Carrie Newcomer’s new album, “The Beautiful Not Yet”, does not depart from the musical or lyrical trajectory which has marked the artist for more than a decade. Newcomer is not a trivial song-writer; she has a way of making the ordinary and every-day become sacred and precious. The “Beautiful Not Yet” seems to me to be one of her more overtly spiritual and hopeful albums with songs such as Lean in Toward the Light, Help in Hard Times, You Can Do this Hard Thing, Where the Light Comes Down, and of course the title track itself. As a professor of practical theology, I say, “this is good theology”, which cannot be said for the majority of albums out there! In many ways it is a theme album rather than a collection of disparate songs. I see that as the strength of the album: it holds together and it is going somewhere hopeful.

Her trademark theme of embracing the sacred in the ordinary on many of her albums comes through in almost every song on this album but particularly in the poignancy of “Three Feet or So” reminding us that we don’t have to look far to see God’s blessings as well as “A Shovel is a Prayer” which explores the theme of “practicing the presence of God.”

Unfortunately, the companion book does not add much to the album for me other than having song lyrics in readable sized font. The poems are, as she explains, often the raw material for her song lyrics, and the very short essays just explain in prose what she has shared in poetry and lyric. I do love her commencement address though! It nicely wraps up all of her song lyrics over the years in three points: be kind, be true, and pay attention.

Musically she also stays with the tried and true folk and roots formula which is an appropriate flesh and bone for the soul of her lyrics. My favourite musical moment is when the background singers chime in with “Lean in toward the light” on the opening song but it does not really get much more adventurous than that musically; and, perhaps it does not need to.

The shadows of this world will say,

There’s no hope—why try anyway?

But every kindness large or slight,

Shifts the balance toward the light.

Each autumn as I begin the academic year and anticipate the arrival of students I often choose a motto, a Bible verse, or a quote that will inspire and ground me for the year. In Joyce Rupp’s book, Dear Heart Come Home, she describes a number of images of midlife generativity that can be applied uniquely to my role as a college professor who teaches primarily in the area of spiritual formation.

I want to be a house at night with light shining from all the windows calling me to be a presence and vision for others.

I want to be an apple with seeds in it reminding me of the potential of growth in all students.

I want my life to be a holy shrine where students can come and feel a sense of peace, wonder, and oneness.

I want my life to be a womb where I can provide a safe place for inquiry and help generate life for those who are searching for it.

“There are days when I dream myself to be a dandelion to the last puff; a full circling miracle hanging onto a fragile stem, complex in my beauty yet simple in my standing—knowing I’ll only grow again if each intricate delicate parachute of mine is pulled off, whirled away and seeded in some strange new soil.”

“I am convinced that if I can be honest and vulnerable with my own process, others will draw courage and comfort from it because they will see some of their own life reflected in mine. This sharing is not easy for me to do. As an introvert I feel as if I am walking naked on the pages. But I also believe I am called to do this and I want to honor this call from within.”

I have completed my reading of all 150 psalms in English verse. Besides lament psalms, one of the common themes is the glory of creation. Summer is a good time to experience the great outdoors and God’s creation. For my last post in the “psalms for summer” series I give you my top 10 outdoor moments of the summer [in no particular order] and the middle verses of Psalm 148 in English verse.

 

  1. Soaring 600 feet in the air over a valley holding hands with my lover on a zip-line near Whistler
  2. My granddaughter running dirt through her fingers in the backyard potato patch
  3. Hearing the gurgle of a creek on the “Love Walk” north east of Mission
  4. The waving high grasses and a sudden downpour at Batoche, SK overlooking the South Saskatchewan River
  5. Cruising in a boat on Rock Lake in southern Manitoba on a quiet evening
  6. The view south from Heritage Park in Mission with the Fraser River in the foreground and Mount Baker in the distance
  7. The green of the Thompson River valley with dry barren hills rising above it east of Kamloops
  8. The first view of the Rocky Mountains on the western horizon as we approach Calgary from the east
  9. Walking in the cool of a cedar grove in Revelstoke National Park near the Trans-Canada Highway on a hot day
  10. Driving across Saskatchewan and seeing the big sky over the prairies with myriads of cloud formations

 

Praise him, heav’ns that heav’n upbear;

Waters, higher hung in air

Let them praise their sov’reign Lord,

For they rose beneath his word :

He hath fix’d their places fast,

With a bound that ne’er was pass’d.

 

Praise the Lord from earth below;

Monsters of the ocean’s flow ;

Fire and cloud, and snow and hail,

And the storm’s obedient gale ;

Mountains, and their highlands all;

Fruitful groves, and cedars tall;

 

Beasts that field or forest bore ;

Worms that creep, and birds that soar ;

Kings, and men of lowly birth ;

Chiefs and judges, thron’d on earth;

Youths and maids in blooming choirs ;

Smiling babes, and hoary sires :

 

All, your Lord’s high name proclaim,

High and bright o’er ev’ry name :

 

I am almost finished my reading of the Psalms in English verse this summer. I am back at work along with other educators who return to work around this time, and many others in North America who have taken summer vacations. In Canada, we also celebrate Labour Day at the beginning of September. This is an appropriate time to reflect on the value of work while lamenting the dangers of worshiping work.

Most psalms originated for use at special occasions of Sabbath and worship but there is one that is appropriate for reflecting on work: Psalm 127. It puts our work into the larger perspective of God’s work and reminds us that we do not accomplish anything on our own strength no matter how long the hours!

Psalm 127 also celebrates the joy of family, which many of us have experienced this summer at gatherings and reunions. I am greatly blessed to have a life partner, four children, a daughter-in-law, and a grandchild as well as parents, siblings, in-laws, and extended families.

 

Except the Lord shall build the halls,

In vain the builder’s pain ;

Except the Lord shall guard the walls,

The watchman wakes in vain.

 

In vain the toil ere morning break,

The midnight couch unpress’d,

The anxious care that still must wake,

While his belov’d may rest.

 

God gives the blooming household band,

And crowns the fruitful birth :

As arrows in a warriour’s hand,

They guard the plenteous hearth.

 

How bless’d the man, whose quiver bears

So bright, so dear a weight!

The clash of arms unharm’d he dares,

Though foemen throng the gate.

 

Saturday, August 6 is the 76th anniversary of the one of the world’s biggest tragedies in history: the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. Thousands of people died that day with the death toll rising to over 100,000 after the bombing of Nagasaki a few days later. Since then millions more have died as a result of bombs and their widespread devastating effects. I pray that our remembrance of this horrific event give us strength to work for peace in our time. Today is also the opening of the Olympic games. I detest the commercialization and economic injustice of the games but I admire the spirit of equality and harmony between nations for a few weeks as they play together.

This is an appropriate day to hold the vision of an ancient psalm before us. Psalm 85 includes that wonderful picture of peace and justice embracing and love and truth kissing each other. When will that vision come to fruition? The answer is “blowin’ in the wind” but we continue to trust God’s promise and we continue to pray for mercy and long for peace. Here is the entire psalm in English verse.

 

Lord, thou hast bless’d our wasted land ;

Thy terrors cease to burn ;

And, led by thy deliv’ring hand,

Our captive tribes return.

 

Thy people’s guilt is all forgiv’n,

Their sins are cover’d o’er;

Thy wrath’s fierce storm has onward driv’n,

Thy smile has dawn’d once more.

 

God our Saviour, turn us still,

And let thine anger end :

Or, shall its clouds of vengeful ill

From age to age descend ?

 

Wilt thou not turn, that, glad in thee,

Thy people’s heart may live ?

Oh, give us, Lord, thy grace to see,

Thy full salvation give.

 

I hearken for the Lord’s dear voice,

And hear him gently say

Peace to the people of his choice,

Who turn no more astray.

 

Oh, o’er the hearts that fear his name

His bright salvation glows :

So guards the Lord, in peaceful fame,

Our smiling land’s repose.

 

And truth and mercy joy to meet,

And justice clings to love :

They bloom like flow’rs beneath our feet,

They shine, like stars, above.

 

God gives his grace, and o’er the land

The waving harvests spread :

Beneath his smile the righteous stand,

And he shall guide their tread.

 

For Canadians, summer is a time to be outside when the weather is most pleasant. We just returned from our annual trip across the four western provinces with a beautiful variety of trees, landforms, waterways, and skies.

There are a number of psalms with reference to creation. I particularly like what Burgess does with Psalm 46. Note how the stanzas are linked to each other in logical flow and yet how the central theme of the psalm—God’s presence, protection, and “peaceful victory”—comes through as loud and clear as the vivid imagery in this psalm.

An interesting trivial note is the use of the word “car” in the second to last stanza. Today in common language it is almost exclusively used to refer to the motorized automobile but of course it was not yet invented at the time of this translation and yet the word was already in use to refer more generally to “a vehicle with wheels”—in this case a chariot.

 

God is our refuge and our tow’r,

Our aid forever near :

Though earth should quake, and ocean low’r,

Yet shall not Sion fear.

 

Though mountains, sever’ d from the shore,

Fall thund’ring through the deep;

Though wild the waters rave and roar,

And shake the rocky steep.

 

A gentler stream, with gladd’ning tide,

Shall God’s fair city lave,

And, where the Highest’s tents abide,

Shall send its silver wave.

 

God, in her midst, with guardian might,

Defends her lowliest bow’r ;

And sure and soon as morning’s light,

God sends her succ’ring hour.

 

The heathen rag’d, but earth’s wide coasts

His voice dissolves with fear :

Our shelter is the Lord of Hosts,

And Jacob’s God is here.

 

Oh, come, his peaceful vict’ries know,

His wonders near and far ;

He cuts the spear, he breaks the bow,

He burns the warlike car.

 

Hark, how he quells the heathen’s boasts,

And sways the earthly sphere :

Our shelter is the Lord of Hosts,

And Jacob’s God is here.

Psalm 23 is one of the most loved and often quoted psalms of all time. I include the English verse version today for a few reasons:

  1. Because it is common readers will have a comparison in mind when they read. What do you think?
  2. It is a comfort to me personally today even though I do have needs, my life is not beside still waters, ill has befallen me, I am afraid, my cup is not overflowing, etc. Call it stubborn faith I guess.
  3. This psalm is about guidance through difficulty. I just got home from a meaningful time with my national church family where we did some difficult work of discernment together and all along I felt the power of the Spirit in a strong way, guiding us and giving us unity amidst diversity.

 

PSALM XXIII.

The Lord is my shepherd ; I ne’er shall have need :

He gives me my couch on the green, quiet mead ;

He leads me beside the still waters ; and brings

His wand’rer to pathways where righteousness springs.

And though through the valley of death’s gloomy shade

Thou call’ st me to journey, I am not afraid :

No ill shall befall me, with thee at my side,

Thy crook for my comfort, thy staff’ for my guide.

Thou spread’st me a banquet in eye of my foes ;

Thou crown’ st me with oil; and my cup overflows :

So, goodness and grace shall my footsteps entwine,

And God’s holy dwelling shall ever be mine.