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.


What a New Jesus Culture Album Teaches Us About Worship

Justin Jarvis, Atmospheres

I've been listening to the newest album under the Jesus Culture umbrella, called Atmospheres. It's by my friend and fellow local Ft. Lauderdale worship leader, Justin Jarvis. We've shared coffee and way too large piles of pastrami at a local hole-in-the-wall. Atmospheres is an incredible live album with an amazing sound and overwhelming moments where great truth profoundly collides with raw experience. There are several songs that paint new, imaginative pictures of old, timeless truths, like "Taste" (with the killer line, "Your grace is a dream I cannot shake / taste and see, it's sweeter than anything"). "Born of God" is another great song, packed with the gospel narrative, linking Advent to Good Friday: 

1. Covered in flesh and blood, You came to us
Nothing of consequence to see
Inside of time and space, You laid Your life
Down on a cross to rescue me

Jesus, born of God
In the flesh, I will not forget
You lived and You died
What a love, what a sacrifice

2. Silent, You offered up Your body there
Numbered with murderers and theives
Bearing the weight of what I never could
You stood in my place and set me free

And O, the sacrifice
And O, the peace
You stood in my place and set me free

You bore the weight of what I never could
Immanuel, Immanuel, Immanuel, God with us 

Breathing Heaven's Air in Worship

But I wanted to draw attention to a specific song that carries with it a message about what worship is. It's a message I've talked about before--one that I believe the charismatic tradition has graciously illumined to the rest of the worshiping Church and maybe especially us cerebral Reformed types. "Shifting Atmospheres" is the song, and here are its lyrics:

1. We’re standing on the edge of something true
This moment is a holy one
And every dream a seed for miracles
This moment is a door for us

Taste and see all the promises of God
Live in you, and they live in me

Loud and clear, we are shifting atmospheres
With the heart of the One we love
No more fear, we will sing for all to hear
Of His love, His great love

Shifting atmospheres, shifting atmospheres

2. We’re prophesying now for bones to live
This moment breathes into the dust
A step of faith, a treasure for the brave
This moment is a door for us

Just believe all the hope of glory dwells
Here in you, and it’s here in me

Anything is possible with God
Nothing is beyond the reach of love
Anything is possible with God
Nothing is beyond the reach of His great love

Worship happens on foreign soil. I've heard worship described as "the embassy of heaven"--a place where national soil ceases to exist, and a piece of land is considered the sovereign sphere of another Celestial Country. In this respect, in worship, nationalism ceases to exist as the slain Lamb gathers people from every tribe, tongue, and nation (which, as a sidenote, should call into question our co-mingling of God and country in corporate, gathered worship...worship is, in essence, trans-national). 

What is remarable about Justin's song and about the charismatic tradition is that they really believe that God is TRULY present, breaking heaven into earth in the moment of gathered worship. And so do I. Imaginative theologians I respect use fancier phrases (Jeremy Begbie calls worship an "echo from the future," and Jean-Jacques von Allmen calls it an "eschatological event" where the Church "tries on her bridal garment"), but the essence is the same. Worship, because it is in Christ, is just like the Incarnation: heaven breaks into earth, and we "behold His glory, full of grace and truth" (John 1). This isn't wishful thinking or spiritualization; this is what actually happens. In worship, we "shift atmospheres," and we suddenly find ourselves not so much breathing oxygen as the air of heaven, the Holy Spirit, the Wind of God. O, for eyes of faith to see this as we stumble in, week after week, latte in hand and sin on our shoulders!

Ground Zero of Atmospheric Change

When the people of God gather together, worship itself, in whole, shifts atmospheres, if only simply because Jesus has promised to be there (Matt 18:20). And yet I really believe that God has ordained a ground zero of atmospheric change. We experience the atmospheric change, for sure, as we sing and pray together--thank you to my charismatic brothers and sisters that have reminded me of this, time and again. But we find the true gateway in what other traditions call "Word and sacrament"--preaching, the Lord's Supper, and baptism. We see these coming together in powerfully Spirit-filled moments in places like Luke 24, when Jesus both preaches to the Emmaus-sojourners of Himself in the Old Testament (Word) and then breaks bread with them (sacrament). Notice that it was only at the point of bread-breaking (not singing, not prayer), where their eyes were fully opened to see and experience the glory of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, where heaven broke in. 

What I love about Justin's song is that it doesn't let us off the hook that worship, borne from Word and sacrament, is not merely ritual but palpable experience of the presence of God and the atmosphere of heaven. In this regard, as others have said well, worship prepares us for "the rest of our life" by giving us one-hour "trial periods" and "dry runs" at experiencing the heavenly life. 

Every worship leader should long for this vision for their gathered worship experience. We should crave its felt-ness each week, and we should pray for its felt-ness over the people we lead and pastor. O God, help our unbelief!


The Murderous Intent of Baptism (and Why Worship Leaders Should Care)

Baptism should be on the radar of every worship leader because baptism is an act of God amidst the gathered, worshiping church. And if we all had perfect eyes of faith, baptism would feel every bit as communally euphoric as the most epic, heart-wrenching worship song we know. Here's why.

Whether we baptize babies or baptize those mature enough to profess faith, we tend to feel baptism as a communally pleasant experience. And it is. We have the opportunity to witness a sign and seal of God's saving work through Jesus Christ, and as we do so, God whispers to every one of us, "Don't you remember? I've promised to love you...forever." But baptism is at least as morbid as it is pleasant. 

In our sensational age, most of us have seen, either in real life or in vivid color on the big screen, acts of violence and murder that turn our stomach and take our breath away. The knife scene in Saving Private Ryan and the ending of Braveheart (not to mention every episode of The Walking Dead) are those kinds of moments for me. I watch, I wince, and, overwhelmed by the brutality, my heart says, "This is too much!" 

This kind of feeling should at least dawn on us as we experience baptism, whether we are the one being baptized or the onlooking church. Paul describes baptism, not merely as a symbol of, but a bona fide experience of, death: "Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death" (Rom 6:3-4).

Martin Luther (in keeping with Paul) describes faith as "a living, busy, active, mighty thing"--a gift from God, an alien invader graciously planted within us to hunt and to slay the Old Adam. In other words, faith has a bloodlust for our self-righteousness. Baptism, then, is one of faith's first declarations of intent to drown the Old Adam. Baptism is a prelude to the torturous journey of faith's slow, steady removal of the Old Adam's oxygen supply, as it wraps its hands around his neck and pushes his head under the water.

This is why we might say that the Christian's lifelong journey is a downward one, because it is a journey where God defeats our self-righteousness and replaces it with Another's. Christian growth happens on a path where our self-righteousness is being dismembered, limb by limb. And baptism is God's assurance that it will happen. Of course, baptism also displays "newness of life," but that only can happen after death.

If all this is true, then worship leaders should take heed. Baptism is a deeply powerful, Spirit-filled thing. It should get chalked up there with all the most overwhelming charismatic experiences we've had in worship. Baptism, worship leaders, is not an invasion or interruption of your worship set. Baptism is worship, and part of the reason I've described it in such shocking (but hopefully biblically faithful) terms is to help us see that, if we look with the eyes of faith, it is every bit as powerful and evocative as those pinnacle moments when we're weeping and singing our guts out. And, worship leaders, we should attempt to think about what baptism could look like in our worship services and contexts if we viewed it as part of our job to provide music and a liturgical flow that appropriately surround this holy moment. 

(I might finally say that all this was inspired by a re-reading of a German Lutheran theologian, Oswald Bayer, so if these ideas of faith-as-gift, Old Adam, and baptism are new or intriguing, check out this rather dense book.)


Fascinating Insight Linking Indian and Gospel Music

A while back I posted on a wonderful little session where Bobby McFerrin exposed the trans-cultural nature of the pentatonic scale.

I think a similar insight can be seen here in the common, trans-cultural “soul” of music as blues/slide guitarist Derek Trucks talks about his influences (thanks to Coral Ridge Music's Lindsey Blair, for pointing this video out to me!). A little after the 8-minute mark, Trucks notes how though the tonality of an Eastern scale and a bluesy gospel scale may be different, they have a similar soul, a similar way of expression. He says, “For me, it seems like it’s coming from the same place; it’s devotional music.” He demonstrates it in a side-by-side playing of the two melodies.

Perhaps I’ll just simply say that, when the soul sings (or plays), evidence of our common Maker begins to reveal itself…a kind of musicological argument for the existence of God.

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