Posts Tagged 'Devotionals'

And Guide Us When Perplexed

Where were you one year ago?

A year ago, I had just landed in Poland and was savoring the thought of a spring semester abroad filled with incredible sights, sounds, and tastes, along with plenty of rhetorical and musical adventures along the way. The Lord had other plans. Instead I spent three months mostly within the four walls of a Polish dormitory room, ordering in Uber Eats, attending classes online, and taking an occasional stroll through the park to restore my sanity. In many ways it was a wonderful time, but also very different than what I imagined. That was a very small burden compared to what so many individuals around the world experienced in the year 2020.

While there is optimism on the horizon and the latest figures seem to suggest that the pandemic is past its peak, the mental and emotional tolls of this past year are far from over. Statistics on suicides, overdoses, and other acts of desperation are grim. The lingering fear of exposure to other people will haunt interpersonal interactions for a long time to come. And there are at least two popular perspectives on a post-coronavirus world that leave me very troubled indeed.

The first is a cheerful kind of fatalism that encourages us to look at our circumstances as the “new normal.” Although this phrase is often meant as a kind reminder that our everyday lives may never look exactly as they did before the pandemic, it has a hollow ring to it–hollow because the “old normal” never existed in the first place. Human life never goes back to “normal” after a crisis; the very nature of history means that our lives are always changing and being changed. Technologies develop and grow obsolete. Nations form and die. Economies flourish and wane. Of course we are moving into a “new normal,” just as the world that emerged after 9/11 or the economic collapse of 2008 or countless other events revealed a “new normal.” To lecture coronavirus-weary souls that life will assume the form of a “new normal” is merely prim and patronizing.

But this phrase is more often used in a specific context to justify certain kinds of policies that came into existence with the pandemic and, behind those policies, to validate certain attitudes and beliefs about human life and relationships. And it is against those attitudes and beliefs that thoughtful Christians must conscientiously and categorically rebel. The rhetoric of the “new normal” is now being leveraged to support a vision of humans as powerless victims of unknown risks and dangers who depend upon constant watchful protection from technological and governmental experts, and thus to encourage the continuation of a culture of fear and suspicion toward other people. Even hinting that these attitudes should continue after the immediate concerns of the pandemic have passed is abhorrent.

Please do not tell me that the government regulating how many persons may attend a church service is the new normal. Please do not tell me that sticking thermometers in my mouth and responding to all kinds of violating health questions on a daily basis are the new normal. Please do not tell me that thinking twice before hugging my grandmother is the new normal. These measures have been temporary and important ways to protect the vulnerable from infection, but they carry their own tremendous cost of dehumanization. The places I care about are more than images on postcards and social media platforms. The work I do is more than staring at a laptop screen in my room from sunup to sundown. The people I love are more than their Zoom profiles. We are real, embodied beings in a real, physical world, made for real human contact with other imagebearers of God. If we cannot bear that amount of riskiness in our everyday dealings with other people, then far more is at stake in our society than the end of the pandemic.

But that leads me into the second line of public discourse: an equally unrealistic fantasy in which the pandemic ultimately disappears, whether through vaccination or through herd immunity or through an act of God, and every human trouble disappears with it. I sometimes wonder whether the coronavirus has become a scapegoat for all kinds of other disappointments and problems that accompany human life. If we could just get past the pandemic, so we tell ourselves, the world would be a rosier place. Perhaps it would. Perhaps it will. And yet there will be other pestilences, other wars, other famines, other disasters. The fact that this particular problem has accumulated the greatest global attention does not grant it the privilege of being the only thing wrong with the world. And so, for all the harrowing figures about emotional suffering during the pandemic, I sometimes worry those figures will only grow when coronavirus is gone and yet all kinds of sin and brokenness remain.

If we are truly to conquer the challenges that coronavirus has posed, we need a frame of mind that enables us to continue working in the midst of a fallen world without losing hope. We need an orientation that both lifts us above the haze of present concerns and also puts ground under our feet for wise living and faithful service. We need an awareness of the “already” and an acknowledgment of the “not yet.” In short, we need the kind of faithful watching and waiting described in Martin Rinkart’s hymn “Now Thank We All Our God.”

Rinkart (1586-1649), according to Hymnary.org, was a minister in Eilenberg, Germany, during the Thirty Years’ War. Faced with famine and pestilence throughout his city, Rinkart was responsible for conducting as many as forty or fifty funeral services per day. Somehow, in the midst of the upheaval of war, want, and disease, Rinkart found the words to write many hymns, including this one. It is not based on a psalm–in fact, it is a paraphrase of a doxology from the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus (50:22-24)–yet it distills the message of so many psalms of thanksgiving. “Now Thank We All Our God” expresses a simple trust in the Lord that perseveres through good times as well as bad.

O may this bounteous God
Through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts
And blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in his grace,
And guide us when perplexed,
And free us from all ills
In this world and the next.

Trinity Psalter Hymnal #181

Personally, I can say that opportunities to play the organ have been such a gift in the midst of the pandemic. It’s a wonderful way to get myself out of my own head and away from my screens, to engage in an intensely tactile and physical activity, and to reflect on timeless truths about God and his world. The Dutch organist Feike Asma (1912-1984) composed a wonderful fantasy on “Now Thank We All Our God.” Although the hymn itself seems to be just as well known in the United States as it is in Europe, Asma’s arrangement has hardly received the publicity it deserves on this side of the Atlantic. I was grateful for the chance to record it on the magnificent Jaeckel organ in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Duquesne University where I study. This is an effervescent, even bombastic, treatment of a robust yet intimately comforting doctrine–the knowledge that it is our God, the Lord of heaven and earth, who has blessed us from our mothers’ arms and still is ours today. May that meditation be your comfort this winter.

–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

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.

Psalms for a New Year

Sunrise on Bridge

“The Smartphone of the Soul”—that’s how Reformed Presbyterian minister and blogger James Faris describes the Book of Psalms. Drawing a fascinating parallel between the physical versatility of a smartphone and the spiritual versatility of the Psalter, Rev. Faris comments:

God has given us the whole Scriptures for our aid. But, God created the human heart to respond in special ways to his word set to music. In song, the word of God penetrates the soul. In song, we experience union with Christ. In the throes of life–the crisis moments–it is words set to music that first come to mind. In those moments, we can’t always run to the desktop, but we should have the smartphone of soul embedded in our hearts.

In summary, Rev. Faris says, just as for every task “there’s an app for that,” for every occasion in the believer’s life “there’s a psalm for that.” His original post and related sermon is worth your time. But along the way, consider these psalms that relate especially well to the coming of a new year:

  • Psalm 1. “[The righteous man] is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.” Have you found your righteousness in Jesus Christ, so that as the years pass you will continue to be refreshed by his living water? Do you possess a heart of grateful obedience motivating you to yield the fruits of the Spirit with the changing seasons of life?
  • Psalm 37. “In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.” In 2015 the doom of God’s enemies will be nearer than it was in 2014. But those who trust in him “shall inherit the land and dwell upon it forever.”
  • Psalm 49. “Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish.” Will you enter 2015 pursuing the worthless things of this world, or seeking the things that are above and looking to your reward in heaven?
  • Psalm 56. “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” Even if 2015 proves to be a year of trial and testing for you, be sure that the same God who knows the hairs of your head knows the afflictions you suffer, and will save you to walk before him “in the light of life.” “This I know, that God is for me.”
  • Psalm 66. “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for my soul.” What did God do for you in 2014? How have you seen his steadfast love at work in your life? Tell others!
  • Psalm 90. “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” In light of the frailty and brevity of your own life, look to the Lord, “our dwelling place in all generations,” to establish the work of your hands.
  • Psalm 102. “Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment.” Remember that God holds the power to roll up heaven and earth, and compared to the glory he has prepared for you, all tribulation is but light and momentary.
  • Psalm 145. “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.” Do you worry about your future? Are you anxious about what tomorrow may bring? Look to God, who satisfies “the desire of every living thing.” Praise him for his provision!

In summary, as we look forward to the start of a new year, what better way to do so than with the “spiritual smartphone” of the Psalter in our hands (and our hearts). Equipping us for days of prosperity and days of adversity, times of sickness and health, the Psalms are an incredible gift from God for our spiritual walk. In the wisdom and comfort they provide, we can advance confidently into 2015 knowing that “the LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the LORD!” (Psalm 148:10).

Happy New Year!

–MRK

A Promising New Psalm Study

I’ve been a fan of Christian Renewal magazine for a while now.  It strikes a remarkable balance between news and edification with thorough reporting on URCNA events, thought-provoking editorials, and spiritually challenging devotional material.  Upon arrival each issue earns the coveted place of honor on our kitchen table and its contents are promptly devoured—figuratively speaking, at least.

I was especially excited upon receiving the October 3rd, 2012 issue of CR, which includes a number of great pieces.  First off is a meditation on the priestly garments of the Old Testament by Gary Fisher.  A feature article by Peter Glover considers the question, “Does it matter what the world thinks of the church?”  Several other articles, including editorials by Dr. Brian Lee and Norm Bomer on American politics and a question-and-answer column by Rev. Doug Barnes on congregational meetings, piqued my interest immediately.  But what thrilled me above all these discoveries was the start of a new series in the “Pilgrim’s Pathway” area—a study of the Psalms.

Dr. Nelson Kloosterman of Mid-America Reformed Seminary is currently translating a contemporary devotional commentary on the Psalms by Dr. J. Douma, a professor at the Theological University of the Reformed Churches (Liberated) in the Netherlands.  Dr. Kloosterman explains,

Although these commentaries do include some technical terms familiar to trained biblical students, these occasional terms need not prevent the reader from enjoying these Bible studies as invigorating textual meditations that provide perspective on all of Scripture, and on the person and work of Jesus Christ.

While the title of this piece is “Psalms 1-2: Gateway to the Psalter,” the first installment contains only the first quarter of Douma’s commentary on Psalm 1.  It promises to be a lengthy series, but the riches Douma mines from the text make it completely worthwhile.  He begins by identifying Psalm 1 as a wisdom psalm, appropriately placed as “the gateway to the Psalter.”  Here, he says, we learn “who we are and must be: people who do not consort with the wicked but who take delight in the law of Yahweh.”

Douma proceeds to address a multitude of implications of Psalm 1.  What is the difference between the righteous and the wicked?  How can the righteous remove themselves from the wicked yet remain in the world?  Are we literally to meditate on God’s law “day and night”?  Does the “law” refer only to the Torah or to the entire Old Testament?

Additionally, Douma is quick to clarify that Psalm 1 does not describe the actual difference between the righteous and the wicked: “Very often the godly are no saints.  And the wicked can behave rather honorably.”  However, “Psalm 1 shows us the pattern of the godly and the wicked as a kind of model.  That pattern must be shown clearly and concisely.”

I won’t say more about this meditation, since I’d rather encourage you to subscribe to this magazine yourself.  My purpose is merely to point out this immensely promising devotional resource.  Dr. Kloosterman comments, “We aim to provide a sampling of these studies, and invite our readers to give us feedback on their usefulness and value as part of this magazine.   Your feedback is always welcome!”  Why not consider letting Christian Renewal know if you support their continued labors to spread excellent Reformed material like this across the globe?

–MRK


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