My Days Are in Your Hands

Matt Mulder is preaching from Ecclesiastes 3 this Sunday. Thanks, Matt… Of course, one always thinks of the Byrds’ iconic “Turn! Turn! Turn!” in relation to this scripture passage, but Matt will be teasing out a New Year/Old Year theme: God incarnate as Jesus gives meaning to all of our times–both good and bad.

As I searched for appropriate hymns to follow the sermon, I came across a text by W.F. Lloyd: “My Times Are in Your Hands,” an obvious tip of the hat to Psalm 31:15. I used that as a launching pad for a completely new song on a similar theme. “My Days Are in Your Hands” is a prayer of trust, offering our lives to God in faith, whether our days be dark or bright, long or short.

1. My days are in your hands;
my life is in your care,
and all the things I am or love,
I leave them there.
The things I am or love
I leave them there.

2. My days are in your hands;
in days both dark and bright.
In pleasure or in pain
still you are by my side.
In pleasure or in pain
you’re by my side.

3. My days are in your hands;
why should I doubt or fear?
Your peace, O Christ, surrounds me
both in joy and tears.
Your peace, O Christ,
surrounds in joy and tears.

4. My days are in your hands,
though days be long or short.
I know your care today,
your love forevermore.
I know your care
and love forevermore.

5. My days are in your hands;
your hands once pierced with nails.
Your heart, it knows my pain;
your love will never fail.
O Lord, I know
your love will never fail.

Posted in Church, Congregational Songs | Leave a comment

The Peaceable Kingdom

Lest you think songwriting is a simple, linear process…

This song started its life a few years ago at the Christmas songwriting retreat that produced Refugee King, Jesus Be Enough, and Tiny King. The page of sketches had “Peaceful Revolution” scribbled at the top, a phrase I still like. It remained in my ideas folder until this week when I realized it would fit perfectly in Fuller Ave’s virtual Lessons & Carols service.

“The Peaceable Kingdom,” like the Edward Hicks painting from which I borrowed the song’s title, is a rendering of the famous Isaiah 11:1-9 passage that describes predator and prey playing together, led by a little child. At Christmas, we understand this Child to be Christ, the little child who came into the world to usher in an age of peace. Of course, a quick look around shows that this peace is not yet fully consummated. Indeed, a second theme of Advent is preparing ourselves for the triumphant return of Christ, when the world will truly reflect Isaiah’s vision.

I hear this song as a diminutive sibling to “Peace in the Valley,” a song which I adore and have used with Isaiah 11:1-9 in Lessons & Carols past.

1. From a stump in the forest,
there rises a life-giving shoot
that reaches to heaven–
a branch grown from Jesse’s deep root.

For God’s Spirit will fill him:
the Spirit of wisdom and word,
the Spirit of knowledge and power,
and delight in the fear of the Lord.

2. This One will bring justice
flowing deeper than sound or than sight.
The wicked and righteous,
laid bare before his holy eyes.

On that day earth will tremble
rich and poor will be stunned as they hear
the Word of God banish all malice
as the Kingdom of Heaven draws near.

For the lion will lay with the lamb
and the serpent will surrender its fangs,
and a child will lead all his people by the hand.
There will finally be peace in this land.
O Lord, let this Kingdom begin.

3. O Lord, we are waiting
for the day that this word is fulfilled.
We catch glimpses of glory
but sadness and sin haunts us, still.

Break your light in our darkness
Let your love cast out all fear.
O Lord, come quickly, we’re waiting
until your Kingdom is here.

For the lion will lay with the lamb
and the serpent will surrender its fangs,
and a child will lead all his people by the hand.
There will finally be peace in this land.
O Lord, let this Kingdom begin.

When the Lion of Judah comes again,
the Lamb of God will take away the world’s sin,
and the serpent will surrender to God’s holy reign.
O Lord, let this Kingdom begin.
Come, quickly Lord, amen.

Posted in Church, Congregational Songs, Demos | Leave a comment

Psalm 53: Fools Deny Their God within Them (Carlill)

I returned to Adam Carlill’s excellent Psalms for the Common Era to get his take on the difficult Psalm 53. This Psalm (and its nearly identical twin, Psalm 14) is full of rancor, claiming that foolish humans are godless, corrupt, and warring, and will eventually face God’s wrath, their scattered bones telling the tale of their judgment. Heavy stuff. Adam’s metrical rendering of this Psalm retains its themes but uses language that allows us to enter into it more easily.

I decided to accompany the text with Baroque-flavored music. It’s outside the norm of congregational songs, but I think it’s quite singable. The melody is relatively simple, while the harmonies and bass line scurry around it with all the fury of Psalm 53’s evildoers. I especially like how the final half verse shifts to a major key, letting the accusations and anger of the previous verses give way to a final note of hope.

Sheet music is available here.

Fools deny their God within them,
while they work unrighteous mayhem;
there is no-one virtuous.

Then our God from heaven descended,
and our nature comprehended:
was there thought or thirst for God?

All have gone astray together,
fraudulent in their endeavour,
no-one upright here at all.

Wicked-doers have no knowledge,
as they swallow those in bondage.
They do not proclaim their God.

All the wicked shall be daunted,
and by fear and terror haunted,
shattered bones and empty camps.

You, my God, have scorned the vicious,
and their cruel, vain, ambitious
plans; you have rejected them.

Who will give relief from Zion,
freeing captives from their prison?
May his people all rejoice!

Posted in Church, Congregational Songs, Demos, Hymn tunes, Psalms | Leave a comment

Jesus Cristo, esperança do mundo/Jesus Christ, Hope of the World

This fall, I was commissioned to write an arrangement of the lovely Brazilian milonga, “Jesus Cristo, experança do mundo.” It premiered last night in the second installment of Calvin University’s four-part Lessons and Carols. The whole program was lovely and it was great fun to hear my choral piece elsewhere than in my own head!

Posted in Arrangement, Choir, Church, Commissions, Congregational Songs, Live | Leave a comment

Your Stupid Phone

If you are anything like me, you have a love/hate relationship with your phone. On the one hand, all the knowledge of civilization rests in the palm of your hands. On the other hand, that needy little chunk of technology demands more and more of your attention, leaving precious little for anything else. I fear that many of us–that I–am living my life through a 2×3 inch window that is only somewhat like real life. More and more I find myself wanting to cut the cords of virtuality and lose myself in the tiny details of this beautiful world.

All these musings turned into a song that starts out with a jealous lover and moves to all the joys that an enfleshed existence offers.

On technical note, I used this recording to experiment with the drum set I just moved to my office. I’m very happy about having drums just a few feet away from my desk. My coworkers? Not so much.

1. Your stupid phone doesn’t love you like I do.
Your stupid phone doesn’t love you at all.
No one at all could love you like I do.
No one at all, no one at all.

‘Cause I’m here
and I’m real,
and isn’t that what we all want?
So put down your stupid phone.

2. Do you ever see the beauty around you?
Does the mundane wonder of the world ever put you in awe? [leave you enthralled]
Take notice of the humming life that surrounds you.
Are you ever overwhelmed by the tragic joy of it all?

Pen to paper, clay to wheel.
All I want is something real.

The heat of coffee, the smell of toast,
butter on the tongue; what could matter more?

Sun on skin, feet on the ground,
air in the lungs–these are things that count.

Skin to skin, eye to eye,
breath to breath, life to life.

Pen to paper, clay to wheel.
All I want is something real.

All I want is something real.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Psalm 6: Lord, My God, Do Not Contend (Carlill)

A few weeks ago, a friend recommended Psalms for the Common Era, a collection of 150 Psalm versifications by Adam Carlill. It is a lovely collection that strikes a fine balance between faithfulness to the Hebrew texts and singability for modern congregations.

Of course, the best way to become familiar with a hymn text is to set it to music! I began with Psalm 6, which is one I’ve never set to music before. I wrote a Celtic-style ballad, which feels to me like it’s sturdy enough to contain the harsher elements of the Psalm (“do not castigate and chide,” “Turn away from me my foes” ), but soft enough for phrases like “soothing touch and balm inside.”

I’m sure I’ll be writing more songs using Adam’s texts. In the meantime, visit his website and get the book for yourself!

Sheet music is available here.

Posted in Church, Congregational Songs, Demos, Psalms | Leave a comment

I Will Not Let You Go

Samuel Medley, 1738-1799

What do you do when your pastor decides to preach on Genesis 32:22-31? Sure, the story of Jacob’s late night wrestling match with a stranger (man? angel? God?) is a common Old Testament story, but there simply aren’t a lot of song options for it.

As I scoured my resources for appropriate hymns (using keywords like “wrestle,” “blessing,” and “dislocated hip”) I stumbled across a hymn text written by Samuel Medley, a rarely sung author of dozens of hymns. This little gem encourages us to follow Jacob’s lead, holding onto God with all our might and not letting go until we are named and blessed by God.

Story songs like this always feel to me like they need a folk melody, so I wrote a tune that might fit in among classic American melodies like those found in Southern Harmony. With its AABA form and limited range, it will be easy to learn and remember. Come to Fuller Ave CRC this Sunday (virtually) and find out if I’m right!

1. As Jacob did in days of old, so will my soul do now; 
I’ll wrestle and on Jesus hold, and will not let him go. 
Like Jacob, I am weak and faint, and overwhelmed with woe: 
Lord, hear and pity my complaint, for I won’t let you go. 

2. I come encouraged by your word, that mercy you will show;
except you bless me, dearest Lord, I will not let you go. 
I come to ask forgiveness free, though I have been your foe; 
except you grant it, Lord, to me, I will not let you go. 

3. I come to tell you of my fears and conflicts here below; 
unless your mercy, Lord, appears, I will not let you go. 
And so I’ll wrestle while I live, a pilgrim here below; 
and when in glory I arrive I will not let you go. 

Posted in Church, Congregational Songs, Demos, Retuned hymn | Leave a comment

#5 (piano miniature)

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.

Pianists, I’d love you to give it a try: PDF.

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…)

Posted in Art Music, Demos | Leave a comment

By Blessed Wounds (T.L. Moody)

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.

Posted in Church, Commissions, Congregational Songs, Demos, Hymn tunes | Leave a comment

Ask the Complicated Questions (David Bjorlin)

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.

Text: David Bjorlin, b.1984; © 2018 GIA Publications, Inc.
Posted in Church, Congregational Songs, Demos, Hymn tunes | Leave a comment