Posts Tagged 'Christianity'



Spirit, Screamo, and Psalm-Singing

IMG_1773eThanks to my current college classes I’ve been thinking a lot lately about architecture. Even if we don’t often pause to consider it, it’s a subject most of us have at least some appreciation for. You could probably describe your idea of a cozy house, a sleek office building, or a majestic church just by how the structure is put together.

Architecture is fascinating because it can give us clues about the attitudes behind the buildings as well. Houses are built with separate rooms for individual people to sleep in, but also common areas for families to share meals and other day-to-day activities. Office buildings tend to be designed in tightly-packed cubes to optimize space and maximize productivity. Churches, at least old ones, often include lots of filtered light and upward-pointing lines in an effort to set the sanctuary apart from the workaday world.

I was reminded of the descriptive power of architecture just the other day, when the Alliance Defending Freedom released a video explaining my college’s current legal battle against the abortifacient mandate of Obamacare. The video contains footage of both Geneva’s campus and the US Department of Health and Human Services, and as a professor noted, the difference in architecture is immediately striking. Massive bureaucracy on one hand contrasts with small but vibrant community on the other. You don’t even have to begin by knowing the people inside each organization; you can see it in the buildings.

The point is this: Different architecture reflects different spirits. The way something was put together does–or should–reveal something about what its creators valued. And the same is true for music.

Music has its own kind of architecture: plain or ornate, simple or complex, for one voice or many. Music, too, conveys attitudes and beliefs about the world in which it is created. And when you consider psalm-singing alongside the dominant music of contemporary society, the result is again a study in contrasts.

Think about the structure behind “pop” music genres like screamo and dubstep–the piercing vocals, the guitar riffs, the electronic manipulation, even just the sheer volume. All of these traits certainly seem to send the message (what T. David Gordon would call a “meta-message”) that edginess and entertainment value are the supreme goals of the music. The content of music and lyrics may be trivial, but that doesn’t matter; the medium was created merely for mass consumption, and that’s what counts.

A good topic for another day would be to try to answer whether the genre of “contemporary Christian music” sends a different message. I’m afraid much of it doesn’t. But let’s skip this category of music, along with the older category of hymns, and go back to the psalms. What does the architecture of psalm-singing (not even the content, but just the structures and patterns of psalm-singing) reveal? I’d love to hear your thoughts, but for now, here are a few of my own:

  • Psalm-singing reveals a common identity. When we sing psalms in church, we don’t perform solos. Neither do we let a group of people stand at the front of the sanctuary and do the singing for us. No, we sing together, both in unison and in harmony, affirming that we are all members of the universal body of Christ.
  • Psalm-singing opposes the idea of performance. Groups like my college choir may occasionally sing psalms in concert, but congregational psalm-singing has never been designed around performance. To be honest, a lot of congregational psalm-singing sounds pretty rough around the edges. But in the era of squeaky-clean digital mastering, we may need to be reminded that there are reasons to sing other than “sounding good.”
  • Psalm-singing legitimizes a wide range of emotions. In contrast to the limited emotional vocabulary of pop music, the psalms treat a vast spectrum of life experiences with a vast spectrum of emotional responses. If we take psalm-singing seriously, our worship will include a variety of moods and subjects, some of which we may not be particularly comfortable with. And that’s the point: over time, psalm-singing prepares us for all the ups and downs of the Christian life.
  • Psalm-singing reveals an attitude of worship. The psalms address God so frequently that this point almost seems unnecessary–but it isn’t. The ultimate recipient of our singing isn’t the giant crowd in a mosh pit, nor is it even an auditorium full of fellow believers. The primary reason for our singing isn’t to share our thoughts and feelings with the rest of the world, it’s to communicate with God.

Different architecture, different spirits–and may the Spirit that dwells within us impart a God-honoring (and refreshingly different) shape to the songs we sing!

–MRK

Five Tips for Learning the Psalms

Whether or not you like the idea of New Year’s resolutions, the start of 2016 is a great opportunity to set one goal: Know the psalms better. If you’re looking to grow in your knowledge of Scripture, your understanding of redemptive history, and your closeness to Christ, the psalms are an excellent place to start. If you’re not sure how to begin, here are five practical options for delving into the Book of Psalms throughout the upcoming year.

1. Read through the psalms in your personal daily devotions.

This can be as simple as reading a psalm every day, perhaps the first thing in the morning or the last thing before you go to bed. If you consistently read a psalm a day, you’ll get through the book at least twice before the end of the year. Look for patterns as you read: What are the themes of each psalm? How would you classify them (thanksgiving, lament, wisdom, royal, etc.)? How do you see Jesus’ work foreshadowed in them?

2. Find a good commentary.

As simple, reliable options, consider reading the study notes for the psalms in your study Bible. If you’re looking for a more detailed exposition, good commentaries on the psalms include Spurgeon’s Treasury of DavidAndrew Bonar’s Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalmsand, of course, Calvin.

On the other hand, it’s not necessary to buy a commentary on the whole psalter to appreciate the psalms more. There are many smaller books and booklets devoted to one section or category from the Book of Psalms. A favorite of mine is Rhett Dodson’s This Brief Journey: Loving and Living the Psalms of Ascents, which focuses on Psalms 120-127.

3. Pick some psalms to memorize.

Did you memorize Psalm 23 as a child? It doesn’t have to stop there. Choose a handful of psalms–maybe one from each book of the Psalter, or one for each month of the year–and intentionally, methodically memorize them, either by yourself or with your family. Let these divinely-inspired words penetrate your skin and circulate through your spiritual bloodstream.

Many people, myself included, find it easier to memorize the psalms when they’re set to music. Which brings me to my fourth point:

4. Buy your own psalter.

You don’t have to be musical to benefit from having a metrical psalter in your home. If you attend a church that uses the Psalter Hymnal, ask if they have extra copies or buy your own from Reformed Fellowship. Other good, modern psalters include the New Genevan Psalterthe Trinity Psalterthe Book of Psalms for Singingand the Book of Psalms for WorshipEach of these books has its own strengths and weaknesses, but all of them present the entire Book of Psalms in an easy-to-memorize metrical format. Even just reading them aloud will make memorization easier.

The task will be less daunting, of course, if you have a musical instrument and/or some degree of musical talent in your household. But even if not, you can always grab a pitch pipe and plunge forward into uncharted musical territories with the rest of your family. My college roommates and I do this almost every Sunday, and we love it!

5. Reflect on what you sing in church.

This last point is the hardest of all. My mind wanders in a thousand different directions on Sunday mornings, and keeping it focused on worship at all–let alone the significance of what I’m singing–is a challenging task. To start with, assuming your church sings at least a few psalms in worship, look for connections between the psalms you studied during the week and the words of the congregational songs. Are you singing a psalm you previously studied or memorized? Do different things about the words stand out to you when they’re sung in church? Does the overall theme of the psalm seem different when applied corporately (to the whole body) instead of individually (just to you)?

If your church doesn’t sing psalms, take the opportunity to study further what the psalms have to say about corporate worship, and what the Bible has to say about the psalms in corporate worship. Maybe devote some time on the Lord’s Day to singing psalms at home with your family. And pray that more people in your congregation would come to appreciate the great blessing of the psalter!

These ideas aren’t a magic formula for embedding the psalms in your heart, nor are they meant to detract from the other spiritual disciplines we should be cultivating. The Christian walk is about much more than just knowing the Book of Psalms, but it should certainly include it. And as a new year begins, now is a great time to start!

–MRK

The Safest Place in the World

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Times Square Ball

Sixty miles from my house is a flagpole with a giant illuminated ball suspended at its top. It looks kind of gaudy, and no one is really sure why it’s there. But we do know that at 11:59 pm it will slowly descend 70 feet until it reaches the ground at the stroke of midnight, ringing in the start of 2016.

Oh, and right now a crowd of about a million people is packed on the streets waiting for this climactic event. That’s a small number compared to the estimated billion people who will watch the event from their TV’s, laptops, and smartphones.

This is one New Year’s tradition, and it’s the one we New Yorkers typically think of first. But there’s a much older January 1 custom: the singing of “Auld Lang Syne.” This beloved Scottish ballad is a call to remembrance, asking, “Should auld [old] acquaintance be forgot,/and never brought to mind?”

Ironically, few people remember “Auld Lang Syne” itself nowadays. In fact, earlier tonight NPR published a blurb lamenting the song’s decline in recent years. Ruth Perry, a professor from MIT, is quoted as saying:

People have to learn to sing together again. I think it’s important. I really do. Because it’s bonding. Because it’s community-making. Because we don’t have enough such glue in our culture. It would be good to revive that which there is. It’s very good for people to feel that they’re part of something bigger than themselves.

I can’t help but mourn the fact that our New Year’s celebrations, as raucous as they may be, seem to be missing this “cultural glue.” We still “celebrate,” but don’t always remember for what—just like we’re “thankful,” but not sure to whom. And celebration is hard in an age of terror; the same news report I referenced earlier also mentioned that security forces in Times Square are in the thousands. Only in the presence of a massive corps of heavily armed policemen can NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio assert that the city tonight is “the safest place in the world.”

DeBlasio may be good at denial, but judging by the international news headlines in the past few days, we’re scared. We’ve been scared for a long time. And scared people don’t sing.

Or do they?

What put the plaintive tones of “Auld Lang Syne” back in my ear was a blog post I read earlier today over at GentleReformation.org. There Reformed Presbyterian minister Nathan Eshelman called my attention to another set of words sung to the same tune: the words of Psalm 77.

Forever will the Lord cast off, show favor never more?
His steadfast love forever cease? His promise come no more?
Has God forgotten all His grace? Has his compassion gone?
Or can it be His mercies all, He has in wrath withdrawn?

If you ask me, I’d say the singer of these words sounds scared, to say the least. He sees terror all around him, and worst of all, he feels God’s absence. Perhaps, he fears, God has forgotten.

That’s a thought that should make us flee Manhattan, turn off the TV, cancel the ball drop—because if God has forgotten, why should we welcome another year? Another year of disease, shootings, famines, earthquakes, fires, terror? Is the “something bigger than ourselves” just one absurd catastrophe? It would be far more fitting to watch the midnight countdown in slack-jawed horror.

But that’s not where the psalmist leaves us. The setting goes on (sing along, if you know the tune):

Then I replied, Such questions show my own infirmity.
The firm right hand of Him Most High through years must changeless be.
The LORD’s deeds I remember will, your works of old recall.
I’ll ponder all which you have done and weigh your wonders all.

God has not forgotten, says the psalmist. And neither should we. God’s right hand—and he who sits at his right hand, Jesus Christ—continue to rule the world unhindered. His promises to his people will be fulfilled. This is guaranteed for the future because it is demonstrated throughout the past. And the hinge point of this divine plan for history is revealed in redemption:

O God most holy is your way; what god is like our God?
O God of miracles, your strength, you have made known abroad.
You have redeemed your people all, the power of your arm shown.
Your people sons of Jacob are, and Joseph is your own.

–from The Book of Psalms for Singing, Psalm 77

For the Christian, then, New Year’s Eve should be an opportunity neither to celebrate in absurdity nor to quail in fear at the terror that surrounds us. For us it should be a milestone, a rest stop at which to check whether our trust and comfort are secure in the Rock that followed them through the wilderness, and that Rock was Christ.

Have you taken refuge in that Savior’s shelter? If so, you are in the safest place in the world. And you can sing.

Happy New Year.

–MRK

By Times_Square_Ball_2010.jpg: Susan Serra, CKD from Long Island, USA derivative work: Sealle [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

December’s Psalm of the Month: 150D

The twelfth installment in URC Psalmody’s Introduction to the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal

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Let everything that now has breath
Sing praise unto the Lord, sing praise.
O praise Him! O praise Him!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

What better way to round out a year of psalm-singing than with the exultant words of the last entry in the Book of Psalms? In addition to some older settings of Psalm 150 from existing psalters, the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal ends with this new versification by URCNA minister Rev. Daniel Hyde.

Psalms 146-150 all begin and end with the command to “Praise the Lord!” (in Hebrew, “Hallelujah!”). But in Psalm 150 the pace accelerates to a climax, with the expressions “Praise the Lord!” or “Praise him!” repeated thirteen times in only six verses. To bring out this facet of the psalm, Rev. Hyde chose the tune LASST UNS ERFREUEN (commonly associated with the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King”), which includes a refrain of Hallelujahs at the end of each stanza.

Rev. Hyde writes, “The tune LASST UNS ERFREUEN brings out the text’s mood of joy and praise, including the Hallelujah refrain. I’ve also chosen not to artificially rhyme the text so as to aid families and congregations in using this text as a ‘memory verse’ for the entire psalm.”

As you sing Psalm 150D, reflect on God’s “mighty deeds” throughout history, including what he has done in your own life this past year. Think about how you can praise God in all kinds of circumstances, like the variety of instruments mentioned in this psalm. Use your utmost breath for his praise!

Suggested stanzas: All

Source: New setting by Rev. Daniel Hyde, 2001

Tune only: Revised Trinity Hymnal 115, 289, 733

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 150

  • Where to praise the Lord (v. 1)
  • Why to praise the Lord (v. 2)
  • How to praise the Lord (vv. 3-5)
  • Who should praise the Lord (v. 6)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 150

The connection between Christ and Psalm 150 is self-explanatory. Indeed, the salvation we enjoy through Jesus Christ is the most glorious of the “mighty deeds” (v. 2) God has wrought. Moreover, as Charles Spurgeon notes, Psalm 150 should be interpreted in light of “the coming of our Lord in his second advent and the raising of the dead.” In fact, words reminiscent of Psalm 150 are used in Revelation 19:5: “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great.” This is not a song for Old Testament believers only; it is a song for God’s redeemed people of all time, as they look forward to the new Jerusalem itself!

Applying Psalm 150

  • What “mighty deeds” of God might have inspired the psalmist to pen this psalm (v. 2)? What “mighty deeds” of God inspire you to sing today?
  • Why does the psalm mention so many different musical instruments (vv. 3-5)? How might these commands apply to you even if you can’t play a musical instrument?
  • What does the command for “everything that has breath” to praise the Lord mean (v. 6)?

Join all ye living things in the eternal song. Be ye least or greatest, withhold not your praises. What a day will it be when all things in all places unite to glorify the one only living and true God! This will be the final triumph of the church of God.

—Charles Spurgeon on Psalm 150:6

Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

(A PDF version of this post, formatted as a bulletin insert, is available here.)

November’s Psalm of the Month: 33

The eleventh installment in URC Psalmody’s Introduction to the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal

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The Lord by His word has created the heavens;
By breath of His mouth made the stars come to be.
The depths of the ocean He heaps up together,
And puts in a storehouse the waves of the sea.

Amidst a season of thanksgiving, this rousing new setting of Psalm 33, which the Psalter Hymnal Committees hybridized from the Scottish psalter Sing Psalms and The Book of Psalms for Worship, will reinvigorate you to give thanks for the abundant manifestations of the Lord’s steadfast love.

Even though the tune ASH GROVE does not appear in the blue Psalter Hymnal, it is well-known in connection with the Thanksgiving-time hymn “Let All Things Now Living” (#453 in the gray Psalter Hymnal). Frequent running lines throughout the vocal parts (especially the bass) impart this tune with an extraordinary sense of energy. Sing Psalm 33 at a rousing tempo fitting for its lively expressions of praise.

Suggested stanzas:

  • 11/1: stanzas 1,2
  • 11/8: stanzas 2,3
  • 11/15: stanzas 4,5
  • 11/22: all
  • 11/29: all

Source: stz. 1 adapted from Psalm 33 in Sing Psalms; stz. 2-5 from Psalm 33C in The Book of Psalms for Worship

Tune only: Revised Trinity Hymnal 125

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 33

  • Why praise is fitting for the upright (vv. 1-3), namely:
  • The Lord’s character (vv. 4-5)
  • The Lord’s creation (vv. 6-9)
  • The Lord’s providence (vv. 10-12)
  • The Lord’s omniscience (vv. 13-15)
  • The Lord’s omnipotence (vv. 16-19)
  • The Lord’s steadfast love (vv. 20-22)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 33

As the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ shares all the attributes of God that are praised in this psalm. He is upright, faithful, and just; the Creator of the universe (“All things were made through him,” John 1:3); the King of the nations; and the Savior of his people. He is the ultimate manifestation of the “steadfast love” of the Lord (v. 5), and it is he who delivers our souls from death (v. 19). Even as we currently enjoy the blessings of the salvation Jesus has provided, we also look forward to the day when the desire of v. 8 is fulfilled, when “at the name of Jesus every knee [bows], in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:10). It is superlatively fitting (v. 1) to praise God for the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Applying Psalm 33

  • Who are the righteous (v. 1)? How are they righteous (cf. Heidelberg Catechism LD 23, Q&A 60)?
  • In today’s context, who are the members of the “blessed nation” (v. 12)?
  • Have you ever looked to a “false hope” for salvation, as the psalmist mentions (v. 17)?
  • How does trusting in the Lord make your heart glad (v. 21)?

When the Psalmist says that all our blessedness rests in the fact that the Lord is our God, he points us to the fountain of divine love as the only source that could be desired to make life happy. For God to stoop down to accomplish our salvation, protect us under his wings, provide for our necessities, and help us in all our dangers, hinges entirely on his adoption of us. But lest we should think that these blessings arise from our own efforts and work, David directly teaches us this: only from the fountain of God’s gracious electing love are we counted as the people of God.

—paraphrased from Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 33:12

Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

(A PDF version of this post, formatted as a bulletin insert, is available here.)


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