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"I've Got a Song for That"

A Case for Singing the Psalms Creatively and Faithfully

A colleague and friend once described a game she played with her children. They called it “I’ve got a song for that.” It was an opportunity to nurture in her kids a repertoire of songs for times of joy or sadness.

Among the songs they learned were settings of psalm texts. When words alone were not adequate, this family had music to express their longings, celebrations, and sorrows. In the midst of deep grief and desolation they could lament: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept”; in times of grace and joy, they could rejoice: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and never forget God’s benefits.”

The hard reality is that most casual churchgoers in North America will know, at best, part of Psalm 23 and perhaps a verse from Psalm 46 (“Be still, and know that I am God”) or Psalm 121 (“I lift up my eyes to the hills . . .”) memorized from a poster. Comforting words, but hardly enough to carry the pain of an individual or a community in the face of inevitable or unexpected tragedies, or to give full voice and gratitude when confronted with amazing grace.

The Psalms were the sacred songbook of Jesus and his community, texts he knew from memory and quoted again and again in his teachings to his disciples, to challenge religious leaders, to comfort those in need, to sustain him through his darkest hours, to acknowledge God’s presence and lament God’s absence from the cross. Since singing is the best way to remember and embody words, and the psalms were, first of all, songs, I like to imagine Jesus not simply quoting the psalms but singing them, for they were certainly sung (or cantilated) in synagogue worship.

If you asked a group of parishioners to recite Psalm 91, most could not give you a response, but if you asked them to sing “On Eagle’s Wings” (an adapted setting of Ps. 91) they might be able to sing two or three verses from memory. Music has the power to put the words of Scripture into our memory and hearts so that, for good or ill (good or bad theology) we come to remember and believe what we sing. Thus, choosing the words that our communities will sing (and hopefully over time, remember) within worship is a serious calling indeed.

Unfortunately, the ongoing responsibility and pressures of weekly worship planning and preparation can result in a lack of proper attention to the words we sing, an inability develop a consistent and solid repertoire, and a casual approach to the words we choose.

Our words matter. In a culture in which many of the words we regularly sing are words of consumption and self-indulgence, the psalms are a faithful rock for us—a true, objective, and honest expression of human frailty and relationship with God. They sing of gratitude and faith, but also of doubt, fear, anger, and lament in the midst of a society that might otherwise choose to sing only songs that are comforting and easily consumable. The psalms, especially when chosen to honestly reflect the Scripture readings, are a most reliable and faithful source for the community’s prayer.

I’d like to make three appeals to those who choose music for worship. First, develop a strong and consistent repertoire of sung psalm texts. Second, creatively incorporate a variety of musical forms, styles, and leadership in psalm singing. And third, sing the Lectionary psalms (or any other system that takes you away from choosing the familiar and comfortable) throughout the liturgical year, so that your communities will hear and sing both the reality of God’s grace and the sorrow and lament of the world’s (and our own) brokenness.

A Consistent Repertoire of Sung Psalmody

Today much of what we say and sing in North American worship is tailored (consciously or unconsciously) to what we want to hear or what we think others want to hear. In a consumerist society like ours we can easily come to see worship as one more experience planned and presented for our benefit. Communities with multiple weekend worship services are especially vulnerable to the temptation to provide different worship styles (and different music) to accommodate different tastes. One church even advertises its various worship services as “Different styles to meet your style.”

Such an approach inevitably means that decisions about what to sing are primarily driven not by text but by musical style. It also means that individuals or families who regularly attend one service over the course of several years will hear only a small piece of the rich repertoire of music, often excluding strong, long-lasting hymns and music from other cultures. For many communities this is a pastoral reality; yet a rich repertoire of psalm settings, consistent across worship services and consistent over time, helps a community to develop a common memory of Scripture through musical settings. It also ensures that, regardless of which service attended, all can know, embrace and confidently say “Amen” to the sung text.

Faithful Creativity in Psalm Singing

Christianity, as an incarnational faith, proclaims and celebrates God’s presence embodied in our midst—God in sacred relationship with us, in us, and through us. From its earliest beginnings, Christian worship has been both a dialogical and relational experience.

Christian worship originated in oral cultures where memorization and interactive singing were normative. We can learn much from the music of today’s oral cultures about the power of interactive singing. The churches of West and South Africa and Central and South America, as well as the music of communities such as Iona and Taizé, offer many examples of how music can be sung in ways that are fresh and faithful, interactive, engaging, and memorable.

Singing the psalms in musical forms other than the familiar metrical hymn form (such as “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”) provides a wonderful opportunity to introduce and nurture a vision of Christian relationship within worship. Interactive singing also undermines the pervasive cultural understanding we often have of music-making as a “performer-audience” event.

This spirited setting of Psalm 133 by Argentine composer Pablo Sosa (from ´Este es el Dîs / This Is the Day, Pablo Sosa, GIA Publications, Chicago, Il.) is a delight to sing.

The verses can be sung by an individual or a choir, with the assembly singing the refrain (in both Spanish and English). It is especially wonderful to hear the verses sung by a children’s choir. Good preparation and teaching will help children understand the dialogical function of music leadership in worship and the servant role of the music minister in empowering the community’s song. Children may also come to “own” the psalm as one example of a song they have in their memory when they need to express the joy of community.

Psalm 104 is (after Gen. 1 and 2) a third creation, set as a song. This version may be sung in canon so that the assembly can experience singing to each other. The verses may be simultaneously sung by one or more singers (in the same way that many Taizé songs are sung).

Here’s one more example. A number of years ago, my wife, my daughter, and I were at St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church in Anacostia, D.C., when this psalm was sung as a response to the first reading. The cantor held the Scripture and improvised the verses (over a sustained D chord) to Psalm 27 after the assembly sang this familiar gospel response:

Although the music was in their hymnal, no one (except us) thought to open the book. They had “eaten the words” to this psalm and they understood it (partly due to the leadership and partly to their own formation) as their interactive response to the verses of hope they heard. What would it mean if we could give such a deep experience of the psalms to our own communities?

I am aware that the creativity involved in introducing more interactive ways of singing the psalm requires a real investment, a re-learning, and a letting go for those of us who lead worship. But I believe it is important enough for those of us who choose the vocation of minister (servant) to make that sacrifice and take the risk. The reward is a new understanding about how worship is the work of all the people of God. We make this journey together.

Why Follow the Lectionary

Occasionally we see someone at a televised football game holding up a sign reading, “John 3:16.” Given the choice, most of us would never hold up “Mark 8:34” (“[to be my followers] deny [yourself], take up [your] cross and follow me,” NRSV).

It is much easier to choose texts that express unchanging stability and comfort over texts that challenge us to discipleship and confront us with our own brokenness, the risk of the unknown, and our complete dependence upon God’s mercy and continuing fidelity. The rhythm of the Revised Common Lectionary, as it leads us honestly through our ongoing faith journey, compels us (as do the psalms) to confront the difficult realities of life. In doing so it also offers us the possibility of encountering God’s unexpected and unfailing grace.

If we choose psalm texts that are reflective of the lectionary Scripture texts we hear, we will develop a repertoire that includes praise and lament, gratitude and yearning, God’s call to discipleship and our admission of failure, and finally, belief in God’s continuing and faithful mercy. This gives our communities words that become a song they can sing in times of joy and sorrow, in hope and despair. What is more honest to sing on the day after the earthquake in Haiti or the death of a loved one than a psalm of lament?

When I was growing up in a small Lutheran church in southern Minnesota in the 50s and 60s, we used a red hymnal. After playing the organ for several years I had memorized many hymn numbers. Then in 1978 the Lutheran Church published a green hymnal (the Lutheran Book of Worship), and all the hymn numbers changed. Last year a new worship book, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, was published and the hymn numbers changed again. What has not changed through this time (and indeed for the lifespan of the Christian church) is that Psalm 34 still rejoices “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” Psalm 27 still proclaims “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” and Psalm 130 still laments “Out of the depths I cry to you, O God.” 

These are unchanging and faithful texts in a rapidly changing world. May we have the vision and the courage to continue leading our communities in singing these central texts of our faith in creative and challenging ways.