Songs for the Ascended Christ and the Descending Spirit
Why This Dark Conspiracy/Psalm 2
Psalm 2 may be best known through that famous aria in Handel’s Messiah in which the bass thunders and the strings shudder: “Why do the nations so furiously rage together? And why do the peoples imagine a vain thing?”
Psalm 2 doesn’t exactly start off in a way that invites congregations to sing! Yet this royal psalm is one of the most frequently quoted in the New Testament, and it’s applied to Christ, the Anointed One, the great Son of David. Together Psalms 1 and 2 provide the entrance into the entire book of Psalms, beginning with the significance of God’s law in Psalm 1 and continuing with the significance of God’s reign in Psalm 2.
These are “twin themes that . . . recur throughout the Psalter” (Psalms for All Seasons, p. 11).
So how do we sing Psalm 2 in worship? In our day of worldwide conflicts, where nations rise up against each other and citizens rise up against tyrant leaders, we need more than ever to sing this psalm calling all leaders to account. “Why This Dark Conspiracy” is up to that challenge, providing a text and tune that together have grit and staying power. (I grew up singing this psalm to, of all things, the tune of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” A great tune, but not for Psalm 2!)
This text is published for the first time in Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship (2012, copublished by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Faith Alive Christian Resources, and Brazos Press). The text’s author, Rev. Norman J. Goreham, a Methodist pastor from New Zealand who began writing hymns after he retired, responded to the psalm search by Faith Alive Christian Resources.
The match of this text to CHRIST IST ERSTANDEN is brilliant. Martin Tel, senior editor for Psalms for All Seasons, remembers mulling over a tune choice together with John Witvliet and Joyce Borger, the other members of the editorial team: “I can't remember exactly whose idea it was to try CHRIST IST ERSTANDEN. Like many of these experiments, it was truly group brainstorming! I do remember working it out. It is a great match, [especially] for those who have associations with the Easter text.”
This tune from the earliest days of the Protestant Reformation was actually forged from a German Easter hymn dating from 1100. The 1987 Psalter Hymnal set this tune to an Ascension text celebrating the reign of Christ (see RW 88 for more background). The Easter and Ascension theme is very appropriate for Psalm 2. Norman Goreham agreed: “When I saw the proposed setting for my psalm, I was really delighted . . . the ‘Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy!’ and ‘Alleluia!’ lines respond very well to the intention of the stanzas they follow.”
Singing “Why This Dark Conspiracy” any Sunday to celebrate the reign of Christ would be appropriate, but it’s especially appropriate on Ascension Day, given the stanza 2 reference to “this Coronation Day.” Beginning the service with this hymn would wake people up to the startling challenge they are laying before all earthly rulers in honor of Christ. Or perhaps this could be sung after a sermon that challenges all leaders, large and small, to “Honor Christ as Lord of all.” Sing with full voice and bold accompaniment.
Wordless, Ancient Earth’s Foundations
The little refrains “Lord, have mercy” and “Alleluia” in the middle of the previous song reminded me of a hymn I learned this past summer with a similar “internal refrain.” The first word tipped me off that it might just refer to Psalm 19, and indeed it does. This hymn speaks of the wonders of God’s creation: “speechless, boundless constellations voice their awe” (st. 1, referring to Ps. 19:1-4), and we respond with “Hallelujah” (using the Hebrew word for “praise the LORD” rather than the Greek “Alleluia” of the previous hymn). The second stanza becomes a confession, lamenting human abuse of creation; we pray using the ancient Greek words Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy). In the third stanza we pray for the Holy Spirit to “heal us, feed us” as we yearn for and seek “Christ’s shalom” not only for ourselves but for all of creation. “Maranatha” (“O Lord, come”) is an Aramaic expression of the early church that Paul used at the end of 1 Corinthians. So here we have internal refrains from Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, ancient prayers that have been sung throughout the history of God’s people.
The text is quite new, but it is set to an older tune. Andrew Donaldson wrote the text in 1993; it was then published in the hymnal for which he was editor: The Book of Praise of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (1997). This past year Donaldson left his long-standing position in a Presbyterian church in Toronto for a new one as Consultant in Worship and Spirituality for the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. He writes,
I wrote the text in response to a Hymn Society search for hymns, and with HELMSLEY in mind. The apocalyptic associations of the tune seemed to me a natural fit with growing concerns about the environment. The line “cradle fragile in your palm” comes from the fact that I was reading Julian of Norwich at the time, and was struck by her famous image of the hazelnut lying in her hand. I chose the three prayers within it— Hallelujah, Kyrie eleison, and Maranatha—with roots in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, to represent, as it were, various parts of the Christian church sharing a concern for God's creation. [The reference to “apocalyptic associations” comes from a Charles Wesley text to which HELMSLEY is often set: “Lo, He Comes (or, “Jesus Comes”) with Clouds Descending.”]
Lord, Fill My Whole Heart with Love
Much attention this past year has been focused on the amazing succession of events called the “Arab Spring.” This next hymn comes from Egypt, a country undergoing tremendous upheaval. The Christian church there dates all the way back to the apostle Mark, who went to Alexandria shortly after the ascension of Christ. Christians were a strong majority at one time, but now their number is small, and they are vulnerable. Muslims number about 90 percent of the population. Of the 10 percent who are Christian, about 90 percent are Coptic Christians. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church is the oldest and largest Protestant group that makes up the remaining 10 percent. But the number of Protestant Christians, as in so many Arabic-speaking countries, continues to shrink.
“Lord, Fill My Whole Heart with Love” comes from the Arabic hymnal of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt. This prayer takes on deeper meaning when we sing and pray for God to pour out his Spirit on the Arab church as well as on Christian churches, to fill us all with love (st. 1), surrendering our spirit to God (st. 2). As in the previous hymn, and so many others, the hymn ends with a view toward “that great Day” when Jesus will certainly return (st. 3). It is also published in Global Songs for Worship (2010, Faith Alive Christian Resources) which includes two other worship songs that come from Arabic-speaking Christians.
One way to unite our hearts to our Egyptian brothers and sisters in Christ and in the larger Arab world is to receive this gift of song from them. This hymn could be sung as a prayer on Pentecost Sunday, a day when we celebrate the pouring out of the Spirit and the beginning of the spread of the church in obedience to Christ’s command to “go into all the world.” Here are some ideas for singing and worshiping with this song on Pentecost Sunday:
- Use the first two (or four) lines of stanza 1 as a sung refrain to a spoken prayer, then sing the whole song at the conclusion of the prayer.
- Pray especially for the Christian church in the Middle East on the Sunday you sing this.
- If you know someone from the Middle East, or someone who has lived or worked there, consider asking them to lead the prayer.
May the Love of the Lord
This lovely benediction was composed by a husband and wife from Singapore. My own congregation has grown to love it; we have sung it not only as a parting blessing at the end of the service, but this past Advent we sang it while our young children processed out for their own worship time.
The song was published in Sound the Bamboo (GIA 1990; rev. 2000). It contains 315 Asian Christian hymns from twenty-two countries in forty-four languages. This collection is the result of a huge labor of love by I-to Loh, a Taiwanese scholar and ethnomusicologist. For many years he traveled across Asia with a tape recorder, interviewing countless people. Now another book resulting from that work has been released: the Hymnal Companion to Sound the Bamboo: Asian Hymns in Their Cultural and Liturgical Contexts (GIA, 2011). From this book I learned the story of this hymn. It is best told in the words of I-to Loh:
Swee Hong Lim and Maria Ling were thankful to God for the birth of their first baby after many years of waiting. One day after his birth, the baby stopped breathing, but the prompt action of the nurses revived the baby. In gratitude, Ling wrote this lullaby, and Lim composed the song, whose accompaniment seems to convey a rocking crib. This hymn can be sung as a benediction at the close of a service or as a prayer for sending people off.
I-to Loh then quotes Swee Hong:
The tune was created initially as a lullaby. However, as a result of God’s providence in the life of our son, Soon-Ti, Maria created the English text loosely around the Hebrew scripture of Numbers 6:24-26. Musically speaking, with the melody having a lullaby nature, the keyboard accompaniment was deliberately kept simple and tender to strengthen the imagery of resting in God. The tune SOON TI was named after our child; it literally means “pure knowledge [of God]” in Teochew (a southern Chinese dialect).
Swee Hong Lim was inspired by I-to Loh to became a musician; he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the life and work of I-to Loh. Swee Hong Lim recently moved to the United States to teach at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
I believe your congregation will learn to treasure this benediction. One way to introduce it would be with flute and piano; have it sung twice, first by a soloist, then by all. The accompanist should play very softly until the song “blossoms” at the words “May God’s countenance shine upon you . . .” Also consider repeating that section, perhaps even a bit slower the last time.