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Thoughts About the Song "Almighty God (Our Hearts Are Open)"

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

chord chart | lead sheet


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
Perfect glory
Now surrounds me
Overwhelms me

5. My meditation both the day and night
The Law that shows Your perfect will aright
Incline our hearts, to keep Your Word

Words & Music: Zac Hicks & Julie Anne Vargas, 2015
©2015 Unbudding Fig Music (ASCAP); Julie Anne Vargas
CCLI #7056905

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. 

Exciting New Projects for Coral Ridge Music

I want to share two things that we're doing with Coral Ridge Music that really light my fire. They are extensions and expressions of the way that we're trying to think pastorally about the way we write and produce music for our local church...with the hope that it will help some other churches out there, too.

A Kids' Worship EP

One of the things we felt burdened to do was to translate for kids some of the ways we're experiencing the Law and the Gospel in worship at Coral Ridge. We also want to be able to bless the young families that are a part of our community by giving them something to bump in their minivans and at home. So, we've tasked our summer interns (Scott Bajgrowicz, Dasia Canales, Caleb Koornneef, & DJ Vining) with recording a kids' EP of six songs. Some of them are simplified rewrites of previously recorded songs, like, "His Be the Victor's Name," and "Wake Up Sleeper." Others are fresh takes on some children's classics: "Jesus Loves Me" has some added verses that flesh out grace for our kids; "Father Abraham" (with a modified tune) weds some sweet covenant theology and Christological themes into a classic. Yet other songs are attempting to liturgically train our kids to experience the gospel narrative in worship, so we've written a confession song called, "I'm Sorry, God," that walks through in a simple way the "thought, word, and deed" of sin in our lives.  This is a blitz project and will be ready for our families and the broader public in the fall. Keep on the lookout for a Kickstarter campaign by our Terns! 

A "Feedback Panel" for Some New Worship Tunes

Julie Anne Vargas and I have been in the woodshed, working on new songs. I can honestly say that I've never worked so hard and put so much effort into crafting these texts and melodies. Many of these songs have been wrestled into submission. We're adding a layer, though, to the songwriting process. Tonight, we're bringing together a small swath of our congregation, along with some friends and local area worship leaders for a "Worship Night Song Panel," where we'll present these songs, talk about them, solicit feedback, and sing them together. Before we fully commit to these songs, we want to create a safe space for them to "hit" our congregation in order to see what sticks. We're anticipating that this night will give us some important insight on the traction that these songs will or will not have in our community. We'll go through six songs in a conversational, coffee house-style format and hopefully God will bless us with a rich sense of His presence among us. We want to worship our way through this experience.

These songs will travel through this process and then hopefully make it on to an EP or LP due out in February 2016.

If you all have done similar things in your churches, I'd be very curious how the process went for you...what it looked like, how successful it was, some do's and don't's you learned. Please comment!


My Interview with Christ Hold Fast

I had a blast doing this interview with the insightful guys over at the Christ Hold Fast podcast. I've never had an interview quite like this where we were able to quickly dive into some deep, underserved themes. I do some explaining about how the Reformation's insights about Law and Gospel play into worship, and some important observations are made about how that relates to some missing pieces in the current landscape of evangelical worship today.

Check out the episode, a little under 45 minutes, HERE.


A Book on Rock that Both Melts Your Face and Slays Your Soul...Just As It Should

I hope every worship leader is a lover of rock n roll. I hope they love its history, development, pivotal artists, and diversification. I hope these things because, as I’ve said elsewhere, thoughtful, intentional worship leaders should recognize that the musical ideas, idioms, expressions, and foundations are part of a now rich sonic tradition. Church musicians who lead various forms of contemporary/modern worship would find their skills blessed and strengthened for having taken the time to delve into their tradition’s musical heritage.

Simultaneously, I hope every worship leader is passionate about the deep human questions we all have about guilt, grace, abandonment, belonging, and identity, because those questions lie at the heart of our journeys in faith and ministry.

All these hopes collide for me in one amazing book that I’ve been reading and soaking in. It’s culturally savvy, intelligent, informed, deep, honest, and provocative. It’s A Mess of Help: From the Crucified Soul of Rock N’ Roll, by David Zahl, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. David heads up a motley crew of folks who weave together insights like nobody’s business over at Mockingbird—my favorite site for discovering how the dynamics of grace and law work, well, everywhere.

It WILL Mess With You

A Mess of Help reads like a compilation album, journeying from band to band, artist to artist, excavating the wisdom their music provokes. It would be much too simplistic, and probably close to an insult, to describe this book as a “Gospel according to [name that band]” volume. Zahl is actually more deep and honest than that. It’s probably more accurate to describe A Mess of Help as teasing out of all the glory and grime of rock n roll history, all of which beg for answers that can only be found in the grace of God in Christ. And the best part is that A Mess of Help doesn't use the artists as a platform for something else. It operates out of a deep knowledge and love of all the musicians and music at hand, and it journeys through the very questions that those musicians ask in their lives and work.

Each chapter highlights a different artist/band—Nirvana, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, ABBA, Belle and Sebastian, The Who, Guns n Roses, The Replacements, The Rolling Stones, Big Star, Lindsey Buckingham / Fleetwood Mac, Elvis, Scott Walker, Morrissey, and Michael Jackson. I think it would be safe to say that one could jump in (after reading the killer Introduction) to any of these chapters with ease. It doesn’t have to be read sequentially. It’s also probably safe to say that the more deeply you know and love these musicians and their music, the more you will appreciate and absorb Zahl’s insights. On the flip side, though, reading chapters about artists I hadn’t paid much attention to has pressed me a bit more into their music.

I want to zoom in on a few chapters to give you a taste of this wonderful, soul-opening read. I choose these chapters for no other reason than I love them and they left a good wound in my flesh and ache in my soul—wonderful preliminaries to gospel salve.

Pete Townshend and Online Self-Curation

In “Searching Low and High for the Who Behind The Who,” Zahl announces that “their very name announces a preoccupation with the subject” of identity. Zahl’s journey into The Who bring us to the point of some very incriminating insights about the online “curation of self” we work so hard to do.

A nagging discrepancy exists between our status updates and our browser histories. “Anxiety” is a word we use to describe what that discrepancy feels like...To fend off potential judgment [that anxiety brings], we manage appearances. We spin reality. Social media has simply given us non-stop opportunity to do so. The venue never closes. The modern word for this phenomenon is “curation.” It used to be that only art galleries were curated. Today, people are curated; lives are curated…Our unvarnished self, whatever it may be, is not acceptable, either to others or ourselves. You can find plenty of pictures of people vacationing on Instagram, fewer of them fighting with their spouse or microwaving pizza. (pp. 80-81)

As if that weren’t indicting and painful enough:

Rosa Smith observed in The American Reader that we are “uncomfortably conscious of the fact that your created, curated self is not really you—you’ve played up a few things, kept a few others hidden, put on a mask for your digital friends. And what would they think of you if they found out about—well, you?” In other words, because we know what is receiving love is a reduction, i.e., it’s not actually us, we may even feel lonelier than before. The various “lifesuits” we don don’t bring life. (pp. 81-82)

This line of exposing thought is woven into the fabric of the complicated and brilliant music and antics of Pete Townshend. And it had me going deep.

Axl Rose and My Slavery of Success

Some rich reflection accompanied especially the discussion of how Guns n Roses strained against the un-replicatable success of their first album, Appetite for Destruction. Zahl traces Axl’s haunted past, having grown up in a home that felt to him like the worst kind of Christian oppression. Appetite was Axl’s liberation from that bondage, but its overwhelming success brought new chains:

If Appetite was born out of freedom (from Lafayette [Axl’s hometown], the church, authorities of all kinds, etc.), then its success reintroduced the albatross of judgment…a band’s struggle with the Law of Success. (p. 100)

It was easy for this chapter to make me squirm because of its penetrating cuts swiped straight through the heart of my own idolatry as someone who weekly stands in front of others to lead them in euphoric “events” that are supposed be awe-inspiring and life changing. The Law of Success is ever before worship leaders, ever before me. Lord, have mercy.

The Chapter Worth the Price of the Book

But the chapter that I think every lover of (every kind of) music should read is, “Confessions of a Former Music Critic.” It cuts to the heart of musical snobbery, elitism, and the “Law of Uncool” that constantly haunts so many of us listeners and musicians alike. I couldn’t stop laughing at Zahl’s moment of self-sickening discovery: “Oh, my God, I like Celine Dion!” Zahl explains how he journeyed through being a Coldplay fan before Coldplay was cool and all the subsequent mind-games that get played by indie music lovers and too-hip music reviewers when a once secret band blows up.

It moves on to discuss how musical subcultures get formed and the guilty psychology behind it, ending by pointing to “the grace that allows a person to come clean about their guilty pleasures” (p. 218). I don’t want to disclose too much of the chapter’s journey because it must be read! It is powerful and humbling.

One final blessing: A reference (p. 197) to a forgotten Michael Jackson song that brings together two loves evidently shared by Mr. Zahl and myself—MJ's music and The Simpsons. I'm taking about Jackson's "Do the Bartman" (1990). It brings together the synthy, Jacksonian funky beats with early hip-hop rap style. Word.

I would encourage everyone to grab a hold of this terrific book. Its clever and witty style leaves you laughing, and its penetrating and incisive reflections leave you crying. That’s the kind of book that I want to read! 

Get it on Amazon and Createspace. Read Mockingbird's announcement/description HERE.


On Worship That Makes Us Feel Lousy

Worship should be uplifting, right? It should make us feel great, right? Well...sort of. Worshipers and worship leaders need to take a good, hard look at the Scriptures and ask, "What is the Bible's vision of worship?" THAT starting point--not what worship we grew up with, not what worship gives us goose bumps, not even what our favorite worship leader or blogger tells us--is the only way to begin finding healthy, wholesome answers.

So, for example, we open up to the Psalms, God's only inspired grouping of top-150 worship songs. What do we see? What fills its contents? What language does it employ? What are its postures? What emotions spread across its spectrum? Well, among other things, there is a whole lot of not-so-pleasant feelings. Dark feelings. Honest feelings. Lousy feelings. And there's a reason for that. 

Over at the Worship Cohort, I spring off a wonderful quote by Matt Redman and explain why good worship should make us feel painfully scrutinized, uncomfortably exposed. In fact, if you've experienced a worship service where you haven't felt like a helpless mountaineer atop a cave-less mountain peak during a lightning storm, you haven't experienced worship's fullness.

In this post, I explore Isaiah's own journey into lousy-feeling worship, and I explain how the Biblical and Reformational dynamics of Law and Gospel are at play when we gather corporately as God's people. Here's a choice, quote, but please go read the post.

Do we worship leaders recognize that part of worship’s job is to make us feel uncomfortable for a time? Contained in a well-balanced, full-bodied worship service should be at least a moment where each and every one of us feels jerked to a halt under the white-hot scrutiny of God’s holy eye. The holiness of God should feel, among other things, like the unrelenting sun in a shade-less desert. You can’t run from its blistering rays.


An Important Worship Conversation Happening in the Blogosphere

Two worship blogs I regularly follow, authored by two worship leaders I highly respect--David Santistevan and Jamie Brown--have engaged in an important exchange, asking the question about what the "real problem" is with evangelical worship today.

It began a few weeks ago with Jamie's post responding to his (and my) experience at the National Worship Leader Conference in DC. Here is the crux of the problem, as Jamie articulates it:

Throughout the conference, at different sessions, with different worship leaders, from different circles, using different approaches, and leading with different bands, I picked up on a common theme. It’s been growing over the last few decades. And to be honest, it’s a troubling theme. And if this current generation of worship leaders doesn’t change this theme, then corporate worship in evangelicalism really is headed for a major crash.

It’s the theme of performancism. The worship leader as the performer. The congregation as the audience. The sanctuary as the concert hall.

It really is a problem. It really is a thing. And we really can’t allow it to become the norm. Worship leaders, we must identify and kill performancism while we can.

David's post, in response, came two days ago:

The problem with modern worship isn’t the lights. The problem with modern worship isn’t the writing and singing of original music. Matter of fact, I believe we need more songwriters writing more songs…better songs. The problem isn’t the dimly lit room. The problem isn’t the big rock band and creative music. Our hearts don’t know their need for Christ. We are not desperate. We are not broken. We don’t approach Sunday with expectant, faith-filled, repentant hearts. We aren’t hungry for Jesus.

Please read both their posts to understand what they're saying. They're both making important points. Both posts have received lots of comments and incited plenty of (helpful) social media dialogue. In commenting on David's post, Jamie wrote:

I totally agree that we need to acknowledge and express our desperation for Jesus. Many times, dead worship exists because we don’t know our need for a Savior. I’m right with you. But is the solution to sing more songs about desperation? Is the solution to people’s lack of awareness of their desperation to engage their senses, turn the lights down, turn the stage lights up, or sing newer songs? No. The answer to desperation is not more desperation. The answer to desperation is exaltation. We exalt Christ. Clearly, loudly, boldly, and sweetly. Our job is to exalt Jesus. And when he is lifted up, he does the drawing people to himself. And then people are satisfied.

There's something in what both David and Jamie said here that is zeroing in on some of the ultimate core issues, and this is where a good understanding of God's "two words" of Law and Gospel--a HUGE Reformational distinctive, championed by Luther, Calvin, Beza, and Ursinus--is deeply illuminating. The "Law-Gospel distinction" (see Michael Horton's helpful explanation here) tells us, with Paul, that God's communication to us basically comes to us in two forms: Law ("do this for me") and Gospel ("I have done this for you"). They each have job descriptions. One of the preeminent tasks of God's Law (among other tasks) is to show us our desperation. God's Law, whose bar can be summed up as "be perfect as Your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48), exists primarily to drive us to Christ by revealing our inability to keep it. We hear God's Law most clearly in Scripture, but we feel echoes and iterations of God's Law in ten thousand voices each and every day. It is the voice of "you don't measure up." We feel it when we see a person more fit than we are. We feel it when we get passed over for a job promotion or receive less than A+ on a paper. We feel it in our relational brokenness. We feel it, in the words of Jamie, when we rightly experience what it's like to truly "exalt" God: He is perfect, and we are anything but. 

When we truly hear the voice of the Law, it has a crushing effect. The Law causes desperation. Then, and only then, can the Gospel sweep in with all its relieving good news: "Though you are wholly inadequate, there is One Who has come to do for you what you could never do for yourself." God's two words: Law then Gospel. The beauty of God's design here is that it is only the Gospel that can both satisfy and supply the energy for what the Law demands. If we want to become good Law-keepers, no amount of telling us to obey the Law can do that. It is simply not the Law's job description to fulfill what it demands. The Gospel does this. It transforms our heart to want to obey the Law.

If there is truly one central problem with evangelical worship today (and evangelicalism in general), it is the confusion of these two realities and the resulting havoc it wreaks on our worship. Here's how this plays out in this discussion. Jamie's point is that worship leaders misunderstand their role vis-a-vis God and the congregation, and he's right. We worship leaders who tend to inflate our own self-importance begin to slip into entertainment mode. David's point is that worshipers need to come to grips with their desperation, and he's right. The Law, which emanates from a proper "exaltation" of God ("Wow, God, You are SO marvelous...SO perfect, SO holy, SO pure"), makes us desperate ("I'm ruined, because I recognize I'm NOT that nor on my best day could live up to that"). The performance-beholden worship leader and lackluster worshipers need to be reminded of their brokenness. And then we need the worship-producing good news.

The kind of worship that begins to chip away at the problems, the idolatries, and the bad practices of all worship everywhere is worship that begins to appropriate the weight of Law and Gospel to their fullest capacity. It is worship that makes much of God's glory, then much of our inadequacy, then much of God's lavish grace in Christ. When these realities receive their proper attention and ordering in our worship, I won't go so far as to say that the "problems" solve themselves, but I will say that they're finally set within their proper context to be dealt with.

A worship leader (most likely unknowingly) addicted to the limelight doesn't have a realistic view of themselves (which the Law gives), because if they did, they'd be screaming in what they do, "Don't look at me! Look at Jesus!" (which is precisely what Jamie was encouraging). A worshiper obsessed over secondary issues to the point of not engaging in worship also lacks a clear diagnosis of their own problem (which, again, the Law provides) and needs to understand their desperation (which is what David was encouraging). And, we would all say, the only way out of this for all of us is to allow the finished work of Christ to be declared, retold, re-sung, and re-lived in our gathered times. And this is what the Gospel provides. 


Do We Distract Ourselves in Worship to Avoid Honesty Before God?

Discovery of a Great Old Worship Book

Well, I've already deviated from my planned reading list for 2014, but it's been, so far, a blessed departure from the plans. The more I jam on the themes of the gospel's relationship to worship, the more I am coming to believe that the psychological aspects of ourselves come to bear on how we approach worship. C. Fitzsimons Allison, a now elderly Episcopal priest, wrote a marvelous book on the intersection of the gospel, worship, and psychology, entitled, Fear, Love, and Worship

Allison talks a lot about how fear is the foundation upon which many of our barriers to engaging in worship get erected. He brilliantly points out:

Perhaps even our day-dreaming during worship, our meal planning or replaying the last three holes in the back nine, is not so much evidence of boredom as an unconscious attempt to hide the nakedness that God seeks to clothe with his love.*

William Willimon wrote similarly:

Even the incessant clearing of throats, whispering, coughing, rattling of gum wrappers, and aimless activity that usually goes on in a congregation on Sunday morning may be a direct, if unconscious, attempt to avoid getting too close to the mystery.**

Worship Squirrels and the Voice of the Law

Worship leaders are often vexed as to why people are so easily distracted and disinterested in worship. Usually discussions about these sorts of things gravitate to issues of cultural conditioning, such as the fact that people need more visuals in a visual age, or, people can only handle things in 7-minute chunks before needing a "commercial." We are an "A.D.D." culture, they say, shouting "squirrel!" like the dogs on Pixar's Up every time a thought bolts across our mind. Or, discussions about worship-distraction revolve around people's preferences and inability to overcome them.

The above things are true. Those aspects of our cultural conditioning entirely affect our ability to engage with and attend to the service at hand. But I think people like Allison and Willimon are pointing to something deeper which may be at the root of why we give in so easily--fear.

In the words of Paul, championed by the Protestant Reformers, the weight of the Law hangs over us in life, and its heaviness is felt perhaps most accutely in worship. Paul said,

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19-20, ESV)

This is the "mystery" of God's holiness of which Willimon speaks, and this is the feeling of exposed nakedness that Allison is addressing. In worship, many times in a deeply subconscious way, when we come near to God, our souls feel His holiness and our unworthiness. It is discomforting, disquieting, and spiritually and psychologically painful. It is like being naked on a platform in the middle of Times Square. 

Our subconscious reacts to this "voice," the voice of the Law declaring us guilty. And we distract ourselves. "My goodness, the drums are too loud." "I'm craving a cough drop right about now." "Boy, the man next to me really needs pitch-correct on his voice." "What is up with the pastor's shirt today?" "Someone really needs to address that leaky ceiling tile." "I hate this song!" "Her prayers are always SO long." "Are we really going to sing these seven words eleven times?"

I'm not saying that some of these thoughts aren't legitimate or even worth thinking. But I am saying that they may be evidence of our own subconscious coping mechanisms to give in to hiding from the exposure that the voice of God's law causes.

Don't Dull Your Perception of the Gospel

Unfortunately, when this kind of distraction occurs, the gospel is often dulled in its effect. When we get to the point in our services of singing, preaching, and tasting and seeing the good news, it can ring hollow. Here's why. The gospel is only as glorious to us as our recognition of our need makes it.  The gospel only can be viewed as incredibly high and lofty from the vantage point of a sinner who knows they are in the pit of despair. The light of Christ is brightest when it is set against the darkest backdrop of our blackest sinfulness.

What's the solution? It is, at least in part, to acknowledge that there should always be a part of worship that is very uncomfortable, and we mustn't run from it. It is only when we feel the heat of God's burning holiness that the flood of Christ's grace becomes relieving. It is only when we allow the Law to rattle us apart that the Gospel's embrace can embrace us, drawing us together again.

So, does worship make you uncomfortable? Stay there. It's a good place to be.

*C. Fitzsimons Allison, Fear, Love, and Worship (Seabury: Greenwich, Connecticut, 1962), 20.
**William Willimon, Worship as Pastoral Care (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979), 79.