Sunday, January 24, 2021


Some movie villains are gleefully evil. Take, for example, the Bond villain played by Jonathan Pryce in the Pierce Brosnan film Tomorrow Never Dies, who upon hearing a premature report of James Bond's death, said, "Delicious." Or take the Joker, played by just about anyone who ever played the Joker in a film, TV show or animated program, who giggles while plotting acts of grand larceny and mass murder. On the other hand, there's a type of movie villain who acts with a chilling lack of emotion, like the killer played by Javier Bardem in the Coen Bros. movie No Country for Old Men – the filmic epitome of a sadist whose acts of insane cruelty are unchecked by even the tiniest qualm of empathy with his fellow human beings. But in the 2013 movie Homefront, written by Sylvester Stallone, we are presented with several villainous characters, each of whom crosses a line that they know is there, and that they ordinarily wouldn't cross; but cross it they do, when they are pushed hard enough, when they lose control.

I want to sing the praises of these characters in Homefront, who are (for movie villains) surprisingly human and troubled by what they've gotten themselves into. You see the look in their eyes when they reach the tipping point into heinous acts, and you feel bad for them because you know what got them there. We see the fat, cowardly schoolyard bully played by young Austin Craig pick on a little girl, then get his nose bloodied because he picked on the wrong little girl, then be humiliated by his parents' bad behavior when they blame said girl and her father (Jason Statham) for the whole incident. But you learn to understand what made him that way when you see him overhearing his mom (played by Kate Bosworth) trying to score some meth off her drug-dealing brother Gator (James Franco), and when you see tears running down the kid's face, you forgive him because you understand the pain he's in. When the boy's father, played by Marcus Hester, stands up to Franco and begs him to stop feeding his wife's habit, you feel more respect for him than at any previous point in his cowardly, henpecked-into-mischief character arc. Bosworth, whose addiction-fueled rage sets off hideous events that continue to unfold even after she's cooled down, ends up taking a bullet in the gut while trying to save the girl from her brother.

Franco's female accomplice, played by an unrecognizable Winona Ryder, gets dragged into the situation against her will and you can see she's scared of the direction things are going; when she seizes the opportunity to make off with Statham's daughter, you're not entirely sure – hell, I don't think she's sure – whether she's trying to save the girl or kidnap her; the only thing that's clear is that things get out of her control pretty much right away. And finally, there's Franco himself, the meth cooker who protects his town from other meth cookers (all right, so he's not exactly doing it as a public service). When he recognizes that the guy his sister is all riled at is the ex-undercover cop responsible for the death of the son of a powerful motorcycle gangster who's behind bars because of him (Statham that is), Franco schemes to trade knowledge of Statham's location for permission to distribute his meth. Obviously, he's not averse to getting a couple of good people killed; but even Ryder tells him, when he reaches his gun-waving, wild-eyed tipping point, that he's never been a killer and he still has a chance to back down.

Contrary to all the canons of action movie tradition, none of these villains die in this movie. The one who comes closest to it, does so because Statham himself is pushed right up to that line, and pulls himself back – or rather, the look in his daughter's eyes pulls him back. To be sure, some of the villains do die; but they're motorcycle gang baddies, the type of people who scare Ryder and Franco #$%&less and were going to do what they were going to do, regardless of morality or common feeling with their fellow man. They're villains of type 2 (only more reckless than Anton Chigurh, so that Statham is able to use their momentum to take them down). You don't feel anything for them except discomfort as they approach their target, because you know only one thing can stop them and that's just the next thing less nasty than not stopping them.

Also in the movie are Clancy Brown (of The Shawshank Redemption) as the sheriff, Omar Benson Miller (Shall We Dance) as Statham's gentle hired man who does for one of the really bad guys, Rachelle Lefevre (who was Channing Tatum's ex in White House Down) as a nice school psychologist for whom a little girl has romantic hopes on behalf of her widowed father; Frank Grillo (The Kill Point) as the leader of the gang that tries to get Statham and his daughter for their jailed boss; Chuck Zito (Sons of Anarchy) as said boss; and up and coming TV actress Izabela Vidovic as the girl who shows unusual strength of character for a child being victimized to hurt her father in an action movie. For example, there's one emotionally touching scene where she tells her dad that she thinks her mother (in heaven or whatever) worries about him and wants him to be happy. And later, she stays in cell phone contact with the good guys while being kidnapped, which is pretty good thinking for a terrified child, and actually wounds her abductor. Good girl!

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) When Franco watches his meth lab explode, the spark of life goes right out of his eyes. It's the moment that really makes my thesis in this review. Also, it's darn good acting. (2) Franco, intentionally alibiing up during the bad guys' raid on Statham's place, walks right up to the sheriff and pours whiskey into his coffee cup. The sheriff smiles, thanks him, and as soon as Franco walks away, dumps the mug out on the street. (3) Statham smiles contentedly while driving his daughter to school. Seriously, why doesn't the film industry let this man smile on film more often? And you thought the top three were going to be fight scenes in which he swiftly disables his opponents, and not always temporarily; they were on the short list, of course, but that kind of thing comes cheaply with the price of seeing a Jason Statham flick, or anything with Stallone's name on it. What's really cool to see is people with hearts, who think about and have to live with the consequences of their actions. That's a strength of this movie.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

What I'm Doing Now

Bear with me if I don't post very much for a little while. I'm really busy on a project. It's not a new project, either. It's the same old one – Useful Hymns, initially published in 2016 with hymn layouts that looked like this:
Only now, I'm reformatting it so they look like this:
And oh, my goodness! is it ever a labor-intensive, complicated process. I finally feel like I have my feet under me and am making real progress, after banging my head against it every-which-way for a couple of weeks. So, I'm basically devoting every spare moment to it.

To clarify, what I did in the first book was type the melodies into Microsoft Word in the Melody fonts created in the last century by the brothers at St. Meinrad's Abbey in Indiana. The text of the hymns was just laid out like a poetry book, many of them running across multiple pages. My update, which I hope will make Useful Hymns more useful, involves a freeware scoring program called MuseScore, in which I'm actually setting the first stanza of each hymn to a line of melody and then arranging the remaining stanzas under it (and in some cases, on succeeding pages), saving space by breaking them into columns where possible. So, most of the hymns actually fit on one page, resulting (I believe) in a net savings in page count.

As I said, though, it's a lot of work and there have been a number of false starts and entire days of wasted labor. I finally seem to have a handle on it, and the process has also finally prompted me to bite the bullet and invest in Adobe Creative Cloud – at least, to use InDesign to set up the book. Also, I'm going to re-verify that I have all the permissions I need to reprint other people's hymns and hymn tunes that appear in the book. Thanks for your patience and do, do, do support my work by ordering the book on Lulu-dot-com when I announce that it's ready!

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Fun with the Apocalypse: Two Movies

"How would you like your Apocalypse today?" That seems to be the question the entertainment industry should be asking us these days. We seem to crave spectacles set in a world worse off than the real one, or what's left of it after civilization has pretty much come to an end. And this has been going on for a couple decades. I wonder what this says about us – whether it shows our anxieties, or someone's preaching at us (but what could their message be?), or whether it just is what it is because people have noticed that it's fun and they'll throw enough money at it to make it worth Hollywood's while.

There are so many apocalyptic movies, TV shows and book franchises out there that they cry out to be divided into sub-genres. There are alien invasion apocalypses, like Independence Day. There are robot and machine apocalypses like the Terminator and Matrix franchises. There are biological apocalypses like Children of Men, environmental apocalypses like Waterworld and The Day After Tomorrow, corporate apocalypses like Total Recall, ghost apocalypses like the Lockwood & Co. series, vampire apocalypses like Daybreakers, angel and demon apocalypses like Good Omens and post-nuclear apocalypses like The Book of Eli and Mad Max. But let's not forget two of the juiciest varieties in the "fun with dystopian nightmares": zombie apocalypses (cf. anything from 28 Days Later to TV's ongoing Walking Dead phenomenon) and monster apocalypses (such as the "Last Kids on Earth" book series, Cloverfield, A Quiet Place, etc.).

Now that I've dug thus far, I realize that you could pretty much amuse yourself full-time by watching or reading nothing but post-apocalyptic, dystopian and end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stuff. I guess it makes it feel nice to go out in the sunlight and realize that you don't have to pay for the air you breathe, fend off brain-eating ghouls or expect a cannibal biker gang to come around the corner at any moment.

Enough prologue. I've run out of clever ways to bring together the reviews of two movies I enjoyed on video this week, which have in common the theme of adventure, black comedy and romance featuring former child stars surviving (kind of) in a post-fall-of-civilization world.

One was the zombie apocalypse trip Warm Bodies, featuring Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy, X Men: First Class, Mad Max: Fury Road) as a not-too-badly-decayed zombie who wishes there was more to life than shambling, moaning and trying to eat living people's brains. He shows sufficient initiative to stake out a home for himself on an abandoned airliner, collect memorabilia (including vinyl records, that he plays on a phonograph), and put together more than one syllable at a time. But things really start cooking when he spots Julie, the ex-girlfriend of the last guy whose brain he ate, and he starts to experience memories from the late Perry that begin to change him as a person.

He takes Julie under his wing and protects her from the other undead, albeit with an ulterior motive to spend more time with her while continuing to chew on Perry's brain. The more he and Julie fall in love with each other, the more human he becomes – which goes against the orthodox view that the only cure for a zombie is a bullet in the head. The changes spread to other zombies at the airport, or at least the more fleshy ones; the "boneys" don't like it one bit, which ultimately puts the corpses like R (that's as much of his name as he remembers) and the surviving humans on the same side for once.

Julie is played by Teresa Palmer of A Discovery of Witches; her father, a battle-hardened zombie fighter, by the great John Malkovich; R's zombie best friend M by comedian Rob Corddry (Hot Tub Time Machine), and the ill-fated Perry, by Dave Franco (Now You See Me). The whole structure of the movie worked for me. It made me laugh and squirm, sometimes at the same time. I like the weird way the cure spreads, the corpses' apparent struggle to say and do and feel more, R's frustrated internal monologue, and the touch of Romeo and Juliet but with (am I actually saying this?) a more realistic attitude.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) R asks M if he and the other corpses want to help him fight the boneys. The corpses groan. M says, "They say, 'F*** yeah.'" Corddry gets all the fun swear words; another example of this is when one of the human soldiers, aiming his gun into a corpse vs. boney melee, wonders aloud whom he should shoot, and M throws a boney at him and says, "That asshole." (2) Perry's death is pretty gruesome. It disturbed me for a long time. But the more human he becomes, the more R regrets killing him, until a point comes when he spits out a mouthful of his brains and you realize, if you haven't already, the direction this whole thing is going. (3) R walking in the rain, realizing that he hasn't felt cold like this since he became a zombie.

I guess what really makes it for me is that it isn't the zombie version of the "sparkly vampires going to high school and hooking up with human girls" trope that I was afraid it was going to be. It was so much weirder and more fun than that.

The other movie I added to my storehouse of "post-apocalyptic romantic comedies with gory action and former child stars" this week was Love and Monsters, starring Dylan O'Brien of the Maze Runner movies and TV's Teen Wolf series. O'Brien, who I think excels at the same kind of sarcastic, eye-rolling reactions to the ridiculous that made the career of Logan Lerman, does his thing in a world that, after being threatened by an asteroid strike, poisoned itself with nuclear waste (from blowing up the meteor with missiles). As a result, all the coldblooded creatures, from insects to fish, amphibians and reptiles, turned into enormous, man-eating monsters. Most of mankind was wiped out, and what's left lives in undergound bunkers where it's only a matter of time until too many monsters attack them to fight off.

O'Brien's character, a guy named Joel, freezes when faced with pants-pooping danger. So, his bunkermates pretty much just let him fix the radio and cook minestrone. He feels ashamed of being such a dead weight on them. Also, he's frustrated with being the odd man out, when everyone else has paired up romantically. So, he decides to walk 85 miles to the colony where his last girlfriend – who was separated from him when the monster apocalypse started, seven years ago – has hinted (he thinks) that she's still available. Everyone thinks Joel is going to his certain doom, but luckily he is soon joined by an intelligent dog named Boy and a couple of surface-dwelling survivors, who show him the ropes. Combined with his drawing ability, Joel kind of becomes an expert on surviving on the surface, just on time to save his ex's colony from ... well, that would be spoiling.

Despite the title, Love and Monsters doesn't lean very much on the romantic side. It's more of a survival story, with lots of action, cool creature effects, wonderful character moments including growth by its main character, and some touching moments that actually got me choked up. But yeah, lots of action, and (like the other movie) a hint that the hero, unlikely as he is, might actually change the world. I could definitely see myself re-watching this movie. By the way, the movie also features veteran character actor Michael Rooker (you'll know him by his voice).

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) As a giant centipede thing threatens Boy, Joel is forced to make up his mind whether to continue being Mr. Freeze Up While In Mortal Danger or to do something heroic. Kind of a turning point in the movie. (2) A robot sacrifices her last 15 minutes of battery life to keep Joel company in what I think may be the emotional heart of the movie; really a beautiful scene. (3) A tie between the one where Joel gets to use the grenade his survivalist friends gave him (you'll see) and the one where he puts into practice their advice to judge a monster's intentions by the look in its eyes. You may want less cryptic hints, but I think I've spoiled enough. Enjoy the end of the world!

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Scratch and Dent 11

Just now, I created a new "scratch-and-dent" label for this blog, so I no longer need to link back to the previous installment. For those of you joining late, this is a thread where I refurbish hymns that I tried to write when I was in high school or college. They've been hanging out in a three-ring binder that's been through a lot of moves and I figure, the sooner I can whip them up into a publishable shape, the sooner they'll be off my conscience. Making no promises that they'll be in the better three-quarters of the hymns I've ever written, here are a few more.

288. The Word Becoming Flesh
Tune: SONG 22 (Orlando Gibbons)

The Word was God, when earth's keystone was laid.
He was with God; by Him the heavens were made.
In Him was life, and that the light of men,
Which pierces darkness and with it contends.

He was the truth, this living Word, and can
Bring light and life to every child of man.
He came unto His own; they thought Him fraud;
He made those who believed the sons of God.

The Word was flesh, and dwelt with us on earth;
In Him men saw God's glory, grace and truth.
And yet His height of royal majesty
We saw in squalid suffering on a Tree.

Of His full gift of grace we have received;
For not by human will have we believed,
Nor human blood, nor worthy works and wares,
But only by His choice are we His heirs.

With humble mind, the mighty Word came down;
For bonds of servitude He changed His crown.
Life's founder was obedient unto death;
Barred from the camp, the King of righteousness.

He bore all sin, who knew but holiness:
Denied by men, man's errors to address,
He hung for our own lust, wrath, greed and pride;
For our rebellion, in our stead, He died.

And yet He lives, arisen from the dead;
From Him, behold! A wave of life will spread
As God exalts Him o'er all things in love,
And He sits as our Advocate above.

From there He pours the Spirit on our hearts,
Rules all in all, indwells our deepest parts.
Now we have died in Him and live again:
Reborn in Christ, the Light and Life of men.

289. Sola Gratia Hymn (2)
Tune: NEW BRITAIN (Walker's Southern Harmony)

By grace through faith alone God gives
Salvation to the lost:
Not by our works, we freely live,
Lest anyone should boast.

The Law prepared my soul to dread
The judgment of the Lord.
Sin's price I never could have paid,
God only can afford.

The tidings of the off'ring made
Of Christ on Calvary
A storehouse in my heart have laid
For heaven's certainty.

By grace, the seers foretold His birth
And all Christ did for me;
By grace, He stooped to serve the earth,
My substitute to be.

By grace, the Law's demands He kept;
Men's scorn He bore by grace;
In death's shroud He, by grace, was wrapped,
And all this in my place.

By grace, His suffering satisfies
The toll for my own guilt;
His resurrection justifies,
Whereon my hope is built.

Though I remain, by nature, lost
And daily stray in sin,
By grace, thank God, the Holy Ghost
I have at work within!

In God I hope; in Christ I live;
My life on Him I base;
And by the Spirit I believe
All this, alone by grace.

Textual note: The "(2)" acknowledges that I already have another "Sola Gratia Hymn" on the books – and it was even a Scratch and Dent! See #61 here. Also, the typewritten manuscript of this hymn gives the date April 4-5, 1994, which is a rare detail for my hymn-writing at that stage. Finally, the tune choice with the tempo marking "moderately fast" was also in the ms., which suggests that I was trying to improve on "Amazing Grace."

290. Conversion and Election
Tune: FORD COTTAGE (Frederick C. Maker)

I did not choose to be the Lord's;
He made the choice by grace.
If it were mine to chart my course,
I'd turn aside my face.
No aptitude did Jesus scan
To aid His gracious plan.

My heart was dead; my soul was blind;
I hated God's good Law.
I did not seek; how could I find
Him and His Gospel know?
In me a miracle took place
By God's almighty grace.

I did not meet the Lord halfway;
I could not even move.
The Holy Spirit won the day;
He turned me in His love.
My only act was to resist
The grace of Jesus Christ.

God keeps me in the holy faith,
Without whom I would fall.
Though sin assails my every breath,
He holds me safe through all.
For me, then, nothing shall displace
My Father's priceless grace.

291. Peace with God
Tune: PEACE WITH GOD (an original tune)

Peace be with you, little children,
Though the foe still rages.
For our warfare, lo, since Eden,
God no longer wages.
Christ has paid your debt in full;
What was broken, now is whole.

Quarrel no more with the Father,
Who gave Christ to save you.
Fight the sin within you, rather;
Take the gift He gave you,
Nor surrender to despair:
He provides for every care.

Even in the thick of battle,
When the flesh comes foxing,
No more are you Satan's chattle;
Therefore, go on boxing,
Knowing Christ will brook no harm,
Swinging with your feeble arm.

Trust in Him and peace is certain,
Though the grave o'ertake you.
Christ has torn the final curtain;
He at last will wake you.
Death is made a sweet release,
Calling: "Children, be at peace!"

292. Mystery Hymn
Tune: MYSERIOUS MIGHT (a tune I wrote in 2019)

O Holy Ghost, revealing Lord,
We praise You that you gave to men
The right to know Your saving word
Through chosen bearers of the pen.
You spoke to men of feeble mind
Such things as only You impart;
Of secrets God alone can bind
Upon a doubt-encumbered heart.

From hell we could not hope to flee
Had not the Word of God been born
As Mary's Son. What mystery!—
That flesh the Godhead should adorn,
And, deigning to grow strong and wise,
His own word condescend to learn!
For only thus, in heaven's eyes,
Could any man God's favor earn.

Again, who would escape the grave,
Had God not loved the sinner so
That He that Son, His dearest, gave
Into men's hands and laid Him low?
That God such service should provide,
Our race to ransom and retrieve!
Yet Christ, portrayed as having died
For us, compels us to believe.

Man's mind, as well, can hardly frame
The dual nature of the Son,
And how the Father with the same,
And with the Holy Ghost, is One:
Had You, Unveiler from above,
Not unto men this secret sealed,
How would we know Your Triune love?
What God like You was e'er revealed?

For Baptism's mystery we sing
A new refrain of wondering praise:
For therein You the sinner bring
To dust, a new man thence to raise.
And who but You reveals that bread
Becomes Christ's body, wine His blood?
What once was given, broken, dead,
Thus lives and is life-giving food.

To celebrate Your mysteries,
Withheld from heathen sages' ears,
We'll bow to You our humble knees
And watch till You draw in the years.
Then, where Your hosts in glory teach,
All bonds of mind and tongue shall flee,
And things forbidden mortal speech
Will be our song eternally.

Textual note: Based on a few phrases that they have in common, I think hymn 60, here, may also be based on the original poem on which I base this (hopefully) last scratch-and-dent hymn. I saved it for last because it was evident that it needed the most work, which is perhaps why Hymn 60 is all but unrecognizable from the ditty's original form. Anyway, because bits of it that 60 left on the cutting room floor seemed to have some small merit, and because I found another angle in it besides inspiration as such, I decided to take another stab at renovating it. Oddly enough, its original title was Epiphany Hymn, though I can't detect anything in it particularly relevant to the Epiphany season.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Scratch and Dent 10

Further to my previous post and the string of references listed therein, here are a few more lines of my immature, college-level (c. 1993) attempts to write hymnody, refurbished at a riper age with the experience of writing close to 300 hymns. Once again, it's nice to see the evidence of how far I've come, and that I'm still improving. As the joke goes, the way to Carnegie Hall is practice, practice, practice!

287. Word and Sacrament Hymn

True Word of God, whose power brought forth
The earth and heavens and all therein,
Now we behold You on the earth,
Come in the flesh to vanquish sin.

True God from all eternity,
Without whom nothing has been made,
You come in stark humility,
Rag-bound and in a manger laid.

Yet we beheld Your glory, Lord,
As of the Father's only Son:
Men saw the vigor of the Word
In signs and wonders, matched by none.

Your Word alone would cure the ill,
No less forgive the penitent;
Yet in Your Passion, You kept still,
Enduring death by mute consent.

Lo, even death cannot undo
The promises we cherish still:
Your rising from the grave proves true
The hope of life You shall fulfill.

You have gone up, yet You remain;
The Word and Spirit that You send
Have power to break the captive's chain,
That we Your gifts might apprehend.

Your precious Gospel is the hand
Whereby God cures the blind and dead;
It frees us from the devil's bands
And binds us up with You instead.

Now Baptism is a holy rite
To which Your Word real virtue gave:
A bath where we are clothed in light,
Are cleansed of sin and freely saved.

All nations, stations, ages, come!
Here be in Spirit born again;
Be drowned and buried with God's Son
And rise with Him to live and reign!

Then, when our heart is crushed by sin,
The font, drawn from our Savior's wounds,
Will drown and raise us up again:
The old man dies, the new abounds.

Another Sacrament You gave,
Christ, on the night You were betrayed:
A feast by which You serve and save
Through the atonement You displayed.

You say Your Body is the bread,
The cup Your testament and Blood,
Whereby we now proclaim Your death
Till You return to judge the world.

Of this, Your amply witnessed will,
Your heirs are we who eat in faith;
Eternal life, the codicil
Secured by Your sufficient death.

You lived as we were meant to live;
You died, as we deserved, for sin.
That sacrifice as bread You give,
And in Your cup we drink it in.

For all men, this inheritance
You purchased at such awful cost!
How freely, now, it is dispensed
To all who in Your promise trust!

Cause us, Your heirs, Your very sons,
To live on grace and love Your will.
Amen, Lord Jesus! Quickly come,
Your final promises fulfill!

PS: The hymn tune named above, which I think I may have originally written for this hymn back in '93, was published in Useful Hymns with this hymn, written in 2014. To give you an idea how it goes, here it is:

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Scratch and Dent 9

So, I've done this a few times before. In fact, before Useful Hymns was the 222-hymn monster it became in its Second, Expanded Edition, it blew up from a paltry 47 hymns to a round 100 just because I decided to go back and dust off some of my less mature sacred poems from an album of my high school and college verse. I remember it was kind of painful and, looking at that album again this week, I realized how very far from the original the revised versions have come – and they're still some of my weaker work. Nevertheless, I spotted some additional pieces that I didn't, at the time, think worth refurbishing, and though a closer look shows me how very right I was, I'm going to give them a whirl.

Finding the David in many of these hunks of marble is quite an interesting challenge, like sifting mud for specks of gold, and sometimes accepting some other valuable mineral found by the way. A big part of the job is cutting away excess yak and tightening up the meter, sometimes trimming not just syllables but entire lines from the stanza structures. It's really a good way to verify that, yes folks, we've made progress and continue to improve. So, here we go!

284. Hymn on the Word of God

Ancient of Days, God unchanging and true,
Tending the faithful long centuries through,
Each day Your mercies rain on us anew:
Shed on our way Your unquenchable light,
Baring our errors and leading us right.

Word of Creation, effective and pure,
Though to the perishing foolish, obscure:
In You we find our salvation secure;
Not of our merits, nor splendor or might,
But Your own blood, precious in the Lord's sight.

Spirit of Holiness, tender that gift,
Bought at such cost, every burden to lift.
Mend us, transform us with medicine swift,
Drawing us upward through tumult and night
Till we see Zion, unblemished and bright.

285. Evangelism Hymn

God so loved man, He gave His Son,
True God Himself and with Him one:
Therefore all who in Christ believe
Shall not be lost, but life receive.

Through faith alone we find God's grace;
No work of ours decides the case.
Despite our glory, zeal and pride,
All rests with God who served and died.

Go, Jesus ordered, with the aim
To bathe all nations in God's name:
Teach them, He said, what I have taught,
And know that I desert you not.

Now let no judgment be preferred
Against Christ's clear and certain word:
God's writ is tested, proven pure;
His gift of faith, our armor sure.

He wants all to believe and live;
So to all nations He will give
The means His blessed realm to see:
What none could earn, to gain for free.

So let no moment run to waste:
Proclaim God's love with zest, with haste,
Till all who have the tidings heard
See on His throne the living Word.

286. The Walk of Faith
Tune: UNTESTED (RDF, 2021)

O Lord, should I untested be,
Unnoticed by the foe of old,
Or if my own prosperity
Should make be bold,
Dethrone my pride
That none but You my trust may hold,
Who for me died.

Yet, Lord, if I must stand a trial—
Sin, sickness, sorrow, struggle, loss—
Let no despair that seat defile;
Show me Your cross.
Though I am weak,
Your strength suffices every cause;
That will I seek.

And now, Lord, when the scoffers leer,
Nerve me to answer their rebuff.
If but one word from You I hear,
It is enough!
I'll gladly die,
And pass beyond the world's reproof
To You on high.

I've got quite a few more of these "scratch and dent" hymns to buff out. I'm not going to get any more done today, though. This is serious work! Music for these hymns will be available on request.

*Previous "scratch and dent" hymns are posted here, by number: one two three four five six seven eight and, believe it or not, zero.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Blood of Tyrants

Blood of Tyrants
by Naomi Novik
Recommended Ages: 13+

It'll be no surprise to those who have read this far in the Temeraire series that this book gives them three distinct adventures, mingling history and fantasy in increasingly rich ways. "Part I" brings British aviator Will Laurence and his dragon partner Temeraire to the shores of Japan, where a shipboard mishap casts Laurence up on a hostile shore with no memory of his last eight years – and it has been only six since Temeraire hatched and propelled his career from the Royal Navy to the Aerial Corps. Captured in a country where outsiders are condemned to death for setting foot anywhere outside the port of Nagasaki, the confused Laurence stages a desperate escape while Temeraire goes spare trying to find him. Exciting as that is – colored by Shogun-era Japanese culture with the twist that dragons live among people as high-ranking nobles, and complete with sword fights, dilemmas of honor and terrible creatures of the deep – it's only prologue to "Part II," which has hardly opened when Laurence saves the crown prince of China from assassination.

This phase of their adventure takes Temeraire and Laurence deep into the Chinese countryside, where their mission – to ferret out a rebellion against the Emperor and an opium smuggling operation – is hampered by treachery. The pair are separated from some old friends, reunited with others, and face the supreme test of their relationship right at the point where Laurence's memory starts to come back. Once again, the love between a man and a dragon proves stronger than anything else they have faced. And that's a good thing, because in "Part III," they're going to face Napoleon himself on his 1812 march to Moscow.

The final third of the novel turns one of the pivotal military campaigns of modern history on its head. The addition of 300 Chinese warrior dragons to the Russian side would be enough, by itself, to alter history out of all recognition. But even so, Moscow burns just like it did in real life; Napoleon and his generals strike back with devastating shrewdness, taking full advantage of the Russian Empire's brutally backward approach to dealing with dragons. With his Chinese allies, his dragon companion and his own heart rebelling against the role they must play – on the wrong side of history, in terms of how dragons are treated – Laurence faces the real possibility that all their advantage over the French armies will vanish into thin air.

It's an alternate history crowded with personalities, both real (such as Gens. Kutuzov and Barclay de Tolly, Marshall Murat and Tsar Alexander) and imagined (including many new-to-you breeds of dragon, and one politically important egg). The course of its events is both familiar (if you've read War and Peace) and hair-raisingly unexpected. Just when you're sure things are going one way, they turn on a dime and take off in a new direction. It's smart, emotionally engaging fun, varying in intensity from nail-biting tension to bewilderingly swift action. We find Temeraire considering ideas wholly new to him; we find Laurence struggling with his conscience; we meet a new character who may yet prove to be either a great friend or an even greater enemy; and once again, we see how one remarkable pair of people – because dragons are people, you know – can do much to change history without being world leaders or great conquerors. We hear period dialogue, see period mores challenged by the irregular conditions of service in a dragon corps, and experience history through a cryptid-enhanced lens that could be wacky (see, for example, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) but proves to be as convincing as the real thing. Maybe better. It's cracking good reading.

This is the eighth of the nine Temeraire novels; after it comes League of Dragons. Novik is also the author of Uprooted and Spinning Silver.

Monday, January 4, 2021

283. Seven Last Words Hymn

Yes, it's another Passion of Jesus hymn, now focusing on His "seven words on the cross." It's a hymn I tremble to write. After so many others have treated this subject, and done it so well – I need only mention Thomas B. Pollock's 1870 litany hymn, whose 21 stanzas The Lutheran Hymnal lays out on two facing pages as seven separate hymns (180-186) for a sufficient example – that any attempt on my part to add to their number is surely superfluous. TLH 177 is another example, translated from German, in 10 stanzas. The only worthwhile thing I can possibly add to this literature, I feel, is brevity. So, with no other aim than to cover the material in the fewest words possible, I proceed with prayer. The original tune, written by yours truly this evening in what I meant to be kind of a modernish version of the Lydian mode, is titled SEVEN WORDS.
"Forgive them, Father!" Jesus wailed
As to the cross His limbs were nailed.
Forgive our sins, too, Lord, for we
As good as hanged Him on that tree;
So may we on Your mercy live
That those who hurt us, we forgive.

"Today, in Paradise," He said
To one who nearby hung his head,
"You, even you, shall live with Me."
Help us, too, Lord, such certainty
To cherish, in the hour we die,
And trust His blood to justify.

He told His mother, "Lo, your son,"
And "Lo, your mother" said to John.
Such comforters, Lord, send indeed
In our extremity of need;
And help us be, if so You will,
A help to others faring ill.

"My God! My God!" was then His cry:
"Why leave me, in such shame to die?"
So You, Lord, dealt with Your dear Son,
That You with us might be at one.
Swift comfort shed on all our grief;
Draw near, and help our unbelief.

"I thirst," He murmured, nearly spent,
And yet the proffered draft forwent.
May we, too, spurn the numbing lie
That would the cross's worth deny;
Lord, teach us with pure hearts to crave
The means by which You heal and save.

"It is perfected," He declared:
All that in love You had prepared
Since Adam's guilt brought death to all,
Is done: Mankind from Satan's thrall
Christ has redeemed, His work complete,
The serpent crushed beneath His feet.

"My Spirit, Father, I commend
To You," He whispered at the end.
Lord, like Your Son before He died,
May we, too, in Your hands confide
Our souls and bodies, dearly bought,
And trust in You till our last thought.

P.S. Because I want everyone to admire my cleverness as much as I do, permit me to drop a hint about the tune: there are three signs of the cross in it. Get it? (Sigh.) Anyway, this is, appropriately, the seventh and last of my planned hymns to decorate Lenten sermon series. (The other six include the four "Passion According to" hymns that I wrote late last year, along with this and this.) This time I forbore to include an opening and closing stanza for each run-through, though, because I imagine this being used more by way of a Good Friday Tre Ore service with a stanza preceding or following each homily on the words of Christ from the cross. And like I said, I really wanted to break the record for being the most compact hymn of its kind, if possible. If I didn't pull it off, let me know in the comments. But gently.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Prisoner of the Black Hawk

Prisoner of the Black Hawk
by A.L. Tait
Recommended Ages: 11+

The race is underway to map the world. Quinn, a homesick farm boy with an eidetic memory, is the mapmaker on one of three Verdanian ships that sailed out, hoping against hope that the world isn't flat and they won't sail off the edge into the jaws of the dragon Genesi. The two competing ships from their county are competition enough, but also unofficially in the race are a ship from their Gelynion enemy. In this book, Quinn falls into the clutches of the Gelynions and is held under brutal conditions, forced to make maps for them, while his shipmates race now to catch up and get him back.

Quinn is in peril from treachery, superstition and all the dangers of sailing in unknown seas – from storms and rough water to poisonous snakes ashore. Meanwhile, back on the Libertas (the ship he belongs to), his childhood friend Ash is exposed as a girl – and it's bad luck to have a girl on board. From evil deeds done at night in a tropical jungle to desperate moments on a ship boarded by pirates, this is a suspenseful and thrilling adventure in a world that has just begun to be explored, sparking the reader's imagination about what may have been at stake in our own world's age of discovery. Throw in omens of the deep, super-gifted kids and a subtle touch of magic, and it adds up to a terrific voyage for young readers intrigued by the age of sailing ships and hand-drawn maps.

This is Book 2 of the "Mapmaker Chronicles," which also includes Race to the End of the World, Breath of the Dragon and Beyond the Edge of the Map. Allison Tait is an Australian author also known for the "Ateban Cipher" books.