P A S T O R ‘ S   B L O G

In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths. – Proverbs 3:6

Subscribe to receive a weekly email when new blogs are posted.

Note: Please check your junk mail or spam folders for confirmation and weekly email updates.
Add our email address to your “Safe Senders List”. Hotmail or Outlook | Gmail

Psalm Hymns and Spiritual Songs

In 1934 the Christian Reformed Church made a radical departure from what it had been doing for centuries: it gave permission for churches to sing hymns in public worship. Let me give a brief history:

  • 1957 – The Christian Reformed Church was established in North America when several hundred people separated themselves form the Reformed Church of America. The CRC, at that time, consisted of almost entirely Dutch-speaking people, and they used the Dutch Psalter (containing versions of the Psalms set to Genevan tunes). A few other songs found in Scripture were also included in the psalter, for example, The Song of Mary.
  • 1914 – As English became more common in the CRC congregations, the denomination adopted an English Psalter which had been developed by the United Presbyterian Churches. For the first time in North America, singing in public worship was heard in English. Outside of the worship service, hymns were sung regularly, but in church only psalms were permitted.
  • 1934 – The CRC developed its own songbook, and for the first time, hymns were included. Hymns were not based on the psalms but, rather, were written by Christians praising God using their own words. The argument was made that these hymns were suitable expressions of our praise for God and they gave opportunity for believers to express their faith in contemporary ways. Hymns celebrating the Christian year were also included, and thus Christmas and Easter hymns became part of the worship services in the CRC. This first Psalter Hymnal is known as “The Old Red Psalter Hymnal.”
  • 1959 – Two years after the CRC 100th anniversary, a new Psalter Hymnal, a blue book, was produced, expanding the number of hymns available for churches to sing.
  • 1987 – Another new Psalter Hymnal was produced, the Grey Psalter Hymnal, and it made some more changes. Unlike the previous red and blue Psalter Hymnals which contained several renditions of many of the Psalms, the Grey Psalter Hymnal included one rendition of each psalm and, if there was more, it included them, not in the psalter section of the book but later, scattered among the hymns.
  • 2013 – Together with the Reformed Church of America, the CRC produced a new songbook which contains renditions of all 150 psalms, but they are scattered throughout the book. Unlike the previous songbooks, this one is not called a Psalter Hymnal but, rather, is given its name: Lift Up Your Hearts: Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs. It is the longest of all the songbooks, and it includes a number of more contemporary songs.

This latest songbook may be the last produced by the CRC. Today, almost all churches project the words of the song onto a screen and few pick up the songbook with the exception, perhaps, of those who read music and enjoy singing in harmony. Many churches in the CRC today select their Sunday worship music from websites such as Song Select which contains thousands of Christian songs both old and new. More are added each week. A new songbook is unlikely to be perceived as necessary or desirable by many congregations.

There are advantages to being able to choose songs from the Internet. There are many beautiful songs which express biblical truths very well, and they have become a blessing to many. Singing only from a songbook, as was done in the past, limits the options for congregational singing, and may prevent believers from expressing their praise to God in ways that are meaningful to them.

But there are concerns as well. When the CRC published a songbook, it did so under the guidance of theologians who carefully evaluated the lyrics of each song to ensure that they were true to Scripture. Sometimes they would change a few words to make them more appropriate. One example of such a change can be found in the beautiful song, Amazing Love. The chorus originally contained the words, “That you, my God, should die for me,” but that is theologically incorrect, for God did not die. One word was changed, and now the line reads, “That you, my Lord, should die for me,” making it biblically sound.

Not so long ago, when musicians chose songs for public worship, if they were not included in one of the official denominational songbooks, before they were sung in church, the elders would evaluate the song to ensure that it was theologically correct. Usually this work was passed off to the pastor, but eventually that requirement was dropped altogether. Today, in most churches, songs are chosen by musicians who may or may not be theologically trained.

This concern was raised already in 1934 in the Foreword of the Old Red Psalter Hymnal, and I quote:

We were aware of the unsound or unsatisfactory character of many current hymns, and we feared that in an environment where the Psalms are seldom sung, the introduction of hymns in public worship would lead to the neglect of these deeply spiritual songs of the Old Testament which the Church should never fail to use in its service of praise.

Nevertheless, in spite of this concern, the denomination proceeded to produce a songbook which included songs not found in Scripture, but it was careful to ensure that those songs were biblically rooted.

We rarely sing psalms in church anymore and when we do, we are probably not aware that we are doing so. The old Genevan tunes don’t connect with us, and we find them difficult and even a little boring. Our experience and attitude is not unique, for others feel the same. And some are doing something about it. There has been a resurgence of the desire to sing psalms again, and some talented young musicians are setting the old psalms to new music. Interestingly, they have discovered that some of the old Genevan tunes had their roots in famous composers like Beethoven and Bach, and they are going back to those old tunes and reworking them to give them a modern feel. There is a lot of work to be done, but we can look forward to singing the beautiful biblical songs again but in ways that are new and vibrant and edifying.

In the meantime, we have many songs by which we can express our praise to God. Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs give us an opportunity to praise God for all that he has done.

~ Pastor Gary ~


An Unforgettable Experience

I have had a few experiences that I will not forget. About a year ago, I had one of them, and it has become a fond memory. It involves four people: Ken, Cliff, and a guy of about 30 whose name I cannot remember. I’ll call him Craig.

Ken had invited me to go with him to look at a new pulpit, baptismal font and communion table at a church in another town, the town where I had grown up. He had supplied the wood from a maple tree he had cut down and sawn into boards. My brother had built the furniture, and I wanted to see the finished produce. Ken is in his early 70s, a farmer whose family has been in Canada for a couple of hundred years. He was a member of my former church. Ken lives with his wife in a small cabin in the woods, a beautiful spot if you like that kind of thing. They have four children and a bunch of grandchildren but no great grandchildren, yet.

Ken had invited Cliff to join us for the excursion. I knew Cliff from years back when he as an English teacher at the high school I attended. While I would classify Ken as being a big guy, Cliff was the opposite. Cliff is quite short, compared to Ken and me. Cliff lives in an old farmhouse in the country and, as far as I know, never married. Cliff had the unique ability to gather people together to display their various talents, and how he found people in the community who could sing, play instruments, and generally entertain the rest of us, I don’t know, but he knew them and gave them an opportunity to share their gifts with others. He used just about any excuse to hold a talent show – a random birthday, anniversary of his retirement, etc. – and he would pack the hall with people from the community. When I knew him as a teacher, I did not know that he was a Christian, but he is. Cliff joined us for the excursion because he simply enjoys that kind of thing, and since he cannot drive anymore, he depends on others to get out and about.

The third individual to join us was Craig. I knew Craig’s parents from years back, but I didn’t know him. Craig had grown up in a Christian home, but he had a bit of a rough patch. He lived on the street for a time, but he had since found a permanent residence in the town we were visiting. Craig had tattoos and body piercings, reminders of his former days. They remained an expression of his identity. Craig did not join us for the excursion, but we picked him up at the local Walmart. From the way he looked, I would not have identified him as Cliff’s friend, but they were obviously close.

And then there was me, a pastor of Dutch descent, living a fairly conservative life in rural Ontario. I was along for the ride. More accurately, I acted as the driver, so perhaps the others were along for the ride.

After we picked Craig up, we went to a local restaurant for supper. After we ordered, I was about to suggest that we pray before the food arrived, but before I could get to it, Cliff said to Craig, “Why don’t you ask for a blessing on the food?” We bowed our heads together and this tattooed, pierced, 30-year old man who had lived rough, prayed the most beautiful prayer, thanking God for his provision, and asking for his blessings on our lives. I should note that I expected that I would be praying for the meal, being I was the pastor and people seem to expect that of me. Cliff was wiser and he chose the right person to lead us in prayer, and I was blessed, and God was glorified.

As we ate, we talked among ourselves, and I learned something about what living on the street means. I also gained some insight into the graffiti that we find on train cars that are loaded with grain and fertilizer. Craig was familiar with some of the artists who take it upon themselves to paint these cars. He himself was also an artist and perhaps his art has crossed the Lethbridge tressel at one time or another. During our meal, a woman approached our table and she acted like she knew us. We talked with her for a while, and all of us assumed that she knew one of us. She didn’t, and we don’t know why she picked us to have a conversation with, but she did, and it was pleasant.

As we spent time together, I could not help but marvel at the picture we must have presented to those around us. We sat together, an 80-year old retired teacher, a 70-year old retired farmer, a 55-year old pastor and a 30-year old tattooed and pierced former street person. Anyone seeing us would have wondered what brought us together.

Of all the meals I have shared over the years, this is one I will not forget. The food was no more than average, and the restaurant is not memorable. But the company was excellent. And what brought us together was an opportunity to view a newly built pulpit, communion table and baptismal font in a church none of us attended. But you would not know that from looking at us.

Circumstances brought us together, but what made the meal great was our common faith. All of us believed that it is by God’s grace that we are saved through Jesus Christ. Our life journeys were radically different, but our common faith made us brothers in the Lord. And while we may have all started in different places and had very different experiences, our destination is the same. I don’t expect I’ll sit at the table with the four of us again while here on this earth, but perhaps in heaven, we’ll share a meal together once more. And just as Jesus was present among us then, so he will be present among us on that day as well.

My advice: if you are invited to look at some newly built church furniture (or some other seemingly random reason to take an excursion), take a few hours out of your day and do so. Maybe God will give you an experience you will be stamped into your memory.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Straw Man Arguments

Some years ago, I attended a church service in which the speaker spent about half an hour refuting the “L” or TULIP, “Limited Atonement.” (In case you are unfamiliar with them, TULIP is an acronym which makes it easier to remember the five points of Calvinism. If you don’t know what they are, I encourage you to look it up.) Without going into any detail, what the speaker did was give a rather distorted version of what “Limited Atonement” is and then went on to say what it wasn’t biblical. I agreed with him that his version of Limited Atonement wasn’t biblical because what he had said Limited Atonement was is not what it is. He would have had a much more difficult time refuting Limited Atonement had he actually defined it correctly.

A few decades ago, several well-respected theologians in the Christian Reformed Church engaged in a conversation with some Roman Catholic theologians to talk about Lord’s Day 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism, the one that calls the Roman Catholic mass a “condemnable idolatry.” In their conversations, the Roman Catholics stated quite clearly that the way the Heidelberg Catechism describes the Roman Catholic mass is incorrect. The Roman Catholic theologians said that if what the catechism said was what the Roman Catholic Church taught, they too could agree that the mass is a condemnable idolatry. “But that is not what we believe or teach,” they said. As a result, the Christian Reformed Church, while not removing the suspect statements in the Catechism, did bracket them and place a footnote under them saying what they are incorrect and we should make ourselves aware that they have misrepresented Roman Catholic teaching.

What I have just described are two examples of a “straw man argument.” A “straw man argument” is one in which we distort or weaken another’s position so that we can argue against it. By misrepresenting someone else’s beliefs or teachings, we can easily refute them and quickly condemn them. Arguing against someone after first distorting their belief is called “attacking a straw man.”

It’s a fairly apt description. If we take a bunch of straw and pack it into Samuel’s clothing and we put Samuel’s face on our creation, we are building a straw man. We might name that straw man “Samuel,” and we might then proceed to attack it with bayonets, saying that we are “killing Samuel.” Of course, we aren’t killing Samuel, for the straw man is not Samuel. We are making ourselves look foolish if we continue to say that we are attacking Samuel.

When we do this is a debate situation, the same thing happens. Instead of accurately representing Samuel’s position, we create one that looks a lot like Samuel’s position but is missing some significant components. It is easy to attack Samuel’s position because it is not what Samuel said. The problem is this: while it is easy to see the difference between a straw man and the real Samuel, it is often harder to see that the argument presented is not Samuel’s but, rather, a misrepresentation of Samuel’s argument. We might be inclined to join in the attack against Samuel’s argument and so attack Samuel himself. Unless someone points out that what we are attacking is not Samuel’s argument but a fictitious misrepresentation, Samuel’s credibility will be destroyed.

Sometimes within the Christian church, we cannot be bothered to spend the time to develop a misrepresentation of another’s argument so that we can more easily refute them, so we simply use a short cut and label them as “liberal.” In many circles, that label is enough to destroy someone’s credibility immediately. In calling someone a “liberal” without having taken the time to hear what they have to say, we have created a straw man, and we feel that we can attack that individual without hesitation because, after all, we don’t want liberals to ruin the church. Naming someone as a liberal without ever really engaging them in conversation is the most egregious form of a straw man argument, at least in our circles.

As Christians who seek truth, we should recoil in horror at the very idea of setting up and attacking a straw man. Not only will we eventually look foolish, but we may even destroy the reputation and integrity of one of God’s children. That goes against the very core of who we are.

It is true that there will be people we disagree with and sometimes we disagree on very important points. However, before we write them off a “liberal,” the most egregious straw man argument or misrepresent them by distorting their argument, we must first listen carefully so that we understand. In fact, we have not listened well enough if we cannot accurately reproduce their argument. It is only then that we can give answer to what they believe, carefully using Scripture to guide us in our refutation of their argument. This whole process can be rather frightening, for we might find that when we truly understand someone’s position, we might find that we have to change our own. None of us does that easily. But, if we are going to be people of integrity and honesty, we cannot set up straw men and attack them so that we are never challenged in our beliefs. There is also the real possibility that when we engage people in their beliefs, and if their beliefs do not align with Scripture, we can bring them around. But that will only work if we have honest discussions and are willing to listen first.

It was difficult for me to listen to the speaker who attacked Limited Atonement by first misrepresenting it. As someone who holds to the five points of Calvinism, I wanted him to represent what I believe fairly so that I could hear his argument against it. Because he built a straw man first, I found that I could not engage him in conversation. I found myself frustrated and even a little angry because what I believe was misrepresented, and if I had announced that I believed in the doctrine of Limited Atonement, I would have been condemned as believing a non-biblical teaching.

The CRC was right in listening to the Roman Catholic theologians. And it is good that a few lines are bracketed and noted that they do not inaccurately describe someone else’s supposed position. While the CRC might not agree with the Roman Catholic position on other things, at least on this one, we are being honest.

Being honest does not weaken our position; it strengthens it. If we have integrity, we will be able to have good discussions with others, and, most likely, we will all become more aligned with the teachings of Scripture. If we set up straw men and attack them, we will never help those who we perceive are straying, and we will look foolish in the process.

~ Pastor Gary ~


The Expectation-Action Gap

A couple of years ago a friend was building a house, and before he started framing, he ordered his windows and doors because he was told that it would take about four months for them to arrive. The lag between demand and supply has increased significantly over the past few years, and what we normally could buy off the shelf or wait a few days to obtain it now takes weeks or even months. Thankfully, things are beginning to become “normal” again and we find that supply is not lagging as long behind demand as it used to.

We might call this delay a gap between expectations and actions. We have certain expectations (how long it takes to obtain windows for our house, how long we have to wait in line to get the hamburger we ordered, etc.), and if the length of time exceeds our expectation, we can become irritated. When another’s actions fail to meet our expectations, our frustration level grows. We may even lose faith in them.

In the Bible there is sometimes a gap between our expectations and God’s actions. One story that has puzzled me is the story of the Saul and David. In 1 Samuel 15 the prophet Samuel, tells Saul that God has rejected him as king. In the next chapter, Samuel anoints David to be the next king of Israel. What is puzzling and even a little troubling is that it takes another 20 years for Saul’s reign to end (he was 72 years old) and David’s to begin. If God had told Saul that he had rejected him as king, why did he let him reign for another 20 years? Our expectation is that when God says he is going to do something, he should do it, and he shouldn’t procrastinate.

Another example of God’s seemingly delayed activity could be seen in Psalm 13, a psalm of David. There David laments: “How long will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? . . . How long will my enemy triumph over me?” We don’t know when David writes this psalm, but it could well have been in those years between his anointing and his coronation, for it was during those years that Saul tried to kill him. Clearly David is frustrated by God’s seemingly slow action, for he feels that the oppression will never end. If God doesn’t act, the psalm continues, David feels that he might be killed. We can understand his frustration at God’s seeming inactivity.

The most obvious example of God’s seemingly slow action can be seen in the delayed return of Jesus. There is strong indication that the early church was also a little confused about Jesus’ return, for when he ascended into heaven, it did seem that his return would be imminent. True, during those early years the church grew rapidly, but so did its suffering. During times of severe persecution, it is not hard to believe that our brothers and sisters felt very much in tune with David’s sentiments in Psalm 13: “How long, Lord, will you forget us forever?” If the early church had known that this world would still be carrying on 2000 years later, they might have been quite surprised. There truly is a very large gap between their expectations and God’s actions. The gap is so large that today we scarcely give thought to Jesus’ return. It’s almost as if it won’t happen. (We know Jesus will return, but we don’t think about it that much.)

We may feel that gap between our expectations and God’s actions in our own lives. We pray for the salvation of a loved one, but it doesn’t happen as quickly as we might expect. We ask God for healing, but instead of being healed overnight, it takes years. We pray for God to open doors, but no doors open, and we remain feeling trapped in our current lives.

These gaps between our expectations and God’s action can leave us feeling frustrated, and we might even lose some faith in God. Our cry may also be, “How long, Lord, before you do something?” but God doesn’t seem to answer or even give us a reason.

It would be helpful to know the reason for the delay. When we order windows and the lead time doesn’t meet our expectations, we can usually discover why. Perhaps the supply of raw product (plastic for the injection molding machines) has been delayed, and we discover that they reason for the delay is that a ship has turned sideways in the Suez Canal (as happened a couple of years ago). Or we might learn that the plant that makes the windows we ordered had a fire and production had been paused for a couple of months as repairs were made. When we discover the reasons behind the delay, we might retain our trust and not become quite so frustrated.

God, however, does not always reveal to us the reasons he does not act immediately. We are never told why Saul reigned another 20 years before he was removed from the throne. We don’t know why Jesus hasn’t returned. We don’t know why God doesn’t heal us or turn a loved one back to himself. We can speculate, but we have to remember that any guess we have might be wrong. We cannot know.

In Psalm 13 David doesn’t receive any answers. He frets about his situation, and he cries out to God, but it does not seem as if there is any answer forthcoming. Yet, in verse 5, David says this, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.” The word that is translated as “unfailing love” is often understood as “committed love” or “covenantal love.” What David trusts is that God’s love for him is not based on emotion or circumstance. God had made a commitment to David, and God would keep it. Of this David was absolutely sure. And that allows him to end the psalm with praise as he says that God has been good to him even though he hasn’t received what he asked for.

David doesn’t receive reprieve from his enemies. He doesn’t receive an explanation from God as to why there was a delay. He doesn’t even get a timeline, telling him when things would change for the better. But what he does have is the assurance that God loved him and would give him what he needed. How that would happen and when it would happen, he did not know. But God still loved him.

When God’s actions don’t meet our expectations, it is frustrating. But David instructs us by his example that in spite of what we experience and know, God’s love remains steadfast, and he will take care of things in his way and in his own time. Our response is simple: trust God that he will do what he will and leave it in his hands.

~ Pastor Gary ~