Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Radio Grouchiness

As an inherently grouchy person, I have accumulated a considerable number of tics and twitches through the years. It is especially easy to discover irritants when you live a lonely life of empty routine. And nothing says "empty routine" quite like 10 hours' windshield time per week. In this lifestyle, you tend to develop deep, personal (albeit one-sided) relationships with radio personalities. They provide you with more conversation than anyone else in your life, though they can't hear what you're saying back to them. And if they're not very good at radio work, those windshield hours can become painful.

So it happens that a large share of my collection of pet peeves is devoted to the radio business. If you're thinking about going into radio, you could do worse than to take my little list of radio dos and don'ts to heart. Learn them, love them, live them. Think of them as the Ten Commandments for Disc Jockeys. And bear in mind that they represent the point of view of someone who mainly listens to the radio while driving.

1. Thou shalt not let thy voice drop, in pitch or volume, at the end of most sentences. Some jocks specialize in purring sexily into the microphone at the bottom of the human audible range. This might be a turn-on for audiophiles who listen while lying in a bed with a huge built-in woofer, sort of an acoustic variant of the vibrating mattress. But it isn't fair to the rest of us. Think about us folks for whom radio is the only alternative to "siesta forever" during a long highway commute around 6:00 a.m. Even with the windows rolled up to cut down on the wind noise and a well-ordered engine that doesn't run too loudly, there is always the sound of one's tires on the road, which varies from a whisper to a roar depending on the type of paving. You have to speak very distinctly to be heard against that background. Lipreading is not an option, you know. And we can only turn the volume up so high before we risk ear pain and/or speaker damage.

Tip: when you lean in to murmur sweet nothings to the microphone, you've lost the highway segment of your audience. It's bad enough when the sentence descends to an inaudible low point on the one piece of information you really wanted to hear. For example, just last week I heard a KFUO-FM host say, in a steadily descending singsong voice, "This next piece is by the American composer William (mumble)..." That just made my day. All I really wanted to know was the composer's last name, and that's exactly what I couldn't hear. But at least I heard the rest of the sentence, so I had a clue to follow up online. I have heard other DJs massage their tonsils on the grille of the microphone for entire paragraphs at a time, lost minutes that I can never recover. It's tricky, guys. I know it from experience ranging from the dramatic stage (as an undergraduate actor) to the pulpit and, yes, even a bit of radio work. It doesn't come naturally. But there is a way to express yourself without letting 2 out of 3 sentences end "down." It's going to take some practice. But the commuter set will love you!

2. Thou shalt not sound unprepared. We're all human. I'm willing to overlook the odd blooper now and again. But a certain local DJ can hardly spit out a sentence without a stammer, a stutter, a pause to repeat or correct his last word or phrase, and even the dreaded "um" or "ah" sound. After a few minutes of his typical patter, I begin to lose patience. It simply irritates me that someone in his position, with his experience, would continue to sound so woefully under-prepared after all this time. Sometimes this guy's problem seems to be that he has trouble talking without a script, and every time his mouth runs ahead of his brain he has to pause to catch up. At other times he does have a script, but for whatever reason he can't read it without stumbling. Why? Dyslexia? Presbyopia? Maybe that same "mouth runs faster than the eye" syndrome? I don't know. What I do know is that other radio hosts have found ways to cover their mistakes with finesse. They can even turn the rare train-wreck into a joke. But this guy falls back on vocal artifacts that make him sound clueless and unprofessional.

Tip #1: Use your "down time" (like, during commercials and pieces of music) to rehearse what you're going to say next, whether it's scripted or not. Tip #2: When you're recording a spot for a local sponsor, don't save the first take. Keep starting over until you get it right. Or, get a sentence at a time in the can, then edit together the best take of each sentence. Otherwise you're just cheating your advertisers. Tip #3: Relax. Many of your mistakes happen because you're rushing yourself. It's not fun to listen to someone who sounds nervous.

3. Thou shalt not broadcast inappropriate mouth noises. I mean it, guy. If your mike is picking up anything except the sound of your voice, you might want to move over to the production side. Until you have spent several years listening all day to taped voice dictation, bookended by an hour of radio chatter going each way, you may never appreciate how extraordinarily annoying non-verbal mouth noises can be. These things don't just tick me off. They make my flesh crawl. At times they make me feel like being violently sick.

Tip #1: Don't ever, ever yawn when your mike is hot... especially while you're talking! Do you think I'm kidding, radio dude? I've heard you do this, and it's impossible to understand what you're saying. More to the point, it makes me want to pound my head against the steering wheel! Tip #2: If you can't go for a minute or two without making a habitual smacking noise, or clicking, clucking, popping, or otherwise fooling around with your lips, tongue, or palate, please stay off the air. Tip #3: If you have a sniffle, take a sick day. My sanity can only endure so much of a voice that sounds like it needs to blow its nose. Tip #4: If you have chronic asthma or emphysema, such that every wheezing breath you take becomes a major feature of your radio patter, you may be eligible for disability benefits. I pray that you are, because listening to you makes me feel short of breath. Tip #5: What's that thing rolling around in your mouth? Are you sucking on an ice cube? Or has your upper dental plate come loose? For pity's sake, stop playing with it and spit it out! You're hard enough to understand when you're not talking around whatever object you're sucking. Plus, that clicking sound is making me physically ill. If it is your false teeth, I also don't want to listen to you trying to speak without them. Be a professional, then, and use a denture adhesive! Tip #6: For the love of all that is holy, do NOT talk while eating! That really makes me want to spew!

4. Know when (and when not) to use a script. Some radio jocks are naturals at improvising, even when it comes to flogging a sponsor's product on air. Others in the same situation ramble on and on, repeating themselves needlessly. The really bad ones speak in run-on sentences, forcing their way past commas and full-stops and breathing in the middle of a phrase. They could really help themselves (and their clients) by writing a script and practicing it a few times before recording the spot. Other jocks, however, come over so wooden when they read aloud that it sounds like a mish-mash of words snipped out of another speech and spliced together in the editing room. A smart producer could help such a guy by asking him to explain, in his own words, the spot he is about to record... and then, on the sly, record this "off the record" summary. Dollars to donuts, it would sound much more natural and unforced!

5. Say something between commercial breaks! There are certain popular talk hosts (you'll notice, by the way, that I've moved way beyond KFUO by now) who spend most of their time hyping themselves, rehashing what they said earlier, or tantalizing you with a preview of coming attractions, while delivering little to no quality content between any given pair of commercial breaks. I can't listen to much of this. A relentlessly self-referential talk-jock can be fun on occasion, but most such occasions happen when he or she steps away from self-promotion long enough to make a stimulating point about a real-world topic. Many TV programs are structured this way, too. You watch the whole 90-minute program waiting to see one 30-second feature that the presenter has avowed to be "coming up" every time they went to a commercial break, and then you find out it's not nearly worth the wait.

This is "how to succeed in the business without really trying"--you hook your viewers or listeners with a minimum of content and keep them hooked, somehow or other, through a lot of advertisements (which are the real program) and a few pieces of flaccid fluff (which exists only to keep you tuned in). What I would like to see and hear is a program packed solid with really interesting material. On the rare occasion I run across such a program, it's a wonderful experience that makes the time pass a bit less like the living hell that (for me) boredom tends to be.

6. Know what you're talking about. The radio jocks I admire the most are the ones who talk about whatever they are presenting as though they really know their subject. TV talk show hosts, ditto. I can't stand, for example, David Letterman. Every week, he gets a shot at interviewing 5 or 10 people trying to break into the big-time, if they aren't already there. When he lets them talk at all, he turns everything they try to say into a ribald joke before they're halfway done speaking. He makes no attempt to conceal that he hasn't read the authors' books, heard the singers' songs, watched the actor's films, etc. And he treats them with a contempt commensurate with his ignorance. It's depressing. If I was about to get published and my agent told me I would have it made if only I went on Letterman, I think I would have to make a quick reservation at a rehab clinic for my own safety.

Dick Cavett, at the other end of the spectrum, can make intelligent conversation with anyone he has on his show. I was very impressed when I listened to the radio broadcasts of the Detroit Symphony which he hosted. And certain of the local classical-radio hosts are heroes of the same kind. At least, by reading the liner notes during an on-air symphony, they can make a credible show of being knowledgeable about their field. The little tid-bits that they share may not be particularly original or scholarly, but at least they make the host sound intelligent. And their apparent interest in the topic can be infectious. On the other hand, it's hard to enjoy listening to a presenter who doesn't know the correct pronunciation of terms and proper names in the topic area under discussion. You have to wonder how important the program is, really, if the producers couldn't be bothered to give it to a better-informed host.

7. Always have a backup plan. I've listened to enough radio to know that not everything goes as planned. Some mornings, the scheduled Wall Street Journal update (via live satellite feed) doesn't materialize. Or the line to CNN is stone dead. Or the computer in the studio is on the fritz, so they can't give you a weather update. These things happen and often can't be anticipated. The trick is to be on one's toes enough to minimize the dead air, and to have something in reserve - a commercial break, a brief piece of music, maybe a news roundup off the internet - to cover for whatever is lacking. When nothing happens for minutes at a time, or when two or more things happen at the same time (like one commercial on top of another, or a news report on top of a piece of music), this is a sign that somebody is a big-time klutz.

Having any kind of plan is essential in a linear medium like radio. Knowing down to the second how long each piece of music is and when each scheduled feature is supposed to begin can go a long way toward preventing embarrassment, such as when a piece of music has to be cut short for a news update. But again, because the unexpected does happen, sometimes those unanticipated overlaps can happen. That's when a radio host shows what he's made of. If he can cover the awkwardness with grace and make it seem like it might have been planned that way, he'll go far in the business!

8. Be mindful of what the listener really needs to know. It's kind of annoying when the DJ deluges you with relatively useless information, like the label under which the recording was distributed, the location where it was recorded, who engineered it, what a big deal it was, and how it's been remastered for its current release, but neglects to mention the title of the piece or the name of the composer or performer. It happens. Regularly. It should happen less often.

Sometimes it's only a matter of the host being in a rush. He's got to recap what you've just heard and make way for the update, or commercial, or whatever is scheduled to happen in 15 seconds, and he can only fit in so much. Such times bring the best out of a radio host who has journalistic training. Ever heard of the "inverted triangle"? A news writer develops a certain habit of mind in which the most important facts gravitate toward the front end of a story. It's sort of like a mental brazilnut effect. It's something to work on, again requiring regular practice over a long period of time, and maybe mentally rehearsing what you're going to say on the short-term level. This way what your listener really wants to know comes out first, then any other information you can give them is handed out in order of importance, as time permits. Just a thought.

9. Less pianissimo, more forte. One of my friends in high school - a really bright, well-educated guy - once confessed to me that he didn't like classical music because it had too many extremes of loud and soft. I have to admit that it isn't as well suited to car-radio listening as, say, rock & roll or country music. When you're at the wheel of a car doing 70 across a steel-girder bridge with crowded, narrow lanes, you don't want to have to crank the volume up to hear a soft passage, or down to protect your eardrums from a sudden loud bit. The risk classical radio takes, and I applaud them for it, is partly a result of this wide dynamic range. But with experience, a classical DJ might be able to select pieces, or specific recordings of a piece, that err on the side of less extreme interpretations of pp and ff markings. Heck, some recording artists carry their interpretations to such extremes that I've had trouble hearing them in a quiet, stationary room!

One implication, specifically for classical programming (very soon to be a moot point in St. Louis), is that brisk, upbeat pieces will tend to play better than haunting, delicate elegies, etc. Where this becomes extra challenging is the apparent contradiction between this "commandment" and...

10. More variety! I don't care what genre of music a radio station specializes in. I've been through this with classical stations, country, contemporary rock, and classic rock. In spite of having all but countless songs to choose from, they tend to come back to the same ones over and over! If you listen to a steady diet of any of these stations for even a few weeks, you will soon get a feel for each DJ's handful of favorites. Give it months or years, and you'll feel the crushing monotony of hearing the same relatively small repertoire endlessly repeated during a given time slot. I would like, just once, to hear a truly creative DJ devoted to airing the widest possible variety of top-quality music in his or her field.

Maybe it's just me, but I find that it doesn't take very many reps to turn a golden oldie, or a hot new hit, into a sickening bore. Maybe it has to do with how I grew up. My brother had a way of latching onto a song or an album and playing it until he had wrung every molecule of musical and emotional interest out of it - a process that, for him, took ages longer than for me. I'm not claiming to have an eidetic memory. But sometimes I thought the way my brother's listening habits (carried out in close proximity to where I laid my head) constituted a form of mental and spiritual torture. His songs became so deeply impressed on my mind that, like them or not, I could not pass a quiet moment without feeling an urge to hum them or move my feet to a beat only I could hear. It didn't help that, at the same time, I saw right through these songs and hated them more every day. In this way I came to know practically every song recorded by (ugh!) Richard Marx by heart. Deliver me! And perhaps that is why I want to admonish every radio DJ, classical or otherwise, to err on the side of variety. I don't want to end up hating the good stuff!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Parable of the Gambler

To what shall I compare this backsliding generation?

It is like a man who came to his brother late at night begging for money. "I've had a bad run of luck at the roulette table," he pleaded. "I'm into Bugs Coniglietto for an arm and a leg. And I mean that literally."

"How much do you need?" asked the gambler's brother.

"Thank you!" the gambler sobbed, accepting a thick wad of cash from his brother's wallet. "I'll never forget this!" Then he drove straight back to the casino and blew the whole wad on a single bet.

Let him who can figure out what this parable is about figure it out...

The School of Mercy

Today's sermon for a St. Louis city LCMS church was adapted from the very first sermon I preached after my ordination, a decade ago as the church year flies, based on the one-year Gospel for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, Luke 6:36-42...
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Here our Lord Jesus announces a theme that he carried through his entire ministry. In preaching, in visiting the poor and sick and sinners, and finally on the cross, Jesus described, demonstrated, and acted out God’s mercy toward us sinners. And so he would not only lead us to receive God’s mercy, but he would also school us in the spiritual art of having mercy on others.

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Let us consider what it means to be merciful! Mercy is more than an unmoving feeling of pity for those in need. It compels you to do something, to help the other person, whether you know him or not, whether he deserves your help or not. Almost anyone would agree that it is a good thing to be merciful. But so few people are merciful. We ourselves, God’s children, are not always merciful. We are too apt to weigh our wants and needs against the cost of helping the next person. We often fear being tricked or hurt more than failing to help. We sometimes don’t want to be bothered, or we’re in too much of a hurry to stop and help them. We may pity them, sympathize with them, wish we could do something for them. But that doesn’t make us merciful. Merciful is as merciful does!

Oh, what a wonderful world I could make, if I could reason mercy into people. If all I had to do, to make people merciful, was show them people in need and in trouble, I could build a paradise on earth. If I could point and command: “You! Be merciful at all times and at all costs!” I could end poverty, hunger, disease, crime, and bloodshed. But alas, that doesn’t work! As natural as it is to appreciate the goodness of mercy, it is not in man’s nature to be merciful.

Nevertheless Jesus commands you, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” And this is no empty command. Jesus knows the only way to teach you mercy. God the Father’s mercy toward you, in Christ, is your School of Mercy. Jesus shows us God’s mercy, and only this can teach us to show mercy toward others. Because God has first had mercy on us, we have mercy. God in his mercy sent his Son to bear for us all the wrath and punishment earned by our sin. He delivered us from Satan’s power and from bondage to death and hell. He purchased for us forgiveness of sins and eternal life. So great is God’s mercy from eternity he sought a way to redeem and save us. He has mercifully chosen you, a sinner, born in rebellion against him, and has done all this to save you.

This is the sum and total of all that Jesus taught! Remember his words: “If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” Remember what he taught in the Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Remember the Good Samaritan, a filthy foreigner who had mercy on a man, when upstanding citizens and pillars of the church passed him by. Remember the unmerciful slave, who was forgiven much but refused to forgive a little. Remember the prodigal son, whose Father welcomed him home with open arms. Jesus was always teaching people to understand God’s mercy for them, so that they might also have mercy.

And when we are unmerciful, it is always because we fail to recognize God’s mercy. Can you begrudge your neighbor a few debts, when God has forgiven so many? Can you hold any debt against him, knowing that the debt God canceled is so much greater? It is unthinkable that God should have mercy on such inbred rebels and turncoat traitors as we. Yet he does; and knowing this mercy, how can we not also have mercy? If our sinful nature makes mercy impossible for us, then what of it, now that God has renewed our nature, and made us new creatures, born of water and word and Spirit? Aren’t we members of his body? Then we can be nothing but merciful!

St. John writes in his first Epistle: “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

Forgiveness, love, and mercy are wound together like cords in a rope. God’s love for us is the School of Love in which we learn to love each other. God’s forgiveness for us is the School where he teaches us to forgive. It sounds as if our forgiving is the requirement for God forgiving us. Jesus teaches us to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors,” not, “forgive us, and then we shall forgive.” Yet this doesn’t mean that God forgives us because we forgive others. Hear what Martin Luther writes in his Large Catechism:
If you do not forgive, do not think that God forgives you. But if you forgive, you have the comfort and assurance that you are forgiven in heaven. Not on account of your forgiving, for God does it altogether freely, out of pure grace, because he has promised it, as the Gospel teaches. But he has set up this condition for our strengthening and assurance as a sign along with the promise,… “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
So your forgiveness, learned in the school of God’s forgiveness, becomes a sign to assure you of that forgiveness. His promise is true. “Forgive, and you will be forgiven,” purely by grace. Do not forgive, and you show that you neither know God’s mercy nor care for his forgiveness.

Consider what Jesus says in our Gospel: “Give, and it will be given to you, good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, they will pour into your lap. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.” This is not to say that you earn God’s generosity by being generous, or that your reward is in proportion to what you have given others. God’s gifts are so much more abundant than what you have earned or deserved--his mercy so surpasses your mercy, your faith, even your expectations—that nothing you could do would even approach it.

It’s as if your neighbor came to you and asked for a cup of flour. Suppose you carelessly scooped it out of the flour-bin, just loose flour from off the top, barely enough to fill the cup. Then suppose your neighbor repaid you with the same cup of flour, shaken and pressed and overflowing, so that it puffed all over your shirt. Even so, you end up with more flour in the jar than you had before. In the same way, God repays you so much more than you have spent, that the words, “by your standard of measure,” are an understatement!

No, it is not what you’ve earned. What you’ve earned, O sinner, is no reward at all – no heaven, no forgiveness, no blessing of any kind. All your good works together cannot make up for that. But by grace, God regards you as righteous and holy, on account of Jesus. And by grace, he is pleased by your good works – much more pleased than they deserve. So, as you are merciful, God is merciful to you. As you measure, so it will be measured back to you. If you operate on the basis of merits and deserts, you are rewarded likewise; if you only think of giving your neighbors what they deserve, then think on what you deserve, and beware! But if you deal with them graciously, mercifully, without concern for your rights or advantage, abundantly, regardless of what they deserve – then God will so deal with you. It’s a matter of where your faith is: your works, or God’s grace in Christ. Where do you put your trust? Which religion is lived out in your works?

So God forgives us as we forgive others. But it goes the other way, too. For you learn mercy in the school of God’s mercy. You can only forgive, you can only love, you can only show mercy to another, if you know God’s love and mercy toward you. As John wrote, “We love, because he has first loved us.” Or consider these three parables of Jesus. “A blind man cannot guide a blind man, can he? Will they not both fall into a pit?” Can you lead anyone to God’s mercy if you haven’t tasted it? If you don’t have the righteousness of faith in Christ, but some other (false) righteousness, can you lead anyone to the true righteousness? Or won’t you both fall into the pit? Being unrepentant yourself, do you dare call another to repentance? “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, then you can see to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye!”

Is a pupil above his teacher? No. Christ bestows God’s mercy on us to teach us also to be merciful. He ate with sinners and tax collectors; he did not seek those who were rich in things and righteous in their own eyes. He treated the sick and lame and unclean, not those who had no need of a physician. He sought the lost sheep, sinners and outcasts crying for mercy. He was a stumbling block to the “chosen people.” He had no creature comforts, no home or hearth or even a pillow; he went hungry, he was tempted, he sorrowed, he was harassed and persecuted; he touched the untouchable, he held discourse with the unworthy. He became sin for us, a byword, a living horror. He suffered and died for us; and even up to now he chooses the base, foolish things of this world to put to shame all that glistens and shines.

Are we greater than Jesus? Do we know better how to make disciples? Do we dare teach another religion, like today’s apostles of health and wealth? Certainly not, unless we are fully trained and perfect, like our master. And we are certainly not like him if we do not understand God’s mercy and put it into effect. We certainly are not like him if we are not prepared even to suffer and go without and seek the lost and even die, if need be, for the sake of God’s mercy.

Have you met the conditions of God’s mercy? Have you forgiven others, that he should forgive you? Have you been merciful to others, that he should be merciful to you? As I ask myself these questions, an awful feeling gnaws at me. You also should be pierced with the knowledge that you don’t stack up. But fear not; Christ has met these conditions for us, and he has done God’s merciful acts to us. As we live by faith in Him, we not only learn to follow his example – but we also receive the mercies of God through faith. We receive the rewards of being merciful, which only He earned. We receive the promises of God’s mercy without earning them, because Jesus earned them for us.

This School of Mercy is not the kind of school you ever graduate from in this life. Much less do you have to go your whole life on one or two quick lessons or crash courses. We have more than a historical record of God’s mercy played out once in time; more, even, than just a one-time “conversion experience” or baptismal encounter with God’s mercy. Such lessons would fade and dull with time, they would mean less and less to us personally, and soon we would forget God’s mercy entirely. No, God is continuously showing mercy to us. He is always bringing Christ to us, through the preaching and teaching of the Gospel, through the forgiveness of sins, and through the living witness of Scripture. In the Sacrament Christ’s body and blood feed us today with the very substance of God’s mercy.

Yes, sisters and brothers, we have an ongoing School of Mercy here, ever teaching the same lesson: that God is gracious to us purely for Jesus’ sake. Our constant and daily battle with sin always reminds us how deep and undeserved that mercy must be. This ever-flowing fountain of mercy constantly refreshes us. God’s mercy toward us teaches us to show mercy toward others. It’s not like learning to be parents from the way our parents brought us up. A child’s memory is selective, his perspective is flawed, and years will pass before he becomes a parent himself. But as children of God, learning to bring more children into God’s family, we are constantly refreshed, strengthened, and improved by his mercies toward us, constantly unfolded to us in Word and Sacrament, in our daily walk of repentance and faith, and in our edifying fellowship together as members of him. May the mercies of God fill you and pour out in ever greater measure, until the final revealing of his glory in everlasting life. Amen.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Random Quotability

I had just opened the next book I plan to read when I saw the following quote on the dedication page:
To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting. (e e cummings)
Wow. I think that sums up a great deal that has been going on in my personal life, as well as the challenge that I believe faces my community of faith. It puts me in mind of pearls of wisdom that fell from my father's lips when I was a child just beginning to feel the pressure of which cummings speaks. One was: "Someone calling you a duck doesn't make you a duck." Another was: "If everyone else decides to jump off a cliff, that doesn't mean you should jump too." And of course, there was always: "Use your brains for something besides fertilizer for hair."

Hmmm. When I look in the mirror now and see how little hair is still growing up top, I suppose I should take pride in knowing that I've followed Dad's advice. And looking at this picture of e e cummings, I reckon he must have followed similar advice...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Five Hiccups

Not too long ago, I saw the animated film How to Train Your Dragon. I thought then, and I still think, that it was a very good movie. Perhaps it's just as well that I hadn't read the book it was supposedly based on. I tend to be lucky that way. If I had known then what I know now, I might have been unfairly prejudiced against a fine piece of motion-picture entertainment. Only now do I realize how very, very little the original book and its sequels have in common with the movie.

Officially, the "How to Train Your Dragon" series was authored by a Viking hero named Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, who lived some 1,500 years ago on an island called Berk. His memoirs have only recently been translated from the Old Norse by an Englishwoman named Cressida Cowell, whose husband Simon is apparently unrelated to the TV personality of the same name. Illustrated with whimsical crudeness suggesting the diary of a wimpy kid in the Dark Ages, the books offer a blend of rambunctious humor, adventure, diabolical wit, and a light touch of sentimentality that will win over many kids entering the "independent reader" stage. I plan to give these books to a kid who was a big fan of the "Measle Stubbs" series. I think the two series have similar appeal.

This series of books runs well beyond the five books reviewed below. Further titles include A Hero's Guide to Deadly Dragons, How to Ride a Dragon's Storm, How to Break a Dragon's Heart, A Hero's Guide to Sword Fighting (all by Hiccup), and How to Train Your Viking (by Hiccup's dragon friend Toothless). Plus, it all seems to have begun with a picture book for smaller children titled Hiccup, the Viking Who Was Seasick (alternate title: The Seasick Viking).

How to Train Your Dragon
by Cressida Cowell
Recommended Ages: 10+

Book 1 of "How to Train Your Dragon" introduces us to a weedy, freckled, red-haired, hopelessly ordinary looking boy who is expected to become a mighty Viking Hero, chief of the tribe of Hairy Hooligans, who dwell on the isle of Berk in the Sullen Sea sometime in the Dark Ages. At least, it introduces Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III to those of us who haven't already met him in the children's picture book The Seasick Viking or in the popular movie that takes its name, but not much else, from this book.

No one expects Hiccup to become much of a hero. His instructor in Pirate Training Lessons is constantly telling him that he's never seen a lad with less chances of greatness. His boyhood rival, Snotface Snotlout, calls him Hiccup the Useless. He gets no respect for the fact that his best friend is a squinting, limping, allergy-afflicted fraidy-cat named Fishlegs, or that he talks to dragons in their own language. Every Viking knows dragons are supposed to be yelled at and terrorized into obedience!

Now the young Hooligans face a rite of passage. Each boy must prove he has the burglary skills to steal a fierce young dragon out of its nest, and the force of will to train his dragon to do tricks and hunt for him. Hiccup and Fishlegs have little chance of succeeding in this challenge, but if they fail they will be banished from the tribe. By some miracle both boys come away from their dragon nursery caper with all their limbs still attached and a dragon each. But when Hiccup's catch turns out to be an unbelievably tiny, toothless, and totally disobedient dragon of the "common or garden" variety, his hopes sink even lower.

This is the hilarious and heartwarming story of how the unlikeliest hero uses cleverness, kindness, and a surprising amount of courage to overcome disadvantages of size, strength, loudness, and sportiness. Banished as a disgrace to his tribe one day, Hiccup saves it the next from a monstrous, mountain-sized, man-eating crisis...
"I have come," said Hiccup, "to find out whether you come in PEACE or WAR."

"Oh, peace, I think," said the Dragon. "I am going to kill you though," he added.
...Hiccup shows unexpected leadership qualities and tactical genius. He discovers the love and pride secretly cherished by his gruff, manly, often-disappointed father Stoick the Vast. He makes imaginative use of his mum's underthings. He proves himself useful, even if his dragon remains Toothless. And he proves that it's the size of the heart that really matters.

How to Be a Pirate
by Cressida Cowell
Recommended Ages: 10+

Book 2 of "How to Train Your Dragon" continues the boyhood memoirs of the great Viking hero Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III and Toothless, his disobedient little dragon. After having saved his village from an undersea mountain with fangs and an appetite for human flesh, Hiccup has returned to his normal spot at the bottom of the class in Gobber the Belch's Pirate Training program. His lesson on sword fighting at sea, for example, is about to end with Hiccup impaled on the sword of his bullying, swaggering, Snotface rival when their ship collides with a floating coffin.

According to the inscription on its lid, the coffin belongs to Hiccup's great-great-grandfather, a notorious pirate named Grimbeard the Ghastly. The grown-ups of Hiccup's tribe decide to open the coffin in spite of its warning of dire curses on anyone who does so. Instead of a treasure, however, they find a man inside the coffin. Not a dead man, either, but a hook-handed, smooth-talking stranger who calls himself Alvin the Poor-but-Honest Farmer. Actually Alvin is the murderous chief of the Outcasts, the most feared and evil tribe of Viking pirates, and his plan is to rob the Hairy Hooligans (that's Hiccup's tribe) of their ancestral treasure, then sell them into slavery.

The only person standing in Alvin's way is a skinny, freckle-faced, ordinary-looking boy with no apparent heroic qualities, a boy named Hiccup. No one listens when Hiccup warns of freakish danger and treachery. Somehow it is up to him to ensure the survival of his father Stoick and the entire daft tribe. And though certain bigger and stronger boys fancy themselves a more likely heir to the tribal chieftancy (cough-Snotface Snotlout-cough), Hiccup's resourcefulness and courage prove him to be the heir of Grimbeard the Ghastly, the equal of Alvin the Pirate, and able to survive a deadly horror that slumbers at the bottom of the sea...

How to Speak Dragonese
by Cressida Cowell
Recommended Ages: 10+

Book 3 of "How to Train Your Dragon" tells how the unlikeliest boy ever to grow up to be a Viking hero fared in his first encounter with the Roman Empire. It begins when Hiccup and his wimpy friend Fishlegs accidentally board a Roman galleon during a Pirate Training exercise. They escape with their lives, but without Hiccup's dear, disobedient dragon Toothless and half of his notes on being a dragon-whisperer.

No one, including Hiccup's father and tribal chief Stoick the Vast, will listen when he tells them about the Romans' fiendishly clever plan to turn the Viking tribes against each other so that they can finally conquer the Barbarian Archipelago. So it is up to Hiccup, Fishlegs, Toothless, and a wild warrior-girl named Camicazi to foil the Romans' plan. Not that they have any choice, once the three children are kidnapped as phase one of the Romans' plan. Simply escaping the Roman garrison at Fort Sinister, eluding the malice of a strangely familiar Thin Prefect and the greed of a Fat Consul, and surviving a gladiatorial contest against creatures that combine the worst parts of sharks, alligators, and dragons, will be challenge enough.

Their only advantages are Hiccup's fading hope that Stoick will send a rescue party, and a life debt owed by an arrogant, beetle-sized nanodragon. Plus, of course, the uncommon courage and cleverness of a skinny, ordinary-looking boy with the heart of a hero. Will it be enough to hold back the vengeance of a seemingly unkillable enemy? Well, if Hiccup can get an ungrateful, selfish little brute like Toothless to hug him and say "Thank you," there's no telling what he can't do...

How to Cheat a Dragon's Curse
by Cressida Cowell
Recommended Ages: 10+

In Book 4 of "How to Train Your Dragon," Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III defies the orders of Stoick the Vast, who is both his father and tribal chieftain of the Hairy Hooligans, and sets out on a quest to save his best friend Fishlegs from a dragon's deadly venom. All he needs is to burgle the Vegetable-That-No-One-Dares-Name from the chief of the Hysterics, a tribe of fanatically dangerous Vikings whose island is guarded by a colossal sea-dragon, and bring it back for Fishlegs to eat by 10 o'clock the next morning.

Even with the Sullen Sea frozen solid in the midst of the coldest winter in a hundred years, this is going to be tough to pull off. For one thing, the Vegetable-That-No-One-Dares-Name is probably a myth. Nobody really believes in potatoes, or in the faraway land of America from which they supposedly come. After all, the world is flat, right? If you sail too far west, you'll fall off the edge, right? And besides all that, Norbert the Nutjob, the chief of the Hysterics, has a personal grudge against Hiccup over, oh, nothing big, just an ARROW IN THE BUTTOCK. It's about to become an even bigger grudge when Hiccup, Toothless, a swashbuckling Bog-Burglar girl named Camicazi, and a one-eyed, saber-toothed, sleigh-driving dragon crash the Hysterics' banquet on a mission to steal their most cherished vegetable. And they don't have time to negotiate nicely, because the sea ice is breaking up and the terrible Doomfang seems eager to poke his scaly head into the business.

This is yet another highly entertaining installment in a series where laughs and thrills follow each other in rapid order. The passionate urgency of Hiccup's quest, the swiftly closing window of time for him to complete it, and the ever more dangerous odds against his success or even survival, make it perhaps the most exciting Hiccup adventure yet. It's an adventure decorated with mildly ribald touches (perfect for tickling a pre-teen's funny bone), a touch of daffy divination (take note, Harry Potter fans), some reptiles with charming personalities (and some that are just plain creepy), and a well-deserved spanking (it was the Dark Ages). It's quickly read, quirkily illustrated, and quaintly touching as it teaches its gentle lesson on the value of friends, good deeds, and the courage of small people.

How to Twist a Dragon's Tale
by Cressida Cowell
Recommended Ages: 10+

Book 5 of "How to Train Your Dragon" sends undersized Viking hero Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III on his most perilous quest yet when all life in the Barbarian Archipelago is at risk. A volcano is about to erupt, hatching the eggs of a rogue breed of dragon that kills and destroys senselessly. Old Wrinkly, Hiccup's soothsayer grandfather, has taken a vow of silence and gone to live at the bottom of a well until everything sorts itself out. It turns out that, in his younger days, the elder Viking set a train of events in motion that could cost the Hairy Hooligans dearly, and all their neighboring tribes too.

Twined up in Hiccup's present quest is a tragic tale of heroic heartbreak. A legendary hero has returned, having been captured and enslaved for fifteen years and presumed dead by all who knew and loved him. Humungous Hotshot is good at almost everything, but somehow after he gets hired as Hiccup's Bardiguard (that's bodyguard to a clan chief's son), the lad's life is in more danger than ever. Lurking in the background is a villain Hiccup can't seem to shake off his trail, a slumbering volcano about to awake, more than one stone of unguessed-at significance, and a wistful irony that binds two enemies together for life.

This is the installment of Hiccup's memoirs where we see Old Norse democracy in action--and by "action" I mean something suspiciously similar to American football. We see the unlikeliest of heroes pull off some all-but-unbelievable acts of survival, including one stunt so jaw-droppingly cool that it positively hurts not to spoil it for you. It's a rip-snortingly fun adventure for pre-teen readers, serving up a heady mixture of swashbuckling action, irreverent humor, heartwarming romance, and whimsical illustrations, in the midst of which you accept without question this strange world in which dragons and Viking pirates live in harmony. The only drawback is that you'll finish it so quickly that you won't be able to wait for Book 6!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bernheimer Bunce Ransome

Spirals of Destiny
Book One: Rider

by Jim Bernheimer
Recommended Ages: 12+

Book One of "Spirals of Destiny" came to me courtesy of the author, along with two of his other books. Fresh off its first printing with a little-known publisher (Gryphonwood), it has the excitingly risky look of a self-publishing venture - though the author's dedication names a publisher who is not himself. And though this first printing is peppered with irritating cosmetic errors that any decent editor should have caught, it is at the same time a tightly-written, well-thought-out, solidly entertaining first installment in what promises to be an unputdownable series. In fact, Mr. Bernheimer could be in serious danger of breaking through into the big time.

The first thing you notice as you begin reading this fantasy is that its world is a unique mixture of the outlandish and the weirdly familiar. For example, in a kingdom sporting magical portals, trolls, cockatrices, and above all unicorns, there are also girls with such next-door names as Annabeth Welsh, Rebekah Morgenstern, and Kayleigh Reese. Go figure.

The setting is an empire kept in order by a High King who is himself a sorcerer, and who is served by sorcerers, wizards, and butt-kicking battle maidens each of whom is magically bonded to her unicorn mount. The unicorns have their own culture, intelligence, and form of communication, but their purpose in life is to form a bond with a girl (starting around age 13) and become a fighting unit, matching martial skill with magical power.

Rarely does a unicorn survive the loss of its rider. In fact, the only known unicorn to do so is Majherri: a fiercely proud, battle-scarred veteran who cannot remember exactly what happened to his first rider. Instead of withering and dying, as most riderless unicorns do, Majherri bounces back and forms a new bond with 16-year-old Kayleigh. This gives the lonely girl a ticket out of one awkward situation, but puts her in another. Sent to a special school for battle maids, Kayleigh is forced by her age either to take a leadership role in her beginning class, or to fall hopelessly behind the third-years. Her squad captain has a personal vendetta against her. One of her classmates is determined to ruin things for her. Her unicorn is an outcast among his own kind. And together they wield a wild, uncontrollable power that no one understands.

Soon Kayleigh and Majherri are ready to run away from school and find their own way together. But what begins as an opportunity to escape turns into something else: the beginning of a war, the shocking solution to a long-standing mystery, the discovery of unheard-of powers for both good and evil, and the "Aaargh! I can't wait until Book Two!" type of cliff-hanger that leaves Kayleigh at the start of a quest to redeem a broken bond and save an endangered world.

Mr. Bernheimer, do get yourself an editor. Your book is so close to being explosively fun to read that it's a shame to see a few misplaced commas and apostrophes, and more than a few verbal slips (such as "there" for "their"), slow it down. For the fear the true bad guy inspires, for the characters who come vividly to life, for the magical conceits that the reader eagerly accepts, this book cannot be mistaken for an amateur job. It's the work of a born talent. And when the world knows it, I'll be proud to have a first-edition copy with a personal note from the author saying: "Thanks for taking a chance on my novel." Don't mention it. Just keep them coming!

A Curse Dark as Gold
by Elizabeth C. Bunce
Recommended Ages: 13+

Anyone who aspires to write fiction, but who worries that all the good stories have already been told, needs to experience a book like this. Like many of the novels I have enjoyed over the years, it doesn't attempt to break new ground. It simply combines a retelling of a fairy-tale classic with the trappings of an authentic historical novel and the atmosphere of a gothic mystery. It's a shepherd's-pie of savory old favorites, or rather a worsted skillfully woven and dyed with a love for the people, place, and way of life around which the story is set.

My reviews have covered re-tellings of "Beauty and the Beast," "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," "The Sleeping Beauty," and other nursery favorites. This book happens to be a grown-up version of "Rumpelstiltskin," but instead of a king, it is a bank that demands a room full of spun gold. Instead of a medieval kingdom haunted by gnomes with unguessable names, it is set in a just-barely pre-Industrial England haunted by--oh, I don't know--a ghost, or maybe a curse? And instead of the miller's daughter being handed over like chattel by her greedy and boastful father, this book's Charlotte Miller is a strong, independent young beauty who is fighting to save her mill, her family, and her community from the grasp of an unscrupulous competitor.

It's a chilling, romantic, and at times strangely believable tale. It features a local witch who doesn't do magic, a wool mill with a mind of its own, a dandified uncle you'll want to strangle, a long-forgotten injustice that will make your flesh crawl, and a romance seemingly threatened by such inevitable tragedy that your heart will ache. This book, or rather this author, faces brave and unashamed the problem of how to tell an old story and make it feel new. Read it and you will agree that it is possible, after all, to spin an original yarn out of well-worn material. When it's done just right, even though you know where the thread is going, you can get caught in it anyway. And yes, this book's Kansas City-based author does it right.

by Arthur Ransome
Recommended Ages: 10+

Here is the second book in the "Swallows and Amazons" series... Or is it the third? It's embarrassing to be brought to a halt so early in a review, but frankly I'm confused. This book was published in 1931, after Swallows and Amazons (1930) and before Peter Duck (1932). Yet it makes several backwards references to events that happen in the latter book, which (according to the time-line on this Wiki page, took place between the events of the first two books. Holy Hornblower! It's another one of those series!

All the same, I didn't have any trouble following this story while reading through the series in publication order. And although it doesn't have the high historical drama and gruelling action of, say, a book about pirates or the naval warfare of the Napoleonic era, it is a spanking good series. Ransome's books about a circle of siblings and friends messing around in boats, beginning in England's Lake Country, are some of the original "school holidays novels" that have, throughout the past eighty years, given endless pleasure during the holidays (in case it rains and you're stuck indoors with nothing to do but read), between the holidays (so you can enjoy a kind of outdoors adventure while you're stuck in school), and after you reach the point in life where you don't get school holidays any more. (If any American readers are be confused by the British lingo I'm borrowing from the books, by "school holidays" I mean "summer vacation.")

Arthur Ransome blazed the trail, and countless authors followed--and continue to follow. And though there is very little real mystery, conflict, or serious danger in them, his books hold much more enjoyment than you might expect of an account of how two brothers and two sisters passed their summer holidays. For these Walker children are such lucky kids. I wish I could rewind my life so that I could live my childhood years the way they do. They spend it sailing the dinghy Swallow up and down a fictionalized lake in the north of England, camping first on an island and then in the hidden valley that gives this book its name.

They don't have magicians or pirates or bandits chasing them, but they make up for this deficit by using their imagination and making adventures for themselves. They have an honest-to-gosh shipwreck. They discover a secret cave. They climb to the peak of Kanchenjunga (or its nearest local counterpart). They got lost on a foggy moor. They wage a cold war against a terrible Great Aunt. They take part in an exciting sailing race. They make friends with a colorful collection of farmers, woodsmen, charcoal burners, and shipbuilders - none, however, so colorful as their own bright personalities and adventure-loving outlook on life.

Books like this make me want to rise up off my soft couch and go back to being a 12-year-old, sunburned, active, and carefree British youth in the year my Grandpa F. turned one year old. Obviously, that isn't going to happen to me. But with ten of this series's twelve books still to go, I can at least look forward to living that life vicariously.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Finding the Lost

Coming tomorrow to an LCMS pulpit in the City of St. Louis: this sermon on Luke 15:1-10, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin...
Sinners and tax collectors came to hear Jesus. The Pharisees and scribes complained, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” In those days, that was a nasty charge. It meant, “He’s looking after the wrong sort of people.” The mind of the flesh always holds this against Jesus. Throughout the history of the Church, there have been those who asked: “What does God have to do with really bad sinners?” For example, theologian Joseph Canfield ridiculed the idea that God would make an everlasting and unconditional covenant. Canfield calls this “the blasphemy of binding God who is Holy to unconditional relationships with sinful man.” In other words, Canfield denies that God’s forgiveness is unconditional. People like Canfield cannot bear to see Jesus receiving sinners.

Church Growth gurus tell us to witness only to “receptive” types, people who will most likely be open to the message of Christ. They say we should not waste our time or resources on others. We must not make the mistake Jesus made. We must not seek every lost lamb, because they’re just the wrong sort of people. And perhaps the devil whispers in your heart that you are “better than those sinners” and deserve to be saved; and so Satan would use your spiritual pride to separate you from Christ. Or perhaps he whispers that you are beneath God’s mercy, that such a bad sinner cannot be saved; and so you lose hope. Satan wants you to agree that Jesus should not receive sinners, especially the really bad ones.

But our Lord does not reckon the “badness” of a sinner. We like having a yardstick to compare ourselves with others. Usually we get the better of the comparison, otherwise we wouldn’t do this. The Pharisees were scandalized to see Jesus talking and eating with tax-collectors. It’s like when Queen Victoria of England became furious at William Gladstone when he hired prostitutes, took them home, gave them Bibles, and begged them to stay off the streets. Some would call this saintly behavior, but Her Majesty could not bear the scandal of her Prime Minister associating with such low people. No one could believe it when red-baiting Richard Nixon opened talks with China. And no one wants to believe that goodness and holiness can have anything to do with sin and filth, that God can dwell among sinners.

The reason this seems impossible is that we do not understand God’s purpose in visiting mankind. We do not understand the need for His incarnation in Christ, coming to live among sinners. And we do not appreciate being numbered among those sinners. To call others worse makes us feel better about ourselves, but it means nothing to God. We all have been caught red-handed. We all are without excuse. We all have sinned and fall short of the grace of God. We all, like sheep, have gone astray from His way. In breaking the smallest part of God’s Law, we become guilty of all. Before God, sin is not reckoned as to great or small. It is all or nothing. Every one of us is a sinner, and the prophet Ezekiel declares: “The soul that sins shall die.”

Every one of us, from the upright Pharisee to the conniving tax-collector, is equally a sinner before God. Were He to judge us on our works, the same verdict would hang over us all. Only the Virgin’s Son, born by the power and mystery of God, is without sin. Yet He chose to live among sinners and to seek the lost. His mission, thank God, was to redeem and save us. He took the yoke of the Law off our necks. He established an eternal and unconditional covenant, a bond of grace with all mankind. He cut us out of the nets of sin that were pulling us down to the depths. He made atonement for our sin by His agony on the cross. He died without sin to cancel out the death sentence that hung over all sinners. He gives us for free what only a sinless man could earn. Only Jesus has earned God’s favor, but He passes that to us through Word and Sacrament. In these He stands by us, embraces us, dwells among us and in us, feasts with us. And so, through faith in Him, we are counted righteous by association with Jesus.

That is why he came, that is His mission. He came to seek the lost, and that means you.

That is hard for us to understand. Why? Because we don’t like to acknowledge that we are sinners. Nevertheless Scripture rubs our noses in it. Maybe that is why hearing the whole counsel of God has become so unpopular. More and more churches are moving away from preaching the full Law-Gospel message because they’ve found another message that draws a crowd—a message that we’re all basically good, and if you follow a few simple steps you can be even better. More and more self-professed Christians object to being called sinners. This is true for preachers as well as laymen. I once preached at the seminary chapel in Fort Wayne. Faithfully following the Biblical text, I warned all my hearers, especially future preachers, that they were going to sin. After the service, a serious young man came to me and complained that he did not believe what I had said applied to him. You see? The flesh never gives up looking for merit in itself. The Pharisee never wants to be classed with the tax collector.

Becoming a Christian is not the end of it. Singing “Jesus loves me” does not dispel the demon of self-righteousness. In Christ we are redeemed and righteous in God’s sight, but in this life we also remain sinners. It is not that sin is destroyed or taken away; being justified in Christ only means that God does not reckon our sin to be sin. Yet our flesh remains polluted; our will remains divided. We suffer and are tempted and often go astray. Every Christian lives by God’s forgiveness, but many of us have trouble forgiving our own family members. We are saved because Jesus was faithful until death; but far less than a threat of death can lead us to sin. We long for the coming of the kingdom of God, yet we wallow daily in the lusts of the flesh. We are saints in God’s sight, yet at the same time sinners. The crookedness within us is not yet straightened out. We live by God’s grace. We hope for the day when the rottenness of sin will be over with, when our bodies will rise from the grave without the least spot of sin.

Christ has re-created us in preparation for that day. He has refashioned us, re-formed us, “reborned” us through Baptism into His death and resurrection. But till we die and rise again, we remain sinners in the flesh, though in the Spirit we are righteous. As a popular Lutheran youth band explains, we are always in this life “Lost and Found.” God came down to earth to seek the lost. In Christ, He has found us; yet lostness clings to us like a burr to a sheep’s coat. So we still need to hear God’s Word of Law, wrath and condemnation. We must still lead lives of daily repentance and constant fear. Faith and love have come through Jesus Christ, but they are not yet perfected in us. Through the preaching of repentance our Good Shepherd seeks us out. And through the Gospel of salvation He carries us home. This happens not just once, but life-long, as long as we continue to be simul justus et peccator, at the same time righteous and a sinner.

Jesus’ two parables, the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, fit together and interpret each other. We like to interpret “finding the lost sheep” as doing mission work and adding new souls to the God’s kingdom. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. Those are good things to do, but “finding the lost” means us. The lost lamb is part of the Shepherd’s flock. When you go astray, He leaves the other ninety-nine sheep and searches until He finds you. The lost coin is already in the woman’s possession, but when it loses itself, she pokes her broom into every nook and cranny until she finds it. In the explanation of the two parables, Jesus says: “There will be more joy in heaven, amid the angels of God, over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” He’s not just saying, you should seek the lost. Rather, He is calling you to repent. He is not asking you to live such a holy life that you never need anything from God. Rather, He is offering to give you all that you need, like a Shepherd rescuing His lost lamb and carrying it home with joy. His not saying you should do all that you can to make yourself pleasing to God. Rather, He is saying, God is best pleased when you repent of your sin, and when you receive His free, unconditional forgiveness through faith.

The parable makes simple what is really very complicated. For the reality is not that one in a hundred Christians sins and needs to repent. Rather, one hundred percent of us do. There are no ninety-nine who need no repentance, though the Pharisees and scribes, then and now, may think they need nothing. Self-righteousness is no cause for celebration amid the angels of heaven. A sinner who repents is a straying sheep Jesus has found and rescued. And Isaiah says we all like sheep have gone astray, every one to his own way. So finding the lost is a rescue mission Jesus constantly undertakes for each of us. And He delights in finding us and rescuing us from sin.

Jesus is personally the one who seeks and finds the lost. He does it by talking to sinners and dining with them. He talks to them through His Law and Gospel: a Word that strikes fear and sorrow into the heart, and a Word that gives comfort and forgiveness through the cross. Jesus feeds His lost-and-found lambs at the feast of His body and blood, given and shed for sinners. At His Holy Supper Jesus gathers His sheep and dines with them. And in the Word proclaimed today, you hear the living voice of Jesus speaking words both of warning and of comfort, repentance and hope. When Jesus seeks the lost, He does it through Word and Sacrament and in no other way. He seeks not some unknown people out there, but you.

Jesus once brought you to Him when you became His through Baptism and the Gospel. But He keeps bringing you to Him, because you are weak, foolish and apt to stray. You like to have your own way. But it’s not just that His way is best, as if you could choose your own perhaps harder way. There is no other way. Sheep are very stupid. Perhaps that is why Jesus chooses sheep to represent us. Silver coins are only a little dumber. We cannot find ourselves. However difficult “our way” may be, it does not lead to the stars. Jesus must find you through Word and Sacrament. For in these He freely gives you what He bought for you on the cross. A sinner you are, and a sinner you remain even while in Christ you are a saint. You cannot add a jot to the grace that is yours in Christ. Much less can you get to it by any other way. “I,” says Christ, “am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by Me.”

Now certainly we should seek the lost, but know always that it is Jesus who finds them. And therefore it is not up to us to choose the ways and means in which we gather them in. The lost are not found by making them feel good about themselves, by letting them believe whatever they choose, or even by getting them excited about what’s happening at the church. High-impact music, barnstorming speeches, and a spectacular sound and light show may draw an audience, but only Jesus’ Word and Sacrament will find the lost. Only the harsh Law will reveal their sin and turn proud Pharisees into miserable Tax-Collectors. Only the good news of forgiveness in preaching, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper can bring Christ’s lost sheep home.

Jesus commanded His followers to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them.” But He did not mean you must first make disciples and then teach and baptize them. Rather, you make disciples by baptizing and teaching. And it is disciples Jesus wants; He could care less about “blue ribbon members” with fat pocketbooks or pull in the community. Such things might not hurt, but there is one thing that is sure to make the angels of heaven dance and sing. That is when a sinner repents, a lost sheep is found, the true coin of the realm is offered to God: the sacrifices of a broken and contrite heart, a heart that trusts and depends on Jesus alone. As we errant and foolish sheep listen to our Shepherd’s voice, and as we prepare to graze in the lush pastures He has prepared, let the complaint of the Pharisees be our theme of joy and hope: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Friday, June 18, 2010

Film within a Film

I went out to the movies tonight for the first time in ages. It's been that long since anything opened that I really wanted to pay full price to see! What hooked me in was a big-screen remake of the 1980s series "The A-Team," which my brother and I watched religiously when we were kids. It was exactly the kind of show we could never get enough of - CHiPs, the Dukes of Hazzard, and Charlie's Angels notwithstanding. Anything that had high-speed chases, orange explosions, breaking glass, aerial stunts, and car wrecks worked for us. We weren't asking for much.

The new movie revives the old formula with up-to-date stunts, effects, and technology. Plus, it has a cast with pizzazz, including Liam Neeson, Jessica Biel, Bradley Cooper, and the hilarious Sharlto Copley as "Howling Mad" Murdock. It's got it all: a cigar-chomping rogue soldier who loves it when a plan comes together, a tough guy with the words "PITY" and "FOOL" tattooed on his knuckles, intense action, big laughs, sex appeal, and a storyline so convoluted that you'll have to see it at least twice to decide whether it makes sense.

For me, though, the cleverest touch was one that only I seemed to appreciate. At least, I was the only one in the theater who laughed aloud. In a film within the film, an apparently low-budget action flick called "The Greater Escape" with the same theme music as the main attraction, the opening credits named some of its cast--including "Reginald Barclay" and "G. E. Starbuck." This is the type of in-joke that proves the American mind capable of coping with Cockney rhyming slang. Because, as any teenage couch potato in the 1980s could tell you, Starbuck was a character on the original "Battlestar Galactica," played by the same Dirk Benedict who created Bradley Cooper's character for TV. And Barclay was the recurring character on "Star Trek" played by the original H. M. Murdock, Dwight Schultz. Thus, in a subtle way, the original cast made cameos in the remake!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Motto Whimsy

I've noticed lately that vehicles belonging to the City of St. Louis have a motto inscribed on their license tags:


My mind thrills to the inferences one could possibly draw from this slogan. For example, it may not be much of a place to work, learn, raise a family, buy, sell, own property, or anything like that... but when you're within city limits, you can raise existing to an art form!

Another thought inspired by this slogan is how symmetrical, how Shakespearean, yes, and how appropriate it would be if the motto of East St. Louis, Illinois, were: THE PLACE NOT TO BE.

Breakfast Whimsy

NIECE: Morning, Argy!

UNCLE: Fair morrow, sister-daughter!

NIECE: What are you talking about? The fair doesn't start until next week.

UNCLE: Aye, but thou art fair today. Wilt thou break fast with me?

NIECE: I can't. I'm going to be late for basketball camp.

UNCLE: But hold! If thou break not thy fast, how shalt thou play fast break?

NIECE: Good point. Toast, please. And... why are you talking like that?

UNCLE: Thou knowest how I love the antique liter-

NIECE: Watch it! I'm a child! Auntie says I'm not supposed to know about these things.

UNCLE: I only meant that, last night as I snacked, with sudden wondrous visions was I wracked; a craving for the classics then attacked... Oh, how mine eyes did ache to read the Didache!

NIECE: Uncle Argent, you're an unclear gent.

UNCLE: Alas that, sister-daughter, thou shouldst honest seem, and yet not honest be!

NIECE: And that means...?

UNCLE: Why honest thou thy razor wit on me?

NIECE: Exactly what is it that you ate last night?

UNCLE: A few shittake mushrooms, that I found whilst looking for a drawer.

NIECE: Draw-er? As in a pencil?

UNCLE: Aye, in thy good brother's secret drawer.

NIECE: No! You didn't really take sh-- from Kevin's...

UNCLE: Shittake, dear. How strange that he should keep sweet mushrooms in his desk. What magic might the lad be working?

NIECE: Uh-oh. Look at the time!

UNCLE: Nay! 'Tis not too late for a latte.

NIECE: No, no. I'm off milk. Basketball diet.

UNCLE: 'Tis just as well; the milk is off. Blood of the grapefruit, then?

NIECE: Ew. Not when you put it that way.

UNCLE: But stay! Thou hast not packed a lunch.

NIECE: Well, OK, but I can't fit much more into my bag.

UNCLE: Would some cucumber sandwiches be too cumbersome?

NIECE: Wait a minute, this bag doesn't feel right. What the...

UNCLE: What is it, sister-daughter? Thy looks have gone beyond the pale.

NIECE: One of my shoes is missing! Where's my other shoe?

UNCLE: Ah! At last!

NIECE: At last what?

UNCLE: The last in the closet. Thou shouldst not leave things lying on the floor. Tripping could ensue.

NIECE: Someone's already tripping.

UNCLE: A hit! A palpable hit!

NIECE: This song? I've been meaning to change my ring-tone, like, all summer.

UNCLE: Answerest thou it not?

NIECE: It'll go to voice mail.

UNCLE: Zounds! That I should see the day when voices serve as mail! O hard, hard word...

NIECE: Eek! That's Tiffany, tooting her horn.

UNCLE: As she always does, the boastful creature. Well, 'tis time for thee to fly!

NIECE: Now that would make a cool ringtone...


Although I have been happily driving my "new" 2007 Volkswagen for almost a month, I am still legally the owner of the "old" 2002 Hyundai that breathed its last a month ago today. As I write this, I am still trying to figure out how to get rid of it. But I have run up against a colossal snag in the river of red tape that runs through Missouri. It's a rich source of amazing-but-true stories, though the truth is so amazing (and hilarious) that people who hear it may think I'm telling tales.

Today, I stand in awe at the symmetry at work in the universe. For I went through bureaucratic hell when I brought my Arizona-born Hyundai into Missouri. And now a similar nightmare bookends the Missouri life of that Hyundai.

The story really starts in 2006, the first year I renewed my tags since moving to Missouri in '05. That spring I had also moved from the hinterlands to the great city of St. Louis, where City Hall's gorgeous, neo-Baroque facade conceals a vicious, concrete maze where citizens run from office to government office like laboratory rats. Office A will only give you cheese in return for a peanut from Office B; while Office B requires a stuffed olive from Office C; and Office C won't stuff the olive unless you first give them a bit of cheese....

I had to make two trips to City Hall. I ran around between three offices on the main floor, then up to a higher level to purchase a money order--not once, but twice, because they only told me I needed the second one after I came back with the first one. I had to ring up officials in my previous county of residence and force them to negotiate with officials in the city, because I refused to drive out to the hinterlands to settle a property tax bill that I'm still not sure I owed. I had to ring up officials in my previous state and ride herd on a title search that had gone on for several months without a result. I got a ridiculously expensive parking ticket because the meter ran out while I was enduring all this. But in the end, I got everything in order so that I could renew my tags in '06. And again in '08. And again in '10, after investing thousands of dollars in repairs to pass the state-required inspections. And then, a month later, my car gave up the ghost.

Was it worth it? Oh, yeah! Because I now have a very clear memory that, in 2006, Missouri received whatever it needed from Arizona to create a title for the Hyundai. This memory anchors me as I float in limbo, a full month after requesting a duplicate title so that I can scrap my Hyundai and pay off the wrecker's bill. For now, the State of Missouri claims it has never seen a title for my Hyundai.

I learned this amazing news earlier today from a representative of Missouri's Department of Revenue (DOR). She wondered how it was even possible for me to get tags in Missouri, and renew them year after year, without producing a title for the vehicle. I told her this was precisely my point. I knew I could never have done that. I knew that in 2006, the first time Missouri told me they had never yet seen my title, though they had been happy to register my car the year before. And I know it even better since my 2006 paper chase at City Hall, which only happened because they wouldn't let me renew my tags until every scrap of paper was where it belonged. I remember the agonizing Arizona title search. I remember the sadistic county auditor from the hinterlands. I remember all too well that I wouldn't have had a car to drive home, parking ticket or no, had not the title turned up. And now, having renewed my tags twice since then without one whisper of a missing title, I'm expected to believe Missouri never had it. That's likely!

So what did my friend at the DOR suggest? She suggested I contact her opposite number in Arizona and request a duplicate title from them. Then I could use it to apply for a Missouri title, just so I can sign it over to a scrap dealer and be done with it. All right, I said! Give me the phone number! She gave me the phone number. I called it. The phone number was disconnected.


So I went online and looked up a phone number for the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division (MVD). I asked their rep: What do I have to do to get a duplicate title for this car I bought in Arizona? "Sorry, we don't have it." Is this because I transferred the title to Missouri? "No, our records show we never had that title." (This lady I believed. Why? Because I could remember being here before... like, in 2006.) So, who would have that title? "Besides you?" Yes, please, let's assume I can't find it. "Well, our records show you had a lien on the car." That would be the bank I borrowed from to pay for the car. "You say bank, we say lien holder. Call the lien holder and tell them to [insert rapid stream of Arabic]." Could you say that again, more slowly? "Sure. Call the lien holder, and have them [insert slightly less rapid stream of Chinese.]" What? Wait, I'm trying to write this down...

This convo went on for a long time before I was able to make sense of what I was supposed to do. And what was I supposed to do? I was supposed to ask the Bank (or "lien holder") send me an original title and lien release for the Hyundai. Then, I was supposed to send that to the MVD along with a $4 fee and a title application (Form #96-0236, available at the end of a convoluted series of internet links), taking care to keep copies of everything -- the best advice I've heard all day! Then, having received a title from Arizona, I could apply for a Missouri title, but why bother? I could just as easily sign it over to the wrecker & have done with it. Only then I would also have to send the MVD a "sold notice" (Form #46-8502). However, in the very likely event that the Bank could not send me the title, I could at least get the lien release, send that to Arizona with two title applications--one with the lien holder's information, and once with my own--along with $8. I kid you not.

Well, I thought, at least now I know what I have to do. So I called the Bank (lien holder), which in fact released the lien in 2008 when I finished paying off the Hyundai. "May I have an original copy of the title and lien release, pretty please?" No, you may not. "Why?" We can't send you an original lien release because we do not currently hold a lien. "But you're the lien holder. Everybody else is pointing fingers at somebody else, and you're the end of the line. You've got to be able to do this." That's too bad. The loan was paid off in 2008. "That's what I'm saying. I paid you. Now cough up." But the lien was released in 2008. We can't release it again. "Oh. Well, how about a duplicate of the '08 release, then?" That won't do you any good. The state won't accept a duplicate, particularly not with a 2008 date on it. "[Angry outburst snipped.] All right, put yourself in my position. Suppose you've lost the only original copy of your car's title. Surely, there must be somewhere you can get a duplicate. What would you do?" You could ask the Arizona MVD to apply in writing for a duplicate lien release... "Oh, never mind! I've got another idea." (Click.)

So I called Missouri's DOR again. I spent another 15-20 minutes on hold. I spoke to another person who couldn't explain what was or wasn't in my file. This time, I read to him the Title Number on the receipt for my registration renewal. He was amazed to learn such a title actually exists. "Can you verify that it's in the file?" It's right there, issued in 2006 after an out-of-state title search. "Could this title be duplicated?" Yes. "And my request for a duplicate title is in good order?" Yes. "So were good?" No. "Why not? Doesn't the existence of this title prove that, as of 2006, Missouri was satisfied with my Hyundai's documentation?" The Catch (22, anyone?) is, this evidence conflicts with another documented fact: After Missouri issued that title, someone filed another out-of-state title request--which, for unknown reasons, was denied.

I now have to wait for a nice young man in Jeff City to shake some trees at the DOR and find an explanation for these two conflicting pieces of evidence. At this late hour of the day, he couldn't promise to start his investigation until tomorrow, when (I hope) he will call me and give me the final verdict. Perhaps then, after I settle with the mechanic who, in turn, paid the wrecker for towing my car, and after all the fees and penalties and (if necessary) well-placed bribes, I may have enough cash left over to buy a Happy Meal at McDonald's.

Five years ago, after my first collision with the bureaucratic sadism of a Missouri license bureau, I said I understood why this state has such a problem with vehicle tags being stolen. It's obvious: The legal process of getting tags is so awful that, even to a law-abiding citizen, stealing them starts to look like a good idea. (Though perhaps these afflictions are reserved for folks bringing a car in from another state.) Now, at the other end of the life cycle of an Arizona-bought, Missouri-registered car, I understand why some people walk away from their car with the key in the ignition and the windows down. Next to what I'm going through, a bit of insurance fraud looks like a good way to get rid of a vehicle. I love that my primary-care mechanic is an honest guy, but sometimes I could use the type who is open to under-the-table deals. Or a state that doesn't have its head screwed into... never mind.