A Reflection on Modern Psalms

I was a teenager when I first heard it, a song released several years earlier. As Depeche Mode’s “Somebody” spun off of the cassette tape to my ears that first time, all I could do was sit there, still, with a lump in my throat. Rewind. Repeat. Rewind. Repeat. It resonated with my angst-filled heart. It was my song.

I’ve had other songs do this over the years. As a songwriter, part of the wonder and privilege of the craft is that special something about words set to music, which meets our deepest longings and gives voice to our most profound feelings. Not just any words, but those born out of raw, human experience, out of our most intimate vulnerabilities or personal pain. Words – lyrics – that become universal songs that connect us, open us, and heal us.

It’s not surprising that the Psalms, sacred poems meant to be sung, are so often the “go to” when it comes to heart-matters, especially in our search for authentic expressions in worship. In them we find longing, grief, doubt, anger, comfort, celebration… the wide range of the emotions we all experience. In them we find permission to shout, to ask “why” and “how long,” to grieve and despair. The Psalms are, in fact, filled with complaints, but set in the overall context of hope in God’s love and care for us – what God has done in the past, is doing presently, and will do in the future. The Psalms provide a safe space to say how we feel, whatever that is, because of God’s ultimate character of love and grace.

The term “Modern Psalm” is an interesting one. I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable using the term psalm outside of a biblical context. Equating a non-biblical lyric with scripture doesn’t quite sit right with me. However, the Psalms have provided a blue print for corporate (sung) worship as it has evolved over the centuries. Every generation has set biblical Psalms to melodies relevant to their culture, and the Psalms have also inspired new lyrics; the same, universal sentiments are expressed, but in a contemporary way.

This has been so effective at times that some have difficulty letting go of “their songs” to make way for the songs of a new generation. Once music connects with the heart, it’s hard to let it go! I have seen this be true in church cultural and denominational contexts as well, where it is believed by a congregation (or a segment thereof) that “their way” of worshipping is “The Way.” It can be quite damaging, actually. So, I think we need to be very cautious in labelling the songs we use for worship as modern psalms. As inspired, as sacred, and as important to us as a new song might be, it isn’t scripture, and we do well to hold music in church with a humble and gracious hand.

All this said, if we use the term loosely, here are some personal thoughts about what kinds of songs might be considered modern psalms in contemporary worship.

Firstly, a modern psalm is musically and lyrically crafted to relate to today’s culture (or to a church congregation’s aesthetic culture), but remains rooted in the ancient and eternal truth of God’s word.

Because we are exploring a term that relates closely to scripture, being that music accesses the most vulnerable parts of ourselves and that our emotions are easily influenced by music, it’s essential, in my view, that “sacred” music has theological integrity. If we challenge anything about songs in and for the Christian community, let it be that.

Secondly, a modern psalm is inclusive and invites participation. It may express a heart-cry born out of an individual experience, but in a way that is universally understood, and can engage a congregation or audience. Because the intention of a psalm is for the lyric to be sung, practical considerations like song form and the “singability” of the melody are very important. Even simply choosing the right key can make all of the difference as to whether or not a song becomes anyone else’s. There is nothing quite like a congregation unified around a song – what an amazing sound! Conversely, nothing frustrates corporate worship quite like the music leader who is too precious about their “aesthetic,” more focused on doing their song, their way, than they are interested in whether or not anyone else is actually singing along.

Thirdly, a modern psalm can be an intimate prayer and deeply personal, but should ultimately focus the attention on God and not on self. It seems to me that the reason why people, believers and non-believers alike, look to the Psalms, is that they offer hope, whatever the circumstances in an unfailing, unchanging God. Even laments, of which, in my opinion, there need to be more written for congregations, are an opportunity to cry out to God, who is faithful, compassionate, and merciful.

Finally, a modern psalm reflects God’s heart for justice. All throughout the Psalms (and elsewhere in the Bible), it is clear that this is God’s heart. As Psalm 82:3–4 asks God to “Defend the weak and the fatherless;uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy;deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (NIV), so might our modern psalms do the same. “The Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy” (Psalm 140:12, NIV), thus positive action toward a just world should characterize followers of Jesus. It follows that if “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1, NIV), we who “sing” our love for God should love and care for God’s creation – people, animals, planet.

What God has done for any one of us is meant to be for all. It’s not enough to have an intimate and emotional time of worship through music in church and not respond with lives that are attentive to God’s heart. How might we worship leaders and songwriters create a musical context – modern psalms – to keep this pursuit “front of mind”? May all who offer music for the Church contribute songs that inspire authentic worship, invite participation, declare God’s word and character, and encourage us to live how Jesus would have us live in the world.

Singer/songwriter Jaylene Johnson has released four studio albums, the most recent being Potter & Clay, produced by Signpost Music in Winnipeg. Her work has earned two Juno nominations, three Western Canadian Music Awards nominations, and several Covenant and International Songwriting Competition awards. Jaylene lives in Winnipeg with her wonderful husband and two miracle toddlers. For more information, please visit www.jaylenejohnson.com.

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