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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.


A Pastoral Reflection on Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"

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.

* * * * * * *

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,”[1] 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.


[1] Paul F. M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 232.

Paul's Take on Spirit-Filled, Christ-Centered, Flesh-Killing Worship

O Paul That Will Not Let Me Go

Paul's letter to the Philippians has been haunting me lately. In a well-known section of the epistle, I was surprised afresh by some important links that the apostle compactly makes between worship, the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and the gospel. He says in Philippians 3:3 (ESV):

For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.

This is remarkable. I'd like to comment on the context and the grammar. The context is Paul's larger conversation about dealing with a group of people who seem to be infecting some of Paul's early church plants. They're poisoning the well of the gospel's pure water by demanding that true faith is "Jesus plus" something else. This something else is circumcision. With strong rhetoric, Paul calls these folks "evildoers...who mutilate the flesh" (3:2). Paul contrasts the purity of the gospel with what he calls "confidence in the flesh," which he illustrates with his own life (3:4-11). This "confidence" is boasting in what one does for God, what one brings to the table to make God pleased. Paul illustrates this confidence by rattling off a list of good deeds and favorable pedigree. 

We might say that this whole section is an explication of the not-I-but-Christ-ness displayed in Galatians 2:20 (ESV): 

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Paul is basically saying that there are two ways to live, either in Christ or in the flesh.

Paul's Connections: Spirit, Jesus, Flesh

With that in mind, we look back at the grammar of Philippians 3:3. He makes a statement ("we are the circumcision") and then strings together three qualifiers (the ones who worship, the ones who glory, and the ones who do not place confidence). These three ideas are strung together by a simple series of "and's," but that shouldn't lead us to conclude that Paul is being stream of consciousness here, simply tacking on one idea to the next. We should see a relationship between these three: what identifies us as the people of God (the true circumcision) is that we worship by the Spirit, glory in Christ, and put no confidence in the flesh. These three things mark us as Christians.

Paul's word for "worship" (latreuō) is a term most often associated with what scholars call "cultic service," or service within the liturgy. When the term is used, in other words, it tends to refer not to general "all of life" worship but to the kind of worship, the kind of "service," we typically offer when we gather with others in corporate worship. Paul is not necessarily pointing to gathered, corporate worship here (latreuō is certainly used in more broad contexts of meaning), but that image is certainly echoing as he uses the word.

What I find remarkable is how Paul connects three ideas we don't always necessarily think are connected: worship in the Spirit, Christ-centeredness, and the theology of "flesh." It's as if Paul is saying "we worship by the Spirit, which is to glory in Christ, which is to put no confidence in the flesh." If this is true, it corroborates what I've said in another post about what true Spirit-filled worship looks like: to make much of Christ. And making much of Christ stands in direct opposition to making much of ourselves. I'm thinking here of worship language in our prayers and songs which tends to place too much emphasis on what we responsively do for God--live for Him, serve Him, give it away for Him, surrender to Him, etc. (Check out how I address this in my various posts on triumphalism.) Too much of this creates a lot of room for "confidence in the flesh," which in turn minimizes "glory in Christ," moving away from what it means to "worship by the Spirit." 

Content, Structure, Grammar: New Depths of "Christ-Centered Worship"

Why do I bring all this up? Because if we are to pursue Christ-centered worship, we need to plumb new depths of meaning. Usually, the conversation on Christ-centered worship begins around content: Do our lyrics and prayers talk about Christ and his saving work of life and death? Great question. Great start. But we need to go deeper.

And when the conversation does go deeper, we thankfully get into talk of structure. Not only must we have Christ-centered content, but we must think about how the very narratival shape of the worship service must be Christocentric--approaching God through Christ. I'm thinking here of historic, trans-denominational, trans-temporal "deep structures" of Christian liturgies which include elements like Confession of Sin, Assurance/Absolution, and the like.

But even here there is still more ground to break in talks of Christocentrality. We may refer to it as "grammar." I'm using the term metaphorically. What I mean is to ask the question of how our language toward Jesus in our songs and structures actually get constructed. The reality is that we can have cross-centered songs and prayers, and we can even have a Christ-mediated superstructure to the worship service, all the while undermining the Message in those features with poorly constructed language...language which allows "confidence in the flesh" to leak in. 

So again, I'll beat this drum. Too much language about my commitment, my response, my works--they begin to shape our "spiritual grammar." I've pointed out in the past that reformers like Thomas Cranmer were keenly aware of worship's grammar and the necessity that justification by faith alone and not by works affect the very "sentence-construction" of our worship. 

Therefore, I want to sound the call again, this time not merely engaging with important theological connections, but actual biblical statments which lend aid to what we're saying here. We've connected these ideas many times theologically, and I think Paul provides us ample warrant here in Philippians 3.


Why EDM Sounds So Liberating

(Originally published in 2014) 

Electronic Dance Music (EDM) has taken over pop culture. Its infectious beats, airy synths, signature builds, and explosive climaxes are now a household sound, from car commercials featuring Dirty Vegas, to Maroon 5’s backing track to “Love Somebody,” to the viral “What Does the Fox Say?” Those who outright dismiss EDM as illegitimate art mock its bland repetition, its mind-numbing sameness.  Such critiques miss the subtle nuancing and gentle sculpting that occur over time, and they forget that EDM has a doppelganger in the classical world in minimalism, with composers like Philip Glass and John Adams. EDM is also quickly dismissed in an understandable move of guilt by association, because of its strong ties to the rave culture of drug use and promiscuity. Even so, I believe we can still see something redemptive, even beautiful, even liberating in the art form of EDM. Being well over thirty years old now, EDM has spread its tributaries far and wide into hybrid genres and sub-genres, but for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the mainstream EDM sound and the surprising, liberating gift it can give us. In this instance, I want us to not theologize on the art but let the art theologize on us. 

In the End…Dance

Almost all histories of EDM trace its roots to the 70s club culture of New York City and the 80s DJ culture of Chicago. EDM’s rhythmic sound came from disco, inheriting the thump-sizzle-pop as its most basic musical building block. It was exported across the Atlantic, amplified in the UK, and then re-given to the US in the 90s, finally emerging from the underground into the mainstream in the new millennium.

The EDM sound is not meant to be enjoyed in a passive recline on velveteen seats of ornate theaters. It is not receptive art but intensely participatory art. When you hear it, you don’t ponder—you dance. Understanding that EDM is inherently dance music is the first step in understanding why it resonates so deeply in the human soul. Dance is the human’s greatest, fullest expression of abundant, overflowing joy. When we are pleased, we smile. When we are kidded, we laugh. When we are exploding with joy, we dance. EDM puts us immediately in the context of what theologians call the “eschaton”—the end that we were built for…an eternal basking the pleasures of God. The Old Testament frequently pairs eschatological joy with dance (e.g. Jeremiah 31:4). EDM feels liberating, first, because it is the sound of the joy that is to come, for which every last human being is hard-wired to hunger.  This makes complete sense of the contexts out of which EDM thrived—the depressed economy of 1970s New York, the hard urban context of 1980s Chicago, and the gloomy streets of 80s and 90s London.

Painting Sound on a Canvas Without Edges

However, not only does EDM point to an eternal future of joy, it brings eternality into the present. Part of what shaped the unending, repetitive sound of EDM was its original context—the club—where the music never stopped. The two-deck, dual-turntable technology, pioneered in the late 1940’s, allowed DJs to blend the end of one song into the beginning of another. In dance clubs, one can literally dance to one, long song that conceivably could have no end.

EDM, unlike other musical forms, which have a more pronounced storyline from beginning to end (think of a sonata or a country song), places the listener-dancer into the playing field of the infinite. Put another way, EDM’s paints on a canvas without edges. It transports us into an eternal storyline. This is why EDM sounds so repetitive. It is an art form expressed in the context of eternity, catching us up in a never-ending loop of joy. The Bible similarly describes eternity as a euphoric repetition of heavenly beings who never cease crying, “Holy, holy, holy” (Revelation 4:8). Perhaps EDM is equipped better than any other art form to help human beings grasp, even for just a second, what eternal rapture feels like.

The “Narrative Arc” of EDM 

But if we stopped with the above, we’d only possess a kind of unspecific, ultimately unsatisfying vagueness with which a Buddhist or, say, Oprah could happily agree. EDM speaks an even better word. Eternal dance is only the backdrop, for within the basic framework of modern EDM now exists a familiar storyline, a generic form. EDM artists today may play with that form, reconfiguring the order or leaving out certain elements altogether, but they all pay homage to the basic “narrative arc” of modern house music. We all know it, whether we realize it or not. A musicologist I was recently interacting with described the EDM narrative as “home, exile, and New Home.” This very simple, basic structure can be heard within the first two minutes of Swedish House Mafia’s “One (Radio Edit).” Listen for these elements in the music. (1) HOME: introduction of the musical theme (0:00-0:09), and development (0:10-0:23); (2) EXILE: beat drops out and it feels “darker” and develops, anticipates New Home (0:23-1:01) with the final build before the “drop” beginning at 0:56; (3) NEW HOME: full beat, the sonic spectrum opens up, it carries the original theme but in a blossomed, fuller way.

This arc is discernible in pop radio hit, “Wake Me Up,” by Avicii.

The reason this narrative arc is significant is that it is the very storyline of the Bible—Creation, Fall, Redemption. And this brings us to the heart of why EDM feels so liberating when we hear it. EDM’s basic structure echoes the story of the gospel—God’s creation of humanity and our home, our rebellious fall and exile, and the redemption of Jesus Christ, ushering us into our new, more beautiful, eternal Home. Some EDM artists would accuse me of imposing my theology on their songs against their intention. I actually think it is the reverse. I am exegeting the story written on our hearts that we were all built to be enamored by, whose main Character and specific plot line were blurred and veiled by our sinfulness but not completely forgotten. The vague gospel story reverberates in all human beings like a fourth-generation echo, which gets stronger and clearer when its original story draws near. EDM feels like what the gospel crystalizes: there is redemption, freedom, and eternal joy to be found in what Christ provides for us, in unbridled grace, by His death and life.

Sonically, this is why the best EDM producers and DJs know how to tease the listener with tantalizingly delayed gratification. They drag the narrative out through false summits—builds that lead to partial gratification, ultimately unfulfilling. Listen to Markus Schulz’s “Loops & Tings,” and you’ll feel many moments of the Promise Land being yanked from you when it’s just within reach.

But when the “drop” finally happens in a song, when the new heavens and new earth are unleashed, it’s always sonic rapture. The ear had been previously deprived of certain frequencies—subterranean lows and sizzling highs—but suddenly it all blossoms. Full bass and kick, wet, sizzling keys with washed out highs, and a saturated mid-range. We finally hear and feel everything we were waiting to hear, meant to hear.

This is precisely how the gospel feels when we truly hear it. All our longings, all the deprivation, all the lost hope, all the unmet expectations and false summits that can’t deliver on what they promise…they all dissipate as the Truth suddenly blossoms in a single, penetrating moment when our heart thumps like never before, resonating to the news that Jesus paid it all and lived it all. EDM feels liberating because it microcosmically echoes in musical form what the Gospel proclaims boldly in sermonic form—Jesus Christ, the answer to everything.

For Meditation and Further Listening

If you dare, take a moment out of life for a ten-minute guided tour of the narrative arc of Deadmau5’s epic song, “Strobe,” whose structure I’ll interpret from the model of the biblical storyline.

Creation (0:00-5:10)

  • 0:00-3:56: Opening motif, a budding creation and a meandering melody
  • 1:40: introduction of low-mid saw; the story gets more dramatic, complex, beautiful, intriguing; other elements (piano, sizzle, strings, shakers) emerge; life begins to “teem”; pulse slowly accelerates into…
  • 3:56: introduction of beat; creation moves, flourishes; a simple kick
  • 4:25: beat gets deeper, then snare enters (4:41), intensifying

Fall (5:11-6:47)

  • the beat drops out, and an eerie stillness
  • the stillness turns into agitation, disruption, uncomfortability, jolting syncopation (5:39)
  • a low-end build introduces the ramp-up; where will all this disillusionment go? (6:21)
  • final build as the “wind” blows in (6:41)

Redemption (6:48-end)

  • full beat, full throttle; the dance begins

For further listening, here are some of my favorite EDM artists who I think are doing extraordinary musical work. I’ll even recommend songs I like, too. (Note: Some of these artists fall into sub-/side-genres that some would classify as offshoots of EDM, but I’ll lump them all together.)

Above and Beyond (“Walter White,” “Sticky Fingers”)
Kaskade (“Lessons in Love,” “Turn it Down,” “Last Chance”)
Deadmau5 (“Some Chords,” “Ghosts ‘n’ Stuff – Nero Remix”)
Avicii (“Dear Boy,” “Levels”)
Swedish House Mafia (“One,” “Don’t You Worry Child”)
Skrillex (“Kyoto,” “Ruffneck,” “First of the Year – Equinox”
David Guetta (“Without You,” “She Wolf,” “Bad”)
Daft Punk (“Human After All,” “Aerodynamic Beats”)
Nero (“Promises”)

Here’s a Spotify playlist I put together of all of these. What songs do you love and what artists would you recommend?


How Far Off Are We from the Reformers' Vision for Lent?

I utilize a wonderful little liturgical resource in some of my worship planning for the chapel services at Knox Seminary, where I both study and teach. This book is a devotionally-oriented compendium of the collects (the short prayers, invocations which "collect" the hearts of the people at the beginning of worship) of the brilliant liturgical reformer, Thomas Cranmer. This book presents the week's collect along with a few historical observations of how the prayer was written and then offers a page-length devotional meditation on the collect.

The Fine-Meshed Filter of the Gospel

Cranmer composed, edited, or re-purposed these historic liturgical prayers, and they have become for the Anglican tradition some of the most beautiful gems of the Prayer Book. Reformation scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch says that the collects are "one of the chief glories" of the entire tradition of Anglican worship.* Studying the origins of the collects of Cranmer would be a formative exercise for any earnest worship leader interested in how a gospel-centered thinker edited the "worship words" of his tradition to be more in line with the good news of Jesus Christ. In writing his liturgies for the English church, Cranmer took the received Roman liturgy and not only translated it into English but "gospel-ized" it. In other words, Cranmer edited out everything in the liturgy that he felt was not in line with the Gospel, and he replaced it with an enormous spotlight on the finished work of Christ's life and death. He ferreted out every last hint of works-based righteousness, and replaced it with what Paul calls "a righteousness that is by faith from first to last" (Rom 1:17, NIV).

God's Word is a fine-meshed filter, sifting out self-righteousness in parts per trillion. The Law says that our righteousness isn't really righteousness after all. And the Gospel says that God didn't need our righteousness anyway. I was reminded of all this when I opened up my book to Cranmer's collect for the first Sunday in Lent. Here it is.


The Collect for the First Sunday in Lent

O Lord, which for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the spirit, we may ever obey thy Godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to thy honor and glory, which liveth and reigneth, &c.


Like the Collects of Advent III and St. Stephen's Day, this prayer is addressed directly to Our Lord Jesus Christ. The reason is clear: Hebrews 4:15. This is an original composition for the 1549 Prayer Book. Our Reformers eliminated the medieval Collect which stressed fasting and good works as a means to earn merit, a notion completely out of line with the New Testament.


It is clear from this Collect that we cannot obey God in the direction of "righteousness and true holiness" until we are "subdued." What is in mind is the self-control of a person as St. Paul commends it in II Timothy 1:7: "For God hath not given us a spirit of fear; but of power and of love, and of self-control" ("of a sound mind" in the Authorized Version). ... The older or medieval model in commending self-control was the model of warfare, the war between the "flesh" and the "spirit." It was as if we were divided between a good "spirit" and a rotten "flesh." ... What Cranmer intends here, in place of the old model of warfare between "flesh" and "spirit," is the discipline exercised upon the whole person by the Spirit of God. Through the Spirit it becomes natural rather than against nature to restrain the evil impulse for the sake of love. The "godly motion" of the Collect is the spirit of a man or woman that has been aligned into the ways of goodness by the virtue of God's grace preceding. We are not understood here as being divided in some schizoid or dualistic manner, but rather as persons to be realigned or integrated by the rod of God exercised from love and hence for love. Remember the old saw, "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak"? Cast out that thought, like the sad rag it is! Exchange it for the glad rag: "Love subdues the spirit, and the 'motions' follow and follow and follow."**


A Great Lent Makes Much of Christ

So here's what I'm thinking, friends. Liturgy and the Church Calendar are in vogue right now. And praise God for that. I happen to think the Church Calendar is much more than extra-biblical "dead traditionalism." It is rooted in a Scriptural understanding of annual Christ-centered cycles of worship, and it is therefore a quite lively tradition. Perhaps, though, we Protestants need to think more carefully about how we re-engage and appropriate these traditions, and Lent is case in point.

Lent is a wonderful season that can go all wrong if we don't, in the Spirit of the Reformers, maintain a stubborn commitment to the very Gospel that drove them to edit, redact, and overhaul their received liturgies. Lent is one of those places where works-righteousness likes to sneak in, where the Old Adam tries to reassert himself and gain a place at the table. For in a season of fasting and repentance (both thoroughly biblical ideas), we're always tempted to make it about us and what we do for God. Lent can become far more about what we give up for God and far less about what Christ gave up for God the Father on our behalf. Lent is ultimately about Christ's fasting, not ours...Christ's earning God's favor, not ours...Christ's victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil, not ours.

Jesus fasted for forty days to secure the favor of the Father, and he did this, in the words of the Nicene Creed, "for us and for our salvation." Jesus fasted in His Lenten wilderness so that our Lenten fast could be completely freed from any sense of securing the favor of God. We fast and repent from out of the favor of God, not for it. This does a marvelous relativizing work on our works, for it puts our fasting completely on the horizontal plane (between us and our fellow human beings), not the vertical (between us and God). It means that we fast for our neighbor. How is this so?

God doesn't need one ounce of our good works. He's got the King's chest...a big pile of merit secured by His Son and placed in its overflowing, eternal storehouse.  The Father looks at the Son's spoils from His war on earth and is satisfied. But though God doesn't need our good works, our neighbor does. We fast, therefore, that we may be freed up toward the types of "Godly motions in righteousness" that bless our neighbor. When I am self-controlled, my wife and my children are blessed. When I am not self-controlled, I hurt them. Though God doesn't benefit one ounce from my good works, my neighbor does a whole lot. So, we might say that a truly Gospel-centered Lent "horizontalizes" the works of the season. 

Furthermore, a truly Gospel-centered Lent understands with Cranmer, Luther, Calvin, Bucer, and the other reformers that it is only in focusing on Christ's work for us (our justification) that enables our work for the sake of our neighbor (our vocation). Therefore, Lent in the light of the Gospel remains, just like all the other seasons, all about Jesus. 

Worship planners and leaders, a great Lent makes much of Christ. 

*Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven: Yale, 1996), 417.
**C. Frederick Barbee and Paul Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 34-35. 

Why the Reformational Insight is So Important for Worship

In a couple of weeks, I'll be taking a doctoral course at Knox Seminary on the theology of Martin Luther. Needless to say, I've been neck-deep in the writings of this Reformational bulldog. Right now, I'm reading through J. I. Packer's translation of Luther's The Bondage of the Will. The book's back cover reads, "The Bondage of the Will is fundamental to an understanding of the primary doctrines of the Reformation. In these pages, Luther gives extensive treatment to what he saw as the heart of the gospel. Free will was no academic question to Luther: the whole of the gospel of the grace of God, he believed, was bound up with it and stood or fell according to the way one understood it."

There it is, right there. One can be tempted to think that a treatise on "free will" will camp out in the realms where our Calvinist v. Arminian debates typically take place...the age old question of Divine sovereignty and human responsibility. But for Luther (and Calvin, I might add), an understanding of the will drills down to the fundamental bedrock of the way the gospel works in a person's life. Luther's biblical insight, which turned out to be THE fundamental insight of the Reformation is that "our will can do no good of itself" (p. 81). It is impotent, corrupt, and in need of Something from the outside to come inside and change it. This insight is EXTREMELY important for how we think of worship, how we pray, how we write songs, how we lead, how we approach God. But, before we get there, one more thing...

Worship and the Victorious Christian Life

We evangelicals have been trained to think (contrary to the Reformation), that this issue of the bondage of the will is merely a getting-in-the-door thing. In other words, we are consciously or subconsciously taught that non-Christians have bound wills and once God saves us our wills are freed up now to make the right choices. So now, we can appeal to one another's "renewed" wills in the pursuit of the Christian life. In other words, I can preach to my fellow Christians a do-more-try-harder Christianity because their renewed wills now have what it takes to respond favorably. We need to be clear. This is NOT a Reformational idea. In fact, it's precisely the kind of spirituality the Reformation found contrary to the gospel.

For the Reformers, the "victorious Christian life" is missing one crucial piece of the puzzle--what Paul calls in various places the "old self" (Rom 6:6; Eph 4:22; Col 3:9), the "sinful nature" (Rom 7:18, 25), and some uses of the "flesh" (Rom 7:5; 8:3-13). In theological terms, this victorious life has an "over-realized eschatology," meaning, what God will bring to completion in the End (a completely renewed life) is thought to be too fully present now. God has indeed replaced a heart of stone with a heart of flesh, and He has indeed put a new Spirit in us to move us to follow His decrees (Ezek 36:26-27), but this end-game anthropology isn't complete. All this newness is still at war with the devil, the world, and the flesh. The life of Christian victory doesn't take into account that we live in an already/not yet tension of partial renewal with the promise of more to come. And this misstep has rather deadly consequences for the Christian life and for worship.

Just "Worship Harder"

If I believe that a barrage of appeals to the will of a Christian will be enough to move a Christian to do the things requested, I've stepped out of a Reformational understanding of how Christianity works. Let's get real specific, real fast. Can not much of our worship these days be identified as heavy doses of attempting to coax people's wills to "worship harder" and make emboldened, grandiose commitments to God? 

Let's talk about song lyrics. Frankly, I'm growing weary of all the recycled "I/me"-lyric debate out there. I think it misses the point. People's criticisms of worship being too I- and me-focused have become way too knee-jerk to be helpful. If the mere presence of first personal pronouns in a worship song is a criterion for immediate dismissal, we'd have to cut out a large chunk of the Psalms. It must be deeper than whether a worship song addresses me or addresses God. The real problem comes when "I" am making claims about what I am doing for God--"I'm laying it all down for You"; "I'm giving it all to You"; "I'm living for Your name." It's not that these statements in worship are wrong. It's that we have way too much of them. And the Reformers would point out that our worship songs' heavy use of this kind of language betrays and underpinned theology that gives far too much credit to the will and far too little to the flesh.

We might call this kind of language "responsorial" language...what we say in response to the wooing, coaxing, heart-changing power of the Gospel. But that's all it is: response. It is not the Gospel. But, make no mistake, for this kind of response to be engendered, it needs the Gospel, again and again. If our worship songs want to actually produce the kind of commitment they often script, then we need swing the weight of the content way more over to the Gospel side so that we can release the gas pedal from our very works-based approach to lyric writing.

*  *  *  *  *

In short, one of the fundamental Reformational insights is the inability and bondage of the will, while many times our worship today presumes quite the opposite--that our wills are actually more free than they are, that the flesh is not a formidable enemy, that the Gospel has actually completed its work in us so that we can just "get on with it." We must, time and again, come back to this key biblical insight as kind of "drunk tank" for the Old Adam, who gets quite inebriated when he hears all this "you can do it" talk. Old Adam gets sober when he is told, again and again, "You can't, but Christ did."

It's time that our worship sober up. Our bound wills are forever in need of the love of Christ which compels (2 Cor 5:14). Any other compulsion is ultimately ineffective.


How Liturgy is Really "The Work *ON* the People"

Four years ago, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff initiated what would become a change in my perspective on worship by diving into the etymology of an often mis-defined word. We often hear that "liturgy" means "the work of the people." Wolterstorff challenges that:

Etymologically the word leitourgia comes from two Greek words, leitos and ergon, meaning, respectively, “of the people” and “action.”  In numerous books on liturgy it is said, accordingly, that the word originally meant action of the people.  And often nowadays an argument for more participation of the people in the church’s liturgy is based on this claim.  It is said that for something to be liturgy, it must be action of the people and not action of a few priests or pastors.  But the word leitourgia never did mean action of the people.  It meant action for the benefit of the people.  A liturgy was a type of public service.

(Read my earlier post, with more extended quotation, here.) Now why fuss over etymology? Am I just engaging in semantic one-upsmanship? A "glossary gotcha"? No. Lurking in here is a deviant theology as ancient as the earth. 

The Quest for Eden's Back Door

Ever since our father Adam and mother Eve were banished from the garden, they've been trying to circle the earth to get in through the back door. This instinct--the desire to be gods unto ourselves--has been passed on through every generation. You and I bear the "Old Adam" within us. The Old Adam is the one to whom Paul refers often when he is speaking of the "flesh"--especially in a negative context (Paul uses "flesh" in several ways). The Old Adam desires to circumvent every gracious gift of God, not because he doesn't like gifts, but because he likes earning them more than receiving them for free. The Old Adam is the one who rises up within us to stake his claim of worthiness before God. He likes to reference his resume, his record of past successes and works. God's words of Law and Gospel are offensive to him because the former tells him that his works amount to nothing (even his best good works are tainted and sinful), and the latter tells him that God, in Christ, gives him everything anyway. 

Now imagine this fellow lurking in our flesh, pacing back and forth, just waiting for a word to be "called up." He's been benched, but oh, how he itches to put his hands around that bat and take his stand at the plate. There are things we do in worship that can inadvertently call him up. They are words of triumph, such as: "Jesus, I'm living for you every day"; "God, I'm giving it all away for you"; "I surrender all." They are words, which, when used in over-abundance and improperly placed within the narrative of the gospel, become "fighting words" for the Old Adam. They itch his ears. They energize him.

Understanding liturgy as "the work of the people" can be like this. Now, I get that many times, this definition is summoned in contexts where worshipers have become too passive in worship, forgetting that their worship requires intentionality, commitment, and, yes, even effort. But there may be a different way to summon the worship of the people than to rally them around the battle cry, "It's your work!"

Worship as the Work of Jesus

Worship thinker Ron Man has done a great service to us by pouring over a small section of the book of Hebrews in his booklet, Proclamation and Praise: Hebrews 2:12 and the Christology of Worship. Hebrews 2:12 quotes Jesus as saying: "I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise."

As we worship, Jesus is pouring into us His work and power by whispering, speaking, shouting the name of God in our ears. As we sing, Jesus is efforting His song in us. This is what James Torrance meant when he said, "More important than our experience of Christ is the Christ of our experience."* Listen to Torrance's analogy:

Christ does not heal us as an ordinary doctor might, by standing over against us, diagnosing our sickness, prescribing medicine for us to take and then going away, leaving us to get better as we follow his instructions. No, he becomes the patient! He assumes that very humanity which is in need of redemption, and by being anointed by the Spirit in our humanity, by a life of perfect obedience, by dying and rising again, for us, our humanity is healed in him, in his person.**

Now think of it this way. Christ does not sit back, arms folded, (justly) demanding our worship. No, he becomes the worshiper! He assumes His position amongst the people, and in the Spirit cries out "Abba, Father!" on our behalf. Christ is our substitutionary worshiper. The liturgy is, in the deepest sense, His work.

Worship as the Work of the Spirit

It gets even better, though. Hughes Oliphant Old points out,

Worship is far more than a human work. Worship is the work of the Holy Spirit...As the apostle Paul tells us, it is the Holy Spirit who cries out within us when we pray (Rom 8:15-27). The apostle tells us that when we pray, "Our Father," it is the Holy Spirit praying within our hearts (Rom 8:15). The hymns and psalms that are sung in worship are spiritual songs, that is, they are the songs of the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:25; Eph 5:19). Even the preaching of the church is to be in the Spirit (1 Cor 12:8). Jesus promised to us that when we present our testimony before the world it is not we who speak but the Holy Spirit who gives us utterance (Mark 13:11). Christian worship is inspired by the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit, directed by the Spirit, purified by the Spirit, and bears the fruit of the Spirit. Christian worship is spirit-filled.***

The Old Adam needs to hear far more about the Trinitarian shape of worship's work and far less about his own. Of course, as we're engaging in worship, we're active. Our muscles are employed, our vocal cords sounding, our minds centering, and our hearts aiming. But I'm becoming increasingly convinced that it does very little good to tell people, "Worship is your work, so get to it!"

Perhaps the Reformers' best insight into theology and the human condition was that commands (i.e. the Law) offer no power to fulfill what they ask for; only the gospel does that. God's good Law can tell me to worship, but only His Gospel can actually cause it. It's like the difference between a wife demanding to her husband, "Love me!" (command), versus freely and tenderly saying, "I love you" (gift). Which stokes the husband's love?

Worship as Gottesdienst

The Germans have a delightful word for their worship gatherings. They call Sunday worship "Gottesdienst," or, "Divine Service." With the above understanding of the roles of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, we come to realize that liturgy is actually God's work ON the people...God's work IN the people...God's work THROUGH the people. Even our "response" is a gift.

When I hear that worship is my effort to God, I suddenly feel a weight dropped onto my shoulders. But when I hear that worship is God's free gift to me, I suddently feel like, well, worshiping. Fancy that.

*James Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove, IVP: 1996), 34.
**Ibid., 53. 
***Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture, rev. ed. (Louisville, WJK: 2002), 5. 


Sufjan Stevens' Insight Not to Be Missed

A Lot Under the Bus

Author David Roark has published a well-written article about Sufjan Stevens vis-à-vis the "Christian Music" scene. Roark has located the turn from Christians-as-artists to "Christian artists" in the 1960s, with the Jesus Movement's evangelistic objectives and youth culture targeting. The bulk of the article is focused on the dichotomy between what artists like Sufjan are trying to do and what the "Christian Art" world is doing. I appreciate the article, but at the same time I've become weary of such blanket diagnoses that appear to file everything coming out of "the industry" as "bad" and "kitschy." I understand that the need for brevity and clarity in such forums drives the thinking to sharp distinctions, but for me its black-and-whiteness throws too much under the bus that doesn't need to be thrown there. Not all produced within the cubicled four walls of a fabled Nashville office needs to be so blanketly dismissed. Still, I don't want to discount the need for us to charitably make some of the observations that Roark is making.

The Easily-Missed Punchline

People who read the article will probably either take offense or cheer it on. The polarizing nature of its content might cause either party, though, to miss something VERY profound at its end. In many ways, what is said here is THE fundamental insight for Christians in the arts (and, in fact, humans everywhere doing anything):

 “It’s not so much that faith influences us as it lives in us. In every circumstance (giving a speech or tying my shoes), I am living and moving and being. This absolves me from ever making the embarrassing effort to gratify God (and the church) by imposing religious content on anything I do.”

Please, please don't miss this. Here we have bedrock theology packed into what feels like a simple response. Stevens is making a few distinctions worth chewing on. First, faith is less a part of our life and more like an alien living inside of us. Second, this faith "absolves" artists from having to "impose religious content" on what they do. This is profound.

Sufjan Probably Isn't Afraid of Modern Art

It reminds me very much of what made Dan Siedell's Who's Afraid of Modern Art? so unique among conversations about Christianity and the arts (please read my review here). It drills down deep, beyond the conversations about what is "appropriate" or "Christian." It finds that subterranean core that echoes up to the surface its cries to be justified.

Stevens and Siedell remind us that many of our attempts as Christians in making art are really an "embarrassing effort to gratify God." It is always the case that when we are attempting to justify ourselves before God, we end up instrumentalizing, rather than receiving, God's good gifts, whether they be people or art. Perhaps the reason why some Christian art feels so cheesy and kitschy is because we can see through its all too thin sheen, recognizing it as an instrument for something else. When art is so wholeheartedly used for religious purposes (i.e. evangelism or persuasion to a Christian worldview), it forces us to look through it and past it, rather than, as Siedell says, "receive" it. Instruments don't speak; they are used

The Gospel, though, tells us that all our instrumentalizing efforts can cease because God has been gratified. We no longer have to make such embarrassing efforts, extracting art's art-ness to construct a platform to serve our self-salvation projects. God, in Christ, has declared us justified. We don't need to use art to satisfy our evangelism quota so that God will like us. We're free to receive art as a gift, and we're freed to make art from its gifted nature. 

Sufjan's Unlikely Bedfellow

Stevens said, "Logistically I suppose my process of making art is driven less by abstractions of faith or politics and more by practical theory: composition and balance and color.” I find the freedom of this strikingly similar to how Siedell describes 17th century Spanish painter, Diego Velázquez:

Velázquez not only refused to solicit or accept commissions, but he also refused to paint the historical and religious subjects that featured heroes from classical and biblical literature and which traditionally established an artist's reputation.*

This anti-establishment spirit (the same one I sense in Stevens) doesn't seem to be for rebellion's sake (another veiled form of self-justification), but out of a freedom granted from outside oneself. Siedell notes that Velázquez didn't take his paintings too seriously, evidenced by his odd practice of cleaning his brush on the corners of the very canvases on which he painted. I see that same kind of playful spirit in a man who performs quirky folk arrangements on a banjo while wearing bird wings. Siedell asks then answers:

How could a human being so gifted care so little about his gift? Certainly, a human being whose identity is received as grace, whose relationship to God, the world, and himself was not defined by his work as an artist and the paintings he painted.*

Would to God that we could all do our art-making from this starting place. From here, art would be simultaneously free and (most deeply and profoundly) Christian. Indeed, Lord, have mercy.

*Dan Siedell, Who's Afraid of Modern Art (Eugene: Cascade, 2015), 80, 85.