Sunday, February 23, 2014

Grafting Hymn

Root-stock of David, heavenly Vine,
Invigorate this faith of mine;
Keep me in You as twig or leaf,
And help, oh! help my unbelief!

Dig, water, dung, as You see need,
My barren soil. The fallen seed
Raise up, and train the tender shoot;
Yes, prune it, blessing pain with fruit.

Defend me from the beaks of doubt;
The thorns of worry harrow out;
From worldly care's root-sapping blight
Defend me, Lord of life and light!

And lest for naught my wounds have wept,
Help me new branches to accept.
Make us as one, and heal the gap;
Make flow through all Your single sap.

Thus grafted in, the life we share
Shall shine its beauty everywhere
With stronger flesh, resilient blood,
And fruit more plenteous, full, and good.

Remember, Lord, the thorns You wore,
The cup You drank, the guilt You bore:
Then, grafted to Your lively tree,
May I Your fruitful harvest see!

Jude the Obscure

Jude the Obscure
by Thomas Hardy
Recommended Ages: 14+

If I had read Anna Karenina after this book, it would have cheered me up. Hardy's last novel, written in 1895, stirred up such harsh criticism that its author never wrote another novel, although he lived until 1928. In me, listening to the audio-book while driving a sales circuit of convenience stores in rural Illinois, it stirred up feelings of failure and disappointment in life. The character of Jude Fawley is a scholarly chap who aspires from an early age to study in the university town of Christminster (in Hardy's fictional county of Wessex), become a clergyman, and distinguish himself in the world. His tragic disappointment, indeed his utter ruin, moved me in an especially painful way. I saw much of myself in him: three college degrees, with highest academic honors, and ordination as a pastor having led me to a 32-hour-a-week career marketing junk food and cleaning products. I have even tasted, to some extent, what it is to be a pariah. But at least I know it could be worse. I have never passed through the mangle of romantic heartbreak, much less as thoroughly as Jude does. I still have my health (more or less); I've already outlived him by a decade or more. And after all, I still have my faith, which is more than Jude has to sustain him at the end. I may be on my way to dying alone, like Jude, but that (God willing) is a ways off. How consoling that thought is as I grip the steering wheel, feeling that if the novel were but a little more depressing, I might aim my battered Volkswagen at a guard-rail.

There is a scene in this novel in which Jude's child from his unhappy first marriage pulls a murder-suicide, taking with him the two children of Jude and Sue, the love of his life. Sue then miscarries their third child. Their landlord, whose meanness may have indirectly triggered the tragedy—his insistence that the lodgers move out, because he didn't want a family with children living there—realizes that the notoriety of the case may hurt his business. So what does he do? He tries to get the number on the house changed. Somehow, this throw-away anecdote is what really clinched this book for me. In Jude the Obscure, Hardy skewers the cruelty and hypocrisy of the way society works. He shows how, even in moments when men attempt to do something about the injustice of it all, they end up merely papering over the problem so that they don't have to see what's amiss.

Jude is brought up by a crusty old aunt in a village in Wessex, where he is devoted to a local schoolmaster named Phillotson. When the latter moves away to be closer to the Oxford-like town of Christminster, Jude begins to dream of following in Phillotson's footsteps. He builds such a fantasy life around the university town that it shapes his entire destiny—well, that and a youthful indiscretion with a slatternly female named Arabella Donn. Though slow to abandon his dream of studying at Christminster, even after separating from his wife, Jude submits to the vicissitudes of being a stonemason, and thinks about entering the ministry via licentiate. Even this dream, however, is not strong enough to bear up against the temptation of his forbidden love of his pretty cousin Sue Bridehead, who ends up marrying (of all people) Schoolmaster Phillotson. Unlawful passion, bigamy, divorce, cohabitation, fear of marriage, and loss of faith in Christianity are only a few of the irregularities that bring scandal, disorder, and ruin to all four of these unhappy lovers. And when, at last, both original married couples are (air quotes) reconciled (end air quotes), the point is finally driven home that what is right in light of the letter of the law may, in the court of human experience, prove to be wrong.

I am not convinced that Hardy's critiques of Christianity and marriage are altogether just and reasonable. But I recognize truth in the unreasoning hearts of Sue and Jude, in their anguish and hopelessness, in their anxiety and grief. In a similar way, I can see redeeming features in Arabella, selfishly as she behaves from beginning to end; and repulsive characteristics in Phillotson, in spite of his conscientious and even at times self-sacrificing kindness to Sue. The book has a lot of earthy characters in it, and indeed it sometimes made me laugh. But the weight that I felt bearing down on me more and more as its ending approached was very like a disgust with the world and with the perversity of life. As for Hardy's career as a novelist, it's a shame that he ended it so soon. Scandalous though his moral outlook may be, and dangerous the likely results of the social upheaval this book seems to demand, he here proves himself to be one of the great creators of complex characters with emotionally devastating problems. Simply put, he moves the reader powerfully. Not all of his books affect one quite as painfully as this book does; but their effect is strong and memorable. Fiction's loss was poetry's gain. And all is, if not right with the world, more richly and poignantly wrong now that this book is in it.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Emerald Atlas

The Emerald Atlas
by John Stephens
Recommended Ages: 12+

Kate P barely remembers her parents. Heck, she doesn't even remember her last name; only the letter P. Mostly she remembers the night her parents disappeared, when her mother gave her a cherished locket, told her to take care of her younger brother and sister, and promised to return someday. Since then, Kate, Michael, and Emma have spent ten years moving from one orphanage to another, never getting adopted, and never settling down for long. After the head of the Edgar Allan Poe Home for Hopeless and Incorrigible Orphans reaches the end of her patience with them, the P children are sent to a remote orphanage in far upstate New York. So remote, and so far upstate, that even at the end of the dock where a boat is supposed to pick them up, nobody seems to know where it is. The orphanage turns out to be a seedy mansion overlooking a miserable village where everything seems blighted, and where there have been no children for the past fifteen years. This is due to a certain tragedy that no one wants to discuss. There almost seems to be a curse about the place. Naturally, Kate and her siblings are the only orphans. Could it get any worse than this?

Well, yes, actually. While exploring the building, in the hope of getting lost less often and avoiding the wrath of the sarcastic housekeeper, the children discover a secret room that seems to appear by magic. In that room they find a book bound in green leather, whose pages appear to be blank. But there is something mysterious and powerful about this book. It reaches out and grabs Kate somehow. She starts having visions of strange places and dreadful times. And then, quite by accident, she and Michael and Emma learn that they can use the book to travel through time. Fifteen years in the past they find the adjacent town a very different place. The castle they live in belongs, in that time, to a beautiful but evil sorceress called the Countess, who has enslaved the whole town by taking all the children hostage. She commands an army of zombie-like monsters that the children call Screechers—their grown-up name is the equally creepy Morum Cadi—and she seems determined to find an object of terrifying power that has been lost for thousands of years. And—oops!—that object turns out to be the very book the P kids have found.

The Atlas, as it is called, is one of three "Books of Beginning" that contain all the magic left over from the creation of the world. Their last known address was the Library of Alexandria, before it burned down in 30 B.C. Since then, powers of good and evil have been searching for them. Dr. Pym, who runs the orphanage in Kate's, Michael's, and Emma's time, is one of the good wizards. You already know which side the Countess is on. And now the children find out that all kinds of magical creatures dwell in the mountains around Cambridge Falls: dwarves, for example, and some horrible things too. Many of these beings, together with the townspeople and the villagers from the next valley over, are involved willingly or unwillingly in the search for the Atlas. Snatching the copy Kate brought with her from the future won't do. Only one copy of a person or thing can exist for long at one point in time. The Countess wants the Atlas that belongs to her time—which, thanks to Dr. Pym, lies hidden in the abandoned Dead City of the dwarves, deep underground.

So the race to get to the book first is on, and it's going to be a heated one. A dwarf king wants it for himself. The Countess and her minions are willing to threaten hundreds of lives, and even destroy a whole town, to get it—and she works for somebody (or something) even worse. Dr. Pym fears what will happen if it falls into the wrong hands. There's a lot of power in the Atlas, and once all three books are brought back together, whoever controls them will be able to destroy and recreate the world at will.

In the last analysis, it's all up to Kate, Michael, and Emma. For some reason, only they can find the Books of Beginning. A prophecy says so, evidently. Dr. Pym thinks so, and he's pretty sharp. And the Countess has a strategy to ensure that Kate will bring the book to her, so she can double-cross her master and keep the power for herself. So basically, the fate of the world is in the hands of three children who have never had anything but each other. What lengths will Kate go to, to keep her family together? Will bookish middle child Michael find his courage in time? Will Emma, the fierce fighter of the family, ever learn to stay out of trouble? These questions and more are put to the test while these funny and likeable children struggle to heal from a lifetime of not knowing whether they can believe in their parents' love. Plus, you know, they also have to save the town of Cambridge Falls, each others' lives, and the world, all while trying not to be swept away by a torrent of danger, dark magic, and mystery.

This first installment in The Books of Beginning is an exciting first novel by a sometime television writer and producer whose name you may recognize from the credits of Gossip Girl, Gilmore Girls, and The O.C. It looks like a trilogy is planned; the second book, The Fire Chronicle, was published in 2013. I am eager to see where this series goes, after meeting these charming characters and experiencing the comedy, action, warmth, and spookiness that this book combines so well.

Tacky Hymns 50

Alas, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod! Alas, Concordia Publishing House! Thy latest hymnal (The Lutheran Service Book, 2006) is only less tacky than the same year's Evangelical Lutheran Worship by a matter of degree. Mind you, I have skipped over a moderate number of tacky hymns that I have observed before, either in All God's People Sing, or in The Ambassador Hymnal, or in ELW. So you needn't observe that LSB has an admirable scarcity of tacky hymns. It's at least 50% worse than the above recital makes it look. On the other hand, one mustn't think either that I speak as a conservative stick-in-the-mud who objects on principle to everything new. In what follows, I have passed over many, many new (and newish) hymns without any objection; indeed, I admire quite a few of them. Just as I insist that it isn't diversity that makes stuff catholic, so I also insist that it isn't newness that makes stuff tacky. Everything should be held up to critical scrutiny. It's the apparent meaning of what the words and music say, or don't say, that interests me.

The numbering of hymns in LSB starts with 331, on purpose to avoid confusion between one set of numbers for the hymns and another set of numbers for the pages in the front of the book (which start with Psalms 1-150 and continue from there through 330). So don't be too impressed by the statistic that the first certifiable example of Tacky Hymnody in LSB is hymn 369, "Where Shepherds Lately Knelt." This Christmas hymn is by the late Slovak-American hymn-writer Jaroslav Vajda (1919-2008). The tune is by his frequent collaborator, Carl Schalk (b. 1929). Remember "Now the silence"? Theirs. (It's also hymn 910 in this book.) While Schalk's tune is banal, shmaltzy, and derivative—sufficient qualifications for mentioning this hymn here—the really awesome coup against good taste (as always, in the context of a worshiping Lutheran congregation) is Vajda's text, which does for the manger/cradle of the baby Jesus what "In the Garden" does for Mary Magdalene's vigil near the Savior's grave. Specifically, it invites the singer or hearer to imagine him/herself on the spot, either in spirit or in fancy witnessing the historical event. At the scene described in the first line, "I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred..." Really? This seems very personal, experiential, possibly only applying to certain believers even in whatever almost incredibly figurative sense it could be truly stated by anyone. "But there is room and welcome there for me," the next line croons, suggesting an inversion of the Real Presence of Christ in which we have to go to Him somehow (mystically? mentally? emotionally? in a dream or vision?), rather than finding Him coming to us. It sounds like a kind of communion with Jesus that can only ever be uncertain, and that has no basis in the Lord's promises. "In that unlikely place I find Him," stanza 2 adds. Unlikely indeed! Where are we supposed to find Jesus? This hymn seems to suggest some kind of mental or spiritual time travel. Stanza 3 twaddles on about Isaiah being there (surprise!), "his prophecies fulfilled." In response, "with pounding heart I stare"—which I'm sure exactly mirrors the feelings of everybody attending Christmas Mass. Stanza 4 brings the hymn to a touchy-feely climax with this Love that was born burning "its" (?!) way into my heart. I suspect heartburn, a bit of which I am feeling after taking this hymn.

I am disgruntled at 372 "O Jesus Christ, Thy manger is," not because of Paul Gerhardt's (1607-76) text, but because the hymnal editors found it expedient to replace a marvelous tune by Johann Crüger with a brand-new tune by Kenneth Kosche (b. 1947). This is only one of several examples of beautiful, historic chorales being swept aside in favor of freshly written tunes. Whatever the merits of Kosche's work may be (and I don't deny them), it isn't worth the loss of O JESU CHRIST, DEIN KRIPPLEIN.

373 "See, amid the winter's snow" is a Christmas hymn by Edward Caswall (1814-78), and a puzzling addition to our repertoire, especially given its not-so-recent vintage. It suffers the same drawbacks as "We three kings of Orient are"—i.e., the embarrassment of saying something biblically unfounded, and perhaps even factually incorrect, already in the first line. Nothing in the biblical record indicates that Christ was born "amid the winter's snow." Strictly speaking, Stanza 2's assertion that the infant Christ "within a stable lies" is also more than Scripture tells us. (A manger, yes. A stable? ...meh.) Other than that, it's just a pleasant little mediocrity that does not, in any way, cry out to mine ears, "This is gonna rock the carol-singing party!" Even less does it scream, "We've got to sing this of all hymns at our Christmas Eve/Day services!"

About hymn 378 "Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light" I have only one quibble. It isn't J. Rist's 17th century lyrics, nor J. Schop's 17th century tune. It's J. S. Bach's 18th century harmonization. As dearly as I love it, this arrangement of the hymn effectly makes it a choir piece. Organists of modest ability may also find that it taxes their powers to the limit, if not beyond. I think it is foolhardy to commit such an arrangement to the pew hymnal, although it has advantages for a financially hard-up choir director. This could have been reserved for a choir supplement or a book of alternate arrangements, while the folks in the pew were given a simpler harmony—possibly even the rhythmic version of the chorale as Bach himself arranged it in Cantata 143.

407 "To Jordan came the Christ, our Lord" is another instance of LSB gratuitously replacing a well-seasoned and most excellent chorale with a freshly composed tune, in this case by David Lee (b. 1956). Mitigating my irritation is the fact that 406 pairs the same text with the 16th century chorale originally published with the hymn, CHRIST, UNSER HERR. Lee's tune, ELVET BANKS, is likewise used in hymn 824, "May God bestow on us His grace," to give reluctant Lutherans an alternative to the historical chorale ES WOLLE GOTT GENÄDIG SEIN (printed with the same text on the facing page, as hymn 823). The subtle message from your publishing house is: "We understand that those poky old 16th century tunes are awful. We feel your pain. Here is a nice tune you might actually like to use instead." The trouble is, those tunes aren't awful. They are wonderful. Would that more Lutheran congregations learned to appreciate them, as some in my acquaintance already do. I think the chances of this are less now than they were before this book came out. And really, for what? Lee's tune, while it also has its attractive features, is no more memorably structured than the old chorales; its appeal lies mainly in its Pomp-and-Circumstance idiom, which folks this side of the era of Elgar find more immediately appealing than these older tunes which, as it were, still wore some of the ooze of the medieval tar-pits out of which ecclesiastical melody of their time had lately crawled. Lost in the trade-off, however, are several items whose importance is underestimated, such as: the ability to recognize and interpret musical symbols that can be recognized in the works of Lutheran composers throughout the past (nearly) five centuries; the ability to join in singing these hymns with folks accustomed to using practically any other Lutheran hymnal in the world; and the difference a tune can make in supporting the seriousness and dignity of a hymn, to say nothing of its meaning—and that, even when the difference between the tunes is as little as the difference between a pleasant valedictory march and a hauntingly churchly and ancient-sounding melody that breathes the soul of Luther himself. But hey, that's just my point of view. Who cares?

408 "Come, join in Cana's feast" is an Epiphany hymn by Herman Stuempfle (b. 1923),1 on the surface dealing with the miracle of turning water into wine, which is featured in the gospel for the second Sunday after Epiphany. The rhetoric of the hymn, however, seems to invite one and all to think thoughts of the Eucharist: thoughts which, however, do not specifically include the oral reception of Jesus' body and blood. This smacks of the same trend in Communion hymns that I noticed in my sack of ELW. It's easy enough to throw around equivocal phrases like "share the feast" and "drink the wine supplied," to speak of Christ as "both guest and host," etc. To say something about the Lord's Supper that confesses unmistakably what it is, is another thing altogether. One thing I mean to fight against till my dying breath is this spiritualizing tendency in Communion hymns, whether they are called that or not.

445 "When You woke that Thursday morning" is a Maundy Thursday hymn addressed to Christ, by the already lamented Jaroslav Vajda. And yet I am loath to say anything mean about this hymn. I just think it would be improved if the tune weren't this particular piece of shmaltz by Marty Haugen (b. 1950), on whom I made so many remarks while going through ELW. I have long recognized a pattern among tunes paired with Vajda's texts; even those of his hymns that are objectively better than average tend to be hampered by tacky, touchy-feely music. I wonder if this shows bad taste on Vadja's part or on the part of the editors at CPH.

466 "Christ has arisen, Alleluia" is a 20th-century Tanzanian Easter hymn that I only mention because of the strange fact that a certain ecclesiastical friend of mine, who gives frequent speaking engagements, takes it along on his traveling road show and makes people sing it before or after his presentation. He seems to think it is the type of hymn that will appeal to people in a way that more seasoned Lutheran hymns would not. Meaning no disrespect, I submit this as another example of questionable taste and judgment in music. Catchy as the tune is, I doubt that most congregations (even among those that use LSB) have sung it often enough for it to be more than an ethnically-flavored novelty. My advice to my dear friend would be to go for deeper substance and a longer-standing tradition of being sung in Lutheran worship. Failing that, at least be more ready to listen to an experienced organist's opinion of what hymns are likely to be familiar to a group of Lutherans from a broad background.

472 "These things did Thomas count as real" is a "doubting Thomas"/Sunday after Easter hymn by Thomas Troeger (b. 1945), set to a nice new tune by Stephen Johnson (b. 1966). I have also seen it elsewhere, set to a tune by Ralph Vaughan Williams. In either case, the part of this hymn that sets my teeth on edge is its gruesome imagery: "The grain of wood, the heft of stone, the last frail twitch of flesh and bone." I use the word "literally" literally when I say that I literally shudder many a time that I see or hear these lines; their effect on me is like fingernails scratching a chalkboard. But that's just me and my funny little ways. Troeger's judgment becomes objectively questionable in Stanza 2, where he over-analyzes Thomas's doubt, ascribing it to "his skeptic mind," which blinded him "to any unexpected act too large for his small world of fact." I'm all for a reexamination of the place of reason in questions of faith, but I think this interpretation of Thomas's motives for demanding evidence of Jesus' resurrection risks saying more than the biblical text reveals—may even be downright anachronistic—and certainly isn't charitable. At the very least, it's a biased interpretation of the text, one with which I would not insist that every Lutheran teacher or preacher agree. Stanza 3 uses the word "braille," with a lowercase B, in a way that, for all its appeal to advocates for the blind, lowers the tone of the verse in my opinion. And then stanza 4 manages with one word ("raw") to remind me of the shudder that I felt in stanza 1. I would be impressed with this poem if it appeared on a hymn-writers' online bulletin board, like one to which I belong; but my praise would be mixed with criticism—criticism meant to be helpful and constructive. But to see such a rough, unfinished piece actually published in the hymnal really disappoints me.

473 "Our Paschal Lamb, that sets us free" is an Easter hymn by the late Martin Franzmann (1907-76), set to a cheerful tune by Walter Pelz (b. 1926). As much as I admire Franzmann's poetry, I have long felt that this particular specimen is one that is better read aloud than sung. Like some other poems of his, its metrical sophistication works against the effectiveness of any musical setting of it. For example, the first three lines are: "Our Paschal Lamb, that sets us free / Is sacrified. O keep / The feast of freedom gallantly..." Stanza 2 likewise begins, "Let all our lives now celebrate / The feast; let malice die..." This makes perfect sense if read sensitively, and without undue emphasis on metrical rhythm. Such emphasis is unavoidable once you set the words to a tune, particularly a tune that must work for all three stanzas. Since the length of the grammatical phrases varies from one stanza to another, a composer must either write music devoid of points of rest or risk having them fall at awkward points in the flow of meaning.

476 "Who are you who walk in sorrow" is "road to Emmaus" Easter hymn by Herman Stuempfle, set to the early American tune JEFFERSON. The tune, together with the hymn's frank admission of the role that sorrow and grief plays in our life, make this an unusually somber hymn for the Easter season—one would almost think of it with Lenten feelings. I like much of what Stuempfle does in this work, but again, if it were to come up on that hymn-writers' bulletin board, I would tactfully offer some advice about how it could be improved. It's too bad nobody thought to offer similar advice before this hymn made it into the pew-book; perhaps nobody was in a position to do so. I think the rhetoric of the hymn could be improved by deciding from the start whom it is addressing, and sticking to that point of view throughout. Instead, it first asks the Emmaus disciples, "Who are you?" Then, in stanza 3, it asks Jesus, "Who are You?" Somewhere along the way we have ceased being omniscient narrators (as it were), sympathizing with the Emmaus disciples, and have merged with them as characters in the story. Then we step apart again in Stanza 4 and ask, "Who are we...?" I can't decide whether to be tickled or ticked by the way Stuempfle up-ends a trite cliche from Evangelicalism with the lines "At the font You claim and name us, born of water and the Word"—but I still think his two-line description of the Lord's Supper, immediately following this, continue the poet's record of failing to say anything about the Lord's body and blood. And finally, stanza 5 has the line "Make the Church Your servant body," which only reminds me once again how often "servant" is used as an adjective in today's hymnody. Verily, it is becoming a trite cliche in its own right.

481 "Scatter the darkness, break the gloom" is a not too tacky Easter hymn by the reliably good Lutheran hymn-writer Stephen Starke (b. 1955), set to a nice, joyful French noel. It's just the fact that the line about banners being unfurled, in stanza 2, is so obviously necessary because nothing else rhymes with "world,"2 that makes me reflect that the hymn-selection committee's guideline mandating equal representation by each century since the Reformation really is a foolish rubric. One result is that we end up seeing excellent hymn-writers like Franzmann and Starke on their off days, because their respective centuries don't have enough of real quality to set off against the 16th and 17th centuries. Another result, which I hardly dare go into because I don't know when I will come out of it again, is the number of excellent hymns from the golden age of Lutheran hymn-writing that simply had to be cut, to make space for these inferior specimens. Oh, and by the way, Stephen—in church language, "jubilee" (as in stanza 3, "Let there begin the jubilee") has a very specific meaning, and is not simply a synonym for "celebration." Oh, bulletin board, bulletin board...

489 "Hail thee, festival day" is a train-wreck that I have been ogling with some fascination since my early youth. First, this hymn by sixth-century Latin poet Venantius Fortunatus, can be found in another translation so that it can be sung to a very straightforward hymn tune. This present translation, however—cobbled together from multiple sources, in such a way that it has one of the most confusing credit lines in hymnal history—can only be sung to Ralph Vaughan Williams' (1872-1958) very irregular tune SALVA FESTA DIES. This such a very special tune that it begins with a refrain, which is repeated immediately the "1st time only," and then after each verse: Strike One. It then transpires that one is supposed to sing a total of six verses, but that there are three Verse 1's and three Verse 2's—one each for Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost: Strike Two. I mean, where are you supposed to put this all-purpose hymn? LSB awkwardly parks it in the middle of its Easter section, where the Ascension and Pentecost stanzas are far from home. Previous hymnals actually presented it as separate hymns in each feast day's respective section. One way lies confusion and complaints from the pews of "too much information." The other way lies wasted space galore. But then there's the fact that the even-numbered verses are sung to a different tune than the odd-numbered ones—and changes of rhythm and key do nothing to make it easier for the congregation to follow. Strike three!

502 "Holy Spirit, the dove sent from heaven" is a Spanish Pentecost hymn by Philip Blycker (b. 1939), translated for this hymnal. When LSB was being introduced to the Missouri Synod, I sat in on a hymnal workshop and actually heard this hymn being performed with the liturgical equivalent of a mariachi band adding color to the accompaniment. Like a spot burnt on one's retina by staring into the sun, it left an indelible mental image in my mind's ear, so that I can never hear this tune played or sung without being accompanied by the ghostly, yet still ghastly, echo of that supremely tacky performance. But I have an even more mortifying memory connected with this hymn. I once made the mistake of mentioning it to my church's choir (which I was then directing) as an example of a hymn in LSB that we would never use in church. Immediately somebody suggested that we sing it as a choir anthem on Pentecost. Lutheran choir singers being a non-confrontational bunch, nobody offered to vote against the proposal even when I begged with despair for objections. We ended up rehearsing it for several weeks. The week before the song went live, the singer who proposed it missed a rehearsal, leaving other members of the choir free to grumble about how this was the stupidest hymn they had ever heard and sung. I'm not saying I agree—my objection to this hymn is more based on the tackiness of putting on a stereotype of another culture, complete with stanzas in the original Spanish, which has virtually nothing to do with the background of the choir performing it or the congregation hearing it. And it will be a choir performing it. And the Spanish-speaking congregation does have its own hymnal, thank you. So on another level, there is also the embarrassment of realizing that what this hymn is really about, the most likely reason it would ever be used in our church, is touting our heroic inclusiveness and multicultural whatnot.

511 "Herald, sound the note of judgment" was written in the 1970s by Moir Waters (1906-80), set to a 70s hymn tune by David McCarthy (b. 1931). And while it has an impressive ring to it, it's the kind of hymn I pity. I understand how other hymns must pick on it, having grown up with an embarrassing name myself. No doubt there will be jokes alluding to the name "Harold," and possibly some ridicule directed at the subtly implied notion that John the Baptist was a trumpeter. Really it's a nice summary of the Advent season. The only really tacky thing about it is that the editors placed it under the topic "End Times."

542 "When I behold Jesus Christ" is LSB's nod to the Ethiopian aspect of Lutheran cultural diversity. It has a nice expressive tune that could almost play on Christian contemporary radio. It also has the same tendency as many African-American traditional hymns, of taking a great deal of time to say rather little. Beyond appreciating the greatness of God's love in that Jesus died for me, there isn't much to it. The line "On Golgotha there for all my sins You bled and died" is as far as it goes in explaining the atonement. The result: "My life with God—this I owe to You, and You alone." With considerable unpacking—say, a sermon—much could be brought out of this. But woe to the church that relies on its hymnody to make up for a lack of substance in the preaching!

543 "What wondrous love is this" is the 19th-century American counterpart of the last-mentioned hymn. It takes even longer to say about as much. A beautiful work of art, an admirable cultural treasure though it may be, and even moving to hear performed, it nevertheless tries the patience of anyone who sees the point coming and wants to get to it. Not only is the text repetitive, but the tune is slow as well. Law and gospel it has, in its way. It confesses that wondrous love caused the Lord "to bear the dreadful curse for my soul," and that "When I was sinking down beneath God's righteous frown, Christ laid aside his crown," etc. It then spends two stanzas declaring that I will sing to God and the Lamb, both now and "when from death I'm free." All very good, and admirably compressed when you look at it laid out in non-repeating quatrains; but with all the languid motion of the tune and the repetitions in the text, it is almost maddening.

With regard to 552 "O Christ, who shared our mortal life" by Herman Stuempfle,3 my only complaint is that the editors grossly underestimated the likelihood that their layout would confuse simple folks in the pew, to say nothing of the pastor, music director, and church office drudge (often one and the same person) who have to plan and prepare for the service. Offering three different choices of which "stanzas 2 and 3" to insert between 1 and 4 is only really safe from liturgical train-wreck when the congregation has invested in the publishing house's proprietary service-planning software, complete with copyright license for... oh. Aha! Cha-ching! But you know, in a practical, unmercenary world, the publishing house would be kind enough to ensure that the pew edition is all that anyone really needs to be able to do everything in the book. I know, I know: that's a pipe dream. I mean, who would publish a book like The Lutheran Hymnal these days! (Sigh.) To refine my point a bit, Stuempfle's poem, including pairs of stanzas on the raising of Jairus' daughter, the raising of the widow's son, and the raising of Lazarus, would be at least as effective if it had been printed as one solid block of stanzas, with "stanza 4" at the end, and perhaps a footnote reminding those planning the service that it's OK to omit stanzas that aren't directly relevant to the message of the day. As if Lutherans need any help remembering that!

557 "Seek where you may to find a way" is an instance in which LSB dialed back a change in the hymn tune SUCH, WER DA WILL by J. Stobäus (1580-1646), rejecting the more flowing version used in the Missouri Synod's previous hymn-book Lutheran Worship (1982) and returning to the frequently halting, clunky arrangement used in TLH (1941). And doesn't it just put the lie to everyone's opinion of me, that I am nothing but a hidebound repristinator of the past, when I opine that LSB made a mistake in this. SUCH, WER DA WILL à la LW really is much more catchy and less trying to the patience. I could (but won't) list a number of other examples of hymns whose tune from LW was regrettably replaced in LSB. I'm not saying one can necessarily take "going back to the good old days" too far (though I'm sure it's possible); but I trust my fellow conservatives aren't so easily distracted that they rejoice in these meaningless concessions to their questionable taste, while ignoring an even greater number of instances in which LSB took unprecedented liberties (for LCMS hymnals) in bowdlerizing lyrics, omitting crucial stanzas, and deleting whole (and important) hymns from the church's playlist. The moral: You snooze, you lose.

558 "Not unto us" is (in part) a paraphrase of Psalm 115 by Kurt Eggert (1923-93), set to his own tune. With all respect toward the merits of his text, I have always had trouble listening to this tune with a straight face. Something about it reminds me of a ditty by Stephen Sondheim. I can't help it. And although the stanza whose lines all begin with "Amazing grace" is better than the famous hymn that opens likewise, it is just possible that seizing the opportunity to show up John Newton may fail to outweigh the drawbacks of inviting the comparison in the popular mind.

561 "The tree of life" is a very touching poem by Stephen Starke that illuminates the connection between the fall of Adam and Eve and the cross of Jesus. Unfortunately (to my thinking), it is now inextricably wedded to a tune by Bruce Becker that has reminded me, from the first time I heard it, of a certain ditty by Billy Joel. Another drawback of the tune is that it interrupts each eight-syllable phrase with a dotted half-note, which prolongs the agony of four eight-line stanzas of emotionally affecting but artistically indifferent melody which, in the last analysis, upstages Starke's fine text.

605 "Father welcomes" is a ditty by Robin Mann (b. 1949) whose refrain twice, irritatingly, says "Father" instead of "The Father" or "Our Father." This apparent headline-speak gives way to three stanzas that appear to have been written without any attempt to fit a particular meter—irregularities that could very easily trip up the average congregation attempting to sing it. I say nothing against Mann's persistent use of slant-rhyme, because I don't want to perjure myself later when I defend my own ill-rhyming poetry...

631 "Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face" is a very attractive Communion hymn by Horatius Bonar (1808-89), set to the catchy tune FARLEY CASTLE by Henry Lawes (1595-1662). It's been in a bunch of the relatively recent Lutheran hymnals, and its appeal is undeniable, especially thanks to the tune. But ever since I read John Stephenson's Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics text on the Lord's Supper, in which he singles out this hymn as an example of the Reformed theology of the Lord's Supper masquerading as Lutheran hymnody, I haven't been able to sing this hymn. I am disappointed with the LCMS for overlooking Stephenson's criticism and selecting it for LSB.

632 "O Jesus, blessed Lord to Thee" is Thomas Kingo's (1634-1701) classic post-Communion hymn, set to OLD HUNDREDTH. I only mention it here because of the translation of the last two lines of Stanza 2: "My Savior dwells within my heart: How blest am I! How good Thou art!" In the 1913 Lutheran Hymnary, which is closer both in time and in cultural lineage to Kingo, the translation was: "My Savior dwells within me now: How blest am I! How good art Thou!" I can think of no good reason for the alteration, which goes back at least to TLH and has persisted through LW into LSB. But I can think of a bad reason, which is why the folks at my home church still sing the Hymnary version even while using TLH. The former translation could be interpreted as saying that Christ's presence in the Supper is merely spiritual. The latter interpretation at least allows one to infer that Christ has come into us bodily, for our benefit as complete, flesh-and-spirit creatures.

635 "O gracious Lord, I firmly am believing" is a five-stanza Communion hymn, printed in both English and Spanish. I don't mean to take issue with the text. I am only singling this hymn out for two reasons. First, an entire page is devoted to the Spanish-speaking portion of it. I didn't object to a hymn, earlier in the book, that filled a few inches of white space at the bottom of the right-hand page with gratuitous stanzas in Spanish. But by devoting an entire page to a gesture of multicultural triumphalism, in the context of a book that will be of practical use only to English-speaking congregations, the editors show me that their priorities were out of whack. Second, the Hispanic-inflected tune may carry associations of objectivity and dignity in Spain or Latin America; but in a religious culture whose musical heart has been formed by western art music, it sounds lightweight and theatrical—the minor key notwithstanding.

638 "Eat this bread, drink this cup" by Robert Batastini (b. 1942), Jacques Berthier (1923-94), and the Taizé Community, avoids some of the problems that have made so many Taizé hymns a target of my wit in this series of posts. How does it avoid them? By moving beyond its simplistic refrain into a series of stanzas that unfold the nature and benefits of the Lord's Supper. It even speaks of Christ's body and blood being eaten and drunk. Why do I mention it, then? Because it has a different tune for each of its five stanzas. This means the congregation will sing, at most, the refrain, between verses performed by the "Cantor or Choir." In my opinion, a song of which the better part must be sung at the congregation, is a waste of space in the pew hymnal.

654 "Your kingdom, O God, is my glorious treasure" is by David Rogner (b. 1960), set to its own tune by Joseph Herl (b. 1959). It sounds nice and it's well-intentioned, and there's good meaning in this paraphrase of some of Jesus' kingdom parables, such as the leaven in the measure of flour, the mustard seed, the wheat and tares, and the costly pearl. On the other hand, it resorts to trite and trendy cliches like "Empower me" (stanza 2). In the very same line there is a reference to Christ's commission (Matthew 28:19-20) which suggests, or rather positively states, that it is my duty ("I" meaning each individual who is intended to sing this hymn) to make disciples of all nations—an interpretation of the Great Commission, vis-à-vis Christian vocation, that I seriously question.

678 "We sing for all the unsung saints" is a "Church Triumphant" hymn by Carl Daw (b. 1944), set to Henry Cutler's (1824-1902) tune ALL SAINTS NEW.4 It's the first line that makes me giggle. Now that we're singing for them, they're not unsung, are they? All right, that's just a joke. Take it easy!

690 "Hope of the world, Thou Christ of great compassion" is a "sanctification" hymn by Methodist seminary professor Georgia Harkness (1891-1974).5 I am vaguely troubled by this hymn. Maybe it's the fact that its sanctification emphasis necessarily makes it light on the Christian faith's central doctrine, the justification of the sinner. Maybe it's the fact that this prayer for sanctification never mentions the means that connect us to Christ's sanctifying power. Or, if it does mention them, it does so in such an oblique way that it's difficult to tell what it's talking about. For example, stanza 5 says that Christ conquered sin and death "by this sign." To find out what "this" sign is, you have to think back to the beginning of stanza 4 ("Thy cross"). Heaven forfend lest your searching gaze should first alight on the phrase "bread of life" in stanza 2. And though it does seem to say, in stanza 2, that the Spirit is given to us through the "bread of life," these lines could also be interpreted as if the "bread of life" (Christ's visible presence in the world? His spoken message? His body and blood? Who knows which?) was all very well then; but when we pray, "Still let Thy Spirit unto us be given," such means are no longer desired nor required. It's all in the interpretation, right? I trust that if Harkness wanted to stress positively the "how" of what we are asking of Christ, she would have stated her idea in a more unmistakably clear way.

695 "Not for tongues of heaven's angels" is Timothy Dudley-Smith's (b. 1926) paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13. It is set to a modern hymn-tune called BRIDEGROOM by Peter Cutts (b. 1937), which appears to have been written decades earlier for some other text. As intriguing as this text-tune pairing is, I simply don't see it playing successfully on the instrument which I call the Congregation of Average Singing Ability.

698 "May we Thy precepts, Lord, fulfill" is an example of the old-timey hymnody that holds such a warm, fuzzy place in the hearts of the elderly generation in our churches, while its bland banality probably contributes to the delinquency in church attendance of their children unto the third and fourth generation. The text belongs to English hymn-writer named Edward Osler (1798-1863); the tune MERIBAH, to American church-musician-laureate Lowell Mason (1792-1872), who besides several hymn texts wrote tons of hymn tunes. A "Lowell Mason Hymn Festival" of considerable length could be garnered from only a few of the last century's Lutheran hymn-books, but most of it would be in horrid taste when considered in the light of genuinely Lutheran spiritual values. Even if there is no harm in this particular hymn, I sometimes feel it is incumbent on me—or rather, on us—to starve the legacy of Lowell Mason out of the Lutheran church, for the good of the coming generation.

702 "My faith looks up to Thee," with words by Ray Palmer (1808-87), is another instance of the Lowell Mason Marathon (tune: OLIVET), on which I would say pretty much the same thing that I said of hymn 698, only with the addition that its meter adds a dimension of breathless melodrama to the urgent plea for sanctifying grace. Like many typical examples of the popular hymnody of that period, it is touched by a certain spiritual effeminacy that might well have contributed to the widespread perception that religion is for sissies. Take, for example, the first stanza's almost romantically passionate offering of oneself to Jesus; or take phrases like "my fainting heart" (stanza 2). It's a tremulous, tearful hymn that regards life as a "transient dream" and the faithful one's destiny to be "safe above, a ransomed soul." This seems very near to being a form of Christian dualism, with the body being sloughed off like a worthless husk, while the pure spirit endures and survives. In response to certain critics of theological jargon who claim that they can find no meaning in the cant word "incarnational," I submit that you can perceive it when you miss it. It is missing from the theology of this hymn; and so is even the remotest hint that a bodily resurrection is lined up for the "ransomed soul."

707 "Oh, that the Lord would guide my ways" is another one of those old-timey sanctification hymns, albeit set to a tune by W. H. Havergal (EVAN) rather than Lowell Mason. Its author is the grossly over-represented (in anglophone Lutheran hymn-books) Isaac Watts, an absurdly prolific ecclesiastical poet whose tendency toward moralism made him a target of satire in some of Charles Dickens' novels. Nothing he says in this hymn could not be found in a faithful paraphrase of one or more Psalms. I probably should keep my mouth shut about this, as about the two hymns just mentioned, because the offense my criticism will give may be out of proportion to the harm these hymns do. But honestly, I've been rolling my eyes while playing these hymns since I started serving as a church organist at age 17. And eye-rolling does not conduce toward accurate note-reading or the safe handling of such a volatile instrument. When proponents of "contemptible worship" complain that traditional hymnody is alienating younger folks from the church, with respect to hymns of this school they may actually have a point. What they lack in genuine musical and poetic merit (as opposed to associations with sentimental, nostalgic feelings), they do not make up in penetrating theological insight or dynamic gospel proclamation. They're just bland, soft, quivering, gelatinous blobs of anxious concern about our moral development, with at best an occasional, vanishingly subtle allusion to the gospel. When the generation that loves these ditties dies and is buried in the wilderness, such songs will disappear and not be missed. I hope.

712 "Seek ye first" (the kingdom of God) is a Sunday School ditty by Karen Lafferty, paraphrased from words of Jesus in Matthew 4, 6, and 7, and copyrighted in 1972 by Marantaha! Music. In other words, it's the same age as I am, and it's been pursuing me throughout my life, starting with all those years of Sunday School and Vacation Bible School that I couldn't wait to be done with. And now it's in the hymnal! Yay!!

723 "The Lord is my light" is a three-stanza hymn, with refrain, by Alberto Taulé (b. 1932), which required two translators to bring into English from the original Spanish. It is presented in both languages, sprawling across two pages because each stanza had to be set to its own strain of melody due to irregularities in the meter. Loath to repeat what I said about the previous Spanish-English hymn, let me only add that the presence of this number in the pew-book demonstrates that the editors had forgotten one of the main reasons hymns are such a valuable asset to the church: their cost-effectiveness. Ideally, you can sing all the stanzas to the same strain, saving page space for another deserving hymn or two. This has the beneficial side-effect of convincing parishioners, at a glance, that they may be able to sing the hymn you are about to spring on them. And the success of an experiment with a new hymn may well depend on such subtle cues and mental preparations.

738 "Lord of all hopefulness" by Jan Struther (1901-53), the author of Mrs. Miniver, is set to the Irish traditional tune SLANE, which exists in my mind as the ideal example of the trouble with adapting Irish folk tunes into hymnody, which Thomas Day memorably indicted as one of the key reasons Why Catholics Can't Sing. It's a nice tune and all, but more and more folks are going to sit back and enjoy the sound of it being sung by those who can do it justice until, inevitably, only the choir or a group of soloists is singing it. Realistically, SLANE may not be the ultimate example of this. And it really is a charming tune, as so many others of its kind are. Many congregations may, in fact, be game for it, especially around St. Patrick's Day. But if you find yourself wondering why the singing of this noble, catchy-sounding melody sounds anemic in your congregation, step back and consider that it has a melodic range of an octave and a fourth (which, in musical laymen's terms, is an octave and a half), a number of eighth-note melismas, and a ballad-like register of expression to which most hymn-tunes do not require Grandpa and Grandma Smurf to ascend. Also, Struther's tightly-structured poetry may be just a tad too cute. "Be there at our homing" (stanza 3)? That's almost as precious as John Ylvisaker's "borning cry."

762 "There is a time for everything" is Stephen Starke's paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, with devotional comments added. Admirable as this project is, I rate it a "Hymn Tune Fail," thanks to Stephen Johnson's (b. 1966) melody ST. PETER'S NORWALK, which seems to be trying hard to sound like a pop song, but by dint of being too long, through-composed, and uninspired, fails to stick in the memory.

764 "When aimless violence takes those we love" is by Joy Patterson (b. 1931).6 It's a good prayer for comfort in a time of grief, particularly when someone young is taken away. My criticism focuses on the first line, which narrows the usefulness of this hymn to a very specific scenario that (thank God) does not come up very often in this country, though its applicability may increase in the future. I don't think I would use this hymn at the funeral of a casualty of war, because to call death on the battlefield "aimless violence" dishonors the dedicated service of the service members who defend our country. My advice for improving this hymn would be to add a new stanza at the front-end of the hymn, discussing grief and loss in more general terms; thus the reference to "aimless violence" might become but one example of the types of loss we sometimes mourn.

771 "Be still, my soul, before the Lord" may be easily confused (until you look at the page) with the hymn whose pairing with Sibelius' FINLANDIA I have heretofore sneered at. Actually this is a completely different "Be still my soul" hymn, with lyrics by Herman Stuempfle and music by Marty Haugen, a.k.a. "the usual suspects." Here again we see what a mixed blessing it is to have a hymnal earmarked for equal representation by each century since the Reformation: a plethora of texts by the likes of Timothy Dudley-Smith, Christopher Idle, Stephen Starke, Jaroslav Vajda, and Herman Stuempfle, whose output is uneven and whose lyrics lack the advantage of those of earlier centuries of having been proven, refined, and in some cases consumed by the proverbial Test of Time. And so we get this interesting "Prayer" hymn which, read at face value, almost seems to be advising the Christian not to pray. Read it for yourself and see if you agree.

776 "Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest" is, yes indeed, a musical arrangement of that prayer. It can even be sung as a round! If it weren't for the fact that it conveniently fills a narrow strip of white space at the bottom of a right-hand page, I would complain, "Do we really need to waste space on this?!" The tune is nothing special. The text does not need a melody to reinforce it in anyone's memory. Plenty of Lutherans already know it and use it as a table grace. To my recollection, it has never been commended to the church in a hymnal until now. What would be really interesting would be an effort to use the church's worship book to teach people the prayer Luther recommended for use before meals, in his Small Catechism.

786 "Lord of all good" (our gifts we bring You now) is a "Stewardship" hymn by Albert Bayly (1901-84), set to FARLEY CASTLE. While it's nice to see that tune being put to another use than hymn 631, I'm not sure this hymn is any better. It talks about all we are offering to God, without mentioning (except in passing, in the concluding doxology) that these very things came to us as gifts from Him. These include, most strikingly, the minds, body parts, and senses that we offer to God in stanza 2—which we learned, in Luther's catechism explanation of the First Article of the Creed, are things God gave us. Also included in this catalog of sacrificial gifts to God are "hearts with the flame of Your own love ablaze," which sounds like a nice plug for the LCMS evangelism/fundraising campaign "Ablaze!" that was in full swing when this hymnal came out.

799 and 800 "Alabaré" is one hymn for the price of two. On the right-hand page, as hymn 800, is the original Spanish version of the hymn, along with an English translation of all three stanzas, but not of the refrain, which is sung in Spanish regardless. (The meaning of the words is relegated to a footnote.) On the left-hand page, as hymn 799, is the same translation of stanza 1, followed by two original stanzas (in English only) by John Ylvisaker (b. 1937), who could not fail to be involved in an enterprise as tacky as this. Ylvisaker's verses are a paraphrase of the Dignus est Agnus from Revelation 5 and 7. The alternative Spanish stanzas, as translated into English, depart immediately from John's vision of heavenly worship to a generic song of praise—essentially a two-stanza Trinitarian doxology. Added to this nice, but by no means life-changing, content, we get a tune whose shape and accompaniment pattern oblige the listener to move his feet and clap his hands, unless he is completely catatonic; i.e., unless he is an American Lutheran. Boy, are Grandma and Grandpa Smurf going to look and sound ridiculous doing this!

806 "Give thanks with a grateful heart" is entirely, words and music, by Henry Smith (b. 1952). And so you know exactly whom to blame for this piece of sanctified pop music, whose rhythm (featuring frequent long notes) pre-supposes an accompaniment that fills in the empty spaces. In other words, it's not a tune that can stand up on its own, and for that reason it is probably also not a tune that the congregation can carry. It will be a solo. Trust me.

825 "Rise, shine, you people" is a hymn by Ronald King (b. 1929) whose tune, WOJTKIEWIECZ by Dale Wood, first brings to mind Bill Murray's immortal line from The Man Who Knew Too Little: "Gesundheit myself!" It second brings to mind the statistical probability that Mrs. Schmeckpepper, the nervous Methodist lady who plays the Hammond organ at your parents' church for $20 per service, has the virtuoso chops to perform the fistfuls of notes (to say nothing of pedal double-stops) the hymnal arrangement of this tune calls for. To put it in simpler terms, it's a pretty hard piece to play, keyboardistically speaking. Hymnal editors ought to be a bit more considerate of the limits on Mrs. Schmeckpepper's time, talents, and psychological resilience. The poor lady is approaching burnout as it is.

833 "Listen, God is calling," a Kenyan hymn about Jesus' great commission, is another example of the type of hymn my previously mentioned friend likes to trot out on his speaking-engagement roadshow. The "Leader/All," call/response antiphony give it an interesting texture, but allowance needs to be made for the fact that American Lutherans, by and large, don't know this piece, or anything remotely similar to it. I still maintain that it is cracked to assume they won't recognize, or be able to sing, a Lutheran hymn that has probably been sung in most LCMS churches on a yearly basis for the last century, while expecting them to know or immediately pick up this recent and unusual addition to the pew repertoire.

834 "O God, O Lord of heaven and earth" is a fabulous hymn by Martin Franzmann, set to the magnificent tune WITTENBERG NEW by Jan Bender (1909-94). Nevertheless, I hereby give notice that I will never pick this hymn, or advise that it be picked, for the congregation to sing—at least, not until after they have heard it sung by the choir, soloists, the Sunday School kids, etc., and riffed upon by the organist, to a large extent. Why? Because it's really hard. I officially dub it the Hardest Good Hymn in This Book. And after several years of service planning, using CPH service-planning aids, I must also say that I have grown sick of the sight of this hymn in the list of hymns recommended for the day... practically every day of the church year! Stop reminding me, already! We'll get around to it after we have installed the top 50 hymns every Lutheran congregation should know how to sing, but doesn't.

835 "On Galilee's high mountain" is another great commission/mission and witness hymn, written by Henry Letterman for 1982's Lutheran Worship and set to Lowell Mason's tune MISSIONARY HYMN.7 I would be more comfortable with this hymn if I could understand whether it is intended to express the vocation of all Christians, or only of those called to serve in domestic and foreign missions.

850 "God of grace and God of glory" is not a bad hymn, but it's interesting to see Harry Emerson Fosdick—a well-known Presbyterian and later Baptist minister who was among the leaders of American liberal Christianity in the 20th century—represented in the LCMS hymn-book. The section of hymns titled "Society" is full of 20th- and 21st-century representatives, however. It testifies to the ever-growing room, or time, given to social issues in the pulpits and prayers of our churches.

853 "How clear is our vocation Lord," by F. Pratt Green (1903-2000),8 is a hymn that requires a footnote to explain the pronunciation and meaning of one of it words (skein). Not stopping there, the footnote also endeavors to explain what the hymn is about—by no means the only instance in which the hymnal editors felt they had to give the end user a little context in which to interpret a hymn. I suppose these notes can be helpful, and to say that they should have chosen lyrics that people could readily understand would no doubt be to underestimate the ignorance of the average person. Forsooth, writing hymns is hard enough; writing hymns that go straight to the minds and hearts of "the common people" is an art form whose masters are perhaps born rather than made. I'm far from saying that I'm one of them. But to the extent that this hymn reaches my intellect and heart, it affects me as a chatty little dialogue with God about our daily business. The effect of singing it rather depresses me. I would rather spend more time dwelling on the part that Green compresses into his last two lines: "The cross you hung upon—All you endeavored done."

856 "O Christ, who called the Twelve" is by Herman Stuempfle again. Not to pick on him, or on the text of this hymn, I only really want to point out—at the risk of repeating something I have said before—why I don't like the English tune TERRA BEATA. This tune is wedded to the Maltbie Babcock poem "This is my Father's world," which is only Christian to the extent that it attributes the creation of all nature's wonders to God. This tune was also notably used as a theme in Howard Shore's score to The Lord of the Rings. So I just feel goofy when I hear it used as a hymn in Lutheran worship.

879 "Stay with us, till night has come" is by Herbert Brokering (b. 1926), with an original tune by Walter Pelz (b. 1926). Like some other new-ish tunes I have commented on, Pelz's STAY WITH US is full of pauses in the middle of phrases, presumably to let the accompaniment shine through the vocal line. But once again, the practical result is that the tune can hardly stand up to a capella singing, and almost guarantees the failure of the musical leaders to get the average congregation to join in a robust performance of it. Its five stanzas are a veiled reference to Jesus' Easter appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus; so veiled, in fact, that it may take some congregations unawares. Among the charming eccentricities of Brokering's poem are lines such as "Jesus, be our great surprise" (stanza 1), "Heal our eyes to see the prize" (stanza 4), and "No tears nor dark shall dim the sun" (stanza 5).

887 "Now the light has gone away"/Müde bin ich, geh zur Ruh is an interesting juxtaposition of a hymn by Frances Ridley Havergal with four stanzas in German that have nothing to do with the English hymn, apart from both of them being an evening prayer and being sung to the same tune. The footnote explains that the German stanzas are included "for those who remember it as their bedtime prayer during childhood." It's a cutesie little kiddie tune, regardless of which language you sing to it.

911 "Lord, this day we've come to worship" is by Richard C. Dickinson (b. 1925), and is set to the tune GLORIOUS NAME by B. B. McKinney (1886-1952). Perhaps the tune is to blame for the fact that the refrain is twice as long as it really needs to be. I think once per stanza is enough for "Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, praise the Lord," especially in the faux "Gloria in excelsis Deo" melismatic manner in which these words are sung.

925 "Song of Moses and Israel" (Cantemus Domino; first line of refrain: "I will sing to the Lord") is the first example in this book of a "biblical canticle" set in the new, Marty Haugen-ish manner in which a refrain, set to a melodic phrase that straddles the line between hymnody and pop music, alternates with verses of Scripture to be sung to a simplified Gregorian chant tone. This one comes from Exodus 15 and features music by Jeffrey Blersch (b. 1967). These pieces, in general, have the virtue of giving the choir something to do without having to invest in sheet music; something, moreover, in which the congregation can participate, once it has been allowed to rehearse the refrain a few times. On the other hand, they have the vice of deploying the refrain several times throughout each canticle or psalm—an unprecedented and ceremonially incorrect usage of the antiphon, which should only be sung at the beginning and end. Also, I can testify from experience the innovative, popular appeal of these pieces do not shield the pastor, organist, or choir director from criticism for forcing change down the congregation's throats (viz. chanting the psalms or canticles, rather than murmuring them in a bored tone of voice), or leading them into sacerdotalism/Romanism/Eastern Orthodoxy (accusations made possible by the fact that the people making them don't know what these words mean), or forcing the choir to serve a too liturgical purpose (for shame!), etc. Outside of outgoing town-gown churches, therefore, I wouldn't advise introducing them unless you have another career lined up.

Other examples of this style include 926 "Song from Deuteronomy" (Audite, coeli; "The Lord will vindicate His people," Deut. 32, music by Jonathan Mueller [b. 1964]); 927 "First Song of Isaiah" (Confitebor tibi, Domine; "The Lord God is my strength and my song," Isaiah 12; music by Henry Gerike [b. 1948]); 928 "Song of Hannah" (Exultavit cor meum; "My heart exults in the Lord," 1 Samuel 2; music by Kurt von Kampen [b. 1960] and Paul Grime [b. 1958]); 929 "I will greatly rejoice in the Lord" (Gaudens gaudebo; "The Lord God will cause righteousness," Isaiah 61; music by Phillip Magness [b. 1963]); and 931 "All you works of the Lord" (Benedicite, omnia opera; "Praise Him and magnify Him forever," Song of the Three Young Men; music by Paul Grime).

Meanwhile, 930 "All you works of God, bless the Lord" is Stephen Starke's paraphrase of the Song of the Three Young Men, set to the Jamaican tune LINSTEAD in a musical spectacle that has to be heard to be believed. I would rather go on doubting, however. Starke's paraphrase of the Beatitudes is the burden of 932 "Jesus sat with His disciples," which in my opinion is greatly hampered by association with Marty Haugen's touchy-feely tune JOYOUS LIGHT.

939 "You are God; we praise You" is a nifty modern setting of the Te Deum that was in one of the prayer offices in Lutheran Worship. Unfortunately the translation (by some Vatican II commission) has been modernized to the point of almost indecent informality, and (in my opinion) questionable faithfulness to the Latin original. Also, Richard Hillert's (1923-2010) through-composed melody puts it at a level that only a musically exceptional congregation, with strong leadership and patient preparation, can hope to perform. Other than that, it's going to be a choir piece or nothing at all. I have used it as a choir piece; in fact, I have a charming memory of singing an arrangement of it with orchestra and mass chorus at a service for the 150th anniversary of something or other, held at an indoor athletic stadium. It was an interesting setup; the orchestra, for example, was seated on a wooden platform that had been erected on the ice in the middle of a hockey rink. Good times. But I digress. Nobody is going to sing this, as a rule, unless they're in the choir. The trend in the quality of musical leadership at the parish level would have to run back in the opposite direction for a while before the congregation will hear this interesting modern canticle, other than as a rare piece of ceremonial music directed at them from the choir loft.

941 "We praise you and acknowledge You" is a Te Deum paraphrase by (surprise!) Stephen Starke. Aaaand it is set to Gustav Holst's tune THAXTED, on which I have commented before. Enough!

The "Liturgical Music" section of the book continues with multiple settings of the Kyrie: one from Taizé/Jacques Berthier (943) that permits the cantor to intone bids or petitions overlapping with the choir or congregation's repetitions of "Kyrie eleison," and one in three-part harmony from the Russian Orthodox tradition (944), which can be sung in either Greek or English. Then there are two Alleluia arrangements: a sixfold one (951) from Taizé/Berthier, with chant notes for the cantor to use with the Alleluia verse while the choir hums its closing chords; and a fourfold one (952) by Fintan O'Carroll (d. 1977). And then there are a couple of chant versions of the Our Father, including a plainsong (957) and a setting by Carlos Rosas, (b. 1939) printed separately in English and Spanish on facing pages (958 and 959). The Rosas version has the drawback of being a rhythmically irregular paraphrase, so that its music requires lots of ossia notation to deal with the varying meter of its three stanzas; and, of course, it isn't the exact text of the Lord's Prayer that everybody knows.

Long ago I touched on 955 "Let the Vineyards be Fruitful," and though I thought I had explained my objections to this liturgical text, I can find no evidence of that now. Back in the 1970s and -80s it became fashionable to use this text by John Arthur (1922-80) as an offertory canticle, although it isn't a biblical canticle and is noticeably inferior to such alternatives as "Create in me a clean heart, O God" (Psalm 51) and "What shall I render to the Lord" (Psalm 116). I tend to get particularly nauseous at the lines "Gather the hopes and the dreams of all." I tend to deplore this operation of replacing sound biblical material with banal poetry that doesn't wear nearly as well. The same objection goes towards replacing the Gloria in excelsis with "This is the feast of victory."

Further liturgical music includes a Sanctus ("Holy, holy, holy," hymn 961) arrangement by Lutheran pastor Mark Bender (b. 1951), which was evidently salvaged from a contest in which composers were invited to submit settings of the liturgy for publication in LSB, none of which (including my own entry) ended up being used. Of a similar nature, I guess, are the two Agnus Dei settings, 962 by Paul Weber (b. 1949) and 963 by Jeffrey Blersch. The book concludes with three "nation and national songs" on which I cannot comment without repeating what I said regarding other hymnals.

And so I hit all the high points of LSB tackiness in one post! Impressed? Don't be. As I said before, I skipped over quite a few specimens that were making repeat appearances. And I held back from savaging the cruel omissions, such as excellent stanzas from some of my favorite hymns, and entire hymns. The accompanist's edition of the hymnal actually includes a number of additional hymns—some excellent, some awful—that were cut from the pew book, but that are available for service-planning purposes via the publishing house's (cha-ching!) proprietary software and copyright license. Because, as every Lutheran knows, whenever a coin in the coffer clings, a hymn out of Lutheran knowledge springs!


1Tune: FRANCONIA by J. B. König (1691-1758), as amended by W. H. Havergal (1793-1870).
2Except that in Hymn 834, Martin Franzmann manages to rhyme "world" with "hurled," to much better effect.
3Tune: LORD OF LIFE by Kevin Hildebrand (b. 1973).
4Think: "The Son of God goes forth to war."
5Tune: EIRENE by Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-79). Think: "We are the Lord's."
6Tune: SURSUM CORDA by Alfred Smith (1879-1971), a rather boring tune in my opinion.
7Think: "From Greenland's icy mountains."
8Tune: REPTON by C. H. H. Parry (1848-1918), which is also harder and more sophisticated than average.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy
Recommended Ages: 14+

Over the past few years, I have frequently experienced the advantages of having audiobooks in my car while commuting or traveling. In that way I have found time, at last, to take in many great works of literature that I might otherwise have skipped because they were too long, too serious, to difficult to focus my mind on during the sleepy time of day when I do most of my reading. This is how, for example, I experienced Tolstoy's masterpiece, War and Peace. And now that my job involves a lot of driving—somewhere around a thousand business miles each month—I have more time than ever to appreciate great books, all without having to heave a hefty tome around. Plus, with a performance by a talented voice actor working in their favor, books that once seemed dry, complex, and hard to understand, become altogether clear, interesting, and rich in drama. Even a slow reader like me can get into them.

Such is the case particularly with Anna Karenina. Partly this is down to the vocal talents of Davina Porter, reading for Recorded Books. Partly it's a difference in the book itself, in contrast to War and Peace. This book is crafted on a much more intimate, personal scale than War and Peace's panoramic view of Russian life circa 1812. It's also a much more contemporary book, set in approximately the era in which it was written. Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) published it in serial installments between 1873 and 1877—a handful of years after War and Peace, and roughly in the center of his long writing career. He wrote it at a turning point in his life, when he turned from the atheism of his young adulthood to a period of intense Christian devotion. He embodies much of himself in one of its main characters (symbolically named Levin, or "Little Lev"). And he turns deep pyschological insight, seasoned with compassion, toward a group of key characters who vibrate with believable humanity, while at the same time working out for himself troubling questions about religion, politics, economics, sexual morality, manly honor, marital happiness (or unhappiness), and the unique ways all of these impinge on Russian culture.

It is much less a philosophical treatise than War and Peace is. So, no worries on that account. It also has a much more concentrated, and so less complicated, cast of characters. Many times during War and Peace, the uninitiated reader can hardly keep his grip on what is going on without a road-map of the characters' relationships by blood, marriage, and other means. That almost never happens in this book, though like War and Peace, it can pretty much be boiled down to a love story featuring two or three couples: one happy, one not so happy, and one downright tragic.

To understand how these love stories fit together, it is probably best to introduce the not-so-happy couple first. That's what Tolstoy does, anyway. We first meet the Oblonskys, Stiva and Dolly, at the moment when the love has gone out of their marriage. Dolly has caught Stiva having an affair with their children's governess, and she is trying to decide whether to leave him when his married sister, Anna Karenina herself, convinces her to forgive him. Stiva and Dolly's troubled marriage continues to simmer in the background throughout the novel. But while Anna is saving her brother's marriage, her visit to Moscow has unintended consequences on the happiness of several other people—including, most fatefully, herself. The first person she meets as she descends from the train is a handsome young cavalry officer named Vronsky, who until that moment has been toying with the affections of a debutante named Kitty, who happens to be Dolly's little sister. It is on Vronsky's account that Kitty refuses a marriage proposal from a proud country gentleman named Konstantin Levin; and it is on Anna's account that Kitty suddenly finds herself without any suitor, and plunges into despair.

Levin goes back to the country, burying himself in farm business and trying to make peace with the idea that he will never marry. Anna, mortified by what she has done, goes back to St. Petersburg—only to find that Vronsky has followed her. They begin a scandalous love affair, first behind the back of her straight-laced bureaucrat husband, then right under his nose. Karenin proves equally hard to sympathize and hard to despise, as he first seems unable to care about anything but his own reputation and political career (boo!), then suddenly lets his tender side show through and forgives all (aww!). But just as no good deed goes unpunished, Karenin's kindness only goads his wife into abandoning him and their son and shacking up with Vronsky. The scandal and the resulting social isolation drives Anna to despair, and poisons her relationship with Vronsky; and the interference of some religious enthusiasts, taking advantage of the ruined Karenin's moral dilemma, drives the stake even deeper into the heart of the Karenin-Vronsky triangle until, inevitably, blood is spilled. I said it was tragedy, didn't I? That means mental anguish, possible madness, and gruesome death—and all of it foreshadowed from the very first scene in which Anna appears. Take a look. You'll see what I mean.

The bleakness of the Oblonsky and Karenin/Vronsky affairs would make this book a gruelling experience to live through. Happily, it is lightened by a third love story in which doubt gives way to belief, wounded pride gives way to joy, and an imperfect couple is brought together by mutual forgiveness. The happiness in store for Levin and Kitty is put to a severe test early on, and for some time afterward. As it increasingly shows signs of coming out all right, you cheer for them anxiously, and then with a chuckle of satisfaction. Their story includes one of the most romantic marriage-proposal scenes ever written, supposedly based on the way Tolstoy proposed to his wife. If the tale of Dolly and Stiva leaves a taste of disappointment in your mouth, and that of Anna and Vronsky leads you to doubt that true love can last in this bleak and cruel world, the story of Kostya and Kitty will squeeze tears of tenderness and laughs of delight out of you. And the payoff is all the more rewarding because of the inherent honesty of a romance that doesn't end with the hero couple deciding to get married, but that sees their marriage through the challenges of their first couple of years together, including the birth of their first child. Unlike the tradition of romantic comedies reaching from Shakespeare's time to today, this is not a happy ending just by virtue of ending when the couple happens to be happy; and it's not a happy ending by virtue of denying the possibility of tragedy and disappointment in a story of love and marriage. It's the type of happy ending that encourages one to think that they, Kostya and Kitty, will be happy together for a long while afterward.

For that to happen convincingly, among all the darker themes and frank realism with which the book is fraught, testifies to Tolstoy's powers in organizing a complex weave of human drama and moral reflection. Spotters of other signs of literary skill will find many to appreciate, including the foreshadowing that I already mentioned, as well as an interesting theme of dreams enjoyed, or suffered, by main characters at several key points. Adding richness to the texture are Tolstoy's, or his characters', observations on political theories and election campaigns, the character of government service, the education of children, the role of peasant labor in Russian agriculture, manly pursuits such as horse racing and snipe shooting, the trouble with religious charlatans and spiritualists, the care of those suffering morbid diseases such as tuberculosis and gambling, and Russia's intervention in the Serbian revolt against the Turks. All this, plus the interior monologue of a dog, a racehorse's fate that may cause you to shed tears, a visit to a German spa, unsuccessful attempts at matchmaking and suicide, and a few conversations that may force you to dig out a French phrasebook, add spice and sauce to a main dish with its own strong flavor: romantic love in all its glorious, indifferent, and heartbreaking ramifications.

All this said, the question many MuggleNet readers will want to ask is: "What does this have to do with Harry Potter?" There's an easy way to answer this, and a hard way. The easy way is to note that if there's a film adaptation of this book, someone from the Harry Potter film series is bound to be in it. The 2000 British TV series starred Helen McCrory (Draco Malfoy's mum) in the title role. The 1997 film version had Fiona Shaw (Harry's Aunt Petunia) in it. The most recent movie, from 2012, featured Domhnall Gleeson (Bill Weasley) as Levin. If you liked them in Harry Potter, you'll be blown away by what they do in these films. And just as the very best fans of the Harry Potter books and movies strive to appreciate the best in both, so it behooves those who appreciate these Anna Karenina films to deepen their appreciation by reading the book.

The harder answer, though, is probably better. When you read the seven Harry Potter books—especially the very long ones toward the end of the series—you are also preparing to read books like this, and Middlemarch, and David Copperfield, and the like. Long books teeming with vibrant characters and serious themes. Books inviting your mind to experience a world that runs on different rules than the world we know today. Stories whose persons and incidents become the furniture of a mind tuned to culture, and not just pop culture. Books that will keep being made into movies every decade or so, as long as movies continue to be made, because they come to life in one's mind in a way that each generation longs to express in its own way. This isn't the type of book that will immediately interest someone who is into Harry Potter. But I am guessing it's a book that J. K. Rowling has read. It represents a level of writing that she may strive for as she continues to grow as an author. And unless I am mistaken, it is also her hope that many young people who discovered the pleasures of reading good books through Harry Potter, will one day grow in the same direction as readers.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Uses of Spit

John 9:6-7
When He had said these things, He spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva; and He anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay. And He said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which is translated, Sent). So he went and washed, and came back seeing.
Mark 7:32-35
Then they brought to Him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, and they begged Him to put His hand on him. And He took him aside from the multitude, and put His fingers in his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue. Then, looking up to heaven, He sighed, and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” Immediately his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke plainly.
What do you think about the way Christ our Lord uses spit to heal these two men? I suppose some people think this is undignified, or perhaps disrespectful. Some probably shake their heads at this apparently needless jiggery-pokery, or the suggestion that something was lacking in Jesus' miracle-working power that had to be made up with showmanship and pandering to lowbrow magical thinking. But I submit that those people are tough to please. The people who witnessed the Mark 7 miracle "were astonished beyond measure, saying, 'He has done all things well. He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak'" (v. 37). Opinion was more divided about the miracle on John 9, because it happened on the Sabbath; so John reports that "some of the Pharisees said, 'This Man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.' Others said, 'How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?' And there was a division among them" (v. 16). The fact that saliva was involved did not seem to move anybody one way or the other.

Spit, after all, has its uses. If you spit on your eyewear before going snorkeling or SCUBA diving, the lenses won't get fogged up. If you rub tobacco juice on a baseball before pitching it, you can change its aerodynamic properties. A touch of spit adds needed mass to a small paper missile. A little spit helps bring out the shine when you're polishing leather shoes. Spit can still help you seal some mailing envelopes, though you no longer need to lick the stamp. A well-aimed loogie can express disgust, disrespect, and defiance. Shaking hands on a wad of spit can help cement a promise. What mother hasn't applied a spit-moistened hand or handkerchief to her child's dirty face or mussed hair? And of course, without spit, it would be difficult to chew, swallow, and taste food. Spit is a wonderful thing. And the Son of God adds even more honor to spit by including it in His miraculous cure of the deaf-mute and of the man who had been blind from birth.

Why would Jesus need to involve saliva in these memorable deeds? To ask this is to admit our weakness and frailty. We are impatient with whatever we do not readily understand. We question, we doubt, we second-guess. We are ready even to criticize the one Man in all history who is perfectly good and holy. We do not know our place, even in relation to the sovereign God. But I believe the Lord will bear patiently with our weakness and allow us to consider this troubling question.

In the Mark 7 instance, in my opinion, the reason is simply this: Jesus was communicating with the deaf-mute man. Matthew 20, Mark 10, and Luke 18 tell us how one or two blind men approached Jesus near Jericho. Before restoring their/his sight, Jesus asked, "What do you want me to do for you?" He then told them, "Receive your sight." According to Mark 5, Jesus told a woman who came to him with a hemorrhage, "Be healed." Matthew 8, Mark 1, and Luke 5 report how Jesus told a leper, "Be cleansed." In Luke 4, Jesus rebuked a demon who had possessed a man, saying, "Come out of him!" I like to speculate—but mind you, this is only a guess—that when Jesus put his spit on the deaf-mute's tongue and stuck his fingers in his ears, he was saying something to him in a crude sort of improvised sign-language: something between, "What can I do for you?" and "Be opened!"—then he actually said the latter aloud, in Aramaic, perhaps a language that the deaf-mute man could lip-read.

So what use was Jesus' spit in the Mark 7 instance? At the very least, I think it was a form of communication, like the spit in a hand-shake, or in the eye of an enemy. It sent a message that the deaf man could hear loud and clear. It was a sign that carried the force of a word. And with God, a word is powerful indeed.

What about the blind man in John 9? Surely sign-language doesn't come into it. The man wasn't deaf. And he wasn't immediately healed, either; instead, Jesus instructed him to go to a certain public fountain and wash his face. This miracle brings to mind how Elisha sent a messanger to the Syrian leper Naaman, instructing him to dip himself seven times in the Jordan River (2 Kings 5). It bears an even closer resemblance to the healing of Saul who, after being struck blind on the road to Damascus, had to wait three days for one of the Christians he had intended to persecute to come and heal him, and then baptize him. Again, this is more hocus pocus than Jesus sometimes needed to get the job done. He healed the blind man, or men, of Jericho by words alone.

On the other hand, there was the blind man of Bethsaida, in Mark 8: Jesus not only had to spit on his eyes, but had to put his hands on his eyes twice before the man's sight was fully restored. After the first try, the man said he could see men like trees walking around. It's a rare blooper that suggests that a little human frailty bled over into Jesus' divine work, particularly before His glorification from Easter on. It suggests that Jesus held back from doing all that was in His power as God, even while demonstrating that power in acts of renewal and purification. Or perhaps the Mark 8 "blooper" really was as Jesus intended it, a deliberate "double miracle" illustrating the immensity of what he was doing by not only restoring sight to a man who had been born blind, but also repairing his ability to make sense of what he was seeing.

Likewise, Jesus' admission that he "could do no mighty work" at Nazareth (Mark 6:5) is qualified by the added remark, "except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them," and further explained by the unbelief he was up against. While believing wasn't necessarily a prerequisite for receiving one of Jesus' healing miracles, he frequently honored people's faith by saying something like, "Your faith has saved you," as he sent them away healed. Actually it was His power, His free choice to act, and His word of command that healed them. But Jesus evidently did not feel compelled to throw away his miracles on unbelievers. He did not approve of casting pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). According to Luke 23, Herod wanted to see Jesus do some miracle; but when he had Jesus in his power, he couldn't get a word out of Him. Funnily enough, the blind man in John 9 came to faith some time after being healed by Jesus. Perhaps—and again, this is a guess—this was an instance where Jesus wanted to put some distance between Himself and the patient before the healing took place. It cleared the stage for the big public drama that followed, revealing the conflicting opinions among the Jews, presenting the formerly blind man and his family with an opportunity to bear witness to Jesus, and finally furnishing Jesus with an opportunity to call an unbeliever to faith.

Jesus could be subtle at times. It's impossible to know all that He had in mind. Isn't it amazing to think that He began such a far-reaching event by rubbing a little spit in a blind man's eyes? And isn't it also interesting to see that, at least some of the time, He allows stage business, and rituals, and physical means to go between His miracle-working power and the object toward which it was turned? He told the ten lepers to go and show themselves to the priests; they went, and on their way they were healed (Luke 17). He dealt with the God-fearing centurion through messengers (Luke 7); and in that case as well as that of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7), He delivered results without even seeing the person He was healing.

You don't have to hear Jesus' audible voice. You don't have to see His visible face. You don't have to feel the touch of his physical hand. You certainly don't need to be moistened with His physical spit. Nor do you need to wash in the pool of Siloam to get the particular cleansing you require of Him. Jesus can send His healing Word to you through intermediaries. He can cleanse you through seemingly pointless rituals. He can reach you even through a corrupt priesthood. He can hit His target at a distance. He can send you, as it were, out of His presence just the same as you are, unhealed, unconvicted, unbelieving, and still His power works on you as you go your way, like the seed that grows in secret (Mark 4:26-27), and like the leaven that penetrates the lump of dough (Matthew 13:33).

Even if you are such a person that God, in His justice, should not even care to spit on you, Jesus freely and willingly applies His blood, tears, sweat, and even spittle for you, just when and how as He chooses. Be reconciled to the Son of God's use of spit. And by all means, be reconciled to God!