Archive | June, 2012

Psalms for All Seasons

Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship; Joyce Borger, Martin Tel, and John D. Witvliet, Editors; Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, Faith Alive Christian Resources,and Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, 2012

I heard one of the editors of this impressive volume say at a recent worship conference that Psalms for All Seasons was “not born out of market research.”  No one, he said, has been asking the editors, “When is there going to be a new psalter?”

Yet, here it is, in its third printing in about as many months.

Psalms for All Seasons may not have been “much anticipated” (in the breathless language of some pre-publication blurbs), but it is nevertheless welcome, clearly filling a need, and telling us a great deal about where the American church is today.

I grew up singing the psalms in a denomination that has historically valued psalm singing and that sang out of a “psalter-hymnal,” but I don’t think I discovered the power and importance of the psalms until I was well along in my ministry.  Today it would be impossible, for example, to plan for a memorial service without making ample use of the Book of Psalms.  No other book of the Bible expresses what needs to be expressed during such a service quite like the Book of Psalms.

I started out in ministry as an associate pastor in a large church, and I quickly discovered that the senior pastor loved the psalms.  Trained early on to sing opera, he continued to sing following ordination by using the psalms in personal devotions.  I would arrive at the church early in the morning and hear him behind the closed door of his office singing the psalms, many of which he metered for singing with familiar hymn tunes.  (Several of his psalms, in fact, can be found in this volume.)

Writing this review, I thought, called for a different kind of preparation from other book reviews I’ve written. To give an example, I worked with the lead musician on my church’s staff, and together we have now selected several of the psalms in Psalms for All Seasons for use in worship.

On one recent Sunday, when Psalm 23 was the psalm of the day in the Revised Common Lectionary, the congregation sang three different settings of this psalm – from the stately and traditional to the lively and contemporary.  The adult choir sang yet another setting for a total of four very different experiences of this psalm.

What was the effect of all this attention to Psalm 23?  I would like to think that this particular psalm’s message, meaning, and beauty were fully on display – and perhaps that my congregation caught a little of the rich diversity of music now being sung in American churches.

Psalms for All Seasons contains settings for all 150 psalms, including 11different settings for Psalm 23 (only one setting for Psalm 101, but generally several settings for each psalm).  The settings follow a reproduction of the psalm in its entirety (from the New Revised Standard Version), a brief prayer (or collect), and a paragraph of commentary about the psalm.  Outlines of morning prayer, noon prayer, evening prayer, and prayer for meetings and classes are given toward the end of the volume, making it valuable for personal use and meetings as well as corporate worship.

The settings (where there is more than one) range from old to new and are thoughtfully selected to include all or most of the arrangers and writers at work today in the American church.

Here’s a prediction for pastors and worship leaders who select music each week for use in worship: in this volume you will find at least 200 psalm settings that you would never, under any circumstances, think to use, but that means you will find hundreds more that would fit nicely with your worship preferences. The range is sometimes startling, though that would also be a good description of worship life in the American church today.

What the editors of this volume have revealed is perhaps what we’ve known all along – namely, that the psalms have long had, and continue to have, an important place in the worship life of the church.

Companion CDs are available which offer a sampling of the psalms found in Psalms for All Seasons and which give the listener and worship planner an idea of how the setting might sound in worship.

Having sung a great many of the settings in this volume both with my congregation and in other settings, I can testify to not only its usefulness, but to its wonder. What an unexpected and timely gift to the church.

(a book review for Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought, a publication to which I’ve contributed for than 20 years)

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A little bug

I felt it Saturday morning.

Something was happening in my upper respiratory system, and it wasn’t something good.  My voice sounded a little more resonant than usual.  I had a scratchy throat. And so, clearly a cold was on the way.

But getting sick on Saturday is not an option, not for me.  I had a sermon to preach, one that I was looking forward to preaching, one that I was genuinely excited about, as a matter of fact.

So, I did what I usually do.  I powered through.  A little Tylenol, a little decongestant (the non-drowsy kind), and I figured I was good to go.  So, Sunday came and went, and I thought I had dodged a bullet (I don’t like that expression much, but it sort of fits).

Then, I woke up Wednesday morning, and I realized I hadn’t dodged anything.  The bug suddenly had the upper hand, and I was busy cancelling appointments for the day.  I reluctantly called my family practice doctor, who prescribed an anti-biotic, and I had no choice but to give in and – I can’t believe this – take a nap.

My grandparents took naps, for heaven’s sake!  And they were really old.

Spiritually speaking, this little encounter with a flu bug has significance for me, beyond the need to take care of myself.  Getting sick is often a reminder to me that I am, after all, a mere mortal, which is a simple truth I am tempted to forget.

It’s like the smear of ashes on my forehead at the Ash Wednesday service – and then the words “dust you are, Doug, and to dust you shall return.”

I don’t like that reminder because I like to think of myself as big and strong and, yes, very nearly invincible.  Illness is what happens to other people.

Then a little bug comes along – one that’s not even visible to the naked eye – and it lays me out.   And in that moment I realize (once again) that “I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…” (one of my favorite lines from the Heidelberg Catechism).

And this is where I’m supposed to comment on how thankful I am for this much-needed reminder…but I’m not quite there yet.

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Special Olympics

I’m preaching later this morning about leadership which is a big topic.  I gathered a lot of information, and then as so often happens I realized that I couldn’t use everything.
So, I made some painful choices, which is what a film director must go through to get a project down to 90 minutes or so. I figure I’ve got around 20 minutes which makes my job even harder.

What I plan to say is that the Bible teaches us some counter-intuitive lessons about leadership.  When God chooses a leader for the people of Israel, God chooses the youngest, smallest, scrawniest brother in the Jesse clan.  They didn’t even think to include him in the selection process and only brought him out when the old prophet Samuel asked if there was, maybe, one more son in the family.

For anyone who has ever been too young, too small, too scrawny, this is a good
story.  It reminds us that God sees potential in us that, sometimes, others do not see.

The other thing about leadership that I plan to say is that it is self-sacrificing, like the Good Shepherd in John’s gospel.  The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  I do my best to follow that Good Shepherd in my personal life, but I wish there were more of them today – in schools, businesses, and churches.

Here’s the part of my sermon for today I had to leave on the cutting-room floor: Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, is a curious blend of evangelical faith and liberal politics.  She’s got a quirky and irreverent style that isn’t for everyone, but it’s fun and occasionally filled with insight.  Here’s what she writes about leadership:

If I were going to help people with being good leaders, I would say the most important thing you can do is go to the Special Olympics every single year and bring more and more people there, because that is where you’re going to see the kingdom of God.

At the Special Olympics, if someone falls down or spaces out, the others don’t go, “Oh, great – that gives me an edge.”  They go back for him or her and help, and somebody that has been assigned to help helps everybody get going in the right direction again, and they go off together.

Yeah, there is no more joy to be had this side of glory than a morning at the Special Olympics track and field.

Amen to that.

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I’m not perfect

Over the last ten years or so I have often lamented the existence and widespread use of email.  It’s pretty much made my life miserable – except for those times when I can’t live without it.

Before email, sermon feedback was sparse.  In a church I served early in my ministry, I actually started a “sermon feedback” group for Sundays after the last service. The idea was that we would “continue the conversation” in a classroom setting.  I enjoyed those sessions and still think there’s a place for them.  I found out pretty quickly what people heard, what interested them, or what didn’t make sense.

Then came email.  And since then I haven’t had to ask for feedback.  It just comes, often as early as Sunday afternoon.  To be fair, most of the email I receive in response to sermons is kind and encouraging and supportive.  In fact, I probably receive more words of appreciation for what I do than people who labor in other professions.

So, there’s no need to feel sorry for me (unless you would like to).

And yet, I do receive the occasional email that makes me regret opening up my laptop on Sunday afternoon.  I read it and think, “Really? You needed to say that? I hope you feel better now, because I feel lousy.”

It’s on those occasions that I think back to the time when people actually had to go home and think about their response.  And then they would have to get out a pen, a piece of paper, an envelope, and a stamp.  After it was dropped into the mail, I probably wouldn’t receive it until Tuesday at the earliest – and by then I wasn’t nearly as sensitive and defensive as I often am on Sunday afternoon.

I can be sensitive and defensive on Sunday afternoon.  And that’s because there is something vulnerable about preaching. From the first time I stood in a pulpit, I have felt exposed when I preach, open to criticism, and vulnerable to … I don’t know, something, maybe personal attack.

Early in our marriage, Susan and I reached an agreement that she wouldn’t say anything about my sermon until at least Wednesday, which was when I figured that I could really hear what she had to say.  I value her opinion about what I say, but it’s sometimes hard to hear her so soon after I’ve said it.  And mostly she keeps the agreement, even when I taunt her on Sunday after church with a “So, what did you think?”

Good preaching, I’m convinced, ought to involve vulnerability.  When one of us preaches, we should  be putting ourselves out there.  Our beliefs and most deeply held convictions should be plain for all to see.  But there’s a risk in that.  To be exposed in that way makes us vulnerable.

Last Sunday I mentioned in my sermon that life in my childhood was good and that institutions of government were respected and that things generally were better than there are today.  I said it differently, of course, but that’s how it was heard.

And so – on Monday morning – I opened my laptop to find a wonderful, thoughtful, and gentle email expressing…well, profound disagreement with what I had said. Not everything back in the 1950s and 1960s, she reminded me, was good.  Many women, many African-Americans, and many others do not look back on those times as good at all.

I had to agree.  I told a story from my own limited perspective, and I got it wrong.

Another time, several years ago, on a Saturday night, I was visiting a church – a mega-church 20 miles from my home.  I was excited to go and was enjoying myself until I heard the pastor, who is a nationally-known preacher, say something disparaging about mainline Protestants.  I was so mad that I went home and (not knowing his email address) wrote him a letter letting him know that some mainline Protestants actually do believe in God and that he was a very bad man for implying otherwise (I forget exactly what I wrote).

To my surprise, he wrote back.  It was a nice letter, on personal stationary, and clearly not written by a staff member. He apologized.  He said, “I don’t remember saying those things, but if I did, I hope you will accept my apology.  I blew it.”

Which was not the response I expected.  And I decided to learn from it.  I don’t always get it right either when I stand up to preach.  I have been known to blow it.  I hope I get the essentials right.  I hope the gospel is clear every time I walk up those steps. But I’m not perfect.  And I hate email.

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