Friday, December 13, 2013

There's a Song in the Air (Strength in Hymn)

"There's a Song in the Air"
 by Josiah Holland

There's a song in the air!
There's a star in the sky!
There's a mother's deep prayer
And a baby's low cry!
And the star rains its fire  while the Beautiful sing,
For the manger of Bethlehem cradles a king.

There's a tumult of joy
O'er the wonderful birth,
For the virgin's sweet boy
Is the Lord of the earth.
Ay! the star rains its fire and the Beautiful sing,
For the manger of Bethlehem cradles a king. 

In the light of that star
Lie the ages impearled;
And that song from afar
Has swept over the world.
Every hearth is aflame, and the Beautiful sing
In the homes of the nations that Jesus is King. 

We rejoice in the light,
And we echo the song
That comes down through the night
From the heavenly throng.
Ay! we shout to the lovely evangel they bring,
And we greet in his cradle our Saviour and King. 

The Story Behind the Hymn: You can read more about the background of this 1872 hymn and its lyricist here: "There's a Song in the Air" at United Methodist Reporter.  It is tempting to think of the idyllic lifestyles of centuries past, but I remind myself that this song was written not long after the Civil War, and Josiah Holland had experienced many frustrations and disappointments in life. 

The Photographs:  The stained glass nativity set below the poem was made 28 years ago by my mother, who passed away this summer.  I took the photo of the stained glass window last month at Winter Park Presbyterian Church when we stopped at their Global Christmas Market mentioned in this post: We Plough the Fields and Scatter. (I have a certain fascination for stained glass in vintage churches, as you can see in this post from last year: Beauty and Diversity on an Autumn Sunday in Maryland.)  I had often driven by the Winter Park church on our way to our own church, which meets in a middle school. (No stained glass there!)  Anyway, I knew there were gorgeous windows, so I peeked inside the sanctuary before we left. I was delighted, of course.  Mine is only a quick snapshot, but you can view the church's whole photo gallery of stained glass windows.  I'm glad. Beauty sings.

Why I Picked this Hymn: For this season of Advent, I wanted to highlight a few lesser known Christmas hymns. This one speaks to me of joy, which does not come naturally right now in my own season of life.  Exhaustion catches up with me, I hear a piece of troubling news in the community or around the world, I visit a friend's beautifully decorated and tidy home and compare it to my own, a child is not making as much progress as I'd like to see and "a mother's deep prayer" doesn't seem to be getting through, I know a friend is hurting badly, I get angry at an injustice done to another, I worry about whether I will ever get "enough" done, or I sense disconnection from loved ones -- or whatever it is that brings a sense of sadness.  And then this lovely old carol calls me back to the reality that the Beautiful sing about the King caring enough to come and be with us in the middle of our troubles.  The star rains its fire into the dark night.  How poetic! I could use some star fire right now. How about a miracle aflame at my hearth?  This carol calls for a response: to rejoice and echo and shout and greet.  I don't know about a shout right now, but I think I can at least whisper: "Thank you, Jesus."

This post is part of my Strength in Hymn series which combines hymn texts, photography, and encouragement for the spiritually weary.  The other Christmas song in this series so far is The Wexford Carol.

You might also like to read: Beating Holiday Blues and Stress.

Peace on earth!

Virginia Knowles

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Wexford Carol (Strength in Hymn)

"The Wexford Carol"
Traditional Irish Carol

Good people all, this Christmas-time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done,
In sending His beloved Son.
With Mary holy we should pray
To God with love this Christmas Day:
In Bethlehem upon that morn
There was a blessed Messiah born.

Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep
Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep;
To whom God's angels did appear,
Which put the shepherds in great fear.
"Prepare and go," the angels said,
"To Bethlehem, be not afraid;
For there you'll find, this happy morn,
A princely Babe, sweet Jesus born."

With thankful heart and joyful mind,
The shepherds went the Babe to find,
And as God's angel had foretold,
They did our Saviour Christ behold.
Within a manger He was laid,
And by his side the Virgin Maid,
As long foretold,
there was a blessed Messiah born.

My Strength in Hymn series is featuring four Christmas carols for the season of Advent.  I'd like to pick ones that aren't as familiar to most people, and the beautiful, haunting "Wexford Carol" is one of my obscure favorites. Watch cellist Yo-Yo Ma and vocalist Alison Krauss perform this carol in the studio: Wexford Carol.

I am just now putting the Christmas page back on my main blog.  Please visit and see all of my posts about food, poetry, music, art, practical tips, and inspiration!

Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done,
In sending His beloved Son.

Watching the Good Shepherd,

Virginia Knowles

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Now Thank We All Our God (Strength in Hymn)

“Now Thank We All Our God”
by Martin Rinkart
translated by Catherine Winkworth

Now thank we all our God 
With heart and hands and voices 
Who wondrous things hath done, 
In whom his world rejoices; 
Who from our mothers’ arms, 
Hath blessed us on our way 
With countless gifts of love, 
And still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God 
Through all our life be near us, 
With ever joyful hearts 
And blessed peace to cheer us; 
And keep us in his grace, 
And guide us when perplexed, 
And free us from all ills 
In this world and the next.

All praise and thanks to God 
The Father now be given, 
The Son, and him who reigns 
With them in highest heaven- 
The one eternal God, 
Whom earth and heav’n adore; 
For thus it was, is now, 
And shall be evermore.

The Story Behind the Hymn: This early 17th century hymn was written by Martin Rinkart, a German pastor at the time of the bloody Thirty Years War and the devastating plague and famine.   His home was a refuge for the victims.  As the only remaining pastor in Eilenburg, he sometimes conducted 50 funerals in a single day, over 4000 in the year of 1637, including one for his own wife.  Listen to the hymn and find out more here: "Now Thank We All Our God" at Songs and Hymns.

Why I Chose This Hymn: This is the third Thanksgiving-time hymn I have featured on this blog this month.  (The others are We Plough the Fields and Scatter and For the Beauty of the Earth.) I love the gentle and cheerful words, even more so knowing the horror from which they were birthed.   He worships and praises a happy and loving God.  I am also blessed to know that Rinkart showed compassion to the needy.  That is the heart of a true pastor, being kind to the needy and broken.  The bread photo above is from a homeless outreach organized by my 24 year old daughter.  You can read more here: Homeless in the Suburbs.  I usually include more photos and commentary in this post, but it's such a simple hymn, I'd rather let its simple beauty stand on its own.

Let us thank him 
with hearts and hands and voices 
this week and always.

Grace and peace,
Virginia Knowles

Friday, November 22, 2013

"Strength in Hymn" Alphabetical Index

Dear friends,

While I love contemporary music, the old hymns still speak to my heart.  I've been writing a series on hymns which includes nature photography and encouragement for the disillusioned Christian.  These are the 26 posts I have so far, in alphabetical order.  Enjoy!

(P.S. This list is current as of November 21, 2013.  To see the most current ones,  you can click on this index page, which is also a tab on the blog, or on this category label, which brings them all up in reverse chronological order.)

For the Beauty of the Earth (Strength in Hymn)

“For the Beauty of the Earth”
Folliot S. Pierpoint, 1864

For the beauty of the earth
For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies. 
Lord of all, to Thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.


For the beauty of each hour,
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower,
Sun and moon, and stars of light.
Lord of all, to Thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.

For the joy of ear and eye,
For the heart and mind’s delight,
For the mystic harmony
Linking sense to sound and sight. 
Lord of all, to Thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.


For the joy of human love,
Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth and friends above,
For all gentle thoughts and mild. 
Lord of all, to Thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.


For each perfect gift of Thine,
To our race so freely given,
Graces human and divine,
Flowers of earth and buds of Heaven.
Lord of all, to Thee we raise,
This our hymn of grateful praise.

The Story Behind the Hymn: You can read the hymn and hear devotionals based on it here: "For the Beauty of the Earth" at Songs and Hymns.

Why I Picked It: This is a hymn we sang often in the mornings when I was home schooling my children.  I hope it has planted itself deep in their souls for a lifetime, and that they sing it to their own children.  I picked it this week because Thanksgiving is coming, and even though this is not so much an autumn harvest song, it is full of gratitude, of giving thanks. As I selected the pictures, which were taken over the past few years in different parts of the country, at first I paused to think, "Do they even go together?"  Usually, I post a set of pictures taken at one place on one day.  These are so disparate.  They didn't fit neatly into a single category: the tree silhouette from my morning walk in the neighborhood, the spontaneous sunset sky taken from the grocery store parking lot, the yellow water lily from Duke Gardens in North Carolina, my grandson playing in my front yard this summer, or the gourds from a farm in rural Maryland and the delicate butterfly in my mother's garden which brought hope to me after her death. But then I remember that's because God's blessings in our lives are so varied and his creativity is boundless.  Just thinking of the sheer number of plant and animal species on this globe astounds me, and then there's the ever changing nature and mystery of clouds, which hold a special place in my heart. (I know I am weird.)  The affection and nurture of my family, the curiosity and eagerness of my students, the kindness of friends from church or in our neighborhood -- these too bless my soul beyond measure. Nature, family, provision, insight...  So much God has given me!

Ideas to Do:  Let's take it beyond mere thoughts and beyond our own lives.  How can we respond in a way that brings good to our families, communities, and beyond? A few ideas, if I may?  We'll start easy and work up...

Deer outside Grandma's window
Bring the beauty of nature and nurture to those who are shut in. This includes those in nursing homes, hospitals, prisons, or even those who are home-bound because of age or illness or pregnancy.  My grandmother lives in a memory care facility, and my family members make sure there is birdseed in the feeder and a salt lick for the deer so she can nature watch through the window from her easy chair. (See here.)  A bouquet of flowers, a handful of acorns, a potted plant, framed nature photos, a pretty book, a basket of fruit, a CD of soothing music like hymns? (A little mystic harmony can do wonders for the body and soul.) 

Go through the entire process of thanksgiving, putting grace into action. I talked with my students about this yesterday, as I did with a co-op class last year. We thought about who had blessed us recently, and wrote about how we could both express our gratitude and pass along the kindness. Read more here: Thankfulness: Observe, Appreciate, Express, Imitate.

Thanksgiving 2001, Indian & Chinese students from UCF
Invite an international student (or two, or ten...) to dinner for Thanksgiving.  Most of them never eat a meal in the home of an American family in the years they are here.  Contact the international student office at your local college. See: Our Thanksgiving Indians.  (Speaking also as the mother of a college student who is in Australia for several months -- yeah, that little girl in the red in the picture, who is now all grown up -- I am ever grateful for those who are showing hospitality to her!  I think she might also be organizing an American Thanksgiving meal for fellow exchange students at the University of Canberra, but I'm so glad she'll be home by Christmas!)

Homeless outreach in Orlando
Think of those who do not have the same blessings as you. What can you do?  In my last hymn post, I talked a little bit about the hungry.  This time, my heart is pulled to those who do not have the joy of human love, the support system of family and friends: orphans, abused or neglected children, those in the bondage of human trafficking, and the homeless.  How can your family become involved in foster care, adoption, mentoring, advocating, or homeless outreach?  So blessed that Julia (one of my adult daughters) along with her sweet husband and church friends, is organizing a homeless outreach this Sunday, as they do several times a year.  Read the posts that my friend and orphan advocate Cissy VanLue has written about adoption. Then there is my friend Jane Hursh, who is active in the fight against human trafficking and the restoration of those who have been victimized. You might not be able to spearhead your own ministry, as my friends have done, but you can sure jump on board and help!  What has God put in your heart?  If you can't answer that, take the time to sit quietly and ask.

Five of my daughters and I
Think about your own human connections.  What can you do to foster understanding and compassion in your sphere of family and friends?  Is there a relationship that needs to be repaired and strengthened, or one where too loose boundaries are damaging emotional health?  It may be that your own parenting style needs to be adjusted.  See Web Links about Parenting with Grace Instead of Authoritarian Legalism and Tender Compassion for Mothers. Holidays can sure bring extra tension to the table, so let's bring a full measure of grace and wisdom.  See Beating the Holiday Blues and Stress and Handling Family Issues and Visits During the Holidays. 

And here we thought we were just going to read a little hymn and see a few pretty pictures, huh?  :-)  I guess you never know what you'll get when you click on my blog! Speaking of that, I do encourage you to click on some of the links I have embedded here.  After all, you never know what you might find!  This is the 26th post in my Strength in Hymn series, and one of 19 in the Advocating for the Vulnerable category.  

Grace and peace,
Virginia Knowles

P.S. Guess what!  I'm grateful for you who read my blog.  I'd love to hear your story and your ideas, so please leave a comment!

Lord of all, 
to Thee we raise,
This our hymn 
of grateful praise.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

We Plough the Fields and Scatter (Strength in Hymn)

“We Plough the Fields and Scatter”
Author: Matthias Claudius (1782, German)
Translator: Jane M. Campbell

We plough the fields, and scatter
The good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered
By God's almighty hand;
He sends the snow in winter,
The warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine,
And soft refreshing rain.
All good gifts around us

Are sent from heaven above;
Then thank the Lord, 
O thank the Lord
For all His love.

He only is the Maker
Of all things near and far;
He paints the wayside flower,
He lights the evening star;
The winds and waves obey Him,
By Him the birds are fed;
Much more to us, His children,
He gives our daily bread.
All good gifts around us

Are sent from heaven above;
Then thank the Lord, 
O thank the Lord
For all His love.

We thank Thee, then, O Father,
For all things bright and good,

The seed-time and the harvest,
Our life, our health, our food:
No gifts have we to offer
For all Thy love imparts,
But that which Thou desirest,
Our humble, thankful hearts.
All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above;
Then thank the Lord, 
O thank the Lord
For all His love.


Thanksgiving is next week, and I wanted to share at least two harvest time hymns of gratitude before then to prepare our hearts.  It's funny that my first memory of this hymn is not from church, but from the pop musical "Godspell" which came out when I was a child.  Next week's hymn will likely be "Come, Ye Thankful People Come."

The concepts somehow seem so alien to me in my suburban-techno lifestyle so far removed from farm and field, even though my mother and sister and brother and I did grow fruits and vegetables when I was a child in California. (I'm growing golden poppies now as a remembrance!) And yet, though I'm not living in an agrarian society, as another little table grace song reminds me, "Back of the bread is the flour, and back of the flour is the mill, and back of the mill is the sun and the rain and the Father's will."  I don't want to take for granted all of the labor and divine providence that goes into even just a loaf of bread.

Trying to apply it to my own life in a metaphorical way, I think of the seeds I plant in the lives of my own children and my students.  I do my little part, but the real growth is up to our Gracious God. (See A Mother's Seeds.)  There is simply no point in trying to force feed other people into spiritual growth.  Instead, we plant our ideas and inspiration in their hearts and nurture them with our loving example.  In my middle school class later this week, I'll be sharing this hymn as part of our poetry unit in preparation for Thanksgiving.  Maybe it will make some small difference so that it's not just Turkey Day?

I also think of folks in the underdeveloped regions of the world, or even in my own city, and the sheer struggle it is to just eek out enough food for the table.  I'm grateful for the organizations and individuals who make sacrifices to help make it happen.  A couple of weeks ago, I stopped by a local church's annual Global Christmas Market and browsed the international gift booths hosted by groups like Heifer International (providing food-producing, money making "living loans" so families around the world can become self-sufficient and share with others) and The Society of St. Andrew (Gleaning America's Fields, Feeding America's Hungry -- such an awesome concept!).  I bought a Kings Mantle Thunbergia butterfly bush for my garden from the booth of Alliance for International Reforestation (AIR) which works in Guatemala and Nicaragua to establish community run tree nurseries, agroforestry systems, fuel-efficient stoves, environmental education, and the packaging of medicinal plants.  There are other organizations listed on my posts from last year, What You Can Do to Make the Holiday Season a Little Merrier for Others and Global Hunger Relief.  There are also more thoughts in this essay and advent poem: A Note Wedged into the Window on My Van.

I could write more, but that's enough to think about for now.  Ask three things:

"Am I grateful for my blessings and aware of their True Source?" 

"Am I investing spiritually in the lives of others through wise words and kind deeds?"  

"Am I caring for the poor and hungry in a way which reflects the love of Jesus?"

Now I'm going back to think about this hymn some more, and offer it as simple worship from my own heart.

Grace and peace,
Virginia Knowles

P.S. This post is the 25th in my Strength in Hymn series.  I invite you to explore the rest!  Most of them have a lot of nature photography interspersed with the verses, but for this post, one simple picture of apples and wheat crackers seemed most fitting.  After I published the post, I remembered this photo of me working in my grandfather's vegetable garden in my mother's back yard years ago.