Posts Tagged 'Church'



“Why Your Church Needs a New Psalter Hymnal”

I suppose making a blog post on April Fools’ Day might be a somewhat unwise decision. Maybe you opened this post expecting a satire piece about Crown & Covenant’s recent release of The Book of Psalms for Worship, Hip-Hop Edition, or about the recent finding that John Calvin’s personal copy of the Genevan Psalter had “The Heart of Worship” pasted inside the back cover.

Alas, I bring you neither of those things today; the article I’m sharing today is a genuine one. It’s my most recent contribution to The Outlook magazine, entitled “Why Your Church Needs a New Psalter Hymnal.” In it I argue that the URCNA needs to adopt a federational songbook, even if there are still many things about the new book that don’t line up with the personal preferences of myself or others. The article has generated a lot of feedback via email and Facebook, so I thought I would invite you to join the conversation here as well, especially as Synod 2016 and the prospect of a final vote draw near. I’m happy to hear opposing points of view and interact with fellow URCNA members who have given significant thought to this issue.

These two paragraphs pretty much summarize my opinion as regards the new book:

‘Have it your way’ may be the (former) motto of Burger King and the rest of our culture, but it is not—and must not be—the motto of the church. More and more the culture rejects the idea of a common sphere that requires the sacrifice of personal preference. In so doing it creates a world where common causes are impossible.

In direct defiance to this worldview, the church exists as a community of believers united in Christ—believers who deny themselves and look to the interests of others for the sake of the kingdom of Jesus. A Psalter Hymnal is tangible proof that we love each other enough to come to a common agreement about what music glorifies God most and serves the church best, even at the cost of our personal favorites. That is how I can say that I wholeheartedly support this project whether or not I like every song it contains.

That’s all for now!

–MRK

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June’s Psalm of the Month: 122A

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

Pews

 I was filled with joy and gladness
When I heard them say to me:
“Let us make our pilgrim journey,
Then the Lord’s house we will see.”

Welshman John Hughes’ 1905 tune CWM RHONDDA is most often associated with the hymn “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” but it makes a great fit for the text of Psalm 122. Not only does it convey the psalm’s jubilant enthusiasm, it also evokes climbing hilly terrain to reach a long-sought destination—in this case, Mount Zion, the city of God.

Speaking of hilly terrain, this setting of Psalm 122 provides numerous crags and corners that make singing it challenging but rewarding. Look out for slight rhythmic differences between the vocal parts, the repetition of one phrase (“We were standing! We were standing!”), and an alto/bass echo before the final line. Hold the fermata in the third-to-last measure as long as feels natural before continuing triumphantly on to the end of the stanza. As you sing Psalm 122A, let your heart fill with gladness at the opportunity to go up to God’s house with his people and worship him there.

Suggested stanzas: All

Source: Psalm 122B in The Book of Psalms for Singing, Psalm 122A in The Book of Psalms for Worship, Psalm 122 in the Trinity Psalter

Tune only: Blue Psalter Hymnal 407, Revised Trinity Hymnal 598

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 122

  • The pilgrims’ joy in Jerusalem (vv. 1,2)
  • The pilgrims’ esteem of Jerusalem (vv. 3-5)
  • The pilgrims’ concern for Jerusalem (vv. 6-8)

—outline by Matthew Henry

Seeing Christ in Psalm 122

Psalm 122 refers to the temple as “the house of the Lord” (v. 1)—the dwelling-place of God among his people. But what the temple foreshadowed, Christ incarnated. He is Emmanuel, “God with us.” Amidst the rampant strife of a fallen world, the psalmist’s prayer “Peace be within you!” (v. 8) offers a foretaste of the angels’ joyful announcement when Jesus was born: “Peace on earth!” (Luke 2:14). Praise God for the peace that Jesus came to bring!

When Jesus drove the merchants and money-changers out of the temple, John notes that the disciples connected his actions with the fulfillment of another passage from the psalms, Psalm 69:9: “Zeal for your house has consumed me” (John 2:17). With this zeal Christ came to ransom “people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). Through his work of redemption we are adopted as “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17), becoming his “brothers and companions” (Psalm 122:8). Now “the house of the Lord” takes on an entirely new meaning: Peter writes that we “like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (I Peter 2:5). Because Christ sought the good of his people (Psalm 122:9) we have the privilege of seeking the good of his Church.

Applying Psalm 122

  • Are you glad to be called to worship in the house of the Lord (v. 1)?
  • What hinders the church from being “bound firmly together” (v. 3)? How should we seek unity with the rest of the visible church?
  • What are some practical ways you can seek the good of the people of God (v. 9)?

First we love [the church] and then we labor for it, as in this passage; we see its good, and then seek its good. If we can do nothing else we can intercede for it. Our covenant relation to Jehovah as our God binds us to pray for his people,—they are ‘the house of the Lord our God.’ If we honor our God we desire the prosperity of the church which he has chosen for his indwelling.

—Charles Spurgeon

Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

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

Called to Sing (Part 1)

PewRack

(The following is adapted from a Sunday school class I led at the Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Franklin Square, NY, on May 24, 2015.)

The thoughts I’d like to share with you today don’t arise from academic degrees or decades of experience in church music. They merely arise from watching, listening to, and participating in Reformed worship over the past several years. I’d simply like to encourage you through this class to think more deeply about why the church sings and how it can sing better.

Right from the beginning I want to encourage you not to raise the objection, “We’re just not a musical church.” True, many factors may help one church sing much better than another—a big congregation, good acoustics, a large number of musicians, and so on. My home church doesn’t enjoy many of these blessings; maybe yours doesn’t either. But that’s okay.

As an example, I want to point you to the congregational singing of churches in the Reformed Presbyterian denomination, one of which I attend at college. Every Sunday these Christians gather together and sing psalms a cappella as a congregation, and the heartiness and quality of their singing would put most of our churches to shame. Yet they probably have no more musicians in their congregation than we do. The difference is that they have developed a church culture that fosters a love for strong congregational singing: they teach their children psalm-singing from their youngest Sunday school classes, they encourage even non-musical people to learn to sing in four-part harmony, and they let the words of the psalms they sing penetrate their lives outside of worship as well. The results are truly impressive, and I believe denominations like ours can strive for that goal as well—but we need to start now. While I don’t know of many churches that can sing like this, I know of no reason why any church can’t sing like this.

That’s my encouragement for you. Of course, there is a challenge as well: to think about why you sing in the first place. As a little diagnostic, ask yourself what you think about while you’re singing on a typical Sunday morning. I know I’m often disgustingly distracted: the pastor’s tie is crooked, the pianist is playing too slow or too fast, or some other thought is floating through my head preventing me from honestly engaging in worship. Occasionally this distraction is caused by circumstances outside our control. But more often, our attitude towards corporate singing reveals a deeper apathy in our hearts.

To correct this perspective we need to return to Paul’s command to the churches in Ephesus and Colossi to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Yet for the Christian, singing is more fundamental than a command. Throughout Scripture, we see singing as a natural reaction of gratitude in response to God’s work of deliverance. One of the earliest examples of this pattern is found in Exodus 15, where Moses composes a song for the people of Israel to sing after the Lord brings them through the Red Sea. We see numerous other songs of deliverance throughout the Old Testament, sung by Miriam, Deborah, Barak, Hannah, David, Hezekiah, and others.

In the New Testament, the pattern continues with the songs of Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon. And in Revelation 15 we are told that the multitude standing by the sea of glass “sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” (v. 4). I’ve often wondered what it means that these saints sing the song of Moses and of the Lamb. I’m no theologian, but I’m starting to wonder if the point of this verse is that the two songs are one and the same. The story of salvation sung about by Moses at the beginning of Scripture is the same theme taken up by the glorified believers around the throne of God in Revelation!

As those who have been redeemed by Jesus from sin and death, we too have a part in this eternal song. Singing is a natural reaction to God’s work, and if “we are his workmanship” singing should be fundamental to the Christian’s identity as well. If this is the case, how dare I stand there on a Sunday morning before the living God who has redeemed me from my misery and called me into his presence to receive my worship—and I’m thinking about the pastor’s tie?! Such hardheartedness is ludicrous, and yet I have to be reminded of it daily. Christians, we should need no command to sing. It should already be on the tips of our tongues!

Incidentally, not only is singing fundamental to the Christian’s identity, I want to suggest to you that it also distinguishes the church from the world. What other institution exists whose members (musical and non-musical alike) sing regularly and heartily? Maybe two or three generations ago, this would not have been such an uncommon spectacle. But today, as the church becomes more and more countercultural (or as the culture becomes more and more counter-church), its singing becomes more remarkable as well. We sing in response to the work of God in a way that the world cannot. That realization should be awe-inspiring!

(To be continued.)

–MRK

A Look at Liturgy: The Benediction

Pews

Today’s post brings us to the conclusion of URC Psalmody’s series on the liturgy of the Dutch Reformed tradition. We’ve examined the historical background of our churches’ worship structure, and we’ve progressed through some notable aspects of a typical Sunday morning service, like the votum and the reading of the decalogue. After the call to worship, confession, prayer, preaching, singing, and responses, one distinctive element remains: the benediction or parting blessing.

Meetings of many kinds end with a note of farewell, and almost any Christian church would ordinarily conclude its worship service with some kind of dismissal. But you may notice that the benediction in the Reformed worship service seems to bear some kind of added significance. In fact, if you pay very close attention, you’ll notice that only ordained ministers—not elders or seminarians—are permitted to administer the parting blessing with outstretched hands. Why are our churches so particular? What does the benediction actually represent?

The Psalter Hymnal Supplement comments, “In Reformation liturgies, the dismissal is more proclamatory than petitionary—more of a means of grace than a prayer” (113). We believe the dismissal carries the full weight of a direct promise of God. “The apostolic blessing is the proclamation of God’s gracious intention: it is rooted in the Gospel promise and, therefore, in God’s desire to give grace to His people” (114).

The benediction often takes the form of the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (vv. 24-26 ESV). But whether the minister uses these words or others, he is not just expressing a wish or a prayer. He doesn’t qualify the blessing with “ifs,” soften it with “mays,” or generalize it by replacing “you” with “us.” In delivering the parting blessing the minister speaks with the authority of God himself, declaring the Lord’s lasting favor on those he has reconciled to himself. God’s blessing is not something we have to repeatedly beg for or anxiously await; it is guaranteed us as his people. The benediction assures us that God’s good favor will rest upon us through the coming week until we gather to worship him again.

The Liturgical Committee notes, “[T]he customary gesture of the arms stretched and palms down, carries the ancient symbolism of an endowed blessing. The minister does not conclude the service by wishing his parishioners well. He concludes by summoning them to receive the parting promises of God’s mercy and peace” (114).

This, in a nutshell, expresses the beautiful pattern of Reformed, Biblical worship. We could summarize it in the glorious terms of Psalm 118: God has opened to us the gates of righteousness, that we may enter through them and give him thanks. He has answered us and become our salvation. Christ, the stone that the builders rejected, has become the cornerstone of the temple he is building for himself—the church. We stand in awe at the Lord’s doing, marvelous in our eyes. And we go forth from his courts believing and rejoicing that “the LORD is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us” (v. 27).

What cause for celebration!

–MRK

Note: Several churches in the United Reformed Churches in North America have created explanations of their particular liturgies and worship practices. Here are a few helpful summaries:

A Look at Liturgy: The Decalogue

The Decalogue

Over the past few weeks we’ve been looking at some characteristic elements of the Reformed worship service. Today’s post brings us to perhaps the most distinctive feature of Dutch Reformed liturgy: the reading of the Ten Commandments (decalogue, “ten words”) in the service.

In theory, there is a basic theological rationale for the use of the decalogue in worship: “it testifies to the Calvinist respect for the unity of the covenant” (Report of Liturgical Committee, Psalter Hymnal Supplement 100)—though even Calvinists do not always agree on the nature of the covenant. In practice, however, this justification leaves some questions unanswered. For instance, why do the Ten Commandments not appear in the worship of other Protestant churches that uphold the unity of the covenant of grace?

The answer to this question is mostly one of history and tradition. It was John Calvin who “planted the decalogue in the liturgy” without leaving much explanation why, and it had come to be a fixture in Dutch Reformed worship by the time of Abraham Kuyper in the 19th century. “By that time,” the Liturgical Committee comments, “the law seemed liturgically inexpendable, and liturgically undefined.”

In West Sayville’s liturgy the Ten Commandments fall under the heading of “God’s Will for Our Lives,” and occasionally they are replaced in the worship service with another Scripture reading that urges us onward in “the dying-away of the old self, and the coming-to-life of the new” (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 33, Q&A 88). Following the reading of the decalogue or an alternate passage, our pastor offers a prayer of confession and reads another text as the “Assurance of Pardon,” and then the congregation sings a penitential psalm or hymn. Presented as God’s will for his people, the reading of the decalogue prompts us to confess how drastically we fall short of its perfection, but also to recognize Christ’s fulfillment of the law and go forth in grateful obedience to him.

This use of the Ten Commandments in worship, which I have to assume is fairly typical in United Reformed churches, reflects all three of the functions of the law listed in the Liturgical Committee’s report:

  1. “It could serve as a catalyst to confession.…It is the holy finger of God pointing to ‘me’ as the one who fails in his life to reflect the character of God.”
  2. “It could serve as a summons to the life of gratitude.”
  3. “It could also serve as a reading from Scripture…[that] consistently stresses instruction in the obligations of the Christian.”

While it is important to pinpoint the purpose of the decalogue in worship, the Liturgical Committee also provides an important qualification: “[W]e must remember, of course, that the Lord is free to use His law, at any moment, to achieve whatever purpose He wishes. If He wills to use His law of a given Sunday morning to convict one worshipper of sin, summon another to obedience, and at the same time inspire another to a grateful hallelujah, no liturgical definition of the law’s function will inhibit him.”

So should Reformed churches keep the decalogue in their worship services? In my experience, at least, the weekly reading of the Ten Commandments helps to anchor our worship in the blazing light of God’s holiness. If it is to have this effect, however, the decalogue must never be separated from the message of the gospel. Apart from confessing our sin, rejoicing in Christ’s salvation, and filling our lives with grateful obedience, the Ten Commandments become a highway to moralism and works-righteousness. Treat the decalogue as a checklist or one of those ubiquitous online quizzes (“I scored 8/10 this past week!”), and your life in Christ will wither. But respond to God’s law by confessing your natural misery and taking refuge in the finished work of Jesus Christ, and the Ten Commandments will spur on what the Catechism so beautifully describes as “wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a delight to do every kind of good as God wants us to” (Q&A 90).

O blessed Lord, teach me Thy law,
Thy righteous judgments I declare;
Thy testimonies make me glad,
For they are wealth beyond compare.
Upon Thy precepts and Thy ways
My heart will meditate with awe;
Thy Word shall be my chief delight,
And I will not forget Thy law.

–MRK

–quotes from the Psalter Hymnal Supplement are from pp. 100, 101


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