Psalm 16: The Refuge of My Soul

Psalm 16 is the next in my Adopt-a-Psalm settings. I took a unique approach on this one. At first glance, it may seem like the song has little to do with the Psalm. It uses none of the “protect me, God” or “path of life” phrases that other settings of this Psalm use. Instead, it goes a layer deeper, into the Psalm’s structure.

Samuel Terrien proposes that Psalm 16 is made up of 6 strophes, with the first three mirroring the last three. In broad strokes, the Psalm begins its focus on things of earth and moves toward heaven. As I meditated on the Psalm it suddenly struck me that it closely follows the span of human life. It is very clear in the last two strophes, which focus on the grave and eternal life. Working your way backward you can see further life milestones: the growth of wisdom (strophe 4) and earthly blessings (strophe 3). The first two strophes are less clear, but with a bit of imagination, I recast the first strophe’s protection and refuge as the womb and the sacrifices to false gods in strophe two as the sins of youth. It’s easier to understand when you see the Psalm and my song side by side as in this PDF.

Once I decided the lyrics would be a life-spanning prayer, I knew I needed a folk melody that could hold all the different emotions. Something with a classic contour and perhaps a Celtic color. The melody came out quickly. I channeled my inner Irish balladeer and wrote a tune reminiscent of “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” John Bell’s “O Lord, Our Lord,” or “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.” In fact, it uses the same hexatonic scale as “Be Thou My Vision.”

Try it out for yourself or just take a listen: PDF, MP3

In the waters of the womb;
In the first breath my lungs drew;
even there I knew
the refuge of my soul.

Please forgive the wasted years
I spent chasing empty dreams
That could never be
The refuge of my soul.

Still, you kept me in your care,
Granted blessings undeserved,
But I treasure most
The refuge of my soul.

As years passed and wisdom grew
My best thoughts were still of you
In the quiet of night
The refuge of my soul.

In the cool air of the tomb
Even there I rest in you.
Still my life, my all,
The refuge of my soul.

And as life begins once more
And I’m filled with joys unknown,
Through eternity
The refuge of my soul.

You will always be
the refuge of my soul.

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Psalm 4, the ridiculous outtake

Things get a little weird when you’re recording with two teenagers. (Okay, and with me.)

Posted in Adopt-a-Psalm, 2017, Church, Congregational Songs, Demos, FAWM 2017, Psalms, Quirky | 2 Comments

How Do We Know What’s Real?

I should participate in FAWM and do an Adopt-a-Psalm program every year. Even though there’s a certain amount of stress involved in writing 14 songs in the shortest month, I find that when I have to write it primes my pump to do more writing.

I was driving home tonight when the phrase, “We’ve all got this disease” drifted into my mind. By the time I was in the door, the first four lines were running through my head. Serendipity would have it that I was humming the melody in Eb minor, the darkest of keys. As my fingers searched to find their way in the uncharted territory of this accidental key, many discoveries were made. An hour later, I had recorded this introspective demo.

We’ve all got this disease
and sometimes it feels
like it’s the only thing
inside me.

Is any of this real?
Is this just a dream–
a series of scenes
and cycles of feelings?

How do we know what’s real?

Posted in Demos, FAWM 2017, Rock and/or Roll | 1 Comment

Philippians 4:7 May the Peace of God

As I was working on Psalm 4, one of the commentaries I read mentioned the connection between Psalm 4’s deep peace amid distress and Philippians 4:7 “May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ, our Lord.” I decided this would make a good musical coda to the Psalm. And here it is: PDF, MP3.


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Psalm 4: I Rest in You

Continuing on my Adopt-a-Psalm journey, we come to Psalm 4. At its core, Psalm 4 is the lament of someone whose honor has been impugned. You can hear the theme of shame and honor recurring throughout. Ultimately, though, the Psalmist chooses to rest in the Lord. It reminds me of what Richard Foster says in The Celebration of Discipline—I believe in the section on silence—about not speaking in defense of yourself, but simply allowing your reputation to stand on its own. This lack of control is frightening, especially when your name is at stake, but ultimately we can’t control what others think of us. 

My approach with some of these more difficult Psalms is to address the Psalm’s themes as fully as possible without necessarily adopting all the original text’s images. For example, Psalm 3’s “Break their teeth, O Lord” is a tough sell for a congregational song! I also use the music to soften the blow a bit. In this case, the lyrics and music turn the Psalm from an indignant defense into a quiet prayer in the night. The song’s chorus focuses on rest, as this is what binds Psalm 3 and 4, and I couldn’t resist tipping my hat to Philippians 4:7 on the chorus repeat.

The recording features everyone’s favorite boy band, The Scheers, with Simon on bass, Theo on cello, and me on guitar and vocals (and a light backing track of ukulele). Take a closer look (PDF) or listen (MP3).

1. God, you hear my prayer in the dark.
Only you can judge human hearts.
Lord, set me free from these chains;
Let me see just how gracious you are.

How long must I be bent in shame—
Shackled by dishonor’s dead weight?
Lord, when I call, you will hear,
For you know all I have is my faith.

When I lie down to sleep I shall rest in peace, For Lord, I rest in you.
I know the peace of God Which transcends this world, This peace will rest in me.

2. All the anxious thoughts of my mind;
All of my unrest and disquiet:
When I have nothing but trust,
Lord, I offer it up, sacrificed.

Even in the dark hours of night,
May your countenance once more shine.
Oh, let your joy ever be
This poor heart’s richest feast: bread and wine.

When I lie down to sleep I shall rest in peace, For Lord, I rest in you.
I know the peace of God Which transcends this world, This peace will rest in me.

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My One and Only Valentine

What would Valentine’s Day be without songs of loneliness, delusion, and self-love?

Won’t you be my Valentine?
I’m so lonely all the time.
You’re not perfect,
but neither am I.

Won’t you be my Valentine?
You’re a man, but I don’t mind.
I just need
someone by my side.

Someone who understands
each crazy thought in my head
and this love in my heart so real.

Someone who will never leave;
forever in love, so deep.
My one and only Valentine
is me.

Posted in FAWM 2017, Jazz, Quirky | Leave a comment

Liar, Liar

My first draft of Psalm 12 was, ummm, not quite as subtle as the finished product. I saw that the Psalm was an attack on liars; I took the most direct musical route…

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Psalm 12: I Will Now Arise

Continuing my Adopt-a-Psalm commission month, I turned my attention to Psalm 12. It’s another difficult Psalm, with abrasive sentiments like, “May the Lord cut off all flattering lips.” Underneath its prickly exterior, though, the Psalm is all about words and how we use them—lies, lips, tongue, boasts, promises—the Psalm is full of “word” words.

Samuel Terrien proposes a chiastic form for the Psalm, with God’s words of verse 5 at the center of the form and the rest of the sections mirroring each other. (So, for example, the power gained by the flattering lips of verse 3 and 4 are answered by God’s sure promises and protection in verse 6 and 7.) That suggested to me that verse 5 would be an appropriate refrain.

Using God’s words as a song refrain is unusual. Normally, a song that uses God’s words has them sung by a leader, while the people sing their response. (Think Dan Schutte’s “Here I Am, Lord.”) But in this song, the verses are sung as a first person prayer and the refrain answers with God’s words. While it’s unorthodox, I like the idea of an individual’s plea for help being answered by a whole group thundering God’s words of assurance.

I was asked by my Psalm adopter to write a song that could be played on guitar. That worked well because I was already hearing a rugged folk style. In my mind was Kiran Wimberly Young’s Celtic Vespers service from this year’s symposium. As  I worked on that service, I noticed how the folk melodies served to both tame unruly texts and give a little muscle to the prettier Psalms we’ve heard a million times. So this song has none of the typical “Scheer-isms” you’d expect. It’s just a straight up modal melody and chords.

What’s been interesting to me is how much these more difficult texts have come to mean to me as I work on them. The way humans use words to wield power has never been something I’ve contemplated much. But in this political climate and given some things I’ve been experiencing lately, I found myself praying the text and expressing my own feelings as I wrote and recording the song. I guess that’s what the Psalms are all about, right?

Note: I was having trouble with Logic Pro and my Apogee Duet and found out too late that the digital artifacts I was hearing in my headphones were making their way into the recording. Nonetheless, you are welcome to listen or look.

1. Hear, O Lord, my prayer,
for truth has disappeared;
vanished like a breath or like a sigh.
Here, O Lord, am I,
adrift in floods of lies.
Is honesty extinct from humankind?

I will now arise and the poor will know my might.
I still I hear the needy when they cry.
I will now arise and the poor will know my might.
I, the Lord, have heard the prayer you prayed in groans and sighs.
I, the Lord, have heard the prayer you prayed in groans and sighs.

2. You, O Lord, you know
they benefit by boasts,
flattery, and rumors, and white lies.
You, O Lord, you see:
they gain from their deceit
and misery of those they trap like flies. refrain

3. Speak, O Lord, I’ll hear
the truth your word reveals.
Trusting, though malicious mouths resound.
Your word O Lord, is true.
Your promises are pure;
a refuge when no honesty is found. refrain

Posted in Adopt-a-Psalm, 2017, Church, Congregational Songs, Demos, FAWM 2017 | 1 Comment

Psalm 24: Lift Up Your Heads, O You Gates!

This is the second of my February Adopt-a-Psalm commissions, written to commemorate a pastor’s retirement. I had been given a number of possible Psalms and decided Psalm 24 could fit well into a pastor’s retirement celebrations without being so retirement-specific that it wouldn’t be able to be used in the future.

The person who commissioned this mentioned that her church has multiple services in different styles. I wanted to compose something that could be adapted to any of their services. The demo above is done on guitar simply because that’s what I play, but the chords move in a way that it could easily be led by piano or organ. (Actually, I hear an anthem with piano, organ, rhythm section, and brass—and maybe strings, too. But that’s a different commission…)

If you read the Psalm, you’ll see the repeated “Lift up your heads” in v7 and v9. That felt like it needed to be the refrain. That’s where I started. The verses are set off from the refrain with a more subdued melody in a distant key. I’m a big fan of shifting keys like this—it’s a way of providing something fresh in the verses and creating anticipation for the return of the refrain. It also creates the possibility of choir or cantor leading the verses the first time to keep things easy for the congregation.

The Psalm is full of seeming non-sequitors. It starts with the creation themes, then moves to the section on a pure heart. I decided this latter section could be broken into two song verses. The first is a fairly standard rendition of the text. But verse 3 of the song I adapted creatively to fit the pastor’s retirement context. The Psalm says:

5 They will receive blessing from the Lord,
and vindication from the God of their salvation.
6 Such is the company of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Selah

I decided it would be appropriate to adapt this blessing to infer the blessing a pastor receives after a life of ministry. Further, as often as appropriate I try to find New Testament resonances in the Psalms. In this case, I interpreted the “opening gates” of the refrain as the door that Jesus opens in Matthew 7. A bit of a stretch? Maybe. But it seems appropriate to remember that God has always been opening doors to enter our lives.

3. Oh, who will God call to receive a blessing?
And who will go out with the gift of peace?
The doors open wide to the sound of knocking;
The seeker shall find, those who ask, receive.

Need greater detail? PDF, MP3

Lift up your heads, O you gates!
And be lifted up, O you ancient doors!
That the King of Glory may come in.

Who is this King of Glory?
Who is this King of Glory?
It is the Lord—
Our mighty Lord.

1. The earth is the Lord’s and all within it,
for God spoke the word and it came to be.
Within oceans vast, God laid earth’s foundations;
Its pilings secured in the deepest seas. Lord. refrain

2. Oh, who shall ascend God’s holy mountain?
And who shall remain in that holy place?
Only those with clean hands, who have washed in water,
And those with pure hearts, who have bathed in grace. refrain

3. Oh, who will God call to receive a blessing?
And who will go out with the gift of peace?
The doors open wide to the sound of knocking;
The seeker shall find, those who ask, receive. refrain

Posted in Adopt-a-Psalm, 2017, Church, Congregational Songs, FAWM 2017, Psalms | Leave a comment

Neither Death nor Demon

As I study the Psalms I’m setting to music during my Adopt-a-Psalm month, I often find echoes of the Psalms in the New Testament. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; after all, Jesus quoted the Psalms more than any other book of the Old Testament. When I was working on Psalm 3: I Shall Rest in Peace, it seemed that Romans 8:38-39 was Psalm 3’s New Testament twin: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I decided to write a song on Romans 8 that could be paired with Psalm 3. It’s just a short chorus that can be sung as a coda to Psalm 3 (same key) or as a stand-alone scripture song. You’ll notice I took quite a bit of liberty with the text. I think it still conveys the spirit of Romans 8, though it doesn’t quote it verbatim.

Get it while it’s fresh: MP3, PDF

Neither death nor demon can hold me,
or life’s sweetest angels control me,
and no pow’r today or to come;
highest high or lowest low.
For nothing can resist the tireless love of God;
And nothing can undo our redemption in Christ’s blood;
For nothing can change what our God’s already done.

Posted in Adopt-a-Psalm, 2017, Church, Congregational Songs, Demos, FAWM 2017, Psalms | Leave a comment