Reformed Worship just released a new post of mine, entitled, "How Over-Explaining Worship Kills Worship." In that post I entertain some important pastoral reflections on the nature of leading worship that educates and informs without throwing a wrench into worship's gears. Hopefully you'll find it helpful! Here's a little quote: "Worship isn’t a time for parsing doxological technicalities just like driving isn’t a time to take apart your engine." Go read the post!
Tongue firmly in cheek: I’m beginning to think that Santayana’s quip, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” should be added to Scripture, because it has proven to be pretty infallible. (Okay, okay, it shouldn’t be added to Scripture…it lacks apostolicity, universality, etc., etc.)
My new context at Cathedral Church of the Advent has me reflecting a lot on the history of the Church of England, and right now I’ve been fixated upon the events of the mid- to late-1800s, which served to influence radical shifts in both the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the United States. We take many of those changes for granted today. It’s downright SHOCKING to read about the controversies of this era and what the debating parties said and believed. (Let’s just say that one pastor issued brass knuckles to his congregants as a result of this turmoil. I’m not kidding.) And there are some very uncomfortable parallels with some trends in modern American evangelicalism that make me at least a little more concerned about the resurgence of liturgical interest among folks like me.
Anyone who is interested in, dabbling in, swimming in, drowning in historic liturgy needs to be aware of what is variously called the “Oxford Movement” or the “Tractarian Movement.” In the nineteenth century, there arose a group of pastors, churchmen (and women), and leaders in England who were finding life in the rediscovery of the church’s forgotten traditions of the pre-Reformation era. Spurred on by some probably healthy desires to connect the worship and life of the church with more ancient tethers, young pastors and leaders like Edward Pusey (1800-1882), John Henry Newman (1801-1890), John Keble (1792-1866), and John Mason Neale (1818-1866) were digging through history like pirates finding buried treasure. They were enthralled by the beauty, mystery, reverence, transcendence, color, and life of old, forgotten hymns of the church and liturgical practices long cast aside. Sound familiar?
I share, quite deeply, many of these sentiments. When I was first starting out as a “professional” worship leader, the recovery of old hymns and liturgical prayers and practices lit my fire. And it still does. In fact, John Mason Neale was (and still is) a hero to me. Many don’t realize that the Oxford Movement’s retrieval of forgotten hymns gave us some of the greats that we would not otherwise have. Classic example: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” a 12th century medieval Latin hymn (Veni, veni Emmanuel! Captivum solve Israel!) that Neale re-discovered and translated into English so that we, even today, weep every Christmas as we cry out for our longed-for Messiah. I can only hope that as I and others retune and re-give old hymns to the 21st century church, maybe something similar will be recovered, restored, and perpetuated for the sake of Christ’s church. However…
Always and Only for the Sake of the Gospel
The more I am reading quotations and analyses of the first hand accounts of the Oxford Movement, the more concerned I am that we who care about retrieving historic practices of the church take heed of the now encrusted and (in my opinion) negative consequences of the movement’s success. Cutting to the chase, the movement was so dazzled by “the beauty of the liturgy” and the connectivity with the ancient that the core of what made those things valuable and gave those things life—namely, the Gospel—was obscured, if not lost.
Brothers and sisters, recovery of hymns and liturgy must never be for its own sake, but always for the Gospel’s. The only thing that should dazzle us is God on a cross. All rituals, practices, formalities, and ancient accouterments should aid and abet that one reality. Insofar as ancient liturgy and historic hymns lead us to wonderment at the fact that while we are great sinners, Christ is a great Savior, I say, “Bring it on.”
Idol-Factories, Forever and Ever Amen
But the irony is you and I will make an idol of anything…even the thing that is intended to lead us to Jesus! This is my diagnosis of the Oxford Movement, by and large, and this is my concern for this current era, which shares some similarities in zeal and aim. As the Oxford Movement took hold and took over (it’s still quite discernable in American Anglicanism today), the window between the Christian and Christ, which Reformers like Cranmer worked so hard to clean, once again became smudged and smeared.
One of the things that I love about Bryan Chapell’s game-changing book, Christ-Centered Worship, is its call for retrieval of the shape of historic Christian liturgy precisely so we might recover the Gospel’s narrative in our worship services. I imagine that our retrieval of hymns and liturgy should look something like this, contextualized for our local flocks and expressions. Therefore, as we proceed in mining the jewels of the past and polishing them off for the present, I propose a simple, evaluative question: Does this practice help to lead our people toward or away from Christ and His finished work? I don’t think this is a one-size-fits-all question. I think it needs to be asked perpetually, prayerfully, and locally. But, literally for Christ’s sake, we must ask it. Our gods can only dazzle for so long before they devour us.
In other words, as we dig for treasure, let's make sure we're not digging our own graves.
I've been preparing as a student for a most unique course on "Doctrine for Preaching and Pastoral Care," with Dr. Jonathan Linebaugh at Knox Seminary. It will happen in a few weeks. He has us reading some unconventional (and splendid) material. The course is particularly designed to intersect with my English Reformation tract, as it is attempting to exposit the pastoral heart behind the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Along with a few great theological books, we have been tasked to read novels by George Eliot, Mark Rutherford, Thornton Wilder, and William Inge, and poetry by Oscar Wilde and Samuel Johnson.
Below is what I would describe as a "pastoral exposition" of a moving poem by Oscar Wilde, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." Do yourself a favor and spend an hour soaking in this poem.
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Where Souls In Pain Find No Comfort
How can a guilty murderer look toward his day of execution with restful surrender, without guile or self-deception? Oscar Wilde’s answer is, “In Christ.” The “Ballad of Reading Gaol” recounts a prisoner’s observation of another prisoner’s peace and freedom as he approaches the hangman’s noose—the unavoidable consequence for killing his wife in cold “blood and wine.” The convict’s freedom was evident in the prison yard—a “light and gay” bounce to his step, and a wistful gazing at the sky as if to say, with Dorothy, “There’s no place like home.”
The narrator exposits the gracelessness of prison, where “souls in pain” find no comfort—not from the Chaplain, not from the Sheriff, not from the Governor, not from the guards who watch the death-bound murderer weep and pray. The other guilty prisoners look upon him and see their own eventual fate, and they dread it. This dread accounts for the shock they experience as they observe his peace. Their “endless vigil” of anxious prayer the night before the murderer’s execution is contrasted with his deep sleep. And he goes to the gallows a free man, freer than anyone in the prison—including Chaplain, Sheriff, Governor, and guard. The noose is the murderer’s gateway to Paradise.
Hopelessness Leading to Hope
Wilde’s prisoner would agree with Paul Zahl that perhaps the best exterior sign on a church’s door should read “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” for salvation and freedom only begin at the end of Hope, “in the cave of black despair” (II.3.4). Wilde’s murderer found no freedom until he found no hope in himself and was forced to look out and up. And when he looked up, he found that “only blood can wipe out blood, and only tears can heal.” He found “Christ’s snow-white seal” (V.17.3-4, 6). The doomed prisoner discovered the only thing that would set him free: “the loftiest place is that seat of grace for which all worldlings try” (II.8.1-2). The murderer discovered that, even while he was yet a murderer, Christ died for him (Rom 5:8).
Wilde’s ultimate point, though, has less to do with the murderer and more to do with everyone else (including you and me). After a blunt critique of society and the justice system in Part V, Part VI offers the punchline—we are all the murderer. In the Spirit of Christ in His Sermon on the Mount, Wilde ratchets the bolt of the law, so that none can escape its bind:
And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword! (VI.3)
The Futility of Separating Wheat and Tares
Perhaps Wilde would have pastors see that there is very little (really no) good in sorting our congregations into the good and the bad. We are all prisoners. We are all murderers. The only response, then, is grace and comfort to every last one of our parishioners. Wilde initially implies that perhaps no word of grace can exist for prisoners of this sort (and therefore us): “What word of grace in such a place could help a brother’s soul?” (III.6.5-6). But he doubles back on the question toward the end, claiming that the Word about Christ is that word of grace which can help. I translate Wilde’s warning to pastors: that pure and precious word of grace is especially given for preachers to proclaim from pulpits.
Wilde’s indictment of pastors is perhaps most pointed in his few mentions of the Chaplain who, in response to the murderer’s anguish, called twice a day and “left a little tract” (III.3.6). In the end, the Chaplain’s ministry was as cold as the Governor who, instead of seeing a person before him, saw the need to uphold “The Regulations Act,” and the Doctor who, instead of seeing a person before him, felt it better to be clinical about death. This all feels a bit like Jesus’ storied reply to the man's self-justified question, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). For pastors, then, we must be careful to not make ministry to all the “prisoners” around us clinical and formulaic. We must see that every last one of us is hurting.
Let Us Preserve the Pulpit (and the Worship Service)
May the final gauntlet thrown down on the Chaplain never be thrown down on us:
The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
By his dishonored grave:
Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
That Christ for sinners gave,
Because the man was one of those
Whom Christ came down to save. (IV.22)
Let us preserve the pulpit, not for good teaching, good advice, good will, or (God help us) good fun. No, let us preserve the pulpit for Good News. Wilde would tell pastors that graceless preaching is “pitiless and hard,” and leads only to soul-rot (V.11), hastening people to their graves beside which such preaching would neither kneel to pray nor offer its cruciform seal.
Perhaps, then, the Governor, Doctor, Chaplain, and guards can be seen as metaphors of what not to do in the pulpit, and what not to do in pastoral care. We are not ultimately executors of God’s law, clinical diagnosticians of our people’s sickness, tract-tossers of Christian platitudes, and gatekeepers whose sole job is to tow the line of church discipline. We are heralds of a Word of peace to a people nightly tormented by guilt.
“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” helps me see that even the most hardened person before me is really “the little frightened child” who “weeps both night and day” (V.5.1-2). God, give me eyes to see and ears to hear.
 Paul F. M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 232.
Over the last two years, I've been thinking a lot about feeling and affect in worship. I've been pondering how our "emotional apprehension" in worship shapes, informs, propels our congregational gatherings. I used to think that if people just had enough instruction about what worship is and does, they would be more engaged in its elements. I still believe in that, but I've come to the conclusion that I can go deeper as a pastoral worship leader in pondering the participation and formation of the people of God. People are not only receiving things in worship cognitively, but emotionally. As many of us now know thanks to the re-presenting work of thinkers like James K. A. Smith, this emotional apprehension takes place in the core of us, in that place in us the ancients called "the affections."
Of course, jumping on the affections-train has me thinking about worship in a whole new way. I'm scrutinizing my own heart and emotional life along with my congregation's. I'm thinking through how our liturgical rituals (our singing, our praying, our preaching, our baptizing, etc.) can become more alive, more real to us. And right now, I'm thinking about Confession and Assurance/Absolution--that series of crucial moments in many of our worship services where the people of God cry out for forgiveness, and God offers it in His Son.
Surprised by Grace
I want to make a case that, for at least some of the time in worship, Confession should feel interrupted by the word of pardon which follows it. It's a theological case--particularly a soteriological one--that has an emotional outworking. The case is this: You and I are never "prepared" for salvation. Salvation comes to us as a gift (Eph 2:8), and a surprising one at that. The fact that God saves us "even while we were yet sinners" (Rom 5:8) means that we're never "ready" for salvation. The Gospel is, through and through, a surprising Word from outside of us, that breaks in at a moment we least expect it.
Our default, "Old Adam/Eve" mode of thinking is, with Pelagius, that we contribute something to our salvation. Our readiness to receive the gospel fits somewhere in this (sinful, heretical) sphere of old world thinking. Apart from God's revelation, God's breaking in, we are never ready, willing, and able to receive the Good News. We are "yet sinners," thinking our sin-y thoughts, doing our sin-y deeds. Salvation, like the incarnation, is a total surprise, a shocker. It's a megaphone so loud that, for the first time, even the deaf can hear.
A Felt Gospel (and I'm not talking flannel graphs)
I wonder whether our worship services couldn't stand to allow this theological reality to be affectively demonstrated and apprehended. What would it look like? Perhaps it would look like a time of Confession that never gets fully off the ground. Perhaps it would look like a Confession interrupted before it was completed.
What could this look like in various contexts? For sung liturgies (song-set oriented worship), perhaps we need some songs written that move from Confession to Assurance that offer a fitting musical surprise at that juncture (a key change, a sudden lift, a shift in tempo or meter). If it's a move from one song to another, perhaps it might mean a shortened outro of the Confession song and a quick move to the assurance song. For worship services that offer a silent time of Confession before the Absolution is offered, perhaps you could figure out what the "normal" amount of silence is and then lop off ten to fifteen seconds to give everyone a sense of incompleteness ("Wait, I wasn't done confessing. I still had more to say."). If your liturgy is fixed, like the Prayer Book tradition I'm now in, perhaps the liturgist fires off the word of absolution ("Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy...") during the "Amen" of the Confession.
Will this feel odd to people? I think so. But I wonder whether the oddness is exactly the affect of salvation, rightly perceived. I'm sure Jesus in all His glory felt quite odd and interruptive to Paul on the road to Damascus. I'm sure the "neither do I condemn you" jolted the woman caught in adultery. Maybe, from time to time, Absolution should feel out of place to remind us that it is out of place.
The reality is that, were we given all the time in the world to confess our sin, it still wouldn't be enough. Our infinite transgression is infinitely confess-able. It is only our self-righteousness that causes us to run out of things to confess. If we're being true to the theology of the liturgy, it just might be that our Confession should take the lion's share of the time. But that's the point. It doesn't because God interjects into our Confession a profession of the One who "made an end to all my sin."
Again, this will look differently depending on your liturgical flow, but it's worth pondering as we consider not only how the liturgy is understood cognitively but apprehended emotionally.
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Postscript: This is just another way I'm thinking though what it means to be an "Emotional Shepherd" in worship. If these thoughts resonate, consider picking up my book, with a chapter dedicated to the topic.
Over the last twelve months, my postings have been sparse due to all the creative energy being poured into the book. (It’s available for pre-order on Amazon, by the way.) And over this last month I’ve been on radio silence as my family made a pretty big transition out of South Florida and on to a new call up the road. Many of you already know, but for those of you that don’t: I’ve joined hands with some great leaders and joined hearts with a vibrant, gospel-obsessed congregation in the heart of downtown Birmingham—Cathedral Church of the Advent.
What I Love About Advent
Advent is an Episcopal church with deep roots—established in 1872. It has a long and rich history, smack dab in the middle of a downtown that is going through all the joys and woes of urban renewal. Birmingham is an exciting town to live in, and all of us at the church are sensing a ripe season of ministry ahead. Part of what excites me about being a part of this church is its providentially strategic placement.
Another thing that excites me about Advent is its emphasis on the gospel. Though a completely different local church in a completely different town, there are many ways in which the Advent and Coral Ridge shared a strongly similar vision and mission for what a local church is and does. In fact, over the years there has been a lot of cross-pollination between the leaders and thinkers at Advent and Coral Ridge, which is how I first got connected with the church.
Yet another thing that I love is Advent’s worship (duh). Most of you all know I’m a big fan of the Prayer Book tradition—the oldest English-speaking liturgies around rooted in the best of historic Christianity’s pre-English-speaking worship words and practices. I’ve been studying the theology and worship of the English Reformation for several years now at Knox Seminary, and it’s answered a lot of questions for me about what gospel-centered, Reformational worship looks like. (My doctoral thesis will likely aim at what it means to bridge the worlds then and now in worship.) Advent has a glorious musical tradition with just about the best choir I’ve ever heard in a local church, led by a couple of great musicians who really care about congregational singing. Advent is growing in its more modern musical expression, and my job is to oversee the whole kit and caboodle (all of the services, all of the liturgical happenings).
My Journey from Coral Ridge
I’ve received a lot of support and prayers over the last year, and it’s been needed and appreciated. God walked Coral Ridge through a significant season of pain, and He saw fit to call me to be a part of the transition between the past and the future for the church. In fact, I tell people that it was actually the time when things got really hard that my sense of call was the most clear. Providentially, my last Sunday at Coral Ridge was the Sunday on which their new Senior Pastor, Rob Pacienza, was installed. I’m genuinely excited for the future of Coral Ridge, especially because I had the honor of passing on the ministry of worship to Julie Anne Vargas, a talented, capable, godly, pastoral leader who I had the privilege of mentoring and working with.
All I can really say is that God was gracious in simultaneously giving me a sense of completion of my call at Coral Ridge and a new call to a church that He was obviously preparing me for. The timing was perfect. (I know He doesn’t always work like that.) People have sometimes wanted to read subplots and intrigue into all of this, but there simply isn’t any to find. For me, the transition out of Coral Ridge was deep and sad (who doesn’t hurt when you have to say good bye to people you love?), but sweet and loving. They sent me to my new call like a missionary. And I will tell you, Birmingham is a new mission field for me if I’ve ever seen one.
What I’m Up To Right Now at Advent
Right now at the Advent, I’m trying to do a lot of listening, really. I’m trying to spend lots of time getting to know people, hearing their stories and hearts. I’m imbibing the rhythms of worship, and I’m trying to figure out what makes things tick. I’m trying to get a handle on what the culture of worship at the church is like. I’m not implementing a thing. I’m merely taking in. I’m thinking, praying, asking, dreaming. I’m leading worship services, too, and feeling like a rookie once again—asking rookie questions, making rookie mistakes. It’s humbling, and it’s fun. I’m enjoying soaking in the richness of tradition, hearing God’s Word, His law and His gospel, coming at me in the liturgy, receiving preaching that points me to Christ, and taking in the nourishment of the Lord’s Supper. It’s all really, really good. I’m feeling blessed and grateful. And at peace.
Some FAQ’s I’ve Been Getting
Questions from friends near and far keep coming up. I thought I’d pose and answer the most frequent ones.
What’s your official title?
Canon for Worship & Liturgy. It’s pretty awesome. It makes me sound like a big deal. For those not familiar with Church of England-style lingo, a “Canon” is basically an “Associate Pastor.” “Canon” sounds strong and powerful, but the reality is I will need another “n” before I’m going to be able to blow anything up.
Are you wearing all the bling?
Yes, I’m sporting a collar on occasion—mostly on Sundays and for hospital calls. Yes, I don robes and vestments on Sunday mornings when I’m leading the liturgy. Daily, no. I wear downtown-y clothes during the week. :) For me, I’m all about doing what’s best for the flock, what helps me to minister well. It honestly feels a little uncomfortable for me, but that will fade with time, and it doesn’t feel uncomfortable for everyone else, which is what really counts. All things to all people!
Did your theology change?
Not at all. Actually, becoming a part of this very Reformationally-conscious Episcopal parish makes several aspects of the theology I’ve always been convicted of feel more at home, rooted, and centered. Advent, as a part of the Anglican communion, is very aware of its historic theological identity—its roots in the theology of the 39 Articles and the original Prayer Books of the Church of England—and it actually thinks (as I do) that the gospel articulated, prized, enacted, and preached therein is worth dying for.
Yes, many (well, most) other Episcopal parishes conceive their identity very differently. Advent is a place that chooses to take its historic roots seriously, engaging (and believing in the contemporary relevance of) the streams of Luther and Calvin that flowed into the Church of England at the time of its formation. Advent believes in all the evangelical (in the best sense of the word) essentials that I do.
What about your ordination?
For some, this will feel like yawn worthy TMI. I’m ordained in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), and when I was at Coral Ridge—a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)—I was serving in what Presbyterians call an “out of bounds” capacity. It makes me sound like a deviant. All it really means is that I retained my ordination in the EPC even as I served in a non-EPC church. I regularly attended regional EPC pastors’ meetings for support/accountability, even as I completely and passionately invested myself in the local church.
I’m doing the same thing in Birmingham. I’m transferring my ordination into the regional EPC body here and serving in an out of bounds capacity. It’s less-than-usual configuration, for sure. But it appears that my whole ministry to this point has been less-than-usual. I’m just following God’s lead. Though I readily conceive of myself in relation to the Church catholic, and in relation to denominations, movements, and tribes within the universal church, I’ve always felt that my sense of call must first and foremost be to a local church—to flesh-and-bone humans who do life together and pour out their gifts for one another and for the world. God has made my call to Advent crystal clear, and I’m excited to be rolling up my sleeves.
As the dust settles over the summer, I hope to resume a more regular rhythm of posting. It’s very life-giving for me. I imagine, given my new context, that I will be thinking different thoughts. I only and always find my best posts springing from reflections that happen in my local context. I’m excited for the release of the book and the conversations and new thoughts it will stimulate. The Worship Pastor might end up raising more questions than answers, but, as others have told me: That’s what second editions are for.
One of the joys of both being on and moderating a panel discussion on worship issues at a place like the Calvin Symposium is that you're bound to talk about things you didn't imagine would be on the table. Such was my case as I moderated "The Worship Leader as Pastoral Musician." So many important issues were brought up, and our hearts were on our sleeves. Many sensitive topics were not navigated around, but through.
One of the things I love about Calvin is its diversity. The annual Symposium is a place known for creating "irenic friction," the kind of rub that is truly productive, sharpening, and formative. So few places can achieve this balance. They usually slip off the tight rope either on the side of homogeneity (everyone looks the same and says the same thing), or relativity (conviction-less "blah blah" where everyone's opinion is so validated that no truth-planes are ever landed). I think, in my panel, you see that kind of irenic friction happening between panelists and the great questions that were being asked from the audience.
I would love your thoughts about what stood out to you from this discussion. What new insights did you gain? What do you agree and/or disagree with? What would you add to the discussion? Where would you have wished it would have gone? What needed to be said that wasn't said?
I imagine that with my book coming out this October, I'll have the opportunity to engage in more of these kinds of discussions. Check it out and comment below, please!
(Oh, and go pre-order The Worship Pastor on Amazon now!)
I love the National Worship Leader Conferences. I've been to them in every kind of capacity now. I've been there as a participant (Check out my post on that from several years back). I've been there as a songwriter, featured at one of their informal showcases. I've been there to conduct an interview with Bill and Gloria Gaither (read my insights about that here). Last year, I had the opportunity to speak about Jesus as the one true Worship Leader. This year, I'm participating as a kind of "pastor-chaplain" over the event, along with speaking to the topic of worship leading as prayer leading, along with hosting a few breakouts.
The 2016 theme is a bit more focused than previous years: "Teach Us to Pray." Worship Leader Magazine and the conferences have been examining the nature of worship as prayer, believing that a recovery of this idea just might be the source of healing and wholeness for many of the current issues before the church's worship today. Of course I agree.
Breakout Session: 10 Things Worship Leaders Wish Their Pastors Knew. Let's just say this one will get saucy.
Breakout Session: Leading Through a Worship Style Transition. Let's just say this one IS saucy. I don't need to add to the sauce.
There's still time to register for Virginia, Texas, and Kansas (I'll be in VA and KS).
If you follow my blog, and if you read my book, you will hear a lot about the Reformational distinction of Law and Gospel. For me, this paradigm is inescapable not only in the Bible but in all of life. It is the distinction that Paul makes in order to exegete the whole Bible in a Christological fashion. From his clear statement in Galatians 2:16, to his developed soteriology in Romans 3, to his exegesis of the Pentateuch in 2 Corinthians 3, Paul testifies that Law and Gospel are the two forms in which the Word of God breaks into creation.
I’m convinced that these two forms of God’s Word speak loud and clear (whether we recognize it or not) in every last one of our worship services, and the more we can discern their voices, the better equipped we will be to plan and lead gospel-shaped, Christ-mediated worship services.
This distinction is heavily at play in the liturgies which emerged during the time of the Reformation. In particular, I observe a strong Law-Gospel filter applied to the way reformer Thomas Cranmer constructed the English Prayer Book. When I first read his 1552 liturgy, I was a little surprised to find a litany with the Ten Commandments at the top of the service. Not only was this not a seeker-sensitive move; it was downright depressing! The 1552 service begins with this dramatic prayer, still a part (in various modifications) of many Anglican/Episcopal services today:
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.
This prayer immediately prefaces a responsorial reading of the Ten Commandments, where, after each commandment is read, the congregation responds, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.” Think about the impact of opening a service like this. Think about what you would feel as you would enter into God’s presence in this fashion.
Modern worship songs frequently address, either explicitly or implicitly, how in worship we “open our hearts” to God. Our temptation, then, in reading back into Cranmer’s opening prayer is to think that an “open heart” is a positive, feel-good image. But once we realize the context of the Law in which it’s placed, we need to understand this cardiological statement more like “open heart” surgery rather than the lovey-dovey stuff (for Cranmer, and for the Law-Gospel distinction, this comes later). “Our hearts are open” means, “O God, before Your Law, my heart is cut open, and I’m bleeding to death. In Your presence, I am undone.”
Needless to say, I found this move by Cranmer captivating. I began asking: What would it look like in a twenty-first century modern worship service to begin like this? What would it look like to open a worship service with the Law offering a sucker-punch straight to the gut of Old Adam? So we wrote a song. It is neither a full blown recitation of the Ten Commandments nor a verbatim recasting of Cranmer’s glorious “Collect for Purity.” It’s a modern take on capturing the feeling and reaction that Cranmer’s liturgy would have evoked. Perhaps most muted is the fifth commandment, universally applied beyond honoring father and mother as “let loving-kindness flow to all we know.”
The hope with the song is not so much provide a tool for people to recite the Ten Commandments in a worship service as it is to create a context where the Commandments’ weight is palpably felt, where the Law can do it’s appropriate killing and crushing work, and where we can cry out to God, “You’ve cut my heart open! Sew it back together!,” or, in the words of Toplady, “Wash me Savior, or I die.”
“Almighty God (Our Hearts Are Open)” is intended to be a song for use at the top of the service, or within the first few songs. It really doesn’t fit anywhere else, unless you’re intending to introduce another gospel-structured narrative cycle into the service. I hope it fills a gap in worship songwriting and provides something fresh for those of us with highly sung, song-set-oriented liturgies.
Resources for the Song
1. You brought us safe across salvation’s sea
To know no other gods, nor idols seek
Incline our hearts to keep Your Word
Your holy Name is sacred on our tongues,
Your Sabbath day is rest for restless ones,
Incline our hearts,] to keep Your Word
Almighty God, our hearts are open
Our secret thoughts are bare before Your eyes
Your presence is the all-consuming fire
Purify our hearts, as we cry:
Lord have mercy
2. Let lovingkindness flow to all we know
Till anger, lust, and greed we cannot sow
Incline our hearts, to keep Your Word
Your Truth shall silence every lying mouth
And quench the urge to take what is not ours
Incline our hearts, to keep Your Word
Lord have mercy
Now surrounds me
5. My meditation both the day and night
The Law that shows Your perfect will aright
Incline our hearts, to keep Your Word