Singing, Saying, Preaching, Praying: Using the Psalms in contemporary worship

When I began working at the LOFT, the worship staff at the college agreed on a worthy goal: to embrace with both arms, and to lift up with both hands, the practice of singing the Psalms—a challenging task in a very contemporary setting. These are notes from a number of different Sundays recording the variety of ways we have tried to use the prayer book of God’s people in our worship.

10/14 Post Rehearsal

It was quite a surprise. I don’t know if it says more about them or about me. They so confounded my expectations. When I offered them the option of singing a popular worship song to stanzas they knew and loved, or singing altogether different words to the same tune—words that happened to be a psalm text—my team chose the psalm. Eagerly. Enthusiastically. Stridently, even. “We much prefer an actual song from the Bible,” said Miriam. Nunc Dimittis.

3/03 Singing

Working on spoken transitions today, Aaron says to me, “Shout to the Lord”—that’s a psalm, right?” It isn’t, of course, but we talked about how the song makes use of phrases from a bunch of different psalms, put together in a very psalmic way. Then we pulled up a concordance on the Internet (See “What’s on the Web,” p. 44) and began digging around for other resonances between this week’s song selections and psalm verses. We wanted a pool of Scripture that could be used as lead-ins to prayer, or just to lead the congregation to the next act of worship. He was amazed at the flood we produced, that is, how many of our favorites link directly to psalms: “Lord Most High,” “Create in Me,” “Cantad Al Señor,” “Bless the Lord,” “On Eagles’ Wings,” “Sing a New Song,” “Step by Step,” “Good to Me,” “I Lift My Eyes Up” . . .

9/11

E-mail I received and my response:

At LOFT last night we sang one of my favorite songs—“Psalm 121—I Lift My Eyes Up.” I’m wondering: why do we end with the question “Where does my help come from?” I know that we all know the answer, but to me it seems like a sad way to end—on the question and not the reassuring answer. I think that it would be possible to finish the verse, to sing up to the words “My help comes from you . . . creator of the earth,” and then go back to the tonic chord. If you have the time to write me an e-mail, I would be interested in hearing your reasoning. Once again, thank you for all you do at LOFT.

Lisa, thank you for your kind and thoughtful e-mail. Let me try to give you a brief answer. By leaving the song “unfinished,” we hope to invite the congregation to see it not as a discrete song, but as part of a larger interaction between God and us. For instance, last night we used the song (which addresses God) in the middle of a long prayer, one of melancholy and lamentation that we live, as Neal put it, in a “dangerous world.” Meghan first prayed out loud. The prayer continued with this song—and beyond it into the silence that followed. The silence made room for an answer to the question “Where does my help come from?” The answer came in the song “Good to Me,” which begins in a pleading tone, “I cry out for your hand of mercy to heal me. I am weak and I need your love to free me. . . . Come rescue me, O Lord.” Then in the middle of that song, we read Scripture (more of Psalm 121, actually!) that declares God’s salvation. The tone changes and the congregation remembers: “You are my hope, your promise never fails me.” The song then ends with a sure declaration of God’s goodness: “For you are good, for you are good to me.” That whole section of the service concludes with us knowing exactly where our help comes from, though the answer wasn’t offered in the song that asked it.

2/10 Saying: Working Group

We had lunch today with Reggie, who’s preaching at LOFT Sunday. We discussed how a congregation calls forth his best gifts as a preacher when they interact with him, when they are comfortable with a call and response dynamic. How to introduce that dynamic before the sermon? We thought of, and then dismissed as “too traditional,” the idea of projecting a psalm on the screen and reading it antiphonally. But Sue suggested Psalm 136, a psalm in a call-and-response format. The “call” is quite brief each time, recalling something good God’s done, and the response—“his love endures forever”—is short and is the same every time. It would be easy for a pastor like Reggie to use that psalm in a dynamic way, getting the congregation to work with him, back and forth, in an increasingly enthusiastic and exuberant celebration of God’s goodness. He could even extend the psalm and recall not only the history of God’s goodness to the nation of Israel but also recount God’s enduring love in Jesus life, death, resurrection, and in the sending of the Spirit! Blur the line between where the psalm ends and our continuing psalm begins:

He led his people through the desert,
his love endures forever
he struck down great kings,
his love endures forever
he remembered us in our low estate,
his love endures forever
he sent his Son to be one with us,
his love endures forever
and then to die for us.
his love endures forever
But he raised him up from the dead,
his love endures forever
… and so on.

1/31

Neal is preaching from Romans 12 this week (“Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, cling to what is good . . . ”). Maybe we could use parts of Psalm 34 to punctuate the service. Verses 1-3 at the outset as call to worship (“Let us exalt his name together . . .”); 4-7 as an invitation to confess (“I sought the Lord . . .”); 8-10 as a word of God’s goodness (“Taste and see . . . those who seek the Lord lack no good thing”); 11-14 to drive home the point of the sermon (“Turn from evil and do good”). Each of the students could choose how to use the psalm in the best way: folded into a prayer? Read aloud? Up on an overhead for the congregation to see or even say? It’ll be up to them, so long as it’s clear that it’s all from Psalm 34.

9/05 Preaching

Hooray! Neal’s gonna preach on a psalm! We use psalms everywhere else in the services, but they’re not preached on often enough for me. One reason I like it is the potential for singing the Scripture with all those rich images! Sing it before the sermon, sing it after the sermon, maybe even throughout the sermon!

To do: Find singable setting of Psalm 91.

9/06

Had a hard time finding a setting of Psalm 91 that would “preach.” We love Joncas’s “On Eagles’ Wings,” but the stanzas are as difficult to sing as the refrain is easy. Folks will either know it and sing it well or they’ll be clueless. How can the congregation hear the Word when they’re sliding all over the scale and slopping around the beats? Refrain: soar. Stanza: flop.

After looking further, Jillayne suggested we could still do Joncas, but have the congregation seated, like they normally are for the Scripture. That will clue them in that this isn’t “just another song”—this is when the preaching starts. Then have a soloist (or a couple of soloists) sing the stanzas and everybody responds with the refrain. Or have the worship leader speak the psalm, and the congregation sing back the refrain at regular intervals. I like this idea. We could print the refrain on an overhead—notes and all—and then below that, print the text for the psalm so folks can follow along as it’s sung or read. That should keep us soaring on those eagle’s wings. . . .

10/8 Praying: After the Service

The highlight of the service tonight—for sure for me, and for others, too, based on comments I received—was the prayer: Peter’s reading of Psalm 25 along with the refrain “To You, O Lord, I Lift My Soul.” He read it slowly, like drops of gold. He read it with passion and intelligence. But more importantly, he seemed to be fully engaged with his own worshiping, even as he was leading. There he was, reading a psalm, but it wasn’t “blah blah blah” in the typical monotone that feels so inauthentic. Neither was it the reading of a thespian. He was actually praying the psalm. And we were all brought into the prayer with him. The subtle (and unrehearsed!) changes in musical tone fit exactly what was happening in the prayer, so that both Pete and the band encouraged each other. The band played/prayed upliftingly (if that’s a word) at “my hope is in you all day long.” Then with sorrow and introspection at “remember not the sins of my youth.” Then hopefully again at “the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful,” and penitent again at “forgive my iniquity, though it is great.” We lifted up that prayer, and in it we sang of lifting our souls to God, but it was God doing the heavy lifting—the whole congregation was lifted up.

Ron Rienstra is associate professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary and co-author of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Baker Academic, 2009).