February 02, 2012

calvin worship symposium 2012 reflections

Last week, I participated in the Calvin Worship Symposium in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  This year's topic was "When Life Is Prayer: The Psalms," and coincided with the release of a new Psalter entitled Psalms For All Seasons, intended for congregations to read, chant, pray, and sing the Psalms throughout the life of the church.

I have been aware of the annual conference for quite a while now through friends and mentors who regularly participate, but this was my first opportunity to make the trip.  I wasn't quite sure what to expect, flying to Michigan in the dead of winter.  Turns out, winter has been kind to the region so far, and allowed for easy traveling for the nearly 1800 participants from 30 countries.  The conference stretched over three days—Jan 26-28—with plenary talks, seminars, workshops, and many opportunities to worship in song, prayer, and sermon.

For Thursday's all-day seminar, I participated in "Tune My Heart To Sing Your Praise: The Re-tuned Hymn (and Psalm!) Movement in the Context of the Broader Culture," which brought together a panel of speakers that included Kevin Twit, Sandra McCracken, Isaac Wardell, and Bruce Benedict—hymn retuners in the States—as well as Eelco Vos, a retuner of the Genevan Psalter from the Netherlands.  The session was opened with an introduction by James K. Smith on the "Young, Restless, and Reformed," and why they hymns renewal movement taps into this spirit.  After that, Greg Scheer—Calvin music prof—led the seminar, having each member of the panel share their background in the movement, what inspires them to work with the hymn texts that they choose, and ask about the direction the movement seems to be headed.  As each speaker shared their experiences, we all sang together a song that they had written.  It was quite moving for me to hear many songs that I have been familiar with for the past decade be sung by a new yet enthusiastic set of voices; at one moment I found myself fighting back tears while attempting to sing "Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul" with the group.  Overall, I think it was a good introduction to the movement for people not familiar with it, as well as helpful critique from people on the outside looking in concerning the forward trajectory of the movement.

On Friday, I heard NT Wright on "Praying the Psalms: Personal, Pastoral, Theological, and Liturgical Reflections."  Thought provoking, though so rich that it was hard to digest in one hearing, not to mention that his English accent practically set my ears in a trance.

That afternoon, I attended two workshops.  The first was called "Singing Old Genevan Psalms in Very New Ways," led by Eelco Vos and the Psalms Project from the Netherlands (see above), a project which was born out of a desire to reach the youth in churches where Psalm singing was dying out.  They discussed the process of their project to rework many of the best melodies from the original Genevan Psalter from the 16th century.  It was a fascinating exercise in analyzing the original melodies for their positive and negative elements in regards to congregational singing today, and then retranslating them for 21st century singing.

The second workshop that I attended was "Does Worship Keep Your Understanding Of God Too Small? Insights From Ancient Constantinople About the Transcendent in Worship," led by Lester Ruth and Carrie Steenwyk.  It was a fascinating analysis of the worship space of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the 6th century, seeking to learn from the positive and negative results of their worship practices and how it can shape and critique our worship today.  This was a presentation of material that is going into the second volume of six that the Calvin Institute on Worship is publishing on historic worship.  The first is on worship in 4th century Jerusalem, which I am looking forward to reading this spring.  (the next day I got to have lunch with Lester Ruth, who is president of the Charles Wesley Socity. very interesting conversation at the table about Wesley's hymns and the current hymns renewal)

That night I participated in the "Psalms For All Seasons: A Festival Of Singing," in celebration of the publishing of the new Psalter.  Musicians from around the world led us through old and new settings of the Psalms.  Bruce Benedict (see above) played his version of Psalm 120, and had me and a couple other friends back him on the only truly folk rendition of the evening.  Check out a video of the entire concert here, or fast-forward to the 38:00 mark to hear our song.  And no, I haven't taken up glockenspiel as my primary instrument, yet.

Saturday morning, I heard another great plenary talk, this time from Walter Bruggemann on "Performing a Counter World: the Alternative Reality Offered by the Psalms for the Worlds We Inhabit," having a similar experience to the Friday plenary, minus the English accent.

I had a to catch a flight that afternoon, so I had to miss the other workshops and the closing worship service.

To sum up, this was a rich and renewing experience for me.  I got to hear a lot of great and challenging ideas, to sing with upwards of 900 people at some sessions, and to fellowship with old friends and get to know some new ones.  Oh, and I got a chance to sample the local antiquarian books and breweries.

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