Tag Archives: Call and Response

The Song and the Story

The Song and the Story (CaD Ps 136) Wayfarer

to him who led his people through the wilderness;
His love endures forever.
Psalm 136:16 (NIV)

Psalm 136 is one of the most fascinating of all the songs in the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics we all the book of Psalms. The ancient Hebrew songwriter crafted it in such a way that the the meaning and metaphor of the lyrics are as much in the structure as they are in the words. First, there’s the organization of the the theme:

  • Six verses about creation
  • Six verses about the Hebrews deliverance from slavery
  • One verse about the Hebrews being led through the wilderness
  • Six verses about the Hebrews conquest of Canaan
  • Four verses that echo/summarize the previous themes
  • A final call to praise God

There is no other psalm in the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics that utilizes the call and response device as this song does. Twenty-six times the refrain “His love endures forever” is used. That number is important because for the ancient Hebrews, the letters of their alphabet also did double-duty as numerals. Every letter was used as a number. When you add up the numerical values of the letters of the Hebrew name for God: YHWH (Note: the Hebrew alphabet doesn’t have vowels) the total is, you guessed it, 26.

As I thought about the structure of the song, I couldn’t help but think that it parallels every life story, my life story.

I have a creation story. There’s the time in which I was born, the family in which I was raised, the community of my childhood, and the events that set me on my path in life.

Like the Hebrew exodus from slavery, I have climactic events that shape and define my life journey. My decision to follow Christ and subsequent call to proclaim His message, my being cast in a film and meeting the mentor who would play an instrumental part in my life, my early marriage, the births of Taylor and Madison, the divorce that would end my first marriage after seventeen years, and the unexpected arrival of Wendy in my life.

Like the Hebrew wilderness experience, I have my own stretch of life’s road in which I wandered in the wilderness of my own choosing. I chose the path of the prodigal. I ran. I squandered. I was unfaithful to those I loved most. I had my own pig-slop “Aha!” moment. I had to find my way back.

Like the Hebrew conquest, I have my own slate of victories in life. I have accomplishments, awards, and successes.

And, through it all, God’s faithful, enduring love is woven through every major success and every tragic failure. His love is woven through my best moments and my worst. In his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Paul wrote that at the end of the Great Story that contains all stories, including mine, there are three things that remain: faith, hope, and love. he adds, “The greatest of these is love.”

In the quiet this morning, as I look back at my own story, I am realizing just how much God’s love shows up like the repeated refrain of Psalm 136. I am also reminded that like the 26 love refrains the song writer metaphorically employed to point me to God, Yahweh, I am pointed to a God who is love incarnate, which is the destination and goal of my entire story and life journey through this world. If I’m not growing into love in increasing measure as Jesus defined it, then I am (perhaps even with the best of intentions) headed in the wrong direction.

Call and Response

Call and Response (CaD Ps 134) Wayfarer

Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord
    who minister by night in the house of the Lord.
Psalm 134:1 (NIV)

My nephew Sam and his family came to visit last Sunday to hear Uncle Tom’s message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers and hang out with me and Aunt Wendy for the day. Sam mentioned that in their hour-long drive that morning they’d been listening to the music of an artist that his father introduced him to back in his childhood.

I love all kinds of music, and I consciously endeavored to introduce our daughters to all kinds of music. I even made compilation CDs of different genres and wrote liner notes to introduce them to some of the classic artists and songs of the genre. One of my favorites was Papa’s Got the Blues. In the liner notes, I described the connection between the blues and black gospel. One of the devices that both used is “call and response.” The lead singer calls out in song and the congregation/crowd responds with a word or phrase.

While the device is widely used in more recent musical genres, it is ancient.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 134, is the final in a series of “songs of ascent” that the editors who compiled the anthology of Hebrew song lyrics put together. The song is a fitting end to this section. It is comprised of only three-lines that were an ancient version of “call and response” that was sung between pilgrims who had spent the day worshipping at the temple and are leaving at nightfall Levites working at the Temple.

Members of the Hebrew tribe of Levi were responsible for the care, upkeep, and activities of the Temple (except for priestly acts that could only be done by descendants of Aaron). The lyrics of the song picture exiting worshippers blessing the Levites who will remain at the Temple to perform their duties through the night. The pilgrims sing:

Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord
    who minister by night in the house of the Lord.
Lift up your hands in the sanctuary
    and praise the Lord.

The Levite(s) then bless the worshippers as they exit:

May the Lord bless you from Zion,
    he who is the Maker of heaven and earth.

The reality is that “call and response” is actually a broader spiritual theme in the psalms and in the Great Story. Many psalms begin with a “call” to God anticipating the “response” to the song, prayer, and petition. In 1 Samuel, God “calls out” the boy Samuel who is confused until the priest instructs him to provide the response “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” In the Jesus story, a blind man incessantly “calls out” to Jesus and Jesus responds by healing him.

In the quiet this morning I find myself meditating on the spiritual notion of “call and response” which works in both directions. God’s Word and Spirit may “call out” to me. Am I listening? Will I respond? How will I respond? At other times, I am like the songwriters of the psalms, calling out to God in faith that God will respond. Either direction, there is an interaction that is relational.

“Here I am!” says Jesus in Revelation 3:20. “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice [calling] and [responds, as in] opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.