Walter Brueggemann Recites Psalm 146
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Sometimes we have to make some difficult cuts for a one-hour show, but, with Walter Brueggemann, a kind of rock star in the theological world, it becomes even more challenging. The audio above includes one of these behind-the-scenes moments.
When Krista asked him to read a biblical verse that means something special to him, he responded by reading an excerpt of Psalm 146. Why he chose it and his explanation is even more intriguing.
Listen in and let us know how you react to his understanding of these verses.
Finding Refuge in the Month of Elul
by Carly Lesser (Ketzirah), guest contributor
(photo: Love Fusion Photography by Kelsey/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
It’s Jewish tradition to read Psalm 27 daily during the month of Elul, which falls during August and September. In this month of Elul, we have no holidays. It’s the month where we are supposed to turn inward and prepare for the High Holy Days: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. It always seems like this month should be one of quiet reflection, but it never is for me.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation…”
I started to adopt this practice a few years ago, and found that the words of the Psalm were exactly what I seemed to need to get through the month, which seems to have become a time of trial in my life each year. This year, like so many recent ones, seems to be following this pattern.
“Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;”
I’m conscious of not only my own personal trials and tribulations this year, but also our societal ones. So far this month, there have been hurricanes and floods on the East Coast and terrible droughts and fires in the South and West. We’ve also had bad economic news and the beginning of the remembrances of the tenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11th.
“Hear, O LORD, when I call with my voice, and be gracious unto me, and answer me.”
When I read the words of Psalm 27, it resonates deeply within my body. It doesn’t matter which translation I read. The words feel like mine. They feel like my cry for help to deal with a world that seems to be spinning out of control, whether personally or globally.
“Teach me Thy way, O LORD; and lead me in an even path,”
Each day as I read the Psalm, I’m aware that I am one day closer to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the days of remembrance and judgement. I think of the imagery we use: the gates of heaven open on Rosh Hashanah and close on Yom Kippur. I think this is sad to think that the gates of divine blessing can only be open to us during this short nine-day period of time.
“If I had not believed to look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living!”
Then I think, ‘Maybe this is why Elul is always so hard. Maybe the infusion of divine energy that is opened to the world so fully at Rosh Hashanah is fading out? Maybe thousands of years of this pattern has ingrained itself so fully on the world that we all feel it? Maybe what we need to do is be extra kind to each other and the world during this time, not for “repentance,” but rather because we need to support each other?’
“Wait on the LORD; be strong, and let thy heart take courage; yea, wait thou for the LORD.”
I believe in the cycles of time. I believe in mythic calendars that move our souls. I look to the “land of the living” to see the beauty, wonder, and mystery of G-d/dess, but it is hard to see in the fading light of the year. I will be strong. I will use these ancient words to remind me of my priorities and to sooth my fears. I will take refuge in Psalm 27 during this time of twilight because I know the sun will rise again and we all will be renewed and refreshed.
*Note, the translation of Psalm 27 is from the JPS 1917 edition of the Tanach.
Carly Lesser (a.k.a. Ketzirah – קצירה) is Kohenet, celebrant, and artist whose passion is helping Jews who are unaffiliated, earth-based, or in interfaith/interdenominational relationships connect more deeply with Judaism and make it relevant in their everyday lives. She is an active blogger and prayer leader on PeelaPom.com and PunkTorah.org.
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The Elemental Force of Music and the Human Voice: A Place Where Grace Can Come In with Bobby McFerrin
by Krista Tippett, host
Years ago, when my children were young, we danced around the house to Bobby McFerrin’s Hush album. I’ve followed his adventures with magnificent orchestras and with the jazz great Chick Corea. I’ve heard his setting of the 23rd Psalm, addressed to a female deity, played in churches. And I’ve watched him leading thousands of strangers in the “Ave Maria” — singing notes they did not know they knew to sing — to their own deep delight.
Bobby McFerrin is an explorer on frontiers of the human voice; he sings the territory between music and the human spirit. I knew this when I sat down to speak with him, but I couldn’t guess how beautifully he would be able to put it into words or how theologically he does so. As an interviewer, I’ve learned that words can be unfamiliar and blunt tools for people whose principal mode of expression is art.
As we first begin to speak, this famously hyperkinetic performer is very quiet. He tells me that as a teenager he considered becoming a monk, because of his love of quiet. He tilts his head upward, with a thoughtful smile, and says he was fascinated by the monastic rhythm of life that brought one, compulsively and predictably, back to an awareness of the presence of God.
Bobby McFerrin instead took up art as a measure of his days. His way of making music — “catching songs” as he describes it — points at the elemental force of music, especially the human voice, in what is human and what is sacred.
As I was preparing to interview him, I found an online review struggling with the spirituality that is never far from the surface in Bobby McFerrin’s music. “He may be spiritual,” the blogger wrote, “but he apparently knows the world of the flesh as well, and has a very wicked sense of humor.” Here’s the truth as I see it: spirit, body, and playfulness are of a piece in Bobby McFerrin’s music and his person, as they are in all of us when we’re getting the complexity of our being halfway right.
But he takes it a step further. He uses music, as he tells me, to lean into that place where flesh and spirit are in tension. He sings the Psalms, pacing back and forth for his morning prayer. He loves that they mine the sweep of human experience, from gratitude and delight to rage and self-pity. He even proposes singing in moments of temptation — singing, before saying a word or lodging a critique that you know is unkind, or that you know would be best kept for another moment. Singing as an ethical discipline.
I begin to wonder if this is a subtle part of the reason that we find music and musicality of wondrous variety at the very heart of our many religious traditions. As breath has a power to join body, mind, and spirit, so too and more passionately does music. Bobby McFerrin’s projects across the years — including his “instant opera” Bobble, inspired by the biblical Tower of Babel story — have incorporated Tibetan throat singing, Qur’anic recitation, and liturgical chant. He attends an African-American church sometimes, he tells me, and it cannot help but be soaked in energy and beauty, because the worship service is a kind of addendum to hours of singing together.
In recent years, Bobby McFerrin has taken the mysterious and life-giving delight of singing together to rooms full of strangers. On a stage with neuroscientists at the World Science Festival, he moved his body and the audience saw and sang the pentatonic scale. Science is now able to study what is happening in our brains in this kind of musical moment. And at the same time, we rediscover the primal joy and homecoming in the simple act of singing together with a bunch of other people. There’s a parable of our time in there, one that I like.
Near the end of our conversation, he tells a remarkable story of an ethnomusicology student who came to one of his concerts and approached him backstage with some urgency. She had been unearthing and cataloguing dead, extinct languages in Africa. How, she asked him, do you know some of these languages? He was, she said, singing their vocabulary and syntax when he was ostensibly improvising.
We are “embodied memories,” Bobby McFerrin says. Music may be one key (the only key?) to unlocking some of those. For me, this story also makes me wonder, “Is music older than language? Is song at least as elemental to what it means to be human as words?”
Bobby McFerrin says, “This is what I want everyone to experience at the end of my concert … this sense of rejoicing. I don’t want them to be blown away by what I do. I want them to have a sense of real, real joy from the depths of their being. Because I think when you take them to that place, then you open up a place where grace can come in.”
Grace came in to my conversation with Bobby McFerrin. And it’s left me humming.
Photo by Trent Gilliss.