, even a zero reading, are appropriate for worship music.

Pastoral Choices That Lead to “Faithful Feelings”

So if we look to the Scriptures for a “biblical theology of volume in worship,” we hear something that defies almost all our categories. We hear a word that tells us that God wants it all—the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It’s not so much, then, of whether worship should be loud or soft, but at what moments. How might we navigate this wide spectrum as faithful pastors? Well, it might start by recognizing our job as emotional shepherds. We have a role in faithfully guiding the people of God through a holistic experience (emotions included) of worship’s rhythms and story. What if we began to see volume not as something that needed to be solved with a one-size-fits-all level that works for the most people? What if we understood that volume was an affective tool to faithfully and pastorally wield in the art and craft of disciple making? What if we got our musicians, sound technicians, and congregants on board with a mode of thinking that worship is a journey though a story, and that story has ups and downs, highs and lows, louds and softs? What if our congregation learned how to be more faithfully Christian “feelers” of the loud and raucous joy of God’s glory and salvation, of the quiet contrition of confession and repentance, of the piercing moans and groans of lamentation, of the weary sighs of mourning? What if our noise trained us to be more faithful Davids who were loud in their gladness to enter the house of the Lord (Ps 122:1)? What if our silence trained us to be more faithful “watchmen” who quietly waited for the morning (Ps 130:6)?

And now we can see how our aesthetic choices about dynamics are really opportunities for pastoring. We see now that from the electric guitarist’s amp level, to the organist’s use of their antiphonal division, to the sound tech’s fingers on the main faders—these are all moments where every believer can take up their call as a “priest” in ministering to their sister and their brother. Hopefully a post like this can open up fresh dialogue on a topic that in many churches feels weary, old, or hardened.

Thursday
Oct132016

The Heart of the Book of Common Prayer According to Cranmer

I recently read this article, a review of Alan Jacobs' The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, from over a year ago. The article is written by a person I would consider to be the world's foremost Thomas Cranmer scholar, Ashley Null. Null has earned the right of being called "foremost" both because he studied under Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose landmark biography of Cranmer set the new gold standard, but also because he is doing something no one else has ever done, painstakingly working through and preparing for publishing Cranmer's extensive collection of notebooks called his "great commonplaces." Null has been living in Cranmer's head and heart for quite a while now.

So despite some quibbles and corrections to the review insisted upon by Jacobs, Null's points are worth reading for anyone serious about understanding the original intent of the Book of Common Prayer. I say "serious" because the over four hundred years of Prayer Book study, revision, and historiography has littered the landscape with a lot of erroneous speculation about the theological center (or perceived lack thereof) of the Prayer Book. Cranmer's supposed intent has been coopted to defend practices and doctrine that Cranmer would not have desired. It's one thing to believe that the Anglican tradition should be wide enough to house all the permutations of doctrinal and doxological expression in today's worldwide communion. It's quite another to summon Cranmer for approval. We need more historical clarity.

I would be so bold as to say that Null is in the midst of proving that Cranmer was a convicted Reformational Protestant, not a confused churchman waffling somewhere between Rome and Wittenberg. Even more, Cranmer intended the Prayer Book to be a Protestant and "evangelical" (in the Reformational, not modern, sense of the term) worship document.

Null's article does a good job getting to the heart of the matter, but I commend a search of and appropriation of his extensive writings, including his dissertation turned publication, Thomas Cranmer's Doctrine of Repentance: Renewing the Power to Love.

I leave you with a few of the choice quotes from the article that summarize just what Cranmer was all about with the Book of Common Prayer:

"Cranmer’s prayer books were primarily a missionary means to convert the hearts of English people."

"For Cranmer only divine gracious love—constantly communicated by the Spirit in the regular repetition of Scripture’s promises through Word and Sacrament—could inspire grateful human love, drawing believers toward God, their fellow human beings, and the lifelong pursuit of godliness."

"In short, the heart of Cranmer’s liturgies is moving human affections to serve God and neighbor by the power of the gospel."


Monday
Oct032016

Worship Leading for Funerals: Dos and Don'ts

An excerpt from my book, The Worship Pastor, has been posted over at Crosswalk. In that excerpt, a part of my chapter on "The Worship Pastor as Mortician," I discuss some of the dos and don'ts that are part of planning and leading worship services for people who are suffering, especially for funerals and memorial services. I've made my fair share of mistakes, and I've seen many well-intentioned worship leaders inadvertently do some of those same un-pastoral things in those contexts.

One really pertinent piece of pastoral advice: "shut up and play." :)

Please check out the article, and please go get my book!

Monday
Sep122016

What Some People Are Saying About The Worship Pastor

I've been privileged to pass some advance drafts of my book, The Worship Pastor, to some thinkers, writers, scholars, and poets across all kinds of lines. I've been very grateful for the responses, feedback, and endorsements. Below is what they've said! Also, the book's site is officially up. Pre-orders really help, so please spread the word. And, there's some incentive. I've put together a study guide with discussion questions and "for further reading" recommendations. Some people will really want to dive more deeply into the topics I open up. Those helps are available for FREE for folks who pre-order!

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“The modern role of the worship leader . . . has emerged in recent years as a mission-critical position on church staffs,” writes Zac Hicks. But how do we characterize that role? With years of contemporary worship-leading experience, theological acumen, love of the church, and profound respect for the calling of leading God’s people in declaring his glory, Hicks identifies the role as pastor. Hicks explores perspectives that will inspire worship leaders and ennoble the worship practices and priorities of God’s people.”

— DR. BRYAN CHAPELL, pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church; author, Christ-centered Worship

 

“Zac Hicks educates and challenges us to carefully consider how we “do” our function as congregational leaders of prayer, all the while christening us with an elevated title that suits the role: the worship pastor.”

— CHUCK FROMM, founder, Worship Leader Magazine

 

“Not only is this book well-written, it is deeply wise and consistently scriptural. I love this book. I wish that every worship pastor (and every pastor) would read it. Read it. You will be pleasantly surprised.”

— ELYSE M. FITZPATRICK, author; Home: How Heaven and the New Earth Satisfy Our Deepest Longings

 

“It’s been fifty years since the first forms of contemporary worship appeared. It’s been thirty years since the position of worship leader developed. It’s been twenty years since mainline churches adopted contemporary styles. And so it’s time for a mature, multifaceted guide for those who lead God’s people in worship. Zac Hicks’ The Worship Pastor fills that need wonderfully.”

— LESTER RUTH, research professor of Christian worship, Duke Divinity School

 

"As worship pastor becomes a standard job title in churches across the globe, we are in dire need of a guide for this unique vocation. Zac Hicks has given us a masterpiece that is equal parts manual and manifesto. This book is pastoral theology at its very best."

—GLENN PACKIAM, pastor, New Life Downtown; author, Discover the Mystery of Faith

 

"This book is a welcome introduction to the multidimensional nature of worship leadership. Written for practitioners by a practitioner, Hicks brings a convincing voice to the slow-growing but much-needed plea for worship leaders to take up the pastoral duties that are so vital for successful ministry. I highly recommend it for persons in any stage of worship ministry."

—CONSTANCE M. CHERRY, professor of worship and pastoral ministry, Indiana Wesleyan University

 

“In The Worship Pastor, Zac Hicks holds up the diamond of worship leading and
wonderfully encourages us in its many faceted roles, reflecting the glory of the gospel with every view. This book is a must-read for pastors, worship pastors, and even worship team members.”

— STEVE AND VIKKI COOK, songwriters, teachers, worship leader/team member

 

“If I could choose one worship pastor to serve with for the rest of my life, it would be Zac Hicks. Marinate in his book, Worship Pastor, and you’ll understand why my words aren’t pastoral hyperbole. Get it; soak in it; share it with many.”

— DR. SCOTTY WARD SMITH, teacher-in- residence, West End Community Church

 

“Long has the worship community needed a guidebook for understanding that the role of the worship leader encompasses more than great music. I highly recommend The Worship Pastor to anyone seeking to follow God’s call to lead worship.”

— DR. VERNON M. WHALEY, dean, School of Music, Liberty University

 

“Zac Hicks has laid down some important principles for worship leaders to function beyond merely choosing songs—as pastors. Worship leaders who adapt Zac’s principles and disciplines will find that their call to ministry will be widely enhanced to the glory of God.”

— DR. EDWIN M. WILLMINGTON, director, Fred Bock Institute of Music, Fuller Theological Seminary

 

"Zac has thoughtfully and thoroughly addressed the many creative avenues in which worship can be pastored. And that’s so important, because techie artists like me need a better, deeper theological understanding of the influence we have over the worship space. And how we may actually be worship pastors even though it’s not in our job title."

—STEPHEN PROCTOR, visual liturgist and projection artist, illuminate.us

 

“This is book is an invitation to reenvision the identity of all of us who lead God’s people in worship. My prayer is that it will encourage and inspire both beginning and lifelong leaders of God’s people, and lead to worship of greater theological depth and Christian joy.”

— JOHN D. WITVLIET, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Calvin College and Theological Seminary

 

“Speaking from years of personal experience, Zac Hicks offers this winsome invitation to worship leaders to think of themselves as ministers as well as musicians. Essential reading.”

— MAGGI DAWN, associate professor of theology and literature, Yale Divinity School