Left to my own devices, the act of worship can be a fruitless endeavor. While the Episcopal Hymnal of 1982 is brimming with age-old classics, it is sometimes no match for a wandering mind after a sleepless night. Having served as a worship leader for ten years, I’m well acquainted with the occasional Sunday when I fail to feel the power behind the great hymns of yore. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is often doubtful, distracted or drowsy at best.

And yet, my ever-changing emotions are hardly a reflection of God’s abiding presence. As Bishop Fitz Allison writes in Fear, Love and Worship, “God’s love is not controlled by some heavenly cosmic valve that the angels open a little when we do something proper… Everything we learn from Scripture and from Christ teaches us that the free flow of God’s love is not blocked at his end but ours.” Such is the tone on Jon Guerra’s stunning new album Keeper of Days. For Guerra, worship is hardly a human endeavor at all, but God’s doing. It is an honest appraisal of one’s interior life and then waiting for God to unblock our end of the line.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Guerra last week, hours after Keeper of Days was officially released online. Despite the inconveniences of being released during a pandemic – all tour dates in support of the album have been cancelled – Keeper of Days is a remarkably timely expression of deep inwardness and longing. Guerra doesn’t present his best self in these songs, but his actual self. “Oh sweet Jesus, are you here now? / I can’t go on living without you / Be the silence in the sound when / I just don’t understand myself at all,” he sings in “Life Logic.” Like the singer himself, the album contains multitudes: pleas and petitions, doubts and frustrations, praise and gratitude all mixed together.

Having spent several years writing music and touring festivals within the world of Christian worship music, Guerra has gone in the opposite direction of many of his contemporaries. Unlike the catchy riffs and spirited choruses often found on Christian radio stations, silence is often a key player on Keeper of Days, both musically and theologically. Guerra’s talents and knack for creating soundscapes earned him the opportunity to compose music for Terrence Malick’s film, A Hidden Life, last year (he is currently working on Malick’s next film), but the intricate arrangements and skilled musicianship on Keeper humbly serve to buoy the lyrics on the album. While Guerra’s words often sound like a one-sided conversation with God, it’s not as if he’s screaming into the abyss. Instead, there is a humble trust that the abyss will somehow eventually respond as it has before. “Chasing the quiet ‘til I realize you’re chasing me,” he sings on “This Is What I Do to Feel Close to You.” Throughout Keeper of Days, worship, like faith, is illuminative, not operative. The more honest we can be with our own failings and needs, the more material God has to work with.

Over the phone, Guerra speaks candidly about his frame of mind while making Keeper of Days, particularly his thoughts on how the human approach to God can be a mixed bag. “We can be so double-minded in our religious pursuits,” he says. “We want to serve God, but we also want to be successful. We want to be good ministers, but we also want to be seen and be known as good ministers.” For Guerra, the desire to present oneself to God in a certain way warrants suspicion given our natural ability to self-justify, as if we are prone to build a wall of sound around us as a defense mechanism. Behind the wall, of course, one’s actual self is often less like a giant of faith and more like the Wizard of Oz. “There’s something about quietness,” he says. “There’s no pretense for you to pretend.”

Several years ago, when living in Chicago, Guerra would take the “L” train to his recording studio. After being immersed in the sounds of the rush hour commute he would take a few minutes to allow the noise of the city to wash off. In a simple, non-esoteric way, he would invite God to be in the space. “I would try to pray, and it wasn’t often successful, but out of the stillness every sound, every note, every chord had a new quality to it,” he says. It brings to mind Flannery O’Connor’s famous line that the nature of grace can be made plain only by describing its absence.

By stepping away from the world of contemporary worship music, Guerra was surprised to find that God met him in his non-acts of spirituality. Not in his striving, but in his stillness. While working on Keeper of Days, he had a profound realization that God doesn’t combat the world’s noise, but, instead, graciously submits to it. “When you have an experience in a quiet moment, you realize how noisy we can be and how God is so kind to put up with our circus,” he says. And yet, there is profound rest to be found in silence. When our own self-justifying voices finally give out, we are able to hear the still small voice of a gracious God. “It’s implicitly gracious,” he notes, “that God would be available to us when we’re disengaging with our performance.”

Of course, silence itself is not a cure-all for the human condition. Silence is the sound of the world before creation and it is also what we often hear when we wait for God to respond to our petitions, but silence itself does not fully satisfy. By nature, it craves to be fulfilled and is only done so when God speaks into it and gives it meaning. Aldous Huxley famously once said, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Guerra’s Keeper of Days is a fitting example. The album is not only a musical masterwork, but it brings a divine word of comfort. On the closing title track, Guerra softly sings, “I do not understand your ways / Yet still I know you are the keeper of days / Though I am lost I know you hold my hand / My precious Lord and God.” After that, what more is there to say?