Monday, August 30, 2010

Weep, Ye Bachelors 2

As you contemplate your evening meal of a freezer-burned burrito, microwaved to a sizzling tough (Oops! You thought I was going to say crisp, didn't you?), and as you anticipate the various unpleasant things it is going to do to your digestion by tomorrow morning, just think: You could have been at home with Mom. What did she make for dinner in your absence? Here it is in her own words!
I made the most succulent breasts. Tell that to your bachelors. Chicken breasts that is.

Take four skinless breasts. Wash and pat dry. Beat two eggs in a dish, and bathe the breasts in the beaten eggs. Then roll the breasts that have been dipped in egg in prepared Italian-flavored dry bread crumbs.

Fire up the electric skillet (my favorite appliance). Pour canola oil in said skillet, and let that oil heat up. Drop your breasts in the hot oil and cover the pan. Let 'em crisp up before turning 'em over. Keep an eye out that they don't burn. Oh BLEEP! Forgot the salt, pepper, and Grill Creations chicken seasoning. That's a good seasoning blend made by Durkee.

I had chicken breast, a medium baked potato, and a low calorie vegetable medley on the side. [For lunch the next day] I made a chicken salad with one of the remaining breasts and Hellman's mayonnaise (USE IT!!!!) Slap that on a piece of good 100% whole wheat bread, and have good crispy pickles or green olives on the side... Well look at that! Cooking is sensuous!!!
Yea, bachelors: weep! But try to keep at least one corner of your handkerchief clean so you can hack into it when, at 2:30 tomorrow morning, you wake up choking on acid reflux. You should have gone home to Mom!

Control Group 6

Here is another hymn by Martin Luther that you probably don't know. It wasn't in TLH, LSB, or the Ambassador Hymnal. The text, based on Psalm 14, was paired with this very tune (probably by Johann Walter) in the 1524 Geystliches gesangk buchleyn to which he and Luther were among the chief contributors. That italicized string of gibberish is German for "Spiritual Song Booklet" and it was, ahem, the first Protestant hymnal. Ever. It only had 43 hymns in it and this was one of them. Important at all? Apparently not in the Anglophone world. So far I have found it published in only one, quite elderly, American hymnal. The tune has fared a little better than Luther's lyrics, being set to two other hymns in a more recent Australian hymnal. Read it, hum it, pick it out on a keyboard, try singing it. Then tell me: Why do you think this hymn fell off the edge of the world?

The reasons may be real, but they aren't necessarily just. Perhaps one reason is a perception that Walter's bright, upbeat tune ill suits the hymn's complaining, lamenting tone. Consider, for example, what two hymns the Aussies sing to it (if they sing it at all): "He that believes and is baptized" and an exultant Easter hymn, "O death, where is thy cruel sting?" But the injustice of this excuse is two-fold.

First, though the tune is in what we would describe as a major key, to describe its sound as "happy" is to force an unhistorical interpretation on it. This shows both a misunderstanding of how 1524 ears responded to music and, forgive me, a lack of musical sensitivity. Listen to it again. Notice the plaintive, pleading gestures in the melody, complimenting the asking, appealing nature of the hymn. What it lacks in tragedy it makes up by not tiring you out with an oppressive atmosphere. Most Reformation-era hymns that would be topically categorized as "Reformation hymns" are hymns of lament, many of them relentlessly grim in words and music. Perhaps Luther and Walther can be excused for pairing a comparatively light (not to say insubstantial) tune with the psalm's depiction of rampant evil afflicting the faithful. Isn't there something to be said for subtlety?

Second, and paradoxically in view of that plaintive aspect just mentioned, the tune also possesses a very confident and assertive character. Such a meeting of opposites within one brief piece of music is but one facet of the mystery of the lost craft of chorale writing. Today's very best hymn-tune composers only approach it a small percentage of the time. I have studied it throughout my adult life and I still can't put a better name to that fascinating, elusive quality than Peter Schickele's "je ne sais quoi."

More on topic, however, this musical robustness suits the character that Luther exudes in most of his writing, including this hymn. Asking, appealing though it may be, neither Psalm 14 nor Luther's paraphrase is the type of hymn that whines or swoons or flies into a flutter over the wickedness of the world. It is not just a matter-of-fact, by the numbers psalm paraphrase; it is a hymn with a definite and daring purpose. And that purpose is to pull the nose of the powers and principalities of the political world, even of the established church; to denounce them as oppressors of God's people; and to defy them to do their worst, because God is on our side.

I have observed a trend that one can trace through dynasties of hymnals put out by various synods, conferences, and councils. When the Synod (or what have you) is strongly engaged in contending for the truth, when the bloom of its first love is still fresh, and when the story it tells about itself still has to do with a lonely pilgrim journeying on the road of uncompromising, unshakable conviction, the hymns it associates with Reformation celebrations will be somewhat like this. For that church knows that truth is always at war with error, and that the church cannot long fight on the right side of that battle except with God's powerful aid. Later, complacency sets in and the Synod becomes a Denomination, an institution, a corporation focused on its own success. And so the "Reformation" section of its hymnal gradually evolves into so much triumphalistic hoopla in which the narrative says: "Mission accomplished." Or almost accomplished; just send us the deed to your home as a living trust and we'll see if we can't finish the work that Christ began! That is the trajectory that has led the Missouri Synod, for example, from the early-twentieth-century Green Book that featured this hymn to such present-day substitutes as "Lift High the Cross."

I think the time is ripening toward the point where the faithful church will rediscover a need for the classic lament-type Reformation hymn, or something like it. The eagles are gathering. The stench of the carcass is getting noticed. Hymns like this will become more and more relevant as the faithful contend with the deepening corruption of society and the apparent vulnerability of Christ's Church. The more our experience jives with the situation described in Psalm 14, the more we will need the encouragement of its concluding lines: "God will Himself at length show grace and loose the captive nation..."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Opportune Time

God willing, I will preach this sermon tomorrow at an LCMS church in St. Louis City. The text is Mark 6:14-29, the Gospel for the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist. As usual I also make references to the other lessons (Revelation 6:9-11; Romans 6:1-5), the Introit (Rev. 7:14; Psalm 31:1, 3, 5), and the Gradual (Psalm 34:9, 19). The ESV (mentioned in the first paragraph) is the Bible translation used in the Lutheran Service Book lectionary. Sorry, kids, I decided not to go with the theme I joked about with Pastor: "Heads Will Roll!"
Herodias wanted John dead, but her husband preferred him alive. After setting this scene, Mark says, “An opportunity came” (Mark 6:21). This translation in the ESV isn’t very accurate. The original Greek literally calls it “a timely day.” What’s so “timely” about the day John the Baptist died? The NASB reads, “A strategic day.” Is it strategic because Herod’s military commanders are gathered together? The New King James comes a little closer with “an opportune day.” But for once, I like the NIV translation best. It says: “Finally the opportune time came.” I wouldn’t call it a timely day, because what happened was bad. I wouldn’t call it a strategic day, because the army officers were only relevant as they witnessed Herod’s vow to his stepdaughter Salome, so he could not back out of his promise to give her whatever she asked. But it was an opportune day, or rather the opportune time, for Herodias to carry out her evil plan.

Now suppose you were one of John’s disciples. Suppose you had to collect your teacher’s headless corpse and bury it that day. What kind of thoughts would be running through your head? Maybe you would ask yourself, “Where was God?” Maybe you would wonder whether you had backed the right horse. Maybe you would have trouble gathering one clear thought out of the swirl of painful feelings: doubt, anger, sorrow, and fear. This doesn’t seem like the way John’s story should end. But for too many of God’s faithful prophets, that’s more or less how it did end. As Hebrews 11 says, they were tortured, mocked and scourged, chained and imprisoned; “they were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.” And they died without seeing fulfilled the promises God had sent them to proclaim.

Where is the justice in this? Where is the power of God’s living and active Word? Where is the love by which He is said to protect His children? Was God sleeping when this happened? Was He on vacation? Was He looking the other way? Was He punishing John for some minor fault, by letting a monster like Herodias have her way? Or is God perhaps not so good after all? These thoughts might have pricked the souls of John’s disciples that evening. These thoughts might torment you, too, as you watch dear ones suffer and die, or as faithfulness to God’s Word costs you more and more while the ungodly party on.

Suppose you were one of John’s disciples. And suppose some well-meaning person approached you, laid a kindly had on your shoulder, and said, “It was God’s will.” Where would you tell that person to stick God’s will? Don’t answer that; it’s a rhetorical question. For let’s get this straight right now. Evil people doing evil things, and good people suffering for it, are not God’s will. Pain, destruction, and death are not God’s will. These are symptoms of the disease that infected the world when Adam and Eve fell into sin. These are perversions of God’s will, carried out by the ruler of this world, who is Satan. “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one,” writes the other John (1 John 5:19). But Jesus says, “The ruler of this world is judged” (John 16:11). God may seem to tolerate the evil done by Satan and the people who belong to him. God may even sometimes use these evils for our good. But let’s be clear: sin, death, and injustice are contrary to the will of God. They have already been judged. God’s will is to save us from all these evils which the devil and our own sinfulness have set loose.

God’s mission in our world is to carry out this will to save us. Jesus came as God in the flesh. He brought God’s perfect goodness, holiness, and righteousness to humanity. John the Baptist bore witness to this: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world…This is the One who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John was right. Jesus was anointed with the Spirit when John baptized Him. Jesus referred to His death on the cross as a baptism by fire (Luke 12:49–50). He made satisfaction for all our sins by offering Himself as a sacrificial victim. He wiped out all sin and the curse of death by His own death and resurrection. He fulfilled His promise to baptize us with Spirit and fire, starting in Jerusalem where His disciples were gathered ten days after His ascension. The rushing wind signified the breath of the Spirit, which creates new life in us. The tongues of fire signified the Spirit’s cleansing power, which is God’s forgiveness.

In His Word and Sacraments, Jesus still pours out upon us the same breath and fire. He sets us free from the power of sin, death, and the devil. By preaching and absolution, baptism and communion, the Holy Spirit washes away our sins. He causes us to be born again. This is not just an upgrade of the Old Adam, whose powers and desires are totally corrupted. You are a new creature, born from above, in the image of Christ. This does not mean we can now take sin lightly, as if we had entirely gotten rid of it. The Old Adam is still in us and needs to be put to death again every day. We remain sinners and so must live lives of constant repentance. Thus, Paul writes in Romans 6: “Are we to continue in sin? Perish the thought! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into His death? So we are buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the Father’s glory, we ourselves shall likewise walk in newness of life. For if we are united with Him in the likeness of His death, surely we shall also be united in the likeness of His resurrection.”

All this hope, this future promise, this present help, would not be ours had Christ not suffered and died in the most evil and unjust way. We would not now possess these good things by faith, were it not for the testimony of countless believers who “confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12), and who served the Gospel of Christ to the last full measure of devotion. This is why we call saints like John the Baptist, who died for the sake of Jesus’ name, martyrs. The word “martyr” means “witness.” Martyrdom means “testimony.” Though their voices are now silent, the memory of what they believed, taught, and confessed survives. They speak even louder because of how they died. Because they loved the name of Christ more than their own lives, they have inherited a crown. And this crown’s loveliness is far greater than the ugliness that drove them from this life. Their witness encourages us to rest our hope in God’s love, even when our experiences in this world look ugly, taste bitter, and feel endlessly cruel. Their testimony encourages us to trust that God’s will for us is rich in grace, and that His will is being done, even though it remains hidden for a while. For their faithfulness unto death, Christ has rewarded them with a crown of life. This too will be yours, if you endure to the end. God will be faithful to you; have faith in Him.

But how can I ask you to have faith in Him when the world you live in is ruled by the devil, and when the powers of unfaithfulness are so immediately present? I will tell you how. For this is the opportune time. The opportune time, yes, for evil to hold sway and to do all that it can around you, and even in you, to thwart God’s will and to cheat you of your crown. But it is also the opportune time for God to deliver you. At this point, some preachers would tell you to go and stand at the foot of Jesus’ cross. But science has not yet produced a safe, affordable, and fuel-efficient time machine. So how can we go there? The past is no help to the present. Another preacher might say, “keep your eyes on what is to come.” But while there may be some help there, especially at the far end of history, so much is going on right now, and so many evils may yet pass between now and that end-time glory, this might be asking an awful lot of us.

But I say again: “Now is the opportune time; now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:4). Now, because we need it right now. Now, because God is not only all-powerful but also rich in mercy. Now, because Christ has promised us speedy help through His Word. When an imaginary trip to a long-ago crucifixion scene doesn’t have the power we need; when a promise of comfort after we die isn’t a strong enough medicine to relieve our present pain; when God’s wonderful, gracious will is so deeply hidden behind the perverse and perverted forms of this world, what a relief it is to hold Christ in your hand, to take His body into your mouth, to taste His blood becoming one with yours! What a comfort it is to hear His forgiveness, accomplished on His cross and pledged to the ministry of His Word, and to have it applied directly to you. How refreshing it is to repeat the Apostles’ Creed, to pray the Lord’s Prayer, to make the sign of the cross, and to invoke the name of the Triune God! All these became yours when Baptism united you to Christ. For now when you say that Creed, pray that prayer, make that sign, or invoke that name, you are using the Baptism by which God wrote your name in His Book of Life.

So Christ applies his once-for-all death on the cross to you right now. So you take part in your eternal inheritance with the saints right now. So God forgives your sins. So the Holy Spirit renews your life. So you receive the strength to confess the good confession, to fight the good fight, and to bear the cross by faith. And so that cross becomes something better than a thorn in your flesh, or messenger of Satan. Your cross is now a form of fellowship with Christ and with all the saints, in this world and in heaven, who cry out: “O Lord, how long?” For a while longer, God’s people must still suffer. Some of us may be counted worthy to suffer or even die for our Lord’s sake. But you now wear a white robe of righteousness, a robe washed clean in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 6:11; 7:14). You now possess a rest, a reward in heaven. These goods await us in the future; but in hope, they are already ours. For if Christ can rise from the dead, surely He can keep all His promises. We do not need to go to Him; He comes to us here and now. We need not cross centuries of time or light-years of space to find Him. He finds us. He makes use of this opportune time to bless us, forgive us, strengthen our faith, and give us life.

In Matthew 11, Jesus says no man greater than John the Baptist was ever born of woman. Yet John will not be as great as the least of you in God’s kingdom. Remember the example of John, who held to his faithful testimony to the very end, even when it seemed God’s justice was being perverted. Wait patiently for the day when those who turn many to righteousness will shine like the stars in heaven (Daniel 12:3).

Meanwhile, consider this the opportune time to receive God’s help and to live by Jesus’ promises. Make use of this opportunity to live as a repentant and forgiven sinner. Bear witness to Christ as the opportunity arises, and remember to seize that opportunity even if it comes in the form of pain, sickness, disappointment, even persecution. Do good to one another while you have the opportunity. Though the afflictions of the righteous are many, let nothing move you from the Rock that is Christ. He provides you with all the strength, protection, and comfort you need. He does not delay in bringing it to you. He does not linger in the distance. He is here now; so this is a blessed time, a holy moment—an opportunity.

God will not let you down. Even if it looks as if He did—and to some, it looked that way when John was beheaded—He will not let you be ashamed. Fear not; He is with you with healing medicine and saving grace. Fear not; He will turn your present pain or sorrow into an opportunity to grow in Him. Fear not; though the wicked are thrown into such confusion that they cannot avoid doing wicked things, the worst they can do to you is to send you to heaven with Jesus. Some of them, like Herod, do evils they did not mean to do. But God has good things planned for you. He will do good things through you. When your final crisis comes He will enable you to fall sleep in peace. Take courage; do not be afraid to bear witness. Even if you’re not sure you have the words, the Holy Spirit will deliver the message He intends. Let the time you fear the most become God’s best opportunity to work through you. Let today, and every day, be a precious opportunity to prepare for whatever testimony God may call you to give.

When the time comes for your loved ones to lay your body in the ground, you will receive the same reward John now shares with all Christ’s holy ones. Until then, every day is the opportune time to grow together, and to grow in the knowledge and fear of God. It is the opportune time to repent and be forgiven. It is the opportune time to live for Christ and love your neighbor. It is an opportune time for Christ to share His life with you. Like Herod, Jesus swears: “Whatever you ask in my Name, I will do it” (John 14:13–14). Therefore, little children, watch and pray as this world’s day darkens toward night. Pray for the coming day of light. Trust that God will only give you good things, and He will not go back on His Word. And so this truly is an opportune time!

Cat-gone it!

My cat Tyrone and I have been buddies, night and day, for the past eight years. I still remember the first night after I brought him home, how I cradled him beside me in bed, afraid to fall into a deep sleep lest I roll over and crush that tiny, freaked-out kitten. Most nights since then, the closest my Tyrone comes to snuggling with me in bed is to curl up, outside the covers, on the corner of the foot of the bed. Sometimes, though, he paws at the top of the covers until I let him underneath. Then he typically checks how far down toward the foot of the bed he can explore before the airless darkness gets to him, and he crawls back up to the top asking to be let out. Or, he makes himself comfortable next to my leg and then, 30 seconds later, my bladder suddenly blurts out, "Hey! I need to be emptied!"

One morning earlier this week, Tyrone asked to be let in under the covers. I gave him a little extra space by raising my knee, providing a better view of the lower end of the bed. He made his way down to my feet and threw himself against them in an unbelievably warm, soft, sleepy ball. I thought, "Wow. This feels awesome! Tyrone is warming my feet. It feels like he could stay right there for a couple of hours. And miraculously, I don't have to pee!" After about two minutes of basking in this joyful realization, I started to drift off into my best sleep in weeks...

And that's when my alarm clock rang, 5:00 a.m. on a business day.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Control Group 5

Who better to represent Lutheran hymnody than Martin Luther himself? Luther was the author of many powerful and inspiring hymns, including:
  • German paraphrases from the Psalms:
    • "A mighty fortress is our God" (from Ps. 46)
    • "From depths of woe I cry to Thee" (Ps. 130)
    • "If God had not been on our side" (Ps. 124)
    • "May God bestow on us His grace" (Ps. 67)
    • "O Lord, look down from heaven" (Ps. 12)
  • paraphrases of parts of the Catechism:
    • "Here are the holy ten commands" (10 Commandments)
    • "We all believe in one true God" (Creed)
    • "Our Father, Thou in heaven above" (Lord's Prayer)
    • "To Jordan came the Christ our Lord" (Baptism)
  • paraphrases of liturgical numbers:
    • "Kyrie, God Father" (the Kyrie, of course)
    • "All glory be to God alone" (the Gloria)
    • "Isaiah, mighty seer" (the Sanctus)
    • "In peace and joy I now depart" (the Nunc dimittis)
    • "God the Father, be our Stay" (the Litany)
  • translations of older Latin hymns:
    • "Come Holy Ghost, God and Lord" (from Veni Sancte Spiritus)
    • "Grant peace, we pray, in mercy, Lord" (from Da pacem)
    • "In the midst of earthly life" (Media vita, plus the Greek Trisagion)
    • "Jesus Christ our blessed Savior" by John Hus
    • "Now praise we Christ the Holy One" by Coelius Sedulius
    • "Savior of the nations, come" by St. Ambrose
  • stanzas added to pre-Reformation German hymns:
    • "All praise to Thee, eternal God" (stanzas 2ff.)
    • "O Lord, we praise Thee, bless Thee, and adore Thee" (stanzas 2-3)
    • "We now implore God the Holy Ghost" (stanzas 2-4)
  • and among his masterpieces, several wholly original hymns:
    • "A new song here shall be begun" (excerpted as "Flung to the heedless winds")
    • "Christ Jesus lay in death's strong bands"
    • "Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice"
    • "From heaven above to earth I come"
    • "Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word"
    • "To shepherds as they watched by night"
In addition, Luther was also a significant composer. He wrote a short polyphonic setting of Psalm 118:17 in Latin (Non moriar sed vivam). There is credible evidence that he wrote at least a few of the tunes to his own hymns, though it is sometimes hard to see where Luther ends and Johann Walter begins. Working together with a handful of helpers, Luther and Walter essentially created the chorale or "hymnal style" with the melody on top of four-part harmony. Their music for such hymns as "A mighty fortress" also helped popularize a then little-used church mode that we now know as the major scale.

TLH and LSB have about two dozen of his hymns each, including between them all of the titles listed above. How many hymn numbers follow "Luther, Martin (1483-1546)" in AH's index of authors, composers, and sources of hymns? Eight. That's one-third as many as TLH or LSB, kiddies. And two of those hymn numbers belong to hymns by other people set to tunes attributed to Luther. And another two are different translations of the same hymn. So, actually, there are only five (5) hymns by Luther among the Ambassador Hymnal's 634 hymns. That's more than zero, but less than the 15 hymns by Charles Wesley, the 14 by Fanny Crosby, the 13 by Isaac Watts, and the 10 apiece by Frances Ridley Havergal and James Montgomery, all in AH. Don't get me wrong. I like many of the the hymns by Wesley, Watts, and Montgomery; I wouldn't necessarily let the fact that they weren't Lutheran stop me from including their best work in the Hymnal of My Dreams™. I'm not asking you to make a judgment here. It's just interesting to observe the proportions, isn't it?

Here are two hymns by Luther that haven't circulated much in English-speaking circles. The first one is an entirely different paraphrase of the 10 Commandments from the better-known one listed above. I'm curious as to why "Wilt Thou, O man" hasn't gotten much airplay in American Lutheranism. You might suppose it's a matter of a hymnal having just so much room for verse paraphrases of the Decalog. But that doesn't wash; "Wilt Thou, O man" concentrates its material into half the space of "Here are the holy ten." Or maybe it's that Lutherans are uncomfortable with the idea, suggested by the first stanza, that we can earn our way to heaven by keeping God's Law. But if that's the case, why did TLH botch its translation of the first line of "Here are the holy ten" to read "That man a godly life might live"? Puzzles within puzzles!

One would think that the author of the Small Catechism might be given credit for not teaching salvation by works. This hymn can be interpreted as a condensed paraphrase of exactly what Luther says in that Catechism to explain the Commandments, including the admonition, "I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God..." God does promise "grace and every blessing to all who keep these commandments," as both Moses and Luther teach, and as all Lutherans affirm when they vow to uphold their Catechism. Taken by itself, this part of the Catechism is all Law. It remains for the other parts to explain that (1) we don't keep the Law, and so we cannot earn eternal life thereby; and that (2) God rescues us from this perilous dilemma by forgiving and saving us freely, on account of Christ, by means of the Gospel and its sacraments. Maybe what clinches it for "Here are the holy ten" is the fact that it goes beyond a naked paraphrase of the Decalog, all the way through the two points just stated: "God these commandments gave therein to show thee, child of man, thy sin... Help us, Lord Jesus Christ, for we a Mediator have in Thee..."

Still, I think Luther's shorter Decalog hymn could have its uses. Younger children could more easily learn it by heart. And that would be a very clever way to teach them the Ten Commandments! Plus, it offers us a chance to make friends with a rarely-heard but very fortunate pairing of text and tune, an authentic collaboration between two fine artists whose joint work established our Lutheran hymn-singing tradition.

As a free bonus, because there was room for both hymns on the page, you can now also enjoy Luther's paraphrase of Psalm 128. The fact that both were written by Luther and translated by Richard Massie is not the only reason these hymns resonate with each other. For you'll notice, again, that in doing justice to the Psalm text, Luther risked triggering your knee-jerk Protestant reaction to even the slightest suggestion of work-righteousness. But this time, Luther's guiltlessness is even easier to defend. For when the first line sings of "fearing God," it clearly means faith and faithfulness. And behold, what sweet promises Luther doth draw from this plain little psalm! Stanza 2 says that faith saves us from the curse of Adam and his seed (i.e., death). Stanza 3 promises rescue and reward in the end. Stanza 4 extends those promises to succeeding generations. And if the final stanza's Trinitarian doxology means anything, it is to fill Psalm 128 with Christ and make Him the help that God sends from Zion.

The tune, by the way, is one I picked for this hymn. To-date I have only seen it in an Australian hymnal, set to one brief hymn. I thought it deserved a little daylight, so enjoy!

Gag Me with a Spoonerism

Today, during a long walk under a beautiful, clear blue sky, I saw something that made my day complete: ELCA church sign tackiness! If you can bear to read it, it said:


...Jell that to Tesus!

(Not quite) seriously...

If you're going to make light of sin like that, why should anyone expect you to help them fight it? Or is it your mission to make people feel better about not resisting temptation?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Laugh, Ye Bachelors

On the other hand, we could also talk about the stuff Mom never made at home, perhaps stuff that she would be reluctant to try. Maybe she's better off not knowing you're eating it, either!

On Monday, I jumped the bullet and bit the shark. I was at the new Syberg's in Chesterfield just in time to benefit from their lunch specials, which end daily at 4:00 p.m. So I ordered the lunch-sized helping of Shark Chunks. Yes, kiddies: actual bits of Jabber Jaw! These days a luncheon order of shark comes in at $8.95. The deal includes big house salad -- the St. Louis-style-Italian-restaurant type of salad with piles of shredded Provel on it as well as lettuce, tomato, onion, peppers, and your choice of dressing. I went with House Italian, and it was good.

After that was gone, the shark arrived. Whether you order it with "Cajun seasoning" or without, you may be surprised to see not breaded, deep-fried fish nuggets, but big-mouthful-sized cubes of pale-colored, flame-grilled meat. Just when it arrived at my table, I seemed to catch a faint whiff of something fishy. Other than that, it looked and tasted exactly like grilled breast of chicken... except, unlike most grilled chicken breasts, this meat was tender!

The portion wasn't huge. But what my plate lacked in shark, it made up in fresh, hand-made fruit salad. We're talking about whole grapes, strawberry wedges, canteloupe, honeydew, and pineapple cut into chunks of just the right size to compliment the fish. It was all perfectly fresh, tart, sweet, and luscious... except for the honeydew, which as always was a bit tough for my taste (though that didn't stop me from eating all of it)... This portion of fruit took up almost two-thirds of the plate, leaving the smaller end to the shark and a dipping bowl of forced butter. Which was for the fish, you know. Not that it needed it.

I am no longer afraid of shark -- at least, not if it comes out of the kitchen at Syberg's.

Today, my mother remained blissful in her ignorance of my dinner choice at Old St. Louis Chop Suey on Chippewa in the city. Dinner was an order of the best pot stickers in this hemisphere, alongside a type of bacon-and-egg sandwich you can only get at certain Chinese restaurants around St. Louis. Not the pricey sit-down places with linen tablecloths; not (scoff!) the buffet joints; only the Ma-and-Pa kitchens where you sidle up to a counter and order off a menu printed on a photocopier, and where your meal comes to you on a plastic tray. I know of at least five such places convenient to where I live, but I rarely eat there because they either don't accept credit cards, or they charge extra to do so. Today I had cash, so I went to OSLCS and, for maybe the third time in my life, ordered one of the dishes that makes St. Louis unique -- a dish perversely named after a city in Minnesota where no one has ever heard of it -- a dish probably more talked about than eaten, yet available in every neighborhood in this town capable of supporting a takeout-or-delivery Chinese place... the St. Paul Sandwich.

It's really an all-American dish. It's made with soft white bread, just like the generic stuff your Mom used to make your PBJs. The bread is thickly slathered with mayo or a similar white dressing, then layered with lettuce. Iceberg lettuce, nothing fancy. Slices of dill pickle. A couple strips of cripsy bacon. And in the heart of it all, a big thick dollop of fried egg. The only thing about it that makes it possible to imagine this sandwich next to a plate of the hemisphere's best pot-stickers is the minor detail that the egg is fried Foo Young style. Your choice of flavors, too: veggie, chicken, shrimp, beef, pork, or (if you're a big spender) "special." I had the special flavor, which still only cost $3.40. I reckon it has whatever they put in "special fried rice," except of course the rice.

It was a big, fattening, filling, decadent sandwich. It seriously didn't need pot-stickers to wash it down. Though technically it was the other way around; I ate all my pot-stickers before I even unwrapped the thick, white-butcher-paper-covered package that was my St. Paul Sandwich. I'm not crazy, you know. I like the St. Paul Sandwich well enough, but have I mentioned that this joint's pot-stickers are pretty good? The point is, I didn't really need both. Though I didn't need any of the plastic pouches of plum sauce the folks in the kitchen kindly heaped on my tray, I might have enjoyed the sandwich better with the best sauce of all: hunger.

Mom would kill me if she knew. I guess I'd better eat out more often, then. Maybe I'll beat her to it.

Weep, Ye Bachelors

I have asked my two Moms to help me with a new thread that I'm going to call "Comfort Food." It's not about fancy gourmet recipes, or even "so easy you can do it yourself" tips for dining at home. Purely and simply, it's about what you and I are missing by not being home for dinner cooked the way Mama makes it.

Our first entry is actually something Mom whipped up a couple days ago for my brother Jake, based on a meal our late Grandpa used to make. Though proud of his Sicilian heritage and scary-good at making Italian-style spaghetti and meatballs with all the trimmings -- a family meal as elaborate as many a Thanksgiving feast -- when he didn't feel like going to a lot of trouble, Gramps liked to make Swedish meatballs.

Now, I'm sure ethnic Swedes will disavow this recipe. The gravy isn't made from scratch. The meatballs aren't seasoned with, gosh I don't know, allspice or whatever it is they're supposed to have in them. Like I said, though, this isn't about the recipe. I mean, it's not a cooking show. It's just home, right?

Mix 2 lb ground beef, one egg, about a cup of prepared dry bread crumbs (the Italian flavored kind is OK, it doesn't matter--use whatever you have on hand), enough milk to soften the breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, dried sage, and Worcestershire sauce. Mom isn't giving measurements, so the proportions are up to you. Roll the resulting mixture into golf-ball-sized lumps. Bake for half an hour; Mom doesn't mention the oven temp so let's say 350 F by default. Take out of the oven, cover the meatballs with a big can of cream of mushroom soup, and bake again until bubbly. Put the gravy over your mashed taters.

Did we mention you're serving this with mashed potatoes? Not just mashed potatoes, but also "green peas alla Grandpa." The peas are cooked in butter with a bit of onion added. When my brother Ryan and I were little, Grandma used to make fruited jello for us. Grandpa, on the other hand, was more inclined to put out a lettuce or cucumber salad. And a good bread. Had to have bread. Vienna or Italian.
So far our first installment, courtesy of my Nebraska-based Mom. Keep your hanky handy, bachelors. There will be more salivating, and perhaps weeping, in the weeks to come...

Control Group 4

Equal time for great Lutheran hymns continues with this masterpiece by Saxon nobleman and poet Bodo von Hodenberg (1604–1650), about whom I know nothing except that he wrote this hymn. A pious legend has it that an organ prelude on this hymn (set to the chorale melody Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein) was the last composition J. S. Bach wrote, or rather dictated, as he lay blind and feverish in the throes of his final illness. There's no contemporary evidence of this, but after reading this evening-prayer-in-verse (which would serve equally well as a prayer for the dying), I can't help but hope that it's true.

I, however, have chosen two other tunes for this hymn. The main reason is that Wenn wir in höchsten is seriously over-exposed. Just in Anglophone Lutheran hymnals I have found it set to at least a dozen different hymns (not including this one), and if not "wedded" then at least seriously committed to no less than four. Instead, I picked two tunes of about the same period and character, and with the same title, neither of which has been overused. Tune 1 comes from some 17th-century German songbook, without any further attribution that I know of, though it sounds at least as old as Tune 2. I owe my knowledge of it to a single occurrence in a very old hymnal (almost a century now!), but I think it deserves another chance. I would like to stir up interest in under-appreciated, high-quality tunes like this one, which has a plaintive quality well-suited to Bodo's hymn.

The second tune is often attributed to poet-composer Nikolaus Herman (d. 1561), who deserves a post of his own. Besides writing at least five hymn tunes that I love, Herman also wrote the hymn texts "Praise God the Lord, ye sons of men" (a Christmas hymn elsewhere translated as "Let all together praise our God"), "Yea, as I live, Jehovah saith" (on Confession & Absolution), "The radiant sun is in the skies" (a morning hymn), "The sun's last beam of light is gone" (another evening hymn), and "When my last hour is close at hand" (a heartbreakingly beautiful funeral hymn). All five hymns are in TLH 1941; LSB has two; and AH--surprise!--has all of one! The Christmas one, to be precise. AH also uses Herman's tune to that hymn with three other hymns. This tune here, meanwhile, is the more popular of the two Wir danken dirs, at least in Anglophone Lutheranism. I have so far found it in four hymnals, always set to the same Passion of Christ hymn, "Lord Jesus, we give thanks to Thee," from which it takes its title. It's a powerful, confident, yet deadly-serious tune, with a ballad-like dramatic shape, an interesting rhythm, and an extra-memorable twist at the end, which could help it stand the strain of fifteen stanzas.

Whether sung before a night's sleep or a longer one (and let's face it, you can never be sure the one won't turn into the other), this hymn says it all. It ought to, with 15 stanzas! But again, there's no law requiring you to choose between singing all or singing none. There are infinite ways such a hymn can be used in church, in the family circle, in peer-group devotions, and in private communion with God. Parts or all of it can be sung, read silently, read aloud, learned and recited by heart (a profitable exercise!), handed out in tract form, etc. It is all the more useful because it covers its topic so thoroughly, wisely, and beautifully. Each stanza of "Abide with me, fast falls the eventide" takes 25% more syllables to say half as much as any stanza of this hymn. (Plus, silly, "Abide with me" is a funeral hymn!)

What does Bodo's hymn give us? Let's just skim through it a stanza at a time. 1) At bedtime, I approach God as a beggar with my hand out. 2) My plea: God created me in His image and gives me life. 3) The Lord has preserved me until now. 4) My heavenly Father gives me all that I need, especially my Savior. 5) Jesus died to redeem me. 6) If Christ is for me, who can condemn me? 7) Covered by Christ's righteousness, what shall I fear? 8) I have the Holy Spirit. 9) I have God's Word and Sacrament. 10) With all these blessings to assure me of salvation, no trouble will discourage me. 11) Rather I will praise the Lord, 12) and entrust my all to Him, 13) who alone can give me the faith I need 14) to receive forgiveness, to live well, 15) and to die in peace. At the end it comes full-circle to see one as standing before God--now in fear and trembling, then in victory. Could a hymn be more perfect? I would give all the precious little ditties that make the pietist's world go round to be able to write hymns like this!

PICTURED second from top: Nikolaus Herman, likely composer of our second tune. So it isn't the tune Bach put to this hymn in his putative final work. So what? Herman himself composed tunes used by Bach in six (6) of his sacred cantatas! Third from top: the Hodenberg family coat of arms. Sorry, our friend Bodo seems to have been a bit camera-shy.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Control Group 3

Here is another under-appreciated example of greatness in Lutheran hymnody. Oh, what a rich cultural and spiritual treasure we have! A fine Lutheran hymn like this concentrates theological depth, literary skill, and musical perfection into such a compact form! One could study it at length from each of a dozen angles and never exhaust its complexity... and yet it communicates in such a simple, open way!

Any number of tunes could go with this hymn. I chose for it one by Johann Crüger--a tune I once judged to be of slight musical interest. Even on his off days, though, Crüger knew his way around a tune. Without the slightest pretention toward cleverness or originality, this chorale holds together in a graceful unity. Plus, by tipping its hat toward the dominant (A major) in its last phrase, it leaves the hearer with the impression of having heard something sensitive, intelligent, with unexpected depths. Not bad for a melody complete in 32 notes! Compensating for its lack of rhythmic variety is the way the tune gets its clear, confident, upbeat point across, independent of its accompanying harmony. To be sure, settings of this tune will tend to have more harmonic interest than the average pietistic part-song; but it can also be sung in unison, without any accompaniment, while losing none of its effectiveness.

The text, meanwhile, is by Nikolaus Selnecker (1532-92), one of the authors of the Formula of Concord (the last and lengthiest of the Lutheran Confessions). The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) has four hymns by Selnecker: "Lord Jesus Christ, with us abide" (a beautiful prayer for the preservation of God's holy Word), "O faithful God, thanks be to Thee" (perhaps the best-ever hymn on Absolution), Stanza 1 of "Let me be Thine forever" (the quintessential Lutheran confirmation hymn), and "O Lord, my God, I cry to Thee" (a hymn for the dying that amazingly squeezes most of yesterday's Eber hymn into 3 six-line stanzas). Two of these hymns are also in the late Lutheran Service Book. What of the pietistic "Lutheran" Ambassador Hymnal? Selnecker's name does not appear in its index of hymn authors. I'm not going to ask if you can detect a pattern yet. It's too early to tell! But keep these statistics in mind...

What has Selnecker's Baptism hymn got that AH's "go wash in the fountain" altar-call hymns ain't got? For one thing, it actually says the word "baptize" in it, so there can be no equivocation as to what washing we're talking about. Stanza 1, observe, tells us whose work Baptism is ("Christ sends... which the Lord has..."), whom it is to be performed on ("on sinners"), and, if you can bear it, that it is analogous to Noah's Flood in the sense of which 1 Peter 3:21 speaks (i.e., that it saves sinners by drowning sin). Plus, in words borrowed from Luther's Small Catechism, it defines Baptism as more than simple water, rather as water taken and held by God's Word. Stanza 2 restates this more strongly, together with a description of sin as a disease or corruption which Baptism actually cleanses! Stanza 3 conflates Christ's command to baptize the heathen (Matthew 28) with his promise to save baptized believers (Mark 16).

In Stanza 4 the translator stumbles a bit with the phrase "invites the host," which at first suggests a bizarre meaning; but on closer scrutiny, it seems to mean that "many are called" to be baptized in the Triune Name; God's presence and forgiveness are certain, because the command to baptize is His. Stanza 5 goes on to explain, very briefly and plainly, the ongoing and daily significance of Baptism in every Christian's life (Romans 6; Colossians 2). And Stanza 6 ties in the Biblical doctrine of Baptismal regeneration (John 3; Titus 3) and concludes that, through water and the word (Ephesians 5) we are united with Christ in life, death, and the life to come. How could all this be said more briefly, more powerfully? It is all but a verse paraphrase of the article on Baptism from Luther's Small Catechism.

For all that it constantly confesses Biblical teachings that would never be allowed to play on Baptist radio stations, Selnecker's hymn comes across not as argumentative or manipulative, even less as legalistic (adding a condition to salvation besides "faith alone"), but as a sincere expression of devotional prayer and thanksgiving. It is a demonstration of the fact that Baptism is Gospel, not Law. It describes Baptism as God's act of salvation, not our work of obedience. It brings out the contrast between the Lutheran doctrine of Baptism (affirming what Scripture teaches, giving rise to expressions of freedom, joy, and peace) and the Reformed (which is all about denial from beginning to end, and turns both Baptism and faith into a moral burden each of us is expected to shoulder).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Control Group 2

Here is another fine Lutheran hymn whose popularity is less than it deserves. Click on it to enlarge (maybe twice). As you see, it's a funeral hymn by Paul Eber (1511-69), who taught at Wittenberg during the last years of Martin Luther's lifetime and was a friend of Philipp Melanchthon. Can you get more Lutheran than that?

Eber's hymns communicate truths of our Lutheran heritage with an all but childlike directness and simplicity. They include the classic hymn of prayer for help in adversity "When in the hour of utmost need;" the beautiful funeral hymn "I fall asleep in Jesus' wounds;" the Christmas carol "To God the anthem raising;" and the German version of Melanchthon's Latin hymn for St. Michael and All Angels, "Lord God, we all to Thee give praise." The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) has all four of these hymns. The Missouri Synod's newish Lutheran Service Book has the latter two. The Ambassador Hymnal, so rich in products of 19th century Anglophone pietism, has not a single hymn by Eber. It would be absurd to call for a conclusion based on so little data. So just you watch this thread for a while. Perhaps after seeing a similar neglect of other powerhouse Lutheran hymn-writers, we'll be able to "smell the roast," as Luther put it.

I found the above funeral hymn in several hymnals. Some books edit out about a third of its lines and combine the rest into six-line stanzas. You might say this is understandable, given that nobody wants to sing a twelve-stanza hymn. But I submit that you would be wrong to say this. Reason #1: The hymn would then no longer fit the beautiful, strong, Reformation-era tune that takes its German title from it--although one also finds this tune set to other hymns such as "The royal banners forward go." Reason #2: The lines edited out tend to be those where Christ is speaking His most beautiful promises, and/or those confessing spiritual realities that rankled against Enlightenment sensibility. Reason #3: Sometimes one does need a 12-stanza hymn, such as during a long procession (could happen at a funeral!), distribution of the Sacrament (hmmm... maybe), and to cover for an unscheduled delay (only slightly less likely to happen at a funeral than at a wedding). It can be broken into two or three parts and sung in installments throughout the service. In a large congregation, different stanzas could be sung by men, women, left side, right side, choir, and soloist, besides the full congregation; one or two stanzas could even be read silently during an organ interlude based on the tune.

Reason #4, and for me the clincher: Such a powerful, faithful hymn has far more uses than to be sung in church. It can be read at the bedside of the terminally ill. It can serve as a private devotion for the grieving. It can be learned by heart by the young, so as to equip them ahead of time for the hour of need. It can be handed out as a tract at funerals and commemorations. It can even lend a line here and there to a work of arts and crafts, such as embroidery or decorative glass-etching. It is a hymn that profoundly comforts, encourages, and instructs in the Word of God. It preaches God's promises without argumentative harangue, emotional manipulation, or decision-mongering. It addresses God in prayer rather than some hypothetical, unconverted person. It goes beyond a testimony of faith to deliver the content of faith, the Gospel rather than moralizing Law. In essence, it gets out of the way and lets the Holy Spirit do His work through His message.

The tune is by Johannes Eccard (1553-1611), a composer famous for his elegant polyphonic writing. I am personally unfamiliar with any of his music apart from this tune, but its profound simplicity bears witness to an artist whose acquaintance I should like to cultivate. In only a handful of bars of melody its courage, grace, and emotional depth leave an indelible impression. Like Eber's text, Eccard's tune is frequently redacted, smoothed out, bowdlerized. I am acquainted with at least four distinct versions of it, including one hymnal (just one!) where the last note goes down to a D for a concluding shiver of D-minorish pathos.

At first blush, you may not like it. Used to such heart-warming ditties as "In the Garden" and "The Old Rugged Cross," you may find its rhythms confusing. Its ancient, church-modish harmony may come across to you as depressing. In just the same way, you may object to Eber's text being unduly wordy, old-fashioned, and doctrinaire. But if you're honest, you'll admit that you understand it perfectly. If you're really hurting, you may find that its frankness and Scripture-steeped intelligence offer more specific meaning and comfort for this life than typical pietistic fare, which hardly goes beyond imagining how lovely and painless it will be when we become disembodied spirits in heaven. And if you give it and hymns like it time to grow on you and into you, you may realize as I have that they are, words and music, truly and exquisitely beautiful.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Control Group

As an antidote to all the tacky hymnody I've been slinging around, here's a solid Lutheran number that I think should be more widely known. Click to enlarge the image. You may need to click it again with that plus-sign/magnifying-glass thingy. Print it if you like. Read the words. Hum the tune. Get a bunch of your friends together and sing it. Use it in church if you dare. It's in public domain, and a harmonization is available on request.

This hymn may also be an antidote to the foolishness of calling Paul Gerhardt and his hymns pietistic. I have heard men say this who ought to know the meaning of the words they are using, but who evidently don't. Use of first-person-singular pronouns and emphasis on the words "soul" and "heart" do not constitute pietism. Applying biblical, orthodox-Lutheran doctrine to the individual Christian's life does not constitute pietism. Expressing powerful religious emotions in response to God's unspeakably wonderful revelation is not pietism.

Do you want to see an example of the difference between Gerhardt and pietism? Compare this hymn's reliance on God's certain promises with the iffy, whiffy, waffly, man-centered, experiential numbers exhibited on our "tacky hymns" thread. Those hymns are pietistic. They fixate endlessly on one's conversion, decision, dedication, act of self-surrender. They place faith in the obedience of faith. They draw assurance from flights of fancy and the movements of bodily vapors. They are oriented toward sanctification rather than justification. They espouse a mystical, spiritual communion with God that bears no relevance to the weaknesses of the flesh or to the external means by which God means to be known. They take a lackadaisical approach to doctrine. In most cases, they pack the time spent singing them not with challenging, uplifting, faith-forming doctrines, but with a minimum of content, leaning heavily on catchy catch-phrases and sentimental gush.

Can you see the difference? I'm not asking Baptists to agree with me. If Baptist hymns work for them, good luck to them. I am only asking Lutherans to recognize that there's a difference and that, for all who take seriously God's precious promises, our stuff is better. Even the tune makes a difference, suiting itself to the message in both artistic and spiritual verisimilitude.

Are you a Lutheran and yet you think this hymn is awful? Give it time. Changes in taste don't often happen overnight. Let this seed take root and grow in you. After a few more examples (and they will come), look at/listen to/sing it again. You might find that something has changed. Perhaps, by the power of God's Word and Spirit, that something may be you!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Two Dude Movies

Yesterday, I went to the big movie house in Sappington and saw two movies for $4. Wow, right?

One of them was a $4 matinee of The Other Guys, the buddy-cop comedy starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. The movie pokes hilarious fun at the mindless clichés of filmdom, pairing an aggressively bland forensic accountant with a loose-cannon detective who is in the doghouse for shooting Derek Jeter. My favorite scene is where the partners are knocked down by a huge explosion. Farrell lies there screaming: "I need an MRI! I'm sure I have soft tissue damage! Star Wars is a big fake when it shows the Millennium Falcon flying out of the fireball of the exploding deathstar!" An equally agonized Wahlberg screams back: "Don't say that! Star Wars is totally accurate!" I'm paraphrasing, of course.

The film also features Michael Keaton as the police captain who moonlights at Bed Bath & Beyond, Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson as a pair of super-cops who snuff themselves in a gut-bustingly funny way, Bobby Cannavale and Damon Wayans as still more obnoxious cops, Steve Coogan as a Bernie Madoff type with a British accent, and the luscious Eva Mendes as Ferrell's wife, who in another laugh-till-it-hurts scene exchanges sexy love messages with her husband via her elderly mother. Plus, it's one of those rare movies whose closing credits are worth watching all the way through, especially if you think there's something fishy about a Wall Street bailout costing the taxpayer enough to send every American around the globe, and about a perfrillion dollars of said bailout money going straight into the pockets of a few dozen CEOs.

The other movie was free, thanks to a "Movie Bucks" coupon from FYE, worth up to $12 at participating theaters. The umptyplex in Sappington participated all right, though the digital-theater matinee of The Expendables only cost $8. This is the film every guy of my generation has fantasized about since he was old enough to role-play tough-guy commando raids in the backyard. Bruce Willis only makes a brief, uncredited appearance; Arnold's is even briefer, and almost pointless (though Sly scores a hit with his dig, "He wants to be President"). Mickey Rourke doesn't do anything except slum around a tattoo parlor, make himself cry, and (just to show that he's still tough) throw a few knives at a target. Steve Austin and Eric Roberts play bad guys who get their guts handed to them. Dolph Lundgren gets kicked off the team for bad sportsmanship. So that leaves only Sylvester Stallone, UFC chamption Randy Couture, martial arts maven Jet Li, NFL star Terry Crews, and British action stud Jason Statham to take on, between them, the entire army of a small Caribbean country in order to neutralize Generalissimo David Zayas and save his daughter, played by bella Mexicana Giselle Itié.

It's a tour de force of muscle-man action, featuring everything from car chases to an airplane strafing a jetty, from hand-to-hand combats to gun battles with huge orange explosions, a high casualty count and major property damage. Where The Other Guys bring down a helicopter with golf balls, The Expendables manage to blow one up before it leaves the ground. Directed by Stallone himself, The Expendables trots out nearly all the battle-scarred veterans of action films of the 1970s, -80s, and -90s and throws one last, incendiary party for the whole gang. It's an action junkie's dream. As pure film, it has its weak points. Once in a while the pacing sags and you can see the wheels turning in Stallone's directorial mind: "What would be good right here is..." Some of it seems to have been at least semi-improvised. And forgive me if my lapse of attention is at fault, but I lost track of what Jason Statham was doing during a long stretch of the climactic battle. Did his character step out back for a smoke break? Where was he while Jet Li was throwing grenades, and Randy Couture was fighting Steve Austin, and Stallone was trying to save the chick from Eric Roberts, and Terry Crews was throwing touchdown passes with live shells? Hmmm. Maybe there's a sequel in this...

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Quotable Departed

This week, my mother was reminiscing about her late second husband, my stepfather, who had a unique way of expressing himself. For example, she understandably remembers this exchange:

SHE: How do you feel?

HE: Like I was eaten by a wolf and s*** off a cliff.

I think this quote works on many levels. OK, it makes me laugh. This is more than I can say for Mom's favorite example of the words I put to my feelings when I was very little:

SHE: How do you feel?

ME: Like gray eggs.

Back from Vacation

I've arrived safely at home after a five-day trip to Nebraska to see my mother for the first time in two years. I'll have lots to dish on when I have the strength to write it. Till then, consider this picture a taste of things to come.

No, my mother did not beat me up. Why would you even think that?!

Thanks to a story I'm not ready to tell you yet, I have hatched a fantasy grudge-match between my brother Ryan's girlfriend and my half-brother Jake's wife. I would pay to see it happen!

UPDATE: On second thought, I had probably better keep most of this to myself. There are too many ways I can get in trouble for doing otherwise. However, I can't resist blurting out that on Thursday night my half-sister-in-law Celia picked a fistfight with her brother, who is a prizefighter. And although he may have been pulling his punches, when Jake pulled her off him he had a black eye and a chipped tooth to her cut lip. Go Celia!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Last Night's Dinner

I'm writing from my Mom's brand new notebook computer, which I bought for her on the first night of my one-week visit to her digs in Nebraska. In celebration of Mom's homecoming online, I would like to share what she made for last night's dinner.

The main course was inspired by a Nebraska culinary tradition inherited from Bohemian immigrants. Due to trademark restrictions owing to the first restaurant you see when you drive across the Nebraska border, we are not allowed to call last night's main course "Runza." The title of the dish will therefore be "CABBAGE ROLL CASSEROLE."

First, grease the bottom of a 9"x13" pan. Spread one tube of crescent roll dough on the bottom of the pan and stretch it out to cover the bottom of the pan. Brown 2 pounds of ground beef and a good-sized onion, chopped. When this mixture is almost done, add about 3 cups of shredded cabbage (Mom used most of a 14-ounce bag of cole-slaw mix to save time). Also add one can cream of mushroom soup, salt and pepper, and seasonings to taste. Stir together and simmer until heated throughout. Then spread this mixture on top of the crescent-dough crust. Top with about a cup and a half of shredded Cheddar cheese. Lay another tube's worth of crescent dough on top, in a sheet. Bake at 350 F for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown on top. Watch it so that it doesn't overbake. It's delicious!!

For a side dish, Mom made a cucumber salad. Here's what she did. First, she peeled two medium-sized cucumbers and sliced them into thin round slices. Add about a fourth of a cup of sliced onion. In a separate bowl, mix three-fourths of a cup of Hellman's mayonnaise, three tablespoons of milk, a quarter-cup of sugar, two teaspoons of vinegar, salt and pepper.
Stir well and pour this dressing over the cukes and onions. Let the salad sit in the fridge for about half an hour before you serve it, so the flavors blend together.

Tonight's repast is going to be Grandpa Sarico's secret-family-recipe Italian sausage, peppers, and onions on soft Italian bread. The family traditionally serves this with fried potato slices and lots of cold beer. Drooling may now commence!

IMAGES: Two of the infinite varieties of runza. The first one looks a good deal like the dish Mom made last night.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Klause, de Lint, de Lint, Gaines

The Harp of the Grey Rose
by Charles de Lint
Recommended Ages: 13+

Published in 1985, this was the first novel completed by a now famous and very prolific Canadian writer, as well as the first of a quartet of books featuring Cerin Songweaver. It establishes a magical fantasy world that figures in still more of de Lint's books: a multi-layered world haunted by old gods (both good and evil) and by gods older still (who don't lean either way); by wizards and tinkers and harpers and talking animals (who are really more than animals); by a multi-tiered society of erlkin (somewhat like Tolkien's elves); by a complex array of horned beings called weren; by half-human, half-beast creatures; by giants, dwarves, and men; and by as many varieties of beings, light and dark, as you can keep track of.

It is a world that drinks of a blend of magics brewed from a multitude of lores, seasoned with its creator's unique outlook. In fairness to my readers who are concerned about occult content, I have to admit that this outlook shares some tenets with modern paganism. But it also draws on the same wellspring of classical myth that has served many Christian writers. It tells the courageous story of a young man gifted with music and other powers even more rare, a lad named Cerin.

Orphaned as a small child, Cerin has been raised by a village wise-woman named Tess. As the son of outsiders and the ward of a suspected witch, Cerin has led a lonely life, enlivened only by his harp and occasional visits from Tess's roving brother. Though Uncle Tinan urges him to take to the road, it takes something stronger to push Cerin out of this safe, dull existence. Something like, for example, love.

From the minute he sees her, Cerin's heart goes out to the girl with the grey rose in her hair. For a long time he doesn't know her name, so he calls her the Grey Rose. Just as their friendship begins to bud, the Grey Rose explains that she must leave. She has been fleeing an ancient enemy for many years, a monster who could swat Cerin like an insect. Even after experiencing a very painful confirmation of this, Cerin resolves to follow the Grey Rose and somehow save her.

The young harper's quest soon grows into a mission to save the world from a fiend's dark and deadly rule. He is joined by a dwarf, a talking bear, and other friends he meets along the way. He encounters many wonders, many dangers: a school of lore turned into an armed camp, a demon in human form, an enemy so wily that her plot (and identity) might really surprise you.

I heartily recommend this book, but with one reservation. Cerin, whose ancestry includes harpers on one side and weren on the other, frequently discovers some talent or other rising up within him, and he always knows which side he got it from. To my thinking, this is the same sort of absurd conceit as in Star Trek, when Spock can always tell whether a particular drive or motive within him comes from his human or his Vulcan half. In real life, people aren't divided so neatly into what they inherited from Mom and what they got from Dad. Except for that, The Harp of the Grey Rose is a delightful book, opening a door onto a fascinating world that I expect to visit again and again.

The Riddle of the Wren
by Charles de Lint
Recommended Ages: 14+

Though The Harp of the Grey Rose was the first novel Charles de Lint completed, this was the first that he started; and, vintage 1984, it was also the first that he published. Nevertheless, I am glad I read Harp first, because it eased me into the weave of world mythology and original fantasy that is only a part of what lies behind this book. Cerin's world, it turns out, is one of many worlds between which certain people can travel with the aid of standing stones, or henges.

Such a person is Minda Sealy, the abused daughter of an innkeeper in a medieval market down. She doesn't know she has this power, though. Not until a horned man breaks into her dreams, saving her from an evil presence that has increasingly plagued her nightmares. In exchange for an amulet of protection, Minda agrees to set out on a quest to save this being, even though it means traveling to worlds she never imagined, and wielding powers that (in her world) exist only in the most whimsical old legends.

Armed with a new name (Talenyn, meaning "Little Wren"), a bag of stones she doesn't know how to use, and the name of a world no one knows the way to, Minda gathers a party of friends and followers. Her quest takes her first to a dead world, where savage beasts prowl the streets between glistening towers whose builders are mysteriously missing; then to a place where the elven erlkin, human harpers and wizards, dwarves, and the "wild people" known as weren have long lived in a tense truce. War comes with Minda, war with an evil enchanter who can slay people through their dreams, and with the all-but-unkillable minions he controls through something to do with crystals, imprisoned spirits, or whatever.

The Dream-master's gambit is to set himself up as a dark lord, controlling not only people's bodies but their minds as well. But the real danger is even greater. For with the balance between the gods of light and darkness at stake, there's a good chance that Ildran could provoke the gods to wipe the slate clean: a scorched-earth policy that could moot the battle between light and dark on not just one, but many worlds.

This is one of those fantasy books that will make you glad of the glossary in its afterparts. It is full of brilliant but hard-to-describe concepts, such as the silhonell and the Wayderness; the weren, muryan, and Wessener; the mys-hudol, the once-born, and the stone-bound. It has a magic sword you wouldn't want to mess with, a form of mind-speech that would be fun to learn, and a heroine who only gradually finds out who or what she is, and what she is capable of. Minda's development is an impressive fantasy achievement that helped establish Charles de Lint as one of the fantasy genre's powerhouse writers. I recommend his work especially to fans of Diana Wynne Jones, Diane Duane, Robin McKinley, and Susan Cooper, among whom I count myself.

by Annette Curtis Klause
Recommended Ages: 16+

Over the years since I started pushing the Book Trolley, many avid readers have urged me to get into the books of Annette Curtis Klause, a British-born, Maryland-based children's librarian and sometime author perhaps best known for her romantic teen-werewolf novel Blood and Chocolate. I can give no excuse except "Twilight Saga burnout" for the fact that I didn't read one of her books until now, and not the werewolf one either. Based on reading this book and synopses of the others (including Alien Secrets and The Silver Kiss), I think I can safely recommend this author to anyone who wishes there were more "Twilight" novels.

Meanwhile, I must also put out an "Adult Content Advisory," in view of this book's very frank portrayal of the romantic yearnings of a teenage boy who is, ahem, ready to become a man. The young man in question is Abel Dandy. If you haven't figured out that romance joins fantasy and adventure in the makings of this novel, let your imagination run with that name for a bit. Hello? Are you still there? Good, on with the review then.

Abel's parents are attractions in a permanent freak-show: one without arms, the other without legs. His uncle is a knife-thrower with an extra pair of legs growing out of his chest. Most of his friends are either tiny, enormously fat, abnormally hairy, or physically gifted in some similar way. Without an act of his own, with no future in the freak-show business, and yet ostracized by the "normal" townspeople, Abel feels stifled at home. Spurred on by rumors that the dog-faced girl is laying a romantic trap for him, beckoned by mysterious dreams of an ancient Egyptian beauty, Abel sets out to make his fortune. Trouble, mystery, and a promise of steamy romance set out after him.

In his adventure, Abel first joins a circus devoted to such a high standard of decency that it becomes inhumanly cruel. Then he gets caught up in a traveling freak show held together by fear, brutality, and deception. Abel finds himself trapped between wanting to escape from Dr. Mink, the "skeleton man" who owns the show, and looking for a way to save the abused children Mink either bought or stole for his exhibits. Meanwhile, his increasingly erotic dreams, coming as if from a previous life, intersect with the mummified Egyptian princess displayed among the pickling jars where stillborn freaks hang suspended in alcoholic spirits. Could the love of Abel's young life be a four-thousand-year-old mummy?

This is not a book for the faint at heart. If the sexual tension doesn't get your pulse racing, the suspense, danger, violence, gore, and graphically depicted freakishness will surely do so. At the same time, it is a humane book, raising up the plight of people who look different--people who, historically, have often been judged unfairly, treated poorly, or even "helped" in ways that deprived them of the freedom to live as they chose. Exploitation is only one of the evils they are at risk of. This book reveals their plight, and the unique ways some of them courageously overcame it. Among other things, it is a book about compassion.

Though I do recommend this book for the pleasure of maturer young readers, I can't promise to read more of its author's work in the near future. Maybe once the "Twilight" hype dies down, Blood and Chocolate will look a little more tempting. For now, I must content myself with this book. From it I gather that Annette Curtis Klause has a fine touch for dramatic pacing, a good sense for steamy teen romance, and work habits that involve meticulous historical research. Perhaps more inviting than all this, however, is the fact that she writes on an unusual topic, covering a colorful period of American history, and does it in a way sure to entertain.

Evening in the Palace of Reason
by James R. Gaines
Recommended Ages: 14+

On May 7, 1747, composer Johann Sebastian Bach was summoned into the presence of King Frederick II of Prussia--that's "Frederick the Great" to you. The king, who not only employed Bach's son Carl but was a musician himself, sat down at a fortepiano and played a theme which musical scholars have described as ingeniously impervious to counterpoint; he then challenged the elder Bach to improvise a three-voice fugue on that theme. Bach did so, to the astonishment of all present. The king then suggested a six-voice treatment, but Bach was forced to admit that this lay beyond his skill. Weeks later, however, Bach sent a manuscript to the Prussian king: A Musical Offering, composed of ten sophisticated musical canons featuring the Royal Theme, as well as Bach's original three-voice fugue and the six-voice one he had been unable to improvise on demand.

This astonishing feat of musical architecture was far more than a long-in-the-tooth composer's "parting shot" at a cultured snob who had embarrassed him in public. Journalist-author Gaines, sometime editor of Time magazine, argues that it was a volley in a war between competing views of philosophy, religion, and aesthetics. Bach's achievements represented the crowning glory of classical philosophy and rhetoric, esoteric theories about the music of the spheres, mathematical proportions, and human affections (or emotions). A pious Lutheran, Bach held the traditional view that music exists to reflect the glory of God. Frederick, on the other hand, was the very model of an enlightened despot, drinking deeply of the philosophy of the "Enlightenment" and the aesthetics of music that existed to please the hearer. Out of the moment of tension between them arose one of the greatest masterpieces in music history.

I am not here to spoil Gaines's story for you. It's really too huge a story to summarize, anyway. In clear, economical prose, he makes a compelling case that the meeting of Sebastian Bach and the Prussian king in 1747 was a significant battle in a war of culture and ideas. Gaines digs back as far as ancient Greek philosophers, the Lutheran reformation, and the ancestry of both major players. He interlards chapters of each man's life and career with those of the other, building up to the king's challenge and the composer's response. After a very readable and yet penetrating analysis of the work of art that resulted, Gaines then traces the waning fortunes of both men in life, and how their fortunes were reversed after death.

I do not mistake James R. Gaines for a penetrating scholar of Lutheran or Reformed theology, or an original interpreter of Bach's music. Nor does he mistake the reader for one conversant in Enlightenment philosophy, music theory, or the works of Voltaire. His book breaks no really new ground; it requires no expertise on your part. Gaines simply brings two giant historical figures vividly, earthily, humanly to life: their weaknesses of character as well as their successes, the tragedy of their separate lives as well as the irony of their brief meeting, and each man's legacy in human culture. Reading this book is like being personally invited to attend that royal evening in Potsdam and to bear witness, with a fair grasp of the context, to a triumph of the idea that all that is pretty is not beautiful. And it may stimulate you to read more deeply on the most amazing musical artist of all time.