Build a Longer Table (David Bjorlin)

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.

Text: David Bjorlin, b.1984; © 2018 GIA Publications, Inc.

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Psalm 134: Bless the Lord!

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.

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Psalm 133: How Good and Beautiful

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

3. It’s God’s blessing flowing down,
it’s God’s blessing flowing down. CHORUS

Oh, how good it is.
Oh, how good it is.

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:

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Psalm 132: Dwell in Us

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

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Psalm 131: Wait for the Lord

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.

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Psalm 130: From Down in the Depths

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.

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Psalm 129: We Won’t Stay Down

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.

Steve Brown on a Viking ship. Literally.
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Psalm 128: Bless Us, O Lord

The Psalms are full of images and ideas that are anachronistic to modern readers. Psalm 128 promises men who fear the Lord that they’ll enjoy fertile wives, lots of children, and a peaceful Jerusalem. It is fair to ask: What about women who fear the Lord? What about wives who don’t want to give birth to dozens of babies? What about peace in other places in the world?

These are all valid questions.

Beneath its difficult cultural veneer, though, the heart of this Psalm’s message is “Serve God, work hard, and God will bless you.” Yet even this strikes modern readers the wrong way. Most of us don’t like to ask for God’s blessing. Perhaps we avoid talk of blessings because we want to distance ourselves from the prosperity gospel. Maybe it’s because we (I) live in perhaps the most prosperous time and place in human history. Maybe we have a false humility that doesn’t allow us to consider the God of the universe wanting to give us good things.

Whatever our reservations may be, Psalm 128 is all about God blessing us. I don’t write the Psalms; I just make them singable in a modern context. And singable, this is! The leader sings all the verses while the people sing only four words. The melody is extremely simple; more adept groups may sing it in four parts. I can imagine the song being taught by rote and sung a cappella, though I added a simple accompaniment on this recording.

1. Blessed are those who honor the Lord. Bless us, O Lord. Bless us, O Lord.
Blessed are those who walk with God. Bless us, O Lord. Bless us, O Lord.

Bless us, Lord.
Bless us, Lord.
Bless us, O Lord.
Bless us, O Lord.

2. The work of your hands is its own reward.
The work of your heart is a fruitful home.

3. Blessing will come to those God loves.
Blessing to those who honor God.

4. Lord, may our cities live in peace.
Prosper our days, prolong our years.

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Pilgrim Psalms: Wait for the Work of the Lord (Psalm 127)

We have a strange relationship to work. Some of us are workaholics. (Or have a “good work ethic,” if we want to sound more pious about it.) Others are “working for the weekend.” (Or working toward a retirement of lounging and luxury.)

Psalm 127 provides us a good theology of work. As Eugene Peterson points out in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, “God worked.” The first thing the Bible tells us about God is that God created. So work is not a necessary evil, it is at the core of who we are as creatures in God’s image. However, unlike God, we have limits to what we can achieve with our work. Psalm 127 tells us that we can keep watch, but only God keeps us secure. We can plant, but only God can give the harvest. Indeed, the Psalm ends with a striking example of the interplay between God’s work and ours: children. We can procreate, women can labor, but only God can give life.

Peterson talks about frantic activity on the one hand and detached laziness on the other. In between those extremes is work that is full of joy and meaning, that trusts the Lord for the miracles of life and food, and that rests securely in the Lord when work is over (Sabbath).

This new setting of Psalm 127 (I wrote one before) attempts to tease out the balance between our work and God’s.” You’re probably wondering what my favorite line is. It’s in the third verse: “For our labors are a blessing we conceive in faith and love.” See what I did there, with “labors” and “conceive”?

Wait for the work of the Lord.
Wait for the work of the Lord.
Wait for the work, wait for the work,
wait for the work of the Lord.

1. We will build while there is sunshine
and keep watch throughout the night,
but only God can bless us
and guard our very lives. CHORUS

2. We will rise at dawn for planting
and we’ll pray for rain and sun,
but anxious toil and worry
rob sleep from those God loves. CHORUS

3. For our labors are a blessing
we conceive in faith and love,
but God alone brings life and breath;
we work, we pray, we trust. CHORUS

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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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