Psalm 104: A Meditation

31 January 2010

The psalm we considered this morning covers a lot of territory, from the forces of nature to human culture, from the food the animals eat to the thoughts that men think.  In all of these things, the psalmist points to some common themes:

  • First, there are no ‘forces of nature’ in the way we commonly mean it, any more than there are ‘creations of man’ in the way we commonly mean that.  All these things come from the hand of God.
  • Second, there is only one proper response to this: to praise the Lord, and to make your thoughts sweet to Him.

We find it difficult to do this, because we focus on the things we do not like, and so zoom in on those tiny things that we refuse to see anything else.  You must praise God even for those things, and my charge to you this week is to follow the strategy of the psalmist.  Back off, look at the whole world, and praise God for all of it.  Then, in that context, re-examine your discontents, and praise God for those things too.

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Sons of Korah

22 February 2009

Friday night some friends and I went to see the Sons of Korah in concert at Calvary Chapel of Montebello.

I’ve been hooked on Sons of Korah since my first visit to Australia in 2001, but I’ve never had the chance to see them live.  They’re an Australian group based in Melbourne, which rather seriously impaired my chances in any case, and when they did make it to the US, their tours were largely confined to the Midwest.

Not anymore.  This time they’re playing a number of Calvary Chapel churches and some other venues in California, and best of all, a pastors’ conference in San Diego.

It was incredible.

It’s a little difficult to explain the experience.  We hear the word ‘concert’ and instantly categorize the affair: guys up front playing instruments and singing, yeehaw.  It’s another Christian rock band.

But no.

First of all, these guys sing psalms.  Not, please notice, soulful ballads based on the psalms, nor peppy choruses made up of two lines from a psalm.  They sing whole psalms, beginning to end, set to music that will adorn the words and suit the themes of the inspired text.

That ‘beginning to end’ part is important.  I’m a big fan of metrical psalms, but there’s a serious problem: when you turn a psalm into a hymn, you’re going to sing the first verse and the last verse to the same tune. This is a problem because there are an awful lot of psalms that have multiple moods.  The psalm may start out grabbing God by the lapels and demanding “Where are You??  Why aren’t you doing anything about this??”  It may go on to rehearse the evil deeds of the psalmist’s oppressors, and then rehearse the many times that God has delivered His people in the past, and close with a vow to praise God in His sanctuary when He delivers from the present trial.  That’s at least two movements, musically, and it would be better with four.  One tune, repeated four times hymn-style, can’t possibly cover the emotional range of such a psalm.  So to really hear the psalm the way it’s meant to be heard, you need to hear it through-composed with an arrangement custom-built for it.

That’s what Sons of Korah do.  And they are gooood at it (click the album art in this post for some samples.)

And they do it for free.

You read that right.  They make some money on CD sales, but they charge nothing to come and do a concert.

Why would they do that?  Because it’s their ministry.  All they need is enough invitations in one tour-able area to cost-justify the trip, and they’re willing to come.  Their goal is to get the word out.  As Sons of Korah founder and front man Matt Jacoby put it last night, the goal is “to wake people up to the psalms.”  Concert performance allows the widest possible range of musical expression, so that’s what they focus on.  Future projects may include teaching tools and arrangements for congregational singing, but for now, performance is the tool that brings the most people into meaningful contact with the psalms quickly.

These guys ought to be in much greater demand than they are.  They should be buried under years’ worth of invitations.  A cynical man might take the fact that they are not as an indication that the church has simply lost its taste for God’s songs, that the church would prefer not to know how to handle its worship, its prayers, and its emotions in a way that requires faith.  All of that is certainly true in some measure.  But I prefer to think that most believers just don’t know the Sons of Korah exist.

Now you do.


Psalm 99: A Riddle

30 November 2008

Psalm 99 poses a very difficult problem for modern readers.  See if you can spot it:

The LORD reigns;
Let the peoples tremble!
He dwells between the cherubim;
Let the earth be moved!
The LORD is great in Zion,
And He is high above all the peoples.
Let them praise Your great and awesome name
He is holy.

The King’s strength also loves justice;
You have established equity;
You have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.
Exalt the LORD our God,
And worship at His footstool
He is holy.

Moses and Aaron were among His priests,
And Samuel was among those who called upon His name;
They called upon the LORD, and He answered them.
He spoke to them in the cloudy pillar;
They kept His testimonies and the ordinance He gave them.
You answered them, O LORD our God;
You were to them God-Who-Forgives,
Though You took vengeance on their deeds.

Exalt the LORD our God,
And worship at His holy hill;
For the LORD our God is holy.

The problem for us comes in the portion in green.  If we know our history, we’re on the alert immediately.  We want to say, “Wait a minute, God!  Moses did not keep Your testimonies and ordinance; he struck the rock.  Aaron didn’t either; he made the golden calf.  Samuel raised evil sons.  How can You say such a thing about them?”

If we’re not familiar with the history, we still have trouble with the passage, because in the same breath, the Psalmist says that God forgave them, although He took vengeance on their evil deeds.  So if there were offenses to forgive, if they were in fact guilty of evil deeds, then they clearly did not keep God’s testimonies and ordinance — right?

Wrong.  Obviously wrong, because the Psalmist and the Holy Spirit say otherwise.  But we cannot find it in our hearts to speak of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel in the way that the psalm speaks of them.  We believe, right down to our bones, that it is an inaccurate, self-contradictory description.

In other words, we do not have the mind of Christ on this subject; we don’t see it as God does, and can’t speak of it as He does.

And yet, this is a psalm.  We are supposed to sing it, just like the other psalms.  Here, then, is the riddle: How can we sing it in good conscience, with understanding? How can the Psalmist and the Holy Spirit say, in the same breath, that Moses, Aaron, and Samuel kept God’s testimonies and His ordinance, and that He forgave them and avenged their evil deeds?  How is that possible?

When we can answer that, we will know a little more about God’s forgiveness than we presently do.

And maybe we’ll become better at forgiving each other, too.


Hymns or Contemporary Music? An Exercise in Missing the Point

23 November 2008

A lot of ink, and no small amount of (metaphorical) blood, has been spilt over whether worshippers today should sing hymns or contemporary music.  I don’t intend to rehash the debate here, because I think it’s a stupid argument.  The people on both sides have so thoroughly overlooked the central questions on worship music that it’s a bit like arguing about whether to allocate federal funds for free condoms in public-school sex education classes.  (Sex education by someone other than parents? Federal funding?  Public schools?)  If you’re already that far gone, fighting about condoms is pretty much beside the point; the whole premise of the debate is deeply wrong several times over.

So it is with worship music.  First of all, the entire debate is largely conducted in terms of musical taste, which is already wrong.  Worship is offered to God; the question is not what makes us feel good, but what He wants to hear.  Blithely offering what we want to give is the mistake Cain made, and we’ll fare no better than he did.  Realizing this leads us to a second temptation.  I think it was Anne Lamott who said that you can be pretty sure you’ve made God in your image when it turns out He hates all the same people you do.  As of people, so of music: if you think God’s tastes entirely match your own, chances are pretty good that you’ve confused God with the person in the mirror.

Second, the question of whether it’s better to sing hymns or praise choruses is pointless, because the first priority is to sing psalms.  Try on these passages for size:

How is it then, brethren?  Whenever, you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation.  Let all things be done for edification.  (1 Corinthians 14:26)

And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation, but be filled by the Holy Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing heartily to the Lord….  (Ephesians 5:18-19)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing to the Lord with grace in your hearts.  (Colossians 3:16)

Is anyone among you suffering?  Let him pray.  Is anyone cheerful?  Let him sing psalms.  (James 5:13)

Might it be that there could be extrabiblical psalms, songs we write today to sing to the Lord?  Of course.  Paul’s use in his letters of early Christian hymn fragments seems to make this point pretty clearly.  But — as Doug Wilson so pointedly puts it — while the commands may potentially encompass more than the Book of Psalms, they surely do not encompass any less.  Leaving aside the question of what songs we might write, we have 150 that we know we’re supposed to sing.  Most of us could count on one hand the ones we could sing all the way through, and have a finger left to scratch our heads wondering how we ever missed these clear commands in Scripture.  Best we get started; we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

Of course, we have the lyrics, but not the music.  We have to supply the music, and this has the potential to renew the debate: contemporary music, or something older? The first answer is “something older.”  Not because it’s better — although it might be — but because we already have it. The sooner we get started, the better, and it turns out we’re not the only ones who have ever thought about this.  There’s a rich Western heritage of music for the Psalms: we have medieval chant, the Scottish Psalter, the Genevan Psalter, the Irish Psalter, and various others.  The music in these psalters is older, and we’re going to have to live with it, at least until we can replace it.  But such is the price of several centuries of disobedience; if you don’t like Renaissance and medieval music, consider it motivation to get cracking.  It makes no sense to tell God “We’ll be happy to obey You in this matter just as soon as we’ve come up with some music that suits our tastes.”  Pfui.  We’ve got music; let’s use it.  Who knows, we might even decide we like it (I have).

Of course, there’s no reason for our composers today to rest on the laurels of the medieval church and the Protestant Reformation.  We should be writing music for the psalms, making our own contributions to the worship of the Lord, and this, again, threatens to renew the debate: contemporary music, or something in an older style?  But to argue the point in terms of temporal categories is, once again, already wrong.

The question should be, what sort of music best fits the psalm we’re working with?  Since God has given us the lyrics, we have to honor them; therefore, the music should augment the lyrics, not blunt them.  Repetitive variations on a theme in the lyrics should lead to repeated variations on a theme in music.  Happy lyrics that call for cymbals and shouts should lead to loud music with cymbals and shouts.  Mournful confession in the psalm should lead to mournful music.  Angry and discordant lyrics should lead to the same sort of music.  And so on.

Once we begin to consider these issues, then the debate over contemporary or traditional music might actually be worth taking up again.  But personally, I suspect that when we begin to consider these issues, most of the present debate will wither away, revealed for the silly distraction it always was.


A Primer on Worship and Reformation

9 November 2008

If you’re one of those true believers that honestly thinks mainstream Evangelical worship is in the midst of a new rebirth of wonder, you’re going to spend the first chapter of A Primer on Worship and Reformation: Recovering the High Church Puritan wondering what in the world is eating Doug Wilson.

Composed more as a corrective than an indictment, Primer assumes from the beginning that the reader has at least begun to suspect that North American Evangelical worship is largely hollow and bankrupt.  If you’re not there yet, the first chapters probably won’t convince you, but keep reading.  The latter chapters provide a basis for comparison, and against that vision, the status quo may never look the same again.

I’ve spent a couple of really delightful evenings with this book, so let me give you a more detailed picture of its contents.  As so many Canon offerings do, the book begins with a broadside. It doesn’t even wait until the first page of text.  By the time I’d read the table of contents, I had already caught the heady scent of sacred cow on the barbecue — the first chapter is titled “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Schlock.”

…modern evangelicals have a…deep and covetous hunger to be cool–and so we have bestselling authors, Grammy award winners, trademark lawyers, Designer Bibles with Study Notes for just about everybody, rock bands with guys filled with middle class white guy angst, earrings, and tattoos to match, rock bands with Christian women as sexy as it gets, for that special born-again T & A market niche, and onward into the fog.  The biblical name for all this is worldliness.  And to paraphrase the late P. T. Barnum, there is a sucker born again every minute. (p. 12)

All this is not just so much baptized misanthropy.  First of all, it’s true.  Second, worldliness is the correct label, and that’s an important point in itself.  Third, Wilson is headed somewhere even more central:

Now what does all this have to do with worship, or the reformation of worship?  All cultures have a cultus at the center.  The center of every culture is its worship.  There is no such thing as a religion-less culture, and the same is true of all sub-cultures. (p. 12)

Therefore, he says, the wreckage that is mainstream evangelical culture is the result of a decay in evangelical worship.  Wilson has written elsewhere that in order to engage in, let alone win, the culture wars, it will be necessary for Christians to have a culture.  Here, he takes it one step further: in order to have a reformation and renewal of Christian culture, we must first have a reformation of Christian worship.  Wilson further supports his contention with a historical review of how we got into the desperate straits in which we presently find ourselves, followed by a chapter devoted to defining and defending the stance he’s dubbed “high church Puritan.”  To my eye, these two chapters are largely summaries of ideas found in Reformed is not Enough, so if the ideas intrigue you, there’s more where it came from.

Where Primer really shines is in the chapters that follow.  Here, Wilson describes the reformation of worship that he advocates, and it’s nothing short of glorious.  He offers a brief chapter each on evangelism, liturgy, Scripture, the Lord’s Table, the Psalms, Feasting and the Sabbath, and rearing children as part of the church.  In each chapter, the pietism, revivalism and individualism of modern Western Christianity come in for a good whipping, and the unity of Christ’s body and the corporate nature of worship are the threads that hold these seemingly disparate subjects together.

I find myself agreeing that we should reject what Wilson is rejecting, but sometimes hesitant to accept what he offers in its place, although I would happily attend a church that worships in the way he describes.  Which is to say that in general, I believe he’s on the right track and making productive suggestions.  I’m not going to go through them all — for that, you can buy the book — but let’s consider a three sample points: evangelism, the Sabbath, and the Scriptures.

The chapter on evangelism offers an end to guilt-driven, weird evangelistic encounters where Christians with no talent for it trap a random stranger in the park and try to tell him about Jesus before his dog finishes peeing on the swingset and he walks away.   Wilson states that the Bible gives to the church the responsibility to preach Christ, and to individual believers it gives the responsibility to be ready to give an answer when asked (see 1 Peter 3:15).

Although we should reject the gawky and ham-handed approaches that Wilson is trying to avoid, a more nuanced handling of the Great Commission is called for here.  In it, Jesus commands His disciples to make disciples who will, in turn, obey all His commands including the Great Commission.  While the church is certainly to do this corporately, every individual has a part to play.  When confronted with a believer, the job is to stir him up to love and good deeds, so that he becomes a better disciple.  Likewise, when confronted with an unbeliever, sharing the gospel with him is required of us, in the best way we can.  There are no exception clauses for people who don’t have the gift of evangelism.  But it may be in a given instance that the best way we can share the gospel with an unbeliever is to simply do honest business with the guy.  The situation calls for a more realistic view of human interaction than what usually obtains in church seminars on evangelism.  Most people don’t go to the park to meet random strangers, and don’t care to be accosted by someone taking a survey on the ten commandments, or whatever the favored pick-up line might happen to be this week.  There are people who can get away with it anyway, and people who can’t.  The only way to find out which you are is to give it a shot.  But if you’re not one of these people, find a better way of sharing your faith, and don’t let someone guilt-trip you into bad stewardship of your time and energy.  If the whole body is not an eye, neither is it all a big mouth.

I would also take this a step further and say that a believer living the sort of life described in 1 Peter 3:8-17 is going to get asked why he lives that way — so if nobody’s asking, you’re doing it wrong.  I suspect, though, that such a person will also be oozing Jesus out every pore, and he’ll initiate telling people about Jesus in ways that turn out to be surprisingly appropriate, because that’s who he is.  But that’s the real thing of which the youth group trip to the park is a fun-house mirror’s demented reflection.  You just can’t fake it if you don’t yet have the character for it.

An astute reader will notice that although we may construct the case differently, for the most part Wilson and I arrive at the same practical result on the subject of evangelism.  I find myself in similar accord in a number of other places in the book.

I am not in accord, however, with the sabbatarian strain that runs through both “Covenant Renewal” and “Feasting and the Sabbath.” To separate the observance of one day (either the first or the seventh) as necessary obedience to the Fourth Commandment stands in blatant disregard of several direct statements in the New Testament, not least Romans 14:5-6 and Colossians 2:16-17.  Both passages clearly make mandatory observance of the Fourth Commandment a thing of the past.  To further buttress the position by appeal to the sabbath rest of Hebrews 4 (p. 36) misses a very large point in the immediate context.  Theologians have long argued about how to understand the sabbath rest denied the exodus generation (vv. 3, 5-6), and which yet remains for God’s people (v. 9).  Some — myself among them — argue that it’s millennial rest; others argue for some sort of spiritual succor here and now.  What is blindingly obvious, though, is that it cannot possibly be the weekly Sabbath observance, because the Exodus generation actually did that, even after God turned them away from the land (Numbers 15:32-36).

I am sure that Wilson has thought about these things, and I would like to know what he says about them.  I don’t know, because in Primer; Wilson more assumes his position than argues it.  He seems to be raising passages that he regards as persuasive, without taking the time and space to explain why they should be persuasive, or to anticipate and answer common objections.  But this is entirely fair; detailed defense for the position is clearly beyond the scope of this book.  Primer‘s purpose is to paint a picture of what Sabbath observance could look like, and it does this job very, very well.

The resulting portrait is undeniably attractive.  I love what Wilson has to say about feasting in general, and the concept of resting one day in seven is both wise and completely in accord with the way God designed the world — and man — to work.  I observe a day of rest myself (on Saturday — pastors work on Sundays), and he paints a wonderful picture of a day brimming with both rest (Feasting and the Sabbath) and worship (Covenant Renewal).  It’s glorious, and I have no doubt that a Sabbath spent at Chateau Wilson is a day well spent indeed.

With regard to the worship service itself, “Covenant Renewal” offers a badly needed prescription for coherent worship.  Wilson advocates a pattern that, to my eye, has been observed more often than not in the historical Christian church, although I’m not sure it has been so clearly articulated as it is here (for further details, see The Lord’s Service by Jeffrey J. Myers).  The modern church desperately needs to return to its roots in this area, and the practical, pastoral aspects of making the change would be worth a book-length treatment (hint, hint).  In the meantime, Primer offers any reader a glimpse of what it could be like.

“Thundering the Word” addresses the preaching and interpretation of Scripture, and it’s a treat.  The precision-worshiping hermeneutical “science” of the Enlightenment church comes in for a bad beating as Wilson champions the so-old-it’s-new idea that the Scriptures themselves teach us how to interpret the Scriptures. Having recently taught a ten-week course designed around that insight myself, I obviously don’t disagree.  Some of the places Wilson goes with that insight, however, make me nervous.

When I first read his exposition of the Church as the last Eve (pp. 48-53), I wasn’t ready to agree, even if the Bible does say that Christ is the last Adam, and that He’s a bridegroom, and that the Church is His bride.  Having considered it for a while, though, I find the evidence undeniable, and the pastoral applications quite edifying.  I would now put down my initial reluctance to a lack of time in grade: I only made the switch to biblical hermeneutics a few years ago.

Other places I still don’t see a good reason to go.  Wilson invokes Luke 24:25-27 in support of christological/typological interpretation.  While there’s a sane way to do that, both the passage and the overall principle have been mightily abused.  At the level of generality in Primer, it’s difficult to tell whether Wilson is advocating sanity or not.  I am also reluctant to agree that “the New Testament set[s] the meaning of every Old Testament passage it addresses.”  I’d prefer to say that the Old Testament is the foundation of the New, and therefore it limits what the New Testament can mean (Romans 1:16-17//Habbakuk 2:4), and the New Testament offers a variety of uses of the Old Testament: enlightening commentary on what the Old Testament does mean (Matthew 5-7), allusive analogies and parallels (1 Corinthians 10), additional insight not available from the Old Testament account (Hebrews 11:10), and brilliant narratival syntheses exposing themes and messages only latent in the Old Testament text (Romans 4).  Here again, I suspect that we agree more than not, but at times it’s difficult to tell in a work of this length.

These three general areas by no means exhaust what I want to say about this book.  It’s that kind of book: a discussion-starter, the sort of book that fits in your pocket, but keeps you in good conversation with like-minded believers for months.  So buy it, and let’s talk.


Liturgy, Part 2: Unity and Music

21 September 2008

The second in a series of papers on liturgical matters, Unity and Music: Five Hills to Die On addresses five specific areas of concern as our church tries to find its way, musically speaking. It starts out like this…

One of the worst things about Christians is our tendency to feel that because everything is a matter of principle, everything is equally important. Consequently, we often waste time and resources fighting over trivial things when there are really serious issues in play. Nowhere is this more true than in church music. I have, to my considerable shame, been a combatant in some really stupid arguments over Read the rest of this entry »


Cantus Christi: Psalm-Singing for the Masses

27 July 2008

For my birthday, my darling wife bought me three presents: Cantus Christi, the accompanying CD set, and a 4-sermon series titled The Worship of the Saints. I’m going to review the first two here. The sermon series is definitely worth reviewing, but I’m still recovering from my shock. I’ll have to get to it later.

Cantus is a serious effort to recover psalm-singing in the church, as the proportion of the book devoted to the psalms demonstrates (196 out of 440 pages).

The single biggest challenge in psalm-singing is that while God gives us the words, He has not been pleased to preserve the original music. A saint who would sing psalms — as we are all commanded to do (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16, Jam.5:13) — must somehow come up with the music by which to sing them. Happily, this does not mean we have to write all the music ourselves.

Over the centuries, many saints have encountered this same challenge, and have written or adapted music for the psalms. Accordingly, Cantus is also a serious attempt to mine the wealth of the Western Church’s musical tradition. The music for the psalms relies heavily on the Genevan Psalter and other early Reformation musical sources, and the hymn tunes go back as far as A.D. 800. Psalm tunes include metrical songs (hymns that ordinary folks can sing without Read the rest of this entry »