Wendell Kimbrough on Singing Creation Psalms

A regular discipline of writing psalm refrains helped one musician notice psalms in which creation and God’s people call each other to worship the Creator.

Wendell Kimbrough is the worship arts director and artist-in-residence at Church of the Apostles in Fairhope, Alabama. He also shares his music with other churches and groups. In this edited conversation, he talks about psalm refrains and creation themes.

When and why did you start writing new psalm refrains for your congregation to sing together?  

A pastor at my church asked me to begin writing musical refrains based on the psalms we read each week in worship. The purpose was to help the congregation sing, meditate on and remember the Psalms better I began doing this in spring 2014, partway through Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary cycle. That lectionary skips several psalms. My church is part of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), and in Advent 2016, the ACNA switched to its own lectionary. So now we’re doing some different psalms. I’ve composed about 90 psalm-based refrains so far.

How do you compose and introduce these new refrains?

The Psalms have incredible energy and emotional range. Writing psalm-based refrains helps me bring in honest lyrics about emotions and themes that churches often don’t include. I start by meditating on and playing with a psalm. A few days later I return to and revise the words of the refrain. Good music forms us as we sing together, so the text of each refrain must be faithful to the psalm. I try to write accessible, engaging melodies that are easy to sing and remember. I hope my music helps us live out the story of scripture.

When a refrain seems to resonate strongly with the congregation, I often circle back and develop it into a larger song. Sometimes it becomes a verse or chorus. There’s a lot to be said and sung about in scripture. So far, journeying in the Psalms has been great. But I’m staying open to where the Lord is leading me regarding which parts of scripture to base new songs on.

How would you describe the musical style of your psalm-based songs?

People have described my style as “simple but not simplistic” music that’s “at home in both traditional and contemporary contexts.” I draw most often on American folk and gospel music. If a song I’ve created seems a bit simple to me, then it’s probably about right for singing with a congregation. I try to add harmonies that appeal to more skilled musicians.

What have you noticed about how often the Psalms talk about God’s creation?

It’s pretty frequent. You can’t get very far in the Psalms without noticing the reverence, awe and delight in God’s creation. Psalm 8 is a good example: “When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place…” I’ve written several short psalm refrains celebrating the glory and beauty of God’s creation.

Psalm 19 really struck me. The Psalmist wrote a section on creation, a section on law and a section on himself. He says that creation is already singing God’s praise, and the law magnifies God’s glory. It’s as if the physical creation is modeling worship for us.

So my Psalm 19 refrain sums up this creation-law-people sequence like this:

“As the sun goes out with joy, ever to sing your praise;
As your Word so rich and true all of your beauty proclaims,
So may my every thought and word, all that I am and hope to be
Lift up a song of endless praise, O Lord!
Lift up a song of endless praise, O Lord!”

What other psalm-based music have you written about creation?

The insight I mentioned from Psalm 19, that creation calls us to sing God’s praise, is also the theme of my Psalm 104 song, “Rejoice in All Your Works.” Its chorus says:

“Oh rejoice in all your works,
King of Heaven, King of Earth!
Every creature you have made declares your praise.
We rejoice in all you’ve made,
God of all-sustaining grace!
With the mountain, sky, and sea, we sing your praise!”

Psalms 19 and 104 are like mirror images of Psalm 148, where we call creation to sing. You can see this in St. Francis of Assisi’s song “All Creatures of Our God and King.”

In what ways have these creation psalms moved you to love and preserve what God made?

I love God’s creation. I wouldn’t put myself forward as someone who is the most articulate about creation care. But my hope is that, in singing about the glory of creation, people will be moved to love the good that God has made. And from that love, they’ll be moved to act in ways that protect and heighten its beauty. 

The risk when discussing social issues in worship songs is that they can quickly feel “teachy” or pedantic, which, to me, saps their power. As soon as a song feels like it’s angling for a clear “moral of the story,” it stops doing the thing it’s primarily tasked with doing—moving you. It switches from the right brain and the emotional realm to the left brain and the analytical. You don’t find the psalmist singing, “Oh, stop your carbon emissions!”

Your church describes itself as “an Anglican church in a retreat setting restoring all people to unity with God, each other and all creation.” Why?

Our church has a history of re-purposing and reusing. We like to say that we don’t throw anything away here. Our sanctuary and offices were built largely with reclaimed wood, doors and beams from a building we used on a different property in our early days as a church plant. Our children’s ministry does Godly Play, which uses primarily durable goods—hand carved wood figures, sand boxes and so on—to bring the biblical stories to life.

Our campus here is like an outdoor retreat center. We’re not far from the highway, but we’re in the middle of the woods, down a dirt road. You feel here like you’re at a summer camp. Our congregation includes a horticulturalist and landscaper who keep the grounds pretty.

How does the “all creation” part of that restoration come through in your church worship?

We don’t necessarily talk about creation care in our Sunday worship that often, but it’s been part of our leadership’s vision ever since the church started. Every Ash Wednesday, our litany includes, “For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us, accept our repentance, Lord.” My pastors point to a few places in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer that come up in our worship from time to time, such as:

  • For the good earth which God has given us, and for the wisdom and will to conserve it, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy (p. 384).
  • For a blessing upon all human labor, and for the right use of the riches of creation, that the world may be freed from poverty, famine, and disaster, we pray to you, O Lord (p. 390).
  • Prayers for the Natural Order (p. 827)
    † For Knowledge of God’s Creation: Almighty and everlasting God, you made the universe with all its marvelous order, its atoms, worlds, and galaxies, and the infinite complexity of living creatures: Grant that, as we probe the mysteries of your creation, we may come to know you more truly, and more surely fulfill our role in your eternal purpose; in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
    † For the Conservation of Natural Resources: Almighty God, in giving us dominion over things on earth, you made us fellow workers in your creation: Give us wisdom and reverence so to use the resources of nature, that no one may suffer from our abuse of them, and that generations yet to come may continue to praise you for your bounty; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

LEARN MORE

Watch a short video about Wendell Kimbrough’s psalm refrain project. Buy his album Psalms We Sing Together. Kimbrough recommends Evangelical Environmental Network for pro-life voters who want to protect God’s gifts of land, water, air and skies.

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