In 2019, I started a series called Piano Miniatures. I had planned to write 14 short pieces, each with a corresponding meter (i.e. #7 would be in 7/8 time). I finished four of them, and ever since, a lonely sketch for #5 has been languishing in my draft folder until this week.
This new piano miniature is in 5/4 meter and has some harmonic bite to it, so you’d expect it to sound harsh or complicated. Instead, it is a dreamy musical vignette reminiscent of Debussy’s “Reverie.” And though it’s lacking Debussy’s musical genius, I’m still quite fond of it.
By the way, this piece marks a musical milestone: It’s the first piece I’ve typeset in the Dorico notation program. After using Finale for almost 30 years, I think it may be time to jump ship. Dorico is a promising newcomer and I’m committing to learning it. If you notice a substantial improvement (or downgrade) in the look of my scores, let me know. (‘Cause I know you all care a lot about that…)
Tammy Moody wrote a lovely text about trusting God to be a good father rather than a vengeful or cruel one. She and I have discussed the fact that using the image of God as Father is quite out of fashion in some circles. There are good reasons: Some people have had horrible experiences with their earthly fathers that cause barriers to them approaching God as Father; also, we should be exploring the full range of images and titles the Bible uses for God. I like how Tammy approaches it, though. She recognizes God as Father, while also acknowledging the fear and doubt many of us have in believing we’re children, accepted and loved by a good Heavenly Father.
I composed a simple pentatonic melody to support the words–almost a lullaby. There are echoes of “Here Is Love, Vast as the Ocean” (the tune Tammy had in mind when she wrote the text), but with a more sweeping melodic arch that allows the second half of the song greater emotion. The first two times the apex of the melody asks the unanswered question, “Dare I come to you?” and the third time it declares tentatively, “I will come.”
1. Dare I come to you as Father, when by shame I am consumed? Through the spotless Lamb’s atonement dare I come by blessed wounds?
Dare I come to you, as Father when my faith has taken wing? I’ve no gifts of gold or silver. Doubts are all I have to bring.
2. Though your child, your dear, beloved, and with you I’m not alone, still, my fears arise, O Father, born on tears before your throne.
Dare I come to you, as Father when my faith has taken wing? I’ve no gifts of gold or silver. Doubts are all I have to bring.
3. Tell me, once again, O Father how my soul you’ll ne’er dis-own; How in Christ I am forgiven, saved by works, not of my own.
I will come to you, my Father, though by shame I am consumed. Through the spotless Lamb’s atonement, I will come by bless-ed wounds.
It seems that Dave and I grew up in similar church contexts, where easy answers were dished out with as much relish as jello salad at a Sunday potluck. Unfortunately, those easy answers overlooked the subtleties of real life, used the Bible to confirm preexisting beliefs, and required complete agreement to stay in the club.
Dave’s hymn “Ask the Complicated Questions” assumes that God is big enough to handle our questions, doubts, and disagreements. That’s a breath of fresh air.
Because the song deals with the uncertainty of seeking truth in a sometimes perplexing world, I chose an understated melody that moves in many different directions and never quite comes to rest. It’s this lack of resolution that urges Dave’s words forward.
As I was writing this song, and again as I was recording it, I was reminded of T Bone Burnett’s quirky classic, “Madison Avenue.” I’ve included it below.
1. Ask the complicated questions, do not fear to be found out; for our God makes strong our weakness, forging faith in fires of doubt.
2. Seek the disconcerting answers, follow where the Spirit blows; test competing truths for wisdom, for in tension new life grows.
3. Knock on doors of new ideas, test assumptions long grown stale; for Christ calls from shores of wonder, daring us to try and fail.
4. For in struggle we discover truth both simple and profound; in the knocking, asking, seeking, we are opened, answered, found.
I met Dave Bjorlin at a Hymn Society conference in 2018 in a late-night chat among HS night owls. “Good guy,” I thought. What I didn’t know is that he’s an excellent hymn text author. GIA recently published a collection of his texts, Protest of Praise. It’s full of fresh hymns that address modern injustices.
Dave asked me if I’d consider writing some tunes for texts in the collection. How could I say no? I began with “Build a Longer Table.” This poke-in-the-eye of a hymn is aimed at Christians who want to exclude “those people.” Dave shows that God’s incredible welcome to us through Christ requires us to show hospitality to others.
It was originally paired with the tune NOËL NOUVELET (“Sing We Now of Christmas”). I decided it needed something bolder and more of a proclamation. My tune is an exuberant Gospel groove that declares the text with strength and joy.
1. Build a longer table, not a higher wall, feeding those who hunger, making room for all. Feasting together, stranger turns to friend, Christ breaks walls to pieces; false divisions end.
2. Build a safer refuge, not a larger jail; where the weak find shelter, mercy will not fail. For any place where justice is denied, Christ will breach the jail wall, freeing all inside.
3. Build a broader doorway, not a longer fence. Love protects all people, sparing no expense. When we embrace compassion more than fear, Christ tears down our fences: all are welcome here.
4. When we lived as exiles, refugees abroad, Christ became our doorway to the reign of God. So must our tables welcome those who roam. None can be excluded; all must find a home.
The biblical Songs of Ascents, and my Pilgrim Psalms song series, conclude with Psalm 134. It is a fitting conclusion, with the people blessing God and God blessing the people.
I could have written a simple scripture song that rhymed, but I felt that might lock it down too much. Instead, I let the text flow freely, setting the words to a melody that can be sung in canon. (That is, a round.) While this sounds like it betrays my goal of writing 14 songs that are singable without instruments or written music, the result is quite singable. In fact, I would love to try “lining out” this song–the leader sings the melody and the people sing back what they hear–as a two part round.
In the coming weeks, I’ll assemble all 14 Pilgrim Psalms into a playlist and make the leadsheets available at my website.
Bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord. And bless the Lord, those who minister to God throughout the night. And bless the Lord, with the lifting of hands in God’s holy place.
May our God, the creator of the heavens and earth, bless you; May God bless you. May God bless you. Bless you.
Psalm 133 is the quintessential ode to the unity of God’s people. It is short, beginning with a thesis statement (“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”) and fleshed out with two supporting images. Both images, anointing oil and mountain dew, are signs of God’s blessing.
I have set Psalm 133 to music three times in the past, each time with a co-writer. This time I decided to move away from the sweet renditions one normally hears. The fact is that when it comes to the communion of the saints the devil is in the details! Things are not always sweet between God’s people. It takes a lot of work–even fighting–to achieve the kind of unity that Psalm 133 describes. I decided music that was rougher and more muscular would be appropriate for the song’s message.
How good and beautiful when all God’s family lives in precious unity. How good it is.
1. It’s like oil flowing down, it’s like oil flowing down. CHORUS
2. It revives like morning dew, it revives like morning dew. CHORUS
Recording note: The inspiration for my arrangement on this recording was the Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré. Of course, I don’t come anywhere near his prowess. Do yourself a favor and take a listen to the real thing:
Psalm 132 is a Messianic history Psalm. It tells the story of David vowing not to rest until he had built a house in Jerusalem for the ark of the covenant. God, in turn, honors David’s devotion by promising that one of his descendants will forever occupy the throne in Jerusalem. Today we understand this promise to be fulfilled in Jesus.
There are lots of interesting things going on in the Psalm: symmetry between David and God’s oaths, the themes of rest and dwelling place, and the righteousness, justice, and food (!) that comes with the reign of David’s Son.
However, Psalm 132 doesn’t make for particularly good singing!
I chose to tease out the Advent overtones of the Psalm, inviting God to make a dwelling place in our hearts. Then I simply let the Psalm tell its own story, with the full Psalm text chanted verbatim in a new paraphrase made especially for singing.
Dwell in us. Rest in us. Fill us with your love. Give our hearts songs of joy. Son of David, come.
1) O Lord, remember David; remember all his trials. 2-4) Remember how he swore to the Lord, how he vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob: “I will not enter my house; I will not go to bed; I will not go to sleep; I will not close my eyes 5) until I find a house for the Lord— a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob.”
6-7) We learned about it in Ephrathah; we heard the news in the fields of Jaar. Let us go to the house of the Lord; let us worship at the footstool of God. 8) Arise, O Lord, and enter your dwelling place— you and your ark of might. 9) May your priests be clothed in righteousness; may your people sing for joy. CHORUS
10) O Lord, for the sake of your servant David, do not forget your anointed one. 11) For the Lord swore to David, a vow he will not revoke: 12) “One of your own descendants I will place upon your throne. If your children will keep my covenant and follow my commandments, their children will sit on your throne forever.” 13) For the Lord has chosen Zion, God has chosen it as his dwelling place.
14-15) Saying: “This is my resting place forever; I have desired it and here I will remain. I will bless her abundantly; I will satisfy her poor with bread. 16) I will clothe your priests in righteousness and make all her people sing for joy.” CHORUS
17) I will establish the throne of David, a lamp for my anointed one. 18) I will clothe his enemies in shame, but adorn David with a crown. 16) I will clothe your priests in righteousness and make all her people sing for joy.” CHORUS
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.” Surely there is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ words in Psalm 131, which is all about child-like trust. Not only does Psalm 131 portray our faith as childlike trust, but it portrays God as motherly.
In keeping with this mother/child image, I wrote this song as a lullaby. The chorus is a bed of “wait, hope, trust, rest in the Lord.” On top of that rests a simple, quiet melody sung to God.
If you follow this blog attentively (and why wouldn’t you?), you’ll remember that I set Psalm 131 to music previously. It is interesting to compare “Close to Your Heart” with this new song. I’m not sure if the differences reflect a fresh reading of the scripture, a distinct musical context, or a different time of life.
Wait for the Lord. Hope in the Lord. Trust in the Lord. Rest in the Lord.
1. For you know that my heart is not proud, O Lord, and my eyes don’t look down with disdain. I’m not anxious for what is beyond my grasp or I don’t yet understand. I will rest in the Lord.
2. But I quiet my soul and I still my heart, like a child in her mother’s arms. Like a child, I’m content in the here and now and have hope forevermore. I will rest in the Lord.
Psalm 130 ranks as one of the best-known Psalms of confession, second only to Psalm 51. Naturally, there are many great songs based on Psalm 130, including Luther’s “Aus Tiefer Not” and Karl Digerness’ “Out of the Depths.”
My new setting started as a scrap of paper with the words “out of the deep” and four notes: C, F, E, F. I’ve carried around that scrap of paper for 20 years! This week my long-term intention of turning those four words/notes into a setting of Psalm 130 was finally realized.
Like all my Pilgrim Psalms, this new song focuses on simplicity. The call and response format means the leader can “feed” new lines to the people. After singing it a few times it should be pretty easy to remember, even without music or words.
Of course, I can’t leave simple things alone. I soon found myself composing a six-part canon on top of the harmonic structure, played on this recording by the King of Instruments: the melodica.
1. From down in the depths, we cry out to you. Lord, open your ears and listen to our voice.
2. For you know our sins, but we know your grace. Forgive us, O God, in reverence we wait.
3. We wait for the Lord, for God is our hope. We wait for the Lord; we know that dawn will come.
4. We hope in the Lord who saves us from sin. We hope in God’s love to save us once again.
Psalm 129 gives us a scrappy underdog who just happens to have a protective older brother on the wrestling team. (In this case, the scrappy underdog is Israel and the older brother is God.) I don’t know about you, but I just don’t expect to find this sort of fight-the-man screed in scripture. But there it is: “May all who hate Zion (Israel) be turned back in shame… May those who pass by not say, ‘The blessing of the Lord be upon you.'” Ouch.
I decided the best way to express the pent up anger and the down-but-not-out camaraderie of the Psalm was with the music of a full-throated sea chanty. And since my voice is way too velvety for that sort of thing, I enlisted the help of my favorite Viking, Steve Brown. Steve delivers the lead vocal in a way that makes you want to grab your Ulfberht and finally avenge your people of their oppressors. (In the love of the Lord.)
1. Been pushed around since the day we were born, but we won’t stay down forever. Let all God’s people say it once more: oh, we won’t stay down forever.
We won’t stay down. No, we won’t stay down. We won’t stay down forever.
2. Their feet on our necks and they plowed up our backs, but we won’t stay down forever. God broke our chains, we’re free at last! Oh, we won’t stay down forever.
3. So confident of their schemes and their plans, but we won’t stay down forever. but God has saved! They leave empty-handed. Oh, we won’t stay down forever.