Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Five Book Reviews

Sense and Sensibility
by Jane Austen
Recommended Ages: 12+

Originally titled Elinor and Marianne, this book's final title refers to the same two sisters. Elinor, the eldest of three Dashwood girls, believes in governing her emotions with restraint and good sense. Marianne, like their widowed mother, wears her heart on her sleeve and would regard a lack of "sensibility" (i.e., outward demonstrations of emotion) as a betrayal of her noble feelings. Elinor believes in being discreet, keeping confidences, and sparing other people pain no matter how much it hurts herself; Marianne believes in all kinds of romantic ideas, such as the impossibility of falling a second time after once being passionately in love. As both sisters are tested in love and the hope of marriage, each learns the limits and drawbacks of her philosophy.

The girls' father wished, on his deathbed, that they be well taken care of. Nevertheless their hypocritical half-brother and his greedy wife have done as little as they can for Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters. Supported by a meager income, the ladies move to a cottage in Devonshire, owned by a distant cousin who occupies the nearby manor house. There, in a series of visits, dinner parties, and country walks they get mixed up in a romantic comedy that strains Elinor's composure and runs Marianne through the emotional mangle.

All right, so Edward Ferrars loves Elinor, but he can't marry her because (a) his snobby mother wouldn't approve the match, and (b) he has already promised himself to an even less suitable girl named Lucy. The despicable Lucy puts Elinor in the painful position of having to give comfort to the person who is breaking her heart. But she won't let on that it hurts, because she doesn't want to make everyone feel worse, since Marianne shows every sign of dying of a broken heart thanks to a handsome scoundrel named Willoughby. And don't let's forget Colonel Brandon, who in spite of his advanced age of thirty-six, seems to have romantic intentions toward one of the sisters.

So the well-to-do heir of the Ferrars fortune must risk being cut off entirely, and adopting the life of an impoverished clergyman, in order to make one woman happy... but which will it be? Colonel Brandon, a well-to-do man with a sad secret in his past, wants nothing better than to make one of the Dashwood sisters happy... but which will it be? Some of the characters are playing the marriage game for personal gain, some in hopes of love and happiness, and some (such as Mrs. Ferrars) for family pride and glory. Some of them will lose the game. Some will win, and regret it later. But one thing you can count on: what becomes of Elinor and Marianne will remain in suspense until near the end, and it will challenge their resolutions on "second attachments" and on whether feelings should be expressed or suppressed.

This book was my second visit to the world of Jane Austen, after Pride and Prejudice. I'll admit that I liked it a bit less than Pride and Prejudice. As a main character, Elinor Dashwood didn't have quite the sparkle of Elizabeth Bennet. But it was still a very enjoyable novel, filled with droll characters, acute observations of the attraction and repulsion of social bodies (mainly orbiting the supper table and the drawing room), and the complex laws that govern tricky transactions in the late-18th-century world of feminine emotions, manners, morals, money, rank, and personal honor. It also has a subtle wit that sometimes gleams with a razor edge, as in this bit:
After a proper resistance on the part of Mrs Ferrars, just so violent and so steady as to preserve her from that reproach which she always seemed fearful of incurring, the reproach of being too amiable, Edward was admitted to her presence, and pronounced to be again her son.

Her family had of late been exceedingly fluctuating. For many years of her life she had had two sons; but the crime and annihilation of Edward a few weeks ago, had robbed her of one; the similar annihilation of Robert had left her for a fortnight without any; and now, by the resuscitation of Edward, she had one again.

In spite of his being allowed once more to live, however, he did not feel the continuance of his existance secure, till he had revealed his present engagement, for the publication of that circumstance, he feared, might give a sudden turn to his constitution, and carry him off as rapidly as before.
I would have laughed heartily at this, even before the publication of the recent spoof novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which inspired me to think: "This calls for Sense and Sensibility and Vampires!" Ha, ha. Seriously, though, Jane Austen writes in a highly engaging style. She makes you care about her characters and their emotional entanglements. She makes you grin at their foibles, pointed up with such ready wit.

And should anyone complain that Austen's books don't set a good enough example for today's young women, do consider that they view reality entirely from the point of view of young women. In Austen's time, social convention prevented women from discussing social and political issues. So the focus is entirely on the human dynamics of men and women relating to each other. Plus, Austen herself knew so little about what men discussed among themselves that there isn't a single scene, in all of her works, in which a female character is not present. (I owe this factoid to an editorial preface to Emma, which I am reading now.) Compare that to the many male-centered fantasy-adventure books that make you forget that women exist, and then ask yourself: which type of fantasy brings more joy to young women?

To a modern-day reader (of either sex) the world of Jane Austen is a wonderful fantasy world, all the more wonderful because of its place in our history. And though the heroes and heroines in each of her novels quest for nothing more than marital happiness (perhaps with a side of financial security), they are not banal. Such a grail remains elusive today, in spite of the "progress" our society has made in sexual freedom. This novel proves that pursuit of that grail, in a fantasy world where honor and purity matter, can still be vibrantly entertaining and true to life.

London Calling
by Edward Bloor
Recommended Ages: 12+

Such books as Tangerine, Crusader, and Story Time have made the name of Edward Bloor synonymous with "Uh-oh, better keep a hanky handy." This book, told by a man in the year 2019 as a memoir of his present-day boyhood, stays true to tradition. It ventures boldly into territory that would scare away most children's authors today. It depicts alcoholism, depression, crisis of faith, broken marriage, survivors' guilt, and school bullying so severe that it makes a boy ill. It tackles historical revisionism, the horrors of war, the death of loved ones, treason, espionage, pimping, and well-known historical figures (such as JFK's father) selling out to the Nazis. It begins in a malfunctioning school setting (also a common theme in Bloor's work), and ventures into big questions such as the possibility of time travel, the existence of angels, and the question everyone will be asked when they die (What did you do to help?)

Put that way, it sounds like an awfully heavy book: maybe too heavy to pick up. But it actually isn't. Through the main character, Martin Conway, we see an intelligent mind questioning established beliefs and, instead of rejecting the beliefs, learning to live with the questions. We see a boy crushed by shame and depression, then pulled into an adventure so strange that he fears for his own sanity. We see a complex father-son relationship, a passive victim learning to stand up for himself, a young man whose destiny seems predestined taking control and breaking free of his family's sacred history. But all that merely adds emotional depth to what is basically a story about a kid who, aided by a vintage radio, goes back in time and witnesses the German bombing of London in 1940. And somehow, even without being able to affect anything that happened in the past, Martin -- or is it Johnny? -- uses what he observes to make a difference.

The fact is, this book works because it isn't about an issue. The fact that all those issues are swirling around in John Martin Conway's life only makes him credible as an American kid of today. And it helps us to care about him, care enough to be moved by his struggle and growth, his disappointments and triumphs. This book will be especially appealing (and challenging) to Catholic youth, with its spin on their church's teaching on heaven, hell, and purgatory. Families of other faiths will be challenged to consider and discuss what it implies about what happens after death and why.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
by Patricia A. McKillip
Recommended Ages: 14+

I had this book on my shelf for several years before I got around to reading it. When one of my co-workers saw me reading it in the break room he said, "I've had that book on my shelf for years, but I've never gotten around to reading it." Now, I realize this doesn't constitute a scientific poll, but I reckon there are a lot of people who can say the same thing. If you've been tripping over The Forgotten Beasts of Eld while deciding what to read next, stop. Pull it down from that shelf, crack it open, and read the first chapter. You may be surprised at how hard it is to put down.

Patricia McKillip's choice of words isn't always ideal. She was the author I had in mind when I kvetched that one should use "often" instead of "frequently," "always" instead of "perpetually," and so on. But these little slips were the exception, not the rule. I wouldn't have noticed them if they hadn't stuck out like a few lumps in an otherwise smooth batter. On the contrary, every page of McKillip's prose is a garden of delight for the senses. Her writing is sheer poetry, though not in verse form. And her story is poetic too, worthy of a Greek playwright, with an elegant dramatic shape and a way of drawing you into its emotional connections. It is passionate, touching, dangerous stuff that makes the breath catch in your throat. At both the level of words and sentences, and that of the overall plot, it is writing transformed into magic.

And still, you have no idea what the story is about. Would you read it if I didn't tell you? I should hope so. But let me clinch the deal by mentioning that it is about a wizard woman named Sybel, who lives on a lonely mountaintop with a menagerie of magical creatures whom she, like her father and grandfather before her, holds to her will through her power of calling things by name. Into her lonely sanctuary comes a man whose family has been fighting for the throne of Eldwold. Coren presses an infant into her arms, telling her to raise the child with love, and to protect him from being used as a royal pawn by King Drede and his counselors.

Young Tamlorn grows up chasing goats on the mountainside, getting his skinned knees treated by the local witch, and teaching Sybel to love with all her heart. But the outside world and its conflicting interests soon intrude. Drede comes to fetch his son and prepare him to be king. Coren comes to fetch Sybel and make her his wife. And in between, an evil wizard plays a trick on Sybel that will unsettle everything. Because of this, a young wizard woman who has but slowly learned to love, quickly learns to hate. Her anger threatens to ignite a war in which the two people she loves most will be sworn enemies.

You will feel Sybel's bitter, burning anger. You will cringe as the shadow of great tragedy draws near. And you will swiftly accept each surprise revelation that will decide what becomes of Sybel's love and hate. Meanwhile, you may enjoy the company of her strange, mythical beasts, such as the boar of wisdom and the giant, protective hawk. Some of the creatures she summons are more disturbing, particularly the one whose name is best spoken backward, just to be safe.

Because it depicts two contrasting magical professions -- namely, wizard and witch -- you may appreciate having an Occult Content Advisory to prepare you for the spiritually and ethically questionable magics you will find herein. But if you can tolerate a bit of hocus-pocus, in the service of a poetically rich fantasy tale, you'll be glad you finally pulled The Forgotten Beasts of Eld out of your bookcase.

Od Magic
by Patricia A. McKillip
Recommended Ages: 14+

I really must be more careful about how I throw around words like "best" and "favorite." But from a fairly early chapter in this book, I was already thinking about using them in this review. Let's call it the best book I have read since the last book I anointed "best of the year so far." If you're a mature Harry Potter fan, looking out for something similar, yet ready to sink your teeth into heavier and headier fare, I think you'll be equally pleased. For here is a story about a school of magic -- but one in an altogether original fantasy world, flavored with exotic spices and tinged with Patricia McKillip's unique style of poetic prose.

How can I begin to summarize this tale? It's got an awful lot going on. But I suppose your first question will be why the first word of the title is spelled with only one d. That's because "Od" is the name of a wizard, a female wizard, who started the school of magic in Kelior, the capital city of the kingdom of Numis. Since Od saved Numis from being overthrown in battle, the king permitted her to open her school in the shadow of his palace, and under royal protection. Hundreds of years later, the practice of magic in Numis has become so closely tied to the throne that only magic done in service of the king, and under the guidance of his royal wizards, is allowed.

Problem No. 1: Od is still alive and moving around the country, surrounded by animals she has helped and healed. No one sees her for years at a time. The last person to glimpse her was a young wizard named Yar, 19 years ago, just after he had saved the city from another dire threat. Yar was on his way to study at Od's school when he spotted a monster attacking the city, and stopped it using powers he didn't know he had. His reward (from Od) was to enter her school through the elusive "door under the shoe," through the abandoned cobbler's shop where the school was first started. Yar's reward from the king was to have all magical initiative, curiosity, and creativity trained out of him, and to be kept at the school as a teacher so that the king's wizards could keep an eye on him.

Problem No. 2: Brendan Vetch, the school's new gardener, has amazing powers even he doesn't know about. The first person since Yar to see Od and to find the door under the shoe, Brendan just wants to talk to plants. He doesn't realize that the weight of loneliness and grief inside him is actually a huge source of power. Doesn't realize, that is, until a fire breaks out, and Brendan unthinkingly uses that power to stop it. His reward is to become an outlaw, hunted by the king's men as a threat to the royal monopoly on magic.

Problem No. 3: Tyramin, a mysterious master of illusion, sweeps into town with a troupe of dancers and jugglers, enchanting the senses of the citizens with a display of swirling silks, sparks, flames, flights of birds, and showers of flowers. Some say he uses real magical power to pull off his illusions. If so, then he too is committing a crime against the king. But when one of the top police officers in the city goes to investigate Tyramin's powers, he falls under the spell of the magician's daughter.

Problem No. 4: The king's daughter Sulys has been learning her great-grandmother's brand of "little magics" from a faraway country. How will she keep this a secret when she is supposed to marry Valoren, the king's chief magical adviser? And how can she break this secret to her father and her husband-to-be when they are always too busy to hear a word she says? Sulys tries to get their attention, but as bad luck would have it, the king and his counselors are in an uproar over Tyramin and Brendan -- who they think have abducted her.

Problem No. 5: Do we really need another problem to keep this story moving at a frantic pace? Maybe not, but we get one anyway, when a lady doing research for a biography of Od stumbles across some disturbing clues about the powerful magical beings that live in the northern mountains, within the borders of Numis but outside the king's control. Are they a threat that must be destroyed, or an opportunity for discovery and wonder? This will become the burning question as Brendan, Yar, and Valoren converge on them in a race to determine what future magic will have in the kingdom of Numis.

Magic, mystery, a state crisis, romantic complications, and a series of perfectly-timed misunderstandings combine to make all these problems as tricky as they can be, all at the same time. The city of Kelior fills up with policemen, wizards, and soldiers serving conflicting agendas, searching for people who aren't missing, turning innocent people into desperate fugitives. Lovers find their loyalties tested. Students, teachers, rulers, and subjects find their roles reversed. And all of it happens amid the glittering, perfumed glory of McKillip's prose.

For the sake of full disclosure, I'm putting out an Occult Content Advisory on this book. At least some of the magic in it seems to come from a world outside or before ours, inhabited by indescribable beings whose thoughts exist beyond language. Some of the magic involves talking to plants and animals, and listening to what they say back. There is a bit of divination in it, and the character of Od resembles the holy figures of certain religious traditions as she slips into and out of history, sometimes in disguise.

But as I say all this, I know too well that it will increase more people's interest in the book than otherwise. And that's all right. For, though I distrust some of the spiritual implications of this book, I enjoyed it for its value as art and entertainment. In fact, I enjoyed it enough to deem it one of the best handful of books I have read this year. That's odd magic indeed!

Night Watch
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Ages: 14+

Several years ago, I read straight through the first 26 Discworld novels. My reviews of them, spread out between here, here, here, and here, were essentially the egg out of which the Book Trolley hatched. So I owe a lot to Discworld. Nevertheless, I haven't cracked a single book in the series since then, the Tiffany Aching trilogy excepted. I have been content to let subsequent installments in Pratchett's fantasy-philosophy-humor extravaganza pile up on my shelf, so that I can guiltily look at them while I pick other things to read.

Why did I stop reading Discworld? Any answer that I can give must have the word "momentum" in it. But the only excuse that really matters is that I have been reading other books. Hundreds of them. Why did I start reading Discworld again? At least partly, I was prompted by the news that Terry Pratchett had decided to stop writing them. He really has no choice, since Alzheimer's disease is taking the ability from him. Little as I suspect he believes in prayer, I ask my faithful readers to "do a lap around the rosary" for Mr. Pratchett and his loved ones.

The news of his condition is deeply saddening, but this book will cheer you up. Published in 2002, it shows the author still in full possession of his gifts as a storyteller and humorist. And since I haven't visited Discworld since 2002 or -03, it's worth saying that it took me no time to get back into it. The characters of Sam Vimes, Carrot, Nobby, Fred Colon, Lord Vetinari, etc., reprised their roles in my mental cinema without any need for lengthy recap. They came to life again, and immediately began to entertain, as if six or seven years hadn't passed since my mind's eye last opened on the city of Ankh-Morpork.

Appropriately, this book takes City Watch Commander Vimes back to an Ankh-Morpork he only distantly remembers. As he pursues a serial killer across the rooftop of Unseen University's library, Vimes and his suspect are transported back in time by a freak magical accident. Desperate to get back to his own time, Vimes makes a deal with the "history monks" to see the city through a tricky historical crossroads. First he must insinuate himself into the Night Watch, where he meets himself as a rookie copper. The elder Vimes quickly realizes that he must play the role of the seasoned veteran who taught his younger self everything he knows!

But that's not the tricky part. The tricky part has to do with a riot that marks the end of one Patrician's reign and the beginning of another's. The old Patrician, Lord Winder, has grown so paranoid that his latest laws will lead, inevitably, to a revolt. Disarming the citizens, enforcing a strict curfew, allowing his soldiers to fire on peaceful demonstrators, and creating a "law within the law" whose enforcers apply hideous methods of interrogation... it's only a matter of time until Winder gets himself assassinated.

Meanwhile, the people of the city are primed for a riot. Vimes knows it's going to happen, because he has already lived through it once. He knows that the man whose identity he has assumed -- John Keel, a natural leader of men -- will be pivotal in saving many innocent lives. And he knows that before the night of chaos ends, John Keel will be dead.

While Ankh-Morpork's society trembles on the brink of collapse, you will tremble on the edge of your chair or sofa. Vimes has only a handful of days to rise from a stranger found naked in the street to the inspiring leader who kept a quarter of the city safe through a night of cavalry attacks and siege warfare. Only John Keel could forestall a riot between the citizens and police at just that moment in history... only John Keel could organize the denizens of so many barricaded streets to defend themselves... only John Keel could keep the young Samuel Vimes alive, and teach him how to be a good copper, in those few days... and unless Sam Vimes can become John Keel, history will change and the child his wife was about to bring into the world may never exist.

That's enough of a taste, I think, of what this book is about. Rely on Terry Pratchett to make it relentlessly funny, frequently moving, constantly exciting, and endlessly thought-provoking. It has its share of naughty innuendoes, yet the merits of Vimes' philosophy and ethics could stimulate serious debate. Its huge gallery of characters contains fine observations of many personality types, while also leaving plenty of room for broad humor. The plot exhibits many gears of varying shapes and sizes turning at different speeds, yet it all seems to move together smoothly and in order. And the possibility that the Ankh-Morpork we know could be wiped from history, provides material for some really nifty suspense.

It's a good enough book to make you feel really, really bad about what its author is now going through... and really, really good about what he could do, even 27 (or 31?) books into this consistently entertaining series.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Another Book Spree

This morning, when I was too restless to stay in bed, I poked around at Borders-dot-com and had a little book-buying spree. Addiction is terrible. I need help!

With the help of a coupon/promotion code for 30% off the highest-price book on my order, I managed to scrape together 5 books for under $38. Plus, I saved shipping and handling by having my order shipped to the store closest to where I work. So, while I would have gotten lower prices if I had ordered used copies, I probably saved big-time on postage.

I know you're dying to find out what books I ordered, so I won't keep you in suspense any longer. My first pick was Dragon and Liberator, the final book in the "Dragonback" series by Timothy Zahn, currently available online only for $5.99 in paperback. Then I snapped up the paperback edition of Queste, the latest from Angie Sage's "Septimus Heap" series, due to be released on July 1 -- just in time for my order.

My third selection was The Hour of the Outlaw by Maiya Williams, the third book in a kids' time-travel series that I have enjoyed so far. Fourth was Terry Pratchett's Johnny and the Bomb, which I am embarrassed to have to order after having picked a used copy of Johnny and the Dead online, only to realize that I already had it and was still missing this part of the "Johnny Maxwell" trilogy.

And finally, I sprang for the hardcover of Jenny Nimmo's Charlie Bone and the Shadow, the latest installment in the "Children of the Red King" series. I have always begrudged the cost of hardcover editions, especially new and at full price, but the 30% promo code eased my pain. Besides, there isn't much choice, since this is one of those series that never seems to come out in paperback until the very last book is in print.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Fatted Calf

Coming soon to a pulpit near you (if you live near St. Louis): the following sermon on Luke 15:11-32.
Then He said: "A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.' So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants."'

"And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' And they began to be merry.

"Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.' But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, 'Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.' And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.'"
“Finding the Lost.” That is often the title, or theme, placed over the parable Jesus told in today’s Gospel lesson. This theme stretches to cover two other parables in the earlier verses of Luke 15. First there is the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd rejoices over the one sheep he has lost and found rather than over the other ninety-nine. Then there is the parable of the lost coin, where the woman rejoices over the one coin she has lost and found rather than over the other nine. And finally there is this parable of the man who had two sons. He kills the fatted calf and throws a joyful party, not for the son who dutifully stayed at home, but for the one who ran off with his share of the family fortune—who wasted everything he owned—and who came back humiliated, destitute, ashamed. These parables go together. Jesus tells us that there is joy in heaven over every sinner who repents, rather than over many righteous people who need no repentance. And the father tells his resentful son: “It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.”

These three lost-and-found parables can be very comforting to troubled, guilty sinners. They illustrate that God chooses us by grace, without any regard for our record of conduct, good or bad. They show how highly our Father treasures us, and how through Christ He has mercifully reached out to save us from sin. These parables show that our Lord is pleased with sinners. He is pleased to seek us out when we are lost in our sins, pleased to bring us to repentance, pleased to snatch us out of deadly peril by the faith-creating power of His Word, pleased to fold us into His forgiving embrace. Jesus spoke these parables, after all, in response to the Pharisees’ complaint: “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.” Indeed, He receives sinners! He loathes and rejects the self-righteous. He delights in the sinner who repents. He covers our sins with His own righteousness, and saves us by grace, through faith.

If that was all this parable had to teach us, you would hear a very short sermon today. In fact, it would be over already. But there is more in the lost-and-found parables than tender comfort. There is also stern warning. And, lest we place ourselves with the Pharisees and the jealous son from the parable, we should consider whether that warning is addressed to us.

Christians, Protestants especially, have had a long time to get used to the idea that God is gracious to sinners. It isn’t breaking news. The Lutheran Reformation happened nearly 500 years ago. The lost-and-found parables of Luke 15 have been read in church longer still. Hymn writers have had centuries to canvas the topic, from “Jesus sinners doth receive” to “Amazing grace”—where the words “I once was lost but now am found” echo the end of today’s Gospel. Those new to the faith are often overwhelmed by the feelings of peace, freedom, and holy joy that come from the message that Christ chooses repentant sinners over paragons of perfect piety. The rest of us, however, may find it hard to feel a thrill about a message we have heard, perhaps, every year of our lives. Familiarity breeds contempt. And a habit of practicing the Christian faith can breed a little Pharisee in us, too.

At a certain point in our religious formation, many of us say to ourselves: “All right. I’ve learned the Christian faith. Now it’s time to put it into practice.” We tire of being reminded, over and over, of the same old doctrines. If we could ask our preachers to do us one favor, it would probably be to put more stress on how to live the faith. We have gotten fairly good at it already. Perhaps we think that, if only we could get a little better at living the Christian life, we’d have it made in the shade. And since we’ve made so much progress already, why must the pastor browbeat us with the law? Why must he strain the limits of our comprehension with discussion of such fine points of doctrine? Why must we endure another year of the same old liturgy and the old-fashioned, unpopular hymns?

How about some practical advice on how to improve my marriage, how to talk to my kids, how to keep the government from taking away all my money? How about some crusading for political issues like abortion, women’s rights, serving in a war, or gay marriage? How about changing the way our church does things, so it can attract new people and look successful again? How about even making some inconvenient doctrines go away, like closed communion, the literal six-day creation, and the rule against men and women living together outside of marriage? Wouldn’t that make it easier for us to address our loved ones, who have strayed into other churches, or who have shacked up together, or who have learned the theory of evolution in school? If God is so big on finding the lost, wouldn’t He get behind this? If Jesus is so happy to mix with sinners, wouldn’t He want this too?

Maybe you haven’t personally considered these thoughts. But believe me, the church has mulled them over. Not just Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, but Protestant Church as well. Not just the Protestant Church, but Lutheranism. Not just Lutheranism, but a major slice of the Missouri Synod. Voices representing our church body, right here in this city. And we aren’t far from agreeing with them. The message that “Jesus receives sinners and eats with them” can lead us to the point where we regard nothing as being really sinful, except maybe being hung up on moral and doctrinal rules. The message that heaven rejoices to find the lost can lead us to the point where the only thing we care about is getting more people to join our church, by whatever means necessary. How we worship, what we teach, and the pattern of life we strive to follow, can be reduced to questions of “style” and “emphasis” until, for the sake of finding the lost, we lose ourselves. Our generation invites us daily to be lost again, lost to the power of Law and Gospel, lost to the blessings of Word and Sacrament, lost to the heritage of sacred liturgy and pure teaching that are our strongest support in times of conflict, doubt, temptation, and death.

And then again, we the faithful, stick-in-the-mud Lutherans, run the danger of being like the embittered son who complained when his father forgave the prodigal brother, or like the Pharisees who complained when Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors, or like the “ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.” We’ve been around the block, spiritually. Most of us are not new converts. Most of us are not ready to confess some deep, mortifying shame like the sin of the prodigal son. Most of us probably think we’re doing more or less all right in our moral and spiritual lives. We are not in the habit of crawling to God and groveling in abject humility, as the prodigal son intended to do when he returned to his father. As a matter of form, yes, we will admit that we are “by nature” sinners, and that we “have sinned,” etc., etc. We may even think, “That’s right,” when we confess that we deserve nothing but God’s punishment, now and forever. But most of the time, we are not troubled by such thoughts. And sometimes, we are scandalized by what we see or hear about the behavior of others, especially when those people remain in good standing with the church. What happens to the consciousness of our own sinfulness when we are thinking and feeling these things?

Christ tells the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son not only to comfort people, like the prostitutes and tax collectors, who were sorry about their sins. He also tells it as a warning to the Pharisees, who complain about how much time and attention Jesus spends on such well-known and obvious sinners. And this story is repeated for our benefit, not only for the comfort’s sake, but also for the warning. The danger of the Pharisees and the ninety-nine just persons is also our danger. On account of Christ, God is pleased with sinners. He shows particular favor, also known as grace, to all humble, repentant sinners who trust in His forgiveness for Jesus’ sake. He is pleased with them for Jesus’ sake, because of what Jesus has done for them.

But He is not pleased, nor do the angels in heaven rejoice, when a doctrinally-instructed, morally-upright, religious person justifies himself, and needs no rescue. In fact, God is offended by such a righteousness. It is the one sin that still separates sinners from God, because it reckons the holy work, life, suffering, and death of Jesus to be worth nothing. It is the one sin that is not forgiven, because it casts aside God’s forgiveness. Beware lest we become like the Pharisees, who see no need for repentance, as if we had achieved righteousness enough by practicing our faith. No amount of practice can do that. The most fitting attitude for us is that of the prodigal son, who turned back to his father to beg for forgiveness. That is to say, repentance befits us. And never forget that every moment we spend in communion with God, is the result of Him going out and finding us, stooping to pick us up and brush us off, forgiving us, and joyfully treasuring us in His heart.

God once slaughtered the fatted calf for all sinners, all His lost lambs and prodigal children. He gave His only-begotten Son for all of us. When Christ was sacrificed on account of sin, God became our Father, running to meet us and to embrace us as His sons and heirs. Without this amazing grace of God, we could scarcely hope to be treated as slaves. But in Christ, God kissed us, clothed us in righteousness, decked us in gifts of the Holy Spirit like precious jewels. He proclaimed a feast where His servants on earth and heaven celebrate together. Rejoice! For we who were dead have been made alive; we who were lost have been found. This is God’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Meatloaf Surprise

I'm looking for a name for whatever I just cooked tonight. It isn't just meatloaf, because it has a lot of veggies in it. It isn't vegetarian meatloaf, though, because it does have meat. "Omnivore Meat Loaf" and "Untitled Hot Food Thing" don't seem to do it justice either. Maybe we should call it "Gleeg" and get on with it.

It started with a lot of impulse shopping in the produce section at my local super-dupermarket. I didn't really know what I meant to do with it all until I spotted a bottle of chili sauce on a shelf. So I added a couple pounds of ground beef to the cart, and brought it all home.

First, I chopped up a big, sweet, Vidalia onion. I didn't make any effort to chop it particularly fine, or to make the pieces uniform in size or shape. I did the same thing with three stalks of celery, one large carrot, and two bell peppers (one orange, one yellow--just for interest; the color doesn't really matter). I combined all these veggie chunks in the bottom of a big, deep-dish lasagna pan. Then I added some seasoned bread crumbs, cracked a couple of eggs into it, poured in about a third of a bottle of chili sauce, and stirred it all around with a fork. Finally, I smashed it all into the ground beef, mixing everything as well as I could and forming it into a lump with space all around, between the lump and the sides of the pan. I emptied the rest of the bottle of chili sauce over the top, spread it around with the back of a spoon, and sprinkled a little sage over it before popping the pan into a 350-degree oven.

An hour later, more or less, I shut the oven off. I left the Gleeg inside, however, because I was talking on the phone with my Dad & couldn't be bothered with it for the moment. All in all it probably spent two hours in that oven, but only half of that with the gas on. So it was just the right temperature to eat when I got around to it. After having my fill, I was able to put up three manly-sized servings for later.

It's an interesting concoction. It can't at all be confused with meatloaf. There's way too much veg in it. In fact, the bite-sized chunks of carrot, onion, and so forth seemed to take up almost half of the food by volume. They were tender but not mushy; enough firmness remained in them that you could really sink your teeth into them. Each bite of pepper or onions caused a small explosion of tasty juices inside the mouth. Slices of the Gleeg didn't stay together quite as well as the traditional meatloaf, but the overall flavor and texture were satisfying. And I felt almost virtuous -- having my meatloaf and vegetables together. It was like a stew you could cut with a knife. Or a casserole you can serve by the slice.

EDIT: It turns out that the word "Gleeg" is part of a phrase which, spoken aloud, is supposed to cause the world to explode. I suppose we'd better rule that name out, then. Any other suggestions? (For similar reasons, we should also avoid Ämälän. If you know what I'm talking about, I love you.)

Second-Hand Smoke Break

It happened while my car was in the shop for repairs. I had to take a bus and a train to work, and because of the transit schedule, I was obliged to show up a whole hour before my scheduled shift. I was just opening my locker to get out the book I was going to read in the break room, when a voice on the public address system announced that the premises were being evacuated.

It was no biggie... just a gas leak... Everybody had to leave the building. The Fire Department and the gas company did their thing. Then they let us back in, after about half an hour of sitting around, gossiping in whatever shade we could find. Those who had 'em, smoked 'em. It was like everyone got to take a 30-minute smoke break at the same time. Only, just my luck, I wasn't on the clock.

Oh, yeah -- and I don't smoke.

It was an odd event, anyway. A rare chance to join in fellowship with most of my coworkers. And I picked a good seat to watch from. I would just like to suggest that, the next time somebody decides to rupture a gas line where I work, they wait until I'm on the clock...

The Proposal

Today I got my car back from Marty's. It's nice to be on my own wheels again! The last several days have been relatively challenging. It takes an extra hour (each way) to get to and from work by bus and train. When I had a commitment at 6:45 after a shift ending at 5:00, I had to take a taxi, to the tune of $20. So, basically, it took me more time and money to get less done. It is good to have a car!

I celebrated by taking it, and myself, to a movie. We, or rather I, saw The Proposal, a romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. It's amazing what will work as a romantic comedy these days. A boss blackmailing her assistant into marrying her so she doesn't get deported for visa reasons? Wow. If the gender roles were switched, it would be a political drama. But since Sandra plays the conveniently babe-a-licious boss, and Ryan plays the more-than-necessarily studly secretary, it works out in the end -- especially with the help of the latter's quirky family, played by Craig T. Nelson, Mary Steenburgen, and Betty White.

It's more or less a family-friendly film. Some families might want to steer clear of it because of a few touches of adult humor, including a gross-out striptease and a farcical nude collision between the two main characters. Then there's my handy "occult content advisory." Granny is part Native Alaskan, and her spirituality becomes ridiculously explicit. But my biggest concern is still the political implications -- and yes, I am at least partly talking about sexual politics.

It isn't just the obvious problem (that these two conspire to commit immigration fraud, which the film frankly informs us is a serious crime). There is also the not-so-obvious problem that Bullock's character, as Reynolds' boss, uses her ability to help or hinder his career to get him to marry her. How we can even gradually, grudgingly begin to sympathize with them, or cheer their romance on, is a mystery. We should be appalled by the main characters' ethics. But instead, we are won over by their charm and comic timing.

You could argue, perhaps, that every movie character we fall in love with is a flawed. There is always something clever, something artistic, something magical about a movie that makes us love them warts and all. But I wonder if there's a line that shouldn't be crossed. I wonder if there's ever a point where the cleverness becomes diabolical, the artistry artful, the magic black and evil. I wonder whether some warts are so malignant that a film should strive to make the character human, but go no further. Bottom line: Would we laugh if the guy was on top?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tested at the Bus Stop

On the curb outside the bus station where I caught my ride home this afternoon, an odd-looking man was shuffling around. He didn't seem to be able to stand still. He had a big, silly grin on his face. He kept muttering to himself, and frequently shifted position in a way that seemed, by turns, like laughing, dancing, and spastically twitching. He could have been a four-year-old needing to go to the potty.

Only once did I get close enough to him to hear what he was saying to himself. He called out to me with this interesting observation: "I just realized that twelve plus five is twenty-two!"

I'm not qualified to make a diagnosis here, but I suspect this man was mentally ill.

I spent the rest of my time waiting for the bus, thinking about what if anything I could do for him. From past experience working with the mentally ill, I understand that the cops could pick him up and take him to the emergency room, if someone phoned in a concern about the man's behavior. Then he could be placed under court-ordered medical care.

But this could only be done on the grounds that he was a danger to himself or to others, and/or "persistently or acutely disabled" -- essentially, unable to take proper care of himself. And I couldn't see any harm in this guy. He seemed to be in a happy mood, though perhaps a little too happy. His remark about 12+5=22 was a classic sign of disorganized thought. But he wasn't threatening anybody; he wasn't running out into traffic; and he appeared to be waiting for a bus -- so, presumably, he could at least handle public transport. I decided to wait and see.

Well, the bus came and I got on. Other passengers boarded. The strange man didn't come aboard. Perhaps he wasn't functioning so well after all. Maybe that disability clause really did apply to him. By the time I realized it might actually be my business to do something about it, I was motoring away. Obviously I don't know where he went from there. Hopefully he will get compassionate help.

Car Trouble

I'm having car trouble again. On Sunday morning I realized that my left and center brake lights had been on all night. They stayed on all day as well, whether my car was on or not. They stayed on all night. And on Monday, the car would not start because (no surprise here) the battery was drained.

This was only the culmination of some irritating electrical problems in my 2002 Hyundai Accent. Also problematic, at this hot and sticky time of year, was the fact that the dashboard fan would not blow. It would start blowing, sometimes, when I drove over a pothole. In fact, I had formed a habit of aiming at certain particularly jarring potholes on my route to work, so I could enjoy a refreshing air-cooled environment for at least half the ride.

The air conditioning was not at fault. I knew this because, when the fan did start blowing, the air was immediately cold. But after years and years of having a fan always blowing on me while driving, whether I had AC or not, driving without a fan made me feel like I was being smothered. In St. Louis's hottest, muggiest weather of the year, and in city traffic that often seems more stop than go, it was hard to get to work without sweating through my clean clothes.

So, now that things have come to such a pass that I can't drive my car at all, I've finally made up my mind to go back to Marty's and have some electrical work done on it. Of course that means a few more days of riding the buses -- an even bigger challenge now than last winter, since many bus routes have been shut down since then. To catch the nearest bus from Marty's, after dropping off my car, I would have had to walk over 2 miles. God bless the folks at the garage, who gave me a lift to the bus station! And bless also the folks at the Autotire Care Center at Hampton & Scanlan, who gave me a free jump-start after I exhausted myself in four (4!!!!) unsuccessful attempts to push-start my car.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Who Shall Eat Bread in the Kingdom of God?

Coming soon to a pulpit near you ... that is, if you live near St. Louis ... here is this morning's sermon based on Luke 14:15-24, and preached by yours truly.
Now when one of those who sat at the table with Him heard these things, he said to Him, "Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!" Then He said to him, "A certain man gave a great supper and invited many, and sent his servant at supper time to say to those who were invited, 'Come, for all things are now ready.' But they all with one accord began to make excuses. The first said to him, 'I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.' And another said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.' Still another said, 'I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.' So that servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house, being angry, said to his servant, 'Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.' And the servant said, 'Master, it is done as you commanded, and still there is room.' Then the master said to the servant, 'Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper.'"
Jesus’ parable of the great supper, which we heard a few minutes ago, could well be interpreted as a summons to go to church and receive His gifts in Word and Sacrament. This, in itself, would be a good message, and I have preached it that way myself. But in discussing the excuses the invited guests gave for not attending the banquet, we tend to attack today’s excuses for skipping church. So you can easily end up with sermon that only applies to those who are not present to hear it! What could be more useless? How would such a sermon contribute to our spiritual growth? Should we be armed with reasons to sneer at absent ones? Should we feel good about ourselves because we made the effort to be here? If that is a message I have ever preached, I am sorry for it.

But now I recognize the reason the Holy Spirit put today’s Gospel lesson in our way. He arranged for us to hear this parable of the great supper, today and every year, and for good reason. The message the Spirit wants you to hear runs directly opposite to what you would learn from a sermon against making excuses to skip church. We are not to give ourselves credit for being here. No one owes us an “attaboy” or “attagirl.”

It is the Holy Spirit who has brought us here today. He has gathered us to share in Christ’s blessings. He has drawn us against our selfish inclinations. Many of us would rather have stayed in bed an hour or two longer. Right now you could be reading the newspaper over a cup of coffee and a plate of bacon and eggs. Weather permitting, you could be out riding a bicycle or mowing your lawn. You could be watching a pre-pre-pre-game show on TV, or cooking and cleaning to get ready for company, or going shopping, or visiting with friends. And yet here you are. The Holy Ghost has taken you captive at least this far: you have come together for this hour of fellowship, to be fed spiritual bread and to be cleansed in spiritual waters. You have come to receive forgiveness, and to be formed in your inner self by the Word of Christ. This is not something to congratulate yourself on. This is the Holy Spirit’s doing.

You see, the man in the parable is Christ. The great supper is our participation in the Kingdom of God, in which we are gathered here and now. And the servant who carried the invitation to us is the Spirit. As we learn in Luther’s Small Catechism, it is the Holy Ghost who “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies” each and all of us in the holy church of Christ.

So we are greatly blessed. We are privileged beyond all that we deserve. For without the Spirit at work in us, we would be like the people who received those fancy, engraved invitations. It is supposed to be a shocking story. It is supposed to seem improbable. How could these people refuse such a lavish invitation? Well, they had all kinds of reasons. New land, new cattle, a new wife: basically, anything in the world that would naturally preoccupy us. Incredible as it must seem, this is simply human nature.

We would give any excuse, we would let anything come between us and kingdom of God. No matter how foolish, no matter how mundane, no matter how petty, our hearts are set on things that steer us away from our Lord’s wedding feast. By nature, we are focused on getting possessions, keeping them, showing them off, and looking at them. We want to feel good, no matter what it costs or who suffers thereby. We want to have things our own way. We want this, we want that, and without the perspective the Word of God brings us, we would never realize how ridiculous and small and ugly are the little worlds we build around ourselves. The Law of God calls us to look at ourselves from God’s perspective, and to be ashamed.

It is natural to respond to God’s Word as those who were first invited to the feast. We would rather stay away, because we don’t like the feelings of guilt or inferiority that it can bring. We may have been the first on the guest list, as lifelong church members and even heirs of many generations of devout Christians. Or we may have been like those who were called to the feast at the last minute, late-blooming Christians with no religious background to speak of. But in every case, we are here because the Holy Spirit went out into the streets and lanes of the city. We are here because God chose the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind. We are here because, out from along the highways and hedges, on the very fringes of hell, the living voice of Jesus reached out and dragged us, shoved us, compelled us to come in. This is the only way God knows to lay His table.

We are sinners. We are losers. We are poor, weak, silly, helpless things. We grope in darkness. We stumble feebly. We can scarcely take two steps without getting lost. I say this not just of who we were before the Lord shined His light on us. I say this of the way we are now, sinning daily, stumbling hourly, confessing our utter sinfulness in one breath and congratulating ourselves for it in the next. Our highest acts of worship are polluted with sin, from the impure thoughts that enter us between “hallowed be Thy name” and “Thy kingdom come,” to the sense of having done something to please God when we condescend to accept His Sacrament. We look with superiority on those who do not attend church, on those who attend churches that mix human teachings with God’s Word, and on those who worship false gods. Or we rely on the repetition of ritual, the accumulation of good-works brownie points, or the self-denial of abstaining from this and cutting back on that, in order to feel more secure in our spiritual life. God calls us ever, ever, and ever to receive freely what He gives without limit and without cost. And we keep trying to give Him change back.

Where the banquet parable hits us is in the twisted little place in each of our hearts, the part that never, but never, gives up trying to make a deal with God. But the deal is already sealed. And neither you nor I contributed one penny. Jesus bought the whole kit and caboodle with His priceless body and His precious blood. He paid the whole world’s debt to God, a debt that makes our national debt look like a delinquent phone bill. He suffered. He died. He was buried with sinners. And when the last drop of blood grew still in his veins, God screwed the cap on the red ink and broke open the black. In His books, your ticket is already fully paid. While we were yet sinners, in flight from the kingdom of God, Christ died for the ungodly and reconciled us to the Father. And so God brings in the blind, the powerless, the nobodies—in a word, us—and serves us the feast of all feasts.

Just before Jesus spoke this parable, one of the people dining with him blurted out these words: “Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!” This statement seems pompous and foolish, since the parable was Jesus’ reply. But it is true in a sense. Blessed indeed are we, when we receive the living bread of Christ through His Word and Sacrament, bread that shall fill us up to everlasting life. We are more blessed than we realize, for we are only here to share in this feast because God has brought us. And even now, perhaps, we could desire the bread of God’s kingdom more than we do. How many Sundays do we gather for only this light snack of the Word, as opposed to the full meal where Christ’s body and blood are the main course? We are more blessed than ever. We could be more blessed still. But whenever you hear, or eat and drink, of Christ the crucified, you are dining on heavenly food.

Anything else, no matter how tasty or filling, is junk food that will eventually go to your hips. But by God’s awesome grace, you are so blessed that—regardless of who you are and what you have done—He has brought you to His feast, and filled you with all that you need. He has forgiven you. He has given you a new heart. He has planted Christ within you, so the peace of God that passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Word Nazi

I'm not one of those linguistic Fascists who insists on using words that have Anglo-Saxon roots, as opposed to Greek, Latin, or French ones. But I do have some hangups about words.

It irritates me when I hear the word "often" pronounced with an audible t. I was brought up saying the word as though it rhymed with "soften," which every anglophone knows has a silent t. On the other hand, I rather like the comparative form "oftener," though it goes against the "by the book" grammatical rule that insists that "more often" is more correct. I reckon if "softener" is a word, why not "oftener"?

The other day I was reading a book written in gorgeous prose, but some of the sentences had a few too many -ly adverbs for their own good. One of them was "perpetually." I thought the sentence would have flowed better, had the author chosen "always" instead.

Somewhere in the same book I discovered a sentence where the words "motionless" and "dimensionless" appeared. The poetry of the sentence could have been improved by changing the first word to "still," just as "always" would have improved on "perpetually." The shorter, more common word has a wider range of connotation. It opens up in the imagination like a delicate flower. "Motionless," in contrast, is a frigid, clinical word that triggers only one very literal image in the mind. It kills the sentence. On the other hand, "dimensionless" is fine. It's an unusual enough word, covering such a strange concept, that its keen specificity doesn't drag on the imaginative impact of the sentence.

Then take the word "presently." I hate that word. Except in the context of, say, 19th- or early 20th-century British prose, where it falls naturally out of characters' mouths, it sounds conscious and affected. Also, seven out of ten Americans who use it, use it badly. The word means "soon," people. It does not mean "at this present time." So unless you're deliberately aiming for a tone of old-fashioned formality, you're better off using "soon."

As I have observed in at least one book review on this blog, it also irritates me to find the word "betimes" misused. There is practically no reason to use this word today, except to prepare people to understand when they come across it in Dickens. It means "bright and early." But nowadays, people seem to confuse it with "sometimes," especially when they are trying to imitate an archaic style of speaking.

To me this is almost as irritating as when people bandy about "thee" and "thou," and verb forms ending in -eth and -est, without much regard for number or case. I'll forgo a snarky analysis of how these words ought to be used, in favor of simply saying: Before using these archaic forms, you had better observe how they go together by reading literature that uses them idiomatically.

Finally, I've been dying to take a poke at the name of a canned beverage I frequently enjoy. Seemingly hailing from the same realm of compulsively hedged language as the classic "imitation American flavor pasturized process cheese food," let's all give a warm welcome to "Tropicana Fruit Punch Juice Drink," a "fruit punch flavored juice beverage from concentrate with other natural flavors." Wow! Do you think the language has been tortured enough? Far be it from thee to let fall the simple words "fruit punch" or "juice," without enough qualifying language to satisfy a bevy of lawyers!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dumb Headline

Today the internet presented me with yet another object of ridicule, from an already endless supply. It was an advertisement with (roughly) the headline: NEW FOOD SPRINKLE TRICKS BRAIN TO STOP OVEREATING.

First of all, my brain doesn't overeat. I do. Wouldn't it be a nice thing if my brain would go and stuff itself on brain food while the rest of me stayed skinny!

Second, I'm just waiting to see a testimonial for this miracle food-sprinkle: "I can't get enough of it!"

Third, it doesn't take brain-tricking chemicals to turn a food sprinkle into an overeating deterrent. Sprinkle it with anything that tastes really, really bad. Even better if it looks, feels, and smells nasty. Something, for example, like crystallized cat urine. Sprinkle it on everything you eat... trust me, you won't gorge yourself.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hot & Cold Mystery Meat

I happen to be uniquely placed to divulge two of the spookiest mysteries in the American pantry. Namely: "What's in that hot mystery meat you used to be able to buy at roadside stands throughout the summer - you know, that sloppy-Joe-like, barbecue stuff?" And: "What's in that cold mystery meat that used to turn up, now and then, in the meat department at your friendly local supermarket? - you know, that pinkish-gray bread spread?"

How do I know these secrets? Two different connections. First - I have relatives who used to be in the summer roadside-stand hot mystery-meat business, and their recipe has been passed down to me. Second - I once had a job in your friendly local supermarket's meat department, where I learned that recipe as well. Prepare yourself for enlightenment.

HOT MYSTERY MEAT: Combine a mess of ground beef, ketchup, chili powder, and reconstituted dried onions in a large pot. Cook until cooked. The beef need only be browned & drained ahead of time if you choose to worry about fat calories and such things. If you're going to be serving it at a roadside stand, don't bother - other people's arteries! Anyway, use an ice-cream scoop to measure servings onto cheap, storebought buns on a paper plate, perhaps with a side of "baked" (i.e. canned, heated on the stovetop) beans and a slice of dill pickle.

COLD MYSTERY MEAT: This recipe works best when your icebox is stuffed with packages of wieners, franks, lunch meat, and other processed-meat products that say "fully cooked" on their label. Round up the ones, regardless of type, that are at or near their "best by" date. Run them through a meat grinder. Mix them thoroughly with a reasonable amount of white salad dressing, sweet pickle relish, and powdered gelatin (cherry-flavored). Press the resulting grayish-pink mush into clear plastic tubs and label them in a way that encourages people to consume it quickly. For example, in a grocery-store context, the label could say: "BUY ONE, GET ONE FREE!"

Preaching the Unexpected

Well, at tonight's parlor service I didn't preach the sermon reprinted in my previous post. Instead, I delivered an extemporaneous homily on the same text. Having read my 2001 sermon aloud, twice, I decided it was all right for 2001 but that I wanted to say something a bit different in 2009. So I talked about the Unexpected.

When Jesus tells us the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, he is preaching the unexpected. If it wasn't so familiar to many of us, we would find it surprising too. For one wouldn't generally suppose the rich man to be the one bound for hell, nor Lazarus to be the one bound for heaven. Such would certainly not be expected in the culture in which Jesus arose, where the question would be asked: "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2). There would be a casual expectation that each man's fortune reflected his status with God: for the rich, a status of favor; for the afflicted, a curse brought on by some guilt or other.

Jesus overthrew their expectations when he said, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him" (John 9:3). He overthrew their expectations when he sent the rich man to his fiery agony, and the poor diseased beggar to Abraham's bosom. And he overthrows our expectations too. Still today, we expect our rightness with God to be accompanied by sensations within, or signs without - material blessings, success, family happiness, etc. And still today, when we are afflicted with grief, failure, or pain, we ask what we have done to deserve it.

Our culture as a whole still expects to see material rewards as an outward sign of God's favor, and suffering as a sign of His rejection. When we can no longer justify God by supposing that every victim of war, disease, or poverty somehow has it coming to him, then we are only tempted to doubt that God exists or cares. And when we meet with success, healing, and other happy turns, we are tempted either to become puffed up with a sense of our own merit, or certain that this at last is a sign that God is with us. So the moment our fortunes turn the other way, we are in danger of falling into despair.

Yes, every misfortune can rightly remind us to return to God in repentance. It is a reminder of our place in a fallen, sinful world: a humbling reminder that we are more blessed than we deserve. But what if, after repenting and putting our hopes on God's mercy again, we wait for relief ... like Lazarus ... in vain? What if, like Lazarus, things never get better, but only worse, worse, and monstrously worse? Lazarus ended up at rock bottom. There isn't anywhere lower he could go. And his lot did not improve again, in this life. He saw no outward sign of encouragement, received no visible emblem of God's saving love, felt (for all we know) no inner sensation of being forgiven ... he just suffered the worst that a human being can suffer, and then he died.

The rich man went out too, at the height of his wealth and comfort. And this is where Jesus explodes our expectations: it was not the rich man, but Lazarus, who found favor with God. It was not to heaven, but to hell that the rich man met his reward. It isn't only that God's favor and disfavor were hidden from the eyes of this world; they were completely inverted, from our point of view. God's curse was upon the one whose seeming blessedness had made him an example for many to follow. Meanwhile God's love, God's choice, God's eternal embrace, belonged to the one whose life and death were agony.

This is a hint that God does business quite differently than we expect: altogether turned around, in fact. Your afflictions are not a sign of his disregard. Nor are you to seek wealth and success as signs of His favor. Rather, the way he deals with you is hidden. The rewards he promises you are spiritual, invisible, eternal: they belong to a world yet to be revealed. You can possess them by faith without seeing even the first bitty tip of them. You can triumph in them even while being crushed under an avalanche of loss, smothered by a cascade of calamities, or seared by a gridiron of pain. Or you may get off lightly, even have a nice comfortable life - only you won't be the greater saint for it.

All this is quite in character for a God who hides the blazing glory of His love for us all in the dark, painful horror of Jesus' cross. Like Lazarus, Jesus faithfully marched into ever deeper shades of misery, until death brought an end. And He did that to bring us spiritual beggars into God's warm embrace. We are poor in spirit; Christ was made poor for us, even unto death, so that the kingdom of heaven should be ours. He bridged the chasm between hell and heaven so that, by faith in the grace of His cross, we might be led across.

And He pledges all this to us here and now, in His Word and Sacrament. It is so well hidden that the spiritually rich and haughty may reject it - but let's face it, no sign, no matter how miraculous, would ever break through their unbelief. But it is laid out for all us beggars to view, in promises our faith can grasp, and in Sacraments that grasp and embrace us. By the Word of Christ, water has become the enfolding arms of the Triune God. By the Word of Christ, bread has become His body stretched out on the cross, and wine the blood that gushed from His pierced heart: an embrace by our living, loving Savior that reaches even inside our bodies with a comfort no mortal eye can see. Christ is hidden in us, and we in Him. We are all one beggar, joined by faith in a conviction that no affliction, not even death, can take away: namely, that in Christ's accursed death we have God's blessing and life; that in our Father's kingdom we are heirs and lords.