If You Like It, Drink It

As the two people who regularly read this weblog already know, I once-upon-a-time last year conducted a little exercise I called “Espresso Week.” Sort of an anti-fast, Espresso Week was seven straight days where I only made and drank espresso and espresso-based beverages. Wow.

I learned a couple of interesting things during Espresso Week, but first, a little background. I had a question asked by a commenter to my blog, wondering why I preferred press-pot coffee over espresso even though I claim to make and enjoy both. I gave a nice, long, rambling answer that (as often happens on blogs) didn’t really answer the question because I didn’t really know the answer. So I decided to do a little experiment. My Bodum French Press got tucked up into the kitchen cabinet, and replaced on the counter by my nice, shiny, La Pavoni Europiccola lever espresso machine.

Originally, I gave two answers to the question of why I prefer press-pot coffee to espresso. The first reason is that my press pot is bigger than my espresso machine, and therefore provides more coffee. Even allowing for the near-perfect extraction that espresso provides, the press-pot method gives me more of a good thing. I called this the “quantity-over-quality” reason ― I’d rather have a whole lot of good coffee than a little bit of perfect espresso.

The second reason is just simple laziness. Espresso is a lot of work, what with the measuring and the grinding and the tamping and the cleaning and all. As my brother put it, after watching me prepare, pull, and drink a shot: “all that work for that little bit of coffee?” It’s just easier brew a regular pot of coffee than to fire up La Pavoni for an espresso or two.

But now, looking back on Espresso Week, I’m not so sure either of those answers is completely accurate. Yes, I think quantity is sometimes to be preferred over quality. And yes, I’m still lazy. But I think the real reason I prefer coffee to espresso is simply this: I like coffee better.

Well, thanks, Chris. You really cleared that up. Stupid circular logic…

So much for Espresso Week, and on to the topic at hand: Good coffee.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously defined pornography by saying that he couldn’t define it, but he knew it when he saw it. I think he’s on to something there. After spending a couple of the most productive years of my life (and a great deal of virtual ink in my last article) fruitlessly trying to answer the question, “what makes a cup of coffee good?” I’m beginning to agree with him: I can’t write a definition of good coffee, but I’ll know it when I see it. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Or the cup.

I have a whole list of things that might help your coffee taste better: fresh beans, clean water, the right atmosphere, a couple of friends, a nice solid mug, and plenty of time. But none of those things by themselves will do it. Is there something on that list I’m missing? Will three out of six do it, or is it all or nothing? Is there an elusive synergy at work here that’s just too subtle to detect?

I guess it’s possible. Maybe someone more type-A than I am will come up with a checklist of items in descending order of importance for the production of a good cup of coffee. But I’m guessing it’s not nearly so technical as that. I’m going with the old standby:

Q: What makes a cup of coffee good?
A: I’ll know it when I see it.

And so, like so many things in our modern American society, this question, too, boils down to one simple thing: it’s all about me. I get to pick. I choose whether I like espresso or coffee better, and I don’t even have to give you a reason if I don’t want to. I decide if the coffee’s good or not, and no one can question my appraisal of the situation.

Maybe if I want to be really “open-minded” (another cardinal virtue of our society) I might admit the advice, counsel, and opinions of a few other people. But if they end up disagreeing with me, it’s only because of our differing backgrounds or philosophies, and neither one of us is really any more right than the other one. Their opinion has no bearing on mine. I can praise and snub at will, and pesky little things like other people’s standards will never stop me.

But surely, even someone that relativistic has to admit that there are some cups of coffee that almost anyone will admit are good cups of coffee, just like there are certain spectacles which every Supreme Court Justice who has ever served on the bench will agree fit almost anyone’s definition of pornography.

Well, yes, of course I’ll admit that. But it doesn’t prove anything about the definability of good coffee or the identification of the constituent parts that make up good coffee. All it proves is that our individualistic, subjective opinions all happen to overlap at certain mutually acceptable points.

What this all comes down to is this: don’t get too fancy-schmancy and hoity-toity about your coffee, because sometimes beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I guess you are allowed to take a certain amount of pride in your workmanship, to enjoy a certain amount of highbrow delight in the perfect, scientifically-controlled roasting of your beans, the virgin pureness of your water, the refined exactitude of your brewing technique and the stylish brand-name cups in which you serve your world-class gold-medal coffee.

In the end, though, none of that really matters. As is the case in so many other aspects of our society, the objective standards by which coffee is measured and defined and quantified and hegemonized fade very quickly into a warm, fuzzy subjectivity that qualifies an experience not by what it is, but by what it means; not by what happened, but how we feel about it. It’s not about the coffee. It’s about my reaction to the coffee.

Here’s an example. I met some new people a while back. Same age as I am, same demographic, similar educations, interests, all that. It really was a good match. I was floating around this guy’s pool about midnight and the topic came up of what we did for a living. I mentioned my day job, then talked about the writing I do on the side. That, of course, brought up the topic of coffee, and I was quick to launch into my explanation of the benefits of home-roasting and a defense of my general level of coffee-snobbery. My new friend told me that he liked coffee, too, and told me about a new little machine he uses that makes coffee one strong cup at a time, really fast, using packaged pods of pre-measured, pre-ground, coffee beans. Then he observed that he probably drank “really bad coffee.”

Then I told him something that he probably didn’t expect to hear, something that would have made every subjective individualist from Harry Potter to Potter Stewart very proud. I said, “If you like it, drink it.”

If you like it, drink it. When I first started drinking coffee, I made fun of people who put cream and sugar in theirs. (Why don’t you just drink hot chocolate?) When coffee shops finally became trendy in the Midwest, I made fun of people who drank flavored coffee. (Raspberry truffle? Who does that?) I still make fun of students who tell me they “love coffee” and then talk about the latest creamed, fluffed, iced, syruped, little-bit-of-coffee-with-their-milk concoctions from the corner café. There was a time when I would have made fun of my new friend for drinking wanna-be espresso from a prepackaged coffee puck. But hey ― if you like it, drink it.

As for me, I know what I like: single-origin coffee with a strong, easy-to-discern varietal distinctiveness, roasted a little past Full City in my drum roaster, burr-ground by hand in my Turkish mill, steeped for two minutes and forty-five seconds, stirred twice (once at the beginning and once at the end), pressed, and served in the same thick ceramic diner mug I’ve been using since college.

But that might not be you, and that’s OK. There might be objective standards of taste that coffee professionals choose to adhere to, but no one says you have to like what they like. You might not enjoy the same coffee as your friends or your spouse or the next Supreme Court Justice, and that’s OK too. As I said last time, de gustibus non disputandum est ― there’s no arguing about taste. If you like it, drink it.

Now, this might put us on some rather shaky ground sometimes ― you can’t choose to obey the Law Universal Gravitation based on how you “feel” about it. There are other things that are true, whether we believe (or even know about) them or not. And it occasionally makes sense to base our opinions on reality rather than random whim. But whether this increasing subjectivization in society as a whole ― and in matters of religion, economics, politics, or anything else ― is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, is a conversation I leave to you and your friends over your next cup of coffee.

I bet it’ll be a good one.

De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est

In real life ― that is, when I’m not writing articles about coffee ― I used to spend time trying to teach Latin to junior high school students. There is a famous Latin saying: de gustibus non disputandum est. As a Latin teacher I really appreciate the way that phrase illustrates a neat little grammatical construction that doesn’t really translate well into English. (None of my students ever appreciate it the way I do.)

At any rate, the saying loosely means “there is no disputing about taste,” as in: you can’t convince me to like broccoli, and I can’t argue you into believing that Renoir is the best painter ever to live. We can’t logically explain or defend our opinion on the matter, or convince others to like something they don’t. Saying, “Well, I don’t particularly like that,” usually puts an end to serious discussion. We like what we like, and that’s the end of it.

Well, we all like coffee, don’t we? You wouldn’t be on this particular blog, subjecting yourself to my drivel, if you didn’t. The question for today is, “Why?” Why do we like coffee? Well, that one’s answered easily enough: because it’s good. And therein lies the real question, the question of taste, about which there can be no disputing: why is coffee good?

What makes a cup of coffee good? Spend twenty minutes on the internet and the answer will become pretty clear. You’ll find tips for brewing great coffee all over the place, brewing appliances that will revolutionize your morning, beans and blends from all over the planet to raise your worship of the dark god to heights you never knew existed. What it boils down to (if you’ll pardon the pun ― we all know you’re never supposed to boil coffee) is probably one word: fresh.

“Fresh roast” has become a watchword in coffee, and with good reason: roasted coffee loses much of its flavor after about a week. “Freshly ground” is a must: the first appliance most people buy after a coffee pot is their own grinder, because even the most undiscerning coffee drinker can tell the difference between coffee that was ground thirty seconds ago and the stuff that came out of the bottom of the can that’s been open in their cupboard for the last six weeks.

After brewing, “fresh” is still the most important word in coffee quality. We’ve all had coffee that’s been on the burner too long, and it tastes as bad as it smells. Even green coffee roasters are usually encouraged to use freshly harvested beans, because green coffee can start to get “baggy” after a year or two.

Beyond the “fresh” requirement, the internet will tell you all kinds of other things about coffee quality. Good beans (usually the beans sold by the person hosting the website) are key. Good water is a must ― coffee being something like 99% water, if your water isn’t good how good will your coffee be? Brewing methods, extraction temperatures, even serving vessels can affect how good your coffee is. And I’m not even going to talk about espresso…

But my point, for now, is this: there are ways to help make sure you get a really good cup of coffee. There are things you can do to make your cup of coffee objectively better than the standard-issue mug of diner joe. No one in their right mind can drink a cup of coffee brewed four hours ago in a gas station and say it’s as good as coffee made from freshly-roasted Yemeni beans in a press pot right in front of their eyes. They just can’t. There are objective standards of quality in coffee, and there are even organizations dedicated to the recognition, understanding, and implementation of these standards for the good of us all.

However, back to the original question: what makes a cup of coffee good? Spend twenty minutes in a coffee shop, gathered around mugs of good coffee, asking the passing coffee aficionados that question, and the answers you get may surprise you. You’ll probably hear many of the same things you got on the internet, as people trot out their favorite beans and machines. You’ll hear about this guy’s water filter and that one’s vacuum brewer. You’ll hear how home-roasted is the Way and that corporate chains are Evil. Coffee drinkers are full of opinions, and most of them have never heard that the Romans said not to argue about them.

But after the standard responses have been aired, the answers might start to get a little more vague. Things like the atmosphere. The company. The ambience. The theme music. Your mood. Your desperation level. People with the time and inclination to pull up a chair and chat with you will probably thank you for asking the question and making them think. They will wax poetic about their first cup of coffee, or a particularly memorable one. Someone will probably remember a scene from a book in which the main character receives some huge revelation over a cup of coffee. They will start a little sidebar conversation about the definition of good.

After a half-hour or so, things will start to get even more subjective. Brewing temperatures and roasting times will have given way to anecdotes and remember-whens. Instead of the perfect brewing method, you’ll hear about these really cool mugs they have at this one shop, and that cool chick with the guitar that plays on Friday nights over at what’s-that-place-called.

So what makes a cup of coffee good? Is the goodness of coffee objective and definable, or is it, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?

There are certain standards that a coffee place has to meet before it even deserves to be called a coffee place. Most of those standards are measurable and quantifiable and most of them take place inside of the cup. But some of them aren’t, and don’t. Some are like the smile on the face of the person who hands you your mug. Some are like the mug itself, which isn’t a paper cup held between your knees as you steer through morning traffic. Some are like the couch you can sink into, and the coffee table you can put your feet up on, and the journal, left behind by customers who came before you to read while you’re waiting for your date to get out of the bathroom. And all of these things are part of the equation, part and parcel of your decision on whether or not to call this particular cup of coffee good.

So what makes a cup of coffee good?

Well, in a way, it’s all good. The cup of coffee that I brew for myself and my best friends on a camping trip in the middle of winter probably tastes like crap compared to the stuff that comes out of a high-end espresso machine at the hand of a world-class barista, but quite frankly my friends don’t care and I’ll probably get more thank-yous from them than will the barista from all of his business suit-clad trendy upscale downtown clientele. The cup of coffee that I buy at a gas station in the middle of the night on a road trip might objectively be swill, but if it gets me home awake and in one piece to spend Christmas morning with my family, then I guess that’s a pretty good cup of coffee too.

So what makes a cup of coffee good?

Is good coffee really all about the people with whom you drink it? Is it really all about the atmosphere in which you enjoy your coffee and your friends? Is it really that social?
Is good coffee really all about flavor essences and accurate extraction times and proper grinding technique and artesian well water? Is it really all about varietal distinctiveness and SCAA cupping scores and fifteen-seconds-into-second-crack? Is it really that technical?

I hope you said “no” to both of the above tirades. If you did, then you’ve just found yourself in the same boat I’m in: A virtual lifetime spent drinking coffee, and I’m still not entirely sure what makes it good.

I just spent three pages asking and then trying to answer my own question, and in doing so proved that, once again, the Romans were right. De gustibus non disputandum est. Maybe by my next article I’ll have come a little closer to an answer about what makes a cup of coffee good. For now, though, I’m off to do some “research”…


Geopolitics from a six-year-old


I’ve been playing Civilization III again lately. Right now, I’m playing as Egypt on the easiest difficulty level, and my six-year-old is watching me play. Since it’s the easiest level, I’m light-years ahead of my opposition ― right now, it’s 1470 and I have paratroopers, jet fighters, and tanks. With that kind of firepower, it’s pretty hard to resist the temptation to go beat the snot out of one’s neighbors, and that’s exactly what I’m doing.

Anyway, the next big milestone in my Civ’s arsenal is nuclear weapons. Sean knows, from various trips to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, what a nuclear weapon is and what it’s capable of. The Cold War gallery even has a new display ― a giant screen showing a mushroom cloud, towering above the observer, and a ten-warhead MIRV, innocuously displayed at eye level.

But getting to nuclear weapons in Civ III is a long process. After you discover fission, you have to find some uranium. After that, you need to research the Manhattan Project (a Great Wonder of several hundred shields). Then, in order to deliver your warheads, you need Computers, Rocketry, and Space Flight. After that, you can finally build a Tactical Nuke or an ICBM. It’s a long process ― even longer if you’re six, and waiting for you dad to play turn after turn of trying to fight a war the “old-fashioned” way.

So Sean’s new strategy is this: “Hey, Chris ― why don’t we make a peace treaty with them so that they’ll leave us alone while we build our nuclear weapons? Then when we get them, we can start the war again and turn their cities into mushrooms.”

Pretty clever, I thought, for a six-year-old. He’ll be one to watch, especially since he’s started beating me in Go. I couldn’t help but notice the startling parallel to at least a couple of contemporary “civilizations,” and what many smart people assume are their own nuclear ambitions.

The really ironic part is my chief adversary in this campaign: Persia.


Coffee Rhapsody

It’s the second most traded commodity in the world after oil.

Its global industry generates over sixty billion US dollars annually.

Between ten and twelve billion pounds of it are consumed every year.

Over 25 million families in more than fifty countries rely on it as their sole source of income.

What is it? It’s coffee, and right this very minute it’s out there changing our world in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.

Ever since its semi-legendary “discovery” by dancing African goats, coffee has been the central player in a fascinating historical sidebar of thievery, intrigue, romance, and intellectual revival. Variously credited with spawning the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, the storming of the Bastille, the scientific revolution, and Western-style democracy, coffee has also been blamed for helping further to tread on the already-downtrodden people of the New World by subjecting them to the evils of colonialism, commercialism, economic exploitation, slave-labor plantations, and chain coffeehouses.

Today the romantic-yet-complicated love affair we have with coffee still inspires passionate conversations from people around the world from every walk of life. Still young and fresh even after so many years, the coffee industry is pushing its borders, exploring (and exploiting) new markets, and challenging its own historical ways of doing business.
And all the while, the goats have not stopped dancing.

What is coffee? For every answer, it seems, there is an equal-but-opposite “re-answer,” that leaves you with the idea that no one really knows what they’re talking about. But that’s part of the joy ― the complexity and diversity, the hundreds of unique faces, the paradoxes and complications ― that all end up being Coffee.

Every cup of coffee begins its life within a thousand miles of the equator. All of the coffee-growing land on earth is contained in that “belt” called the tropics. But keep your eye on that belt as you spin a globe, and you can imagine the incredible diversity you find in the coffee-growing world. From the lowlands of Vietnam where a million and a half pounds of coffea robusta were produced last year, to the mountain heights of Jamaica where specialty farmers grew only 5,800 pounds of the world’s most celebrated Arabica beans, from coffee giants like Brazil and Colombia, who together make up almost half of the world’s production, to nations like Zambia, whose coffee is just now gaining recognition in the world of specialty coffee, the origins of coffee are as diverse as the people who drink it.

But the diversity only starts there…

In Colombia, a grower carries his freshly-picked coffee fruit to the local mill, where it is washed, bagged, and shipped to a commercial roastery to be blended with millions of other beans from thousands of other farms from around the world.

In Yemen, the hot Arabian sun beats down on stone rooftops, where coffee grown on ancient trees on terraced hillsides is spread out to dry in the same way it has been for five hundred growing seasons.

In Paris, a woman sits at a table in a sidewalk café, nursing her coffee and scanning the passing crowd for the familiar face of her lover.

In Ethiopia, a guest is welcomed into a dirt-floored hut, where he sits in a circle by a fire with his host’s family while the coffee is roasted, ground, brewed and served in a hospitality ritual dating back hundreds of years.

In Guatemala, a peasant earns four cents a pound to harvest his crop.

In New York City, a businessman pays four dollars for a three-quarter-ounce espresso ristretto.

A specialty-roaster in New Zealand only sells premium organic shade-grown coffee.

A housewife in Finland scoops coffee grounds from a metal can.

A restaurant in Peru serves instant coffee with evaporated milk.

A barista in Japan earns his college tuition by pulling shots of espresso in a trendy café.

And yet, somehow, in spite of ― or perhaps because of ― all of these differences, coffee manages to unite people around the world. Coffee manages to bring together all of these paradoxes and put them into the simple cup that finds its way onto your breakfast table every morning. All of the legends and stories, all the varieties and flavors, all the people, origins, economics, habits and social issues distil out of the beans in your coffee pot into the mug that warms your heart, opens your mind, and gets you ready to face each new day.


I'm not dead yet...

Well, after taking basically a year off from my blog, I think I might be on the verge of coming back.

In case you’re wondering what I’ve been up to, the short answer is "no good." I've spent a lot of time bloviating on this website. I also wrote a thousand words a week last year on a devotional project for school (which I'm hoping turns into a real, live book). I wasted copious amounts of time, doing whatever it is people do when they're not being productive. And I also taught full time and stuff.

But I think I’m almost back…

Sweet New Functionality - Thanks, Blogger!

If the new poll feature ever comes online, you should be able to register your preferred coffee breweing preference for all the world to see. This should be interesting.

PS -- there should be a whole bunch of choices listed, ending with something facetious about making someone else do it. If there are only 4-5 choices, the poll is still jacked up.

PPS -- it didn't occur to me to include an "I don't drink coffee" choice in the poll. This is not to exclude my non-coffee-drinking readership, but to protect myself from being saddened.

Update -- I took the poll down, because it was ugly, and it stopped being fun to play with my page layout.

If It Rhymes, It’s A Rule

I have long been a fan of the card game euchre. One of the few pictures of me in my high school yearbook shows our little group of friends gathered around the traditional lunch-with-euchre table. I have stories and anecdotes about crazy or marathon games of euchre, strange places I’ve played (such as “gringo corner” in the Costa Rican airport for six hours) and awful mistakes I’ve made, the worst of which was misdealing when my partner had a lay-down loner (sorry, Denny).

Anyway, euchre is one of those games that features a lot of local variations. I’m sure there’s an according-to-Hoyle way to play, and I’m also sure that we don’t play it. One of the more shocking examples of regional variance is that while most euchre players use a 6 and a 4 to keep score, players from Michigan use…two 5s. Crazy.

Two of the house rules that my friends use to play euchre are “a card laid is a card played” to prevent picking up an incorrectly-played card, and “ace no face” to get a misdeal due to an inordinately bad hand. These two rules have given way to the general tenet of “if it rhymes, it’s a rule.” We even reject such nonsense as the idea of “partner’s best,” partly on the grounds that it doesn’t rhyme.

The problem, of course, with “if it rhymes, it’s a rule” is that it doesn’t rhyme. There’s a little bit of alliteration, sure, but it doesn’t even come close to rhyming. So, if “if it rhymes, it’s a rule” is a rule, then it makes itself illegal. And if it’s not a rule, then it’s not a rule.

So until we come up with a rhyming version of “if it rhymes, it’s a rule,” I guess we’re stuck with Hoyle.

A few weeks ago, my family was able to worship at a church of a completely different denomination. The pastor’s sermon that week, conveniently enough, seemed to be centered on the denominational distinctives of his church body ― what they believed, why they believed it, and how they were different from other Christian denominations. (I say “conveniently” because this is one of the things I’m most interested in when I meet people of other denominations, and it was just handy that the sermon answered many of my questions before I even had to ask them.)

I don’t have the time to go into the whole gamut of ways in which this church body differs from my own. I will share that I learned that the “-ian” at the end of “Christian” stands for “I Ain’t Nothin’” because Christ is all there is. I didn’t know that before.

The other interesting thing I learned is that this particular denomination doesn’t use instruments in its public worship. I thought when Brother Billy stood in front of church and led the congregation in their many hymns with his clear, powerful voice, he was doing it because they didn’t have (or couldn’t afford) a piano or an organ. Turns out, he was doing it for doctrinal reasons.

It seems that this particular denomination follows the general principle, “if it’s not specifically mentioned in the New Testament, you shouldn’t use it in public worship.” They can’t find any specific examples of instrumental music in the New Testament, so they don’t use any instruments in their worship. (Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 don’t count, because, despite what you can infer from OT worship practices, the NT only specifically mentions the human voice.)

Now, there’s a whole lot a person can say about this idea, but the one thing I’m going to say is this: it doesn’t rhyme.

Seriously, where in the NT is the general principle “if it’s not specifically mentioned in the New Testament, you shouldn’t use it in public worship”? It’s not even close to something that you might call a NT worship principle ― in fact, it seems to run counter to the principle that Paul articulates in Colossians 2:16-17, 1 Corinthians 10:31, and Galatians 5:1. The rule disqualifies itself. It doesn’t meet its own standard. So, if “if it’s not specifically mentioned in the New Testament, you shouldn’t use it in public worship” is a rule, then it makes itself illegal. And if it’s not a rule, then it’s not a rule.

So until we come up with a rhyming version of “if it’s not specifically mentioned in the New Testament, you shouldn’t use it in public worship,” I guess we’re stuck with a pipe organ.

Not-Quite-Devastating News

From FoxNews:

Starbucks to Raise Coffee Prices (gasp!)

Three observations:

1) Why is it news that a company is raising its prices? Doesn't that happen all the time?

2) Granting that this is an out-of-the-ordinary price hike, one might speculate that if milk weren’t the primary ingredient in most of their beverages, they wouldn’t be having this problem, would they? The moral of the story: Drink Black Coffee!

3) Read the article carefully, especially the quote from that Dan guy who put a buy rating on sbux. I’m not an economist, but how is raising prices going to help sales go forward?

Just a couple of thoughts as I keep my fingers on the pulse of the global coffee industry for you.

Doing Something

Sometimes, sitting around talking about stuff is really important. A lot of people these days do things without talking about them first, which rather implies that they haven’t thought much about them either. And doing things without thinking/talking them through can be ill-advised at best. (A related problem is people who say things without thinking about them, too...)

Talking about things gets other people’s opinions into the open. It also opens up one’s own thought processes to public scrutiny, kind of like having someone proof-read a paper before it gets turned in. With a few friends, a favorite beverage, and a couple of hours, there’s almost no problem that can’t be “solved” ― at least, to the satisfaction of those in the room.

Sometimes, however, sitting around talking about stuff is less-than-constructive. It may even give the illusion that “something is being done” about a problem or concern when, in fact, nothing is happening. At such times, action is required rather than mere words. One can’t help but be reminded of the P.F.J. meetings in Monty Python’s classic Life of Brian ― “this calls for immediate discussion!”

At any rate, I have opened another blog to deal with both of the above situations. I’m calling it What Are We Going To Do About It?, or WAWGTDAI? for short. I’ve decided that the form, style, and content will vary enough from the vague, comfortable, lukewarm vapid-ness that characterizes this blog that it’s best to host those discussions elsewhere, and I’m hoping that posting to WAWGTDAI? doesn’t adversely affect my already-atrocious writing schedule at Café Diem.

What Are We Going To Do About It? is, above all, a place for me to talk about news, politics, and other current-events stuss that is important to me, with the hope that family, friends, and a wider community of readers might find what I have to say interesting, helpful, thought-provoking, and perhaps paradigm-shifting. I invite all of you to drop by often, read what I have to say, form an opinion, comment, etc. But even more than just talking, as the blog’s title indicates, the goal of this new blog will usually be some kind of action.

Sometimes, the action will be nothing more than staying informed and helping others to do the same. It might not be a specific action right now ― as a teacher, I’m quite used to imparting information that won’t get used for a long time into the foreseeable future ― but eventually, if I am faithful enough in writing, there will come a time when we will be called upon to do something.

¿Qué hiciste durante las vacaciones?

Una pregunta muy común entre los estudiantes en los primeros días del año escolar es, “¿Qué hiciste durante las vacaciones?” Todos los amigos quieren saber qué hay de nuevo, o si algo interesante te pasó cuando no estabas en la escuela.

Pues, doce jóvenes norteamericanos tienen una respuesta muy interesante a esta pregunta. Su respuesta a la pregunta “¿qué hiciste durante las vacaciones?” es: “Dios me regaló la oportunidad de cambiar la vida de una persona.”

Cambiar la vida de una persona – es una cosa muy bonita hacer durante las vacaciones. Pero, ¿cómo? ¿Cómo puede cambiar una vida en una semana? Déjenme explicar…

Cada año, por los últimos siete años, un grupo de jóvenes viene a Sonora de Wisconsin Lutheran High School, una escuela secundaria en Milwaukee, Wisconsin, en el norte de los EE.UU. Los estudiantes vienen con un poco de español, un poco conocimiento de la cultura mexicana, y mucho amor en sus corazones por Jesucristo. Vienen para compartir algo de sus bendiciones físicas, en la forma de ropa o zapatos o vitaminas o juguetes. Vienen para compartir su amor, en la forma de conocer a los niños mexicanos en los pueblos. Y vienen para compartir su fe en las buenas nuevas del Evangelio de nuestro Señor Jesucristo, en la forma de historias bíblicas y canciones espirituales.

Yo tengo el privilegio de ser un maestro a estos jóvenes norteamericanos. He venido cinco veces a los pueblos de Sonora con Misión para los Niños con grupos de estudiantes. Muchos de Uds. ya me conocen – soy el pelirrojo alto que no habla muy bien el español. Creo que es un gran regalo de Dios que él me permite hacer este viaje cada año. Es un gran regalo conocer a todos Uds. y trabajar junto con Uds. en el Reino de Dios (y también disfrutar a mucha comida muy rica). Realmente es un privilegio inestimable hacer lo que puedo hacer.

El año pasado, una de las señoras en uno de los pueblos me dijo que los jóvenes estudiantes con quienes viajo están en una época muy difícil en sus vidas, pero que “es muy bonito que pueden venir aquí. Es bueno verlos trabajar por Cristo.” Recuerdo ese comentario muy bien, porque es la razón que vengo. Es la razón que venimos.

“Trabajar por Cristo.” No hay una cosa más bonita, ni más importante en todo el mundo. Los estudiantes, como los apóstoles, abren sus ojos y ven que los campos están sembrados, y la cosecha está madura. Quieren trabajar por Cristo, para recoger “el fruto para vida eterna” (San Juan 4:35-36). Quieren ser mensajeros de la gracia y el amor de Dios, quien envió a su Hijo Único para salvar al mundo. Quieren compartir el mensaje simple y importantísimo, “Jesús te ama,” a cada persona que les escuche.

“Trabajar por Cristo.” Ellos trabajan con la oración que cuando los niños mexicanos miran a ellos, que ven el amor de Dios que es el motivo de todo que hacen. Recordamos las palabras de Cristo: “Les aseguro que todo lo que hicieron por uno de mis hermanos, aun por el más pequeño, lo hicieron por mí” (Mateo 25:40).

Vinimos a Sonora. Visitamos a los pueblos. Enseñamos las lecciones. Jugamos y charlamos. Conocimos a muchas personas fantásticas. Recibimos una hospitalidad sin igual. Y después, en muy poco tiempo, tuvimos que regresar otra vez a nuestras casas y familias en el norte. Cuando regresamos, y empezamos de nuevo otro año escolar, siempre hay esa pregunta: “¿Qué hiciste durante las vacaciones?” Y la respuesta siempre es lo mismo: “Dios me regaló la oportunidad de cambiar la vida de una persona.”

Pero la persona de que hablamos no es un mexicano, aunque tal vez pudimos hacer algo pequeño por otra persona. No – las vidas que cambiaron son nuestras. Nosotros somos las personas que cambiaron, que crecieron en la fe, que conocieron el amor de Jesús, mostrado en las vidas de la gente de Sonora. Vinimos a sus pueblos y a sus casas y nunca seremos lo mismo.

Muchas gracias.

(originally written for the newsletter for Mission to the Children, Tucson AZ / Sonora Mexico)

One Cup More

By Chris Pluger

Once upon a morning dreary, as I stumbled, weak and bleary
Down the stairs of my apartment from the upper floor.
While I staggered, nearly tripping, suddenly there came a dripping,
As of something sliding, slipping, dripping down onto the floor.
“‘tis my faucet,” then I muttered, “dripping down onto the floor
only this and nothing more.”

Ah, and then began I fearing, that the sound that I was hearing
Was not merely water dripping out my sink onto the floor.
My eyes were open, heart was racing, fast into the kitchen pacing
Afraid of what I would be facing, facing once I crossed the door
Oh, disaster without measure, struck me as I crossed the door.
It was as I feared, and more!

Deep into the darkness sinking, now I stood there, wondering, thinking,
“Whence the coffee I’ll be drinking? Whence the coffee?” I implore.
I began to breathe much faster ― what mechanical disaster
Fain would try become my master as this myst’ry I explore?
Oh, let me find the pot unbroken as this myst’ry I explore!
Oh, be unplugged, and nothing more!

“Strange,” I said as I approached it, and although I oft reproached it,
this machine had served me well for time and time before.
But today it was not making; not a drop would I be taking
From this pot, which me forsaking, soon began to vex me sore.
This foul pot, which in its breaking, broke me as I begged and swore,
“Can’t you give me one cup more?”

Water from its cistern leaking, electric sparks around it leaping,
Every joint and member creaking, creaking yet to creak some more
First I begged and then I pleaded: it was coffee that I needed!
But my cries now went unheeded. It was deafened as before.
My despair with silence greeted; it ignored me as before
As I begged for one cup more.

Down into the basement running, oh, I tried with all my cunning
Now to fix this problem with a volume of forgotten lore.
But the manual was silent, in my mem’ry I defile it!
And at last I became violent, returning up the stairs once more,
Returning with an angry portent, running up the stairs once more ―
“Now I’ll give you one chance more!”

I pressed the switch, I flipped it madly, begging, whining, saying sadly,
“Can’t we work together, happy, as in saintly days of yore?”
Bowing not to my request it made no noises as I pressed it,
Sat silently as I redressed it, and my wrath I did outpour.
Choking on the dregs of anger ― oh, what wrath I did outpour!
“You must give me one cup more!”

I grabbed the pot’s black plastic handle, smashed it like and angry vandal
Smashed and crushed beneath my sandal, wreckage on the kitchen floor.
“Cursed thing,” at last I muttered, while the fuses popped and stuttered,
and the water slowly sputtered, dripping out onto the floor.
I laughed and taunted, taunting, laughing, mocked the glass upon the floor,
“Now you can’t give one cup more!”

Now I sit here, sadly weeping, now a vigil I am keeping
And in silence, still am sleeping, sleeping yet to wake no more.
Now I lay in silence, turning, and my soul within me burning,
Longing still to be returning, from this night’s Plutonian Shore.
But this veil of tears is on me, laying heavy as before,
And shall be lifted― nevermore!

With apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, and a nod to the various internet versions of “Abort, Retry, Ignore.”

Praying with Understanding

My four-year-old is starting to get interested in the liturgy. He generally stands up and sits down when he’s supposed to. He checks to see what page we’re on, and holds his hymnal accordingly. He looks to see what color the paraments are. Sometimes he hums along with the hymn melodies. He’s learned the ending bit of the Psalm, which goes, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit…” He also knows the Lord’s Prayer.

Yesterday, as we were standing together praying the prayer the Jesus taught us, along with everyone else in church and every other Christian on earth and throughout history, I started thinking. (Yes, I know. I should have been thinking about the prayer I was praying, but…)

Lots of people are down on memorized prayers. I actually had a student once that asked why I was teaching the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish, since, after all, don’t prayers only “count” if they’re spontaneous and from the heart? Worse yet, I’m guessing, would be the “vain repetition” of a four-year-old who was saying a bunch of words he doesn’t even understand. Trespasses? Hallowed?

But then it occurred to me, as it has probably occurred to many parents throughout history: what difference does that make? How much does it really matter that Sean doesn’t understand what he’s praying for? After all, how often do I pray for things I don’t really understand either?

Do I have some lofty and vaunted claim to having prayed a better prayer just because I can define all the words I used?

Do I really know what it means to pray “as we forgive those who trespass against us”? Do I have any idea what I’m saying when I pray “Thy will be done”?

Is the prayer of a 32-year-old prayed with any more real understanding than the prayer of a 4-year-old? Am I really that much closer to understanding the transcendent sovereign creator of the universe, just because of a paltry 28 more years on this spinning rock? Are my words any more “genuine” or “meaningful” than his just because I think I can understand what I’m saying?

I’m not saying that rote memory and verbatim regurgitation of set prayers is all that’s necessary for a healthy prayer life (because the Holy Spirit will just fill in the blanks, right?). I’m just urging caution, that before we look down on (or worse ― patronize) the “cute” little prayers of a small child, we come to grips with the fact that our own prayers are often said with the same lack of understanding and naïveté that we see in kids just learning to pray.

And that maybe that’s how God wants it, after all.

An Analogy: How many Kevin Bacon movies?

Pretend that technology is frozen in approximately the same place it was in the early 1980s. Video Cassette Recorders are just making their way into people’s houses. DVDs are unheard-of. There is no such thing as the internet. There are really no such thing as video stores, either. About the only way to watch a pre-recorded movie on your brand-new VCR is to buy one of the few movies released on video (for a small fortune) or to watch a movie that had been recorded from TV onto a blank video tape (hopefully by someone who paused out the commercials).

Further pretend that, back in this dark age of home entertainment technology, someone asks you a question: How many Kevin Bacon movies are there?

How would you answer that question? For the sake of this analogy, pretend like there are no books or magazines that list every movie Kevin Bacon ever starred in. There’s nothing like the IMDb. The only resource you have is your VCR and your collection of video tapes, and every video tape you can beg, borrow, or steal from someone else. How do you answer that question?

It seems to me like the best way to answer that question is to get together all the Kevin Bacon fans that you can, and have them bring their video collections. When you do, you’ll probably find that there are four different kinds of Kevin Bacon movies that come up.

The first kind of Kevin Bacon movies would be the obvious ones. These are the movies that everyone remembers, that people can quote from, that immediately come to mind when you say “Kevin Bacon.” Even people who haven’t seen them for themselves know that these are Kevin Bacon movies. These movies are easy to count.

The second kind of Kevin Bacon movie that might come up (remember, this is an analogy) are the obviously forged Kevin Bacon movies. Maybe someone with crude video-editing machinery has spliced together scenes from a Kevin Bacon movie together with another film to try to make it look like Kevin Bacon, instead of Jimmy Stewart, was the hero of that movie you see every Christmas. These movies are easy to count, too - you just throw them out.

The other kind of Kevin Bacon movie is a little tougher. Remember, in the early 80s, most people’s movie collection was made up of copies of copies of copies of someone else’s copy. Picture and sound quality weren’t the best. So there might be some grainy images, some stretched tapes, maybe even some that are incomplete or half taped-over with someone’s sister’s ballet recital. Is that the Kevin Bacon, or just some guy who looks like him? You bring your grainy, incomplete copy to the movie convention and see what the other fans have to say. Maybe others have clearer copies of the same movie, and you can tell it really is Kevin Bacon. Maybe someone has a tape of a Late Show interview where Kevin Bacon talks about that movie, thus proving your guess. Maybe, in spite of a similar hairstyle, you determine it’s not really Kevin Bacon at all. Maybe no one else has that movie, but a couple of people have heard that the guy looks a little bit like Kevin Bacon. Either way, other people will help you make that call.

The fourth kind of movie would be the most exciting of all. Imagine the excitement at a Kevin Bacon fan club meeting if someone brought in a good, clean copy of a rare early Kevin Bacon film that was never released in theaters. It wouldn’t matter that no one had ever seen it before - Kevin Bacon is unmistakable! After they watched it, and thanked the person who had brought it, what would everyone else at the convention do? Copy it, and pass it on, and add it to their collections.

I hope the parallels between my analogy and the formation of the New Testament are obvious, even as I hope you will overlook the shortcomings inevitable in any analogy.

Most of the books of the New Testament, like the “famous” Kevin Bacon movies, were quickly and readily accepted as part of the canon. God’s fingerprints, as it were, were all over these books. God’s inspiration and authority, and the authority of the Apostle who wrote the book, were obvious, evident, and well-known.

Likewise, the forgeries and would-be books were quickly recognized for what they were: either outright fakes, or more usually books written by men - fine and well-intended - but lacking in apostolic authorship and divine authority.

The books about which people had questions, which some people for a time even spoke against, are like the grainy movies where the subject isn’t as clearly seen, or where the movie isn’t immediately recognizable because we aren’t familiar enough with the work. In those cases, we watch closely. We ask questions. We compare our experience to that of others until the truth finally comes out. Notice that the early Church didn’t “make” Jude a canonical book any more than a viewer can “make” a movie a Kevin Bacon movie. Either it is, or it isn’t. It’s the Church’s job to recognize God’s Word for what it is, and we give thanks that they did such a careful, diligent job.

The fourth kind of movie mirrors the experience of every Christian congregation every time they acquired a fresh copy of a letter they had never seen before. Imagine the joy at discovering there are two letters of Paul to the Corinthians, or of finally receiving a copy of John’s Gospel that you’d been hearing so much about.

It also mirrors the experience of every human being who reads God’s Word for the first time. Imagine the joy at discovering that you don’t have to atone for your own shortcomings with a complicated set of rituals, or of finally realizing that there’s a purpose to your life beyond the accumulation of stuff and fond memories.

Open your Bible, and read it. It doesn’t matter what page you turn to ― you’re reading God’s words to you. There’s absolutely no question that what you’re reading is a book of the Bible, one of God’s Holy Scriptures. His fingerprints are all over it.

All that’s left is to read it, learn it, share it, and live it.

(this rather tortured analogy was birthed from two weeks of ruminations about the assembling of the canon of Scripture, ruminations which also resulted in three slightly more coherent posts: How Do We Know the Bible is the Bible: part 1, part 2, part 3.)

A Hidden God?

Sometimes, God makes himself obvious and evident in our lives. He is almost tangibly present, and acts in ways that we can almost physically feel. He answers our prayers in powerful ways. He steps in and averts disaster. He gives us a blessing, or blesses our efforts beyond what we could hope or imagine. He speaks authoritatively to us through his Word, or through the advice of a friend, and our life is changed for the better. Sometimes it seems easy to “practice God’s presence,” as a popular book encourages us to do.

At other times, however, God seems hidden and veiled. We can’t see or feel him. He is distant from us, absent, apart. Frustratingly, it seems like there is no rhyme or reason for his sudden “disappearance” ― our life is going the same as it always has, we have been doing what we have always done. And just as frustratingly, it seems like the more we try to “find” him ― even when we are looking in all the right places ― the more hidden he becomes. Isaiah spoke a truth that many of can identify with when he wrote, “Truly you are a God who hides himself” (Is. 45:15).

But as one of my favorite books points out, “hidden” does not mean “absent.” Hiddenness, in fact, implies presence ― albeit in a way that we can’t discern as readily as we would like. We would like a God we can see and hear at all times, who makes his will unmistakably clear to everyone on earth. We would like a God who shows himself, in ways that we expect and predict. We would like a God who “performs” on command. We would like...

But frankly, who cares what we would like? Perhaps that’s the most important thing to think about when we think about God’s “hiddenness” and his “visibility”: Visible in what way? Known by what criteria? Obedient to whose standards? Who gets to decide how God is supposed to act?

We know the answers to those questions, don’t we? As much as we would like God to obey our rules, meet our expectations, and conform to our will, we know that the reverse is true. It is we who need to obey God’s rules, we who need to meet God’s expectations, and God who gets to conform to his own will. We can’t say to God, “If you really love me, you will do this.” God is the one who gets to set the standards, and our God is a God who, at times, chooses to hide himself.

Well, if God is a God who hides himself, where does he hide?

Every day, God hides in plain sight, in the beauty of the creation he has made (Acts 14:15-17). We are supposed to look at creation and praise the Creator. God is also hidden in the needs of other people. Christ himself says, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). The reverse is also true: God hides himself in the ministry of others, who help us and meet our needs. Who of us hasn’t seen Christ in a fellow believer who brought physical help or a word of comfort at the right time?

God even hides himself, in a way of speaking, in Jesus Christ: True God hidden in the form of True Man, the almighty creator of the universe who empties himself to lie in a food trough and die on a cross so that we might be remade in his image and share heaven with him someday. Jesus became a human like us, and yet he says, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:6-10). In Christ, God is both hidden and revealed.

God is also hidden in the Gospel, the Word of God itself. The message of forgiveness of sins through Jesus is the place where God is most “hidden,” exactly the place where God acts most contrary to the expectations that human beings have about “how a proper God should act.” St. Paul says it best in the first chapter of First Corinthians:

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to
us who are being saved it is the power of God ... God was pleased through the
foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand
miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a
stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has
called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18-24).

Finally, last but certainly not least, God is hidden in our suffering. In our darkest moments, though we might not see or feel him, God is there ― not to remove our suffering or take us out of it ― but to go through it with us, and bring us through to the other side of it. There is nowhere, says Psalm 139, that we can go that God isn’t already there with us, not even the “depths” of the grave. Even death itself is somewhere that Christ has been. It is as though divine footprints lead all the way to the tomb, and out through the other side.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor martyred by the Nazis, wrote, “Only a suffering God can help.” A suffering God, a hidden God, is the only God whose existence is not made laughable by the suffering and evil in the world. A suffering God, a hidden God, is the God of those who are suffering (sometimes suffering at the hands of the rich and powerful, who claim a rich, powerful, triumphant, visibly successful God as their own).

A suffering, hidden God is the God spoken of by the prophet Isaiah: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4,5).

The Jews expected the Messiah to come as a king, to ride a white stallion swinging a sword and kicking the Romans out of their land once and for all. They got a humble rabbi riding a donkey. Sometimes we expect God to act in big amazing, fantastic ways, too: heal the sick, right the wrongs, answer our prayers the way we would like them answered. Do away with social injustice. Legislate Christian morality. Establish his kingdom on earth. Give us success and achievement in the world because we are his disciples. We expect power and strength and success and glory. We get a weak and humble Savior, dying on a cross.

In the poem “Nondum,” the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins explores the theme of the hidden God, a God who does not meet the expectations of human beings. Read the poem. Hear the poet’s cries of anguish, and listen to the imagery of God’s reply ― an empty room in which the lights are on, but no one’s home; silence; night; a vacant maze; a host of enemy; the destruction of the weak (“pity bleeds”); even death and dying.

But still, in the end, he says to God, “Thou art, and near.” “Hidden” does not mean “absent” ― God exists, and he is near to help his people by bearing their suffering with them until the consummation of the world on the last day.

At the end of the poem, the poet prays for patience to wait, confidence that removes the fear of the unseen unknown, and hope in the joy that awaits us. What is God’s answer to that prayer? What is God’s answer to the prayer that he reveal his hiddenness?

It is in the title of the poem: “Nondum” is Latin for “Not Yet.”


God, though to Thee our psalm we raise
No answering voice comes from the skies;
To Thee the trembling sinner prays
But no forgiving voice replies;
Our prayer seems lost in desert ways,
Our hymn in the vast silence dies.

We see the glories of the earth
But not the hand that wrought them all:
Night to a myriad worlds gives birth,
Yet like a lighted empty hall
Where stands no host at door or hearth
Vacant creation’s lamps appal.

We guess; we clothe Thee, unseen King,
With attributes we deem are meet;
Each in his own imagining
Sets up a shadow in Thy seat;
Yet know not how our gifts to bring,
Where seek Thee with unsandalled feet.

And still th’unbroken silence broods
While ages and while aeons run,
As erst upon chaotic floods
The Spirit hovered ere the sun
Had called the seasons’ changeful moods
And life’s first germs from death had won.

And still th’abysses infinite
Surround the peak from which we gaze.
Deep calls to deep, and blackest night
Giddies the soul with blinding daze
That dares to cast its searching sight
On being’s dread and vacant maze.

And Thou art silent, whilst Thy world
Contends about its many creeds
And hosts confront with flags unfurled
And zeal is flushed and pity bleeds
And truth is heard, with tears impearled,
A moaning voice among the reeds.

My hand upon my lips I lay;
The breast’s desponding sob I quell;
I move along life’s tomb-decked way
And listen to the passing bell
Summoning men from speechless day
To death’s more silent, darker spell.

Oh! till Thou givest that sense beyond,
To shew Thee that Thou art, and near,
Let patience with her chastening wand
Dispel the doubt and dry the tear;
And lead me child-like by the hand
If still in darkness not in fear.

Speak! whisper to my watching heart
One word-as when a mother speaks
Soft, when she sees her infant start,
Till dimpled joy steals o’er its cheeks.
Then, to behold Thee as Thou art,
I’ll wait till morn eternal breaks.

―Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

(This essay also appears, in altered form, here, at the website of Resurrection Evangelical Lutheran Church. It is also the proud recipient of a Golden Aardvark Award.)


Sorry for the long delay in posting anything . I haven’t been completely slothful, however; I have been regularly posting “eDevotions” at my church’s website here.

Also, a directory of Lutheran blogs has chosen to list me. Find their interesting and helpful directory here.

I’ve been published again. Check out my latest Forward in Christ article here.

Finally, my good friend Denny has managed to quit his job (again!) and has resumed regular posting at his Worldview weblog. Pay him a visit, too. You’ll get more regular stuff from him than from me.

Odi Et Amo

God “hates the sin but loves the sinner.” Agree or disagree?

Well, God surely hates sin. No question about the attitude of a holy God towards sin.

God also surely loves sinners. After all, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” and “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…”

So we agree with the two statements, while at the same time we feel we need to add a third statement: “God hates the sin and hates the sinner and loves the sinner.”

Does God hate sinners, as opposed to just hating sin? On the basis of the clear words of Scripture, the answer has to be yes.

Consider these passages:
· Psalm 5:5, “The boastful shall not stand before Thine eyes; Thou dost hate all who do iniquity.”

· Psalm 11:5, “The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and the one who loves violence His soul hates.”

· Leviticus 20:23, “Moreover, you shall not follow the customs of the nation which I shall drive out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them.”

· Isaiah 63:10, “Yet they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit. So he turned and became their enemy and he himself fought against them.”

· Jeremiah 12:7-8, “I will forsake my house, abandon my inheritance; I will give the one I love into the hands of her enemies. My inheritance has become to me like a lion in the forest. She roars at me; therefore I hate her.”

· Proverbs 6:16-19, “There are six things which the Lord hates, yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers.”

· Hosea 9:15, “All their evil is at Gilgal; indeed, I came to hate them there! Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of My house! I will love them no more; all their princes are rebels.”

Sin is a terrible thing. It separates a person from God. God hates sin. But there’s more to it than that. Sin cannot be separated or dealt with apart from the sinner. We are moral beings ― what we do affects who we are. The passages above make no distinction between the sin and the sinner; God hates them both. It seems like some pretty tight philosophical hair-splitting to try to separate what we do from who we are.

God doesn’t send sin to hell, He sends sinners to hell. God didn’t punish the sins of the world on the cross. He punished Jesus. Look to God’s Word and read how serious He is about sin. Look at the cross of Christ and see how serious He is about sin.

At the same time, however, countless passages in the Bible teach us that God dearly loves the world of sinners, and every individual sinner too. He has provided full and free, unconditional and seriously-offered pardon and salvation for each sinner and for all sinners. The promises of God in the Gospel are for everyone at any time.

God loves sinners enough to send his only Son for them. He shows his love for sinners in that Christ died for us while we were still sinners. That is his word of Gospel for all of us sinners, which is never to be treated lightly or dismissed but only trusted in Spirit-wrought faith.

The reconciliation of God’s Law and Gospel, God’s hatred of sinners and His love for them, may be found in only one place: at the foot of the cross of Christ. Jesus Christ bore the divine hatred for a world of sinners and Jesus Christ perfectly displayed the divine love for all sinners. See in the cross the justice and mercy of God.

How can this be? How can such two contradictory feelings exist in the heart of God at one and the same time? I have no idea. But I rejoice that God’s Law calls me to repentance and faith when I begin to think of myself more highly than I ought, and I rejoice that God’s Gospel in Christ graciously promises me complete forgiveness when I begin to despair of my own sinfulness.

How can this be? How can such two contradictory feelings exist in the heart of God at one and the same time? I have no idea. But I read in God’s Word that it is so, and I take God at His Word.

“Lord, I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)


(thanks to Deb for asking the question, and several random websites for their guidance in answering it.)

Black Coffee

Last Sunday, for reasons that don’t need to be talked about on a public forum like this, I really needed a cup of coffee. So I pulled off of the highway and into a McDonalds, which, as you know, sells something mostly resembling the beverage we call “coffee.”

After an excessively long wait in line due to several larger families ordering huge amounts of pre-soccer breakfast items, I got to the counter and ordered my large coffee.

“Would you like that black?” the order-taker asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

She printed out my receipt and pointed me to the spot where people languish while waiting for their orders to be filled. I noticed my receipt had BLACK COFFEE emblazoned on it in large, friendly letters.

Several minutes later ― a wait made longer by the fact that I really needed this particular cup of coffee ― another teenage PBTC looked at my receipt and began to fill my order. She looked stressed and harried, like someone who really didn’t know her way around her work area yet, and like most teenagers took no great pains to verbally and non-verbally express how stressed and harried she was.

She looked over at the coffee station. Two full pots of decaf (orange handle) were sitting on the burners. There was also one almost-empty pot of regular (black handle), the coffee still sloshing a bit from just being set down by another PBTC. My girl looked again, disgustedly, at my clearly-marked receipt and asked me:

“Does it have to be black coffee?”

“Yes,” I replied.

She sighed loudly, reached for the almost-empty black-handled pot, and started to pour.

“Do you need cream and sugar?” she asked. (You’ll recall that McDonalds has recently started offering “gourmet” coffee, which to them means that they’ll add the cream and/or sugar for you at no extra charge ― another thing to stress and harry the PBTCs.)

“No.” I said. Then, because I really really needed the coffee, not-so-patiently explained: “That’s what ‘black’ means: no cream, no sugar.”

She rolled her eyes and fixed me with a glare I suppose she intended to be withering. Then she set my coffee on the counter and turned away.

As I walked away trying to figure out how to open the seamless plastic lid, I heard her yell to her co-workers, “I need more black coffee.”

Well, I thought, that makes two of us.

Post Script:

About 50 miles down the road it suddenly hit me: to this poor, benighted teenage PBTC, “black” coffee is coffee that comes from the pot with the black handle, and has nothing to do with cream and/or sugar.

Caveat emptor: If you are ever traveling in the area of Allenton, Wisconsin and find yourself in need of decaffeinated coffee, make sure to order “orange” coffee, so as not to confuse the locals.


Just for the record, I’d like to say that throwing hand grenades at churches to express your outrage at being referred to as violent is rather self-defeating.

Shameless Self-Promotion

Check out Lutheran Carnival XXX.

(In case you're worried, those are Roman numerals, not a reference to porn.)

Six Feet Under

I went scuba diving today. It was pretty cool. The experience I had was just an “intro to scuba” kind of thing, a chance to “get my feet wet” (pun intended) in the sport. We dove in a specially-designed swimming pool at the local dive center and stayed in the six-foot section, so it hardly counts as scuba “diving.” More like “swimming around underwater breathing through a tube.”

All of which got me thinking, as I sat on the bottom of the pool with my inner-ear pressure equalized and my breath coming in Darth Vader-like rasping breaths: I think Maslow was on to something. Food and water comes before a nice car, and a dry place to sleep comes before the motivation to pursue a doctorate, and the freedom not to get blown up in your sleep comes before the freedom to crusade for environmental causes. Ever had a toothache? That stupid tooth consumes your entire life ― you can’t even think clearly enough to watch American Idol, and we all know how much brain power that takes. It’s the same thing with air, only worse. Enclosed in that scuba mask, stiff rubber valve clenched tightly in my teeth, my own heartbeat pounding in my ears, I became incredibly aware of how important air is. It’s a stupid thing to say, of course, as anyone who’s ever been choked can tell you (been there, done that too), but your mind gets a chance to wander a bit six feet under water.

And hey. I bet Abraham Maslow never went scuba diving, so maybe I’m the first one to add “air” to his silly little hierarchy.

At any rate, scuba diving was a blast. The first five breaths or so were kind of panicky, and the sense of neediness towards my breathing regulator never really went away, but it was an incredible experience. The mind-paralyzing obsession with air eventually diminishes enough for you to realize how glutted with sensation and sensory input we are here on the surface. There’s no such thing as background noise underwater. No visual distractions (it helped I couldn’t wear my glasses). We couldn’t even move fast ― the “underwater Frisbee” was comical, a slow-motion parody of normal human locomotion.

Underwater, everything matters.

Especially air.

Try it.


I woke up this morning, used a bathroom with indoor plumbing, heated water in a kettle with no visible fire at the touch of a button, brewed fairly-traded coffee grown by an ecologically-sensitive Latin American farmer, read an email message that someone on the other side of the planet sent me during the night, checked some up-to-the-minute news headlines from around the world, ate food from a box, drove myself to church in a conveyance with no visible means of propulsion, listened to pre-recorded music from a device no larger than a human hand, arrived at a church building that was cool and comfortable despite 85-degree humid summer temperatures, and participated in a liturgical Christian worship service that did not include Holy Communion.

Of all the modern “innovations” of which I have availed myself today, which would be the most surprising to the average, run-of-the-mill, fourth-century Christian?

That was rhetorical, by the way.

(Before I get drummed out of the WELS on some sort of heresy charge, see Rev. J. Micheel’s essay The Church Offers Holy Communion pp. 13-29.)

As it has often been observed, the proper question isn’t whether Athanasius (or Chrysostom, or Luther, or Jesus, or whoever) would have belonged to my church, but whether or not I belong to theirs.