Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Robot Rampage Paralyzes Pottersville, PA - OR - A 1930s Pulp Game Report

As part of our games day at the church last Saturday, a semi-regular event which the players have dubbed "AngliCONs", we fought a massive and very strange pulp game which was the brainchild of James Manto (of Hotlead fame) and Lorenzo Gionet, two gentlemen whose taste for the weird and the arcane is a cause of awe and wonder to their friends. We are very fortunate to have this rare radio news recording of the game.

Music Then Announcer: We interrupt this broadcast of the dance music of Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra to bring you this live report from our correspondent in Pottersville.

Pottersville, PA - building models various maunfacturers from the collections of James Manto and Keith Burnett. Mike "La Bete" Barratt looks on

Reporter: This is Jim McConnell for the Columbia Broadcasting System reporting from Pottersville, Pennsylvania, where something amazing is happening. I'm here at the demonstration of the amazing new mechanical workers, or robots, from Russia. Ladies and gentlemen, these are extraordinary gadgets. They look like large dustbins on legs, with arms ending in huge grippers or pincers that look like they could cut through steel. In fact, a while ago, I was watching as they were bending steel I-beams. These things are terrifically strong, and they are being controlled by these three scientists from the Soviet Union. Here's one of them now. Sir, a word of you please. What is your name?

Soviet Scientist: I am Dr. Ivan Sholokoshnikov from Soviet Akedemy of Science.

McConnell: Yes, Dr Shol ... ummm, Dr. What are these amazing gadgets of yours all about?

Scientist: Is very simple. Are robots, mechanical workers to do all manner of modern industrial tasks.

McConnell: What for? Why can't human workers do these tasks?

Scientist: Robots will free human workers from tyranny of the capitalist dialectic, allowing them to truly become owners of means of production, ensuring harmony between states.

McConnell: Ummm, yes, I, ummm, I see. Ladies and gentleman, the good Russian doctor is holding some sort of box that appears to control the robots, I'm guessing through radio waves. The robots are walking back and forth, to the amazement of the towns folk, who are gathered in large numbers to watch.

Robots perform to the amazement of townsfolk in the main square of Pottersville as police maintain crowd control.

McConnell: Here's the chief of the Pottersville Police Department, Chief Cruller. Chief, any comment about what's going on here? I noticed a lot of feds on my way in - some army trucks, what looked like Bureau men, and a lot of your boys. Are you expecting any trouble here today?

Cruller: Trouble? No, I don't think so. Some folks don't like these tin cans here, we've had some threats. Some of the folks here are worried about losing their jobs, but that's your typical Red agitators and New Deal troublemakers at work. If things go ugly, what with my boys, the G-men and some other heavy hitters, we'll be just fine. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be getting to my command post.

McConnell: Certainly, Chief. Well, it is an incredible sight to be sure. I'm moving over to a group of men who are watching, some with heavy work coats on. Sir, what do you think of these amazing contraptions?

Man: They're abomminations! They'll put me and me family out on the streets! We're goin' to stop this once and for all.

McConnell: An angry man, to be sure, and he's not alone. What's this? A huge shadow is moving across the centre of town. People are looking up and .. there it is, ladies and gentleman, a giant airship. I can't see any markings, I can't tell you what it's doing here, just this giant shape hovering over the square.

Mike (Zeppelin Truppen) Barratt shows the limitations of our special effects budget as the airship hovers over Pottersville - the airshop is a Lego conversion by Dan Hutter.

McConnell: A mystery, folks. But what's this? There's pushing and shoving over there in the square. This looks like trouble.

Irish cop voice: Back, now, I'm telling you! I won't be tellin' ye again, or sure, you'll be regrettin' it!

McConnell: Ladies and gentlemen, I'm seeing a fight starting before my eyes! These workmen are lunging for the scientists with clubs and metal bars. One of the Russian gentleman is reeling with blood on his lab coat. There's a shot, and a man is down, and another! One of the cops has a tommy gun now and people are running and Ladies and gentleman, excuse me, while I take cover!

Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, please stay with us. We now take you to a program of dance music from the Empire Lounge in the Ritz Hotel in Upper Manhattan. Gene Krupa and the boys offer some spirited dance melodies.

A mob of angry workers rush the scientists, while PPD officers try to protect the foreign dignataries.

McConnell: Ladies and gentleman, this is Jim McConnell again. I've moved to a position of cover and I'll stay on the air as long as I can to bring you this story. I'm watching the police struggle to protect these scientists, while people are running for their lives. I see men on the ground in police blue, and some of the rioters, too. It's amazing, but I've also seen these robots strike men down in defence of their creators, it's as if they know what they're doing. And that airship I told you about, men are dropping from it now, men in brown uniforms are descending on rope lines to the ground - I see a squad of them now over by the hotel.

Droning sound is heard overheard.
McConnell: NOW what? Ladies and gentleman, the airship has moved on, and now I see the silver shape of a Ford Trimotor approaching. men are jumping from it, and flying, each held aloft on a plume of flame. It can only be ... is it? YES! Ladies and gentlemen, it's America's finest, the Rocket Corps! Perhaps they can restore order to this scene.

US Rocket Corps land on rooftops adjacent to the main square. In the bottom of the picture, Chief Cruller leaves the saloon to take command of the police in the square.

McConnell: The square is quickly vacating as the surviving police escort the townsfolk away. I can see Chief Cruller hurrying out of the saloon to take charge of the scene, while the Rocket boys are conferring. Let's see if I can pick them up.

Rocket Corps Lt: Those airship boys look like ... yes, they are. Nazis! I hate these guys! Sgt, you take your section down there and secure the south end of the square. I'll take my section over and we'll get these Krauts the heck out of Dodge!

McConnell: The Rocket troops are flying into the square now, and as I look south, I can see more men approaching the square. This looks like trouble. Gangsters, by the looks of 'em. More than a few are packing heat. I can see Chief Cruller eyeing them warily, while a few newspaper boys are taking pictures. And ... oh no! Oh ladies and gentlemen, the humanity! The gangsters are opening up, a hail of lead. Chief Cruller and the reporters are bowled over like ninepins and lying there like broken dolls! Who are these murderous maniacs?

The vicious X-Men gang, led by my bloodthirsty son John, gun down some innocent civilians and Chief Cruller. These gangsters were in the pay of Dr. Evil, who wanted a robot specimen, but John interpreted his rules of engagement fairly loosely.

McConnell: Unbelievable, folks. I'm keeping my head down, but I can see the rocket troops confronting the strangers from the airship over by the hotel.

Rocket Troop Lt: This is your only warning! You Nazis get back on that balloon of yours and get the heck out of the United States of America, or we WILL use deadly force to remove you.

Rocket troops confront German Zeppelin Truppen at the hotel while the Pottersville PD struggle with rioters.

McConnell: To the south of me the Rocket Troops are now trading shots with the gangsters - I can see men going down on both sides. Across the square, amidst the warehouses, I can see more men in uniform - US Marines by the looks of them, and more trouble as what appears to be another mob of gangsters come marching towards the square. Ladies and gentlemen, some folks want these robots pretty bad, by the looks of things.

US Marines under their introspective and solipsistic OC, Lt. Walter, try to decide whether what they are hearing and seeing merits intervention, while another gang of baddies in the pay of Dr. Evil approaches the square.

McConnell: Those sirens you can hear are police reinforcements. More of the PPD are dismounting and wading into the riot. I can see some protesters in handcuffs now, being marched back to the wagons in no uncertain terms.

Irish cop: Right, ye Red scum, that's enough out of ye, to be sure, or me and me boys we'll be bustin yer heads open.

Police pursue their victory objectives by arresting protesters and removing them the little white rings on figures show they are arrested. To the top of the picture, Rocket Troops hold off gangsters, while to the right, more Rocketeers face off against Nazis, both sides keeping their weapons trained on one another. Meanwhile, the robots have formed a square to protect the Soviet scientists in the centre.

Another phase of the game involved the local Tong gang facing off against cultists. Here we see the Tong skulking in a sinister manner through the alleys of Pottersville. McConnell was too distracted to hear the sounds of their gunfire as they ambushed and shot down several cultists.

McConnell: There's a loud gunning of engines now, I can see a delivery van with some crazy fool of a driver racing into the square. With a loud thud the van collides broadside into the wall or these strange robots. A figure from the van throws something at the scientists, there's a loud explosion, a flash of light, and at least one of the scientists and several of the robots are thrown to the ground. I can see blood all over his once - clean lab coat.

The notorious X Gang drives a commandeered van into the robots, killing one scientist and wounding another with dynamite. My son John was very proud of this unexpected piece of mayhem.

McConnell: Ladies and gentlemen, things are going from bad to worse! It's hard making sense of this! I can see the robots now ... they appear to be going beserk! These strange machines are attacking police, rioters, gangsters, without any discrimination! The gangstes won't be using that white van any more, I just saw a robot punch it's claw right through the engine block! There's the sound of heavy fire coming from the warehouses where the Marines are, and now the Rocket troops are firing at the men in brown by the hotel! What's this? More mysterious men in brown are rushing into the square from concealment - by their brown overalls, leather boots and gloves, they must be from the airship. They're rushing for the robots and for the scientists. The police are resisting, but they are too few. And that shadow again -- the airship is back! I can see rope ladders dropping into the fray!

Mike Barratt's Zeppelin Truppen break cover and rush the melee to secure a robot for Der Fuhrer and for the sinister dawn of a perverted science.

McConnell: It appears that one of the immobilized robots is being winched into the airship .. I can see it swaying ponderously up and into the gondola. There's machine gun fire coming from the Marine positions but it's too late, these mysterious men in brown are scaling the ladders and the airship is starting to climb. I can see the red swastika at the tail ... Holey Moley, folks, these are Germans, in America! I'm sure Congress and the President will have a thing or two to say about this. And now, with a roar and a whoosh, America's finest, the Rocket Corps, are lifting into the air in pursuit. Will they catch them?

Happy players - Keith "Rocket Man" Burnett, Mike "Hindenburg" Barratt of the Zeppelin Truppen, and Dan "Tongs for the Memories" Hutter survey Pottersville.

Well, folks, that pretty well concludes this report from Pottersville. It was fun and silly. The robots were amazing, but they proved vulnerable to ordinary dynamite and bullets. Mike Barratt played his cards well and was able to win the game by snagging one (albet a damaged one) to take home to the Fatherland for analysis, assuming that Sky Captain doesn't intercept him en route home. My police forces were stretched hard and unable to protect both the foreign scientists and the good people of Pottersville - Chief Cruller will have a donut named in his honour. The Tong furthered their mysterious ends, while the Italian mafia held back and let the Anglo gangs slaughter themselves in pointless mayhem. Final verdict, we all had fun.
This is Mad Padre, signing off from Pottersville, PA.

Lard Coffins, or Walter Gets His Wings

Last Saturday saw another gathering in my church hall for another gaming day, a semi-reglar series of events christened by the participants as "AngliCONs". For Anglicon III, Keith Burnett, one of the most industrious gamers I know, offered a World War One flying battle featuring the "Algernon Pulls It Off" rules published by club favourites, Too Fat Lardies.

Like all TFL card games, this one is card-driven, so their is a high degree of randomness, offset by the fact that experienced pilots have significantly better chances to maneuvere, evade and shoot than their inexperienced colleagues. The most hapless of all are novice pilots, or "sprogs", who are like the thousands of turtles hatched on the sand, one or whom might grow to be adults, while the rest become fodder for predators.

For aircraft, Keith had purchased a hot ticket on the miniatures market at the momemt, the pre-painted 1/144th scale Wings of War models. With some homemade dowel altitude extenders, and a green cloth representing the fields of France far below, we were good to go.

Here's what we it looked like as we flew into battle:

Leading the charge was the English ace Capt. "Corky" Manto in his Sopwith Camel. My wing commander was Mike "Le Gros Bete" Barratt in his Spade; I was a veteran pilot but not an ace, while Mike was a junior ace. A flight of three Fokker triplanes was coming at us, while the English were tangling with three Albatros scouts. I figured my chances of survival were pretty good as long as Mike stayed close to me. Using the Spads' height advantage, we got behind the Triplanes and I broke formation to turn right onto their tails, only to be dismayed when Mike and his otherwingman turned left to help the English take on the Albatros flight. Mon dieu!

"Corky" was enraged that the bloody Frogs were trying to poach his kills and made his displeasure felt, rapidly sending an Albatross flying towards Paris with a badly wounded pilot who kept repeating "Must not black out" in German. Meanwhile, Dan Hutter as the dreaded Black Claw (his first choice of a nickname, "The Black Vegetable", was vetoed by his mechanic) shot down the junior Camel pilot.

Every pilot wants to earn his wings. We had a set of wings from our Christmas pageant in a closet nearby, so I declared that these would be given to the first player who would get himself posted to a heavenly billet. This unfortunate honour went to Leutnant Walter Von Winker, an Albatross pilot who fell to Corky Manto's guns. Here is Walter as he flits off to heaven:

Meanwhile, in a fine moment of oedipal conflict, I maneuvered my ungainly Spad onto the tail of my son John's triplane and sprayed lead in a liberal fashion, barely putting a hole or two into his fabric. This would be the sum total of the damage I did that day. John veered off, using his rotary engine's right torque to break my tail, and headed off to help the doomed Walter. Sadly, John would fall to the guns of "Corky" Manto, his second kill of the day. Behind me I could hear the cursing of Barry "Boche" Holden as he tried in vain to get a break in the cards that would allow him to shoot me. Poor Barry never managed to cause any damage and fly home in a Fokker Huff.

The rest of the battle was confusing, as I had little time to follow it. The Black Claw finishhd off his Frog, then landed, and appeared to have a liason with a French milkmaid. Mike "Le Gros" Barratt flew around in circles overhead, telling the German to come out from under the haystack and fight like a man, but the two never came to blows and the Claw flew off safely, his mysterious business concluded. A number of sprogs crashed, unable to recover from tricky maneuveres which they rashly attempted. "Corky" Manto flew home so that he and the chaps in the Mess could talk about how spiffing he was. Gun empty after blasting away and not hitting a sausage, I opened up my throttle, climbed to my ceiling, and flew home, leaving "Boche" Holden shaking his fist at me in vain. Here was the landscape after we left it littered with broken aircraft and bleeding pilots:

Keith did a great job of navigating us through a new set of rules, although the Too Fat Lardies use a core set of mechanics that seem to show up in all their rules. Keith had the clever idea of not telling us how much ammunition we had remaining, so Corky Manto was deprived of the pleasure of his third kill when his gun went dry with a one second burst when he expected eight seconds of hot lead. In theory the players could have kept track of their ammo but we didn't and who really would in a dogfight? Richard Clarke and the chaps on his listerserver were very gracious about answering our questions after the game, and I am sure that we'll be flying lard coffins again fairly soon. Two thumbs up for Algernon Pulls It Off, and predictions that more of us will be getting little planes to go with what my wife calls our "little men".


Thursday, August 23, 2007

CBC Coverage of Afghanistan Casualties

Anonymous comments from army colleagues:

Just found out about another two soldiers killed overseas. Another sobering day to be in the army.

On another note, the CBC continues it's deification of Quebec soldiers at the expense of all the other soldiers in the CF.

From CBC this morning: "The soldiers were from the famed Quebec-based Royal 22nd Regiment, known as the Van Doos."

Emphasis mine. I'm getting sick of this.

For comparison's sake, let's look at some of the other articles from the CBC.

- Dawe, Bartsch and Watkins were all from the Edmonton-based 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. Bason was a reservist with the B.C.'s Royal Westminster Regiment.

- Master Cpl. Allan Stewart, 30, and Trooper Patrick James Pentland, 23, of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, were based in Petawawa, Ont.

- Four were with Gagetown, N.B.-based 2nd Battalion, the Royal Canadian Regiment: Sgt. Donald Lucas, 31, Cpl. Aaron E. Williams, 23, and Privates Kevin Vincent Kennedy,20, and David Robert Greenslade, 20. Cpl. Christopher Paul Stannix, 24, a reservist from the Halifax-based Princess Louise Fusiliers, also died.

And so it goes. Everyone but the Van Doos gets a location, but the Van Doos get "famed." Oh well, whatever it takes to keep them in the war, I guess...

Maybe we should rewrite some of those to truly reflect what they are saying:

Cpl Huffnagle was from the "Adequate" 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry

Sgt Dramamine was from the "Seemingly sanguine yet potentially lethal" Royal Canadian Dragoons

MCpl Throatwarblermangrove was from the "Not nearly as famous as the VanDoos" Royal Canadian Regiment

U.S. Episcopal Church monks offer retreat for war-weary soldiers

U.S. National Guard Capt. Jeffrey Cox watched soldiers lose sight of God in the violence and daily grind of the war in Iraq.

He's hoping they can find their faith again in an Episcopal monastery along the Charles River.

Prodded by Cox, the Society of Saint John the Evangelist is offering a “healing retreat” weekend in October to help soldiers returning from war adapt to life back home and reconnect with their faith.

Read the whole article

Words Unspoken Are Rendered on War’s Faces

I cam across this by chance while visiting Baltimore crime writer Laura Lippman's blog. Say what you want to about the NY Times' political slant, the pictures are unnerving. Nina Berman's exhibit reminds us of our obligation to care for those who come home so badly damaged.

One of the more shocking photographs to emerge from the current Iraq war was taken last year in a rural farm town in the American Midwest. It’s a studio portrait by the New York photographer Nina Berman of a young Illinois couple on their wedding day.

See the whole article.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

War Stress Pushing Army Suicides Higher

August 16, 2007 - 7:27pm
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - Repeated and ever-longer war-zone tours are putting increasing pressure on military families, the Army said Thursday, helping push soldier suicides to a record rate.

There were 99 Army suicides last year _ nearly half of them soldiers who hadn't reached their 25th birthdays, about a third of them serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Col. Elspeth Ritchie, psychiatry consultant to the Army surgeon general, told a Pentagon press conference that the primary reason for suicide is "failed intimate relationships, failed marriages."

Read the complete article

Friday, August 17, 2007

When a US soldier in Iraq won't soldier

By Mary Wiltenburg | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
from the August 13, 2007 edition

WÜRZBURG, GERMANY - No one looked comfortable at the sentencing hearing. Not family and friends who packed the US military courtroom's straight-backed benches. Not the rookie Army prosecutor in stiff dress greens who flushed with every "Your Honor." Not Judge R. Peter Masterton, whose usually animated face was now grave.

And not the convicted deserter – Army medic Agustín Aguayo – on the stand in a US military court in central Germany last March, pleading for understanding.

"I'm sorry for the trouble my conscience has caused my unit," Private 1st Class Aguayo said, his voice thick with emotion. "I tried to obey the rules, but in the end [the problem] was at the very core of my being."

Read the rest of the article

Thursday, August 16, 2007

What I'm Reading: Achtung Schweinhund

What I'm Reading: Harry Pearson, Achtung Schweinhund! A Boy's Own Story of Imaginary Combat (London: Little, Brown, 2007).

If you grew up in a family with a grandfather, father, or uncle who served in World War Two or Korea, then you are probably well on your way to appreciating this book. The World War Two bit is important because the cultural and historical background is important. It means you, like Pearson, likely heard war stories, and, if you grew up in Europe like my friend Pete, you saw war debris and old garden air raid shelters in your neighbourhood. Even if you grew up in North America, like me, you likely watched Rat Patrol, Combat, Hogan's Heroes, etc on TV, you likely read comics like Sgt. Rock and Haunted Tank, and you likely remember the smell of plastic glue melting polystyrene as you struggled with Airfix models. That is, if you were a boy, as this book is unabashedly about the masculine world. I don't recall girls of my generation reading Sgt. Rock or playing Avalon Hill's Blitzkrieg, which probably explains why my friends' wives don't do much more than lovingly (if we're lucky) tolerate their husband's wargaming obsessions. I suppose I could say more about this aspect if I had a degree in gender studies, but I think the dichotomy is pretty obvious.

If you didn't grow up in the 1950s or 60s, then the world Pearson describes is likely foreign to you. My fifteen year old daughter's cultural map does not include any of the TV shows mentioned above - she told me recently that she had never even heard of Hogan's Heroes. My thirteen year old son knows a Schmeisser machine pistol from a bazooka, which makes me proud, but he's learned that invaluable information from playing games like Medal of Valour on computer gaming consoles. He's more likely to want to play with Space Marines and Space Orks then he is to want to play with WW2 "army men" and as Pearson (and I) did at that age, shout things like "take that, Hun" or "for you ze var is over, Englander". For my son and daughter's generation, history seems to be a generic place called "the past" where the historical eras depicted in Orlando Bloom films (antiquity, the Crusades, pirate times) are all jumbled up and happened more or less at the same time.

So all of that to say that the likely readers of Harry Pearson are likely to be people like me - male, middle aged or getting there, and obsessed with war because we grew up under its shadow, and unlike our parents' generation, who had their fill of it, we still want to play it. The word "play" is one of Pearson's themes, for he is understandably self-conscious about being a middle aged man with a wife and a family and a mortgage who spends valuable hours of his remaining years of life painting and playing with miniature soldiers or "little men" as my own wife calls them. Reviewers readily jump on this theme; Britain's Guardian called the book a tribute to "the fine art of time wasting".

Pearson tells a hilarious story of being cornered on a commuter train by a corpulent "extrovert geek" who recognizes a kindred spirit when he spots the copy of Wargames Illustrated magazine that Pearson is reading. "I should have said, 'This is for my son. He's just turned eleven so I'm hoping he'll soon drop this foolish toy soldier lark in favour of solvent abuse and masturbation'. But these thngs never come to you until after the event, do they?" (p. 234). As the fellow bellows at him from several seats away, Pearson describes how "Whatever was left of my self-esteem shrivelled to the size of a walnut and attempted to throw itself out of the window" (p. 234).

I've recognized the same challenge to my self-esteem on many occasions. At the last wargames convention I visited, the hotel was thronged with men, mostly from age 30-50+, many quite overweight, many calling their parent's basement home, and many apparently quite unfamiliar with the rudiments of personal hygeine judging from the pungent aroma hanging over the hall. To see so many chaps in appalling T Shirts (eg, "Hitler's European Tour, 1939 - 1945: Poland, Holland, Denmark, France, etc" - hilarious!), debating the merits of which rules system best captures morale tests for cavalry charges, and fondling ziplocked bags of lead figures, leads to the inescapable question, "am I one of these?" But look beyond the unwashed bodies to the fruits of their imagination and passion - tables with scenery that often would rival the best of a model railroad group, figures painted with loving attention to detail, and a shared interest in the past, and you see something quite extraordinary. You see boys (and the occasional girl) who were given a bag of crudely molded army men as children, and who immediately longed for the day when as adults they could do so much more - build armies with the money they would earn as adults, make life-sized buildings instead of using lego or wooden blocks, and meet in like-minded fraternities free of the bullying and fashion-ruled mindlessness that reigned in their school corridors. Here they are now, mostly jovial and good natured, often quite self-mocking, mostly loving if slightly eccentric parents and spouses, and here is a world that they have created, a world of tongue-in-cheek heroism, creativity, and wonder. As Pearson concludes, "Every man needs a place to go, Montaigne had said, and for better or worse, this was mine".

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Army Picture Caption Contest

From various 4RCR members:

Carl began to question the wisdom of being the first to volunteer once he was actually in the butts.

A cam and concealment lecture about to go tragically wrong.

The Chinese are prepared should the Americans give the command "Don't fire until you can see the white of their eyes"

Finally, the explanation for the persistent 50 % fail rate for Phase III.

Good thinking, RSM. This should teach them to fail their Weapon Tests.

Offer your own caption in the comments section.

US Army struggles with soldier who won't pull the trigger

By Mary Wiltenburg | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Schweinfurt, Germany
The US Army sergeants waited on the couch, studying the floor. Family dogs skirted the sofa, growling. From time to time, one of the soldiers extended a conciliatory hand to them.

On the floor, sixth-grader Rebecca Aguayo played a video game; her twin rollerbladed outside. Just one voice fed the tension in the living room: Their mother, Helga, sat in an armchair, bawling. "It was the ugly crying, with the snot and everything," Mrs. Aguayo recalls, "I wanted them to see how much they were hurting us."

Read the rest of the article

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Sermon for Sunday, August 12th

A Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
Grace and St. George’s, 12 August, 2007

Isaiah 1:1,10-20; Psalm 50; Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16; Luke 12:32-40

Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. (Luke 12:37)

In these difficult times that the church finds itself in, isn’t it interesting how we seem to spend so much time talking about sex, when Jesus seems to be more interested in what we do with our money? Today, for the second time in two Sundays, we have heard from chapter twelve of Luke’s gospel, in which Jesus continues his “less is more” message. “Sell your possessions, and give alms” (Luke 12:33), and last week we heard our Lord say “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Lk 12:15). These are challenging messages, and it’s tempting for a preacher to back away from them, lest people start to complain that “my church is always asking the same people to give more and more”. But the fact remains, that God makes demands on his people, and God expects us to be accountable for how we use our time, our talent, and our treasure.

Faced with these demands, our first response tends to be “how much do I have to give?”, as if God’s approval and our salvation was something that we could buy, provided it’s affordable. However, I don’t think this is the question God wants us to answer. Here in Luke’s twelfth chapter and in many other places, Jesus confronts us with a different question: “how much do I really need?” In her sermon last week, which I read with great interest, Patsy helped us to understand this question in terms of things temporal and things eternal. “Things temporal” means all the transitory stuff that gets us through life – food, clothing, shelter – our necessities. Things eternal are what makes our life worthwhile, the things that really count.

You may have seen the bumper sticker, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins”. It’s a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek kind of message, but it makes a shrewd comment on our society’s relentless desire to consume and acquire. As we saw in the parable in last week’s gospel, the rich fool is not a winner, despite his abundance of possessions. The things he gained in life did give him security and did not give his life value. In other words, Jesus asked us last week if we want quantity in life, or do we want quality of life? Quantity or quality?

The question, do we want quantity of life or do we want quality of life may seem innocent, but it’s actually a difficult one to answer because it makes us fearful. Our society encourages us to think that security comes from quantity. Words in today’s gospel like “possessions” and “purses” and “treasure” have enormous power in our lives. We put our faith in these things because of our fear – fear of dependency on others, fear of poverty in our retirement, fear of being considered a failure in the eyes of the more successful. Now these things show signs of failing us. How many people this week are nervously watching the stock markets and wondering where things are going? I’m not an economist, but I understand that things are so shaky at present because a lot of people who didn’t really have money were leant money to buy homes and were then encouraged to borrow more money against the value of their homes so they could go shop at places like Wal-Mart. This system worked as long as the value of homes was grossly over-inflated, but now that the house of cards is collapsing. People talk about a correction in the markets, as if the market was a God who passes judgment on us when we make mistakes, punishing us for our financial sins and errors. As the preacher Will Willmon says, people today fear the judgments of the market more than we fear the judgments of a righteous God.

So what if we took fear out of the mix? What if we put the question another way, not quantity vs. quality, but true abundance vs. false abundance? What if we stopped thinking about the things that God wants to take away from us, and started thinking about the things that God wants to give us? Notice the first thing Jesus says in today’s gospel lesson – “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:32). Jesus tells us to stop worrying about what God wants to take from us, and invites us to open ourselves up to God’s generosity.

Notice how the parable in today’s gospel works. It is late at night, and a group of servants are ready for their master’s return from a wedding banquet. As soon as they hear him at the door they are ready to spring into action. You might be expecting the servants to come running with water so he can wash away the dust of the road, or perhaps a clean soft road and refreshments after his journey. But then, in a way that’s so typical of his proverbs, Jesus takes an unexpected direction: “truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them” Wait a minute, you might have said as you listened, I didn’t see that coming, but that’s how Jesus works. In Mark’s gospel we hear Jesus say In the Incarnation, "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45), and in John’s gospel we see this idea enacted in the story of Maundy Thursday, when Jesus kneels and washes his disciples’ feet. Again and again we need to be reminded that Christ came to serve us, so that we may have new and better life.

As I understand today’s gospel, Jesus is telling us to stop worrying, to stop trying to serve ourselves by buying into the world’s security, and to start letting God serve us the good things of his kingdom. Trade the false abundance of the world for the rich and real abundance of God. Allow God’s generosity to touch us in this way, and we will be changed. “Sell your possessions and give alms”, we heard Jesus say. The word “alms” comes from a Greek word which can mean "to be gracious" or "to show mercy" or "to feel sympathy". How could the world be changed if more of us were filled with mercy and sympathy? Did you know that North Americans spend $33 billion in weight loss products and services each year and $12 billion yearly on video rentals. Did you know that it’s been estimated that for an additional $13 billion each year, a fraction of what the world spends on weapons, basic nutrition and health care needs could be met around the world.

How could this happen, we ask? I think God is constantly showing us how this could happen. World Vision Canada, for example, can often triple its donors’ dollars to maximise their impact. In one small part of Zimbabwe in Africa, one World Vision project has managed to provide 1 furnished classroom, textbooks for thirteen schools, vocational training for 7 high school dropouts, two houses for refugee families, 74 toilets, medical assistance for 126 orphans and vulnerable children, training for 71 church workers to help reduce the stigma of AIDS/HIV, and 6 community talks on issues affecting girl children and the rights of children. One, seven, seventy-four, one hundred twenty-six – these are numbers that we can get our heads around. These things are doable, and they start with us. I don’t intend this to be an advertisement for World Vision, but I’m pleased that my few sponsorship dollars can help make a difference in one place.

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit”, Jesus tells his followers. Some Christians have taken this to be a warning to expect the Second Coming at any time. A more helpful way of understanding, I think, is to take this as a reminder for us to be alert and ready to do God’s work. In the first lesson, the prophet Isaiah warned Israel not to be smug and complacent in its religious services, but to do God’s will in the word: “learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”. God has blessed us in so many ways – how can we share those blessings? How can we get ready to do God’s work? We expect our firefighters and police to be ready at a moment’s notice to come and help us. Are we as Christians ready and willing to do God’s work in the world? Are we as a parish alert for opportunities to be God’s people, ready to answer God’s call at an unexpected hour? In the book of Hebrews we heard that God’s people “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one”. We all want to live in a “better country”, but today’s scriptures remind us that our hope is for more than a heavenly reward. Our hope is also a better country of God’s abundance here on earth, and it starts with us. As an old African spiritual says, “I wanna be ready”. Today is an opportunity for us to say, like the servants in our Lord’s parable, “we wanna be ready”.

©Michael Peterson+ 2007

Monday, August 13, 2007

What I'm Reading: Anne Rice's Christ the Lord Out of Egypt

Anne Rice, Christ the Lord Out of Egypt (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).

What do Harry Potter (especially in the first HP novel) and Jesus Christ have in common? Other than being the heros of bestselling books, both are (as imagined by J.K. Rowling and Anne Rice respectively) young boys who are growing into miraculous powers, who are destined to fight evil powers, who are trying to unravel the mysteries of their earliest years, and who are surrounded by adults and parent figures who won't tell them everything they want to know.

Northrop Frye once said that there are only so many stories in the world, and they are simply retold with variations. I don't know whether Rice or Rowling had any influence on one another, or whether they are both playing variations on a 2,000 year old tune. I do know that I enjoyed Rice's Christ the Lord (CtheL)far more than I had expected to.

The childhood of Jesus has fascinated Christians throughout the centuries. If you believe in the divinity of Jesus, then you have to wonder, "when did he know what he was and who he was"? The canonical or approved scripture of the church is largely silent on the question, except for St. Luke's account of the young Jesus calmly discussing law and theology with the priests of the temple during his parents' stay in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52). However, a number of the non-canonical gospels and accounts of Jesus' life from the earliest days of the church tell many stories about miracles and acts of power that Jesus did as a young boy. These stories include making clay birds fly, causing another boy to drop dead, and then bringing him back to life. One of the most charming of these stories, which was well loved in the Middle Ages, tells of how the young Jesus made an apple tree bend down so his mother Mary could pluck the sweetest fruit from its high branches.

Christ the Lord borrows from this tradition of apocryphal accounts of Jesus' early life. However, Anne Rice has made it clear that her understanding of the story is orthodox, that she believes that Jesus was the son of God. Her book can be understood as an extended meditation on Luke's comment that "The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him (Lk 2:40). As a gifted storyteller, she portrays Jesus growing into his identity, as he tries to comprehend the reluctance of the adults around him to explain the circumstances of his birth, including the flight into Egypt to escape King Herod's massacre of the young boys in Bethlehem. She shows an impressive understanding of life in the ancient world, including cultural clashes between Jews and gentiles, and her characters have an authentic humanity about them, as if she has freed them from their iconic places in our culture.

I picked up this book not knowing what to expect. I knew of Anne Rice from years ago through some of her vampire novels and some of her erotic writing, and so I was not expecting to be sympathetic to her handling of the story. What I didn't know was that during the years of work that she put into this book, reading a massive amount of material from Christian and secular scholars (her bibliography alone is worth the price of the book), Anne Rice became deeply convinced that Jesus was who he said he was, the Son of God. In a moving epilogue, Rice describes how the writing led her back to the Catholic faith of her childhood, but with a new and richer understanding of who Jesus was and who she was. As a person of faith myself, I found Rice's story as moving as her fictional account of the young Jesus. I find it miraculous in itself that Rice, with a fan following of millions, is bringing the Christian story to millions who might not otherwise have time for it.

I would recommend this book to Christians who want to gain a deeper insight into the world of Jesus, and want to enrich their devotional lives - they will find much to meditate on here. I hope non-Christians also read this book; they will find much to ponder here.


What I'm Reading: Cormac McCarthy's The Road

Cormac McCarthy's The Road (New York: Random House/Vintage, 2006).

Something in us dreams of our own destruction. Perhaps it is the spirit of our age, the pessimism that seeps into us with the news that resources are running out, that the world is dying and we are sickening, that the terrorists will get us. Esquire magazine's review said that it is "exactly what a book about our future should be like" I don't know if The Road is a product of this pessimism. Lesser books I've read, like Max Brook's World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars, actively trade on our media-implanted fears that we are living in an end-time with no saving rapture to hope for. Certainly that's how the publishers view it. I was bemused to find in the bibliographical data that it is cross-referenced with books about 3) Regression (Civilisation) - Fiction and 4. Survival skills - Fiction. Wow - I had no idea that Regression (Civilisation) was a legitimate sub-genre in its own right - lots of cheery reading there, to be sure.

Perhaps this labeling would amuse McCarthy, who I sense is too smart a writer to acknowledge that he is naming the fears of our own day. Like Samuel Beckett, he wants to peel as way as many layers of our lives as possible to find the core things that keep us alive. Maybe McCarthy is more interested in a timeless existentialism than the threats lurking in today's headlines, but one thing is for sure, this book scared the pants off me regardless. Look up reviews for The Road and you'll find words like "harrowing" and "unspeakable" used freely, and aptly, I would say.

I love McCarthy, something I say on the strength of what I've read of him so far, All the Pretty Horses, the first volume of his novels set on the Texas-Mexico border. McCarthy's prose is both sparing and poetic, his landscapes harsh and unforgiving, his characters are tough, alienated, and are driven by moral codes that don't always serve them well in the world they move in.

The backstory of The Road is only hinted at. There was a nuclear war, and the boy was born the night after the bombs fell and as the cities burned. This boy is the key to the novel. He has miraculously survived years of nuclear winter, starvation, and the descent of America into savage tribes of cannibals. There is an innate goodness to the boy, his concern that he and his father are "the good guys", and his desire to help the few unfortunates they meet on the way. The father is convinced that the boy is "the only thing godspoke left in the world (if God didnt speak in the boy he never spoke at all)" and therefore his goal is to save the boy for an unknown future in a dead world. The boy's mother on the other hand lost all faith that life had any purpose, even that they were alive, and took her life.

There is a vortex at the heart of this book, a kind of black hole of nullity that rips away everythign - names of states and months, creeds and debates, memories, identities, hope. The boy's mother speaks of it in a remembered conversation before her suicide: "As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope for it with all my heart". The man resists this vision, but it is as if he can only carry a few scraps of memory and humanity into a hopeless future: "Make a list. Recite a litany. Remember". Within this conflict of nothingness versus tattered hope is a second tension, the boy's innocent goodness, as evidenced by his desire to help the few other unfortunates they encounter, and the man's grim and survival-focused selfishness.

Amidst the horrors and challenges of this book is the sheer pleasure of McCarthy's command of language. Scrabble-players will feast on the richness of language; it is as if McCarthy is deliberately and routinely confronting us with unknown, half-understood words, perplexing the reader and reinforcing the sense of a world turned alien and meaningless. I offer a short list of examples:

"The cold illucid world"
"He descended into a gryke in the stone"
"They were discalced to a man like pilgrims of some common order for their shoes were long since stolen."

It's tempting to ask what sort of hope McCarthy offers in this bleak future. To be sure there is goodness. The boy has learned from his father that they are "the good guys", which makes them a distinct minority in this cannibal-haunted landscape. What future there is for goodness, hope, or the place of God is for the reader to decide. For myself, I'm haunted by the elegiac final paragraph, a look back to a pre-lapsarian time when the earth was rich and beautiful, "Of a thing which could not be put back. Or be made right again", and I can't help but think that this book's future stands perilously close to our present.


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