Archive for May, 2013



Lord’s Day 21: A Community Chosen for Eternal Life

Catechism and PsalterTowards its conclusion, the Apostles’ Creed rapidly progresses through several key tenets of the Christian religion: “I believe a holy catholic Church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.”  Despite the brevity of this creedal summary, the Heidelberg Catechism mines rich teaching and encouragement from each phrase.  Today’s subject of our consideration in this series, Lord’s Day 21, treats the “holy catholic Church, the communion of saints” and “the forgiveness of sins.”

54 Q.  What do you believe concerning the ‘holy catholic Church’?

A.  I believe that the Son of God,
through his Spirit and Word,
out of the entire human race,
from the beginning of the world to its end,
gathers, protects, and preserves for himself
a community chosen for eternal life
and united in true faith.
And of this community I am and always will be
a living member.

55 Q.  What do you understand by ‘the communion of saints’?

A.  First, that believers one and all,
as members of this community,
share in Christ
and in all his treasures and gifts.

Second, that each member
should consider it his duty
to use his gifts
readily and cheerfully
for the service and enrichment
of the other members.

56 Q.  What do you believe concerning ‘the forgiveness of sins’?

I believe that God,
because of Christ’s atonement,
will never hold against me
any of my sins
nor my sinful nature
which I need to struggle against all my life.

Rather, in his grace
God grants me the righteousness of Christ
to free me forever from judgment.

Suggested Songs

If you’ve been following URC Psalmody for any length of time, you probably already know that the life of the church is one of my favorite areas of study.  And since the psalms speak so plentifully about the King’s bride, God’s people, and Mount Zion, I hardly know where to begin my selections.  Nevertheless, here are five psalms whose descriptions of the Church are surpassingly appropriate.

37, “Amid the Thronging Worshippers” (Psalm 22)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI, by Grace URC in Dunnville, ON, and at the 2012 Reformed Youth Services convention)

“A community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith.”  The depth of Psalm 22 is trebled when we remember that it is primarily a messianic psalm.  Its opening words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” were uttered by Jesus as he hung on the cross.  Its stinging descriptions of mocking (v. 7), desolation (v. 11), and physical anguish (v. 14) both generally and specifically match the horrors of the crucifixion.  But Psalm 22 might surprise us with the abrupt cheerfulness of its second section (22ff); how can the psalmist suddenly exclaim, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you”?  He answers his own question in v. 24: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.”  Hebrews 2:12 tells us that this is nothing less than the exultant cry of the risen and ascended Savior himself—“ For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source.  That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers.”  Thus, Psalm 22 is a song that we can sing with joy, knowing that Christ, its ultimate Singer, has chosen us for eternal life and united us in faith.

Amid the thronging worshippers
Jehovah will I bless;
Before my brethren, gathered there,
His Name will I confess.
Come, praise Him, ye that fear the Lord,
Ye children of His grace;
With reverence sound His glories forth
And bow before His face.

264, “My Heart Was Glad to Hear the Welcome Sound” (Psalm 122)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI, and at Synod 2012)

“And of this community I am and always will be a living member.”  The Catechism does not stop at explaining the nature of the Church; it immediately goes on to make a personal application.  It is the duty of every believer to recognize and honor his membership in the church universal, primarily through involvement in the local congregation.  David must have been keenly aware of this as he composed Psalm 122:

My heart was glad to hear the welcome sound,
The call to seek Jehovah’s house of prayer;
Our feet are standing here on holy ground,
Within thy gates, thou city grand and fair.

For all my brethren and companions’ sakes
My prayer shall be, Let peace in thee abide;
Since God the Lord in thee His dwelling makes,
To thee my love shall never be denied.

116, “Forth from Thy Courts, Thy Sacred Dwelling” (Psalm 65)

(Sung by the Hope Heralds Choir)

“Believers one and all, as members of this community, share in Christ and in all his treasures and gifts.”  The communion of the saints is articulated beautifully in Psalm 65, which extols the redemption God has wrought for his Church.

A mighty stream of foul transgression
Prevails from day to day;
But Thou, O God, in great compassion,
Wilt purge my guilt away.
Blest is the man whom Thou hast chosen,
And bringest nigh to Thee,
That in Thy courts, in Thee reposing,
His dwelling-place may be.

There, in Thy holy habitation,
Thou wilt Thy saints provide
With every blessing of salvation,
Till all are satisfied.
By awful deeds, so just and mighty,
God saves us from our foe;
To all who walk with Him uprightly
He will salvation show.

161, “O Lord of Hosts, to Thee I Cry” (Psalm 84)

“Each member should consider it his duty to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the service and enrichment of the other members.”  Having volunteered in many areas in my home church, I know firsthand how easy it is to lose the proper perspective and become filled with resentment.  This is exactly the opposite of the attitude inculcated by Q&A 55 and echoed in Psalm 84.  There, the worshipful psalmist says:

A single day within Thy courts,
Where I Thy beauty see,
Is better than a thousand days,
My God, apart from Thee.
A lowly station in Thy house
Were dearer to my heart
Than in the tents of wickedness
To claim the chiefest part.

A sun and shield is God, the Lord,
To lighten and defend;
The Lord to such as look to Him
Will grace and glory send.
To those that walk in righteousness
No good will He deny.
O Lord of hosts, how blest are they
Who on Thy grace rely!

273, “From out the Depths I Cry, O Lord, to Thee” (Psalm 130)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“I believe that God, because of Christ’s atonement, will never hold against me any of my sins nor my sinful nature which I need to struggle against all my life.  Rather, in his grace God grants me the righteousness of Christ to free me forever from judgment.”  One of the most powerful psalms on the forgiveness of sins is Psalm 130, which begins as an individual lament but ends on a note of praise for the entire church.  O let God be praised for his wonderful work of salvation!

From out the depths I cry, O Lord, to Thee;
Lord, hear my call.
I love Thee, Lord, for Thou dost hear my plea,
Forgiving all.
If Thou shouldst mark our sins, who then could stand?
But grace and mercy dwell at Thy right hand.

I wait for God, the Lord, and on His word
My hope relies;
My soul still waits and looks unto the Lord
Till light arise.
I look for Him to drive away my night,
Yea, more than watchmen look for morning light.

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.

–MRK

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Psalm 142: From Prayer to Praise

"The path I take is known to Thee."

“The path I take is known to Thee.”

Why do we need to pray?  The Heidelberg Catechism answers that “prayer is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us.  And also because God gives his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who pray continually and groan inwardly, asking God for these gifts and thanking him for them” (LD 45, Q&A 116).

When the disciples asked Jesus how they should pray, he gave them the Lord’s Prayer—a New Testament model for Christian prayer.  For an Old Testament model of prayer, the Psalter excels; and for a model of a believer’s cry for deliverance, we need look no further than Psalm 142.

With my voice I cry out to the LORD;
with my voice I plead for mercy to the LORD.
I pour out my complaint before him;
I tell my trouble before him.

–Psalm 142:1, 2 (ESV)

Why does David need to tell his trouble before the LORD, who he confesses in Psalm 139 to “know when I sit down and when I rise up,” and to “discern my thoughts from afar”?  First, because God commands it, and second, because it is for his benefit.  Charles Spurgeon says, “Note that we do not show our trouble before the Lord that he may see it, but that we may see him.”  There is nothing more comforting than to unburden our souls before our gracious heavenly Father, assured that he already knows and cares.  The psalmist knew this assurance as well: “When my spirit faints within me, you know my way!” (v. 3).

Next David presents a stark contrast between his earthly “refuge” and his heavenly Refuge:

Look to the right and see:
there is none who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
no one cares for my soul.
I cry to you, O LORD;
I say, ‘You are my refuge,
my portion in the land of the living.’

–vv. 3, 5

Psalm 142 ends with both a sharp cry and a joyous note of praise.

Attend to my cry,
for I am brought very low!
Deliver me from my persecutors,
for they are too strong for me!
Bring me out of prison,
that I may give thanks to your name!
The righteous will surround me,
for you will deal bountifully with me.

–vv. 6, 7

Of all the nuances of this closing passage, the one I love most is David’s reaction to his imminent deliverance.  The salvation the Lord has wrought for him finds immediate expression in his worship with God’s people.  It is there that he praises his Savior and proclaims to his brothers his wondrous works.  How can we, who have been delivered from such great depths of misery, fail to unite with Christ’s church to give him thankful praise?

293, “To God My Earnest Voice I Raise” (Psalm 142)

(Sung by the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir)

To God my earnest voice I raise,
To God my voice imploring prays;
Before His face my grief I show
And tell my trouble and my woe.

The Psalter Hymnal’s single versification of Psalm 142 reads more like a paraphrase than like the original text, yet it preserves the tone and flow of thought of the psalm quite well.  I think the most powerful words are found in the last three stanzas.

The tune, of course, is instantly recognizable as HAMBURG, sung so often to the words of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”  The plaintive chant-like qualities of this tune (indeed, it was arranged from a Gregorian chant by Lowell Mason) make it perfectly suited for this prayer of supplication.  Yet its broadness also provides for a bold and confident final verse, as the delivered singer unites with the congregation in praise.  The Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir renders the nuances of Psalm 142 exceptionally well in their arrangement, even mirroring David’s response by having the congregation join them on the last stanza.

And so we find in Psalm 142 a surpassingly beautiful summary of a believer’s prayer in affliction.  As Spurgeon puts it, “When we can begin a Psalm with crying, we may hope to close it with singing.  The voice of prayer soon awakens the voice of praise.”

The righteous then shall gather round
To share the blessing I found,
Their hearts made glad because they see
How richly God has dealt with me.

–MRK

Featured Recording: Hyper-Psalmody?

Featured Recording

Here in the second decade of the twenty-first century, Calvinism is enjoying an incredible burst in popularity.  The ubiquity of names like John Piper, Derek Thomas, and Kevin DeYoung demonstrate that, for now at least, it is cool among Christians to be “young, restless, and Reformed.”  Along with this surge of interest in the orthodox Reformed faith, there has been renewed enthusiasm for many of its key elements: the “five points” of Calvinism, the creeds and confessions, the traditions of historic worship—and, not least of all, psalm-singing.

I’ve been exploring the nooks and crannies of cyberspace for psalm-related articles and discussions since 2011, before I even started URC Psalmody.  Perhaps I just wasn’t looking in the right places, but back then these resources seemed pitifully few and far between.  Now, almost two years later, there is almost an overabundance of articles, forums, blogs, and websites devoted to psalm-singing.

On the one hand, I’m greatly excited and inspired by this burst of enthusiasm; after all, I was the creator of one of those blogs.  Yet I can’t help but also fear that a hidden danger lies in such abundant activity.  Psalmody is becoming, or has the potential to become, more than just a healthy Biblical practice: it is becoming a fad.

DSC_0182It’s nigh impossible to measure the tone and context of the Reformed world online, but I’m troubled to see psalm-singing sometimes worn as a badge of merit, even separated from the holistic system of Biblical, Reformed worship.  I say this with extreme caution lest I make sweeping and unfounded generalizations, and I believe this phenomenon is the exception rather than the rule.  Nevertheless, may it be in the forefront of our minds that we are psalm-singers because we follow Christ—never the other way around.

Another evidence of psalmody’s increasing faddishness is the extremes to which some of its advocates are pushing it.  Not only am I finding arguments for the simple practice of psalm-singing; lately I’ve been coming across more and more writers who will settle for nothing less than a particular strain of psalm-singing in worship, arguing (or at least strongly implying) that it is more authentic, even more Biblical, than the rest.  Whether that strain is medieval chant, the Psalms of David in Metre, or even our own Psalter Hymnal, the consequences of such a view can be very dangerous to the health of the Church.  Again, I hesitate to say this, because any collection of psalms set to music has its own distinct advantages as well as disadvantages—and of course there is room for personal favorites.  Yet we must never forget that psalm settings, like Bible translations, have all passed through the hands of sinful men, and our arguments ought to be shaped accordingly.

I must mention that URC Psalmody is no more immune to these phenomena than any other blog.  As I compose articles on psalm-singing, church history, and denominational practices, I continually need to be reminded that the Lord needs none of our praises (Ps. 50), that our best deeds are still stained by sin (Is. 64:6), and that the only acceptable worship to God is that which arises out of humble gratitude for his salvation (Ps. 116).  Only with this foundation will our discussions about the particulars of worship be profitable.

Such discussions can indeed be appropriate and edifying, since we are called to grow up into spiritual maturity.  At the same time, however, I submit to you that the worship we offer our heavenly Father should be childlike in its simplicity and sincerity—not childish, but childlike.  How might that perspective change the way we interact in worship-related conversations with our brothers and sisters in the Lord?

I’d like to close this humble call to reflection with a recording that puts a smile on my face every time I watch it: a group of third-graders belting out Psalm 118.  May these words of grateful praise echo from our own hearts!

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.

The Lord with me, I will not fear
Though human might oppose;
The Lord my Helper, I shall be
Triumphant o’er my foes.
No trust in men, or kings of men,
Can confidence afford,
But they are strong, and sure their trust,
Whose hope is in the Lord.

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.

–MRK

(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

Lord’s Day 20: Concerning the Holy Spirit

Catechism and Psalter

In Question and Answer 24, the Heidelberg Catechism explained that the Apostles’ Creed is divided “into three parts: God the Father and our creation; God the Son and our deliverance; God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification.”  Having completed the first two parts of the exposition of the creed in Lord’s Days 9-19, we turn now to Lord’s Day 20, a single question and answer on the work of the Holy Spirit.

53 Q.  What do you believe concerning ‘the Holy Spirit’?

A.  First, he, as well as the Father and the Son,
is eternal God.

Second, he has been given to me personally,
so that, by true faith,
he makes me share in Christ and all his blessings,
comforts me,
and remains with me forever.

Suggested Songs

173, “Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Dwelling-place” (Psalm 90)

(Arranged and played by the musicians at West Sayville Reformed Bible Church)

“He, as well as the Father and the Son, is eternal God.”  Since a more thorough treatment of the Trinity can be found in our previous article on Lord’s Day 8, I’ve instead chosen to focus on God’s eternity, utilizing the mighty words of “Moses, the man of God” in Psalm 90.  The first two stanzas of this Psalter Hymnal versification are particularly applicable:

Lord, Thou hast been our dwelling-place
Through all the ages of our race;
Before the mountains had their birth,
Or ever Thou hadst formed the earth,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To everlasting our abode.

At Thy command man fades and dies
And newborn generations rise;
A thousand years are passed away,
And all to Thee are but a day;
Yea, like the watches of the night,
With Thee the ages wing their flight.

235, “How Blessed Are the Perfect in the Way” (Psalm 119)

(Sung by Grace Reformed Church in Dunnville, ON)

 “He has been given to me personally, so that, by true faith, he makes me share in Christ and all his blessings.”  To be fair, Psalter Hymnal number 235 inserts a reference to the Holy Spirit that isn’t present in the original text of Psalm 119 (though references to the Spirit are plentiful in other places throughout the Old Testament).  However, this paraphrase of vv. 5-8 is a useful reminder for us to look to God’s Word and Spirit for our constant guidance.

O let Thy Spirit be my constant aid,
That all my ways may ever be directed
To keep Thy statues, so to be obeyed
That from all error I may be protected.
I shall not be ashamed then, or afraid,
When Thy commandments I have e’er respected.

74, “As the Hart, About to Falter” (Psalm 42)

(Performed in concert, here and here)

He “comforts me, and remains with me forever.”  Psalm 42 is a dramatic song of both despair and assurance—the expression of a soul that is faced with troubles on every side, but knows its constant Comforter.  May this be our confession too as we acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives:

As the hart, about to falter,
In its trembling agony,
Panteth for the brooks of water,
So my soul doth pant for Thee.
Yea, athirst for Thee I cry;
God of life, O when shall I
Come again to stand before Thee
In Thy temple, and adore Thee?

But the Lord will send salvation,
And by day His love provide;
He shall be mine exultation,
And my song at eventide.
On His praise e’en in the night
I will ponder with delight,
And in prayer, transcending distance,
Seek the God of my existence.

O my soul, why art thou grieving;
Why disquieted in me?
Hope in God, thy faith retrieving;
He will still thy refuge be.
I shall yet through all my days
Give to Him my thankful praise;
God, who will from shame deliver,
Is my God, my rock, forever.

–MRK

Hot (and Warm) off the Press

May's Psalmody News

A boatload of academic, musical, and ecclesiastical obligations has prevented me from posting on URC Psalmody as often as I’d like.  In lieu of a full-length article, today I’d like to point you to five interesting and important news items within the Reformed world, especially as they relate to psalmody, music, and the church.  Much has happened since our last news digest at the end of January!

  1. New psalm versifications from a URCNA musician (2/4/13) – A member of a URC in Colorado has begun a “Reformation Psalter Project” with the goal of creating beautiful and appropriate, yet more contemporary, psalmody for congregational singing.  Although her work intentionally departs from the style of the blue Psalter Hymnal, it may be a great blessing to newly reforming churches with contemporary music backgrounds which are even now entering the URCNA.  (http://www.nequienttroll.com/?page_id=4329)
  2. Glenda Mathes shares the manifold beauty of the psalms (3/22/13) – Mrs. Glenda Mathes (Covenant URC, Pella, Iowa), who has been blogging on the psalter since 2009 over at Ascribelog, led the United Reformed Church of Wellsburg’s third annual women’s retreat on “Soul Poems: Experiencing God in the Psalms.”  Read more in the May 1 issue of Christian Renewal or visit the URC of Wellsburg’s website, http://www.urcwellsburg.org/.
  3. John Piper’s Desiring God features podcast on “The Role of Psalms in the Life of the Church” (3/24/13) – “Authors on the Line” host Tony Reinke interviewed Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham about his new book The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms (Crossway, 2013).  Much of what Wenham says won’t be new to those who have grown up in psalm-singing churches, and we might even disagree with some of his statements.  But coming from the well-known ministry of John Piper, this podcast will hopefully help to fuel a renewed interest in the psalter—a renewal that is already beginning to take place.  (http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/authors-on-the-line/the-role-of-the-psalms-in-the-life-of-the-church)
  4. URCNA piano major tackles musical topics in Christian Renewal’s new column (4/10/13) – Shannon Murphy, pianist, organist, music teacher, and member of Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship (URCNA) in New York City, has begun a new series on church music in Christian Renewal.  Her first column, “Studying music as a Christian” (April 10), relates her personal journey of striving to glorify God through music; the second, “Singing from the heart” (May 1), urges all congregants—even non-musical ones—to sing with all their might unto the Lord.  I’m familiar with Shannon’s excellent work and am confident that this will be a superb series.  –Christian Renewal, Vol. 31, No. 11.
  5. Rev. Danny Hyde explains psalm-singing (5/13/13) – Rev. Danny Hyde of the Oceanside URC in California just published an article briefly explaining “Why We Sing Old Testament Psalms.”  His evaluation is thorough yet very succinct—perfect for any churchgoer who desires a simple understanding of this Biblical and historic practice.  (http://www.oceansideurc.org/2013/05/why-sing-psalms/)

It’s probably going to be a busy summer for psalm-singing, especially in the URCNA, so stay close to URC Psalmody for all the updates!

–MRK


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