Posts Tagged 'Unity'

Unity in Indiana


Keynote speaker Rev. Barry York

Well, since last month I can now cross a significant item off my bucket list. Unexpectedly, I got to attend the 2016 Reformed Presbyterian International Conference (RPIC) in Marion, IN!

Held every four years, the RP International Conference is a longstanding favorite event within the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) and beyond. It’s when about 2,000 members of the RPCNA and its sister denominations around the world converge for a week on the campus of Indiana Wesleyan University for preaching, singing, recreation, and fellowship. It’s a fantastic experience—and not just because I got to listen to thousands of people singing the psalms in harmony all week!

I say “unexpectedly” because I had no plans to attend RPIC, until the director of my college choir, Dr. David K. Smith, asked if I would be interested in accompanying him to the conference. As the choir’s PR director I could help him with recruiting and networking. Since Geneva College is the denominational school of the RPCNA and The Genevans choir plays an active part in keeping the tradition of a cappella psalmody alive, this seemed to be the perfect venue.

Initially we just planned to travel to Indiana for part of the week and run a table in the conference’s exhibition hall. After our initial plans were made, however, we were invited to present a workshop to the high schoolers at the conference on psalm-singing! Why the conference planners chose two non-RP’s to speak to Reformed Presbyterian youth about their own denominational distinctive is beyond me. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the opportunity to come in as observers and encourage a group of 30 or 40 youth toward a deeper appreciation of the musical tradition they grew up with. (I’ll post a summary of the workshop soon, Lord willing.)

In addition to serving in this “official” capacity, I had a lot of opportunities just to mingle with these Scottish brothers and sisters. I benefited greatly from Rev. Barry York’s keynote addresses on “The Sacrificing Church: Ministering Faithfully as Priests in the Local Congregation.” I got to sit in on several fascinating workshops, including sessions led by Rev. Michael LeFebvre and our own Rev. Danny Hyde! Above all, I enjoyed getting to meet hundreds of Reformed Presbyterians who loved to converse about the labors, joys and sacrifices of living in the body of Christ. I felt warmly welcomed into a different branch of the family of God of which we are all a part.

If there was one disappointing facet of the week, it was the blank stares I so often received when I mentioned the United Reformed Churches in North America. Most attendees, it seemed, had never even heard of our very like-minded denomination. One conventioneer even took pains to warn me about the increasing liberal trends in my federation, not realizing he had confused the United Reformed Churches with the United Church of Christ!

For denominations that share “Phase 2” ecumenical relations, I can’t help but find this a little embarrassing for both of us. Maybe sending a contingent of 500 URCNA members to the next international conference wouldn’t be helpful, but certainly there are plenty of ways on a local and regional level to affirm our unity. Have we pursued the option of a yearly NAPARC joint worship service, as is done in places like Pittsburgh? Do we invite each other’s congregations to fellowship events like game days or (in West Sayville’s case) lobster fests? Do we take advantage of the conservative, well-grounded Reformed liberal arts education a college like Geneva has to offer? (Yes, that was a shameless plug.) If not, perhaps these opportunities can help us map out a reasonable plan of action.

As Rev. York’s messages reminded me throughout the week, the world is pressing in on the church from all sides. In times like these, what a blessing and help it is to be united in the truth by building lasting relationships with fellow believers across denominational lines.


Check out Bryan Schneider’s video montage of the 2016 Reformed Presbyterian International Convention here.


Thinking the Trinity Psalter Hymnal Through


There’s just over a month left till the URCNA’s tenth synod convenes in Wyoming, MI, and my guess is that many of our elders and pastors feel like they’ve been punched in the face by the recently-released 566-page provisional agenda. Our federation needs to make many difficult decisions this summer related to positions on current cultural issues, unity with other denominations, liturgical forms, and, of course, the Psalter Hymnal project.

If you’re struggling to wade through the provisional agenda, you may find Revs. Mark Vander Pol and Norman Van Eeden Petersman’s 16-page overview helpful. I don’t think I’ll be blogging (slogging?) through the agenda’s various materials related to the songbook project as I did back in 2012, but I’ll attempt to make some summarizing remarks in this post.

To my knowledge, the report from the Psalter Hymnal Committee on pp. 163-174 of the provisional agenda is the first public communication from the committee since last fall. A few readers have expressed the opinion that the committee is failing to communicate important information to the churches. I tend to disagree, since the very presence of the website with every psalm and hymn to be included in the collection goes above and beyond the committee’s mandate. At the same time, I understand this frustration, since updates about the project tend come from magazines like New Horizons or The Outlook—second- or even third-hand—and not from the committee itself. The Psalter Hymnal area of the URCNA website doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2013! It is hard to fault an overworked and understaffed committee for this, but I do fear that the scarcity of information is hindering the churches’ view of the project.

In any case, the Psalter Hymnal Committee provides these updates in their report:

  • They have named the book the Trinity Psalter Hymnal.
  • They are continuing to edit and obtain copyright permissions for the psalter section.
  • They have completed the list of songs for the (new) Hymn Proposal.
  • They have decided that the Liturgical Forms Committee should publish the URCNA’s new liturgical forms in a separate booklet from the songbook.
  • They have decided to leave pronouns referring to God uncapitalized and to retain archaic language (including the name “Jehovah”) in classic hymns.
  • They have decided on the basic contents of the songbook (introductory essays, indices, etc.).

Unfortunately, the report remains unclear as to what action the Psalter Hymnal Committee expects Synod 2016 to take besides approving the hymn section. The mention of the name change to the Trinity Psalter Hymnal, for instance—is that decision final, or are they requesting that it be approved on the floor as part of “receiving the work of the committee to date”? Similarly, the report cites a separate recommendation from the Liturgical Forms Committee about publishing a separate liturgical forms booklet, but this recommendation is actually missing from both committees’ reports (as Vander Pol and Van Eeden Petersman note). If I am not the only one confused by the structure of this report, the synodical process is likely to become jammed in trying to untangle the actions implied in these pages.

As readers of URC Psalmody know, I am a passionate advocate for a new denominational Psalter Hymnal. And I believe it is possible to utilize the discussions and deliberations on the floor of synod to refine the finished product into the best songbook it can be. But it is only possible when elders, consistories, classes, synods, and standing committees each understand the nature and extent of the authority they have been given to make decisions. Unfortunately, the URCNA still struggles to define the power of its various ecclesiastical bodies, and I think that confusion is revealed in this report along with so many of the other materials submitted to Synod 2016. I’m not suggesting any one of the bodies involved is to blame, but (like the huge overtures at Synod 2012) I am afraid it may be a disaster to place so much material before a synod that doesn’t know what it is expected to approve.

When I published my argument for the new Psalter Hymnal in the March/April issue of The Outlook, one of the strongest objections I received from readers related to the location of authority in the church. Many URCNA members fear that a denominational songbook represents a shift toward centralized government, what one commenter called “federalism” in the churches. To the contrary, it is argued, local consistories have the exclusive jurisdiction over what gets sung in a congregation’s worship.

As others have noted, this is a false dichotomy. The authority of local consistories and the authority delegated to synod are not contradictory. One arises from the other. And it should be possible to make decisions for the common good of the churches without ignoring the needs and circumstances of local congregations. But the misunderstanding persists, and it goes far beyond the question of a new Psalter Hymnal to the problems of ecumenical relations, joint church orders, and more. What does unity really mean? Until we pause to answer that question, I think the road to a denominational songbook will remain rough.


Featured Recording: Psalm 122 and the Two Kingdoms

Featured Recording

The “two-kingdoms debate” here in the United Reformed Churches in North America often reminds me of a Fourth of July fireworks show—a steady smattering of firecrackers punctuated by the occasional attention-grabbing “ka-boom!” of the larger explosions.  And this week’s events in the blogosphere have caused some fairly deafening crashes.

If you are yet unfamiliar with the debate, I’m not going to attempt to summarize it here.  It is too controversial a topic with too many complex facets; I’ve done a bit of reading on the subject, but I’m still not sure I thoroughly understand it myself.  Suffice it to say that a Christian’s view of the church and its relationship to the world has much to do with this discussion, and its implications are far-reaching for individuals and for the URCNA as a whole.

What grieves me immeasurably is not the debate itself, which I think is a necessary one, but the prevailing tone of the interactions.  Too often the loudest and brightest fireworks on either side seem to be colored not with humility and brotherly love, but with a certain measure of arrogance.  Sometimes the actual issues are blurred beyond recognition and superseded with a disturbing desire to “one-up” the other side with satirical comebacks and ad hominem attacks.

“This is just the way we work out our disagreements,” someone might say.  “We still respect each other, and neither side takes the insults seriously.”  This may be true—and I humbly admire men who are willing to fight for the truth of Scripture at all costs.  But through the battle, what impression are we giving of our federation to the watching world?  I fear for those whose first impression of the URCNA is derived from these virtual skirmishes.  Worse, I fear for our federation itself when theologians, ministers, and members are more concerned about promoting their own agendas than fighting together for the unity of the churches.

I say this as someone who has little right to plunge into the debate or to judge its participants—but I cannot help that it saddens me deeply.  In stark contrast to this situation, I thought of the delight of the psalmist in Psalm 122 as he considered the glories of Mount Zion (the Church):

I was glad when they said to me,
‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’
Our feet have been standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem!

–Psalm 122:1,2 (ESV)

David describes a place to which all the “tribes of the LORD” go up in beautiful harmony “to give thanks to the name of the LORD.”  Can this kind of unity be reached here on earth?  Admittedly, no; the tribes of Israel fought among themselves all too often, and we cannot expect perfect union in the church either on this side of eternity.  But it’s the last four verses of Psalm 122 which, for me anyway, carry the most powerful punch:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
‘May they be secure who love you!
Peace be within your walls
and security within your towers!’
For my brothers and companions’ sake
I will say, ‘Peace be within you!’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.

–vv. 6-9

Why should we strive for peace in the church?  Not only for the sake of our brothers and companions, but also by the very fact that it is the house of the Lord our God.  This is no human institution, or it would have perished in discord long ago.  For that reason Psalm 122 is both a call to rejoice, and a call to act.  We can rejoice in the fact that the Lord builds his Church, despite all the attacks it endures from without and within.  But we are also called to strive with all our might for peace, so that we may always be able to say, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”

How appropriate it is that Psalm 122 was sung as the very first selection at the prayer service that opened Synod 2012 of the URCNA.  There two hundred delegates from every corner of the continent, and even from across the globe, rose to sing these words from Psalter Hymnal number 264, today’s Featured Recording:

My heart was glad to hear the welcome sound,
The call to seek Jehovah’s house of prayer;
Our feet are standing here on holy ground,
Within thy gates, thou city grand and fair.

The “two-kingdoms debate” is a weighty one, and I hope I’ve not exceeded my bounds in sharing these thoughts and concerns.  Let it merely be said that I have a deep love and respect for our small group of churches and the ministers that serve them, for their unwavering mission to follow Christ and preach his gospel.  I hope and pray that goal will never change.

If nothing else, I’d simply like to pose a call for reflection: Are we praying and striving for “the peace of Jerusalem” in our little federation?  Or has the fireworks show become the main attraction?

For all my brethren and companions’ sakes,
My prayer shall be, Let peace in thee abide;
Since God the Lord in thee His dwelling makes,
To Thee my love shall never be denied.


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

Featured Recording: Happy Birthday, Psalter!

While we concern ourselves primarily with the Psalter Hymnal here on URC Psalmody, we owe a huge portion of our psalm-singing repertoire not to the Christian Reformed Church’s songbook, but to an earlier collection published by the United Presbyterian Board of Publication.  Its title is simply The Psalter.  First released a century ago in 1912, The Psalter has continued to serve denominations like the Protestant Reformed Churches in America right up until the present day.  In fact, just yesterday I mentioned that the 1912 Psalter is now available as an Android app!

As a bit of a preface, let me mention that the United Reformed Churches in North America are not currently in any kind of ecumenical relations (Phase 1 or Phase 2) with the Protestant Reformed Churches in America (PRCA).  Nor is the PRCA a member of NAPARC (the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council).  There are some historical and doctrinal reasons for this separation which I don’t want to get into here.  Whatever our relation may be to the PRCA, however, perhaps we might learn to imitate their commendable love for the psalms and, in particular, The Psalter.

In fact, that brings us to today’s Featured Recording here on URC Psalmody.  Recently, the Hope Protestant Reformed Church of Redlands, California, held a program commemorating the 100th anniversary of The Psalter.  The event features choirs, instrumental ensembles, children’s groups, and, of course, hearty congregational singing.  Best of all, the entire program was recorded and made available on YouTube!  If you have an hour and a quarter to spare, this presentation is an excellent overview of the contents of the book of Psalms and the reasons why we ought to sing them in worship.  And after listening to these voices of praise to God, who wouldn’t be re-inspired to sing and love the Psalms, the timeless, faultless songs of praise given to us by God himself?


Psalm 133: How Good and Pleasant

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the LORD has commanded the blessing,
life forevermore.

–Psalm 133 (ESV)

It’s entirely likely that no three verses anywhere in Scripture speak so clearly of the blessings of Christian unity as Psalm 133.  Among the sinful human race, like-mindedness is rare and precious, both among blood brethren and among the brethren of the church.  Of the latter kind of unity, Charles Spurgeon says:

As to brethren in spirit, they ought to dwell together in church fellowship, and in that fellowship one essential matter is unity.  We can dispense with uniformity if we possess unity: oneness of life, truth, and way; oneness in Christ Jesus; oneness of object and spirit—these we must have, or our assemblies will be synagogues of contention rather than churches of Christ.  The closer the unity the better; for the more of the good and the pleasant there will be.  Since we are imperfect beings, somewhat of the evil and the unpleasant is sure to intrude; but this will readily be neutralized and easily ejected by the true love of the saints, if it really exists.  Christian unity is good in itself, good for ourselves, good for the brethren, good for our converts, good for the outside world; and for certain it is pleasant; for a loving heart must have pleasure and give pleasure in associating with others of like nature.  A church united for years in earnest service of the Lord is a well of goodness and joy to all those who dwell round about it.

With these wise words in mind, Psalm 133 is perfect for singing at any occasion where Christians gather—corporate worship, prayer meetings, evangelism projects, synod meetings.  In these cases and in many more, we would do well to remind ourselves of the goodness and the pleasantness of brothers dwelling in unity.

Brotherly unity being put into practice at Synod 2012.

Brotherly unity being put into practice at Synod 2012.

278, “How Good and Pleasant Is the Sight”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI, and West Sayville URC on Long Island, NY)

Compared to the Psalter Hymnal’s other versification of Psalm 133 just across the page, “How Good and Pleasant Is the Sight” is definitely the more popular song.  Truthfully, neither one is terribly accurate, but number 278 has the upper hand when it comes to a simple text and a memorable tune.  The first and second stanzas contain the entirety of Psalm 133; the third stanza combines the first half of the first stanza with the other half of the second, presumably in an attempt to “wrap things up” a bit.  The tune PRESSLY, composed by Charles Gabriel specifically for this psalm in the 1912 Psalter, is perky and full of joy—perfect for these uplifting words.  A nice bright organ registration, combined with care not to play too fast, will complement this setting beautifully.

279, “Behold, How Pleasant and How Good”

“Behold, How Pleasant and How Good” is a little sibling of sorts to number 278.  The text is much more summarized, with these lines at the beginning of both stanzas:

Behold, how pleasant and how good
That we, one Lord confessing,
Together dwell in brotherhood,
Our unity expressing.

The familiar tune SUCH A FRIEND lends a freer, more gospel-style sense to this psalm setting.  (The same caution—Not too fast—applies to this music as well.)  All in all, both of these versifications are standard Psalter Hymnal fare, but personally I think number 278 is the better of the two.

As we reflect on how Psalm 133 applies to the Christian life, Jesus’ words from John 17 inevitably come to mind:

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.

–John 17:20-26

Indeed, it is only through the gracious work of our Savior, Jesus Christ, the Friend who sticks closer than a brother, that we can sing of the unity we now enjoy in him.  And while that like-mindedness can only be perfect in eternity, may we never cease to pray for it to increase here on earth!

How good and pleasant is the sight
When brethren make it their delight
To dwell in blest accord;
The Lord commands His blessing there,
And they that walk in love shall share
In life that never ends.


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