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Entries in incurvatus in se (5)


Liberating Worship: Notes from My Worship Breakout at LIBERATE 2015

If I had 30 minutes to talk about worship, this is what I'd say.

  • Worship is Divine service, where God serves us from the riches of the benefits of Christ's death and life for us.
  • The Reformation offered some very helpful distinctives in thinking through how the gospel "works" in the human being during worship (i.e. incurvatus in se, the Old and New Adams, and a Theology of Glory versus a Theology of the Cross)
  • The Reformation offered a theology of change that is key to understanding how worship works: the gospel alone (God's justifying word of pardon to the ungodly) has the power to birth faith, worship, and works in us, and it does so through a renovation of our affections (in the thought-tradition of Augustine, Melanchthon, and Cranmer). Therefore, worship is an affectively charged event where the Spirit proclaims Christ to the Father's children.
  • These above ideas give us a grid to analyze how well our worship is doing in creating a context for these Spirit-filled realities to thrive. 

And that's exactly what I said, with a lot of commentary. For those interested, I've fleshed these points out in the four-page handout I gave to those who came to the breakout. Get the PDF on my breakout here.

The breakout was recorded, and I will post the audio (and or video) when it comes available.


Destroying Self-Worship with Selfless Songs

Please stop what you're doing and treat yourself to this amazing post over at Liberate by a worship leader I respect and appreciate, Sam Bush. He spends some time exegeting the hymn, "Hallelujah! What a Savior," by Philip Bliss...a favorite of mine and a staple here at Coral Ridge. He hits on themes I try to bring up that I don't think enough attention is drawn to in discussions of the "aim" of worship songs.

Some quotables:

One reason why it might remain on the fringe is because it lacks any mention of Christian responsibility. There are no pledges to be faithful, no requests for teaching. The main focus, from beginning to end, stays fixed on Jesus Christ, the “Man of Sorrows,” and each verse ends with an exclaimed “Hallelujah! What a Savior!”

One of the miracles of worship is that, even if only for a moment, one’s mind isn’t focused inwardly. Martin Luther, expounding on Augustine, describes human nature as incurvatus in se, something that is “so deeply curved in on itself that it only bends the best gifts of God towards itself.” Luther admits that even worship can be turned into self-worship since our nature “so wickedly, cursedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake” (Lectures on Romans). 

Go read the post!


Why We Evangelicals Need a Break from "Surrendering"

The Gospel Coalition just put up a post of mine reflecting on "surrender" language in worship songs. The heartbeat of this post is to encourage a pastoral sensitivity to not only what we say and sing in our worship services but the way things are actually heard. I'm arguing that, though the idea of "surrender" could be biblical, it is prone to being heard and expressed in ways that actually undermine the gospel. I deal with topics that have lately been on my mind and heart--triumphalism and incurvatus in se

Here's an excerpt:

“Surrender” is one of those interesting English words that has a double-meaning, and contained in these two meanings are two very different understandings of how our relationship with God works. If I can put it this bluntly, one reading ultimately ends in death and the other in life.

And here's my ultimate conclusion:

In light of this, and in light of the fact that most of our worship songs pump the glories of active surrender, evangelicalism probably needs to be weaned off surrender language. I would discourage abundant use of the metaphor in our worship and only wise, selective, discriminant placement of such expression (if we must) well after strong, bold declarations of the finished work of Christ.

Go check out the post!


Behind the Song "Wake Up Sleeper" and Album Giveaway Contest

His Be the Victor's Name (EP) released this week. Here's my post about it. I will be sharing a little about each song, and the first one up is "Wake Up Sleeper."  Listen to it:


lyricslead sheet | chord chart | buy it

Behind the Words

"Wake Up Sleeper" is the only song whose words are 100% original. My readership knows that I'm a big fan of re-setting old hymns to new music, so writing my own material is something I'm starting to do with a bit of fear and trepidation. I was one day last year impressed by the resurrecting, life-giving power of the gospel, contained in Ephesians 5:14, which seems to be Paul's conflation of several passages/ideas from Isaiah and Malachi.

I wanted to take Paul's idea and expand on it in a Call to Worship song that preached the gospel's death-to-life message. Its opening lines explain how living in the struggle of sin is a kind of "living death." I incorporated the Augustinian idea of the human being as incurvatus in se ("curved in on itself"), which I have written about here. A double-meaning is intended in "unforgiving"--it is true that I am an unforgiving person to others and that life is unforgiving to me. And, I wanted to highlight our inability to keep the law while simultaneously exhausting ourselves at our own attempts at self-justification. Here's verse 1:

You summon me up from the death of living
A life bent on itself and unforgiving
Resisting peace and truth, Your law defying
Exhausted by my own self-justifying 

The first pre-chorus highlights the "while we were yet sinners" (Rom 5:8) aspect of salvation and God's call to worship. It also states what I believe is one of the principle purposes of worship--to call the human race to look on Christ:

In my rebellion, You call
To raise me up from the fall
As You gather me
With Your chosen people to
Lift up my eyes to see the Lord 

The second verse and its pre-chorus are my favorite lines, personally. I actually wrote it first...not sure why. The second set of lines are really potent and have personally affected me. A pastor-friend once imparted the idea to me that God even turns our sin into something good, right then and there. When we sin, it becomes a gracious gift of God to show us our need for Jesus. When we sin, we're forced to reckon with our inability to keep God's law, causing us to flee to Christ for mercy. In this sense, God even uses the accusations of the enemy for our good, because it drives us to our Savior. Wow.

I stand condemned, a sinner poor and needy
I come with empty hands, my heart is bleeding
My soul recounts the sins that ever plague me
The enemy reminds me of them daily 

But when he shows me my sin
It’s a blessing within
For I flee to my
Lord and see, the wounded hands,
In risen power he says to me

Behind the Music

I'd describe "Wake Up Sleeper," with a bit of a wink, as "pipe punk." (Organ purists will find that incredibly blasphemous. Oh well.) The song is, in some respects, an exposition of what it means to be the "new Coral Ridge," for us. I wanted this song and the entire album to begin with what has characterized our church for so many years--our 6600-pipe Ruffatti organ. But I wanted our band to quickly join its ranks (pun intended) and fuse this new sound together (check out my post musing about the organ's future). We're experiementing with the organ-and-band sound each Sunday, and we're learning as we go. The two weren't necessarily designed to go together, but we're figuring out a path, sensing God's providential convergence of these two usually distinct textures of church music. It's not necessarily apparent in the recording, but organist Chelsea Chen and I labored over the stops and mixtures of the organ sound to get what we thought was just the right balance and intensity. We ran through probably twenty takes before we were satisfied. 

The song's intro and pre-chorus progressions push and pull meter and count. It feels like shifting between 3/4 and 5/4. This is meant to jolt, to "wake up." The chorus is meant to be in the upper vocal range, with repeated tonics, so that it sounds like shout. 

There is one fun, covert musical reference that I would now like to draw your attention to...along with a free album to the first two people to figure it out.

Free Giveaway if Your Guess is Right

The organ isn't just playing randomly. Embedded in the moments where it comes to the fore is a reference, a musical nod, to a historic melody in church music. I'll be even more specific...the first 8 notes.  If you can correctly name the reference in the comment section below, we'll mail you an album (or get you a digital one, if you prefer).  Once people get it, I'll explain below what we did and why we did it, but chances are if you know the answer, you already get it. :)



What Worship Curved In On Itself Looks Like

Thanks, Mockingbird

A Latin Phrase Worth Knowing

I’m a sucker for cool Latin phrases. Incurvatus in se, or “curved in on itself,” is one such phrase, possibly coined by Augustine and definitely expounded upon by Martin Luther.  The Reformer wrote:

Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.*

Me, Me, Me

It’s such a vivid picture. Incurvatus in se is that self-obsessed tendency in all of us to naval gaze.  Every human being is bent inward, even taking the good things of God and making them “all about me.” For Christians, incurvatus in se manifests itself in unhealthy levels of attention on our own Christian growth and spiritual formation. (Yes, this really is possible, and it may very well be at fever pitch in American evangelicalism.) We become expert self-analysts, tracking every notch of progress and regress, victory and loss, growth and atrophy. We engage in formal and informal scorekeeping of the hopefully upward mobility of our spiritual maturity. Did I spend time in the Word today? How many lustful thoughts did I have? Was my tongue controlled? Was my temper checked? Did I practice the presence of God? Did I exhibit the fruit of the Spirit? Was my prayer intentional and purposeful? Diagnostic questions like these aren’t bad in and of themselves, but they become destructive and antithetical to the Gospel when they are our dominant pattern. If “Christian living,” for you, is defined by your constant asking and answering of such questions, you are probably suffering from a severe case of incurvatus in se, because Christian living at its core has nothing to do with these things.

I-Can-Do-It Worship

Unfortunately, because this incurvature is such a fundamental reality for all of us, it has crept into our worship, preeminently in the songs that we sing and in the way that we sing them. Elsewhere, I and others have called such songs, phrases, and lyrics elements of “triumphalism”—that obsession with how we’re living for God, loving God, giving it all for God, etc. It’s in the “surrender” language we often employ, and it’s in the “I’m doing it all for you” and “I’m giving it all away” lines that we gush. It’s painfully ironic that as we sing such lines, though we’re singing to God, we may be actually reveling in ourselves. 

Desperate, In What Way?

Incurvatus in se also draws the line of demarcation between two different kinds of “desperate” worship. I’m a fan of desperation. Desperation is the right posture for a law-breaking sinner like me toward a God whose law is unattainably perfect. But there’s an incurvatus in se kind of desperation in worship, too. It’s the kind that is trying so unbelievably hard to show God just how passionate I am, just how committed I am, just how in love with Him I am, just how engaged I am. This kind of worship is desperate not because it’s needy.  It’s desperate because it actually thinks it has what it takes to make God happy with its effort, if it just tries hard enough. This desperate worship is obsessed with trying to prove that it’s good enough, passionate enough, sincere enough. This desperate worship, deep down, is filled with anxiety, trying so very hard to make God happy with its display of fervor. It is hopelessly curved in on itself, because it says, “See God? I’m doing it!”  And it is deeply delusional, because it is living under the lie that it’s actually possible for us, on our own, to give God pure worship that truly glorifies Him, unscathed by mixed motives and idolatry. It actually cheapens God’s holy standards for worship, which can be summarized: “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:3-4, ESV).  This kind of worship really has very little to do with God and quite a lot to do with the self. 

No Power Within Me

The irony in all of this is that singing about my feelings for God doesn’t actually have the power to engender feelings for God, even if it’s backed by the most mesmerizing key pad, the most worshipful electric guitar reverb swell, or the most fervent BGVs. If we look inward, we’ll never find the kind of power we need to look upward.  Singing, “I’m not ashamed of You” over and over again has zero power to make us actually unashamed of Christ.  Pounding crescendos under repeated lines of “take it all, God,” no matter how loud, how repeated, and how supposedly sincere, lack all ability to actually cause the kind of giveaway we’re attempting to muster.  It’s as foolish as a car on empty looking for more gas in its own tank. I cannot make myself worship with more sincerity and passion by simply singing about how much or how hard I’m worshiping. I cannot make myself feel more truly worshipful by singing about my worshipful feelings.

To All Who are Curved In, Look Up

The fuel for all successful worship flows from one source, outside ourselves, in God’s gracious Word of pardon to us in Christ’s death and in God’s gracious gift of the perfect worship of Christ’s life. So what should the Christian hear and sing if he or she wants to give it all away, feel worshipful feelings, and actually grow in adoration of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Christ and Christ alone.  In Latin, then, the cure for incurvatus in se worship is solus Christus worship.

So it’s not that singing about our feelings for God or consecrating ourselves to Him is bad. In fact, such actions are rightful elements of worship, and they are all over the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 57:7; 45:1). But such actions must be done in the context of the Gospel, just as the book of Psalms is set in the context of the Christ-centered redemption of Scripture. They must flow from our singing, hearing, tasting, and seeing the finished work of Christ in all His glory. The problem with some of our worship sets and liturgies is that they're filled with a lot of our emotive response and very little with the Gospel. They're lop-sided, and therefore barren of fuel. As worship leaders and worship planners, then, we must be very aware of what we’re saying to God, the order in which we’re saying it, and the weight of its emphasis. The Gospel must be clear (to energize our response).  The Gospel must be first (to fuel our response).  And the Gospel must be overwhelmingly dominant (to contextualize our response).  Anything less is hopelessly curved in on itself. So, if you find your worship lifeless, lacking power, or running on empty, it's time to stop looking in and start looking up. 

(Speaking of all of this, if you want to see how incurvatus in se gets exegeted throughout culture--in movies, sports, and media--there's no better place than Mockingbird, which is where I learned the power of the phrase.)

*Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, qtd. in Mark Johnston, Saving God (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 88.