Psalms Unite the Calvin Community
The sounds and rhythms of Sankofa bring Psalm 2 to life on Saturday night. Their presentation was just the beginning of eight and a half hours of jazz-beat readings, Anglican chants and liturgical dancing.
This wasn’t going to be an eight-hour experiment in how far we could get in the grey Psalter hymnal. Instead, a year of planning made the Psalm Festival a marathon- spectacular featuring everyone from your Genevan Psalm-chanting grandfather to your seminarian sister and eight-year-old cousin.
Saturday evening’s Psalm Festival managed to gather the generations together almost effortlessly, drawing snowy-haired seniors who otherwise might have been getting to bed early to prepare for Sunday morning worship, as well as students who could have been out on the town enjoying their responsible freedom. Somehow the timeliness of the Psalms and the variety of their expression created an environment enviable by spiritual communities split down the “traditional service”/ “contemporary service” line.
Festival attendee Marge Kuiper was surprised by the number of students present at the event.
“I think it’s wonderful that the young people are interested in this. I thought it would be all old people!” she said.
A similar remark was made by a Calvin student who was happy to see older people at the Psalm Festival: “It’s great to see the old people with their heads nodding to the [Psalm 39] rap.”
Certainly part of what created the spirit of agreement amongst people from quite different generations was the festival’s emphasis on worship through the Psalms. Young people in their busy lives as college students have just as much need to center their hearts and minds on God as do older people.
“It wasn’t the express purpose of the Psalm Festival to get students out of their bubble,” said worship apprentice and senior Daniel Coleman, “but it was one of the many great things that happened when we gathered together to worship the Lord. When you come together with the spirit of worship, then barriers are broken down.”
Coleman went on to say, “There was a lot of universal appeal in the way the Psalms were presented.” This gets at an important element of why such a wide array of people were able to enjoy the event.
Indeed the goal of the festival was to, as planning committee member Emily Brink said, “involve as many groups, as many art forms, as many people from the community as possible.” Dramatic readings, Arabic rhapsodies, woven baskets, U2 songs, jazz beat readings, choral pieces and folk songs did the trick to keep people, if not continuously riveted, at least sensible to a multi-dimensional flood of worship going on around them.
As festival participant and former Calvin staff member Ron Rienstra said, it was quite impossible to remain engaged worshipfully in the service throughout its entire run.
“It’s a good reminder that we are just dipping our toes in the river of something that’s going on constantly.”
People came at 5 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, many not knowing quite what to expect from an event that was advertised to “keep going until we’re finished.” As it turned out, many couldn’t tear themselves away from the chapel before the festival’s end at 1:25 a.m.
“I was going to be here for a half hour and now I’m going to stay for the whole thing,” said Syd Kammenga, Class of ’58, at about 7:45 p.m. with six more hours to go before the triumphant Psalm 150.
Initially, the Psalm Festival was scheduled to take place during the fall semester of 2004, but when the event’s key collaborators began to plan it, it became clear that bringing together more than 400 participants was going to need a bit more time. It was pushed back to the spring of 2005 and then finally slated for the Oct. 15 date. This allowed the planning committee to find all varieties of talent within the Calvin community to bring the Psalms to life.
As the program for the Psalm Festival evolved through the year-long planning process it became clear that collaboration was going to be key. Though the Psalm Festival was Dean of the Chapel Laura Smit’s brainchild, it took help from seminary students and English professors and most of Calvin’s singing groups to help pull it off. In many ways this modeled one of the themes in the Psalms noted in the program for the festival: the movement from individual to community.
In her written introduction to the Psalm Festival, Elizabeth Holmlund commented, “By ourselves, we are vulnerable and easily overwhelmed by the trials and enemies of life. But when we stand together to pursue the common goal of faithfulness, we keep each other strong in the conviction that, circumstances be what they may, God is our refuge and strength, the ever-present Help in trouble.”
There were moments during the festival when the weight of the Psalmist’s words may have seemed almost too much for a person to bear. When communications Professor Michael Paige did a dramatic reading of Psalm 89 in a darkened chapel, it was hard to imagine how the community could make the transition from lamentation to the almost light-hearted “I Will Sing of the Mercies of the Lord Forever” of Psalm 90. But with a grace that surfaced often throughout the event, everyone moved naturally from despair to communal rejoicing.
For Laura Smit, coming together as a community for something like the Psalm Festival is really just a time when we are learning how to pray.
“When we know the Psalms, we have the language we need for prayer,” she said. The richness and diversity of the Psalms gives us permission to bring before God whatever we are feeling and experiencing. The Psalms help us to put even our most painful experiences into a context of prayer that, ultimately, ends in praise.”
It isn’t a bad time to be joining in with the historical church and praying the Psalms together. As Hunger Week comes to a close and we are reminded of all that needs fixing in the world, it’s a comfort to know that young and old from the Calvin community are able to come together and experience the heights and depths of the Psalms together.
Rienstra was encouraged by the spirit of agreement among the Psalm Festival participants and attendees.
“The older people didn’t grumble when they heard the Psalms presented in a contemporary style, and the young people didn’t grumble when they heard the Genevan Psalm singers. We really modeled something healthy for the church,” he said.
This kind of unity amidst diversity as we prayed through the Psalms together is significant. It is exactly what will take us out of our comfortable seats in the chapel and into the dark places of the earth where mourning has not yet been turned to dancing.