Posts Tagged 'Christianity'

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.)

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“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

Psalm 25: The College of Grace

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To you, O LORD, I lift my soul.
O my God, in you I trust.

–Psalm 25:1,2 (ESV)

The new school year brings with it a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Students of all ages worry whether they will make new friends in a new school, whether their coursework will be manageable, or whether their teachers or professors will be gentle or tyrannical. College freshmen wonder how they will survive living away from the comforts of home and school. Eagerness and dread blend together in a classic combination so unique to this time of year.

Poised to enter my senior year of college, I sympathize with all students who have an intimidating course of study to return to next month, but I think particularly of the incoming college freshmen. Three short years ago I was in their shoes, losing sleep over hundreds of questions (both important and totally unimportant) about what my life would look like. If I could travel back those three years, I often wonder what words of wisdom I might have for my freshman self. I think it would be a relatively short list: avoid the fish tacos, take more communication classes, and don’t expect hot water on the third floor of the dorm at 6 a.m. But above all these practical tips, there would certainly be one piece of advice in bold print: Study Psalm 25.

In Hebrew Psalm 25 is an acrostic. In other words, each verse begins with the successive letters of the alphabet. As it turns out, Psalm 25 presents not just a literal alphabet but also a spiritual alphabet, a set of principles for wise living in a foolish world. The more of college I experience, the more I recognize the stores of wisdom this psalm offers to all of us who are students in the lifelong course of the Christian walk.

“Let me not be put to shame.” I can definitely recall times in my college experience when I felt ashamed: maybe it was the disappointing grade I got on a paper, or the conflict I handled poorly, or the times when I failed to meet my own expectations. “Let not my enemies exult over me.” There are enemies in college too—perhaps not actual bullies, most of the time, but the triple evils that attack Christians in their walk: the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. Whether or not you attend a Christian school, you will feel these pressures at some point, and there will be times when you feel that they have triumphed over you.

The world tries to paper over the shame and disappointment we experience with pep talks about success and self-definition. Be your own person! Rise above your circumstances! Take control of your destiny! Surprisingly, this is the very opposite of the psalmist’s solution. His answer sounds passive, even paralyzing: “None who wait for you shall be put to shame.” Far from blazing his own trail, the psalmist seeks directions to a pre-existing path: “Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.” He describes waiting on God “all the day long,” a discipline that seems thankless and fruitless. Yet it is here, according to this psalm, that the believer will find true success.

In The Treasury of David, Charles Spurgeon pictures Psalm 25 as the request of a little child: “Father, first tell me which is the way, and then teach my little trembling feet to walk in it.” If there is one thing college has taught me, it is that I often do not know the way. As a freshman, I loved to picture myself excelling in all my classes, surrounded by groups of great friends, and pressing forward to exciting prospects after graduation. God has provided many of these blessings, and they are blessings indeed. But it is impossible to really enjoy such gifts without a kind of wisdom that no college can impart, a wisdom gained from the humbling experience of waiting upon God through times of doubt and hardship as well as ease and assurance.

While the path may often seem steep or overgrown, Psalm 25 promises that those who wait upon the Lord will receive this heavenly wisdom. “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.” If you can take one verse with you through your college education—and through the rest of life’s difficult decisions as well—let this be it. Do you need to confess nagging sin? Do you doubt your strength to follow Jesus all the way to the end? Do you feel lonely and homesick? Psalm 25 offers you a spiritual alphabet to remind you of the wisdom that comes from above. It is a syllabus that will guide you successfully through all the halls and corridors of what Spurgeon called “the college of grace.”

–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.

Singing the Whole Psalm

smithThe following is a guest post by Rev. Nick Smith of the United Reformed Church in Nampa, Idaho. It appears in the May 25 issue of Christian Renewal Magazine and is reprinted with permission.

One of the things that Michael Kearney notes in his excellent article on the proposed Psalter Hymnal is the way it addresses the problem of “telescoped and sanitized” Psalms. This is an issue that I think is important for our churches, and I want to highlight some reasons that I think this is the case. Before doing so, however, I want to note a few things up front.

First, this is not the only or even the main reason that the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (TPH) will be a blessing to our churches. The dramatic improvement of the hymn selection, the expression of unity with the OPC, and the consistent use of actual contemporary English are all rich and important reasons to commend the committee’s work.

Second, as should be expected of anything done in community by way of working together with others, there are aspects of the new book that I don’t like. But this too is an opportunity to express our fellowship as churches, and to exercise our ability to work together and learn from each other. So I am eager to set aside my personal preferences for the sake of this great expression of unity, and for the sake of the larger benefits the book presents.

One of those benefits is the inclusion of full versions of each of the Psalms, versions that include much biblical content that has been excluded when the Psalms are “telescoped and sanitized.” A great treasure of the Reformed tradition is our commitment to embracing the Psalms as belonging to the church today, using them in corporate worship, and allowing them to shape our spirituality. The TPH will help us grow in this practice, to sing the Psalms in their entirety, precisely where they challenge us to grow in the way we sing and pray to the Lord.

Psalm-singing is deeply rooted theologically. The Psalms, as with all of Scripture, spoke of Christ and are fulfilled in Christ (Luke 24:44). Jesus grew up singing and praying the Psalms, crying out with the words of Psalm 22 on the cross (Matthew 27:46). The Psalms are rightly understood as singing of Christ and being sung by Christ. As we are united to Christ by faith, the Psalms become our songs and prayers that we share with him.

Moreover, the practice of singing the Psalms is fruitful precisely because they are God’s Word. There can be times when we may dislike the singing of a Psalm because what it describes or expresses doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t resonate with our experience. It doesn’t say what we desire to say. But this is exactly when the Psalm is most needed. We don’t always feel what we should feel; we don’t always desire to pray what we should pray. When we sing the Psalms, our spirituality is being shaped and formed by words that God has given to us. But when we sanitize those words or eliminate the elements that make us uncomfortable, that formative function of the Psalms is lost. Rather than the Psalm forming us, we have transformed the Psalm.

The TPH helps us address this problem. Our congregation is singing Psalm 110A (our “Psalm of the Month” for May). While the new setting is beautiful, singing a new version was difficult, since we have grown to love the setting of Psalm 110 in the blue Psalter Hymnal (#221, “The Lord unto His Christ Has Said”). If there’s a Psalm setting I’d be inclined to defend, it’s that one. And yet as we sang the new version, I was struck by some of the words:

The nations he will judge;
the dead in heaps will lie.
The mighty of the earth he’ll crush –
all who his rule defy.

I’ve read Psalm 110, I’ve sung it, I’ve preached on it. And yet when we came to the words, I wondered, “Are those words really in the Psalm?” Sure enough, it’s verse 6: “He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth.”

So why the disconnect? I suspect it’s because of our practice of singing versions that are “sanitized.” The setting that we most often sing, and that I was inclined to defend, says “Thou shalt subdue the kings of earth with God at thy right hand; the nations thou shalt rule in might and judge in every land.” There are no corpses, no heaps of dead, no shattering and crushing the proud who defy the Lord’s rule.

Does it really matter that we sing, “The nations he will judge; the dead in heaps will lie. The mighty of the earth he’ll crush – all who his rule defy”? It does matter, and it matters precisely because these words make us uncomfortable. These words give us a vivid and memorable way to sing of God’s defeat of all of his enemies, and the practice of singing them is meant to shape and form us.

The words are memorable. Much like stories in the book of Judges, the language sticks in the mind. Who can forget Ehud slaying Eglon, or Jael’s tent peg driven into Sisera’s temple? Likewise, when we sing “the mighty of the earth he’ll crush,” the language is vivid in a way that stays with us. This is important, because we face real enemies. The language of the Psalm is ultimately fulfilled in Christ’s defeat of the demonic forces of sin and death and hell, in his defeat of the spiritual powers that array themselves against the church. This is a reality that we come up against repeatedly in the Christian life. When we face temptation, when we face the darkness of depression and anxiety, when we are confronted with the reality of pain and sickness and death, we need to have sung the vivid words of Psalm 110 – Christ is on the throne, and he has crushed – and will crush – all of those enemies.

There is real evil in the world, and when people align themselves with that evil, when they obstinately refuse to follow Christ, and when they use their power to abuse and hurt and kill and rape and destroy, the Bible is clear that all of those wrongs are going to one day be set right. God’s people need to sing of that reality. One of the ways Christ defeats the serpent is by converting the nations and bringing salvation. That has been the case since Christ ascended and will be the case until he returns. But we also know that there are those who instead ally themselves with the serpent, who use their position of power to cause suffering for others. And the Bible calls us to sing of the day when all of that evil will be set right, when the Lord will bring justice.

Sanitized Psalms, cleansed of vivid language, withhold from the church a bold prayer that God intends to answer – a prayer that the day will come when evil will be destroyed, when sin and death and hell and all the demonic forces of the serpent will finally be crushed and defeated. This is the future God reveals in Revelation 19: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” This is the reality we sing of in the Psalms.

When we are frightened by evil, by the wicked powers that are present in the world, by political might that seeks to oppose Christ and his church, we are challenged to respond in faith. Over against the evil in the world, we are to be a people of hope, composure and confidence, living in a way that points to a future in which evil does not have the last word. Psalm 110 is given to form in us a vivid remembrance of that hope:

The nations he will judge;
the dead in heaps will lie.
The mighty of the earth he’ll crush –
all who his rule defy.

–Rev. Nick Smith


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