Posts Tagged 'Youth'

Sing Joyfully: Getting the Most out of the Book of Psalms

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(The following is adapted from a workshop delivered by Michael Kearney and Dr. David Kenneth Smith to high schoolers at the 2016 Reformed Presbyterian International Conference on July 26, 2016.)

Thanks for giving us a little slice of your busy schedules during this convention. As two non-Reformed-Presbyterians, we are really enjoying the chance to get to know so many of you along with your friends, family and fellow church members this week—we’ve been invited to participate in something really special, and it’s great to be here!

We want to talk to you today about something the majority of you have probably experienced for your entire lives—psalm-singing. We’re going to leave aside theological or historical arguments for psalm-singing, which you’ve probably already heard countless times and which you can probably explain better than we can. Rather, we want to speak to you about the psalms as they fit into the theme of RPIC’s high school program, “Exploring Life in This World: Adulthood Is upon You.” In this workshop we want to suggest that the psalms are a divinely-given resource to help us make sense of the ups and downs of life. There are three main ways in which the psalms do this.

First, the psalms help us make sense of the world through their role as a spiritual discipline. I’m sure you know the passage in Ephesians where the apostle Paul commands the church to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19). But look at the context surrounding this command. The command to sing psalms doesn’t arise out of thin air; it appears in the middle of a list of activities that are really very countercultural. And I’m sure that many of your friends, whether believers or unbelievers, would be kind of surprised to hear that you gather in church or in your home during the week to sing psalms. In our current culture, singing—and especially singing Scripture—is a strange practice.

In Ephesians Paul describes how Christians are to “be imitators of God” rather than imitators of the world. And a lot of his commands have to do with what fills our minds and mouths. Is it crude joking, or thanksgiving (v. 4)? Is it empty words (v. 7), or the wisdom from God (v. 15)? Is it drunkenness, or Spirit-filled speech (v. 18)? Indeed, now more than ever we are surrounded by empty and foolish talk on so many sides that cultivating heavenly wisdom takes serious effort. Spiritual disciplines are called disciplines because they take a lifetime of strenuous dedication to establish in our lives. But singing the psalms is one way we can grow in the wisdom and maturity that we are called to when we follow Christ.

Second, the psalms help us make sense of the world by teaching us about living in harmony within the church. Paul’s list of instructions to the church in Ephesians 5 begins with the words “walk in love, as Christ loved us.” We often think of psalm-singing as a way to obey God and build up our own hearts. But do we think of psalm-singing also as an expression of love toward our fellow believers?

Congregational singing is an excellent picture of building one another up, especially when we sing in harmony. A song that contains only one musical line can be very shallow and boring. That’s why our psalters are written with four parts that rise and fall independently, but intermingle to form a beautiful and harmonious whole. Some people have lower or higher voices than others, but all can find a part suited for them in the church’s music. The fact that we sing in harmony rather than unison seems to be a great picture of the Christian life, especially since not everyone in the church “plays the same part.” We each have different strengths and weaknesses in different areas, but God uses those differences to help us grow as the body of Christ. In the case of singing, we work together to imprint divine vocabulary on each other’s hearts. We learn to speak like Jesus!

The third and final way in which the psalms help us make sense of the world is that they fill us with joy in the face of opposition. When asked why we Reformed believers sing the psalms, we are often quick to respond with the fact that it’s divinely commanded—and that’s true. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we also sing the psalms because it’s a joyful activity for the redeemed soul. Paul lists singing as an expression of love and thanksgiving, not a tedious obligation.

I can say to you, even as someone who’s just a few years older than you are, that the experiences I’ve had so far have taught me to treasure the psalms more than I did in high school. There have been mountaintop experiences (literal as well as spiritual) where the psalms have filled me with new heights of praise, and there have also been dark valleys where the laments and prayers of the psalter have been some of my only comforts. I suspect the same has been or will be true for most of you as well as you go forth into this world. And as the psalms help you to make sense of the apparent chaos and absurdity in the world, they will also help you share God’s perspective with your friends, family, coworkers and acquaintances. The psalms can help them make sense of the world too!

We titled this workshop “Getting the Most out of the Book of Psalms” because we believe the psalms have a tremendous wealth of benefits to impart to the believer. In order for the psalms to help you make sense of the world, of course, you also have to work hard to make sense of the psalms as you sing them. That takes place by meditating on the text, letting the words shape the way you sing, and striving to make music to the best of your ability. When you exert this effort, whether individually or in a congregation, we are sure your life will begin to reap some of the many fruits the psalms offer.

I AM: Kids Sing Psalms! (Review)

I AM: Kids Sing Psalms!Last week I was reminiscing with some friends about the Sunday school songs of our childhood. Although we had plenty of choices, we really had only a few recurring favorites, including “Father Abraham” and the dubious classic “Arky, Arky.” Another favorite was the antiphonal “Hallelu, Hallelu/Praise Ye the Lord” chorus, which most often turned into a screaming competition between the boys and the girls as each group tried to produce the loudest exclamations of praise. We may not have been very musical, but we were definitely enthusiastic.

The topic of Sunday school singing comes to mind because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we teach kids the psalms. Even congregations with a robust tradition of psalm-singing often find it difficult to impress these songs on the minds and hearts of the next generation. On one hand, an energetic group of kids could be bored to tears by some of the more solemn selections in the psalter. On the other hand, more engaging styles of music like Steve Green’s classic Hide ‘Em in Your Heart albums tend to be unrepresentative of what would typically be sung in worship.

Crown & Covenant has recently released a CD album, I Am: Kids Sing Psalms! (2016), which seeks to meet this need. Featuring 27 children choristers from the Pittsburgh School for the Choral Arts, the album pairs eight “I AM” statements of Jesus (“I am the bread of life,” “I am the light of the world,” etc.) with similarly-themed psalm settings from The Book of Psalms for Worship. Each psalm is introduced by a choir member who reads the New Testament passage accompanying it. This album isn’t the first of its kind; other C&C releases include You Are My God: Kids Sing Psalms! and the correctly-spelled Kids Sign Psalms: O Be Exalted High, O God!

I expected I Am: Kids Sing Psalms! to resemble the singing I described above—what it lacked in tone quality it would make up in enthusiasm. Surprisingly, the opposite is true. These kids are excellent singers, and their polished sound proves that the Pittsburgh School for the Choral Arts provides a solid musical education. By the same token, I have to admit that the youthful zeal I anticipated often seems to be missing from this recording. The choir sings in unison with the rare addition of a second part, so the publisher’s description of “rich a cappella harmony” seems to be overstating the case. Whether it’s the restrained tempo, the absence of dynamics, or just the teaching style, I long to catch a little more excitement from these children’s voices.

Crown & Covenant describes I Am: Kids Sing Psalms! as being “designed for young children to gain familiarity with the psalms.” The difficulty in reviewing an album like this is that it really ought to be considered on two different levels. To be sure, the choristers in the recording have definitely benefited from learning and singing these songs. Nothing gets words and tunes stuck in your head more firmly than choir rehearsals, and the polished sound of these singers proves that they have put plenty of hours of practice time into the music. Whether they realize it or not, these kids’ experience with psalm-singing has left a lasting impression on their minds, hopefully one that mirrors the impression made on their hearts.

Unfortunately, the album’s design is less likely to make an impact on kids on the listening end. Subdued psalm-singing might be helpful background music for children as they go to sleep at night. But I doubt many children would beg to hear this CD in the car or in the middle of the day’s activities—and I say that as someone with an unusually mellow musical taste myself. Even lively congregational singing, for all its rough edges, might make more of a joyous and exciting impression.

Despite my criticism, I’m very encouraged by the production of this album—both because it’s great to see an acclaimed children’s choir working together with a Reformed denomination on psalm-singing, and because Crown & Covenant clearly recognizes the need for engaging and lasting ways to teach the psalms to youth. Although I Am: Kids Sing Psalms! may have left me missing the shrill enthusiasm of “Father Abraham” and “Arky, Arky,” I’m still looking forward to future releases.

–MRK

(Per FCC rules, I need to note that I was sent a complimentary review copy of this CD, and I was not required to write a positive review.)

RYS’s Tribute to the Heidelberg Catechism

The 2013 Reformed Youth Services Convention met at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, MN.

The 2013 Reformed Youth Services Convention met at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, MN.

For the first time in its history, the ministry of Reformed Youth Services has made available to the public the audio from its 2013 International Convention, as well as the videos from its Talent Show.  The theme of the convention this past year was “Mission Possible,” based on I Timothy ii.3, 4; this year’s keynote speakers were both excellent and challenged their young audience to live their lives as servants, soldiers, and sojourners of Christ the King.

You can find links to the convention sessions in the side navigation of Reformed Youth Services’s website, or read more about the event in the July 31/August 21 issue of Christian Renewal magazine.  My purpose in mentioning the RYS convention, however, is to point you specifically to this year’s choir selection.

This year Mrs. Kathy Arrick, the wife of Rev. Steve Arrick of the Zeltenreich URC in Lancaster County, PA, directed the convention choir.  The anthem she selected was an old one, unlike the choir’s selections in previous years; but, as she explained, it had a unique message.  Mrs. Arrick specifically picked this song to coincide with the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism.

The anthem “The Potter and the Clay” opens with these poignant lines:

Lord, I have tried to go my own way,
Wandering alone day after day.

This acknowledgment of “how great my sin and misery are” is followed by a powerful reminder of the fact that “I am not my own”: as the three-part harmony explodes, the choir cries, “Now I am Yours!  Guide me, I pray.  You are the Potter, Lord; I am the clay.”

Note the rest of these Biblically-rooted lyrics as you listen to the rest of the anthem.  The choir finally concludes:

Held in Your hand, I thankfully pray:
You are the Potter, Lord;
I am the clay.

Enjoy the video at this link or embedded below.

All glory be to Jesus Christ, our faithful Savior!

–MRK

Featured Recording: Psalm 79 and Young Organists

Featured Recording

I’m always immensely encouraged to meet a fellow young musician who is learning, or desires to learn, how to play the organ.  When I mention my interest in the “king of instruments” to friends who aren’t familiar with Reformed worship, they usually respond, “Oh, really?  I thought that was a lost art.”  I have to admit that organists may have been a dying breed in the recent past, but from the many encouraging conversations I’ve had with other young people, it seems that organ-playing is once again on the rise.  And while I’m not about to argue that the pipe organ is the only instrument worthy of the worship of God (or that instruments are an essential part of worship at all, for that matter), I can only hope this renewed interest points to a renaissance of other elements of historic Reformed worship as well.

That’s why I was thrilled to discover the videos and website of Gert van Hoef, a virtuosic 18-year-old Dutch organist.  His bio page notes that he was introduced to the organ at the age of thirteen, but had no formal musical training until 2008.  To everyone’s surprise, he quickly began winning an incredible number of young organist competitions, and his YouTube videos went viral—well, at least as viral as recordings of Dutch psalm improvisations and classical organ music can get.

As far as I know, Gert is now in college and planning to attend conservatory after he graduates.  He serves (or served) as organist for the Reformed Church of Voorthuizen.  Since that is the Hervormde Kerk as opposed to the Gereformeerde Kerk, however, it may be Reformed in name only.

One of the most important characteristics of a good musician, which Gert clearly has, is the ability to put one’s whole heart into the music.  This aspect comes out especially well in his renditions of Dutch Psalter improvisations.  Today’s Featured Recording is his improvisation on Genevan/Dutch Psalm 79, based on W. H. Zwart.  Interestingly enough, this tune appeared in the red 1934 CRC Psalter Hymnal as “Thy Land, O God, the Heathen Have Invaded,”  but it was sadly omitted from the blue 1959/1976 edition.  I recorded my own piano improvisation on Psalm 79 including this gorgeous tune a few months ago, though of course Gert’s rendition is better in every way.

It ought to be mentioned that Psalm 79 is a particularly poignant lament calling for the restoration of God’s people to the Promised Land—analogous perhaps to the tribulation the New Testament church faces in this world.  In a powerful climax the psalmist cries:

Do not remember against us our former iniquities;
let your compassion come speedily to meet us,
for we are brought very low.
Help us, O God of our salvation,
for the glory of your name;
deliver us, and atone for our sins,
for your name’s sake!

–Psalm 79:8, 9 (ESV)

Then in confidence he declares, “But we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise” (v. 13).  The promise of restoration gives hope to God’s afflicted people, no matter how great the trials they face.

Now, here’s Gert van Hoef rendering Genevan Psalm 79 in the Dorpskerk in Voorthuizen.  (Watch for a pretty funny blooper around the 6:45 mark.)  For your added enjoyment, I’ve included the English lyrics of this psalm setting below the video.

Thy land, O Lord, the heathen have invaded;
Thy holy heritage they have degraded.
Jerusalem, the temple and its altars
Are ruthlessly defiled by the assaulters.
Thy land in ruin lies,
And cries for vengeance rise
To heaven for all this evil.
Our foes have given to beast
And vulture, for a feast,
The bodies of Thy people.

Recall no more the sins we have committed,
But may they all in pity be remitted.
O Lord, make haste; O may Thy mercy tender
Now strength and help unto Thy people render!
To us salvation show
In all our grief and woe,
O God, forsake us never!
Free from the tyrant’s chain,
Purge from all sin and stain,
For Thy Name’s sake deliver.

Incline Thine ear to all in bondage sighing;
Those doomed to death, on Thee alone relying,
Preserve, O God! Lift by Thy mighty power
The awful scourge of this relentless hour.
O Lord, our foes restrain,
Avenge Thy servants slain,
Thou Lord of all creation.
By those within Thy fold
Thy Name will be extolled,
Through every generation.

–MRK

(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

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.

–MRK


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