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For 500 years “De steen die door de tempelbowers” was sung first crack out of the box at Easter morning worship, or so says Sietze Buning in Purpaleanie. Seriously–500 years. First thing. Easter morning.
It’s a line from Psalm 118 at a time when Dutch Calvinist churches sang nothing in worship but psalms. Once a church like Middleburg, Iowa, found itself on the emerald edge of the North American Great Plains however, even 500-year old traditions faded away in an endless horizon.
“That Stone on Five Easters–1946,1947, 1954, 1969, ?????” is a rather inelegant title; but there it is, towards the end of Purpaleanie, a poem which is the multi-part story of the battle for Psalm 118, a battle the psalm inevitably lost. Look it up and read for yourself. It begins on page 93.
Sietze’s culturally progressive organ teacher lets him know that traditions die, that those old psalms had seen their better days, that people can’t sing Genevan arrangements anymore, and good riddance anyway. Instead of “the stone the temple builders rejected” on Easter, she told him, play something moving like “Low in the Grave He Lay.” It was 1946, for heaven’s sake, not 1834.
Sietze suggests “Lo in the Grave He Lay” to the preacher, but the dominie goes on a rant about Sietze’s worldly music teacher, who would choose pap rather than substance, emotion rather than dogma. He claims starting the Easter worship with”Low in the Grave” would be dumbing down the good men and women of the Middleburg church.
Sietze, the organist, is torn. He respects Psalm 118 and its 500-year legacy, but the pressure of a changing world is immense, and he’s not Tevye. He won’t be tradition-bound.
In 1954, he’s drafted into the Army and sent to Japan, where he becomes a chaplain’s assistant and an organist. There, on Easter, he plays “The Hallelujah Chorus” and “Lo, in the Grave He Lay,” to begin Easter worship, but the inattention of the congregants is chilling–Easter egg hunts simply don’t compare to his parents’ rich Easter piety: “But I. . .felt nostalgia for Middleburg as I’ve never felt it,” he says, love for home, “where a dwindling congregation would be singing ‘De steen die door de tempelbowers.'”
In 1969, on a trip to the Netherlands, Sietze looks forward to Easter worship, where he is certain the congregation will sing Psalm 118, as they have for 500 years.
It doesn’t happen. Instead, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”
So he asks the Dutch pastor why, and in the only passage in Purpaleanie written entirely in the Dutch language, the story is told. Just in case you can’t read Dutch, here’s the translation.
On Easter Monday I sat with my pastor having drink together in the Café Pels on Leidseplein [in Amsterdam]. I had invited him [to join me] to tell him of my disappointment: an Easter service without “The Stone that the Temple Builders Rejected” just isn’t an Easter service based on Reformed principles.
“But,” said my pastor, “nobody sings Psalm 118 on Easter any more. Even before the war, everyone was just plain sick of the psalm as an Easter song; if it was still sung on Easter, it would have been done in local costumes in Zeeland. Easter calls for a new song. If you sing a song you are sick of, it is like stone hanging around your neck. Yes, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” is a simple song and not particularly theological, but for Dutch ears it is really refreshing. So, why did you want to sing “The Stone that the Temple Builders Rejected’” yesterday? As a way of remembering your parents? Or, just to be different? Is your whining about “The Stone that the Temple Builders Rejected” a matter of sentimentality or of principle for you?”
How could I say that it was a matter of principle?
They had shot the pastor’s right eye out when he had gone into hiding [during the war]. His right cheek still twitched nervously, owing to how deep the wound had been. His wife was at her wits end when her husband had been imprisoned. She turned to the bottle. How could I say that wanting to sing “The Stone that the Temple Builders Rejected” on Easter was a matter of principle?
Dr. Stanley Wiersma, brother of Sietze, explained his brother’s poetry in an interview years ago. “He is trying to sift out what was universally true in the gospel as it was transmitted to him; what was untrue, but nonetheless admirable; and what was false and not very admirable”–which is to say, what is good, what is bad, and what is not always good but just plain nice. Trying to determine what of his parents lives and values is the task Sietze is up to in Purpaleanie, Wiersma says.
Case in point: Psalm 118 in “That Stone on Five Easters–1946,1947, 1954, 1969, ?????”
But the long Dutch passage quoted above doesn’t end the Leidseplein discussion. Right after the preacher chides Sietze’s for his silly nostalgia and asks those difficult questions–“is singing Psalm 118 a matter of sentimentality or principle?”–he admits this in the final line of that conversation: “Now, personally,” said the pastor, “I actually really like to sing ‘The Stone that the Temple Builders Rejected.’”
All of that–Purpaleanie, Sietze the Army organist, a war-torn Dutch pastor, 500 years of “the stone the temple builders rejected,” and a dominie’s confession–is why, yet today, in the Psalter Hymnal, you’ll find Psalm 118 in its Genevan arrangement, versified by none other than Stanley Wiersma. Trust me. It’s there.
It’s Holy Week right now, a phrase none of my God-fearing ancestors, nor Sietze’s, would use. But I doubt anyone will sing Psalm 118 this Easter morning. “Lo, in the Grave He Lay?–sure, and certainly “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” These days, churches create their own hymnals. Almost certainly, many hundreds of songs and hymns believers sing will be brand new. Middleburg CRC is no more.
But Psalm 118 and “the stones the builders rejected” is still there in the hymnal, just in case someone cares to go back hundreds of years. Just in case. And now you know why and who did it.
Have another look at that inelegant title Sietze wrote to the poem about this psalm and so much more. See those question marks? He meant those to mean “today.” He is, after all, gone from among us.
But we still have 118 in the hymnal, even if we won’t sing it. Stanley Wiersma kept it there with his own versification, just in case. No question marks.
Sietze would be happy.