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I don’t think this basement layout abandoned since 1967 is necessarily a tragedy

A query appeared on one of the train forums and has slowly spread through several discussion groups I’m aware of, regarding a 2-rail O scale train layout, built by a hobbyist in the 1950s and 1960s, who died in 1967. The layout sat for 45 years, and now someone has approached a couple of hobbyists about possibly liquidating it.

Of course, lots of armchair pundits have their own ideas about what should have happened to that layout in 1967, when the builder died.

Read More »I don’t think this basement layout abandoned since 1967 is necessarily a tragedy

The LCMS won’t be able to work out its differences in the dark

I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard a journalism professor say, “Don’t ever do something you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times.”

It’s worse today. In the 1990s, the news cycle was hours long. Today, with three major cable news channels and the Internet, the news cycle is minutes long, and marching toward real-time.

That’s the problem with Dr. Matthew Harrison’s hope, reported in the Post-Dispatch, to handle the LCMS’s Sandy Hook Vigil controversy “[Internally,] well out of the public spotlight.”
Read More »The LCMS won’t be able to work out its differences in the dark

Farewell, Crestwood Plaza

The Sears anchor store at Crestwood Plaza near St. Louis closed in May 2012. It was a long, slow decline, and nobody knew what was next. More than five years later, there’s still nobody who knows what’s next.

I went there a couple of weeks before it closed, and I bought a multimeter at a heavy discount, but most of the kinds of things I would have been interested in buying were long gone. The rest of the old mall was mostly empty. The last of the smaller tenants left in 2013.Read More »Farewell, Crestwood Plaza

Churches: Don’t run away from tough questions

I’ve seen and heard a growing concern over the phenomenon of “Leavers”–young adults who leave Christianity.  This month, even Christianity Today is talking about it. That’s not really anything new. Growing up, I heard more times than I could count in confirmation class and theology class that some of us would walk away once we graduated. What’s new is the percentage of those who are leaving, and how few ever come back.

Reasons vary. Sometimes it’s Christian beliefs getting in the way of how we want to live. Sometimes it’s the church hurting us. Sometimes it’s a combination of both. By all rights, I should have been one who left and never came back. The reason is in the article, but I think it’s glossed over.Read More »Churches: Don’t run away from tough questions

Being more interested in growth than being Lutheran? Hardly.

On Monday, a group of protesters gathered outside the Vatican, er, 1333 S. Kirkwood Road.

Their complaint: Issues, Etc., a popular radio show on the LCMS’s unpopular talk radio station, got cancelled without warning, and the host and producer were fired.

I know from personal experience that this is how the LCMS does things. About this time of year, people come into work like any other day, and they lose their jobs. The next day, everyone else comes in and finds out a bunch of people are gone. Sometimes there’s an announcement, and if everyone takes it like a man there might even be a little fare-thee-well with cake and punch and a picture for the internal newsletter, but it’s just as likely there’ll be nothing but a few whispers.

Several years ago it happened to me. It still bugs me a lot, since I moved 120 miles, made a less-than-lateral move, and worked for far less than fair market value for those people.

So I feel for The Rev. Wilken and Jeff Schwarz. I’ve been there. And I really hope they find stable employment very soon.

I happen to know David Strand, the LCMS employee quoted in the article. In fact, if my phone rang and I saw it was him on my caller ID, I’d probably pick up. There are maybe a dozen people who work at The Vatican that I can say that for. I spent a fair amount of time with him and I trust him. I also know in the past that his department has been ravaged with cuts. It seems like pretty much every time the LCMS loses money (which they’re very good at doing), his department takes the bullet. So when he throws the monetary figures out there, my inclination is to believe him.

So while I sympathize with those who lost their jobs, and while I’m very disappointed in how it was handled (but not surprised), I very much take issue with what one of the protesters said: “They’d [the LCMS leadership in Kirkwood] like to be more in the mainstream of American evangelicalism as opposed to distinctly Lutheran.”

I’m not sure what Bible the so-called confessional Lutherans read, but my Bible doesn’t say, “Wait, therefore, for 15th-century Germans to come to you, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It says to go–don’t wait, GO!–to all people, all nations, and baptize them.

The church I attend takes that seriously. And we attract an interesting mix of people. A lot of people are lapsed Lutherans, like I was. But we also attract a very large number of lapsed Catholics. We also have a small but vocal group who have, shall I say, some Calvinistic sympathies.

Our church looks more like a library or a community center than a German cathedral, and we don’t have a pipe organ and we put–gasp!–Bibles where other Lutheran churches put those horrible blue hymnals. I’ve had people tell me it doesn’t look or feel like a Lutheran church. But the theology that our pastor preaches is extremely Lutheran. The confession and absolution of sins is as Lutheran as it comes–the difference slaps me in the face any time I go to a non-Lutheran church–and in fact, if anything I hear more references to things like sola scriptura, grace alone and faith alone than I did in more mainline Lutheran churches.

And that’s good, because that’s what the people God brings us need to hear more than anything else. Isn’t that what God wants us to do? Heal the hurting? What could be more healing than the message of God’s grace?

We Lutherans have a near monopoly on perhaps the most potent force in the entire universe. I don’t think anybody understands grace as much as we do, and certainly nobody else has studied it like we have, because perhaps nobody in history needed it more than Martin Luther did. But all too often, we just sit on it. Or we bury it in tradition that people don’t understand.

The church I attend does a few things that draw people in, the upbeat, modern music being the most noticeable thing. But I don’t think that’s what keeps people there. Lots of churches have good praise bands. Lots of churches have eloquent pastors. But not a lot of churches have that plus the Lutheran doctrine.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. My church is one of the few Lutheran churches that’s growing, but that’s not necessarily a comfortable place. Growing is painful, and it’s expensive. It’s been a while since I was the one counting attendance, but I believe we can fit about 700 people in our sanctuary comfortably, and sometimes we have to squeeze a lot more than that in there. On Christmas and Easter we have to go to extreme measures to fit everyone in. Some people end up watching the service on closed-circuit TV in another room. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than turning people away.

Our life really would be a lot easier if more churches would make their services a bit more friendly for people who didn’t necessarily grow up in the old German Lutheran tradition. Play a new song occasionally. Preach practical sermons that people can use to apply to their lives, rather than sermons that sound like seminary lectures. Look at the problems we face in life every day and tell people what the Bible has to say about that, and make sure there’s a good helping of grace in the middle and at the end. The word will get out, and people will come. And then maybe my church’s buildings will last 10 or even 15 years before we outgrow them, instead of seven.

I think my church goes beyond what most of the current administration finds comfortable. I occasionally spot some higher-ups in attendance. I don’t know if that’s a sign of approval or if they’re keeping an eye on us. I do know they wish more churches would try an approach like ours, however.

I got a good healthy dose of decision-based evangelical theology this weekend, and it reminded me of how I ended up at this church. CBS News did a special called God’s Boot Camp. That movement is real, and in college it found me. It finally caught me a few months after I graduated. At least it got me in church when I hadn’t been going at all, which I think pretty much everyone would agree is a good thing. But the gospel they preached was very works-based. For a time it was really nice, because I’d never seen a church like this one before, but eventually I realized the burden was literally destroying me.

I found an evangelical-minded Lutheran church that knew what a guitar was, had a pastor who knew how to apply the Bible to daily life and preach a sermon about it, but most importantly, that pastor and his church knew what grace was, and all of a sudden, it was like all was right with the world.

I have a question for the Lutherans who are reading (both of you). Those people are out there. They will find your children. Given a choice between guitars and pipe organ on Sunday morning, your children probably will pick the guitars, unless you’ve somehow managed to spawn a teenager who prefers Lawrence Welk to MTV. So which gospel do you want them to hear? Works, or grace?

I want my son to hear about grace every Sunday. And I couldn’t care less what the rest of the church service looks like as long as the pastor’s definition of grace is something along the lines of “God’s riches at Christ’s expense.”

Speaking of expense, I also have one more request, although I’m pretty sure it will fall on deaf ears. I worked nearly seven years at 1333 and other LCMS office buildings, and I saw a lot of waste–waste that wouldn’t be tolerated in the corporate world (I know, because I’ve worked in the private sector too). By and large, the money that flows to 1333 flows there via the offering plate every Sunday morning. Please remember that it’s offering money that funds everything there, and in some cases it comes from people who really don’t have a lot to give. With that in mind, please use it wisely, carefully, and honestly.

The waste I saw wouldn’t have been enough to make a difference in Issues, Etc. being on the air. But it’s a symptom of a large but solvable problem. If the LCMS had addressed this problem seven years ago when layoffs and huge cuts became an annual event, then it’s entirely possible that Issues, Etc. would be on the air, I would be working at 1333, I wouldn’t be writing my offering check in such a way as to minimize the amount of money going to 1333 to be wasted, and none of this talk would be happening.

Good night.

What’s wrong with Kirkwood?

Tonight at 7 PM, a Kirkwood area contractor named Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton walked in to a city council meeting. On his way in he shot two police officers, then opened fire and shot five others, including the mayor, his intended target. He fired on the city attorney and missed; the attorney fought back by throwing chairs at Thornton until more police officers ran in and shot Thornton dead.

Five of Thornton’s victims are dead.Kirkwood is the place where Kevin Johnson hunted down, shot and killed police officer William McEntee after the Kirkwood Police were unable to save his half brother in 2005.

A little over a year ago, kidnapping victims Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby were found in a Kirkwood apartment.

Thornton and Johnson lived about three blocks apart, in Kirkwood’s Meacham Park neighborhood.

What’s wrong with Kirkwood?

Well, mostly Meacham Park, which is what was wrong with Kirkwood 20 years ago.

Kirkwood is largely an upper middle-class suburb today, although there are working-class pockets. At one time it was a railroad town, and it shows in some of the neighborhoods. But by and large, it’s the kind of place a doctor, lawyer, or executive wouldn’t be ashamed to call home, and a potential client wouldn’t think any less of a professional who hailed from there.

I know the area well and like it. In high school, I worked in a restaurant in Kirkwood. I worked in Kirkwood off and on from 1998 to 2005. I don’t live there mostly because I can’t afford to.

When I was a teenager, Meacham Park was mostly a nuisance. People from Meacham Park would come into the restaurant and cause trouble, making a mess or stealing things, whether it would be food off the salad bar or stupid stuff like napkins or straws. When a shift supervisor disappeared mysteriously one night and left the safe empty except for a single $5 bill and some singles, he hid out in Meacham Park. Another coworker who lived in Meacham Park found him–alive.

When parts of Meacham Park were leveled to make way for an enormous strip mall, I didn’t shed any tears for it.

How you fix the Meacham Park problem is pretty clear–provide opportunities. Thornton, by the accounts I’m hearing, did some things right. He had a bachelor’s degree and ran a small business. Unfortunately he racked up more than $18,500 worth of fines, which has been cited as a motive in the shootings. Thornton used to show up at city council meetings and cause trouble. I guess he couldn’t come up with a more constructive way to protest the fines.

It would have been better if he just would have gotten the permits he was supposed to get in order to conduct his business legally.

Thornton claimed discrimination, and others have said he would get ticketed for minor violations. I knew plenty of Kirkwood police officers from my time working in the restaurant. This goes back several years of course, but the Kirkwood police weren’t prejudiced against people because of the color of their skin. They were prejudiced against people who caused problems.

Many of my coworkers were African-American, and the only one who had problems with the Kirkwood police was involved in criminal activity, so it was justifiable.

So I believe they may have targeted Thornton, but I believe the motivation was the past violations.

I don’t know many details of what’s happening, but if you’re a praying person, please pray for the city of Kirkwood and the families of the six deceased and two wounded.

The suburb where Hornbeck and Ownby were found

St. Louis is in the national news again because of the bizarre case of missing children Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby, who were found in the Kirkwood apartment of Michael J. Devlin.


Kirkwood?Kirkwood is a largely upper-middle class suburb west of St. Louis, roughly bounded by Interstates 44 and 270. The main north-south drag through St. Louis County, Lindbergh Boulevard, runs pretty much straight through Kirkwood, although its official name there is Kirkwood Road.

While Kirkwood isn’t as ritzy of a place to live as some of the suburbs to the north and west, such as Chesterfield, Ladue, or Town and Country, if you’re a professional there’s still plenty of prestige to living in Kirkwood. It says that you’re successful and have an appreciation of history.

I never lived in Kirkwood, but my first job was at a roast beef joint, long since closed, in Kirkwood, exactly 1.7 miles from the apartment where they were found. I went to 8th grade at a private school in Kirkwood, less than half a mile from the pizza joint where Devlin worked as a manager. The church where I was confirmed and took Holy Communion for the first time is also the same distance away. I bought the last Christmas gift I got for my dad before he died at a hobby shop just a block or two north of that pizza place.

Although there are exceptions, Kirkwood isn’t exactly a cheap place to live. Founded in 1853 and named for James P. Kirkwod, the first chief engineer of what became the Missouri Pacific Railroad, Kirkwood is a very old suburb, and it shows. Northern Kirkwood is known for its large, majestic Victorian-style houses. Although the edges of the town have taken on the look of post-1950s suburbia, Kirkwood has a very old-fashioned downtown, with storefronts that bring the first half of the 20th century to mind. There are lots of specialty shops there, and numerous restaurants that are either local chains or one-of-a-kinds. It’s a pretty good place to take your significant other for a night out. For that matter, if you wanted to take your kids out for pizza and ice cream, downtown Kirkwood offers several good choices for both.

The pizza parlor where Devlin managed is one of those choices.

To the south, there’s a large, modern commercial shopping district bounded on the north by Big Bend and on the south by Interstate 44, that has lots of big-box stores like Target, Lowe’s, Hobby Lobby, Wal-Mart, Office Depot, and the like. Virtually everyone who lives in the populous suburbs of south and west St. Louis County has probably had occasion in the past year to shop at least once in this district. Devlin lived in a $495-a-month apartment less than two miles away from this busy shopping district.

Also less than two miles from where Devlin lived, and less than half a mile from where he worked, is The Magic House, a very popular, nationally known children’s museum.

All of this probably has a lot to do with why this story ended up on the front cover of Newsweek magazine this week. It’s unusual to find not one, but two missing children, including one who had been missing more than four years, in the same place. But it happened in a populous suburb where so many people gladly take their children to spend an enjoyable weekend afternoon or Friday night.

Some people have questioned how Devlin could have escaped detection for as long as he did. But speaking as someone who knows Kirkwood well, Kirkwood is the last place I would have thought to look.

Kirkwood’s motto isn’t "Where America takes its families," but if Kirkwood wanted that title, it would have as much right to it as anyplace.

We never thought that included kidnappers.

I shoulda stayed home and read a book!

The last few days have been nuts. I’ve been wrestling with tape drives, trying to get them to work on a brain-dead operating system from a company in Redmond whose project is headed up by a potty-mouthed ex-DEC employee. Its initials are N and T.
And, riddle me this, someone, please. On Unix, I just hook up the tape drive, then I type this:

tar -cf /dev/tape /home

Badda bing, badda boom, I got me a backup of all my user data, assuming the drive is good. One command, keyed in. One command that’s no harder to remember than the phone number of that pretty girl you met last week. (Or wish you met last week, whatever the case may be.) What’s hard about that?

In NT, you plug in the drive, you load device drivers, you load your backup software, it doesn’t recognize it, so you stop and start 47 services, then it finally recognizes the drive, and then you stumble around the backup software trying to figure out just how you tell it to make you a tape. By the time you figure all this out, in Unix, you’d have finished the backup.

Ugh. So, when I get home, I don’t want to have much of anything to do with these brain-dead machines infected with a virus written in Redmond. And the virus from Cupertino isn’t any better. I don’t have much appetite for my computers that run Linux either, because, well, it reminds me of the crap spewing out of Redmond and Cupertino. It’s kind of like a messy breakup, you know? You meet a girl who’s nothing like the last girl, but you don’t want to have anything to do with her because she’s female, breathes oxygen, and she’s carbon-based, so there’s the off chance she might remind you of that last disaster.

Hence the mail piling up in my inbox and the lack of updates for a couple of days.

So what have I been doing?

I’ve been reading books. I finished Dave Barry Turns 40 a couple of nights ago. It wasn’t as good as his later books, but it had a few howlers and part of a chapter that was actually sincere and serious and really made me think. It was about his mother after his dad died. They lived their lives together in this brick house he built himself, and after he died in 1984, she would write on her calendar, on April 24, “Dave died today, 1984. Come back Dave.” And on the day of their anniversary, she would write, “Married Dave, 1942. Best thing that ever happened to me.”

Finally, the house turned out to be too much for her to handle on her own, so she sold it and moved away.

And he went on for another page or two, talking about the last years of her life, trying to relate to her and failing miserably, as she wandered from place to place, living with relatives, never finding a place to call home, because what she really wanted was that brick house back with Dave Sr. in it.

As she died, she had that smile that all mothers have, that smile that tries to reassure her boy that everything’s going to be OK.

The story had a flashbulb effect on me. Partly because it came from Dave Barry, the guy who went on and on about cell phones, and how people who get cell phones have no escape at all, and sometimes they’re trapped in their cars for months, stuck on the phone, surviving on drive-thru food and peeing in the ashtray.

I can’t say I read very many things that jar me, but that short essay definitely did, especially the insight it gave on his parents’ relationship. How many people feel that way about the person they married 42 years ago? All too few, in this day and age. And since it came from the person I expected it from the least, it made it all the more jarring.

Since then, I’ve been reading White Palace. I understand it was made into a movie in the early 90s. It takes place in St. Louis. It’s a book about a relationship, and the relationship has absolutely zero substance. Sex sex sex sex sex sex sex. And more sex. (I wonder what that’s going to do to my Google rankings…) I really don’t want to like the book, especially after having my world rocked by a short essay that Dave Barry snuck into a comedy book and apologized about.

But I learned something.

The book has no plot. Guy meets girl in a bar. Guy and girl begin torrid affair. It’s a cheesy romance-novel plot. You find better plots laying outside on the sidewalk or in the parking lot.

The book does have compelling characters. The main character is 27 and his beloved wife died tragically when they were both 25. I’m 27 so I can relate to the guy on that level. And all of us have lost someone that we miss. And there’s a lot more about the guy too. I won’t give it all away. His (ahem) girlfriend has more substance than a plastic blow-up doll, although it would have been very easy not to give the character any substance. She’s in her early 40s, she drinks a lot, and she forgets to pay her bills. (At least she has priorities.) She works in a fast-food joint, and at at least one point in the book, she stops dead in her tracks, looks the character in the eye, and asks, “Why are you so good to me?”

Heart-wrenching line, that.

OK, so the book’s got good, well-developed characters. It also has a good setting. It takes place in St. Louis, and you can tell from the way he describes it all that he’s actually lived here. The main character lives in Kirkwood, and any St. Louisan instantly draws a mental picture. She lives in Dogtown, and any St. Louisan instantly draws a mental picture. He draws in places that St. Louisans are familiar with. He talks about Tony’s restaurant, and the book’s name comes from a fast-food joint that litters the St. Louis landscape (without infringing on a trademark). He even works in Concordia Seminary, and Cindy’s Motel. Any St. Louisan will instantly love the book because it describes home. I wonder how many St. Louisans utter aloud the words, “Where’d you go to high school?” while reading it.

He made St. Louis real, and he made it compelling.

Great characters, great setting… He didn’t need a plot.

And now I find myself itching to write fiction. I get that bug every couple of years. I wrote 100 pages’ worth of novel while I was in college. It was the opposite of White Palace. It had a good plot. Maybe even better than good, but I can’t be objective about my own work. But to the very few people I’ve described it to, it’s been riveting. But the characters were awful and so was the setting.

That manuscript is lost, as far as I know. Some version of it might be on my Amiga’s hard drive, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. No great loss. I intend some day to revisit that plot, plop it down in a compelling setting, and drop some compelling characters into it. There’s really only one question.

Have I lived enough yet to pull it off?

Who knows. Right now, who cares? I’m gonna go read some more. I think the UV from this monitor is getting to my head.