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Sunday, March 15

In this week’s First Things article, I’ve mentioned some of the upcoming activities of the 225th Anniversary Concert, including the commission of a new communion hymn and a congregational anthem setting of that hymn, written by Josh Bauder.

A congregational anthem is essentially a piece of choral music in which the congregation is requested to participate.  Sometimes it may be just the concluding verse, or if is an arrangement of a well-known hymn, it may be that the choir sings one verse unaccompanied and the congregation joins on other verses.  They usually are set for brass and organ, an instrumental combination in churches that dates back to the 16th century.  More often than not these settings are of well-known hymns, and we will sing several of them at the 225th Anniversary Concert on March 26 at 6pm,  including Dwight Gustafson’s anthem setting of Saints of Zion, Michael McCarthy’s setting of O Love of God, How Strong and True, and Robert Hobby’s setting of Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.

Another piece that the choir will be singing is a fairly recent English setting of the ancient Latin patristic hymn, the Te Deum.  The setting is by Latvian composer, Eriks Esenvalds, for choir, brass sextet, and harp.  It is a joyful and poignant way of concluding a concert intended to give God all the praise and glory for sustaining this particular church for over two centuries, and Christ’s church for over two millennia. 

But as alluded to in the First Things post, there are other projects in which the choir has been engaged.  This past month we had several recording sessions and will be producing a new recording to be ready this August.  This recording will contain anthems that, over the years, have been particularly meaningful to members of our congregation and to our choir as well.  While the Lord sustains his church, he calls all of us to minister to one another, and music is a means by which the balm of the gospel can be applied to souls in sorrow, distress, or to simply be a hint of the eternal glory which awaits those whom Christ has called to himself.

Finally, I’ve written a new setting of the Gloria Patri, to celebrate the year.  This is not without precedence, as Judy Doudoukjian composed a new setting of the Gloria Patri in celebration of the church’s bicentennial, and I hope that we can also include this in worship as we celebrate 2020. 

The new setting of the Gloria Patri can be seen and listened to at the links below.  We will sing it for the first time on Sunday morning, March 29.  It shouldn’t take long for you to get it into your ear and hopefully it will help us lift our hearts and minds to Christ in a meaningful and fresh way.



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Sunday, March 1

 Brief history of the Organ in the Church

It was nearly 700 years ago that the organ was first crowned “The King of Instruments”. In its early form it was considered an extravagant gift to be exchanged between empires. Over the past several centuries it has come to be a central fixture of music in the church.  A look at the organ’s history will help shed light on this instrument often shrouded in mystery and reveal how it came to be at the center of church music.

Something that makes the organ distinct as a musical instrument is that its form varies greatly from one instrument to the next. The components that make an organ an organ, as defined by organ historian Peter Williams, are rows of pipes sitting on chests of pressurized air operated by a keyboard. The number of each of these components can vary so much that an organ can be a mobile instrument with only a few keys and a small row of pipes, or a gargantuan construction of seven keyboards and tens of thousands of pipes.

The oldest documented pipe organ was an instrument called the hydraulis invented by the 3rd century B.C. engineer Ctesibius of Alexandria. The hydraulis had only a few pipes and keys and was more of a model than an instrument, used to demonstrate how water could be used to generate wind pressure. References to musical uses of the hydraulis appear a century-and-a-half later. Over the next several centuries, as technology progressed and creativity expanded, the number of pipes and keys on an organ continued to increase as the primitive engineering model developed in to the full-fledge “King” we know today.

The organ’s initial role in the worship of the church was to act as a signal calling worshipers to the service. But by the 10th century A.D., organs were being used during the course of worship services. As the organ’s role regarding worship changed, so did its location in the church building. Early organs would have been found near the entrance of the church to best perform their “summoning” function. As mechanical innovations progressed to allow the organ to be played in a more nuanced and musical way, it began to fill a role that comes so naturally to it: accompanying singing. Because the organ produces sound through pressurized air, or “breath”, and because of the manner in which it sustains tone, it was found to be well-suited for accompanying the choir and congregation. In order to be used more effectively in this role it was moved inside the sanctuary and placed in proximity to the choir and/or congregation.

An important piece of the puzzle in how the organ came to be an instrument of the church is the Benedictine Order. We owe a great deal to the Benedictine monks who, throughout the 9th and 10th centuries, were significant contributors to the development of literacy, scholarship, musical notation, and the very existence of Western music. According to Williams, the Benedictines are perhaps solely responsible for developing organs for use in church services.

The organ and Western music progressed hand-in-hand. The way music was perceived, composed, and performed is reflected in developments in the organ. Or is it the other way around? Were larger, lower-sounding pipes added to organs because the bass line was becoming more important in singing, or was the way people sang a reflection of what was being discovered through experiments in organ building? Scholars believe developments went both ways.

By the time that the Reformation was in full swing in the 16th century, organs were ubiquitous in Cathedrals and churches across the Western world. As the reformers sought to bring theology and worship back to biblical conformity, the use of the organ in worship went in two directions. On the one hand were Luther and others who had no issue with the participation of the organ or other instruments in worship, and out of that tradition came Bach, who could perhaps be crowned the King of The King of Instruments. On the other hand, were Calvin and other theologians of the belief that biblical worship excluded the use of instruments (including the organ). In some cases, organs were destroyed as waves of iconoclasm followed the Reformation. But in other cases, the organ was so valued that alternative uses for it were found where biblical conviction barred its use in the service. This was the case in the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam where Sweelinck was organist. In the 16th Century, it was common that churches and organs were property of the city and organists were on the city’s payroll. So in Amsterdam, as in other cities, the local magistrate valued the organ and its music and sought ways for the art form to continue outside of worship. A common solution was to establish weekly recitals, often played following a service, where the organists would play literature or improvise on psalm tunes sung during the service. So, even when the organ was not being played during the service, it was still inseparable from the songs being sung by the church.

In considering the Reformers desire to worship God according to His Word and how the organ factors into that consideration, it is natural to look at the appearance of the word “organ” in Psalm 150 in some translations. Since we know that the organ did not exist until the 3rd century B.C., well after Psalm 150 was written, there is not a direct path from the Hebrew word at the end of verse 4 in Psalm 150 and the modern pipe organ. But there is logic in the connection that has been made. Throughout the book of Psalms, we find three types of instruments referenced: those that are blown, plucked, and struck. In other words, strings, winds, and percussion. Innovations in the types of sound that could be produced by an organ followed these same lines. Different types of pipes were created to represent the sounds of strings instruments, wind instruments, and the high percussive sounds of bells and cymbals. Another way of looking at it is that the Psalmist clearly calls us to praise the Lord with everything that we have: all types of instruments--”everything that has breath.” The organ is as good a representation as any of that idea. The organ employs the full forces of technology, range of volume, and variety of sound. And perhaps therein lies the main reason why the organ has withstood the test of time and, after more than a millennium, it continues to play a central role in the music of the church. 

A lot has changed in the world since the organ first appeared over two thousand years ago. And much has changed since it was first brought into the church a thousand years later. Changes in technology now occur at blistering speeds, and many recent technological advances have been incorporated into the organ to its benefit. Yet, just as the initial establishment of the organ with the church was no accident, we have every reason to believe that its continuation in that establishment is a good and worthy way forward. As much changes around us, we seek to preserve what is good and valuable so that it may continue to be part of the life of the church for generations to come.


*Much of this article draws from the research of Peter Williams and is book A New History of the Organ: from the Greeks to the Present Day, Indiana University press, 1980.

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Sunday, February 23

“We owe much to many whom we have never met…We live in a throwaway society; we dispose of things we consider a burden.  My concern is that we do not add our predecessors to the collection of throwaways, carelessly discarding those who have made us what we are.”
V.Gilbert Beers

As we come upon the celebration of our church’s 225th Anniversary, I have been thinking often about how we worship the way we do, and why we still worship the way we do.  My previous two blog posts have touched upon this as well. 

Providentially, this Sunday morning’s opening hymn is, I think, relevant to the same topic.

The hymn O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright was written by Ambrose of Milan in the fourth century.  Why does this matter, and why would we be singing a hymn written approximately 1700 years ago?  

Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, was a key defender of Nicene orthodoxy in the West against the heresy of Arianism.  In Truths We Confess, R.C. Sproul writes:

At that time (of the Council of Nicaea in 325), the great threat to the church was the Arian heresy.  Arius taught that Christ, the Logos, was the most exalted being ever created by God, the firstborn of creation, but nevertheless created and not eternal. By denying the deity of Christ, Arius also denied the Trinity.  He appealed to Colossians 1:15, which calls Christ “the firstborn of all creation” and to John1:14, which calls Him “the only begotten of the Father”–that is “uniquely begotten one of the Father.”  Arius argued that if Christ was born, even as the firstborn, then there was a time before He was born.  But if Christ is a creature, even the most exalted creature, then to worship Him is to violate the first and second commandments and to engage in idolatry.  The struggle over Arianism led to the Council of Nicaea.  Although rejected by that ecumenical council, Arianism remained powerful for much of the fourth century. Today, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and others deny the deity of Christ and make the same arguments that Arians made.[1]

Another point that Dr. Sproul makes is that the means by which Arians promoted their heresies, were through the composition of “rousing songs.” The Ambrosian hymn that we will sing Sunday morning is an example of an early metrical hymn, intended to teach and defend biblical doctrine against such heresy.  While Luther’s chorales were/are important for teaching doctrine through congregational hymnody, it should not be forgotten that there were hymns from the Patristic era that served the same function.  Since there are still religious groups that claim to be Christian that deny the full deity of Christ, and prosperity gospel churches that write music with heretical texts, it is important that we still sing these ancient hymns, not only to defend the faith, but to also remind us that that there have been many, many faithful Christians who have gone before us and fought the battle that we are now responsible to fight.

Ambrose’s hymn, O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright, is rooted in the first chapter of the Gospel of John.  This, of course, is an excellent passage of Scripture to defend against a heresy that promotes Christ as being born of the God the Father, and not one with God from the beginning:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines and the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1: 1-5)

Ambrose’s hymn is a Trinitarian morning hymn of praise and invocation.  The imagery of light imbues several stanzas of the hymn (see complete hymn stanzas below),  but it also is teaching essential elements of Trinitarian theology, perhaps best put by Athanasius, the most important Patristic defender of Trinitarian theology:

Now this is the catholic faith:  That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons, nor dividing their essence.  For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and that of the Holy Spirit, still another.  But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.[2]

The fact that we have this hymn in our hymnal is indicative of who we are as a church.  We are a church committed to the eternal and unchanging truths of biblical doctrine, but also a church that reveres our forefathers and the line from which we have come–the Church Fathers, the Reformers, and the Puritans, not to mention the current line of Reformed pastors and theologians of recent centuries and decades.  We understand that our forefathers exercised godly wisdom (not always of course, for who does?), but it is safe to say that our predecessors had a deep love and an abiding affection for this church, because it is the Lord’s church. That love and affection has not weaned, and we pray it never will.

As we come to celebrate our 225th Anniversary, it is especially appropriate that we give thanks to the Lord for sustaining this church through a challenging, sinful, and redemptive history. It is also a time for us to think soberly, without flippancy, upon the many blessings that this church has been to the generations before us, to our own lives and families, and, Lord willing, to many generations to come. 

May our decisions and zeal always be biblical, and we may be faithful in passing on to future generations those blessings of faithful preaching, fervent prayer, and serious but joyful corporate worship that our forefathers have passed on to us, as we seek new ways of reaching a lost world with the good news of the gospel, and as we spur one another on toward love and good deeds.

O Splendor of God’s glory bright, from light eternal bringing light,
O Light of light, light’s living Spring, true Day, all days illumining:

Come very Sun of heaven’s love, in lasting radiance from above,
And pour the Holy Spirit’s ray on all we think or do today.

And now to you our pray’rs ascend, O Father glorious without end:
We plead with Sovereign Grace for pow’r to conquer in temptation’s hour.

Confirm our will to do the right, and keep our heart’s from envy’s blight;
Let faith her eager fires renew, and hate the false and love the true.

O joyful be the passing day with thoughts as pure as morning’s ray,
With faith like noontide shining bright, our soul’s unshadowed by the night.

Dawn’s glory gilds the earth and skies, let him, our perfect Morn, arise,
The Word in God the Father one, the Father imaged in the Son.

[1] R.C. Sproul, The Truths We Confess: A Systemic Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Sanford, FL:  Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019: 66.

[2] From the Athanasian Creed

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Sunday, February 16

“When you do the best you can do, from the purest motives, and your Lord accepts your service, do not expect that your brethren will approve all your actions.  If you do, you will be greatly disappointed.”

-Charles Haddon Spurgeon

I’ve grown to observe that there are things in God’s creation and providence that seem consistent, but lack explanation.  For example, the command to sing praises.  It seems strange that the Lord would ask us to do a thing that is so awkward, uncomfortable, and not necessarily natural to most of us.  The act of singing is humbling.  But the Lord doesn’t necessarily intend for most of us to do this alone or as a soloist, but among brothers and sisters in an act of worship.  Nonetheless, the Lord doesn’t explain to us why we should do it.  We leave that to higher authorities, like bloggers, journalists, and academics (yes, that’s sarcasm).

In a similar way, the act of worship, true worship, implies a self-forgetfulness in the act of worship.  Scripture doesn’t say this specifically, but we know it to be true that self-consciousness is a hindrance to worship.  I’d venture to say that not one of us has ever worshipped in a manner in which our minds weren’t distracted or truly self-forgetful, though hopefully we’ve all experienced being caught up in moments of such worship. 

In Matthew 26: 6–13, we see this holy self-forgetfulness, as well as Spurgeon’s quote, fleshed out in the well-known scene of Christ’s anointing.  You’ll remember that a woman, identified in John’s gospel as Mary, sister of Martha, approaches Jesus with an “alabaster flask of very expensive ointment.” In John’s Gospel, the pure nard is estimated to be worth 300 denarii, about a year’s wages.  The estimate to our modern American currency is about $55,000.  Could you imagine paying this much money for a diamond for your wife, or a car, or renovating a single room in your home? 

Well, now it cuts a little closer to home, because when it comes to those things which benefit us or our loved ones personally, there’s almost nothing that we are not willing to do or spend if we are able to do so.

Where our money goes reflects where our heart is.  Mary’s heart was perfectly clear.  She put her money where her heart was, and it was given in an extravagant act of worship.  But that was just like Mary, willing to have her sibling chastise her for putting faith that “cometh by hearing” ahead of the good work of hospitality.  Here, too, she is willing to receive rebuke from brothers and sisters in Christ for an expensive, extravagant act of worship.  Mary was, as the hymn goes, all for Jesus.

We rarely examine ourselves to the degree that we should.  We often assume upon the righteousness of Christ, because as modern Evangelicals, we really do think that we are worthy of being saved.  No matter how often we confess Christ and Christ alone, we still tend to believe there is something in us that is worthy of Christ’s sacrifice.  And so, when we come to worship, we apply the same assumptions to our worship and our offerings.  We assume that our offerings to the Lord are pleasing to him.  We think that the Lord is simply pleased in our showing up and going through the motions of worship.

But what Mary’s worship does is leave us without excuse.  She sat at the feet of Christ and fed on his words, she suffered shame for Christ, and she gave all she had for Christ.  Her motivations and worship were about as perfect as any offered in Scripture.  So why did the disciples rebuke her?  Well, the answer is that they didn’t realize how precious worship actually was, nor did they realize how precious their time in the Lord’s presence was.

Mark Ross puts it succinctly and poignantly in his commentary on the gospel of Matthew.  Dr. Ross writes: 

Matthew shows that even the disciples are uncomprehending of the woman’s gift, and themselves join the protest against its ‘waste’. But Jesus welcomes the gift, commends the woman, and promises that she will have enduring fame for it.  Then once again, Jesus points his disciples toward the cross which is now before him.  How little did they understand how precious were the moments they now shared with Jesus.  If they had, they would have counted the woman’s anointing as far too little tribute, not too much.

Our time of worship is, indeed, precious, but is it costly?  The two are related.  When worship is valued as it ought to be, then cost is not a concern, whether it be time, money, or sweat and tears.   But even more than that, when we realize that all that we have been given comes from the hand of God, then it should be nothing for us to give it back to him for the purpose of worshiping his holy name.

May the Lord grant us all the faith of Mary.


Sunday, January 26, 2020

In the second chapter of the book of Ezra, we come across that thing that most of us avoid reading or skim over when it appears in our Bible reading plans—a genealogy.

From family genealogies, though, we learn much about our own family history, and the same holds true when we read our covenant genealogy in the book of Ezra.  This particular genealogy highlights a few important principles; first, that the Lord kept a remnant of faithful believers through the Babylonian captivity; second, that he called them by name, as he does you and me; and, finally, that the Lord makes distinctions—in this instance according to specific areas of labor and ministry.  Here we see those professions to include the priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, and temple servants (Ezra 2:70). 

Now, of course, whenever we read a family genealogy or look at pictures that might be included, we want to see who we resemble.  Do I get my physical features or temperament from Uncle Sol or Aunt Brunhilde, etc.?   What I noticed in this genealogy was that the Lord makes specific mention to the singers, the sons of Asaph (Ezra 2:41).  I bring this up for one purpose; namely, that as the people of Israel were returning to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, the Lord thought it important to mention in his word that the musicians would continue to be actively engaged and serve a significant role in the worship of the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem.  This fact carries with it the implication that through the exile, the children of this remnant had been trained in the worship of their fathers.

Bob Kauflin summarizes this beautifully:  “Asaph and his descendants were purposeful and intentional in passing on the practice and understanding of musical worship to future generations. And their focus was unmistakable: “God is good, for His steadfast love endures forever.” They took seriously the command to proclaim that truth to coming generations.”[1]

We live in a day and age in which traditions and customs handed down from our parents are viewed with suspicion, if not flat out disdain.  This is nothing new.  Both the history of Israel in the Old Testament and recent American history can attest to the cyclical nature of this sinful disposition.  Yet, it is hard not to sense that our current climate is especially engulfed by this pervasive, hardened attitude.  And it isn’t just conservative Christians  who are making this observation, but liberal academics are also apparently alarmed by this epidemic.[2]  Yet this tendency to question everything is not just “out there” in the world, but it is “in here” as well.  In Reformed circles, words such as authority and patriarchy are as often considered distasteful and gauche. Some pastors and bloggers (have they become synonymous?) flinch to speak on these matters, despite the fact that the history of our faith is grounded in authority and patriarchy.    When authority is exercised we quickly equivocate and label it authoritarian. When a father exercises authority over his wife and children, he is a draconian patriarch, and when observed traditions are insisted upon by the men whom God has put in authority over us,  we moan of traditionalism.  Gray hair is no longer a crown of glory (Proverbs 16:31) but it is something to roll one’s eyes at.  

Yet, we see in Ezra 2, that the faithful remnant has their eyes fixed on the temple and on resuming the worship of their fathers.  It was their house of worship and their worship that gave this community of believers their identity.[3]  Interestingly, not all were game and so many stayed behind in Babylon. 

In recent years, there has been an interesting trend among the younger adult generation to seek out churches with traditional worship and liturgies.  In a June, 2019 article in Real Clear Religion, Tom Raabe asks the following:  “Is it too much to suggest that the old ways of doing ‘church’ are the better ways? That a worship style that has prospered for many centuries has something theologically substantial, something religiously solid, to offer a generation that finds itself floundering among the flotsam and jetsam of religious ephemera and trendiness?”

One of the most encouraging things I’ve found here at First Presbyterian Church, through numerous conversations I’ve had with some of our college students, is that they attend this church not only because of the faithful teaching and preaching of the word, but because of the music in our worship services.   When I recently pressed the question further with one of our students about our music in worship, he simply said, “It just seems right.”  

We have the opportunity to be a witness by actually embracing the traditions and customs of our fathers. Imagine that!  We are countercultural by honoring and maintaining the traditions and the decisions of our elders, even some who haven’t been alive for many years.   One of the ways in which this is reflected is in how we worship, which predominantly (but not exclusively) includes an organ, a choir of singers (children, youth, adults, sometimes combined) that serve to support congregational singing and help point our wandering affections to Christ. The church has, more or less, been worshiping this way for five hundred years.  This church has been worshiping this way for well over one hundred and fifty years.   Perhaps it is our responsibility as a congregation to be a remnant in Israel that continues to do so, and to do so without apology.    


[1] Bob Kauflin. “The Legacy of Asaph–Learning to sing in the Same Room.”  Worship Matters, September 3, 2009.

[2] See Gerg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.  The Coddling of the American Mind. Penguin Random House:  New York,  2018. 

[3] “Introduction to Ezra” in ESV Study Bible.  Crossway Bible:  Wheaton, IL, 2008, pg. 799.