13 October 2010

More than Watchmen Wait for Morning: a Meditation on Psalm 130

A psalm is word and rhythm and praise.

Think about that...then repeat--

a psalm is word and rhythm and praise.

Can you hear it? The rhythm rumbles the bones. It resonates.

a psalm is word and rhythm and praise--

Do you see the way the rhythm of that line makes "word" and "praise" ride the crests of the waves. The words just jump out and declare "I'm here"? When the rhythm is right, you can even feel it.

A psalm is word and rhythm and praise, and understanding that rhythm not only helps to mine the meaning of the psalms, it also helps to imagine how they were sung during temple worship, the ceremonies celebrated in Judea during the 377-year reign of the House of David.

In previous posts, I have tried to imagine the public spectacle of the psalms: their music, the way they sounded in the temple courts, the parts played by the choir, the musicians, the speakers and--most of all--the people.

In the fifteen "songs of ascents" (Psalms 120-134), a different kind of performance emerges, one that could be repeated--and danced--in the temple courts, most certainly, but also one that could be shared between two believers or at a small festival gathering.

One story goes that the "songs of ascents" were sung at the steps leading to the temple gates--others have them sung at the steps into the Holy Place. I like this scenario because it compliments the idea that these psalms were chanted and repeated, chanted and repeated. The leader climbed a step and chanted a line; then the assembly joined him on the step and repeated the line. Step by step, worshipers chanted the song until they had entered the temple.

As I listened to this psalm in my Bible study, I realized that I couldn't hear parts anymore--I heard rhythm, and I also heard repetition. I felt grateful for the NIV translators whose hard work preserved so much of the rhythm of the words--and I also felt empowered to tweak the rhythm once I had the gist.

I want to present the Psalm below, then, as a chant, not as straight text. I hear each line presented by a leader and repeated by an assembly. As the psalm develops, so does a natural rhythm. For me, it develops in 4/4 time, and that's the way I will present the psalm below.

Grab a tambourine or a cymbal, then!
OUT of the DEPTHS i CRY to you, LORD--
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord
O LORD [beat] HEAR my
VOICE [three beats]
O Lord hear my
Can you feel the rhythm of the lines?
Moreover, I love the way the psalm begins. A song of ascents that begins in the "depths"? Of course it does! Where else could such a psalm start? My imagination races to think of ascents in the Holy Land: the incline leading from Jericho & the Dead Sea to the hills of Jerusalem; the walk upwards through the city to the Temple Mount; the climb up the steps of Solomon's Porch to the temple gates, or the steps that led from the courtyard to the temple entrance.
With each step I feel the beat--one, two, three four, "Out of the depths, I cry to you, Lord."
let your EARS be atTENtive to CRIES of MERcy
Let your ears be attentive to cries of mercy
if YOU, LORD, [beat] kept a REcord of
SINS [three beats]
If you, Lord, kept a record of
O.LORD [beat] WHO could
STAND? [3 beats]
O Lord who could stand?
But with YOU there IS forGIVEness
But with you there is forgiveness
THERE.FORE [beat] YOU are
FEARED [three bearts]
Therefore you are feared.
A plea for mercy emerges--"cries" is the third beat of the line--and the plea swells with the repetition. The rhythm slows down the words, and we spend a line (four beats) on the word, "sins." The speaker is humble, thoughtful, vulnerable. The words have slowed, but the beat will pick up in the 2nd half of the psalm
I WAIT for the LORD, my SOUL waits YET
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits yet
And in his word I put my hope
My SOUL.WAITS for the LORD [beat]
My soul waits for the Lord
MORE than WATCHmen WAIT for MORNing
More than watchmen wait for morning
MORE than WATCHmen WAIT for MORNing
More than watchmen wait for morning
At this point, the key line of the psalm could be repeated forever, in my opinion. Waiting for the Lord is a theme of many psalms (40, 27, 89, 119, 62, to name a few). But the psalmist moves from "I wait for the Lord" to "my soul waits" so quickly that many readers may miss the transition.
I understand waiting, and I know darkness, yet I am so easily distracted. My soul understands waiting and darkness, and there is this idea that it doesn't give up, even if I do.

As an assembly we are almost to the top step, ready to enter the temple for worship. Dawn breaks, and the watchman lets out a shout. We can look back over the city, over the valley, toward the hills warming with glowing sunlight. The worship leader advances:
o ISraEL, place HOPE in the LORD
O Israel, place hope in the Lord
I sing the Lord's unfailing love
in HIM is FULL reDEMPtion
in him is full redemption
the LORD himSELF reDEEMS us
the Lord himself redeems us
from all our sins
In this last stanza, I have made changes to the NIV translation, mainly to preserve the rhythm, which slows from four beats to three in the last three lines and ends with the stark words: all. our. sins. It's a strange mix of emotions that I feel when I close this song

The chant began in the depths and climbed to a place where watchmen see dawn, where sinners find forgiveness. It climbed through calls for mercy. It ended with redemption from all our sins.

And as the rhythm flowed...and the chants repeated...the songs ascended, and the worship raised higher, higher, heavenward.

06 October 2010

Praise the Lord, O my Soul. Thoughts on Psalm 103

How does one lead worship?

In most churches today, worship is led by a screen that hangs down at the front of the church. One pastor of a small church in Lafayette admitted to me recently that "if you don't have a screen, you have a shrinking church." In decades past, worship was read from a hymn book or psalter and led by a speaker in the service.

In my study of temple-based worship from the era that stretched from Solomon to Josiah, I have tried to find a replacement for the screen and the psalter. I have investigated the sights and the sounds of worship, yet I must acknowledge that the vast majority of the population of Judah was illiterate at this time. No doubt the literate class, the Levites and priests, held primary roles in temple worship.

So how then did worship, well, "work" in this environment? Worshipers arrived in the temple courts expecting to worship, thousands of them on feast days, including pilgrims from the four corners of Judah and beyond. How could a worship leader coordinate the efforts of Levites and laity alike to present passionate, focused praise to God?

Having organized my fair share of worship services, I can attest to the challenge here. I guess that's what makes the psalms so amazing: they are worshipful, they are focused on praise, they connect the speaker with God in ways that are still powerful 3,000 years after they were written.

As I have studied Psalms over the past month, I have tried to put myself into the middle of temple-worship. In a recent blog I examined the role of the temple surroundings---the building, its courtyard, and the outer courts--in worship. As I have focus on the production of the worship service, I have found that four elements served to direct worship for all participants: Levites, musicians and laity.
1. Tradition. There is a reason why the vast majority of the psalms were written in the two generations over which the First Temple was built. David, Asaph (David's music director) and Solomon are credited with the authorship of a majority of the psalms. Many more of the psalms that weren't written at this time, carry on the traditions of the original psalmists. As generation followed generation over the 377 years of worship in the First Temple (Solomon's), the words of the psalms became ingrained.
2. Repetition. Each psalm uses repetition in praise of God. If we break down each psalm, we can find a simple line that would have been repeated by the common worshipers in the courts. With no screen or hymnbook, these lines would have been given at the gates of the temple or announced by the music director prior to worship.
3. Concentration. The Levites, whose role it was to amplify the words of the speaker, really had to listen to pick up on the cues of the speaker. The crowd in the courts needed a sense of the rhythm of the psalms--they needed to get their lines right, and they didn't want to miss a beat of the worship performance. I worship because I need spiritual and moral direction for my life. As a worshiper in Jerusalem, I would have needed direction for my worship.
4. Music. This is the wild card of the psalms--something we can never really recapture. Accounts of worship and psalms demonstrate that worship was LOUD, with trumpets, cymbals and lutes used. It is fun to read the psalms and look for breaks where musical interludes would fit. Psalm 103 gives a few such opportunities.

The Introit of the Psalm
Psalm 103 begins with the praise line: the line shouted from the courts, joined by the singers and worship leader: "Praise the Lord, O my soul." Six times throughout the psalm, the phrase, "Praise the Lord" (in Hebrew, "Hallelujah") is repeated. This is our link to the role of the laity. I love that the psalm begins with the people!

The choir joins the people with the words, "O my soul," and they continue alone with the lines, "all my inmost being, praise his holy name" (verse 1) and a similar response in verse 2.

I can hear music with these first two verses: a trumpet introit, perhaps, or cymbals keeping time to this remarkable rhythm of the words.

Verses 3-5 provide reasons why God is worthy of praise: "He forgives all our sings...redeems our lives from the pit...[and] satisfies our desires with good things." There is a call and response aspect to these verses, suggesting two voices in the performance. Consider verse 5:
Who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's
Can you hear the distinct voices built into the line? In my imagination choirs on either side of the courtyard proclaim the words to each other. The speaker is on hand, however, preparing for his sermon. It is possible that the speaker and the choir would be involved with this exchange.

Verse 6 is the climax of praise: "The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed." This is the reason to praise God, He is a doer of justice and a worker of righteousness. The praise is loud. Where does it come from?

I want the shout to come from the people, although this line goes well beyond the stock, memorized phrase, "Praise the Lord," that they would have repeated in this performance. Imagine the shout! I can hear a cheer break out with this exhortation.

It is more likely that the choir shouted it--although I must admit that I would have joined in from the courts with all my heart (and I doubt anyone in the courtyard would have minded).

After verse 6, the music blares an affirmation of praise. This isn't written in the psalm, of course, but there is a natural break here just asking to be filled with music.

The Message
The sermon begins in verse 7. God is a God of justice, and here's the proof. He guided Israel through the desert, He seeks ways to redeem us. I love the final line of the sermon. The speaker proclaims:
"He does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities (verse 10)"
What I love about this Psalm is the intensity of the praise. The psalmist (David) has just given us an exquisite description of God's grace. Can it get better than this? It will, we aren't even to the midpoint of the psalm. I want to interrupt with "Praise the Lord," but I would be jumping the gun.

The choir joins the speaker in verses 11 through 13 in a call and response. I imagine that the speaker exhorts and the choir responds in each verse:
[S] "For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
[C] so great is his love for those who fear him;
[S] as far as the east is from the west,
[C] so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
[S] As a father has compassion on his children,
[C] so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
I would add here a geographic element to verse 12. The western end of the temple complex was the Most Holy Place. From the Most Holy Place, one would walk due east through the Holy Place, through the courtyard to a gate that opened into the courts. At the western end of the courts were Solomon's Porch, a grand staircase that entered the temple complex from the Kidron Valley below. "As far as the east is from the west," would have echoed through temple courts that featured dramatic differences: the height of the temple mount versus the valley floor; the common, dirty entranceway versus the sanctuary.

There is more call and response in verses 14 through 16, but I imagine these come from choristers on the north and south ends of the temple. Where has the speaker gone? He's waiting for the high point of the psalm. Of course the structure matches 11 through 13. Let's carry it on:
[S or C1] "for he knows how we are formed,
[C2] he remembers that we are dust.
[S/C1] As for man, his days are like grass,
[C2] he flourishes like a flower of the field;
[S/C1] the wind blows over it and it is gone,
[C2] and its place remembers it no more.
One thing that amazes me about this call and response is the dynamic aspect it adds to worship. I will admit that I "amen" regularly throughout a service. I don't make a big deal about it--or do it loudly. However, these responses do more than affirm the voice of the speaker, they affirm it and take it a step beyond!

The worshipers aren't just listening, they are talking back. They aren't affirming the speaker's voice, they are expanding it. God isn't just using the speaker in this worship, He is speaking through the choir; He is ministering to the minister.

Verses 17 & 18 are a solo. The call and response style has ended. The words have a musical quality. The speaker (or the singer) calls out:
But from everlasting to everlasting
the Lord's love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children's children--
with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts.
The people join in. Verse 19 caps the build-up. The choir and speaker have shown what God has done. The choir answers the singer:
The Lord has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all.
The Conclusion
There is time for a final musical interlude. The psalm will end with praise. The drums boom, the trumpets dance, the cymbals clash. The people in the courts prepare for the summation.

Verses 20-22 combine all levels of speakers in a final paean. There is the memorized line for the people, "Praise the Lord/Hallelujah." There is the speaker and the director. There is the choir. (And for those with exceptional imaginations, there is much music, too.)

This is the way I hear the conclusion performed:
[People] "Praise the Lord,"
[Speaker] you his angels,
[Choir] you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word.
[P] Praise the Lord,
[S] all his heavenly hosts,
[C] you his servants who do his will.
[P] Praise the Lord,
[S] all his works
[C] everywhere in his dominion.
[All] Praise the Lord, O my soul" (verses 20-22).
This is an amazing psalm--praise at its finest. What I like most about it is the way that it lets the reader hear the sounds of temple worship. The participants' roles are clear. We begin with the refrain, chanted or sung by the people. We see the way the speaker delivers the message--and the way the choir strengthens the words of the speaker. It is even easy to hear the music play between sections of the psalm or in accompaniment with the singers.

I want to move on through more psalms. There are still questions to answer. I'm hoping to unlock three or four more psalms before moving onward in my study.

One Welcome Dream

I had a dream last night, and I just had to tell someone about it.

What better person than both readers of 'Point Pleasant'?

The dream was about my grandpa. I just cannot describe how much I miss him, gone now for 3 1/2 years. Just thinking about him fondly seems like a privilege today, and waking up to thoughts of him this morning just turned my week around completely.

First, a little bit about dreams.

I know now that sleep is a pretty important time for the brain: it's when everything gets filed, and memories are sorted out and arranged within the various parts of the brain. It's like "defragmenting" a computer, and it's some pretty cool stuff that goes on in the brain, all while we sleep.

I also know enough about dreams and literature to understand archetypes and themes. One typical dream archetype is the 'unrealized known.' Within the dream, this is something that has existed in prior dreams but seems to always surprise the rational part of the subconscious.

For example, the college dream where I had to take a final exam for a class I hadn't attended all semester. The class was unrealized to my conscious mind, which had been using sleep to file away all the studying I had been doing, however it was a known entity to my subconscious.

One archetype that has popped up in recent years has been what I will call "the two-acre plot." It's a grassy, fenced field somewhere in the Portland area. (It's about the size of the old vacant lot that stretched between Grandma & Grandpa's driveway and Ms. Louder's house.) A few years ago, I dreamed about a horse that we'd been given. This grassy, fenced field suddenly came up--it wasn't mine, it belonged to the Ditteses--and we left the old horse there, grazing near an old barn that took up one corner of the two-acre plot.

Last night, my dream took me to the two-acre plot. As my rational sense insisted that this couldn't be real--no Dittes had paid property taxes on this land--I entered the barn and began to dig around in the corner.

I do a lot of digging around with Dittes stuff. After I moved into Grandma & Grandpa's house, I found all kinds of priceless artifacts. In the study I found the letters Grandpa had sent to Grandma from his posts overseas during World War II. In a closet I found an old .22 pistol. In the attic I found an old painting by Ronnie McDowell, one of the first he painted of old Richland Station after he got back from Vietnam--and one that I donated to the history room at the library two years ago.

In the barn at the corner of the two-acre plot, I found a box with a bunch of rolled envelopes. inside. I opened the brown paper around one of the envelopes, and a small piece of paper fell into my hands.

It was a blank check.

It was a blank check with only two names on it.

Next to "pay to the order" I read the name, "J.D." The date and the payment were blank, but on the signature line I read, "A.G. Dittes."

Grandpa! I turned the check over. Written on the other side was a message, "You can use this when you need it."

I'm not sure about the rest of the dream. I left the box in the barn, and I think I made a visit to the dream version of Farmer's Bank, but before I could make a withdrawal, Jonah climbed into our bed and woke me up.

I awoke with a real sense of peace and contentment. I've wasted too much time worrying about money of late. Watching Jenny face the challenges of raising the public and private funds to keep her clinic running has probably gotten to me--I think that's what my brain was sorting out last night. My mind is too full of things I want but cannot afford right now.

That's why the blank check meant so much to me. It wasn't about how much money would repaint the house or pay for a summer road trip; it was about the limitless gifts that Grandpa had given me and the priceless impact he had on my life.

So much of what I have is the result of a blank check I got from Grandpa. I'll name a few:
  • the house I live in was purchased by him 60 years ago and sold to me (at a generous discount) in hopes that my children would grow up here in the same way his children and grandchildren had done.
  • a work ethic like no other
  • great taste in women and the strength to choose a bride who was intelligent, beautiful and spiritually discerning, just as he chose when he married Grandma
  • a mind that reaches to the stars and playfully considers their mysteries
  • lessons in humor as the glue that can connect me to those I work for--and with
Priceless. It's funny, I think back to the box in my dream now, and I wonder about the other envelopes. I didn't examine them in my dream, but I imagine now that they were addressed to my cousins, aunts, uncles, father, children and nephews. I'm sure the all contained blank checks.

I'm pretty sure that the two-acre plot will pop up a time or two in future dreams, but I doubt I'll get another look at that blank check or recognize Grandpa's signature.

If I had the chance to actually hold it in my hand again, though, I know what I would write in the payment box.

I'd write "Thanks."

I couldn't ask for--or even imagine--a dime more than the sum of all that he's given me. I remember. How could I want more?