Posts Tagged 'Missions'

While I Have My Being

Batad Rice Terraces

Batad Rice Terraces

“So how was your trip?”

For someone who has just returned from a three-week choir tour in southeast Asia, no question is more welcome—and at the same time, no question is more dreaded.  There are so many experiences I would love to convey, yet so few of them can bear to be put into words.  No number of journal entries or photographs can even begin to encompass the sorrows, challenges, and joys of such a missionary trip.

I traveled with the Genevans, the concert choir of Geneva College, to the Philippines and Malaysia for a three-week tour this past May.   Since our conductor, Dr. David Kenneth Smith, grew up as a missionary kid in southeast Asia, he was in a sense bringing the choir home with him to thank the friends and church families that had ministered to him during his childhood.  And it just so “happened” that the choir’s musical theme for this concert season was “Psalms for the King,” a program composed almost entirely of a cappella psalmody.  Over the course of about twenty-four singing engagements, we performed in venues ranging from cathedrals to thatch huts, for audiences ranging from orphans to other university choirs.  We visited the Philippine cities of Manila, Davao, Malaybalay, Cagayan de Oro, Ifugao, and Baguio, and the Malaysian city Kota Kinabalu, singing settings of twenty-three different psalms.

While I can’t convey the full extent of our experiences singing in Christ’s service on the other side of the world, I can share a few of the many things I learned about the Lord’s goodness during our travels.

God was gracious toward us in all things, not merely in sustaining grace but sometimes simply in restraining grace.  Is there any other possible explanation for the fact that forty-two people endured ten-hour bus trips, eleven-hour plane rides, and twenty-two days of experiencing a new culture in two foreign countries while coping with strange diets, cramped transportation, logistical nightmares, delayed flights, and myriad illnesses—all without killing each other?  The words of Psalm 13 as we sang it come to mind:

But I will trust your mercy,
Whatever life may bring;
Your praise in prose and verse be
The anthems I will sing.

Rehearsal at Faith Academy Manila

Rehearsal at Faith Academy Manila

God blessed the Genevans with food, shelter, and accommodations that provided exactly what we needed at each point in the trip.  More than that, he afforded us incredible opportunities to fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ on the other side of the globe.  I was blessed to meet URCNA missionary Rev. Nollie Malabuyo in Manila and to spend three nights at the home of Mid-America Reformed Seminary graduate Rev. Vic Bernales and his family in Davao City.  As a prayer before meals the Genevans would often sing the “Table Blessing” by Heinrich Schütz, from Psalm 145: “All turn their eyes unto Thee in hope, O Lord; and Thou suppliest their food in due season.”  Truly he does supply all our needs!

Visiting with the Bernales family

Visiting with the Bernales family

God humbled and astounded us by working through even our severest weaknesses and failings to bless others.  How many nights the choir stood on stage, singing God’s praises, while internally we grumbled at our conductor, nursed grudges against other choir members, or simply felt our sheer exhaustion.  Precious few evenings was I in the proper frame of mind and spirit for a concert.  Yet night after night our audiences would tell us how they had been blessed by our music, and I would find myself awestruck that even in our sin-stained state God had utilized us in carrying out his ministry.  I could identify with the humbled worshipers spoken of in Psalm 22:

And in His presence all will bow
Who helpless to the dust descend;
Who, even though they vainly strive,
Can never keep their souls alive.

God abundantly revealed his glory to us through his creation; the islands of Southeast Asia are a breathtaking example of the beauty and creativity of our Maker.  But he reserves the right to reveal this glory on his own terms.  When we spent two days and one night climbing the 13,435-foot Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia at the end of the tour, we were expecting a multitude of stars and a breathtaking sunrise.  Instead we had to cope with an impenetrable cloud of fog and some of the coldest, wettest rain I ever hope to experience.  Was it sheer misery?  Yes.  Was it at the same time glorious and awe-inspiring?  Yes.  And would I trade it for anything?  No.  Our piece from Psalm 104 was firmly planted in my head throughout that agonizing yet amazing climb and descent:

Our Lord ever glorious, a joyful Creator,
His look makes earth tremble, His touch, mountains smoke.
To the Lord I’ll be singing while I have my being,
My God I’ll be praising as long as I live.

God promises in Psalm 121 to “keep your going out and your coming in.”  He means it.  None of us wanted to hear that our return flight to the States had been cancelled due to mechanical problems.  I have never longed for my earthly home so badly, though I hope I will someday long for my heavenly one more.  As we waited in a hotel that last Sunday, desperate for some news of when, or if, the Genevans could get a replacement flight, our stamina bottomed out.  Nevertheless, we gathered for worship in a hotel room and our chaperone Dr. Byron Curtis (one of Geneva’s Bible professors) led us in singing and prayer and delivered a sermon on Psalm 107.  One of our songs was John Campbell’s versification of Psalm 121:

From every evil shall He keep thy soul,
From every sin;
Jehovah shall preserve thy going out,
Thy coming in.
Above thee watching, He whom we adore
Shall keep thee henceforth, yea, for evermore.

Those poignant words were still echoing in my head a few hours later when we learned that a replacement itinerary had been issued to all the Genevans which cut two flights and eight hours off our travel time.  Watching the sun rise over Pittsburgh early Monday morning, I was struck anew by how powerfully and abundantly the Lord provides.

In a multitude of ways, this choir tour revealed to me the error, indeed the folly, of a formulaic view of short-term missions.  A mission trip, we think, should involve activities such as voluntary fasting, visiting orphanages, and maybe getting the chance to play soccer with impoverished third-world children.  While these activities can be a blessing, such a limited view of ministry mocks our sovereign God.  How ignorant, or worse, how arrogant, to imagine that we can set our terms of service to Christ on a mission field.  The work is not ours to begin with.  No, the real work of missions belongs entirely to God, and we have the privilege and the terrifying responsibility to be onlookers and instruments as he works out his purposes, in “health and sickness, prosperity and poverty” (Heidelberg Catechism LD 10, Q&A 27), blessing others—and us—through our presence.  And that is humbling, exhilarating, awe-inspiring, heart-rending, and earth-shattering.



Sunset over Manila

Sunset over Manila

Growing Up into Christ: Synod 2014


On the evening of Sunday, June 1, I was landing in San Francisco on the way home from a three-week choir tour in southeast Asia.  Less than a day later and only a few hundred miles away, pastors and elders from each congregation in the United Reformed Churches in North America would be gathering at Trinity URC in Visalia, CA, for the federation’s ninth synod meeting.

If it weren’t for the jetlag and the pressing need to spend some quality time with my family after a year away at college, I would have loved to hitch a ride down to Visalia and be a fly on the wall at the meeting.  Although Synod 2014 adjourned a day ahead of schedule, it included many significant—even historic—decisions by our federation of churches.  Under the adage “Better late than never,” I’ll attempt to summarize here some of the synod’s most important decisions.

Our first Director of Missions

The URCNA entered a new stage in its growth with the hiring of Rev. Richard Bout as the federation’s Director of Missions on June 5.  Not only is this a huge step in solidifying our mission efforts, but Rev. Bout will be the first full-time employee of our federation.  A former missionary to Mexico, Rev. Bout will probably carry out his new job from his home in southern Ontario.

Looking ahead to retirement

Synod 2014 moved forward in ensuring that retiring ministers are adequately provided for by the churches that hold their credentials.  Action was taken to remind the congregations of the URCNA of their duty to provide for the needs of retired pastors who have spent a lifetime in Christ’s service.  This, too, shows that the URCNA’s long-term outlook is broadening.

Careful steps toward unity

Talks about the United Reformed Churches in North America merging with the Canadian and American Reformed Churches (CanRC) have been going on since 2001, and although prospects still remain promising, Synod 2014 tabled (postponed indefinitely) a motion for the merger process to begin in 2016.  Most URCNA members seem to favor taking at least a little more time to work out remaining kinks in doctrine and practice between the two groups of churches.

On another front, the URCNA’s fellowship with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) is growing ever closer.  The OPC is one of only five denominations with which the URCNA maintains “Phase Two” ecumenical relations, signifying that we consider them a true and faithful branch of Christ’s church and desire to pursue further unity with them.  In fact, Synod 2014 extended an invitation to the OPC to hold our next synod in 2016 concurrently with their General Assembly.  This serves many purposes, but one of the main reasons for a joint ecclesiastical assembly brings us to the topic most closely connected to this blog . . .

The new Psalter Hymnal

At Synod 2014 the URCNA unanimously (and the OPC later overwhelmingly) approved the psalm section of the proposed Psalter Hymnal on which our two denominations are collaborating.  The vote to move forward shows a recognition of the quantity and the quality of the work that has already been done on the new Psalter Hymnal, and perhaps too a realization that the time has come to finish this project.  The committees report that they expect to have a new and revised Hymn Proposal ready for the churches’ review in the spring of 2015, and that the finished collection will be presented to the joint Synod and General Assembly in 2016.  Lord willing, the new Psalter Hymnal of the URCNA and OPC could be in our hands by as early as 2017!

Another remarkable feature of Synod 2014: The devotions at the beginning of each session included singing from the Psalm Proposal by all the delegates.  Here is a video taken by Rev. Zac Wyse of Westside Reformed Church in Cincinnati of the delegates singing Psalm 1 as it appears in the proposal:


More resources for news and information on Synod 2014:

  • Press releases summarizing each day’s decisions and deliberations (Day 1, Day 2, Day 3) are available at
  • Christian Renewal’s June 25 issue contains a wealth of reports and commentary on this synod meeting.  Their Facebook page also includes some pictures of the gathering.
  • The collection of songs approved to form the URCNA/OPC Psalm Proposal is available at

May God continue to bless the United Reformed Churches in North America as we “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15 ESV).


Lord’s Day 32: To Be like Himself

Catechism and Psalter

We’ve fallen a bit behind in our series on the Heidelberg Catechism here on URC Psalmody, but it is interesting to note that as we enter the last third of 2013 (the year that marks the document’s 450th birthday), we also enter upon the last third of the Catechism.  Lord’s Days 1-4 set forth the sad truth about our sin; Lord’s Days 5-31 dealt with the glory of our salvation.  The remaining 21 Lord’s Days address the Christian’s grateful life of service.  With an overwhelming sense of joy, Lord’s Day 32 expounds upon the very first question and answer’s declaration that “Christ, by his Holy Spirit…makes me whole-heartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

86 Q.  We have been delivered from our misery by God’s grace alone through Christ and not because we have earned it: why then must we still do good?

A.  To be sure, Christ has redeemed us by his blood.
But we do good because
Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself,
so that in all our living
we may show that we are thankful to God
for all he has done for us,
and so that he may be praised through us.

And we do good
so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits,
and so that by our godly living
our neighbors may be won over to Christ.

87 Q.  Can those be saved who do not turn to God from their ungrateful and impenitent ways?

A.  By no means.
Scripture tells us that
no unchaste person,
no idolater, adulterer, thief,
no covetous person,
no drunkard, slanderer, robber,
or the like
is going to inherit the kingdom of God.

Suggested Songs

180, “It Is Good to Sing Thy Praises” (Psalm 92)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“Christ has redeemed us by his blood.  But we do good because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself.”  For a glorious exposition of these wonderful words, we need look no further than the paraphrase of Psalm 92 in number 180 of the blue Psalter Hymnal.  The second stanza praises the works God’s hands have wrought, and the third rejoices that his boundless grace will nourish the righteous.  If there is a single psalm that adequately summarizes the Christian’s response of gratitude, it may well be Psalm 92.

It is good to sing Thy praises
And to thank Thee, O Most High,
Showing forth Thy loving-kindness
When the morning lights the sky.
It is good when night is falling
Of Thy faithfulness to tell,
While with sweet, melodious praises
Songs of adoration swell.

Thou hast filled my heart with gladness
Through the works Thy hands have wrought;
Thou hast made my life victorious,
Great Thy works and deep Thy thought.
Thou, O Lord, on high exalted,
Reignest evermore in might;
All Thine enemies shall perish,
Sin be banished from Thy sight.

But the good shall live before Thee,
Planted in Thy dwelling-place,
Fruitful trees and ever verdant,
Nourished by Thy boundless grace.
In His goodness to the righteous
God His righteousness displays;
God my rock, my strength and refuge,
Just and true are all His ways.

230, “What Shall I Render to the Lord” (Psalm 116)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“[W]e do good…so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us, and so that he may be praised through us.”  Psalm 116 is a song of salvation which we’ve already connected to previous Lord’s Days of the Catechism.  Here its last section points us to consider how we may rightly give thanks to God for his many blessings.

What shall I render to the Lord
For all His benefits to me?
How shall my soul, by grace restored,
Give worthy thanks, O Lord, to Thee?

His saints the Lord delights to save,
Their death is precious in His sight;
He has redeemed me from the grave,
And in His service I delight.

With thankful heart I offer now
My gift, and call upon God’s Name;
Before His saints I pay my vow
And here my gratitude proclaim.

Within His house, the house of prayer,
I dedicate myself to God;
Let all His saints His grace declare
And join to sound His praise abroad.

120, “Come, All Ye People, Bless Our God” (Psalm 66)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“And we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ.”  This last sentence of question and answer 86 calls to mind the exhortation of I Peter 2:11, 12 (ESV):

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

Not only do our good works assure us of the validity of our faith, the Holy Spirit also uses them to convict our unbelieving neighbors of their need for a Savior.  Further, as Psalm 66 shows, our grateful response to God encourages the entire body of Christ.

Come, all ye people, bless our God
And tell His glorious praise abroad,
Who holds our souls in life,
Who never lets our feet be moved
And, though our faith He oft has proved,
Upholds us in the strife.

We come with offerings to His house,
And here we pay the solemn vows
We uttered in distress;
To Him our all we dedicate,
To Him we wholly consecrate
The lives His mercies bless.

Come, hear, all ye that fear the Lord,
While I with grateful heart record
What God has done for me;
I cried to Him in deep distress,
And now His wondrous grace I bless,
For He has set me free.

174, “O Teach Thou Us to Count Our Days” (Psalm 90)

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI, and the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir)

“[N]o unchaste person, no idolater, adulterer, thief, no covetous person, no drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like is going to inherit the kingdom of God.”  Although the Catechism has already covered this ground, it backs up to emphasize unequivocally that, in the words of the apostle, “faith apart from works is dead” (Jas. 2:26).  With this perspective we may well exclaim with the psalmist Moses, “O teach Thou us to count our days/And set our hearts on wisdom’s ways!”

Psalm 90 ought to make us tremble at the realization of our frailty, but it should also give us comfort.  The psalm ends with a cry for God to “establish the works of our hands upon us,” a plea fulfilled in the words of I Corinthians 15:58:

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

So let there be on us bestowed
The beauty of the Lord our God;
The work accomplished by our hand
Establish Thou, and make it stand;
Yea, let our hopeful labor be
Established evermore by Thee,
Established evermore by Thee.


July Thoughts

It’s embarrassing that about three weeks have gone by since my last blog post.  However, the past few weeks have been full of excitement and encouragement on a variety of levels.  At the moment I’m enjoying a week in West Michigan between the Teens Actively Serving Christ project I mentioned previously and the upcoming Reformed Youth Services convention.

There is something intangibly unique about mission trips like the one I just attended.  Perhaps it is due to the encouragement of thirty brothers and sisters dwelling together in unity (à la Psalm 133).  Maybe it also arises from the balance of spiritual instruction and real-life opportunities to live out our faith (à la Philippians 2).  Or perhaps it is connected to our confidence that in Christ our labor is not in vain (à la I Corinthians 15).  Whatever the case may be, I know that I always emerge from these projects invigorated and inspired in my Christian walk–and I know the same is true for many others as well.

It was a blessing to spend eight days living and growing alongside these young fellow Christians, just as it was blessing to worship with the members of the Bethany United Reformed Church and to be generously served by their members even as we reached out to serve others.

Someone who attended another recent TASC trip said to me, “If we weren’t eating or sleeping, we were singing.”  While that may have been a bit of an overstatement in our case, music certainly played a prominent role in our free time.  One TASCer brought a few Psalter Hymnals along on the bus ride from the church to the location of our day away at the end of the week (Saugatuck and then Holland State Park), and we sang psalms and hymns almost the whole way there…and back.  During lunch we started somewhat of a “Psalter Hymnal Flash Mob” at a Panera Bread as we waited for our food.  That evening the group stopped for dinner at a restaurant in a converted Christian Reformed Church building in Jamestown, and before we left, we rose and sang the third verse of “By the Sea of Crystal.”  And at midnight, just as the youth group from New Jersey was preparing to depart, we sang “God Be with You Till We Meet Again” with lumps in our throats.  The week ended with sadness that our newfound “family in the Lord” would have to part ways, but also with confidence that our separation would only be temporary.

All in all, I am firmly convinced that the most important aspect of Teens Actively Serving Christ is that it inculcates in us what Paul Tripp calls a “forever mindset.”  Work never ends, friends move away, and even the best vacations come to an end.  But a week like this reminds us that this world is not all there is.  We serve Christ in hope–not a wishful sentiment but a steadfast sureness–that we will someday behold him face to face, enjoying the eternal rest spoken of in the Heidelberg Catechism along with all of our brothers and sisters in the Lord.  May that realization grip us throughout our pilgrimages on this earth.

Having shared those incidental thoughts on my recent TASC trip, the true purpose of this post is to alert you that it will probably be another two weeks or so before URC Psalmody can return to some kind of schedule.  What lies ahead is a few more days of rest and fellowship, one more Lord’s Day spent with the saints in Michigan, then a bus ride to St. Paul for the 2013 Reformed Youth Services convention!

Both high and low shall worship,
Both strong and weak shall bend,
A faithful Church shall serve Him
Till generations end.
His praise shall be recounted
To nations yet to be,
The triumphs of His justice
A newborn world shall see.


Psalm 67: That Your Way May Be Known on Earth

May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known on earth,
your saving power among all nations.

–Psalm 67:1, 2 (ESV)

Another school year is coming to a close, and ‘tis the season for “moving-up” ceremonies on many levels.  Even in the few minutes it took me to prepare to write this post, my Facebook news feed filled up with pictures of a recent seminary graduation ceremony.  It’s a time of change for everyone from kindergarteners to university grads, and with such times of change come opportunities not only to look back, but also to look forward.

Secular graduations don’t vary that much; usually they’re fluffily generic, placing all the emphasis on the accomplishments of the students and the importance of individuality.  It’s no wonder many a video has been made to poke fun at these ceremonies.  Sadly enough, I wouldn’t be surprised if many “Christian” graduations held the same priorities.

Graduation finds its proper context in Psalm 67.  This short and succinct song calls for God’s blessing upon his chosen people—a desire anyone can echo.  But the motive for this prayer is where Christianity radically departs from the priorities of the world.

The worldly mind says, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that we may grow in knowledge, and riches, and power—that we may make a name for ourselves—that our fame may ascend to the heavens.”  The psalmist says, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us”—why?—“that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations.”

How humbling it is not only to acknowledge that all our blessings must come from God, but to request these blessings in order that we may be a shining light to a dark world!  The psalmist’s supreme desire is that all the peoples (v. 3) would see God’s grace on him and praise the Lord for it.  And this is not merely an individual song; it applies even more directly to God’s covenant people—Old Testament Israel, the New Testament church.  Psalm 67 ends with a bold recapitulation of its opening lines: “God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth fear him!”

Below, the graduating class of a Reformed Christian high school in Michigan sings the words of Psalm 67 as versified in the Psalter Hymnal.

121, “O God, to Us Show Mercy”

(Sung on YouTube and by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

Psalter Hymnal number 121 is a surpassingly accurate rendition of Psalm 67.  Perhaps there might be some adverse theological implications to replacing “saving power” with “saving grace” in the versification of v. 2, but this is a minor and easily correctable issue.   The poetry throughout is solid and beautiful.

The tune is AURELIA, commonly known as “The Church’s One Foundation,” but interestingly authored by Samuel S. Wesley as a new setting of “Jerusalem the Golden.”  It’s a reverent, pure, and fitting melody; I can’t make a single complaint.  The tune’s association with the church also serves as an added reminder of this song’s application to God’s covenant people.

Whether you’re graduating this year, or attending a celebration for someone who is, are your priorities settled?  Do you know why the Lord has placed you here, and what your single greatest calling is?  May we go forth realizing that by God’s grace we are witnesses to the world, and through all our lives may we take Psalm 67 to heart.

The Lord our God shall bless us,
Our God shall blessing send,
And all the earth shall fear Him
To its remotest end.


URC Psalmody on YouTube

Sheet Music Available!

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