Archive for May, 2015

Called to Sing (Part 1)

PewRack

(The following is adapted from a Sunday school class I led at the Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Franklin Square, NY, on May 24, 2015.)

The thoughts I’d like to share with you today don’t arise from academic degrees or decades of experience in church music. They merely arise from watching, listening to, and participating in Reformed worship over the past several years. I’d simply like to encourage you through this class to think more deeply about why the church sings and how it can sing better.

Right from the beginning I want to encourage you not to raise the objection, “We’re just not a musical church.” True, many factors may help one church sing much better than another—a big congregation, good acoustics, a large number of musicians, and so on. My home church doesn’t enjoy many of these blessings; maybe yours doesn’t either. But that’s okay.

As an example, I want to point you to the congregational singing of churches in the Reformed Presbyterian denomination, one of which I attend at college. Every Sunday these Christians gather together and sing psalms a cappella as a congregation, and the heartiness and quality of their singing would put most of our churches to shame. Yet they probably have no more musicians in their congregation than we do. The difference is that they have developed a church culture that fosters a love for strong congregational singing: they teach their children psalm-singing from their youngest Sunday school classes, they encourage even non-musical people to learn to sing in four-part harmony, and they let the words of the psalms they sing penetrate their lives outside of worship as well. The results are truly impressive, and I believe denominations like ours can strive for that goal as well—but we need to start now. While I don’t know of many churches that can sing like this, I know of no reason why any church can’t sing like this.

That’s my encouragement for you. Of course, there is a challenge as well: to think about why you sing in the first place. As a little diagnostic, ask yourself what you think about while you’re singing on a typical Sunday morning. I know I’m often disgustingly distracted: the pastor’s tie is crooked, the pianist is playing too slow or too fast, or some other thought is floating through my head preventing me from honestly engaging in worship. Occasionally this distraction is caused by circumstances outside our control. But more often, our attitude towards corporate singing reveals a deeper apathy in our hearts.

To correct this perspective we need to return to Paul’s command to the churches in Ephesus and Colossi to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Yet for the Christian, singing is more fundamental than a command. Throughout Scripture, we see singing as a natural reaction of gratitude in response to God’s work of deliverance. One of the earliest examples of this pattern is found in Exodus 15, where Moses composes a song for the people of Israel to sing after the Lord brings them through the Red Sea. We see numerous other songs of deliverance throughout the Old Testament, sung by Miriam, Deborah, Barak, Hannah, David, Hezekiah, and others.

In the New Testament, the pattern continues with the songs of Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon. And in Revelation 15 we are told that the multitude standing by the sea of glass “sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” (v. 4). I’ve often wondered what it means that these saints sing the song of Moses and of the Lamb. I’m no theologian, but I’m starting to wonder if the point of this verse is that the two songs are one and the same. The story of salvation sung about by Moses at the beginning of Scripture is the same theme taken up by the glorified believers around the throne of God in Revelation!

As those who have been redeemed by Jesus from sin and death, we too have a part in this eternal song. Singing is a natural reaction to God’s work, and if “we are his workmanship” singing should be fundamental to the Christian’s identity as well. If this is the case, how dare I stand there on a Sunday morning before the living God who has redeemed me from my misery and called me into his presence to receive my worship—and I’m thinking about the pastor’s tie?! Such hardheartedness is ludicrous, and yet I have to be reminded of it daily. Christians, we should need no command to sing. It should already be on the tips of our tongues!

Incidentally, not only is singing fundamental to the Christian’s identity, I want to suggest to you that it also distinguishes the church from the world. What other institution exists whose members (musical and non-musical alike) sing regularly and heartily? Maybe two or three generations ago, this would not have been such an uncommon spectacle. But today, as the church becomes more and more countercultural (or as the culture becomes more and more counter-church), its singing becomes more remarkable as well. We sing in response to the work of God in a way that the world cannot. That realization should be awe-inspiring!

(To be continued.)

–MRK

SparkNotes for the Old Testament

A few weeks ago I found myself at a bonfire in the wilds of western Pennsylvania that featured food, fellowship, and (best of all?) singing from the blue Psalter Hymnal. Far removed from the possibility of any musical accompaniment other than ukulele, we sang a cappella and, to some extent, in four-part harmony. A handful of favorites were requested—378, “I Know Not Why God’s Wondrous Grace”; 317, “Come, Thou Almighty King”; 301, “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah.” Then someone requested number 211.

“Which verses?”

“All of them.”

Everyone groaned.

With its intimidating 23 stanzas, Number 211 holds claim to the dubious honor of being the longest song in the blue Psalter Hymnal. It’s a rather paraphrase-ish versification of Psalm 106, which is itself one of the more substantial entries in the Book of Psalms. In fact, although coming up with a precise number is difficult, my quick study of Psalm 106 identifies at least eight verses throughout the psalm that are not represented here in the Psalter Hymnal. In other words, this selection could have been even longer!

Why cram the entire text of this psalm into one musical arrangement? Why not, as the blue Psalter Hymnal often does, break the text into bite-size hymn-like chunks? Maybe, I often thought, it was just a compromise to keep the blue book’s number of psalm selections down. Maybe the editors just assumed no one would sing all 23 verses anyway.

But at this bonfire, one of the men identified a more fundamental purpose for this long song. He said, “Look! It’s a story!” And so it is.

Psalm 106 is one of only a few psalms categorized as “historical psalms.” Its purpose is to trace the history of God’s plan of redemption for his covenant people. And this psalm covers a huge swath of Old Testament history, beginning with Israel’s captivity in Egypt (v. 7), continuing through their arrival in Canaan (v. 34), and ending in the midst of their exile among the nations (v. 47). In my generation’s terms, it’s SparkNotes for the entire Old Testament. (In that case, 23 verses doesn’t sound quite so long anymore!)

The question remains, however: Why should we sing about Israel’s history? Simply put, because it is so closely interwoven with ours. In some ways, it is ours. In Israel’s wilderness wanderings, countless sacrifices, and recurring rebellions, we see echoes of our own stubborn disobedience and the need for a way to atone for man’s sin. But throughout this narrative we can also trace the character of a God whose “steadfast love endures forever” (v. 1), who promised to reconcile his people to himself, remaining faithful amidst our unfaithfulness. That promise is fulfilled, of course, in the death of Jesus Christ—“God, their Savior” made flesh (v. 22). Now we too, looking toward our eternal home, can sing,

Save us, O Lord, our gracious God,
From alien lands reclaim,
That we may triumph in Thy praise
And bless Thy holy Name.

As we stood around the fire that night, plodding away through all 23 verses of Psalter Hymnal number 211, I realized that I was enjoying this psalm more than I ever had before. Because Psalm 106 isn’t just any story—it’s our story.

Blessed be the Lord our covenant God,
All praise to Him accord;
Let all the people say, Amen.
Praise ye, praise ye the Lord.

–MRK

May’s Psalm of the Month: 113A

The fifth installment in URC Psalmody’s Introduction to the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal

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O’er all nations God alone,
Higher than the heavens His throne;
Who is like the Lord Most High,
Gazing down on earth and sky?

By and large, this setting of Psalm 113 will be new to URC and OPC members alike; the tune MONKLAND appears only in the Trinity Psalter and the gray Psalter Hymnal, not the blue Psalter Hymnal, the revised Trinity Hymnal, or even the Book of Psalms for Worship. However, this regal tune, combined with the eloquent praise of Psalm 113, could easily become a new favorite.

This tune is beautiful any way you sing it, but its majestic aura is best brought out in four-part harmony. Look for places where the rise and fall of the musical lines complement the poetry—for example, “From the dust He lifts the poor” in stz. 4 aligns perfectly with the glorious rise in the melody line, echoed by the bass part under “And from ashes those forlorn.” Especially bring out the psalm’s interjections to “Praise the Lord!” or its Hebrew equivalent, “Hallelujah!” As you sing, let Psalm 113A express your own experience of God’s greatness and his particular goodness to you.

Suggested stanzas: All

Source: New versification by the OPC and URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committees; see also Psalm 113 in the Trinity Psalter

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 113

  • Who should praise him? (vv. 1-3)
  • Who is like him? (vv. 4-6)
  • Whom does he bless? (vv. 7-9)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 113

The psalmist’s exclamation “Who is like the Lord our God?” (v. 5) is due not only to the knowledge that he is “seated on high,” but particularly to the fact that he stoops to look on the heavens and the earth from that immeasurable height (v. 6). The Lord’s condescension (literally, “coming down”—not haughtily but compassionately) is revealed throughout Scripture, and above all in the advent of Jesus Christ.

In her song of praise, Mary rejoiced in this merciful condescension in words reminiscent of Psalm 113 (Luke 1:46-55). The apostle Paul powerfully summarized it in these familiar words from Philippians 2: Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (vv. 6-11). What cause for praise!

Applying Psalm 113

  • Who are the Lord’s servants (v. 1, cf. Ps. 116:16)?
  • How are you poor and needy before God (v. 7)?
  • How might v. 9 apply in contexts besides physical barrenness?

The Psalm is a circle, ending where it began, praising the Lord from its first syllable to its last. May our life-psalm partake of the same character, and never know a break or a conclusion. In an endless circle let us bless the Lord, whose mercies never cease. Let us praise him in youth, and all along our years of strength; and when we bow in the ripeness of abundant age, let us still praise the Lord, who doth not cast off his old servants. Let us not only praise God ourselves, but exhort others to do it; and if we meet with any of the needy who have been enriched, and with the barren who have been made fruitful, let us join with them in extolling the name of him whose mercy endureth forever. Having been ourselves lifted from spiritual beggary and barrenness, let us never forget our former estate or the grace which has visited us, but world without end let us praise the Lord. Hallelujah.

—Charles Spurgeon on Psalm 113:9

Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

(A PDF version of this post, formatted as a bulletin insert, is available here.)


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