Self-Absorbed in Worship? (Boice)

 We’ve all heard the contemporary praise song that says “I will” more than a few times.   Phrases like “I will celebrate,” “I will sing to God,” “I will praise God,” are sung and repeated many times in the same song.   Here are James Montgomery Boice’s comments on such a song:

The chorus seems to be praising God – it claims to be praising him – but that is the one thing it does not actually do.  As [Marva] Dawn points out, ‘The verbs say ‘I will,’ but in this song I don’t, because although God is mentioned as the recipient of my praise and signing, the song never says a single thing about or to God.

What is the song about then? If we look at it carefully, the answer is clear.  With all the repeats, ‘I’ is the subject twenty-eight times.  Not God, but ‘I’ myself,  And not even myself along with other members of the covenant community, just ‘I’.  ‘With that kind of focus,’ says Dawn, ‘we might suppose that all the “hallelujahs” are praising how good I am…at celebrating and singing.’  What is this but narcissism, an absorption with ourselves which is only a pitiful, sad characteristic of our culture?  If we are self-absorbed in our worship services, as we seem to be, it can only mean that we are worldly in our worship, and not spiritual as we ignorantly suppose.

The praise songs of the Psalter do not fall into this trap, which is one reason why they are such good models for our worship and why they should be used in worship more often than they are.  Think of just the last five psalms, as an example.  They are a kind of praise climax to the Psalter, showing us what it means to praise God….

J. M. Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace, p. 181.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

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The Psalter Knows Christ (Athanasius)

Some of our readers may remember how Luther and Calvin loved the Psalms and spoke of them often.  Luther said that the Psalms were a mini Bible.  Calvin said that all the emotions of the soul are found in the Psalter.  In saying these things, neither Luther nor Calvin were being novel or cutting edge.  Others in Christian history said similar things before them.  Specifically, I’m thinking of Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria in the 4th century.  In a letter to Marcellinus bishop Athanasius gave an excellent interpretive discourse on the Psalter.

One thing he wrote was that the Psalms contain truths about creation, the patriarchs, the wilderness years, the kingdom years, the exile, and so forth.  Athanasius also said that the Psalter “knew” Jesus as the Coming Savior and Lord.  Basically, long before Luther, Athanasius said that he loved the Psalter because it was a mini Bible – or garden rather:

“Yet the Book of Psalms is like a garden containing things of all these kinds [Bible stories and doctrines], and it sets them to music, but also exhibits things of its own that it gives in song along with them.”

After taking some time pointing out how the Psalms teach the main stories and truths of Scripture – with Christ at the center – Athanasius even wrote how the Psalms contain “even the emotions of each soul.”  This means that the Christian can read the Psalms “as if he is speaking about himself.”  We can learn how to live and pray as we read the Psalter:

“And it seems to me that these words become like a mirror to the person singing them, so that he might perceive himself and the emotions of his soul, and thus affected, he might recite them.”

There are many other excellent observations about the Psalms in Athanasius’ letter.  I don’t have time or space to note them all here and now.  But let me commend this letter to you.  Although I have it in e-book form (thanks, Logos!), you might be able to find it online or just get it from Amazon.  It’s not overly long but it is quite profound and edifying.  Find it, read it, then turn to the Psalms, where we find a treasure box containing Bible stories/truths, guidance for Christian living, and Jesus himself!

The above quotes are found in Athanasius of Alexandria, Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, ed. Richard J. Payne, trans. Robert C. Gregg, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Psalms: Crucial Texts For Theology

Psalms (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching) Cover  Over the last few years, I’ve come to appreciate James L. Mays’ commentary on the Psalms.  Here’s an instructive paragraph from the introduction of this commentary:

“Because of their character and content, the psalms have always played a special role in reflection and thought on the Christian faith.  The Book of Psalms is composed of the poetry of praise, prayer, and instruction in piety, the fundamental elements of religion in which authentic faith comes to expression.  Religion is essentially composed of the praise of God and prayer to God and the practice of a life of trust and obedience before God.  Reflection on the Christian religion must turn on the pivots of these psalmic functions.”

“The foci of the psalms are God and the human being – human beings in their individual and historical existence under God.  The psalms speak of God’s work of creation, judgment, and salvation.  They speak of the glory, mystery, and misery of the human condition.  They proclaim the sovereignty of Israel’s God, the LORD, as the eternal, all-encompassing one central truth of reality.  Because they deal with the principle functions of religion and basic tenets of God’s way with us, the psalms are crucial texts for theological work.

That last clause is worth repeating: “[T]he psalms are crucial texts for theological work.”

James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 2-3.

shane lems

Were the Israelites Exclusive Psalmists?

I (Shane) typically don’t reference web articles/blogs here because I don’t typically read articles/blogs on the internet.  But I do keep track of an online publication of the OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) called Ordained Servant.  I recently read a helpful piece there by T. David Gordon called “The Israelites Were Not Exclusive Psalmists (Nor Are We)”.  I’ll give a few excerpts of this article below; follow the link to read it in its entirety since the quotes below do not give the entire argument.

“The Old Testament not only contains a record of these non-Psalter songs [Ex 15, Deut 32, Judg 5, 1 Sam 2, 2 Sam 22, and Hab 3]; it contains approval of those who composed and sang them.  Yet the compilers of the five collections that eventually constituted our canonical psalms did not hesitate to omit them.  Had those compilers thought that their collections would have been regarded as exclusive, they almost certainly would not have excluded such well-known songs.  If a strict view of exclusive psalmnody were held, we would be permitted to sing the 150 canonical psalms, but not permitted to sing these six other songs that are recorded elsewhere in the Old Testament.  The Israelites could have lawfully sung them (and did), but we could not.”

“If one reads the canonical psalms, it is not at all surprising to learn that they were composed over the course of many generations, because so many of the psalms command the people of God to praise and extol him for his works or deeds of judgment and deliverance.  In doing so, such passages command God’s visible people to compose such songs in response to all of what he has done. [Ps 9:11, Ps 13:6, Ps 66:1-3, etc.]”

“God disclosed himself much more supremely and definitively through his incarnate Son than he had ever before in any of his acts of judgment and deliverance in Israel; how could we possibly fail to sing praises for the greater and fuller act of judgment and deliverance in God’s own Son?”

“What the Colossians sang in their psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs were rich with the message/word about Christ” [Col 3:16].

T. David Gordon, “The Israelites Were Not Exclusive Psalmists (Nor Are We)” Ordained Servant, February 2014.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Book of Psalms for Worship: Recommended

The Book of Psalms for Worship Though I’m not an exclusive psalmist, I do agree with this: “Congregations do well to sing the metrical versions or other musical settings of the Psalms frequently in public worship” (OPC Directory for Worship II.B.2).  In the church I serve, we sing Psalms often and we also follow the practice of other Reformed/Presbyterian churches by singing through the Psalter in our evening service (which takes about two years or so).  Psalm singing is a blessing for the church that was reemphasized by the Protestant reformers.

But it isn’t always simple to find Psalm versifications that are easy to sing and understand.  Especially in churches where members didn’t grow up singing the Psalms, it can be difficult to incorporate Psalm singing in worship.  Therefore, I want to note an excellent resource for Psalm singing: The Book of Psalms for Worship by Crown & Covenant Publications.

I’ve been using this book for a few years now, and I cannot recommend it enough.  There are many familiar tunes in the book and the wording of the Psalms is both faithful to Scripture and modern enough to sing and understand.  The font and musical scores are easy to read – the book is edited very well.  There are helpful indices in the back of the book: an index of tunes alphabetically and metrically, an index of composers/sources/arrangers, an index of first lines, index of biblical topics, and an index of Psalm usage in the NT.

On top of this, C&C has made other resources available.  There is an app for this Psalter (for both IOS and Android), there are downloadable mp3 files, and there are different book formats (i.e. a mini-psalter, spiral edition, large print edition, etc.).  Furthermore, there are helpful charts that compare familiar tunes and Psalters.  I recently purchased the digital edition of the Psalter, which gives me the entire Psalter in PDF form (our church plant also uses the digital edition).  This makes it very easy (and legal!) for me to print the Psalms for singing in our public worship or in Bible studies.

If you’re looking for a solid and singable Psalter, get this one: The Book of Psalms for Worship.  The prices are right, the copyrighting aspects are not frustrating, and the resources surrounding this Psalter are outstanding.  In fact, I’m not sure what else a church would need when it comes to a great resource for implementing Psalm singing in worship.

rev shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

The Church’s Collapse Into Worldliness

Product Details Quite often a church’s quest for relevance ends up in unfaithfulness to Christ and his Word.  In Os Guinness’ terms, it is a “collapse into worldliness.”  The question is, how does this happen?  Guinness gives four steps of this downward spiral that starts with a desire for relevance and ends in unfaithfulness.  (Note: I’ve edited the following to keep it brief, though I do highly recommend reading this in its entirety – see the citation below).

Step One: Assumption.  The process of uncritical adaptation begins when some aspect of modern life or thought is assumed either to be significant, and therefore worth acknowledging, or superior to what Christians know or do, and therefore worth adopting.  Soon the assumption in question becomes an integral part of Christian thought and practice.  The danger is when something is accepted without any thought, simply because it is modern or new.”

“Step Two: Abandonment.  Everything that does not fit in with the new assumption (step 1) either is cut out deliberately or is slowly relegated to a limbo of neglect.  Truths or customs that do not fit in with the modern assumption are put up in the creedal attic to collect dust.  They are of no more use.  The modern assumptions are authoritative.  Is the traditional idea unfashionable, superfluous, or just plain wrong?  No matter.  It doesn’t fit in, so it has to go.  In the 1980s and 1990s…the air in evangelical conferences and magazines was thick with assaults on the irrelevance of history, the outdatedness of traditional hymns and music, the uptightness of traditional morality, the abstractness of theologizing, the impracticality of biblical illustration, the inadequacy of small churches, and the deadly, new unforgivable sin – irrelevance.

Step Three: Adaptation.  The third step follows logically from the second, just as the second does from the first.  Something new is assumed, something old is abandoned; and everything else is adapted.  In other words, what remains of traditional beliefs and practices is altered to fit with the new assumption.  After all, the new assumption has become authoritative.  It has entered the mind like a new boss at work, and everything must smartly change to suit its preferences and perspectives.  What is not abandoned does not stay the same; rather, it is adapted.  The habits and assumptions of a certain age and culture are accepted without thought, and then they replace the authority of traditional Christian assumptions.”

“Step Four: Assimilation.  The fourth step is the logical culmination of the first three.  Something modern is assumed (step one).  As a consequence, something traditional is abandoned (step two), and everything else is adapted (step three).  The outcome is that what remains is not only adapted but absorbed by the modern assumptions.  It is assimilated without any decisive remainder.  The result is worldliness, or Christian capitulation to some aspect of the culture of its day.  No longer a missionary, the church ‘goes native’ in some foreign culture or among some foreign ideas.  In 1966, the World Council of Churches even adopted the bizarre dictum, ‘The world must set the agenda for the Church.’”

“What links all these movements in the church [these emphases on baby-boomers, youth, the urban crowd, etc.] is the same principle.  The authentic church is the relevant church, and the relevant church is the attuned church, and the attuned church is in sync with its audience.  A great part of the evangelical community has made a historic shift.  It has transferred authority from Sola Scripture (Scripture alone) to Sola Cultura (culture alone).

You’ll have to think of these steps in light of certain movements in the American church the last 100+ years.  A few that come to my mind is one recent article in a Christian Reformed Church (CRC) publication saying we must reformulate all our doctrines based on the findings of evolution.  Another that comes to mind is the decades old movement from psalms to hymns to pop-worship-music.  Yet one more is the pro-gay movement in many protestant churches and denominations, from the PCUSA to the ELCA.  The list goes on.

Constructively speaking, the way to fight this collapse into worldliness is a firm commitment to God’s Word (sola Scriptura) – and always reforming according to it (rather than culture, populism, or relevance).

Here’s the book: Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), chapter 3.

rev shane lems

Kuyper: Worship Songs as an Artistic Exhibition?

It’s been awhile since Andrew or I pointed our readers to Abraham Kuyper, so I thought it would be good to do so once again.  The following quotes are found in chapter seven (“Congregational Song”) of Our Worship.  I’ve edited it for the purpose of this blog.

“We defend the use of hymns, but we should remember the following: 1) The spiritual depth of the psalms exceeds by far anything that afterward was composed as a church hymn and was sometimes claimed to be even more spiritual.  2) Whenever hymns came into the churches, they always seemed, first, to push back the psalms, and then to supplant them.  3) The psalms have always echoed the enduring, eternal keynote of the pious heart, while hymns usually had a temporary quality and were marked by what was popular at the moment.  4) In the struggle between hymn and psalm, all nominal members favored the hymns over the psalms while the truly pious members were much more inclined to use the psalms rather than hymns [Of course, we do not mean to say that everyone who favored hymns could no longer be called pious.  After all, who would want to exclude Luther?  Yet, it seems to us that the…points mentioned above do express what experience has shown us to be true.]”

“…During the Middle Ages abuse [of hymn singing] had become very real.  Choirs replaced congregational singing.  Men and women, boys and girls with the most beautiful voices were enticed to join these choirs, even though their moral reputation was often far from impeccable.  Also, the songs they sang often led much to be desired.  The sound, the tone of voice, and the artistic element became most important, and the content of the song of secondary importance.  Singing became an artistic exhibition and ceased to be an expression of thanksgiving and adoration of god by the believers.”

“…The [hymnal] ‘Evangelishe Gezangen’ (evangelical hymns) of 1807 …was written in a time of little poetic competence and of slackened religious interest.  When you compare the poetic and religious quality of that hymnal with our ‘Psalter,’ the former looks like child’s play.  Gilded tin and real gold have nothing in common.”

If I can interject here, I’d say that there is far too much ‘gilded tin’ in Christian worship today (though ‘gilded tin’ is probably too charitable a term for some P&W songs).  The best way to get rid of ‘gilded tin’ is to sing more Psalms.  On that note (pun intended), read the aforementioned chapter of this book: Our Worship by Abraham Kuyper.

shane lems