Poetry

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Authorities

by Lionel E. Deimel

  

We thank you, God, for Scripture,

Those words, inspired, that tell

Of how you made the heavens,

Of how your creatures fell,

Of how you called us often,

Of how you sent your Son,

Who built his Church eternal

And calls us to be one.

 

We thank you for tradition,

To which your Church is true,

The teachings and the customs

That constantly renew;

The saints who came before us

Have helped to show the way,

As we, their heirs, for others,

Will do the same someday.

 

We thank you, God, for reason,

That light of yours within

That lets us fathom Scripture

And where your Church has been,

For reason, by your Spirit,

Will help to teach us how

To be your faithful servants

In this, the here and now.

 

But, most of all, the Gospel

Is what we’re thankful for,

The news of your redemption

Of wealthy and of poor—

The Word made flesh dwelt with us

And taught us selfless love,

Then died to take us with him

To dwell with you above.

 

 

Three-legged stool

 

This second hymn I’ve written had an odd genesis. (My first hymn was “O Lord the Invisible.”) My choir was a visiting choir at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Pittsburgh on January 25, 2004. The sequence hymn was “O Christ, the Word Incarnate.” This hymn appears as number 632 in The Hymnal 1982 in the “Holy Scripture” section, along with a handful of other hymns. As I was singing, it occurred to me that I could not think of a hymn that extols not only Scripture, but the trio of Scripture, tradition, and reason, the classic three-legged stool of the quintessential Anglican theologian of the sixteenth century, Richard Hooker. This was a significant observation, as the conservatives who are now so disrupting the Episcopal Church regularly appeal to Scripture (and perhaps tradition), but never do they seem to appeal to reason, to believe, as some put it, that God can “do a new thing.”

As a result of the loudspeakers near the choir stalls not working, the sermon was completely inaudible. This seemed to be the Lord’s message that it was time to fill a gap in Episcopal hymnody. I began writing a hymn, expecting to produce verses about Scripture, tradition, and reason. I thought I might conclude with a fourth verse, though I didn’t know exactly what it might be about. Because the hymn we had just sung was probably the most popular Episcopal hymn about Scripture—this may not be saying much—I chose to write a text that could be paired with its usual tune, “Munich,” which is seventeenth German. By the time the sermon was over, I had a first verse and half of a second.

Over the next few days, the poem went through several revisions, some of them quite extensive. A conversation with the Rev. J. Peter Bercovitz—now, sadly, deceased—inspired me to write verse four, which emphasizes what is even more important than Scripture, tradition, and reason. (Peter, who never quite warmed to this project but who was nonetheless helpful, has his own very interesting Web site, primarily about the Apostle Paul, As Paul tells it....)

In the revisions, I discarded most of the original first verse, which originally read as follows:

We thank you, God, for Scripture,

That lamp unto our feet

That teaches of salvation

And what is right and meet

To claim our place in heaven,

To do your work on earth,

To make our lives most holy

In sadness or in mirth.

There were many reasons for discarding this verse, but I leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out what they all were. I thought I had finished writing the hymn when I began to match carefully the words to the music, only to discover that “inspired,” which I had unconsciously construed as having three syllables, in reality, has but two:

We thank you, God, for Scripture,

Inspired words that tell

The second line should have had six syllables, of course, not five. This was not a problem when setting the words to music, but a poem should scan properly when read simply as a poem. This glitch was extraordinarily troublesome to fix. I tried many approaches to whipping the line into shape, but I spent most time on searching for a one-syllable, unaccented word that could follow “inspired.” Eventually, I rejected “fine,” “glad,” “true,” “kind,” “brave,” and “pure.” I resisted the substitution of “inspiring” for “inspired”—a real three-syllable word—because it changed the meaning to a true, but less powerful, assertion. The final version of the line is less idiomatic than I might have wished, but it is not outrageously strange, and it sings well.

Some explanation of verse two may be helpful. It is apparently not obvious to everyone that it is we who are constantly renewed by traditional teachings and customs. Also, in this verse, I changed the last two lines several times, returning them, in the very last revision, to their antepenultimate version.

Finding a title was difficult. The one I selected will do, but, in fact, hymns tend to be referred to by their initial phrases. This may be inevitable, though it would certainly be misleading in this case. I chose the title after I thought I had finished the hymn, on January 29. (The fix for the second line of verse one was not made until February 4.) The next day, I began to consider whether other hymn tunes might work better than “Munich.” The meter of the text is a common one, so that there are many tunes that work well with the hymn. My favorite alternatives are “Ellacombe” and “Llangloffan.” I encourage visitors to let me know what tune they feel works best.

I am greatly indebted to Steve Kinsel of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Murrysville, Pa., for doing most of the work of producing a MIDI file of "Munich" and a PDF version of the words and music, either of which can be had by clicking on one of the buttons below. The music is a PDF file. Click on the logo if you need to download and install the free Adobe Reader to view or print this file.

I want to encourage people to sing this hymn, but please write me before using it in a public service. 

  Download Download MIDI  
  Download View Music (PDF)  

— LED, 9/3/2006

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