Archive for January, 2013

January’s Psalmody News

News Headlines January

As I browse Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and various other corners of the world-wide web, I occasionally stumble upon particularly interesting and relevant bits of news and information.  Probably I could create an entire blog post focusing on each of these items, but such a task would be far greater than I could handle.  A better approach, I think, is to pause here at the end of the month and simply summarize some of January’s “top stories” related to psalmody and the church.  Clicking the links will direct you to webpages which contain more information about each topic.  May you be edified and encouraged by these news highlights!

  1. Oceanside URC offers daily devotionals based on the Psalms for 2013 (12/31/12) – Rev. Danny Hyde of Oceanside URC in California shared the devotionals created for his church.  These include a passage for daily reading (usually from the Psalms), a song of the month from the blue Psalter Hymnal, and a set of prompts for prayer specific to the needs of the URCNA.  (http://www.oceansideurc.org/weekly-devotions/)
  2. MIDI files for the complete blue Psalter Hymnal now available online (1/4/13) – Michael Spotts, a deacon at Oceanside URC in California, has posted a complete-with-extras set of MIDI (computerized) audio files from the blue Psalter Hymnal on Archive.org.  (http://archive.org/details/MidiBluePsalter)
  3. University music professor acknowledges the profound influence of Calvinism on Western music (1/7/13) – Matthew Linder, music professor at National University and University of Phoenix, composed an article for his blog “Retuned” which quotes Abraham Kuyper on the impact of Calvinism on Western music, especially via the Genevan Psalter.  (http://www.theretuned.com/musica-theologica-kuyper-on-calvinism-shaping-western-music/)
  4. Psalter Hymnal Committee to oversee devotions for Synod 2014 (1/9/13) – The Planning Committee of Synod 2014 sent their first communication to the churches with various details concerning the logistics of synod.  Among other items, they say the Psalter Hymnal Committee will look after the devotions during the week of synod, and utilize that time to introduce the proposed Psalter Hymnal to the delegates.  (https://www.urcna.org/sysfiles/site_uploads/custom_public/custom6173.pdf)
  5. 1912 Psalter released as Android app (1/28/13) – In an important step into new territory, the 1912 Psalter (still used today by the Protestant Reformed Churches in America) has been made available as an Android (smartphone) app.  Currently, only the texts of the psalm settings are available, but hopefully this app will soon expand to include some form of music as well.  (http://cjts3rs.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/an-android-psalter-app-a-great-psalmody-site/)

–MRK

Lord’s Day 5: By Ourselves or by Another

Catechism and Psalter

Welcome back to URC Psalmody’s 2013 Heidelberg Catechism series.  Today we turn to Lord’s Day 5, the first installment in the Catechism’s second section.  Now that we have an understanding of our true nature from Lord’s Days 1-4, we naturally desire to know how we can be saved from our sin and misery.  The Catechism answers this question slowly and methodically, giving us plenty of time to reflect on its claims.

12 Q.  According to God’s righteous judgment we deserve punishment both in this world and forever after: how then can we escape this punishment and return to God’s favor?

A.  God requires that his justice be satisfied.
Therefore the claims of his justice
must be paid in full,
either by ourselves or by another.

13 Q.  Can we pay this debt ourselves?

A.  Certainly not.
Actually, we increase our guilt every day.

14 Q.  Can another creature–any at all–pay this debt for us?

A.  No.
To begin with,
God will not punish another creature
for man’s guilt.
Besides,
no mere creature can bear the weight
of God’s eternal anger against sin
and release others from it.

15 Q.  What kind of mediator and deliverer should we look for then?

A.  He must be truly human and truly righteous,
yet more powerful than all creatures,
that is, he must also be true God.

Suggested Songs

182, “O Lord, Thou Judge of All the Earth” (Psalm 94)

“God requires that his justice be satisfied.”  For the unrepentant sinner, Psalm 94 ought to be downright frightening.  It calls upon God to “arise and show Thy glory forth,/Requite the proud, condemn the wrong.”  It admonishes “fools and brutish men” to be wise: “Shall not He see who formed the eye?/Shall not He hear who formed the ear,/And judge, who reigneth, God Most High?”  And it unequivocally declares:

The Lord will judge in righteousness,
From Him all truth and knowledge flow;
The foolish thoughts of wicked men,
How vain they are the Lord doth know.

90, “Hear This, All Ye People, Hear” (Psalm 49)

(Sung by Grace URC in Dunnville, Ontario)

“Can we pay this debt ourselves?  Certainly not.…Can another creature—any at all—pay this debt for us?  No.”  Psalm 49 is a wisdom psalm whose primary themes are the vanity of life and the futility of wickedness.  Towards the end of this versification, the psalmist warns us of how costly our lives really are:

They that trust in treasured gold,
Though they boast of wealth untold,
None can bid his brother live,
None to God a ransom give.

If from death one would be free
And corruption never see,
Costly is life’s ransom price,
Far beyond all sacrifice.

274, “From the Depths Do I Invoke Thee” (Psalm 130)

“No mere creature can bear the weight of God’s eternal anger against sin and release others from it.”  In Psalm 130 we find a perfect transition from the despair of sin to the comfort of salvation.  This versification in particular presents a wonderful summary of salvation:

From the depths do I invoke Thee;
Lord, to me incline Thine ear,
To my voice be Thou attentive
And my supplication hear.

Lord, if Thou shouldst mark transgressions,
In Thy presence who shall stand?
But with Thee there is forgiveness,
That Thy Name may fear command.

For Jehovah I am waiting
And my hope is in His Word,
In His word of promise given;
Yea, my soul waits for the Lord.

For the Lord my soul is waiting
More than watchers in the night,
More than they for morning watching,
Watching for the morning light.

Hope in God, ye waiting people;
Mercies great with Him abound;
With the Lord a full redemption
From the guilt of sin is found.

–MRK

Psalm 134: Two-Way Blessings

Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD,
who stand by night in the house of the LORD!
Lift up your hands to the holy place
and bless the LORD!
May the LORD bless you from Zion,
he who made heaven and earth!

–Psalm 134 (ESV)

After nearly six months, we have finally reached the end of the section of the Psalter known as the “Songs of Ascents.”  While each of these psalms has an individual significance and theme, it may be helpful for us to step back and consider the Songs of Ascents as a unified whole.

West Sayville CRC 1926The first is Psalm 120, in which the psalmist laments his dwelling among the warring heathen; he says, “I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!”  Psalm 121 responds to this lament with a beautiful statement of God’s protection: “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”  Naturally, the psalmist’s desire is to worship the Lord in Zion with the scattered saints of Israel; in Psalm 122, he declares, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’”  And, even though he may be geographically distant from Zion, he promises for the sake of his brothers and companions, and for the sake of the Lord’s house, always to seek Jerusalem’s good.

Psalm 123 returns to consider the lowly state of the Lord’s people among the nations.  “Have mercy upon us,” they pray, “for we have had more than enough of contempt.”  After this comes another declaration of reliance on God in Psalm 124: “Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as prey to their teeth!”  And notice that this psalm ends with the refrain of the Songs of Ascents (first introduced in 121:2): “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

In Psalm 125, the psalmist reflects on the blessed state of those who put their trust in the Lord; they “are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever.”  Psalm 126 recalls former times “when the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,” and pleads for a renewed outpouring of his mercy.  This is reinforced by the wise words of Psalm 127, which speaks both of the godly family and of Israel as a whole: “Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.”  Psalm 128 continues the emphasis on the righteous household: those who fear the Lord will “see the prosperity of Jerusalem” and their “children’s children.”  Consider also the closing words of this psalm: “Peace”—think of Psalm 120:7—“be upon Israel!”

Once again, Psalm 129 considers the plight of Israel as a nation.  “Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me.”  Yet the psalmist remains sure that God will surely vindicate his people, both individually and collectively.  Psalm 130, arguably the most poignant Song of Ascents, speaks of Israel’s sin (the cause of their exile) and blesses the Lord for redeeming them.  “For with the LORD is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption.  And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.”

Perhaps Psalm 131 can be taken as a commentary from the psalmist on God’s plans for his people.  Neither he nor his fellow Israelites can understand what the Lord is doing through their time of affliction in exile, but they need not understand it, only “hope in the LORD” (another refrain!) “from this time forth and forevermore.”

West Sayville Reformed Bible ChurchPsalm 132 is a glorious reminder that “the LORD has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his dwelling place.”  He has promised to bless his people both materially (“I will abundantly bless her provisions”) and spiritually (“Her priests I will clothe with salvation”).  The crown of his anointed King will shine forever!  Psalm 133 reflects on the fact that the Lord’s blessing rests on brothers who dwell in unity, just as it rests on the mountains of Zion.  And that brings us to Psalm 134.

According to some interpreters, Psalm 134 was sung after the pilgrims’ visit to Jerusalem as they began their homeward journey.  Thus, it is their joyful response to the wonderful things they saw and heard in God’s house.  Truthfully, what I see in Psalm 134 even more clearly is a triumphant conclusion to the broader story of exile and affliction told in the previous 14 psalms.  The servants of the LORD can bless him, because he surely will deliver them.  They can stand guard in his house at night knowing that “he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”  They can lift up their hands in praise because of his forgiveness and abundant love.  Yes, they can rest in the confidence that the LORD will bestow his blessing upon them and ultimately grant them eternal life.

280, “O Bless Our God with One Accord”

The Psalter Hymnal certainly does justice to Psalm 134.  The Christian Reformed minister Lambertus Lamberts set Psalm 134 to the rhythm of the Genevan Psalter tune in 1928.  While this version is slightly amplified (especially in the second half of stz. 2), it is extremely clear and well-written.

As to Louis Bourgeois’s tune itself, this is undoubtedly the most familiar Genevan melody of all time (the tune of “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow.”)  Some rhythmic variations exist, but I haven’t a single complaint to make against this version.  In fact, “O Bless Our God with One Accord” might be a fantastic choice for a psalm-based doxology either at the beginning or at the end of worship!

As we conclude our study of the Songs of Ascent, we are left with one overarching theme: God is faithful.  He will not suffer the wicked to flourish forever; he will ultimately reward those who put their trust in him.  We find that Psalm 134 ends by repeating the refrain of the entire collection: “May the LORD bless you from Zion, he who made heaven and earth!”

–MRK

How to Prevent Church Music Disasters

Organ PictureA few days ago, while I was browsing through some recordings of church services, I came across a very peculiar incident.  The song leader had spontaneously chosen a rather contemporary hymn for the congregation to sing.  To the congregation, the song was completely new; the pianist, struggling to find the right notes and rhythms, had obviously never heard it before either; and, most unfortunate of all, the leader himself was unable to hold the tune.  The result was a comic disaster.

When I had given up on trying to decide whether to laugh or cry, I began to wonder if there might be a few things we could learn from this incident.  Perhaps an obvious reaction would be to complain that song leaders shouldn’t pick psalms or hymns the congregation doesn’t know.  For my part, I believe this response is both oversimplified and misguided—after all, if only familiar songs are to be sung, how can someone learn anything new?  No, I concluded; dumbing down our churches’ repertoire will only be detrimental.

As a church musician, I found myself instead focusing more intently on the role of the accompanist in such a situation.  Let’s be honest: if you’ve played an instrument in worship services for any period of time, you know that if the unexpected can happen, it will happen.  Bulletins will come out late.  Pastors will make last-minute changes.  You’ll have to adapt to instruments that need repair.  And at some point, you’ll probably be put in a position similar to this poor pianist’s, faced with the responsibility of spontaneously sight-reading a completely new piece of music.

However, I believe there is a remedy (if not a complete cure) for this kind of dilemma.  It’s a simple solution that any church musician can follow, and in my own all-too-short experience, it has proven itself immensely helpful.  This program comes in two parts:

1.  Listen.

Listen often and again to good recordings of church music, specifically the kind you’ll be playing most often in our Reformed churches (congregational psalms and hymns).  This has a huge variety of benefits: it’ll familiarize you with the styles and nuances of church music; it’ll expose you to a wide range of interpretations, tempos, embellishments, and the like; and it’ll help you develop your own well-rounded approach for your own congregation.  These aspects go far beyond mere technical difficulty; that’s why we try to collect links to real recordings from the Psalter Hymnal (not computerized renditions) here on URC Psalmody, especially on our Psalter Hymnal Albums page.

2.  Play.

Play—a lot.  As you listen to other church musicians, try to evaluate their styles and decisions; then try to emulate the best of these in your own playing.  As a personal example, listening to recordings from other URC churches has prompted me to turn my tempo down a notch and support the congregational singing rather than dominate it.  Also, it might be beneficial to aim to familiarize yourself with every number in your church’s primary songbook, whether that be the Psalter Hymnal or another collection.  (This may seem like an overambitious goal, but just think: if you play just two songs from the Psalter Hymnal every day, you’ll be finished with the book in well under a year.  And you’ll never again be caught by surprise when playing from this songbook!)

Certainly it is the pastor’s or song leader’s responsibility to pick good, solid psalms and hymns that are suitable for congregational singing.  And certainly some of the responsibility rests with the congregation, to sing actively and enthusiastically rather than absently mumbling.  But we, the church musicians, must bear in mind that it is our responsibility to be familiar with all the songs in our church’s collection, even before they’re picked for a service.  This is necessary not so that we can give solo performances during worship, but so that we can properly support worship’s primary instrument: the congregation.

(Side note for a cappella worship traditions: In this case, the leader and the congregation both bear a much heavier responsibility.  Not only is the congregation the primary instrument, it is the only instrument, and as such, it needs to have a much greater awareness of and connection to its music.  With greater challenges, however, come greater benefits.)

So if you ever find yourself in the midst of a musical “train wreck” during a worship service, don’t despair.  Surely it’s happened to all of us at one time or another.  Rather, press onward to further improve your own technique and better support the congregation.  And take comfort in remembering that, regardless of what songs are selected, your role as a good church musician should never change.

–MRK

Featured Recording: RP Psalm 100

Last summer, my co-author Jim Oord wrote an article introducing our readers to a denomination with which the United Reformed Churches in North America enjoy Phase 2 ecumenical relations: the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.  (In layman’s terms, this simply means that our doctrines, practices, and worship styles are very compatible.)  The RPCNA is a notable denomination for many reasons, not least their practice of exclusive psalmody.  Reformed Presbyterians sing only the Psalms in public worship (from an excellent modern psalter, The Book of Psalms for Worship), and they do so without any instrumental accompaniment.

Needless to say, Jim’s post generated plenty of comments and not a little controversy.  However, the point we wanted to convey most of all was not that one denomination is better than the other, but that the RPCNA has an incredible commitment to learning, singing, and loving the psalms which we might do well to emulate.  Hymns or no hymns, the Reformed Presbyterians’ ability to sing the psalms in full four-part harmony, often from memory, is downright incredible.

Today’s Featured Recording on URC Psalmody is an example of such excellent psalmody.  During the 180th synod of the RPCNA, the delegates gathered on the stage of the Indiana Wesleyan University auditorium and belted out Psalm 100, “All People That on Earth Do Dwell” (a similar version can be found in the blue Psalter Hymnal, number 195).  Just listen to the heartfelt singing and glorious harmonies:

Indeed, whether or not we agree with our Reformed Presbyterian brethren on the exclusive use of the psalms in worship, this recording ought to inspire us to recommit to a manner of worship that prioritizes the Psalter as the songbook given by God directly to his people.  It’s the most important worship music decision we’ll ever make.

For more Reformed Presbyterian psalm-singing resources, check the links on our page on The Book of Psalms for Worship.

–MRK

(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)


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