By now, many of you have probably noticed that I write quite a few new hymns. I have been a hymn nerd since was five or six years old, and have been writing my own hymns for about ten years now; however, it is just within the last three years or so that I have begun to be consistently pleased with their quality. I truly appreciate the support you express for my acting upon this particular piece of my spirituality, and so, I thought I would use this article to give you a “view from inside the hymn writer’s workshop!”
Developing Subject Matter
I tend to prefer structured source material on which to base my hymn texts, as structured material helps me to make sure my hymns are really saying something rather than simply being heaps of empty phrases with no context. Like Martin Luther, I believe that singing hymns is even more effective for teaching tenets of the faith than reading or other strategies--essentially, I see it as preaching with music added. Some “structured” examples:
This piece of the process can be quite interesting. Sometimes, the tune choice provides an opportunity for me to connect to some detail that underlies the hymn’s origin or purpose, almost like an “in-joke” between friends that you can only understand if you know the story. Some examples:
I hope this little trip to the workshop was interesting for you! Thanks again for the freedom you give me to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ using all the tools that God has given me!
When the month of August rolls around, the first thing that comes to my mind is that we are entering the “dog days” of summer--the most oppressively hot and stiflingly humid days of the season, I was sure that this was the meaning of that phrase “dog days.” I would have had no doubts giving that answer on a quiz show with financial gain on the line, or at a trivia night as I campaigned for bragging rights and nerd-prestige. Despite this great sense of certainty, though, I dared to look up the origin of the phrase and found that “dog days” isn’t a folksy English-language idiom to describe hot weather but rather a much older phrase that comes from Greek and Roman observations of the star Sirius. Often called the “dog star” because it appears to “follow” the constellation Orion in the sky like a dog follows its master, Sirius is only visible for a portion of the year, and the Greeks and Romans casually observed a connection between its first appearance (often in July or August) and a rash of hot summer weather--thus, the term “dog days.” While my earlier answer wasn’t entirely wrong, I certainly learned something about a topic I thought was simple!
This little learning journey gave me pause to reflect on our life as Christians, and more specifically as Christians who are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). If there is one thing I can honestly say that I love about being a pastor in the ELCA corner of Christ’s Church, it is that we generally take the perspective that we always have something more to learn about God, about the Bible, and about life in God’s world. Even the most essential elements of our faith--say, the reality that Jesus loves us--is like an onion with layers that we peel throughout our lives, discovering fresh nuance and new richness. Such a passion for learning comes to us from the earliest days of the Lutheran tradition over 500 years ago, with Martin Luther’s extensive writings contributing greatly to the literacy rate in Germany during the 1500s. Also, beyond this historical connection, many of our brothers and sisters in Christ here at Trinity have embraced education as their vocation through teaching, administration, student support, and other work in schools.
In thanksgiving for this interest in learning that the Holy Spirit has woven into our life together as Trinity Lutheran Church, we will have an Education Celebration Sunday on August 26th. We will lift up God’s gift of education through presentation of the 2018 Trinity Scholarships and our annual Blessing of the Backpacks, an invitation to which will be extended to all local school employees. I am also excited to be inviting local families who will be receiving some of the extra desks that we have around the church building, in hopes that these desks will inspire the children through a dedicated place to do their school work. All told, the Education Celebration Sunday will be a joyful time of prayer and blessing as school gets underway across Fulton County!
So far, this summer has found me largely feeling like a nomad. I just haven't been able to stay in any one place for more than a few days at a time. First came the Central/Southern Illinois Synod Assembly in Champaign in early June. Then, I returned to Canton for less than 24 hours to lead worship on June 10 before setting off for two weeks of vacation that took me and Andrea to visit each of our families and enjoy a couple days at Niagara Falls--a trip which, although it was a vacation, was not without its challenges as I discovered that my cell phone had no service in Canada. Finally, less than three days after getting back for worship on June 24, I boarded an Amtrak Texas Eagle train bound for Houston and the ELCA Youth Gathering...and I am sitting on that same train, somewhere south of St. Louis, as I write this to you.
Our Youth Gathering trip is going well so far. A few of the youth have decided to call it a night, while the rest are enjoying card games with Youth Gathering participants from other congregations who are also riding our train. I look forward to having a front-row seat to all that the Holy Spirit will do in these young people's lives throughout the coming week as they serve people in Jesus's name and encounter God in worship, Bible study, and fellowship. Everything is possible with God (Luke 1:37), so I won't even begin to speculate what all God will do with them--in just going to celebrate whatever that is!
A quarter of the way into a roughly 20-hour combined train and bus trip after weeks of practically non-stop travel, I just had a moment to reflect on how traveling has been a Christian faith practice from the very beginning. This thoughtful wandering began as I considered the Gospel reading for July 8 (Mark 6:1-13), the second half of which is the story of Jesus sending out the twelve disciples to take his healing power to the villages of Galilee. This story, in conjunction with Luke's story of Jesus sending out 70 disciples and the missionary journeys of Paul, gives me a new appreciation for the importance of travel in the first years of the church.
But that new appreciation soon came with a new conundrum when I realized how accordingly paradoxical it is that the Spirit calls and gathers us in particular places as Christ's church to minister to people in those places. For example, the Holy Spirit has called you and me to share the good news of Jesus in the Canton area. We are rooted in this place, with most of us not poised for travel adventures like the missionaries in the New Testament or the full-time missionaries we help fund through our ELCA.
Perhaps we can resolve this paradox a bit, though, if we think about it a little differently. Maybe the point of all that traveling in the New Testament isn't the traveling itself--it's that Christians are sent out by Jesus to be his compassionate and loving presence in the world, wherever we are. Christian ministry is summed up not primarily by where God works through our hands but rather what God does through them.
Just as I make no presumptions regarding what amazing things God will do through the hands of Trinity's youth at the ELCA Youth Gathering, neither will I make any about what God will do through you today, wherever you are--I will simply trust that almighty God is at at work through you and give thanks for your ministry as you so prayerfully give thanks for mine!
And you, beneath life's crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow;
look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing;
oh, rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing!
The words above popped into my mind on Tuesday at my weekly Bible study with pastors from our Northern Conference. If you happen to be a real connoisseur of Christmas hymns, you might recognize these words as the third verse of It Came upon the Midnight Clear by Edmund H. Sears. While it is sort of odd to be thinking of a Christmas hymn as summer begins, Sears’s words struck me as the text study group discussed the readings for June 3--Bible texts that have a lot to do with the concept of sabbath, which is the Third Commandment as described in Deuteronomy. 5:12-16:
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
This Commandment reminds us of God’s love for us, as God calls us to take time for holy rest and renewal through worship, Bible study, and recreation. God has given us a weekly sabbath (Saturday in the time of the Ten Commandments, but later it became Sunday for Christians because that is the day that Jesus rose from the dead) as a gift to help us recharge and be healthy to serve God.
Our worship life this month has a lot to help us recharge. First, we have the return of Favorite Hymns Summer on June 3, when I will use the list of favorite hymns that people submitted last year to plan the songs you love for worship services throughout the summer (I am also adding three of my own favorites this year--Abide with Me, The God of Abraham Praise, and the aforementioned It Came upon the Midnight Clear). If you did not submit any hymns last year, contact the office with up to three suggestions, and I will do my best to include them. Later in the month, on June 24, we rejoice at the baptisms of cousins Fletcher Dean Wright and Quinton Walsh, young sons of Maggie (Tonkin) Wright and Holly (Tonkin) Walsh and grandsons of Joe and Robin Tonkin! We will also have a special send-off that day for our Youth Group as they depart for the ELCA Youth Gathering (June 26 to July 3).
If the “glad and golden hours” of summer have you hitting the road, I encourage you to continue to take sabbath time for God by checking out a church where you travel and/or watching Trinity’s service through our website on www.mytrinitylutheran.org/watch. I myself look forward to doing the latter during my vacation from the afternoon of June 10 through June 23. Karen Krieger will lead worship on June 17, though I will be with you in spirit as I leave you with a new hymn to sing that day in honor of Father’s Day (to the tune of my favorite hymn, Abide with Me).
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The above is a great little prayer from the Evening Prayer service in our Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal, and I think it is wonderfully appropriate for the month of May. This month is always one that finds people at exciting transitions. The school year is ending, bringing the summer break that is so desperately longed for both by the students and the adults. And speaking of summer, we might just be able to experience that season this year! We have now had, as of my writing this, two consecutive snow-free Sundays, so I declare with great hope (and potentially considerable folly) that winter has finally come to a close. In these and many other ways, then, our life together this month is summed up by that little snippet of the Evening Prayer service.
Called to ventures of which we cannot see the ending...
One of these ventures began at the end of last month with Canton’s first Rejoicing Spirits service, celebrated on April 26th with friends from the MOSAIC group homes in Canton, Macomb, and Bushnell. In total, 22 people participated in this first service, and plans are already starting to materialize for the next service over the summer!
Another new venture for us that will begin taking shape this month is the new Care Team ministry. As a congregation, we are very good at taking care of one another. In the Care Team Ministry, we will be finding new ways to intentionally weave our gifts of sending cards, cooking, and visiting one another into a blanket of God’s love that can comfort people who are hurting and let them know how deeply they are loved by God and by us, God’s servants.
By paths as yet untrodden…
May 20 brings about a new path for our sister Jaime Goldring, our one graduating high school senior. We send her with peace and prayers in a time of Graduate recognition during the worship service that day.
There is also an untrodden path in my own family, as Andrea and I recently discovered that we are expecting our first child! She is a little over eight weeks pregnant, and everything is progressing well so far! We were delighted to share this news publicly for the first time on the last Sunday of April, following the good results at her confirmation of pregnancy appointment a couple of days earlier. Our due date is December 7th - might make for an interesting Advent season this year!
Through perils unknown...
Of course, these exciting new directions (and the ones shaping up in each of our lives) are not without their potential pitfalls and struggles. Unforeseen challenges lie ahead, and there will be bumps in the road. But amid all our excitement this May, let us lean on the final words of that great piece of Evening Prayer, praying to God: Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
2018 is the bicentennial year for Illinois, and there will be undoubtedly be many celebrations this year that lift up key people and moments over 200 years of the Land of Lincoln. Unlike Illinois, though, my home state of Pennsylvania doesn’t have that one historical figure that looms as a giant over all the others. Pennsylvania’s state nickname is the “Keystone State,” named as such because of its importance to and central location in the original thirteen states and the colonial period that preceded the United States. I can’t say that my home state has been consistently noteworthy since then, but at least for a time, we were the keystone that held a fledgling nation together.
This April begins with a keystone of an entirely different sort as we begin the month with Easter Sunday. That keystone is the truth that is revealed in the Easter stories of all four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and to which the rest of the New Testament writers testified--that Jesus is the crucified and risen messiah of God. The confession of Jesus Christ crucified and risen is the essential element of Christian faith, the building block on which the Holy Spirit has built the church over nearly two thousand years.
Given our present-day culture’s much higher engagement with Christmas than Easter, it may surprise you to discover that the church’s observance of Easter developed several centuries before our celebration of Christmas; however, that order of things makes more sense when considering the context of these two important stories of Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is what makes his birth noteworthy. Indeed, the confession of Jesus Christ crucified and risen is so central to the church’s mission that Easter is not just one day but rather an entire season in the church year. We devote fifty days each year to unpacking what Jesus’ resurrection means for us, beginning with Easter Sunday (Apr. 1 this year) and continuing all the way through the festival of Pentecost (May 20).
Jesus, the crucified and risen messiah of God, was not to be forgotten as were the flash-in-the-pan miracle men throughout history. No, people continue to gather in Jesus’ name. People continue to praise Jesus for his victory over sin and death. People continue to cling to the hope of Jesus’ resurrection and trust in God’s proven ability to create something new where the former things have passed away, even if that means doing something that seems impossible. The Easter good news that we share is simple and powerful: Jesus is the crucified one who died for us, and the risen one in whose resurrection we finally have assurance of God’s forgiveness and hope of eternal life.
Together, then, let us join the loud and joyful shout of faith that will resound throughout these fifty days of Easter: Christ is risen! Alleluia!
I love to tell the story: how pleasant to repeat
what seems, each time I tell it, more wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story, for some have never heard
The message of salvation from God’s own holy word.
I love to tell the story; ‘twill be my theme in glory
to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.
We begin this month with the wonderful words of the second verse of English missionary Katherine Hankey’s hymn as we move into our second month of our 2018 theme, “I Love to Tell the Story.” Last month, I kicked off the year with the more familiar first verse, but this second verse really fits well with the Lent seasonal activities begin in February!
The season of Lent begins with our Ash Wednesday service at 6:30pm on Feb. 14 (otherwise known as Valentine’s Day). I assure you that the apparent contradiction between Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day is not lost on me--it certainly makes this year’s rendition of Ash Wednesday quite interesting...and quite possibly transformative in my thinking. Like many Lutherans throughout the ages, I have always thought of Ash Wednesday in terms of my incredible insignificance in the grand scheme of God’s wide world. I have always seen that day of the church year through the lens of Genesis 3:19: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But with Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day colliding this year, I am looking at Ash Wednesday differently. I am looking at it not just as a day to confess our sinfulness and pray for forgiveness and reconciliation, but rather as a day that is grounded in what makes confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation work in the first place--God’s love. You might say that instead of simply repeating the old, old story, we will tell that story with a fresh perspective.
As the season progresses, though, we will do more than reframe an old perspective on a single day. Much of our attention during Lent will go toward training ourselves to look for and share news of God’s work in the world around us. We will get quite a bit of practice at this throughout the 40 days of Lent, constantly engaging the question: “Where have you seen God at work?” This will be the central question of our Wednesday night series, which we are calling the “Lent Share & Prayer” series. Each Wednesday night from Feb. 21 through Mar. 21, we will gather for a simple supper at 5:30pm followed by a prayer service that begins with a time of sharing our stories of where we have seen God at work throughout the week and concludes with the beautiful music of Holden Evening Prayer by Lutheran composer Marty Haugen. Through the week, we will continue to exercise our storytelling muscles on the church Facebook page as we invite you to share in our “40 Days of God Sightings.” I am still coming up with a helpful and manageable way to field your comments on the page for this 40-day campaign, but stay tuned for more information and be on the lookout for God’s next action around you!
I love to tell the story / of unseen things above,
of Jesus and his glory, / of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story / because I know it’s true;
it satisfies my longings / as nothing else could do.
I love to tell the story / ‘twill be my theme in glory
to tell the old, old story / of Jesus and his love.
You might recognize the text above as the beloved hymn “I Love to Tell the Story.” Published in 1869 with text by English missionary Katherine Hankey and tune by William G. Fischer, this hymn has been a staple for Sunday Schools, and it remains a favorite for many people to this day. It is certainly a favorite here at Trinity, as it tied for the top spot in last year’s Favorite Hymns Summer based on the number of people who requested the hymn. As much as we collectively love this hymn, though, it can be difficult for us to take its text to heart. We love the old, old story of Jesus and his love. We love to hear and read that old, old story in worship. We love to sing that old, old story in the hymns every week. But Katherine Hankey’s words really up the ante and push us out of our hearing/reading/singing comfort zone to wrestle with a challenging question: Do we really love to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love?
Historically, Lutherans have often been reserved, quiet people when it comes to the evangelistic mission of the church--that is, sharing our faith with others and telling the old, old story of Jesus and his love. We have been (and often still are) more likely to show people Jesus’ love rather than to tell them about it. For instance, Lutherans have shown Jesus’ love in their communities through social service agencies like Lutheran Social Services of Illinois and MOSAIC, operating schools and hospitals, and by feeding hungry people through programs like Canton Meals on Wheels. We love getting in the trenches and serving others as God works through our hands.
But things change for us in a hurry when we begin to tell in our own words the old, old story of Jesus and his love. We can easily become anxious, worrying about what we should say, how we might say it, and what our next move might be if our message is rebuffed or not understood. Telling the story is a different ball game than our more comfortable activities like worship and Bible study.
That is why, brothers and sisters in Christ, I am excited to embark with you this year on a journey toward greater confidence and comfort with sharing our faith with others. That will be a focus of my preaching this year as we work through the Gospels of Mark and John, two great storytellers of their own accord. Telling the story will also be a focus of Adult Forum classes, and perhaps even part of this year’s Lent services.
I am unsure as of right now what all we will be doing, but what I do know is that it will be an exciting time of nurturing faith that we can share with others around us. Let us all learn day by day how we might love to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love!
December has arrived, and Christmas preparations are in full swing all around us. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday have all flown by, complete with the requisite facts, figures, and news headlines. Christmas decorations adorn homes and downtown areas. Favorite holiday songs abound on the radio and in concerts throughout the community--in the words of one of those songs, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” (minus the spate of 60-degree temperatures as the month begins).
Known as “Christmas creep,” this phenomenon--the sudden onslaught of Christmas everything before December has even found its footing--is well documented. I have wrestled for quite some time with what Christmas creep says about our society, and the first thoughts that came to my mind were less than encouraging. I thought of powerful forces of consumerism that drive us to acquire more and more things. I thought of cultural addiction to instant gratification--we want what we want, and we want it NOW. And, even stranger, the church season of Advent this year suffers itself from Christmas creep, as the Fourth Sunday of Advent occurs on December 24!
Although I am still concerned about things like consumerism and a need for instant gratification, this year’s unusual Advent calendar redirected my thinking a bit. Many people (myself included) like to put off Christmas celebrations until the Twelve Days of Christmas (evening of December 24 through evening of January 5), but there are two points that are spiritually nourishing about Christmas being constantly in our midst throughout this month. First, the intermingling of Advent’s anxious waiting with the joyous Christmas sense of fulfillment matches up well with the “already/not yet” reality of the Kingdom of God: God has already broken into the world and created it anew through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ...but God’s reign is not yet fully in place in the world, and God will continue breaking into the world through the Holy Spirit. Secondly, the popularity and accessibility of Christmas present followers of Jesus with wonderful opportunities to share the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ with people who--possibly unbeknownst to us--hunger for that good news!
These two “good news notes” of Christmas creep are themes we will hear throughout the upcoming church year as we study the Gospels of Mark and John. Of the four Gospels, Mark is the king of “already/not yet” theology, and the entire purpose of John is to share Jesus with others so that they join the journey of faith that leads to eternal life, as the author of John reveals in John 20:31: “these [signs of Jesus] were written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that, through believing you may have life in his name.”
So, perhaps my prior Christmas creep grumbling was at least partially short-sighted. Maybe that phenomenon is simply one more thing that joins with all others to “work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Let us enjoy this intriguingly intermingled month and these events it has in store for us!
Pastor Micah Garnett has been our Pastor since July 2016. He grew up in York, PA and graduated from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in 2011. He enjoys worship, working with social services in Fulton County, writing hymns, and cycling.