Archive for April, 2008


Friday night I violated my Legend of Zorro-induced vow to never again watch a movie without checking it out on rottentomatoes.com first. I think this play was justified in this case, because the film in question may be the ultimate “Logomanikos” movie: Wordplay. In case you missed it, Wordplay is the 2006 documentary about Will Shortz (editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle) and whole world of crossword fanaticism. For the uninitiated, the Times is considered the gold standard of crosswords. The Monday puzzle is fairly straightforward and then they get harder each day of the week. When I taught at the Naval Academy Prep school, we used to receive the NYT digest by email, and doing the crossword was a common (though not quite daily) ritual for me. I could crank through Monday pretty fast; Wednesday was just about right for me – challenging but doable. Friday was diabolical. I don’t know if I ever finished one.

Anyway, Wordplay was a wonderfully endearing look at crossword puzzles, the people who make them, people who do them (such as Ken Burns, Bill Clinton, Indigo Girls), and especially the people who are obsessed with doing them insanely quickly. We watched a guy finish a whole puzzle in under two minutes and ten seconds. (He’s never broken two minutes, he laments.) And yes, there is a crossword puzzle tournament scene. In many ways it’s like the Scrabble tournament scene, of which I’ve taken part in the past and plan to rejoin someday when I’m back in North America. Similarities abound: the folders full of notes and hints everyone carried through the hotel ballroom, the commiserating during the breaks of mistakes made during the previous round, the lighthearted atmosphere belying the ferocious intensity of the competition, the careful monitoring of opponents’ progress, the fact that at the expert level men seem to outnumber women about eight to one, despite overall equality throughout the whole room. (Are men just more easily obsessed at a trivial recreational pursuit?) As the movie covered the Stamford, CT, National Crossword Championship, I felt so at home from my Scrabble days

[Mild spoiler alert for this paragraph] But the most pervasive likeness with the Scrabble world is simply the existence of this diverse array of people from all walks of like who share this quirky – yes geeky – hobby that outsiders don’t quite get, and hence delight in coming together to play. Old friends greet each other warmly; new friendships are quickly made because of the instant connection of this shared interest and its specialized base of knowledge. When one contestant comments that returning to Stamford each year is for these men and women like “finding their lost tribe,” a chord resonates deep within the viewer: a connection with something far deeper than a black and white grid of numbered squares. It is a picture of the fulfillment of what I think is one of the deepest needs we have as people: community. This film captured the camaraderie of this gathering perfectly. The genius of Wordplay is not simply making this world interesting, but making you care about these people and how they did in the tournament. I was already thoroughly enjoying this movie when about an hour and quarter in, an unexpected twist jolted me from the realm of entertainment to sublime empathy. I sat there thinking, “I cannot possibly be getting choked up about this middle-aged guy losing a crossword puzzle tournament!” But I was. And an hour later as Shannon and I talked about it, I was choked up again! And the next morning, I felt deeply satisfied reflecting on this little celluloid slice of life. Because ultimately, the movie is not about crossword puzzles; it’s about people and passion, and one need not be a hopeless logomanic to completely identify. At least I think so. If you aren’t a word freak yourself, you’ll have to watch it and let me know.

Tonight, not surprisingly, I discovered this film would have passed my RottenTomatoes filter anyway. Wordplay scored an extremely high 95%, which makes me feel a little less dorky for saying it’s the best movie I’ve seen in at least six months.


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Family Values

Now there’s a phrase that’s thrown around a lot without much in the way of a real definition. Shannon and I have recently taken some time to work out a little more precisely what it means in our life. At a marriage workshop we attended at the Young Life All-Staff Conference in January, the speaker commended the idea of having a family “strategic planning retreat.” It’s the kind of thing organizations do all the time, taking a few days to focus on who they are and what they value and develop goals and a mission statement. Going through that process in a relationship was a new idea to me, but it made a lot of sense. After all, my marriage and my family are indeed the “organizations” I’m most deeply committed to and connected with. Why not take a little time to become more purposeful about living our life together? So during our recent vacation, while we drove through amazing Tuscan countrysides and fed our faces with divine Italian cuisine, we also talked together about these issues and hammered out what we hope are our family’s defining core values. Here is what we came up with:

  • Community
  • Integrity
  • Grace
  • Celebration
  • Contentment

Over the next few days I’ll elaborate on each of those concepts and also share a little about our efforts to develop a family mission statement.

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Bella Tuscany

Last week, we had the privilege of taking a week of vacation in Italy, our old stomping ground from 1999-2001. We visited some places we hadn’t seen before (plus a few we had), spent a lot of time just relaxing, and of course feasted copiously on the world’s greatest cuisine. We managed to get in a cone of gelato almost every day too! We made some wonderful new friends on this trip. First, we spent three days being adopted into the daily life of a delightful three-generation Italian home. The Deacons farm in the countryside north of Siena, and we had homegrown olive oil and wine on the table at every meal! The second half of the trip we stayed with Stephanie, an Army officer friend at Camp Darby. Click here to check out some pictures of the trip.

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I don’t generally enjoy writing much about politics lately, but I couldn’t resist referencing this event. Shannon and I were traveling last week so I don’t know if it made a big splash in the public consciousness or not, but I found it fascinating to read the transcript of this forum. For those that missed it, Compassion Forum was a question and answer session between the presidential candidates and a diverse panel of influential religious leaders at Messiah College. The discussion was entirely on matters of personal faith and ethics. It wasn’t so much the actual answers that impressed me as the mere fact of seeing these candidates for the U.S. presidency field direct personal questions like “Share some occasions where you’ve felt the presence of the Holy Spirit” or “Why do you think it is that a loving God allows innocent people to suffer?” Wow! It would require great courage for any Christian to stand up and answer open-ended questions like that in public. I’m not going to attempt any kind of comprehensive commentary on the forum, but I will throw out a couple random moments that particularly caught my attention

Clinton was asked about her basic moral framework for making decisions with life or death consequences for others: “What are the first principles you fall back on to make such decisions? Are there certain activities or references or people with whom you consult in order to do what is morally right?” Good question – kinda lame answer: “…it really is rooted in, you know, my prayer, my contemplation, my study. I think you have to immerse yourself in advice, information, criticism from others … I do believe that you have to be willing to expose yourself to many different points of view and then you have to make that decision.” It struck me as typical politician-speak, a lot of nice words that don’t really say anything. Great that she listens to lots of diverse voices, but who are they? Who do you listen to and why? Who’s your “small group”? Do you have a Jeremiah Wright? Will you tell us even if we won’t all approve?

My favorite line from Clinton, when asked “Why do you think it is that a loving God allows innocent people to suffer?” she responded “…in the face of suffering, there is no doubt in my mind that God calls us to respond. You know, that’s part of what we are expected to do. For whatever reason it exists, it’s very existence is a call to action…in both the Old and the New Testament, the incredible demands that God places on us and that the prophets ask of us, and that Christ called us to respond to on behalf of the poor are unavoidable. And it’s always been curious to me how our debate about religion in America too often misses that.” Suffering exists to allow us an opportunity to love our neighbor!

Clinton was asked: “Can we [combat global poverty] without changing our standard of living?” Her answer was basically, “Yes, we can.” Which I take to mean “We can combat poverty publicly without the government taking money out of your pocket.” Plays well with both conservative and liberal voters, but I felt like she missed a great opportunity to have a prophetic voice against out-of-control consumerism and materialism rampant in our culture including in the church. Man, what a bold move it would have been to say “If we the American public are serious about fighting global poverty, perhaps we should each be willing to personally sacrifice, to voluntarily choose a lower standard of living for the sake of our impoverished brothers and sisters.” Sigh. But I know a statement like that is politically suicidal, even in this kind of forum.

My favorite line from Obama, regarding the place of religion in politics:

What religious language can often do is allow us to get outside of ourselves and mobilize around a common good. On the other hand, what those of us of religious faith have to do when we’re in the public square is to translate our language into a universal language that can appeal to everybody. And both Lincoln and King did this and every great leader did it, because we are not just a Christian nation. We are a Jewish nation; we are a Buddhist nation; we are a Muslim nation; Hindu nation; and we are a nation of atheists and nonbelievers. And it is important for us not to try to kill the debate by saying, “Well, God tells me I’m right, and so I’m not going to listen to you.” Rather, we’ve got to translate whatever it is that we believe into a language that allows for argument, allows for debate, and also allows that we may be wrong.

The emphasis is mine. Some would call this political wishy-washiness, I’d like to think it enculturating the message. Kinda like Paul becoming “all things to all men.” (I Cor 9:22) I don’t think Obama’s saying Christians should compromise their Christian beliefs at all, but that living in a pluralistic environment, we should find ways to communicate these beliefs that make sense to others who believe differently from us.

CNN says John McCain declined an invitation to appear on the forum. I find that very disappointing. I think Christians – regardless of your political views – should take a few minutes to read this forum. Whether you like either of these candidates at all, there is a very good chance that one of them will be our next President, and this panel may provide the most honest glimpse at their souls that we will get.

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A Year Past our Prime

One year ago, on April 17, 2007, our youngest son Zachary turned 11 months old. On that day, I was 37 years old, Shannon was 31, Caleb 5, and Joseph 3. My fellow geeks out there have already caught the pattern (and titular word play) – all five of us had prime numbers for ages. That peculiar mathematical condition lasted for a month, until Zach’s first birthday, and (assuming my kids all outlive me) it was the only time it will ever occur in our family!

Previously, before parenthood, we experienced nine months of double-prime life, from my 29th birthday until Shannon’s 24th. 1999 was a very enjoyable and memorable year year for us, so apparently happiness really doesn’t require many factors.

Rim shot.

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Back in Italy

Shannon and I are in Italy this week. Perhaps I’ll write some meaningful thoughts about this week later, but in the meantime, I’ll just share this:

Being back here has reminded us of this video, which we came across back when we were living in Naples. It is so true – especially the bits about traffic.

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Chastain Family - Easter 2006The picture is from Easter 2006. I think Resurrection Sunday will always remind me of cancer and chemotherapy – and the new life that came through that time of “death”.

A couple weeks ago, Shannon and I were reflecting on our personal testimonies. By that, I don’t mean simply “when and how did we become Christians?”, but what are the events, people, and circumstances that have most directly and profoundly impacted our spiritual formation? When (and why and how) did we each feel like we had grown the most, or experienced the deepest transformation? We discovered something interesting. Although going through chemotherapy in 2006 was certainly a huge life-defining landmark, that experience didn’t jump out to me as one of the most formative parts of my spiritual testimony. For Shannon however, those months clearly stood out as the #1 factor in shaping her testimony. She has such clear memories of her feelings, thoughts, prayers, grief, hope, fear, desperation, loneliness, peace and joy. I have some of those memories, but mostly I recall those days being a time of just putting my head down and “getting through it.” My comment to Shannon as we processed all this stuff was that looking back two years later, I feel like chemotherapy was something that happened to her, more than it did to me. Can any of you relate? Does anyone else out there have a testimony that is deeply rooted in someone else’s significant experiences? Has a crisis you’ve faced personally faded away, while remaining forefront in the minds of your loved ones?

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