Archive for March, 2012

Associations

Has it ever struck you how many memories a tune can carry?  Maybe you’ll always remember a song you heard on the radio all the time as a child, or the theme music from your favorite TV show, or a hymn that you used to sing often in your home church.  I know my mind will always connect snippets of music from the radio with various times and places.  I’ll always associate Psalter Hymnal number 301, “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah,” with the heartfelt singing of the small congregation at Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship in New York City, and I’ll never forget hearing number 298 played on the wheezy old pipe organ at Christ Reformed Church’s former worship location in Washington, DC.  These musical connections may be small, but they stay with us for a lifetime because of the memories with which they are associated.

That phenomenon of association can present an interesting problem for church musicians.  Surely you’ve heard the Irish air LONDONDERRY, often sung to the text of “O Danny Boy.”  (You can listen to an excellent pipe organ rendition of it on YouTube here.)  As a secular song, this tune is perennially popular for all manner of sentimental occasions—weddings, movies, and just about any setting that calls for emotional warmth.  It’s certainly one of the most moving tunes I’ve ever heard.  But have you ever sung LONDONDERRY in worship?  It’s not likely; the tune isn’t included in the blue or gray Psalter Hymnals, nor even the 1990 Trinity Hymnal.  Yet, surprising as it may sound, this tune was once set to the words of Psalm 103 in the 1934 Psalter Hymnal.  In fact, the metrical setting was taken from vv. 2-5 of what is now blue Psalter Hymnal number 204, “O Come, My Soul, Bless Thou the Lord.”

Now here’s where our question arises: Should such a tune be used in worship?  Some would answer with a confident yes—all good music should be used in the church.  Others might be more hesitant.  Maybe, they would say, we shouldn’t sing a “secular” tune like this in worship.  Their concerns stem from what I just introduced above, the issue of associations: could singing this tune distract the singers from God and focus them instead on their own feelings and emotions?  For now, I’m going to let my own opinions lie silent on this issue, and instead open up the floor for some discussion.  For starters, consider the following questions:

  • Should any music be utilized in worship so long as it is well-written?  Or should the church use only music that it has composed for itself?
  • Should the music of the church be a response to the emotions of the singers, or should it actually evoke emotion in the singers?
  • What characteristics of a melody like this make it more emotionally inspiring than other hymn tunes?  Do we just recognize the context in which the tune is so often used, or is the musical structure itself responsible?
  • What is detrimental about an overly emotional worship “experience”?
  • If “secular” music is to be adapted for worship, what criteria should be in place for selecting and/or modifying it?

As you might expect, these questions have been floating around for centuries.  Arguments, stories, and miscellaneous tidbits of information have all been thrown about at will.  My goal is not to revisit such old battles, but to remind all of us that we should give serious thought to how we worship God through music.  If our desire to follow God’s directions for worship is sincere, there is no doubt that this discussion will be fruitful.  With that said, I hope you’ll feel free to offer your thoughts on these matters!

Blessings,

–MRK

Psalm 107

We find ourselves being very comforted and encouraged by the fact that just as is true for physical seafarers and sailors—as they must at times sail the high seas, and can literally become paralyzed by fear by the storms which they are facing—so too for you and me: spiritual sailors and sea-farers, if you will, who must at times pass through the storms of life.  We too must learn to personally, and passionately, and persistently cry out to the God who alone is able to bring us once again safely into harbor, thereby bringing great honor, glory, and praise to his most high and holy Name.  For…we are going to find that this is surely his way in the storm.

Occasionally I listen to a sermon or two during the week via the internet.  This particular sermon, entitled “His Way in the Storm,” was preached by Rev. Rich Kuiken at the Pompton Plains Reformed Bible Church (URC) in New Jersey.  The text under consideration was Psalm 107, a Scripture that has since become one of my favorites.

Psalm 107 is a song of thanksgiving to God for his faithfulness, recounting the deliverance of his people from a variety of trials and tribulations.  The key theme of the psalm is “steadfast love of the Lord.”  Recurring several times throughout the text, two refrains point the reader back to this theme:

Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress. (vv. 6, 13, 19, 28 ESV)

Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man! (vv. 8, 15, 21, 31)

I’ve always found that psalms with refrains like this drive the message home powerfully for me.  Some of my favorite psalms with refrains are 57 (“Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!”) and 99 (“Holy is he!”).  Similarly, Psalm 107 has become a very personal reminder for me as I encounter the storms of life and look for God’s way in them.

Although neither time nor space permits us to look extensively at all six settings of Psalm 107 in the Psalter Hymnal, I’d like to at least give a brief overview of the various versifications.

212, “Praise the Lord, for He Is Good”
213, “Rebels, Who Had Dared to Show”
214, “Men Who Walk in Folly’s Way”
215, “They That Traffic on the Sea”
216, “Springs and Streams No Longer Bless”

These five songs form a complete versification of Psalm 107, originally appearing in the 1912 Psalter in much the same form.  The meter of the poetry (7.7.7.7.7.7.) makes the settings compatible with many familiar hymn tunes, like TOPLADY (“Rock of Ages”) and DIX (“For the Beauty of the Earth”).  The tunes used here in the Psalter Hymnal are fairly easy to learn and sing, although BREAD OF HEAVEN (216) has some unexpected intervals and ROSEFIELD (215) has a tendency to run along at a rather quick clip.  Overall, though, these tunes are solid and easily sung.

The texts for numbers 212-216 tend to be poetic paraphrases rather than literal settings.  Unfortunately, the eloquent language tends to cloud the original meaning of the psalm rather than enhancing it.  Consider, for instance, the versification of Psalm 107:10-12.  The ESV text reads like this:

Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death,
prisoners in affliction and in irons,
for they had rebelled against the words of God,
and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
So he bowed their hearts down with hard labor;
they fell down, with none to help.

In this passage we clearly see three ideas: (1) Some men rebelled against God; (2) God inflicted punishment on these rebels; and (3) as a result, they endured affliction and sat in the very shadow of death.  Now consider v. 1 of Psalter Hymnal number 213:

(1) Rebels, who had dared to show
Proud contempt of God Most High,
Bound in iron and in woe,
Shades of death and darkness nigh,
Humbled low with toil and pain,
Fell, and looked for help in vain.

With regard to the three ideas contained in the Scripture passage, this versification leaves much to be desired.  (1) The text acknowledges the rebellion of these men, but it doesn’t specify that their rebellion is against the words of God and the counsel of the Most High—an important detail, in my opinion.  (2) There is no indication that the suffering of these men was directly inflicted by God as punishment for their rebellion.  (3)  The fate of the rebels is only included at the end of the stanza, where we are told simply that they “fell”—and again, no direct connection between sin and consequence is made.  Yes, the basic Biblical message is preserved, but the content of the psalm is sadly muddied by this versification.  Although I can’t contend that these settings are Scripturally inaccurate, it’s a shame that they form the only complete versification of Psalm 107 in the Psalter Hymnal.

217, “O Praise the Lord, for He Is Good”

This versification is significantly better than numbers 212-216, but unfortunately, it only treats vv. 1-9 of the psalm.  Still, the text is fairly solid (though paraphrased), and the tune, GOSHEN, is very fitting.  The German melodies of the Psalter Hymnal, like this one, are often some of the most suitable and well-composed tunes in our repertoire.  If you’re looking to sing a rendition of Psalm 107, this is an excellent choice, even for an unfamiliar congregation.

After listening to that sermon by Rev. Kuiken, I grew to appreciate Psalm 107 so much that I even made an attempt at a new versification of it based on the ESV text.  The result was a fifteen-stanza setting in 10.10.10.10.10.10. meter, to be sung to the tune YORKSHIRE (Psalter Hymnal number 346).  For your interest, I leave you with a few stanzas from this setting of my own.  If God so wills, maybe it will even be used in worship someday.  But for now, through the stormy seas of life, I need to keep reading Psalm 107—because, like the psalmist, my attention needs to be focused and re-focused on the steadfast love of the Lord.

(3) O let them thank the Lord and give him praise,
For he has shown his wondrous works and ways!
To sons of men he gives his steadfast love;
Let them sing praises to the Lord above!
For he has satisfied the longing soul,
With good things he has made the hungry whole.

(7) Some, too, were foolish through their sinful ways,
Loathing their food, they soon would end their days.
Yet cried they to the Lord for saving power,
And he delivered them that very hour.
To heal them and restore, his word he gave;
Them from destruction God the Lord did save.

(15) “Unto the Lord give thanks, for good is he;
His steadfast love is to eternity,”
Let those he has redeemed from trouble say,
Whom he has gathered in from every way.
Whoe’er is wise, then on this let him dwell;
The steadfast love of God consider well!

–MRK

The Church’s Renewal

Classis Report

Today I’m going to deviate a little bit from the topic of music, and share with you my reaction to the most recent meeting of one of the classes of the URC.  It’s a long story, but I hope you find some encouragement in it.

It was dark and damp on Long Island as five of us piled into a minivan on a Friday morning at five o’clock and set out on a journey for Middletown, New York.  Four other men and I were heading to the spring 2012 meeting of Classis Eastern US at the Hudson Valley URC.  On the agenda for the meeting was a variety of topics, but the main focus of the session was on one theme: church planting.

The ride was quick and uneventful.  Leaving the Island on a weekday morning is risky; the only routes of exit are through New York City, and arriving in the city any later than 7 am would inevitably land us in heavy traffic.  We had worked out our plans to a pretty exact science, however, and by leaving at five o’clock instead of seven, we managed to complete the 120-mile trip in almost exactly two hours—and, as a bonus, we had time for conversation over a leisurely breakfast at a Middletown diner once we arrived.

Hudson Valley URC Exterior

The exterior of the Hudson Valley URC

The Hudson Valley United Reformed Church is only a few minutes out of town, surrounded by orchards and old farm buildings on quiet County Route 12.  The church building is only about five years old—so new that its lower level, which will contain spacious classrooms and a fellowship hall, is still under construction.  The architecture of the church is beautiful.  Upon arrival, despite the gloomy, misty weather, our group spent the remaining half-hour before classis taking pictures of the building and its scenic location.

At 9 am, the meeting began.  Rev. Steve Arrick, pastor of the Zeltenreich URC in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, led opening devotions on Matthew 9:37, 38, where Jesus instructs his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.  Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”  (ESV)  Relating this passage to the pertinent topic of church planting, Rev. Arrick urged all the elders and pastors not only to be constant in prayer for the growth of God’s Church, but to be actively working to further that growth.  Following the opening prayer, the delegates sang a Psalter Hymnal selection.  There couldn’t have been a more applicable hymn than number 405.

Far and near the fields are teeming
With the waves of ripened grain;
Far and near their gold is gleaming
O’er the sunny slope and plain.

Send them forth with morn’s first beaming,
Send them in the noon-tide’s glare;
When the sun’s last rays are gleaming,
Bid them gather everywhere.

Thou whom Christ the Lord is sending,
Gather now the sheaves of gold;
Heavenward then at evening wending,
Thou shalt come with joy untold.

(Refrain)
Lord of harvest, send forth reapers,

Hear us, Lord, to Thee we cry;
Send them now the sheaves to gather,
Ere the harvest-time pass by.

Hudson Valley URC Sanctuary

The sanctuary of the Hudson Valley URC

The opening devotions having been concluded, the official meeting began.  During the classis session, we heard a great deal of encouraging news.  Throughout the federation, the United Reformed Churches are making concrete steps to further church planting in a steady and orderly fashion.  Seminarians like Mr. Sam Perez from Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship (URC) in New York City are eager to become involved in planting more churches in the heavily populated parts of the East Coast.  Some funds are already in place for these projects.  Churches such as an independent Reformed congregation in Pennsylvania are looking to join our federation.  Visiting the classis meeting were three fraternal delegates from the OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church), who heard the URC’s reports with joy and shared their desire to see greater fellowship between the two denominations.  By God’s grace, the United Reformed Churches are continuing to grow—slowly but steadily.

God’s faithfulness in the past was another focal point at the meeting.  Last year, the URC in Lancaster had the unique opportunity to merge with an old German Reformed church in the same area of Pennsylvania, doubling the size of their congregation and obtaining a permanent worship location in the process.  Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship in New York City recently joined the URC as an official, independent congregation, and not only are they making plans to establish a church plant of their own, but God has also provided the means for them to worship in a real church building for the first time in their existence.  The elders of the Newton URC in New Jersey reported the recent growth of their own church with thankfulness: although their services were poorly attended just a few years ago, their sanctuary is now filled to overflowing on Sunday mornings.  Office-bearers led the classis in prayers of thanksgiving after each of these reports.  The delegates’ joy was tangible at witnessing God’s lasting faithfulness to his Church, in old and young congregations alike.

Hudson Valley Landscape

The view from the church

During the fellowship breaks that split up the meeting, I met a few new faces and caught up with some of the office-bearers I already knew.  We talked about many different things, but a single thread ran through all the conversations: a fresh, revitalized perspective and a hopeful eye on the future of our churches.  One of the elders encouraged me to keep coming to classis meetings, adding that he loved the fellowship himself and hoped his own children would also come in the future.  I spoke to multiple people about the immense benefit of these sessions, especially for me as a young URC member, and our display of the heavenly unity we enjoy as God’s family—regardless of geographical separation.  And even among the older elders I met, not one had a discouraged outlook on our federation; all were optimistic and forward-looking, rejoicing in the gracious providence of God.

The only part of the day that approached sadness was the moments right before everyone’s departure.  The old hymn describes it well: “When we asunder part,/It gives us inward pain,/But we shall still be joined in heart/And hope to meet again” (number 447).  As we piled into our car again and headed back to Long Island, the sun had just broken through the clouds and was illuminating the foothills in awe-inspiring light.

Two words come to mind as I reflect on this classis session: innovation and renovation.  Innovation is the creation of new things; renovation is the restoration of old things—making them as good as new.  Both ideas were abundantly evident at this meeting.  Maybe the drastic change in the day’s weather, from dark gloom to radiant light, is an appropriate picture of the lesson I learned.  It’s so easy to let ourselves be deceived into hopelessness regarding Christ’s Church.  Evil is everywhere, sin is rampant, and our world is becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity.  Within the orthodox Reformed community, our congregations appear wracked with low attendance and decreasing funds, with outward pressures and inward strife.  What does God have to say about this?  Should we jump ship while we can?  No—Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).  We need not doubt.  Yes, in our sin-cursed world, God’s people will endure trouble and affliction.  But we can have faith that right up to the end, though the earth be removed and the mountains cast into the sea, our steadfast God will preserve and increase his glorious Church.

Lord of harvest, send forth reapers,
Hear us, Lord, to Thee we cry;
Send them now the sheaves to gather,
Ere the harvest-time pass by.

–MRK

Hudson Valley URC Sanctuary Detail

The commission above the rear doors of the Hudson Valley URC sanctuary

(Thanks to Elder Steve Wetmore of the URC in Cape Coral, Fla., for the photos.)

Christianizing the Psalms

One of the main points I was careful to mention during my recent articles about psalm-hymns had to do with the relationship between the New Testament and the Old.  I pointed out that many psalm-hymns interpret the psalms in light of the New Testament in a way that literal psalm settings cannot.  In his excellent book Singing and Making Music, Dr. Paul Jones (organist and music director at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia) makes a similar point about hymns and psalm paraphrases.  I can’t resist inserting a few quotations from his book here.

“At the same time, psalms are not the only appropriate worship songs of the people of God.…From New Testament examples, worship should also include our Christian response to the finished work of Calvary.  This response could be characterized as a ‘Christian interpretation of the psalms’ through hymns and canticles as well as biblical songs and hymns of the present day.  According to [Hughes Oliphant] Old, ‘The doxology of the earliest Christians kept psalmody and hymnody in a dynamic balance.’  Without Christian hymns, our praise of God through the psalms would still be rich, but it would be missing our acknowledgment of and gratitude for the manner in which Christ has redeemed us and fulfilled what the Old Testament promised.”

A little later in the same chapter, Dr. Jones refers to the work of Isaac Watts, an eighteenth century English song-writer whose works are still widely sung in churches today.  Dr. Jones explains:

“Isaac Watts authored psalm paraphrases and hymns with a related purpose—a quest to ‘Christianize’ the psalms.  Like Luther before him, Watts wanted believers to benefit from psalm singing, so that it would not be an intellectually or culturally remote activity, but one from which they would learn and with which they could associate.…Watts abbreviated lengthy psalms and avoided potentially confusing metaphoric language.  Further, he makes direct reference to Christ or the gospel within at least one stanza in most of his psalm paraphrases.…

“While we understand that many of the psalms have their prophecies fulfilled in Christ, the psalm texts do not refer to Jesus or the gospel by name.  Some of the psalms (such as Psalm 45) were understood even in Old Testament times to be messianic.   Watts wanted to make Christ’s fulfillment of them evident: ‘In all places I have kept my grand design in view; and that is to teach my author to speak like a Christian.’  He instructed congregants to carry psalm books with them and asked the clerk to read the psalm aloud before it was sung so that people might better understand what they were to sing.  In so doing, he restored Christian praise to its rightful place in the worship of the Dissenting Church of the early eighteenth century.”

I’ve given enough of my own thoughts on this topic in the past few posts, so I’ll let these quotations speak for themselves.  Overall, though, this book, Singing and Making Music, is a great resource.  If I had to recommend a single all-around “church music manual,” this would be it.  Dr. Jones thoroughly discusses the purpose, history and structure of church music—and some of the controversies that plague it—in a very personable and helpful manner.  In fact, it’s more than likely that you’ll see some more quotes from his book on this blog in the future.

Singing and Making Music by Dr. Paul S. Jones is available from Amazon.com, about $12 for the paperback and $8 for the Kindle version.  Or, if you’d prefer to support Dr. Jones’s ministry directly, you can buy the book for $17 from Paul Jones Music, Inc.

The quotes are from pages 101, 102, 105 & 106 of the paperback edition.

Blessings!

–MRK

P.S.  A busy weekend is ahead, entailing a Classis Eastern US meeting, a weekend with a visiting URC pastor, a piano competition, and, of course, a welcome day of rest on Sunday.  I hope to rejoin you at the beginning of next week!

Psalm 49

Hear this, all peoples!
Give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
both low and high,
rich and poor together!
My mouth shall speak wisdom;
the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.

(Psalm 49:1-3 ESV)

It’s rare to find a psalm full of proverbs, but Psalm 49 is a notable exception.  Usually classified as a “wisdom psalm,” this song offers an unflattering but realistic perspective on human life and death.  Twice, in verses 12 and 20, the psalmist reminds us that man without understanding is “like the beasts that perish.”  For those who trust in the vanity of riches, the text paints a sadly bleak outlook.  But Psalm 49 doesn’t leave the believer without hope; instead, the writer confidently asserts, “God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol [the grave], for he will receive me” (v. 15).  So “why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?”  The Christian rests in the comfort that, regardless of his earthly standing, God is his ultimate Judge and Protector.

90, “Hear This, All Ye People, Hear”

A single setting of Psalm 49 is included in the blue Psalter Hymnal, but it is split up between two different selections.  The first nine verses are taken up in number 90, “Hear This, All Ye People, Hear.”  A quick comparison between the KJV and the ESV shows that the text of this setting closely matches the older KJV, but has a few slight differences with the ESV.  Nevertheless, the words are Biblically sound and easy to understand (with the possible exception of “lyric strain” in v. 2).

The tune, FISK, has a suitably haunting melody line.  Though the frequent melismas (single syllables held over multiple notes) could confuse unfamiliar singers, the tune should be easy to learn.  If your congregation can’t reach that high F in the second line (and who would blame them?), you can easily drop the key to E-flat instead.

91, “Dust to Dust, the Mortal Dies”

Continuing the remaining eleven verses of Psalm 49, this selection is Scripturally sound, just like number 90.  Again, there are a few minor differences between the ESV and this setting, but these are apparently just the result of alternate translations from the Hebrew.  For instance, the second half of the first stanza contains the idea that “within their heart they say/That their houses are for aye.”  This same idea appears in the King James Version, but in the ESV this passage is rendered instead as “Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations.”  A few little discrepancies like these exist, but none harm the central theme of the psalm.  And while the phrases at the very beginning and end of this selection—“Dust to dust” and “Highly gifted, strong, and free”—are not found in the original text, they provide a very fitting envelope to the song.

The only challenge to the tune, WATCHMAN, is to find the right tempo.  Play too slowly, and the musical lines become shapeless and boring; play too quickly, on the other hand, and you’re left with a spunky little jig that doesn’t fit the weighty subject matter of the psalm at all.  I’ve found that a tempo of 60 bpm to the dotted-half-note seems to flow well.

While these two songs are more philosophical than worshipful, their message is often a much-needed reminder for us.  Psalm 49 comes to my mind day after day as I see the world’s constant accumulation of wealth.  It is all too easy to forget that though “within their heart they say/That their houses are for aye,” before long all the world’s beauty will, indeed, turn to dust.  But then, like the psalmist in vv. 14-17, I am also reminded of the Christian’s eternal, imperishable comfort in our God and Savior.

Crowned with honor though he be,
Highly gifted, strong and free,
If he be not truly wise,
Man is like the beast that dies.

–MRK


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