Posts Tagged 'Thanksgiving'

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

The Safest Place in the World

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Times Square Ball

Sixty miles from my house is a flagpole with a giant illuminated ball suspended at its top. It looks kind of gaudy, and no one is really sure why it’s there. But we do know that at 11:59 pm it will slowly descend 70 feet until it reaches the ground at the stroke of midnight, ringing in the start of 2016.

Oh, and right now a crowd of about a million people is packed on the streets waiting for this climactic event. That’s a small number compared to the estimated billion people who will watch the event from their TV’s, laptops, and smartphones.

This is one New Year’s tradition, and it’s the one we New Yorkers typically think of first. But there’s a much older January 1 custom: the singing of “Auld Lang Syne.” This beloved Scottish ballad is a call to remembrance, asking, “Should auld [old] acquaintance be forgot,/and never brought to mind?”

Ironically, few people remember “Auld Lang Syne” itself nowadays. In fact, earlier tonight NPR published a blurb lamenting the song’s decline in recent years. Ruth Perry, a professor from MIT, is quoted as saying:

People have to learn to sing together again. I think it’s important. I really do. Because it’s bonding. Because it’s community-making. Because we don’t have enough such glue in our culture. It would be good to revive that which there is. It’s very good for people to feel that they’re part of something bigger than themselves.

I can’t help but mourn the fact that our New Year’s celebrations, as raucous as they may be, seem to be missing this “cultural glue.” We still “celebrate,” but don’t always remember for what—just like we’re “thankful,” but not sure to whom. And celebration is hard in an age of terror; the same news report I referenced earlier also mentioned that security forces in Times Square are in the thousands. Only in the presence of a massive corps of heavily armed policemen can NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio assert that the city tonight is “the safest place in the world.”

DeBlasio may be good at denial, but judging by the international news headlines in the past few days, we’re scared. We’ve been scared for a long time. And scared people don’t sing.

Or do they?

What put the plaintive tones of “Auld Lang Syne” back in my ear was a blog post I read earlier today over at GentleReformation.org. There Reformed Presbyterian minister Nathan Eshelman called my attention to another set of words sung to the same tune: the words of Psalm 77.

Forever will the Lord cast off, show favor never more?
His steadfast love forever cease? His promise come no more?
Has God forgotten all His grace? Has his compassion gone?
Or can it be His mercies all, He has in wrath withdrawn?

If you ask me, I’d say the singer of these words sounds scared, to say the least. He sees terror all around him, and worst of all, he feels God’s absence. Perhaps, he fears, God has forgotten.

That’s a thought that should make us flee Manhattan, turn off the TV, cancel the ball drop—because if God has forgotten, why should we welcome another year? Another year of disease, shootings, famines, earthquakes, fires, terror? Is the “something bigger than ourselves” just one absurd catastrophe? It would be far more fitting to watch the midnight countdown in slack-jawed horror.

But that’s not where the psalmist leaves us. The setting goes on (sing along, if you know the tune):

Then I replied, Such questions show my own infirmity.
The firm right hand of Him Most High through years must changeless be.
The LORD’s deeds I remember will, your works of old recall.
I’ll ponder all which you have done and weigh your wonders all.

God has not forgotten, says the psalmist. And neither should we. God’s right hand—and he who sits at his right hand, Jesus Christ—continue to rule the world unhindered. His promises to his people will be fulfilled. This is guaranteed for the future because it is demonstrated throughout the past. And the hinge point of this divine plan for history is revealed in redemption:

O God most holy is your way; what god is like our God?
O God of miracles, your strength, you have made known abroad.
You have redeemed your people all, the power of your arm shown.
Your people sons of Jacob are, and Joseph is your own.

–from The Book of Psalms for Singing, Psalm 77

For the Christian, then, New Year’s Eve should be an opportunity neither to celebrate in absurdity nor to quail in fear at the terror that surrounds us. For us it should be a milestone, a rest stop at which to check whether our trust and comfort are secure in the Rock that followed them through the wilderness, and that Rock was Christ.

Have you taken refuge in that Savior’s shelter? If so, you are in the safest place in the world. And you can sing.

Happy New Year.

–MRK

By Times_Square_Ball_2010.jpg: Susan Serra, CKD from Long Island, USA derivative work: Sealle [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

November’s Psalm of the Month: 33

The eleventh installment in URC Psalmody’s Introduction to the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal

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The Lord by His word has created the heavens;
By breath of His mouth made the stars come to be.
The depths of the ocean He heaps up together,
And puts in a storehouse the waves of the sea.

Amidst a season of thanksgiving, this rousing new setting of Psalm 33, which the Psalter Hymnal Committees hybridized from the Scottish psalter Sing Psalms and The Book of Psalms for Worship, will reinvigorate you to give thanks for the abundant manifestations of the Lord’s steadfast love.

Even though the tune ASH GROVE does not appear in the blue Psalter Hymnal, it is well-known in connection with the Thanksgiving-time hymn “Let All Things Now Living” (#453 in the gray Psalter Hymnal). Frequent running lines throughout the vocal parts (especially the bass) impart this tune with an extraordinary sense of energy. Sing Psalm 33 at a rousing tempo fitting for its lively expressions of praise.

Suggested stanzas:

  • 11/1: stanzas 1,2
  • 11/8: stanzas 2,3
  • 11/15: stanzas 4,5
  • 11/22: all
  • 11/29: all

Source: stz. 1 adapted from Psalm 33 in Sing Psalms; stz. 2-5 from Psalm 33C in The Book of Psalms for Worship

Tune only: Revised Trinity Hymnal 125

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 33

  • Why praise is fitting for the upright (vv. 1-3), namely:
  • The Lord’s character (vv. 4-5)
  • The Lord’s creation (vv. 6-9)
  • The Lord’s providence (vv. 10-12)
  • The Lord’s omniscience (vv. 13-15)
  • The Lord’s omnipotence (vv. 16-19)
  • The Lord’s steadfast love (vv. 20-22)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 33

As the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ shares all the attributes of God that are praised in this psalm. He is upright, faithful, and just; the Creator of the universe (“All things were made through him,” John 1:3); the King of the nations; and the Savior of his people. He is the ultimate manifestation of the “steadfast love” of the Lord (v. 5), and it is he who delivers our souls from death (v. 19). Even as we currently enjoy the blessings of the salvation Jesus has provided, we also look forward to the day when the desire of v. 8 is fulfilled, when “at the name of Jesus every knee [bows], in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:10). It is superlatively fitting (v. 1) to praise God for the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Applying Psalm 33

  • Who are the righteous (v. 1)? How are they righteous (cf. Heidelberg Catechism LD 23, Q&A 60)?
  • In today’s context, who are the members of the “blessed nation” (v. 12)?
  • Have you ever looked to a “false hope” for salvation, as the psalmist mentions (v. 17)?
  • How does trusting in the Lord make your heart glad (v. 21)?

When the Psalmist says that all our blessedness rests in the fact that the Lord is our God, he points us to the fountain of divine love as the only source that could be desired to make life happy. For God to stoop down to accomplish our salvation, protect us under his wings, provide for our necessities, and help us in all our dangers, hinges entirely on his adoption of us. But lest we should think that these blessings arise from our own efforts and work, David directly teaches us this: only from the fountain of God’s gracious electing love are we counted as the people of God.

—paraphrased from Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 33:12

Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

(A PDF version of this post, formatted as a bulletin insert, is available here.)

October’s Psalm of the Month: 67B

The tenth installment in URC Psalmody’s Introduction to the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal

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O God, show mercy to us,
And bless us with Your grace;
And cause to shine upon us
The brightness of Your face.

Classical music aficionados may quickly recognize the tune of Psalm 67B (THAXTED) as a famous melody from “Jupiter” in Gustav Holst’s 1919 symphonic suite The Planets. But you don’t have to be a lover of classical music to enjoy singing Psalm 67B. Indeed, since its first appearance in the Book of Psalms for Worship in 2009, this reverent setting has become a favorite in its own denomination, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, and beyond.

The choice of tune for Psalm 67B is notable not just historically but also theologically. In Roman mythology, Jupiter was worshiped as the king of the gods and the bringer of jollity. However, as a false god made in man’s image, Jupiter also acted selfishly and capriciously, causing consternation and chaos on the earth. In contrast to pathetic idols, Yahweh, the one true God, is just and true in all his ways (Revelation 15:3). The Lord alone can bring justice and peace through his righteous rule. As you sing Psalm 67, rejoice in God’s unchanging character along with the psalmist: “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth” (Psalm 67:4).

Suggested stanzas: All

Source: Psalm 67C in The Book of Psalms for Worship (text similar to blue Psalter Hymnal #121)

Tune only: Revised Trinity Hymnal 660

Listen to a recording:

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 67

  • Proclaiming God’s gracious salvation (vv. 1,2)
  • Proclaiming God’s guiding justice (v. 4)
  • Proclaiming God’s great provision (vv. 6,7)
  • A missionary refrain (vv. 3, 5, 7)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 67

Psalm 67 brings to mind God’s covenantal promise to Abraham, “[I]n you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Clearly Jesus is the fulfillment of both the Genesis prophecy and this psalm. The Son of God, who was also “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1), has brought salvation to his people and a source of hope to the whole world. This is reason enough for the nations to rejoice—but Psalm 67 still looks forward, too, to the day when every knee in heaven and on earth bows at the name of Jesus and every tongue confesses that he is Lord (Philippians 2:10,11). In Andrew Bonar’s summary, Psalm 67 is “the Prayer of Israel for the blessing which Messiah is to bestow on them, for the sake of earth at large.”

Applying Psalm 67

  • How does God’s way become known on earth (v. 2)?
  • Does God “guide the nations upon earth” today (v. 4)? If so, why do they not rejoice under his rule (cf. Ps. 2)?
  • How can the people of God be sure that he will bless them (v. 6)?

Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

(A PDF version of this post, formatted as a bulletin insert, is available here.)


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