A chapel talk originally delivered at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas, September 10, 2018.
My vocational journey can be summed up in four lessons I have learned: to pray and seek guidance for direction; one is too small a number to ever achieve success; grasp tradition with one hand, while seeking new ways to express those traditions; and look for a need in your community or church and try to fill that need. I learned these four lessons as I sought to find a way to use music in ministry and especially in the development of the Timeless Psalter/commentary project.
I have always been in love with music. When I was two years old, my parents had to take me out of a worship service, because I was singing at the top of my lungs a beer commercial I had heard on television. In high school, and then especially in college, I remember praying that God would show me somehow what he wanted me to do in ministry, because it was very unclear to me. One of my professors said “God has already given you talents and passions—these are what he wants you to use in ministry.” A minister told me, “God’s will for your life may be more like a smorgasbord than a directive—what interests and excites you? Of all the menu items God has laid out before you, which will you choose?” I filed these bits of folk wisdom away at the time, but they became more meaningful to me as things have unfolded in my vocational journey.
As a missionary intern in Brazil, in my early 20s, my supervisor told me this, and I have kept it as wise advice until now: “I see in you three passions, and I don’t think you will be happy unless you somehow engage in all of these: music, scholarship, and ministry.” Let me cut to the chase. After four years of ministry, and 18 years of graduate education, the music part was still a question, and I was frustrated for years as I felt God had given me a passion and what I felt were some musical abilities, yet I had few outlets for this call and no real direction to use music in ministry.
In about 2004, I remember talking to a musician at my church. I said that we in Churches of Christ were not faithful in obeying the command to sing psalms, nor did we have any metrical Psalter—a hymnal of Psalms—as other Protestant communions had. I resolved, Lord willing, to address this lack. So I prayed about it and looked for ways to make this happen. This was the first lesson in my vocational journey: pray and seek the will of the Lord, then start on a path that God can direct.
In 2005 I was asked to teach some courses in St. Petersburg, Russia. A Russian composer asked me to help him translate some of his hymns based on the Psalms into English. I had heard his song “My God and King,” a setting of psalm 84, and was immediately taken by it. I helped him translate 20 of his songs and at that time decided to begin the Timeless project—new musical settings of all the psalms, even if I had to do them all by myself.
I began composing and did lyrics and music for psalms 1–10. I realized at that time that I might not live long enough to compose all 150 psalms. Sometime earlier it had become clear that every time I had attempted to be successful at music, or any other ministry by myself apart from a community around me, I never got anywhere. So I decided to invite others to “play in my sandbox,” so to speak. I formed a committee of lyricists, composers, band directors, orchestra conductors, and choir leaders, and in the course of time this number grew to 25. We decided early on to provide new translations and commentaries on all the psalms upon which the composers could base their work. We invited Old Testament scholars to write these commentaries, among whom is your own Dr. Douglas Miller. The number of composers, commentators, committee members, and editors has now grown to 110, and is international and ecumenical in scope. This is the second lesson in my vocational journey of church music: one is too small a number to ever achieve success in ministry. When I tried to do my own project, on my own, I was unsuccessful. When I opened my hand and invited others to be a part of a worthy ministry, the project consistently grew and accomplished more than I could have imagined.
From the outset it was important for us to engage the history of metrical Psalters that had preceded us. We knew that there was a 500 year history of metrical Psalters in Protestant churches, and that history was spotty at best. For the most part, Psalm hymnals have been awkward musically and lyrically, attempting to force ancient Hebrew poetry, which has no detectable rhyme or meter, into western verse. Thomas Wharton referred to metrical psalters in the 1700s as “obsolete and contemptible,” “an absolute travesty,” and “entirely destitute of elegance, spirit, and propriety.” Thomas Campbell decried their “flat and homely phrasing.” See, for example, the extremely literal, but awkward, poetic rendering of a portion of psalm 8 in the Bay Psalm Book, the first book published in America:
O Lord our God in all the earth
how’s thy name wond’rous great.
who has thy glorious majesty
above the heavens set.
Out of the mouths of sucking babes,
thy strength thou didst ordain,
That thou mightst still the enemy
and them that thee disdain.
When I thy fingers’ work, thy Heav’ns,
the moone and starres consider
Which thou hast set. What’s wretched man
that thou dost him remember?
Or what’s the Son of man, that thus
him visited thou hast?
For next to Angells, thou hast him
a little lower plac’t.
One of the best examples of an unfortunate poetic rendering of Psalm 137:9, one hopes a parody, is this one by the Scottish poet Robert Burns:
O blessed may that trooper be
Who, riding on his naggie,
Will tak thy wee bairns by the taes
And ding them on the craggie.
Rather than awkward poetry, forced rhyme, reversed English syntax, and obscure terminology, we decided not to base our new psalm lyrics on each verse of a psalm, nor on forcing the exact wording of the psalm into Western style poetry, but to look at the logical thought units of the psalm, its sections or strophes, as a guide to meaning and poetry. For this we used our new translations and commentaries, and based our new compositions on the translators’ structure and flow of the psalm. So we have used the tradition of the metrical Psalter, but added to it new dimensions. This is a third lesson I learned in my vocational journey: to honor and make use of the traditions of the past, while at the same time looking for new ways to express those worthy traditions.
Another example of grasping tradition, but presenting it in new clothing, is the recovery of lament, “structured cries to the Lord,” in personal and corporate worship. I remember growing up there were many hymns we would sing that had lament aspects to them, although none of them were lament psalms. In more recent years, worship in many churches is centered on praise exclusively. This is curious. It is like telling a child “You are not allowed to cry, for you are my child.” Part of what we want to do in the Timeless project is to recover the Psalms the full vocabulary of worship in lament, thanksgiving, and praise, which has sustained the people of God in the past and will do so in the future. Perhaps a final lesson I learned in my vocational journey was this: to look for a need in your civic or faith community and try to fill it.