Posts Tagged 'Hymns'

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

Improvisation on “Lamb, Precious Lamb”

It’s not a psalm today. Instead, it’s a beautiful new contribution to the Trinity Psalter Hymnal by OPC minister Rev. Jonathan Landry Cruse and Presbyterian musician Paul S. Jones, entitled “Lamb, Precious Lamb” (#353). Since I had one more opportunity to practice and record on the magnificent Peragallo organ at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Sayville, I decided to improvise on this meditative and majestic tune.

Rev. Cruse has offered a significant contribution to the tradition of Reformed hymnody with his collection of 25 Hymns of Devotion, composed in collaboration with several modern-day church musicians. “Lamb, Precious Lamb” is one of the finest, as well as one of several that made it into the Trinity Psalter Hymnal. I look forward to Rev. Cruse’s future contributions to the music of the church.

The text of “Lamb, Precious Lamb” explores a variety of facets of Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sin. The fifth stanza closes with a fitting doxology:

Lamb, worthy Lamb, who reigns for endless days,
Maker, Redeemer, thine be all the praise.
We join the eternal choirs of heaven, great King;
“Glory and honor to the Lamb!” we sing.

–MRK

Virtual Organ Recital to Benefit Geneva College

It has been a music-filled week, which is always a blessing in a time of plague. On Saturday I spent several hours with an audio-visual team at the First Presbyterian Church of Beaver Falls, PA, recording a pipe organ recital for Geneva College.

As a Christ-centered and Scripture-centered institution of higher education, Geneva is well prepared to weather the pandemic on both a spirtitual and a practical level. Nevertheless, the college is facing a several-million-dollar budget gap due to the unexpected expenses that COVID-19 has generated, combined with losses in tuition, room, and board. The college has asked alumni and friends to raise $1 million towards bridging this gap. I don’t have a million dollars to give, but I do have ten fingers and two feet–so this concert represents an opportunity to inspire others to support an institution that has contributed so much to my own spiritual development and the lives of many thousands more.

The concert is entitled “Welcome the Morning Star,” with a nod to the star that hangs on Geneva’s Old Main each Christmas season. For this program, I chose pieces that focused on the theme of light appearing in darkness, including a wide variety of psalm, hymn, and carol settings both old and new. The spiritual centerpiece of the concert is Konstantin Zhigulin’s setting of Psalm 84, “My God and King,” which I have previuosly talked about here.

The recital will broadcast on URC Psalmody’s YouTube channel at 7 p.m. EST on Friday, December 18. The program is below:

Processional on Personent hodie – Michael R. Kearney, b. 1995

Chorale prelude on “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern,” BuxWV 223 – Dietrich Buxtehude, c. 1637–1707

Nouveau Livre de Noëls, op. 2 – Louis-Claude Daquin, 1694–1772
               10. Grand jeu et Duo

Cathedral Windows, op. 106 – Sigfrid Karg-Elert, 1877–1933
               3. Resonet in laudibus
               4. Adeste fideles

12 Pièces nouvelles pour orgue – Théodore Dubois, 1837–1924
               
8. Fiat lux                                                   

Chorale prelude on “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” BWV 645 – J. S. Bach, 1685–1750

Morgensonne (“Sunrise”), op. 7, no. 1 – Sigfrid Karg-Elert, 1877–1933

Liedbewerkingen – Gert van Hoef, b. 1994
               Nu zijt wellekome
               God rest ye merry, gentlemen/Carol of the bells 

Improvisation on Konstantin Zhigulin, “My God and King” (Psalm 84) – Michael Kearney, b. 1995

Sixth Organ Symphony, op. 42, no. 2 – Charles-Marie Widor, 1844–1937
               1. Allegro

I hope you can join me virtually on December 18 as an expression of support for this faithful Christian institution.

–MRK

Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (Review)

Why Johnny Can't Sing HymnsT. David Gordon’s recent book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal (190 pp., P&R, 2010) has created a bit of a stir within the Presbyterian and Reformed family of churches. While Gordon does not directly address the topic of psalm-singing, I think it is worthwhile to devote at least a little space here to a book by a respected author on an important subject.

Gordon’s areas of expertise include theology and media ecology. Music is not one of them, as he quickly admits (he can read music, but does not play an instrument). This both limits the extent to which he can discuss the music theory behind hymnody and allows him to approach the topic from a unique perspective.

To sum up the field of media ecology in one borrowed sentence, “we make tools, and tools make us” (10). From this angle Gordon digs behind the contemporary worship movement to expose the cultural assumptions of contemporaneity. Drawing from cultural analysts like Neil Postman and Ken Myers, Gordon characterizes the dominant ideology of the 21st century as one that disregards the past and trivializes the present. If this is so, he concludes, “the meta-message that contemporary music sends is this: Nothing is important; everything is just amusing or entertaining. This is hardly a Christian message” (72).

Throughout Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns Gordon employs a clear, readable style, comparable at points to Postman’s own renowned prose. After reading this book I felt as though the author were one of my own college professors. Unfortunately, Gordon also possesses the classic professor’s tendency to wander off into minimally relevant tangents (the low point, I think, is a footnote about the cost of his preferred razor blades). Between the occasional digressions and some significant overlap of material between chapters, I tend to think this volume could have been just as useful at two-thirds or even half as long.

While I found this book to be informative and enjoyable, I must also confess to some objections to Gordon’s line of reasoning. Where his cultural analysis is keen, his musical analysis is a little shaky—his final definition for “contemporary music” seems to be “music accompanied by a guitar”—and he often left me wondering how to make the final connection between the two subjects. Gordon also seems to directly correlate “triviality” and “contemporaneity” (a term he is reluctant to define), as though intelligent, articulate advocates of “contemporary Christian music” (CCM) either do not exist or are not to be taken seriously.

As you may have already guessed from the title of this blog, my biggest beef with Gordon’s case lies in his appeals to “traditional hymnody” (which, like the term “contemporary music,” he does not pause to explain). Gordon laments the fact that his students categorize the 1885 song “How Great Thou Art” as a “traditional” hymn—but his favorite example of hymnody, “Abide With Me,” is only a few decades older. He faults CCM proponents for knowing “nothing of Christian hymnody prior to the nineteenth or twentieth century” (41), but what other centuries are responsbile for the overwhelming proportion of the contents of any “traditional” hymnal?

It is clear that Gordon views the contemporary Christian music movement as a strange new blip on the church’s 2000-year-old radar. I would suggest that his “traditional” hymns are actually not that traditional either. Rather, I believe CCM is merely a small part of a much larger blip on the radar screen: the emergence of Western hymnody—a phenomenon that has crowded out the church’s (much more traditional) practice of psalm-singing, in some Reformed and Presbyterian denominations less than 100 years ago. I would love to read Gordon’s cultural analysis of how this worship shift occurred. Sadly, he barely mentions it.

In conclusion, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns will certainly appeal to readers who already favor hymns over CCM. Gordon hits all the high points of the contemporary Christian music debate (guitars, repetition, amplification, triviality), and he does so far more articulately than the average church member. The book nobly champions the cause of hymns, though it is probably unlikely to win converts from the contemporary camp. All in all, I appreciate Gordon’s fresh perspective on a divisive topic. But if pastors and musicians merely follow his advice without probing deeper, I am not sure the church will be that much better off.

–MRK

“Trinity Psalter Hymnal” Editors Appointed

Hymnological MathAs Danny Olinger reports in the latest issue of New Horizons, Rev. Derrick Vander Meulen (URCNA) and Rev. Dr. Alan Strange (OPC) have transitioned from being chairmen of their respective denominations’ Psalter Hymnal committees to the official co-editors of the new proposed “Trinity Psalter Hymnal.” This news serves as a welcome–but still jarring–reminder that the final vote to approve our denominations’ new songbook will occur within the next year (June 2016), and if approved it may be in production in a year and a half!

I’m beyond excited that we have this opportunity to work together as sister churches on such a worthwhile project, and that it is so close to completion. I do have two questions that keep popping up in my mind, though–whether due to my perspective as a URCNA member rather than an OPC member, or just because I’m a (20-year-old) fuddy-duddy. Neither one is earth-shattering. Neither one makes me want to pull the plug on this excellent project. But I still feel the need to raise them here, if only to start a conversation about them.

Okay, the first one is really pretty insignificant. It’s about the proposed title of the new book: Trinity Psalter Hymnal. I have to say, I’m just not won over.

I get it, I get it. Both of our denominations have longstanding relationships with our previous songbooks–the OPC since 1961 (Trinity Hymnal) and the URCNA/CRC since 1934 (Psalter Hymnal). The new compilation contains a significant amount of material from both–so why not combine the names? Also, the word “Trinity” reminds us that when we sing psalms and hymns, we sing them as Trinitarians. The psalms are sung to the Father, about (and by) the Son, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This is good.

At the same time, we have never felt the need to refer to the Book of Psalms in our Bibles as the “Trinity Book of Psalms,” any more than we would refer to Acts as the “Trinity Book of Acts.” It simply goes without saying that the Psalms are Trinitarian. Plus, between the awkward acronym “TPH” and the near-certainty that pastors in both churches will be messing up the title from the pulpit for at least the next five years, I just can’t see a need for this cumbersome appellation. Maybe it’s just my Dutch tendency to want to call it what it is–a Psalter Hymnal. I’m happy to hear explanations and thoughts from my brothers and sisters on the OPC side of the aisle.

My second concern has to do with the comparative sizes of the psalter and hymnal sections. As of the last count, the psalter contains 279 selections and the hymnal contains 428. With almost two hymns per psalm setting, the new songbook has the potential to give the priority to hymn-singing, detracting from the official position (at least in the URCNA) that psalms are to have the principal place in worship.

I’m not as concerned about this trend as I could be. First, I understand that the OPC comes from a rather hymn-biased worship tradition in producing this book, and that the decision to include all 150 psalms is already a significant change for them. I respect the fact that this transition will take time. Second, even many URCNA churches use supplemental hymnals which push our own hymn-to-psalm ratio far past half-and-half. For that matter, many URC’s use the current Trinity Hymnal themselves!

Nevertheless, if this project is ultimately to serve the church of Christ, we need to see a conscious effort made (from the pew-backs or the pulpit) to re-emphasize our biblical and denominational commitment to the preponderance of psalm-singing. Knowing the two godly men who have assumed the responsibility of editing this book, I hope and pray this will become a reality.

–MRK


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Geneva College Benefit Concert

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