I write this letter on the day after Easter Sunday, sitting on row 57 of the seemingly endless flight to Bangkok, Thailand. The cumulative 40-hour flight time indicates to me that from Palm Beach, Florida, we are on opposites sides of the globe. The purpose of my travel is to conduct the musical presentation at the 50th Anniversary of PABWE’s (Philippine Association of Baptists for World Evangelism) missionary work in Thailand, and in addition, to debut another album: Psalms and Hymns of the Bible in Thai which have been set to Thai folk and classical music.
To commemorate a fiftieth year celebration with music is indeed momentous. But this isn’t a normal Sunday morning musical event. As I face the daunting task of coordinating members of the Bangkok Philharmonic orchestra, a Thai classical orchestra, an intra-regional church choir, and various national recording artists, I am overwhelmed. And looking back at yesterday’s Easter musical events back in the States, with its extra rehearsals and performances for Holy Week, I often wonder how our passion for music has culminated into such excessive machinations and busy-ness. Nevertheless, I am reminded that our vibrant and vigorous Easter and commemorative music celebrations are outpourings of praise and gratitude, stemming from joys unsurpassed by those who are in Christ. Perhaps this is what ultimately drives me to Thailand on this occasion, there are many Christians here wishing to celebrate in grand fashion, and I am honored to have been invited to coordinate these festivities, festivities to which many Christians in Thailand have yet to experience.
Our celebration is marked by Christ’s resurrection, annealed by a distinctively privileged indwelling of the Holy Spirit which fueled a wildfire that continues just as fervently today as it did two millennia ago. A few decades after Pentecost, the Word spread like wildfire (Acts 6:7, 12:24, 19:20), spreading to Judea, Macedonia, Rome, and south toward Alexandria and north through northern Turkey into Greece and into the Caucuses.
As the Word spread, Christians began incorporating the hymns, spiritual songs, and psalms of the Bible into their songs, noting that the Bible already provided the lyrics for corporate use.
From the Church’s inception, whole verse Psalm chanting (heightened speech) and Scripture hymn-reading, first exampled in Temple worship, soon spread to synagogues and home churches. From Jerusalem, the Word spread toward Judea and beyond, leaving musical imprints in its wake. These musical imprints indicate that psalms and hymns were embellished with musical accompaniment. The practice of singing Scripture alone continued unabated for several centuries. Masoretic manuscripts, preserved by Scribes in the first millennium, included musical notations called the te’amim. The te’amim gave rise to neumes, or musical markings, which accompanied, for example, the Byzantinian Psalms, which in turn gave rise to Benedictine and Gregorian musical annotations. Psalm-chanting held a place of eminence in the liturgy as the Church in the Middle Ages continued to flourish. The Word continued northward throughout Europe.
As the Word reached England, out came the Anglican Psalms. When the Puritans sought haven in the New World, along came the Bay Psalms Book. From other parts of the world, we hear of the Galineau and the Yemeni Psalms. Today, the Psalms, in whole verse, continue to be sung in Catholic, Anglican, and various Orthodox churches. Wherever the Word went, psalmody in the music-language of the people sprung up.
During the age of Discovery, the Word spread eastward to the Philippines under the banner of Catholicism. Here, Psalm-singing, though sung mostly in Latin and preserved in liturgical tradition, inhabited a prominent place in the service of the Mass. Colonialism brought a surge of Protestant and Baptist missionary activity converting many Filipinos to Christianity.
Fast forward to 1957, Filipino Christians seeking to reach neighboring countries with the Gospel formed PABWE – sending their first missionary to Thailand in 1964. It was through PABWE that my parents served with a handful of other pioneer missionaries. It was here in Thailand that I began my musical training, serving in a few churches before coming to the States.
This 50th anniversary celebration marks an important crossroad in Thailand missions. Notoriously hard and painstakingly slow, after fifty years of toil and perseverance, and much waiting on the Lord, the seed of the Word has begun to take root. With the veil of intolerance dissipating, the Word is poised to grow exponentially and spread rapidly. Just as the Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs in the Bible were annexed into the music of the nations where the Word went, now two millennia later, we see the Word moving once again with great speed in the Kingdom of Thailand. In its wake, we note a familiar trail, the Thais are beginning to put the words of Scripture into their own music. We are awed to be witnessing and participating in this historic occasion.