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New Songs: Two Stories of Ministry

By February 1, 2005 No Comments
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What do I have to do to get an addition put in the Psalms? I have a new song that needs to be in there and isn’t, and with Psalms like 96 and 98 practically commanding new additions, I want to contribute. I assume we’d need an ecumenical council to act on it, debate it perhaps for several years, and then–well then this addition would fill a void. Here are two incidents that made me aware of this need.

We decided to attend an historic church in Dublin on our vacation. A choir from Belfast was going to sing, and the building looked… well… historical. But we soon encountered a problem faced by historic churches: how to sort the tourists from the worshipers at the beginning of a service. It wasn’t as bad as a church we had seen once in the Cotswalds that posted the sign, “No brass rubbing during services.” The brasses in this church in Dublin had probably been sent to England years ago. But they had stationed a woman at the back to do the sorting. She told me I would have to leave now, that worship was about to start. “I came for the service,” I replied. “Then go sit down,” she said matter-of-factly in a way that made one ask, “now why didn’t I think of that?”

But sitting down didn’t seem to be in the cards. I was rooted to the spot, a frequent response of my Parkinson’s disease brain when it accompanies me among crowds of people. “I can’t walk,” I said. “I have Parkinson’s disease.” I figured if the crowd just thinned a little I could make my way to a seat. But the postcard table was in the way, and so for now I was stuck. Then the sorting woman sprang into action. She grabbed me by the arm and tugged with all her might. I remember her as a large woman, with an-all-her-might tug that was considerable. But the problem was that my feet simply didn’t work, so this well-intentioned action simply pulled me over. I was trying to regain my balance and was asking her to let go. She had found a seat and was dragging me toward it, oblivious to my pleas now that she had found a way to help. The tourists who hadn’t left yet were treated to a spectacle, not altogether unlike bear baiting, a sport hard to find in modern Ireland. In testimony to her qualifications as the sorting woman, she got me to that seat, and there, Prayer Book in hand, I was led to reflect on the missing Psalm, because I was looking for it and could not find it.

Many well-known Psalms ask the Lord to deliver us from our enemies.

O LORD, my God, I take refuge in you; Save and deliver me from all who pursue me;

Psalm 7:1

How long shall I have perplexity in my mind and grief in my heart, day after day? How long shall my enemies triumph over me?

Psalm 14:2

O LORD God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, show yourself. Rise up, O judge of the world; Give the arrogant their just deserts.

Psalm 94:1-2

Yet the sorting woman was not my enemy. She was killing me with kindness, with misplaced actions resulting from real concern for my welfare. Hence my proposed addition to the Psalms. I think it would look good toward the beginning of Psalm 7, but I’d settle for Psalm 151. I put it into those parallel verses the Psalms are supposed to have so the ecumenical council can pay attention to the content.

Psalm 151

A Psalm of Donald


When he was hemmed in on every side

  1. How long, O God, must I totter when I would walk, When will you hear me in my distress?
  2. Help me, for I am weak. Succor me for I no longer respond to my own commands.
  3. Protect me, O Lord, from my friends, Shield me from those whose kindness is my destruction.
  4. Teach them to wait in love, Lead them to ask me how I am and what I need before they act.
  5. And protect me also from myself. Help me to see the good intentions in help that hinders.

II

Marching with the Animals;

Marching Two-by-Two

Shout with joy to the LORD, all you lands;

Lift up your voice, rejoice and sing.


Psalm 98:4

I was watching television the night they played some catchy music for the credits at the end of a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. I couldn’t resist getting up and prancing around the room to that music, even though I knew I couldn’t. It was nighttime, and at night, when my medicine wears off, I can barely walk, never mind prance. Yet the music was irresistible and so I got up and, lo and behold, I could walk jauntily from room to room. Somehow the usual deficits of dopamine that inactivate my movement coordination mechanisms could be overcome by the beat of that music.

My wife Jane was there watching this performance and wondered if a metronome would have the same effect. You’ve probably seen the old-fashioned metronomes, small pyramids of wood with a weighted arm that will move back and forth and click at the tempo you set. We have one of those, but we also have some solid-state electronic metronomes. Jane fished one out of a drawer, and we turned it on, setting it to 100 beats per minute. Every minute 100 equally spaced electronic ticks came out of the little plastic box, each pop accompanied by a flash of a red light. The credits on the movie were now over, but I found I could walk just as well with the metronome ticking as with the whole orchestra.

A computer search of the literature revealed that several clinics have demonstrated some effectiveness of metronomes for people with a Parkinson’s disease symptom called “FOG”: freezing of gait. FOG is familiar to many Parkinson’s sufferers, ranging from a shuffling walk to complete loss of movement. In my case, I can imagine my feet going. I can see them there and I know that all I have to do to make progress is to raise first one foot and then the other. But I can’t act on this knowledge. I get stuck–but sometimes I can unstuck myself with the help of a metronome.

For the metronome to do its work, however, I have to remember to bring it with me. It was New Year’s Day, and I decided to do some work in my office at school. Jane drove me the five blocks and let me out just in front of the entrance. Seeing me zipping up the stairs to the door, she drove off, but just as she disappeared around the corner, I reached the door, found it locked for the holiday, and simultaneously I froze up. My wonderworking metronome was at home on a table. Dancing I was stuck, and it was a holiday when quite possibly everyone was staying home but me. Out in the cold in front of the Peale Science Center I wondered if any help would come along, and for that matter, anyway, how someone could assist me.

I managed to make it down the stairs. Even at my most frozen, I climb up and down stairs quite well. Mysteriously, it’s the level places where I can’t move. Now I was at a level place. A brick wall separated the public sidewalk from the walk that runs down a ramp to a door that I can unlock. Still frozen, I was trying to get around the wall, but the wall and I were equally immobile.

Jon is a colleague of mine who lives right across the street from the science center. I don’t know if he was coming anyway or if he saw me out of his living room window, but suddenly there he was, and he said, “Is there any way I can help you?” I told him I was stuck. And I told him about my discovery of the metronome and that I had forgotten and left it at home.

He asked me the principle by which the metronome worked. Did music work or just the beat of the metronome? No, music works if it has a beat. “Well then,” said Jon, “maybe we can get you down to the door if I sing to you.” He said he knew a song with a catchy beat that he sang with nursery school children at his church. The song had to do with “marching, marching animals” going into Noah’s Ark. He began to sing. And it worked! Slowly I worked my way around the wall and down the ramp. (My wife wants me to explain why I didn’t just sing to myself. It never occurred to me. Do I sing?) What a sight it must have been: two supposedly dignified professors marching down a ramp to the tune of “Noah’s Ark.” Fortunately, it was a holiday.

I’ve noticed that people deal with my disease in three different ways. Some just ignore my weakness and never mention it. In such people’s company, I ignore it too. A second group seems to want to tell me how I am. If in response to their questions I say that I’m fine, they may pat me on the shoulder and look mournfully at me as if to say, “Good of you to keep up appearances, but I know you’re on your last leg.” Or they tell me about a relative who is worse off than I am, expanding in some way on the theme “as I am now you soon will be; prepare yourself to follow me.” Or as one well-wisher put it, “I know how you feel, my mother died from that.”

But there is a third category of people, Jon being one of them, who say simply, “Is there any way I can help”? Then, with creativity and caring, in one way or another, they sing.

Donald Cronkite is a professor of biology at Hope College, in Holland, Michigan, and a contributing editor for Perspectives. He has published many pieces in Perspectives that explore the relation of science and faith, but this time he proposes a more ambitious project.