Posts Tagged 'Humility'

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

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

Psalm 131: With Childlike Trust

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time forth and forevermore.

–Psalm 131 (ESV)

Says Charles Spurgeon of Psalm 131, “Comparing all the Psalms to gems, we should liken this to a pearl: how beautifully it will adorn the neck of patience.  It is one of the shortest Psalms to read, but one of the longest to learn.  It speaks of a young child, but it contains the experience of a man in Christ.  Lowliness and humility are here seen in connection with a sanctified heart, a will subdued to the mind of God, and a hope looking to the Lord alone.  Happy is the man who can without falsehood use these words as his own.”

276, “Not Haughty is My Heart”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

The Psalter Hymnal’s single versification of Psalm 131 beautifully matches the simplicity of its source.  Number 276 is intelligible yet carefully composed, ably balancing both poetry and Scriptural accuracy.

With childlike trust, O Lord,
In Thee I calmly rest,
Contented as a little child
Upon its mother’s breast.

Rounding out this selection is the wisely chosen tune, TRENTHAM.  Familiarly set to the words of “Breathe on Me, Breath of God,” this melody is simple (again!) and poignant.  All in all, I have no complaints to make about number 276!

In the past, we’ve sung “Not Haughty Is My Heart” following the reading of the Law and the assurance of pardon here at West Sayville, but it could serve a variety of occasions in worship—baptism, profession of faith, and so on.  In any case, whenever we read or sing Psalm 131, may our hearts be filled with the same worshipful humility that prompted Spurgeon to exclaim, “O Lord, as a parent weans a child, so do thou wean me, and then shall I fix all my hope on thee alone.”

Ye people of the Lord,
In Him alone confide;
From this time forth and evermore
His wisdom be your guide.

–MRK


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