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Essay

Recall

By November 4, 2011 2 Comments
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Ten years ago maybe, my in-laws, then in their eighties, told us that they had simply mentioned to the pastor, as if in passing, that occasionally they’d like to sing the old songs once, too. They’re not pushy people, believe me. The church had gone wholesale to the new and fresh “praise ‘n worship” genre, and they simply got a little tired of being left out.  If worship is really dialogue between us and God, then the music they were singing was, well, something akin to Farci maybe.

The pastor’s patronizing response to the old fogies was that sometimes it was simply necessary to change with the times.  I’m sure he gave them a sweet, sweet smile.

My father-in-law didn’t spit right then and there–after all, once upon a time the pastor was the dominie.  But when we came around the next time, he unloaded on us. “Change?” he said, fuming. “I started farming with horses, didn’t have indoor plumbing until the late 50s. He’s telling meabout change?”

I love that story.

Last night I was looking for an old hymn, a psalm, the kind of music my in-laws were missing.  I needed it for a worship I was setting up with folks who really didn’t know the old psalms at all and had probably never sung them.  I was looking for 122, “To the hills, I lift mine eyes. . .”

Once upon a time in the Dutch Reformed tradition–long before my time or theirs–the only kosher congregational music was the psalms, truly biblical songs, or so Dordt said–not the college, the synod.

The old hymnals I was reared with had a hundred other options, but the very heart of congregational singing, even when I was a child, was the psalms.  My high school catechism teacher–the preacher, of course–wasn’t satisfied with our memorizing what he called “the Heidelburger” alone; he loaded us up with the mimeod lyrics of the old psalms too, on 9×13 thick and splotchy sheets.  All of that was long before memorization became cruel and inhuman punishment. 

So last night I put on a brand new CD of psalms from an old hymnal, a set I picked up at the college bookstore, the one in the pews when I was a boy.  Old psalms, old hymnal.

In fact, they’re playing right now, and I’m still blown away.

I don’t know if I’m blessed sufficiently enough to claim an full-blown revelation from God, but I got my heart thrilled into near-tearyness by a nostalgia I didn’t for a moment anticipate.  Something about the organ beneath those rich four-part harmonies triggered nobly rendered memories I didn’t even know I had. The language of those psalms–lyric and melody–were somewhere deeply buried in the synapses of my brain. More substantially, they’d obviously never left the unseen corners of my heart, even though many of them hadn’t played in my consciousness for decades.  Honestly, they all came back, even the most obscure, as if they were simply waiting to be recalled.  “In Thy Wrath and Hot Displeasure”–there it was, almost untouched, even the words conjured from some secret place.

It was beautiful, and I loved it.  But I’m not stupid.  I know very well that if I’d tell my pastor we ought to sing the psalms–the old ones–more than we do, he’d shrug his shoulders because he’d know without trying that if he’d bring it up sometime, he’d be kicking against the pricks. 

My in-law’s former pastor wasn’t wrong when he laid their burden down: times do change. My great-grandfather probably blew a gasket when some whipper-snapper from Grand Rapids suggested the psalms, God’s own poems, the songs of worship he’d always sung, should suddenly be unceremoniously packaged into that world-besoiled English language. What sacrilege.

I may were be the only one reading these words who has anything close to those particular memories. There is, after all, nothing sacred about the psalm texts from the old psalter; but last night–and right now, listen!–I discovered, strangely enough, that those old stanzas and settings still trip something in me, something deeply reverent, that “Awesome God” never, ever will.

And lo, it was good.  It was–and is dang good.  Just between you and me, I almost cried.

Here’s what I’m thinking: even if those old plodding musical texts never make it back into the sanctuary where we worship today, I know this much at least, that I’ve got ’em here, close to me. They’re on CDs, too; shoot, they’re even in my computer.  The truth is, they’re also on my iPod.

So there, with your inevitable, stinking change.

I still got ’em.  And they’re lovely.  Even digitally.

Where’d I leave those Kleenex? 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

2 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I'm with you. I love those metrical Psalms.

  • Henk says:

    This fine commentary should be re-circulated, Jim. But, as you said, it probably won’t make a hoot of difference. We’ll just keep playing those CD’s and keep the Kleenex handy.

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