Archive for the 'Words' Category



Sing Gently

Gentle ReformationA few months ago, Christian blogger Tim Challies listed Gentle Reformation, one of the only blogs I can even claim to regularly read, as one of his favorite blogs of 2016. It was a moment in the spotlight for the gracious authors of an ordinary and rather humble website, something they compared to winning the cyber version of an Oscar or an Emmy.

On one hand, I try not to put too much stock in online announcements like this. In the blogosphere, we can easily slip into our own imaginative reality in which a “like” and a “share” are equivalent to a laudatory review in the New York Times. But on the other hand, I think the authors of Gentle Reformation are on to something, and I’m glad a widely-read blogger publicly thanked them for it.

Gentle Reformation’s “About” page expresses three goals: to be persuasive rather than polemical, to be pastoral rather than pejorative, and to consider people in the pews rather than just professors and pastors. In other words, the blog exists because its authors recognize and seek to respond to several pitfalls that are especially prevalent in the Reformed and Presbyterian faith.

The first pitfall is the temptation of pride. Hard as it is to admit, we Reformed folk have the habit of turning the “only comfort in life and in death” of the Heidelberg Catechism into a surly self-confidence that shifts the attention from the finished work of Christ back to ourselves. How ironic that our Calvinistic theology that magnifies the grace of God can be turned to boost our own egos instead! Aware of this pitfall, the authors of Gentle Reformation have revealed a consistently humble and winsome tone in their writing.

Another temptation is to call out the bad without pointing instead to the good. In his recent book The Happy Christian, Free Reformed minister David Murray notes excessive negativity as a besetting problem for Christians as well as for our culture at large. Reading Gentle Reformation is refreshing because its dominant theme is one of encouragement rather than criticism.

Finally, bloggers—including Christian bloggers—often fall into patterns of technical jargon or lofty language that alienate readers. In the case of Reformed sites, the terms may include “neo-Kuyperianism” or Latin phrases from the Apostles’ Creed (and there is a place for such discussions), but the effects on readers are often the same. From what I have seen, Gentle Reformation consciously avoids this kind of jargon, instead creating articles that Christians in all walks of life can enjoy reading.

I feel the implications of these pitfalls pretty strongly with regard to psalm-singing as well. It is easy to lapse into discussions about short meter and formal-equivalence-versus-functional-equivalence that would leave many readers reeling. It is easy to lament the losses church music has suffered in the 21st century without suggesting gracious, practical, and positive ways to generate more enthusiasm for the psalms. And it is especially easy to look down on those who have a supposedly “less developed” understanding of worship.

Gentle Reformation serves as an inspiration for me as a fellow blogger to address these pitfalls more intentionally. More broadly, I think its example ought to challenge all of us in our everyday conversations, particularly with regard to psalm-singing. I’ve heard many arguments for the psalms that take the low road of dogmatism and condescension rather than the high road of gentle persuasion with brotherly love. That’s part of the reason URC Psalmody has never taken a position on exclusive psalmody or a cappella singing. Our point is to encourage readers to sing the psalms more, not to engender strife about hymns and instruments.

The example set by Geneva College also comes to my mind. Geneva holds to the practice of singing psalms exclusively and a cappella in chapel. And as the denominational college of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, Geneva could easily define itself as the pro-psalm-and-anti-hymn-and-praise-chorus Christian college, with some powerful Scriptural and historical arguments to back it up. But that’s not at all the approach I’ve seen. Rather, I’ve seen the college gently disciple its students and professors in the practice of psalm-singing, week after week, year after year. Although many students won’t be won over by the time they graduate, I know many others who affirm that they developed a new and genuine love for the psalms thanks to Geneva. (You’ll hear from one of them later this week.)

I suppose the point of this post is merely to ponder out loud what a “Gentle Reformation” approach to psalm-singing might look like. I’m happy to hear your thoughts. I do know that these examples and many others remind us to emulate the chief example of our Savior, whose every word was full of grace and truth.

–MRK

“The Marches of the Psalm-Country”

“In these busy days, it would be greatly to the spiritual profit of Christian men if they were more familiar with the Book of Psalms, in which they would find a complete armoury for life’s battles, and a perfect supply for life’s needs. Here we have both delight and usefulness, consolation and instruction. For every condition there is a Psalm, suitable and elevating. The Book supplies the babe in grace with penitent cries, and the perfected saint with triumphant songs. Its breadth of experience stretches from the jaws of hell to the gate of heaven. He who is acquainted with the marches of the Psalm-country knows that the land floweth with milk and honey, and he delights to travel therein.”

– from the preface to C.H. Spurgeon’s final volume of The Treasury of David

Doxologies from the Psalms

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How many doxologies can you sing?

I say “doxologies” because the category is far broader than the traditional “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” that usually comes to mind. “Doxology” is derived from the Greek words doxa (“glory”) and logia (“saying”); thus, a doxology is simply a “saying of glory” or a statement of praise, often in poetic form. In much of English hymnody, this statement of praise appears at the end of a hymn and references the three persons of the Trinity. Even the traditional “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” was originally the last stanza to a much longer hymn by Thomas Ken.

So while “the Doxology” does fit the trinitarian form commonly associated with hymn doxologies, so do these last stanzas of other hymns. Both are from the blue Psalter Hymnal—do you recognize them?

To the great One in Three
Eternal praises be
Hence evermore.
His sovereign majesty
May we in glory see,
And to eternity
Love and adore.

All praise and thanks to God
The Father now be given,
The Son, and Him who reigns
With them in highest heaven,
The one eternal God,
Whom earth and heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now,
And shall be evermore.

Although references to the Trinity have become commonplace in sung doxologies, it’s not necessary for these references to be explicitly present. Think, for instance, of the last stanza of “By the Sea of Crystal” (#469). Thus, a doxology can be adequately described as any succinct yet powerful statement of praise to God, often occurring at the end of an element of worship.

Given the topic of this blog, you can probably imagine where this particular conversation is headed. If we’re looking for succinct yet powerful statements of praise to God, how can we neglect the divinely-inspired riches given to us in the Book of Psalms? In fact, I must confess that for the hundreds of times I’ve heard “The Doxology” sung at the end of worship, the number of times I’ve heard a psalm setting in that position is relatively small.

As it turns out, the Book of Psalms contains its own internal doxologies that divide the five subsections of the Psalter: Psalms 41:13, 72:19-20, 89:52, and 106:48. Most of these simply urge the people to “Bless the LORD!” and are followed by an “Amen.” In addition, one thinks of the five psalms that close the Psalter, each of which begin and end with “Hallelujah” or “Praise the LORD!” The blue Psalter Hymnal’s topical index lists some of these passages under the “Doxologies” heading: #73 stanza 6; #135 stanza 4 (and #488, from the same passage); #171 stanza 8; #211 stanza 23; and #309-310. But it would be foolish to limit our repertoire of psalm-based doxologies to these passages. To whet your appetite, here are four other Psalter Hymnal psalm settings that (though paraphrased) would be excellent choices for a doxology at the end of worship.

36, “The ends of all the earth shall hear” (Psalm 22)

(Sung at Synod 2012)

Psalm 22 opens as one of the most poignant laments of the Psalter, foreshadowing Christ’s suffering on the cross. But the latter half of this psalm opens up into an exultant declaration of praise, with references to the generations that will come to fear the Lord because of the mighty things he has done. The author of Hebrews interpreted this psalm as being sung by Jesus himself (“He is not ashamed to call them brothers,” Hebrews 2:11), and one can’t help but think of how suitable it is for Christians, those who have been purchased by Christ’s blood, to join in singing Jesus’ own statement of praise. This doxology would be especially suitable after a presentation from a visiting missionary (“The ends of all the earth shall hear”) or after celebrating the Lord’s supper.

The Lord’s unfailing righteousness
All generations shall confess,
From age to age shall men be taught
What wondrous works the Lord has wrought.

All earth to Him her homage brings,
The Lord of lords, the King of kings.

105, “O God, Be Merciful to Me” (Psalm 57)

Because of its strong themes of lament, Psalm 57 may seem like an unusual choice for a doxology. David cries out for God to be merciful to him amidst the “storms of destruction” and enemies that long to devour him. Yet in the middle of these pressing dangers he breaks out twice in a passionate exclamation of praise: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth!” (vv. 5, 11). The last stanza of the Psalter Hymnal’s setting would be a fitting and sensitive doxology even after a worship service filled with confession and lament.

Yea, I will early wake and sing,
A thankful hymn to Thee will bring,
For unto heaven Thy mercies rise,
The truth is lofty as the skies.
Be Thou, O God, exalted high,
Yea, far above the starry sky,
And let Thy glory be displayed
O’er all the earth Thy hands have made.

284, “Give Thanks to God, for Good Is He” (Psalm 136)

(Sung at Synod 2012)

Psalm 136 is notable because each of its twenty-six verses concludes with the phrase, “for his steadfast love endures forever.” This magnificent poem surveys how the Lord’s covenant love was displayed to Israel throughout redemptive history, and how he continues to “remember us in our low estate” today (v. 23). Although it is a fairly free paraphrase, the last stanza of the Psalter Hymnal’s setting of Psalm 136 nicely sums up the doxological thrust of this psalm:

He helped us in our deepest woes,
His grace abideth ever;
He ransomed us from all our foes,
His mercy faileth never.
Each creature’s need He doth supply,
His grace abideth ever;
Give thanks to God, enthroned on high,
Whose mercy faileth never.

303, “O Sing Ye Hallelujah” (Psalm 147)

You may recognize Psalm 147 as one of the Psalter’s concluding statements of praise (Psalms 146-150). As far as singing goes, however, Psalm 147 probably has one of the lesser-known text and tune combinations in the blue Psalter Hymnal. This psalm is a marvelous exposition of the Lord’s power in providing for his people. He fills them with the finest of the wheat (v. 14), but he also does something far better: he gives his statutes to Israel (v. 19), something no other nation has enjoyed. For us who have been grafted into the true Israel, the last stanza of this psalm setting reminds us what a privilege it is to be called into the presence of God himself for worship. (If a more familiar tune is needed, try LANCASHIRE, #364.)

His statutes and His judgments
He makes His people know;
To them as to no others
His grace He loves to show;
For matchless grace and mercy
Your grateful praises bring;
To Him give thanks forever,
And Hallelujah sing.

What are your favorite psalm doxologies? Share them in the comments below!

–MRK

Our Five-Year Review

1976 Psalter Hymnal

A happy New Year to all! Though it’s hard to believe, this new year also marks URC Psalmody’s fifth anniversary—our first post was on December 30, 2011. And while I don’t want to engage in the obsessive navel-gazing that entraps too many bloggers, I do want to take a moment to thank you all for your continued readership.

From the very beginning, URC Psalmody’s primary purpose has been discussion, and thanks to the lively and regular interaction of our readers, that goal has been accomplished. Although it is difficult to verify just how many site hits are from real human readers, WordPress tells me URC Psalmody received visits from more than 86 countries in 2016, with about 10,000 views coming from the United States and 2,600 coming from Canada. And in the last five years we’ve received more than 750 comments, which—again—are where most of the real action occurs. So thanks to all of you who take time to read and share your thoughts. You’ve kept this blog alive!

I also want to thank the contributors who have stepped up at various times to offer articles, devotionals, and other materials on the psalms. Rev. Jim Oord (Community URC, Schererville, IN) contributed more than thirty posts while studying at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, many of which are still among our most viewed articles. Thanks, Jim! More recently, Rev. Nick Smith of the United Reformed Church of Nampa, ID, and Rev. Peter Holtvlüwer of the Spring Creek Canadian Reformed Church in Tintern, Ontario, have also offered some thoughts for publication here, and I hope to invite more contributors in the future as well.

Personally, I can say I’ve learned a lot from blogging on the psalms. I’ve gained a broader perspective on the landscape of Reformed worship and established stronger connections to the church through the conversations here. My own opinions have been shaped, refined, and sometimes outright changed as well, to the point where I’m embarrassed to return to some of URC Psalmody’s early posts. But this means that your comments have sharpened and deepened my faith and my love for the psalms—so thank you!

More broadly, the past five years have witnessed a rise in enthusiasm for psalm-singing across many Reformed and Presbyterian churches. We’ve seen the recent release of great books on psalmody like Beeke and Selvaggio’s Sing a New Song and LeFebvre’s Singing the Songs of Jesus, in addition to books that integrate the study of psalms into other worthy topics, like David Murray’s Jesus on Every Page. It also seems that more churches are hosting conferences on Reformed worship; I’ve enjoyed opportunities to lead classes on psalm-singing for URC, OPC, and RPCNA audiences, and I know that others far more qualified than myself are participating in similar seminars. And the news about the forthcoming Trinity Psalter Hymnal is fueling renewed interest in why our churches sing the psalms to begin with. I don’t think URC Psalmody spawned the wave of fresh enthusiasm for psalm-singing, but we are more than happy to ride it!

And, as I write this on the eve of my final semester at Geneva College, I can’t help but express my deepest appreciation for that institution and its surrounding community, which for so many years has encouraged students to integrate the psalms into their walk with Christ individually and together. Because of Geneva’s weekly chapel services, there are psalms whose texts and melodies will probably be implanted in my mind for the rest of my life.

URC Psalmody has never had a stated mission other than to foster discussion, but if we did it would be summarized in these three words: Sing more psalms! We realize that worship is a topic about which Christians care deeply, yet also a topic about which sinful people like us are very, very unqualified to speak. As a result, our goal is to point above the flaws and foibles of earthly worship to the ultimate goal: that of drawing near to God and becoming more like his Son. I hope this blog will continue to be a place where we can humbly converse, courteously argue, curiously investigate, and earnestly pursue that vision.

–MRK

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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