Archive for November, 2012

URC Psalmody’s Countdown to Christmas

We’re fast approaching the joyous and festive season of Christmastime, widely viewed as the crown jewel of the calendar’s holidays.  It’s a time of decked halls, trimmed trees, wrapped gifts, and hearty carols—all in all, a heartwarming time of year.  Believers and unbelievers alike tend to love Christmas for a variety of reasons, but only Christians can appreciate its deeper meaning: a commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.

This will be URC Psalmody’s first Christmas, and Jim and I would like to make the most of it.  There are a few reasons we believe this is a particularly important subject for some thoughtful discussion and interaction.

Firstly, Reformed churches tend to find themselves in an awkward place when it comes to Christmas traditions.  With a hybrid background of pagan and Christian elements, Christmas (think “Christ” + “mass”) is somewhat of an oddity in the liturgical calendar.  American culture all but demands that it be celebrated, but how?  Can we sincerely commemorate the birth of the Messiah through a tangle of elves, snowmen, and reindeer, or are such inventions idolatries that must be pried away at all costs?  While a variety of views are possible, we must admit that Christmas marks the point at which the church tends to pick up the greatest number of extra-biblical, and sometimes downright unbiblical, practices.  Traditions such as tree lightings and advent candles might not be forbidden in Scripture, but it’s dangerously easy for us to forget their original purpose.  Thus, we believe that Christmas ought to be a time in which we examine our worship especially closely to ensure that it remains faithful, true, and acceptable to the Lord.

Secondly, the United Reformed Churches in North America in particular don’t seem to have any concrete convention regarding Christmas practices.  We have the following general guidelines for corporate Sunday worship from our Church Order:

Article 37.  The Consistory shall call the congregation together for corporate worship twice on each Lord’s Day.  Special services may be called in observance of Christmas Day, Good Friday, Ascension Day, a day of prayer, the national Thanksgiving Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, as well as in times of great distress or blessing.  Attention should also be given to Easter and Pentecost on their respective Lord’s Days.

Article 38.  The Consistory shall regulate the worship services, which shall be conducted according to the principles taught in God’s Word: namely, that the preaching of the Word have the central place, that confession of sins be made, praise and thanksgiving in song and prayer be given, and gifts of gratitude be offered.

Article 39.  The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches.  Hymns which faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of the Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity may be sung, provided they are approved by the Consistory.

From these articles it’s clear that our worship must remain grounded in God’s Word at all times.  Sabbath services are a divine ordinance; Christmas services merely “may be called.”  Whatever holiday traditions may be in place, our Lord’s Day worship must include preaching, confession, praise, thanksgiving, and gifts of gratitude.  Our musical repertoire should, as always, be rooted in the 150 biblical psalms, and any hymns we sing—even Christmas carols—must “faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of Scripture” and be approved by the Consistory.

The grave words of Lord’s Day 35 (Q&A 96-98) of the Heidelberg Catechism also come to mind: the second commandment forbids us to “make any image of God [or] worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his Word.”  Candle ceremonies?  Nativity scenes?  Individuals as well as congregations must be willing to reevaluate each of their holiday traditions in light of such words.

Thirdly, and most specifically, Christmas music has a peculiar habit of dwarfing the psalms in our churches during the month of December.  To be sure, many carols are quite solid and easily deserve a place among our other hymns.  But why do we continue to rely so heavily on other Christmas songs that fall drastically below the Scriptural and doctrinal standard?  Besides, if the psalms are really so Christ-centered (an argument we’ve been advocating for the past several months here on URC Psalmody), why shouldn’t they be just as applicable to the Christmas season as non-inspired carols?

Since this is, of course, a blog devoted to psalm-singing, we’d like to spend a significant amount of time (most of the month of December, in fact) wrestling with these questions.  Over the next few weeks we’ll be talking about various topics related to our churches’ celebration of Christmas.  I’ll be walking through some favorite Christmas carols to see how well they mesh with the Reformed faith.  Meanwhile, Jim intends to introduce some of the oldest and richest Christmas carols in existence–messianic psalms–and suggest ways in which they could complement our holiday celebrations.  Our aim, as always, is to promote Biblical worship in a practical and constructive manner.  With this in mind, we’d be delighted to have you join us along the way with your comments or feedback.

Sorting through these matters may be difficult; Christmas music, on the whole, possesses an extraordinary dimension of emotional and sentimental attachment for most if not all of us.  But while we might occasionally come down a little hard on your favorite carol, we don’t want these discussions to ruin your holiday spirit.  Instead, we hope that the month of December on URC Psalmody will present an opportunity for all of us to refocus, refine, and revitalize our Christmas celebrations, so that we may with all our hearts celebrate Christ’s birth by worshiping the Lord in spirit and in truth.

Blessings to you this Christmas!

–MRK

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Sing a New Song, Chapter 10: Setting the Soul in Tune

“I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately,” said John Calvin famously of the psalms, “‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul.’”  Through our discussions of Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm-Singing for the Twenty-First Century over the past several weeks, we’ve seen that the psalms are God’s inspired songbook for his people, why they should be sung in corporate worship, and how they should shape our understanding of Scripture.  Today’s chapter, however, has a different focus.  Diving directly into the soul of the psalms, Chapter 10 by Derek W. H. Thomas explores the relationship between “Psalm Singing and Pastoral Theology.”  Commenting on Calvin’s above description of the psalms, Thomas explains, “Many of the psalms are written from the first-person perspective.  They are, therefore, highly personal, and we read them as descriptive of our own spiritual journey.  They speak of highs and lows, covering the entire range of human experiences—even some that we might find uncomfortable” (p. 162).

MRK: With this understanding of the personal component of the Psalter, can we gain any insight into why the psalms are so seldom sung in today’s churches?

JDO: In his book The Wages of Spin, referenced here in Sing a New Song, Carl Trueman points to our modern culture’s desire for constant happiness.  In today’s “health, wealth, and happiness society,” to admit to feelings of despair, torment, brokenness, and sadness would be “tantamount to admitting that one has failed.”  Our culture is obsessed with a trouble-free, pleasure-driven life.  Sadly, our churches have been influenced by that thinking.  We repress our sense of brokenness and ignore spiritual malaise.  Since we certainly don’t want to talk about such things in church, we naturally gravitate to “feel-good” worship.  I think Trueman and Thomas are right in their diagnosis: the psalms become exceedingly “uncomfortable” amidst our general desire for worship to be cloyingly “happy.”  For the Psalms are real.  They deal with all the mess of human life and spirituality with no holds barred.

MRK: Says Thomas, “Without a regular familiarity with the Psalms in the liturgy of public worship, many Christians find themselves at odds with their experience of what the Christian life means to them.”  In our “frequently too exclusively positive and upbeat” worship culture, a dangerous crevasse develops between what we sing about and how we feel.  “This often leads to cynicism, a loss of assurance, a schizophrenic experience of Christianity, and experiences of guilt that find little or no resolution” (p. 163).

JDO: Churches oriented only toward the “positive and upbeat” pave the way for drastic alienation.  Suppose I’ve had a tough week.  Maybe I’m depressed, or maybe I’ve been persistently hounded by my own sins and temptations and the forces of evil.  Where can I fit in amidst all the disgusting saccharine sweetness in this kind of worship?  The psalms, I think, serve to ground the worship of the church in reality.  There are explosive psalms of praise, but there are also laments.  There are psalms of quiet peace as well as battle cries. The psalms contain something for everyone, regardless of an individual’s situation.

Psalm 23, probably the most familiar psalm, is a case in point.  It’s personal (notice the use of “my” in verse 1), pastoral (the very fact that we use the word “pastoral” to describe the work of the church points to shepherd imagery), and realistic.  Life is full of both green pastures and valleys of the shadow of death.  We’re called to feast at the table of Christ, but we must often do so in the presence of our enemies.  This psalm is not just sentimental feel-goodery; the comfort it gives is grounded in the reality of the Christian struggle.

MRK: Incidentally, I’d like to point out that Psalm 23 must be taken as a whole if it is to impart this genuine comfort.  If its references to the “valley of the shadow of death” and the “presence of my enemies” are removed, it too becomes saccharine, unsubstantial—and void of reassurance for the anxious Christian.  This happens to be a great reason to sing entire psalm versifications as opposed to “hunt-and-peck” paraphrases, but the main point is that we must realize the uncomfortable sincerity of the psalms in order to truly benefit from them.

JDO: The benefit of the psalms is that “they address us at points of need and, more importantly, points of failure,” as Thomas points out (p. 164).

MRK: At this point, Thomas takes a moment to address the clear “elephant in the room” when it comes to discussions about psalmody: imprecatory psalms.  We’ve treated this topic several times before here on URC Psalmody, so we won’t delve into too much detail here.  Suffice it to say, however, that the imprecatory psalms should form a critical part of our worship, because “every Christian has experienced to some degree or other an example of terrible injustice; in such circumstances, the desire for the wrong to be right must form the basic language of Christian piety and worship.  If it does not, serious pastoral problems ensue that are as difficult as the imprecatory desires” (p. 166).

JDO: The imprecatory psalms provide a model for what to do with the boiling, pent-up feelings that all of us have over injustice and sin. Our response should be the natural recourse of the Christian: taking them to God in prayer.  We don’t just pray when we’re happy, or when we “feel like it,” or when we have our scheduled devotional time.  The psalms teach us to go to God with every feeling, emotion, and situation, drawing us away from bland prayers and teaching us to pray realistically.

MRK: As I read through the psalms, I’ve sometimes been a little shocked by the sheer number of laments. “Why are they here? Why are there so many of them?”  Thus, I especially appreciated the fact that Thomas takes time here to explain the benefit of psalms of lamentation.  In a nutshell, he says, “Because so many psalms fall into the category of lamentation, their use as pastoral guides and templates is particularly fitting.…Such psalms evoke an emotional response that opens the door to some tough questions” (p. 167).  The psalmists never shy away from saying exactly what’s on their minds–questions like “Does life make sense? Is there any real purpose to my pain? Why must every relationship end? Is God good?”

JDO: Unless we are remarkably self-deceived, these are the sorts of questions that we and every single human being will face, constantly and repeatedly.  Instead of denying ourselves the opportunity of wrestling with these questions, instead of ignoring them, instead of answering them wrongly by ourselves, we ought to look to the psalms as templates for our journey through these unavoidable spiritual crises.

MRK: Now, as always, there’s the need for discernment.  Thomas points out that “such emotion-based use of the Psalms may result in an abuse in interpretation.”  Our understanding of the psalms must be framed within the understanding of God’s sovereignty and providence, the fallenness of man and nature, and the process of sanctification.  Nevertheless, the psalms were written and designed to function in some ways “as release valves for pent-up feelings.  They enable the worshiper to engage in, for example, the grief process in a way that honors the integrity of the psalm and a biblical anthropology.”

JDO: Thomas concludes his discussion of the lamentations by commenting on Jesus’ use of Psalm 22 while he was on the cross.  As Hebrews reminds us, Christ has gone through the worst that this earth has to offer.  What words did he use to express his feelings while in the darkest of all experiences?—the words of the psalms.  Following our Head, we too can find expression for our every experience in the words of the psalms.

MRK: In his last section, Thomas references Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s classic allegory of the Christian life, as an example of proper uses of the psalms in pastoral situations.  In every sort of illustration, Bunyan constantly relates Christian’s journey to the psalms, “dealing with issues of assurance, fear, bravery, courage, and faith.”  This, according to Thomas, “demonstrates how the Psalms, though written in specific contexts, can help us too in our own specific circumstances” (p. 171).  Bunyan himself, through the character Mr. Great-Heart, paints a beautiful picture of the role of lamentation in the believer’s life:

Mr. Fearing was one that played upon the bass.  He and his fellows sound the sackbut, whose notes are more doleful than the notes of other music are: though indeed, some say, the bass is the ground of music.  And for my part, I care not at all for that profession which begins not in heaviness of mind.  The first string that the musician usually touches is the bass, when he intends to put all in tune.  God also plays upon this string first, when he sets the soul in tune for himself.

In concluding our conversation on this chapter, we can do no better than to quote Thomas’s closing words:

The Psalms, then, are a portion of Scripture with which Christians should be familiar.  Digging from these mines will yield treasures of inestimable value.  Whatever the issue may be—loneliness, bitterness, helplessness, melancholy, anger, frustration, joy, contentment, faithfulness, or a hundred other issues—the Psalms address them all.  Calvin was correct: they are an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.

Amen!  One more chapter remains for us to discuss in Sing a New Song: “Psalmody and Prayer” by J. V. Fesko.  We hope you’ll join us next week for the grand finale!

–JDO/MRK

Psalm 61: The Higher Rock

Hear my cry, O God,
listen to my prayer;
from the end of the earth I call to you
when my heart is faint.

–Psalm 61:1,2 (ESV)

Through words of both lament and praise, Psalm 61 extols the Lord as the Guardian and Protector of his people.  David describes God as his guide and his “rock” (v. 2), his “refuge” and “strong tower” (v. 3), and his host and guardian (“Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings,” v. 4).  In v. 5, the psalmist thanks the Lord for hearing his vows, and for giving him “the heritage of those who fear your name.”  The psalmist’s request is that God would “prolong the life of the king” and “appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him” (v. 7).  In response, David promises to display his gratitude by singing praises to the Lord and performing his vows “day by day” (v. 8).

109, “O God, Regard My Humble Plea”

While the first half of number 109 is undoubtedly solid, the third and fourth verses drift a little bit in their treatment of Psalm 61:6,7.  The authors of this versification chose to interpret this section as a reference to the singer himself, largely ignoring its royal (not to mention messianic) elements.  At the very least, the text could use some significant revisions.

“O God, Regard My Humble Plea” possesses as its tune one of Lowell Mason’s noble offerings, MERIBAH.  The well-structured rhythm and expansive harmonies are reminiscent of some of Mason’s other melodies, such as RIPLEY (301).  There’s not much else to be said about MERIBAH—it’s simple, beautiful, and easy to sing.  Just enjoy it!

O God, regard my humble plea;
I cannot be so far from Thee
But Thou wilt hear my cry;
When I by trouble am distressed,
Then lead me on the rock to rest
That higher is than I.

–MRK

A Thanksgiving Meditation

Thanksgiving.  For what?  Food?  Family?  Friends?  Amidst the holiday hustle and bustle, it’s easy to forget the reason why we set aside a day to give thanks in the first place.

The psalms offer the perfect remedy for shallow Thanksgiving traditions.  Transcending our limited view of God’s providence in our immediate circumstances, they remind us that we ought to thank God firstly for who he is, and secondly for what he has done.

In particular, the psalms have some special words about the Lord’s care for the oppressed.  For many of my family and friends, as well as millions of souls across this nation, the year 2012 hasn’t been easy.  The Midwest encountered one of the most severe droughts on record, while the East Coast was walloped by a hurricane.  Each of us knows friends and family that have been afflicted in other countless ways this year—perhaps some of us are those people.  How can we give thanks in the midst of suffering?  Praise God! the psalms have an answer.

For today’s Thanksgiving meditation, I’ve mixed bits from the Book of Psalms (ESV) and some particularly poignant passages from our own Psalter Hymnal.

PSALM 9 (Listen)

I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart;
I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.
I will be glad and exult in you;
I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.

–vv. 1,2

Thou, Lord, art a refuge for all the oppressed;
All trust Thee who know Thee, and trusting are blest;
For never, O Lord, did Thy mercy forsake
The soul that has sought of Thy grace to partake.

Behold my affliction, Thy mercy accord,
And back from death’s portals restore me, O Lord,
That I in the gates of Thy Zion may raise
My song of salvation and show forth Thy praise.

–Psalter Hymnal #14

PSALM 66 (Listen)

Bless our God, O peoples;
let the sound of his praise be heard,
who has kept our soul among the living
and has not let our feet slip.
For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net;
you laid a crushing burden on our backs;
you let men ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.

–vv. 8-12

Come, ye that fear the Lord, and hear
What He has done for me;
My cry for help is turned to praise,
For He has set me free.
If in my heart I sin regard,
My prayer He will not hear;
But truly God has heard my voice,
My prayer has reached His ear.

–Psalter Hymnal #119

PSALM 89 (Listen)

My song forever shall record
The tender mercies of the Lord;
Thy faithfulness will I proclaim,
And every age shall know Thy Name.

I sing of mercies that endure,
Forever builded firm and sure,
Of faithfulness that never dies,
Established changeless in the skies.

–Psalter Hymnal #169

Let the heavens praise your wonders, O LORD,
your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones!
For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD?
Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD,
a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones,
and awesome above all who are around him?
O LORD God of hosts,
who is mighty as you are, O LORD,
with your faithfulness all around you?

–Psalm 89:5-8

PSALM 103 (Listen)

Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The LORD works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.

–vv. 1-6

Yea, the Lord is full of mercy
And compassion for distress,
Slow to anger and abundant
In His grace and tenderness.
He will not be angry alway,
Nor will He forever chide;
Though we oft have sinned against Him,
Still His love and grace abide.

As the heavens are high above us,
Great His love to us has proved;
Far as east from west is distant,
He has all our sins removed.
As a father loves his children,
Feeling pity for their woes,
So the Lord to those who fear Him
Mercy and compassion shows.

–Psalter Hymnal #201

PSALM 138 (Listen)

I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness,
for you have exalted above all things
your name and your word.

–vv. 1,2

O God, whene’er I cried to Thee,
Thou heardest me and didst deliver;
For by Thy strength, when sore afraid,
My soul was stayed, O gracious Giver.
The kings of earth in one accord
Shall thank Thee, Lord, with praise unbroken;
When over all the earth is heard
The wondrous Word which Thou hast spoken.

Lord, though I walk ‘mid troubles sore,
Thou wilt restore my faltering spirit;
Though angry foes my soul alarm,
Thy mighty arm will save and cheer it.
Yea, thou wilt finish perfectly
What Thou for me hast undertaken;
May not Thy works, in mercy wrought,
E’er come to naught or be forsaken.

–Psalter Hymnal 287

May the Lord give us deep and heartfelt gratitude to him this Thanksgiving Day for the abundant blessings he has showered upon us, and through all our trials may we be able to joyfully confess in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism (LD 9, Q&A 26):

[I believe] that the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence, is my God and Father because of Christ his Son.

I trust him so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and he will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this sad world.

He is able to do this because he is almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.

Happy Thanksgiving.

–MRK

Psalm 130: The Music

Because of its vast riches, I decided to devote yesterday’s entire post to meditating on the text of Psalm 130.  Today we’ll return to our URC Psalmody tradition of critiquing the Psalter Hymnal’s offerings for this particular psalm.  This, too, is a significant undertaking, because our songbook contains not one but four versifications of Psalm 130.

Sunrise in Bushkill

Sunrise in Bushkill

272, “Out of the Depths of Sadness”

Text: “Out of the Depths of Sadness” is the first Genevan/Dutch psalm in the Psalter Hymnal since Psalm 122.  And among its fellows, this Genevan setting is a real gem.  Dewey Westra’s text, as usual, is slightly “amplified,” containing extra-biblical but not un-biblical phrases like “Thou who canst fill with gladness” and “O Fount of consolation.”  Yet the versification in stanzas 3 and 4 couldn’t be much better.

I wait for God to hide me;
My soul, with longing stirred,
Shall hope, whate’er betide me,
In His unfailing word.
My soul waits for Jehovah
With more intense desire
Than watchers for the morning
To dawn of day aspire.

Tune: As a Genevan tune, CONTRITION is beautiful and fairly well-recognized.  This harmonization, though different from Goudimel’s original, is extremely well-written, and the even rhythm (also not original) suits the text well enough.  Should you desire the original rhythm, consider using the version in gray Psalter Hymnal #130 or the Canadian Reformed Book of Praise.

Stylistic comments: As with many Genevans, musicians must always guard against extremes in tempo when playing CONTRITION.  Once again, the normal rule of thumb for these chorales is to make each line about the duration of a normal human breath.  I would suggest clear rests at the end of each line to send clear signals to the congregation.  On organ, perhaps you’ll want to repeat the last line on stz. 4 and end on a D major chord; that would be a perfectly appropriate conclusion to this psalm.

The rendition embedded below is an excellent example of number 272.

273, “From out the Depths I Cry, O Lord, to Thee”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

Text: In West Sayville, “From out the Depths” is doubtless the most familiar version of Psalm 130.  It’s beautiful, unique, and easy to learn.  Yet the text of number 273 has some significant flaws as well.  The phrase “I love Thee, Lord, for Thou dost heed my plea,/Forgiving all” can hardly be considered a versification of Psalm 130:2; and the first stanza includes no reference to the vital phrase “that you may be feared.”  On the other hand, the poetic beauty present in the second and third stanzas can’t be overlooked.

Hope in the Lord, ye waiting saints, and He
Will well provide;
For mercy and redemption full and free
With Him abide.
From sin and evil, mighty though they seem,
His arm almighty will His saints redeem.

Tune: I’ve always enjoyed SANDON simply because it’s an “outside the box” kind of tune.  At the end of each unusually long 10-syllable line is an attention-grabbing 4-note cadence, which tends to line up nicely with the thrust of each stanza (“Lord, hear my call”; “Forgiving all”).  Because of its simple rhythm and repeated melodic pattern, SANDON is also particularly easy to learn, making it a great choice for small or unfamiliar congregations.  Dropping the key to F for the sake of singability is certainly a viable option (see gray Psalter Hymnal #256).

274, “From the Depths Do I Invoke Thee”

Text: Number 274 should win an award if only for its clarity and accuracy.  Even the poignant repetition of Psalm 130:6 is captured in the fourth stanza of this versification.  I haven’t a single complaint to make against this text.

Tune: EVENING PRAYER is simple and suitable.  The only potentially challenging spot is the sixth leap in the third line.  Other than that, this tune should present no problems to the average congregation and accompanist.

275, “From the Depths My Prayer Ascendeth”

Text: The best word to describe “From the Depths My Prayer Ascendeth” just might be “quirky.”  The text is basically a skeleton of Psalm 130, but it veers into strange territory as it changes v. 4 into “But the contrite in Thy mercy/Humbly trust.”  With three solid versifications behind it, I’m not even sure why the editors of the Psalter Hymnal felt the need to include this song.

Tune: The quirkiest part of number 275 is certainly its tune, BULLINGER, which possesses the absurd meter of 8.5.8.3.  The first few times you attempt it, you’ll feel sure you missed something.   As you play it, be sure to hold the tied notes for their full and precise length.  Hopefully, this will minimize the congregation’s potential for confusion.

Overall recommendation: My favorites are 272 for dignified beauty, 273 for simplicity, and 274 for accuracy.  And only 275 if you’d like a little excitement!

Hope in the Lord, O nation!
For with Him there is grace
And plenteous salvation
For all who seek His face.
He shall redeem His people,
His chosen Israel,
From all their sin and evil,
And all their gloom dispel.

–MRK


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