James is a graduate of Grove City College and a student at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. I first met him online—through this blog’s Contact Me form, of all places. Jim shared with me his deep and growing appreciation of the psalms, his like-mindedness with regard to Reformed worship, and his great love for the church. Needless to say, we hit it off excellently. Earlier this summer, by providential coincidence, I learned that Jim would be visiting our church here in West Sayville to preach. Over the weekend we had some great conversations, but it wasn’t until our two-hour session of piano-organ duets improvised from Psalter Hymnal tunes that I started to realize the possibility of a musical partnership of sorts. Having Jim join the blog as an author was simply a logical step!
For your interest, here’s an introductory interview with James on his life and his thoughts about the church.
MRK: James, did you grow up in the Reformed tradition? What was your first exposure to the life of the church?
JDO: One of my professors, when asked to give his testimony, simply responds, “Well, I was baptized.” Of course he goes on to elaborate, as will I. But that’s where I’ll start: I was baptized as an infant and raised as a covenant child in a Christian family. My parents took seriously the promises they made at baptism, to raise me up in the nurture and admonition of the LORD, and they also took seriously their responsibility to make clear the covenant promises that God made to me to be my Father, my Savior, and my Friend.
I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church and then the United Reformed Church. I went to Christian school from preschool through high school, attended catechism classes, and made profession of faith in junior high. Throughout my life, I was blessed with good teachers, godly elders, wise mentors, good friends, and of course my loving parents, all of whom taught me to cherish the truths of Scripture.
MRK: How did you first become involved with the church’s music?
JDO: It all starts with Liberace. I was watching the Muppet Show one day and Liberace was their special guest. From that moment on, I decided that I wanted to play the piano. So in first grade, I started taking lessons from a wonderful godly woman from our church. She wasn’t a professional teacher, just a church pianist/organist, but I’ll always be thankful for her because she really taught me to love the music of the church. Even early on, she would incorporate hymns and hymn arrangements into the lessons. She was really an influential figure in my early life. I remember her talking about letting the words of the hymns guide your playing, which is a lesson I think is vitally important for young accompanists to learn.
When I was just starting high school I started regularly accompanying church services on the piano, and then later on I took organ lessons (just enough to be able to play hymns and very simple arrangements).
MRK: When did you sense that God was calling you to the ministry?
JDO: I never know how to answer that question. I think to some extent, as a pastor’s son, it’s always in the back of your mind, kind of a function of the “I want to grow up to be like daddy” thought process. I would say there were hints of it in high school, but that I didn’t really seriously consider it until I was at Grove City College. I started out as a math major, with the intention to teach or do something mildly math-related, but as I progressed through my studies and got more and more involved with my church there, I really felt the Lord’s leading. I had some excellent professors at Grove City who really charged me up about the Gospel and my pastor in college invested a lot of time in mentoring me. I read a lot of books by Edmund Clowney and Dale Ralph Davis (most of my professors studied under those men, and a lot of the classes reflected that), which did much to excite me for Christ-centered preaching and ministry. I think it was the end of my sophomore year that I really felt that God was leading me to some form of full-time service in His Kingdom. So I started leading Bible studies and getting involved in various ministries and my local church, all of which really cemented the fact that this was where God was leading me.
MRK: What are your goals for your eventual ministry?
JDO: First, foremost, and most basically, the goal of all ministry is to draw people to see and savor Jesus Christ, to find their ultimate delight in a life centered on Him. Whether someone’s been in the Church their whole life or has just entered the community as a new convert, that’s the key.
As pastors, our primary function would be the proclamation of the gospel, and so my ultimate desire would be that that gospel would be evident in everything I do.
To go into a few more specifics, I want to encourage people to love their Bibles more. I would want every congregant to leave a sermon basically saying, in a positive way, “Oh, I could have done that,” and then going home and doing it – reading and learning and memorizing their Bibles and seeing how God’s Word can transform their lives.
More Germaine to this blog, I want to encourage my congregations specifically to love the psalms more. The book of Psalms is so amazing. It’s not an overstatement to say that the full range of the Christian experience is explicated and given a voice through the psalms. My relationship with Christ has been so enriched by the psalms that I would love to be able to show that to fellow Christians.
MRK: What is your view of the importance of singing psalms in worship?
JDO: I think it’s vitally important. No matter how you translate Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 (whether all of Paul’s distinctions refer to various genres of “Psalm” or to a wider variety of song), it’s clear that there is a scriptural injunction to sing psalms in worship. And like I said above, the psalms are just so “handy” for worship since they address the full range of the Christian experience. There’s also the simple logic that, well, these songs are inspired by God, they’ve been used by the Church for millennia, and historically they’ve blessed God’s people tremendously wherever they’ve been sung.
MRK: In what ways do you think the music of the URCNA is already strong, and what could be done to make it even stronger?
JDO: First of all, to have a group of churches that sing the psalms as much as we already do is tremendous. Whatever we have to complain about, don’t lose sight of how blessed we are to have a tradition of singing the words of Scripture, and a Church Order that backs it up!
That said, it can always be better. I would love to see a revival of love for the psalms. I would love to see people truly treasure the psalms, to take them from their lips and into their hearts, to adopt the language of the psalms into their prayer life. I think that an updated collection could help a great deal, so I am wholeheartedly excited to see the progress of the Psalter Hymnal Committee (and the results of their collaboration with the OPC). But a new hymnal isn’t all we need. I think we need pastors and church musicians who work together to encourage a love for our worship, cultivating a community that cherishes its songs.
MRK: How can the average URCNA member contribute to make their weekly worship in song more meaningful?
JDO: I love it when churches make the bulletin information available prior to Sunday morning. I know several families who read through the texts for the upcoming sermons and sing all the songs for the upcoming services during the week leading up to Sunday. Arriving to church expectant, knowledgeable, and prepared can greatly enrich personal worship, especially if any of the songs are unfamiliar (I know that while singing an unfamiliar song, I don’t “hit my rhythm” until about the third verse, meaning I can’t properly give my attention to the words). That takes a bit of work, but the reward is definitely worth it.
In a more general sense, it would be beautiful to see singing added to regular family devotion time. Once again, I know many families who do this, to great effect. Psalter Hymnals aren’t that hard to come by in our circles, so this is a fairly easy way to enrich family worship and prepare for corporate worship. I’m sure we’ll have much time to further discuss each of these topics, so I won’t go into more detail.
Michael, thank you for this opportunity. I love this blog and the unique niche it fills. I pray that God can use this blog and the conversations it sparks to enrich the musical worship of the URCNA. I’m glad for our friendship and the opportunity to join the discussion.
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My heartfelt thanks to Jim for his willingness to join us here on the blog, and thanks be to our providential God for bringing about this friendship. May He enable us to continue glorifying Him through the psalms and songs of the church.
(See Jim’s Contact page if you’d like to strike up an email conversation with him.)