Cultural Appropriation that is Pastoral Kindness
Preaching on Sunday for my friend, Jeff Stivason, at Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church I was reminded of how beautiful unaccompanied psalm singing can be. While I am not an exclusive psalmodist, I was first ordained as ruling elder in a (then) psalms-only denomination (the Free Church of Scotland) and still believe that they should provide the core of Christian worship and a basic element in regular Bible reading. Human beings are emotional creatures and sometimes mere prose is not enough to give voice to that part of our experience in this world. The Book of Psalms speaks to that. And it is why, years ago, I wrote a little piece, ‘What Can Miserable Christians Sing?’ Ironically, I think this little article took me just a few minutes to write, but over the years I have had more positive correspondence about it than anything else I have ever done.
Recently, the good folk over at 9Marks reprinted it on their website. They have been more than appreciative of it over the years and this week I will be recording an interview with them to talk about it. They also invited me some five years ago to reflect on the article in another piece, still available here. They seem to have helped others beyond anything I could ever have hoped. From bereaved parents to those simply struggling to find their place in this life, I have received kind and moving notes from them all.
Some weeks ago, my wife and I had the pleasure of chatting over a drink with one of our heroes, Tony Esolen, the great Dante translator. He commented on how recent suffering in his professional life had culminated in him being driven by slanderers from his tenured position at Providence College but had also led him to a deep and renewed love of the psalms, especially those where the psalmist laments his ill treatment at the hands of others. The conversation brought to our own minds how the psalms have been a constant source of strengthening for us in times of trouble. And we have particularly come to appreciate not only reading and singing the psalms but also hearing them, both in classical arrangements by composers such as Heinrich Schutz and the traditional Scottish a capella renditions of the ‘1650’ but also newer arrangements by younger artists – my wife has an especial fondness for the recordings of Wendell Kimbrough.
That is the genius of the psalms. The words and the emotions they convey transcend the particularities of each of our cultures and go to the heart of the Christian's experience as a new creation in the mists of the fallen old creation. And, praise God, we live in such a remarkable time for bringing them to the fore of the practice of the Faith, for there are now so many psalters, ancient and modern, from all across the globe and so many resources to help us understand and use them devotionally and litugically.
From Athanasius to Luther to Bonhoeffer, the psalms have been the central expression of Christian spirituality for many of the great figures of church history. Even the vastly overrated Bono introduced an edition of the psalms with the surprisingly insightful comment that they were like the blues of the Bible, often expressing the painful experience of a people longing for liberation from bondage. There are fine daily devotionals devoted to them, classic Psalters, split-leaf psalters, modern Psalters, and even a new Psalter-Hymnal produced by the joint effort of the OPC and URCNA. There is even that most incongruous sounding of all things: yes, there is even app for that -- for a split leaf version of the Scottish 1650.
The psalms can be ‘culturally appropriated’ by us all because they speak of the universal human condition. They allow us to be honest with God in a deep, dramatic, and yet reverent way. Indeed - is it not wonderful that God is not simply so gracious that he gave us his Son but that he even gives a liturgy by which we can praise him even in times of weakness, darkness, and even virtual despair? There is now no excuse why the church’s greatest hymnal should not be part of the liturgical and pastoral arsenal of the church today. The broken-hearted – indeed, all of us – can only benefit from its regular use.
Psalm singing: not just cultural appropriation we should all believe in, but cultural appropriation that is true pastoral kindness and practical spiritual prudence. They are for all who suffer. And, in the end, that is all of us.