Archive for the 'Thoughts' Category

Prelude and Fugue on Psalm 65

Spring has arrived, and here in the northeastern United States we are entering a wonderful season of longer days and long-awaited sunshine. The birds start singing around 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. and don’t stop until sunset or later. There are signs of new life all around, and for a coronavirus-weary world, that brings new sources of hope and energy.

What I’ve just described is a scene I often associate with Psalm 65, which says, “You make the going out of the morning and evening to shout for joy” (v. 8 ESV). Psalm 65 is a song of thanksgiving, praising God as the hearer of prayers (vv. 1-2), the forgiver of sins (vv. 3-4), and the creator and preserver of the world and those who dwell in it (vv. 5-13). From beginning to end, this psalm is a long crescendo. It begins in the first person singular (“When iniquities prevail against me”) but quickly moves to the plural (“you atone for our transgressions”). As he views creation and humanity, the psalmist incorporates the voices of everything around him into an ensemble of praise. All of creation and all of time sing an unbroken song of thanksgiving to the ruler of all.

I’ve tried to capture this spirit of Psalm 65 in a new organ composition on the Genevan tune. Although not a lot of settings from the Genevan Psalter made it into either of them, both the blue Psalter Hymnal and the Trinity Psalter Hymnal include the Genevan version of Psalm 65 (#116, “Forth from Thy courts, Thy sacred dwelling” in the blue Psalter Hymnal and #65B, “Praise waits for you, O God, in Zion” in the Trinity Psalter Hymnal).

In the original Genevan Psalter, the tune of Psalm 65 was also used for Psalm 72, so it’s possible to find organ literature on the same tune identified with either psalm. But I was thinking specifically of Psalm 65 here, particularly because of the imagery of a river. On one hand, there is the constant presence of sin that we carry with us as fallen people in a fallen world. With a bit of poetic liberty, the versification of the blue Psalter Hymnal calls it “a mighty stream of foul transgression.” But this is contrasted with the “river of God” mentioned in verse 9. This river provides the water of life which not only creates and sustains the physical world but also brings new spiritual birth and cleanses from sin.

The river comes into this arrangement of Psalm 65 in the fugue section. After a prelude that includes the complete statement of the chorale in a French overture style, the fugue quickly establishes a pattern of descending eighth notes following from the first phrase of the melody which continues and builds to the end of the piece. I included excerpts of the chorale throughout the fugue section which counterpoint with that initial subject and the pattern of eighth notes. Along the way, to highlight the “crescendo” aspect of the psalm I mentioned before, all the stops of the organ are gradually added (which is clunky work on a mechanical organ without a registrant!), leading to a dramatic final statement of the fugue subject in the pedals and driving into a concluding complete statement of the chorale with full organ.

I might use this as an extended prelude or postlude for a Thanksgiving service or another special occasion of praise. Or I might never use it liturgically–but in either case, it was a worthwhile musical exercise in seeking to capture the “shout of joy” communicated by all creation in praise to God.

–MRK

And Guide Us When Perplexed

Where were you one year ago?

A year ago, I had just landed in Poland and was savoring the thought of a spring semester abroad filled with incredible sights, sounds, and tastes, along with plenty of rhetorical and musical adventures along the way. The Lord had other plans. Instead I spent three months mostly within the four walls of a Polish dormitory room, ordering in Uber Eats, attending classes online, and taking an occasional stroll through the park to restore my sanity. In many ways it was a wonderful time, but also very different than what I imagined. That was a very small burden compared to what so many individuals around the world experienced in the year 2020.

While there is optimism on the horizon and the latest figures seem to suggest that the pandemic is past its peak, the mental and emotional tolls of this past year are far from over. Statistics on suicides, overdoses, and other acts of desperation are grim. The lingering fear of exposure to other people will haunt interpersonal interactions for a long time to come. And there are at least two popular perspectives on a post-coronavirus world that leave me very troubled indeed.

The first is a cheerful kind of fatalism that encourages us to look at our circumstances as the “new normal.” Although this phrase is often meant as a kind reminder that our everyday lives may never look exactly as they did before the pandemic, it has a hollow ring to it–hollow because the “old normal” never existed in the first place. Human life never goes back to “normal” after a crisis; the very nature of history means that our lives are always changing and being changed. Technologies develop and grow obsolete. Nations form and die. Economies flourish and wane. Of course we are moving into a “new normal,” just as the world that emerged after 9/11 or the economic collapse of 2008 or countless other events revealed a “new normal.” To lecture coronavirus-weary souls that life will assume the form of a “new normal” is merely prim and patronizing.

But this phrase is more often used in a specific context to justify certain kinds of policies that came into existence with the pandemic and, behind those policies, to validate certain attitudes and beliefs about human life and relationships. And it is against those attitudes and beliefs that thoughtful Christians must conscientiously and categorically rebel. The rhetoric of the “new normal” is now being leveraged to support a vision of humans as powerless victims of unknown risks and dangers who depend upon constant watchful protection from technological and governmental experts, and thus to encourage the continuation of a culture of fear and suspicion toward other people. Even hinting that these attitudes should continue after the immediate concerns of the pandemic have passed is abhorrent.

Please do not tell me that the government regulating how many persons may attend a church service is the new normal. Please do not tell me that sticking thermometers in my mouth and responding to all kinds of violating health questions on a daily basis are the new normal. Please do not tell me that thinking twice before hugging my grandmother is the new normal. These measures have been temporary and important ways to protect the vulnerable from infection, but they carry their own tremendous cost of dehumanization. The places I care about are more than images on postcards and social media platforms. The work I do is more than staring at a laptop screen in my room from sunup to sundown. The people I love are more than their Zoom profiles. We are real, embodied beings in a real, physical world, made for real human contact with other imagebearers of God. If we cannot bear that amount of riskiness in our everyday dealings with other people, then far more is at stake in our society than the end of the pandemic.

But that leads me into the second line of public discourse: an equally unrealistic fantasy in which the pandemic ultimately disappears, whether through vaccination or through herd immunity or through an act of God, and every human trouble disappears with it. I sometimes wonder whether the coronavirus has become a scapegoat for all kinds of other disappointments and problems that accompany human life. If we could just get past the pandemic, so we tell ourselves, the world would be a rosier place. Perhaps it would. Perhaps it will. And yet there will be other pestilences, other wars, other famines, other disasters. The fact that this particular problem has accumulated the greatest global attention does not grant it the privilege of being the only thing wrong with the world. And so, for all the harrowing figures about emotional suffering during the pandemic, I sometimes worry those figures will only grow when coronavirus is gone and yet all kinds of sin and brokenness remain.

If we are truly to conquer the challenges that coronavirus has posed, we need a frame of mind that enables us to continue working in the midst of a fallen world without losing hope. We need an orientation that both lifts us above the haze of present concerns and also puts ground under our feet for wise living and faithful service. We need an awareness of the “already” and an acknowledgment of the “not yet.” In short, we need the kind of faithful watching and waiting described in Martin Rinkart’s hymn “Now Thank We All Our God.”

Rinkart (1586-1649), according to Hymnary.org, was a minister in Eilenberg, Germany, during the Thirty Years’ War. Faced with famine and pestilence throughout his city, Rinkart was responsible for conducting as many as forty or fifty funeral services per day. Somehow, in the midst of the upheaval of war, want, and disease, Rinkart found the words to write many hymns, including this one. It is not based on a psalm–in fact, it is a paraphrase of a doxology from the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus (50:22-24)–yet it distills the message of so many psalms of thanksgiving. “Now Thank We All Our God” expresses a simple trust in the Lord that perseveres through good times as well as bad.

O may this bounteous God
Through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts
And blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in his grace,
And guide us when perplexed,
And free us from all ills
In this world and the next.

Trinity Psalter Hymnal #181

Personally, I can say that opportunities to play the organ have been such a gift in the midst of the pandemic. It’s a wonderful way to get myself out of my own head and away from my screens, to engage in an intensely tactile and physical activity, and to reflect on timeless truths about God and his world. The Dutch organist Feike Asma (1912-1984) composed a wonderful fantasy on “Now Thank We All Our God.” Although the hymn itself seems to be just as well known in the United States as it is in Europe, Asma’s arrangement has hardly received the publicity it deserves on this side of the Atlantic. I was grateful for the chance to record it on the magnificent Jaeckel organ in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Duquesne University where I study. This is an effervescent, even bombastic, treatment of a robust yet intimately comforting doctrine–the knowledge that it is our God, the Lord of heaven and earth, who has blessed us from our mothers’ arms and still is ours today. May that meditation be your comfort this winter.

–MRK

Psalm 16: Where the Lines Fell to Me

Two reliable signs of a good psalm setting are (1) when it gets picked frequently at church events that include singing and (2) when it makes it into more than one songbook. Both those indicators are certainly present for Don McCrory’s tune for Psalm 16, which originally appeared as 16D in The Book of Psalms for Worship (2009). Since then, this beautiful melody has beecome a standard at church functions across the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and it has also been included as setting 16B in the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (2018), albeit with a slightly different metrical setting.

I ran into Don McCrory while representing Geneva College at the joint synod and general assembly of the United Reformed Churches in North America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 2018. He is a kind gentleman, a member of an OPC in the Grand Rapids area. I took the opportunity to thank him for this tune (STERLING is its name), and his response was humble and earnest: “The Lord gave me that tune, and I’m just thankful it has been a gift to the churches.” Indeed, a gift it has been and continues to be.

Psalm 16 hits home in a number of ways, but a particular way in which it always convicts me is the verse which says, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance” (v. 6). The psalm invites believers to reflect on God’s providence to them over the course of their lives as they look forward to enjoying his presence someday forever.

What’s even more special is that this particular setting of Psalm 16 is itself part of my beautiful inheritance. If I had not attended Geneva, I might never have known this psalm. Now it is a part of my history and identity, and I share that gift with others who went to the same school and had the same melody implanted in their hearts.

I recorded this improvisation on Don McCrory’s tune STERLING in the empty sanctuary of a recently closed Methodist church in Beaver Falls, now the property of Geneva College. The organ hasn’t been tuned in who knows how long, and it’s not a concert instrument–just a humble little church organ with a warm and beautiful sound. Thanksgiving was on my mind. The lines have fallen in pleasant places. The property that the Lord provides is beautiful.

–MRK

Psalm 25: The Paths of the Lord

This month marks nine years (!) since my first attempts as an over-eager teenager to spark some discussions about the Psalms and church music on this blog. The Lord has ordained a series of events that have shaped my life into something much different than I could have imagined nine years ago. And that’s true on a global scale as well; could you have imagined nine years ago that we would be where we are today, politically and socially?

Certainly we are living at some kind of a crossroads in the history of the West, although it is not yet clear exactly what that crossroads may be. Crossroads can be places of great anxiety. In the past existential crises of my little life, I have often turned to the words of Psalm 25 for comfort. I’ve even written about Psalm 25 before on this site. Recently, Psalm 25 popped back into my head, this time through a particularly tranquil setting of the Genevan tune arranged by Dutch organist Willem Hendrik Zwart. Earlier this week I recorded this fantasy on a beautiful new pipe organ in Sayville, not far from the West Sayville URC.

Psalm 25 is a song about the paths of the Lord. Mercifully, it promises that he “instructs sinners in the way” (v. 8 ESV). Past failures and mistakes cannot separate the children of God from loving counsel and admonition in the way of Christ. “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness” (v. 10). Although we look at the world and the church and see great calamities and distress, we also look to a covenant-keeping God who will never change, and because he will never change, we will not be consumed. So the psalm concludes with a prayer of faith: “Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles” (v. 22).

The Trinity Psalter Hymnal includes a Genevan setting of Psalm 25 in its Selection A, “LORD, to You My Soul Is Lifted.” An earlier translation can be found in the blue Psalter Hymnal, number 43. As you listen, reflect on the words of Psalm 25, either from one of these psalters or from the Scriptures, and allow the comfort and wise counsel of the Lord to point the way forward for you into 2021.

–MRK

Psalm 77: Remember!

The final project for my class on the Psalms this past fall was a research paper on the theme of human and divine remembrance in Psalm 77. The paper was long and unwieldy, not particularly suitable for a blog post. But I did want to extract a few of the key themes from my study of Psalm 77, which constitute the thoughts below. Enjoy!

Claus Westermann writes that the Lord’s saving acts always involve a verbal exchange or dialogue between God and man, including “both the cry of man in distress and the response of praise which the saved make to God.” Nowhere is this dialogue more readily apparent in Scripture than in the Book of Psalms. Lament, supplication, confession, intercession, statements of trust, thanksgiving, and praise each weave their way through the songs of the Psalter, molding the hearts of believers to comprehend and follow the gospel pattern of anticipation and fulfillment. In particular, Psalm 77 is a poignant expression of the tension between the promises of God and man’s seemingly hopeless crises.

At least two primary themes within Psalm 77 should be considered: the effect of the psalmist’s questions and the effect of remembering the Lord’s mighty deeds. When the psalmist asks whether God has “forgotten to be gracious” (v. 9), is he speaking out of despair or out of hope? Interpreters differ on this question. Some take the psalmist’s reflection as despairing, concluding that the present looks even more bleak since God’s promises seem to have ended. Others, however, suggest that the psalmist is more incredulous: Surely God has not forgotten; therefore his mercy will surely return. Some even conclude that Psalm 77 leaves these questions to “hang unanswered” so that they can be carefully considered by each individual reader and singer.

Second, what about the “unseen footprints” referenced in v. 19 among the listing of God’s mighty deeds for his people? Almost certainly the event in view is the crossing of the Red Sea as recounted in Exodus 14, a miraculous occasion to which the people of Israel often turned in times of questioning (cf. Pss. 78, 106, 114). Most simply, the metaphor of unseen footprints may suggest the Israelites’ belief that the Lord went through the sea with them, so that his footprints, like theirs, were covered by the waters when they returned to their normal place. Nevertheless, the comment still seems unexpected here, especially since the evident purpose of the historical recollection has been to call attention to the Lord’s very obvious ways of delivering his people (writhing waters, pouring clouds, audible thunder, visible lightning, and palpable earthquakes). The rhetorical effect of the “unseen footprints” is anticlimactic at best, especially when followed by the pastoral image of the people being led like a flock (v. 20).

Kraus notes based on this phrase that “all the creative miracles of Israel’s God bear the mark of concealment,” again a paradoxical remark given the very revealed character of the natural phenomena just described. But he elaborates: “Being near ‘without footprints’—without the visible proofs of his coming—that is God’s way of dealing with his people.” The Lord’s holiness may be displayed through his mighty acts in view of all the nations, as suggested by vv. 14-18, yet it also takes shape in the mysterious “other-ness” which veils him from human view.

But is it possible that v. 19 delves even deeper in its intent? At least three other interpretations are possible. First, this statement provides a ray of hope that the Lord may indeed be working within his people’s present distress as well, albeit with unseen footprints. His provident protection endures through times of affliction, even when it cannot be perceived as such. Second, the phrase may suggest a sinful forgetfulness on the part of God’s people, one which refuses to take note of his footprints even in miraculous occurrences like the crossing of the Red Sea or the providing of manna. Finally, even for the faithful, the description of the Lord’s deeds as “unseen” acknowledges that the perception of his presence originates in a human vantage point. Although Psalm 77 stops far short of explicitly stating this as such, an undercurrent of hope weaves its way through this section of the psalm: Perhaps the problem lies in the singer’s ability to see rather than in God’s ability to act.

In this sense, the activity of remembering is a corrective exercise which tunes the spiritual eyes to glimpse the Lord’s redemptive work more clearly. Remembering and forgetting thus emerge as dichotomous focal points of Psalm 77 which surprise the reader with their rhetorical implications. While the psalm begins with a complaint that God has forgotten his steadfast love, by its end an unexpected reversal has become apparent: perhaps it is not the Lord but the psalmist that has forgotten. Years of affliction and a national culture of unbelief have dimmed the singer’s spiritual eyesight, leaving him uncertain of the form or presence of Yahweh in his dark situation. But by recounting the mighty deeds of the Lord—a story he has only heard rather than seen—the psalmist is able to restore his confidence that the steadfast love displayed in the exodus from Egypt will continue to be displayed, even if subtly and imperceptibly, into the future. Such a conclusion is possible because God’s faculty of remembering is inextricably bound up in his covenant with Abraham—because he is “not a human being, that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19). The psalmist takes comfort: God remembers!

Augustine suggests that the same lack of faith that prevented the Israelites from perceiving God’s footprints through the Red Sea also prevented the disciples from understanding Jesus’ miraculous walking on the water in Matthew 14. At the same time, Christ’s response to Peter’s doubt exhibited above all his immeasurable compassion even toward the forgetful: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:31). How comforting it is to imagine Christ speaking the same words to every sincere but doubting believer who, like the psalmist, questions the continuing validity of God’s promises. If the Psalms are any indication, the Lord in fact encourages his people to cry out to him in lament during times of great distress, pleading for him as the great Shepherd to right all of earth’s wrongs.

The apostle Paul wrote that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). The hope provided by Psalm 77 is that the Lord both knows and lovingly responds to our forgetfulness. What a mercy it is that despite this spiritual amnesia, he gently and lovingly guides us by his Word to places where we can pause and reflect on his steadfast love. In the various situations of human life, forgetting is all too possible. The danger is twofold: forgetting past mercies in light of present affliction, or forgetting past afflictions in light of present mercies. Yet in the dark valleys of life’s path, in the times when we fail to see Christ’s footprints, Psalm 77 remains a gentle and wise guide, teaching us slowly but surely to remember the unfailing love of the Lord, so that when deliverance comes we may be sure to “forget not all his benefits” (Psalm 103:2).

–MRK

For bibliographic references, see the full paper.


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