We all have a story to tell. But as Christians, our story is God’s story. We are called to tell our stories in order to tell “the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”
Jesus told God’s story using a vocabulary that sets an example for us to follow. John Bell, a man who was called a “modern-day John the Baptist” by Emily Brink in a previous issue of Reformed Worship, says the following about Jesus’ words: “Jesus knew the psalms and would find in these psalms a vocabulary to address God. If this is the case, we read them in solidarity with Jesus.”
As a Jewish boy, Jesus most likely learned and could recite the Torah and the psalms—and when you know something well, its language spills out of you. Our own stories should be framed by psalms and filled with psalms—for these are words that Jesus spoke and words that framed his life.
In January 2012, Faith Alive Christian Resources, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and Baker Books released an unprecedented book on the psalms titled Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship. This comprehensive, single-volume anthology is the largest collection of the psalms for use in Christian worship ever published. It contains all 150 psalms in a wide variety of musical and spoken settings; many psalms appear in multiple formats.
With the release of new products, opportunities have arisen to talk about the psalms and what the psalms mean in our lives. Many, like John Bell, speak of how their lives were impacted and framed by the psalms, how the words have become part of who they are.
Each of us has a story, and those stories are interwoven with the psalms in some form or fashion. As you read the stories of the individuals below, and as you read and reread the psalms, take time to reflect on what the psalms mean to you. How have they influenced you? How have the psalms brought you closer to Jesus?
Bruce Benedict, a contributor to Psalms for All Seasons, observes:
“When I started writing music in college I became fascinated with how the psalms were the songbook of God’s people and wanted to figure out how I could sing them in a more contemporary worship setting. There are few better ways to really ‘get into’ a text than writing it out in your own words. Since then I have always cherished singing the psalms, and continue to be amazed at the variety of approaches to engaging the Psalter musically. That’s one of the main reasons I am enjoying Psalms for All Seasons so much.”
Kevin Adams wrote an entire book about his life with the psalms. In 150: Finding Your Story in the Psalms, he remembers,
During grade school my two younger brothers and I would occasionally stay overnight at Grandma’s house. . . . Grandma didn’t drive, but we’d take the city bus downtown, eat a burger basket, visit the museum, and return home to play rousing games of dominoes and Parcheesi. She’d spoil us with Faygo Red Pop and homemade cookies, and eventually send us to bed upstairs.
During one stay I awoke earlier than my brothers and descended the stairs. I must have been especially quiet because I found Grandma in her rocking chair, gazing out her favorite window. A Dutch version of the Genevan Psalter was in her lap, and she was singing softly. Decades later I still remember the serene look on her face. As far as I can remember, no one in my church or family told me I ought to pray the psalms; they simply did so, and expected their faith to take hold in me. I’m grateful it did.
— Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2011, p. 254
Explore the psalms through the human experiences of joy, anger, pain, fear, and love as Kevin Adams tells the stories of real people crying out to God. Available at FaithAliveResources.org or by calling 1-800-333-8300.
The Psalm Project
The Psalm Project, under the leadership of Eelco Vos, is a group of professional musicians based in the Netherlands who are working hard to return the words of the psalms to the lips of people.
In a culture inundated with a wide variety of hymnody, many of us do not find ourselves singing and memorizing psalms like we used to. Eelco Vos says, “I grew up with the psalms, the Genevan psalms; when I was 6-12 years old I had psalms in school. Lots of generations grew up that way, especially in the Reformed tradition. . . . There are a lot of people who come from the Reformed tradition but their bands are only playing worship psalms, and they don’t know how to play psalms that were written for organ. In the Netherlands, we have organs and now we have bands. And it sounds horrible to play the organ songs with the band.”
Because of the work of this group, the psalms are being sung again in fresh, contemporary settings, uniting generations in a unique way. Several of The Psalm Project’s songs are included in Psalms for All Seasons.
The Psalm Project is composing what some might assume are new works, but they are actually based on Genevan psalm tunes. When asked about their composing process, a representative of the group explained: “It is funny. There are about 200 melodies for the 150 psalms. If you look at the church service liturgies, only 30 are sung, mostly because of the melodies. We wanted to arrange them in a way that you could still recognize them, because they are still good.”
And once the people of The Psalm Project got started studying the psalms, they were hooked: “It started just musically. But to do this, one must study the text and music of the original psalms. You read about them and then you get hooked on them. We learned so much about the psalms. . . . And through this, we express the beauty of the psalms for our everyday Christian life.”
Psalms Unplugged features fresh and contemporary settings of the ancient biblical psalms combined with contemporary versions of sixteenth-century tunes from the Genevan Psalter. This inspirational CD featuring 13 psalms was produced by members of The Psalm Project, professional musicians under the leadership of Eelco Vos. This CD is available at FaithAliveResources.org or by calling 1-800-333-8300.
Martin Tel, a professor of worship at Princeton Theological Seminary, served as the editor of Psalms for All Seasons, which seems only fitting since his life has been framed by psalms since childhood. He observes, “Because I’ve memorized psalms and grown up with a lot of them, they are the closest words to the surface. So when I experience something, oftentimes a melody or tune comes to mind.”
This diet of psalms came from the balance of songs in worship that Martin experienced as a child. He talks about learning the psalms from the Christian Reformed Church’s blue Psalter Hymnal. “Our pastor picked fewer psalms than hymns—but still more than the diet of a later generation.” And these psalms made an impression: “I remember growing up on the farm and doing monotonous things like riding a tractor; this is when Scripture came to mind.”
Psalms take us to the joys of life and to the depths of pain; they take us to the questions and the agony. Through the psalms, we are given a voice to talk to God in all these places.
Martin says that it was organ playing that really made the psalms “stick” for him. “When I was learning to play out of the hymnal, I was learning to sing along and, thus, I took in the words. And when I was trying to do a good job registering at the organ, I would be looking at the text. When I compare my knowledge of psalms with that of my siblings, I know many more. I am much more immersed because I’m an organist. This perhaps says something about sharing leadership in worship, because of the impact it has on your memory.”
As worship leaders, it is our calling to bring these words to our congregations’ lips. It is our job to offer them a balanced diet of psalms, to show through song and spoken word what a life lived through the eyes of the psalmist looks like. It is our purpose to help people move from reciting the words to allowing them to seep into the depths our their souls. And through this, with a lot of prayer, hopefully the words that framed Jesus’ life can frame and fill the lives of our congregations. And then we can live with the confidence that no matter where our journey might lead us, God will be with us.
With these words we can tell our story. We can talk of our faith. And we can grow in our relationship with and love of our Lord. Psalms take us to the joys of life and to the depths of pain; they take us to the questions and the agony. Through the psalms, we are given a voice to talk to God in all of these places. We are given words to share what God has done and what God is doing; we are given words to thank God, to praise God, to ask for forgiveness, and to express every other human emotion that God knows we will encounter along our journey.
Suggestions for Increasing Psalm Knowledge in Worship
First, note the congregational songs you already sing that are based on psalms. Point these out to your congregation through the in-between words and in the bulletin. Suddenly, the words that we have known for a long time, the words of hymns, have taken on a new shape. No longer are they just interpretations of God’s grace or God’s faithfulness—they are versifications of the words of Scripture. And this is a beautiful thing.
Second, in planning worship make an effort to incorporate more psalms and to find the Christological implications in the psalms. These implications make them come to life—especially at Christmas and Easter. By using psalms in the kids’ Christmas program—such as Psalm 105, where we see the fulfillment of God’s faithfulness—the kids and congregation speak words that have been spoken for generations. By opening up the meaning of the psalms to the possibility of being used throughout the church year, God gives us words for not only every emotion but every time of life.
Third, use psalms to let the congregation know that it is okay to bring whatever we have on our heart before the throne of God. And when we do not know how to express ourselves we needn’t be afraid—God has given us words, the same words that he gave to David and to Jesus. Include these words in corporate prayer, or base your entire prayer on a psalm. (See also: Praying the Psalms: A Congregational Prayer for Pentecost, by Michael Hoogeboom, RW 91.)
My Own Story
Throughout my journey thus far, I have found myself, in times when words escape me, reciting the familiar words of Psalm 46, in my own paraphrase: “Though the waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging, there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the place where the Most High dwells. God is within her. . . . Be still and know that I am God.” These words have brought peace into my troubled, worried heart; these words have brought calm and breathed life back into my soul.
When I was in first grade I memorized Psalm 23 in the King James Version for Sunday school. This version still churns in my head, ruminating when I don’t know what I should do or where I should go: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters, he restoreth my soul. . . . ”
Growing up, I was asked to memorize psalms in school—the “famous” ones: Psalm 1, Psalm 23, Psalm 46, Psalm 100. And so, I have to wonder, where would I be if I had memorized all the psalms, even the ones that are scary, like Psalm 137? I never did that. It wasn’t until I began working on Psalms for All Seasons that I truly started to grasp the breadth of emotions that were present in this special book of the Bible.
Yet I’m not sure God intends that we ever fully process all the words of the psalms. Instead, I believe that he wants us to spend time in the words, thinking about them, wondering about where, as John Bell so aptly put it, Christ would have spoken the words, and where these precious words would one day show up in our lives. God means for these words to be with us always—not just the “famous” ones, but all of them.
Through spending more and more time in these precious words, I am finding myself growing closer God. I am learning more about myself and more about who God has been, who God is, and who God will always be. But God is not done teaching me; God is not done giving me words to fill the deepest yearnings of my soul. For God is faithful, and promises to always be with me and to never leave me or forsake me. And through the psalms, God makes me aware of his presence when I take the time to spend time in these words, allowing them to gradually seep into the depths of my soul. These words are more than just words. They are grace that is truly sweeter than honey from the honeycomb.
An Interview with John Bell
Editor’s note: John Bell is a prolific hymn-writer, a minister in the church of Scotland, and a member of the Iona Community. He sat down with Becky Hoeksema recently to talk about psalms.
What advice would you give to people who are looking to use more psalms in their devotional life?
First, you need to abandon the thought that every time you read a psalm you will make a connection with the text. I think you have to throw off the idea that you can use the psalms as a private prayer diary. To think you can make an instant connection with God through the text is an abuse of the text.
What we have to see in the psalm is a register of the human connection. Sometimes the psalm will speak from God to us and we have to allow ourselves to be addressed. Sometimes the psalm will speak from the individual to God and we may be able to identify with the sentiment. And sometimes the psalm will have to do with history or with what is in our heart. In all of these cases we have to allow our minds to feel for who may be praying that psalm, and we can use it as an intercession for that person or community. For instance, take Psalm 137. Some people think this is a sub-Christian psalm, a brutal thing to read. If we can think of the people in Nigeria who are suffering for being Christians or people in previous Central American dictatorships where women would see their husbands killed and daughters brutalized, then we can begin to pray these psalms as intercession for these communities.
Second, by reading the psalms regularly, and not just the ones we like, we begin to feel for the expansiveness of the subject matter—ecology, the greater world, just living, malicious gossip, fidelity to God’s law. If you read them in order, you won’t have the same emotional response every day. It is a great smorgasbord—the richness and diversity of spiritual nourishment that will take you to different places. Jesus knew the psalms and would find in these psalms a vocabulary to address God. If this is the case, we read them in solidarity with Jesus. Jesus is beside us and in them. This is a magnificent thought!
I have found great spiritual amusement in pondering where in the life of Jesus each psalm would be important. When would these words come into his mind? And so I have found by reading the psalms consistently that I internalize the words. If you have a corpus of these words within you, then these words just spring to mind in different circumstances.
What advice would you have for a church planning a psalm festival?
The best advice would be not to go to the favorites, but rather, to go for the diversity of the psalms—corporate and individual, psalms about life gone wrong and psalms that deal with gratitude and praise.
In this context, in dealing with laments, for example, we should probe our congregations to think of someone who is suffering from a severe depression or someone who feels overwhelmed by something that has never been confessed. So when we sing the text of Psalm 130, we can sing it for these people.
Last week we sang a hymn written about ten years ago by an American author. The hymn text was about a relative who had been struggling with an ailment of old age as well as with the hope of heaven. After the service a number of people talked about someone they had in mind while singing the text—their mother, or the woman living on the next street. And because of this, they appreciated this song being sung by others because it ministered to them.
In the body of Christ, when one suffers, all parts share the pain; if one part rejoices, all feel it. Singing these psalms, then, is giving a gift to others who need to hear that they are included. If they don’t have the voice or the will to sing to heaven, others will do it for them.