Sunday, May 31, 2015

115. Hymn on the "I AM" Christology

The gospel according to John is loaded with references to the name of God revealed in Exodus 3:14, "I AM WHO I AM." This is especially evident when comparing the Septuagint's Greek translation of the passage with John's original Greek. When this is kept in mind while reading John's gospel, it brings to light some amazing things about the Person of Christ. I can't imagine preaching on John without being aware of this. I wrote a long dry academic paper on it as an undergrad. Here's an attempt to apply it in a more practical way. The tune, which I am titling EGO EIMI (Greek for "I AM"), is one that I originally wrote in 2011 or so for a hymn by a fellow hymnwright. I would also be fine with the tune FARLEY CASTLE.
1. "I am," said God, "the God of Abraham;
Isaac's indeed, and Jacob's God I am."
Then Moses hid his face in holy fear,
Whom God ordained to bring His people near.

2. "But who am I," said he, "that I should go
Bring Jacob's children out of Egypt so?"
"Surely I will be with you," God replied,
"As you their way and worship hither guide."

3. Said Moses, "When Your message I proclaim,
What shall I say to them who ask Your name?"
"I AM," said God, "WHO I AM; therefore tell
'I AM has sent me' unto Israel."

4. He who, alone of all earth’s gods, can claim
"THAT WHICH I AM" to be His proper name,
Sent in these latter days the only Son,
Who is of substance with the Father one.

5. "I AM," said Christ, "the One who speaks to you,
Woman of Sychar, and My word is true;
The hour is coming soon, and even is,
When all God seeks to serve Him will be His."

6. "I AM the Bread of life," the Savior said,
"Bread that comes down from heav'n, and living Bread.
Some lived on Moses' manna day by day;
All who eat of this Bread will live for aye."

7. "I AM the Light of men," said Christ, "and he
Will have the light of life who follows Me;
Since facts are proven on the word of two,
My witness and the Father's must be true."

8. "If you believe not that I AM," He said,
"Sons of this world, in sin you yet are dead;
When unto death you lift the Son of Man,
Then you shall recognize me as I AM."

9. "Your father Abraham," the Savior said,
"My day desired to see, saw and was glad."
Some asked Him, "Have You, then, seen Abraham?"
He said, "Ere Abraham was born, I AM."

10. "I AM," said Christ, "the door by which the sheep
Go out to pasture and go in to sleep.
Lambs who would see salvation, come to Me;
I'll give you life, and that abundantly."

11. "I AM," said Jesus, "your good Shepherd too;
Not like the hireling who abandons you.
I know my sheep, and by them am I known;
That they may live I lay my own life down."

12. "I AM the Resurrection," Jesus said.
"None who believe in Me are truly dead.
Who knows I AM the Life shall therefore rise
And live forever even if he dies."

13. Said Jesus ere the Paschal board was laid,
"I AM your Lord and Teacher as you said.
If then to kneel and serve you I deem meet,
You also ought to wash each other's feet."

14. "I say," said He, "that you may know I AM:
He who betrays Me shares this festal lamb.
So it is fitting that the Lord should go
Back to His Father by a way of woe."

15. "Way, Truth, and Life," said He, "I AM alone;
Only through Me can one approach the throne.
If you would live and bear the fruit divine,
Be you as branches; for I AM the Vine."

16. At His arrest, the night before He died,
Ere Christ His power fully laid aside,
His jailers asked if Jesus was His name
And fell in worship at His meek, "I AM."

17. "I AM the first and last," Christ Jesus said.
"I AM the living One who once was dead.
Alpha and O I AM, who searches hearts
And fresh, free water to your thirst imparts."

18. "I AM," says He, "the opening and close,
Who holds all power and all secrets knows;
Both Root and Branch of David's lively stem
And your bright Star of dawning life I AM."

19. Amen! Lord Jesus, unto You we call,
Who throned on high are now made all in all;
Help us, that knowing You, we too may be
Who You would have us be eternally!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles
by Arthur Conan Doyle
Recommended Ages: 12+

It's the third of four Sherlock Holmes novels by the author who created him. It's the fifth of nine books about the great detective, counting the five sets of short stories. But if one work represents the series, or the works of Conan Doyle, in the canon of great books in the English language, it is The Hound of the Baskervilles. First published 1901-02 in serial form, it is a slender enough novel that the audio-book ready by the irreplaceable David Case requires only about six CDs. At times it seems as though its author poured shots of The Return of the Native and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall into a tumbler, added a dash of Bram Stoker and a garnish of Wilkie Collins, chilled it with a murder mystery, and gave it a shake. Yet the cocktail that pours out is the pure and quintessential Sherlock Holmes mystery.

The surprising thing, after you accept that summary, is how much of the mystery Dr. John Watson manages on his own. Holmes sends him off to the Devon countryside to watch over a young baronet who has inherited a family estate and the curse that goes with it. Sir Henry Baskerville is the only known relative to survive of the late Sir Charles, who died under most mysterious circumstances. Somehow, incredible though it may seem to a scientific type like Holmes, the death seems connected with a giant, fire-breathing hell-hound that has, heh, dogged the family's steps since the 17th century.

Set amid the gloomy atmospherics of Dartmoor, Baskerville Hall seems the right type of place for generations of a landed family to suffer an unhappy fate as punishment for the sins of an ancestor. But even Watson, without Holmes to direct him, manages to unpick half the web of mystery that entangles Sir Henry. On a grim moor fraught with dangerous bogs, where the night is haunted by eerie sounds, mysterious lights and threatening strangers, the greatest danger may not come from an escaped convict from a nearby prison but from a seemingly harmless neighbor who isn't what he seems. Even after Holmes rejoins the pursuit, his only chance to catch the shrewdest enemy of his career so far may prove too late, or too risky, to save his client's life.

Romantic melodrama, supernatural horror, and fiendish villainy are the material Holmes has to work with, together with a collection of clues so odd that they must explain everything - if only one can fit them together the right way. Why should someone steal one of Sir Henry's new boots from his hotel room, then return it and steal one of his old boots? What are the baronet's servants up to as they move about Baskerville Hall in the dead of night? What can explain the impossibly huge canine footprints, the spine-tingling howling and the reported sightings of a spectral hound? Who was Sir Charles planning to meet at the gate separating his grounds from the moors on the night he died, and why does he seem to have died of fright? If only one convict escaped from the prison, why have two different strangers been sighted on the moor? And if the hand behind all this is human rather than demonic, whose is it and what do they mean by it?

Holmes' crime-solving process seems as sound as ever, a testament to Conan Doyle's power to persuade. With the directness of a letter to the newspaper, albeit a very long one, Watson's narrative achieves a memorable effect. With only a tenth of the poetic diction of Thomas Hardy or the structural experimentalism of Ann Brontë - even in spite of repeating stock phrases of mood-altering language like "tingling nerves" often enough to draw attention to their repetition - this book has managed to insinuate itself among the fixed and immovable furniture of our literature. It is one of the tributaries that supplies an essential stream of mythology to our culture. Good but not very good, great mainly by dint of its vast popularity, its power to plant indelible images and ideas in the reader's mind can only be experienced, not explained. The subject of numerous film adaptations, imitations and parodies, it is one of the easiest books to get through on the inevitable long list of books everyone should read at least once. And for the information of anyone wanting to follow the Holmes books in publication order, it is followed by The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Stuffy Nose Causes Sprained Ankle

Last night was not very restful for me. After trying without success to fall asleep for a couple hours, I decided my problem was nasal congestion. Having already taken a decongestant, I felt my only other course was to use a squeezable bottle of saline fluid for nasal irrigation. So I ran as much of this fluid through my head as I could stand, and then promptly had a brief but furious nosebleed.

I was sitting on the lid of the toilet, nursing my nosebleed with wads of facial tissue when my cat Tyrone, 13, hopped on the bathroom vanity and started toying with the soiled Kleenex. I didn't think that was a good idea, so I brushed him off the counter the same way I have done countless times. Only this time, he caught his right front paw in a drawer handle. The drawer came open, the cat fell awkwardly to the floor and when he got up to walk away, it was with a profound limp.


I was unsure whether he had broken the leg or sprained it. I didn't want to irritate him too much by handling it; and after all, I'm no veterinarian. So I let him sulk overnight, then took him to the vet first thing this morning. The doctor examined the paw, felt it all over, X-rayed it, and after a long anxious wait in an unnecessarily warm examination room I finally received the good news that it was only a sprain. Tyrone got an injection of an anti-inflammatory drug that should keep him comfortable for about 36 hours, and I got a bill for $109.

Because of a stuffy nose. It can only happen to me.

Also, after spending half the night awake while every sinus in my skull was filled with a stinging itch, I woke up to a constant flow of mucus that has not stopped yet. So I'm well punished, as usual.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Doctor and the Rough Rider

The Doctor and the Rough Rider
by Mike Resnick
Recommended Ages: 13+

Once again, I departed from my usual practice of reading series of books in publication order when I found this interesting concept in a thrift store: an alternate-history fantasy jamming Native American magic together with steampunk technology in the Wild West. Deep breath. It features Thomas Edison and Ned Buntline as a pair of inventors lighting up the streets of Tombstone, Arizona, among the likes of Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday. And it's the third of (so far) four books in The Weird West Tales.

The friendly rivals are trying to invent a gadget that will tear down the wall of magic that has kept the United States from spreading West of the Mississippi. But the solution may lie elsewhere. Geronimo, the great Apache warrior, wants to make a deal with Theodore Roosevelt, an up and coming man of genius and rare leadership qualities. In return for Roosevelt's promise not to wipe out the Indians, Geronimo is willing to surrender the barrier. The only catch is that all the other medicine men in the west are against it, and they have pooled their power to create a giant creature named War Bonnet whose sole purpose is to stomp Geronimo and Roosevelt into jelly.

This is the Wild West you didn't learn about in your school history texts. It has medicine men who can change shapes and raise the dead. It has a gang of unruly gamblers and gunslingers shaping up to be Roosevelt's Rough Riders. It has a dusty frontier town kept entertained by a harem of robotic prostitutes (oops - I should have said Adult Content Advisory). It has Edison and Buntline inventing vintage/futuristic weapons to destroy an indestructible magical monster. And it has historic characters appearing out of context yet somehow, amazingly, in character.

Every witty word that drops from Doc Holliday's bloody-spittle-stained lips is pure gold. So is the way four-eyed, dandified Roosevelt wins the undying loyalty of all the tough guys the moment they test their manliness against him. The pace moves quickly and the characters pulsate with vitality and conversational charm, convincing you they would have said those exact things if real history had ever brought them together. All this is almost enough to enable you to overlook two slight deficiencies in the entertainment. First, author Resnick holds back his powers of description to the point where scenes and characters that really cried out for a few verbal brushstrokes are merely named. I sometimes struggled to find an image to put on my mental canvas. Second, if you get through the book slowly and in small doses, as I did, you might notice that the entire plot consists of the characters dealing with one essential problem. They talk about it, think about it, and sometimes go out and take poke at it, and for quite a while no solution comes to them. Then suddenly one does come, and the problem is cleared up so quickly and neatly that it almost doesn't seem worth it.

Still, I enjoyed the genre mash-up, the humor and the weirdness appropriate to a series titled The Weird West Tales. I also appreciated the helpful appendices, including digest biographies and a bibliography about the main characters and even some extracts of their own writings. Wild and woolly as this tale is, it was evidently founded on some serious research. The other books in the series, in order, are The Buntline Special, The Doctor and the Kid, and The Doctor and the Dinosaurs; and if I see them, I will definitely read them.

I am also amazed to learn that Mike Resnick, of whom I had never heard before this, is the most nominated author in the history of the Hugo Awards, and a five-time winner in the category of short fiction. His "hard" science fiction is especially celebrated for its approach to culture, particularly his Kirinyaga series, from which I am picking up a "read this if you like Ursula K. LeGuin" vibe. And I do like Ursula K. LeGuin. He also seems to like combining folklore and satire with mash-ups of other genres, such as hardboiled fiction, adventure and mystery. And he's been very, very prolific. So I may be breaking new ice here, opening a hitherto undiscovered seaway to reading pleasure.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag
by Alan Bradley
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sequel to The Sweetness of the Bottom of the Pie, eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce unites her passion for chemistry (especially poisons), her keen wit, a lot of pedaling of a bicycle named Gladys and a willingness to use her girlish charms to open doors that are often closed to the police to solve her second murder mystery, only a few weeks after barely surviving her first one. This time the victim is a famous puppeteer who, during a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk at the local parish hall, comes crashing down on the stage instead of the expected giant. Adding color to his death is the disturbing resemblance between the hero puppet and a local five-year-old boy who accidentally hanged himself five years earlier. To Flavia it is soon clear the rope that killed the boy is somehow tied to the cutting of the puppet-master's strings. In order to solve one mystery, Flavia must solve the other.

The setting is the sleepy English village of Bishop's Lacey in 1950. The heroine is the youngest of three daughters of a widower who is passionate about stamp collecting but not very good at business management. While trying to avoid being at the service of her bossy visiting aunt, Flavia wears herself up cycling up and down the village, gathering clues and interviewing witnesses. The suspects include the German prisoner of war who discovered the dead boy's body, the boy's farmer father who trades in marijuana, a madwoman who lives in the woods, and the puppeteer's abused and pregnant assistant. The local vicar seems to have a disturbing secret, too, and his wife seems like the sort who might have done something nasty about it. In fact, there are altogether too many possibilities of whodunit and why. But Flavia, with her nose for scientific evidence, has a knack for figuring out what was done and how. And that leads her, with perhaps surprising directness, to a life-or-death struggle with the killer...


The more I get to know Flavia de Luce, the more I look forward to furthering the acquaintance. As a narrator she has a winning precocity, combining both a chillingly morbid streak with a purity and innocence that make one feel protective of her. Her wit is sharp, at times almost frighteningly so; yet her narration also sparkles with ironic touches of picaresque, such as when her inexperience leads her to misunderstand an adult reference. A gruesome murder lies at the center of the mystery - two murders, actually - but when the atmosphere isn't thick with suspense, it is lightened by humor or warmed by affection. I am pleased to learn this is only the second of eight Flavia de Luce mysteries at present. The next title, which I hope to start reading this week, is A Red Herring Without Mustard.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Life of Pi

Having grown up on a steady diet of schoolyard jibes about my name, I fully sympathize with this book's main character's decision, on his first day at a new school, to shorten his embarrassing name to Pi Patel. It is the sort of act of self-reinvention I have gone through several times myself. At a certain grade level I stopped letting my teachers and classmates call me Robbie and insisted on Robin, my actual given name. This got really awkward once or twice when I was the only boy invited to a girl's birthday party, and when business mail came to me addressed as "Ms. Robin Fish." Going into high school I shortened my name to Rob and only regretted it when hearing-challenged people thought I said "Raw Fish," or when officious snobs dubbed me "Robert." A couple people even called me "Bob." Moving on from undergrad to seminary studies I reverted back to Robin. Writing for MuggleNet I adopted the pen-name Robbie Fischer as a weak feint toward anonymity. And most recently, when I joined the staff of a newspaper where my father (also named Robin) works, I started identifying myself publicly as R.D. - a handle some people can't seem to grasp. I keep getting called J.D. by the absent-minded and Artie by the hearing-challenged. I'm already looking forward to going back to Robin again.

And of course, the last name Fish has been a constant throughout. Even as an adult I occasionally have to defend it against people who frankly don't believe it's a real name. Just imagine what it's like to be a child among children with a name like that. I've thought about undoing the family name change in my great-great-grandfather's generation, but Poisson isn't much better; it looks too much like "poison," it evokes a ghoulishly silly Disney cartoon chef, and after all it means "fish." Put both together with a middle name whose best-known representatives are a cartoon duck and a douchebag billionaire, and the picture is complete. If I had an alternative as simple as shortening "Piscine Molitor" to "Pi," I would have done it long ago. But enough about me. We have a book to review!

Life of Pi
by Yann Martel
Recommended Ages: 14+

Most of this book is a first-person account of a sixteen year-old Indian boy's experience spending 227 days alone with a Bengal tiger in a lifeboat on the Pacific Ocean. It spares us the suspense of wondering whether he survives by telling us up front that he lives to graduate from college, get married, father children and tell his story to a second narrator who cuts in briefly now and then. It begins with a good thirty chapters about the boy's background, including how he came to call himself Pi and what led him and his family to be on board a ship full of zoo animals bound from India to Canada that suddenly, for no apparent reason, sank in the Pacific. It ends with a transcript of his conversation with two Japanese men, representatives of the company that owned the ship. But apart from these structural details it is mainly memorable as a unique story of endurance and religious faith.

The population of the lifeboat at the start of the ordeal includes a swarm of flies, some cockroaches, a rat, a zebra with a broken leg, a female orangutan, and a hyena, besides tiger and boy. It shrinks rapidly and violently to two, and stays at that number for the rest of the trip, except for some fish and turtles the boy catches for food and bait. It doesn't take long for him to realize that his only hope of survival is to tame the tiger, and that brings with it the obligation to feed and water it. Lost adrift without any idea how to navigate, all he can do for the better part of a year is pray, suffer, and struggle to survive.

Along the way, if way it may be called, the strange pair of survivors encounters another castaway literally by blind chance. But that episode doesn't end happily. Pi, brought up a vegetarian, learns to eat many things he would never have dreamt of trying, and some things that would turn the stomach of anyone who wasn't starving. He makes full use of remarkable survival technologies such as solar stills and raincatchers. He learns to use his own urine to mark territory which, contrary to the cover art, is not the bow half of the bottom of the boat but only a tarpaulin stretched over it. He overcomes seven months of the strain of being separated only by a foot of space and a thin layer of canvas from a fierce predator. And he discovers a strange, almost surreal floating island where there is abundant fresh water and food for both boy and tiger, but only at a gruesome price.

Pi's story is sad and inspiring, and it overflows the boundary of pure narrative to meditate on the nature of storytelling and the love of God. From a theologian's perspective, I don't buy Pi's argument that one can be a devout Hindu, Christian and Muslim at the same time, but his quirky religion adds to the charm of the story. His background as a zookeeper's son in India has the makings of an entertaining young adult novel even without the survival ordeal that follows it. There is also a clever surprise, revealed at the point where the main attraction begins, but I don't want to spoil in any way.

This book was an international bestseller and Man Booker Award winner. It was made into a movie that won Ang Lee an Oscar for Best Director. There is also a stage version by Keith Robinson, an illustrated edition, and an audiobook narrated by Jeff Woodman, with the secondary narrator played Alexander Marshall in an audible nod to this novel's unusual structure. I personally recommend this audio version. Woodman is good with gentle Indian, Japanese and French accents, but his special gift to this book is the charm he lends to the character of Pi.

A French Canadian author who prefers to write in English, Yann Martel traveled widely in his youth due to his father's diplomatic career. Among his other works to-date are the novels Self and Beatrice and Virgil, a short story collection, and a series of book reviews that he wrote in the form of letters to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

114. Exaudi Hymn

Exaudi is the mass for the Sunday after the Ascension, which may also possibly be described as the sixth Sunday after Easter or the seventh Sunday of Easter. Its Latin name comes from the introit taken from Psalm 27, beginning with verses 7-8 by way of an antiphon. This Psalm, together with the gospel from John 15:23-16:4 and, to a lesser degree, the epistle from 1 Peter 4:7-11, sets a tone or a theme of sober preparation for persecution of the church and "the end of all things." Even though I'm a bit late for this year's Exaudi Sunday, current events suggest this may yet be a timely bit of devotional verse.

Lord, hear our cry of prayer and pain
And answer us by grace,
Lest Your command should be in vain
That bade us seek Your face.

The end of all things is at hand;
With sober, watchful prayers
Help us to walk the road You planned
And bear each other's cares.

As You have given gifts to each,
So too make fit and call
Some who Your oracles will teach
And minister to all.

Lend us Your Spirit's helpful light,
His witness strong and true,
That we may face men's stinging spite
With faith's eye fixed on You.

Though for Your sake we be cast out,
Though some perhaps be killed,
Our heart is proof against all doubt
If it with You is filled.

With You, Lord, as our saving Light,
What darkness shall we fear?
Though foes and devils fill the night,
Your strong arm yet is near.

When round us camps a brutal host,
Lead us between their ranks!
Give ear not to their lying boast
But to our song of thanks!

One thing we ask of You, dear Lord:
To dwell in Your household,
Fed by the bounty of Your board,
Your beauty to behold.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

An Irish Country Wedding

An Irish Country Wedding
by Patrick Taylor
Recommended Ages: 14+

I had just resolved not to skip ahead in a series of books I was following when I borrowed this audiobook read by John Keating from the county library. Looking back, I think the librarian told me at the time that it wasn't the fourth book in the Irish County series - that would be An Irish Country Girl, which the library also holds - but I must have been in a hurry, or something broke my concentration, because instead of going back for Book 4, I went ahead and borrowed Book 7. And yet, oddly enough, I don't feel that I've missed much. Maybe at least a couple of the intervening books were prequels. We'll find out in due time.

The first three books of this series, set around 1965 in the Northern Ireland region of County Down, features a young general practice doctor named Barry Laverty and his mentor, the crusty Dr. Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly, and their doings in and around the village of Ballybucklebo. While Barry fell in and out of love, O'Reilly has revived an old flame and is now set to marry Kitty O'Halloran, a sweetheart who waited for him while he married another girl and lost her in a World War II air raid. A second shot at family happiness may lie before him, if only he can work out a way for Kitty to live in harmony with the housekeeper, Mrs. Maureen "Kinky" Kincaid, a Corkwoman with a heart of corn but one who is very territorial about her kitchen.

Kinky's anxiety about her future in the doctors' household is nothing helped by the bout of sickness that lays her low during the weeks leading up to the wedding. While both doctors try to find ways to smooth her way back into their altered family circle, they must also hire someone to help them answer the phone and organize their practice. They hire a spirited young woman whose ambition to become a doctor inspires O'Reilly to do another good deed above and beyond a family doctor's regular call of duty. Barry, meanwhile, tries to help one of his patients get her job back and hatches a plot to save the misbehaving pet of one of his rambunctious younger patients. And both doctors do their share to help a young family redeem the home of their dreams from under the schemes of a greedy county councilman.

Like the previous books in the series, or at least the three I had read, this installment kept me laughing, guessing how things were going to work out, and borrowing charming turns of phrase that pour continually from the lips of the Ulstermen and -women in this book. I particularly liked O'Reilly's description of the life of a poor student as "living off the smell of an oil-soaked rag." And trust me, when I've gotten through the next couple of audiobooks on deck, I will be back for more escapes into An Irish Country something or other.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

113. Rogate Hymn

Rogate is the mass for the fifth Sunday after Easter, or the sixth Sunday of Easter; however you slice it, it is the Sunday immediately before Ascension Day, which is the Thursday 40 days after Easter. The introit again is Psalm 66, like Jubilate, only with a portion of Isaiah 48:20 as its antiphon. The epistle is James 1:22-27; the gospel is John 16:23b-30.

I'm not sure why it's called Rogate. Some say it's because in the Gospel Jesus tells his disciples to "ask," but the Vulgate uses a different verb for "ask." I can only guess the name comes from a liturgical custom to emphasize prayer on this last Sunday before the Ascension. Since I've already written a hymn on prayer, I decided to base this hymn on Isaiah 48. Again, it could be sung to the chorale O DASS ICH TAUSEND.

Speak out with sounds of joyful singing;
Tell and proclaim this wondrous fact,
To earth's remotest corners flinging
News of the Lord's redeeming act,
Who lest His children suffer thirst
Caused water from the rock to burst.

Hear, all you people of God's choosing,
Who on His name, though falsely, vow;
Who when He calls, so oft refusing,
Turn iron necks and brazen brow:
Will not His mighty deeds prevail,
Snatch from your eyes the idol's veil?

What you have heard, will you declare it?
What you have seen, will you proclaim?
Yet greater news, could you but bear it,
Shines forth from God's refining flame:
Rebel that you are from the womb,
He acts to save you from your doom.

Listen to Him, all you elected!
He is I AM, the First and Last,
Who founded earth and heav'n erected,
Called them by name and they stood fast;
Gather and hear His mighty word,
Then go and tell what you have heard!

He who was present at creation,
With Father and with Spirit one,
Now sends abroad His full salvation,
Publicly witnessed, sealed and done;
In Christ your peace will, fresh and free,
Flow like a river to the sea.

EDIT: You could also sing this hymn to a tune I wrote in 2011 for a hymn by a respected fellow hymn writer named Mark Preus. I called it AMBERG, and here it is.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Two Kinds of Affliction

I've noticed that people of a certain mild, middle-of-the-road flavor of Christianity, and even some completely secular folks of a culturally Christian background, often speak of their troubles as "crosses." Sometimes they say this in the context of accepting their problems with resignation. Sometimes they say it with a touch of resentment or self-pity. Very often, I think, they are trying to make a virtue of their suffering by doing so with fortitude, or by looking at it from a spiritual angle.

I'm sorry, but this irritates me. It irritates me when, for example, a person's hardship or disappointment was brought on by his own bad choices, by his own unfaithfulness to divine precepts, or by expectations on which God makes no promises. It irritates me when their "cross-bearing" is worn like a mark of virtue, justifying past, present or future straying from God's word. It irritates me when their inspiring example is carried no further than necessary to focus attention on them.

One gloomy morning when I was driving on business, my mind turned over this use of the term "crosses" while in one of those fugue states that can develop when you're alone at the wheel at 8-ish in the morning and your daily caffeine hasn't yet reached your heart. It was then, as if in a dream, an epigram descended upon me that captures the essence of what I think about this. It goes like this:


What I mean to point out is that there are two types of affliction, as the apostle Peter wrote: "For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God." And a chapter later: "For it is better, if it is the will of God, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil."

A Christian's suffering can have a good spiritual use, and that distinguishes it from all other suffering in the world. Most of the pain experienced by human beings is simply an artifact of living in a fallen world. Some if it is a direct consequence of human sin. In certain specific instances, when God has directly revealed it to be so, one may also consider an affliction to be a visitation of God's judgment against man's wickedness or his children's unfaithfulness.

But for Christians and Christians only, affliction can have the extra purpose of turning eyes toward Jesus and strengthening the faith of His elect.

You don't see that use of affliction at work in would-be examples of Christian fortitude who want you to notice them. But you do see it in humble saints who, as it were, hide themselves in the glory of Jesus' cross. Their affliction can strengthen their faith because by it, the Holy Spirit teaches them to recognize it as a shadow or reflection of the suffering of Christ, and so they feel privileged and honored to bear it. They also know that they do not suffer alone because in Christ, our Lord suffered with us and for us all. And by showing such faith in Him, they strengthen the faith of many others - faith that is directed toward Jesus.

When they call their afflictions the cross, it is because they recognize them as a sort of sacrament that mysteriously unites them to Christ crucified, and that confesses Him in a language that goes beyond words. When they speak of their cross, they are speaking of their duty and privilege to carry their cross alongside their Master who is greater than they, and who gives them sufficient strength to bear it, and who will deliver them from it at the proper time, having passed through all things. He knows what they can bear, in part because he makes them able to bear it. And while their afflictions teach them not to put stock in this-worldly goods that are passing away, they also learn all the more to rely on Him and by patience and prayer to seek the next-worldly treasures that will not be destroyed or taken away.

Put in a nutshell, their pain holds the cross of Christ up before them, and it enables them to hold up Jesus' cross to others. And that's why they can truthfully say they bear the cross. God bless them.

Parable of the Software Update

To what shall I compare the kingdom of heaven?

It is like a software operating system whose manufacturer sent out regular updates to patch security problems. As users connected to the internet, their computers downloaded and installed new software to protect them from the threat of malicious programs. The need for these updates was endless, because hackers were always creating new ways to infiltrate people's computers, either to steal private data or simply to wreak havoc.

But some users opted out of the automatic updates because they were concerned about the installation tying up their machine when they were trying to use it. They also wanted to avoid the risk of glitches caused by mistakes in the software manufacturer's code. But mostly they just resented the company for being smug, controlling and anti-competitive.

So they refused to permit the patches to install on their system without their direct consent. And more often than not, they let the updates slide. They lost track of when new patches were coming out. Sometimes they went long periods without an update. And so one by one their computers were crashed by malware threats they were not protected from.

Let the one hear who has ears to hear.


This idea's time has so thoroughly come that I am probably too late to claim credit for it, but hey - if even a small part of it hasn't been tried out, remember whom to tip when you sell the idea for a zillion bucks.

When a band or orchestra prepares and performs a concert - and this goes for solo artists too - in many cases, they have to read the notes they're playing off sheet music. Where does this sheet music come from? Maybe a file drawer in a music library somewhere deep in the bowels of the building, from which a score librarian has to dig it up and into which it must be filed again when the musicians are done with it. Maybe it had to be purchased at an exorbitant price. Maybe it had to be rented and must be returned after the performance. If the concert goes on the road, keeping track of the scores can become part of the general logistical nightmare. If scores are lost or damaged, it may cost the organization dearly. And along with the scores comes a bulky bunch of supporting paraphernalia, such as telescoping music stands, reading lights to clip to the stands, fancy folders, etc.

What if all this was replaced by large, touch-screen Android tablets or iPads dedicated to a scoring app that displays each performer's part? Let's call this app, for the sake of example, ScoreFish (*blush*). Here are some of my ideas about how ScoreFish could work.

First, each musician (including chorus members and soloists) would be able to log into any tablet on, say, the orchestra's network. Once logged in, he (or she) could open a full orchestral score of all the pieces being prepared and performed for the time being, or just the ones a given performer is involved in, at the discretion of the music librarian. This can be drilled down to a view of the performer's part only, or his section of the orchestra, or (for singers) a vocal score with piano reduction and the individual user's part picked out in bold type, etc.

Annotations could be added and deleted by hand using a touch-screen stylus, either by the musician or by a conductor preparing scores for his musicians. Maybe with handwriting-recognition software the annotations could be added to the score as though part of the printed music (not sure whether this is a great idea, though). Each musician's, singer's or conductor's annotations could be saved as a customized version of the score in case they are ever called for again, a few seasons down the road; the original score is unalterable and can always be reverted to if necessary.

Page turns during performance or rehearsal could be triggered either by tapping a spot on the screen or, with a webcam, making a certain gesture like a jerk of the head or a flick of the wrist - even, heaven knows, a page-turning gesture of the hand. Or there might even be some way to program the pages to turn themselves in sync with the performance, either using a microphone and sound recognition software or (during a performance) some type of remote controller that keeps all the tablets on the same page of music, like how someone in the sound booth keeps the supertitles on the screen above the stage in sync with the singers. Who knows if it couldn't be programmed to follow the conductor's gesture!

Chorus scores could include IPA symbols for the lyrics, a translation of the text on every page, and a choice of languages to sing the work in, any of which can be completely or partly shown or hidden at the user's discretion, and annotated as well. "Road-mapping" marks, such as when a few singers in the Tenor 1 section are asked to dart up to the Alto 2 line for a few notes, or when some but not all members of a section are asked to sing a particular passage, or when different chords are divided up in different ways, could be reflected in each individual chorus member's part.

A playback function could be included for rehearsal purposes, complete with an optional metronome tick that can be raised or lowered in volume or muted altogether, adjustable speed (for rehearsing slowly, then working up toward a target tempo), and the ability to select whether to play the full orchestra, a custom-selected group of instruments or voice parts, or a piano reduction. Also up to choice is whether to mute one's own part, play it at the appropriate dynamic level, or shine an audio spotlight on it by playing it louder or doubling it with another instrument.

Playback could, of course, take place over on-board speakers, external speakers or headphones. The tuning could be adjusted to the frequency chosen by the orchestra (which can vary depending on which century's practice it is based on). A conductor-sensitive playback, perhaps using a special device that scans the conductor's movements and syncs with other devices on the stage, could even be used, if necessary, to replace absent members of an orchestra with a virtual performer. I can even imagine it being used to replace an entire pit orchestra for, say, a small school musical.

The tablets would have to be mounted in such a way that they would stay put. Traditional music stands may or may not do the trick. Also, power supply would be an issue - it would have to get every member of the orchestra through a performance potentially three or four hours long, if not longer. There might not be a battery in the world that could do this. But maybe a custom stand could be included with a built-in charging port or an immediate source of power to run the device, provided this could be plugged into a power outlet somewhere under the stage. To be able to move these stands around while the stage is being reset during an intermission could be a difficulty, requiring a new concept of stage design. Or maybe someone will finally surprise us all by announcing the discovery of broadcast power, sending energy via a wireless link.

If a tablet is stolen or lost, it can simply be deleted from the library's account and remotely deactivated. As the concert season progresses, pieces whose performance dates have passed can be removed as new pieces to be rehearsed are added, again at the music librarian's discretion or as requested by a user. If they can take their devices home with them to woodshed their part, it stands to reason they may also add any score they desire to their account, provided a licensing fee has been paid either by the user (who has a unique sign-in ID for the app to access files on the cloud) or by the score library. And so even copyright law is covered.

Also, someone could keep track of statistics of how much time each member of the ensemble spends woodshedding his or her part. Maybe there could be a bonus for the most effort.

How does that sound, music nerds?

Crap. Now that I Google it, I see a lot of it has already been done. (The image above is an app called Scorch.) Cool, though.

Summer Reading Challenge

Here's an idea that may help families get back into books, and keep the kids from going backwards academically over the summer... Of course, I only recommend doing this in households where the parents are comfortable exercising parental authority, or where every one agrees at the outset to see it through.

STEP 1: Choose a day of the week. I would suggest the night soonest AFTER whatever evening has the most shows the family likes to watch. Let's say Sunday, for example.

STEP 2: Make the commitment that every week, starting on that day, no one in the household will watch TV or use social media until he, she, or it has read a book. I'll leave it up to each family to work out amongst themselves whether that means nobody watches TV, etc., until everybody has read a book or whether each family member has to earn the right to tune in individually. Also, exceptions may be made on reasonable grounds with the consent of all; and, depending on who likes which shows, different family members may have to start the weekly challenge at a different time of week.

STEP 3: Keep a list of who read what, how many pages it was, and how many stars they would give it on a five star scale. The last bit is just for fun and maybe to interest other family members in the same book. Assign points for each family member's, or the whole family's, reading accomplishments. Extra credit may be given for writing a book review or creating book-inspired art, music, poetry, dramatic reenactments, oral reports, etc. Other family members may score the quality of each other's book choices and/or any extra credit they may have tried for. Regardless of how they decide to assign points, set a target number of points for each family member, or the whole family, to work toward. When they reach it, give them an extra treat like a ticket to the movies, a new computer game, a pizza party, a prize, whatever. After each reward, the counter goes back to zero and the reader(s) have to start earning points again.

The book each family member reads to fulfill his weekly quota should be something that could reasonably be called "a book" at that person's age and reading level. If they choose to go with lighter or shorter "books" than what the parents or whole family deems appropriate for them, maybe they have to read two. Ideally it should require each family member to spend at least a couple hours reading, or miss at least one evening of TV, etc.

Reading a book together, whether from separate copies or aloud, should count double toward the reward. Spending family TV time watching a book-based movie or TV program could also count as extra credit.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

112. Cantate Hymn

Cantate is the mass for today: the fourth Sunday after Easter, or the fifth Sunday of Easter. It takes its name (as so many Sundays do) from the introit, selected verses of Psalm 98, of which the first phrase is "Cantate domino," or "O sing unto the Lord." The epistle is James 1:16-21, and the gospel is John 16:5-15. As usual for my church-year hymns, these texts served as my starting point. The tune I have in mind is O DASS ICH TAUSEND by Kornelius Dretzel, 1731.

Sing a new song! Sing, all creation,
Which God has wondrously prepared!
His strong right arm has brought salvation,
Now to all lands and lines declared:
Christ is exalted gloriously
To judge the world with equity.

Not only strings and horns now praise Him,
But rivers, mountains, plains and seas!
Nor blood nor will of man can raise Him
Children with right to clasp His knees.
His verdict cancels all our sin;
His word implanted reads us in.

Be not deceived, dear sisters, brothers:
All gifts come down from God above,
Who changes not, nor suffers others
To share His children's fear and love;
By word and will He brought us forth,
Firstfruits of all the seed of earth.

Be quick to hear and slow to answer;
God's justice, not man's wrath, achieve;
Putting aside sin's filth and cancer,
Do you with humble hearts receive
His living word as planted seed,
Able to save your souls indeed!

No longer mourn the Lord's ascending
Far above all we sense and know;
For thus His Holy Spirit's sending
With help and clarity must flow,
Guiding us into truth, whereby
Jesus will gather us on high.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

111. Worry Hymn

I dashed off the following very derivative tune to go with the hymn below. I'm calling it NOLITE SOLLICITI.
Christians, in your daily need,
Christ's own teaching hear and heed:
Trust your loving God, nor borrow
Care and trouble from tomorrow.
He who guided Abram's seed
Through the wilderness of sorrow
Will His faithful likewise lead.

Fret not so with daily care
What to eat or drink or wear:
Does not God feed every sparrow?
Be it crust or fattest marrow,
He will answer for your share.
Though the ways and means be narrow,
He fulfills His children's prayer.

Lo, the lilies of the field
Neither flax nor linen yield;
God yet drapes them in such glory
As the king of sacred story.
Shall not we, by Jesus sealed
In His righteous robes yet gory,
Soon in triumph be revealed?

As you daily bread demand,
Leave it in your Father's hand.
Greater gifts than these He proffers
From His mercy's boundless coffers.
Wearing baptism as His brand,
Taste the grace His supper offers,
Foretaste of the promised land.
Just for kicks, here's a Latin antiphon based on the same Bible text that inspired this hymn.