Archive for the 'Words' Category

Abraham Kuyper on Church Music

9780802863935The Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) knew how to poke where it hurts when it comes to Reformed church music. But his words are an important reminder for church musicians in a variety of settings and styles:

The congregation had to sing, but in the north of Europe, where Calvinism was especially strong, the people as a rule sing neither in tune nor with accuracy, and neither do they excel in melodious voices.

They tried to correct this shortcoming in two ways–by introducing the organ, and by using a choir or precentor. Of course, it would have been most desirable if they could do without the organ. The pure singing of only human voices is far superior to organ music; the organ comes in to lead only when the singing falters. Leading of congregational singing can also be done by a choir or a precentor with great vocal power. Such precentors, however, can only rarely be found, and should they be found, they often exude their personality too much and thereby become a diversion. A choir is easily assembled, but a choir usually concentrates on the art, seldom on the spirit and contents, and soon the congregation, seduced by the beautiful choir, will keep silent in order to better listen to the singing of the choir. For that reason churches gave preference to organ music . . .

There is nothing objectionable about this organ music, provided that the church council makes sure that the organists do not try to push themselves to the fore. Their task is to lead, support, regulate, and promote the singing; the organ should never assume the right to let itself be heard. It has to serve the singing of the congregation and be dedicated to improve it, to elevate it, to inspire it, and to enter into its spirit. The organ must not overpower the song, but the song must be rendered all the more gloriously because of the organist’s support. When the organist seeks to serve himself and not the congregation and tries to attract attention to himself, the congregation is offended. Our great organists have always been able to avoid this evil; it is only the half-baked organists who, understanding neither the requirements of art nor the sacredness of the worship service, continually try fancy tricks for their own promotion.

Abraham Kuyper, Our Worship (Onze Eeredienst), edited by Harry Boonstra, translated by Harry Boonstra, Henry Baron, Gerrit Sheeres, and Leonard Sweetman (1911; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 56-57.

–MRK

Another Look at Liturgy

Today, Mere Orthodoxy ran an article by an Evangelical Presbyterian pastor which laments the loss of liturgy in Reformed churches in the West. The author, Cameron Shaffer, discusses the bankruptcy of a megachurch mentality that states, “Get rid of the psalms . . . and the world will come”–reinventing worship to attract the next generation to the church, with no thought given to what will keep them there.

I’m currently reading Reformed novelist Douglas Bond’s newest book–this one nonfiction–entitled God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To). Again and again, Bond calls for the Reformed church to return to the traditions and aesthetic standards of previous generations. Although he does not necessarily invoke the word “liturgy,” the idea is all over.

The list could go on. The year 2020 may be the beginning of a decade in which Protestants rediscover the value of liturgical awareness–returning not to the ceremonies of Rome but to the historic practices of worship, psalm-singing among them, that have characterized the church since the days of the apostles.

Veteran readers of this blog may remember a summer series several years ago entitled “A Look at Liturgy.” That series represented my first attempts to come to grips with the role of liturgy in the Reformed faith, using a report produced by the Christian Reformed Church in the 1970’s.

A few months ago, I discovered the book I should have used in that study: Abraham Kuyper’s book Our Worship (Eerdmans, 2009). Writing more than a century ago, Kuyper called for a resurrection of “liturgical awareness” in the Dutch churches of his own day, anticipating many of the consequences that an individualistic and consumeristic attitude toward worship would entail.

Time does not permit me to elaborate on Kuyper’s book here, other than to recommend it as an accessible, thorough, and valuable resource for ministers, musicians, and interested members. I will mention, however, that I am working on a six-part series in The Outlook magazine summarizing Kuyper’s book with commentary and study questions. The Outlook is thoughtful and important reading for all members of the United Reformed Churches in North America, and it is well worth a (very affordable) subscription. My introduction to Our Worship will appear in the January/February 2020 issue.

May what Kuyper called “liturgical awareness” contribute to a new flourishing of Reformed doctrine and life in this third decade of the twenty-first century.

–MRK

Goodbye to the Pocket Psalter?

In the afterglow of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal’s publication, one of the questions that rolls around every now and then is whether the publishers will ever prepare a pocket-sized version of the new book.

Pocket Psalter HymnalRemember the mini Psalter Hymnals of the CRC? We celebrated them here on URC Psalmody because they testified to a thriving culture of psalm- and hymn-singing—not just in church but also before bed, around the dinner table, or on the road. Even today, you can still get a pocket edition of the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter from Reformation Heritage Books, and multiple mini editions of the Book of Psalms for Worship are available from Crown & Covenant Publications.

So it’s only natural to hope that the advent of a new psalter-hymnal in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the United Reformed Churches in North America will bring the added blessing of a pocket edition. Sadly, that’s not likely—for at least three logistical reasons.

First of all, the Trinity Psalter Hymnal offers a very large collection of psalms and hymns—about 50% larger than the 1959/1976 “blue” Psalter Hymnal. That means the pages of the regular edition have to be very thin in order to allow it to fit in a pew rack. It’s difficult to imagine making the paper any thinner in a pocket edition without compromising the integrity and readability of the pages.

Here’s a second factor related to readability: The pages of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal are quite full. The songbook’s commitment to thorough versifications of the Psalms and complete hymn texts leads to a lot of small type and a complex, even busy, page layout. Unlike the larger and simpler type of the 1912 Psalter or the 1959/1976 Psalter Hymnal, a pocket edition of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal would require cramming a lot into a small space.

The third reason a pocket Trinity Psalter Hymnal is unlikely is the expense involved in producing a separately-sized edition of the book. Despite the interest that some church members have expressed, the demand for pocket editions probably wouldn’t be high enough to justify the production costs.

For those of us who fondly remember the tradition of pocket Psalter Hymnals, this may sound like a loss. But it’s important to recognize that the idea of a miniature songbook reflects particular attitudes and beliefs toward worship. And it’s possible to honor and maintain those attitudes without needing a pocket-size hymnal in your hands. So how can we use the Trinity Psalter Hymnal the same way that generations of old used their pocket psalters?

  • Pocket psalters emphasized that singing is a personal devotional practice as well as a corporate activity. Consider buying your own copy of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal and keeping it nearby for family worship or for your own devotions.
  • Pocket psalters were often given to kids so they could learn the songs of the church using their very own book. (I own more than one pocket Psalter Hymnal with scratches and scribbles in the end pages!) If you have a personal Trinity Psalter Hymnal, encourage your kids to explore it for themselves. Sure, you may end up with crayon doodles and ripped pages in a once-pristine book, but you’ll be making a far more worthwhile investment in your children’s spiritual nourishment and development.
  • Pocket psalters were a picture of church membership: As we grow up in the family of God, the songs of his people become our songs too. Pastors and elders, consider giving Trinity Psalter Hymnals as profession-of-faith gifts to young adults in your congregation. There are leather-covered, gold-edged gift editions available for such occasions.

How have you incorporated the Trinity Psalter Hymnal into your personal and familial devotional life? What other opportunities are there to honor the devotional commitment that the tradition of pocket psalters represents?

–MRK

Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land

fergusonA week ago, I heard an extremely unusual commencement address. Although I’ve only graduated twice, I’m fairly familiar with the genre of commencement speeches: usually a motivational talk that congratulates students on surviving four years of high school or college while spurring them on to pursue their dreams. Even in a Christian context, a typical graduation speech might focus on discovering God’s grand plan for your life and serving him with your utmost potential.

My graduation ceremony featured Dr. Sinclair Ferguson as guest speaker. As soon as I saw the title of Dr. Ferguson’s address, I realized this speech was going to be different. It was entitled, “How Shall We Sing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land?” Yes, the text Dr. Ferguson had chosen to unfold for us in the last minutes of our college career was from one of the most abject laments of the Bible, Psalm 137.

Although a warm and engaging speaker, Dr. Ferguson was not interested in the personal hopes and dreams of us college graduates. His main question was this: “Has your education prepared you to sing the Lord’s song, the song of your Lord Jesus Christ, in the land in which you are being called to serve him?” Pointing us to Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as four “college graduates” who sang the Lord’s song in a strange land, Dr. Ferguson enjoined the graduating class of 2017 to follow their examples.

These young men were able to remain strong in the face of opposition because they knew God’s sovereignty, they knew God’s truth, and they knew God’s presence. Their faith in God allowed them to sing. Their faith was tested in the fires of persecution and affliction—and not merely metaphorical fires.

Dr. Ferguson also pointed us to the example of David, the author of the beloved 23rd Psalm. David was not a cherubic shepherd boy when he wrote this psalm. He could speak about the valley of the shadow of death because he had been through it himself, numerous times.

Two thoughts pressed themselves upon me as I heard Dr. Ferguson’s words. First, the Psalms were written in real life. The author of Psalm 137 was not trying to tune into his “bluesy” side any more than the author of Psalm 23 was inspired by a Thomas Kinkade painting. No, the contents of the Psalter were written by real people suffering through real trials, and determined to seek the face of God nonetheless. As such, the psalms are for us. We ought not to shy away from the full spectrum of emotions and situations in the Psalter. Days that call for Psalm 137 will come, and when they do, we must have the courage to take this psalm and others upon our lips.

The second thought is that Dr. Ferguson’s message resonates especially at a place like Geneva College, where the psalms are regularly sung. Geneva has taught me to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, not just by training me to be a truthful communicator in a world of deceit, but actually by teaching me to sing the Lord’s songs. To cite just one example, Psalm 117 is sung at the end of every chapel service at Geneva. When it was announced as the closing song at Saturday’s commencement ceremony, the graduates stood unbidden, recognizing the gravity and joy of the occasion. By teaching the psalms, Geneva has given to me and others a spiritual vocabulary that we can turn to when we encounter those trials and temptations. For that I am exceedingly grateful.

A memorable commencement address to conclude a memorable college career. I go forth rejoicing, with Dr. Ferguson’s charge still resounding in my soul: “Go and sing the Lord’s song in what is becoming an increasingly strange land, and trust his power and trust his truth and trust his presence, and he will be with you to the end of your life, and then by his grace for all eternity.”

–MRK

(The entire commencement ceremony, including Dr. Ferguson’s remarks, can be viewed here.)

Etched in Our Hearts

mattmontgomeryThe following is a guest post by Matthew Montgomery, a senior Music Education major at Geneva College. Matt is a talented guitarist and vocalist with a passion for sharing the gospel through song. Last fall he led devotions for The Genevans choir and reflected on his introduction to psalm-singing through the college’s chapel program, the choir, and New Song (a smaller vocal ensemble). Matt’s story is a wonderful testimony to the long-term spiritual impact of singing the psalms.

This is my fourth year singing with The Genevans, and I’m all too aware that it’s my last year here at Geneva College. Right now, I want to talk to the underclassmen, but you veterans are welcome to listen too. Freshmen, I remember being in your shoes and being pretty confused about some things when I came to Geneva. Now, I grew up Presbyterian, but I had no idea what the Reformed Presbyterian Church was all about until I got to chapel here and realized that there were no instruments or hymns.

At first, I remember feeling like my right to express myself through worship was taken away with psalm-singing in chapel. How was I supposed to worship without the songs and instruments that I was used to? Well, I slowly got used to the whole a capella thing. And as strange as it seemed to me at first, I did appreciate that we were singing straight from God’s Word. However, part of me still missed the songs that I liked to sing.

The longer I’ve been here at Geneva and the longer I’ve sung the psalms with this group and with New Song, the more I’ve fallen in love with psalm singing. God gave us the gift of music for many reasons, but one of the most evident reasons in my own experience is that God gave us music to help etch his Word into our hearts. Think about it: we struggle to remember a simple list of terms for an exam, but we can remember every single word to our favorite song. When we sing the psalms, we are not only praising God by echoing back His holy inspired Word to the Author of creation, we are tucking those words into our hearts for when we may need them most. There have been times that I’ve been so struck down and defeated that I have no words of my own to even pray. It is in moments like this that the melody and words to Psalm 6 have echoed through my mind:

I am weary from my sighing,
And my bed dissolves in tears,
For my eye grows weak with sorrow,
My comfort disappears.

Return, O Lord,
Rescue my soul because of your lovingkindness.

Or the words of Dr. Byron Curtis’ setting of Psalm 130:

Out of the depths I cry to thee;
Lord, my master, hear my voice.
And let thine ears attentive be
Unto my voice my crying plea.

I wait for the Lord, all my hope is in his mercy.

Michael’s Psalm 103 will forever be stuck in my head. Like Dr. Smith said yesterday, we will never be able to read that psalm without hearing the music in our head. That is a beautiful thing. This list of psalms that veteran Genevans know by heart could go on and on. Newbies, I encourage you to be mindful that you are not just learning and making memories during your time here at Geneva, you are equipping yourself with God’s Word which will guide and direct you for the rest of your life.

I urge you all, no matter what denomination you’re from or what style of worship you prefer, to be mindful of the incredible blessing it is to sing God’s praise and to be etching His word into your hearts and minds. I feel like a fool for ever thinking that my right to express myself through praise songs was being taken away, because the psalms are more expressive than any song that I could ever write. Every emotion or situation we find ourselves feeling or experiencing can point to a psalm. Don’t be as closed-minded as Freshman Matt.

I hope that when we all eventually leave this place, we would all have a better understanding of what it means to sing praises to God and to live a life of worship that stems only by being rooted in his Word.

–Matthew Montgomery

See Matt’s YouTube channel for some of his varied tastes and talents in music!


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