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Psalms of Ascent: songs for the journey

Immersing themselves in these psalms helped worshipers view their lives as people journeying together on their way home to God.

Counting down at Cape Canaveral or Times Square. Joining a funeral procession. Singing your national anthem in a stadium. Chanting at a rally. Walking seven times around the Kaaba in Mecca.

These experiences make people feel united, whether in joy, sorrow, or purpose. The Psalms of Ascent worked that way for the Israelites who sang them while traveling together to Jerusalem to worship God at the three yearly festivals.

Bruce Benedict wondered what would happen if his church engaged every which way with the Psalms of Ascent. Benedict is director of worship and congregational life at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. What his church discovered can help your congregation craft a scriptural immersion.

Poetry is key

Christ the King Pres focused on Psalms 120-134 for 15 weeks, from autumn through Palm Sunday. Benedict tells a story about Tom Dodd, a church music team member who works as a solid waste engineer. “Tom loved music but always struggled to read and enjoy the psalms. He said he just didn’t get poetry,” Benedict says.

Early in the series, Old Testament professor Scott Redd visited to teach about the Psalms of Ascent. He explained that people in the ancient Near East used poetry to express the most important things in life and culture. Benedict says that seeing poetry as the language for what matters most “became a central paradigm” and explained “a huge disconnect” that today’s Christians often feel when told they should enjoy the psalms.

“Not only are we trying to engage with texts written over 2,000 years ago, but none of us uses poetry to say the most important things in our lives. We use prose, legal documents, or something else. Scott’s teaching gave us permission to fail, to struggle, to all come at the Psalms of Ascents on even ground. In some ways, that’s at the heart of the community pilgrimage undertaken in the texts themselves,” Benedict notes.

He checked in with Dodd from time to time. “Sometimes Tom would tell me that he felt like he had really conquered a psalm. Other weeks he’d shake his head and say, ‘Not this one,’” Benedict says.

Multiple access points

“There’s incredible value in sustained engagement with difficult biblical texts through multiple experiential forms of learning,” Benedict says. That’s why he used the Psalms of Ascent in many parts of worship and geared that use to different learning styles.

Benedict collected songs from psalters, versifications by Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, Sacred Harp versions, and psalm songs by contemporary musicians Brian Doerksen and Brian Moss. He rearranged, wrote, and commissioned new psalm songs to create a well of one to four songs for every Psalm of Ascent.

The gathering music for the first service included “Let Us Go to the House of the Lord,” a Bruce Benedict song based on Psalm 122. The call to worship was a psalm-based litany ending with “our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8). A song of thanksgiving, the responsive reading, the sermon, and the song of response to communion all drew on Psalm 120.

The 15-week series wove psalms into the responsive call to worship; corporate confession of faith; songs of adoration and thanksgiving; communion hymns; and responses to sermons and communion.

Besides reciting, singing, hearing, reading, praying, and studying the psalms, worshipers saw the psalms. Each worship guide cover featured a painting about that week’s psalm. Aaron Collier, a professor of painting at Tulane University in New Orleans, created the images in 2007.

Seeded throughout congregational life

The psalms were written long ago by people living in a time and place very different from ours. Yet they express emotions we all feel, which makes them “helpful for our journey through life,” Benedict says. He posted sermons, text and audio psalm versions, images, devotional suggestions, and study guides so people could prepare for or review psalms that express lament, repentance, praise, and thanksgiving.

Benedict also created downloadable journals so adults and kids could “move beyond an emotional connection and understand who God is in the midst of our emotions.” Adult “Sojournals” had space for sermon notes, community group discussions, and personal insights. Group members shared what they’d found “most challenging, helpful, or troubling” in the sermon on that week’s psalm. Psalm 121 discussion questions asked, “When you are in trouble, where does your physical body, your heart, turn to?” and “Who or what in your life reminds you in a daily sense that your ‘help comes from the Lord’?”

The Psalm 127 page in the children’s journal asked about thoughts or worries before falling asleep. It had space to respond in words or pictures. The suggested prayer affirmed,” God, thank you that you let your people rest. Please help me understand your love for me so I can rest, even in the middle of difficult situations.”

Receiving the Psalms of Ascent in so many forms “really helped unify the congregation,” Benedict says. The congregation is now on a holistic journey through Ephesians—to more deeply experience what it means to be the church.

How Other Churches Use the Psalms of Ascent

Because Bruce Benedict and Christ the King Presbyterian Church generously posted Psalms of Ascent resources online, other churches are using or adapting them. “I believe there needs to be a lot of freedom to craft existing materials for your church’s unique context,” Benedict says. When people ask to use or alter materials, he usually agrees.

“Bruce is very talented. He’s at the center of lots of creative projects. He naturally wants to include other people and then give it as a gift to the church,” says Greg Scheer, minister of worship at Church of the Servant (COS) Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Liturgical year

COS Sunday morning worship includes a psalm, usually sung. “Bruce’s blog gave great overviews that were really helpful to people like me who are always looking for fresh psalm settings. I was impressed to see how tightly he and his pastor worked on the series. That long-term collaboration shows a lot of respect,” Scheer says.

Each lectionary year includes some Psalms of Ascent. Year A, which begins in late November 2010 (and 2013 and 2016), lists Psalm 131 in Epiphany, psalms 121 and 130 in Lent, and psalms 123, 124, and 133 in Ordinary Time.

Even if your church doesn’t strictly (or at all) follow the lectionary, you’ll find Psalms of Ascent useful to prepare worshipers for Easter. “Jesus would have regularly sung the Psalms of Ascent as part of his worship during pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover,” Benedict says. He used that psalm set to create a Holy Week devotional guide and Maundy Thursday service.

Sermon series

John Julien, senior pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, read about Christ the King’s project in a denominational publication. He asked to download the adult and children versions of the devotional, so families could use them at home during his Psalms of Ascent sermon series.

Dave Stuntz, minister of music ministries at Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church in Durham, North Carolina, had several conversations with Benedict about planning a Psalms of Ascent sermon series. Christ the King sang entire psalms. Seeing those musical choices helped Stuntz think through what would work at Blacknall. “I decided to pursue music which connected in thematic ways, as opposed to actual settings,” Stuntz says.

Vann Trapp, senior pastor of Heartland Covenant Church in Springfield, Missouri, found Benedict’s blog while searching for Psalm of Ascents ideas. Trapp says that seeing what Christ the King had done inspired and encouraged Heartland. “We developed our own songs based on the psalms, small video clips on theme words from each psalm, and a storyboard wall that developed artistically over the duration of the series,” he says.

Luke Brodine, music pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church in Silicon Valley, got permission to use Aaron Collier’s “Snare Broken/Psalm 124” image on bulletin covers for a seven-week spiritual renewal series. “I received several comments about how it was a moving image for entering worship and reflecting during the week,” he says.

Learn More

  • Christ the King’s Psalms of Ascent resources and Ephesians resources, along with Bruce Benedict’s Cardiphonia blog, can launch you into a scriptural immersion that fits your worship context.
  • Read by Faith and Raleigh News & Observer articles about Christ the King’s Psalms of Ascent project.
  • Use this reverse lectionary to find when specific Psalms of Ascent will be read.
  • Get ideas from Reformed Worship articles on using psalms in worship.
  • Read and review these books for your church newsletter: A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson and The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship by John D. Witvliet.

Start a Discussion

These questions will get you talking about how to help your church “dwell” or “journey” with the Psalms of Ascent or another set of scriptural texts.

  • What are the pros and cons of integrating a sermon series with the entire worship service and throughout congregational life? Whose buy-in would you need to make this happen?
  • What first steps could you make to more closely collaborate on worship planning?
  • Bruce Benedict says that using the Psalms of Ascent or ancient Christian creeds helps his congregation “connect with the church universal.” Which worship elements help your church do that?