Archive for May, 2016

Singing the Whole Psalm

smithThe following is a guest post by Rev. Nick Smith of the United Reformed Church in Nampa, Idaho. It appears in the May 25 issue of Christian Renewal Magazine and is reprinted with permission.

One of the things that Michael Kearney notes in his excellent article on the proposed Psalter Hymnal is the way it addresses the problem of “telescoped and sanitized” Psalms. This is an issue that I think is important for our churches, and I want to highlight some reasons that I think this is the case. Before doing so, however, I want to note a few things up front.

First, this is not the only or even the main reason that the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (TPH) will be a blessing to our churches. The dramatic improvement of the hymn selection, the expression of unity with the OPC, and the consistent use of actual contemporary English are all rich and important reasons to commend the committee’s work.

Second, as should be expected of anything done in community by way of working together with others, there are aspects of the new book that I don’t like. But this too is an opportunity to express our fellowship as churches, and to exercise our ability to work together and learn from each other. So I am eager to set aside my personal preferences for the sake of this great expression of unity, and for the sake of the larger benefits the book presents.

One of those benefits is the inclusion of full versions of each of the Psalms, versions that include much biblical content that has been excluded when the Psalms are “telescoped and sanitized.” A great treasure of the Reformed tradition is our commitment to embracing the Psalms as belonging to the church today, using them in corporate worship, and allowing them to shape our spirituality. The TPH will help us grow in this practice, to sing the Psalms in their entirety, precisely where they challenge us to grow in the way we sing and pray to the Lord.

Psalm-singing is deeply rooted theologically. The Psalms, as with all of Scripture, spoke of Christ and are fulfilled in Christ (Luke 24:44). Jesus grew up singing and praying the Psalms, crying out with the words of Psalm 22 on the cross (Matthew 27:46). The Psalms are rightly understood as singing of Christ and being sung by Christ. As we are united to Christ by faith, the Psalms become our songs and prayers that we share with him.

Moreover, the practice of singing the Psalms is fruitful precisely because they are God’s Word. There can be times when we may dislike the singing of a Psalm because what it describes or expresses doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t resonate with our experience. It doesn’t say what we desire to say. But this is exactly when the Psalm is most needed. We don’t always feel what we should feel; we don’t always desire to pray what we should pray. When we sing the Psalms, our spirituality is being shaped and formed by words that God has given to us. But when we sanitize those words or eliminate the elements that make us uncomfortable, that formative function of the Psalms is lost. Rather than the Psalm forming us, we have transformed the Psalm.

The TPH helps us address this problem. Our congregation is singing Psalm 110A (our “Psalm of the Month” for May). While the new setting is beautiful, singing a new version was difficult, since we have grown to love the setting of Psalm 110 in the blue Psalter Hymnal (#221, “The Lord unto His Christ Has Said”). If there’s a Psalm setting I’d be inclined to defend, it’s that one. And yet as we sang the new version, I was struck by some of the words:

The nations he will judge;
the dead in heaps will lie.
The mighty of the earth he’ll crush –
all who his rule defy.

I’ve read Psalm 110, I’ve sung it, I’ve preached on it. And yet when we came to the words, I wondered, “Are those words really in the Psalm?” Sure enough, it’s verse 6: “He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth.”

So why the disconnect? I suspect it’s because of our practice of singing versions that are “sanitized.” The setting that we most often sing, and that I was inclined to defend, says “Thou shalt subdue the kings of earth with God at thy right hand; the nations thou shalt rule in might and judge in every land.” There are no corpses, no heaps of dead, no shattering and crushing the proud who defy the Lord’s rule.

Does it really matter that we sing, “The nations he will judge; the dead in heaps will lie. The mighty of the earth he’ll crush – all who his rule defy”? It does matter, and it matters precisely because these words make us uncomfortable. These words give us a vivid and memorable way to sing of God’s defeat of all of his enemies, and the practice of singing them is meant to shape and form us.

The words are memorable. Much like stories in the book of Judges, the language sticks in the mind. Who can forget Ehud slaying Eglon, or Jael’s tent peg driven into Sisera’s temple? Likewise, when we sing “the mighty of the earth he’ll crush,” the language is vivid in a way that stays with us. This is important, because we face real enemies. The language of the Psalm is ultimately fulfilled in Christ’s defeat of the demonic forces of sin and death and hell, in his defeat of the spiritual powers that array themselves against the church. This is a reality that we come up against repeatedly in the Christian life. When we face temptation, when we face the darkness of depression and anxiety, when we are confronted with the reality of pain and sickness and death, we need to have sung the vivid words of Psalm 110 – Christ is on the throne, and he has crushed – and will crush – all of those enemies.

There is real evil in the world, and when people align themselves with that evil, when they obstinately refuse to follow Christ, and when they use their power to abuse and hurt and kill and rape and destroy, the Bible is clear that all of those wrongs are going to one day be set right. God’s people need to sing of that reality. One of the ways Christ defeats the serpent is by converting the nations and bringing salvation. That has been the case since Christ ascended and will be the case until he returns. But we also know that there are those who instead ally themselves with the serpent, who use their position of power to cause suffering for others. And the Bible calls us to sing of the day when all of that evil will be set right, when the Lord will bring justice.

Sanitized Psalms, cleansed of vivid language, withhold from the church a bold prayer that God intends to answer – a prayer that the day will come when evil will be destroyed, when sin and death and hell and all the demonic forces of the serpent will finally be crushed and defeated. This is the future God reveals in Revelation 19: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” This is the reality we sing of in the Psalms.

When we are frightened by evil, by the wicked powers that are present in the world, by political might that seeks to oppose Christ and his church, we are challenged to respond in faith. Over against the evil in the world, we are to be a people of hope, composure and confidence, living in a way that points to a future in which evil does not have the last word. Psalm 110 is given to form in us a vivid remembrance of that hope:

The nations he will judge;
the dead in heaps will lie.
The mighty of the earth he’ll crush –
all who his rule defy.

–Rev. Nick Smith

Thinking the Trinity Psalter Hymnal Through

PewRack

There’s just over a month left till the URCNA’s tenth synod convenes in Wyoming, MI, and my guess is that many of our elders and pastors feel like they’ve been punched in the face by the recently-released 566-page provisional agenda. Our federation needs to make many difficult decisions this summer related to positions on current cultural issues, unity with other denominations, liturgical forms, and, of course, the Psalter Hymnal project.

If you’re struggling to wade through the provisional agenda, you may find Revs. Mark Vander Pol and Norman Van Eeden Petersman’s 16-page overview helpful. I don’t think I’ll be blogging (slogging?) through the agenda’s various materials related to the songbook project as I did back in 2012, but I’ll attempt to make some summarizing remarks in this post.

To my knowledge, the report from the Psalter Hymnal Committee on pp. 163-174 of the provisional agenda is the first public communication from the committee since last fall. A few readers have expressed the opinion that the committee is failing to communicate important information to the churches. I tend to disagree, since the very presence of the PsalterHymnal.org website with every psalm and hymn to be included in the collection goes above and beyond the committee’s mandate. At the same time, I understand this frustration, since updates about the project tend come from magazines like New Horizons or The Outlook—second- or even third-hand—and not from the committee itself. The Psalter Hymnal area of the URCNA website doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2013! It is hard to fault an overworked and understaffed committee for this, but I do fear that the scarcity of information is hindering the churches’ view of the project.

In any case, the Psalter Hymnal Committee provides these updates in their report:

  • They have named the book the Trinity Psalter Hymnal.
  • They are continuing to edit and obtain copyright permissions for the psalter section.
  • They have completed the list of songs for the (new) Hymn Proposal.
  • They have decided that the Liturgical Forms Committee should publish the URCNA’s new liturgical forms in a separate booklet from the songbook.
  • They have decided to leave pronouns referring to God uncapitalized and to retain archaic language (including the name “Jehovah”) in classic hymns.
  • They have decided on the basic contents of the songbook (introductory essays, indices, etc.).

Unfortunately, the report remains unclear as to what action the Psalter Hymnal Committee expects Synod 2016 to take besides approving the hymn section. The mention of the name change to the Trinity Psalter Hymnal, for instance—is that decision final, or are they requesting that it be approved on the floor as part of “receiving the work of the committee to date”? Similarly, the report cites a separate recommendation from the Liturgical Forms Committee about publishing a separate liturgical forms booklet, but this recommendation is actually missing from both committees’ reports (as Vander Pol and Van Eeden Petersman note). If I am not the only one confused by the structure of this report, the synodical process is likely to become jammed in trying to untangle the actions implied in these pages.

As readers of URC Psalmody know, I am a passionate advocate for a new denominational Psalter Hymnal. And I believe it is possible to utilize the discussions and deliberations on the floor of synod to refine the finished product into the best songbook it can be. But it is only possible when elders, consistories, classes, synods, and standing committees each understand the nature and extent of the authority they have been given to make decisions. Unfortunately, the URCNA still struggles to define the power of its various ecclesiastical bodies, and I think that confusion is revealed in this report along with so many of the other materials submitted to Synod 2016. I’m not suggesting any one of the bodies involved is to blame, but (like the huge overtures at Synod 2012) I am afraid it may be a disaster to place so much material before a synod that doesn’t know what it is expected to approve.

When I published my argument for the new Psalter Hymnal in the March/April issue of The Outlook, one of the strongest objections I received from readers related to the location of authority in the church. Many URCNA members fear that a denominational songbook represents a shift toward centralized government, what one commenter called “federalism” in the churches. To the contrary, it is argued, local consistories have the exclusive jurisdiction over what gets sung in a congregation’s worship.

As others have noted, this is a false dichotomy. The authority of local consistories and the authority delegated to synod are not contradictory. One arises from the other. And it should be possible to make decisions for the common good of the churches without ignoring the needs and circumstances of local congregations. But the misunderstanding persists, and it goes far beyond the question of a new Psalter Hymnal to the problems of ecumenical relations, joint church orders, and more. What does unity really mean? Until we pause to answer that question, I think the road to a denominational songbook will remain rough.

–MRK


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