Category Archives: Worship – praise

Sensitive worship

John Stackhouse has some wise words of advice to Christian worship bands (Christianity Today, 2 Feb 2009) which resonated with me. I accompany worship regularly in my own church, and have for well over 30 years,  so it would appear we are of the same generation. I thought it was just me that found it distressing when the band blocked out my ability to hear what my brothers and sisters were singing, but it seems I am not alone.

If I could add one more thing to an excellent article it would be this. Congregations should be more sensitive to the words they sing. I was brought up in a church where we sang in hushed tones about the agonies of the Lord on the cross. But increasingly I hear congregations gulder* how they walk through the valley of the shadow of death, or how silently our Lord suffered. Perhaps they’ve become so accustomed to the universal excessively amplified “worship” it’s impossible to think about the words. It’s so refreshing to visit a congregation where they sing words sensitively.

Of course, that such sensitivity need not be quiet. I vividly remember returning to the church I was brought up in for a Bible study workshop and being asked to accompany the singing of the hymn “And can it be”. The congregation was about 200 strong, predominantly men. Within a couple of lines it became obvious that the piano was not needed. I doubt that anything other than the first note had been heard. It was pointless to pretend that I was accompanying the worship, so I abandoned the piano to join in wholeheartedly with that vibrant singing. I can still feel the pulsating sensation in my chest as I write. It was electrifying, and not an amp in sight. But it was sensitive. How else could one sing

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

but with gusto and volume.

So my additional plea to John Stackhouse’s five would be for congregations to sing with sensitivity to the words, and accompanists to encourage that with variation in volume.


* For those who live outside the cultured North of Ireland that’s insensitively loud speech.

Singing about death

In today’s service from Tenth Presbyterian, Philadelphia we sang the hymn “I greet thee, who my sure Redeemer art” (no I didn’t commute between services in our own church in Belfast—we participated via the Internet). As we sang, I thought how unusual a hymn of praise it was, compared to many modern praise songs. And yet, it is not unusual as a hymn, compared to the great old (and some newer) hymns of the faith. What stood out was:

O comfort us in death’s approaching hour,
Strong-hearted then to face it by thy power.

How many modern songs let us sing about death? Just as modern western society is sanitised, and has eliminated references to death wherever possible, so too has our praise. It may be acceptable to sing about Jesus’ death (though even that is under threat). That is at the heart of the Gospel, so we dare not neglect to sing about that (unless we no longer believe the Gospel).

Bus as we have been delivered from the fear of death to which everyone is enslaved (Heb 2:14-15), it is appropriate to sing about our own death. Singing about it helps us face its reality. It is an inevitability, no matter how much our culture proclaims our immortality. But such contemplation is not morbid, for the stanza that brings us face to face with our own mortality starts by reminding us of the source of our life:

Thou art the life, by which alone we live,
And all our substance and our strength receive;

Death is inevitable, but this is not fatalism. The strength we receive in life from God is the same strength with which we may face death, A hymn such as this forces us to confront our death long before we stare death in the face.

Such songs in and of themselves will never provide the strong-heartedness with which the Christian believer may face death, but they must surely help us prepare to face our own death well. And in so doing we may face life well, so that we may sing the final stanza of Philip Ryken’s hymn “Now I make my good confession” truthfully:

Here’s my life–Lord, take and use it,
use my gifts to spread your fame;
I will go where Jesus calls me,
live and die for His great name.

If we have not taken time to contemplate life and death when we are in health and strength, it is doubtful we will face death strong-heartedly. For us Philippians 1:21 will be merely a Bible verse, unlike Paul for whom it was reality:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

I’m sure Paul sang those Psalms that led him to contemplate death in the light of God. May we follow in his footsteps, and not shy away from contemplating and singing about death, that we may be strong-hearted then to face it by God’s power.

Believing praise (Psalm 106:12)

Christians are a singing people because they are a believing people:

Then they believed his word;
They sang his praise (Psalm 106:12)

A professional singer may be able to sing oratorios with technical perfection without believing a word that is sung. But such singing is not praise. Praise can only be produced by believers.

That is not to decry effort on the part of believers to sing well, tunefully, accurately, and according to the music. John Wesley’s advice to those who would week to sing his hymns is surely appropriate. How can we praise God “according to his excellent greatness” (Ps 150:2) if we do not seek to do it with excellence ourselves? Sloppy praise is a contradiction in terms.

But true praise is never a performance, nor simply emotion and feelings. It is an expression of belief, not feeling. It therefore must have content, expressed coherently and with meaning. Christians do not chant meaningless mantras interminably; they sing Almighty God’s praises.

Such an awesome task demands that we consider carefully and creatively how we may express the inexpressible. To resort to meaningless mumbo jumbo is not an option—it is not worthy of the one whose glory we seek to express in our praises. What kind of a response is it to mumble meaninglessly when he has spoken clearly and meaningfully?

And yet believing praise will not be dispassionate and devoid of emotion or feeling. Psalm 106 takes the Exodus as its focal point for meditation. Who could say the song of Moses and the people of Israel in Ex 15 was devoid of emotion or feeling?

Praise involves a delicate balance and blend of excellence in word and music, and heartfelt expression of godly emotion and feeling. No wonder the psalmists prays that the word of his mount and the meditation of his heart may be acceptable in God’s sight (Ps 19:14).

Putting words in my mouth (Ps 119:13)

It’s often frowned on—putting words in someone else’s mouth. The barrister will be reprimanded for “leading the witness” by the presiding judge in a trial. We complain bitterly, “you’re putting words in my mouth” when we’re accused of saying something we certainly didn’t mean at all.

But is it ever a good thing? What if you were scheduled to meet a celebrity, a hero, royalty? Or perhaps if you were to meet an estranged relative for the first time in a long time? Many’s the person in such circumstances has been heard to ask, “What shall I say?” Not this time the complaint, “How dare you put words in to my mouth?” but, rather, the plea, “Can someone please put some words in my mouth!”

And when it comes to addressing Almighty God? What words shall we use? The psalmist knew exactly what to say.

With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. (Psalm 119:13)

He had learned that God is the great teacher (Psalm 119:12) and had already done what the disciples had done when they asked Jesus, “teach us to pray”—put some words in our mouths!

It may well be that the psalmist is declaring God’s word to others, perhaps unbelievers (as in Psalm 119:46). But if he relies on God to supply words for his witness, surely he dare not rely on himself to worship God. Is this what he is driving at when he tells us that God’s word is the subject of his songs, presumably of worship (Psalm 119:54)? His praise to God is comprised of God’s own words and addressed to God.

The psalmist’s constant meditation is not simply him thinking his own thoughts on his own. Is he not going over things in his mind before God himself? And who, in the presence of God, would sit and mumble and mutter to themselves alone? One would not do it in the presence of royalty or important people. Christian meditation involves my mind and my God. What I say when I’m meditating I don’t simply say to myself, or simply in God’s presence, but to God himself.

So what words will I use to speak to the one whose very word created all that is? How delightful that God has put his words in my mouth. He has not left my tongue-tied in his presence. He doesn’t delight to see my squirm before him, desperately seeking the words with which to address him. We have a Psalter full of praises and prayers from which to draw. We have an entire Bible to aid us speak to God in appropriate language. Shall we do better than he in discovering that precise turn of phrase that most adequately expresses out thoughts, and most glorifies him?

If the psalmist considered storing God’s word in his heart as a preventative measure against sin (Psalm 119:11), surely another great benefit of Scripture stored in the heart is its ability to supply those words we desperately need to pray to and praise God. If the psalmist shows us that learning God’s word will unleash in us heartfelt praise (Psalm 119:7), he also shows us that learning God’s word will supply the very words we need to praise God as we ought.

How shall we then praise? By using the words he has put in our mouths and on our lips.