Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Richard Wilbur

I have mentioned in a previous post how much I dislike the animated version of Wilbur the Pig. Here is a Wilbur I like very much, the wonderful poet Richard Wilbur. A couple of stanzas of his hymn/poem printed below will be printed on our service bulletin at Christ Church on January 4th. Wilbur does a good job, as Rembrandt does in his Adoration of the Shepherds (National Gallery, London) using with the light and the beams in the stable, showing how the shadow of the Cross is over the manger. To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord!

A stable-lamp is lighted
Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
And straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.

Yet He shall be forsaken,
And yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
For stony hearts of men:
God's blood upon the spearhead,
God's love refused again.

Richard Wilbur (1921-), A Stable-lamp Is Lighted, stanzas 1&3

Merry Christmas to all!

(click on the title of this post to hear Sufjan Stevens singing "O Come O Come Emmanuel")

Believe! And Yoda.

On Fifth Avenue this past week or two, I have seen many examples of the "Holiday" shopping bags from Macy's department store. My first reaction was that this was the typical consumerism of Christmas -- that humans just needed to believe in anything and so be better people by "having faith", no matter what the content of that faith.

But that's not what the campaign is all about, actually. It is a revival of the story of an eight year old girl named Virginia who wrote to the editor of the New York Sun asking if there was a Santa Claus (her friends said there was not). The editor's letter (available by clicking on the title link of this post) was to say that Santa does exist, along with various warmhearted statements relating to Christmas.

This reminded me of the conversation that the Authoress or I have periodically about the topic of Santa. We tell our children this: "Yes, Santa is real. He is another name for a wonderful Christian man named Nicholas who lived hundreds of years ago, and who looked after the needs of some young girls by giving them presents secretly. Today we remember him and have fun by pretending he gives us presents on Christmas." And we've found our kids register that and then get pumped up for Santa at Christmas, including the television specials...

What follows in the reaction is some form or another of condemnation, but there you have it!

Click on the title of this post to see Donald Trump and Martha Stewart, among others, reassuring us of the goodness of the season in Macy's rather admirable and touching campaign promising to raise funds for charity as long as we believe in Santa (and shop at Macy's...)

On the continuing thread of Christmas carols, I have long thought this line from Hark the Herald Angels Sing reflects Yoda's syntax. Try saying it in a Yoda voice and see if you agree....

Light and life to all He brings
Ris'n with healing in His wings.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Circuit Breaker

I work with Aussies, and one of them used the phrase "circuit breaker" in conversation the other day. I know what that is in electricity, and in the context realised that this is roughly the same as "short circuit" in American usage. It meant to change the terms of the debate, to ask a new question. This is what the Gospel does, and on Sunday I was reminded of an example of it in history.

At the Christ Church service of Lessons & Carols, we had the children to the front of the church building to light the Advent wreath. "Silent Night" was sung as the kids went to their programs downstairs. Some friends in the church are a wonderful German family, and the dad sang "Stille Nacht" to his young son while the rest of us sang "Silent Night".

How lovely, I thought, he's singing it in the German translation. Then I caught myself. Of course, it's a German carol, not an English one! An Austrian priest wrote it around 1818 and it was translated into English about 35-40 years later. I was singing the translation, not him.

There is the wonderful account of war weary troops on Christmas Eve during World War I stopping fighting, exchanging greetings, playing football/soccer, and singing "Silent Night" together in German and English. A rather good film, "Joyeux Noel", portrays Scots, Germans and French enjoying a Christmas Eve truce.

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

In the midst of the killing machine of the trenches, of suspicion and even in the midst of men doing their duty, it was the singing of "Stille Nacht" that provided a circuit breaker. Jesus himself often did this when conversing with those who were trying to pin him down (e.g., "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's" or "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone").

But the very coming of Jesus is the ultimate circuit breaker in history, the dawn of redeeming grace.

So, the French film "Joyeux Noel" goes on our Netflix queue (click on title post to see an excerpt). Any carols in other languages that move you? Or any other circuit breaker moments you can relate? Do tell.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Advent Carol

"People Get Ready", as sung by U2 in 1987. That's the link with this post. Incidentally, I saw them in concert in Philadelphia in 1987 (thanks, Greg, for scoring tickets!). It was the Joshua Tree tour, and Bono was late to the stage because he busted his arm somehow. He thrilled some guy in the audience by having him come on stage to play People Get Ready. I think Bruce Springsteen came out the next night to play that song. I love the sound of both Bono and the Boss, but together it's like two of my favourite things that just don't mix -- like egg salad and peanut butter.

Anyway, the point is that "People Get Ready", probably best sung by Curtis Mayfield with a close second by Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck, is congruent with Advent. And the best Christmas carols also flag up the theme of Advent -- Christ came (humbly, as a baby) and Christ coming again (in glory).

"O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" expresses this hope:

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home
Make safe the way that leads on high
And close the path to misery

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee O Israel

There are such wonderful allusions to the whole of scripture in that carol -- do you have a favourite verse? Or another Advent themed carol you enjoy? Or a Rod Stewart song that you love?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I Used to Row

I started rowing when I was sixteen, and in earnest in college, then quietly for about five years, then in earnest again in graduate school, then not much in the subsequent years.

For many years, I could describe myself as a rower because I had recently been doing just that.

No longer!

Moving to NYC has been wonderful, but rowing is not really possible here, even when surrounded by rivers on the island of Manhattan. A "road not taken" in life has been boarding school or college chaplaincy, probably in the UK, which likely would have involved quite a bit of time in boats.

Frank Sinatra did it his way; in terms of regrets, he had a few. In England, I often heard people say, "I have no regrets". I hear it in North America, too, but less. I regret not having been able (or found a way) to row for more years than I have. Maybe the opportunity will come again.

I first was intrigued by rowing as a boy when, sitting on the dock of my grandfather's house on Squam Lake in New Hampshire for the sunrise, saw a single sculler (in a fine polished wooden shell and wooden sculls, no less) slowly moving by. The effect of the sun dancing off of the water dripping from the blades as the perfectly balanced sculler moved through the water was magical. In reality, competitive rowing involves a huge amount of absolute agony as speed is generated. That has its own excitement, but it was the beauty of the sport that first grabbed me. And not only the sight of it, but also the sound of it - the swoosh and pop of the oar moving through the water to the release.

So in this little series on Christmas carols, how does rowing relate? For a short time, I had a bit of glory from success in rowing. Now my kids drink milk from old trophy mugs and a portrait of my Cambridge boat props up something in the hallway. Most other photos, shirts and such are in a box somewhere. And if I was in a boat, I would go as fast as the Tellytubby in the photo! But for a time, there was the glory of victory. And I lay it aside through circumstance and, if my self-description is any measure, grudgingly. Not so for the second person of the Trinity, who laid aside his glory mildly:

Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!

After having viewed the video linked to the title of this post, I'm thinking maybe I'll get on the water again...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cosmic and Personal

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

At Christ Church on Sunday, we celebrated Lessons & Carols, and this was our final carol to conclude the service. It was noted how the carol describes the cosmic, universal significance of Jesus: that the King is worshipped by all Creation, even rocks, hills and plains; that He has dealt with the sin of the world (far as the curse is found) and that He is the Word made flesh who dwelt among us ('grace and truth' -- have a look at John 1.14, or listen for it at your Christmas Eve service). The extent of His reign is total, over all nations, indeed over all Creation, and thus all heaven and nature sings for joy at His coming.

And yet.

And yet the world is comprised of individual people. As Margaret Thatcher said to the dismay of many in Britain in 1987: "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families." Joy to the World encourages the whole world to receive Jesus as King, and then makes it quite personal: Let every heart prepare Him room.

Which line do you find most striking?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Menace

Have you ever noticed that carolers threaten those they visit in this one?

We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Good tidings we bring to you and your kin;

Good tidings for Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer: Refrain

We won't go until we get some;

We won't go until we get some;

We won't go until we get some, so bring some out here

Once in Royal David's City

Christmas Carols are a wonder to me. They are such a great example of truth and beauty gathered together in worship of God, while giving joy to people.

The beauty and joy of singing these in worship comes together in this season, particularly in the Service of Nine Lessons & Carols started at King's College, Cambridge a century ago, and celebrated at Christ Church yesterday. The good theology of carols is somewhat overlooked, and so for the next few days, I hope to post on a number of Christmas carols that have special meaning for me, and convey wonderful truth.

Sometimes I am asked, "when did you decide you wanted to be ordained?". That question can be asked with curiosity, hostility or admiration, depending on a person's response to the Gospel, to me, or to clergy or a church in their own past. But my answer is this: As a child, I wasn't really sure exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. But ordained ministry was not a negative idea for me as it is for many people, because I had such good models in the ministers at my home church. Particularly the men like Dan Sullivan and Laurie Thompson, and even Joe Hess who was a bit cranky but all of them were both gentle and strong Christian men and clergymen in my earliest years.

So there wasn't as much to "get over" in terms of thinking about being an Anglican clergyman for me as others experience. Neither did I have a sentimental view that all I ever wanted to do was full-time ministry. But in the end, sentiment played a big part in how God grabbed my attention. I was ushering at Trinity College's Lessons & Carols my senior year, and had a profound sense that I should be in leadership in the Church. The singing of Once in Royal David's City (click on title post to listen) stood out to me. The last verse captured what I thought (and still think) about ministry -- introducing Jesus Christ to people so that they may long to spend eternity with Him:

Not in that poor lowly stable
with the oxen standing by
we shall see him, but in heaven,
set at God's right hand on high:
there his children gather round
bright like stars, with glory crowned.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Burgermeister Meisterburger

It's time for the Christmas specials!

"Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" was on the other night, and has some surprisingly warm allusions Jesus being born on Christmas rather than just the gift for children stuff. I forgot that the central story is a worn out and rather evil old wizard who, on meeting Kris Kringle, is changed to a good man. He's the one who gives Kris the flying reindeer and all the trimmings of the job. For some reason, Kris has a pet penguin as his accomplice in his early days. These were spent defying the law of the Burgermeister Meisterburger, who leads a paramilitary police force (and the only one sporting a German accent) to snuff out toys.

What is striking is that the goodness of Kris Kringle's motivations is accompanied by a massive behavioural modification programme -- the naughty and nice list, to see who gets toys. I grew up with this in the background, but it's pretty hard hitting in the show -- be good or you won't get loved by Santa! I've heard that in Austria, children really are at risk of getting coal in their stockings if they've misbehaved, while their brother or sister might get gifts. Can anyone confirm?

In any case, the Christmas specials are a blast. These puppet ones are the best, with such characters as Yukon Cornelius ("Bumbles Bounce!"), Herbie the Elf ("I want to be a dentist"), the SnowMiser and HeatMiser ("Whatever I touch, turns to snow in my clutch, I'm too much") and many more.

I like the animated ones too. Charlie Brown is tops. Frosty I could do without. I always wanted him to melt, just like I rather wanted Wilbur the Pig to be made into bacon after a few minutes of his whingeing on "Charlotte's Web". When Linus reads Luke 2 in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, it's a great moment.

What about you? What are your favourite Christmas specials?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


I left a post on the site of a thoughtful guy I met at church recently, on the topic of value we assign to objects. The topic of his post was how much is paid for art, and what the inherent value of art might be. I wrote this:

Do material things (besides people) have inherent value? I think so. A thing of beauty should be valued in the sense of being esteemed, and a useful thing should be valued in the sense of not wasting it (such as food). But I am not sure about the use of the word "value" as an absolute category when describing the means to purchase something. Currency is something of a phantom, a little unreal.

A member of my extended family is ready for a total collapse of the economy, having a fair amount tucked away in specie (precious metal coins). In fact, I think he might actually long for a complete economic meltdown so that he can tender these coins!

Earnest Shackleton, whose ship was trapped in ice and led his men over land in their South Pole expedition, commanded the men to leave aside anything that wouldn't keep them alive. He added to the great heap of things to be left the gold sovereigns in his possession. But he picked up a volume of Browning, saying 'I throw away trash [gold sovereigns] and am rewarded with golden inspirations'.

Makes you want to read Browning, doesn't it?

Monday, December 8, 2008

I am the Greatest!

I've been praying for a friend whose son is terribly ill, though recovering, and thinking about times when my children have suffered. While what my kids have endured has not approached his experience, and the emergencies were of shorter duration, the fact is that the suffering of a child is of a different quality than other human suffering.

God the Father is not immune to the suffering of a child, of course, and in the strangest solution to the suffering and sorrow in the world, sent His Son to be born as a baby who would, in due time, suffer death, even death on a cross (cf Philippians 2). So while Muhammad Ali was probably the greatest boxer, the image on Esquire magazine in the third photo shows him in weakness (in the pose of St. Sebastian, who died for his faith in Christ). Then he is more like the Greatest than he is picking the round he will knock out his opponent. But the greatest in the eyes of the Creator is the second photo, of a little child.

Matthew 18.1-6
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea."

I am not going through what my friend is going through. I do trust that God is neither immune from the sorrow of this situation, nor absent from this family in this trial which He has brought to them. The purpose for that is as yet unknown.

Does suffering perplex you? It does me, and yet it doesn't, knowing God is in charge. Sometimes makes me angry, or confused, certainly. What about you?

On a much lighter note, click the title of this post to see a cartoon of Muhammad Ali as an astronaut cartoon hero.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Denny Crane...Denny Crane...Hi, Denny Crane

Braggadocious, misogynistic, outrageous and generally over the top. That's Denny Crane on Boston Legal. A man who walks in a room and simply repeats his name, "Denny Crane", as if that's all that needs to be said. Continuing the tv theme, Boston Legal is a show that I like, though the lewdness of it distracts from the greatness and interest of the show, which is William Shatner's character --- a successful man dealing with his diminished capacities as age catches him. Alongside this is a wonderful friendship between two men, Denny Crane and Alan Shore (Shatner and Spader). Returning to the theme of eternal hope, Denny Crane asks about what our bodies will be like in heaven. I was grateful that another blog posted the conversation:

Denny Crane, asks, “Do you think in heaven I’ll have Mad Cow?”

(Mad Cow is his code word for his Alzheimer’s).

Spader pauses to take a drink, then says, “Denny, I think in heaven you will be as you were in the prime of your life.”

Denny Crane nods in contemplation. “Then I’ll be just as I am now,” he says and raises his drink to Spader.

That bravado of Denny's is a very transparent papering over of his insecurity. Yet it is so grotesquely transparent that it becomes endearing. The truth is Denny longs for his youth, when he had full command of his faculties, and when he was respected and feared rather than something of a buffoon. But his ego will not allow him to admit anything but that he is greater with each passing year.

The comforting truth, if a bit sobering, is that while age is a mark of honour and should be respected, our capacities do diminish. Fifty is the new forty, forty is the new thirty, etc. tell us that we aren't getting older. But we are. Age isn't just in your mind. We really get old. And creaky. And this makes me long for the resurrection, so that I won't be just as I am now.

How about you? Are you with Denny Crane on this one?

Meat and Bones

I saw an episode of the television series Mad Men. The plot seemed thin, the driving theme appeared to be a rejoicing in the time when women's liberation had not yet taken hold, but when sexual mores had begun to loosen. The beatnik rather than the hippie era. I don't have all the backstories, but a number of the characters drew my interest, while others were fairly shallow and unappealing. Many of my friends love it.

What I did like was how people looked! The Authoress (n.b.: my wife) and I were in a diner the other day, before our appointed hour to visit some lovely friends from our church who were recently blessed with a baby. The diner had a 1940's/50's theme to it, and showed a picture of Miss America contestants from about 1953. The Authoress mentioned how the idea of beauty changes with each generation, and how those women would all be considered overweight today.

Too bad.

This is bad for women who starve themselves to look tiny. It's bad for men who seem to want women to look like girls, perhaps thereby recalling their own youth? It's bad for men, too, who need to be too slender as well -- what if I really do need to live for awhile without sufficient food -- I'll be glad for the extra I'm carrying around then!

So I was delighted to see people a bit soft around the edges. Normal, to my eyes. Maybe the plague of obesity our culture has today is a reaction to the ideal of beauty being so far from what is possible for most to obtain.

The woman who reviews television shows at the New York Sun has this to say:

Meat is important, too on them. The "Mad Men" women have some meat on their bones, an extra 10 pounds they'd be working like crazy to get rid of today. A little roundness made their skin look young and their legs look nice. In the show, at least, everyone also always seems to be eating meat steaks sizzling with fat or home-cooked roast beef, and no one is talking about cholesterol. Not even the doctors. Of course, they're weren't talking about the rampant alcoholism, either. But still. It would be nice to eat more steak.

But I digress. I guess I've lost the point, too. Certainly the Bible hails inner beauty, but does not reject the idea of men or women having physical beauty. It rejoices in beauty. I'm guessing if the resurrection does mean our bodies are transformed but recognizably us, the result will be closer to Mad Men type of bodies than those we idealise today.

Your view? In this stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas, are we better off with a few more pounds? In the photos, do Don & Betty have more wisdom about bodies than the folks of today?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

BBC America

 To get any channels at all where we live, cable television is required, the first time I've ever had it.  And along with cable comes BBC America.  

Joy inexpressible.

Mainly I enjoy older comedy troupes and duos, period dramas... British science fiction even seems more thoughtful.  But along with these genre is the auto show called Top Gear.  Essentially, the show involves three men driving super cars and saying how wonderful they are, and then also thinking of crazy things to do with regular cars.  It's fantastic stuff.  Click on the link to see their football/soccer match.

A truly marvelous episode is the race between the presenters to the North Pole, one by dog sled, one by pickup truck.  

Are you a fan?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The god of Fifth Avenue

Walking down Fifth Avenue, at 50th Street one is struck by the face-off of St Patrick's Cathedral and the statue of Atlas at Rockefeller Center. While the statue is based on the Greek mythology of Atlas holding the sky/the world upon his shoulders, in the context of the architecture of Rockefeller Center, it really celebrates modernism and the power of Man. This is shown by the central place of Prometheus (who stole fire from the gods for humanity) as well as the many mosaics and reliefs celebrating the human spirit and things like "commerce", "industry", "transport" and so on.

Many have noted before that there is something of a squaring off of divine versus human. But in December, Consumption is king. It is impossible to move around at the intersection of Fifth & 50th because of holiday shoppers. And on the day after Thanksgiving, retail sales were up this year, in the midst of the most severe economic downturn for decades. I am not going to my regular office nearby there today, because of the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center making for hoardes of crowds. This is no bah humbug -- I love Christmas and love it in NYC. This is merely to point out that the old battle between cathedrals to God or cathedrals to Man have been bypassed, at least for the month of December at Fifth & 50th. The new god is StuffToBuyOnCredit and instead of cathedrals, he has many small churches (Tiffany's, Saks', Macy's, etc.) where his worshippers flock in droves.

On a lighter note, the video link is John Denver singing Silver Bells.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Really Important People

A friend and fellow minister and I were discussing the tendency in New York (as anywhere, but especially here) to try to get to the right places to see the right people. Not much remarkable about that, except that it occurs in Christian settings -- there are actually "the right places to go to meet the right people" within the social milieu of Christian activities in Manhattan.


My dislike of such "networking" is a measure of self righteousness, I'm sure, but also mere self preservation -- on two counts. First, I forget that all the folks who attend such events actually need whatever is being provided to them, and don't need a minister of the Gospel trying to tell them about another new venture they can support. To be in that setting dampens the spark in one's spirit very quickly indeed. Second, when I have gone to hear an interesting speaker in such settings, I inevitably only meet people who serve in Christian ministries talking about people in influential positions in such a way that a person has ceased to be considered a person.

Further, there is a prevalent notion that a Christian minister should tell people to follow Jesus the teacher rather than proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ as Lord. This is especially strange approaching Christmas, when the infant King of Kings was worshipped and hallowed before he could even say "goo goo, gaa gaa" let alone "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." But that's a topic for another day. I leave the event with a handful of business cards and a diminished sense of the priority of seeking out those who are, to put it simply, spiritually lost.

A friend in college had a lovely habit of slamming his palm on the table when anyone dropped a name in conversation. It was even more effective when he would do it while standing up, drink in hand, slamming the imaginary table in front of him. Click on the title post for a lovely "Two Ronnies" sketch on name dropping.

Come to think of it, I think I name dropped the other night. Pray for me.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Faith that Scares

In the midst of the thrill of Christmas decorations which dominate Manhattan, this church season is primarily one of preparation for the end of things and the new creation.

Matthew 24 includes this obviously good news:

14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

The less obviously good news from that same chapter:

21 For then there will be great distress, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.


28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

Vultures! Put that next to the description by commentator Tucker Carlson, on his usual Sunday church experience:

"You'll never meet nicer people. If you needed someone to hold your wallet, or if you were lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood and had to duck into a stranger's house to use the bathroom, you could do a whole lot worse...No one has better manners. And that may be the problem. There's a notable lack of urgency...Jesus may have promised he'd come back someday, but in [my church] you don't get the feeling he really meant it. Nor do you hear a lot about sin. Lust, hatred, gluttony, pride, envy -- those are dramatic emotions. ...

The typical sermon leaves the impression that all would be well in this world if only people could manage to be reasonable with each other. Gentlemanly. Thoughtful.

There's nothing necessarily bad about any of this. (I remain [a member], with no plans to change.) But every once in a while, as I shift in my pew listening to one of our unusually well-educated preachers expand on the Aramaic understanding of discipleship, I do wish Jesus would come back, preferably in a massive ball of fire through the ceiling of the church. Spiritually, I'm nowhere near ready to face something like that. But it'd be worth it for the shock value....Dead religions don't give people the creeps...But Christianity still does. What a relief. It's nice to see that our faith still scares people."

(source:, Dec 7th, 2005 “The Situation” television show w/T Carlson)

It's possible on the one hand to look at whacky predictions of the parousia (fancy term for the Second Coming) involving Soviet tanks a generation ago, or whatever today's equivalent might be. Or on the other hand to seek to distill the essence of all religions in the form of timeless moral teaching. But Christianity as found in the Bible speaks of Jesus entering history. As a baby. To live the perfect life, and to seek and save the lost, giving his life as a ransom for many. And then to return again in glory, as judge. That touches our lives, because we live in history. It is a faith that scares because everything will be wrapped up by him. You and I aren't in charge. Scary or reassuring? What do you think?

(video link -- click on post title: I thought it was neat when the Terminator show used a Johnny Cash song)

Friday, November 28, 2008

"Clarence, where's Mary?"

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the moon will go through a full phase, the earth will rotate on its axis a couple of dozen times, Helium will remain the second element on the Periodic Table, and I will watch "It's a Wonderful Life", the Frank Capra film starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.

I love this film, even though I know it is a fanciful portrayal of both America and family life, not to mention an angel named Clarence who teaches George Bailey to "Remember no man is a failure who has friends." The notion of examining what the world would be like without me in it is even appealing.

But what also strikes me in the film is one small feature that is at least ambivalent in terms of Christian teaching, and possibly opposed to it.

The question is: does the portrayal of Mary Bailey as "an old maid" who works in the library show that the film really has not just a wonderful view of family life (happiness in spite of the father not reaching the level of financial success in life he desires, and at some level being constantly frustrated with his situation)...does it also stray into an idolatry of the family? I'm not sure. Here are the possibilities, and you may think of others:

1. George's horror at Mary being unmarried is a reflection that because he never lived, her life has somehow been wasted because she never married. This would deny the goodness of single life, as Jesus and Paul both taught, as a state to be held up alongside or even in higher regard than marriage and family life.

2. George's horror at Mary being unmarried is more personal, in that it means the happiness the two of them shared never happened. And that their children do not exist in the world where George Bailey never lived.

It's possible that both are true in the film, i.e., that Clarence's description of Mary as an "old maid" reveals this to be a terrible blow, while George reacts at a much more personal level. Certainly not everyone in Bedford Falls or Pottersville is shown to be married and with kids to be happy, though Ma Bailey and her bitterness would indicate that growing old without children made her angry enough at life.

What are your thoughts on this idea in "It's a Wonderful Life", or just your favourite scene from the film? Or even your favourite element on the periodic table (mine is Krypton, 36, with hopes that one day Kryptonite can be made from that gas...)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes

Number One Son proved the accuracy of a commercial I remember from some years' back.  Or perhaps it was a print advertisement.  It showed the parents of a young child fighting or using rather blue language in any case, and had a tag line "sensitive recording devices" to describe how children pick up things adults say.  This was certainly true in our household recently...

I asked the Authoress to pass me something while I was holding The Baby.  To be clear about it, I said something along the lines of "pass me the blanket, leave the pacifier".  The reply was "that sounded like The Godfather, 'Leave the gun, take the canoli'".  Smiling, I say, "It was meant to."  Number One Son was playing nearby.

At dinner that evening, Number One Son hears one of us say at the table, "would you please take this to the kitchen?".  And he blurts out, "Leave the gun, take the canoli".  We thought it was rather amusing, but it does rather make the point about kids taking in everything that is said in their presence.

"Train up a child in the way he should go:  and when he is old, he will not depart from it."  Proverbs 22.6.  I want my kids to know all the great movie lines, but when is the right time to teach them these?

On a separate note, guys seem to know this line while many women don't.  This morning, some women in a Bible study were ignorant of it, but did know line:  "Go to the mattresses", not from The Godfather itself, but from the romantic comedy You've Got Mail.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

It's all happening in Manhattan...

Gosspi Girl was filming in the sweets shop my son looks forward to for a weekly selection of five pieces of loose candy. And down on Wall Street today for a weekly meeting, I saw beyond the immense Christmas tree put up by the Stock Exchange, men in period British army uniforms were playing band tunes on the steps of the Federal Hall where Washington's inauguration took place. This reminds me of a retort my English expatriate friend Simon Barnes would make when Americans would make joking remarks on the Fourth of July: "Of course, in England, we call that 'Thanksgiving Day'". Very droll, indeed. What if things had turned out differently in history, and the American Revolution had been a rebellion successfully put down? The sight of Redcoats on the steps of Federal Hall would be normal, not unusual... (click on the title to see an imaginary version of WW2 being lost by the Allies).

Jesus said in Matthew 24 (which I am preaching this coming first Sunday of Advent) that impressive buildings would be cast down and various strange events would signal the end times. I take today's events as an encouragement to be found ready! What do you think, dear reader?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Artistic Immortality?

Preaching Revelation 21 this weekend, I was struck by the scene of the Holy City receiving a delivery from the kings and peoples of the earth. John Stott remarks on these verses:

At this point we need to consider Revelation 21:24,26: "The kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it" and "the glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it." We should not hesitate to affirm that the cultural treasures of the world will enrich the new Jerusalem. Nature is what God gives us; culture is what human beings make of it. Since human beings are ambiguous, so is their culture. Some of it is evil and even demonic, but some of it is also beautiful, good, and true. It is this which will adorn the Holy City."

It occurs to me that many artists seek to achieve immortality through their art outlasting their own life. So the Sistine Chapel is Michelangelo's legacy, and such pieces as the Wind Serenade No. 10 for Mozart are thought to have achieved immortality (click on post title to listen). But only as long as the chapel stands or people still play/listen to this music. There is every indication from those verses in Rev 21, however, that the beauty of our fallen world will, in some way, give glory to God in the renewed creation.

I don't think that Velvet Elvis paintings will make the cut, however...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Joy of an unexpected visit

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

So goes a classic Monty Python sketch (click on title of this post for a video segment). But in the realm of real relationships, it is a matter of joy when someone I would love to see is going to drop by unexpectedly. My sister, an archeologist from California, has made the trek from Boston where she is attending a conference. So Number One Son gets to sleep in his sisters' room, and we have a quick visit with Auntie L!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


I mentioned in a previous post that I will preach on Revelation 21 this coming Sunday. In addition to place (the striking material aspects of the new heaven and new earth), there is the key idea of time (now the dwelling of God is with people).

On the bus today going down Second Avenue, Number One Son and I were delayed for some while due to the construction for the new subway line. After playing our usual games, I took out my phone, which also keeps recorded music. He listened to Handel's Zadok the Priest for awhile, as I thought he would get a kick out of the build up in the music.

When at Cambridge, there was an institute at my college for "Theology through the Arts". While I didn't have unfettered regard for their projects, there were many interesting aspects of the theological observations available through an artistic medium. In Handel, the sense of building anticipation before the arrival of the priest-king is exceptional. It does bring to mind the waiting of God's people for the Advent of Jesus Christ. Advent is popularly a preparation for Christmas, and that's true, but it's main function is a preparation for the return of Christ.

Click on the title of this post and give Handel a listen -- you need to wait until two minutes into the piece, which feels like a long time. But once you get there, it was worth the waiting! And didn't seem like such a long time afterwards. I expect it will be the same with the real Advent.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Living in the Connecticut suburban town of West Hartford, a walk to a nearby park meant taking in the sights of other houses and yards along the way. We appreciated the variety of houses (each one being individually designed, rather than a development of similar houses). That house has blue shutters, this one has columns in the front, over there we see a yard landscaped with flowers instead of shade plants. Inside, everyone has their own story, but it typically includes a marriage (and maybe a divorce), some kids (maybe little, maybe grown), a job in Hartford or nearby, soccer balls and lacrosse sticks, etc.

Here in NYC, a constantly astonishing feature is how very different people and institutions can be lumped together in the same area. On the floor of the building where my office is located are non-profits, a consulting firm, a security firm that seems to protect Russian oligarchs or something like that, and a hedge fund manager. But the other day took the cake:

Walking Number One Son to school the other day, I dropped him off at the church building where his school meets. And next door, it seems, is the house for the current season of "America's Next Top Model". I found this out when my eyes landed not on a model, but on a pink plaid limousine that was half a city block long. It waited for the current hopefuls to alight to take them to an important session of catwalk training with Tyra, or something like that.

The point is that the street is mainly residential, with normal apartments and a number of lovely brownstones interspersed on the block. Yet in Manhattan, this is close enough to all of the fabu world of fashion to make it worth the producers' time to take over one such brownstone and convert it to Big Brother for Thin People.

Theologically, this helps me to grasp why the new creation is described in terms of a city. I'm preaching on Revelation 21 this coming Sunday morning, incidentally, and am struck by the very physical description of the new Jerusalem. It's very symbolic language there (every part of the description arises from Old Testament promises being fulfilled), but physical and substantial nonetheless. There will be massive variety (from every tribe, tongue and nation), and while the streets will be paved with gold, the pink plaid limo will not be a feature...

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

It is a matter of constant frustration that it is almost never cheaper to take a train, compared to driving or flying between cities separated by a couple of hundred miles. It is lovely to sit on board rather than drive, and less hassle to negotiate even Penn Station in Manhattan than an airport security line. Yet when one is obliged (as I am) to take into consideration the cheapest option of travel, the train is left aside time and again. So the thrill of alighting the train (with such romantic names as the Empire Service, Maple Leaf, Vermonter or the Pennsylvanian) is harder to come by these days for a minister who would love to trade the road for the rails. Alas!

Reflecting on our years in England, it was probably a combination of private ownership of passenger railway lines, high fuel taxes and size of the country, but we found it was much better to travel from Yorkshire to London by train (see photo) than by car. This is about the same distance as Boston to New York, but for about 1/3 the price. See the title of the post for a wonderful snow plow mounted on a train, incidentally.

What about you, how much more would you pay for a train rather than driving, parking, etc.?


On rainy days, the sport of choice in our household has been wrestling. It was quickly discovered (many anguished tears) that a "no holds barred" match wouldn't work. So some of the rules for wrestling are:

All wrestling on the rug only; no kicking; no hitting; no squishing tummies; if someone says, get off, you have to get off; if they can't speak and seem like they are panicking and would say get off if they could, you have to get off; no standing; no using gear (like pillows or dinosaurs); no showing your mouth (inside your mouth, that's gross); no licking or biting, no teeth in fact; no sitting on anybody's legs; no jumping on people. Gross infractions will result in the referee issuing a penalty, usually one minute in the chair. After I unwisely described the thrills of early 80's wrestling of my youth, it proved necessary to make a rule against the Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka trademark move. Other than that, it's "no holds barred".

So far that's it, but we seem to come up with new rules as the worst of the injuries come about.

On a possibly related note, the neighbours in the adjoining apartment are moving.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Oh, dear

Me: What happened to your pajamas?

Number One Son: I got them wet.

Me: How did you get them wet? (slightly annoyed)

Number One Son: I put my hand in the toilet.

Me: Why did you put your hand in the toilet? (slightly alarmed, definitely annoyed)

Number One Son: To get the toothpaste that fell in.

Me: Thank you for getting the toothpaste out. Let's change your pajamas. (slightly bemused, definitely grossed out)

Number One Son: You're welcome. It was your toothpaste. (Pause.) Don't use it.

Me: Thanks. Good idea.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Is there anything worth living for? That question is typically answered by the converse: "Is there anything worth dying for?". (Incidentally, please excuse the dangling prepositions: Winston Churchill saw their value, stating "Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I shall not put.")

The Apostle Paul walks the line between wanting to live (that he might be of use to Christians such as those he wrote in Philippi) and to die (that he might be with Christ), concluding that for him "to live is Christ, to die is gain". He later takes up the image of profit in the same letter and concludes that, in comparison to "knowing Christ Jesus my Lord", all of the considerably wonderful things in the opposing column which summarise his life lack any profit for him -- they are as rubbish by comparison. Paul speaks of matters of life and death, and remarkably, of peace which passes all understanding. Losing everything in life, and facing death, are not things that are usually in the "peace-giving" category. But Paul has his eyes fixed on Christ and thus experiences a peace which is miraculous. (He himself wrote from prison).

The surpassing value of Jesus, in Paul's description, trumps everything else that is normally found in the gain or loss columns of life. One might speak of his experience of Christian life as a paradigm shift. His categories were transformed, as was his experience. So much so that he can say he has joy in suffering (for the sake of the Gospel), and that he is glad for his imprisonment (if it would advance the Gospel).

My own reflection is that Paul the prisoner has the real freedom. This is the heart of discipleship, isn't it? Looking with new eyes on the world, and longing for more.

Bishop JC Ryle wrote: A true believer is not ruled by the world's standard of right or wrong, of truth or error. He is independent of the world's opinions. He cares little for the world's praise. He is not moved by the world's blame. He does not seek for the world's pleasures. He is not ambitious of the world's rewards. He looks at the things unseen. He sees an invisible Savior, a coming judgment, and a crown of glory which never fades away. The sight of these objects makes him think comparatively little of this glittering world. Where the world reigns in the heart, there is no saving faith.

In addition to possessing an incredible beard, I note that the bishop was a rower.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Manhattan Classic Six

A friend asked me today whether there was much difference having four children as opposed to three. My inital reaction was to say that, in general, the really big change was going from zero children to one child. It was double team (two parents, one child), then man-to-man coverage (two parents, two children), then finally zone defense (two parents, more than two children). So from that perspective, four is not really different than three, because it is a group at work rather than pairings.

In the specific case of Manhattan, however, having four children makes a big difference. It's no longer possible to all fit in one cab, for example (at least legally or safely). And in the trade-offs one makes in Manhattan apartments (e.g., "I'll take light and give up some space" or "closer to Central Park but no doorman", etc.), there are additional factors to now consider. There is the obvious need for bedroom space (we stack 'em up two per room, which works), but less obvious is that there needs to be a pretty large dining space as well as living space. Finally, anytime one leaves the city, a minivan is now required. And gosh, have the car rental people figured out that people who really need a minivan are ready to pay for it, about twice as much.

It's been a little surprising to learn how unusual having a family of six in the city. In fact, what was once a quite normal family size is considered unusual now, perhaps even grotesque by some. Herself and I are both the youngest of five children, and are used to the reaction of "wow, five kids" over the course of our life. I would say that four is the new five, in terms of folks thinking we have produced many progeny.

The non-statistical, non-financial, non-real estate answer is that a fourth child, and our fourth child in particular, is a great blessing indeed.

(The video link shows a good facsimile of our routine at 6:30am).

The Wisdom of Carole King

"Sometimes I wonder if I'm ever gonna make it home again" - Carole King, Home Again.

This song always moved me when I heard it sung by the Trinity Pipes a cappella group at my college as an undergraduate. It has a lot of wisdom in the longing to be home again, and "feelin' right". This came up in my own thinking today as some errands took our family back to Connecticut, where we lived the past five years until moving to Manhattan. There was a sense of homecoming for Herself and myself in moving to the city, because it is where we courted. Indeed, on a walk in the Ramble in Central Park a couple of weeks ago, we pointed out to the children where we were engaged (by the pond near Bethesda fountain -- I almost fell in the water, but that's a topic for another day).

In any case, besides our oldest daughter who has shadowy memories of England, where she and her sister were born, home for our kids meant Connecticut. It was upsetting to them to be there but not in our old house, even as they enjoyed the company of friends.

Two thoughts come to mind: first, that an effect of wandering has left me less tied to a place than I might otherwise be. And I don't know if it is coincidental or not, but my own interests in faith, theology and bible study have increasingly included heaven as integral. Or rather, the new creation. Second, and not to be morose, but I wonder if where we wish to be buried after we die is a revealing means to consider where home really is in this life. That is, where we want our physical remains situated (at least, what city, if one has moved around as I have) might show where home really feels. It's not very catchy, but maybe home is where the funeral is?

But Carole King is right in singing about the people she longs to be with at home. One of the kids said today that she wanted to live in our old house in the future -- buy it back. (We still own it, another post's topic!) I felt the same way when my family home was sold -- the only one I'd known until age 17. But driving by there some years afterwards, it was no longer home, and the desire ebbed. Because the people who made it home were no longer there. So yes to particular places being special, but in a certain fundamental way, I would have to say we can't really go home again.

Monday, November 10, 2008


The years melt away when grown men and women alight themselves on my scooter to give it a try. At the suggestion of my friend and former colleague RJ, I bought an adult scooter, having discussed the problem with him of keeping up with our speedy daughters on theirs, and of having our son (who cannot yet scoot himself) keep up without frustration. The solution? I scoot around with the boy riding on the front. So it's worth its weight in gold on a Central Park visit. And I use it for the express school run. Did I ever see myself as going for a gadget at my advanced age? No, but if it saves minutes a day, then it enters the repertoire...

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Missing Buses

I was on time to both the early and later morning services at Christ Church (, having left enough time to get there walking. But I had hoped to hop on a bus at least one of the three lengths of avenues and streets between here and there. But I narrowly missed three buses, on each length. It was frustrating the first five times, then comical.

The video link: I needed Dom Jolly to slow a bus down for me...

Saturday, November 8, 2008


I've been thinking about the fine line between two ideas that are related but come from different ends of the same spectrum. The first is contentiousness, a quarrelsome nature -- essentially a negative and wearisome stance. The second is contending, a protecting nature -- essentially a positive and often bold stance. Christian people are commanded to avoid the former and to engage in the latter. Jude, for example, wanted to write an encouraging letter but had to change the nature of his correspondence to contend for the faith.

It was said of the English Puritan minister Jeremiah Burroughs that his heart was broken by breaches with the Church of England and that he was of a conciliatory nature. He held that minor differences that caused rigid divisions were a reflection of a wrong spirit and wrong motives. He was also exiled to Holland as a result of taking an uncompromising and principled stand in a dispute with his bishop. (Jeremiah Burroughs's "The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment" is a real treat, and filled with treasures.)

Therein, it seems to me, is the honest difference between the contentious and the contender - what is a principled stance and what is a wrong spirited quarrel? The otherwise unknown German Reformation divine Meldinius published a pamphlet that stated "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity." That extremely helpful formulation still begs the question-- what is essential (necessariis in the Latin)? Meldinius' pamphlet states: Necessary dogmas are, (1) articles of faith necessary to salvation; (2) articles derived from clear testimonies of the Bible; (3) articles decided by the whole church in a synod or symbol; (4) articles held by all orthodox divines as necessary. Not necessary, are dogmas (1) not contained in the Bible; (2) not belonging to the common inheritance of faith; (3) not unanimously taught by theologians; (4) left doubtful by grave divines; (5) not tending to piety, charity, and edification.

That's the measure -- and yet on the ground, in Manhattan today, it actually is quite hard to do what I want to do, "win the lost, bind up the brokenhearted, build up the faithful to maturity in Christ" without seeming contentious. The very presence of the congregation I serve within blocks of other churches that are finding it hard these days comes across to some as a standing rebuke to some. And so there is contending merely by existing. And a tactic in these confused days is to plead for gracious conversation all the while going ahead with the contentious actions. So the minister who is to warn people from becoming like frogs coming to a slow boil might need to shout out once in awhile.

The bold proclamation of the Gospel really must set out what is not true, as well as what is true. The negatives throw light on the positive. But this blogger finds his heart always wrestling with the question of whether to "go to the mat" on a particular issue, to disengage from a conversation that seems filled with bile, and so on. It is really a heart issue, with a prayer that I would meet my duty to stand firm for the truth, but do so with a winsome charity so that, indeed, it is possible to win some!

Your thoughts -- is your denomination in crisis? How have you found your leaders responding -- with equanimity, faithfulness, rancor?

(The link is to a video -- is the customer contentious, or contending for what is obviously right?)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Prep School USA v UK

Two recent items made me ponder anew the difference between American and English private schools. The first is my speaking next week at a FOCUS event here in Manhattan, where Gossip Girl is held up as the gold standard of popularity and cool. The second is sending a baby gift to a friend who is chaplain at one of the great English public schools following the birth of his first son (named Bertie) to him and his wife.

In the UK (the boarding schools anyway) have something of an innocence to them, fast eroding due to the internet. American boarding schools are places where progressive attitudes to politics, morality and social mores abound, whereas English boarding schools are bastions of conservatism, generally speaking. My observation, interestingly enough, is that the English boarding school grads are far more capable of independent living at age eighteen than their American counterparts who have had too much "freedom", too soon.

The attached video link (click on the post title) shows Rowan Atkinson playing an English public school master. It shows by way of farce the reality of the eccentric and remote school master, where familiarity with students is far less prevalent than in American schools. Many schools in the UK use only last names to refer to students. And if you have two brothers at the school, you being the oldest would be "Chapman maximus", your younger brother "Chapman mediocritus" and your youngest brother "Chapman minimus". Or max, med and min, for short.

My wife, the Authoress, once taught as a famous choir school in Cambridge, and was amused by the sound of calling out her pupils' names: "Well done, Hugh, Rupert, Nigel, Simon, Hermione, Charlotte, etc." but shocked at the use of humiliation to keep kids in line, e.g., a teacher shouting at a seven year old: "You, stupid, stupid boy!" Hence among the English upper middle class the great social controlling mechanism of embarrassment.

Anyway, the great worry in American ministry circles among preppies is that we might bore them, while English folks would worry about embarrassing kids. It means that we appear bolder and brasher to them, and they appear quaint and old fashioned to us.

So as I approach giving a talk from the bible to forty or so kids in the Gossip Girl world of Manhattan, I must shift my brain from the world of Rowan Atkinson to that of Chuck Bass.

Your thoughts -- anybody else have an experience beyond the scenes in Monty Python's Meaning of Life?

Thursday, November 6, 2008


In the last couple of years, I've started to play a little bit of squash. My undergraduate university is a champion squash school, but I never went up into the courts until years after graduating. I barely saw a football game there, too, because I was always competing in my own sport. That was rowing, which has proven a little tough to keep up since college, except for a stint in Los Angeles when I rowed out of the UCLA boathouse, and for a couple of years in England in grad school.

I have the great privilege of telling people about Jesus for my job, and listening to folks as they work through what Christianity means or simply help them deal with the concerns life brings. And it's always nice to meet up for a meal or coffee. Jesus did that, having pretty significant conversations while sharing food. But the occupational hazard is eating two lunches or having a superabundance of coffee in the day. Then going home to the good food that my wife (shall she have a pseudonym on this blog? Perhaps the Authoress will do, perhaps not. The comments will tell me).

Anyway, some guys find it hard to sit down to chat, which suits me fine. So I like to play squash with men I meet in the church's "More to Life" Wall Street Ministry. Some men who are laid off work actually have time in the middle of the day to do this. So I am playing squash, and trying to keep fit that way, while enjoying the conversations. It's also a confidence booster for these guys, because I have won a total of two games in my entire squash career. See video link for the Two Ronnies on beginner's luck, which I haven't yet had!