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Synod, Kingdom Work, and the Trinity Psalter Hymnal

From heaven O praise the Lord,
On high the Lord O praise!
All angels, praise accord!
Let all his hosts give praise!
Praise him on high,
Sun, moon and star,
Sun, moon and star,
You heavens afar
And cloudy sky!

It took 21 years to move from the beginning of the URCNA’s Psalter Hymnal project to the final publication of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal. Twenty-one years—that’s long enough for a member of the Songbook Committee to bear, raise, and graduate a child.

tph1010As an interested URCNA member who followed the publication process for only eight of those 21 years, I have only a small portion of the sense of accomplishment and celebration that accompanies the new book. But it truly was a foretaste of heaven to be present for this year’s joint meeting of the URCNA Synod and the OPC General Assembly from June 11 to 15 in Wheaton, Illinois, where the opening prayer service began with the singing of Psalm 148A from the Trinity Psalter Hymnal. United Reformed and Orthodox Presbyterian brothers singing a setting from the Reformed Presbyterian tradition of psalmody—it was a moment of full hearts and sincere praise.

Since volunteering as organist at the URCNA’s Synod Nyack in 2012, I’d always hoped for the opportunity to attend another synod. I never expected that the chance would come through representing Geneva College in the display hall. This new role surprised me—just as much as it surprised a number of readers who expected to see me at the organ bench rather than at an exhibitor table. It was wonderful to be reunited with so many familiar faces.

As it turns out, the connection between Geneva College and the work of these Reformed church gatherings is more than coincidental. I’m grateful for the countless conversations with alumni, parents, and prospective students throughout the week that revealed Geneva’s role in providing Biblically faithful education to generations of Reformed believers. This college exemplifies the kind of kingdom work that we heard about in sessions describing the relationship of the URCNA and OPC: an established commitment to Reformed doctrine, a ministry focused on the central role of local churches, and a tangible effort to evangelize and disciple those under its care.

And at the heart of this ministry of education are the psalms—in chapel, in choir, in church services, in dorm rooms. To give just one example, I had to leave synod early to attend a wedding of two friends who graduated from Geneva. Neither of them hails from a Reformed or Presbyterian background. But they sang psalms during their ceremony—psalms they would have never learned to sing at another college. Geneva teaches its students to understand the psalms as songs of the spirit that instruct, convict and edify the saints. Its graduates carry that gift with them, not just into Reformed and Presbyterian churches, but into a wide variety of congregations and denominations. And they share that gift with new generations of believers.

The psalms are not only songs of the spirit; they are also battle cries for the church’s struggle against the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. The 21st century witnesses increasing pressures upon the church, including societal changes that require careful statements like the URCNA’s new Affirmations Regarding Marriage. Even within our own walls there are disagreements, divisions and the pervasive presence of sin. The community of saints still suffers the effects of the Fall—and we need the psalms in order to cry out for God’s wisdom and mercy.

So we set ourselves to seek the welfare of Zion, as Psalm 122 teaches us. And we do so with a dual perspective: a local focus that commits us to living faithfully in particular congregations, and a kingdom perspective that lifts us above the landscape to see our gospel mission in grander scale. One of the particular joys of synod is getting a glimpse of that kingdom outlook—an outlook that includes special places like Geneva College and special events like the publication of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal.

That dual perspective is an inspiration and a challenge in my own life. Having graduated from Geneva, I’m now halfway through a master’s degree in communication at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. In the coming months I’ll be deciding whether to pursue an academic career through a Ph.D. or to move on to a seminary track. A kingdom outlook reminds me that ministry can occur in front of chalkboards as well as behind pulpits. A local focus reminds me to pursue the primary vocation of a faithful servant in my day-to-day responsibilities. Meanwhile, I’ve transferred my membership to a local Reformed Presbyterian (RPCNA) congregation—not because I’ve become convinced of a cappella exclusive psalmody but because the nearest URCNA church is four hours away. My faith has already grown through my time among this godly group of saints.

I hope this dual perspective will shape the future of URC Psalmody as well. A few months ago I entertained the notion of shutting down this blog, with its news feed inactive and much of its information out of date. But I was surprised and encouraged to hear from so many of you at synod that the existing content on this site continues to be a blessing. Sincere thanks to each one of you for reading, commenting and participating as we continue to seek God’s glory through the singing of his Word.

Most likely, the updates on URC Psalmody will continue to be sparse. But while there are still psalms to learn and kingdom work to be done, we press on!

In his service,

–MRK

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Announcing “Psalms for the King” Winner!

The results of our first giveaway raffle featuring Psalms for the King are in, and George Van Popta of Hamilton, ON, is the winner! Rev. Van Popta, your CD will be in the mail shortly. Thank you to everyone who participated, and please remember that if you would like a copy of this CD, it is still available online from Crown & Covenant. It is a worthwhile addition to any psalm collection!

–MRK

Announcing “Psalms for the King” Giveaway

2014 Genevans CD Insert COVER frontOne of the most common questions I receive on this blog is from readers looking for good recordings of the psalms. The list of psalm-singing recordings available on the web is already quite large, including some enjoyable (though outdated) recordings of the blue Psalter Hymnal and entire websites devoted to Scottish metrical psalmody. Today I’m happy to announce a wonderful addition to that list with the online release of one of my favorite CD’s, Psalms for the King.

Psalms for the King was recorded by my college choir, The Genevans, during the season that included a three-week international tour in the Philippines and Malaysia (you can read about that tour here). A freshman at the time, I got to sing all of these pieces as well as accompany a solo psalm setting on the organ (Track 14, “The Lord is my Shepherd”).

With the exception of the organ piece, Psalms for the King is entirely a cappella. That’s not for principled reasons as much as for practical ones: when you’re visiting concert locations that require piling into jeepneys and hiking through jungles, you can’t always guarantee there will be a piano or organ at your destination. But if you thought a cappella singing represents a single musical style, think again. Psalms for the King bridges the worlds of congregational psalmody and sacred classical music, with everything from Bruckner’s spine-tingling Os justi (Psalm 37:30-31) to a jazzy version of Psalm 118 arranged for men’s chorus by our director.

A lot of college choirs choose repertoire that shows off their technical skills. And The Genevans certainly have the chops for difficult music, including Mendelssohn’s motet on Psalm 2 and a choral fugue on Psalm 150 by J.S. Bach. But when the choir sings simple tunes, they do so just as beautifully. Despite my appreciation for intricate choral counterpoint, some of my favorite tracks are the traditional CRIMOND setting of Psalm 23 and a setting of Psalm 16 by Dr. Bob Copeland.

A drawback of this recording is that a few selections are sung in different languages, so a casual listener might not immediately benefit from those particular psalm texts without consulting the liner notes. However, the second half of the disc more than compensates for this shortcoming. Overall Psalms for the King remains one of my favorite psalm albums to listen to—not just because of my emotional attachment to the choir, but because it captures some of the best of psalm-singing from a wide variety of times and places. Below is a sample track from the album, a new setting of Psalm 130 by Geneva College professor Dr. Byron Curtis.

Psalms for the King was released in early 2015, but the album wasn’t available online until very recently. Crown & Covenant, the publishing house of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, has just begun selling the CD’s on their website for $15.

Even better, I’ve obtained permission to hold a contest for a free copy of Psalms for the King on CD (the first of its kind on URC Psalmody!). Simply submit your information here, and the sixth person (in the US or Canada) to contact me will receive a free copy. I’ll even cover the postage!

Even if you don’t win the contest, consider getting yourself a copy of Psalms for the King. It will bring joy to your ears and your soul.

–MRK

Buy Psalms for the King (C&C) »

Enter the giveaway contest »

A Psalm-Singing App-etizer

I’ve come to know the perils of collecting psalters in a house (or a dorm room) with limited shelf space. How many layers deep can the books go before they either warp the bookcase or pose a health hazard? How can you protect the oldest and most fragile psalters from being torn, dropped, or otherwise abused? And just how many blue Psalter Hymnals should you have on hand for impromptu hymn-sings?

While I’ll always prefer holding a physical book in my hand, I’m (reluctantly) supportive of efforts to digitize psalters and hymnals, especially for the sake of portability and space-saving. For years the Reformed Presbyterians have led the industry in this area with their Android and iOS apps for The Book of Psalms for Worship. I’ve seen these apps in action and can attest that they work well and come in handy when carrying a psalter around just isn’t practical.

I’d certainly given up hope for any digitized version of the 1959/1976 blue Psalter Hymnal. But, as it turns out, a new resource has partially filled that gap! Recently, a reader from Singapore informed me that the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter is now available in an app format. The Android version has been out for a few years already, but an iOS version did not exist until just a few months ago. Both versions include the text of the 400+ psalm settings in the 1912 Psalter. But the iOS version also includes some fun and useful add-ons such as the Three Forms of Unity, a search function, and an audio feature. (It seems like similar functionality is included in the “Pro” version of the Android app, available here.)

1912 Psalter app

The biggest drawback to both versions of the United Presbyterian Psalter app is that neither one currently includes sheet music. Happily, the developer of the iOS app tells me that adding that capability is a goal for the future.

Even with just the text, these apps are a very useful tool for psalm-singing enthusiasts! The 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter was briefly used by the CRC and formed the basis for its later Psalter Hymnals. Even the blue Psalter Hymnal draws probably 70 to 80 percent of its psalm settings from the UP book. That means if you’re willing to get used to some changes in numbering, these apps can be helpful for URC folk who use the blue Psalter Hymnal as well.

With overhead projection supplanting traditional songbooks in many churches today, I think there are important advantages to maintaining a tradition of printed psalters in Reformed churches. That being said, it’s also encouraging to see digital resources popping up to help spread the love of psalm-singing in the 21st century!

–MRK

Solace (Review)

My friends at Crown & Covenant are aware of one of every niche blogger’s Achilles’ heels: free review copies. Over the past two years they’ve sent me several books and CDs to feature on URC Psalmody, and I’m always more than happy to do so. The only problem is that they’re the only publishing company that currently offers me this incentive, which means my reviews are not as well-balanced as they could be! Nonetheless, since I may be waiting a long time for Reformation Heritage or P&R to add their contributions, I’ll happily continue to review C&C resources.

Solace: Selections from the Book of Psalms for WorshipOver the past several years Crown & Covenant has published a series of albums with simple recordings of psalms from The Book of Psalms for Worship. Currently twelve such albums exist (if my count is correct), and more are expected to appear in the coming months. The most recent is Solace, a collection of twenty psalm settings that focus on the Lord as a source of protection and strength in times of trouble. Utilizing multi-track recording technology, Solace was produced by three members of a very musical Reformed Presbyterian family in California who recorded over their own voices to create the auditory illusion of a small choir.

I’ve had the privilege of getting to know this family a little bit and can attest to their love for psalm-singing, as well as their skill in doing it. Recording twenty psalm settings at professional quality for commercial distribution is no easy task! And overall, this is a recording worthy of the long heritage of psalm-singing that Reformed and Presbyterian churches have enjoyed.

The primary use I would have in mind for this album would be a reference recording. That is, I would go to Solace mostly to find out how an unfamiliar tune goes or to explore possible tempi, arrangements, etc. Because most of the arrangements are very simple, Solace would be especially helpful for those seeking familiarity with The Book of Psalms for Worship or a cappella psalm-singing in general. But the recording quality is generally good enough that the album could make for enjoyable listening music as well, particularly in the area of personal devotions. Again, the simple singing style makes it almost impossible not to meditate on the words as they are sung.

Some aspects of Solace are not as aesthetically pleasing as they could be. The multi-track recording can sound too manipulated at times, especially the female vocals. And, to return to one of my typical complaints about many kinds of psalm-singing, I would love to hear a little more variety in the pacing and dynamics of some of the psalms. In general, I always prefer real-time recordings like those of the Syracuse RP Church, also in this series, which are excellent.

Still, Solace and this series in general set a high standard for psalm-singing albums of all kinds. The closest comparison I can make to a series from the CRC/URC tradition would be Dordt College’s Be Thou Exalted, LORD! series from the 1980’s. As we look ahead to the publication of a new Psalter Hymnal, the OPC and URC’s talented musicians and singers ought to give careful thought to producing a similar set of recordings. Singing the psalms does not need to be beautiful in order to be worshipful, but it certainly deserves our best effort!

–MRK

(Per FCC rules, I need to note that I was sent a complimentary review copy of this book, and I was not required to write a positive review.)


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