“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.”
I often return to these words from C. S. Lewis in Reflections on the Psalms. They sum up why I love being an arts and culture critic. It’s one thing to watch a stellar film or discover something arrestingly beautiful on Spotify. But to be able to praise these things publicly and celebrate their virtues communally—that’s when the enjoyment feels complete.
Lewis goes on,
It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . . The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.
Lewis’s insight here captures how I’ve felt about Jon Guerra’s new album, Ordinary Ways (out today) since I first started listening to an advanced copy. It’s been hard not being able to share it with others (until now!), because it’s just that good—even better than Guerra’s rightly acclaimed previous album, Keeper of Days.
But Lewis’s quote also, in a way, sums up why Guerra’s new album is so good. Because Ordinary Ways perfectly captures the infectious alchemy of where worship and enjoyment meet. This is seriously devout and joyful music. Part of the album’s power is just how captivated it is by the God to whom every lyric is directed and every note offered. To listen to Guerra’s collection of 14 psalm-like poetic prayers—which are as lyrically profound and musically brilliant as anything I’ve heard from any artist this year—is to have one’s own affections for God unavoidably stirred.
Emotions are contagious, and our tendency to be affected by the affections of others is how we’re wired. This is why, like the Psalms themselves, the personal musical prayers of an exceptional artist like Guerra are so potent when they’re shared.
In describing the genre of his music, Guerra opts for “devotional music,” which he says is “less Sunday morning worship music and more Monday morning prayer music.” In my 2020 interview with him for The Gospel Coalition, Guerra (based in Austin, Texas) describes devotional music as “highly personal” in nature—songs birthed out of no intention other than devotional intimacy with God:
[Devotional music] has no practical boundary, just one large spiritual boundary: prayer. The music, language, style, and personal expression are, ideally, all alive with prayer. It takes cues from the Psalms.
Indeed, the Psalms are all over this album—explicitly and in its overall tone. Lead single “Let a Little Light In,” for example, shifts musically in its latter half to a rousing riff on Psalm 23:6. Final track “One Thing I Have Asked” is an anthemic setting of Psalm 27:4. The poetic lament “How Long” takes inspiration from Psalm 13. The confessional, repentance-celebrating “Illness of the Heart” wrestles with sin in the vein of Psalm 51.
To listen to Guerra’s collection of 14 psalm-like poetic prayers is to have one’s own affections for God unavoidably stirred.
Taken as a whole, the psalm-like sonic prayers of Ordinary Ways are an extraordinary gift. Guerra and his musically gifted wife, Valerie, sometimes release songs under the name Praytell and also compose music together for Terrence Malick films. They’re inspiring powerhouses of contemporary sacred art. And this album, I’d submit, is their greatest offering yet.
Wherever Jon and Valerie’s songs started in private—born out of personal pain or anxiety, late-night exhaustion or early-morning epiphany—they’re now facilitators of worship for souls far and wide. They’ve already ministered to me as I’ve listened to them in a roller-coaster season of stress and exhaustion, and I have no doubt they’ll minister to listeners around the world in whatever they’re going through.
God Is the Focal Point
Why will these songs inspire listeners to worship God? Because they aren’t songs about Jon Guerra. Though written from a personal vantage point, this is an album squarely, unapologetically, and very counter-culturally about God.
This is clear from the album opener, “The Lord Will Provide.” With an eclectic mix of subdued acoustic lyricism and cacophonous horns and drum machines reminiscent of Radiohead, the song kicks off a theme of praising God amid our pain and suffering, in a way that puts the accent not on our predicament but on God’s provision. The first lines of the album declare, in faith, “In some way or another, the Lord will provide / It may not be my way / It may not be your way. But he will.”
From there, the album begins a worshipful journey that unfolds like an extended conversation with God. The songs are ordered, often, such that a lyric or question posed in one song is answered in the next. Consider the pairing of tracks 5 and 6: “My Transfiguration” and “The Lord’s Prayer.” In “My Transfiguration,” Guerra paraphrases Luke 1:1 in asking God, “Teach me how to pray in the ordinary ways.” Naturally, the next track is Guerra’s gorgeous, Nick Drake–esque rendition of the prayer Jesus recites in response to his disciples’ inquiry (Luke 11:2–4).
This is an album squarely, unapologetically, and very counter culturally, about God.
Tracks 9 and 10 (“Like You, Lord” and “You Are All I’m Worth”) feel like a diptych reflection on identity. One of the album highlights for me, “Like You, Lord,” mulls the paradox of being image-bearers of One who is immeasurably greater than us (“Who is like you, Lord?” is repeated throughout the song, echoing a familiar Psalms refrain). “Will I ever be / Who I’m meant to be?” Guerra asks, ultimately landing in the consoling reminder of the Heidelberg Catechism: “I am not my own.”
This is counter-cultural in a world where the expressive, autonomous self is so emphasized, yet Guerra doubles down on it in the next track, “You Are All I’m Worth.” Echoing Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, the song is exactly what its title would indicate. As if to emphasize what’s clearly a key idea in the album at large, the chorus simply repeats this assertion nine times: “You are all I’m worth.”
Radical in a world of expressive individualism, Guerra’s humble poetry affirms the liberating truth of identity for the Christian: Finding ourselves is far less important than being found in Christ. If Christ is the truest human who ever lived, then Christ in us (Gal. 2:20) is the closest any of us will get to authentic humanity.
Guerra’s humble poetry affirms the liberating truth of identity for the Christian: Finding ourselves is far less important than being found in Christ.
In the album’s stunning penultimate song, “Thank You, Lord,” Guerra picks up the theme again, summing it up with the lyric “What am I? / I am yours.” It’s as simple as that. The thing that matters most about us, in the end, is that we are not our own. We belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to Jesus Christ.
As the song’s gorgeous twinkling piano pirouettes against the acoustic guitar through-line, Guerra suggests our best response to life’s ups and downs is gratitude to God. In what may be the year’s most beautiful worship chorus, Guerra sings, “This is life / This is love / To be still and know you / All that’s lost will be gained / Thank you, Lord.” Guerra captures a similar sentiment in “My Transfiguration”: “This is my transfiguration: To receive all things as grace / Whether toil or joy or pain.”
These aren’t treacly sentiments; they’re expressions of battle-weary wisdom. It’s the insight of a soul not unfamiliar with faith struggles, yet one who ultimately affirms the truth of Proverbs 3:5–8. Health comes not from an orientation around our own understanding, but in full trust and submission to him.
Trust in the One from Nazareth
Throughout the album, Guerra manages a tone of joyful gratitude and full trust in God, even as he still has questions and references suffering.
Guerra’s humble poetry affirms the liberating truth of identity for the Christian: finding ourselves is far less important than being found in Christ.
In “Nazareth”—perhaps the bounciest and most musically catchy song on the album—Guerra oscillates between feeling God’s distance and yet knowing his nearness. Guerra sings, “I cannot face the mystery / I cannot change the history / But I name the love behind everything / When I praise the One from Nazareth.”
Praise illuminates. Shifting our gaze from ourselves and our mess, and toward the “love behind everything,” has a way of reframing life’s chaos. There’ll always be tensions and mysteries as we seek God—parts about him we can grasp and parts we can’t. Nevertheless, all things converge in him, and “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in [him],” to quote Augustine. Guerra meditates on this in “Blueprint,” a soaring, spacey M83-esque anthem that cultivates a heavenly ambiance and repeats the phrase “You are the all that all my soul is reaching for” even as it rehearses the paradoxes that perplex us.
We can love and trust God fully and unquestionably, even amid our questions. We can find peace and joy as we worship him, even amid our fears and laments. In today’s “throw the baby out with the bathwater” world of deconstruction and faith abandonment, this is a sorely needed message.
Yet as timely as it is, Guerra’s Ordinary Ways is also absolutely timeless. It’s basic Christianity, basic trust, basic worship, humbly set to song. It’s a slice of one bard’s devotional life in 2020s Texas, yet it joins a chorus of awestruck praise that has been unceasing for centuries and will echo on in the heavenly throngs, world without end.