Archive for May, 2013

Featured Recording: Psalm 79 and Young Organists

Featured Recording

I’m always immensely encouraged to meet a fellow young musician who is learning, or desires to learn, how to play the organ.  When I mention my interest in the “king of instruments” to friends who aren’t familiar with Reformed worship, they usually respond, “Oh, really?  I thought that was a lost art.”  I have to admit that organists may have been a dying breed in the recent past, but from the many encouraging conversations I’ve had with other young people, it seems that organ-playing is once again on the rise.  And while I’m not about to argue that the pipe organ is the only instrument worthy of the worship of God (or that instruments are an essential part of worship at all, for that matter), I can only hope this renewed interest points to a renaissance of other elements of historic Reformed worship as well.

That’s why I was thrilled to discover the videos and website of Gert van Hoef, a virtuosic 18-year-old Dutch organist.  His bio page notes that he was introduced to the organ at the age of thirteen, but had no formal musical training until 2008.  To everyone’s surprise, he quickly began winning an incredible number of young organist competitions, and his YouTube videos went viral—well, at least as viral as recordings of Dutch psalm improvisations and classical organ music can get.

As far as I know, Gert is now in college and planning to attend conservatory after he graduates.  He serves (or served) as organist for the Reformed Church of Voorthuizen.  Since that is the Hervormde Kerk as opposed to the Gereformeerde Kerk, however, it may be Reformed in name only.

One of the most important characteristics of a good musician, which Gert clearly has, is the ability to put one’s whole heart into the music.  This aspect comes out especially well in his renditions of Dutch Psalter improvisations.  Today’s Featured Recording is his improvisation on Genevan/Dutch Psalm 79, based on W. H. Zwart.  Interestingly enough, this tune appeared in the red 1934 CRC Psalter Hymnal as “Thy Land, O God, the Heathen Have Invaded,”  but it was sadly omitted from the blue 1959/1976 edition.  I recorded my own piano improvisation on Psalm 79 including this gorgeous tune a few months ago, though of course Gert’s rendition is better in every way.

It ought to be mentioned that Psalm 79 is a particularly poignant lament calling for the restoration of God’s people to the Promised Land—analogous perhaps to the tribulation the New Testament church faces in this world.  In a powerful climax the psalmist cries:

Do not remember against us our former iniquities;
let your compassion come speedily to meet us,
for we are brought very low.
Help us, O God of our salvation,
for the glory of your name;
deliver us, and atone for our sins,
for your name’s sake!

–Psalm 79:8, 9 (ESV)

Then in confidence he declares, “But we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise” (v. 13).  The promise of restoration gives hope to God’s afflicted people, no matter how great the trials they face.

Now, here’s Gert van Hoef rendering Genevan Psalm 79 in the Dorpskerk in Voorthuizen.  (Watch for a pretty funny blooper around the 6:45 mark.)  For your added enjoyment, I’ve included the English lyrics of this psalm setting below the video.

Thy land, O Lord, the heathen have invaded;
Thy holy heritage they have degraded.
Jerusalem, the temple and its altars
Are ruthlessly defiled by the assaulters.
Thy land in ruin lies,
And cries for vengeance rise
To heaven for all this evil.
Our foes have given to beast
And vulture, for a feast,
The bodies of Thy people.

Recall no more the sins we have committed,
But may they all in pity be remitted.
O Lord, make haste; O may Thy mercy tender
Now strength and help unto Thy people render!
To us salvation show
In all our grief and woe,
O God, forsake us never!
Free from the tyrant’s chain,
Purge from all sin and stain,
For Thy Name’s sake deliver.

Incline Thine ear to all in bondage sighing;
Those doomed to death, on Thee alone relying,
Preserve, O God! Lift by Thy mighty power
The awful scourge of this relentless hour.
O Lord, our foes restrain,
Avenge Thy servants slain,
Thou Lord of all creation.
By those within Thy fold
Thy Name will be extolled,
Through every generation.


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

Lord’s Day 22: Raised by the Power of Christ

Catechism and Psalter

It was all the way back in Lord’s Day 7 that the Heidelberg Catechism asked the essential question, “What then must a Christian believe?”  In answer the Catechism proceeded to provide the Apostles’ Creed and expound upon each of its articles.  Fifteen weeks later in this URC Psalmody series, here we are at Lord’s Day 22, which concerns the final two phrases of the Creed: belief in “the resurrection of the body” and “the life everlasting.”

57 Q.  How does ‘the resurrection of the body’ comfort you?

A.  Not only my soul
will be taken immediately after this life
to Christ its head,
but even my very flesh, raised by the power of Christ,
will be reunited with my soul
and made like Christ’s glorious body.

58 Q.  How does the article concerning ‘life everlasting’ comfort you?

A.  Even as I already now
experience in my heart
the beginning of eternal joy,
so after this life I will have
perfect blessedness such as
no eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no man has ever imagined:
a blessedness in which to praise God eternally.

Suggested Songs

138, “In Sweet Communion, Lord, with Thee” (Psalm 73)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI and on YouTube)

“My soul will be taken immediately after this life to Christ its head.”  The believer rejoices to know that the moment he dies, he will be with his Savior.  With this knowledge it’s hard, as the gospel chorus puts it, to “feel at home in this world anymore.”  The author of Psalm 73 similarly declares his hope in the life to come in this Psalter Hymnal versification:

In sweet communion, Lord, with Thee
I constantly abide;
My hand Thou holdest in Thine own
To keep me near Thy side.

Thy counsel through my earthly way
Shall guide me and control,
And then to glory afterward
Thou wilt receive my soul.

Whom have I, Lord, in heaven but Thee,
To whom my thoughts aspire?
And, having Thee, on earth is nought
That I can yet desire.

Though flesh and heart should faint and fail,
The Lord will ever be
The strength and portion of my heart,
My God eternally.

To live apart from God is death,
‘Tis good His face to seek;
My refuge is the living God,
His praise I long to speak.

62, “Thy Mercy and Thy Truth, O Lord” (Psalm 36)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“Even my very flesh…will be reunited with my soul and made like Christ’s glorious body.”  With its rather grim opening (“Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart…”), Psalm 36 might tend to escape our notice as a song of the resurrection.  But David’s confession of faith in the second half of this psalm is matchless; he knows in whom he lives, and moves, and has his being.

The fountain of eternal life
Is found alone with Thee,
And in the brightness of Thy light
We clearly light shall see.

232, “O Praise the Lord, for He is Good” (Psalm 118)

(Sung on YouTube)

“I already now experience in my heart the beginning of eternal joy.”  As we Christians traverse life’s journey, our deliverance from death may not always be in the forefront of our minds.  But along with saving faith comes this “beginning of eternal joy,” the knowledge that our future is secure with God.  Psalm 118 gives beautiful voice to this hope.

O praise the Lord, for He is good;
Let all in heaven above
And all His saints on earth proclaim
His everlasting love.
In my distress I called on God;
In grace He answered me,
Removed my bonds, enlarged my place,
From trouble set me free.

Salvation’s joyful song is heard
Where’er the righteous dwell;
For them God’s hand is strong to save
And doeth all things well.
I shall not die, but live and tell
The wonders of the Lord;
He has not given my soul to death,
But chastened and restored.

198, “Thou, O Lord, Art God Alone” (Psalm 102)

(Sung on YouTube)

“After this life I will have perfect blessedness such as no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no man has ever imagined: a blessedness in which to praise God eternally.”  Psalm 102 begins as a desolate lament, its very ascription identifying it as “a prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before the Lord.”  The psalmist cries out in v. 3 that his “days pass away like smoke,” and again in v. 11 that they are “like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.”  Then comes a turning point: “But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations.”  Looking to his eternal Father, the psalmist rests assured that his life not just temporarily but eternally remains with God.

This all ages shall record
For the glory of the Lord;
Thou dost hear the humble prayer,
For the helpless Thou dost care.
Thou eternal art, and great,
Heaven and earth Thou didst create,
Heaven and earth shall pass away,
Changeless Thou shalt live for aye.

As one lays a garment by,
Thou wilt change the starry sky
Like a vesture worn and old;
But Thy years shall ne’er be told.
Thou wilt make Thy servants’ race
Ever live before Thy face,
And forever at Thy side
Children’s children shall abide.

As I collected these powerful psalm settings, I was also reminded of a glorious old German chorale written by Philipp Nicolai back in 1599: “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying,” number 371 in the Psalter Hymnal.  Elaborating on the parable of the virgins in Matthew 25:1-13, it formed the basis for J. S. Bach’s famous cantata “Wachet auf,” an excerpt of which we know as the familiar piece “Sleepers, Awake.”  You can enjoy the full cantata here.  For now, though, I’ll leave you with the triumphant doxology of the third stanza.  What comfort is ours through the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting!

Lamb of God, the heavens adore Thee,
And men and angels sing before Thee
With harp and cymbal’s clearest tone.
By the pearly gates in wonder
We stand, and swell the voice of thunder
In bursts of choral melody.
To mortal eyes and ears
What glory now appears!
We raise the song,
We swell the throng,
To praise Thee ages all along.


Psalm 67: That Your Way May Be Known on Earth

May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known on earth,
your saving power among all nations.

–Psalm 67:1, 2 (ESV)

Another school year is coming to a close, and ‘tis the season for “moving-up” ceremonies on many levels.  Even in the few minutes it took me to prepare to write this post, my Facebook news feed filled up with pictures of a recent seminary graduation ceremony.  It’s a time of change for everyone from kindergarteners to university grads, and with such times of change come opportunities not only to look back, but also to look forward.

Secular graduations don’t vary that much; usually they’re fluffily generic, placing all the emphasis on the accomplishments of the students and the importance of individuality.  It’s no wonder many a video has been made to poke fun at these ceremonies.  Sadly enough, I wouldn’t be surprised if many “Christian” graduations held the same priorities.

Graduation finds its proper context in Psalm 67.  This short and succinct song calls for God’s blessing upon his chosen people—a desire anyone can echo.  But the motive for this prayer is where Christianity radically departs from the priorities of the world.

The worldly mind says, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that we may grow in knowledge, and riches, and power—that we may make a name for ourselves—that our fame may ascend to the heavens.”  The psalmist says, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us”—why?—“that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations.”

How humbling it is not only to acknowledge that all our blessings must come from God, but to request these blessings in order that we may be a shining light to a dark world!  The psalmist’s supreme desire is that all the peoples (v. 3) would see God’s grace on him and praise the Lord for it.  And this is not merely an individual song; it applies even more directly to God’s covenant people—Old Testament Israel, the New Testament church.  Psalm 67 ends with a bold recapitulation of its opening lines: “God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth fear him!”

Below, the graduating class of a Reformed Christian high school in Michigan sings the words of Psalm 67 as versified in the Psalter Hymnal.

121, “O God, to Us Show Mercy”

(Sung on YouTube and by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

Psalter Hymnal number 121 is a surpassingly accurate rendition of Psalm 67.  Perhaps there might be some adverse theological implications to replacing “saving power” with “saving grace” in the versification of v. 2, but this is a minor and easily correctable issue.   The poetry throughout is solid and beautiful.

The tune is AURELIA, commonly known as “The Church’s One Foundation,” but interestingly authored by Samuel S. Wesley as a new setting of “Jerusalem the Golden.”  It’s a reverent, pure, and fitting melody; I can’t make a single complaint.  The tune’s association with the church also serves as an added reminder of this song’s application to God’s covenant people.

Whether you’re graduating this year, or attending a celebration for someone who is, are your priorities settled?  Do you know why the Lord has placed you here, and what your single greatest calling is?  May we go forth realizing that by God’s grace we are witnesses to the world, and through all our lives may we take Psalm 67 to heart.

The Lord our God shall bless us,
Our God shall blessing send,
And all the earth shall fear Him
To its remotest end.


Featured Recording: Analyzing Accompaniment

Featured Recording

Even with URC Psalmody’s 187 videos on YouTube and hundreds of other psalm-related videos from other channels, picking a Featured Recording each week can be surprisingly difficult.  Usually I try to pick a recording from which I can make a related point, or at least offer some helpful thoughts for reflection.

The candidates for today’s post included a video I just put up yesterday of my home congregation singing “Be Thou My Helper in the Strife” (Psalter Hymnal 60, from Psalm 35).  I was unconvinced; it’s a six-and-a-half-minute long video, much longer than the average congregational song, and it’s far from perfect.  For my own part, I wasn’t too confident about the way I had played it, or the merits of the recording in general. But I did start to think about some of the challenges and unique aspects of a song like this one, and came to believe it could make for a thought-provoking Featured Recording post after all.

My pastor had chosen this song from Psalm 35 to accompany a sermon on Luke 20:45-21:4—and it was a very appropriate choice, I think.  He also decided to split the psalm setting in half, having the congregation sing the first four verses before the sermon and the last four after it.  I combined the two halves on the recording for continuity, but you can still pick out the splice.

As I mentioned, the challenges inherent in this case were many.  Our second service is slightly smaller than the morning service (which isn’t large either), so the entire congregation usually sits on one side of the sanctuary.  When I’m scheduled to play, I tend to prefer the piano for this smaller group.  This gives me more musical freedom, since I’m still no master of the organ, but it also means I have to work extra hard to musically lead the congregation.  Thankfully the tune of this psalm setting is that of the familiar hymn “He Leadeth Me,” so they were able to hold the melody line without much trouble.

Then there was the interpretation of the psalm itself.  Psalm 35 is one of the most violent imprecatory songs in the entire Psalter, alternating between exultant highs and the darkest of lows.  Reflecting this in my piano playing was incredibly difficult; while I should never dominate the congregation or view the piece as a performance, I try to at least reflect the overall mood of each stanza for their benefit as I play it.  (It doesn’t help that “He Leadeth Me” is a generally uplifting tune in the bright key of D Major!)  To accomplish this I used a few techniques such as melody in octaves, changes in register, or limited harmonization tweaks.

Finally, there was the typical variety of technical obstacles to overcome.  Settling into the right tempo can be challenging, and if anything, I usually tend to speed when I’m playing piano.  The phrasing of this Psalter Hymnal arrangement also threw most of the congregation for a loop; unlike number 463, this setting includes only one fermata, at the end of the second line.   And through it all I had to rein in my urges to improvise and keep one and a half ears on the congregation.

Were my attempts at properly accompanying #60 successful?  Honestly, I’m still not sure.  At the very least I think my amount of musical communication with the congregation was deficient, as evidenced by the fact that I managed to throw them off on nearly every stanza.  I haven’t yet made up my mind whether piano or organ works better for congregational accompaniment, especially for a small group like this.  And I’m not sure what level of musical freedom I should allow myself.

So, although this Featured Recording lacks a thesis or points of application, perhaps it can still serve as a springboard for discussion.  Fellow musicians, how do you accompany your home congregation?  How do you bring out the themes of the songs you play?  What solutions could you offer to the problems I’ve mentioned above?  Your thoughts will doubtless be valuable to me and anyone else eager to learn how best to assist the church in singing praise to its Lord!


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

Works of Power and Grace: Keeping the Banner Aloft

The Christian Reformed ChurchA handful of Reformed churches make the difficult decision to break away from their parent denomination.  Troubled at the trends of increasing liberalism and waning orthodoxy among their fellow churches, they at length determine that their only option is to form a new body with the express purpose of remaining faithful to the Bible, the creeds, and the confessions.

In many ways it is an exciting time for this new little group.  They have the chance to root themselves firmly in the historic Reformed faith, to spread their branches into a functional and God-glorifying federation of churches, to bear the fruits of Biblical preaching, sacraments, and discipline, and to sow the seeds for a whole new generation of faithful Christians.

But this period in the churches’ life is also filled with immense struggles, possibly the greatest they will face for decades.  It is what some have aptly called “the crisis of youth.”  Although the churches are united in their desire to remain faithful to Biblical orthodoxy, they differ in their origins, their ethnicities, their traditions, and even their theology.  Individuals with identities emerge who, intentionally or unintentionally, lead their followers in slightly different directions.  Debates develop and factions form over various aspects of doctrine, be they trivial or essential.  Being composed entirely of human beings, they are all too prone to sin and stumble.  But, striving to seek God’s will and to remain faithful to his Word, do they still comprise his church?  Absolutely.

Dr. Henry Beets

Dr. Henry Beets

The scenario I’ve just related is, of course, an historical one.  You may already have in mind the founding of the United Reformed Churches in North America in the 1990s, and their life and growth over these past 17 years.  However, the above account comes not from the history of the URCNA, but from a mildewy old hardcover entitled The Christian Reformed Church by Dr. Henry Beets.  Those words represent Beets’s summarized account of the founding of the CRC in 1857.  It is to Chapter 6 of his insightful work that we turn today.

There, in 1857, stood the little group of churches—four of them, in fact, with only two ministers.  In a few years there were only two churches and one minister.  It would take many years for the Christian Reformed Church to build enough of a presence even to form a denomination proper.  Along the way there were a host of impeding factors, some of which Beets comments on here.

Enough Dutch stereotypes have permeated our communications here in the URCNA that we probably fail to realize the significant cultural and psychological differences even between Dutchmen in those early days.  Beets points to three ethnic sub-groups in the first CRC congregations: “Friesians, Saxons, and Franks—considerably differentiated physically and psychologically.  As a result, the people of the provinces of the Netherlands differ among themselves as to several characteristics.  People speak of the Friesians as predominantly intellectual, of the Groningen folk (of Saxon origin) as practical, sober-minded, realistic; of the Drenths as conservative; of the Hollanders on the whole as phlegmatic, and of the Zeelanders as inclined to mysticism.”

Also, due to the history of the Secession in the Netherlands, the religious training the CRC’s early ministers had received varied considerably.  Many early leaders looked to one or another individual as their guide and role model, to the united churches’ detriment.  Theological understanding differed with regard to baptism, the covenant of grace, and “second holidays” (celebrating for two days Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost).  Beets says, “Add to this divergent opinion about fire and life insurance, vaccination, and, last but not least, the difference between ‘passive’ and ‘active’ attitudes as to religious life.  Closely related to this last fact was the distinction between experiential or subjective, and more doctrinal and objective preaching.  It took time to create at least something of an amalgamation of the aforementioned elements, forbearance in love on these issues, and of the presentation of a united front to move forward.”

What about education?  “The older element as a rule, strangers to the struggle for the Christian school in Holland, were quite content with public education here, since it had, as in the Netherlands of yore, at least a Christian veneer.  The element coming in later years clamored for a positively Christian school.  Time and again this led to alienation of affections and to occasional clashes.”  Varying political affiliations and ongoing financial struggles were two more causes of lamentable disunity.  Considering all of these factors, Beets comments:

In the face of all these things, it is amazing to find the small group, whose fortunes we describe here, able to keep up its own church establishment, to keep the banner they had raised floating in the breeze, to march ahead in several respects, and try to realize the early ideals.

The survival of the church is amazing, yes—but the work of our Lord is amazing too.

Gysbert HaanBeets moves on to describe some of the early leaders of the CRC who, at the risk of alienating themselves from their family and fellow churchmen, stood for the truth and upheld the orthodox Reformed faith.  Among these was elder Gysbert Haan of Grand Rapids.  “Slender, muscular, clean shaven, his hair whitened already early in life, with piercing eyes, with strong convictions and iron will power, an able debater, in calmness possessing his soul.  He was well posted on questions of church government and theology and was a born leader.”  Haan fought vigilantly against the advances of Arminianism as set forth in Baxter’s Call, a work that was strongly defended by two church leaders who later confessed that they had not even thoroughly read the book.  Beets praises him with all his faults as “one of our men of the hour.  There would, humanly speaking, have been no Return in 1857 to the standpoint left in 1849, without Gysbert Haan.”  Other important leaders included elders H. Dam and Y. Ulberg of Vriesland, J. Spykerman and P. Vanden Bosch of Noordeloos, J. F. Van Anrooy and A. Krabshuis of Graafschap, and A. Nysse of Grand Haven.

The young Christian Reformed Church was troubled both by ridicule and condemnation from the outside (even being termed “the vilest district of modern Babylon” by Rev. Scholte of Pella), and disagreements and quarreling from within.

At one time, 1863, in a moment of crisis, there was talk of discontinuance as a separate group.  Merging with Old School Presbyterians was proposed by one leader.  Then Johannes Groen of Vriesland was stirred up and delivered a speech that saved the day.

Through it all, however, the CRC survived, and grew, and thrived, as Beets emphasizes, “to the praise of God alone…The banner was not only kept aloft, but carried forward.”  By 1880 the denomination comprised four classes (Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Hudson), with a total of 12,001 souls.  Yes, though with a scornful wonder men saw her sore oppressed, the Christian Reformed Church was richly blessed by God even in those first hard twenty years.

Now, what of this narrative’s application to us today in the United Reformed Churches in North America?  The parallels are striking.  Both of our federations began as a relatively small group of churches seeking to remain faithful to God’s Word and the Reformed faith.  The CRC was 13 years old in 1880, the end of the period Beets describes here; our federation is about 17.

Many of the specific challenges we face have remained the same as well.  Although the URCNA has not made multi-ethnicity a hobby horse, as it has recently become in the CRC, one can still occasionally see misunderstandings and disagreements between our churches of Dutch origin and more recent congregations, much as Beets describes.  There also seems to be a certain tension between some of the seminaries that supply our ministers.  Our pastors, elders, and congregations have slightly different theologies and varying opinions even on the non-essentials, and worship practices (with psalm-singing high on the list) differ from church to church.  Taken together, these obstacles can sometimes seem insurmountable.  I’ll admit, lately I’ve experienced moments of despair about our weak collection of churches as well.

But there is an extremely important lesson to be learned from the story of the Christian Reformed Church’s founding, and woe to us if we ever forget it: The Lord builds his Church—not men, not consistories, not synods, not seminaries.  In fact, the Lord builds his Church using even foolish, quarrelsome, and sinful humans like us, for the glory of his Name.  Yes, the CRC has wandered far from its original foundation, and (much as it pains me to say it) perhaps the URCNA will have followed the same path by its 150th birthday.  But that eventual possibility must never distract us our immediate mission: to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, and remain steadfast on God’s Word.  And no matter what adversities come our way, we have these unshakable promises from the Lord to his Church:

Zion, on the holy hills,
God, thy Maker loves thee well;
All thy courts His presence fills,
He delights in thee to dwell.
Wondrous shall thy glory be,
City blest of God the Lord;
Nations shall be born in thee,
Unto life from death restored.

When the Lord the names shall write
Of thy sons, a countless throng,
God Most High will thee requite,
He Himself will make thee strong.
Then in song and joyful mirth
Shall thy ransomed sons agree,
Singing forth throughout the earth:
‘All my fountains are in thee.’


URC Psalmody on YouTube

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