Sing Joyfully: Getting the Most out of the Book of Psalms

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(The following is adapted from a workshop delivered by Michael Kearney and Dr. David Kenneth Smith to high schoolers at the 2016 Reformed Presbyterian International Conference on July 26, 2016.)

Thanks for giving us a little slice of your busy schedules during this convention. As two non-Reformed-Presbyterians, we are really enjoying the chance to get to know so many of you along with your friends, family and fellow church members this week—we’ve been invited to participate in something really special, and it’s great to be here!

We want to talk to you today about something the majority of you have probably experienced for your entire lives—psalm-singing. We’re going to leave aside theological or historical arguments for psalm-singing, which you’ve probably already heard countless times and which you can probably explain better than we can. Rather, we want to speak to you about the psalms as they fit into the theme of RPIC’s high school program, “Exploring Life in This World: Adulthood Is upon You.” In this workshop we want to suggest that the psalms are a divinely-given resource to help us make sense of the ups and downs of life. There are three main ways in which the psalms do this.

First, the psalms help us make sense of the world through their role as a spiritual discipline. I’m sure you know the passage in Ephesians where the apostle Paul commands the church to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19). But look at the context surrounding this command. The command to sing psalms doesn’t arise out of thin air; it appears in the middle of a list of activities that are really very countercultural. And I’m sure that many of your friends, whether believers or unbelievers, would be kind of surprised to hear that you gather in church or in your home during the week to sing psalms. In our current culture, singing—and especially singing Scripture—is a strange practice.

In Ephesians Paul describes how Christians are to “be imitators of God” rather than imitators of the world. And a lot of his commands have to do with what fills our minds and mouths. Is it crude joking, or thanksgiving (v. 4)? Is it empty words (v. 7), or the wisdom from God (v. 15)? Is it drunkenness, or Spirit-filled speech (v. 18)? Indeed, now more than ever we are surrounded by empty and foolish talk on so many sides that cultivating heavenly wisdom takes serious effort. Spiritual disciplines are called disciplines because they take a lifetime of strenuous dedication to establish in our lives. But singing the psalms is one way we can grow in the wisdom and maturity that we are called to when we follow Christ.

Second, the psalms help us make sense of the world by teaching us about living in harmony within the church. Paul’s list of instructions to the church in Ephesians 5 begins with the words “walk in love, as Christ loved us.” We often think of psalm-singing as a way to obey God and build up our own hearts. But do we think of psalm-singing also as an expression of love toward our fellow believers?

Congregational singing is an excellent picture of building one another up, especially when we sing in harmony. A song that contains only one musical line can be very shallow and boring. That’s why our psalters are written with four parts that rise and fall independently, but intermingle to form a beautiful and harmonious whole. Some people have lower or higher voices than others, but all can find a part suited for them in the church’s music. The fact that we sing in harmony rather than unison seems to be a great picture of the Christian life, especially since not everyone in the church “plays the same part.” We each have different strengths and weaknesses in different areas, but God uses those differences to help us grow as the body of Christ. In the case of singing, we work together to imprint divine vocabulary on each other’s hearts. We learn to speak like Jesus!

The third and final way in which the psalms help us make sense of the world is that they fill us with joy in the face of opposition. When asked why we Reformed believers sing the psalms, we are often quick to respond with the fact that it’s divinely commanded—and that’s true. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we also sing the psalms because it’s a joyful activity for the redeemed soul. Paul lists singing as an expression of love and thanksgiving, not a tedious obligation.

I can say to you, even as someone who’s just a few years older than you are, that the experiences I’ve had so far have taught me to treasure the psalms more than I did in high school. There have been mountaintop experiences (literal as well as spiritual) where the psalms have filled me with new heights of praise, and there have also been dark valleys where the laments and prayers of the psalter have been some of my only comforts. I suspect the same has been or will be true for most of you as well as you go forth into this world. And as the psalms help you to make sense of the apparent chaos and absurdity in the world, they will also help you share God’s perspective with your friends, family, coworkers and acquaintances. The psalms can help them make sense of the world too!

We titled this workshop “Getting the Most out of the Book of Psalms” because we believe the psalms have a tremendous wealth of benefits to impart to the believer. In order for the psalms to help you make sense of the world, of course, you also have to work hard to make sense of the psalms as you sing them. That takes place by meditating on the text, letting the words shape the way you sing, and striving to make music to the best of your ability. When you exert this effort, whether individually or in a congregation, we are sure your life will begin to reap some of the many fruits the psalms offer.

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