Mel's Healing Pilgrimage 2016

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Monday, May 1, 2017

Blissfully Unaware of Threat

"Blissfully unaware of threat" in Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms

All Saints Pasadena Episcopal Church has an impressive musical program. I've sung with them for 17 years and in that time we've sung at the prestigious Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles several times with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And this June, we're tackling for the first time in two decades Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms (1965).

It's an amazing piece, sung in Hebrew, and full of deliciously difficult chord progressions. I can say wholeheartedly that I'm glad I sing bass for this work, as the tenors have a wildly challenging job in this score. If you've not heard it before, I invite you to our concert on Sunday, June 5, 2017, at 5pm. For those who cannot attend, we will be live streaming it at

One composer note had the choir giggling during our first rehearsal of the piece. It was above the women's parts. Berstein wrote "Blissfully unaware of threat".  Undoubtedly, that might be the oddest and most amusing composer directive many of us have seen.

And yet it had me thinking into the night.

You see, Chichester Psalms is based on several passages from the Book of Psalms. The English text is as follows

Psalm 108:2
Awake, harp and lyre!
    I will awaken the dawn.

Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

Psalm 2:1-4
Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
    against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
“Let us break their chains
    and throw off their shackles.”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
    the Lord scoffs at them.

Psalm 131
My heart is not proud, Lord,
    my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
    or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord
    both now and forevermore.

Psalm 133:1
How good and pleasant it is
    when God’s people live together in unity!

The "blissfully unaware" notation comes as the women are singing the well-known Psalm 23, where we shall not fear, and we shall not want, where we will fear no evil, and where we lie down in green pastures.

As they sing this, the men come in with Psalm 2. And, boy do we ever. It's a hard-hitting, menacing sound that feels like a war cry. It's violence depicted chorally. This pounding cry is a stark contrast to the bucolic, pastoral sound of the women's voices.

It bangs on the heart.

As I thought about the text, it made me think about life, and how we who regularly attend church cherish Psalm 23. We yearn for that protection and peace, for heaven on earth.

And yet, the nations rage.  The people plot, in vain. We are stymied in our effort to find that tranquility.

Are we naive? When we're blissfully unaware of the threat, are we walking with blinders on? It sounds like we're doing it unintentionally, innocently ignoring the dangers that lurk around us.

Or perhaps, just as disconcerting, we are doing it intentionally. We choose to ignore the threat, to maintain a facade of bliss.

And is it bad? Is it bad to be blissfully unaware of threat? If we are at peace with ourselves and our Maker, then shouldn't we be blissful, whether aware of threat or not? Shouldn't we be willing to march to our call with the happiness that we do so with an eternal protection and grace that cannot be threatened away? It doesn't specifically mean to me that we do not see the threat. But it might mean that we do not react to the threat, that we do not feel threatened. 

To feel safety in the face of threat. Call it unaware or call it trusting. But Psalm 23 offers refuge and bliss, even as we are surrounded by a valley of death. 

May we in the abyss trust Him with bliss.

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