Posts Tagged 'Thanksgiving'

The Safest Place in the World

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Times Square Ball

Sixty miles from my house is a flagpole with a giant illuminated ball suspended at its top. It looks kind of gaudy, and no one is really sure why it’s there. But we do know that at 11:59 pm it will slowly descend 70 feet until it reaches the ground at the stroke of midnight, ringing in the start of 2016.

Oh, and right now a crowd of about a million people is packed on the streets waiting for this climactic event. That’s a small number compared to the estimated billion people who will watch the event from their TV’s, laptops, and smartphones.

This is one New Year’s tradition, and it’s the one we New Yorkers typically think of first. But there’s a much older January 1 custom: the singing of “Auld Lang Syne.” This beloved Scottish ballad is a call to remembrance, asking, “Should auld [old] acquaintance be forgot,/and never brought to mind?”

Ironically, few people remember “Auld Lang Syne” itself nowadays. In fact, earlier tonight NPR published a blurb lamenting the song’s decline in recent years. Ruth Perry, a professor from MIT, is quoted as saying:

People have to learn to sing together again. I think it’s important. I really do. Because it’s bonding. Because it’s community-making. Because we don’t have enough such glue in our culture. It would be good to revive that which there is. It’s very good for people to feel that they’re part of something bigger than themselves.

I can’t help but mourn the fact that our New Year’s celebrations, as raucous as they may be, seem to be missing this “cultural glue.” We still “celebrate,” but don’t always remember for what—just like we’re “thankful,” but not sure to whom. And celebration is hard in an age of terror; the same news report I referenced earlier also mentioned that security forces in Times Square are in the thousands. Only in the presence of a massive corps of heavily armed policemen can NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio assert that the city tonight is “the safest place in the world.”

DeBlasio may be good at denial, but judging by the international news headlines in the past few days, we’re scared. We’ve been scared for a long time. And scared people don’t sing.

Or do they?

What put the plaintive tones of “Auld Lang Syne” back in my ear was a blog post I read earlier today over at GentleReformation.org. There Reformed Presbyterian minister Nathan Eshelman called my attention to another set of words sung to the same tune: the words of Psalm 77.

Forever will the Lord cast off, show favor never more?
His steadfast love forever cease? His promise come no more?
Has God forgotten all His grace? Has his compassion gone?
Or can it be His mercies all, He has in wrath withdrawn?

If you ask me, I’d say the singer of these words sounds scared, to say the least. He sees terror all around him, and worst of all, he feels God’s absence. Perhaps, he fears, God has forgotten.

That’s a thought that should make us flee Manhattan, turn off the TV, cancel the ball drop—because if God has forgotten, why should we welcome another year? Another year of disease, shootings, famines, earthquakes, fires, terror? Is the “something bigger than ourselves” just one absurd catastrophe? It would be far more fitting to watch the midnight countdown in slack-jawed horror.

But that’s not where the psalmist leaves us. The setting goes on (sing along, if you know the tune):

Then I replied, Such questions show my own infirmity.
The firm right hand of Him Most High through years must changeless be.
The LORD’s deeds I remember will, your works of old recall.
I’ll ponder all which you have done and weigh your wonders all.

God has not forgotten, says the psalmist. And neither should we. God’s right hand—and he who sits at his right hand, Jesus Christ—continue to rule the world unhindered. His promises to his people will be fulfilled. This is guaranteed for the future because it is demonstrated throughout the past. And the hinge point of this divine plan for history is revealed in redemption:

O God most holy is your way; what god is like our God?
O God of miracles, your strength, you have made known abroad.
You have redeemed your people all, the power of your arm shown.
Your people sons of Jacob are, and Joseph is your own.

–from The Book of Psalms for Singing, Psalm 77

For the Christian, then, New Year’s Eve should be an opportunity neither to celebrate in absurdity nor to quail in fear at the terror that surrounds us. For us it should be a milestone, a rest stop at which to check whether our trust and comfort are secure in the Rock that followed them through the wilderness, and that Rock was Christ.

Have you taken refuge in that Savior’s shelter? If so, you are in the safest place in the world. And you can sing.

Happy New Year.

–MRK

By Times_Square_Ball_2010.jpg: Susan Serra, CKD from Long Island, USA derivative work: Sealle [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

November’s Psalm of the Month: 33

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

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The Lord by His word has created the heavens;
By breath of His mouth made the stars come to be.
The depths of the ocean He heaps up together,
And puts in a storehouse the waves of the sea.

Amidst a season of thanksgiving, this rousing new setting of Psalm 33, which the Psalter Hymnal Committees hybridized from the Scottish psalter Sing Psalms and The Book of Psalms for Worship, will reinvigorate you to give thanks for the abundant manifestations of the Lord’s steadfast love.

Even though the tune ASH GROVE does not appear in the blue Psalter Hymnal, it is well-known in connection with the Thanksgiving-time hymn “Let All Things Now Living” (#453 in the gray Psalter Hymnal). Frequent running lines throughout the vocal parts (especially the bass) impart this tune with an extraordinary sense of energy. Sing Psalm 33 at a rousing tempo fitting for its lively expressions of praise.

Suggested stanzas:

  • 11/1: stanzas 1,2
  • 11/8: stanzas 2,3
  • 11/15: stanzas 4,5
  • 11/22: all
  • 11/29: all

Source: stz. 1 adapted from Psalm 33 in Sing Psalms; stz. 2-5 from Psalm 33C in The Book of Psalms for Worship

Tune only: Revised Trinity Hymnal 125

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 33

  • Why praise is fitting for the upright (vv. 1-3), namely:
  • The Lord’s character (vv. 4-5)
  • The Lord’s creation (vv. 6-9)
  • The Lord’s providence (vv. 10-12)
  • The Lord’s omniscience (vv. 13-15)
  • The Lord’s omnipotence (vv. 16-19)
  • The Lord’s steadfast love (vv. 20-22)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 33

As the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ shares all the attributes of God that are praised in this psalm. He is upright, faithful, and just; the Creator of the universe (“All things were made through him,” John 1:3); the King of the nations; and the Savior of his people. He is the ultimate manifestation of the “steadfast love” of the Lord (v. 5), and it is he who delivers our souls from death (v. 19). Even as we currently enjoy the blessings of the salvation Jesus has provided, we also look forward to the day when the desire of v. 8 is fulfilled, when “at the name of Jesus every knee [bows], in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:10). It is superlatively fitting (v. 1) to praise God for the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Applying Psalm 33

  • Who are the righteous (v. 1)? How are they righteous (cf. Heidelberg Catechism LD 23, Q&A 60)?
  • In today’s context, who are the members of the “blessed nation” (v. 12)?
  • Have you ever looked to a “false hope” for salvation, as the psalmist mentions (v. 17)?
  • How does trusting in the Lord make your heart glad (v. 21)?

When the Psalmist says that all our blessedness rests in the fact that the Lord is our God, he points us to the fountain of divine love as the only source that could be desired to make life happy. For God to stoop down to accomplish our salvation, protect us under his wings, provide for our necessities, and help us in all our dangers, hinges entirely on his adoption of us. But lest we should think that these blessings arise from our own efforts and work, David directly teaches us this: only from the fountain of God’s gracious electing love are we counted as the people of God.

—paraphrased from Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 33:12

Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

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

October’s Psalm of the Month: 67B

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

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O God, show mercy to us,
And bless us with Your grace;
And cause to shine upon us
The brightness of Your face.

Classical music aficionados may quickly recognize the tune of Psalm 67B (THAXTED) as a famous melody from “Jupiter” in Gustav Holst’s 1919 symphonic suite The Planets. But you don’t have to be a lover of classical music to enjoy singing Psalm 67B. Indeed, since its first appearance in the Book of Psalms for Worship in 2009, this reverent setting has become a favorite in its own denomination, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, and beyond.

The choice of tune for Psalm 67B is notable not just historically but also theologically. In Roman mythology, Jupiter was worshiped as the king of the gods and the bringer of jollity. However, as a false god made in man’s image, Jupiter also acted selfishly and capriciously, causing consternation and chaos on the earth. In contrast to pathetic idols, Yahweh, the one true God, is just and true in all his ways (Revelation 15:3). The Lord alone can bring justice and peace through his righteous rule. As you sing Psalm 67, rejoice in God’s unchanging character along with the psalmist: “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth” (Psalm 67:4).

Suggested stanzas: All

Source: Psalm 67C in The Book of Psalms for Worship (text similar to blue Psalter Hymnal #121)

Tune only: Revised Trinity Hymnal 660

Listen to a recording:

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 67

  • Proclaiming God’s gracious salvation (vv. 1,2)
  • Proclaiming God’s guiding justice (v. 4)
  • Proclaiming God’s great provision (vv. 6,7)
  • A missionary refrain (vv. 3, 5, 7)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 67

Psalm 67 brings to mind God’s covenantal promise to Abraham, “[I]n you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Clearly Jesus is the fulfillment of both the Genesis prophecy and this psalm. The Son of God, who was also “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1), has brought salvation to his people and a source of hope to the whole world. This is reason enough for the nations to rejoice—but Psalm 67 still looks forward, too, to the day when every knee in heaven and on earth bows at the name of Jesus and every tongue confesses that he is Lord (Philippians 2:10,11). In Andrew Bonar’s summary, Psalm 67 is “the Prayer of Israel for the blessing which Messiah is to bestow on them, for the sake of earth at large.”

Applying Psalm 67

  • How does God’s way become known on earth (v. 2)?
  • Does God “guide the nations upon earth” today (v. 4)? If so, why do they not rejoice under his rule (cf. Ps. 2)?
  • How can the people of God be sure that he will bless them (v. 6)?

Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

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

Forget Not

Yesterday Twitter dropped a little note in my email inbox that mentioned “Thanksgiving–the day we express gratitude for family, food and football. (But mostly football.)” After rolling my eyes and muttering something about how Thanksgiving has become a symbol of America’s cultural decline, I tossed the email without further thought.

College Hill RPC CornucopiaReflecting a little more deeply, though, what are we called to be thankful for, and how do we show it? We Christians may be quick to protest that Thanksgiving Day isn’t mostly about football, but is it really about family or food either? My pastor made a convicting point this morning: American Christians gladly accept the state’s invitation to participate in a nationwide day of giving thanks. But what we should really want is to invite people everywhere to participate with us, not in a day of thanksgiving, but in a life of thanksgiving. And thanksgiving for what? For all of God’s benefits, as the psalmist teaches us in Psalm 103—forgiving, healing, redeeming, crowning, satisfying, and renewing us. We thank God for his righteousness and justice, his mercy and grace, his “steadfast love toward those who fear him,” his compassion to his children, and his throne established in the heavens. Not only are we to exert our utmost effort in blessing the LORD, we are to call people everywhere to do the same.

Psalm 95 sheds more light on the believer’s motives for giving thanks. Our gratitude is framed not in vague terms of “family, food and football” but rather in the salvation wrought for us by our God (v. 1). We praise him for his sovereignty (v. 3) and his creation (vv. 4,5), acknowledging that we belong only to him. “He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (v. 7 ESV). Throughout Psalm 95 we find concrete reasons and exhortations for giving thanks to the Lord.

But the second half of Psalm 95 strikes even closer to home. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts,” warns v. 7. In the middle of this passage the voice shifts from the psalmist to that of God himself, who reminds the worshipers of “when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work” (v. 8). This section of the psalm is so ominous, we may even be tempted to skip over it. But the implication is clear: giving thanks isn’t an option, it’s a command. Thanksgiving arises from hearts that recognize God’s blessings, and the absence of thanksgiving is a telling sign of spiritual hardness, of “a people who go astray in their heart” (v. 10). It’s no wonder that the Lord swears in his wrath that such people—people who respond to his manifold mercies with a shameless shrug—“shall not enter my rest” (v. 11).

The key question is not how much God has blessed us (the answer, of course, is “abundantly”), but how much we acknowledge it. Will your Thanksgiving Day be filled with joyful kneeling before your Maker, or merely loading up on turkey and getting ready to hit the stores tomorrow? It’s sad enough that the unbelieving world can’t even finish a day of gratitude without the encroachment of gluttony and greed. But are we Christians, in our living, working, and worshiping (and yes, feasting) proclaiming the glory of “the rock of our salvation” to everyone around us?

Thanksgiving Day is many things to many people—family, food, and football considered. For the Christian it is so much more. To a people whose natural inclination is always to forget, Thanksgiving Day offers an opportunity to “forget not.” Today we can hear his voice, sing his praise, and remember all his benefits.

–MRK

Psalm 65: Due Praise

Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion,
and to you shall vows be performed.
O you who hear prayer,
to you shall all flesh come.
When iniquities prevail against me,
you atone for our transgressions.
Blessed is the one you choose and bring near,
to dwell in your courts!
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
the holiness of your temple!

–Psalm 65:1-4 (ESV)

"All nature joins in singing a joyful song of praise."

“All nature joins in singing a joyful song of praise.”

Can Psalm 65 be summarized in a single sentence?  If so, it is a song of thanksgiving to God for his abundant providence and faithfulness in both creation and redemption.  The Lord sits supreme above all the (false) gods of the nations because he hears prayer (v. 2), atones for his people’s transgressions (v. 3), has created the world (vv. 6-8), and continues to sustain it with awesome deeds (vv. 9-13).  As a result, how could praise be withheld from him, especially in Zion, the city of his chosen people?

Today it’s time for us to evaluate Psalm 65 as set to music in the Psalter Hymnal.

114, “Praise Waits for Thee in Zion”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

In my own church at least, “Praise Waits for Thee in Zion” is probably the most familiar setting of Psalm 65 from the Psalter Hymnal.  This praiseful and praiseworthy versification sets to music the first five verses of Psalm 65, which form a fairly complete section of thought in the text.  It begins by extolling the Lord for his salvation, and it ends by stating that “Man finds no sure reliance, no peace, apart from Thee.”

The accompanying tune, MENDEBRAS, is a bouncy German melody arranged by Lowell Mason, and it’s one that I inevitably associate with this psalm setting.  When played too slowly this tune is dismal, but the opposite temptation always lurks to play it just a bit too fast.  Personally, I like a tempo just a touch slower than 120 bpm (2 beats per second).  The only challenge to the singers is the soprano jump to a high F in the last line.  Some hymnbooks have remedied this by lowering the key to E-flat, which I believe ruins the brilliance of the music.  Instead I would suggest that sopranos who can’t reach the F simply sing a D, as is written for the third line directly above.

115, “Thy Might Sets Fast the Mountains”

(Sung by the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir)

Psalter Hymnal number 115 takes on the remainder of Psalm 65, verses 6-13.  Like its companion, “Thy Might Sets Fast the Mountains” is textually accurate and musically appropriate.  Once again the versification has three stanzas, with a recapitulation of the key theme of this part of the psalm at the very end: “All nature joins in singing a joyful song of praise.”

You’ll probably recognize the tune WEBB right away as the melody of “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” (Psalter Hymnal number 467).  While this association may be a little confusing at first, I believe this is a very fitting tune with the confidence and jubilation necessary to carry the vivid words of Psalm 65.  Thankfully, the soprano line never goes too high, and the brilliant key of A works perfectly.  Once again, the only challenge to the average accompanist is finding the proper tempo.  If you can attain that, this version of Psalm 65 might soon become a favorite!

116, “Forth from Thy Courts, Thy Sacred Dwelling”

(Sung on YouTube)

“Forth from Thy Courts” is the Psalter Hymnal’s Genevan offering for Psalm 65.  The English text of this 16th-century setting, composed by Rev. William Kuipers in 1931, is much more ornate than our other versifications, and in some cases a little less accurate.  It still forms a powerful paraphrased version of the psalm, however, as evidenced in the second stanza:

A mighty stream of foul transgression
Prevails from day to day;
But Thou, O God, in great compassion,
Wilt purge my guilt away.
Blest is the man whom Thou hast chosen,
And bringest nigh to Thee;
That in Thy courts, in Thee reposing,
His dwelling-place may be.

To modern ears, this Genevan tune in a minor key is far from jubilant; that is a roadblock that may be impassable for our American culture.  However, choosing a befitting organ registration for this selection and playing it at a lively tempo can help dispel any complaints about singing a dirge.  After the very last verse, you might repeat the last line and end in an F-major chord, as done in the recording above.

117, “Before Thee, Lord, a People Waits”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

While a fourth version of Psalm 65 isn’t really necessary in the Psalter Hymnal, there’s nothing that should detract from its use.  “Before Thee, Lord, a People Waits” includes a solid versification of Psalm 65:1-8, and a lilting, uplifting tune to accompany it.  I find the tenor and bass parts in the first two lines to be rather monotonous, but it would be relatively easy to employ some creative re-harmonizing here.  Once again, the poor sopranos will be confronted with a high F right at the end; I don’t believe the key can be dropped, since the bass part goes down to a G already, but an alternate soprano note of C might resolve the problem.

The year is crowned, O Fount of blessing,
With gifts to cheer the land;
Thy goodness fills the earth, expressing
The wonders of Thy hand.
The hills rejoice; the pastures, teeming
With flocks that skip and spring,
The golden grain, in valleys gleaming—
All sing to God the King.

–MRK


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