Modern Psalms and Jon Guerra's Keeper of Days

by: Rev. Evan Willhite

May 25th, 2020

These past couple of weeks, I have fallen into the trance of Jon Guerra’s new album, Keeper of Days. Modern Christian music has a good handle on “Sunday morning songs” - songs that capture the feelings of worship and adoration. But our musical heritage is much more expansive. Take the Psalms for example. They have certainly given us some of our most beautiful verses of praise, words that feel like they could burst into song:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains-where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1-2, NIV)

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. (Psalm 23:1-2, KJV)

But the Psalms give us an emotional range well beyond that. Over a third of them are considered songs of lament, one of the most famous echoed by Jesus on the cross:

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? (Psalm 22:1, KJV)

In fact, the majority of the Psalms move through a range of feeling, mingling words of despair and longing with words of hope and remembrance. Psalm 13 is a concise example:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
(NRSV)

These aren’t just “Sunday songs." They are everyday ones. They speak with integrity and depth to the whole of human and spiritual experience in all its beauty and tragedy. It’s difficult to imagine them set to music, both literally and liturgically. It takes a songwriter of a certain caliber to even approach such a task.

Jon Guerra describes himself on his website as follows:

I’m a singer-songwriter who writes devotional music - less Sunday morning worship music and more Monday morning prayer music. Devotional music is a collaboration with quiet. It’s music for attending to the soul, for listening to God.

Not only did he compose music for one of mine and Amanda's favorite movies from this past year, A Hidden Life, his latest album, Keeper of Days, is a stunning offering. He may describe himself as a “Monday morning” writer, but the emotional range of the album reminds me of the Psalms. There are honest questions, like in the song “Hiding Lord”:

I've been waiting for something, and I'm about to give up
My lungs are filling with air, but it don't feel like enough
Right or left, down or up, I'll go wherever you want
I know you know what I'm looking for
Where are you hiding Lord?

And there are laments, such as in “What Is Your Name?”:

Who is this
Calling in silence?
Whose is this?
Whose absence
Is an aching unto death?

In one of the quietest songs on the album, “Teach Us That One Song,” he asks God to rekindle a fervor:

Teach us that one song
That we all used to know
It went, "Hallelujah"

It is a song reminiscent of the famous lines from Psalm 51:

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation...
(10, 12a NIV)

On “My Truest Praise”, he makes the humble offering,

More than a word heard clearly
More than a truth felt deeply
More than a song sung sweetly
As a crowd sings with me
Repentance be my truest praise
Repentance be my truest praise

This is a common theme in not only the Psalms but much of the Old Testament, including some other lines from Psalm 51:

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
(16, 17 NIV)

On “Citizens,” he speaks to injustice, seeking kingdom answers,

I need to know there is justice
That it will roll in abundance
And that you're building a city
Where we arrive as immigrants
And you call us citizens
And you welcome us as children home

"Citizens" also closes with one of my favorite lines on the album, "Love has a million disguises/But winning is simply not one." Confusion, mercy, personal doubt, love, death - suffice it to say Guerra covers a lot of lyrical territory in these songs.

Beyond that though, the songs are also musically unique and extravagant, particularly in the contemporary Christian genre. I can hear the influences he claims on his website such as Bjork and Radiohead (he also lists Fanny Crosby and Keith Green - this is a person after my own heart). I can also hear others he doesn’t list as well - he can capture a quiet moment like Sufjan Stevens and build to praise like Sigur Rós. Many of the songs carry classical influences. The music may make the album less approachable for some, but his clear tenor voice - as capable of quiet as it is of reaching incredible heights - is hard to ignore.

Don’t take his “Monday morning” words too seriously. You may find yourself hands raised or prostrate to the ground in Sunday morning praise listening to these songs. In some of the most powerful moments on the album, Guerra pulls directly from words of adoration in the Psalms. But the fact that he also goes beyond that is a delightful surprise. It is a gift to us this year in this time, one I would gladly recommend.

Listen to the album here.


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