Tuesday, December 29, 2009

You thought HealthCare was pricey?

How about the cost of the Death Star?


Monday, December 21, 2009

The winner is...Once in Royal David's City

The Authoress posed an interesting question to the family over lunch the other day: "What is your favorite line from a Christmas carol?".

I have a hard enough time thinking of what my favorite carol is, but the individual line was more challenging still. I have several, among them would be this portion of the last verse of "Once in Royal David's City"

And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle,
Is our Lord in heaven above.

The reason is it makes the marvelous connection between history and eternity, between the crib and the cross, in a lovely poetic phrase.

What about you, dear reader? Which line, and why?

Rembrandt, Adoration of the Shepherds, National Gallery, London. Note that Rembrandt uses light against the beams in the stable to illumine the manger but also to show the shadow of an angled cross Jesus will one day carry above it.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Harry Patch

The Economist (12/19/09) magazine's year in review issue arrived recently. It notes that the last two British WW1 veterans of the trenches died this year. A number of these men lived to be well over a hundred, and two of them, a British soldier named Harry Patch and a German soldier named Carol (Charles) Kuentz, had been conscripted at age 19 and served on the front lines.

I was thinking about this as I prepare to preach tomorrow on Zechariah's song (the Benedictus if you're a liturgical type of person) from Luke's Gospel, chapter 1. In it, Zechariah speaks of God visiting his people, to give them relief from their enemies and freedom from fear. He will lead them from the shadow of death into peace.

The most extraordinary thing about that song, to me, is that the first reading of it gives us a sense that God visiting means an end to war and defeat of the enemy. And in the end, it will mean that. But the salvation that is referenced by Zechariah is not a military one, but a spiritual one, as he says that his son, John the Baptist, will announce the visit of God who will give salvation "in the forgiveness of their sins".

It seems offensive at first in the face of the scale of war to say that salvation takes this form rather than relief from circumstances. I recently saw a video clip showing footage of the Battle of the Somme, in which there were 20,000 British dead and 40,000 wounded...on the first day of battle. There were 623,000 dead from that one battle alone. The scale is dreadful and dehumanizing. As Harry Patch said, "It is not something we can make up. Why should I go out and kill someone I never knew?". Yet his statement, and the meeting he had with Kuentz shows that really the change in the world comes as the human heart is transformed. In Harry Patch's case, he lost his childhood faith in the trenches. Death was a topic never mentioned in the trenches. Yet Harry Patch first cried over his wartime experiences after he was a hundred years old, never having spoken of them before then, and the same was true for Charles Kuentz, the last surviving German veteran of WW1. Patch and Kuentz met for the first time when they were 107, at a cemetery where 44,000 German soldiers were buried. Mr. Patch laid a wreath and gave a gift of an acorn from the ground to Herr Kuentz, saying "Now we are friends." Imagine carrying the sadness, bitterness and fear in your heart for so long (perhaps you can imagine it). But a considerable amount of freedom came to Harry Patch in the last years of his life, because 100 wasn't too late for him.

Zechariah, an old man, was silenced by God when he doubted the Word God spoke. But when he was given speech again, he used his voice to proclaim salvation, the forgiveness of sins.

Incidentally, Radiohead wrote a song in memory of Harry Patch, which can be heard here.

This marker (pictured above) was placed in France where Harry Patch's company fought. The text reads:

Here, at dawn, on 16 August 1917, the 7th Battalion, Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, 20th (Light) Division crossed the Steenbeek prior to their successful assault on the village of Langemarck.
This stone is erected to the memory of fallen comrades, and to honour the courage, sacrifice and passing of the Great War generation. It is the gift of former Private and Lewis Gunner Harry Patch, No. 29295, C Company, 7th DCLI, the last surviving veteran to have served in the trenches of the Western Front.

September 2008

Photograph: Parliamentary War Graves & Battlefield Heritage Group

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

David Brooks & my Cabbie on Human Nature

I had an interesting conversation with a taxicab driver some while back. He was a comically bad taxi driver, going ten miles below the speed limit, stopping at yellow lights, and unaware of the traffic direction of the main avenues in Manhattan.

We got to talking and he really is a boxer (turned out I was his first fare as a cabbie, and he hoped to make it boxing -- I encouraged him to try to do so). He is also a Muslim, as are many of the cab drivers in NYC. He was glad I knew a couple of famous boxers who are Muslims. I also told him that I was a Christian and a clergyman, and asked if I could pose some questions about his religion. He was glad to hear my questions and responded patiently (we had time, because he was driving slowly). He indicated that he needed to do more good than bad to face a final judgement with any confidence. We segued into a discussion of his lack of respect for the father of a girl he was dating, whose father opposed his marrying his (non-Muslim) daughter. Interestingly, he was sympathetic to the father's opposition to the marriage on religious grounds, but noted that he should have voiced his objections earlier. We then spoke about his responsibilities, hopes for marriage, boxing, etc. The point of all of this: at the end, I stated that Christianity takes an essentially dim view of human nature -- that while we are the crowning glory of creation, we are corrupted through and through. He could not accept this, and viewed people as essentially good but with flaws. If people knew better, they would act better, and so on.

This debate is alive and well in the culture, as well as the Christian Church (even though the matter was firmly settled in the early church, and also at the Reformation). Many think people are essentially good and just need to be taught to do the right thing. This is secular humanism, or sometimes Christian humanism, but it is not normal Christian belief.

I appreciate the NY Times columnist David Brooks, who has a good sense of the culture as well as an astute view of politics. In a recent column, he noted that the President believes people do need to stand against moral evil, while being aware of our own tendency to be corrupt with power we wield.
Other Democrats talk tough in a secular way, but Obama’s speeches were thoroughly theological. He talked about the “core struggle of human nature” between love and evil.
My own read on the speech Brooks describes is that Obama is on the way to thinking as Brooks describes, but is not there yet. The core struggle of human nature that the President described when accepting the Nobel Prize is between different people, while wisdom sees this within the individual human heart. The view that if we only knew better, our problems would be solved is best shown, I think, in this video from Scrubs.

My cab ride ended with the driver and me glad for our conversation, but with no meeting of minds on theology.

People can do great things, but are shot through with corruption. That includes me. This makes the announcement of the angels at Christmas so helpful, because it is true -- we need a savior, that is, a rescuer, and one has come. He is Christ the Lord.

Friday, December 11, 2009

JC Ryle on Justification & Sanctification

JC Ryle was Bishop of Liverpool in the nineteenth century, and gives me hope that there can, indeed, be fine bishops who teach and contend for the faith once deliverd. He was also a rower, cricketer and had a great beard that was borrowed by ZZ Top.

I read with interest Ryle's description of Justificaiton and Sanctification in the Christian life, an excerpt of which is below:

In what, then, are justification and sanctification alike?

(a) Both proceed originally from the free grace of God. It is of His gift alone that believers are justified or sanctified at all.
(b) Both are part of that great work of salvation which Christ, in the eternal covenant, has undertaken on behalf of His people. Christ is the fountain of life, from which pardon and holiness both flow. The root of each is Christ.
(c) Both are to be found in the same persons. Those who are justified are always sanctified, and those who are sanctified are always justified. God has joined them together, and they cannot be put asunder.
(d) Both begin at the same time. The moment a person begins to be a justified person; he also begins to be a sanctified person. He may not feel it, but it is a fact.
(e) Both are alike necessary to salvation. No one ever reached heaven without a renewed heart as well as forgiveness, without the Spirit's grace as well as the blood of Christ, without a meetness for eternal glory as well as a title. The one is just as necessary as the other.

Such are the points on which justification and sanctification agree. Let us now reverse the picture, and see wherein they differ.

(a) Justification is the reckoning and counting a man to be righteous for the sake of another, even Jesus Christ the Lord. Sanctification is the actual making a man inwardly righteous, though it may be in a very feeble degree.
(b) The righteousness we have by our justification is not our own, but the everlasting perfect righteousness of our great Mediator Christ, imputed to us, and made our own by faith. The righteousness we have by sanctification is our own righteousness, imparted, inherent, and wrought in us by the Holy Spirit, but mingled with much infirmity and imperfection.
(c) In justification our own works have no place at all, and simple faith in Christ is the one thing needful.
(d) In sanctification our own works are of vast importance and God bids us fight, and watch, and pray, and strive, and take pains, and labour Justification is a finished and complete work, and a man is perfectly justified the moment he believes. Sanctification is an imperfect work, comparatively, and will never be perfected until we reach heaven.
(e) Justification admits of no growth or increase: a man is as much justified the hour he first comes to Christ by faith as he will be to all eternity. Sanctification is eminently a progressive work, and admits of continual growth and enlargement so long as a man lives.
(f) Justification has special reference to our persons, our standing in God's sight, and our deliverance from guilt. Sanctification has special reference to our natures, and the moral renewal of our hearts.
(g) Justification gives us our title to heaven, and boldness to enter in. Sanctification gives us our meetness for heaven, and prepares us to enjoy it when we dwell there.
(h) Justification is the act of God about us, and is not easily discerned by others. Sanctification is the work of God within us, and cannot be hid in its outward manifestation from the eyes of men.
I commend these distinctions to the attention of all my readers, and I ask them to ponder them well. I am persuaded that one great cause of the darkness and uncomfortable feelings of many well-meaning people in the matter of religion is their habit of confounding, and not distinguishing, justification and sanctification. It can never be too strongly impressed on our minds that they are two separate things. No doubt they cannot be divided, and everyone that is a partaker of either is a partaker of both.

The full text can be found here. (photo of Ryle courtesy of Anglican Library)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"Christmas Hymn" by Richard Wilbur

This poem by Richard Wilbur is worth recalling each time we come to Advent and Christmas...

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.

This child through David’s city
Shall ride in triumph by;
The palm shall strew its branches,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
And lie within the roadway
To pave His kingdom come.

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.

But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
In praises of the child
By whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Epistemology and Advent

How can a narcissistic culture be shaken by the prospect of the Advent of the Lord Jesus Christ? This was the question I had in mind as I preached on Revelation 1 leading into Advent. It took me back to memories of my bow-tied and bearded philosophy professors, crunching leaves crossing the quad at Trinity College, great thoughts in great buildings long ago...

I recall the progress of my philosophical studies as an undergraduate. There was initial excitement in freshman philosophy. Then the inspiration of thinking about ideas, truth, beauty and goodness, considering virtue and the examined life with the Ancient Greeks. We studied the big, universal ideas and examined how we compared, fit in with them, aspired to them, etc. In the higher level courses, though, there was a subtle turning from the great things out there, apprehending the truth of them, to the examination of experience. From Hegel to Heidegger, philosophy shifted to phenomenology, the notion that we don’t think about universal truth first, but about the world before us. So the shift was from self-knowledge comparing how you or I measure up to ideals, to knowledge of the world originating in subjective experience, with the world defined as it is experienced by you and me.

The point is that what is radical in the academy becomes mainstream in the culture a generation or two onwards. The phenomenology of the pre-war philosophers resulted in the deconstructionism of the post-war philosophers. Do you know that deconstructionism is not flagged by my spell-checker? It has entered the common vocabulary. The individual becomes the determiner of the truth of a matter, or the meaning of a text. All is subjective. (Though I'd add that Phenomenology wasn't entirely subjectivist, but I do think led to this stance).

For many years, eighteen year olds have taken a standardized personality test (the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Test, with thanks to the interview on Mars Hill Audio of Jake Halpern). The question, yes or no, “I am an important person” was answered yes by 12% of eighteen year olds in the early 1950’s. By the end of the 1980’s, when I took the same test, well over 80% of eighteen year olds said yes, “I am an important person”. My generation grew up on the self-esteem movement, well intentioned, addressing needs in society. But the cure may have been worse than the problem. Television short films instructed a generation: ‘the most important person in the whole wide world is you’. Cartoon figures, Fumble, Harry and Bird encouraged us “to find out about the things you feel and do, because you’re the most important person in the world to you, the most important person.”

So as we come to our lives today, there is a philosophical movement that changed the epistemology of western culture, diminishing objective ideas and virtuous ideals in favor of subjective experience and self glorifying connectivity of Twitter, Facebook, blogs (two of which I employ!).

This has had disastrous effects in terms of theology, with the near destruction of our own denomination in North America. Experienced based theology turns out to be sophisticated idolatry, gods of our own making from treasures God has given, much as the Israelites formed a golden calf to worship from the treasures God gave them in rescuing them from Egypt. It doesn’t show itself only in theology that put experience alongside the Word of God as carrying authority. This narcissism shows itself in putting the self at the center, at the start, me, my need, the truth begins with me rather than with God. Like phenomenology, the start is me and my perceptions, experiences. God then serves me, rather than my serving God.

This is not just the bogeyman of liberal theology, that treats the truth of God like a salad bar (take what you like, leave the rest). It can function in my own theological framerwork, too, for instance in viewing Jesus as a coupon for salvation (his transaction on the cross viewed only in terms of its effect on me). In contrast, the Bible begins with “In the beginning God...” and ends with the Lord being worshipped by the people He has redeemed. If I begin with “I need a savior”, that is good and true, but may be the wrong start if my salvation is the centrepiece rather than the God who saves me.

But this stance has led beyond subjectivism to the natural outworking, narcissism, of the self as the object of worship. And this is destructive to human beings because it prevents successful relationships. And significant relationships are essential to human flourishing.

I was struck by this observation from the Last Psychiatrist web log (blog):
Being on YouTube, having a blog, having an iPod, being on MySpace-- all of these things are self-validating, they allow that illusion that is so important to narcissists: that we are the main characters in a movie. Not that we're the best, or the good guys, but the main characters. That everyone around us is supporting cast; the funny friend, the crazy ex, the neurotic mother, the egotistical date, etc. That makes reminders of our insignificance even more infuriating.

I'm not saying each of us as individuals is insignificant. We should, could, matter. But to protect ourselves from an existential implosion, we decide to define ourselves through images and signs, rather than behaviors; lacking an identity founded in anything real makes us vulnerable to anger, resentment. But no guilt, ever. The narcissist never feels guilt. He feels shame.

Weblog thelastpsychiatrist.com, Dec 17, 2006 blog entry
following Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2006 being “You”.

Into this cultural milieu, I wonder how you receive the powerful, and simultaneously dangerous and tender vision of Jesus that John records in Revelation 1 -- with awe, or a yawn? Does Advent matter because it is a category that appeals to you or me, or because it is real and thus must be dealt with as surely as the sun rising tomorrow?

Pictured: Northam Tower on the Trinity Quad, Professor Miller Brown of the Philosophy Department, and my thesis adviser, a wonderful man and engaging thinker. Photos: trincoll.edu, Time Magazine.

Monday, November 16, 2009


(Pictured, Cave of St. John, Patmos)

My text this Sunday as the Advent season nears is Revelation 1.9-20. This is John's vision of Jesus.

A number of things have been rattling around in my head, thinking about how John reacted to seeing Jesus in his full glory (he fainted dead away), versus how folks have a "take it or leave it" view of him today. Or perhaps a "take this bit, leave this bit" view of him.

In a way, I guess we do that with people all the time, wanting what we want from them without having to deal with the whole person. Putting someone in my computer or phone address book works along these lines -- asking me to categorize someone, put them on a list to explain just how I relate to them, etc.

But my question this morning as I review and think about the very personal experience John had one Sunday morning, quietly praying and reading his Bible, is this: who was John. Was it John the Apostle, or another fellow named John who was a crucial early leader in the church and an eyewitness to Jesus.

Having read through tons of literature on it, I've made up my mind on the issue. If you're a student of the Bible, do you have any thoughts on it?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Phillies (Phanatic!)

Surely, any reasonable person will want the Phillies to win the World Series.

A New Yorker, I think the Yankees have a great history, but doesn't the arrogance and swagger of the team of highly paid all-stars make you a bit pleased to see them get close but not win the world series title?

And the Angels, one pities them remembering when the "Singing Cowboy" Gene Autry founded the team, then stuck with Disney as owners, and now an owner who named them the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Yuck.

But if you want a positive, non-baseball reason to root for them, go no further than the best mascot in baseball, the Phillies Phanatic (pictured here).

Go Phils!!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thomas Cranmer, William Perkins & John Donne

Cranmer, Perkins & Donne is not a law firm, but three greats of the English Reformation.

Ashley Null will be speaking about these three in an evening lecture series at the American Bible Society near Columbus Circle in Manhattan, October 27th - 29th.

This is in conjunction with a ministry conference that highlights expository preaching (of Jonah!) by my old boss and friend from the UK.

Info for both are at the ministry conference page at www.christchurchnyc.com.

Please come!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Seriously Dry Humor

It is such a joy to read the send up of faux-intellectualism mixed with a dollop of self-deprectation in the following BBC piece reporting on the Ig Nobel Awards. An excerpt from the BBC article on this year's winners is below:

The aim of the awards is to honour achievements that "first make people laugh and then make them think"...

The full list of winners:

Veterinary medicine: Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson of Newcastle University, UK, for showing that cows with names give more milk than cows that are nameless.

Peace: Stephan Bolliger, Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael Thali and Beat Kneubuehl of the University of Bern, Switzerland, for determining whether it is better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle.

Biology: Fumiaki Taguchi, Song Guofu and Zhang Guanglei of Kitasato University Graduate School of Medical Sciences in Sagamihara, Japan, for demonstrating that kitchen refuse can be reduced more than 90% in mass by using bacteria extracted from the faeces of giant pandas.

Medicine: Donald L Unger of Thousand Oaks, California, US, for investigating a possible cause of arthritis of the fingers, by diligently cracking the knuckles of his left hand but not his right hand every day for more than 60 years.

Economics: The directors, executives, and auditors of four Icelandic banks for demonstrating that tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa (and for demonstrating that similar things can be done to an entire national economy).

Physics: Katherine K Whitcome of the University of Cincinnati, Daniel E Lieberman of Harvard University and Liza J. Shapiro of the University of Texas, all in the US, for analytically determining why pregnant women do not tip over.

Chemistry: Javier Morales, Miguel Apatiga and Victor M Castano of Universidad Nacional Autonoma in Mexico, for creating diamonds from tequila.

Literature: Ireland's police service for writing and presenting more than 50 traffic tickets to the most frequent driving offender in the country - Prawo Jazdy - whose name in Polish means "Driving Licence".

Public Health: Elena N Bodnar, Raphael C Lee, and Sandra Marijan of Chicago, US, for inventing a bra that can be quickly converted into a pair of gas masks - one for the wearer and one to be given to a needy bystander.

Mathematics: Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe's Reserve Bank, for giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers by having his bank print notes with denominations ranging from one cent to one hundred trillion dollars.

Read the whole article, including some hilarious quotations from the winners here.

There's also a youtube video of a CBS report on the prizes here.

In an age of efficiency and the ballooning information diminishing wisdom, it is the sheer frivolity of the prizes as well as the absurdity of detailed research into odd topics that is so enjoyable! And then the astonishing news that some of this information turns out to be useful...

And click the title of this post to see Fry & Laurie act out pretty much what I experienced in one Cambridge supervision...

photo credit: www.newscientist.com

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Silent Running with John Milton

As a fan of WW2 films, I enjoy the films about submarines especially. One aspect that is interesting is the need, at some point in the film, for "silent running". This is when an enemy sub or surface vessel is nearby, trying to listen for sound to locate (and destroy) the submarine. The drama for the submariners in those moments is intense -- be quiet, or die! (Fans of the genre will find Das Boot the most compelling film).

In a much, much lesser fashion, my family has been "silent running" for the past couple of months. As we've told anyone who will listen, the very wonderful apartment we moved into (closer to Central Park, more spacious, more convenient to church, etc.) is owned by a management company that is, shall we say, somewhat lacking. This includes the contractor who renovated the apartment finding it easier to simply remove doors rather than repainting them. As a result, we have not been able to host anyone in our apartment in the evening. Indeed, the great challenge has been keeping the other three children quiet while the baby sleeps. And then when all the children are asleep, we are in "silent running" mode, and in near darkness, too. Because in the analogy, waking a child (particularly an infant) is akin to inviting a depth charge in a submarine!

This has been irritating, but also somewhat peaceful, on the positive side. I generally don't seek out such a tranquil setting (low lights, no talking!) from 8pm onwards, night after night for two months. No doubt I will find it a jarring change to "surface" and experience light and noise once again.

What about you -- when the power goes out, and the noise and light of our electrified world cease, do you scramble to get things going, or sit and wait in the peace and darkness? They also serve who only stand and wait, wrote the blind John Milton, in one of my wife's favourite sonnets:

On His Blindness, John Milton
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Phillies Father

No doubt this is swarming around the internet, but I thought this fellow's reaction was touching -- excitement to give his daughter something precious, which she ignorantly threw away, and his reaction was to calm and reassure her. No dad is perfect but here is a guy who at this moment was a good reflection of the Father's love.

Take a look at the video link here (originally from local Philly news (thanks, Ran!), but now on Fox via youtube when that link expiried (thanks, Justin!)).

And, of course, it was a Phillies' dad...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

How the mighty have fallen

I was saddened to learn of the death of a dear friend and mentor this past week, the Rev. Daniel K. Sullivan, who succumbed to a rather sudden illness at the good age of 81. He was a man full of vigor, physically, spiritually and in his personality. So this is a case of being somewhat surprised to hear a friend has died, even though he was not a young man -- thus the title of this post reflects David's lament for Saul and Jonathan who died in battle (2 Sam 1).

Dan was a faithful minister of the Gospel, who was utterly committed to the people under his pastoral care. He was the Rector of my home church until I was 24 years old, then a friend and informal adviser in subsequent years. I sought him out at junctions in life, both personally and professionally. His advice followed probing questions and careful attention listening to my answers, telling me his opinion but also expressing the freedom to choose one way or the other.

There were many advantages Dan had for parish ministry, such as a quick laugh and a most extraordinary ability to recall names. He kept a punishing schedule but was able to pay attention in meetings even when dozing! Yet natural gifts aside, Dan showed a level of dedication and discipline that is rare today. I lack it in my ministry, certainly. On a mission trip to the Oglala Lakota tribe, we said the Daily Office as a mission team without fail. There were teenage (and some adult) chuckles as we circled up to read evening prayer in the pitch dark after a long day's travel and recited together with flashlights illumining our prayer books, "Now as we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes behold the vesper light...". Dan was gentle and strong, and radiated the joy of knowing Jesus Christ.

He had many habits of Anglo-Catholic Christianity as a priest, but prudishness was not among them. He made a helpful distinction between blasphemy and vulgarity, surprising my friend (and future brother-in-law) as we walked around a fifteen passenger van on the South Dakota prairie. Dan was standing there in his shorts only, Arnold Schwarzenegger muscled up in miniature, and shaving using the side view mirror. Without really taking his eyes off the mirror, Dan spoke out of the side of his mouth: "watch out for the s--t, boys." We gasped, but he merely grinned, impishly, and said, "that is a proper name for what you almost stepped in." He also spoke of the joy of reuniting with his wife after two weeks away in a way that was somehow both modest yet scandalizing to us!

Dan and his wife Adele were kind with their time in retirement, visiting my family in England twice, including when Dan preached at my ordination. I regard him warmly as a "father in the Lord" who was faithful in prayer and constant in his encouragement of my own ministry. In fact, when I asked to meet with him while home during Christmas vacation in my last year of college, he surprised me once again by replying to my query about what he thought about my pursuing ordained ministry: "I have been praying that you would realize a call to ordination since you were fourteen." He was faithful in preparing me for seminary and patiently understanding when my own ministry in the Church of England took on some distinctives from our Episcopal setting.

There were many endearing qualities and things about Dan I recall: calling the jam we brought from Canada by the French name (confiture) instead of just jam; patiently telling children to turn their attention to him as he taught the Bible ("listen to me, I'm telling the story"); assuming the best of leaders in the Episcopal church but writing them sincerely to correct them and truly praying for them (but letting his people know clearly that "the bishop has been naughty, and what he taught was wrong"); reacting with joy at the simplest gift or gesture, swinging his arms and exclaiming with delight at the thoughtfulness; jumping up and down singing "this little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine" with children. Many, many more.

I know that Dan wasn't perfect, and he told me of instances when he had wronged people and sought their forgiveness, even kneeling before priests who were his subordinates to be absolved by them. I'm thankful that though he was not perfect, he will be perfected in glory with Jesus Christ; and I'm thankful that he was a good man.

He lived out his vows made to his wife Adele faithfully, and he lived out his vows made at ordination faithfully, too. I am thankful for Dan Sullivan, for his loving leadership, friendship and faith in the Lord. A mighty one has fallen!

From a recollection by my dad about Dan in a recent email:
"He was marvelous as a Shepherd creating and guiding
largely independent lay groups. What a blessing for our family that our
children grew up attending Good Sam and participating in the Youth Group
and the trips while we adults received lots of beneficial encouragement
in our roles as Christian parents and people."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Musings on Hydrangeas

The Authoress and I took the children out of town this past week, fleeing to the mountains from the heat of Manhattan. The place we're staying is very woodsy, yet here and there people have carved out gardens. And the most striking feature of these is the hydrangea bushes. Some of them are clearly very old, as they are in some instances fifteen feet tall!

As I strolled along seeing all of these hydrangea, my thoughts ran from the horticultural to the biblical.

The horticultural musings were based on the fact that all of the hydrangeas here have white blossoms. Most of the ones I've seen nearby our old home in Connecticut, or in our old town in England, or on Martha's Vineyard (where I once worked and now volunteer for a Christian ministry), the hydrangea blossoms were mainly blue, and sometimes pink. But not often white. The blue is my favorite. A keen gardener once told me that when planting a hydrangea bush, putting a few pennies into the hole will help to create the vivid blues. (Turns out this is wrong, it's the soil's aluminum content, not the zinc or copper in pennies that affects the color).

The scientific way to say this is that you can obtain blue flowered hydrangea macrophylla with soil pH of 4.5 to 5.5. If the pH of the soil is 7.5 or higher, you will get poor flowers or none at all. The Bible's way to say this is good soil produces fruitful, good, useful and beautiful things. That's a frequent use of the image of soil in the Bible, but soil can, interestingly, also be used as an image of judgment, as God is said to destroy (by mixing with sulfur) or remove (the topsoil down to bare rock) the soil of people he is judging -- a harrowing image in an agrarian setting (Isaiah 24, Ezekial 26).

Perhaps you, like me, have heard many a sermon exhorting us to be "good soil" based on Jesus' parable of the soils (Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8). The point made is that in trying to be good soil, I should be receptive to the teaching of Jesus and attentive to it. That's a very good thing to do, but not the point of what Jesus said in that parable. Rather, he is explaining to the disciples how and why some people will respond to the Gospel, and how and why others will not. In the hydrangea bush image, you can add some aluminum nails to the soil to make a pink flowered hydrangea blue, but you cannot change the color of a white hydrangea bush. The white hydrangea is what it is, no matter how much aluminum you add (or lime, to try to make pink flowers).

The point of the parable, anyway, is for the disciples. It is to help them to understand why some people respond to the Gospel and why others do not; or why others get excited initially by what they hear, but it does not take long term root. This is so that they will have patience in their own ministry, knowing that any fruitfulness from it belongs to God. They will also have patience and be steadfast in their own life following Christ: "As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience." (Luke 8.15).

The parable of the soils is not so much telling the crowd to "have good soil" but rather to instruct the disciples, so that they might understand the different responses to the Gospel and stand fast.

A wise friend in Christian work told me that the parable of the soils was the only way he could endure in Christian ministry; and particularly he meant how to make sense of when dear people seem be enthusiastic when hearing the message of the Cross, but who soon turned their backs on the Gospel in resolute fashion.

What interpretations of this well known parable have you heard? Any thoughts?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Urban Haute Bourgeoisie

My friend and former colleague David Zahl has an eclectic parachurch ministry (with a blog) called Mockingbird that is as cool as this blog is uncool. In that, the blogs reflect their authors!

Yet David and I have a number of things in common, the chief being Christian brothers and maybe the second being an affection for the film trilogy by Whit Stillman.

While serving a ministry to boarding school students, David and I used to run sessions to show and discuss these films, which put a human face on preppy people who are typically lampooned in film (take the character played by Ted Knight in Caddyshack as a prime example, with the only thoughtful character, played by Chevy Chase, rejecting his background at some level). The interesting thing about really preppy people (those who grew up with their names in the Social Register) is that the human experience and the human problem is the same for all.

While in America most people are told that you can do anything, and rise to whatever heights to which you set your mind -- to succeed and advance is the American dream -- for this subculture, merely holding your ground is a massive success. For example: if you are the son of George H. W. Bush, and you become President of the United States (as his son George W. did), then you have equalled your father's accomplishment. The others have not measured up to it, in worldly terms. So Jeb Bush, a popular and by most measures very successful former governor of Florida, may yet feel a weight of expectation. While the interesting thing about Mad Men is Don Draper's very American re-invention of himself to enter the upper middle class, Stillman's films examine through exceptionally witty dialogue, those who inhabit its environs. What happened at the lake house while a child, or the relationships formed at boarding school, are of greater consequence than most of what follows in life.

If a group of people start "at the top", possibly one or two will do yet greater things, but the best most can hope for is to hang on, while most will drift downwards.

So fear of failure is a debilatating feature for preppies, and of the fascinating characters in Whit Stillman's films. And this is why the message of grace, of life measured by humility before God rather than exalting oneself before Him and others, is needed (in Manhattan and elsewhere). The materially rich may be spiritually poor, and suffering in unseen ways (or very visible ways, as substance abuse is highest at the very top and very bottom of the socio-economic range).

Anyway, I don't know that I've linked to other blogs before, so here goes: David was able to interview Whit Stillman, and the results are quite interesting.

But on the greater topic, what do you think: are we all the same, sinners in need of saving grace? Or are the rich different? What about the cultured, or the intellectual, for that matter?

If the subject is interesting to you, I recommend
the book, Doomed Bourgeois in Love : Essays on the Films of Whit Stillman for further reading. And the Bible. Especially Romans 3.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Warms Me Thrice

It is said that firewood warms you twice, when you burn it of course, but also the "warm work" of cutting, splitting and stacking it. For me, in the pastoral ministry, there is the great reward of seeing lives transformed today by the Gospel, and the greater knowledge of lives won for God eternally. And yet, a human desire is to see results from work, and so the few days a year when I can see such results from physical work are gratifying. Last week we were visiting the Authoress' parents in the Canadian backwoods -- and in addition to picking raspberries and making jam, the main task of the week was "getting the wood in". This is the fuel for winter heat and, importantly, for maple sugar making. Our neighbour Harvey is a forester who splits most of the hardwood for us, but thankfully leaves about 5% unsplit. So I need to wield the heavy splitting axe and do it the old fashioned way.

Two weeks ago we moved apartments in Manhattan; and while it is good to be in the new place, and we are thankful for it, still it was simply moving things from one place to the other. In the grand scheme of things, much work is moving things from one place to another (money, information, etc.), and so building something or changing something dead, dangerous and rotting into something useful (like a tree that needs to come down before it falls on something or someone) is good.

The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing,
while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.

Proverbs 13:4 would seem to indicate that there are indeed spiritual benefits of work, work which yet bears the curse of sin. "Soul" here can mean "self" but usually the word used would be "the man" (or "the person"), and so "the soul" is probably a reference to the interior self, whole self, or mind. Instead of referring only to the material rewards of labor, the wisdom of Proverbs is that godly urges, when satisfied, bring a richness to the soul. The Bible turns me right back to an awareness that every urge is tainted in some way, yet God in his kindness gives the reward from labor, material and spiritual. The parable of the workers in the vineyard is a good example of how "it's not fair" pretty much shows how a preoccupied self-interest invades and spoils.

Anyway, for me, I am thrice warmed by firewood, in the burning, the gathering, and the spiritual satisfaction of labour completed, with the awareness of strength for the work, the beauty of the setting, and in time, maple syrup on pancakes!

What do you think of your work -- either the everyday sort, or the occasional work outside if you don't work with your hands normally?

video link: slanted a bit more towards the curse rather than blessing of work!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Rhythms of life

There's an imagined boxing match in my mind between competing views of wisdom:

In one corner is the sentimental but I admit somewhat appealing view of the poem "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple". This offers the view that happiness is found in acting in ways as an adult that are typically considered childlike.

In the other corner is the wisdom of the Greeks, with this maxim from the Delphic Oracle offering a view of distinct stages for a 'life well lived':

As a child be well-behaved (Παις ων κοσμιος ισθι)
as a youth - self-disciplined (ηβων εγκρατης)
as of middle-age - just (μεσος δικαιος)

as an old man - sensible (πρεσβυτης ευλογος)

on reaching the end - without sorrow (τελευτων αλυπος)

I saw a portion of this on a column that is part of an exhibit at the Met here in Manhattan. One part of the "Treasures of Afghanistan" shows the influence of classical Greek civilization on the region with the excavation of a city founded by Alexander the Great. The 147 maxims were written onto columns in a temple in the city.

The larger question for me as a Christian is the place of wisdom in life generally. Much of what is written in the Delphic maxims could be found in Proverbs. This confirms what Reformed theology understands to be "common grace", the recognition that all truth is God's truth, and that there is wisdom contained, to varying degrees, in the cultures of the world.

I have written before on this site briefly about that last statement, of not having sorrow looking back over one's life ("I used to row"). That can only come about, I think, if one has the possibility of forgiveness (or perfection). If we view negative experiences as always positive learning experiences, that is well and good; however, this would neglect how others (let alone God) were affected by misdeeds. Such a view would place my personal development at the center of the universe. Further reflection on the place of Providence is needed for a fuller view of how one lives, of course, but for now the question arises...

is reaching the end of life "without sorrow" contingent on forgiveness? What say you?

Edna Mode's view: "I never look back, darling, it distracts from the NOW!"

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Wave Motion Gun

If you are reading this blog post, perhaps you were attracted by the title, "The Wave Motion Gun"? If so, this places you firmly as a child of the 80's, or at least aware of one of the forgotten but great cartoons, Star Blazers.

This was in the genre of the Japanese animated shows like Speed Racer, but was much less popular. The Star Blazers rode around in space on a sort of recycled battleship, that also kind of doubled up as an aircraft/spacecraft carrier and submarine when needed! A truly green initiative and perhaps we should consider re-using old battleships this way. I expect part of the consciousness of the Japanese people as their immense WW2 navy was slowly decommissioned over time played a part in this.

But the really cool thing about Star Blazers was the Wave Motion Gun. This was clearly influenced by the Death Star on Star Wars, but in the hands of the good guys. The show used a hodge-podge of physics sounding terminology to let little kids like me know that this weapon packed a wallop -- it could destroy continents...in the cause of justice.

And then don't forget the characters, including the young pilot "Wildstar" and the old salt of a commander, along with the faithful sidekick, spunky woman and a dastardly villain to round out the main cast. For some reason, their uniforms had arrows pointing to their stomachs, akin to t-shirts that might say "baby inside".

So, here's the question: did you see it when you were a kid? Didn't it seem so cool at the time to be on the bridge of a battleship in space?

Maybe I'll think about another great animated show another time, taking a stroll down memory lane with Liono, Cheetara and all the ThunderCats (Ho!).

Monday, July 6, 2009

Titanic's view of heaven hits an iceberg

"It was reassuring to know the person who had fixed it was still on the aeroplane. What are the odds of something like that happening?"

I read an interesting story that reminded me of a theme that plays out in the Bible from beginning to end. A plane heading back to Manchester, England was going to be stranded in Menorca because of a lack of a mechanic to fix a problem, when it was found a mechanic was a passenger on board returning from his holiday. He came forward, fixed the plane and all was well. There was an extra measure of trust because he was with them on the plane!

Ever wonder what is up with all the intricate laws in the Old Testament? In the midst of the very specific instructions on what the furniture should be like (dimensions of the altar, what basin should be used for washing, what proportions of different incense to be burned, etc.) in the place where Israel worshipped the LORD, there is an explanation of what all the fuss is about. The purpose of the Law is to show how an unholy people can dwell with a holy God, and so in the middle of the instructions, the LORD says, "I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God." (Exodus 29. 45,46).

Every human being's experience bears out the effect of the Law, which is to turn up the volume on our awareness of our inability to keep it. But if the Law is so rough on us (it condemns us because we don't keep it), why does the Old Testament constantly describe love for the Law? Because they know that God gave it so that He might dwell with his people. Good news!

The prologue to John's Gospel shows that the great cosmic solution for the breach between the Creator and the creature would come from God himself. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1. 14). When Jesus later explains what his death will accomplish, he speaks in terms of his people dwelling with him: "In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also." (John 14.2,3).

The final scene of the Bible has this in place, as everything reaches its culmination in the new heaven and new earth: "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." (Revelation 21.3,4).

So that puts God firmly at the center of reality, not you and me and what we want heaven to be like. It's not like the Titanic ending, where everything is about Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio's characters having their best day -- the Authoress helpfully pointed out to me -- what about the guy who is a busboy forever -- what if that is not his best day? -- then the center of the universe really is about Kate and Leo's kiss, or it's an illusion). No, heaven is not about you and me and our wants, but about dwelling with God. And at his right hand, as Psalm 16 puts it, there are pleasures evermore.

That concludes our theologically deep post for the week...

The Beautiful Game of Baseball

My friend Chad arranged for some guys to go a ballgame this Saturday. All hail Chad!

Green grass, slow moving game punctuated by strategic moments of excitement, beer and peanuts. Maybe a hot dog filled with nitrates...bliss.

And not any old baseball game, but a game here in New York City. For most people, that evokes the excitement of the new Yankees Stadium or Citifield (the new version of Shea Stadium where this Phillies fan from childhood's hated Mets call home).

But it's not the new stadiums that cost hundreds of millions, or the roster of major leaguers who all earn seven figures that we're going to see. It's minor league ball. YES!

The Brooklyn Cyclones, while a farm team for the Mets I guess, are still a minor league team. And thus there will be no airs of superstardom like A-Rod or even Johnny Damon (who I like from his days on the Red Sox). Just some guys hungry to make it to the big leagues who play hard each night because their stats don't relate to whether they get a performance bonus they might not really need or care about. Rather, they are playing their heart out or they won't play at all. Somehow, the whole atmosphere is all a bit friendlier even with that in mind.

At least it has been at minor league games I've attended in the past. I occasionally don my New Britan Rock Cats cap, enjoying the "who are they?" questions from my conversation partner.

What about you --- are you a minor league or major league fan --- for watching a game live, taking into account all the factors of cost, hassle, crowd and such?

Incidentally, the Phillies Phanatic (picture) is the greatest mascot in baseball, don't you think? I do, as I dressed up in a homemade Phanatic costume as a kid one October...Check out this dual between the Phanatic and an arch-enemy...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

If you're stuck in traffic, be thankful...

"What? Be thankful that I'm stuck in traffic!" At least you weren't on the M25 when a giant mammoth showed up, as this video of the BBC show Primeval imagines.

It's a show that considers if there were little holes in time, through which animals/creatures from various epochs came into 21st century Britain. It's a terrific time to consider what impact some pretty fearsome dinosaurs, sabre-tooth tigers and so on might have if they turned up in our day.

Some scientists, zoologists and a guy who is handy with a big gun make up a team who try to get these animals back through to their own time, without giving rise to panic in the general population. The characters are okay, and the series peaked in terms of dramatic drive and plot about two-thirds of the way through season one. But one aspect that is interesting in the second series is that the team engages a mythologist who studies the beasts and creatures of the stories across the ages. The notion is that mythical beasts (such as the Loch Ness monster) are creatures from another era who got stuck in the wrong place, or rather, time. Fun to contemplate!

This has little to do with the overall theme of this blog, I'm merely a sci-fi geek.

And yet! If you are contemplating some travel over the Fourth of July, especially if this involves crossing the Hudson River near New York City, don't sweat the hour wait at the Lincoln Tunnel or George Washington Bridge. Just be glad you haven't met this big fellow on your journey...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Stripped of all foliage

I have London on the brain because I wish I was there right now, attending a ministry conference sponsored by the Proclamation Trust, and sneaking off to a match of two of the tennis. But it wasn't to be so this year! Still, Rockefeller Plaza has a mini-Wimbledon setup outside my office door, so there is some consolation.

Dick Lucas is Rector Emeritus of St Helen's, Bishopsgate in London (I encourage you to visit there or All Soul's, Langham Place or Emmanuel, Wimbledon if you go to London). Dick began the Proclamation Trust, which encourages expository preaching, that is, preaching which is led by the text rather than jumping off from it to tell stories, prove a theological construct, etc.

Alongside the positive instruction on getting the meaning of the Bible across to a congregation, Dick has a number of very helpful, practical warnings for the preacher. A couple that stuck in my head were, "Don't preach your family" and "Beware of telling them the Greek/Hebrew". The former is to realize that your hearers will assemble, over time, a little catalogue of information about your family life. What you and the congregation think is cute is pretty much an intolerable burden for your child. One of the leading causes of Preacher's Kid Syndrome, I am informed.

The second warning to the preacher is to beware of showing off one's knowledge of the original language. This is not to say that in preparation the hard work of understanding the meaning of the text shouldn't be done; rather, it is to recognize that if the preacher says something like "you can only really understand this passage in the Greek", then the non-Greek reader now feels he or she cannot understand the Bible in personal reading. It creates a clericalism of learning rather than ceremony.

Well, I'm pretty careful about heeding that warning about the family, and my feeble linguistic skills help me to avoid the second pitfall. But one instance where I broke the rule was in pointing out that in the New Testament there are two words used for the English word "tree". One is a fruitful, living tree and the other is a dead tree, essentially a pole stripped off leaves. In the New Testament, when Jesus speaks of a tree bearing fruit, he uses the former word, and when the apostles speak of Jesus dying on the cross, they use the latter word. Why? Because in the Old Testament, to be hung on a tree to die was to bear a curse. The apostles explain that Jesus bears the curse of our lawbreaking on himself in his death on the cross.

Now, at the end of Revelation, there is a description of the place "where God will dwell with men, and they will be his people, and God himself will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more..." (Rev 21.3,4). The new heaven and new earth is described as a city, and a river runs through it. And there is found "the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations." (Rev 22.2,3).

One would think that this tree is described by the first word (because it is a living, fruitful tree). Not so! The second word is used, the one that is only used in the New Testament to describe the Cross. How marvelous. There is every indication that "the healing of the nations" and life itself is found, eternally, at the Cross of Jesus Christ. Look nowhere else!

"We ourselves now know by experience that there is no place for comfort like the cross. It is a tree stripped of all foliage, and apparently dead; yet we sit under its shadow with great delight, and its fruit is sweet unto our taste." (Charles Spurgeon, on 1 Pet 2:24,25).

Incidentally, since the heavenly city has a river through it, we can take heart that there will very likely be rowing in our eternal experience...

photo above from Hartford Courant newspaper.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

if facebook were real...

I was reflecting on how sometimes people in my life know things about my life before I do!

An imagined scenario: I am working and perhaps have an evening meeting that has me home unusually late. Something has happened during the day that my wife, the Authoress, has mentioned to friends on Facebook. Perhaps one of those people attends the meeting with me, and makes the startling statement to me: "so, how do you like your new juicer?". "What? Oh, you read it on the Authoress' facebook status. I didn't know we had a new juicer."

When I go home, it is equally startling to my wife to have me respond, "oh, yeah, I know" when she explains that a new juicer arrived today and how delightful the orange juice is from it.

I'm not really going anywhere with this, except to note that Facebook becomes a point of entry into a home, relationship, family, or a life, even when the door is closed or people are not together. It's sometimes jarring.

This video is a sketch imagining if the protocols and standards on Facebook were acted out in flesh and blood, bricks and mortar, rather than in cyberspace. Somewhat amusing, yet also thought provoking.

We don't have a juicer, by the way.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The first Chinese born Olympic champion

In a Bible study today on Philippians 1, we spoke about how in the Roman world, one would wish someone else "success and happiness". This is true today, as a Christmas card wished my family "a successful and happy 2009".

The Christian hope for life is different. Paul the Apostle wrote to the Christians in Philippi that he laboured for them, and prayed for them. He was the one who first preached the Gospel to them, and he continued to act for their benefit from afar. He says that it was for their "progress and joy in the faith" that he worked.

Progress instead of Success because you never "arrive" as a Christian. Our final chapter is not written in this life, but in the next.

Joy instead of Happiness because the latter is based on circumstances while the former is not, but on an abiding peace and hope.

In the course of our discussion, I made reference to an article on Eric Liddell who was made famous in the American consciousness with the film "Chariots of Fire". Liddell went on to serve as a missionary in China, and died at the end of WW2 in an internment camp. The article describes a fellow Scotsman who locates and marks Liddell's grave, and the impact this has on Liddell's surviving daughter. Here was a man who ran the race!

Photo: Liddell at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Below the Surface

I'm pretty excited about this series in Philippians.

When I thought I was going to do further research in New Testament studies, it was Philippians that drew my attention. In four short chapters, it bubbles with joy in the midst of sorrow, purpose and meaning in the midst of confusion and conflict, and the liberating truth that knowing Jesus is of surpassing worth compared to even the best things we have otherwise in life.

And as a precursor, Acts 16, the account of the founding of the Church at Philippi, has gripping stuff.

You can also see here the publicity that our esteemed Princeton seminary intern Marc Choi put together for the men's sessions in midtown, and we'll also have coed studies downtown. Looking forward to it.

What's your favourite bit of Philippians, if you have one, gentle reader?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

These are a few of my favorite things

I was speaking, or rather, leading a conversation on Psalm 34 this evening at a FOCUS meeting here in NYC. How wonderful that these students and their leaders get together for fun, food (always including Orangina, showing that anything can become a tradition), and a discussion on a passage in the Bible. Those are some of my favourite things: people getting together for the sake of it, digging into the Bible together, and Orangina. Though the latter was exhausted before I arrived...

In any case, in my bit, I mentioned visiting my wife's family home in rural Ontario, Canada. The land and lake there yield many delights: maple syrup in the past couple of months, wild raspberries in the summer, lovely firewood in super-abundance, fish that enjoy taking hold of the lines of delighted seven year olds, hours of card games and homemade pies. What joy it all is, and how extraordinary to think that given the best things we enjoy today will pale, inexpressibly so, compared to what is ahead for those who love God. I love old things, but the new things will be better. Here is Revelation 21:

1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." 5He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!"

What an interesting thing to consider -- what gives us joy will in some way be renewed and recreated; and I guess, be fulfilled in some way.

Now back to 1 Peter, my text for Sunday at Christ Church...

Thursday, April 30, 2009


For the Bible study some guys come along to at Rockefeller Center, we're having a mini-series on the Psalms.

The Psalms are deep, and yield treasure each time I come back to one that I think I know well enough.

Today we considered Psalm 65, and how the Lord meets us in our sin, in the spectacular and in the everyday rhythms of life (about a third each of the psalm). Anyway, there is abiding joy that the psalmists convey, of the security and protection in knowing God.

I love this photo as a visual image of that notion. The lighthouse keeper has his hands in his pockets, not holding on for dear life as I would have guessed with that storm surge on!

Walking from my son's school down to midtown this morning, I was thinking about our plastic society, in which presentation trumps substance; and this clip (1 minute, 16 seconds long) came to mind, in which a PR firm invents a disease to rescue the career of a politician who has fallen out of favor in the public eye. It's crass, but humorous, and reminds me that we need truth, not spin, to sustain us.

Lighthouse photo, Jean Guichard

Saturday, April 25, 2009

More than a Feeling

Getting ready to speak on 1 Peter 1:13 - 2:3, I've been amazed at a little tidbit that I won't have time to explore much in the sermon. It's that love is "more than a feeling" as the song title of the 80's megagroup Boston describes.

Love and indeed desires grow, organically and inevitably, from a changed heart. That much I'm used to reading in the New Testament. It can't be forced by me.

Yet alongside these very clear images are commands to love, and even a command to desire something appears in 1 Peter! That is very counter our cultural view of love in America in the early 21st century. It's even counter some (according to the New Testament, apparently counterfeit) versions of Christianity out there.

The same passage gives the sense that there is unselfconscious activity, growing naturally from a relationship with God (a loving Father we seek to please and emulate, a loving Saviour whose kindness fires our hearts to serve Him, etc.); and alongside this, also the clear command to love, and to have new desires.

Gosh, love is commanded. More than a feeling. And feelings (or at least desires) are commanded, too! Certainly something outside of a person must be at work to make this true -- it cannot possibly be self-generated.

The only similar thing that comes to mind is teaching novice crews how to row. I had to command from the outside something that would become second nature to them. They lacked a vision for what was possible, because in their pre-rowing state, they did not consider certain movements to be normal. A fresh word consistently applied from outside was required to make the new thing endure. And more often than not, it was necessarily to physically move the rowers shoulders, hands, back, etc.

What do you think? Or am I in the clouds here?

My favourite version of Boston's "More than a Feeling" is the Scrubs lip-sync band, check it out here.

photo: Reuters, of Chris Nilsson, coach of the Cambridge University Boat Club.

Friday, April 24, 2009

42 disgusting grams

Having last worked from a study in the rear of my house, the lunch run consisted of about twenty paces to the kitchen, where more often than not I joined the Authoress and our brood for soup and a sandwich, or cheese, fruit and bread, or whatever.

Nowadays, I work out of church office in midtown Manhattan. This helps with meetings immensely, as we are twenty paces or so from thousands of people working nearby, some dozens of whom come along to our Bible studies during the week.

However, it's been years since the high-rise office building has been my experience, with the attendant time and economic pressures on lunch. Do I buy a sandwich for eight bucks, or bring one from home that is mushy by midday? A friend here recommended a protein shake as a way to get the stuff the body needs while having a cost of only a couple bucks per shake.

I was game because it was chocolate flavored. But it turns out having as many grams of protein as a steak in a milkshake is about as pleasant as, well, drinking a steak milkshake. So I'm glad some people like these things, but I'll try some other way.

So I feel a bit French today as I disdain the notion of a quick meal in favor of sitting down to enjoy the goodness of creation in culinary form.

There is every indication in the New Testament that such things will be banished from the heavenly banquet...

Monday, April 13, 2009


I wonder if this resonates with you:

I showed up last week at my daughter's basketball league, where I expected to sit quietly on the sidelines watching her try out for the team in the youth league, and when she wasn't playing, trim a minute or two out of my sermon for the next day.

However, on arrival, I was given a clipboard and told that I was a coach of one of the teams! I recall answering an email from The Authoress who asked if I was interested in coaching, but replying by saying no, I didn't think I could this year with all the transitions but would try to help out next year. The matron of the league, a friendly and quite bold ruler of the fiefdom that is Yorkville Basketball, took the mere expression of possible interest as a definite commitment.

In the UK, this is called being nobbled. It has the sense of being won over to another side, or of being kidnapped, but usually both senses of the word are in play simultaneously. The American equivalent is to be "roped in".

So, having coached girls crew in the past, I now found myself scouting players with the assessing eyes of parents upon me, who wondered if they would be happy to have their daughters on my team. Fortunately, the mercy of the other coaches landed me with the equivalent of the first draft pick, a girl who scored half of our points in the first game (a victory). I initially resented being nobbled, and part of me still feels that resentment. But I also am coaching, something that another part of me looks forward to doing.

On balance, do you like being nobbled, or does the resentment overwhelm the good thing you've been called upon to do. This is something I am very careful of as a clergyman, trying to give people the opportunity to say "no" but still needing to put requests out there.

If you are a praying person, please do keep my two older daughters on your rota as the level of competition is pretty intense, and they are just learning the rules of the game. Being tall only goes so far, and we'll need some grace all around!


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Bono, Progress & Joy

Yesterday I happened to be in Philippians, where I was struck afresh by a statement Paul made from prison to these people he loved and to whom he longed to return. People imprisoned are ultimately broken down by being cut off from love and fellowship with others. Paul wrote that he was confident he would be released and be restored to the Philippians so that he could continue to aid their "progress and joy in the faith" (Phil 1.20).

Paul addresses their common life together, including quarrels and disputes they had, and encourages them from his suffering that what they experience in this life has eternal value. But what stood out to me yesterday is from (a rather famous) passage at the end:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;
do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

What was striking to me was that Paul (at least in part) commands joy. And Paul himself didn't know the surprising ways that God would give the Philippians progress -- it didn't turn out to be through a return visit he made (he was executed eventually, and we have no record of his going back to Philippi). It would be others who would help these people accomplish what he longed for them to experience, even as his teaching them was the foundation.

When I went to see U2 in concert for the Zoo TV tour, I wouldn't have guessed that when Bono sang with a belly dancer in front of him that he meant the song "She moves in mysterious ways" had allusions to the Holy Spirit. But that's what he meant, along with describing a man's experience of a woman, physically and emotionally. Except for calling the Holy Spirit 'she', Paul was pretty much on board with some of this. He knew that the love of God and the goal of life was predictable but not necessarily all the things God leads his people through to get there.

Maybe that accords with your reading of the Bible maybe not, and maybe it accords with your experience --- that life is directed to an end and purpose, but the route is not what we'd expect.

Click here to see a wonderful Comic Relief spot showing the tension in Bono's charitable/political bent versus the band wanting to be a big rock band. Larry Mullen's line when he flips out learning an upcoming tour's proceeds will go to charity was classic: "I was saving up to buy Andorra!"

Kudos to anyone who can get the Easter-themed reference to the flower photo...