God Made You to be You

I shared this on Facebook today:

Good morning 😁

As I go into another day of parenting, I think of innocent times when my girls say silly things like, “I want to be a boy.”

I think most every normal kid says stuff like that at one point or another. But given our current culture, I confess I usually think twice before I answer a statement like that.

I’m not afraid to gently remind my girls, “Well that’s silly, you can’t be a boy. God made you a girl.” This is not some cheap argument. It is laid out plainly before all of us in creation. It is cherished in an ultrasound room when the technician joyfully shares, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” It is recorded in science with the simple designation XY or XX.

Most importantly, though, it’s celebrated in Scripture with the beautiful words,
“For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.”

(Psalm 139:13-16)

So yes, little one. God made you to be you today. No amount of lies can change the truth. I hope you always remember that, even long after I am gone. 😘
~CP

Entertained or Edified?

Recently I watched an intriguing YouTube video by bass player and composer Adam Neely called “Learning to Like Contemporary Christian Music (the music I hate).” Adam takes us on a interesting journey as he studies the style and form of some of the big names in modern contemporary worship. I agree with much of what he said. Adam’s chief criticism comes to a surprising and unexpected climax, though, when he complains CCM players are not allowed to indulge in “musicking.” Instead of breaking from the mold by improvising and taking the music in unexpected and delightful directions, players are instructed stick to the program. This act, to him, seems less worshipful.

     Adam Neely, we must remember, is a professional entertainer (with Christian roots in his past) who loves music for the sake of music. So it’s not surprising he would be annoyed when he observes musicians being told to “hold back.” By contrast, a robust Christian theology teaches us that church music is not so much about entertainment as it is about edification. It is more about understanding and communicating the text with appropriate music than it is about enjoying the music as an end in itself. It more about experiencing God’s grace and expressing our affection toward God on this basis than it is about delighting in the emotions caused by music itself. It is about mutual edification, not entertainment.

     William Billings (1746-1800) and his use of the fuging (pronounced “fee-YOO-ging”) tune is one of the best illustrations of this conflict between edification and entertainment in American church music history. “Billings was somewhat of an eccentric: a tanner by trade who had a booming voice, a withered arm, and a stunted leg. He must have been a remarkable presence when he stood before a class” (Ogasapian, 36). Billings was also an albino with a savvy marketing mind. By use of his peculiar appearance and gifts, Billings traveled around America utilizing singing schools as a means of peddling his music (think “The Music Man: Church Edition”). Not long after publishing his first work, “The New-England Psalm-Singer,” Billings lamented its poor quality and promoted his next work as the new and improved edition. Singing schools, once established as a serious means of teaching congregants how to read music, had devolved by this time into a social occasion for youth. Billings used the frivolity of singing schools to his advantage. While Billings was not the only American to compose and popularize the fuging tune, he stands out as its most prolific and influential promoter in America.

Title page from Billings’s fist work, The New-England Psalm-Singer.

     Fuging tunes were musically light-hearted and fun to sing. The dominate characteristic came at the end, where one voice would begin singing the melody, followed by a second part, then a third and perhaps a fourth, all entering the melody at overlapping sections much like a rousing round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” The result was a cacophony of unintelligible noise that encouraged singers to compete against each other until they finally joined together in the end.

     Compounding the problem, Billings and many of his American contemporaries were self-taught composers. They crafted their compositions poorly, frequently using “parallel fifths and octaves, chords without thirds, and improperly prepared or resolved dissonances” (Music and Westermeyer, 90). Their melodies were difficult for the average congregant to sing, and in some churches the congregations even stopped singing altogether while the choir sang on.

     Some may think I am being too hard on Billings. But it’s not just me—God soon raised up other competent church musicians who opposed the work of Billings (and lest we forget, God raised up Billings, too). In fact, the opposition was so strong that most of our modern hymnals contain few if any of Billings’s tunes. I am not opposed to appreciating Billings when it comes to educational or choral settings. Some may recognize the title When Jesus Wept, or perhaps the patriotic tune CHESTER. These are some of his most enduring contributions to American music. But for good reason his contributions to American church music when it comes to congregational singing are minimal.

     I began by talking about Adam Neely’s criticism that CCM does not do enough “musicking.” I think the example of Billings and the fuging tune points us in the opposite direction. I am not the first person, and I certainly will not be the last, to point out that modern CCM often contains elements very similar to Billing’s fuging tune style—hard to sing melodies, worship leadership that sings while the congregation remains silent (or at least muted), part-writing that excludes rules that have stood the test of time (by that I mean centuries), and a confusing cacophony of noise. rachel-lynette-french-u7hlzmo4siy-unsplash

In many ways, it is not so much what is present in, but what is absent from this kind of worship that is most telling. Sure, it may be fun for the band to perform their favorite worship hit, and somewhat fun for the people listening (depending on the abilities of the band and the sensitivities of the people), but God’s people have come to church not to be entertained, or listen to others worship, but to participate in the worship themselves. “Musicking,” as fun as it may be, focuses on the individual performer and not on corporate worship. “Musicking” makes church music the chief end of our joy, when it should be a God-ordained means of expressing our joy. It’s not performance—it’s prostration.

“In many ways, it is not so much what is present in,
but what is absent from this kind of worship that is most telling.”

At the same time, I find an unexpected warning in this whole story for myself. By my own admission I am somewhat a “self-taught” composer. Though I have taken private music lessons for most of my life, I only minored in music in college. Since then I have had the opportunity to take private lessons in composition from some incredibly talented and amazing composers, and their influence has made an invaluable impact on my writing. But I can’t pretend to have climbed the same mountains, earned the same degrees, or gained the same kind of knowledge and skill as those talented professionals. I might give arranging a try every now and then, but for the most part I focus on my strengths of lyric and melody writing, then ask other people to arrange my music.

What’s my point? Church musicians need to be careful and honest about their levels of competency in various areas of music. This is right and fair before God and before our people. I am speaking not only to church leaders, but to anyone involved in some way in church music. If you contribute to the music in your church, and you sense your own incompetency in certain areas, don’t ignore the problem or pretend you are something you are not. Don’t be a “Church Music Man”! Rather, let’s commit together to make an enduring impact on the history of church music by continually developing ourselves. Steward the gift. God, the giver of good gifts, has given us time and opportunity. Let’s not waste it.

~CP

Bibliography

Church Music in the United States: 1760-1901 by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, 2014). 

Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007).

A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010).

Moravians in America

Very soon after I had moved to Pennsylvania to serve as an assistant pastor, my senior pastor took me to visit a couple and their newborn baby. My pastor decided to show me around the area as we went, and he pointed out, as we drove past, a Moravian church in the town of Lititz. He talked about a pair of shoes from the Revolutionary War that had been discovered in the attic of their main building (it was used as a hospital during the war), of famous people who had stayed on the grounds, and of a museum and tours that gave more information about the Moravians. The details were interesting, and I remembered a few vague facts about the Moravians from church history, but I didn’t think much more about it. I failed to realize how much history was waiting, basically in my own backyard.

Lititz Moravian Settlement

     The Moravians were originally followers of Jan Hus, a man who protested the abuses of the Catholic church decades before Martin Luther. He was offered safe passage then burned at the stake for his convictions by the Roman Catholic Church. His followers, called Hussites, continued meeting under threat of persecution. A powerful German noble, Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, learned of these Hussites when he met an immigrant Hussite laborer named Christian David in 1722. Zinzendorf had been heavily influenced by the Pietist movement, a movement which stressed the importance of genuine Christian faith evidenced by spiritual fruit. Zinzendorf believed in living out his faith, and he took compassion on these persecuted believers, inviting them to come live on his estate. These settlers became known as Moravians, and you can still visit their original village of Herrnhut (meaning “God’s shelter”) today in Germany.

     Because Moravians also believed in the importance of evangelism, they eagerly took part in settling the New World. They accomplished much for the cause of Christ. It was through witnessing the unflinching faith of Moravians on a boat bound for Savannah, Georgia that the Wesley brothers began their journey to true faith in Jesus Christ. Zinzendorf wrote a hymn many churches still sing today, Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness, as he encouraged the spread of the gospel in the West Indies. Indeed, the Moravians became famous for their sincere, exuberant corporate singing. They often held Love Feasts (not the same as communion) where congregants would partake of sweet bread and coffee or tea between congregational singing. But they didn’t want the music to stop, so the choir would sing while they ate and drank. Their worship service would often continue, unbroken, for 45 minutes (think mega-hash chorus!).

moravian-instruments18th century cello and viola in the archives of the Lititz Moravian Museum

     The Moravians eventually settled in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, just an hour and a half away from where I now live. “By 1757, the city had a sophisticated musical establishment, fully European in its tastes, standards, and repertoire with its centerpiece the famed collegium musicum. The same instrumental ensembles and choirs provided music for Moravian worship. Bethlehem’s musical activity would reach its height in quality and quantity in the decades between 1780 and 1850. Both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin visited the city and came away impressed with its music” (Ogasapian, 64-65).

Bethlehem Moravian SettlementArtist’s rendering of Bethlehem, PA, as it would have looked when settled by the Moravians.

     The musical contributions of Moravians in American are incredible. Much more could be said. But for now, we would do well to remember the simple truth that ignorance is not always bliss. We may miss out on a wealth of fascinating history, and the lessons that come with it, if we fail to be curious. We need to appreciate the local history that surrounds us. I, for one, have a few trips I need to take in the near future to Lititz and Bethlehem. Who’s with me?

~CP

Bibliography

The Diary of Samuel Sewall and Congregational Singing in Early New England by David. W. Music, The Hymn 41:1 (October 1990).

Church Music in the United States: 1760-1901 by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, 2014). 

Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007).

A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010).

Bring Back the Psalms!

We talk about what we love. I have found in a church setting that the best way to connect with someone from a different demographic is to ask them about what I think they might love. Elderly people like to talk about their family and their past experiences. Middle aged people often talk about their work environment, their favorite hobbies, or their kids. Young people usually like to talk about anything new and exciting, their friends, or what is going on in school.

     The same is true about what we sing in church. What we sing reflects what we love; it reflects the theology we believe and cherish. If we were to look back in church history just before the time of the Great Awakening (1730s-1740s), we would find that many churches sang only Psalms. Church leaders, especially among the Puritans, believed that it was wrong to sing “hymns of human composure.” So they would sing Psalms from psalters, often to a limited number of familiar tunes. But, as historians have shown, congregational singing had suffered greatly in those churches. The tempo was often slow, people easily mixed up the tunes, and in an effort to keep the words true to the Hebrew text of Scripture, the psalters often lacked poetic beauty. While the people believed what they sang, they were not enable to express their beliefs in the natural forms of their native tongue.

What we sing reflects what we love; it reflects the theology we believe and cherish.

     Meanwhile, across the Atlantic ocean, a man named Isaac Watts had begun composing modified texts of the psalms. He eventually released them in 1719 in a collection entitled Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. Watts knew he was not following the pattern suggested by the Old Lights (the group that, among other things, advocated Psalm-singing only), but believed paraphrases that sang well were better than strictly literal texts that sang poorly. He was, in a sense, creating hymns based off the Psalms.

     His efforts were considered controversial for failing to stick to the literal text of Scripture. The prominent Boston minister and Puritan Cotton Mather initially admired Watts’ early works, but only endorsed them for use in private worship. Mather eventually published his own psalter, Psalterium Americanum, but neither Mather’s psalter nor Watts’ early works made much of an impact in America. Even Benjamin Franklin complained that Watts’ Psalms of David Imitated, which he had reprinted on his press in Philadelphia, sold poorly. It would take something far more momentous and theologically deep to shift the church music landscape in America.

     That momentous shift occurred during the Great Awakening. Fellow Englishman and friend of Watts, George Whitefield, toured the American colonies in 1739-1740, preaching to massive crowds. A spiritual revival began spreading through the colonies. Around the same time, Congregationalist pastor Jonathan Edwards started witnessing an amazing work of God in the churches he ministered. Edward’s 1741 sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, marked the height of this movement called the Great Awakening. Edwards was perhaps the keenest theological mind America has ever produced. Both he and Whitfield appreciated the works of Watts and promoted the use of his texts. By this time, the church in North America was now ready to sing Watts. It was a fitting combination, for Watts’ texts reflected the robust, Calvinist views of Whitefield and Edwards. Isaac Watts simply echoed the biblically faithful truths that had given birth to the Great Awakening; now people in churches all over American wanted to sing Watts’ texts because the truth was real for them. And they found that his God-centered texts gave a full, natural expression to the change God had worked in their souls. Watts made such an impact that hundreds of years later in America we still sing many of his texts.

alabaster-co-cz4WB-DQIdM-unsplash

     The Great Awakening reminds us of the truth that saving faith drives worship. Before people can sing with all their heart, God has to change their heart. They will only sing about what they love. We can use music to manipulate people into an emotional state (though we shouldn’t), but only God can transform a sinner’s heart. We need to understand the difference.

     In addition, many American churches today outside of Presbyterian Reformed circles have neglected Psalm-singing altogether. Yet Watts himself and other proponents of hymn singing (like the Wesley brothers) did not intend to replace Psalm-singing with hymnody. It was a “both-and” in their mind. Watts simply wanted to express the truths of the Psalms in a more natural manner, and we should too.

     With each passing generation, even Watts’ classic texts grow more difficult to understand. The church needs modern hymn writers who will imitate the Psalms in a fashion similar to Isaac Watts. The theological and historical background of many Psalms require a level of explanation that may be too difficult to fit into one simple song. The solution is not to abandon the Psalms, but to give them special attention. We should write more Psalm-based hymns, not less, and mine the deep theological truths they contain. As we sing the theological truths the Psalms teach us, the church will begin to rediscover a long-lost aspect of its worship heritage. Even within the last few years there has been a resurgence of Psalm-singing and writing among modern hymn-writers, and we should be thankful. The Bible clearly commands us to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). So if the worship leader in your church stands up and says, “Let’s learn a new Psalm today,” I hope you will inwardly say, “Yes!” and sing with all your might.

~CP

Sex Enslaves

I have seen a lot of people complaining in the social media universe about the lewd, sexually explicit nature of the Super Bowl halftime show. Last night millions upon millions of grown men and boys watched in a stadium or on their screens at home—often with their mothers, sisters and daughters fully present—provocatively “dressed” women act out sexually charged dance routines all in the name of entertainment. It was no accident. I mean, come on, this is the Super Bowl we are talking about, perhaps the most culturally iconic sports even in all of American society. I did not watch the half-time show (I was intentionally putting my two girls to bed with my wife), but it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what was going to happen, given who it was taking center stage last night.

Here’s my simple take—Americans will complain, get angry, go to social media and multiply likes upon likes, but they won’t stop it. In fact, they can’t stop it. Why? Because sex enslaves.

I am not talking about the healthy privilege that one man and one woman enjoy in a covenant commitment to each for life, called marriage. I’m talking about the raw, unfettered, sexual drive that we knowingly unleashed a long time ago in our culture. I’m talking about taking something good the Creator has given us, sexual intimacy within marriage, and turning it into an idol that we worship. Sex enslaves countless numbers of women in our society through human trafficking, yes, but it also enslaves untold numbers of souls. We have a porn problem, even in the church, because sex enslaves. We have a sexual revolution on our hands because sex enslaves. And the ones driving the revolution will in the end be engulfed by their own revolution because sex will make clear it is the master, not them.

The sexual revolution can put on a nice face. It will tell us not to judge, that your belief is OK for you to hold but not for me, that we should just be tolerant. But in the end it gets up in your face, as we saw last night, and bites like a serpent. Sex-enslaved individuals targeted an innocent Christian cake baker in Colorado named Jack Phillips, and sued him all the way to the Supreme Court. He won the case, only to be targeted again. Sex-enslaved individuals have already shut down several Christian-based adoption agencies, wishing that orphans would go homeless rather than let them be taught biblical principles of morality. Sex enslaved individuals will promote a #MeToo movement only to reenact sexual perversions on the silver screen, which Americans gladly pay to watch. Sex enslaved individuals want your children and my children to be forced to learn from sex education curriculum in our public schools, starting already in California.

Sex enslaves and then destroys the human soul. It can enslave and destroy you, and it can enslave and destroy me. That is why, though Americans may protest, we won’t stop. Indeed, we can’t stop, because we are slaves to sex.

The only hope for a culture this far gone is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel teaches us that if we confess our sins, including sexual ones, we are forgiven by grace. And if we watch sex acts, we are complicit in sexual sin (Job 31:1-4; Matthew 5:28). It’s serious—Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sexual sins. If someone wants to argue with me that men should just get over it, that it is their own problem if women act or dress in a provocative way, we simply need to recognize God already told us that certain portions and acts of a woman’s body are off limits to everyone’s view except that woman’s husband (Proverbs 5:15-23).  

Grace forgives us of such wrongdoing, when we confess it, and that same grace frees us from enslaving sexual desire. The gospel is the precious key that unlocks us from our chains to sin. Paul tells us in Romans 6, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” When we believe in Jesus, we die to our sin, and we live in Christ. Sex enslaves; grace frees.

“The gospel is the precious key that unlocks us from our chains to sin.”

Grace also kills our pride in any self-righteousness. Religion and morality never saved a single soul. It is not as if I have the power to deliver myself from slavery to sexual sin. Only Jesus Christ can do that. And if Christians want to make a difference in our culture, we need to humbly start by seeking to share the gospel with every opportunity we have. We don’t sympathize with sin, we call it out for what it is. But we do so graciously, humbly, pointing others to Christ, knowing we ourselves are only sinners saved by his grace. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). I pray Jesus will give us grace and strength to do just that.

~CP

The Harvard Reformers: Learning to Sing Again

You’re standing to sing in a new church. The worship leader gets up to lead the first song, with the words on the screen behind him. Then you realize you can’t sing the song because you’ve never heard it. Did the worship leader write it? Who knows. But you’re left standing there, with about a third of the rest of the people. Perhaps you haven’t been in that situation before, but I have. Many times. What’s the problem with singing in our churches? Is it a new problem? Can we fix it? If we dig a little bit into the past, we may find some answers that help us, even today.

Early in American church history, just after the turn of the 18th century, certain graduates of Harvard grew dissatisfied with a problem they saw in their churches. Most Puritan congregations sang “by rote,” meaning they could not read music. According to various accounts from dairies, the quality of congregational singing was poor at best and sometimes even disastrous. Many churches were “lining out” their music, meaning a deacon or some appointed individual would sing a phrase of a psalm, then the congregation would repeat the phrase “by rote.” This was considered the “Common Way” of singing in New England. These Harvard Reformers were convinced that the poor congregational singing signaled a serious spiritual problem, so they published several works that encouraged the practice of reading music, or what they called Regular Singing.

     In 1720 a man named Thomas Symmes published The Reasonableness of Regular Singing, or Singing by Note. He “claimed that the ‘new way’ of singing by note was actually not new at all, but was the oldest form of psalm singing and needed to be revived” (Music & Price, 126).  Symmes promoted the creation of formal singing schools where students could meet two or three evenings out of the week and learn how to read music. In 1723, Symmes also published a pamphlet entitled Utili Dulci, humorously written in a condescending tone, to refute common arguments against Regular Singing.

     Symmes had a hard row to hoe, for many people were comfortable with their bad singing, and reading music smacked too much of “Romish” church choirs which would end in “popery.” Most of the vehement objections came from older members of rural churches. But, in spite of conflict, the singing schools were largely a success, with many churches even voting to end their practice of “lining out.”

          Soon after Symmes published his first book, John Tufts published An Introduction to the Singing of Psalms-Tunes, In a Plain & Easy Method (1721). In it he included one new tune along with older English tunes. He gave “Directions For Singing The Tunes which follow,” teaching people how to sing the psalm tunes with a system much like the popular “Do-Re-Mi” song from The Sound of Music by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Tufts’ book met a definite need; it went through 11 editions and was often bound as a supplement to the Bay Psalm Book, the primary psalter of choice for New England Puritans.

“The Skill of Regular Singing is among the Gifts of GOD unto the Children of Men.”

Cotton Mather

     Another Harvard graduate named Thomas Walter soon published his book, The Grounds and Rules of Musick Explained: Or An Introduction to the Art of Singing. This singing book included 24 tunes written in parts for three voices, including one original tune. Walter was the nephew of the prominent and powerful Boston minister Cotton Mather. Mather, along with 12 other well-known Boston ministers, endorsed Walter’s book. Mather used his sizable influence to help all the Harvard Reformers (John Tufts was also Mather’s first cousin). As a result, the manuals by Tufts and Walter dominated the singing school landscape for the next fifty years.

     In 1722, with the encouragement of ministers like Mather, the Society for Promoting Regular Singing was established in Boston. Mather himself wrote, “The Skill of Regular Singing is among the Gifts of GOD unto the Children of Men, and by no means unthankfully to be Neglected or Despised. For the Congregations, wherein ’tis wanting, to recover a Regular Singing, would be really a Reformation and a Recovery out of an Apostacy, and what we may judge that Heaven would be pleased withal. We ought certainly to Serve our GOD with our Best, and Regular Singing must needs be better than the confused Noise of a Wilderness” (quoted in Ogasapian, 18).

     We can glean three simple takeaways from the history surrounding the Harvard Reformers. First, we need clarity and order in our worship, and being able to sight-read music is a tool we can use to that end. Paul even uses a musical metaphor to remind the church that when people witness our worship, it should be both intelligible and orderly (1 Cor. 14:6-21). Truth clearly communicated will edify the hearers.

     Second, we need to give God our best out of a grace-infused theology. Grace teaches us that even our righteousness is as filthy rags before God (Is. 64:6). But when we serve God by faith, striving to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, God sees us wrapped in the robes of Jesus’ righteousness and accepts our worship (Rev. 7:13-17). If we love God, we will not want to offer God poor worship, but our best by faith in Jesus.

     Third, every Christian should be aware of their own congregation’s cultural context. Some church music historians look positively on the individual ornamentation and rustic practice of “lining out” in the New England churches. Are they nostalgically viewing the past through rose-colored glasses? Not necessarily. We need to recognize the cultural nature of what was happening, especially in the rural churches. Some of the Harvard Reformers could be rather elitist and condescending, even though they pursued a worthy goal. We ought not give ourselves that kind of poor excuse for walking in the flesh.

     Pastoral wisdom demands that leaders, depending on a church’s history and culture, discern what is best for their particular church. A rural country church may not ever have a choir and may only sing the melody. An educated, big-city church may use elaborate music in their worship services. Both settings are acceptable to God because both are biblical; what truly matters is that we give God the best that we have.

Bibliography

The Diary of Samuel Sewall and Congregational Singing in Early New England by David. W. Music, The Hymn 41:1 (October 1990).

The Bay Psalm Book and Its Era by Barbara Owen, The Hymn 41:4 (October 1990).

Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007).

A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010).

What Happened to the Singing?

In 1640 the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony printed the Bay Psalm Book. It was the first printed book in North America. It was originally entitled The Whole Booke of Psalms Faithfully Translated into English Metre. That title highlights the Puritan desire for a psalm book that clearly reflected the original Hebrew poetry of the Psalms. A famous quote from the preface claims that “Gods Altar needs not our pollishings,” meaning the previous psalters were too free in their translation of the original Hebrew poetry. To the Puritans, the Bay Psalm Book represented a return to the literal words of the original Hebrew text.

     But there was a problem. John Calvin, during the European Reformation, had developed the regulative principle of worship. He thought churches should not use instruments or choirs in their worship because the New Testament did not command it. This is why the churches before 1700 in New England only sang from the book of Psalms. In addition, most congregations, including the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay, did not use any instruments in their congregational singing. Adding to the problem, Puritan leaders did not include any musical notation in the Bay Psalm Book, not even a simple melody for people to sing (the preface referred readers to tunes printed in another psalter by a man named Thomas Ravenscroft). Their main concern was faithfulness to the original meaning of the Hebrew text. However, the psalms in the Bay Psalm Book were both difficult to understand and hard to sing.

     The problem was not a lack of musical knowledge on the Puritan’s part. “To be sure, cultured Puritans enjoyed music, and even dancing as much as other Englishmen of the era. They were not averse to singing and playing psalms in parts for their own recreation” (Ogosapian, 6). The Puritans were highly educated and familiar with the culture, so they had the musical and artistic ability to smooth out the text. But they refused on what they thought were biblical grounds.

     As a result of a lack of instrumental accompaniment, musical notation, and difficult psalm settings, congregational psalm-singing began to fall apart in New England. Many Puritan leaders and congregants alike recorded their frustration with the poor quality of church singing at the time. Puritan leader Samuel Sewall “served for several years as Precentor of the South Church in Boston, and although seemingly possessed of better musical ability than most, he recorded that on various occasions he had set a tune too high, wandered accidentally from WINDSOR to HIGH DUTCH, and let the congregation slide into ST. DAVID’s when he had set YORK. If such things could happen to a musical Precentor, one can only imagine what might have befallen one of lesser ability” (Owens, 17). [1]

     Sewall’s experience as a precentor describes a practice called “lining out,” in which the song leader would sing a phrase of the song, then the congregation would repeat it. While only intended as a temporary fix, it quickly became settled tradition at this time in New England church history. Music historians generally agree this practice signaled a low point in American congregational singing. It wasn’t until 1698, with the 9th edition of the Bay Psalm Book, that tunes were placed in the back of the psalter, and then only 13 tunes for all 150 Psalms. Thankfully the situation did eventually change. In 1721, congregations in North American would find a new voice as concerned leaders began to publish several books that encouraged the church to sing again. But that is a different story for another day.

     It has been said that history repeats itself. Today we find ourselves at the same crossroads in church music history, though the scenery is a little different. We can glean two simple lessons from the issues surrounding the Bay Psalm Book.

First, if we are not careful in our application of Scripture, we may accidentally destroy the very thing we seek to preserve. The Puritans, in their appropriate but misguided zeal for textual accuracy, actually began to undermine corporate singing in their churches. In the past, people like Martin Luther had not agreed with John Calvin’s regulative principle of worship. In the future, hymns by people like Isaac Watts would soon provide a breath of fresh air to congregations starved of quality singing. We can sympathize with the Puritans, for they loved the Word of God. But they, like us, had blind spots. We should step back and ask ourselves a simple question: Is our music that is meant to edify people actually preventing them from participating? Is it too artistic? Too difficult? Too trendy? Too individualistic? Too academic? Musical notation is a wonderful aid to worship. We should think twice before tossing it out—again. Instead, we should present church music keeping the clearest New Testament command about music in mind, that all the congregation should sing, and they should be able to give thanks while they do it (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16)!

     At the same time, we need not box ourselves into a corner like the Puritans did. It is true—God’s Word is the most powerful and effective means of edifying believers (Heb. 4:12). But the Puritans made a weak argument from silence when they required their churches to use only the words of Scripture, and particularly the Psalms. The church has expressed theological truths based on Scripture for centuries in the form of creeds. No doubt, the more Scripture we directly infuse into our hymn texts, the better. But it is also possible to have excellently crafted, theologically rich songs to sing in church without falling into the Puritan dilemma of text versus art. We can be faithful to the text and pursue artistic beauty. Thankfully, God has gifted the modern church with many hymn writers who do just that. Let’s use them.

~CP

Bibliography

A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010)

Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007)

Church Music in the United States: 1760-1901 by David W. Music & Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, Inc., 2014)

The Bay Psalm Book and Its Era by Barbara Owen, The Hymn 41:4 (October 1990)


[1] WINDSOR, HIGH DUTCH, ST. DAVID, and YORK are all tune names. A “precentor” is a person who leads a congregation in singing, much like a modern day worship leader.

Lesson Learned in 2019

Every New Years, instead of making resolutions, I try to look back over the year and make a list of “lessons learned.” This year I think I can honestly say one big lesson stands out above the rest. Any other lessons I learned either flowed out of this big lesson or led me back to it. It was such a fundamental shift in my thinking, I believe it will change the way I live for the rest of my life.

How It All Started

Sometime this past year I was listening to a podcast in which the speaker claimed the sovereignty of God lined almost every page of Scripture. That, to me, was a fascinating claim, and I wanted to see it for myself.

So there I was, diligently underlining in my Bible reading every word, phrase, or sentence that spoke directly about or in some way implied God’s sovereign work. And I realized I was underlining a lot. Do you know how many times God has said, “I will,” in the Bible? More than I could count. Sometimes I underlined whole chapters, page after page, that spoke of God’s sovereignty. Over and over again the prophets proclaim, “thus says the LORD,” and then the LORD accomplishes all he has said. All he has to do is speak, and it is done. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is packed with words that all cry out, “God is sovereign!”

How It Changed Me

After noting the sovereignty of God every day and every time I opened my Bible, the truth started to sink in. If this is true in the Bible, shouldn’t it be true in my own life? I know we believe that “all things work together for good,” but I’ve tended to only look for the “all things” when I need an explanation for why those “all things” weren’t going my way.

But God is really for us in all things. I discovered I was very poor at recognizing God’s sovereign hand in my own life. I was not in tune to his careful attention to detail, his quiet way of working, his beautifully loving means of shaping not just me, but everyone else in my own life. And I knew I didn’t look for his sovereign hand or trust him like I should, because I was way too uptight and fearful about so much in my life.

After looking for God’s sovereignty in my Bible, and underlining the evidence, God started teaching me to underline it in my life. And the recognition of God’s grace brought peace. It brought joy. It built my faith and encouraged my prayers. Truly, God has worked in so many ways this year I have probably forgotten more instances than I remember.

God in his sovereignty also teaches me how much I need to grow. When I fail to trust his sovereign hand, I feel so foolish for forsaking the One Who alone knows my future. When I coddle arrogant thoughts, I despise my pride for thinking I somehow could take credit for the grace of God in my life. Grace kills pride, and that is something we all can be thankful for. I don’t think I will ever get over that truth.

~CP

Blessed by Trials

Every once in a while I get the privilege of preaching at my church. In a couple of weeks I’ll step into the pulpit. I have been preaching through a series on James, so on Tuesday I opened my Bible browser online to look at the next passage, and it was this:

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial,
for when he has stood the test
he will receive the crown of life, 
which God has promised to those who love him.
James 1:12

Tears welled up in my eyes. Just over a week ago I had noticed a putrid smell coming from my basement. My in-laws had just arrived for a visit, and after a few days of fun together the sewer backed up. Things got messy.

Then this week one of my daughters had asthma and congestion issues. Two nebulizer treatments later, and after several rounds of her throwing up, I found myself holding my little girl in the emergency room at 2 AM with my father-in-law seated next to me. When it rains, it pours (by the way, she is OK now).

So the tears in my eyes may have come out of sheer exhaustion, but they were genuine. It’s hard for modern American Christians to grasp the truth of this verse, that we are actually blessed when trials overtake us. The prosperity gospel tempts us to find our satisfaction in health and wealth, fame and fortune; but Christ offers something better.

Photo by Kiy Turk on Unsplash

Trials have a wonderful way of clarifying what is most important in life. When life is easy, we tend to get caught up in petty little issues that don’t really matter. We are tempted to indulge our selfishness and pride. So God humbles us and turns the focus back on him. That’s what this verse is about—learning to see and savor eternity with God. You could say it this way, “Blessed is the man (Christian) who remains steadfast under trial, for he (or she) has stood the test he (or she) will receive the crown, which is life.” The crown James talks about was most likely a laurel wreath that athletes in ancient times would receive as a reward for winning arduous physical competitions. James compares our eternal life with a reward we receive at the end of a race. You see, in the midst of trials eternity becomes so much sweeter. It is our reward.

And it’s a reward that would thrill any person who “loves God,” as the text says. If we love God, we will want to get as close to him as possible. You can’t get any closer than heaven. Though life may disappoint you, God can always satisfy you. He’s the constant while everything else in changing. Is that bitter lesson to learn? Yes. But it is a very, very good lesson to learn.

So if you are being sifted right now, take this to heart. You are blessed. Remain steadfast. Savor God right now, even when the truth is hard to swallow. And know there’s a reward for those who love God. There’s eternal life.

CP

3 Marks of a Real Man

We live in a society that seems low on doses of masculinity. And the occasional representations of masculinity we do encounter often twist and pervert God’s biblical intention for men.

What, then, is masculinity according to Scripture? In the book of Ruth, Boaz demonstrates three qualities every man needs.

  1. He provides: when Boaz discovers his foreign, Moabite relative Ruth has come to glean in his field, he takes action right away. Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now, listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women.” (Ruth 2:8) By asking Ruth to stay at his field, Boaz offered Ruth the opportunity to gather grain for the entirety of the barley harvest. Since Ruth and her mother-in-law were widows, this promise immediately resolved their most pressing need—food to survive. But that’s not all.
  2. He protects: it was a dangerous prospect for a foreign widow-woman to glean from field to field during this time period in Israel’s history. The book of Ruth is set during the book of Judges, a time when “every man did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6; 21:25) And that included their way with women. Ruth was vulnerable, but she found refuge in the fields of Boaz. He comforts her, “Have I not charged the young men not to touch you?” (Ruth 2:9). With both provision and protection assured, Boaz then communicates his long-term plans.
  3. He directs: Boaz tells Ruth, “Let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping, and go after them… And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn.” (Ruth 2:9) It’s hard to express the comfort and relief Ruth must have felt in her heart. She’s at a loss for words. Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10).

We won’t consider the whole story of Ruth, but we can learn a lot from the example of Boaz. How many women and children today are waiting for the men in their lives to start offering provision, protection, and direction? Men, how would your life change if you stopped and considered your responsibilities in each of these areas? Take your wife on a date, lay out these three categories, ask for her input, then buckle up to embrace manhood. It’s a challenge we must rise to meet every single day.

We do better with examples. Here’s how Boaz did it. Notice the provision, protection, and direction he offered in this simple meal.

And at mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here and eat some bread and dip your morsel in the wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he passed to her roasted grain. And she ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. When she rose to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, saying, “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her. And also pull out some from the bundles for her and leave it for her to glean,
and do not rebuke her.”
Ruth 2:14-16

Boaz pictures for us what God’s loyal love looks like in action. And we have the opportunity to live out that loyal love in our own lives by being real men. I need it. You need it. Let’s covenant together, by God’s grace, to do it.

CP