Tuesday, December 29, 2015

44 Scotland Street

44 Scotland Street
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 13+

A decade ago, the author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency came home from a party at the home of another author who was serializing a novel in an American newspaper, and penned an editorial lamenting that such projects aren't often attempted these days. His column must have touched a nerve, because an Edinburgh, Scotland newspaper immediately ordered a serial novel to be published in more than 100 brief, daily chapters. He wrote it, and here (under a single cover) it is.

The tale of this novel being written as a daily newspaper serial would, by itself, almost be enough to persuade me to read it. Knowing the author's work through his series of gentle, thoughtful, almost mysteryless mysteries set in Botswana pushed me the rest of the way. Set not in Africa but in Edinburgh - which, to a reader in Missouri, USA is scarcely less exotic - it directs the same eye for scenic detail, the same ear for character voices, the same mildly perverse sense of humor, and the same compassion for human weaknesses toward a gap-year girl named Pat, her narcissistic flatmate Bruce, her endearingly hopeless boss at the art gallery, Bruce's boss and his socially-climbing wife, the middle-aged lady across the landing, and the young mother downstairs who is determined to prove her five-year-old son Bertie a musical and intellectual prodigy.

Each newspaper-column-sized chapter brings the narration perfectly to its next point as these people's intertwining stories advance at a cleverly measured pace. Even while dwelling on small incidents, many of them within the minds of the characters, it doesn't seem to move slowly. In brief, intensely focused glimpses it shows us what is in their hearts and heads and lets us be frustrated with them, or for them, without hating anybody. Who wouldn't recognize himself or somebody he knows in this gallery of characters and their petty yet urgently felt problems? Who wouldn't laugh at lines like the one in which Matthew, the gallery owner, self-deprecatingly tells real-life author Ian Rankin (and I paraphrase), "There are art dealers and there are art dealers; I am one of the latter." This is only the briefest example I can think of among many passages that made me laugh exactly as hard as I needed to at that moment in my own life story.

I look forward to reading Espresso Tales, the second of so-far ten books in this series which, as far as I know, McCall Smith is still serializing in that Edinburgh newspaper. Meanwhile, I am already a good third of the way through the first book in his Isabel Dalhousie series, The Sunday Philosophy Club and, at the same time, an audiobook of his seventh Precious Ramotswe novel, Blue Shoes and Happiness. And there are so many more books in this freakishly prolific author's list of works that I'm just a little intimidated by the challenge of finding them all. But not by the necessity of reading them; not at all. No body of writerly work could be more welcoming or, indeed, more comfortable to dwell in, immersed from all sides as if in a bath full of fragrant oils and soothing salts. Don't expect me to come to the surface soon!

Vindications

Vindications: Essays on Romantic Music
by Deryck Cooke
Recommended Ages: 15+

I never met Deryck Cooke, of course; he died when I was 4 years old. My only previous acquaintance with his work was hearing a recording of Mahler's Tenth Symphony, of which Cooke prepared the performing edition, published the year he died. M-10 was left unfinished at the premature death of the great Austrian composer in 1911, a mere eight years before Cooke was born. Though the work existed in the form of a complete sketch, with thematic continuity throughout, a few pages of full orchestration and only a few gaps in harmony and counterpoint, it seemed likely the great work would never be heard by music lovers until Cooke came along and gave it a try. And a really plausible try it was, though with the reservation that Mahler doubtless would have completed it rather differently.

Western civilization owes Deryck Cooke big-time for retrieving, to some extent, one of the great artistic losses of the 20th century, a great symphony that might never have been heard due to Mahler's early death. I felt something like the pain of that loss when I read Bryan Magee's biographical sketch of Cooke in the foreword of this book. In fact, so profoundly did Magee, a close colleague and personal friend of Cooke, express his feelings of loss at the early death of that musician, critic, and BBC broadcaster, I was actually in tears before I reached the main body of this book.

In this book, editor David Matthews brought together what he considered a representative selection of Cooke's critical writings, including notes on his favorite Romantic composers: Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner and (to my surprise) Delius. In these essays Cooke defended his views on the language of music (a phrase that also serves as the title of his most important book) - which is to say, the non-verbal vocabulary composers throughout the age of tonal music used, especially through melody, to express emotions, states of mind, and an impression of sensuous beauty. He systematically explored the themes of Wagner's music dramas, Mahler's symphonies, and Delius's violin concerto. He painstakingly cleared up the famous "Bruckner Problem" concerning the variant texts of that master's symphonies. And he also wrote cogently about Beethoven's late string quartets, Strauss and Stravinsky's totally opposite approaches to neo-classicism, the rhythmic structure of a Beatles song, and exactly why Wuthering Heights is a great romantic novel.

Cooke scored his deepest hits, I thought, in his criticism on criticism itself. He powerfully observed how little right a music critic has to judge the weaknesses of a work he himself could never have created. He asks whether criticism of this kind might not be, more than anything else, a confession of the critic's aesthetic blind spots. He challenges future writers on the music of the great masters - and later observes how few of them took up that challenge - to deal not with matters of taste or opinion, but with a falsifiable, which is to say scientific, theory about what's going on under the hood of a great symphony, concerto, or music drama. He dares music journalists to start over and address those works that are undeniably works of genius not as subjects of criticism, but as phenomena whose communicative power is real and can, perhaps, be explained. He approaches music in a way that I have always, deep down, wanted to study it and write about it: as a scientist, with a comprehensive yet detailed knowledge of the evidence and a unifying theory that he is convinced explains it all.

As a disciple of music, I can think of few things more exciting than the possibility of taking up Cooke's challenge and continuing his work. However, as a child of the TV-blighted late 20th century and the even more Internet-blighted early 21st, I am painfully aware that I did not have the kind of musical formation Cooke had. Going back to Magee's biographical sketch, I salivate with envy at a picture of a fatherless, working-class youth born in 1919 coming by the ability to play great symphonies in four-hand arrangements, and being able to find similar youth able and willing to play them with him.

Setting aside religion (on which my views differ from Cooke's as night from day), I am reminded once again that electronic gizmos are really the opiate of the people. How I wish we could all quit cold turkey, detox ourselves as individuals and as a society, and recover the super-powers ordinary people used to have up to Cooke's salad days, if they can be recovered! I'm willing to give it a try, to the extent of not watching TV or having an internet connection at home (though, alas, writing this blog means staying at work after hours). Maybe I won't ever know Wagner or Mahler the way Cooke did, but with books and sheet music filling my spare time instead of flickering screens, perhaps I will find out it's not too late to experience a deeper, richer engagement in the best humanity has to offer, in things both enduringly and objectively beautiful.

Little Women

Little Women
by Louisa May Alcott
Recommended Ages: 12+

I don't know whether the book I read is the first installment of a trilogy, continued in Little Men and Jo's Boys, or an omnibus edition of the first two books in a quartet. Some, after all, count Part 2 as a separate book, titled Good Wives. But the plot of the two or three movie adaptations I have seen of it over the years seems to take it for granted the title Little Women covers both parts of this American classic, originally published in two volumes in 1868 and -69 and frequently, then and now, published in one volume under the same title as Part 1.

This is the already well-known story of four sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March, set during and a little after the U.S. Civil War. Their parents are minor lights in the intellectual firmament of greater Boston. Their neighbors are a lonely boy named Laurie and his crusty grandfather. Their girlhood adventures take place mostly in their imagination, a communal imagination that takes the form of homespun melodramas (inspired by Shakespeare) and the minutes of a fancied gentleman's club (inspired by Dickens). They put up with being poor and unfashionable at a time when a young woman's hopes could be staked on a ball gown or a chaperoned tour of Europe. One of them suffers a slow, lingering death; one of them finds success as a writer; three of them find love; they all learn lessons about being good and happy women.

I also don't know for sure what to make of its author's express criticism of both moralizing children's fiction and sentimental romances, since at times it has features of both - little preachy passages and soft-focus passages of nostalgia, wooing by indifferently developed male characters and tear-jerking accounts of grief and loss. But at the same time it spotlights a non-traditional female protagonist, sets her up for an unconventional match with a whiskery, middle-aged German professor whose name (Bhaer) is vaguely suggestive of his shape, and turns an only slightly rose-tinted lens on the author's extraordinary real-life family. It isn't as radical or revolutionary as some would have liked, but its originality and straightforwardness have kept it fresh, with a voice that speaks to today's people.

To generations of fans, this book hardly needs an introduction. It has already stood a test of time, has sold lots of copies, and has been more than sufficiently dramatized and filmed. My endorsement cannot help it and my criticism, if I had the hubris to offer any, could not hurt it. From the perspective of catching up on required reading (better late than never), the most useful thing I can say about it is that it went down easily, with a pleasing aftertaste and more than one powerful throb of sympathy, in the audio-book format read by Barbara Caruso. I might even have wept, just a little.

From the "why fans of Harry Potter may also love this" standpoint, I could note many points of comparison between L. M. Alcott (at least as she portrays herself in the character of Jo March) and J. K. Rowling. Jo (March or Rowling, take your pick) takes an unconventional path toward being a successful writer. Meantime she lives a modest private life, rich in disappointments and surprises. As for Alcott herself, she spent the brief interval between the two volumes of this work fielding fan theories about who the March girls would end up marrying, only to do her best to thwart the shippers with romantic surprises - or rather, and perhaps even better, unromantic ones. The way Amy and Laurie come to their understanding (oops, spoiler!) is one example. Jo's walk with Bhaer through the Boston mud is another. Time has proved these understated touches to have more heart in them than a dozen swoony demonstrations of highly fraught passion.

And if, at times, Alcott sometimes lapses into something like a Unitarian tract, she has the excuse of dealing with characters whose imagination was formed, in part, by Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and the transcendental philosophers of mid-19th-century New England. This novel is, in a way, the culture of that bunch distilled into popular literature. And though, to this day, it remains more "popular" than "literature," there is nothing to sneer at in that. There is a sound reason why I have read everything by Dickens and stopped reading Joyce after one novel. It is like the reason A.S. Byatt's sneer upon J.K. Rowling has gone to fewer hearts than Stephen King's praise of her. The best in a nation's literature may sometimes be more on the order of popular entertainment than technically perfect art work. What finally matters is whether, after a good deal of time has passed, a book is still widely loved and rewards those who read it with pleasure. Little Women, in spite of what its critics may say about it, has made the cut.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Box of Gargoyles

A Box of Gargoyles
by Anne Nesbet
Recommended Ages: 12+

I came across this sequel to The Cabinet of Earths, which I haven't read at this time, in the bargain section of a new-and-used bookstore I spotted while walking my parents' dog during an unplanned road trip. I literally ran straight into the store, grabbed this book, bought it and ran out without pausing to look around. It's funny how these little strokes of luck happen when you're not looking for them. After a dry spell in terms of finding books I really liked, this one hit me with a fascinating combination of creepy magic, cultural richness, and a neatly crafted character study of adolescent friendship and family ties. Quirky, surprising, laced with crisp dialogue and the charming scenery of Paris, it was, if not the best book I have read this year, by far the most enjoyable of the way-too-many books I was attempting to read at the time.

In the previous book, which (I stress again) I have yet to read, 12-year-old Maya Davidson coped with her mother's serious illness, her family's sudden move from California to France, and trying to fit into a school where everybody speaks a language she doesn't know... not to mention her adorable little brother's abduction by a distantly related wizard named Henri de Fourcroy. This purple-eyed character has stayed young and handsome for 100 years by something to do with a cabinet of earths and something to do with draining the charm of out of children like five-year-old James. But that's all behind Maya now, right?

Well, no. In spite of being vanquished, Fourcroy is only mostly dead. Part of him lives on in the stone wall of the Bulgarian embassy where Maya's best friend, the cheerful and scientifically inclined Valko, lives with his diplomat parents. Another part of Fourcroy is reaching out to Maya from beyond the grave, using letters on enchanted paper and other talismans to compel her to do his evil bidding. And though Maya knows bringing back Fourcroy will mean the end of her, she can't help it thanks to a binding magic that makes her every act of resistance but another step down the "clockwork path" he has set her on.

While the now 13-year-old girl tries to find some wiggle room to escape a nasty fate, waves of strangeness are breaking out in the middle of Paris, spreading twice as far every 137 hours and threatening to envelop the world in chaos. Everything from baked goods to major landmarks is changing shape. Mobs of mesmerized women are bursting forth in song around Maya, singing Bulgarian lyrics that threaten to eat her heart. A shadow in vaguely human form keeps chasing her. And a pair of disturbingly mobile gargoyles have entrusted their egg to her, a responsibility she feels deeply although the egg is also connected somehow with Fourcroy's dastardly plan.

Besides all this, Valko may be taken from her by his scary grandmother, the one with the mole on her face who thinks he is losing touch with his Bulgarianness. Viktor Krum! What will Maya do?

What she does is actually a little mind-blowing. The setting where it happens is delightful in every detail, right down to a dinner party in which a historian of yogurt debates the finer points of vampires with a scatter-brained American authoress. (Fans of bare-chested vampires should be advised, that chapter isn't kind to them.) This is the kind of magic I have hoped to find more of, ever since I started writing book reviews under the motto, "If you like J. K. Rowling, you may also like..." Magic-starved Potterheads, head this way!

Nesbet, a California-based author who also teaches Russian literature and the history of film, has also written a recent book titled The Wrinkled Crown. It too shows signs of being a good pick for kids of all ages looking for a little magic.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 13+

The sixth book of sixteen and counting in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, this installment presents several challenges all at once for Mma Precious Ramotswe, her assistant Mma Grace Makutsi, and her new husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, Gaborone, Botswana.

First there's the matter of Charlie, the elder of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's two idle, girl-crazy apprentices. He falls under the spell of a rich married woman and impulsively quits his job, risking the ruin of his entire future and forcing the garage to hire a certain Mr. Polopetsi, an educated man with a troubled past.

Next Mma Ramotswe's first husband, the cruel and magnetic Note Mokoti, shows up and demands money in return for staying silent about the fact they are really still married. While trying to figure out what to do, Mma Ramotswe drives her tiny white van out to the village where Note's mother lives, only to see her faithful old vehicle first broken down in the bush, then stolen.

Meantime Mma Makutski takes a lead in solving the agency's one paying case for the time being, while also trying a dance class and meeting a man who evokes first her irritation, then her compassion, and finally her love.

How they fit all these adventures into one thin little book, and still have room for a burglar who flees without his trousers and a pumpkin that mysteriously appears on the porch, is a mystery you will only solve by reading this book yourself.

If you do, you will join multitudes of readers who have been touched, amused, and fascinated by the kindness, the cultural richness, the problem-solving resourcefulness of Mma Ramotswe, and the colorful circle of characters around her. I, for one, am looking forward to borrowing the local library's copy of the next book in the series, Blue Shoes and Happiness.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

168. Hymn for the 27th Sunday after Trinity

With this hymn I complete my "hymn for every Sunday of the church year" project. This mass would occur only during a year when Easter falls on or before March 26. Its Epistle is 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and its Gospel is the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, Matthew 25:1-13. The tune is FIVE THOUSAND, which I wrote in 2008 for this hymn. I hope the hymn below may serve as an antidote to the knee-jerk proclamation of a moralistic or decisionistic preparation for Jesus's coming, which seems to me a hideous misapplication of this Gospel. Jesus' point of comparison isn't the oil that the virgins have to bring or buy, as in works or spiritual movements that we ourselves must supply. It is simply about being ready for Jesus to come at any time and not becoming discouraged even if we fall asleep before He comes. Paul's comments in the Epistle are so much to the purpose that the pairing of the two texts seems, as it were, inspired.
Christ, who Your kingdom once compared
To five wise and five foolish maids,
Keep us alert as daylight fades
Until Your banquet is prepared!

Grant us, while time remains in grace,
The ready oil but You provide
To fuel our faith, until Your bride
Beholds the glory of Your face!

Grant us the word that heralds peace,
The washing of the second birth,
Bread broken once for all the earth,
The keys that from sin’s bond release!

Grant thus that when Your trumpets sound
And You pass in and close the gate,
We may not light our lamps too late
But in full readiness be found!

Nor let us slumber nor grow drunk
Nor falsely think ourselves secure;
But help us patiently endure
This age till its last light is sunk!

For we are fated not for wrath
But to be saved through You, O Christ,
Who for us all were sacrificed,
Our life the purpose of Your death.

From this such comfort we shall take
That, bearing trouble, fear and loss
With eyes lit by Your holy cross,
We watch with full hearts and awake.

Come soon, dear Lord, with sweet surprise;
And if perhaps our bodies drowse,
Fill them with life, our souls arouse,
And draw us onward with the wise!

Monday, November 30, 2015

167. Hymn for the 26th Sunday after Trinity

This would be the second-last Sunday of a church year with a full complement of 27 Sundays after Trinity, but Easter would have to land on or before April 2 for there to be even so many as 26. The Epistle is a toss-up between 2 Peter 3:3-14 or 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10. The Gospel is Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus depicts the final judgment in terms of separating the sheep from the goats. For the tune I self-borrowed again, slightly modifying the tune AMEN, AMEN I wrote in 2013 for this hymn, which happens to begin with the words "Amen, Amen." The fact that there's an "Amen, Amen" in the refrain of this hymn makes the choice of tune seem significant, but it actually came about by accident. I had already selected the tune for this hymn before I wrote the text. I originally meant there to be just one "Amen" in the refrain, with the second syllable slurred over five notes, like the first syllable of the word "glorify" in the other hymn. I realized this wasn't going to sound good in this case, so I decided to break up the five-note slur and stick in a second Amen.
The Son of Man will come with might,
Enthroned amid the sons of light,
When all the nations in His sight
Shall be divided, left from right:
Amen, Amen! Come quickly, Lord!

The King will turn His kindly face
To those found righteous by His grace
And say, “Come, brethren, take the place
Prepared since God designed your race!”
Amen, Amen! Come quickly, Lord!

“In aiding any in his need
You aided Me with loving deed,”
The King will say, as though to heed
Alone what works from faith proceed.
Amen, Amen! Come quickly, Lord!

But to the left He will proclaim
A curse, a banishment, a flame
With Satan’s ministers of shame,
Though they feel neither want nor blame.
Amen, Amen! Come quickly, Lord!

Redeemer Christ, root out the pride
Which on that day will be denied!
Grant us a heart that will confide
In You, who for our failings died!
Amen, Amen! Come quickly, Lord!

Now, pardoned of iniquities,
We bow to You our hearts and knees
Whom without faith no work can please;
Help us to serve the least of these!
Amen, Amen! Come quickly Lord!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Infernal Devices

Infernal Devices
by K. W. Jeter
Recommended Ages: 13+

Back in print after many years, this book was an early example of the now thriving Steampunk genre. Its author, a specialist in "dark science fiction," was not only among the handful of writers who invented this semi-satirical blend of alternate history and gadget-propelled paranoia, he was actually the one who coined the word "Steampunk." Now that everybody who's anybody spins fantasies of clockwork automata, Victorian costumes with brass-studded leather accents, aircraft with flapping wings and ground craft with walking legs, this forgotten gem is suddenly important again.

It begins when a hapless, straight-arrow type named George Dower finds himself out of his depth trying to run the clockwork gadgetry business left to him by his remote father. Lacking his father's genius for that sort of thing has already gotten George into a few scrapes, notably an incident involving clerical automata in a church that resulted in mayhem, blasphemy and a close call with utter ruin. But now a visit from a stranger he comes to call "the brown leather man" starts him down a path of madcap adventure involving a couple of scoundrels who talk like denizens of a later age, an army of anti-clockwork puritans, a lost civilization from beneath the waves, and a mad secret society that wants to bring about the end of the world.

Most of the hallmarks of the genre are in place, including daft theories about the aether, an attempt to bring a dying race back from extinction, debates about the benefits and drawbacks of technological progress, an absurd flying machine and a wind-up doppelgänger who has a screw or two loose. It abounds in retro-futurism, juxtaposing could-have-beens that never were with larger-than-life splashes of what once was. It allows us to explore a speculative future branching out of a beloved literary period, an alternate yesteryear that is both whimsical and horrifying. It sets a fetish for Anglo-archaism against a sneering caricature of present-day Americanism. And with loopy high-jinks, spiced with sexual tension and genuine suspense, it sneaks a subversive commentary on modern society under the reader's radar.

This review is based on an audiobook narrated by Michael Page, which I bought at a truck stop (EDIT: I did not, after all, borrow it from the local library). This new edition includes a new introduction by the author and a scholarly afterword that explores the book's place in the Steampunk canon, and the genre's place in our culture. It leaves me intrigued by what else K. W. Jeter has to offer, such as the recent sequel to this book titled Fiendish Schemes. And it touches chords of fond memory strung from other Steampunk works I have enjoyed. I may have to explore that world a bit more.

166. Hymn for the 25th Sunday after Trinity

This Sunday towards the end of the church year, like some of those around it, may exist some years but not others. This is because there may be more or fewer Sundays after Trinity depending on the date of Easter. The low extreme of 22 Sundays can only occur when Easter falls on one of the two latest dates possible, April 24-25, whereas there are five possible Easter dates (March 22-26) to allow 27 Sundays after Trinity. I note this here because more than half of the possible dates of Easter, but only a little more, allow for at least 25 Sundays after Trinity. I should also have mentioned a few hymns ago that the Introit for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, on which I based that Sunday's designated hymn, is always supposed to be used on the last Sunday of the church year. At any rate this particular mass has 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 for its Epistle and Matthew 24:15-27 for its Gospel. I chose two alternate tunes for this hymn, both titled WENN MEINE SÜND. The one above the hymn is from a German source, dated 1790. The one below it is by Michael Prætorius, 1609.
When tribulation rises
And shows the end is near,
Man’s lot he realizes;
The nations quake in fear.
Woe to the womb, the nursing breast
Whom the brash bolt surprises
That flashes east to west!

That day comes of a sudden
And finds men unprepared;
The faithful, though downtrodden,
Need not withal be scared.
Though springs the trap on ev’ry sin,
Yet mercy’s gates will broaden
T’ward us whom Christ drew in.

Heed not false Christ or preacher
Whose word or wondrous deed
Would even God’s new creature,
If possible, mislead!
See, Jesus warns us in advance
Lest comely voice or feature
Should mesh us in its trance!

Now be not unenlightened
On them who are asleep,
But let your hearts be lightened
From hopeless, pining grief!
Christ comes with angel’s voice to raise
Those dead in Him; then brightened
Shall be all after days!

Friday, November 27, 2015

165. Hymn for the 24th Sunday after Trinity

The Epistle for this mass is Colossians 1:9-14. The Gospel is Matthew 9:18-25, where Jesus' raising of the official's dead daughter is interrupted by the healing of a woman with a twelve-year hemorrhage. The tune is MALVERN, from something called The Hallelujah of 1849.
Christ, rise without delay
To touch our woe today
And comfort give,
As at the ruler’s plea
His daughter’s corpse to see
You rose at once, that she
Also might live!

Hear, though a keener need
May check Your answer’s speed;
Help us endure,
As You Your meeting kept
With her who lately slept,
While wounds that twelve years wept
You paused to cure!

We need not stealthy cringe
To touch Your garment’s fringe,
Lord of all grace;
You choose yet surer routes
Whereby we taste Your fruits.
The means You institute
Help us embrace!

Help us regard Your word
As heaven’s pow’r conferred
On heart and ear,
And Your blest sacrament
As You both said and meant:
Your body for us rent
By nail and spear!

Thus as we taste Your cup
And on Your promise sup,
Open our eyes
As once, though people mocked,
You to the dead girl talked;
Death’s dungeon You unlocked,
Bidding her rise.

Likewise our hearts revive,
Lamb slain and yet alive!
And though we die,
Our souls securely keep
And grant our bodies sleep
Till from the grave we leap,
Summoned on high!

164. Thanksgiving Hymn

This is a day late, but I was busy celebrating Thanksgiving yesterday! Though Thanksgiving is a public holiday rather than a universally Christian feast, there is a strong tradition at least in American Lutheranism of reading the Gospel for the 14th Sunday after Trinity, Luke 17:11-19, at Thanksgiving services. So I heard it Wednesday night at a "Thanksgiving Eve" Communion service that reminded me what the word "eucharist" means. Here's a hymn I hoped might capture that meaning, set to an original tune titled THANKSGIVING.
Lord, when our voice to You we raise,
To whom belongs all pow’r and praise,
Have mercy on our meanness;
Though one in ten extol Your grace,
Yet pardon our uncleanness!

Good Master, help us when we cry!
Without Your favor we would die,
Were it one hour denied us.
Help us perceive with grateful eye
All that You do provide us!

You give food, clothing, home and wealth,
Mind, body, senses, life and health,
For which we owe thanksgiving.
By serving those in need by stealth,
Make us Your means of giving!

Again have mercy when we fail,
When thankless attitudes prevail,
Our sinfulness forgiving!
Come, Bread of life to bodies frail!
Come, Cup of glad thanksgiving!

A thankful heart in us create,
And dwell in us; rejuvenate
The seed of faith You planted
Till we rise where, in royal state,
Your praise is ever chanted!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

163. Hymn for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity

I'm getting so close to the end of this "hymns for the Sundays of the Church Year" project that I just can't stop. So here is a second original hymn in one day, written mainly on the Introit for this mass from Jeremiah 29:11-14 and surrounding verses, with a bit of the Epistle from Philippians 3:17-21 and the Gospel from Matthew 22:15-22, where Jesus famously says, "Render unto Caesar," etc. It's pretty much a hymn about Christian vocation. The tune is IMMANUEL by J. P. Löhe, 1869-1952.
Tell this to captive Israel:
Tempt not the Lord, but hear Him well,
Says God, the Lord of hosts.
Dwell where He causes You to dwell;
The work you find to do, do well
In cities, fields or coasts!

Though subjects of His realm above,
The Lord calls you to serve in love
Your neighbor here below,
As Daniel and the three youths throve
Whom into Babylon God drove,
And kept faith even so.

Wherever leads your pilgrim way,
Build, grow, do business, marry, play,
According to your place:
Whatever city, for it pray;
Whatever duty, gladly pay,
And trust your Father’s grace!

Pay neither heed to men’s applause
Nor to false prophets’ dreams and laws,
Which God did not ordain;
But let His gospel be the cause
That calls its ministers, and draws
His people home again!

“I know my own thoughts,” says the Lord;
“Thoughts that not ill but peace afford
To you who call My name:
A future hope, a great reward,
The captive freed, the home restored,
In Me are found and claimed.”

As citizens of heaven walk,
Awaiting Christ, our mighty Rock,
Whose cross is all in all!
Soon will He gather all His flock,
Our transformation to unlock
By His almighty call.

Till then, let all His ransomed tell
These tidings unto Israel,
Who Jesus trusts and lauds:
Whatever duties men compel,
Pay in their coin; but know as well
Your race and realm are God’s.

162. Hymn for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity

The Epistle for this mass is Philippians 1:3-11. The Gospel is Matthew 18:23-35, Jesus' account of the unmerciful slave. The melody is the 19th century Welsh hymn tune DOLGELLY.
God, who forgave our debt,
The misdeeds we regret:
Our nature black as jet
Repair, lest we forget
The liberty to You we owe,
That we forgiving hearts may show!

The pardon that You give
Makes our dead spirits live;
How then can we survive
Unless we too forgive?
Dare we our hearts on vengeance set
Whom You loosed from law’s awful threat?

As we before You grow,
What we reap, let us sow!
The pardon You bestow
On us, through us will flow.
From grace to grace our way will thrive
Till we into Your rest arrive.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Night Circus

The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern
Recommended Ages: 13+

When an author's debut novel is as wonderful and successful as this 2011 Locus Award winning fantasy, experience predicts one of two outcomes. Either it will prove but the beginning of an exciting career for book lovers to follow with breathless interest, or it will go down in the records as another outstanding freak of creative brilliance that came as if from nowhere, and remains without any follow-up. I hope the fact its author hasn't published another title in the four years doesn't augur the latter outcome. I would prefer to see more by the creator of this superb and magical book.

The main action happens in a marvelous circus built not under one tent, but in a complex collection of tents. This circus arrives without warning and departs just as suddenly, seeming to materialize out of nowhere and disappear into nowhere again. It opens only at night when the weather is fine, and all its attractions share a stylish palate of blacks, whites and grays. Its entrance is dominated by a continuously transforming clock, its main courtyard by a cauldron full of pure white fire. It features animal acts, a fortune teller, a contortionist, a conjurer, and many other strange and wonderful things, all carried out in virtual silence except for the gasps and cheers of the crowd. Only those who follow the circus around - and there is a growing society of those who do - and those who visit it every few years when it passes through their area are apt to notice that no one in the circus ever seems to age, except the red-haired twins who were born at the moment the circus opened. New attractions open, or perhaps it's just that one never has time to see them all, but the whole show seems suspended in a time out of time, not to mention a world out of this world.

What even the members of the circus themselves do not suspect is that they are all playthings in a game that has been going on for untold ages, a game between two powerful magicians whose motives remain unclear until the end of this book. The circus has been created mainly as the venue for the latest match in this game, pitting two unsuspecting opponents who have been groomed for a contest of magic since childhood. Celia Bowen is the daughter of a stage illusionist who devotes most of his craft to making feats of actual magic look like exquisite tricks. Marco Alisdair is the orphan apprentice of the elusive Man in the Gray Suit, whose main concern seems to be keeping the knowledge of magic secret. Bound together from their youth by a doom neither understands, Marco and Celia fall desperately in love before they recognize the game will not end until at least one of them is dead.

As the demands of the game wears on Celia's endurance and Marco's willingness to play, strange and disturbing things begin to happen in and around the circus. Death and madness begin to stalk those close to the show. Jealousy and heartbreak throw the circus's magical harmonics out of alignment. The possibility grows to a near certainty that everyone in the circus may be swept away unless something can be done. And just when the circus represents one young man's chance to be truly happy, it all begins to fall apart. Prepare for some lip-biting as the tension builds to a powerful and revealing climax.

Morgenstern says on her website that she started this book as a project for National Novel Writing Month, though it went through a lot of reworking before it reached its final form. Is it possible more people like her are out there with just one great novel hidden inside them, waiting for the right stimulus to push it out? Could it be just the result of a chance meeting between a fertile idea and the right amount of discipline imposed from outside? Or is The Night Circus the opening gambit of a power player in the fantasy lit arena? I hope it's the latter, because I don't want the magic to end. And that's the precise word for the vibrancy of this book's characters, the urgency of its storyline, the scenic lyricism of the Le Cirque des Rêves, and its delicious blend of mystery, romance, suspense, and the bizarre. It's a tragedy that somehow doesn't leave you feeling down at the end; it's a dark and terrible vision of magic that nevertheless remains innocent of occult content; it's an altogether grown-up book that contains hardly anything I would hesitate to share with kids; and it's a story of blockbuster entertaining power that contains the seeds of its own fandom in the form of the red-scarfed Rêveurs who love the Circus of Dreams as much as you soon will.

This book invites comparison with the Harry Potter books in a number of ways, but the most obvious of them is that its U.S. audiobook version is narrated by Jim Dale. His vocal talent brought out a lot of the life in each of the characters and breathed a scent of awe and delight on the passages describing the circus. I don't know that I've heard him read before, but I'm interested now to hear what he did with the magical world of J. K. Rowling.

161. Hymn for the 21st Sunday after Trinity

The Epistle for this mass is Ephesians 6:10-17, on which I have already written a hymn (more or less); the Gospel is the healing of the official's son in John 4:46-54, beginning at the words "And there was a certain royal official." The tune I have in mind is ICH FREU MICH IN DEM HERREN by Bartholomäus Helder, 1648.
O faithless generation!
Will you not yet believe
Without the attestation
Of signs that may deceive?
Adepts of every nation
Great wonders may achieve;
But sinners from damnation
Can Christ alone retrieve.

Christ healed without compunction
Whomever He could find;
His spittle served as unction
To cure the mute and blind.
When faith stood in conjunction,
Its pow’r He called to mind;
But from the first His function
Was to redeem mankind.

A courtier came pleading
His sick son to be spared.
Christ sent Him homeward speeding;
“Your son lives,” He declared.
When he, his servants meeting,
Learned how the child had fared,
Christ’s purpose, death defeating,
Was wonderfully bared.

What word is this! Once spoken
It carries out its ends;
Its truth cannot be broken,
Though reason it transcends.
To chosen means and tokens
Effective pow’r it lends;
By it the dead are woken;
On it all life depends.

Be then not unbelieving
But trust that saving word,
All perfect gifts receiving
Through that which you have heard!
All vice and vileness leaving,
Christ’s armor on you gird
Till you, to His death cleaving,
Be into life transferred!

Monday, November 16, 2015

160. Hymn for the 20th Sunday after Trinity

The Epistle for this mass is Ephesians 5:15-21, and the Gospel is Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus' parable of the royal marriage feast. I realized only after writing this hymn that my book of "useful hymns" already contains two other hymns on the same parable. One is "O kingly Love" by Martin Franzmann, set to an original tune by yours truly, and it is the one I had to consciously avoid plagiarizing as I wrote the hymn below. The other is one of those "scratched and dented" hymns that I wrote, words and music, only to forget about it until after I had gone to all this trouble. Oh, well. At least in this instance I won't have to write another original tune. I'm recommending either of two tunes titled MEINEN JESUM LASS ICH NICHT, the first one from the 1699 Neuverfertigtes Gesangbuch of Darmstadt, or the second by Johann Ulich, 1674.
Darmstadt, above; Ulich, below.
King of heaven, who by grace
To Your Son’s high feast invite us,
Counting none too bad or base,
Drawing us to Him despite us:
Number us with Your elect,
Lest Your summons we reject!

God forbid that we should lose
By indifferent hearts that calling,
Or Your messengers abuse,
In yet deeper judgment falling!
Rather, with the worst and least,
Drag and drive us to Your feast!

Clothe us in the wedding garb
Of Christ’s righteousness unfailing,
Lest we feel hell’s stinging barb
And despair with shame and wailing!
Waken faith, our pride subdue;
Count us with Your chosen few!

Help us walk as do the wise,
These last evil days redeeming,
Clean at heart and clear at eyes,
Knowing truth from empty seeming;
Meantime from our heart to sing
Thankful anthems to our King!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

159. Hymn for the Circumcision and Name of Jesus

That is the historic name for the mass celebrated Jan. 1, also known as New Years Day, or the eve thereof. Its Epistle is Galatians 3:23-29; its Gospel is the one-verse account of Jesus' circumcision and naming in Luke 2:21. The original tune is titled EIGHTH DAY.
Today we bless the holy name
Of Him who from God’s bosom came:
His name is our salvation.
Before His mother felt the stir
Of that which was conceived in her,
Such office did the Lord confer
Through angel visitation.

Today we praise His infant blood
The eighth day shed, now understood
To bode a new creation.
Here God Himself was placed beneath
A testament requiring death,
That light and life He might bequeath
To His unworthy nation.

Today shows forth all children’s hope,
If eight days brought in Jesus’ scope
A name and circumcision.
Already branded with the mark
Of Abram’s seed, this living ark
Commenced a lonely course and dark
To bring us full provision.

Today the Law asserts a claim
On Him who bore salvation’s name,
On God an obligation;
Now we with eyes of faith may see
How as His heirs we were set free
When, clothed in Him baptismally,
We reaped emancipation.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

158. Hymn for the 19th Sunday after Trinity

The Epistle for this Mass is Ephesians 4:22-28. The Gospel is Matthew 9:1-8, Jesus healing a paralytic. The tune, titled PARRESIA, is one that I wrote today for a very fine baptism hymn by a friend of mine named David. Loath to use a good thing only once...
Jesus, strength of all the living,
By the perishing despised,
Your bold word, our sins forgiving,
Is the gift of all things prized,
Stirring us to show thanksgiving
Who in sin were paralyzed.

Vainly, vainly had we striven
Were we not in You by grace,
Helplessly led on and driven,
Doomed to find no resting place.
Now Your word calls us forgiven,
Children of a favored race.

Lord, lest men deny Your pardon
Is indeed to us applied -
Lest against You they should harden
Even hearts for which You died -
Grow in us, as in a garden,
All the graces You provide!

Raise us, that our mind's renewing
May befit Your holy flock;
That our homeward way pursuing,
We in truth and love might walk;
Thus, at peace with all men, hewing
Unto You, our living Rock!

157. Hymn for the 18th Sunday after Trinity

The Epistle for this Mass is 1 Corinthians 1:4-9 and the Gospel is Matthew 22:34-46. Ordinarily I would try to base a hymn for the day on one of these, but in this instance I felt more like paraphrasing Psalm 122, excerpts of which form much of the Introit and Gradual. The tune I selected is PAA SIT KORS from Hartnack O.K. Zinck's 1801 Koralbog.
Christ, we thank You for each other:
Each dear sister, each dear brother
Gathered in this holy place;
For the saints who walked before us,
For the evidence they bore us
Of Your faithful love and grace!

Lo, how they, our footsteps steering,
Shared the word we so love hearing!
Oh, what blessing is to them!
In Your message, taught exactly,
We ourselves stand, built compactly
Even as Jerusalem.

In Your gospel we find favor,
Covered in the soothing savor
Of Your sacrificial fire.
At the throne of law demanding
David’s Son and Lord is standing,
Bidding guilt and wrath retire.

Lord, Your church’s plea according,
Build its ramparts, peace affording;
Prosper them who know Your love!
For Your church’s sake, or rather
For Your honor, heav’nly Father,
Lead us to the realm above!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

156. Hymn for the 17th Sunday after Trinity

The Epistle for this service is Ephesians 4:1-6 and the Gospel is Luke 14:1-11. The original tune is titled HUMILITY.
You who exalt the humble
And humble them who boast,
Restore us when we stumble;
Send us Your Holy Ghost!
Lest we abuse Your holy feast
With arrogance appalling,
Teach us the lowest place and least
To count our rightful calling!

Your undeserved affliction,
Dishonor, cross and grave,
Impress this deep conviction
On those You bled to save:
In You the First became the last,
The Just for sinners dying;
Shall we, called by a grace so vast,
Respond with selfish vying?

No, Lord! We ask You rather
Your word of life to speak;
Cause us to serve each other
With patient hearts and meek!
We have one font, one festal board,
One faith, one hope abiding;
Among us therefore, triune Lord,
Let nothing come dividing!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

155. Hymn for the 16th Sunday after Trinity

I am skipping the 14th and 15th Sundays after Trinity because hymns I have already written will suit the lessons for those services. The former is my "Fruit of the Spirit" hymn written three years ago; the latter is the more recent "Worry" hymn. So on we go to the 16th S. after T., for which the Epistle is Ephesians 3:13-21 and the Gospel is Luke 7:11-17, the raising from the dead of the widow's son at Nain. The tune is BEATUS VIR from Samotulský's Kancional, 1561, about which there is a page on the Czech version of Wikipedia; but since I can't read Czech, you now know at least as much as I know about it.
Jesus, whose tears were not in vain
When to a friend’s tomb You were led,
How do You say, “Weep not!” in Nain
To her whose only son is dead?

Your love is not in words but deeds;
Nor is the happiness You give
Only at heart. For all our needs
You dare to die, You rise to live.

Lord, when your holy foot drew near,
The bearers halted in surprise.
When You laid hand upon the bier,
How do You say, “Young man, arise”?

’Tis not for anything unclean
Your holiness, Lord, to destroy;
You, rather, sanctify the scene
And rob death of the widow’s boy.

Then, for a while, men saw and praised
The visitation of God’s Son;
How shall we now, Lord, be amazed
To see yet greater marvels done?

For at Your font the blood You shed
Is poured on us, creating faith;
And at Your altar wine and bread
Include us in Your saving death.

How else will You revive and cleanse
The dead in sin, but by Your Word?
What human work or reason lends
The treasure freely here conferred?

Therefore to You we bow the knee
Who build us up in love and faith,
Till we behold the mystery:
Filled with Your fulness, free from death.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel
by Baroness Orczy
Recommended Ages: 12+

The year is 1792, and France is ruled by a revolutionary committee bent on sending anyone of noble blood, and anyone even suspected of sympathizing with them, to the guillotine. Enter a mysterious Englishman, known as the Scarlet Pimpernel after the star-shaped flower he draws on the taunting notes he leaves for the French authorities each time he daringly snatches a noble neck from under Mlle. Guillotine's bloodthirsty blade.

As you can imagine, the revolutionary committee is in a lather to catch him. Their envoy to England, one Citizen Chauvelin, ruthlessly lays a trap for him, playing on the feelings of the French-born Marguerite St. Just for her endangered brother Armand. Only after Marguerite has enabled Chauvelin to learn the identity of the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel does she herself realize he is her foppish, fashionable husband, Sir Percy Blakeney, whose disguise as a profoundly stupid and idle nobleman has fooled even her until now. With this new understanding comes the further realization that she loves him with all her heart. And now she must risk every kind of danger to save him from the clutches of a shrewd enemy who may already have Sir Percy trapped beyond saving.

It's a brisk, dramatically gripping historical romance-adventure that has earned a place among popular classics since it first appeared in 1905, two years after a play it was based on was written by Hungarian noblewoman Emma "Emmuska" Orczy and her artist husband Montagu Barstow. It was followed by more than a dozen sequels, prequels, and other connected books, including such titles as I Will Repay, The First Sir Percy and Mam'zelle Guillotine. I enjoyed my time in the colorful, perfumed atmosphere of this book so much that I intend to seek out copies of at least some of these sequels. Wish me luck!

A prolific author until her death in 1947, Emmuska Orczy (pronounced EM-moosh-ka OR-tsee) also penned mysteries, collections of folk tales, contemporary satires and other works of historical fiction set in various periods of European history, with titles such as Petticoat Government, The Laughing Cavalier, The Old Man in the Corner and Lady Molly of Scotland Yard. This book remains by far her best-known work. This review is based on a CD audibook read by Wanda McCaddon, borrowed from my local public library.

154. Four Evangelists Hymn

I've been brainstorming on this hymn for several days. What I tried to bring out as the thematic verses in each of the four gospels was Matthew 13:52 and 24:45ff; Mark 4:26-29; Luke 1:1-4 and 24:44; and John 20:31; though there are allusions to other verses as well. The original tune is titled FOUR ANGELS.
For Matthew’s faithful witness,
Dear Christ, our thanks we sing:
Whose gospel proved Your fitness
To style Yourself our King.
In bringing forth a treasure
Both old and new, that scribe
Took faithfully the measure
Of Your elected tribe.
Lord, feed us through Your trusty slave
And prove his gospel’s pow’r to save!

At Mark’s avowed beginning
Of Your new testament,
The baptist found men sinning;
Your Son bade them repent.
Mark showed His human weakness,
The passion of His soul,
And how in perfect meekness
He died to make us whole.
Lord, from this gospel’s tiny seed
Raise up a teeming crop indeed!

By Luke, the dear physician,
A clear account is told
How springs the church’s mission
From sacred writ of old.
Luke made a careful study
From Jesus’ humble birth
Till He on altar bloody
Atoned for all the earth.
Now, Lord, in breaking of the bread
Show us Your Son, no longer dead!

John gazed upon creation
When God’s redeeming plan
Designed the incarnation,
His Word becoming man.
Portraying Jesus smitten,
Too meek his name to give,
John’s book for us was written
That we might trust and live.
Lord, by this witness feed Your sheep
Till we with John arise from sleep!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

153. Hymn for Spiritual Warfare

Taking another brief break from Sundays-of-the-Church-Year hymns, here is a hymn for Christians battling the powers of darkness. The tune is ADVENT, which I wrote last year for an Advent hymn that I wrote in the 1990s.
Christians, for the strife alarming
Young and old together arming,
Learn to tell the devil’s charming
Counterfeit from Jesus’ word!
Let His truth upon you gird
Shield of faith and Spirit’s sword,
That the foe, intent on harming
God’s elect, may be deterred!

Even Christ, from everlasting
Doomed for Lucifer’s down-casting,
Only could by prayer and fasting
Cast some unclean spirits out.
Let us not give way to doubt
If the foes sustain their bout
Till, the feast of glory tasting,
We see Christ put them to rout!

This world’s prince, though judged already,
Tempts us still with pleasures heady,
Or again by grievance petty
Seeks our body to divide.
Hence we will with Christ abide,
Hidden in His wounded side;
Though the foe’s assault be steady,
Yet his prey will be denied.

Helm yourself, then, with salvation,
And be shod with preparation;
Wear your Savior’s mediation
As the armor of your hearts!
For the peace God’s word imparts
Turns the devil’s flaming darts,
And your soul’s exoneration
Brings to nought his thousand arts.

Fear not, though the times seem fright’ning,
Nor resign to pressures height’ning!
For the harvest fields are whitening;
Soon will angels come to reap.
Christ will rouse all flesh from sleep
And His own from judgment keep,
While the foe He will like lightning
Cast forever in the deep.

Why Your Oxford Comma Is a Waste of Ink

The more social-media contacts you have, the higher the likelihood is that some of them will be grammar nerds, a.k.a. grammar Nazis, a.k.a. over-correcting twerps who regularly post lists of expressions everybody says wrong. They will get shirty if you argue back that "I could care less" is an idiomatic expression and they should just live with it and stop whining that "I couldn't care less" is what you really mean. And now and then they will hold forth a humorous meme demonstrating how punctuation can save lives ("Let's eat grandma!"). Inevitably one of their sacred cows will be the almighty Oxford comma, the tiny stroke of the pen (or character on the screen) that changes "Tom, Dick and Harry" to "Tom, Dick, and Harry."

Frankly, or rather sarcastically speaking, I could care less.

I used to be careful to use the Oxford comma because that's what I was taught to do, and I've never had a problem with absorbing the accepted style. But then I started writing for a newspaper and I was forced to reverse my long-standing policy and cut the comma after Dick. Why? Because the AP style guide says so. Why? Because the AP style guide says so. Why? Because the AP style guide says so. All right, I get it. But why? Because in so many hundreds or thousands of copies of so many pages of broadsheet, each unnecessary comma wastes an appreciable, cumulative amount of ink and space, both of which cost money.

For some people going into journalism, losing the Oxford comma is like losing the religion transmitted to them by their ancestors and wise village elders. I have seen, for example, a quote on "Overheard in the Newsroom" where someone leaving the newspaper trade said, "I look forward to being able to use an Oxford comma without having my motives questioned." But I haven't taken it so hard. In fact, I think I've been pretty well converted to the AP style guide's point of view. And now I have that one more little, inky reason to be irritated with the know-it-alls who consider the Oxford comma an issue on the same level as freedom of the press, feeding the hungry and rescuing abused and neglected puppies.

The self-anointed true believers of English grammar consider the Oxford comma a mark of pure doctrine. But I submit they are really grammatical legalists, raising a parochial punctuation peccadillo to the order of dogma.

The presence or absence of a comma after the penultimate item in a comma-delimited list is not a unit of grammar at all. It is at best a convenience to the reader. Grammar is concerned with the transmission of meaning. The meaning is in the words, not in the punctuation marks. This becomes evident when you hear a list of items read out loud and understand it perfectly without reference to the Oxford University Press manual of style (or the AP style guide, for that matter). Sure, you might read aloud the words "Let's eat grandma!" with a different intonation than "Let's eat, grandma!" But that isn't what we're talking about. We're talking about a phrase like "Tom, Dick, and Harry" - a phrase which, read aloud, wouldn't sound any different without that second comma.

Sure, some telling examples have been held up for ridicule, like the lede sentence "This week's top stories are climate change, the Obama-Castro handshake and gay marriage" - but I defy anyone who sees the humor in that sentence to prove that they didn't understand its intended meaning. Read aloud it wouldn't sound any different. Adding a comma after "handshake" might redirect a mischievous reader from seeing the comical possibilities of the sentence, but the comma after "change" and the word "and" really should be sufficient to convince a reasonable person of the author's intent. If there's a possibility such a sentence could be misunderstood, whether read in the newspaper or announced by a TV news anchor, it's because of the word order and not the Oxford compliance of its punctuation.

If you want to ensure your writing cannot possibly be misunderstood, take more care about how you put the sentence together. The correct placement of a punctuation mark doesn't matter as much as sentence structure and word order. Begin by supposing there is a better way to express the intended meaning of your sentence; then look for it. A less-than-preferred style of punctuation may be irritating and distracting; it may play into the hands of satirical wags who enjoy nothing more than turning people's words against them; it may even give away a writer's educational or professional background; but after all, it's a matter of style and not of grammar. It's the lace frill on the sleeve of a dress, not the seam that holds it together. And only an elitist prig would plaster a "Not Done" sign on a point of style so fine that it is, in fact, done every day by some of the most intelligent and literate writers in our society.

There are no words for this.
Except, you know, "bullshit."
To the true convert, to the enthusiast, to the Oxford comma fanatic, their little mark is essential to clear communication, regarded as something no reasonable person would reject. But I reject it, and I think I have reasonable grounds. Take a sentence containing a list of three or more items, such as: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). Whether there's an "and" or not is immaterial. In this instance, there is no "and." The commas between the items are sufficient to show us that they are members of a list. The comma serves, more or less, in lieu of the word "and."

If you wanted, you could list the items thus: "love and joy and peace and patience," etc. A poet, for example, could arbitrarily insert or omit "ands" between these list items to make them fit his meter. No comma is necessary before or after any of these "ands," because each "and" serves the same purpose as a comma. It would be tiresome to insist on both a comma and an "and" in each instance: "love, and joy, and peace, and patience..." And this tiresomeness extends to the last comma in the list. Rather, it should be replaced thus: "faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."

Based on my reasoning, to insist on a comma before that "and" would be like demanding a double comma or a double "and." And in the oral recitation of the list, such a comma would probably not alter the speaker's vocalization one bit - unless your reader is one of those hyper-literal types who interpret every dot on the page with a deliberate alteration of rhythm or tempo. Not every writer is e.e. cummings, nor is every speaker Victor Borge, but even if they were, the difference each comma in the list would make in their oral performance would be musical or impressionistic, not a difference in the meaning of the sentence.

Once upon a time literature was written with much less punctuation than is now fashionable. Also, writing extended much closer to the edges of the page and was more tightly spaced. Books these days, especially hardcovers and quality paperbacks, are so tremendously wasteful of paper and ink that they make my arm ache to hold them and my bookcase strain to contain them. And all this space-wasting design accomplishes is to spare the reader effort to focus on each line of text and move his eyes from left to right. Just as people's homes these days contain more and more space although ever fewer guests are coming over to share it, so also we are lavishing more empty space upon, around and amidst the printed word though fewer people are reading it.

If you really think we need to do something to save trees and cut down on pollutants, how about using less ink and paper? If the same book can be printed either as a tome fit to hold a door open or in a format that you can hold in one hand or even slip into a pocket, why are we still printing tomes? And if banishing the Oxford comma from one's style guide could shave lines off a newspaper story or pages off a book, why is it still wanted? In the spirit of "reduce your carbon footprint and stop saying stupid things," I would conclude: "Save the forests. Down with the Oxford comma!"

152. Hymn for the 13th Sunday after Trinity

The Epistle for this service is Galatians 3:15-22. The Gospel is Luke 10:23-37, Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan. The tune I favor for this hymn is TREFOIL, which I wrote last year for a hymn about the Trinity.
Beloved, ask not what to do
To merit life eternal;
Ask rather what your ever true
Redeemer did to furnish you
With righteousness external!

The law demands unfailing love
Toward God and toward your neighbor;
The selfless mastery thereof
Is infinitely far above
The limit of our labor.

Hark, anyone who yet believes
The law dispenses glory:
A man lies, struck and stripped by thieves,
And only one his need relieves—
So far the Savior’s story.

Who is the one whose mercy rare
Fulfills love’s sacred duty?
Would priest or Levite show the care
A hated stranger offers there,
Unswayed by gain or beauty?

Who else is that Samaritan
But Christ, who paid to heal us?
Rejected and despised by man,
He loved us as none other can,
From certain death to steal us.

He bore our burden on His back,
From His wounds tonic pouring;
Though we were filled with treason black,
His flesh absorbed the Law’s attack,
Our peace with God restoring.

Besides this balm of precious worth,
A hostel He prepares us:
We share the church’s sheltered berth
With ransomed souls throughout the earth;
As one He heals and spares us.

Look not, therefore, upon the Law
To hallow or excuse you!
While it exposes every flaw,
It has no pow’r whereon to draw,
But only to accuse you.

Look, rather, to the promised Seed,
The Son of God, whose dying
Fulfills in one love-driven deed
Our race’s duty, due and need,
Eternal life supplying!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

151. Hymn for the 12th Sunday after Trinity

This time the Epistle is 2 Corinthians 3:4-11 and the Gospel is Mark 7:31-37, the healing of a deaf-mute, which involved Jesus spitting, sticking his fingers in the man's ears and touching his tongue with a finger (possibly moistened with spittle) before groaning the Aramic word "Ephphatha," meaning "Be opened!" My original tune for this hymn is titled EPHPHATHA, but really there are loads of existing tunes that would suit.
He has done all things well!
The deaf hear Scripture read;
The slow of speech His praises tell;
His voice revives the dead.

He has done all things well!
It must indeed be He
Whom God would send to conquer hell;
The words and signs agree.

He has done all things well,
Yet deigns to use mere spit!
His fingers need no magic spell
His promise to transmit.

He has done all things well!
His word in all its forms
The pow’rs of earth must far excel,
Such marvels to perform!

He has done all things well!
If bonds of ear and tongue
His “Ephphatha” can so dispel,
What chains will not be sprung?

He has done all things well!
This confidence is ours:
In His new testament we dwell,
Served by His Spirit’s pow’r.

He has done all things well!
On Him alone we build,
And shall all other spirits quell
Till we with Him are filled!

He has done all things well!
No glory can transcend,
Nor ear can hear, nor tongue can tell
What Christ to us extends.

For He is working still,
Preparing us a place
Where we, all fetters broken, will
Both hear and speak His grace.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

150. Hymn for the 11th Sunday after Trinity

With this, at least the 150th original hymn I have written, I return to my "Sundays of the Church Year" hymn project. It is based on the story of the Pharisee and the publican (i.e., tax collector) told by Jesus in Luke 18:9-14, the Gospel for Trinity 11. In the last stanza there is just a touch of the Epistle from 1 Corinthians 15:1-10. The tune is SPIRIT OF CHRIST, which I wrote earlier this year for a hymn by my friend Matthew. Actually I ruthlessly bullied him into revising and condensing his original poem, which wouldn't have fit this tune, and in the end I think he liked his original version better; so perhaps this is not so much a case of reusing an existing tune as rescuing one all Tinkerbell like from the edge of oblivion.
Hear, you who trust your rightness,
Thinking yourselves exempt
While you, with feigned politeness,
View others with contempt:
Hear Christ describe the Pharisee
Who, praying to the Lord,
Other men’s sins abhorred!
Praising his pious purity,
He had his full reward.

Hear, you all-but-despairing,
Knowing your sinful ways,
Toward heaven hardly daring
To lift a hopeful gaze:
Hear Christ describe the sinner who,
Beating his breast in shame,
Owned sinner as his name!
Justified was he of the two
Who to the temple came.

Hear you indeed the story
Of the most holy cross,
Nor heed the lie of glory
Told to secure your loss!
Hold fast the gospel that alone
Points to your Lord who died!
Thereby does He provide
Grace to approach the Father’s throne,
Perfectly justified.

Noncompliant Dream

Early this morning I had a dream that broke all the rules of the "showed up in school in your tighty-whities" genre.

Rule 1: Without any explanation, you suddenly find yourself at school in the middle of the day wearing nothing but undies. Me? I showed up early for school in my undies, reckoning it was due to some kind of hazing ritual or a handicap in a game. I was just glad to get ahead of the morning rush.

Rule 2: Your response to the looks everyone gives you is to wish you could die of embarrassment. Me? I gave anyone who looked in my direction the "Got a problem with that?" stare.

Rule 3: You remain paralyzed with horror until the dream ends or you wake up. Me? I went to my locker, rummaged around in it and brought forth a T-shirt and a pair of sweat pants I had discarded there on some previous occasion. Not a perfect solution, still a horrible outfit, but at least it was one I could lie low in. Then the dream moved on to another challenge.

It would be nice to feel so in-control of the everyday crises in my waking life.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Full Cupboard of Life

The Full Cupboard of Life
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 13+

Botswana's first private detective works a case she doesn't even get to finish in this fifth novel of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. It isn't terribly mysterious. Her client, a successful businesswoman, has decided to settle down and get married, so she asks Mma Precious Ramotswe for advice on which of her four suitors is the most suitable. Could it be the earnest, if dull, schoolmaster who takes a single-minded interest in reforming bad girls? The popular radio host? Or if neither, one of the others?

The investigation takes a back seat to other matters around the shared offices of the agency and Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. As has happened before in this series, things develop so quickly that time seems to run out on the case before the investigation really gets anywhere. But after all, the cases in this series are more studies of human character than actual mysteries.

Among the characters it studies are the matron of the Tlokweng Orphan Farm, who hectors the kindly mechanic Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni into agreeing to jump out of an airplane for charity. Then there's Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who faces not only this terrible ordeal but also a confrontation with a tough but dishonest colleague in the auto repair trade. The absurd young apprentice named Charlie gets a starring role, and of course Mma Ramotswe stands at the center of it all, trying to bring her engagement to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to its long delayed culmination.

What this book, and each book in this series, lacks in breadth of structure or in the force of a mystery-thriller plot line, it makes up in warmth, truth to it characters, gentle humor and a touch of lyricism. All these merits shine out even more in the audio-book version ready by Lisette Lecat. The next of so far 16 books in this series is In the Company of Cheerful Ladies.

Friday, October 23, 2015

149. Visitation Hymn

The Feast of the Visitation is July 2 in the historic Lutheran lectionary. The Epistle, for want of a better term, is Isaiah 11:1-5. The Gospel, really the text of this hymn, is Luke 1:39-56, in which the Virgin Mary (while pregnant with Jesus) visit her kinswoman Elizabeth (who is pregnant with John the Baptist). It's a text I have used before as the basis of a hymn, but to a different purpose. The tune is HOLY DAY, which I previously wrote for my "Third Commandment Hymn" - though the musical joke I worked into it doesn't have any relevance to this text.
Blessed shall all kindreds call her
In all ages yet to come,
Though sharp anguish would befall her
And the issue of her womb:
Mary, mother of our Lord,
Who believed the angel’s word,
Nor let maiden shame appall her
As she neared her cousin’s home!

How is it that flesh was able
To enclose our Lord and God?
Sooner may our supper table
Bear the flesh of Him we laud!
Can a womb become the shrine
Of the infinite divine?
Can a narrow manger cradle
Him who spans the heavens broad?

As the angel spoke, believing
Mary knew it would be so.
So Elizabeth, receiving
Her with joy, had felt the throe
Of the unborn prophet’s leap.
Can our hearts remain asleep,
Nor with her rejoice, perceiving
God incarnate here below?

May such faith as theirs be granted
In our time to such as us!
May Christ’s presence be implanted
By the Spirit even thus!
When as kinsmen of God’s Son
To His dwelling-place we run,
May our joyful hail be chanted
To His name in praise profuse!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

148. Ash Wednesday Hymn

Here I go again, way out of season, just filling another gap in my hymn tour of the church year! Ash Wednesday, forty days before Easter (not counting Sundays, because they're all Easter), is the beginning of the Lenten season, which focuses on repentance and a spirit-over-flesh sort of discipline. The Epistle, which in this case would better be called the First Lesson, is Joel 2:12-19. It's actually not the only time this Old Testament prophet's slender, three-chapter book pulls Epistle duty in the historic lectionary; the other is Pentecost, with a selection from the end of the same chapter. The Gospel (for Ash Wednesday, mind you) is Matthew 6:16-21. The tune is UNCTION, which I wrote in 2003 for a hymn by N.F.S. Grundtvig.
Fast, dear children, mourn and tremble;
Rend your heart and not your clothes!
Solemnly come forth, assemble
Your transgression to expose!
Turn with all your heart, repenting
That the Lord might hear, relenting
From His just and wrathful oaths!

For your Lord is kind and gracious,
Slow to wrath, in mercy swift;
Prayer with Him is efficacious,
Turning curse to precious gift.
Gather young and old together,
Brides and husbands, seeking whether
He our bill of shame might lift!

Ministers and congregations,
Gather to be purified,
Lest our woes incite the nations
To blaspheme our Lord who died!
God will answer and take pity,
Saying, “O beloved city!
What boon will I not provide?”

Fast indeed, lest fleeting pleasure
Rule your heart with charms that cloy;
Rather seek eternal treasure
None can pilfer or destroy!
Fast to tame your vicious members
Till your frame its Head remembers:
Christ your fullness, Christ your joy!

Fast in freedom; fast in spirit,
Not as to be seen by men,
Nor by fasting to gain merit
Lest by pride you sin again!
Rather fast with Him whose dying,
All God’s justice satisfying,
Made you righteous there and then!

Fast in faith, yet feast on pardon
In Christ’s name these forty days,
Who from wilderness to garden
Walked by self-denying ways;
Lest His agony be cheapened,
Rather be your hunger deepened
For the love His cross displays!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

147. Hymn to Depart

I wrote this hymn to fill a use in my planned collection of "useful hymns." It goes to the tune GENESIS, which I wrote a little while back for a hymn on creation.
Go in grace, dear sisters, brothers!
Go in peace, your souls restored!
Go in love toward one another!
Go in faith toward Christ our Lord!
May God bless your meditation!
May He answer all your prayers!
May He strengthen your vocation!
May He lessen all your cares!

Live with patience, kind and gentle,
Humble, self-controlled and meek;
Be not haughty or judgmental,
But the mind of Jesus seek!
As you would be seen by others,
Be in truth, at inmost heart;
So build up your sisters, brothers,
As God’s temple, set apart!

Parents, tell your children truly
All that Christ would have them know;
To His presence bring them duly,
That their faith may thrive and grow!
By your teaching and example
True disciples will arise;
For the Spirit’s pow’r is ample
And God’s kingdom is the prize.

Come again, repentant sinners,
Knowing pardon is your need;
Whether experts or beginners,
Come, receive the gospel seed!
You who hunger for salvation,
Come and take the living Bread,
Every member in his station
Growing up in Christ our Head!

Go with joy, returning often
To be filled again with joy!
Let each planned reunion soften
Our regret at each goodbye!
And should triumph intercept us
Or the grave’s dividing veil,
Go to Christ, who will accept us
With His joy-perfecting hail!

Monday, October 19, 2015

146. Disability Hymn

This hymn is in memory of my dear sister in Christ, Alexis Wernsing, who died recently after a 40-year lifetime in which she bore physical disability with amazing cheerfulness and strong faith. I've had the sniffles the last few days, but at times when I catch myself complaining about it I am struck by the thought of the constant pain and weakness Alexis lived with every day of her life, when doing things I can do without a thought required total effort on her part. Her death is a sharp loss to the small congregation I belong to, but her freedom from the disability she experienced in this life, together with her inheritance in heaven, is a great gain to her. For the tune, I am going with DEDICATION, which I wrote in 1993 for another hymn.
Behold! The weak and the afflicted
Look to You, almighty Lord,
Trusting in Your healing word,
Wherein Your mercy is depicted
In the person of Your Son,
For all flesh the Stricken One.

Look down, O Lord, upon our blindness!
Shine into our haze and night
With the gospel’s healing light!
Our eyes of faith fix on Your kindness,
Waiting for the day we see
All as it was meant to be!

Give ear, O Lord, unto our crying!
Let Your voice our deaf ears reach;
Loose our tongues for faithful speech!
Keep us upon Your word relying,
Till we hear the signaled rout
And reply with ready shout!

Make haste, O Lord, to banish Satan,
Who delights in withered limb,
Failing organ, sullied skin!
The broken heal; the crooked straighten,
That when we have run our race
We may stand before Your face!

Help us to run and not grow weary,
Even should our road require
Double tolls and trouble dire!
Show us, when all seems vain and dreary,
Bracing gifts You left in store
When You passed this way before!

With Your pierced, risen body feed us,
And with Your shed blood refresh
Both our soul and feeble flesh!
At last to perfect wholeness lead us,
Raising us from peaceful rest,
In Your splendid image dressed!