A Question of Translation

The question of translation looms large as I consider next steps in this Psalm pilgrimage. If I have set before me the ultimate goal of memorizing the Psalms through the power of music, I must make a translation decision – and that decision will drive a host of consequences down the road.

If this pilgrimage were a solo act, a practice of individual prayer and contemplation, the answer would be easy. I could mix and match, or choose whatever translation I like, or make hybrid translation – including trying my hand at my own translations. On my own, I wouldn’t have to care about issues such as translation or music copyright. My collection of Psalm scripture songs could be as eclectic as it already is, drawing from endless sources and adding my own peculiar and distinct compositions whenever the Spirit moved me to do so.

At the end of that rabbit hole (composing personal, Spirit-led – hopefully – Psalm songs), I could compose an entirely new Psalter of scripture songs, based on multiple, and/or hybrid collage translations, including my own translations from scratch. And who would care but me? Such an undertaking would take a while, of course, but I’m happy to walk and dance and sing this pilgrimage for what remains of my life.

But I am not on this pilgrimage alone. More and more, I feel compelled to take notice of my companions on this Way – both for ways in which I can give and receive – because we are bound together in relationship. And that way of relationship involves an utterly complex decision – or series of decisions – about translation. Of course I bring something to this conversation: I am committed to a faithful, dynamic equivalent translation for our time and for all people – female and male created in the one image of God – and which invites and compels us to open ourselves to this transforming word, rather than to see ourselves and our presuppositions of truth in a mirror-idol of our own making.

I had hoped that the ICEL Psalter would answer, and perhaps it will…

And wouldn’t it be loverly if the lyrics actually danced instead of clunking along in the ill-fitting armor that suits up ancient (dead for so long) Hebrew with contemporary English? Tim Plimpton asked about Hebrew (seriously), and mentioned the NKJV (which both Esther Mui and Scott Brenner favor). I know the KJV/NKJV might be lyrical, but I can no longer go to a place that shuts out so many, for whom God has called me to preach. I had hoped that the ICEL Psalter would answer, and perhaps it will as I spend more time with it – yet this translation is as little known among mainstream Christians as it is bound up in copyright.

Even as I write, I’m thinking of the mash-up solution – a polyglot sampler that tastes of the relentless bounty in this wide open harvest field. Why be troubled or bothered by the Constantinian conceit to overlay some mythical, all-encompassing, elusive template on this writhing creative spirit that grows wild everywhere along this path. Wouldn’t that answer for the prolific fecundity of passionate desire and relentless searching? Even as I spoke with Tim, not too long ago, i wondered about the invitation not to choose one translation principle at the expense of all the others.

So, perhaps this problem is also an invitation to revel in the absurd proliferation of creative translation into words and music – appropriate for a pilgrimage community bewildering in our diversity, defying at every turn every attempt to categorize and sort us into ever larger, destructive and incomprehensible patterns. I am not a pattern. The Psalms themselves poke fun at our idolatrous attempts to categorize them: laments give way to praise – cautionary bridges interrupt songs of thanksgiving. Individual songs tap into the voice of the community. The Psalter evolves as we sing and pray together in our creative diversity.

The Psalter is a launching pad, a river that flows from the heart of God to the sea of God’s people, and God’s creation, scattered over all the earth and throughout the universe, quivering and resonating – in tension and resolution, yet always utterly connected in ways which consistently defy our attempts to describe and conscribe. Like prayer itself – not the words, but the life we live in communion with God – without ceasing.

Just now, I am blessed in the midst of this tension by a setting of Psalm 8 composed by Dan Forrest that transcends this tension, in Hebrew and in English, and of course, in the mysterious language of music – love and wonder in any language.

The Memory Castle – A Homecoming

Just over three weeks ago, I began the task of memorizing a key (Marian Psalter) verse for all 150 Psalms, using the concept of a Memory Castle – a symbolic route through (in this case) ten rooms of my house, in each of which I identified 15 objects or portals to which I could attach a different verse from the Marian Psalter.

I would first connect a different verse in a decade of verses with a portal in each of the ten rooms of my castle. Then I would make ten flashcards, with the portal on the front and the verse on the back. Then I would revisit the verses and expand the ways in which I needed to reinforce my ability to remember particular words and phrases of the verse.

These reinforcing ideas did not necessarily have anything to do with the portal itself, although sometimes they did. I had read that the practice of using a memory castle had more to do with placing elaborate, nonsensical visual connections at a particular portal (because the portal could be used to remember other lists or series).

A couple of examples might help to illustrate the concept.

The portal for Psalm 69 – “Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair.” is my bathroom sink. For some reason, the first phrase came easily to me, but not the second one. I was reading Huckleberry Finn at the time, so I imagined Jim saying the verse, and complaining at the end, “so dat I am in dis pear” (the fruit was a prison). The concept of a man imprisoned in a pear proved easy to remember.

None of this had anything to do with my bathroom sink, but for some reason, the sink became linked in my mind with Jim’s peculiar troubles in his pear prison. The Memory Castle worked.

One portal was a chair – and I imagined an artist named Karl Kohlhase sitting in the chair singing a version of the verse I was committing to memory. Another was a pair of masks hanging on our dining room wall, which I imagined saying “Why is it, O sea, that you flee; O Jordan, that you turn back?” Repetition helped, of course, but this additional memory practice of a Memory Castle broke down the work into more manageable segments.

It took me three weeks, working a couple of hours a day. I would typically review the ten verses I had just learned, along with the ten previous verses. It seemed important to allow a little time between repeats, so that I could identify where the trouble spots were (Lord, God, or You? – does the verse include the connector “and”?). I also like using the rosary beads to mark where I happen to be.

I am able to recite all 150 verses in just under an hour. At this point, I often take the time to review my flashcards or database to check the accuracy of my memory – and at times I still get stuck on a word or a phrase. I believe I could cut this recitation time in half with repetition.

So what now?

  1. Through repetition, these verses will become second nature to me. I have already been able to use them praying with others, individually and in worship. Eventually, I hope to be able to recite a verse, given the number of a Psalm, as well as bring to mind a blessing, praise or lament from this collection in my mind and heart.
  2. I have already experimented with singing some of these memory verses – some of which have ready-made tunes attached to them, and some of which I compose myself. I hope to be able to sing all of the memory verses.
  3. I hope to be able to expand this repertoire to include – as an initial step, the incipit (or first verse) of the Psalm, if this is not the memory verse. And then, as a second step, to memorize the entire Psalm, probably with a scripture song as a memory aid. For this undertaking, I must decide whether to use existing songs (in various translations), or to convert or compose songs using the NRSV.

Abundant Life Two-Step

I’m reading Brian McLaren’s new book, “The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian.” (I like to think we’re on a pilgrimage, rather than a migration, but that may be semantics – or the fact that I am a company man.) I wanted to copy a couple of quotes here.

At the end of a chapter titled, “You Are Social Poets,” (quoting Pope Francis), McLaren writes,

…we need a common spirituality to infuse both our priestly/institutional- and our prophetic/movement- oriented wings. This spirituality will often be derived from the mystical/poetic/contemplative streams within our traditions. Without that shared spirituality, without that soul work that teaches us to open our deepest selves to God and ground our souls in love, no movement will succeed and no institutin will stand. (181)

Earlier in the chapter, McLaren argues that the prophets and contemplative streams are paths to ecumenical understanding and “growing mutual regard” (177). He also argues that our faith foundation gives us courage to face the reality of our situation, regardless of how dire, and to hold fast to hope. I have called this courageous holding force a flywheel in our individual and common life. Like two foci of an ellipse, contemplation and activism mutually inform and support act other in our life together.

I believe this is where my Psalm absorption stems from: a desire to stand on a firm foundation in these shifting sands. I have wondered of late that the Psalms might become a hiding place, a refuge from the storm – or a place to avoid reality. That may be a danger, but is not necessarily inherent in the practice. The way McLaren puts it, instead of throwing out religion, we opt for organizing religion in favor of organized religion.

There is great wisdom in this flywheel, this deep spiritual well of tradition. In the final chapter, “The Broken-Open Heart,” McLaren quotes Parker Palmer, from a Mar/Apr 2009 Weavings article. Palmer compares a heart broken into shards of pain, piercing others as well as the broken hearted one, to a heart broken open and expanded to make room for others in the tension of life, represented powerfully in the outward-stretching arms of the cross. Our religion, our tradition can show us all a path to this kind of pain-transcending heart expansion – called love.

A World of Psalm 119

Psalm 119, with 176 verses, is the longest chapter in the book of Psalms – the longest Psalm – and the longest chapter in the Bible. It contains several wonderful memory verses, some of which have been set to popular Christian music: Thy Word (is a lamp unto my feet) – by Amy Grant (Psalm 119:105).

The Psalm is a special type of acrostic, composed in 22 sets of eight verses, or bicolons, corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This lengthy Psalm can overwhelm attempts to set it to music – not only because it is long, but also because it can seem repetitive. The Anglican Psalter prayer schedule breaks down Psalm 119 in five separate morning and evening sessions.

Several songwriters have composed  22 settings for each of the alphabetical stanzas:

Charles Ciepiel 

(Worship Arts Pastor at New Creation Church, Longmont, Colorado) Composed the album “Psalm 119” and released it in 1997. It’s available on iTunes. These compositions run from 1:30 to 3:30, and use the NKJV as the text (as do Scott Brenner and Esther Mui). Ciepiel employs different musical stylings to distinguish each setting. The word-for-word rendering can be a little clunky at times, but Ciepiel has maintained ab solute fidelity with the NKJV translation, which facilitates memorization as well as devotional use.

John Kramp

(Pastor, LifeWay team, and Riverside Consultant) Composed the album (with a companion website and book, available on Amazon) initially for personal devotional use, then produced and released an album – with karaoke tracks!) in 2014. If you register on his website, you can download an e-book describing a devotional practice of writing your own acrostic. The music is varied and contemporary in style, and the settings run from 1:30-4:20. Kramp uses the Holman Christian Standard Bible – HCSB – as his text.

Kramp’s goal is to facilitate devotional meditation & prayer as well as memorization. He quotes Wilberforce’s journal entry about walking through Hyde Park one day while reciting Psalm 119. Before composing the Psalm 119 Experience, Kramp’s song, “Touch of the Master’s Hand” was recorded by Wayne Watson.

Tom Quinlan

(Christian from Asheville, NC) Tom wrote 22 settings to Psalm 119 – using the NIV translation) during nine months in 2007, in the wake of the loss of his spiritual mentor, Art Katz. His album and chord sheets are available at Zion Christian Press, a website/ministry Quinlan birthed. They are also on YouTube.

Susie Kimbrough

Between July, 1998 and May, 2001, Kimbrough composed 22 settings of Psalm 119 (using the KJV translation) to facilitate devotional memorization for her family. Her husband got on board, and they wrote a companion book, produced a CD and website, Shepard Music Company. These are typically short settings, from 1:17-2:34, and are written in a range of musical styles. The CD/mp3 download and songbook each sell for $18 on their website.

Adoration and Praise – Entering the Temple of the LORD

Day 2 – Morning – Psalms 9-11

Ran across this gem while singing the Psalms this morning – an instrumental interpretation of Psalm 24:2 –

for he founded it on the seas
and established it on the waters

by the praise band, The Ramp. It’s part of an album titled Ascend: Prayer Instrumentals that includes interpretations of the ten verses of Psalm 24. After snatching it up for my collection of Psalm settings from iTunes – now at 698 songs (see Footnote below) – I prayed for a while using this powerful collection and then got to thinking…

I have often marvelled at the how the editing and gathering of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures coincides with the destruction of Solomon’s and Herod’s Temples by Babylon and Rome. By the Kebar River, Ezekiel experiences a vision of a third Temple – one not made with hands, recorded in Chapter 40-43 of his prophetic testimony. As I have studied these foundational events and the profound effect they had on God’s people, I have come to believe that for Jews and for Christians, the scriptures became God’s Temple for us that could not be destroyed. I’d love to spend more time with this notion – having found so little made of it in print – but that will have to wait for another time.

Suffice it to say for now that if God’s Word in Jewish and Christian scriptures is our Temple – our sanctuary and place of refuge and formation – then the Psalms must be the gates of that Temple. Perhaps that explains this powerful obsession God has given me for all things Psalms for several years now – with no signs of abating anytime soon. And this obsession, by the way, has opened my eyes of an entire culture of praise threading its way through the centuries as countless other worshippers have been drawn to these gates of Praise.

The Psalter guides us to the heart of God
to the place of sanctuary in the wilderness

I had a vision of curating a worship experience cultivating this entry – using the music of this album – or music very much like it – along with special lighting (laser and candle, digital and incandescent), in a darkened, comfortable, open space with carpeted floors and a screen for displaying something like the iTunes Visualizer. We could focus on each of the verses in turn, using them as a mantra, until we immersed ourselves in the spaces between and beyond the words, not for understanding, but to experience the living praise of our God and to enter the Courts of the LORD – to be transformed and healed and resurrected there as the people of God. Lost in wonder, love and praise.

It seems as if the more I explore, the deeper and more unfathomable the Psalms become. This past week, I have discovered that the second (Easter) portion of Handel’s Messiah includes Psalm settings of six of the Psalms, including four settings of verses 1-4, and 9 of the Second Psalm. In late November, I rediscovered The Psalm Project – a Dutch group of Christians dedicating themselves to arranging contemporary versions of the Genevan Psalter settings (they make all of their lyric/music sheets available for free and have recorded several of their albums in English).

I also discovered a Hebrew rendering of the 15 Psalms of Ascent – by Waltraud Rennebaum and the Ensemble Shoshan. I’m on the hunt for a singable collection of these pilgrim songs. Earlier in November – November, 2016 was a great month – I stumbled upon Handel’s Dixit Dominus, a nine movement interpretation of Psalm 110. Apparently this is a thing. And little wonder, as the 110th Psalm is the most-quoted Psalm in the New Testament.

Finally, I found  wonderful, 22-part interpretation of the 119th Psalm by Charles Ciepiel, which matches the text wonderfully and powerfully. This find in September – and I’ve since had the opportunity of using it in devotions over the two and a half days the BCP assigns the readings of the 119th. Speaking of which, I have included calendar appointments on my master calendar for all of the monthly BCP readings/singings/prayers of the Psalms. Evenings are still much harder that mornings, but I’m getting there.

You Are Forgiven! Feed My Lambs

160410-GraphicSermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Bo Gordy-Stith at Whatcoat UMC on Sunday, April 10, 2016 as part of an Easter series: And Now a Word from Our Savior (John’s Closing Word from the Good Shepherd). Sermon text: John 21:1-19. The key verse is John 21:16:

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

Peace! Go As God Sent Me

160403-GraphicSermon preached by Rita Fry at Whatcoat UMC on Sunday, April 3, 2016 as part of an Easter series: And Now a Word from Our Savior (John’s Closing Word from the Good Shepherd). Sermon text: John 20:19-31. The key verse is John 20:21:

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

Here I Am! Go Tell the World

160327-graphic*Sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Bo Gordy-Stith at Whatcoat UMC on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016 as part of an Easter series: And Now a Word from Our Savior (John’s Closing Word from the Good Shepherd). Sermon text: John 20:1-18. The key verses are John 20:18:

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

*Special thanks to Sabrina Malone for filming the Sunrise Service at Wyoming Park!

Tears Among the Tickertape

160320-graphicSermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Bo Gordy-Stith at Whatcoat UMC on Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016 as part of a Lent series: Christ Heals Our Past to Save Our Future (Jesus Completes God’s Salvation History). Sermon text: Luke 19:28-42. The key verses are Luke 19:41-42:

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.

Christ: Our Way Out of No Way

160313-graphicSermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Bo Gordy-Stith at Whatcoat UMC on Sunday, March 13, 2016 as part of a Lent series: Christ Heals Our Past to Save Our Future (Jesus Completes God’s Salvation History). Sermon text: Isaiah 43:16-21. The key verse is Isaiah 43:19:

See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.