Pilgrim Psalms: Tears and Joy (Psalm 126)

Psalm 126 is full of joy. In fact, it uses the word four times in a mere six verses. But this is not an easily earned joy; it is the joy of people who have known tears but have been rescued from misery just when they were about to give up.

Interestingly, the Psalm is divided into two sections: the first begins with “When the Lord restored our fortunes” and the second half begins with “Restore our fortunes, Lord.” This is a common move in the Psalms: start by remembering what God has done in the past and turn it into a confident prayer for the future.

While most of the songs in my Pilgrim Psalms series are very vocal-centered, I decided to take a little break with this one and just let it groove. I still think it could be sung by a group of travelers as long as they had some guitars or ukuleles, but that theory has yet to be proven.

1. When the Lord brought home the exiles,
it all seemed like a dream.
We just could not stop laughing
and we sang through joyous tears.

The nations were astonished–
they could not believe their eyes.
The Lord restored our fortunes,
brought joy back to our lives.

Tears, tears, tears,
we went out with floods of tears.
Joy, joy, joy,
we returned with songs of joy.

2. O dear Lord, restore our blessing
like gushing streams in spring,
and turn our tears of sorrow
into tears of joy again.

We cried as we were leaving
and we wept in fields of toil;
but we’ll come back with singing;
we’ll harvest fields of joy.

Tears, tears, tears,
we went out with floods of tears.
Joy, joy, joy,
we returned with songs of joy.

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Pilgrim Psalms: Everlasting Peace (Psalm 125)

I’ve already written music for Psalm 125 twice: “Those Who Trust” from my 2017 Adopt-a-Psalm program and an arrangement of Amorese/Zemuner’s beautiful “All Those Who Trust” in 2013. But this is a new series and it calls for new music!

In keeping with the Pilgrim Psalms series, this new setting of Psalm 125 has the voice at the center. Indeed, there are no instruments at all on this recording. Of course, you should feel free to try it with a praise band or a simple keyboard accompaniment.

Just in case you don’t pick up on my musical word-painting, Psalm 125 talks about God surrounding his people like Mount Zion circles Jerusalem; what better way to represent that image than with a round?

Those who trust in the Lord are encircled, secure,
surrounded like Zion, whose mountains endure.
Forever protected from evil’s misdeeds.
Forever they rest in God’s everlasting peace.

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Pilgrim Psalms: Our Help (Psalm 124)

I’ve actually set Psalm 124 to music twice before. The first time was “If the Lord Had Not Been on Our Side,” a Gospel-style choral anthem with narrator that is now published by GIA. The second time was “If God Had Not Been on Our Side,” a congregational song that is one of my proudest moments as a composer of psalmody.

I didn’t feel the need to plow this ground again, but I did want to write something on Psalm 124 that would fit into the larger Pilgrim Psalms series. I decided to write a song that could stand on its own or act as a “bookend” for “If God Had Not Been on Our Side.” “Our Help” is a simple 8 measure chorus that can be chanted at the beginning and or end of “If God Had Not Been on Our Side”; the key and meter are coordinated for that very purpose.

But let me suggest another purpose: “Our Help” is based on the words that traditionally begin Reformed worship services: Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Why not sing those words? “Our Help” is easy to pick up by ear and is the kind of song that can be sung multiple times while people gather and focus for worship. It could also segue into an opening song like Ron Rienstra’s “The Lord Be with You.” (Or pretty much any song in the key of G or E minor, for that matter.)

Our help is in God’s strong name;
the same God who made earth and heaven.

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Psalm 65: We Praise You, God, in Silence and Singing

I was honored that Bethany Cok and Josh Parks asked me to compose music for their wedding. I’ve played with Josh many times before at Church of the Servant, Calvin University, and in the St. Sinner Orchestra, so it felt like a real vote of confidence to be included in his nuptials.

The rehearsal.

Bethany and Josh chose Psalm 65 as the song’s text. It was a great choice: Psalm 65 is a Psalm of thanksgiving that was likely written for one of the harvest festivals; its focus on entering God’s house, keeping vows, and God’s blessing make it a beautiful fit for a wedding.

The piece I wrote volleys back and forth between a congregational refrain that features a bold, ascending melody I’ve dubbed a “Mannheim Mountain,” and lush, rhapsodic verses.

You might wonder about the opening phrase “We Praise You, God, in Silence and Singing.” Why “in silence” when it’s a song? Well, the first phrase of Psalm 65 “Praise awaits you,” is unclear in the Hebrew, but seems to carry the connotation of hushed awe—a quiet before a storm of praise. I decided to interpret that as “in silence and singing,” including a ripe silence before the return of each chorus.

I post this song on the day of Bethany and Josh’s wedding as a musical blessing on their union!

We praise you, God, in silence and singing,
in making of vows and lifting of prayers.
To you all people, in joy and thanksgiving,
renewed and forgiven,
to you they are streaming for you are our God.
And you, God, are good.

1. Blessed are the ones you draw to you courts–
guests in the house of the Lord.
Riches o’erflow and spill out the doors–
blessings that fill the whole earth! REFRAIN

2. For you pushed the mountains into place
with the strength of your hand;
and you hushed the chaos of the waves,
for even the seas obey your commands;
and you change the chattering of all the nations into choirs of joy!
And the whole world hums with your praise! REFRAIN

3. You care for the land, you soak the ground,
and you shower it with riches.
You fill the streams and soften the soil
and you flood the furrows and ditches.
The year is crowned with blessing;
her path flows with abundance;
her hills are covered in gladness;
her meadows clothed in flocks;
her vales are robed in wheat and grain–
they shout for joy! They sing!
They shout for joy and they sing! REFRAIN

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Pilgrim Psalms: Have Mercy (Psalm 123)

Psalm 123 presents a number of challenges, foremost is its use of slave language to describe our relationship to God. No matter what it may have meant to Hebrew worshipers, I just can’t imagine singing of slavery in a morally neutral tone. So how does one set aside a biblical image and yet stay true to scripture? What is the deeper pattern?

The first thing that caught my attention was Psalm 123’s use of “eyes.” In verses 1-2 it is our eyes that are looking up to God. In verses 3-4, though it doesn’t use the word “eye,” it’s essentially a prayer for God’s eyes to look down and have mercy. The other thing that struck me is that verses 3-4 are praying for salvation from the powerful who oppress them. The first half of the Psalm is an acknowledgment of the true God, and the second half is asking God to intervene against lesser authorities–those gods who abuse their power. My song verses followed this two-part pattern: our eyes look up to God in obedience to God’s true authority and God’s eyes look down to see our plight and deliver us.

Have mercy. Have mercy Lord.
Have mercy. Have mercy Lord.

1. Our eyes look to you.
Our eyes look to heaven.
Our eyes look to you
until you show your mercy, God.

2. Cast your eyes on us.
Cast your eyes on earth.
Cast aside the proud
who bind us with no mercy, God

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Pilgrim Psalms: Let Us Go! (Psalm 122)

Psalm 122 is full of exuberance at the mere thought of going to church. That’s hard to imagine in our day and age (at least before COVID-19), but the Israelites were in a different context. For them, God was present only in the Temple in Jerusalem. If they were going to meet with God–if they were going to worship–it would be at the Temple. Indeed, that’s what the Pilgrim Psalms are all about: songs for the long journey to Jerusalem to worship. I can imagine that this song would be one of their favorites along the way: it called them to join the journey, it boosted flagging spirits along the way, and it would be a grand anthem upon arriving at their destination.

In keeping with all my Pilgrim Psalms, “Let Us Go!” is very simple and easily learned without music. It is an eight-measure chorus repeated ad-lib with three verses that can be sung by a leader on top of the chorus. Think of it as Hillbilly Taizé.

Let us go; Let us go; Let us go to the house of the Lord!
Let us go; Let us go; Let us go to the house of the Lord!

1. I was glad when they said,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
And now we’re standing before your doors.
Let us go to the house of the Lord! (CHORUS)

2. The city of God
is made of more than stone.
It is founded on justice and love
for all who go to the house of the Lord! (CHORUS)

3. Give us peace,
O Lord, give us peace.
O Lord, give all your children peace, we pray,
when we go to the house of the Lord! (CHORUS)

For those of you who care about such things, all the voices and instruments were recorded with GLS Audio’s ES-57. It’s a $30 mic fashioned after Shure’s industry standard SM57. I quite like it. It has a little more volume than the SM57 and is perhaps a tad too hyped in the mid-range, giving it lots of presence but a slightly unnatural megaphone-like color for recording. But I bought it for miking instruments live and I think it will do a great job of picking up a piano or guitar amp without much room noise. Kudos GLS!

Technical note #2: I recorded this demo without a click track. I just hit record and started singing. That’s why there are some fluctuations in the tempo here and there. So sue me. It’s also why I had to tune my guitar up a quarter step when I decided to add it after all the vocal tracks were done!

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Pilgrim Psalms: My God, My Guide, My Guard (Psalm 121)

The next Pilgrim Psalm is 121. This is a beautiful Psalm of protection that begins with the words, “I lift my eyes up to the hills.” I already have two songs based on this Psalm: “My Keeper” and “Lift Your Eyes Up to the Mountains!” (a translation of Seong Sil Chung’s song).

In keeping with my Pilgrim Psalms project, this new version is simple enough that it can be sung without musical notation, as it is written in a leader/echo format which makes it easy to learn: simply listen and sing back.

Attentive listeners may discern a new voice in the mix. Usually, I sing all the vocals and harmonies because, well…I’m always here. But on this demo, my son, Theo makes his singing debut as part of the echo chorus. The afternoon we were recording, a sudden thunderstorm hit. I opened the window and recorded a few minutes of the cacophony, deciding later that it fit the song perfectly!

Raising my eyes to the mountains for help,
but the God who made the mountains is greater still.
God will guide me on my way,
through the dark of night and heat of day.
God will take my hand
when I journey out or return again.
God will guard my life always.

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Pilgrim Psalms: Deliver Me (Psalm 120)

I’ve embarked on a new journey: writing songs on all 15 Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134).

A number of elements came together to set me on this journey. First, as I’ve watched protests against police brutality unfold across the country, I’ve lamented the loss of the protest song. Marches in the 60s drew from a deep well of music that united people’s voices: Negro Spirituals, Black Gospel, and the folk songs of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. Marchers without a song are just a crowd.

At the same time I was contemplating the types of music that might be sung by a moving crowd, I began rereading Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, a wonderful companion to the Songs of Ascents. Psalms 120-134 accompany modern readers on our spiritual journey, but for faithful Jews the songs accompanied their physical journey. They sang these 15 songs as they journeyed to Jerusalem to worship. I decided that each of my Pilgrim Psalms should be singable by a group, without sheet music. So these are simple songs that rely on repetition, call and response, rounds, and other techniques that folk music and work songs have used for centuries to allow common people to take part.

The first song is “Deliver Me,” based on Psalm 120. As Peterson points out, it’s a song of discontent–a discontent that urges us to leave the warring and lies of our native land to set off for the city of God. It is the Pilgrim Psalm that sets us on our pilgrimage.

Too long I’ve lived, surrounded
by those who love to war.
Deception is their native tongue.
This will never be my home.

This will never be my home.
I’ll be a pilgrim seeking peace.
Give me rest, O Lord, at my journey’s end.
Oh, deliver me. Lord, deliver me.

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The Kingdom of Heaven

Recently, as I prepared for a service focusing on “The Sermon on the Mount” I discovered that my go-to Beatitudes song had been taken out of circulation by the publisher. “Certainly,” I thought, “the world needs a singable version of the Beatitudes!”

My new version, “The Kingdom of Heaven,” is written in a familiar liturgical folk style. (Familiar, that is, if you sing a lot of Marty Haugen, Michael Joncas, and Dan Schutte.) I aimed for simplicity: the verses are nearly verbatim from Matthew 5:3-12 and the chorus is very singable. Of course, there are a few Scheer twists thrown in. Your congregation will learn it in no time.

After listening to the demo above feel free to download the piano accompaniment or a free leadsheet at my website: https://gregscheer.com/product/the-kingdom-of-heaven/.

1. Blessed are the humble of spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the ones who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Let them rejoice in God!

For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.
For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.

2. Blessed are the gentle of heart,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the ones who hunger and thirst for God,
they will be satisfied. [CHORUS]

3. Blessed are the ones who show mercy,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see their God.
Let them rejoice in God! [CHORUS]

4. Blessed are the ones who seek peace,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are the ones who suffer for doing good.
Let them rejoice in God! [CHORUS]

5. Blessed are the ones who are cursed–
cursed for the cause of their God.
Rejoice and be glad, you saints, for your reward is great.
Let us rejoice in God! [CHORUS]

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Coffee Talking

What the world needs right now is another song about coffee.

This song idea has been floating around forever in my head and little scraps of paper. It started as only a phrase: “It’s just the coffee talking.” Then last year I decided it would be funny for the words of a song about coffee to get faster and more incoherent as the song progressed. A few months ago I came up with the scenario of a man who’s painfully shy around his love interest until he’s fully caffeinated. (Kind of like Brad Paisley’s “Alcohol,” but for coffee shop nerds.) This week I tied up all the loose ends and present to you “Coffee Talking.”

1. When I see you,
what can I do?

2. When I see that you are near me,
my mouth goes dry, I stare at my feet.

Caffeine’s what I need.
It’ll be my black bolt of courage
In my time of need.
With my head full of steam,
next time I see you walking
It’ll be the coffee talking in me.

3. Suddenly I’m not so scared, I’m optimistically preparing.
(It’s just the coffee talking.)
I’m filled with confidence, you say to me, “Nice day,” and I say, “Very!”
(It’s just the coffee talking.)
Well, I’m on a roll, try something new: I pat your dog, say “He’s so cute.”
(It’s just the coffee talking.)
Seems to work, I turn to you, I pat your head and say, “You are cute, too!”
(It’s just the coffee talking.)

CHORUS

4. Euphoria is filling me just like I hoped it would
and I have never felt so good and I have never been so free.
(It’s just the coffee talking.)
My mouth has taken on a mind that’s all its own, my tongue’s untied,
My lungs fill up with air for good or ill I start to speak:
(It’s just the coffee talking.)
“Hey, would you go out with me? I think about it all the time—
but not like that—I hope I didn’t come across as sounding super creepy.
(It’s just the coffee talking.)
But I could see the two of us fall head and heels in love and get
engaged and married, make some babies, maybe start with dinner and a movie.”
(It’s just the coffee talking.)

CHORUS

Hey, I’m sorry. (It was just the coffee talking.)
Please don’t worry. (It was just the coffee talking.)
That’s not like me. (It was just the coffee talking.)
It’s just the coffee. (It was just the coffee talking.)

CHORUS

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