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What Makes Songs So Powerful They Won't Disappear?

What makes some songs so powerful that they never disappear? David and Asaph wrote them. Through the work of many Christians we have them around today.

In 1998, when Beth Lantinga first traveled to Eastern Europe to meet with Hungarian Reformed teachers, she encountered people whose lives and faith made an unforgettable impression.

A man in the Ukraine cheerily explained why his knees ached. "He had spent several years on his knees, picking coal in a mine shaft only a few feet high-as a guest of the Communist regime," Lantinga says.

She met a pastor's widow, "filled with grace and serenity," whose husband had been arrested and had disappeared during the Communist era. And at a teachers' retreat, she listened to a lay leader of the Reformed church—persecuted and denied ordination during the long occupation—who never lost his trust in a good and loving God.

'The Lord has heard my cries'

The people she met had been betrayed by neighbors, ripped from their families, starved, tortured, and imprisoned. Their ancestral lands have been carved and re-carved into present-day Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, and Croatia.

Lantinga wondered why they weren't bitter.

Then the former teacher had what she calls an epiphany. It happened in a village church, where worshippers brought their own Psalters. In the pew ahead of her, one man's voice boomed above the others. "Light flooded his worn face. The words rang out, expressions of anguish and faith as old as the psalms themselves. I wondered about his testimony. What memories had his work-hardened hands recorded?"

Since then she has worshipped with many Reformed congregations that endured unspeakable sorrow.

"Whether led by an uncertain organist or confident foresinger, their singing is strong and sure. While many may have felt abandoned by God or humankind, I've met people whose faith never faltered. The ancient words and tunes of the Genevan Psalter surrounded and uplifted them. Their testimonies should not disappear," she says.

That's why the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship funded her proposal to "translate" the Psalter and Hungarians' stories into something that would "speak to young people in Eastern Europe and North America." In summer 2003, Beth Lantinga and Dr. Linda S. Welker, a Calvin College theatre professor, traveled overseas for a final round of interviews and photo shoots.

Divine Reverberations

Welker's Laboratory Theatre class began the fall 2003 semester with a five-inch stack of interview transcripts, background articles, and book chapters, plus hundreds of photos and hours of audio and video tapes.

They had three months to transform the material into performances scheduled for December and the annual Calvin Symposium on Worship.

As a head writer, Calvin senior Noah Thomas searched for dramatic threads to weave the stories into a powerful experience. "Divine Reverberations is a story of human trial, human faith, and God's faithfulness to his people. We used the Psalms to punctuate and clarify that story," he says.

The play's vignettes plunged each audience into the fear, indecision, compromise, and conviction that flooded Eastern Europe after 1948. Should pastors and families cooperate with the new governments, trusting that God could bring good out of evil? Should they flee? Resist?

"Horkay Dolorosa" revealed how she smuggled a "Grease Bible" when her husband was in a Siberian gulag; she hid Scripture pages among care packages of home-baked biscuits. "Richard Wurmbrand" told how brutal guards forced prisoners to defile the Cross. At their lowest points, alone or together, the Hungarians sang psalms they'd learned as children.

Calvin senior Becky Carpenter played one of several characters who recited these lines:

"The most frequently sung psalms express the feelings of the people: 5, 16, 23. They express like a sigh, a sigh that brings relief to your soul. When you sigh you feel a little relief.

"And when a whole community, a congregation, sings the Psalms, especially the villagers-who did not have such a fine musical education-they sang loudly. And we could feel the windows in the church quaking and trembling. And everyone inside was filled by the Holy Spirit. When you came out, you felt totally changed. And that is what the Psalms mean. It is not only tradition, but nourishment."

Engraved on memories

The play ended with the ensemble and audience singing Psalm 116. "The singers, representing God's kingdom, literally overpower the chaotic, mundane noise of Communism, an earthly kingdom," Thomas says.

In the discussion afterwards, audience members always asked how it felt to be immersed in the survivors' stories and Genevan Psalms. Carpenter said it gave her something she can turn to in the future.

Ryan Hoke was waiting backstage for his last entrance one evening when, he said, "Instead of running my lines in my head, I actually listened. All the girls were onstage singing. I think it was Psalm 125. It was beautiful, powerful-worship in the truest sense. Our singing and acting was a response to God's faithfulness, not only to people who struggled under Communism, but to us as well."

He played the role of Visky Ferenc, sent to Siberia for continuing to pastor. Visky's youngest son, now a playwright and theatre professor in Cluj, Romania, saw Divine Reverberations during the worship symposium.

Visky Andras appreciated seeing his people's stories brought to life. "But I'm a little bit surprised that, here in the Reformed culture of the United States, the Psalms are not so much known. For us they are daily bread," he said.

Learn More

Start a Discussion

  • Spend three minutes writing down titles of songs or hymns that express the heart of your congregation's tradition, theology or mission. Share your answers and record which titles are on all or almost all your lists.
  • What makes these songs matter so much to all of you? Is it their Scriptural relevance, theological bent, emotional appeal, the match between words and notes, ability to shape your actions, association with an event, something else?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to gather church members' views on which songs and hymns have lasting value?

  • Interview senior citizens about the church songs they have loved since childhood.
  • Write stories about favorite songs in your church newsletter.
  • Have a church school class poll different age groups about what gives a song lasting value.
  • Organize a songfest that includes songs from different decades and centuries.
  • Dream up an imaginative way to teach unfamiliar songs to your congregation.
  • Have a sermon, seminar, or church school class on what makes a song both energizing and deep.