How should the majesty and ancient authority of the Psalter shape our services?

Bradley Johnston, in his book "150 Questions about the Psalter", quotes from William Binnie to answer the question posed in our title. 

Question 140:

How should the majesty and ancient authority of the Psalter mold worship services?

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Answer 140:

"In the Church of Jesus Christ, where the prayers are free, it is of utmost importance that services of worship should be molded in the forms of ancient authority; and surely the best possible mold is that which the Holy Spirit Himself gave by the Psalmists, which has left its divinely guided lines on the Church for these three thousand years."

I'm struck by that phrase, "divinely guided lines", and the compelling suggestion that this is the mold that we are to see impressed upon our services of divine worship. As I continue to grow in my understanding of and appreciation for the Psalms, I'm amazed at the ways in which the indelible mark of the Holy Spirit's inspiration becomes more and more evident in these sacred compositions. 

What do we currently have in our repertoire that bears the majesty and ancient authority of Holy Scripture? 

The Ornamentation of the Preached Word

The letters to the churches in Revelation feature the refrain “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 3:22). This is no accident.

The apostle Paul, writing to Timothy, explains “ the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it” (2Ti 4:17).

The same Paul asks “how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom 10:14)

The congregation called by the voice of God gathers in expectancy, waiting for the sight of Christ to be revealed to them as they hear the shout of the archangel and the blast of a trumpet (1 Thess 4:15-17) on the Last Day.

Until that day, the Christian church is defined by the way in which it is to receive the Word: audibly through the preaching of the Word (Rom 10) and visibly/tangibly in the administration of the sacraments.

The ornamentation of the preached Word rests on the communion table that sits in the front of the House of God.

The visual enhancement of the preached Word is contained in the cup and the bread in this period of waiting for the return of Christ (Acts 1:11).

The adornment of the preached Word is the fruit it bears in the hearts and lives of believers in all stages of Christian maturity.

 

Photo by John Mark Arnold on Unsplash

Book Recommendation: Sacred Bond

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Over at the Modern Reformation website, you can read an interview of the authors of Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored. (interview here)

I've included an excerpt from the interview in order to whet your appetite for this excellent book that we'd highly recommend to you! I (Pastor Norm) have used it as a teaching resource for a course on covenant theology and it was great to see the reception it received among lay-readers! You can buy a copy through Reformed Fellowship


MR: How will this book impact the way lay Christians read the Bible devotionally?

MB: Our prayer is that reading Sacred Bond will help you know how to read and interpret the Bible more faithfully. Studying God’s covenants has one primary goal: to know God and our relationship with him more fully. Studying the covenants should never be a dry academic exercise. It has immense pastoral and practical value for the Christian. It revolutionizes our approach to Scripture, providing us with helpful categories to understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. It shows us that the Bible is actually one book with one story, told on the stage of real human history. It highlights the plotline and central point of Scripture, setting every story in the context of the larger story about Christ. More importantly, it comforts us as we learn that God accepts us not on the basis of our covenant faithfulness but on the basis of Christ’s. It sweetens our fellowship with the Father as we come to know his oath and promises to us, promises that are “yes” and “amen” through the Mediator of the new covenant. It changes our view of the local church as we discover that we are part of God’s covenant community and worship him in a covenant-renewal ceremony every Lord’s Day. It transforms the way we see our children—namely, as the baptized members of God’s covenant of grace. It helps us understand that covenant is not a means to an end, but it is the end itself—the communion between God and his people.


Is Every Day of Your Life Filled With Screens?

As a thought experiment, think about the last five screens with images on them that you saw: what type of content was being communicated to you?

Business, advertising and entertainment are the realm of the screened image.

Scholars studying the field of online education are skeptical about screen-based education because of the association with aesthetic pleasure it creates in the mind of its audience.

One recent study observed, “because visual media are normally used in our culture to provide aesthetic pleasure, in the form of entertainment, the use of visual media in education tends to break down the distinction between education and entertainment.” (a)

The link between a medium and the messages it normally communicates must not be understated. (b) Presentation technologies are primarily employed in the business world and the world of entertainment. After all, business and entertainment are the two areas where screens are used most commonly; advertising, movies, sales pitches, and video games all feature projected images. The connotations these tools carry are varied for different people but there is certainly a common thread between the use of these technologies and the expectations that it creates in culture at large.

My point in this account is simple but I think it is profound: the waves of advertising and entertainment encountered in daily life are increasingly communicated via presentation technologies. (c) As a result, the decision to modify the practice of the church in corporate worship to include these presentation technologies is risking a lot for the marginal returns that come from it. (d)

What is the risk? Consider this analogy: if six days of the week are spent driving on the right side of the road, what would be the effect of switching to the left side of the road for one to two hours each Sunday? Using screens to take in advertising and entertainment throughout the week predisposes congregants to react with certain instinctive responses when screens are pressed into service as platforms for holy meditation and participation in worship. The visual 'seen' is always competing for attention with the 'heard'. A tool that carries the same DNA as the presentation technologies of the broader culture which have contributed to the decline of 'hearing' should be treated with utmost caution and ultimately avoided if possible. (e)

Resources

(a) Louis Tietje and Steven Cresap, “Hegemonic Visualism,” Radical Pedagogy (2005)
(b) Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium Is the Massage (New York: Bantam Books, 1967)
(c) I am not saying that I am opposed to presentation technologies outside of the context of corporate worship. As I continue to learn more about the effects of these technologies on the brain and the psyche I think it is wise for individuals to reflect on their own consumption habits.  In the context of corporate worship, I argue that it is unnecessary and detrimental to the basic principles of corporate worship that the church is bound to uphold.
(d) Pragmatic and financial returns must be judged as subordinate to the significant effects such a change might have on the piety and vitality of the church.
(e) Yes, it is possible to not put a screen in a church in the 21st century. Picture a projector screen in a monastery or another 'sacred' space. Screens are uniformly obtrusive and an intrusion of our own lust for technology in a space that should be timeless and conducive to meditation, listening, and corporate singing. For more resources on digital tech's dehumanizing impact, consult Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011).

 

Photo by Olu Eletu on Unsplash

Are You Looking for a Presbyterian Church?

We're an unashamedly confessional Presbyterian church!

What this means for us is that we are persuaded that the Word of God describes a doctrinal stance and a practical stance that we are compelled to uphold in all we do! We believe that the church is to be led by elders and preachers with connection to other churches who can hold us accountable and bring encouragement to us in our labours. We believe that the church is to be fed by the Word of God and that this is our sole authoritative standard for faith and practice in our church. We won't be carried away by the whims or fads of any given decade. We believe that the Westminster Standards (the Westminster Confession of Faith together with the Westminster Shorter & Larger Catechisms) are true and excellent summaries of the doctrine of Scripture. We are therefore confessional in our understanding of scripture because we confess (believe) in common ways of articulating the glorious truths of God's Word!

The rich history of the Protestant Reformation has especially deep roots in the Scottish Presbyterian churches that flourished in previous centuries. We are striving, in dependence upon the Lord, to maintain this rich heritage with its immense treasuries of devotional writings, doctrinal teaching, and scriptural study! We want our lives to be impacted by the lives of godly believers from the past and therefore our Sunday services are places where you'll hear voices from the past and our Wednesday night study is a place where we are very carefully studying church history!

Are you looking for a Presbyterian church or want to know more about Presbyterianism? We'd love to talk with you about it!

(Thanks for the photo, Aaron Burden on Unsplash)

Are You Looking for a Psalm Singing Church in Vancouver?

We are excited to introduce our guests and visitors to what it means to be part of a Reformed church. Inevitably, the question comes up, "What does it mean to be Reformed?"

Well, there are many aspects to this question but an important source of Reformed theology and piety is the 150 Psalms found in the Old Testament. This incredible collection of sacred scripture is a crucially important, and frequently overlooked, part of the Christian faith. 

In the Psalms we are shown how to worship the LORD God through a wide array of individual psalms that describe the holiness, righteousness, power, love, mercy, and steadfastness of our Holy God. 

In the Psalms we are shown how to respond to the circumstances of our lives, whether in the form of heart-wrenching lament, humble petition, exuberant thanksgiving, righteous confidence, holy zeal, or existential angst. 

In the Psalms, we come again and again to see the character and personal attributes of the 'Blessed One' of Psalm 1, the 'Forsaken One' of Psalm 22, the 'Compassionate One' of Psalm 23, the 'Victorious One' of Psalm 24, the 'Royal One' of Psalm 110, the 'Praiseworthy One' of Psalm 148. Who is this One who is foretold and anticipated in so many ways in the Psalms? From Jesus' own testimony in Luke 24:27, we know that these stanzas and descriptions referred to our Lord Jesus Christ! 

So should we sing the psalms? Yes. 

Should we frequently sing the psalms? Yes!

Perhaps you have neglected the psalms in public worship and would like to recover this aspect of Christian piety in your own life.

We invite you to join us as we sing the psalms together every Lord's Day as part of our worship in Spirit and in truth! Sing words inspired by the Holy Spirit. Sing words that are true in every sense of the Word.

Biblical Worship Must be Reverent and Dignified

I want to give attention to the simple beauty of the liturgy of Reformed churches. This plainness is not because of a cultural aversion to beauty or sentiment. The popular art and music of Reformed communities express beauty and sentiment in equal measure. Nonetheless the sacred worship services of the Reformed are intentionally limited to the prescribed elements of worship contained in the Scriptures.

These elements of the worship service are divinely ordained in the pattern of the covenant renewal ceremony between God and his people in which he “promises to make the new creation a reality among his people.” This covenantal ceremony includes all the congregants as “the story of divine creation and faithfulness is followed by the unfaithfulness of the covenant partner, which in turn is met with divine solidarity to overcome the sin and unbelief of his people through his messiah.” I rehearse these crucial components of Reformed worship to emphasize that the liturgy of Reformed churches is simple because there is so much contained within it. It does not need embellishment or dramatization to be improved upon. In a rightly constituted worship service, the following profound encounter occurs after the votum and singing of the congregation:

"Representing God once more, the minister intercedes on behalf of the covenant people who have thus experienced the drama of the exodus again for themselves. They too have passed from death to life in this liturgical drama, from alienation and despair to the assurance of reconciliation and the response of praise from their side of the covenant – and on that basis they enter the Holy of Holies in this semirealized eschatology. With their covenant mediator and advocate representing their case in heaven, the community's intercession is effective, and the people are prepared to hear God's word in the sermon."

Finally, the last word of the service is “reserved for God, and his parting word is once more the word of Gospel, as God's blessing is laid upon the covenant people in the benediction.” The structure of this divine service is predicated on the principle that worship occurs in a dialogue between God and his people. The dialogical principle serves several purposes: it simplifies the service by removing any extraneous human inventions, it clarifies the service by assigning a clear role to each partner, and it affirms a covenantal relationship which God makes with his church.

Hughes Oliphant Old characterizes Reformed convictions about worship as convictions which arise from the first four commandments. The first commandment directs that “our worship, our deepest devotion, our most ardent love is to be directed to God rather than to ourselves.” John Calvin drew on the first commandment the Christian's obligation “with true and zealous godliness... to contemplate, fear, and worship, his majesty; to participate in his blessings; to seek his help at all times; to recognize, and by praises to celebrate, the greatness of his works – as the only goal of all the activities of this life.” The abundance of the Christian's desire to serve and praise God is particularly expressed in the worship which takes place on the Lord's Day in the house of God. Old comments that the “single greatest contribution that the Reformed liturgical heritage can make to contemporary American Protestantism is its sense of the majesty and sovereignty of God, its sense of reverence and simple dignity, its conviction that worship must above all serve the praise of God.” I also want to draw attention to a commandment that does not receive much recognition in the context of worship, namely the third commandment. Old writes, “the third commandment tells us that were are not to use the Lord's name in vain. Vain means “empty.” The commandment teaches us to worship God sincerely and honestly, to worship God “in spirit and in truth,” to use the words of Jesus.” Worship is of first importance in the Reformed churches. It occupies the entirety of the corporate, public worship service.

(Resources cited: Edmund P. Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995); Michael Horton, Covenant and Eschatology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002); Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002); John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 2, 2 vols., The Library of Christian Classics 21 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960)

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

"Christ's global garden grows in local plots"

One of the recent trends that has spread rapidly among evangelical Christian churches has been the 'multi-site model' of setting up a single congregation with numerous locations for gathering. Michael Horton highlights some of the issues inherent in this approach in his excellent book, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World

"One example of the tendency to shift our focus from the ministry to the ministers, I believe, is the proliferation of multi-site churches. I am not in any way suggesting that those who favor a multi-site model of ministry are guilty of reckless ambition. I take it for granted that they are motivated by mission and would agree heartily with much else that I’ve argued here. My concern, however, is that the model is more susceptible to a greater focus on the minister than on the ministry.

Regardless of intentions, the medium ensures that he can never be the pastor, but only a celebrity teacher. By being the “pastor” of many churches, he is actually the pastor of none. Furthermore, it is his board that has the last word. This model seems far more hierarchical than the others it rebelled against.

Christ’s global garden grows concretely only in local plots."

(Kindle: location 1931)

Book Recommendation: Ordinary

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Michael Horton's book Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World is a great read for every believer who is struggling to keep up with the demands of every new kid on the block with a new strategy to make us bolder and better Christians. 

I'd highly recommend Dr. Horton's message of finding life in the ordinary activities of the Christian life. We so easily neglect the most important means by which God builds our faith and nourishes our souls: His Word and the Sacraments (Baptism and the Lord's Supper). 

Here's an excerpt that identifies precisely what is the problem in our time:

Commonly, the rhetoric of radical in our churches actually mirrors our culture, even when — no, especially when — it invokes the lingo of “countercultural,” “subversive,” “alternative,” “extreme,” and so forth. The likes of Athanasius, Augustine, Bernard, Luther, and Calvin sought to reform the church. But for centuries now radical Protestants have been trying to reboot, reinvent, start over, and reconstitute the real church of the true saints over against the ordinary churches.
— Michael Horton, 'Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World'

Buy the book here

Read a helpful review of the book here

Book Recommendation: Learning from Lord Mackay

Learning from Lord Mackay: Life and Work in Two Kingdoms

Cameron Fraser, a pastor and writer from Lethbridge, Alberta, has written a book about Lord James Mackay of Scotland. For our congregation, there is a special connection with Lord Mackay as he is a member of one of our sister congregations in the Associated Presbyterian Churches. 

The book is available on Amazon.ca and the foreword was written by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson. 

Still need convincing to pick up your copy? Then read a little overview for yourself: 

James Mackay served as Lord Advocate of Scotland (1979-84) and Lord Chancellor of Great Britain (1987-97). He is, in the words of a past President of the Law Society of Scotland, “not only an outstanding man in his profession, but one of the most brilliant Scottish scholars of all time.” He is also a humble Christian who has served his Lord in church and state. This book seeks to introduce him to a wider Christian audience, while pointing out lessons that may be learned by others in political office and seeking to locate him in terms of the contemporary (largely American) “two kingdoms” controversy. “There is no Scotsman, indeed no British person in public life whom I admire more.”
— Dr. Sinclair Ferguson
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Available in Paperback and Kindle versions