The Unexpected Pastor’s Best Picture Countdown 2021

This is the first year since . . . sometime in my early teens, I guess . . . that I have not seen any of the Best Picture nominees in a theater. I know it’s just one of many disruptions caused by the pandemic, but this feels particularly weird. I miss obsessively seeking out the nominated films, sometimes traveling an hour or more to find the more obscure gems. This year, my quest after the nominations were announced involved sitting on the couch and figuring out which streaming service offered the films.

It’s not nearly as much fun. It will not be my “new normal.” There is something wonderful about seeing a film in a theater the way it was made to be viewed, even with the inflated ticket prices, overpriced concessions and rude patrons (weekday matinees are best for avoiding any of those negatives.)

I wonder if this list would be any different had I seen the films on the big screen. Perhaps Nomadland would be higher; it’s a beautifully photographed film that begs for the expanse of a movie theater screen.

That’s the caveat I’m offering with this year’s list, an annual tradition here at the Unexpected Pastor Blog.

As has been the case the past few years, my favorite 2020 film (see the bottom of this post) was not even nominated for Best Picture. Keep that in mind as you consider my list.

Here then is not a prediction of which film will win, but my opinion of which are most worthy of winning. The most fun is disagreeing with the Academy and with each other, so please consider this an invitation to vigorously contest my opinions here or on Facebook.

8. The Sound of Metal

This year’s list was more challenging than the last few. The bottom spot on previous countdowns has been filled by films I just did not like (Vice, Phantom Thread), those I loathed (Joker), and those somewhere between dislike and loathing (The Revenant). There was also one nominated film at the bottom of a previous list that bored me to the point of sleeping through part of it (Her).

That was not the case with this year’s list. I at least appreciated all of the nominated films.

But I appreciated The Sound of Metal least. It is an excellent film with an amazing performance by Riz Ahmed, but it just did not resonate with me. The third (last) act in particular lost me. The scenes in Paris seemed tacked on with little to connect them to what had gone before. I would have liked to have known more of Lou’s story.

Again, that’s not to say The Sound of Metal is not a film worth watching. The many deaf actors who populate the strongest scenes lend a powerful authenticity. Paul Raci’s Joe is a compelling character. There is a scene (trying to avoid spoilers) in which Joe has to make and share a painful decision in which his disappointment is palpable. That scene alone earns his nomination for Best Supporting Actor. For me, it was the second-saddest scene in any of these films (see The Father below for the saddest) because Raci’s acting was so on point.

Riz Ahmed is a worthy Best Actor nominee, but he is not the likely winner (Chadwick Bosman) nor my pick (see The Father below again).

7. Promising Young Woman

I have written before that the sign of a “great” film for me is one that I am still thinking about the next day.

Promising Young Woman might cause me to add a qualifier to that test. Perhaps a great film is a one that I am still thinking about the next day in a way that is edifying.

That does not mean I insist on “happy endings.” Some of my favorite films end quite unhappily.

But I found the ending of Promising Young Woman to be exploitive and tone deaf. (I am trying to avoid spoilers so I’m going to be vague about the identity of the person I’m about to talk about, but you might want to skip to the next silm if you have not seen Promising Young Woman.) Watching someone die – not just die but struggle and suffer and suffocate – is not the redemptive outcome that the film seems to want us to think it is with the subsequent texts and arrests.

Suffering is not redemptive. I can’t help but come at this from a theological perspective because of what I do for a living. One of the biggest misunderstandings about Christianity among Christians is that suffering is salvific. It’s not. It sucks. Suffering should be lamented. From my perspective, there was only one person’s suffering that was salvific, and that was 2000 years ago.

What about when suffering is on someone else’s behalf? That’s another problem with this film. Perhaps that is the case in Promising Young Woman, but the other person never asked for it or consented to it. In fact those closest to her said it was not what she would have wanted.

I’ve written a lot about what I didn’t like about Promising Young Woman. If not for the ending, it would be much higher on this list. Carey Mulligan is amazing, and until the end the film strikes just the right dark comedy tone. Until then, I was riveted and appreciated the film’s important statement about sexual assault and misogyny.

But that ending though . . .

6. Mank

I should have loved Mank. A film about films? A film about writing? A film about Citizen Kane? In stunning black and white?

Mank checks a lot of boxes for me.

But my attitude toward Mank reflects the attitude of some young women toward me in high school: “I like you. But I don’t like you like you.”

Why did I not like like Mank?

My tepid response begins with the central performance, Gary Oldman’s Oscar-nominated turn as Herman J. Mankiewicz. Gary Oldman is a brilliant actor. He deservedly won the Best Actor award for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour. But I never bought 60+ year old Oldman’s portrayal of the 40-something Mankiewicz. The character walks a tightrope between irritation and charm; Oldman fell off into irritation.

Amanda Seyfried was quite good, though. The black and white cinematography was gorgeous. The evocation of old-time Hollywood with its glitz and corruption was delicious.

Yes, Mank, I like you a lot.

I just don’t love you.

I hope we can still be friends.

5. Nomadland

Nomadland brings us to the point in this list where I will be happy if any of the remaining films win. Nomadland is the favorite going into Sunday night, and justifiably so.

One of the best things about films is that they help us understand people and cultures different than our own. Roger Ebert called movies “empathy machines.”

Nomadland is an empathy machine.

In it we are introduced to a way of life foreign to most of us, a culture that exists both under the radar of capitalism run amok and created by it. I didn’t know anything about van life or van dwellers before watching Nomadland. After viewing the film, I felt I had not just learned about the culture but had experienced it and gotten to know its people some as well.

The film’s authenticity comes from brilliant direction and from Frances McDormand’s typically flawless performance, but also from the crucial choice to populate Nomadland with actual participants in the van living culture.

Nomadland is also, as I said in the introduction, a film of wondrous beauty. Joshua James Richards should walk away with the Best Cinematography award on Sunday, and Chloe Zhao would certainly be a worthy winner of Best Director (which she is favored to win).

4. Minari

Everything I said above about “empathy machines” applies to Minari. And then some.

Much less expansive than Nomadland, Minari transports us into the lives of the family at its center.

It is is a beautiful picture of family. The beauty does not come from a portrayal of perfect harmony, but of love abiding through challenges and disagreements. It’s a story about immigrants, but infused with universal themes. It’s also about one version of the American Dream.

Minari is funny, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful.

Minari may be more low-key than most Best Picture nominees and especially winners, but its authentic resonance makes its accolades well deserved.

And Yuh-Jung Youn should be awarded Best Supporting Actress on Sunday for her wonderful portrayal of “not a real grandmother.”

3. The Father

The Father was the penultimate film in my Best Picture nominee viewing. By that point I had this list formed in my head, including where I thought the last two would end up.

Boy was I wrong about The Father.

I did not anticipate that it would be this high on the list.

This was a film that I thought about the next day. And the next.

Continuing the “empathy machine” theme, never before have I seen a film that so effectively portrayed the disorientation of dementia. By keeping the us off-balance, we’re thrust into the world of Anthony Hopkins as the title character.

“The Father” is a drama, but it’s really a horror film. It’s more scary than any supernatural thriller because it resonates with our real-life fear of growing older and losing our memory, our independence, and even our identity.

It’s challenging, sad, and yes, scary. It’s also brilliantly done.

Although Chadwick Bosman will almost certainly win Best Actor, any other year I believe Hopkins would be the front-runner.

His delivery of the ingenious line, “I feel as if I’m losing my leaves,” was for me the above-mentioned most heartbreaking movie moment of the year.

2. Judas and the Black Messiah

We’ve reached the Fred Hampton portion of the list. The real-life revolutionary activist is a character in both of my top two films. He’s just a supporting figure in the film at #1, but he is one of two primary characters in Judas and the Black Messiah. (He’s the “Black Messiah.”)

I had great difficulty ranking these last two films. Both of them are excellent and important. I’ll describe why the film at #1 ended up there when I get to it; let me tell you why Judas and the Black Messiah is so high on my list.

We’ve got to start with the two title performances – LaKeith Stanfield as “Judas” Bill O’Neal, and Daniel Kaluuya as “Black Messiah” Fred Hampton. As electric as Kaluuya’s performance is, I appreciated the complexity of O’Neal’s portrayal even more. Both are nominated for Best Supporting Actor – how about a tie with each taking home a statue Sunday night?

Judas and the Black Messiah is a film that compels attention, exhilarates, and ultimately breaks your heart. It should also make you very, very angry.

It’s history they don’t teach in school. It tells the truth about our country and its systems of law enforcement and justice. And it forces us to confront issues of race and class and even economics. But it’s also an eminently watchable film.

Don’t miss it!

1. The Trial of the Chicago 7

As I wrote above, The Trial of the Chicago 7 shares themes with Judas and the Black Messiah. It even shares a character.

So why is The Trial of the Chicago 7 #1?

Simply because I found it to be as effective at expressing those themes while at the same time being a more compelling, and especially enjoyable, movie-watching experience.

And maybe because I’m a sucker for Aaron Sorkin’s writing. For me, no one except David Mamet has a more distinctive screenwriting (and teleplay- and play-writing) “voice.” No one, again except David Mamet, gets more words-per-minute on screen or stage.

There have been many great films about trials – Anatomy of a Murder is one of my all-time favorites. The rituals of the courtroom and the arc of a trial fit well into the three-act form of movie storytelling.

There is something inherently theatrical about trials, and there are plenty of courtroom theatrics in The Trial of the Chicago 7. It’s one of those movies that tell a true story that is sometimes so outlandish that “they couldn’t make this stuff up if they wanted to.”

The Academy Award for Best Picture is obviously a movie award, and I would vote for The Trial of the Chicago 7 because I believe it is the best movie of the eight nominated.

Not only have I thought about the events of the film since I saw it, but I remember my reactions to those events. Although the themes are indeed serious and “important,” the 130 minutes flew by. Among the powerful emotions evoked, I was also entertained. That is, for me, a mark of effective movie-making.

And it gets my hypothetical vote for Best Picture.

BONUS: My Pick for the Best Picture of 2020

Charlie Kaufman achieved quite a feat this year. He wrote and directed the best film I saw – I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Watching it was to enter a confounding, enthralling, frustrating world that defies the conventions of reality and storytelling. It was great, and I’m still not sure what the hell was going on!

Charlie Kaufman also wrote the worst book I read – Antkind. I slogged through the 700+ pages over many weeks, not wanting to give up because I love his films (Being John Malcovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and ultimately because I had invested so much time in it. I should have stopped.

See the film! (It’s on Netflix.) Don’t read the book. (I’m doing you a favor by not linking to it on Amazon.)

Here’s what I posted about I’m Thinking of Ending Things on Facebook:

Anybody else watched it? What did you THINK?

I’m not sure whether to recommend it or not. It is . . . disturbing. Not just in the ominous undertone that pervades the film, but in the way it disturbs perceptions of reality and time. (But also very funny at times.)

Charlie Kaufman (writer and director) is such an original voice – Adaptation is one of my top 10-15 films, and I can watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich repeatedly. (Synechdoche, NY blew me away, but once was enough.)

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is ultimate Kaufman – characters change names, ages, pasts without warning. There are long, My Dinner with Andre-type conversations about philosophy, poetry, art, film, and musicals, except it turns out much of that dialogue (and poetry, and art) is quoted verbatim from other sources.

Entering the world of the film puts you off-balance; that’s a big part of the “fun” of watching it. There are puzzles that are never solved – I have some ideas but don’t think there’s an definitive answer to what’s going on.If you like stuff like that, by all means check it out. I will be watching it again check out some of the ideas I have about what’s going on.

Oh, Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons do an incredible job with very demanding (and confusing) roles. As you would expect, Toni Collette and David Thewlis are memorable in very strange supporting roles.


BONUS 2: The Two Films I Just Plain Enjoyed the Most in 2020

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TOO SMART FOR GOD Is Now Available!

UntitledMy book, Too Smart for God, is now available in paperback or Kindle on Amazon.com.

Here’s the description from the back of the book:

Dave Simpson knew a lot of answers, but he didn’t know The Answer.

A four-time Jeopardy! champion and six-figure winner on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Dave was a smart guy. For much of his adult life, he considered himself too smart for religion. Too smart for church.

He was too smart for God.

Fast forward a few years and Dave is a Lutheran pastor. And no one was more surprised that he is a minister – or even a Christian – than he was.

In Too Smart for God, Dave invites us on his journey through disbelief to the pulpit. This funny and often touching story will not only inspire your own walk, but will help foster understanding between people on all sides of faith.

And here’s a video of me reading a chapter; the chapter reading starts about 5 minutes in and lasts about 12 minutes.

The paperback is eligible for Prime Shipping.

Click on “Look Inside” on the Amazon page to read the first 15 or so pages.

E-mail me at theunexpectedpastor@google.com for more information, to set up a Zoom reading or visit to your book group.

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Car Theft and Ball Theft – A Story of Systemic Racism

Maybe this story of two incidents in the same week from my years as a Juvenile Probation Officer will help folks understand how structures and systems that perpetuate white privilege work, and why we need to work to change them:

One night a young person took a car that was not his for a “joy ride.” He drove it around until he was pulled over by a Sheriff’s Deputy. I was on call that night and was told that the young man was being released to his parents and a referral (a Juvenile charging document) for either Motor Vehicle Theft or Unauthorized Use of a Motor Vehicle would be forthcoming.

That same week five young people walking down the street saw a ball in a front yard. One of them walked up into the yard and kicked it into the street. The young men kicked the ball to each other as they continued on their way. This was all seen by the resident of the home where the ball originated. She called the local police. They responded and apprehended the young men, and returned the ball to its owner. They were released to their parents.

Later that week, I got a call from the Sheriff’s Deputy in the joy ride case. He had done some excellent work. He had gotten the young person who stole the car to apologize to its owner and to agree to do some work as restitution. The deputy had assured that the young man’s parents were taking the incident seriously and that there would be appropriate consequences at home. The young man’s father was a good friend of the sheriff, so he was sure everything would be carried out as agreed. The deputy and the sheriff had talked, and they saw no need to refer (charge) the young man.

That same day, I received a referral charging the five young men who had taken the ball with “Theft Under $300.” The referral stated the value of the ball was “$1.98.” I did what I was required by the law to do – set up Intake Interviews with the young men and their families. Although I subsequently closed their cases with a warning, they now had a Juvenile Record for Misdemeanor Theft.

You have probably guessed that the young man who took the car was white.

The five young men who took the ball were African American.

How does it make sense that a young person can take a car and five others can take a ball, and the five but not the one end up in my Juvenile Justice office?

No one in the system did anything “wrong” in these cases. As far as I know, no one was intentionally treated any differently because of their color. No one involved, again as far as I know, was racist.

But the system operated with a racist bias.

It still does. We fill our jails with African American young men, and disproportionately reserve the ultimate punishment for people of color (who are likely to have killed white people).

The African American youths who took the ball were now in that system, a system that gets worse – not just in its consequences but in its capacity to produce adult criminals – the deeper young people get into it.

And those who got deep into the system were and are disproportionately young people of color, not because the system is run by a bunch of racists, but because the system itself and the structures that supported it were – and are – inherently racist.

I say this particularly to followers of Christ – to love our neighbor does not mean being “nice” to them – at least not only that. It means calling out and tearing down systems that harm some of our neighbors more than others and working with our neighbors to build new and equitable systems.

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Why This Pastor Speaks about Racism

On Facebook, someone asked me why I posted about racism. Isn’t it a pastor’s job to be uplifting? Here is my response (slightly edited) . . .

Racism is evil, even demonic. If followers of Christ do not confront evil, then what good are we?

My “job” as a pastor – and I’ll broaden that to the baptismal call of any follower of Christ – is not just to make people feel good, especially people who are perpetrating evil, especially the privileged who exploit the marginalized. I don’t know where you got that idea but it certainly wasn’t the Bible.

Read any of the prophets. Read Jeremiah’s condemnation of those who would shout out “Peace, peace where there is no peace.” Read Jesus – not just the “feel good” parts but the prophetic parts, especially the way he begins his ministry with a radical quote from Isaiah. Read the Magnificat in Luke 1, where Mary says that Jesus is coming to lift up the poor and tear down the rich. Read Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, where he says that a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is; calls that which is evil the evil that it is. Read modern prophets like Bonhoeffer or Dr. King, especially the Letter from a Birmingham Jail where Dr. King chides white pastors who would rather keep the peace than speak out about racism.

Yes, my call is to proclaim the Gospel, But it is also to speak honestly about how we fall short.This is a reflection of the Bible in general and of Jesus’ ministry in particular. What Jesus said and did was certainly good news for the poor and powerless; it was not always great news for the privileged and powerful.

Jesus broke down all of the Law into two commands – love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself. I cannot love my neighbor of color – or my LGBTQ neighbor, or my immigrant neighbor, or my poor neighbor – if I do not speak out and try to change the injustices being done to them.

What good am I as a follower of Christ if I remain silent in the name of a superficial unity or counterfeit peace?

In your earlier reply you seem to indicate “outrage” is a bad thing. Outrage at racism and other injustice is not a negative; it is a motivator for positive change. There are some things we SHOULD be angry about. There are certainly things that anger God – there are certainly things that angered God in human flesh, Jesus.

As for my Facebook Posts, the ones that are not pictures of my pets and descriptions of meals, etc. (the vast majority) – the ones like this one on which you choose to focus – are made precisely because of the call I have as a pastor and follower of Christ.

It is a call to speak out against evil, evil reflected in racism and injustice and inequality.

Too many folks have the idea that Christianity is a religion of the status quo, supporting the privileged and the powerful. Too many people have the idea that Christianity is about keeping women in their place, keeping gay folks in the closet, and keeping undocumented immigrants out of the country, about “economic freedom” and American exceptionalism.

The voices of that kind of “Christianity” are unfortunately loudest. It’s the Christianity of my childhood that was silent about the segregation all around us in the south where I grew up, that was silent about the young men coming home in coffins from an unjust war, that was silent about poverty. It’s that kind of “Christianity” that helped keep me away from the church – and God – for years. Whatever I can do to let people know that those things are NOT what it means to follow Jesus I will do, including preaching, protesting, and posting on social media (and writing a book about my spiritual journey – Too Smart for God will be released June 3!).

Yep, that is ultimately divisive. But bringing people together by ignoring evil is not my call as a pastor or as a follower of Christ – it is not what Jesus came to do, either. ” “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” I know they don’t teach verses like that in Sunday School, but we are called to grow beyond Sunday School faith.

What unites us is the Cross – and the cross ultimately leaves no room for superficial “unity.” It’s life or death.

The best summary I have heard of the call to balance good news with necessary confrontation is this: Comfort the afflicted, but afflict the comfortable.

If this post made you uncomfortable (and it makes ME uncomfortable even though I wrote it), that might be cause for reflection.

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An Update About My Book, and a Chapter

The publication of my book Too Smart for God, has been delayed by the COVID-19 situation. In the meantime here is a chapter that did not make the final edit – consider it kind of  a “deleted scene.” Enjoy!

CHAPTER 23 – John Boy (Innocence Lost 1)

My mom was something of a Southern Belle.

She was a very proper woman who insisted the full table be set every evening before supper. My sister or I had to lay a knife on the right side of each plate with its blade facing the plate, then put a spoon beside it. The fork went on the left side; the forks, that is, with the salad fork outside the big one. Under the forks went the napkin folded into a triangle.

This full table-setting did not make sense to me. “Why do we need forks and knives when we’re just having stew?”

It was an argument I would never win. There was a Right Way to do things.

When we were young and still had winter in Virginia, my sister and I would have to wait for my mother to get her hair “right” and her makeup “done” before we could go out and play in the snow. I can still feel the precious moments of sledding, snow angels, snowmen, and snowball fights ticking away while mom fussed with herself in the bathroom. 

Appearances were crucial. You put everything away to keep the house clean in case someone dropped by, or even if they didn’t.

You kept problems put away in the house as well.

Much of mom’s propriety was cultural. Her background as a child of an alcoholic magnified her desire for order and predictability. 

One thing you did not do in my mom’s house or in her presence was cuss. I don’t ever remember hearing my parents swear, not even once. 

In fact, I don’t remember hearing any profanity at all anywhere until third grade in the pool locker room at YMCA Day Camp.

This is how sheltered I was from that kind of language: 

When I heard older boys peppering their language with a certain scatological reference as they changed out of their swimsuits, I wondered why they kept spitting out the name of a razor I’d heard advertised on television.

“Schick!”

Eventually someone set me straight.

In my house, you could get away with “darn,” but “dern” would get you sent to your room. I never dared use anything stronger for fear of the dire consequences.

Except that one time . . .

We were still in Virginia and I was 11 on the Saturday morning my parents announced to my sister and I that we were going to do Something Special that afternoon. I know now it is a good thing I grew up in a family that did stuff together on weekends. But at 11 I was already engaged in the adolescent War of Independence. It is a stage of development that is necessary, but painful for everyone.

I didn’t want to do Something Special with my mom and dad and my sister. I wanted to play with my friends or, as a budding introvert, hang out in my room and read or listen to my shortwave radio.

Besides, Something Special often meant a long drive to some antebellum Virginia mansion where an old lady in a hoop skirt would lead us from room to room while reciting a canned spiel about the estate’s “fascinating history.”

“In this room Mr. and Mrs. Coopersmith would enjoy their morning coffee and biscuits before setting about their daily routine. The house slaves would receive so much gratification from Mr. and Mrs. Coopersmith’s appreciation of their cooking and serving. The slaves in the field would already be hard at work, singing and happy in the duties and purpose Mr. and Mrs. Coopersmith provided out of Christian charity.”

This was just 40 years ago in Virginia, a state with a proud plantation history in a time they were proud to proclaim it.

And it’s only a slight exaggeration.

On this particular Saturday we weren’t going to a plantation to hear how contented the slaves were, or that Song of the South was an accurate portrayal of African-American history.

We were instead going to drive across the state to some little town in the Blue Ridge Mountains where a Celebrity would be making an appearance.

Richard Thomas! John Boy Walton! (Exclamation points not mine but my parents’; they loved The Waltons.)

Maybe if the celebrity had been Washington Quarterback Billy Kilmer or Orioles Third Baseman Brooks Robinson or an astronaut or something, I would have put aside my quest for individuation for the afternoon and gone along willingly. 

But not too willingly. You couldn’t give them too much in this ongoing war.

But John Boy? Let’s just say I didn’t run out to the car and shout, “What are ya’ll waiting for?! He’s not going to be there all day!”

At first I employed passive aggressive tactics. 

I took a loooooong shower. 

I couldn’t decide what to wear. 

I couldn’t find socks that matched. 

I feigned altruism: “Y’all don’t really want to wait around for me, do you? I don’t want to make you late. Y’all go ahead without me. I can’t wait to hear all about it when you get home.”

Attempts at reasonable persuasion were unsuccessful.

I segued into a tantrum. Early adolescence is in some ways a return to the Terrible Twos, just with more verbal ability and mobility. “I don’t want to go! I don’t have to go! You can’t make me go!” Those probably weren’t my exact words but they capture the general thesis of my petulant dissertation.

My parents took a dissenting view. Why would I not want to spend time with my family that loved me and cared for me? Guilt was a popular but, by this time in my life, ineffective tactic.

I most certainly did have to go and they most definitely could make me.

I needed to show them I was serious.

All I had left was the nuclear option.

“I don’t want to go and see any,” I paused here, both for effect and to screw up the courage to drop the big bomb, “Damn,” paused again to make sure they heard it, “John Boy!”

I crossed my arms and waited for the reaction. 

What did I expect to get out of this? Did I really think my parents were going to respond, “If we had known how strongly you felt about this, we never would have suggested such an imposition in the first place. Thank you for letting us know the depth of your objection. We’ll just run along and leave you to yourself.”

In my dreams.

But when you’re 11 you’re not thinking strategically. You’re not really thinking at all. You want your way, and if you can’t have it you want those who stand in your way to be as miserable as you are. Or something.

Mom and dad’s response was the worst possible.

They didn’t yell at me, or curse back at me, or wash my mouth out with soap. They just looked at me with what is perhaps the most effective weapon in a parent’s arsenal, if used sparingly. 

Disappointment.

Yeah, sometimes that cousin of guilt could be effective.

Then one of them, I don’t remember which, said, “Okay, let’s go.” They knew my resistance was spent.

So we went to see John Boy. I think I had a reasonably good time. They didn’t tell me until we got home late that night I was grounded for the next week.

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I’m Not Dead Yet!

It’s my anniversary!

Not my wedding anniversary. That’s coming up on Monday.

It’s the third anniversary of the day my body tried to kill me. 

The third anniversary of a doctor in the ER saying, “You have bilateral pulmonary embolisms.”

And me responding, “I can’t die! I have Hamilton tickets in May!” 

Not that I thought dying was a possibility.

Not then.

It was only after I got out of the hospital, during the weeks long recovery, that I realized (or allowed myself to understand) how serious the embolisms had been. Six subsequent visits to specialists. Six doctors who reviewed the records and said some variant of, “You’re lucky to be here.”

At the time I didn’t feel lucky. I was mostly pissed off. The ambulance ride to the ER had happened the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. It’s a busy time for a pastor. A time, if I’m honest, when I feel especially necessary. It’s nice to be needed. It feeds the ego, although Lent is supposed to be a time for feeding the soul.

A pastor came to the hospital that Ash Wednesday to pray and give me ashes. As she made the cross on my forehead, she said what we always say on Ash Wednesday: “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I’d like to say receiving that reminder of mortality when I could barely breathe was a transcendent moment,

But it wasn’t.

I was too busy worrying about when I would get out of the hospital, back home, back to work.  

I’d like to say I am different now, less focused on what I do and more aware of who I am or, even better, Whose I am. I’d like to say that I experience every day as a gift, and appreciate the little things more because I am more aware of my temporary status in this life.

But that would not be true.

There are times, like on this anniversary day, that I look back with thanksgiving that I am still around. Still around to celebrate my 24th wedding anniversary Monday, still around to go see my son in Arizona in a couple of weeks, still around to officiate at my daughter’s wedding in October.

Although that’s a few months away. There are no guarantees. I am still around to anticipate officiating at my daughter’s wedding.

Maybe that’s what I’ve taken away from my near-death experience. Not a greater appreciation of each day; I’ve never been good at living in the moment and I still struggle with mindfulness.

I would not make a good Buddhist.

What I do have is a greater appreciation of anticipation. I was not completely joking in the ER about needing to survive to see Hamilton. Having something to look forward to is key to my mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

When I think about the times I have struggled with depression, I realize I had trouble looking forward . . . to anything. My perceived past failures and present inadequacies drowned out any possibility things could get better in the future. I am thankful for skilled therapists who helped lift me out of the static quagmire and pushed me forward again.

 So maybe what I need to do this Lent is to focus not on giving something up, but on anticipation. Or, more exactly, being thankful for anticipation. Being thankful for the earthly anticipation of things like the trip to see my son and my daughter’s wedding, as well as looking forward to quotidian joys like my bowl of cereal in the morning and sitting with Karen on our love seat in the evening.  Being thankful for vocational anticipation of growing together (not necessarily in numbers) with my new congregation. Being thankful for spiritual anticipation of deepened faith and resurrected hope . . . and the resurrection itself.

Lent is an important and valuable season in itself, but we walk through these days to the cross knowing – at least hoping – that the empty tomb lies on the other side of the cross. Lent is paradoxically a somber time of confession and repentance and realizing how short and how often we fall, but also a hopeful season when we anticipate the joy that will surely come.

Two days ago, it was Ash Wednesday again. I had ashes smeared on my head in the shape of a cross, and heard those words again: “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Someday, there will be embolisms or cancer or a heart attack, or – more likely for the klutz I am – I’ll trip over something and break my head. And I will not recover in this life no matter what plans I’ve made. That’s very clear to me after what happened three years ago.

But. . . on the other side of the cross is the empty tomb.

I can’t stay dead. I have, not Hamilton Tickets, but God’s Word on that.

There’s always something to look forward to.  

Posted in Christianity, Faith | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

The Unexpected Pastor’s Best Picture Countdown 2020

 

2020oscars

When I was an adolescent just developing my passion for film, the Academy Awards seemed the definitive imprimatur of quality, significance, and enduring legacy. I have no defense except Paul’s in First Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child.”

Now that I’m older and know about the impact of money, and “For Your Consideration Campaigns,” and race/gender, and connections – and money – on who gets nominated and who wins, I watch the Oscars not to find out what I should appreciate but to root for the achievements of films and people that moved me in the previous year. And to shout at my television when ridiculous results are announced (Green Book wins Best Picture last year; If Beale Street Could Talk wasn’t even nominated, for example).

Here then is not a prediction of which film will win, but my opinion of which are most worthy of winning. The most fun is disagreeing with the Academy and with each other, so please consider this an invitation to vigorously contest my opinions.

jokerposter9. Joker

Let’s start with this:

I have not loathed a film as much as I detest Joker since Oliver’s Stone’s Natural Born Killers was released in 1994.

My response to both films was the same: I needed a shower to wash off the cynical manipulative heartless hypocrisy that glorifies the very nihilistic violence they pretend (or hamhandedly attempt) to decry.

As I posted on Facebook after I saw Joker, it’s not that I don’t like dark films. But unremitting darkness is easy; suffusing that gloom with just enough light (hope) so that sentimentality and bathos are avoided is hard. Anyone can create a one-note dystopia of endless despair, but few can compose a complex symphony of meaning and emotion without diminishing the danger and darkness. (See Children of Men for a stellar example.)

I went through an adolescent phase of nihilism; everything and everyone was awful. Joker‘s stance is just as juvenile and simplistic.

It might go without saying that I disagree with Todd Phillips’ nomination for Best Director.

And, to give you plenty with which to argue, while Juaquin Phoenix’ performance certainly grabs one’s attention, attention-grabbing is as far as it goes and there are far better choices for Best Actor this year. (I know this is a minority opinion; it will be a shock if Phoenix does not win the award Sunday.)

Don’t worry, this is not a list of unremitting darkness. Joker was the only nominated film I did not like at least a little.

fordvferrari8. Ford v Ferrari

Ford v Ferrari is a lot of fun. It’s a well-made buddy movie with some exhilarating race car footage. Both Matt Damon and especially Christian Bale turn in charismatic performances. It’s hard to believe it was just last year when the now rail-thin Bale was Oscar-nominated for portraying jowly Dick Cheney. I was surprised by some of the twists and turns of the story that did not take place on the racetrack. There is even some nuance to the “villains” in the film – both the corporate suits and the Italian car makers get some things done.

Ford v Ferrari is a very good, perhaps even excellent, genre film. You should see it on the big screen if you can find it if only for the scenes that put you inside a car  moving at 200+ miles per hour.

But Ford v Ferrari is not the Best Picture of this or any other year. It’s nice that it was nominated, but it’s the “Eight of these things are like the others, just one of them doesn’t belong” of this year’s nominees. (Even Joker has big – although unrealized – ambitions.)

theirishman7. The Irishman

I admit, I am not the right kind of Martin Scorsese fan. My favorite Scorsese films are not his gangster pictures, but a dark comedy (After Hours) and a spiritual epic (Silence), with another dark comedy – King of Comedy, ineptly imitated by Joker close behind. (I promise, no more knocks on Joker.)

What The Irishman does have going for it is its honesty about the destructive reality of the gangster fraternity that could be viewed as glamorized in some of Scorsese’s earlier films. That’s not his intent, but hanging with DeNiro and Pacino and especially Joe Pesci can look pretty appealing.

But not in The Irishman, at least not after you get through its three hours. In some ways, it is an effective answer to those earlier films or even clarification of perspective as we imagine Scorsese looking back over his legacy.

It is an epic film with if not incredible, incredibly expensive (150 million dollars!), special effects that youthen its elderly leads in a way that is believable after you get used to it.

But on my list – and this is my list – there are five other films more worthy of the Best Picture Oscar. In those other films it is hard to find a wasted line of dialogue or shot; The Irishman would have benefited from a more ruthless editor or been presented as a miniseries.

jojorabbit6. Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit was one of my three or four favorite films of 2019. I am a big fan of Taika Waititi’s sensibility. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of my favorite 21st century comedies (do yourself a favor and watch it if you have not).

Jojo Rabbit has divided moviegoers and has divided my house. I loved it; Karen (my wife) found it inappropriate. Her complaint, a common one of those who dislike the film, is that making Hitler funny may serve to encourage rather than discourage those who admire his hate-filled legacy.

For me, Jojo Rabbit was indeed funny, but it was effective satire. I learned pretty early in my life that one of the best ways to defuse bullies is to laugh at them. That’s why comics are constantly under threat in totalitarian countries, and why Saturday Night Live and nightly talk show monologues are important beyond making us laugh.

There is a difference between making someone funny and making fun of them. I thought Jojo Rabbit accomplished the latter when it came to Hitler.

Jojo Rabbit made me cry as well as laugh. I won’t spoil that heartbreaking scene, but it gives the satire gravity and leaves no doubt about whose side it is on.

Scarlet Johansson plays Jojo’s mom with just the right amount of love and protectiveness mixed with sadness about her son’s faith in Nazis. Her patient hope that he will figure out the error of his ways is the heart of the film. If Laura Dern was not nominated for Marriage Story, Johansson would be my choice for Best Supporting Actress.

Reactions to Jojo Rabbit are too divisive for it to have a shot at Best Picture. Obviously, it’s not my first (or fifth) choice, either.

19175. 1917

If this was a prediction list, 1917 would be number one or two. But for me, there were enough problems with 1917 that it drops to number five.

There was plenty I liked and appreciated about the film. The tension is unrelenting, and the cinematography is often beautiful in spite of the violence portrayed. I was surprised often in what could have been a formulaic action story. Thomas Newman’s excellent disquieting score expertly enhanced the suspense. And Sam Mendes should probably be awarded Best Director on Sunday for the intricate real-time choreography of the action that is edited to look like it was filmed in two long shots.

But . . . that illusion for me became distracting as I looked for the “seams.” What was intended to be immersive at times had the opposite effect of taking me out of the world of the film. I was also distracted by the repeated failure of the Germans to shoot our heroes – they were protected by what someone has coined “plot armor.” (I wish I knew where I read that term so I could give attribution – it is a perfect description of too many action films.)

I will include this caveat of my placing of 1917, though: At the showing I attended, someone behind and to the left of me had bronchitis or some other kind of condition that caused them repeated violent coughing fits. Their phlegm-excavating outbursts undoubtedly contributed to my challenge with staying engrossed in the film.

Please, dear reader, if you find yourself similarly sick, please stay home and watch Netflix until your condition improves.

littlewomen4. Little Women

“Oh great, another version of Little Women.”

That was my reaction, and undoubtedly the response of many, to hearing about this film.

But Greta Gerwig has created something beyond just another version. This is a unique and profound vision of the source material. Gerwig accomplishes what might seem impossible – staying true to Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century book while making a film relevant to our 21st century reality.

She does this primarily by mixing up the chronology. It is like a magic trick centered on shuffling the cards; something wonderful and unexpected happens out of the rearranging. Gerwig’s failure to be nominated for Best Director is indicative of the Academy’s lack of judgment as well as its sexism.

Of course the director is helped by wonderful performances by . . . everyone in this film. Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are deservedly nominated, but there is not a stronger ensemble in a film released last year. Laura Dern and Timothy Chalamet are particularly excellent.

Although it’s not my first choice, it would be great if Little Women won Best Picture as a makeup to Gerwig, but more likely is that she will win for Best Adapted Screenplay. If that happens, it will be a worthy award.

marriagestory3. Marriage Story

I agonized over the placement of these last three films. I’d be fine with any of them winning Best Picture and, if I had a real vote, could see myself voting for any of them depending on my mood when it was time to mark the ballot.

Even in a three-way tie someone has to be awarded the victory (a reference to a previous film which I won’t be any more specific about so as not to spoil it).

Although it is my number three, at least for now, Marriage Story is an almost perfect film that starts with the Best Original Screenplay of the year by director Noah Baumbach. This film just feels real, surely in large part because it is based on Baumbach’s own disintegrating marriage.

Baumbach cast the picture perfectly as well. Adam Driver is my pick for Best Actor (although Juaquin Phoenix will win . . . biting my tongue), not least for his surprisingly competent  performance of a Sondheim song.  Scarlet Johansson holds her own with Driver, making it impossible for the viewer (at least this one) to make a choice about which of the sparring couple to prefer in their battle.

The supporting cast shines as well, particularly Laura Dern (as I said above, Best Supporting Actress) and Alan Alda as very different types of attorneys.

Marriage Story will probably not follow its spiritual forerunner, Kramer vs Kramer, to a Best Picture win, but this Netflix production should be similarly remembered as a stellar example of this genre of film, perhaps  best described as the mirror-image of a romantic comedy.

parasite2. Parasite

I’ve written before that my primary test for a great film is one that I wake up thinking about the next day. Parasite is such a film.

I knew going in that there were going to be surprises, but was still gobsmacked when they happened. After the intricate setup of the first third or so, I had no idea where this film was going and how it was going to get there. Parasite would be my choice for Best Original Screenplay if not for my strong desire for Knives Out to win something (more about Knives Out below).

Not only is Parasite immensely entertaining, it is also a wry commentary on class and wealth. The scene where the family walks in the rain from the rich neighborhood to their own impoverished district is a masterpiece – down, down, down, down many flights of steps they go as they descend not just geographically but socially.

Speaking of surprises, it will be a big one if Parasite does not win Best Foreign Language Film on Sunday. And although it will be the first foreign language film to do so, it will only be a slight surprise if Parasite is awarded Best Picture.

If you have not seen Parasite because you “don’t like to read movies,” ignore the fact that it is subtitled and GO. You won’t even notice that you’re reading once the plot takes off.

ouatihollywood1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I can’t improve on the Facebook post I made about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood right after seeing it. I was in a hurry to get down my thoughts about this exhilarating movie experience. It’s the only film on the list I’ve gone out of my way to watch more than once. This movie about the movies would be the perfect winner of the Best Picture Oscar. Here’s that post:

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is definitely worth seeing on the big screen. There is so much DETAIL that would be missed even on a larger TV at home. Quentin Tarantino has recreated 1969 LA not just in the sets and costumes but in little things like movie posters and magazine covers.

The soundtrack is incredible and sounds awesome on theater speakers.

I’ve read reviews that have problems with Leonardo DiCaprio’s casting/performance, but it is an Oscar-worthy turn demanding a range of emotions, sometimes within seconds of each other. Brad Pitt is also very good, as is Margot Robbie. Dakota Fanning is just plain scary.

I thoroughly enjoyed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but it is not without its flaws. Although I was never bored, it indulges some of Tarantino’s most irritating excesses (feet!). The 2:38 running time could have been reduced by cutting some scenes of cars driving around winding LA roads (ETA There’s almost as much driving in this film as in Ford v Ferrari!)

And about the ending (without spoilers) . . . There is no way it should have worked, but it did for me. I left the theater having experienced a surprising catharsis and that alone makes this film a success.

And puts it over the others to get my theoretical vote for Best Picture

BONUS: The Film I Enjoyed Most in 2019

(And should have been nominated for Best Picture! It would have been in the top five on my list.)

knivesout

BONUS 2: My Picks for the Acting Awards

Best Actress – Renée Zellweger (Judy)
Best Actor – Adam Driver (Marriage Story)
Best Supporting Actress – Laura Dern (Marriage Story)
Best Supporting Actor – Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood)

Zellweger and Dern will probably win.
Driver will lose to Juaquin Phoenix and Hanks will be beaten by Brad Pitt.

Posted in Arts and Culture, film, Movies | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

My Only Friend is Darkness – A Sermon about Depression, Anxiety and Mental Health

psalm 88(Sermon preached at Christ Lutheran (ELCA) Church of Millersville, Maryland. You can see a video of the sermon here, – about 5:40 is the start of the sermon – or a podcast here

The text is Psalm 88.)

My only friend is darkness.

Depending on how you count them, from a third to half of the 150 psalms in the Bible are expressions of lament. In the lament psalms, the writers pour out their hearts to God, powerful expressions of grief, sorrow, and regret. They wonder why God seems absent or unconcerned and uninvolved. The lament psalms are bold expressions of strong emotions, men and women articulating their frustration and anger with themselves, their situations . . . and God. But by the end of the lament Psalms, the psalmists express hope – hope that God has heard their cries, hope that God does care, hope that God will ultimately intervene on their behalf.

Except for Psalm 88.

The writer of Psalm 88 is unable to imagine even the possibility of hope.

My only friend is darkness.

That’s how the psalmist ends Psalm 88.

The first time I read Psalm 88, I wondered what it was doing in the Bible. Where’s the good news? Where is the assurance and re-assurance. Where is the hope? Where is God?

Those are the questions the writer of Psalm 88 asks.

Those are the questions someone who is experiencing depression asks.

Those are the questions I have asked when I have struggled with anxiety and depression.

Thank God Psalm 88 is in the Bible! It acknowledges that being a believer is not all happiness and “yay God!”. Bad stuff happens in our lives just like it does in the lives of unbelievers. When I realized I was a Christian, my life didn’t become perfect and my moods constantly positive. There are times when God feels very far away, very hard to see through the haze of my own weaknesses and limitations, through the sometimes dim realities of life in an imperfect, fallen world.

If the writer of Psalm 88 was not suffering from depression, that person knew what depression feels like. Even God may feel like darkness.

But depression is a liar. It tells you that you are worthless, that you have no friends, that you are beyond hope, that you have no future, that you are only a burden to others.

Psalm 88 reassures us that struggles with depression and other forms of mental illness are not due to a lack of faith. In fact, the writer shows great faith by continuing to cry out to God even when God seems distant or absent or cruel.

The psalmist is lamenting what Luther called “the Hidden God” or “God in a mask,.” But the writer of Psalm 88 never stops crying out to God. Although he or she can’t hear or see God’s response, even if it feels like just shouting in the air, the Psalmist keeps on emptying their heart in prayer.

Psalm 88 declares that doubt and difficulty are not signs of a lack of faith. “I’ve been there,” the psalmist assures us. “The dark times are part of the journey.”

One of the most harmful misconceptions about depression and other mental illness is that they are a sign of weak faith or of a weak person. Believing they are helpful, Christians will tell someone dealing with depression that they can get better if they pray more or read the Bible more or be more thankful, or just be more positive and optimistic.

Those are not bad things – certainly praying, reading scripture, gratitude, and optimism are good practices, especially during times of struggle.

But depression is an illness. Would you tell someone with the flu – or cancer – to just pray more or think good thoughts?

I hope not.

I understand that it is more difficult to help someone with depression or another mental illness than someone who is suffering physically. You can see a cut and cover it with a bandage. An x-ray can reveal a broken bone that can be healed with the aid of a cast. You can look at someone’s throat and have a doctor do a culture to determine they have strep throat, then treat it with an antibiotic.

Mental illness is not as visible, often especially to the one experiencing it. But mental illness can be just as debilitating or even deadly.

How can we, the people of God, the Body of Christ, the Church – how can we help?

First, we must purge the stigma of depression and other mental illnesses. Instead of saying or implying that mental illness is a faith issue, we must acknowledge it as medical issue.

Also, following the example of the writer of Psalm 88, it will help others if we find the courage to admit our own struggles with mental illness.

I’ve shared with you before that I experience panic attacks, and that I have sought counseling for help with situational depression and anxiety. I’ve also participated in couples counseling and family counseling. There is no more shame in that than when I saw a surgeon to repair the torn cartilage in my knee. It would have been foolish not to get that surgery – instead I could have denied that my knee was injured or prayed harder while thinking happy thoughts. Those things would not have improved my mobility one bit, and may have even negatively impacted my faith because I would have remained frustrated and in pain.

In the same way God has gifted doctors and nurses and other medical professionals with the skills and talents to deal with our physical ailments, God has gifted doctors and therapists and counselors to treat our mental health struggles. To seek the help of professionals does not deny God’s power or ability to heal us – God works THROUGH those God has called and equipped to heal. God works through therapy they provide and medications they prescribe.

God can also work through the people of God – the same way God works through us when we help those who are physically ill or injured.

As the church, we can be a source of strength and support for those dealing with depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges. One of the lies depression tells, as we heard at the end of the psalm is that you have no friends, that no one cares about you, and that you’re not worth caring about anyway. As a community of faith, we can disprove those lies not just by reminding each other of God’s unconditional love and presence, but by BEING that love and presence incarnate – God’s love and presence in the flesh.

Rather than telling someone to “cheer up,” we can listen to and acknowledge their pain. We can encourage others to get help and point them to that help, and even accompany them as they seek that help.

Below the sermon is some information from Anne Arundel County Mental Health Agency with various hotlines you can use to get help for yourself or for someone else. Of course, if someone is in immediate danger call 911.

The other hotlines are available around the clock. The Anne Arundel County Crisis Warmline is a local source of help. The Maryland Youth Crisis Hotline is obviously for young people. And the National Suicide Prevention Hotlines are always available no matter where you are.

There is also a note about Financial Assistance for Mental Health Services. It can be hard to pay for mental health services especially if you are uninsured. Even if you have insurance, it unfortunately often does not treat mental illness as it does physical issues. There is help – the number is listed there. Also, some therapists and other mental health professionals will treat folks on a sliding scale. Talk to me if you or someone you know might need a referral.

How do you know if you need to get help? 

If your depression or anxiety is keeping you from doing the things you need and want to do, if it is keeping you from being the person you want to be, if it is separating you from the ones you love – then I hope you’ll consider getting help.

If you are having trouble finding hope and believing that things can be better, then I hope you’ll consider getting help.

If anxiety is causing you to be constantly worried, to believe bad things are going to happen if you don’t do things a certain way, if anxiety won’t go away, then I hope you’ll consider getting help.

If you feel you’re not WORTH getting help, then I hope you’ll consider getting help. You ARE worth it!

If you feel like hurting yourself or that the world would be a better place if you weren’t in it, then it is time to get help right away. Call one of the hotlines. You might need someone to help you get that help, or even to the emergency room. That’s okay. We are here for each other.

No matter who you are, no matter what you have done or what you haven’t done, you are a beloved child of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, God’s masterpiece recreated in Christ Jesus to do the good stuff that God has planned for you.

No matter who you are, not matter what you have done or haven’t done, even when you can’t see that because your illness is lying to you. you are AWESOME and you are loved.

God does not desire you to suffer physically or emotionally.

There is help. There is hope.

We are here for each other. You have friends, even in the darkness.

AMEN


INFORMATION FROM ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY MENTAL HEALTH AGENCY 
 
Hotlines
Call 911 for immediate assistance in any emergency.
Anne Arundel County CRISIS WARMLINE/ADDICTIONS HELPLINE
410-768-5522
24 hours a day, 7 days a week
Maryland Youth Crisis Hotline
1-800-422-0009
24 hours a day, 7 days a week
National Suicide Prevention Hotlines
1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)
1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Financial Assistance for Mental Health Services
You can get help if you need mental health care and have Medicaid. In some cases, you also may be able to get help if you have limited income, are not privately insured, and cannot get Medicaid, however, you may have to pay for some of the cost of your care. To find out for sure if you qualify, contact AACMHA at (410) 222-7858.
Posted in Christianity, Church, Faith, Martin Luther, Sermon | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Bible: God’s Word in Conversation with God’s People

God said it etcThe Bible is the Word of God.

Sure.

I agree with that.

It’s in the constitutions of my denomination (ELCA) and its individual congregations:

The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God. Inspired by God’s Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God’s revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.

But to limit our definition of, and our relationship with, the Bible to “The Word of God” is ultimately reductive. It is in its simplicity too susceptible to misinterpretation, especially of the type seen on bumper stickers:

GOD SAID IT
I BELIEVE IT
THAT SETTLES IT!

The truth is, God’s word says a lot of stuff.

Does anybody believe all of it? How could they when so much of it contradicts itself or history or science?

And if the Bible settles everything, why can’t Christians agree even on what it says about such basic matters as whether babies should be baptized or what’s going on in communion or who should be ordained . . . not to mention what ordination even means?

The Bible is deeper, richer, holier than an instruction manual that can be summarized in cloying acronyms that insult both the Bible and the intelligence of those who treasure it.

Basic
Instructions
Before
Leaving
Earth

No.

Those who claim to read and interpret the Bible literally (although nobody really does), or to give all of its commands equal weight because every bit is God’s Word after all (again, nobody really does) diminish and distort the Scriptures. They tie Bible and themselves into knots to make it all fit together like frenzied frustrated puzzle-workers attempting to complete an image with pieces from different sets. The Bible rather than the God who inspired it becomes the object of their devotion and the ultimate source of their authority.

To claim that the Bible is infallible makes a claim that even the supposedly infallible Bible never makes.

Again, I believe the Bible is God’s Word, but there is more going on than that.

Much more.

Asserting as the ELCA constitutions do that God’s Word the Bible is “inspired” by God rather than infallibly dictated helps clarify things. But because “inspired” is a one-sided (God-sided) qualifier, the door to bibliolatry might be narrowed but remains ajar.

The  Word of God we have in the Bible is collaborative.

The diversity of cultures, literary styles, and even personalities that shape the Bible cannot be discounted. Rather than complicating our reading and interpretation, recognizing the variances guides us in our understanding, and frees us from the shackles of literalism.

So, if not just as God’s Word, how can we regard the Bible?

This is how I am thinking about Scripture lately:

God’s Word in Conversation with God’s People

God inspired Scripture, but it is clear from what ended up on its pages that those who wrote it down or expressed it orally thought and felt deeply about what God had inspired, poured it through the filters of their experiences, attitudes, and opinions,  and discussed it. They made it their own individually and in community before making it ours by sharing it.

This conversation is most obvious in the Psalms and other poetry. These verses burn with passionate fire ignited by God’s divine spark and fanned by God’s Holy Breath, but fed by the wood-fuel of emotions grown in the varied soil – sometimes rich, sometimes barren – of the writers.

The conversation is evident in the differences of perspectives, chronologies, and even facts inherent in the four accounts of Jesus’ life.  It is ongoing in the sometimes contradictory instructions grounded in culture and circumstance found in the Epistles.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the passages of war and violence often shock us and seem opposed to the person and life of the Prince of Peace. But these accounts of bloodshed, even genocide, reportedly ordered and approved by God indicate not a God who had a sudden change of heart when the calendar turned from BCE to CE, but rather God’s people in difficult conversation – wrestling with – God’s Word for them in a violent place and time.

To say that the Bible is God’s Word in conversation with God’s people asserts that the conversation did not end when the books of the Bible were written and canonized. It goes on today – and beyond – as God’s people continue to confer with and about God’s Word. The Bible was never meant to ensnare us in any single way of understanding it. Our perception evolves as we learn about and from each other as well as from and about God’s creation, all empowered by the Holy Spirit working in and through us.

The consensus of Christendom was once that the Bible not only supported but commanded slavery. Once it was near-universal that women could not be ordained. And of course allegiance to the Bible required holding on to a flat earth created in seven literal days as long as possible.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, God’s people have been in conversation with God’s Word for, well, ever.

The conversation continues.

God’s Holy Spirit continues to fill us and breathe through our holy conversations with God Word and with God’s people past, present, and future. Our understanding grows when the diversity of participants in the  discussion increases, and when we listen empathetically to the multitudinous voices the Holy Spirit has gathered, gathers, and will gather into the conversation.

Join the conversataion . . . What do you think?

Posted in Bible, Christianity, ELCA, Faith, Lutheran Theology, The Holy Spirit | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Women Stayed – An Easter Sermon

the women at the tomb(Sermon based on Matthew 28:1-10 preached at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville on Easter Sunday 2019. You can hear a podcast of the sermon here.)

How many times have we heard it?

How many times have I preached it?

“All the disciples abandoned Jesus after his arrest and crucifixion.”

But we just heard in Matthew’s account of the resurrection that it’s not true.

Sure, none of the folks that we usually think of as Jesus’ disciples – Peter and John and James and Andrew and so on – were around on Easter morning. Only John had stuck around for the crucifixion. By Sunday, they were long gone, probably hiding out somewhere in grief and confusion . . . and fear.

But there WERE disciples besides John who witnessed the crucifixion, who then followed the body of Jesus to the tomb and saw it placed there.

There WERE disciples at the tomb as the sun rose on that glorious Sunday morning.

The women stayed.

This morning’s sermon has its roots in a thread of tweets posted a few weeks ago by author Elizabeth Esther. After reminding readers that the women stayed, she wrote, “What I would give if someone preached an Easter morning message about the women who stayed. I would be a mess of tears. If just once the dudes could de-center themselves.”

This morning, this dude is going to attempt to de-center himself and preach about the women who stayed.

It’s no wonder we don’t hear as much about the women who stayed as about the men who ran away. The Gospels were all written, as far as we know, by men. Centuries of patriarchal church authority resulted in the diminishment – and even slander – of the women who followed Jesus.

Have you heard that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute or at least a promiscuous woman?

That’s not in the Bible. She was tagged with that reputation by the church in the sixth century. Unfortunately the image of Mary Magdalene as a wanton woman has persisted even into our time.

What the Bible does say about her is found in Luke, who tells us Jesus healed Mary Magdalene of “seven demons.” She followed Jesus for years, probably out of gratitude, from near the beginning of his ministry.

Mary Magdalene is one of the women who stayed.

Another was also named Mary, the mother of the apostles James and John who is best known for pestering Jesus to make her sons his seconds in command. There is yet another Mary in Matthew’s account who Matthew seems to believe is Jesus’ mother.

So consider these Marys who stayed. A demon-possessed woman, a mother known for being sort of pushy, and another mother who was unwed when she gave birth to her firstborn.

Three women who would have been rejected by the “good, decent people.” Of course, just the fact they were women would have marginalized them in that time and place.

According to Franciscan scholar Dr. Barbara Leonhard, in first century Palestine a woman’s place was definitely in the home. Women passed from control of their fathers to control of their husbands. Their role was well-defined and narrow – to take care of the house, to bear and raise children. Some rabbis taught women should never leave home except to go to the synagogue. When they got there, women sat in a separate area and were not allowed to study the sacred Scriptures.

Men could not even greet a woman outside the home.

But Jesus sure did! He spoke openly to women like he did to the woman at the well (another woman, by the way, who has been labeled as a “bad girl” with insufficient evidence) and made women a part of his ministry. In Luke 8 Mary Magdalene is listed along with other women who left their homes to follow Jesus, independent women who Luke tells us helped fund Jesus’ ministry in a time when a wife’s finances normally belonged to her husband.

That churches have kept women from ministry and authority is due to patriarchy, NOT Jesus.

It was a woman who first declared how Jesus would turn everything upside down, raising up not just women but all of the least, the last, the lost, and the left out. In what we’ve come to call the Magnifcat, Mary the mother of Jesus proclaimed the great reversal that would be instituted by her son. Listen to the topsy-turvy language in these verses she spoke before he was born:

51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm
  he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.  (Luke 1:51-53)

Mary knew her son would overturn the supposed normal hierarchies. She knew he would shake things up.

On Good Friday and Easter, earthquakes proclaim this shake-up.

When Jesus dies on the cross, the ground shakes so hard that tombs are opened.

And on Easter morning, there’s another seismological event.

The women who stayed approached the tomb early Sunday morning, just as the sun was rising. Matthew says they were “going to look at the tomb.” Do they perhaps expect . . . something? Jesus had told his followers repeatedly that he would go to Jerusalem to be handed over and tortured and killed . . . and then rise again on the third day. The male disciples seem to have disregarded that last part, but these women showed up. Did they retain some hope based on what Jesus had promised? It was the third day after all . . .

When they get to the tomb all heaven broke loose.

First, there’s the earthquake.

But the women stayed.

The earthquake was somehow caused by an angels’ arrival. He sounds scary-awesome – Matthew says, “His appearance was like lightning.”

But the women stayed.

The angel rolled the stone back from the entrance to the tomb. I wonder what that looked like. Did he physically move it or send some kind of energy beams or just snap his fingers? It was certainly an astonishing display of power.

But the women stayed.

It was all too much for the two men who were there. The two Roman guards fainted.

But the women stayed . . . on their feet.

The angel addressed the women. He said what angels always say after their disconcerting sudden appearances. “Do not be afraid.”

But there’s more meaning this time in the angel’s words as Mennonite Pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler has pointed out. The angel turns to the Marys and says, “YOU don’t have to be afraid. Those other guys? They should be super afraid!”

They should be afraid because they are collaborating representatives of the forces that put Jesus to death, the forces Jesus came to overturn, the forces of Empire that promulgate and perpetuate injustice and violence and fear.

The women don’t need to be afraid because they are and represent those trampled by those forces who Jesus lifted up in his great reversal.

Then, to those women who stayed, the angel pronounced the greatest reversal of all, the great reversal of life and death that we gather to celebrate today:

“He is not here. He is risen just as he said.”

If I were filming this scene, I would cut to a closeup of Mary Magdalene who would say, just barely audibly, “I knew it!”

The angel then told the women to go and tell the other disciples – the ones who did not stay. For even though they betrayed, denied, and deserted Jesus, he died and rose for them, too.

The women who stayed were the first to hear the Good News of Easter, and they were the first to be sent as witnesses to the resurrection; another reversal in a culture where women could not testify in court because they were believed incapable of telling the truth. Yet the women who stayed were the first evangelists!

And the women who stayed were the first to see the risen Jesus, and in meeting him the first to do what we gather for today – they were the first to worship the risen Christ. They fell at his feet . . . what else could they do?

Jesus echoed the angel’s direction to go and tell. The women became apostles. Apostle comes from the Greek word for someone authorized to speak on behalf of the king. Mary Magdalene in particular has been called “The Apostle to the Apostles.”

The women who stayed demonstrated Jesus’ love and concern for those on the margins, for those who are disappointed, dejected, and struggling to hold onto hope.

They remind us of Jesus’ concern for US, even and especially when, because of who we are or because of circumstances, we feel at the end of our hope.

Nothing, not even death, is beyond God’s resurrection power.

No one, not even you or I, is beyond God’s resurrection power.

To paraphrase Romans 8, NOTHING can separate us from God’s resurrection power.

Not gender nor any other category we use to divide people into “us and them” or “worthy and unworthy.”
Not Roman guards.
Not stones.

In the words of the Lauren Daigle song title, God is “Still Rolling Stones.”

God is still rolling stones away from tombs that trap us in patterns and systems of death, and bringing us into the resurrection of Christ.
God is still rolling stones away from our tombs of prejudice and judgment and hatred.
God is still rolling stones away from our tombs of despair and loneliness and rejection.

Even if the world – or especially the church – has convinced you that you are too far gone for God’s resurrection power, I invite you to stand with the women who stayed this morning.

If you want to know the resurrected Christ, stand with the women who stayed.

They had every reason to run away with the men, to completely lose hope, to figure that based on their position and place in society it really didn’t matter anyway.

But the women stayed.

AMEN

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