Category Archives: Psalms

Sojourn Music – Over the Grave Review, part 3

When I originally sat down to do this review, it was set to be one post. Later, it had grown into three, which I advertised on the @psalmsandhymns twitter feed. By now, we’re at at least four posts. Today, we’ll look at the second half of the album.

There have been quite a few settings of “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed”, from Hugh Wilson’s MARTYRDOM to the sing-songy “At the Cross”. This is an interesting setting. It’s slowly growing on me. This is the only song on the album that’s a setting of Watts’ original text.

“May Your Power Rest on Me”. Isaac Watts joins Evanescence. That’s probably a bit unfair but captures the feel of this song quite well. Piano-led accompaniment with rock drums and pads supporting a female vocal at the very top of her chest voice register. Hopefully, this doesn’t come across as a negative description of the tune; it’s very good. Lyrically, this is one of the strongest songs on the album.

Though the trial still goes on,
Your grace will be my song.
For I can bear all things when temptation springs,
For you sustain me all my days.

And then we come to “Refuge”. This song was featured on the YouTube video teaser for the album and helped make me impatient over the many months it took to come out. I could describe the simple piano-octaves that open the song or the text of reliance upon God at all times or the use of the choir in the background but that would obscure what I love most about this song: it’s just fun. Think Coldplay meets Wilco meets the Psalmist.

“We Are Changed” takes the jazzy, gospel vibes from other songs on the album and runs with it. Rhodes electric piano drives this song about the work of God in salvation. The chorus reminds me of Gomez’ cover of the Beatles’ “Getting Better”.

The final track on the album is “Savior King”, a rocking 6/8 setting of Isaiah 52.

How happy are the ears that hear this joyful sound,
Which kings and prophets waited for, and sought but never found.
How blessed are the eyes that see this heavenly light:
Our Savior King.”

Musically and lyrically, this is a solid album from beginning to end. The drumming is especially solid. I am already looking forward to “Lo-Wattage”, the next volume in this set.

In part 4, we’ll look at the question that all worship musicians should ask when looking to incorporate songs from this or any other album into corporate worship: “What about congregational singing?”

Sojourn Music – Over the Grave Review, part 2

Yesterday, I began reviewing Sojourn Music’s new album Over the Grave: the hymns of Isaac Watts, volume 1. Today and tomorrow, we will look at the individual songs more in-depth. Finally, we’ll ask the all-important (and oft-neglected) question, “Can the congregation sing it?”

Yesterday, I said that this wasn’t an “indie-rock” album but that I didn’t mind because of the variety of musics used. (I love the word “musics”, which I got from Harold Best. Incidentally, if you’d like to see an interview with Harold Best and Mike Cosper, one of the producers of this album, you can see it at Sojourn Music.)

My friend Tim Sharpe delivered me a copy of Over the Grave while we were at General Assembly in Orlando. I listened to the first song, expecting indie-rock, and instead got the funky “Warrior”. After the funk influenced verse, we get just a snippet of the chorus, complete with Eleanor Rigby-like strings. Actually, the verse is a little like chant or recitative, in its minimalist reduction to repeated notes and cadences. This is a a fun song. Lyrically, it’s great to hear a song about the Lord as the conquering King!

“Living Faith” is a mid-tempo rocker that boasts a soaring vocal.

For some reason, “How Long” reminds me of Johnny Cash singing gospel. Up an octave, of course. With 21st century guitars, of course. Any settings of the psalms of lament are welcome, though I wonder if this song needed another verse to more completely capture the pleading cries of Psalm 13 (upon which it is based).

“Only Your Blood” is one of my favorites for several reasons. The production, while intricate, never gets in the way of the lyrics, a great setting of the second half of Psalm 51. Like “Refuge” later on the album, the use of the piano in octaves provides a great chime-like texture. Lyrically, the third verse stands out:

No bleeding bird, no bleeding beast,
No hyssop branch, no priest,
No running brook, no flood, no sea
Can wash away this stain from me.

When I first heard the song, however, I heard a mondegreen:

No bleeding bird, no bleating beast…

I like that lyric even more than the original.

To call “Reveal Your Love” high-energy would be a tremendous understatement. The lyrics would have been helped by some variation in dynamics. Even if the song does vary in loudness, it’s all energy all the time.

“Over Death”. Isaac Watts’ called this hymn “Victory over Death”. The song is based upon 1 Corinthians 15.55ff.

Joyful, with all the strength I have
My trembling lips should sing:
“Where is your boast of victory grave?
And where is the monster’s sting”

This is the kind of song that should be sung at funerals, not schlock like “I’ll Fly Away”. Our hope isn’t that we’re going to escape this bad, old world but that death has been defeated. We praise the “God of victory” that death has no power over the Christian, we will be resurrected on the last day.

Tomorrow, we’ll cover the second half of the album. As always, I’d like to hear others’ comments on the album if you’ve been able to get a copy.

Sojourn Music – Over the Grave Review, part 1

Travis recently asked me to post some thoughts on the new Sojourn Album, Over the Grave: the hymns of Isaac Watts, volume 1.

This album is the first of a two-album Isaac Watts project by Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky. (Though a Baptist church, Sojourn is also affiliated with the Acts 29 Network, a group seeking to plant gospel-saturated churches worldwide.) This album has been described by the musicians at Sojourn as “Hi-Wattage”, meaning an indie-rock feel, while the next album will be more folk/acoustic influenced, hence, “Lo-Wattage”.

Let’s get the genre out of the way. There’s no way I would describe this as an indie-rock album. But that’s not a bad thing. It’s just an inaccurate genre designation to place on an album with such a variety of sounds. For one thing, producers Mike Cosper and Neil Robins have outdone themselves in making this album different from their other albums. While I enjoyed Advent Songs (especially the new tune for “Joy to the World”), this album is on a completely different level of creativity of lyric writing, composition, and arranging.

This is not a project like Red Mountain Church or Indelible Grace or even my own music. These are not hymn texts with new tunes. They are new compositions inspired by the hymn texts. This becomes clear by comparing one of the pieces. On the left is Isaac Watts’ Hymn 15 and on the right is Sojourn’s “May Your Power Rest on Me”, inspired by that hymn.

Hymn 15

Our own weakness, and Christ our strength.

2 Cor. 12:7,9,10.

Let me but hear my Savior say,
“Strength shall be equal to thy day,”
Then I rejoice in deep distress,
Leaning on all-sufficient grace.

I glory in infirmity,
That Christ’s own power may rest on me:
When I am weak, then am I strong,
Grace is my shield, and Christ my song.

I can do all things, or can bear
All suff’rings, if my Lord be there;
Sweet pleasures mingle with the pains,
While his left hand my head sustains.

But if the Lord be once withdrawn,
And we attempt the work alone,
When new temptations spring and rise,
We find how great our weakness is.

[So Samson, when his hair was lost,
Met the Philistines to his cost;
Shook his vain limbs with sad surprise,
Made feeble fight, and lost his eyes.]

May Your Power Rest on Me

Written by Joel Gerdis and Neil Robins

Let me hear my Savior say,
“Your strength shall return”.
Then I’ll rejoice in my weakness
As I lean on your grace,
As I lean on your grace.

Chorus:
May your power rest on me.
You are strong when I am weak.
I can bear all things when temptation springs
For you sustain me all my days.

Let me know my Savior’s face;
Let my hope be secure.
Then I’ll rejoice in my weakness
As I lean on your grace,
As I lean on your grace.

Chorus

Once from the Lord withdrawn
I thought that I could live my life alone.
Leaving the solid ground
I sank beneath His wisdom.
The harder I tried to climb,
The closer I was to find how great is my weakness.

Chorus

Though the trial still goes on,
Your grace will be my song.
For I can bear all things when temptation springs
For you sustain me all my days.

I’ll have more thoughts tomorrow. If you’ve heard this album, what are your thoughts?

Where Are the Psalms? Conference: Robby Bell, part 2

This post continues the wonderful lecture by Robby Bell called Lament for a Wounded Faith.

  • 2 Areas where our theology needs refinement:
    1. Theology of worship and the church
      • Why is our worship so antiseptic?
      • Is the purpose of worship to forget our problems and sing happy songs?
      • Lamenting is about honesty in our worship.
      • We treat the Psalms of Lament as substandard parts of scripture.
    2. Theology of God’s response to our suffering
      • Stoic patience and acceptance is not the theme of the Bible.
      • Tension between now and then is removed in favor of the “then”.
      • Even in suffering, we continue to address our thoughts and fears to God as Job did.
  • We cannot expect people’s understanding of God to reach higher than their hymnbooks. – Jenkins
  • Lament can serve to disrupt and expose the idols in our heart.
  • Ultimate goal of lamenting before God is not miraculous intervention but intimacy with God. – Lane
  • God invites us to bring our wounds to him, to continue the dialogue with him.
  • Cast your cares upon the Lord, and he will sustain you.
  • Lament transforms us.
  • Lament, rightly engaged, always leads us to the cross.
  • Lament must intersect with the cross of Christ and his vicarious suffering.
  • The cross always leads us to Jesus, the perfector of our faith.
  • We lose something by not acknowledging the presence of what is there.
  • Acknowledging where we are doesn’t mean we stay there.
  • Too often, engaging the process scares us off.
  • Our prayers should be honest.

Where Are the Psalms? Conference: Robby Bell, part 1

The final session of the Where Are the Psalms? Conference was presented by Robby Bell, professor of counseling at Erskine Seminary. I took so many notes during this session that I’ve divided them into two posts.

In a conference that was rich on every front, this session probably impacted me the most, especially considering what Prof. Bell has gone through in the past couple of years. His session was entitled, Lament for a Wounded Faith.

  • No fitting words or means of transition from where we are to where we want to be are found in many churches.
  • One of the significant weaknesses in the American church is our inability to address hard times.
  • American Christianity is dying from a case of shallowness. – Hughes Oliphant Old
  • Christian Liturgy without lament becomes anorexic.
  • There’s no place in our worship for the expression of anguish or pain.
  • We don’t take Galatians 6.1-2 seriously.
  • The modern church demands that those who are mourning abandon them for the triumphant songs of Zion.
  • Christians turn into the tormentors of Psalm 137(!), demanding that the wounded sing happy songs.
  • The only help we can bring is “happy ease.”
  • In recent hymnals, among those that even include psalms to begin with, 75% of the omitted psalms have been psalms of lament.
  • We praise God for stability and the status quo.
  • More than half of the Psalms include lament.
  • Not a single text in the New Testament forbids lamenting. – K. Westerlund
  • Faith as trust & questioning vs. faith that is unquestioning. Which is more biblical?
  • Without lament, we truncate the New Testament as well as the Old Testament.
  • 1 Peter 4.12-13
  • We must teach our children how to lament.
  • The life of faith is an ongoing task – we don’t let people ask the questions.
  • Lamenting is a faith opportunity.
  • Lamenting involves us in the process of covenanting.
  • Can God be addressed in risky ways?
  • Lament is a cry over a relationship in process.
  • Does the absence of lament signal that we really don’t want to know God?
  • Lamentation is more than catharsis – getting things off our chests.
  • Recognition of God’s sovereignty isn’t resignation.
  • Lament is messy business.
  • When the option of lament is removed, we cannot express ourselves to God nor receive the formative character of lamentation.
  • Lament challenges every theology of guaranteed safety.
  • Lamenting involves risk. – Elllington
    1. Losing or turning loose the status quo.
    2. Newness. Should newness fail to materialize, the worshiper faces a death without meaning.
  • Caution: Be careful to insist that one must contend with God.
  • Lament is not an end in itself. – Sorrow leads to comfort and lament leads to praise.
  • There is a clear distinction between lament and grumbling.
    • Lament is truly seeking, asking and knocking.
    • Lament is a passion to ask, rather than rant and rave.
    • Lament moves toward God.
  • Why is it absent?
    1. Influence – we are too successful.
    2. Apathy – we don’t want God’s response.
  • Praise and Worship songs detatch God’s attributes from his acts. – Cornelius Plantinga
  • Theological astigmatism – happy texts or choruses alone render an incomplete view of God.
  • When we lament, we must be specific as to what we are lamenting.
  • Laments never end on the loss but on God. – Bruggemann

Where Are the Psalms? Conference: Mark Ross

Mark Ross, professor at Erskine Theological Seminary‘s Columbia Campus and dean of the Institute for Reformed Worship, spoke on “What Place Should Psalm-Singing Have in Christian Worship?” Below are a few notes from his lecture.

  • The question of whether we should sing psalms is not simply a practical question but also a theological and ethical question.
  • Must we sing the Psalms? Is it a divine imperative?
    • This isn’t a question of “Should we sing?” or “Should we sing only psalms?”
  • There is a biblical pattern of remembering God’s mighty deeds in song.
  • Songs bookend Samuel – Hannah (1 Samuel 1) and David (2 Samuel 22).
  • Psalm singing, like the Lord’s Supper, should be seen as ordinary and beneficial.
  • Isaac Watts believed that as Old Covenant writings, the Psalms were outdated. (Hence his Psalms Imitated.)
  • Calvin was eager to institute Psalm-singing in Geneva in 1537.
    • As a remedy to the cold prayers of the people.
    • People will learn “to make like prayers and render like praises.”
  • There are two kinds of public prayer:
    1. Words alone
    2. Words with singing
  • Singing in Worship is calling upon God.
  • For Calvin, Psalms aren’t simply instances of prayer but are model prayers.
  • The Psalms reveal forms of acceptable prayer.
  • The Lord’s Prayer says little about thanksgiving, lamentation, etc.
  • The Psalter is an anatomy of all parts of the soul. – Calvin
  • All emotions we can express are present in the Psalms.
  • The Psalms are channels of prayer.
  • The Psalms form a complete topography of human experience.
  • Psalms give us the rule to evaluate all our songs since they are paths of acceptable prayer.
  • The work of Watts exemplifies the best of Reformed hymnody in relation to the Psalms.
  • There should be a dynamic relationship between Psalms and hymns.
  • Abandonment of the Psalter can only bring harm to our prayer and piety.
  • The Psalms must be prayed! Not simply read.
  • We can only understand the New Testament service of song in the light of the Old Testament service of song.
  • Psalms can keep us from the delusions of false doctrine.
  • In times when we do not know what to say, the Psalms give us words.