Monday, August 5, 2013

How to Write a Personal Psalm (Obeying 1 Cor 14:26-33)

The Art and Discipline of Writing Psalms:

Writing a personal psalm is what  St. Paul commands and expects from members of his churches.  We see this multiple times in his Epistles. Nowhere more clearly that in 1 Cor 14:26-33  where Paul places psalms as part of the ongoing prophetic, exhorting and teaching ministry that Christians are mandated give to one another.
What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.  If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret;  but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment.  But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted;  and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets;  for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. (NASB)
This is repeated in Ephesians 5:18-20
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father;
And again in Coll. 3:16
Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
These passages seem strange to us. They are certainly not executed in church services or even in most home fellowship groups. The pattern of church service since the 3rd Century has ignored what Paul mandated. The norm has been to "do church" with a liturgy and order of worship that imitated the Jewish synagogue service plus Holy Communion - the universal pattern for Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches. In modern Evangelical Protestantism the communion service is included only periodically. But in every tradition in Christendom the priest or minister is the center of revelation and teaching, not the lay person as mandated by Paul.

My friend, Dr. Jon Ruthven, of Regent University, has just published a book carefully documenting how in both the Old and New Testament the Believer, not just the religious elites, is encouraged to proclaim and share the revelations and inspirations they have received from God. Paul's epistles are the highpoint of this Bible-wide trend. (Jon Ruthven, What's Wrong with Protestant Theology (Tulsa: Word and Spirit Press, 2013) available HERE.

In a manuscript that is currently bouncing back and forth between my editor and me, I discuss why Paul's injunctions were  ignored and forgotten. Principally, because Paul's writings were not universally accepted as scripture for several centuries, by which time the liturgy and church service were firmly in place, and a "momentum of churchadoxy" overruled adjusting the liturgies as they had been developed.

In an earlier blog posting I suggested that since the rise of Pentecostalism and its recovery of the word gifts of the Spirit, we can at least understand what Paul was talking about in 1 Cor. 12 to 14.  HERE. With this recovered understanding we can begin to obey what the Holy Spirit through him mandated as a core church service.

In that blog I also suggested that  we don't have to give up the traditional church service which we are so used to, but merely make way for greater revelatory participation of the lay people in the service, as in prophetic words, tongues and interpretations, etc. For instance, many Christians traditions have a section for the "prayers of the people," or some such period, which could be expanded to include all that Paul encouraged.
This blog will focus on one aspect of this lay participation, psalm writing, which is just one way in which the believer is supposed to bring revelation, edification and teaching to the brethren. 
In our age, when poetry is no longer at the center of our education, nor even a major part of it, Paul's mandate that Believers should write psalms seems almost bizarre. Not so in in New Testament times. In Antiquity, especially in the Gentile world where Paul established his churches, poetry was at the center of education. In that world Homer's Odyssey and Iliad were given a veneration close to what we would give scripture. All of which is to say personal poetic writing was a not a rare activity to the people Paul wrote to.

Yet somehow the Church as a whole did not take the hint. There is no evidence that the early liturgies allowed for a layperson to participate, as in, "I believe the Holy Spirit has given me this Psalm...."  Similarly, when monasticism arose in the Egyptian desert the monks' prayers gravitated to the biblical psalms, and became quickly the core of their prayer life. That continues to this day wherever monasticism thrives. But there is no evidence that there was any cultivation of new psalm writing. Again, Paul's mandate was ignored.

The Reformation brought a great burst in creative and new psalms by way of Luther's hymns, many of which continue to bless our hymn singing. Some mistakenly believe this was a "first" in Christendom - new hymns to be sung in the public service in the language of the people (i.e. not Latin), but actually the Moravians had been doing that even earlier than Luther.

So this is closer to what Paul wanted, but still limited to the clergy.  (I don't know much about Moravian hymn writing, as for instance, was anyone permitted to compose and introduce a hymn?) The Anglican Church of the English Reformation was especially slow on new hymn writing,  Instead it insisted that the only hymns permitted in church services were to be English translations of the biblical Psalms.  Even in the 18th Century much of the clergy criticized the new Wesleyan hymns as presumptuous and unbiblical!

But ultimately, it was the contributions of the Wesley brothers, especially Charles, which made original hymn writing respectable, But note, even though new hymns could be introduced, the process was clergy driven and controlled, with very careful attention to doctrine, etc. For instance, John Wesley was careful to edit the hymns of his more talented brother Charles for any doctrinal errors before they were released for the Methodists. Note how much care and fuss is involved every time a denomination changes or upgrades it hymnal. And there is in fact good reason to be careful. No church wants to publicly sing heretical lyrics that are printed and distributed by the millions.

So was Paul na├»ve in allowing everyone in his churches to contribute?  I suppose a diehard cessationist would say personal psalms, and prophecy, tongues, etc., were only for the New Testament churches.  This is not acceptable to us in the Renewalist churches (Pentecostal/charismatic/ New Wave, etc.). We interpret  Paul's letters as eternally and universally valid.

But this also raises a serious issue. What if Ms. Sussy Doe, a new convert, wants to sing a new psalm she just wrote:

God's love is so great
His arms embrace us all
It matters not to Him
Who we love and how.
Just put in all your love and passion
And the Lord will make it well.

Oh oh, something is wrong. Go back to the well screened hymnal and forget Paul?  Actually Paul provides the answer to this problem, and to the problem of erroneous prophetic utterances, in I Cor. 14:29. "Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment." Presumably, the "others" are the more mature and biblically informed members of the congregation. Paul does not stop lay revelation because of the threat of error and spiritual immaturity, rather, he emplaces a barrier of discernment that the congregation will know and respect.

Which brings us back to the point I made in the earlier blog I mentioned. If we are going to attempt to do church as mandated by Paul, then the minister or priest in charge will have to be quipped with the gift of discernment (and tact). As in, "Thank you Ms. Doe, that is a great first attempt, but God does make boundaries about certain types of love. But thank you."

In the months that I experimented in "doing church" as Paul, I allowed a particular psalm or song to be preformed one time, and if orthodox and useful as prayer, I would say something like, "OK, we can all say amen to Jack's psalm."  Or, "Hey, that was so good, do it again as we all go to an attitude of prayer and pray it."

All of which is to say there are ways for the layperson to share his/her attempts to hear from the Lord, and be obedient to the best pattern of the New Testament, without damaging the core doctrines and discipline of the Church.

Hints on Psalm writing:

There is no better way of getting started in writing personal psalms than - getting started. It is not rocket science. There is no such thing as a bad first attempt. Many of you are parents and remember how proud you were when your three year old brought his/her first crayon drawing of a duck - though it looked more like a dead roach. So too, we have a heavenly Father who would be delighted in our first attempts at psalm writing, no matter how awkward.

In the Biblical psalms God has provided us with a pattern that makes new psalms easy. They do not depend on talent in rhyming. Rather just say something twice in slightly ways. It is easy. Psalm 37 demonstrates the point well:

Do not fret because of evildoers,
Be not envious toward wrongdoers.
For they will wither quickly like the grass
And fade like the green herb.
Trust in the Lord and do good;
Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the Lord;
And He will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord,
Trust also in Him, and He will do it.
 He will bring forth your righteousness as the light
And your judgment as the noonday.
Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him;
Do not fret because of him who prospers in his way,
Because of the man who carries out wicked schemes.
Cease from anger and forsake wrath;
Do not fret; it leads only to evildoing.
 For evildoers will be cut off,
But those who wait for the Lord, they will inherit the land.
Yet a little while and the wicked man will be no more;
And you will look carefully for his place and he will not be there.
But the humble will inherit the land
And will delight themselves in abundant prosperity.

It helps to pick a topic that represents your passion or compassion. I believe that the Lord places in our hearts various and varied prayer concerns. Mine is for the conversion of the Islamic peoples, and I find that writing psalms on that topic natural to me. For instance, I have written several on occasions of particularly bloody acts of terrorism. In fact, these incidents are disgusting to many moderate Muslims, and I believe the Holy Spirit is using them to bring further conversions. Here is one I wrote recently:

Let the Pakistanis connect the dots

Mayhem in Pakistan, as the demons rejoice.
Death and carnage for the evil ones to celebrate.

One day a girl’s collage is attacked.
The next a funeral procession is bombed.
Bodies lie everywhere, of those who did no wrong.
The innocent are slaughtered without remorse.
Assassinated as they sought an education,
And killed as they grieved those who were murdered.

The Demons dance in jubilation,
And celebrate every act of devastation,
As the Kingdom of the Dark One is expanded
And his reign on earth grows day by day.

But Let the Spirit of the most high God bring this to an end.
By his power, and for that name above all names,
Let the people of Pakistan begin to wonder about Islam
And consider if the Koran is indeed the word of God.

Let them think: “Why do Muslims kill each other?
Why do the followers of Islam murder the innocent?”
Let the Holy Spirit guide them in there musings
And clarify their thoughts as they wonder and grieve.

Let them think unthinkable thoughts
And meditate about the unimaginable.
“Perhaps the crucified one is really the son of God?
The one who said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Perhaps His Kingdom can bring us peace and joy.”

Send visions to the sons and daughters of Pakistan,
And increasing numbers of dreams from heaven.
Let them see the Son of God in his glory and acclaim,
“You are the one to save us.”

Let the demons be astounded as their kingdom melts away,
One soul at a time… to the millions,
As the Bible is downloaded from the web.
And the Jesus Film played on iPhones and laptops in every home,

Even where the Taliban reign with an iron hand.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.
As the demons stop their dance of jubilation
And end it in in utter consternation.

In writing psalms it is important to note your emotions. Emotions are God given. They energize our sense of good/evil. Of course being ruled by emotions is an entirely different thing. But things that "get under our skin" may be God telling us to turn to prayer - and psalm writing.

I would urge a caveat here. Beware of political emotions and political psalms. Such psalms, as in criticizing "Obamacare" etc., may be fun to write for some persons, but they have no place in a church service. There are sincere Christians on both sides of the political divide.
Writing honestly:

A psalm that is written to impress other will certainly not impress God. It is important to be honest in our psalms and share with God both the good times and the bad. Here is one of my lamentations. I wrote it after my current book manuscript was rejected after a six month process. Another publisher had offered me a contract and then reneged on the contract - something non-Christians publishers do not do!

Psalm of Lamentation

(July 2011)

Lord, I feel abandoned and forlorn
Like your son upon the Cross who cried out
“My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?’
But I trust that what I have labored these years,
And written in care and diligence is pleasing to You.

That from the foundations of the Earth that is the workYou set me to do…
I wrote ******** for help and thus far nothing…
***** has forgotten what I did for the renewal.

Lord I am willing to do the foot-work of proposals

And call upon publishing houses,
But that takes time and effort.
Time from the other books you have given me to write

Let your hand now open doers for me

For my plays, and works,
That I might be released to work efficiently, edifying the Church,
Churning out books and plays for your Kingdom.
That those things which you have tasked me may flow
To the glory of your name and expansion of your Kingdom

I praise you Lord and trust you.
Blessed be your name!

Do a personal Psalm book:

I like to go all out for things. I have found psalm writing such a comfort that I made a special three hole binder for them. I gave the binder the biblically sounding title, "The Psalms of William, Son of George." I believe my dad George as well as my heavenly Father  both look down from heaven and are pleased with this.

Further Resources:

These are two really great web sources on writing psalms:

Blog "My song in the Night" by Bobby and Kristen Gilles, HERE
On taking a leap and singing a psalm : HERE

Share your psalms on this blog.


This is an article from the New Yorker on how the Terrorists of ISIS use psalms to encourage each other and evangelize for their cause. Satan well knows the power of a psalm! HERE

Christians need to do better!


The noted Pentecostal scholar Dr. Jon Ruthven wrote a very positive review of my book, Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal. You can access it HERE.

The book may be purchased on Amazon, either print or inexpensive Kindle HERE   The publisher, Wipf and Stock will give you a better price on the print copy if you order direct from them HERE

Just released is my first book of  plays. Pentecostal (and Anglican) Plays (and Postscripts). It includes two plays and their postscripts.

The play, “One Day at St. John’s” depicts what everyday life can be like in a church that practices the gifts of the Spirit and the healing/exorcism ministry as normal. Among the events that occur in the course of the play are the healing of a waitress who was scalded with hot coffee, an exorcism (led by a layman) and the “laying of a ghost” to rest.

Pentecostal (and Anglican) Plays (and Postscripts) can be purchased HERE at Amazon.

The second play, “Joseph ben Jacob,” explores Joseph, husband of Mary, as the dream interpreter, master carpenter, and father of Mary’s other children. It helps explain why Joseph was able to discern correctly his dream about Mary’s first-born.

The postscripts examine the controversial aspects of the plays and focus on two false early gospels which distorted the meaning of the true Gospels. The “Proto-Gospel of James” claimed that Mary was “every virgin” and never had other children, and the “Gospel of Nicodemus” cancelled the true meaning of Jesus’ “descent into Hell” and his ministry there as described in 1 Peter 3 & 4

Watching God Work: The Stuff of Miracles by [DeArteaga, Carolyn Koontz]

My wife has written a funny and inspiring story of how she transited from a cessionist and Baptist to a Spirit-filled Believer. The book has many stories of our three decades of ministry together.  It may be purchased HERE.