Archive for December, 2015

The Safest Place in the World

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Times Square Ball

Sixty miles from my house is a flagpole with a giant illuminated ball suspended at its top. It looks kind of gaudy, and no one is really sure why it’s there. But we do know that at 11:59 pm it will slowly descend 70 feet until it reaches the ground at the stroke of midnight, ringing in the start of 2016.

Oh, and right now a crowd of about a million people is packed on the streets waiting for this climactic event. That’s a small number compared to the estimated billion people who will watch the event from their TV’s, laptops, and smartphones.

This is one New Year’s tradition, and it’s the one we New Yorkers typically think of first. But there’s a much older January 1 custom: the singing of “Auld Lang Syne.” This beloved Scottish ballad is a call to remembrance, asking, “Should auld [old] acquaintance be forgot,/and never brought to mind?”

Ironically, few people remember “Auld Lang Syne” itself nowadays. In fact, earlier tonight NPR published a blurb lamenting the song’s decline in recent years. Ruth Perry, a professor from MIT, is quoted as saying:

People have to learn to sing together again. I think it’s important. I really do. Because it’s bonding. Because it’s community-making. Because we don’t have enough such glue in our culture. It would be good to revive that which there is. It’s very good for people to feel that they’re part of something bigger than themselves.

I can’t help but mourn the fact that our New Year’s celebrations, as raucous as they may be, seem to be missing this “cultural glue.” We still “celebrate,” but don’t always remember for what—just like we’re “thankful,” but not sure to whom. And celebration is hard in an age of terror; the same news report I referenced earlier also mentioned that security forces in Times Square are in the thousands. Only in the presence of a massive corps of heavily armed policemen can NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio assert that the city tonight is “the safest place in the world.”

DeBlasio may be good at denial, but judging by the international news headlines in the past few days, we’re scared. We’ve been scared for a long time. And scared people don’t sing.

Or do they?

What put the plaintive tones of “Auld Lang Syne” back in my ear was a blog post I read earlier today over at GentleReformation.org. There Reformed Presbyterian minister Nathan Eshelman called my attention to another set of words sung to the same tune: the words of Psalm 77.

Forever will the Lord cast off, show favor never more?
His steadfast love forever cease? His promise come no more?
Has God forgotten all His grace? Has his compassion gone?
Or can it be His mercies all, He has in wrath withdrawn?

If you ask me, I’d say the singer of these words sounds scared, to say the least. He sees terror all around him, and worst of all, he feels God’s absence. Perhaps, he fears, God has forgotten.

That’s a thought that should make us flee Manhattan, turn off the TV, cancel the ball drop—because if God has forgotten, why should we welcome another year? Another year of disease, shootings, famines, earthquakes, fires, terror? Is the “something bigger than ourselves” just one absurd catastrophe? It would be far more fitting to watch the midnight countdown in slack-jawed horror.

But that’s not where the psalmist leaves us. The setting goes on (sing along, if you know the tune):

Then I replied, Such questions show my own infirmity.
The firm right hand of Him Most High through years must changeless be.
The LORD’s deeds I remember will, your works of old recall.
I’ll ponder all which you have done and weigh your wonders all.

God has not forgotten, says the psalmist. And neither should we. God’s right hand—and he who sits at his right hand, Jesus Christ—continue to rule the world unhindered. His promises to his people will be fulfilled. This is guaranteed for the future because it is demonstrated throughout the past. And the hinge point of this divine plan for history is revealed in redemption:

O God most holy is your way; what god is like our God?
O God of miracles, your strength, you have made known abroad.
You have redeemed your people all, the power of your arm shown.
Your people sons of Jacob are, and Joseph is your own.

–from The Book of Psalms for Singing, Psalm 77

For the Christian, then, New Year’s Eve should be an opportunity neither to celebrate in absurdity nor to quail in fear at the terror that surrounds us. For us it should be a milestone, a rest stop at which to check whether our trust and comfort are secure in the Rock that followed them through the wilderness, and that Rock was Christ.

Have you taken refuge in that Savior’s shelter? If so, you are in the safest place in the world. And you can sing.

Happy New Year.

–MRK

By Times_Square_Ball_2010.jpg: Susan Serra, CKD from Long Island, USA derivative work: Sealle [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (Review)

Why Johnny Can't Sing HymnsT. David Gordon’s recent book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal (190 pp., P&R, 2010) has created a bit of a stir within the Presbyterian and Reformed family of churches. While Gordon does not directly address the topic of psalm-singing, I think it is worthwhile to devote at least a little space here to a book by a respected author on an important subject.

Gordon’s areas of expertise include theology and media ecology. Music is not one of them, as he quickly admits (he can read music, but does not play an instrument). This both limits the extent to which he can discuss the music theory behind hymnody and allows him to approach the topic from a unique perspective.

To sum up the field of media ecology in one borrowed sentence, “we make tools, and tools make us” (10). From this angle Gordon digs behind the contemporary worship movement to expose the cultural assumptions of contemporaneity. Drawing from cultural analysts like Neil Postman and Ken Myers, Gordon characterizes the dominant ideology of the 21st century as one that disregards the past and trivializes the present. If this is so, he concludes, “the meta-message that contemporary music sends is this: Nothing is important; everything is just amusing or entertaining. This is hardly a Christian message” (72).

Throughout Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns Gordon employs a clear, readable style, comparable at points to Postman’s own renowned prose. After reading this book I felt as though the author were one of my own college professors. Unfortunately, Gordon also possesses the classic professor’s tendency to wander off into minimally relevant tangents (the low point, I think, is a footnote about the cost of his preferred razor blades). Between the occasional digressions and some significant overlap of material between chapters, I tend to think this volume could have been just as useful at two-thirds or even half as long.

While I found this book to be informative and enjoyable, I must also confess to some objections to Gordon’s line of reasoning. Where his cultural analysis is keen, his musical analysis is a little shaky—his final definition for “contemporary music” seems to be “music accompanied by a guitar”—and he often left me wondering how to make the final connection between the two subjects. Gordon also seems to directly correlate “triviality” and “contemporaneity” (a term he is reluctant to define), as though intelligent, articulate advocates of “contemporary Christian music” (CCM) either do not exist or are not to be taken seriously.

As you may have already guessed from the title of this blog, my biggest beef with Gordon’s case lies in his appeals to “traditional hymnody” (which, like the term “contemporary music,” he does not pause to explain). Gordon laments the fact that his students categorize the 1885 song “How Great Thou Art” as a “traditional” hymn—but his favorite example of hymnody, “Abide With Me,” is only a few decades older. He faults CCM proponents for knowing “nothing of Christian hymnody prior to the nineteenth or twentieth century” (41), but what other centuries are responsbile for the overwhelming proportion of the contents of any “traditional” hymnal?

It is clear that Gordon views the contemporary Christian music movement as a strange new blip on the church’s 2000-year-old radar. I would suggest that his “traditional” hymns are actually not that traditional either. Rather, I believe CCM is merely a small part of a much larger blip on the radar screen: the emergence of Western hymnody—a phenomenon that has crowded out the church’s (much more traditional) practice of psalm-singing, in some Reformed and Presbyterian denominations less than 100 years ago. I would love to read Gordon’s cultural analysis of how this worship shift occurred. Sadly, he barely mentions it.

In conclusion, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns will certainly appeal to readers who already favor hymns over CCM. Gordon hits all the high points of the contemporary Christian music debate (guitars, repetition, amplification, triviality), and he does so far more articulately than the average church member. The book nobly champions the cause of hymns, though it is probably unlikely to win converts from the contemporary camp. All in all, I appreciate Gordon’s fresh perspective on a divisive topic. But if pastors and musicians merely follow his advice without probing deeper, I am not sure the church will be that much better off.

–MRK

December’s Psalm of the Month: 150D

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

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Let everything that now has breath
Sing praise unto the Lord, sing praise.
O praise Him! O praise Him!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

What better way to round out a year of psalm-singing than with the exultant words of the last entry in the Book of Psalms? In addition to some older settings of Psalm 150 from existing psalters, the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal ends with this new versification by URCNA minister Rev. Daniel Hyde.

Psalms 146-150 all begin and end with the command to “Praise the Lord!” (in Hebrew, “Hallelujah!”). But in Psalm 150 the pace accelerates to a climax, with the expressions “Praise the Lord!” or “Praise him!” repeated thirteen times in only six verses. To bring out this facet of the psalm, Rev. Hyde chose the tune LASST UNS ERFREUEN (commonly associated with the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King”), which includes a refrain of Hallelujahs at the end of each stanza.

Rev. Hyde writes, “The tune LASST UNS ERFREUEN brings out the text’s mood of joy and praise, including the Hallelujah refrain. I’ve also chosen not to artificially rhyme the text so as to aid families and congregations in using this text as a ‘memory verse’ for the entire psalm.”

As you sing Psalm 150D, reflect on God’s “mighty deeds” throughout history, including what he has done in your own life this past year. Think about how you can praise God in all kinds of circumstances, like the variety of instruments mentioned in this psalm. Use your utmost breath for his praise!

Suggested stanzas: All

Source: New setting by Rev. Daniel Hyde, 2001

Tune only: Revised Trinity Hymnal 115, 289, 733

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 150

  • Where to praise the Lord (v. 1)
  • Why to praise the Lord (v. 2)
  • How to praise the Lord (vv. 3-5)
  • Who should praise the Lord (v. 6)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 150

The connection between Christ and Psalm 150 is self-explanatory. Indeed, the salvation we enjoy through Jesus Christ is the most glorious of the “mighty deeds” (v. 2) God has wrought. Moreover, as Charles Spurgeon notes, Psalm 150 should be interpreted in light of “the coming of our Lord in his second advent and the raising of the dead.” In fact, words reminiscent of Psalm 150 are used in Revelation 19:5: “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great.” This is not a song for Old Testament believers only; it is a song for God’s redeemed people of all time, as they look forward to the new Jerusalem itself!

Applying Psalm 150

  • What “mighty deeds” of God might have inspired the psalmist to pen this psalm (v. 2)? What “mighty deeds” of God inspire you to sing today?
  • Why does the psalm mention so many different musical instruments (vv. 3-5)? How might these commands apply to you even if you can’t play a musical instrument?
  • What does the command for “everything that has breath” to praise the Lord mean (v. 6)?

Join all ye living things in the eternal song. Be ye least or greatest, withhold not your praises. What a day will it be when all things in all places unite to glorify the one only living and true God! This will be the final triumph of the church of God.

—Charles Spurgeon on Psalm 150:6

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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