Psalm 68, 28 May 17

IMG_3012In the ‘bookends’ at beginning and end of this long psalm, the psalmist calls for the great kingdoms of the earth, their flags proudly flying in the national capitals of the world, to recognise the divine supremacy of ‘the rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens’ and invites us to lift songs of thanks and praise. Between these bookends of praise for divine power and ubiquity comes a recitation of providence and caring for people over the centuries:

Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in a holy habitation. God gives the desolate a home to live in, and leads out the prisoners to prosperity. (vv. 5 and 6)

Such verses are followed by others emphasising care for the needy, homeless and destitute. (v.10)  As Jesus, that quintessential observer of human nature observed, regrettably the poor are always with us. (Mark 14:7) So how does a government, or political or religious group that aspires to govern, honour that call and at the same time deny the homeless, refugee and persecuted; withdraw education and basic rights of freedom to women and girls; or weaken the social safety-net and leave these things to market forces? As discussed in Psalm 2, 119 and others, the aim is to recognise and rule by ethical standards outlined in ‘theWord’. An outcome is suggested in the final verse:

Ascribe power to God … who gives power to the people. (vv. 34-5)

Music

An easy option is a cantor singing the verses to a tone, answered by a people’s refrain:Ps68 Antiphon Tune 1Jun14

Sing to God O kingdoms of the earth, sing to God who rides the ancient skies above. (vv 32-33)

The tune is a simple ascending and descending major scale that may be sung as a round against a simple repetitive harmonic pattern. The congregation sings two parts, part 2 starting at bar 2, while children can repeat just the first phrase in a simpler and more easily learned part.

As usual, there are good alternatives in the other sources, such as PFAS 68B, which is repeated from Everett’s TEP with a tone added for chanted verses.

 

Psalm 66, 21 May 17

This psalm is a cry of joy for divine guidance and deliverance.

Come and hear, you who fear our maker, as I tell how God rescued my soul. I cried to God and was answered; God’s praise is ever on my lips (vv. 8, 9)

The psalmist feels that he has been pulled through the briar bush backwards, expressing that experience somewhat more elegantly as being ‘tried as silver is tried’, rescued, refined. In another image we have encountered previously, he feels downtrodden and ‘went through fire and water‘ (v. 12) – two of the elemental foundations of our existence as seen by Aristotle. After that ordeal, God led him to ‘a spacious place’. This is an enticing phrase – we relish somehow the idea of entering a spacious place. Architects live and breathe this idea, not because they are architects but because people feel comfortable and open in such a space. Other translations say ‘a place of refreshment’.

And for an off-the-wall take on Psalm 66 from Australian theologian Ben Myers in his #psalmtweet summaries of the Bible:

The water lifted itself up in a heap and gave a bow, and all Your people marched across on dry land.

Music

Music to suit this poem could be from a thousand angles. One source suggests songs as widely spread and as loosely related as ‘O little town of Bethlehem‘ and ‘All hail the power‘. Many sources of sung responses for this week’s psalm refer to the idea appearing especially in the last lines of the Lectionary selection verse 12, that of restoration after trials:

We went through fire and water; but you brought us out into a spacious place (NRSV) – or ‘a place of refreshment’ (Everett)

The first half of the psalm is in the form of a communal thanksgiving, while the second half moves to a more personal note. The full psalm is too long for us to enjoy fully the value of this juxtaposition. One writer summarises the theme of our psalm for this week as:

Make a joyful noise, God’s brought us through some rough stuff.

In slightly less exuberant tone, if not substance, Psalms for all seasons number 66A antiphon goes like this:

E              D               E
 Cry out to God in joy all the earth
 Give glory to the name of the Lord

Simplicity has its own power, and this is manifested in this response by overlaying a simple tune over alternating chords. The tune for the verses expands on this slightly.

FIRE_01

Far more cogently, Isaac Everett as usual in The Emergent Psalter has fresh ideas. He firstly invites us to sing one of his characteristically syncopated swings about the fire and water experience – an attractive option. Then another off-the-wall idea with Buffy the vampire slayer’s Walk through the fire.  (Tempting: but innovation and recency appeal more that its emphasis on burning.)

Psalm 31, 14 May 17

Palms at Percy IsThis psalm, combining many common themes of supplication, distress, trust and courage in diversity, appeared in the Lectionary just last month. It was discussed in a post for Palm Sunday, a summary of which follows.

This is a rich psalm, combining feelings of confidence and security together with a sense of danger, sorrow and dismay. Enduring all opposition, David recognises the need for some assistance from the ‘tower of strength’ and the ‘God of truth’ (vv.4, 5) Then in verse 5 we find words quoted by the dying Jesus: “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” accounting for this reading in Holy Week and Easter.

As always the choice of music depends on a leader’s chosen theme. Thus:

  • If resignation of the spirit to divine power and care along the lines of verse 5 is preferred, the refrain from The Emergent Psalter would suit. It swings along quite nicely but has a definite air of lamentation about it. The psalm itself mixes that feeling with strong lines of petition and trust.
  • NCH has two refrains, the first emphasising the rock and fortress of faith, and the second asking for heavenly grace: “Let your face shine upon your servant.”
  • Celebrating hope and help in time of trouble is a favourite, the two-part antiphonal setting in Psalms for all seasons 31C by AnnaMae Meyer Bush and Kathleen Hart Brumm. This beautiful and thoughtful response is strong on melody, harmony and meaning, picking up a rather mysterious but powerful promise in verse 15: “My times are in your hands.” That’s only one of four good statements of belief rolled into this antiphon, which continues: “… You strengthen me in strife. My hope is in your word. Your love preserves my life.” This nicely harmonised response follows an easy, descending path of similar phrases. Easily learned, nice to sing. Verses may be sung to a similar chord progression. The main tune is quite a high setting but there is a second lower part acting as an echo voice which adds an excellent dynamic and antiphonal element.

Psalm 16, 23 Apr 17

Like the twenty-third, this is a psalm of trust and protection in divine presence, the source of goodness and guidance. David describes God as his portion and cup, evoking familiar imagery in themes that connect well with daily life. Less familiar but interesting are some other phrases that might easily pass unnoticed in a quick reading.

First, in verse 6: “The boundary lines have fallen for me in (or enclose) pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.” Most of us in the developed world can rejoice in having been dealt good cards — a well-favoured estate, physical and otherwise, as inherited by the psalmist. We seldom think of our situation as defined by boundary lines, but limits are implicit in our inherited circumstances. What we do with them is up to us.

Secondly, in the next verse, we find a point of contact with many meditative and mindfulness observances practised in many cultures around the world: it is by listening reflectively to our own hearts that we may often find divine guidance. There are several other ideas floating around; for example the apostle Peter quoted the later verses of the psalm in Acts 2, declaring that David was foretelling Christ and the resurrection. David concludes the song by affirming: “You show me the path of life. … there are pleasures for evermore.

Music

Of the four settings in Psalms for All Seasons, three follow our preferred format of a refrain with sung verses. All of these three emphasise the theme of refuge and protection:

  • 16B has a slightly longer refrain and verses set to a lively tune
  • 16C introduces a simple refrain by Christian Strover (© 1973) with an equally simple but effective chord line of Gm-EbΔ-Dm7-Gm.
  • 16D uses the same refrain as 16C but verses are sung to a tone.
  • 16D Alt (a new tune which departs from the protection theme, and might therefore have been better listed separately as 16E) also follows that familiar pattern of verses sung to a simple tone, with a refrain quoting verse 9. This could be sung as call and response if desired:

Cantor: My heart is glad and my spirit rejoices
People: My body shall rest in hope.

The Emergent Psalter also uses this verse 9 quoted above in an easy refrain; find your own verse treatment as usual in this source. The New Century refrain, this time by Carolyn Jennings, quotes the final phrase: “In your right hand are pleasures for evermore.” A home-grown setting by the author also uses these closing phrases.

There are a couple of songs in the ether that are highly suitable for male voices. A good example is Benedicam Domino (Psalmus 15) by Orlando di Lasso (1532 – 1594). It’s only a verse or two, and that in Latin, but very enticing.

 

Psalm 31, Palm Sunday, 9 Apr 17

Palms in the KimberleyThe Lectionary readings for Holy Week and Easter include this psalm. You may have noticed that there are two psalms listed for Palm Sunday, the liturgies of the palms and that of the passion.

This psalm combines many common themes of supplication, distress, trust and courage in diversity. It is a rich psalm, combining feelings of confidence and security together with a sense of danger, sorrow and dismay in which the divine refuge and blessing are earnestly sought and highly valued: “I have taken refuge (v.1) … incline your ear to me (v.2) … be my strong rock (v.3)”. Reading the text, you would almost think that this is another of those penitential psalms. What net, we wonder, has been set for David this time? Intrigue, hatred and jealousy amongst competitors or unbelievers, or just common old greed and selfishness? Enduring all this cunning, he recognises the need for some assistance from the ‘tower of strength’ and the ‘God of truth’ (vv.4, 5) Then in verse 5 we find words that the dying Jesus quoted:

Into your hands I commend my spirit

As always, the choice of music depends on a leader’s chosen theme.

  • If resignation of the spirit to divine power and care along the lines of verse 5 is preferred, the refrain from The Emergent Psalter would suit. It swings along quite nicely but has a definite air of lamentation about it. The psalm itself mixes that feeling with strong lines of petition and trust.
  • NCH has two refrains, the first emphasising the rock and fortress of faith, and the second asking for heavenly grace: “Let your face shine upon your servant.”
  • Finally (and quite refuting ‘the-theme-is-the-main-thing’ line) the best wine kept till last: celebrating hope and help in time of trouble, the two-part antiphonal setting in Psalms for all seasons 31C by AnnaMae Meyer Bush and Kathleen Hart Brumm is a favourite. This beautiful and thoughtful response is strong on melody, harmony and meaning, picking up a rather mysterious but powerful promise in verse 15: “My times are in your hands.” That’s only one of four good statements of belief rolled into this antiphon, which continues: “… You strengthen me in strife. My hope is in your word. Your love preserves my life.” This nicely harmonised response follows an easy, descending path of similar phrases. Easily learned, nice to sing. Verses may be sung to a similar chord progression. The main tune is quite a high setting but there is a second lower part acting as an echo voice which adds an excellent dynamic and antiphonal element.

Psalm 32, 5 March 2017

Psalm 32 is one of the psalms of penitence (the second after Ps. 6; this theme takes up the first half of the song), but also of refuge — “You are my hiding-place” (vv. 6 -7). Then it changes direction, breaks into other riffs of guidance or wisdom (8-9) and finally thanksgiving. Of the seven traditional penitentials, David in this song is particularly conscious of personal failings, confession and forgiveness. A tweet by Ben Myers summarising the psalms captured it cleverly with a positive twist:

Psalm 32: When I finally got the courage to confess my sins, I discovered You weren’t even listening. You were singing to me. #psalmtweets

A woman’s touch

Ideas herein other than penitence are worth consideration. Never far from the psalmists’ pens are thoughts of refuge, wisdom and guidance. Sometimes, refuge is presented as a shelter from violent conflict. Here, David says: “You are my hiding place; you preserve me from trouble”, (verse 7) then goes on to relish divine guidance, (8) and understanding. (9) More often in the highways and byways, relief from hunger, poverty, oppression and homelessness are far more relevant. There’s no vector in this psalm to point us directly to International Women’s Day which will be celebrated about the time this psalm arises in the Lectionary. However, women have often been primary agents for refuge and guidance to the young, penitents and destitute over the centuries.

Beguinale, Brussels

The psalms give little prominence to women. However they do recognise images of God as feminine spirit and creator, as well as ideas of mothering or midwife (22:9, 113:9, 127), the prophetic (68:11) and other female influences. This includes the provision of shelter and care (22:9-10) as beautifully seen in the ancient Beguinale women’s order and their houses of refuge and faith in older European cities. Psalm 131 sounds as though its author may well have been a woman. Her experience of the divine is described as relating directly to a mother rather than father, affirming the mother’s strong and beautiful role in nurturing confident, content and independent children.

On the other hand, the psalms omit some courageous women when equivalent male prophets are mentioned by name (Miriam in Ps. 99). Pity, but perhaps this just reflects the pattern of other records and writings in those early cultures when men wrote the poetry, policy and history. This is no reason to discount this ancient poetry. An inclusive linguistic, contextual and poetic interpretation —  and recalling the esteem with which Jesus regarded women as recorded in John’s gospel — helps balance and fill in the gaps for modern sensibilities.

Music

Modern sources (other than TiS, whose setting in No 20 can not be recommended for its hymn format and dated language and style) recognise that ‘Penitential’ is just a label obscuring many more varied ideas which, while not overtly feminist, support themes of strength, nurturing, guidance and shelter:

  • Psalms for All Seasons suggests You are my hiding place, which many more demonstrative groups will enjoy.
  • The guidance thread in verse 8 emerges in The Emergent Psalter, a very memorable and lilting Isaac Everett antiphon that will easily conjure up a mother’s watchful coaching: “Show me which way to go, counsel me with your eye upon me.” Everett has the chords slipping easily from minor to relative major sequences and back again in a short space.
  • NCH, commended for its broadly inclusive approach, offers a simple antiphon from a woman’s pen (Emma Lou Diemer, 1994) that emphasises surrounding love.

If a few good sight-readers are available, two short trios are worth a look:

Ps32Lassus

  • Orlando di LassoDixi confitebor, verse 5 only; starts simply but becomes more complex; an excerpt is shown in the illustration. Readers may recall that Lassus wrote a famous and much more ambitious set of Penitential Psalms, including this one.
  • Thomas Tomkins, Blessed is he, verses 1 and 2.

Note for SWUC: no sung psalm as we enjoy a Shaker song, ‘Simple gifts’.

Psalm 2, 26 Feb17

Psalm 2 complements the first psalm as a joint introduction to the Psalter with the assurance that the divine Spirit, with inevitably associated moral and behavioural constructs inferred from the Torah, is supreme above temporal rulers of the world. While this theme has ancient roots in the stories of creation and the establishment of the tribes of Israel, it also has a very modern message, as:

… nations conspire and people plot in vain; the rulers of the earth set themselves and leaders take counsel together … ‘Let us break their yoke, let us cast their cords from us’. (v.1-3)

Rulers then and now conspire to throw off the ‘bonds’ or ‘yoke’ of benevolence, truth and justice. There is a lot to be said for separation of church and state, especially given human tendencies to bend religious dogma for selfish purposes, power or control. That is not the same as governments ignoring or running counter to ethics and values recognised by humanists, Christianity and most major religions of the world. Does it matter that leaders base decisions and policies on ‘alternative facts’, declare history false, or ignore the law? Of course it does. Words have consequences, sometimes quite unpredicted and unintended. People without power suffer.

The nations, 1698. Image: Wikimedia commons

The nations, 1698. Image: Wikimedia commons

Maps drawn by the great navigators of the seventeenth century show how spheres of influence and fiefdoms spread around the world. Planted flags and place names reveal just a little of the manoeuvring and politics of exploration and possession, sometimes in the name of God, sometimes in that of nationalism, empire or commerce. Today, rulers change or ignore constitutions to gain or stay in power, use or abuse the church according to their ends, and take little heed of any moral compass. The psalm is a good reminder to dictators and democracies alike.

In amongst the sheep going astray, feeding of the flock and the hallelujahs of The Messiah by George Frederic Händel (1685 to 1759, a contemporary of J S Bach), behold this psalm text turns up in full force. Handel inserted some of this rage into his oratorio in a bass solo air Why do the nations? (quoting v.1), and the furious chorus Let us break their bonds asunder (v. 3). This latter is one of the show-stoppers, sometimes omitted since it’s not an easy sing when taken at full gallop.

Such atmospherics are nevertheless appropriate for Transfiguration Sunday, for which this psalm is scheduled. But Händel’s great music is not a likely choice for a light Sunday morning antiphon. Fortunately, much easier responses are to be found in modern sources (although there is no setting in TiS).

  • PFAS 2D is a simple tune. Two refrain text are provided. The first (“You are my son …”) is only relevant when associated with the Transfiguration. The alternative general text (“The Lord is King, with trembling bow in worship”) is a good admonition for wayward leaders, but may engage neither the average listener nor singer.
  • However, PFAS also recognises the turbulence and danger of the situation and provides both a ‘Dramatised reading‘ (2B) and a ‘Liturgy for Responsible Exercise of Authority‘ (2E). This latter title sounds a rather cumbersome but there’s no doubting it’s right on theme.A light burden
  • Another in The New Century Hymnal by Carolyn Jennings has much milder but more comforting words from the final phrase (v. 12) which refers us back in full circle to the beginning in Psalm 1: “Happy are all who take refuge in God”, whose bonds, according to Matthew 11: 30 and another chorus in The Messiah, are anything but onerous: “My yolk is easy and my burden is light.”
  • Everett’s singable refrain in TEP notes that the rulers of the world have set themselves against God.

Note: The alternative Lectionary reading is Psalm 99. For commentary on this song, please review the post on 7 Feb 2016.