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United Reformed Church Spirituality articles:

Being with the psalms: 1

Mark Argent
4 September 2019

The psalms have always had a key place in the Christian tradition. Their diversity can make this complicated: at times there’s been pressure to be quite selective, but at other times the emphasis has been working with the whole psalter — in the Reformed world that’s been a hallmark of revivals where people have been reluctant to sing words other than from the Bible.

There’s also a rich heritage of paraphrasing and reworking psalms — of coming to them again from a slightly different angle. Carla Grosch Miller’s Psalms Redux is a recent URC example.

For a while I was in the rather unusual situation of needing to provide a way for the psalm in the lectionary to be sung in worship. One answer would have been to go back to the old metrical psalms, which did put the whole psalter into metre for singing, but there are good reasons why few of those have made it into modern hymn books.
The particular context meant that writing a new tune and new words would have been a bridge too far, so the pattern I fell into was to read the psalm, or psalm portion, start to fiddle with it until a tune came to mind, and hunt through the metrical indices of hymn books until I found the tune I was thinking of, and then, work on the words so they can be sung to that tune without losing their meaning.

It was a fascinating experience.

At a musical level there is a really interesting question of why a particular hymn tune comes to mind in looking at a given text. I assumed that this wasn’t random, but was an invitation to see something extra in the text. One example is finding the tune St Columba, which I associate with “The king of Love my shepherd is”, coming to mind for Psalm 8 (“O Lord our God, how majestic is your name”) and seeming to add a sense of intimacy to the praise or the tune. Another example is Gopsal (“Rejoice the Lord is King”), for Ps 97 — that’s a psalm of praise, to which Gopsal brings in strong additional associations to Easter. In a sense this is just making explicit some extra layers in the text, but it also carries an invitation to find more. What’s useful is that there’s no sense that this is the “correct” interpretation, or that the same tune would come to mind for the same text at another time, but carries a sense of being invited to find more.

Lectionary compilers sometimes play fast-and-lose with the words selected from psalms, so that one can be landed with a text which clearly supports one understanding of the other readings. A close look at what’s been left out (and a pragmatic decision on whether to include that in the paraphrase), can be a rich prod to not go in the obvious direction with the other readings.

One of the consequences of being landed with a psalm, looking at what the compilers have left out, and then working on it, is that one is forced up against the omitted words. Rather than get hung up on how one might preach that, there is a really interesting process of asking how the words might have made sense in ancient times, perhaps to people struggling to farm the land and sometimes harried by raiders. Sometimes they feel alien to today, but there’s an invitation to think into a different world and a different set of struggles.

Thinking about the future of the URC, or an individual local church, has rather different feel when you are sitting with a text in which people explored the constancy of God after the trauma of being taken into exile in Babylon, or the words our forebears turned to in the turmoil of the Reformation.