Passing Through (Psalm 84): Story Under the Song
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"Story Under the Song" for “Passing Through (Psalm 84)”
track 10 from Child Coming Home (album, 2019)
WHERE DID THE SONG COME FROM?
As I mentioned in the story under the song for New Father, my wife and I moved from Florida to Pennsylvania in the summer of 2016. When we moved, we knew I'd have the teaching job, but we didn't know where we'd be living. This change felt massive, and our future felt unsure. Would we be able to find a place stay? Would it be a good place? Needless to say, as we packed up our cars and trucks with our stuff, I was feeling pretty anxious and unsettled.
"How lovely are your dwellings, Yahweh of Armies! My soul longs, and even faints for the courts of Yahweh. My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God." - Psalm 84:1-2 (WEB)
Reading Psalm 84 in the Bible during that time soothed my heart. More than that, writing Psalm 84 on a notecard and mumbling it to myself during the day occupied my mind. Gradually, box by box and word by word, my idea of "a good place to stay"-- of a place where I'd be safe and loved, and a place where I could keep what I most valued-- started to deepen. I'd been thinking of a physical house as my home, but I saw that Psalm 84 was shaping me to desire God as my ultimate home and true treasure.
HOW DID THE SONG GROW?
After moving to Pennsylvania, we stayed with my wife's parents out in the country for a few weeks. and then we moved again into an apartment down the road from them. We stayed there until my second year of teaching (2017-2018), when we moved again to be closer to my job in the city (an experience that inspired me to write New Dawn). At that time, we also helped a family friend with relationship troubles to move into a New Apartment.
I kept my Psalm 84 notecard on hand in my pocket during all these moves. Each time I felt the deep and familiar ache of my life being uprooted, I reached for that notecard and mumbled its words to myself. By this point, the notecard was pretty weathered, but the hope of a home in God was starting to feel more firm to me.
"Lord, you have been our dwelling place for all generations. Before the mountains were born, before you had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, you are God." - Psalm 90:1-2 (WEB)
Through all the moves we underwent in Pennsylvania, my job at the school felt pretty stable. The sturdiness of the school building itself helped give me that impression. Even on rainy or snowy days as I walked up to its front doors, its enormous brick walls stood bright and strong, a testament to the good craftsmanship of the builders who'd made it back in the 20th century.
But in my third year of teaching (2018-2019), things changed. I remember that I'd taught a 3rd-to-5th grade choir rehearsal on the top floor of the building that day. I also remember that when my father-in-law came to my classroom after school for a teacher meeting (like the one that inspired Wonderlost), he didn't sit down like I expected. Instead, he ushered me to the top floor and pointed out a chunk of the ceiling that had collapsed onto the choir risers. With some sobriety, he said, "we will need to move from this building."
"The days of our years are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty years; yet their pride is but labor and sorrow, for it passes quickly, and we fly away." - Psalm 90:10
The school would move to a new building, and I would write out a new Psalm 84 notecard to carry me through the change. But before the move, as I swept the floor in my old classroom, I felt that familiar ache resurface, this time deeper than ever. The incident with the ceiling had shaken loose some primal fear in me. Sure, we could move to a new building, but what would stop the roof from caving in there? More to the point, what was my life but a house whose roof would someday cave in? I felt overwhelmed both by the changes to my circumstances and by the specter of my death, and I cried while I swept.
But eventually, in a pause, my fingers found the Psalm 84 notecard in my pocket. I took it out, and I started to sing its words. Before long, as I resumed sweeping, I'd come up with the whole setting of Psalm 84. More than that, my deep sadness and fear about change and my death had been transformed into settled joy and trust in God as my home.
WHAT'S THE BIGGER STORY?
With "Passing Through (Psalm 84)," the Singer's long journey has come to an end. Throughout Child Coming Home, the Singer has been animated by three main desires: by a desire for family and children, by a desire for home, and by a desire for relationship. In track 1, "New Apartment," he learns to articulate those desires when his girlfriend leaves him. In track 2, "Aching to Be Had," his heartbreak helps him question whether those desires are signposts to a greater family, home, and relationship than what he's lost.
In track 3, "Come to Me (Matthew 11:28-30)," the Singer hears the call to submit to, learn from, and find home through Jesus Christ. Then, having setting out on the spiritual journey of discipleship to Jesus, he soon encounters difficulty. He is able to persevere in his journey home to God by believing three truths he learns in Christian community. First, in track 4, "New Dawn," he learns to cling to the bright future he has as a subject in the Kingdom of God. Second, in track 5, "My Hiding Place (Psalm 32)," he experiences the spiritual safety he can constantly access through repentance and and submission to God's Fatherly care. And third, in track 6, "Wonderlost," he regains a child-like trust in the Father of his spirit, who is leading him home as he follows Jesus.
By track 7, "Lilac Orchestra," the Singer has received his three original desires in a physical sense-- he has a pregnant wife and a house-- and he's writing a poem about his journey so far. The journey, the Singer can now see, has been about Jesus leading him and the Church He loves from spiritual death to spiritual life for the sake of Kingdom fruitfulness. Then, in track 8, "New Father," the Singer becomes, in turn, a new father anxious about his son's birth, then a young man learning to choose love instead of childishness, and finally an elderly son settled in the eternal palm of his Father's love.
"I have set Yahweh always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my tongue rejoices. My body shall also dwell in safety. For you will not leave my soul in Sheol, neither will you allow your holy one to see corruption. You will show me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy. In your right hand there are pleasures forever more." - Psalm 16:8-11 (WEB)
But in tracks 9 and 10 ("(Reprise) Aching to Be Had" and "Passing Through (Psalm 84)," respectively), the Singer looks at the end of his life with a passionate desire that points beyond it. With his death closer than ever, he finds that his family, wife, and home-- though beautiful and satisfying, to be sure-- have been incomplete pictures of a greater Father, Lover, and Home.
Using the words of Psalm 84, in which a psalmist in the Old Testament voices his desire to see God in His temple, the Singer is able to voice his own desire: he wants to be home with God. The result of his journey so far is this: he has assurance that he will make it home. Despite the idolatry and sin which would otherwise have separated him from God's Holy Presence, the Singer can access God because he trusts Jesus. He knows that God is good, and that Jesus dying as God's chosen representative and sacrificial lamb means he, the Singer, is clean and can approach God as a son.
"But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives. In the end, he will stand upon the earth. After my skin is destroyed, then I will see God in my flesh, whom I, even I, will see on my side. My eyes will see, and not as a stranger." - Job 19:25-27a (WEB)
And what's more, though death would seem to be the enemy that has the final say against even the best homes and relationships, the Singer has learned that Jesus, the God of the living, has beaten death through his resurrection. The Singer has learned that the resurrection of Jesus means two important things about the future end of his journey home.
First, he's learned that, because he trusts Jesus, he too will live again after death, and not in some abstract, playing-harps-on-clouds kind of way. Rather, the Singer will have a body like the risen Jesus-- that is, a body that's both physical and glorified.
Second, the Singer has learned that all his desires-- his desires for family and children, for home, for relationship, and ultimately, for God-- will be fully satisfied in God Himself when the new creation comes.
In essence, the Singer has learned that the resurrection and the new creation are the best homecoming a child of God could long for. The resurrection is the door into the new creation, and the new creation is when heaven and earth-- God and humanity-- will meet. The new creation is what all the beauty he has felt or experienced have been pointing to all along.
And, astonishingly, all these things the Singer has learned to want by the end of Child Coming Home-- the resurrection, the new creation, the meeting place of God and humanity, the satisfaction of all desires, and God Himself-- all these things turn out to be a person. It's the same person who called him at the beginning of his journey-- namely, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus is the way home, and the one place where family, home, and relationship won’t be defeated by death.
"Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will still live, even if he dies. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?'" - John 11:25-26 (WEB)
"Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new." - 2 Corinthians 5:17 (WEB)
"Jesus answered them, 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.' The Jews therefore said, 'It took forty-six years to build this temple! Will you raise it up in three days?' But he spoke of the temple of his body." - John 2:19-21 (WEB)
"Jesus said to them, 'I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will not be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.'" - John 6:32 (WEB)
"I and the Father are one." - John 10:30 (WEB)
When Child Coming Home leaves off, the Singer wants passionately to be home with Jesus in the new creation. But in the meantime, through Psalm 84, he has learned a settled joy and trust in God as his home.
It was this same settled joy and trust that I felt after finishing the setting of Psalm 84 back in 2018. I immediately started planning to teach it to the choir. I thought that when our school moved to a new building, our community could find encouragement in the psalm’s words just like I had. Ultimately, I never taught my setting to the choir, but the intention to do so helped me to keep working on the music throughout 2018 and 2019.
Then, in summer 2019, when I'd almost finished Child Coming Home, my feeling of restlessness at the creek raised a new question: what more could I want than my family, home, and art? For the Singer in "Aching to Be Had," the answer was "to be had by someone in a deep, spiritual way." In the "Reprise," the answer was "to belong to God in body and soul." I included Psalm 84 in the album's tracklist because, in expressing that God was the ultimate Haver and the best person to belong to, its words gave the fullest form of both answers.
Once I knew Psalm 84 would be on the album, the final part of the song's story was deciding on an arrangement. First, I recorded the piano and vocals. Then, as I'd attempted with "New Father," I added drums, bass, guitar, and other "band" instruments.
After I finished adding the band, I ran the mix by my wife. She listened a few times and then advised me to return to the original piano and voice version. While "New Father" needed the extra instruments to match the colorful lyrics, "Passing Through (Psalm 84)" needed only the piano to support the passion of the words.
And that (not counting the Bonus Track, "Going on a Walk") concludes the story under the song for "Passing Through (Psalm 84)," as well as for the entirety of Child Coming Home. Thank you for taking the time to read about my (and the Singer's) journey toward God. I hope you've been as enriched by reading these stories as I have been by writing and sharing them. God bless you.
"Yahweh will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time forward, and forever more." - Psalm 121:8 (WEB)