Welcoming the Essential this New Year

Near the end of 2017, I enjoyed reading Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. The concept of saying “No” to trivial pursuits in order to embrace one’s calling resonated with me, particularly as a firstborn whose primary instinct is to take one for the team. That way of taking responsibility for others has spread my life thin – and ragged around the edges – so an invitation to choose the better part as 2017 gives way to 2018 was in order.

Step one involved peeling away the layers of involvement that prevent me from attending to the core of God’s calling in my life. McKeown suggested strategies for softening the blow of saying “No,” but I have been pleasantly surprised at the gracious responses to several letters of resignation – thanking me for four years of volunteers service in one case and respecting my ability to discern God’s will in this matter in another. Resigning was hard for me, but not as hard as I had imagined – and not nearly as hard as encumbering myself with entanglements that prevented me from running the race with all my strength.

Having cleared the decks, step two directs my attention to articulate the essential in my life. Long ago, I used Laurie Beth Jones’ book The Path: Creating your Mission Statement for Work and for Life to craft the following life mission statement: To touch, inspire, and release the Spirit in all God’s people. As I think about that statement, I realize that this mission statement articulate a yearning for the way I hope my life will affect others – but ultimately, the decision to accept my invitation rests with others – not me. I begin to realize that my mission involves proclaiming release to the captives, but not necessarily securing their release.

Then I approached the notion of life mission from the opposite direction – where the rubber meets the road in my daily life. How do I live the time God gives me each day? I discovered that I spend a third of my life sleeping (which McKeown calls “protecting the asset”), another third of my life working, and the last third of my life doing everything else. This everything else includes recreation (40%) eating (32%) – both of which largely involve investing in family and friend relationships, as well as self-care), exercise (18%) and doing the chores that keep life humming (11%).

Given this life/time budget, I note (1) the enormous significance of recovery time in everything I do. Incorporating recovery – or, sabbath time, if you like – into any pursuit is a key to achieving my God’-given mission in life, or anything I want to accomplish. Because (2) work takes up such a significant amount of my life, the work in which I choose to engage significantly impacts my ability to live faithfully. It’s not good enough to pass over this question because I pastor churches. The key question: “Does this work further or hinder my mission to proclaim release to the captives?” Finally, in the final third of my life, (3) every area (recreation, nourishment, exercise, and chores) presents an opportunity to balance the relational and personal.

  • Incorporating sabbath is the key to achieving my God-given mission in life
  • the work in which I choose to engage significantly impacts my ability to live faithfully
  • Recreation, nourishment, exercise, and chores present an opportunity to balance the relational and personal

Coming soon: Step 3 – Creating a routine for success

Quest for a Cure

As of early February, after successfully completing the Tour of Sufferlandria, 2017, I felt compelled to train and ride a Sufferlandrian Knighthood DO (not an attempt). This involves riding 10 back-to-back video workouts (with no more than 10 minutes break in between each. Essentially, this boils down to another Total 200 – or its virtual equivalent, a year after that last little fun fest.

I originally planned the DO date for July 22, but the way training is going (especially the first two double trials @ 95%) encouraged me to bump up the date by six weeks, to June 10. The KoS DO involves a fundraiser, and I have chosen the American Cancer Society, setting up a contribution website. I plan to contribute $100 a month (plus overhead) until the KoS DO, as well as invite people to join me every Plateletpheresis donation (April 6, May 4, and June 1) and major cycling event leading up the the DO:

  • Icicle Century – Elkton, MD, Saturday, March 25, 2017
  • Ocean to Bay Double Metric Century – Bethany Beach, DE, Saturday, April 29, 2017
  • Shorebird Metric Century – Salisbury, MD, Saturday, May 6, 2017 (also an ACS fundraising event)
  • Skyline Drive Century – Front Royal, VA, Friday, May 12, 2017

For training, I’m also completing the 10-Week Sufferlandrian Intermediate Road Training Plan. I’m excited about this season’s focus (a season I’m dedicated to climbing, which will culminate in the Civil War Century and Savage Century. Who knows what success I’ll have with fundraising, but I know I will personally contribute $500 to the cause, as well as three units of Platelets, and over 2500 miles of blood, sweat, and tears.

Psalm of Psalms

One of a series chronicling a Psalm Pilgrimage.

Went to bed Monday evening as a winter storm brewed up the east coast – while another storm brewed in my spirit. I had been looking at word clouds on Pinterest – particularly ones from books of the Bible, like the one here for Psalms.

When Tim and I got together during Advent, he mentioned the notion of “Motives” or themes (phrases) in the Psalter, which got me to thinking about a project to scout them up. Instead of words, what of the phrases that appear repeatedly in the Psalms? What are they, and does the collection of them lend any insight into our understanding and appreciation of this collection of ancient prayers and songs? Before going to bed, I did a bit of searching on the internet and was dumfounded to find absolutely nothing.

Tuesdays are reserved for exegesis and study, and the rain and wind closed the church office, so I got up early and worked over twelve hours on this little project, which picked up considerable speed when I realized that my study software, BibleWorks, includes a feature that tracks down word clusters. After a bit of trial and error, I came up with the following rules for what constituted a repeating Psalm phrase:

  1. I conducted the search in Hebrew
  2. I looked for clusters of three or more words, with no more than a single word interrupting the cluster
  3. To be classified as repetitive, the phrase has to be used in four or more Psalms (repeated use in a Psalm did not count).
  4. The final order of the phrases would be descending order of Psalm repetition, followed by the order of the Psalter.

Here, then, is the Psalm of Psalms:

You are LORD of heaven’s angels,[i]
You, O LORD,[ii]
      Confound all who make trouble.[iii]
Steady love enduring forever.[iv]
The name of the LORD:[v]
      “God Above All,”[vi]
      From this time on and forever.[vii]

Maker of heaven and earth,[viii]
      I know you, LORD.[ix]
Be not far from me;[x]
      Hide not from me.[xi]
Over all the earth:[xii]
      Praise the LORD,[xiii]
      The LORD, O my soul![xiv]

[i]יהוה אלהי/אלהים צבאוֹת Adonai Elohai*/Elohim Tsabaoth – nine repeats in seven Psalms:

  1. Psa 46:8 The LORD of hosts is with us; The God* of Jacob is our stronghold;
  2. Psa 46:12 The LORD of hosts is with us; The God* of Jacob is our stronghold;
  3. Psa 48:9 As we have heard, so have we seen In the city of the LORD of hosts, in the city of our God; God will establish her forever;
  4. Psa 59:6 You, O LORD God of hosts, the God* of Israel, Awake to punish all the nations; Do not be gracious to any who are treacherous in iniquity;
  5. Psa 69:7 May those who wait for You not be ashamed through me, O Lord GOD of hosts; May those who seek You not be dishonored through me, O God* of Israel;
  6. Psa 80:5 O LORD God of hosts, How long will You be angry with the prayer of Your people?;
  7. Psa 80:20 O LORD God of hosts, restore us; Cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved;
  8. Psa 84:9 O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; Give ear, O God* of Jacob! Selah;
  9. Psa 89:9 O LORD God* of hosts, who is like You, O mighty LORD? Your faithfulness also surrounds You.

[ii] כּי אתּה יהוה Qui atah Adonai – six repeats in six Psalms

  1. Psa 4:9 In peace I will both lie down and sleep, For You alone, O LORD, make me to dwell in safety.
  2. Psa 38:16 For I hope in You, O LORD; You will answer, O Lord my God.
  3. Psa 83:19 That they may know that You alone, whose name is the LORD, Are the Most High over all the earth.
  4. Psa 86:17 Show me a sign for good, That those who hate me may see it and be ashamed, Because You, O LORD, have helped me and comforted me.
  5. Psa 91:9 For you have made the LORD, my refuge, Even the Most High, your dwelling place.
  6. Psa 97:9 For You are the LORD Most High over all the earth; You are exalted far above all gods.

[iii] כּל פּעלי און Kal pa-ahleh aven – seven repeats in six Psalms

  1. Psa 5:6 The boastful shall not stand before Your eyes; You hate all who do iniquity.
  2. Psa 6:9 Depart from me, all you who do iniquity, For the LORD has heard the voice of my weeping.
  3. Psa 14:4 Do all the workers of wickedness not know, Who eat up my people as they eat bread, And do not call upon the Lord?
  4. Psa 92:8 That when the wicked sprouted up like grass And all who did iniquity flourished, It was only that they might be destroyed forevermore.
  5. Psa 92:10 For, behold, Your enemies, O LORD, For, behold, Your enemies will perish; All who do iniquity will be scattered.
  6. Psa 94:4 They pour forth words, they speak arrogantly; All who do wickedness vaunt themselves.
  7. Psa 101:8 Every morning I will destroy all the wicked of the land, So as to cut off from the city of the LORD all those who do iniquity.

[iv] כּי לעוֹלם חסדּו Qui le-ohlam hesdo – 34 repeats in six Psalms

  1. Psa 100:5 For the LORD is good; His lovingkindness is everlasting And His faithfulness to all generations.
  2. Psa 106:1 Praise the LORD! Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
  3. Psa 107:1 Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
  4. Psa 117:2 For His lovingkindness is great toward us, And the truth of the LORD is everlasting. Praise the LORD!
  5. Psa 118:1 Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
  6. Psa 118:2 Oh let Israel say, “His lovingkindness is everlasting.”
  7. Psa 118:3 Oh let the house of Aaron say, “His lovingkindness is everlasting.”
  8. Psa 118:4 Oh let those who fear the LORD say, “His lovingkindness is everlasting.”
  9. Psa 118:29 Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
  10. Psa 136:1 Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
  11. Psa 136:2 Give thanks to the God of gods, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
  12. Psa 136:4 To Him who alone does great wonders, For His lovingkindness is everlasting;
  13. Psa 136:5 To Him who made the heavens with skill, For His lovingkindness is everlasting;
  14. Psa 136:6 To Him who spread out the earth above the waters, For His lovingkindness is everlasting;
  15. Psa 136:7 To Him who made the great lights, For His lovingkindness is everlasting:
  16. Psa 136:8 The sun to rule by day, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
  17. Psa 136:9 The moon and stars to rule by night, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
  18. Psa 136:10 To Him who smote the Egyptians in their firstborn, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
  19. Psa 136:11 And brought Israel out from their midst, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
  20. Psa 136:12 With a strong hand and an outstretched arm, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
  21. Psa 136:13 To Him who divided the Red Sea asunder, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
  22. Psa 136:14 And made Israel pass through the midst of it, For His lovingkindness is everlasting;
  23. Psa 136:15 But He overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
  24. Psa 136:16 To Him who led His people through the wilderness, For His lovingkindness is everlasting;
  25. Psa 136:17 To Him who smote great kings, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
  26. Psa 136:18 And slew mighty kings, For His lovingkindness is everlasting:
  27. Psa 136:19 Sihon, king of the Amorites, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
  28. Psa 136:20 And Og, king of Bashan, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
  29. Psa 136:21 And gave their land as a heritage, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
  30. Psa 136:22 Even a heritage to Israel His servant, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
  31. Psa 136:23 Who remembered us in our low estate, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,
  32. Psa 136:24 And has rescued us from our adversaries, For His lovingkindness is everlasting;
  33. Psa 136:25 Who gives food to all flesh, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
  34. Psa 136:26 Give thanks to the God of heaven, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.

[v] את שׁם יהוה Et-shem Adonai – six repeats in six Psalms

  1. Psa 102:16 So the nations will fear the name of the LORD And all the kings of the earth Your glory.
  2. Psa 103:1 A Psalm of David. Bless the LORD, O my soul, And all that is within me, bless His holy name.
  3. Psa 113:1 Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD, Praise the name of the LORD.
  4. Psa 135:1 Praise the LORD! Praise the name of the LORD; Praise Him, O servants of the LORD,
  5. Psa 148:5 Let them praise the name of the LORD, For He commanded and they were created.
  6. Psa 148:13 Let them praise the name of the LORD, For His name alone is exalted; His glory is above earth and heaven.

[vi] על כּל אלהים El kal Elohim – six repeats in five Psalms

  1. Psa 57:6 Be exalted above the heavens, O God; Let Your glory be above all the earth.
  2. Psa 57:12 Be exalted above the heavens, O God; Let Your glory be above all the earth.
  3. Psa 95:3 For the LORD is a great God And a great King above all gods,
  4. Psa 96:4 For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods.
  5. Psa 97:9 For You are the LORD Most High over all the earth; You are exalted far above all gods.
  6. Psa 108:6 Be exalted, O God, above the heavens, And Your glory above all the earth.

[vii] מעתּה ועד עוֹלם Meh-ah-tah Ahd Olam – five repeats in five Psalms

  1. Psa 113:2 Blessed be the name of the LORD From this time forth and forever.
  2. Psa 115:18 But as for us, we will bless the LORD From this time forth and forever. Praise the LORD!
  3. Psa 121:8 The LORD will guard your going out and your coming in From this time forth and forever.
  4. Psa 125:2 As the mountains surround Jerusalem, So the LORD surrounds His people From this time forth and forever.
  5. Psa 131:3 O Israel, hope in the LORD From this time forth and forever.

[viii] עשׂה שׁמים וארץ Osey shamayim vahretz – five repeats in five Psalms

  1. Psa 115:15 May you be blessed of the LORD, Maker of heaven and earth.
  2. Psa 121:2 My help comes from the LORD, Who made heaven and earth.
  3. Psa 124:8 Our help is in the name of the LORD, Who made heaven and earth.
  4. Psa 134:3 May the LORD bless you from Zion, He who made heaven and earth.
  5. Psa 146:6 Who made heaven and earth, The sea and all that is in them; Who keeps faith forever

[ix] ידעתּי כּי יהוה  Yahdahti qui Adonai – four repeats in four Psalms

  1. Psa 20:7 Now I know that the LORD saves His anointed; He will answer him from His holy heaven With the saving strength of His right hand.
  2. Psa 119:75 I know, O LORD, that Your judgments are righteous, And that in faithfulness You have afflicted me.
  3. Psa 135:5 For I know that the LORD is great And that our Lord is above all gods.
  4. Psa 140:13 I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted And justice for the poor.

[x] אל תּרחק ממּנּי El tirhaq mimehni – four repeats in four Psalms

  1. Psa 22:12 Be not far from me, for trouble is near; For there is none to help.
  2. Psa 35:22 Thou hast seen it, O LORD, do not keep silent; O Lord, do not be far from me.
  3. Psa 38:22 Do not forsake me, O LORD; O my God, do not be far from me!
  4. Psa 71:12 O God, do not be far from me; O my God, hasten to my help!

[xi] אל תּסתּר ממּנּי El ta-stehr mimehni – four repeats in four verses

  1. Psa 27:9 Do not hide Your face from me, Do not turn Your servant away in anger; You have been my help; Do not abandon me nor forsake me, O God of my salvation!
  2. Psa 102:3 Do not hide Your face from me in the day of my distress; Incline Your ear to me; In the day when I call answer me quickly.
  3. Psa 119:19 I am a stranger in the earth; Do not hide Your commandments from me.
  4. Psa 143:7 Answer me quickly, O LORD, my spirit fails; Do not hide Your face from me, Or I will become like those who go down to the pit.

[xii] על כּל הארץ El kal ha-ahretz – five repeats in four Psalms

  1. Psa 47:3 For the LORD Most High is to be feared, A great King over all the earth.
  2. Psa 57:6 Be exalted above the heavens, O God; Let Thy glory be above all the earth.
  3. Psa 57:12 Be exalted above the heavens, O God; Let Thy glory be above all the earth.
  4. Psa 83:19 That they may know that Thou alone, whose name is the LORD, Art the Most High over all the earth.
  5. Psa 97:9 For Thou art the LORD Most High over all the earth; Thou art exalted far above all gods.

[xiii] הללוּ את יהוה Hallelu aht Adonai – five repeats in four Psalms

  1. Psa 113:1 Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD, Praise the name of the LORD.
  2. Psa 117:1 Praise the LORD, all nations; Laud Him, all peoples!
  3. Psa 135:1 Praise the LORD! Praise the name of the LORD; Praise Him, O servants of the LORD,
  4. Psa 148:1 Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; Praise Him in the heights!
  5. Psa 148:7 Praise the LORD from the earth, Sea monsters and all deeps;

[xiv] נפשׁי את יהוה Neph-shi et Adonai – six repeats in three Psalms

  1. Psa 103:2 Bless the LORD, O my soul, And forget none of His benefits;
  2. Psa 103:22 Bless the LORD, all you works of His, In all places of His dominion; Bless the LORD, O my soul!
  3. Psa 104:1 Bless the LORD, O my soul! O LORD my God, You are very great; You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
  4. Psa 104:35 Let sinners be consumed from the earth And let the wicked be no more. Bless the LORD, O my soul. Praise the LORD!
  5. Psa 146:1 Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul!

Psalm Portal, Part III

Reading N.T. Wright’s The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential this morning, I came across the line:

…the question is more how we can find our way into their world… (page 6)

This is what I’ve been struggling to articulate that happens when I pray and sing the Psalms daily – a portal is opened and I partake of a world that begins to look a lot like the one Jesus lived and died to proclaim: the Kingdom of God. N.T. Wright had a lot more in store for me, as it turns out, because his little book about the Psalms is entirely about this portal to God’s Kingdom, and how it intersects this world of reality we typically inhabit from womb to tomb.

Two extended quotes are in order, the first a statement of Wright’s thesis, that the Psalms form the intersection of three dimensions, time, place, and matter:

I am thinking, first, of the crossroads between one sort of time and another: our time, if you like, and God’s time, in which aspects of what we think of as the “past” and what we think of as the “future” can actually come together in what we perceive and experience as the “present.” I am thinking, second, of the crossroads between one sort of “place” and another: our place or space, if you like, and God’s space. (In the Bible, these are often referred to as “earth” and “heaven,” though that can be misleading because many people today assume that if “heaven” exists, it is a long way away and a different sort of reality altogether, which isn’t how the Bible sees it at all.) I am thinking, third, of the crossroads between the created order, the material world as we normally perceive it, and the way in which that creation, already “charged with the grandeur of God,” is promised that it will at the last be filled afresh, filled to overflowing, with that same grandeur or glory. (pp. 21-22)

The second quote outlines the significance of this notion of Psalms as Portal, or intersection, if you like =)

The Psalms, I want to suggest here, are songs and poems that help us not just to understand this most ancient and relevant worldview but actually to inhabit and celebrate it – this world view in which, contrary to most modern assumptions, God’s time and ours of overlap and intersect, God’s space and ours overlap and interlock, and even (this is the really startling one, of course) the sheer material world of God’s creation is infused, suffused, and flooded with God’s own life and love and glory. (p. 22)

The Psalms, then facilitate a communication between piety and mercy, the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. They are an intersection that enables the Torah of God to define how we see and understand and inhabit this world in which we live and breath and have our being. They are not an escape, but a lens – a worldview, as Wright argues. But they also shape us in that worldview, so that those of us who inhabit the Psalms, and who practice their inhabitation of our lives and loves, become shapers of the world around us, into the Kingdom of God, where God’s will is perfectly accomplished, and where all manner things will be well, and where justice and mercy prevail.

Well-played, Wright. Well-played.

P.S. Read in Kalus Seybold’s “Introducing the Psalms” (trans. by R. Graeme Dunphy):

“The singer hopes with his new song to bring the congregation from listening to seeing, from seeing to being astounded, and from astonishment to trust…” (p. 40, in an explication of Psalm 40).

Psalm Portal, Part II

From my Prayer Journal, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016 – Advent II

Some extraordinary things have been happening with the Psalms, this Advent season. It probably began in earnest when I discovered an instrumental album interpreting Psalm 24 – Lift Up the Gates. That was Friday, December 2. Then, the following Tuesday, I composed my first Psalm (30) in over six years. And only the fourth song ever [along with 19, 95, and 96]. Since then, I’ve been sharing with several people about where this might be heading. I’ve spoken with Vicki, of course, but also with Joy – Kris Knarr, Amy Brown, and I reached out to Tim Plimpton in our KCC group. About composing. For that to come to fruition, I need to receive grant funding for this project. Or maybe some other source.

What the project looks like is a new Psalter. (To go with that prayer book I’ve been contemplating.) I singable, word–for–word Psalter that breathes musical life into the Psalms. And enables folk to memorize them. And maybe we set the tone, invite other collaborators. I’m not as clear about what belongs to me, and what might benefit others. And I’m moving far too fast to communicate with myself, much less other people.

Because this is far more than a project. It’s a key to a portal. That’s the part that’s most difficult to articulate. And scary to contemplate articulating. But if I can’t write it here… The idea stems from the notion of transformation in Psalms – particularly from lament to praise. I had known that before. But what if the Psalms could usher us into the reality of God’s kingdom – the third Temple of Ezekiel’s vision?

These musical, ancient prayers create a world of righteousness for the righteous. They create a new Torah, or an echo invoking the Torah, in which God’s people are re-formed into God’s promised reality – The kingdom of God.

Like a tree by a flowing stream. I do not seek to understand these words – they comprehend me. The song reverberates with my heart from a time before time – these ancient, timeless songs.

We are preparing the way in our hearts and minds and lives for Christ to receive us into his arms in the throne room of Heaven. A new world where justice is done and love prevails.

We sing, and somehow, in the midst of our Psalm/song, the gates give open and reveal the dazzling light of God’s glory shining on our lives and giving light to the world.

These are no mere incantations. They do what they sing – perform that which they proclaim. A kingdom – peace on earth.

They make only God relevant. All other things are your irrelevant. All else is discord. My striving. My fears. My sinfulness. Swallowed up in victory. These are songs of war – of a battle won in God’s power and presence. I live – we live in a wasteland of our own delusion. Sing me a song, O God, and I am tasting and inhabiting/inhabited by your presence, filling my life. With the music of your love.

Psalm Portal: Part I

From my Prayer Journal, Friday, Dec. 2, 2016 – Advent I

Had a breakthrough this am while stumbling on a new/old Psalm find: Ascend – Prayer Instrumentals (meditating on the ten verses of psalm 24 by the contemporary praise band, The Ramp). I already had one song from the album, from verse nine, “Be lifted up,” but had not known or followed up on the set. This time, I was ready, and snapped up the album. Then I teared up listening to it – imagining curating a worship experience on Psalm 24 with laser lights and the projected visualization – carpeted floor and beanbag chairs – and whatever God wanted to do with us.

I can’t write fast enough. And the day is almost gone.

Why all this obsession with Psalms – and no one else seems to care, save far-flung comrades-in-arms like this band, that once hosted a 30-hour worship experience? Or this group in the Netherlands. We are all nipping at the edge of a vast something that we sense but cannot name. And this am I think I might have gotten a taste of what it is – what compels us.

Two foci: worship and love-in-action (fruit); connection and salting/seeding; gathering/dispersing; piety/charity [mercy].

I spoke of these to Joy and to Carlos. The flywheel of worship in a war–torn world. Our happy place of praise. Also, this business of acting “As if…”. How is this possible apart from true worship in spirit and in truth? Not on this or that mountain – but at the wellspring of the water of life.

Then in Bible study Wednesday. The temple is gone – yet everywhere. Like Jesus! Abundant, everlasting. ἐγγίζω [engitzo]. – now and not– yet [Mark 1:15].

The Temple Ezekiel entered by the Kebar river [Chapter 40:1-44:14], so far away from home. Yet home.

Japan on a pier. Cochrane, somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Whenever I am ready. The Kingdom of God and the holy Jerusalem, come down from heaven. There is a river.

To step into the River, to follow and to swim in it to the Throne, we sing. The Psalms are the gateway into the Kingdom of God, the Presence. Lost in wonder, love and praise [from the closing line of Love Divine, All Loves Excelling]. Holy, Holy, Holy. Sanctus for all eternity. Time ceases – stops. In this everlasting stream of life and light. Oh, to be a tree by that River. To know nothing else but the Holy One in his temple. The Cubbies [Cub Scouts, in my God and Me/Family classes]: “How do we praise in the door?” I had no words, but lifting their holy hands was in their blood. Alas, it courses through me. Calling, leaning. Drawn relentlessly home.

This world is not my home. And could I but taste and see a glimpse, I would know in my bones I was not imagining it. Launched into this loneliness of self, surrounded by an ocean of love I cannot see, or sense. Yet these ancient songs taunt me. My heart resonates with this tune – tune my heart O Divine One [from the opening couplet of Come Thou Font of Every Blesssing]. Source. λόγος [logos, see John 1:1].

You launched me to extend yourself here in this now. Omnipresent. Now/Here. Be it unto me according to thy will.

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.