Praying Through the Psalms

An Evening Psalm Festival

At a summer planning meeting on her back porch, Laura Smit, Dean of the Chapel at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, mentioned a Psalm Festival she had done with her church in Boston—all 150 Psalms in one night. That sounded like a great project for Calvin College.

Why a Psalm Festival?

Psalms is the prayer book of the Bible. In it we find expression of the whole range of human emotion and experience. In our daily worship we often turn to the Psalms for songs of praise, prayers of petition, and cries of lament. What better way to highlight the significance of the Psalms than to spend a whole evening praying through them? And how better to demonstrate the many modes of praying the Psalms—through reading and singing of course, but also through painting and poetry and dancing and more?

How to Plan It?

Our first step was to invite others to join us in planning, people with some expertise who would also have good connections to some of the groups we hoped to involve in the Festival. Our planning team included Emily Brink, hymnologist and teacher at Calvin Seminary; Brooks Kuykendall and Robert Nordling, both Calvin music department faculty; Laura; and myself. We met together every few weeks at first, with piles of Bibles and songbooks on the tables in front of us, making lists of possibilities for various psalms. In our early meetings we made some of the more obvious choices about renditions of the psalms that we were particularly eager to use and began to cross out other options as we worked toward a wide range of musical styles and other artistic presentations.

One of the first questions was whether we would try to speak or sing every word of every psalm; we decided that sometimes a brief congregational song or a choral anthem or the reading of selected verses that captured the thrust of the psalm would be fine. Yet we would include each of the 150 psalms.

We also had to think about who would lead the Psalm Festival, and we ended up including people from a range of disciplines at both the college and Calvin Theological Seminary. We invited each of the choirs to participate, and most of them took up our invitation. In addition we pulled together a children’s choir and other ensembles from various departments and student groups.

We decided to sponsor a competition for the Psalm Festival. We invited entries in a number of categories, allowing people to choose from among three or four psalms assigned to each category. The entries from students and staff surprised us with their creativity and insight. (See sidebars for a list of the winners and some samples of their work.)

We also commissioned new musical settings of psalms from faculty member David Fuentes (music); a visual presentation of a psalm from JoAnn VanReeuyk (art); choral readings from Debra Freeberg (communications); and video from Brian Fuller (communications).

In addition, Robert Nordling created some beat poet-type readings accompanied by intriguing jazz music, and student Cheryl Brown turned one psalm into a “rap.”

One of the great joys of planning this event was discovering the wide variety of gifts in the community and finding ways to include them in the Psalm Festival.

What Would Happen That Night?

Though we intentionally created an atmosphere in which some coming and going during the event was expected, we also needed to provide a few breaks for everyone. We decided to schedule three 15-minute breaks during the Festival and split up the psalms accordingly, with a smaller number of psalms in each section as the evening wore into night: Psalms 1-53, 54-94, 95-121, 122-150. We thought about refreshments as well and decided to provide some beverages, fruit, and cookies rather than a full meal.

For each of the four groups of psalms, we also scheduled separate worship teams, each with four singers, piano, guitar, bass, drums, and a flute or violin. These worship teams led the congregational singing of ten to twelve songs during each section; they were near the platform, ready to move into place to lead, throughout their section of the service. Norma de Waal Malefyt volunteered to play the organ throughout the entire festival, though another organist played with a couple of the smaller ensembles. For all of the leaders, there was plenty of rehearsal ahead of time, in addition to the commitment of that one night.

It was important to also attempt to anticipate the timing of pieces throughout the evening. We planned that most psalms would be presented in three minutes or less, with just a few exceptions for choral anthems or dramatic reading; we anticipated about half a minute between psalms for people to move into place. After timing pieces during rehearsals, we expected that the event might take about eight hours. This also helped us to work out when to ask particular groups to arrive and be in place for their psalms. Our guess wasn’t far off, with the evening actually moving a little faster than expected. We began at 5:00 p.m. and ended before 1:30 a.m.

During the last couple of weeks before the night of the Psalm Festival, we made diagrams and charts to choreograph the movement and timing of hundreds of participants. We designed specific areas for different kinds of groups: choirs in the choir loft, readers at a pulpit on the floor level, a couple of levels of the platform for the worship teams, another area opposite that for other ensembles, the top level of the platform for dancers and dramatic performers. We also had to think about microphones for each group of singers and readers. Brooks Kuykendall did a masterful job of designing the use of the space and the charts for the participation of many of the ensembles.

Throughout the evening there was something visual on the screens. Whenever there was congregational song, those words appeared. At times, art from Anneke Kaai’s The Psalms: An Artist’s Impression (InterVarsity Press) or photographs accompanied the reading of a psalm. For a few psalms we used video or PowerPoint projection.

There was variety even in the reading of the psalms. Former President William Spoelhof began the event with the reading of Psalm 1 from the old King James Version. Many other psalms were read from the New Revised Standard Version, from Eugene Peterson’s The Message, from Calvin Seerveld’s Voicing God’s Psalms (Eerdmans), or from other translations. Some were presented as choral readings by a small group; one of the most poignant was the performance of Psalm 88, a cry of despair read by Michael Page, a theater director at Calvin.

The whole event flowed even more smoothly than we hoped for. There were moments of thoughtful meditation, joyful enthusiasm, and quiet delight all along the way. Finally, as the book of Psalms itself ends with crescendos of praise, so our Psalm Festival ended, people singing songs of praise in full voice, with swaying and clapping, and, as we repeated the final chorus with building exuberance, the night concluded with bursts of “Hallelujah!” and “Amen!”



Psalm Festival Contest Winners

Music & Text: Laurie Bos, Psalm 17

Music Composition: Ben Austin, Psalm 49

Dennis DeBoer, Psalm 135

Poetry: Bethany Keeley, Psalm 75

Visual Art: Karen Dilfer, Paper Cutting, Psalm 37

Peter Ippel, Photography, Psalm 141

Collaborative Entry: Otto Selles & Geraldine Ysselstein, Oils & Poetry, Psalms 110-113

Go to for the pdf file of the program that includes these winning entries.



The first five psalms demonstrated the diversity of the ways that the psalms were presented throughout the evening:

Psalm 1: read by former Calvin President William Spoelhof

Psalm 2: reading and rhythm by Sankofa, a student drumming group

Psalm 3: congregational song led by a student worship team

Psalm 4: bagpipes, with singing to the tune of “Amazing Grace”

Psalm 5: original song by student Daryl Holmlund



“Clapping Hands” (Psalm 113)

Praise you,

let us praise you.

Praise what

you have done.

Praise now,

praise forever.

Let our praise stretch

with the rising sun.

Let our praise run

to the end

of the day.

Your glory shimmers

far above the nations

and speckles the sky.

Who is like you?

Your throne stands

on shooting stars,

but you bend

through the clouds

and caress the earth.

You pluck the poor,

out of the dirt,

brush the ashes

from their eyes

and place them

next to princes.

You give the childless

mother a home

filled with shouts,

laughter, and little,

clapping hands.

—Otto Selles



To Read More About the Psalms

For a summary of the Psalm Festival at Calvin College, visit

For a story about using the psalms, including the Psalm Festival, visit

Cindy de Jong ( is Coordinator of Worship and Codirector for the Worship Apprentice program at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is a member of Neland Avenue CRC.


Reformed Worship 84 © June 2007, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.