Thursday, September 25, 2014

Joy, Cynicism as Pilgrim to the Lovely

How lovely is Thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts
For my soul, it longeth, yea fainteth for the courts of the Lord
My soul and body crieth out, yea for the living God!
Blest are they which dwell within Thy house
They praise Thy name evermore!
How lovely is Thy dwelling place.
- Adapted by Johannes Brahms

For anybody who spends a lot of time on my blog, you would well wonder what in the world gives me joy.  I seem to complain a lot, don't I?

Once, the publisher of a book I raked over the coals in my review of it for, complained to my editor that I'm certainly having a hard time justifying the "recovering" part of being a "recovering cynic."  Just yesterday, I became particularly morose after discovering that all of the articles I'd read on evangelical websites that morning I strongly disagreed with, for various reasons.

"Where is the joy in my life?!" I felt like yelling to God.

Maybe one of the reasons I'm such a cynic, and suffer from clinical depression to boot, is because I encounter so little in this ordinary life about which I should be joyful.  I have a hard time seeing the good that happens, and tend to slip into a sort of entitlement mode when good stuff does happen.  "Well, it's about time I had something to be cheerful about," I've sometimes thought.  I used to laugh a lot, but I rarely do anymore.  Is my caretaking of my father, who suffers from senile dementia, finally taking it's toll?

Nineteenth Century classical composer Johannes Brahms did not want what's become his famous German Requiem to be particularly Christian, even though it relies on scripture for much of its lyrics.  Yet the fourth movement from this piece has become a beloved anthem for choirs in Christian churches where congregations appreciate classical music.

In the early 1990's, I was living and working in New York City, and worshipping at my beloved Calvary Baptist Church in midtown Manhattan.  Calvary's sanctuary choir helped to train me in appreciating classical music that honors God, and even though Brahms didn't intend for his German Requiem to be such a piece of music, I quickly became a fan of Calvary's recording of "How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place," or Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, which comprises the entirety of the Requiem's fourth movement.

That's the text, above, derived from the first four verses of Psalm 84, with each line repeated various times.  I've tried to find an ideal interpretation of this music online, but unfortunately, the links below are merely adequate for my purposes here.  However, if you're wholly unfamiliar with this work, you'll be able to hear the tune and see how wonderful the movement can be - when performed like a choir like Calvary's could sing it!

Actually, I have to confess that the recording I had of Calvary's choir had a piano accompaniment, but with the piano, the elegance and buoyancy of the piece can sometimes be conveyed more successfully than with orchestral accompaniment.

At any rate, that summer of whichever year it was, I took a week's vacation to my parents' summer home in coastal Maine.  It actually sounds quite pretentious to say that my parents had a summer home, but all it was, in reality, was the old one-and-a-half story cottage-type house in which my Mom had grown up.  But after Dad retired, they went there every summer, so it was a summer home.  And if you're going to have a summer home, no matter how plain or grand it is, what better place to have one than coastal Maine?

If you've never been to any of the towns and villages that line the far northeastern shores of the United States, you're missing some spectacular scenery.  There's a reason why some of the richest people on the planet own property along Maine's seacoast, and it's purely natural:  the rocky cliffs, the dense forests of pine, the sparkling blue ocean, and the many bays, inlets, little islands, reaches, coves, and stony sand bars that have etched the intricate waterline between where our continent's dry land ends, and where the bold Atlantic begins.

There are almost no broad beaches, or long stretches of any continuous land formation, along Maine's craggy shoreline.  And that's what gives it its character.  Combine that with the rare yet wonderful sunny weather coastal Maine can produce during its summers, and you'll understand why I say that "a perfect summer day in Maine is a perfect day indeed."

That particular summer, when I went to Maine with the cassette tape recording of Calvary's choir, I also got to enjoy driving my parents' car around coastal Maine, and with songs like "How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place" blasting as loudly as I wanted from the stereo system, I was truly joyful.

This is an example of me having joy, folks!  You heard it here first.

Of course, audiophiles will scorn the lowly cassette tape, but hey - this was at the dawn of CD's, and I can't remember if my parents' Mercury Sable even had a CD player in it.  But driving down the steep slopes on coastal Maine's crusty, narrow roads, and darting across its rickety bridges between outcroppings of pine trees and monstrous granite boulders, I marveled at how lovely is the dwelling place our Lord of Hosts has created for us here on Earth.

Then, too, maybe my cynicism, however unsuccessfully I'm recovering from it, represents my fainting for the courts of the Lord.

Sometimes, although I know that contentment is a virtue, I wonder if we get too content with the wrong things here in our lives.

Not that cynicism is a virtue, of course.  But even though this world can have some wonderful beauty in it, like along coastal Maine, I know it's not my home.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
- Psalm 84:5

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