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!