Sunday, January 31, 2016

184. Onesimus & Philemon Hymn

The full topic/title of this hymn is "Onesimus & Philemon; Honor in Humble Service." These "heroes of the faith" were a runaway slave and his master, both of whom (while separated) came to Christ through the apostle Paul, who then reunited them. The whole story is sketched out in Philemon, the briefest of Paul's New Testament epistles. As a last resort I could pair the hymn with a tune I have used before, CHRISTE, WAHRES SEELENLICHT; but I am hoping I can stir up one of my hymn-writing friends to contribute an original tune, and one better structured to make sense of the rhyme scheme.

Christ, to serve all men You came,
Lashed and bound to set us free,
Crowned with thorn, arrayed in shame,
Kissed with whip, enthroned on tree,
Forced a bitter wine to drink:
When on humble tasks we think,
Call to mind Your lordly fame
Set aside on Calvary!

One Onésimus, a man
Useful more in name than deed,
Fled his master, ere God’s plan
Bade Paul plant the gospel seed.
Thus did Christ, their Lord and Slave,
Choose both slave and lord to save;
What in uselessness began
Was for useful service freed.

Well the one served Paul in chains;
Yet though slave and free are one,
Paul commended him with pains
To his lord, Paul’s other son:
Both begotten by one word,
Equal grace on each conferred,
Cleansed alike of vice’s stains,
Aught between them pardoned, done.

Lord, as with Onesimus,
Make us willing, patient, true,
Brave, devout, industrious,
Fruitful, useful unto You.
Like Philemon, let us live
Fellow sinners to forgive,
And to those be generous
Who the deeds of service do!

EDIT: David P. Werner contributed the original tune ONESIMUS for this hymn. I think it's breathtaking:

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Three Robbie Stories

When I begin a phone call to my mother with the words, "I have a Robbie story for you," I can be sure the conversation will end with her wiping tears of laughter off her cheeks and saying something like, "I really needed that."

For those tuning in late, "Robbie stories" are what my mother and I call the tales of my own stupidity and bad luck, which either happen only to me or are just remembered that way because I make a point of telling them well.

When she introduced me to her current fiance, the first thing she wanted me to do was tell him some of my Robbie stories, the way that always makes her laugh.

I have had three Robbie stories for her since I moved into my present rented house in Versailles, Mo. By way of remembering them for future chin-wags, here they are.

Robbie and the Sauerkraut Sandwich

Don't cry.
So I was lying in bed one night, torn between wanting to sleep and fear of continuing to have the same dream that had been plaguing me for hours. It wasn't a frightening dream; it was, in fact, a very boring dream. A very, very, very boring dream. It was a dream about being at work, struggling through a task so tedious that it should have put me to sleep, but instead it kept waking me up out of sheer horror that anything could be so dull. Every time I started to drift off, the same dream came back.

I finally decided I would rather lose a night's sleep than put up with that dream any longer, so I got out of bed and went - where else? - to the kitchen. Perusing the contents of the fridge, I realized it contained an unopened jar of sauerkraut which, with some ketchup and salad dressing and a couple slices of bread, could make a meatless, cheeseless Reuben. At 3 a.m. in a night turned topsy-turvy by stupid dreams, that somehow seemed a good idea. While I was making it, I thought, I'll brew a cup of chamomile tea to help me sleep afterward.

I took out two slices of bread. I smeared ketchup on one slice and salad dressing on the other. Then I started trying to open the sealed jar of sauerkraut. I strained at it. I changed my grip. I sweated. I grunted. I gnashed my teeth. I banged it on the counter. By no amount of effort in my power could I break that seal. And then, suddenly, it popped; I was so surprised, I lost my grip on the jar and it went flying.

My one stroke of good luck is that the jar did not shatter when it landed on its side across the slices of ketchup- and salad dressing-smeared bread. It did, however, eject a third of its contents all over the counter and into the sink. Sauerkraut and sauerkraut juice everywhere. I had to pick up everything on the counter and mop under it with paper towels. I had to wash ketchup and salad dressing off the outside of the jar. I had to pick up globs of sauerkraut and throw them away. I also had to throw away a cereal box that had been standing on the counter, and that was now saturated with sauerkraut juice; the cereal, safe inside a waxed paper bag with a chip-clip holding it shut, survived.

I also had to fish sauerkraut out of the kitchen drain. I'm afraid some of it got away from me. To this day, weeks later, that drain is still blocked - mostly, I suspect, with slices of fermented cabbage. And that's after being treated with two bottles of gelatinous blocked-drain solvent. When I wash dishes or utensils, it takes half a day for the sink to empty. It goes nicely with my oven, which is still so filthy from the previous tenant never having cleaned it that I have yet to bake anything in it. (I emptied a can of foaming oven cleaner into it once, but it didn't foam up and I gave up the idea of cleaning it.)

Of course, the sauerkraut juice soaked into the bread, and I had to throw that away too, uneaten. But luckily, my cup of chamomile tea was still brewing, and it looked all right. I carried it to the wastebasket to dispose of the teabag - whereupon I fumbled the teacup, spilling two-thirds of the beverage over the outside of the wastebasket and on the floor. Now I had to get down on hands and knees, with wads of paper towel, and mop up yellow, sweet-grass scented tea.

When my work was done, all I had to show for it was a third of a cup of chamomile tea, room temperature, and a blocked kitchen sink. I definitely should have stayed in bed.

Robbie and the Bed Casters

You know. These.
Part of my excitement about moving out of my parents' guest room and into my own house was based on the realization that, after 15 months on a mattress and box spring that lost their ability to support a grown person's weight years ago, I could finally sleep on my own bed again. But then I couldn't find the casters that went with my metal bed frame. I knew where they should have been - at the bottom of one of two RubberMaid barrels I used to store lawn and garden supplies, such as hosepipe and hedge trimmers - but they didn't seem to be there.

I looked and looked, but did not find. So in desperation, I went to a hardware store and spent more money than I wished on two pairs of cheap little casters. When I inserted them in the holes in the bed frame's legs, they immediately tried to slide out again, but with only a little difficulty I managed to get them all on.

Over the next couple of weeks, I found sleeping in my own bed less comfortable than I had expected. Partly this was because I seemed to be lying on a slope. One side of my bed stood distinctly higher than the other. I wanted to roll off it toward the right, and had to hang on for dear life toward the left. I partly put this down to the unevenness of my house's floors, which in places was so pronounced that I reckoned it only a matter of time until I stumbled, for example, head foremost into the toilet, or collided with the grandfather clock in the hallway. But I also suspected the new casters weren't seated quite right.

One day I got down on my knees and looked at the casters. And behold, the one at the lower right corner of the bed (as I lay on it face-up) had actually buckled under the weight. I pulled all four casters off and threw them in the garbage, then dug in that RubberMaid barrel one more time and, amazingly, fished out the original, heavier-duty casters.

I'm glad they're on, though the bed still feels tilted. A drawback of both sets of casters, however, is that the bed likes to roll around on the bedroom's hardwood floor. I get on the bed at night and it moves. I get out of the bed and it moves. I make the bed in the morning and it moves. This can be a good thing, as I need to move around the bed to tuck sheets in and so on. But it can also be a bad thing, as I learned one night when I had propped myself up in a sitting position, using every pillow I own, because of headache and acid reflux.

Sometime in the middle of that night, my weight leaning against all those pillows, leaning in turn against the wall at the head of the bed, caused the bed under me to move away from the wall. Most of the pile of pillows then dropped into the gap between the bed and the wall. And that is where the excellent builders of my house located the power outlet where I plug in my bedside lamp and alarm clock.

I haven't mentioned it before, but all the power outlets in my house lack the ability to grip prongs of an electrical plug. I've had to experiment with bending the prongs, balancing the plugs just so, and sometimes just pushing things against them to keep appliances like lamps and space heaters plugged in. I guess it's the head of my bed that keeps my alarm clock plugged in. The way my bed rolls freely on its casters and the hardwood floor, this has often been a concern to me. But that night it wasn't the bed's movement but the collapsing tower of pillows that pulled my alarm clock's plug out of the wall outlet.

So, because of those bloody bed casters - without which my bed frame would be gouging cracks in those nice floorboards - I had to get out of bed in the middle of the night, rearrange all the pillows, make the bed, and re-set the alarm clock. I'm starting to think about shopping for a hammock. Or at least bed-frame caster cups.

Robbie and the Hanging Clothes

Last Saturday I spent the morning at what I later learned was the more grungy of the two laundromats in Versailles, Mo. Nevertheless, I managed to get all my clothes cleaned, dried, and neatly folded or hung on hangers. I put the hanging pants in one basket, folded over, and hanging shirts in another, and loaded them into the car with the baskets of folded clothes.

When I reached home, the first thing to happen when I opened the back door of my car is that the basket of hanging pants rolled straight out onto the unpaved driveway, landing open-side down.

I immediately picked it up and brought it into the house, where I inspected the damage. Somehow every pair of pants had picked up a coating of dirt, dried grass clippings and fragments of dead leaves, etc. So had the inside and outside surfaces of the basket. I had to brush dirt off both sides of every single pair of pants and brush out the basket. I cannot begin to explain how, in one brief contact, all that dirt got into all those places. The closest thing I can get to an explanation is, "Of course it would, because I'm Robbie. This is the kind of thing that always happens to me."

Two by Alexander McCall Smith

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 13+

In the eighth novel of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, that series of charming diversions set in the African country of Botswana by a Zimbabwe-born Scottish writer, Mma Ramotswe lets her husband, a good man and a good auto mechanic, try his hand at detection. She also has a near miss with losing her trusty assistant, for since Mma Makutsi became engaged to the heir of a successful furniture store, she has started to chafe against being a mere assistant.

Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is assigned to help the rudest woman in Botswana find out if her husband is cheating on her. Partly because of her brusque refusal to give him a clear description of her husband's car, he inadvertently follows the wrong man in an embarrassing mistake that, by luck, turns out for the best.

Both Mma Makutsi and Charlie, the older of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's two silly young apprentices, try their luck with other careers. Mma Makutsi's rash resignation lasts half a day before a humiliating encounter with her secretarial-school nemesis sends her running back to the detective agency. Charlie's attempt to launch the Number One Ladies' Taxi Service comes to an ignominious end before it has even started.

Meanwhile, the agency solves a couple mysteries in the low-key, down-to-earth way typical of the series. Mma Makutsi flushes out a thief who is stealing from his employer by offering a piece of advice based on a flawed understanding of human nature. Mma Ramotswe discovers the crime behind the unexplained deaths of three hospital patients and, surprisingly, it isn't murder. Even Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni foils a criminal conspiracy. But as in their other adventures, the most interesting discoveries they make are about their relationships among each other.

I am slowly but steadily working my way through this series and one or two others by the same author. I enjoy them for their economy of language, their gentle insight into human character, their sense of humor, and their flashes of lyricism shined upon a culture and a country of largely unsung beauty.

This review was based in part on an audiobook read by Lisette Lecat, and in part by a hardcover copy, both borrowed from the local public library. The next book in the series is The Miracle at Speedy Motors.

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the sequel to The Sunday Philosophy Club, Isabel Dalhousie of Edinburgh, Scotland reflects, as moral philosophers do, on duty, weakness of will, and even whether memory may be seated somewhere other than the brain. Along the way she is diverted by a mystery in which a heart transplant recipient seems to have received, as well, the donor's dying memory of the face of his killer.

For one thing, her niece Cat returns from attending a wedding in Italy, followed by a handsome Italian suitor who is closer to Isabel's age. While she considers trying to seduce Tomasso and enjoying herself a bit, she struggles with concern about Jamie, Cat's ex-boyfriend, for whom she harbors inappropriate feelings while he only wants Cat back. Her advice, when bassoonist Jamie tells her he plans to turn down an offer from the London Symphony Orchestra in order to stay close to Cat, is both hard for her to give and nearly the end of their friendship.

In the midst of these personal dilemmas, Isabel agrees to help a man named Ian explore the meaning of the painful flashes of memory that he fears will lead him to reject his new heart. Not for the first time, her sleuthing - what someone with a less finely calibrated sense of ethical duty might even call nosing into other people's business - puts her in possible danger, when she recognizes the man following her on the street as the possible killer of Ian's heart donor. As in her previous case, though, the real solution turns out to have more to do with the pain of a young man's surviving loved ones, with the healing of guilt and grief.

In this series, the Scottish author of the Number One Ladies' Detective Agency series displays more of his proprietary blend of humor, scenic and cultural charm, reflection on matters of character, and mystery-suspense that simmers on low heat. McCall Smith hits notes I have heard him play before, including references to en brosse haircuts and akrasia (cf. 44 Scotland Street), but these references have a comforting familiarity, much like how fans of his Botswana-based novels might take comfort in their repeated references to Mma Ramotswe's "traditional build" and Mma Makutsi's "difficult skin," etc. The Edinburgh setting has its own palate of colors that the artist uses in all the books he sets there, until certain phrases simply evoke Edinburgh. When I tire of them, I will stop reading them. For now, though, I just hope the local library system can supply me with the third book in this series: The Right Attitude to Rain.

Closing in on the Magic Number

The expanded edition of my "Useful Hymns" book is shaping up quickly. The number of original hymns I have been aiming for all this last year is 200, double the number I initially published at the beginning of 2015, and that isn't counting hymns that I translated and existing hymns (translation included) for which I supplied original tunes. I may also, when all is said and done, work into the book my melodic setting of Luther's Small Catechism and a Divine Service setting that I wrote almost 15 years ago.

But for right now, I'm just excited to have a specific plan for each of the remaining 17 slots in the main sequence of hymns - hymns for which I now have titles, topics, and in some cases, tunes picked out, though I have yet to write their texts. Here are my plans for hymns 184-200, in no particular order:
    • Abraham: For Justifying Faith
    • Jacob: Wrestling with God
    • Moses: Strength in Weakness
    • Joshua: For a Devout Heart
    • David: The Gift of Penitence
    • Isaiah: For Christ-Centered Ministry
    • Minor Prophets: Warning and Promise
    • Women of the Faith
    • Timothy: For Faithful Youth
    • Onesimus & Philemon: Honor in Humble Service
    • Seven Churches of the Apocalypse: For Perseverance
    • Intercession for the Sick
    • For the Despised and Rejected
    • For Troubled Families
    • For Healing of Division
    • For Courage
    • For a Cheerful Heart
With my plans for the remainder of this book so clear, I can all but taste the completion of the project. As for the hymns for which I haven't chosen a tune in advance, I'm thinking about asking my friends in one or two hymn-writers' discussion groups to contribute their original tunes. Perhaps they'll agree to an exchange, in lieu of royalties, in which I will let them make free use of my work if they let me use a bit of theirs. I think it would be good to stir into my book a few tunes that aren't either old unsung masterpieces or my own original work; call it creative diversity.

183. Hymn for the Body Politic

Apropos this year's presidential election cycle and all the signs that our civilization is sliding down a steep slope to utter ruin, here is my attempt at a hymn interceding for the condition of society. I am aware the "Gomorrah/flora/fora" rhyme in the first stanza lends it a splash of unintentional humor, especially given the uncommonness in everyday English of the plural form of "forum" and the sketchy effect "flora" has on the poem's tone. All I can say is, not every poem can be equally successful. I felt it imperative to allude to Sodom, Gomorrah and Nineveh in the first stanza, and every other way I could think of to fit them in had at least equally awkward results. Tune: DER HERR IST MEIN GETREUER HIRT, an 18th-century tune originally paired with Wolfgang Mosel's German paraphrase of Psalm 23.
Lord, who would spare for ten men’s sake
A Sodom or Gomorrah,
Whose pity Nineveh could wake
For men and beasts and flora:
Hear now our penitential cry!
Your patient love do not deny
Our nation’s folk and fora!

The heart of man is deathly sick
With sin, a very cancer;
So is our body politic
To Satan’s tune a dancer.
Our citizens and leaders choose
Your kind regard to risk and lose;
Let mercy be Your answer!

You who the world for us preserve
While we of Christ are telling,
Cause yet a while the stars to swerve,
Nor fall upon our dwelling!
Because for us You have such care,
Let wrath be tempered by the prayer
From faithful hearts still swelling!

Since You desire good order, Lord,
Let them not bear it vainly
Whom You allow to use the sword;
Let justice, though ungainly,
Protect the innocent from crime
Until the long-appointed time
When You shall wield it plainly!

This generation is so vile,
What medicine can cure it?
Were You not with us all this while,
How long could we endure it?
O Lord, come soon! O Christ, cut short
This age, of which the foul report
Must vex your Holy Spirit!

Till then, help us in peace abide
And on Your precepts fasten!
Remind us You are on our side
When You afflict and chasten!
If evil leaders we deserve,
A faithful remnant still preserve
While to our aid You hasten!

Friday, January 29, 2016

182. Elisha Hymn

Among the final stages in the development of my little book of hymns, I am devoting a section to hymns on "heroes of the faith." The trick is managing always to point to Christ without crassly allegorizing the Bible stories connected with each saint. In some instances, I plan on focusing on one key event in the saint's life that can be used as a lens to focus on Christ. In this case, however, I kind of recap just about everything the Scriptures tell us about the guy from the time he takes up Elijah's mantle (2 Kings 2) to his death (2 Kings 13). I left out a few things, like the she-bears mauling 42 youths (here illustrated by Gustave Doré), the floating axe-head and Gehazi being cursed with leprosy, not only because they didn't contribute to my theme but simply to keep the hymn from becoming too tediously long. Tune: ICH RUF ZU DIR, from J. Klug’s Geistliche Lieder, Wittenberg, 1535.
O God, at work in words and signs
Beyond all comprehending,
Your wisdom seldom brighter shines
Than in Elisha’s sending.
By him You made foul water pure,
And deadly food made sweeter,
That the eater
Might of his life be sure;
Mere salt and flour conveyed the cure.

Moved by a harpist’s soothing tone,
He gave three kings instruction
To dig canals; which, being done,
Brought Moab to destruction.
A widow’s oil from one jar poured
At his word, many filling.
You were willing
Such wonders to record,
That we might fear and trust You, Lord.

He promised childbirth to a wife
Who warned against deceiving;
He then restored the dead child’s life,
That she might learn believing.
With only twenty cakes of bread
A hundred people feeding,
Only needing
God’s promise to be said,
He showed a Greater lay ahead.

He showed his lad the hidden host
That round them stood, protecting;
A foe was routed, blind and lost,
Then saved at his directing.
By his word siege and famine broke,
And God repaid for error
Death and terror;
For what Elisha spoke
You laid on with Elijah’s cloak.

While dying, he a king amazed
With signs in bow and arrows;
Indeed, his bones a dead man raised
Who fell into his barrow.
By whom but Naaman the unclean,
Despite his answer scathing
Healed by bathing,
Is it more clearly seen
Just what baptismal faith must mean?

If we learn aught from him at all,
Lord, not Elisha’s merit
But faithfulness let us recall
That, tasting of his spirit,
We may regard the means You chose
As You Yourself in action!
What reaction
Our reason may oppose,
Treat gently, like his blinded foes!

Yes, Lord! And further, give us eyes
Of faith, to Christ directed,
In whom alone, we realize,
Elisha stands perfected!
Far more does Christ give ample bread;
His death, though He is living,
Is life-giving;
Whatever foes we dread,
Far more His hosts are round us spread.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Fit of Hymnography

I had another 24-hour fit of hymn-writing productivity, running from after suppertime Friday evening until just before supper Saturday. Between the evening, the wee hours, and the following morning I cranked out three more hymns, plus a fourth later last night. It's all part of a hymn-book project that is rapidly reaching its final form. Evidently climactic stages of a project like this bring out a lot of creative energy!

178. Noah Hymn (A Type of Baptism)
This hymn veered off my plan to be a simple "heroes of the faith" type of hymn, like ones I previously wrote on Elijah and Daniel, and became a hymn on the flood-baptism typology argued by the apostle Peter in 1 Peter 3:20-21. The flood's significance in understanding baptism is a keynote in Lutheran thought, notably expressed in Martin Luther's famous "flood prayer." I have two tunes in mind for this hymn: CROFT'S 136TH (William Croft, 1709)...
...and LAUS REGIS (William E. Fischer, 1887).
Once God destroyed mankind,
When every human mind
To evil was inclined.
Did none His favor find?
Thank God! For Noah walked by faith,
And so our race was spared from death.

God ordered him to build
An ark that would be filled
With ev’ry beast He willed
To spare from being killed;
Then Noah, his three sons, their wives,
Eight souls in all, preserved their lives.

The rain began to pour;
The deep gave up its store;
The waters upward bore
The ark, without a shore.
Before her keel again kissed ground,
That wicked world was wholly drowned.

Now let the baptized see
How this a type may be
For how God graciously
By baptism sets us free!
For as that flood drowned sinful man,
This bath puts sin to death again.

The flood beneath that boat
Eight souls to life did float;
So baptism, Peter wrote,
Now saves you. Thus take note
How God your death to sin designs
And with it your rebirth combines!

Let Noah, sire of each
Who walks this earth, now teach
How we God’s grace might reach,
Fruitful in deed and speech!
God, let us walk, as walk we must,
By faith in You, thereby made just!

179. Twelve Apostles Hymn
In another unpremeditated rebellion against the hero-worshiping tone of the typical hymn about the saints, I present this hymn. It pooh-poohs all speculative fancies read into the spaces between the lines of Scripture; it wastes no time before setting aside the example of the apostles and looking toward Christ. In defense of this hymn, it was sorely provoked by a book, The Apostles of Jesus by J.D. Jones, that I consulted for ideas on where to start. I started with the chapter on Andrew (since I intended to treat with him first), and was so horrified by Jones' psychological profiling, building grand edifices on flimsy evidence, reliance on pious rumor, and moralistic sermonizing that my hymn ended up being kind of a polemic against it. I glanced at the chapters on Thomas and the lesser apostles and saw no evidence the Andrew chapter was anything but representative. So if it's good for nothing else, let this hymn rinse off the cloying perfume of pious devotional soft-soap. The tune I selected for it is the 15th century German chorale ICH KOMM AUS FREMDEN LANDEN HER.
Christ, shine Your Light on those who delve
Your writ for rumor of the twelve;
Yea, let them undertake anew
To fix all eyes alone on You!

Of Your apostles, Andrew first
The good news of Messiah burst;
Let us as boldly of You speak,
To Jew as well as heathen Greek!

He who claimed first rank at Your side
Confessed great faith, yet then denied;
Like Simon Peter, gracious Lord,
Let those who stumble be restored!

He who asked for Your right-hand throne
Was first to wear the martyr crown;
Like James, lest we become puffed up,
Lord, bid us taste Your bitter cup!

One wore Your love for him as fame,
Yet in his book effaced his name;
Like John, let us true witness give,
That those we tell of You might live!

Poor Philip hardly understood
That You are fully one with God;
Christ, grant that we in You believe,
That we the Father may receive!

One thought it fit with You to die,
And yet Your rising would deny.
Like Thomas, give us hearts devout,
And treat us gently in our doubt!

One from the tax-collector’s tribe
You called to be Your faithful scribe:
Like Matthew, call us from our shame,
That we may glorify Your name!

From Judas, surnamed Thaddeus,
One question only comes to us;
To us, as well, let Your word come,
And in us, Savior, make Your home!

There yet remain Bartholomew,
A lesser James, a Simon too.
On them, the sacred page is blank;
Keep us from speculation rank!

And if Matthias or if Paul
Were heir to the betrayer’s call,
One is the prayer we would commend:
Lord, keep us faithful till the end!

Besides, we would Your mercy thank
For calling men from ev’ry rank,
Who to all lands the tidings spread
Of You, Christ, risen from the dead!

180. Opening and Closing of Preschool
This brief ditty was actually harder to write than the previous two hymns put together. I wrote and deleted at least four full stanzas before I struck what I thought was pay-dirt. The idea for it was suggested by a "preschool song" I wrote, words and music, for the preschool at my vicarage church in Terre Haute, Ind., in 1999. I did not think the original words were worth keeping, but I reused the tune, titled PRESCHOOL SONG.
Good friends, we greet you this new day,
This day the Lord has made!
We ask His blessing on our play,
And on our work His aid!

Farewell for now, farewell good friends!
Until we meet again,
Enjoy the blessings Jesus sends!
God be with you, Amen!

181. A Confession of Faith
This final hymn, for now, actually came to the surface while I was musing on a 16th-century German tune for which I wrote a harmonized setting sometime around 1998. I was trying to think of what kind of hymn would work with a tune like that, and before I knew it, I had written one. The tune is titled ICH HAB MEIN SACH; the full first line of the original German hymn was "Ich hab mein Sach Gott heimgestellt," and it was the subject of one of J.S. Bach's cantatas.
On God I rest my hope and trust:
The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Without His love I would be lost;
Through Jesus Christ
He has my bonds and burden loosed.

The blood of ev’ry bird and beast
Had not for all my sins sufficed;
Though I the mark have widely missed,
Through Jesus Christ
God freely reckons me as just.

The Father gave His very best;
His Son became the last and least,
And being scourged and crowned and crossed,
Gave up the Ghost
For love of men, down to the worst.

And so, when all my sinful past
And present weakness are confessed,
The life I now live surely must
Belong to Christ,
Who in my place paid such a cost!

When at His board I am a guest,
He serves Himself as host and feast;
And so I dimly touch and taste
With all the blessed
The consummation-meal of Christ.

Lest Jesus’ struggle go to waste,
His triumph will be all my boast.
His grave bought me a holy rest;
From death released,
He lives to raise me from the dust.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Of Angels and Dreamers

I have been planning both of the hymns below for about a year. For the one I prepared an extensive outline of biblical appearances by angels. To prepare for the other, I had no less than an entire VBS program that I wrote in A.D. 2000 for an outline. Yet it took me until last evening to gather the nerve to write either of them. I wrote one between supper and bedtime, then got out of bed after a sleepless night and wrote the other between 3 and 5 a.m. After all that preparation all it took, I guess, was having nothing better to do.

176. Angels of the Lord Hymn
Full disclosure, I think any distinction between the Biblical designations "the angel of the Lord" and "the angel of God" is ridiculous. As for how many times the word "Angel" should be capitalized, which is to say, interpreted as a name for God, I choose not to commit myself. The tune for this hymn is QUARE DATA EST, which I wrote in 2014 for a "scratched and dented" hymn on Job 3:20-26. Here it is, harmony and all.
Lord, what visions You have granted
To the saints of days far gone:
Six-winged seraphim who chanted,
“Holy!” round Your smoke-filled throne;
Heralds garbed in blazing white;
Hosts encamped with deadly might;
Men whose faces shone!

Such angelic visitations
Brought Your will and word to bear,
Lord, upon the ancient nations:
Men half died of holy fear,
Thought it death to see Your face,
Or built altars at what place
You chose to appear.

Of such sights we are unworthy;
Keep them far from us, O Lord!
Since we are of earth and earthy,
Plant in us Your living word!
When false turns confuse our path,
Spare us the destroyer’s wrath
And the flaming sword!

School us not to lay up treasure
In the visions we desire;
Rather form in us a pleasure
In Your word, nor let it tire!
You who hide Yourself so well,
Free us from deception’s spell
And its author’s fire!

Tax us not, dear Lord, with turning
Toward a creature made of eyes;
Nor through lightning, smoke, and burning
Send a voice that terrifies!
Rather, help our unbelief;
Pardon sins and comfort grief;
Lead us to our prize!

Help us view your servants rightly
As the stewards of Your word!
Though of flesh, perhaps unsightly,
By them good news we have heard.
If no other angels come
In our time, then lead us home
Through such men, dear Lord!

Till then lead us, Lord, in keeping
Angels in their proper place,
Trusting, both awake and sleeping,
That they guard us by Your grace.
While they watch with vision keen,
Yet to us remain unseen,
Bless that honored race!

177. Joseph Hymn
My outline for this hymn is based on the lessons for a vacation Bible school program I wrote for my former vicarage church, Immanuel Ev. Lutheran in Terre Haute, Ind., during my final year at seminary. The program was titled "Joseph the Dream Teller," and it had five lessons based on the latter chapters of Genesis. For the hymn I swapped the order of Lessons 4 and 5. The tune for this hymn is HOLY NAME, which I wrote in 2014 for a hymn on the Second Commandment (Lutheran numbering).
God, who once by Joseph’s brothers
Sent deep woe along with dreams,
Teach us too, when hurt by others,
Not to judge as sorrow seems!
What we feel as degradation
You may use to cause salvation;
So our meanest, merest station
Bright with holy purpose gleams.

Joseph stood the test, refusing
When his master’s wife enticed,
Both the right and hard road choosing:
Give us faith like his, dear Christ!
Even You were sorely tested,
Yet by sin were never bested;
When our fortress is invested,
Help us, Savior sacrificed!

When in bondage he had risen,
Though devoid of guile or art,
Joseph spoke in darkest prison
Words that soothed the butler’s heart.
Help us, too, proclaim Your graces
From the roughest, humble places
Even to our rulers’ faces,
Your good tidings to impart!

In his brothers’ direst hour
Joseph freely set them free;
When our foes are in our power,
As he pardoned, so may we!
For the debts which You forgave us,
Suffering indeed to save us,
Keep us mindful that You crave us
Willing pardoners to be!

Lord, when Joseph You befriended,
You were pleased His faith to try;
Men meant ill, but You intended
Many lives to save thereby.
Send Your word, our hope assuring;
Wash us, our pollution curing;
Feed us, that we may, enduring,
Number with the saints on high!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Two Overdue Hymns

I wrote these two hymns last night, too late for the purpose I had in mind for them. I had been thinking about writing them since my father, the Rev. Robin Fish, late of Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church in Laurie, Mo., received a call to Immanuel Lutheran Church in rural Verndale, Minn. By the time I finished working on these texts, he had already accepted the call and moved out of state. Ah, well, maybe they will be "useful" (a big word with me) to someone else.

174. Farewell Hymn
This may be just about my shortest hymn text ever. It only had two objectives: to express the Christian idea of "fare well," and the complimentary idea of "bide well." The tune is NUNC DIMITTIS, from Geneva, 1548.
Fare well, in Jesus’ name!
Go, bear abroad the same,
With zeal for His word burning
Till, if it please the Lord,
You be to us restored,
Into His courts returning!

Bide well, where you may bide,
If at our Savior’s side
Should be our next glad greeting!
Our love, this little while,
Shall shorten every mile
Hence to that cherished meeting.

175. Pastoral Call Hymn
With this hymn, I took great pains to choose words that could equally be prayed by a calling congregation or one whose pastor has received a call to another congregation. In the first draft there were lots of braces of alternate pronouns, such as (them/us) and (their/our). Eventually I figured out a way to get rid of them without nullifying my stated objective. The tune is an original one titled VOCATION.
Christ, pitying the multitude
Because they had no guide,
Called twelve apostles, that they should
The needed help provide.
Dear God, today we ask, we knock;
We seek a shepherd for Your flock
To pasture it on holy food,
That all be edified!

Lord, choose for them with holy care
One fit to bear Your keys:
Firm in Your word; in faithful prayer
Both earnest and at ease;
Apt to exhort, admonish, teach,
Keep holy offices, and preach;
Who will the cross with courage bear,
Not men but You to please!

Bless him to whom the call goes forth,
And keep His counsels pure
That, led by claims of sterling worth,
He find his duty sure.
Then, whether it be no or yes,
Bless those concerned in what he says,
O Lord, who wills that all the earth
For Your flock’s sake endures!

Let them to whom Your servant cleaves
Give heed to him, not grief;
If he remains, or if he leaves,
Unite us in belief!
The partings that divide our love
Will soon be mended, when above
Your flock, O Christ, at last receives
In You rest and relief.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

173. Annunciation Hymn

The Annunciation is the feast celebrated March 25 in the west - significantly, nine months before Christmas; not significantly, during the season of Lent. It celebrates the angel Gabriel's announcement to the Virgin Mary that she was going to give birth to Jesus, as related in Luke 1. The tune for this hymn is O WIE SELIG from J. Georg Stötzel’s Choral-Buch, Stuttgart, 1744, which I will post here in an upcoming edit.
Lord of truth, whose Scripture is not broken,
Let it be to us as You have spoken!
Our feeble reason
Waits upon Your pleasure in due season.

At the perfect time, You did not tarry;
By the angel, You proclaimed to Mary
That she was laden
With the world’s salvation, though a maiden.

As to Mary, tidings You have brought us:
Through baptismal waters You begot us;
Our cause now pleading,
Mary’s Son to us Himself is feeding.

Though we ask how this can be, remind us
You can do all things, lest reason blind us
To every mention
Of Your peace that passes comprehension!

Rather, grant that we respond with Mary,
“So be it to me,” that we may carry
Christ in us, planted
Through the faith Your living word has granted!

EDIT: As promised, here's that tune:

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Three Hymns in Three Hours

Today I had a three-hour window of time to mess around with my ongoing (i.e. neverending) hymnal project, and I decided to use it by writing a text to fill a hole in my set of hymns for feast days of the church year. That done, I had two hours left, so I wrote another. After that I had one hour left, so I wrote another. And so I give you...

170. Hymn for the Baptism of Jesus
This recent addition to the church year falls on either the First Sunday after the Epiphany (which makes my hymn about the boy Jesus among the doctors of religion useless) or exactly one week after Epiphany, Jan. 13, depending on your lectionary. I obviously prefer the latter. The idea behind this hymn is that Christian baptism is rooted in Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. I recommend one of two tunes for this hymn: Andreas Hammerschmidt's MEINEN JESUM LASS ICH NICHT (1658) or JESUS IST MEIN AUFENTHALT, a.k.a. MEINHOLD (Lüneberg, 1686), respectively.
Father, whose beloved Son,
Being baptized for repentance,
You named Your accepted One,
Sent to bear the sinner’s sentence:
Speak Your blessing on this bath,
Cleansing us from guilt and wrath!

Jesus, perfect God and Man,
You, all righteousness completing,
Came as sacrificial Lamb,
For our sake the baptist meeting:
You made holy what he poured;
Therein wash us too, dear Lord!

Spirit, breath of heav’nly love
From both Son and Father blowing,
You descended as a dove,
Baptism’s pow’r and essence showing:
Stir the faith these waters give;
Blow in us, that we may live!

Father, Son, and Spirit, come!
Not in name alone uniting,
Make each baptized heart Your home,
On our mind Your sigil writing,
Till all things we say and do
Come from and return to You!

171. Hymn for the Conversion of St. Paul
This feast is traditionally celebrated Jan. 25 in the western church. This is the guy who persecuted Christians and then suddenly, after a blinding vision of Christ during a road trip, became its greatest missionary and the author of a bunch of books of the New Testament. I like the story as an opportunity to connect the efficacy of God's Word with Christian missions. The tune is DAS NEUGEBORNE KINDELEIN by Melchior Vulpius, 1609, though anyone familiar with the tune might notice I altered it slightly by changing the melismas in lines 1, 3, 5 and 6 into a straight syllabic setting.
Why, Saul? Why, Saul, do you persecute Me?—
Thus, Savior, did You sound the call
That turned an author of much misery
Into Your faithful servant Paul.
So may Your zeal for all people now burn
That from destruction to life they may turn!

Whom You will save, You will certainly save,
Christ, whose tongue neither forks nor lies;
For You called Lazarus out from the grave
And loosed the scales from dazzled eyes.
You would have all men be saved and believe;
Oh, that Your word they might somehow receive!

How will they trust You, who never have heard?
How will they hear, but one be sent?
Faith comes through hearing Your powerful word,
In Your time, by Your free intent.
Hasten, Lord! Lovely feet choose for the mount,
Carrying those who glad tidings recount!

Meanwhile let Paul be a pattern and guide:
Each humble as the least of saints,
Help us take captive all knowledge and pride
And put to death the flesh’s taints;
Feed us, Lord Jesus, Your body and blood
That we may, justified, stand before God!

172. Hymn for the Presentation of Jesus
This is that feast, usually celebrated Feb. 2 (significantly, 40 days after Christmas) sometimes described as the Purification of Mary, which ceremonially happened at the same time. As the firstborn, Jesus had to be presented to the priests and a sacrifice given by his family to redeem him. When Mary and Joseph did this, they met this really old dude named Simeon and this really old lady named Anna, etc., etc. Forgive the hymn for being a little syntactically convoluted; it sort of happened naturally when I put the material together in the shape of J. S. Bach's 1736 tune ICH STEH AN DEINER KRIPPEN.
Salvation unto Israel
Has come, said holy Anna,
Rejoicing that she had beheld
The long-desired, true Manna.
Such joy, in spite of looming death,
Rewarded, too, the patient faith
Of Sarah and of Hannah.

A light to lighten heathendom,
Said Simeon in Spirit,
And Jacob’s glory too has come,
Though some may loathe and fear it.
While sword may pierce and men oppose,
An Abraham or David glows
With ecstasy to hear it.

For so, by God’s eternal plan,
Must be, as Moses stated,
The firstborn son of beast or man
Redeemed or dedicated.
Would Moses not bow down in awe
To see submitted to this law
God’s Son, for slaughter fated?

Saints of Old Testament and New
Believe as one, repenting,
And Greek, barbarian or Jew,
Rejoice at Christ’s presenting.
For thus it pleased the Holy Ghost
To graft us in a mighty host,
One folk of God’s inventing.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

169. Epiphany Hymn

Epiphany is the Christian feast celebrated Jan. 6 in the west, while that date pretty much serves as Christmas in the east. It celebrates the nativity story of Jesus as related in Matthew 1, with the eastern astrologers arriving with gifts to worship the newborn King of the Jews and inadvertently stirring up all kinds of trouble when they stopped in Jerusalem to ask for directions. I know and love many Epiphany hymns, but I've noticed a mild tendency among them to run with Old Testament texts related to the magi's visit to the baby Jesus to score attaboy points for the church's mission work. Here, on the other hand, is perhaps the least triumphalistic Epiphany hymn ever. The tune, dating from around 1714, is the exquisitely tender German chorale ICH FREUE MICH IN DIR.
O Word eternal, found
In time once manifested,
In strips of sacking bound,
In mortal flesh invested:
Lo, how a guiding star
Draws heathen sages west;
They seek You from afar,
Whom heav’nly signs attest!

Shall they, then, bless Your name
Who by such signs have known You,
While we ourselves, for shame,
Your chosen few, disown You?
Oh, infant God, forbid!
Still show us, holy Child,
What Your rude cradle hid:
God’s fullness, reconciled!

Be reconciled with us,
Lord, throned on high, most holy;
Be reconciled with us
By Your deep passion solely!
For us did You descend
Through agony and grave;
Now, if You but intend,
Yours is the pow’r to save.

With Your still human eyes,
Look on us, Savior, as though
The gifts brought by the wise
Came from our coffers also!
What gold, our heart’s true King—
What incense, Priest from heav’n—
What myrrh would we not bring,
Dear Victim for us giv’n!

With tender love we leave
Your presence, if You let us.
Yet help us, lest we grieve;
Meet us as You have met us!
With nothing in our hands
We seek Your gracious gift.
We travel godless lands;
Our heavy hearts You lift.

Dear Mary’s Son divine,
Be manifest, then, to us
Through Your appointed sign;
Forgive us and renew us!
We shall not pine or die,
Though onward we be sent
With no star in our sky
But word and sacrament!

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Sunday Philosophy Club

The Sunday Philosophy Club
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this first book of a series that is either named after this book or its main character, Isabel Dalhousie of Edinburgh, Scotland, noses into a matter that may or may not be any of her business. It's a matter of moral responsibility for her, and she should know about that kind of thing, being the editor of The Journal of Applied Ethics. Anyway, she was the last person who locked eyes with a beautiful young man as he fell to his death from the upper gallery of a concert hall, and she thinks his death may be more than an accident.

As Isabel pokes around among people who may have had motive to give this Icarus type a push, she faces the disapproval of her niece Cat, a cafe owner who always falls for the wrong sort of man, and of Jamie, the one ex-boyfriend of Cat's of whom she entirely approves (maybe too much). She notices the dead kid's flatmates are sleeping together, and one of his coworkers seems to have a killer art collection. She suspects a stockbroker's wife of having a sociopathic streak, and she gets a good scare when someone she consults for background on the victim turns up in her house at night without an invitation - just when he starts looking like a good suspect himself.

Isabel has the financial independence and leisure to spend a lot of time prowling Edinburgh for clues, which is good for us; it gives us a chance to explore Edinburgh too. The impression it leaves is that of a small, close-knit, slightly stuffy but very beautiful city, full of history and art and peculiar characters, besides such whimsies as the "Really Terrible Orchestra" (of which the author, according to his dust jacket bio, is a real-life member).

As I broaden my readings in McCall Smith's numerous cycles of books, I feel I am learning to know him better. I've noticed, for instance, that he likes to describe his young male characters as being unusually beautiful, but seldom applies his rich descriptive talent to developing a specific mental image of them. I think he has a great sympathy for women, especially ones like Isabel and (in another series) Precious Ramotswe who have been done wrong by the men in their past. He's an author whose stories often illustrate the deep debt men owe to the women of this world.

So I think I would recommend his books both to women, because he understands them, and to men, because he may have something to teach them. But also, by the way, they manage to be fun to read without all the big-budget special effects and pyrotechnics of the common, or garden, mystery thriller.

Blue Shoes and Happiness

Blue Shoes and Happiness
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 13+

Being a detective in Gaborone, Botswana, isn't all about solving crimes. It isn't even mostly about solving crimes. For Mma Precious Ramotswe, it is often about resolving personal problems, such as (in previous books) a conflict between a brother- and sister-in-law, or helping a guilty man find the girl he wronged long ago so he can make amends. In this installment of Mma Ramotswe's adventures, however, she actually does look into the doings of some lawbreakers, such as a blackmailer, a cook who is stealing food from the university, and a doctor whose tampering with his own patients' records hints at some deeper wrongdoing.

But against these small opportunities for Mma Ramotswe to display her cleverness are some prime examples of her wisdom and kindness, as she shows tact toward one assistant whose obsession with shoes could become a distraction from her work, and deals gently with another subordinate whose impetuous actions lead to a minor tragedy.

The series also goes through one of its creepier passages in this book, as Mma Ramotswe digs into the mystery of why everyone at a certain game preserve seems frightened of something. Could it be witchcraft again? While the answer is never what you expect, the process of finding it is reliably full of colorful dialogue, character touches, and descriptive passages evoking scenic beauty, laced with frequent doses of warm-hearted reflection on the foibles of humanity and the underappreciated virtues of Botswana.

The seventh novel of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency adds little that is new to the series, but continues to provide the thoughtful, amusing, and sometimes puzzling hours of entertainment fans of the series have come to expect. I found it satisfying enough to stick with the series in spite of the fact that the local library's audiobook of this installment was less satisfactory than the others, for two reasons: first, narrator Adjoa Andoh's vocal performance was less flattering to the characters, though her dialects were on point; second, unlike the CDs narrated by the much-easier-on-the-ears Lisette Lecat, the edition with Andoh was abridged. Happily, my local library's copy of Book 8, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, returns to the superior Lecat version.