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Archive for January, 2010

Singing psalms

January 3rd, 2010 17 comments
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Dromore Presbyterian Meeting House, Co. Londonderry

I had the privilege of conducting worship and preaching in the congregation of Dromore, Co. Londonderry, on the first Sunday of 2010. It is one of the very few Irish Presbyterian congregations that has preserved the practice of singing psalms exclusively with no musical accompaniment. On a clear, crisp, cold Lord’s Day morning, we raised our voices in worship without the aid of organ, piano, praise band or powerpoint slides.

I love singing the psalms, and one of my regrets is that in the latest Irish Presbyterian Hymnbook, published in 2004, a revised version of the Psalter was not included. That inclusion might have encouraged more congregations to make greater use of the psalms in their diet of worship, and given ministers a better resource in planning and conducting worship. It seems that in many congregations the singing of metrical psalms is declining, and in some places disappearing completely, in favour of modern hymns and worship songs.

Our friends in the Reformed Presbyterian Church maintain the practice of exclusive psalmody, and defend it on the basis that all elements of worship must be positively commended in Scripture, and that no element may be included without specific scriptural authorisation. Hughes Oliphant Old describes this position as “a most venerable sort of hyperconservatism” (Worship: Reformed According to Scripture; Westminster John Knox Press, 2002) but also believes that the singing of the psalms, the responsive reading of the psalms, and the use of the psalms in prayer should be encouraged so as to maintain a distinctive reformed liturgical tradition.

img_0019John Frame (Worship in Spirit and Truth; P&R, 1996) asks: Are the psalms adequate for New Testament Christian worship? Certainly we cannot criticise their theology, since they are divinely inspired. And the psalms do testify of Christ, as the New Testament shows in its use of the psalter. But the psalms present Christ in the “shadows” (Colossians 2:7), in terms of the incomplete revelation of the Old Testament period (Hebrews 1:1-3). Frame says that to limit one’s praise to the psalms is to praise God without the name of Jesus on one’s lips. Singing in worship is like preaching and praying. The Bible authorises us to preach uninspired sermons and to pray uninspired prayers, so it also allows us to sing uninspired songs. As my former colleague at Westminster Theological Seminary, Dr Vern Poythress, used to say, when it comes to worship, “if you can say it, you can sing it.”

But by not using the psalms at all, we deny ourselves a means of expressing the deepest and darkest human emotions. Carl Trueman asks a serious and profound question: What can miserable Christians sing? The answer is to be found in singing the psalms.

“A diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns inevitably creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party — a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals. Has an unconscious belief that Christianity is — or at least should be — all about health, wealth, and happiness silently corrupted the content of our worship? Few Christians in areas where the church has been strongest over recent decades — China, Africa, Eastern Europe – would regard uninterrupted emotional highs as normal Christian experience.

Indeed, the biblical portraits of believers give no room to such a notion. Look at Abraham, Joseph, David, Jeremiah, and the detailed account of the psalmists’ experiences. Much agony, much lamentation, occasional despair — and joy, when it manifests itself — is very different from the frothy triumphalism that has infected so much of our modern Western Christianity. In the psalms, God has given the church a language which allows it to express even the deepest agonies of the human soul in the context of worship. Does our contemporary language of worship reflect the horizon of expectation regarding the believer’s experience which the psalter proposes as normative? If not, why not? Is it because the comfortable values of Western middle-class consumerism have silently infiltrated the church and made us consider such cries irrelevant, embarrassing, and signs of abject failure?

While I cannot defend the exclusive use of the psalms in worship, I believe that to fail to use the psalms in worship deprives the church of a language and form of expression which leaves it impoverished. We do well to obey the Bible’s clear and balanced exhortation by singing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” with gratitude in our hearts to God.

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Hope for 2010

January 2nd, 2010 2 comments

A new year has dawned and I have to say that I face it with confidence and hope. I am hoping that a number of issues will be resolved this year, particularly the crisis surrounding the Presbyterian Mutual Society. But one doesn’t need to be a prophet to predict that during 2010 we will continue to face a number of global issues that just will not go away. Wars, terrorism, hunger, climate change and injustice will still dominate our news headlines.

It seems likely that one other event that we can expect in 2010 is an election. I have been reading Surprised by Hope over the holidays and think that Bishop Tom Wright’s words on political discourse are particularly apposite. He writes them in the context of what he calls “the myth of progress”. Christians have real hope for the future, believing that one day all issues will be resolved. But Christian hope needs to be clearly distinguished from another way of looking at the future of the world which sometimes draws on elements of the Christian belief, but which is quite different.

Bishop Tom Wright

Bishop Tom Wright

Many people, particularly politicians and secular commentators in the press and elsewhere, still live by this myth (the myth of progress), appeal to it, and encourage us to believe. Indeed…one might suggest that the demise of serious political discourse today consists not least in this, that the politicians are still trying to whip up enthusiasm for their versions of this myth – it’s the only discourse they know, poor things – while the rest of us have moved on. They are, to that extent, like people trying to row a boat towards the shore while the strong tide pulls them further and further out to sea. Because they face the wrong way they can’t see that their efforts are in vain, and they call out to other boats to join them in their splendid shorebound voyage. That is why the relentlessly modernist and progressivist projects that the politicians feel obliged to offer us (“vote for us and things will get better”) have to be dressed up with relentlessly postmodernist techniques of spin and hype: in the absence of real hope, all that is left is feelings. Persuasion will not work, because we are never going to believe it. What we appear to need, and therefore what people give us, is entertainment. As a journalist said recently, our politicians demand to be treated like rock stars, while our rock stars are pretending to be politicians. Sorting out this mess – which the Christian hope, despite current opinion, is well suited to do – should mean, among many other things, a renewal of genuine political discourse, which God knows we badly need.

This idea that, as a race, we would continue to grow and develop towards a perfect society, has a long history, going back to the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment of the 18th century, and receiving a powerful boost by the scientific and economic advances in the 19th century. Charles Darwin’s ideas were embraced by many, not only in biology and the natural sciences, but were applied to society and politics generally, justifying the belief that we were on a forward march to a great future that lay just around the corner.

The reality of war and evil in the 2oth century has meant that our society is now increasingly sceptical of that doctrine of the future built on evolutionary optimism. As Tom Wright points out, the real problem with the myth of progress is that it cannot deal with evil. Given the myth of progress, not only can we not explain wars, crimes, apartheid, child abuse and greed, we cannot eradicate them. In spite of all our contemporary problems, whether it is asylum seekers or the Middle East, our politicians still try to sell us their dream of progress and freedom, without recognising the fundamental disconnect in their thinking. This world is a sad and wicked place, and humankind is not marching up happily towards the light. There is a brokenness and a corruption that afflicts every aspect of human existence.

The Christian story, centred on Jesus Christ, addresses the problem of sin and evil in our world. The problem of evil begins to be resolved, not by humankind climbing bravely and hopefully towards the light, but by the Creator in the person of His Son graciously going down into the darkness to rescue humankind from its plight. The New Testament presents us with a hope for the future of the world which is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There will come a day when all decay and death will be eradicated, and a new creation will emerge, redeemed and renewed. Right now, we live with the reality of a broken world, but we face the future with hope, believing that a moment will come when the resurrection life and power of Christ will sweep through it, filling it with the glory of God.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God….For in this hope we were saved.” Romans 8:18-24 ESV

That gives us the foundation for living positively, with faith, hope and love, in 2010.

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