The Unexpected Pastor’s Best Picture Countdown 2018

2018-Oscar-Best-Picture-Nominees

Here we go again! Every year I rank the films nominated for Best Picture. As always, these are not predictions nor is the order based on films I “liked” the most, but rather my opinion of which films are most worthy to win the Best Picture Oscar. Tune in Sunday night to see if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters agree with me (probably not!).

Phantom Thread9. Phantom Thread

After emphatically stating this is not a list based on how much I liked each film, I will begin by explaining why I did not like Phantom Thread. I’m sorry Daniel Day Lewis and others involved with making this film – clearly it’s not you, it’s me. Ninety-one percent of Rotten Tomato critics, as well as my wife, love this film.

My disdain for Phantom Thread is similar to my minority opinion several years ago about another Oscar-nominated film, Sideways (96% on Rotten Tomatoes). I simply cannot abide a film in which I do not find a likable character. That was true of Sideways in which I felt trapped for 127 minutes (that I will never get back) with two excruciatingly irritating people. It was like a middle-seat flight from hell.

I did not like the primary characters in Phantom Thread.  Ultimately, their story turns out to be Fifty Shades of White, with Sewing and Mushrooms as its S&M.

Phantom Thread is beautifully filmed and marvelously acted. I was interested for about 2/3 of it but never emotionally invested. The end result was the worst thing I can say about a film – I was bored.

Again, the critical acclaim  indicates this may be a lack of taste on my part. Your mileage may vary . . . significantly.

the post poster8. The Post

Numbers 2 through 8 were the most difficult to rank on this list. Phantom Thread was my clear #9, and as you will see I have known my pick for Best Picture since viewing it months ago. But the other films are all excellent and therefore difficult to compare.

It makes me a little sad to put The Post so low on this list. Even without the Hollywood Holy Trinity of Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep, the story of the publication of the Pentagon Papers is both important and timely. The Post is a powerful and much-needed reminder that a free press in vigorous pursuit of the truth is an essential check on those who would abuse their authority.

I have heard complaints that The Post moves a little slow. I believe the languid pace is more a feature than a bug, necessary for the change in Meryl Streep’s character to seem real.  Streep’s Kathryn Graham begins as a housewife who excels at hospitality but depends upon the “experts” (all men) to run the newspaper she has tragically inherited after her husband’s suicide. By the end of the film, she has assumed leadership and become a potent, independent force.

The Post is not just about Kathryn Graham or even the incident it depicts; it is a universal story about the evolution of women’s roles. Perhaps the best scene in the film is when she walks down the steps of a courthouse and young women literally look up to her, more able to imagine an empowered future for themselves.

Tom Hanks is excellent as always, but this is really Meryl Streep’s film. If this weren’t such an incredible year for Best Actress nominees, she would be a favorite to win another statue.

Why then is The Post not ranked higher on this list? It’s a very good and worthwhile film, but not Best Picture caliber. I’ve written before that one of my criteria for a great film is one that I wake up thinking about the next day; The Post is not memorable in that way.

Darkest Hour7. Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman. Gary Oldman. Gary Oldman.

Gary Oldman will win the Best Actor award on Sunday for his portrayal of Winston Churchill. That is the surest thing about this year’s Academy Awards. As they used to say in movie ads, “Gary Oldman is Winston Churchill.”

The makeup artists should get strong consideration in that category as well.

Darkest Hour almost certainly won’t be awarded Best Picture, but it is a worthy nominee. Joe Wright’s direction is excellent. What could have been a static, talk-heavy film bristles with interest and intrigue.

It is a happy coincidence that Darkest Hour and Dunkirk were released in the same year. Darkest Hour tells the political back-story of the events so well-depicted in Dunkirk (more about that later!).

Get Out6. Get Out

Get Out is not an extraordinary horror movie.

But Get Out is an effective and eviscerating satire. It employs horror tropes in service of a subversive statement about race, racism, and the hypocrisy of facile liberalism. Director/Screenwriter Jordan Peele could have set his film in Alabama or Mississippi to score some easy points about redneck-racism. Instead he expertly skewers upstate New York progressives and racist hearts that may lurk below mouths that spout rote pieties (“I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could’ve.”)

Although Get Out is a notch below the most serious Best Picture contenders, Peele should receive serious consideration in the Best Original Screenplay category. He is the first African American to be nominated for the trifecta of Best Picture (as producer), Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay categories, and only the fifth African American to be nominated for Best Director. (Incidentally, no African American woman has ever been nominated for that award; perhaps Ava DuVernay will change that this year with a nomination for A Wrinkle in Time, the nomination she SHOULD have received for Selma a few years ago).

 

Call Me By Your Name5. Call Me By Your Name

Let’s leave the horror of upstate New York behind and spend some time remembering the light and bright colors of “Somewhere in Northern Italy,” as the title card says that precedes the events of Call Me By Your Name. It is a place where erudite and unconditionally accepting families spend summers and Hanukkahs, where the apricots from the back yard orchard are always succulent and peaches are always available if you need them for, uh . . . better if you see the film yourself. It’s a place where the worst thing that will happen if you break up with your girlfriend because you’d rather have a boyfriend is that she will want to be friends for life. And it’s a place where when your parents realize that attraction, they will suggest you take a trip with the object of your affection.

It is easy to make Call Me By Your Name sound kind of silly. The wonder of the film is that the beauty of the location and the stellar performances drew me into what is ultimately sort of an idealized coming of age story. Sure, it’s too good to be true, but why not enjoy the setting and the people who inhabit it for a couple of hours.

The other significant achievement of Call Me By Your Name is that although it focuses on a same-gender relationship, it feels quite universal in its exploration of love and especially a young adult figuring out who he is  and who he will be.

What would be a pleasant diversion is elevated to Best Picture worthiness by the last ten minutes of this film. Michael Stuhlburg makes one of the great dad-speeches in film, speaking to love and loss with great lines like, “Don’t make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything. What a waste. . . .We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should, that we go bankrupt by the age of 30.” Stuhlburg embodies empathy in this monologue, which imbues everything that has transpired with both deeper and higher meaning. Then there is the extended – really extended – shot that closes the film that allows us time to process the end of the ideal world in which we have been immersed, and perhaps the transition from the idealism of youth to the reality of adulthood.

three billboards4. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards proved the most difficult film for me to place on this list. I enjoyed the heck out of this film as I enthusiastically hopped on board Best Actress probable winner Frances McDormand’s revenge train. I applauded Best Supporting-Actor favorite Sam Rockwell’s apparent redemption, and wept at shoulda-been-nominated Woody Harrelson’s tragic demise. Best Director nominee (and very likely winner) Martin McDonagh had me right where he wanted me.

But the more I thought about Three Billboards, the more conflicted I felt. As I considered its glorification of revenge and the increasingly destructive actions of its protagonist, and how I had reveled in them, I felt compelled to repentance or a shower.

Especially troubling is the film’s police brutality backstory. The film relegates this apparently racially-based beating to a footnote, but upon reflection this underexplicated event staunches sympathy not just for Rockwell’s character who perpetrated it but also for Harrelson’s police chief who seems more concerned about protecting his officer than the injustice he wrought.

On the other hand, perhaps the film’s moral ambiguity should be praised when so many films traffic in easy right and wrong obviousness. Perhaps the film does not celebrate revenge as much as it ultimately reveals the futility of vengeance.

There are no easy answers in Three Billboards. One plot twist I genuinely appreciated  was that Rockwell’s apparent solving the case through a ridiculous coincidence turns out to be a red herring. A lesser film would have allowed everything to wrap up neatly with good feelings all around.

Instead, we get a fittingly inconclusive ending with McDormand and Rockwell, two damaged and destructive individuals, on their way to do . . . something. Or maybe not.

Perhaps I should move this film higher on the list. I’ve thought about Three Billboards much longer than just the morning after I saw it. I hope it’s clear I still haven’t worked through my feelings about it, and that’s the mark of an excellent film. Although I do believe the next four films are more worthy of a Best Picture Oscar, I won’t be disappointed if Three Billboards wins.

Or maybe I will.

Lady-Bird3. Lady Bird

Of the nine nominees, I most enjoyed watching Lady Bird. It is a film with a huge heart. Even the least likable characters have redeeming qualities.

The best films on this list, and in general, create and immerse us in a world that seems real no matter how alien to our experience. Lady Bird ‘s milieu is not that exotic, but it is foreign to most of us – early 2000’s Sacramento, California as seen through the eyes of a young woman on the edge of adulthood. Lady Bird is notable for telling a coming of age story from the point of view of a female director and screenwriter. Greta Gerwig expertly and eloquently establishes the setting; the characters, plot, and dialogue all ring true.

Saoirse Ronan turns in a stellar performance as the title character. It is hard to believe she is the same performer nominated for Best Actress as an Irish immigrant in Brooklyn,  but she convincingly plays a suburban high school senior struggling with that adolescent conundrum of desire to both cling to, and break from, her family. Laurie Metcalf is outstanding as her loving mother who can’t seem to resist passive-aggressiveness (among other faults).

I was disappointed Tracy Letts did not score a supporting actor nomination for his work as Lady Bird’s quietly supportive father (and Metcalf’s long-suffering husband).  Maybe he and Michael Stuhlberg could share a “Movie Dad of the Year” award.

Lady Bird is a critical triumph (for a long while it had a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) but probably not the Best Picture winner.

the shape of water.jpg2. The Shape of Water

If I were still a betting man, my money would be on The Shape of Water to take home the Best Picture Oscar. It is a paean to movies and those who create them. Vintage films, especially musicals,  seem to be the only programming available on the televisions in The Shape of Water. The settings and overall atmosphere of the film echoes Hollywood pictures of old. What could be a better bet for an award determined by the voting of filmmaking folks?

If The Shape of Water is crowned Best Picture on Sunday, it will be well deserved. Director Guillermo del Toro has crafted a gorgeous film that deserves to be viewed on a screen bigger than what is available in your living room. If you haven’t yet, go see it at a movie theater. There you can better appreciate its contrasts of light and darkness, pastels with grays, and color with black and white.

Cinematographer Dan Lausten should run away with the statue in his category. del Toro calls Lausten’s camera always into motion, sweeping and swirling around the beauty, strangeness, and occasional sanguine gore. Even the blood is disturbing but beautiful in its own bright crimson way.

The Shape of Water is a work of magical realism that asks the viewer to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours. Immersion in its world is well worth the surrender to its extraordinary strangeness.

Perhaps the best reason to see The Shape of Water is the performance by Sally Hawkins as the mute heroine of this cross between Beauty and the Beast meets The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Without uttering a word (except in an exquisite dream sequence), she communicates more with her expressions and emphatic signing than most actresses convey with pages of dialogue. Hawkins is my choice for Best Actress among the stellar performances in that category for her work in The Shape of Water and also in Maudie earlier in the year (although Frances McDormand will most likely win).

Dunkirk1. Dunkirk

Dunkirk is the only film I saw twice in the theater last year. The first time was on a regular screen; the second was in IMAX. I returned not just to experience the enhanced picture and sound, but to pay more attention to how director Christopher Nolan intricately wove the strands of three stories with three different time frames into one coherent unit.

Nolan has always messed with time. The plot of his first widely available film, Memento, unspools backwards yet still manages to provide a surprise “ending.” Both Inception and Interstellar deal with realities where time proceeds at different rates – remember the levels of dreams in Inception? In Dunkirk Nolan’s time-bending skills serve the telling of history. Incidents overlap and diverge as we experience events from the 2-week perspective of soldiers on the beach, the 2-day perspective of sailors coming to the rescue, and the 2-hour perspective of pilots providing air cover.

As awed as I am by Nolan’s manipulation of time, there is a more basic reason Dunkirk would have my vote for Best Picture. Film is a medium of showing rather than telling, and that is precisely where Dunkirk excels. The dialogue is minimal and occasionally (as some have complained) unintelligible. But the visual power of the images Nolan orchestrates need no narration. (If you want a fuller picture of what’s going on, watch Darkest Hour before you see Dunkirk.)

From the start, Nolan drops us into the chaotic middle of things without exposition or buildup. Dunkirk never lets up. None of the standard war picture tropes clutter the action – for example there are no flashbacks to better know the characters. Some have criticized this as a flaw, but in Dunkirk the characters are stand-ins for the thousands who were trapped on the beach, or sailed civilian vessels to rescue them, or supported the rescue from the air. Too much character specificity would have detracted from the sweep of the film and the incredible history it depicts.

More than any of the other nominees, Dunkirk demonstrates the power of filmmaking. It is the Best Picture of 2017.

And the Best Picture not Nominated for Best Picture . . .

Wonder Woman! If nominated, Wonder Woman would have been in the top five on the above list. I am not a big fan of comic book movies, but Wonder Woman transcends its genre.  Director Patty Jenkins probably deserved a nomination as well.wonder woman

And finally, my favorite film of 2017. . .

the big sickThe Big Sick. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Actress and it wouldn’t have killed the Academy to give a straight-up comedy a Best Picture nomination even if it does not deserve the award.

If you haven’t seen The Big Sick, do yourself a favor and watch it!

 

 

 

2018-Oscar-Best-Picture-Nominees

 

 

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Resurrection in That Place Past Hope

27973382_2368405409852424_8778068383164763664_n(Adapted from a sermon preached February 18, 2018, at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville. You can listen to a podcast of the sermon here. The sermon text is The Raising of Lazarus, John 11:1-44.)

When Jesus finally got to Bethany, where his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha lived, he found out Lazarus had been in the tomb four days.

Four days. The Jews at the time believed a person’s soul left their body after three days. Four days. There was no hope.

All Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, could do was grieve.

You’ve been there, right? At that place past hope. Walking away from the body of a loved one at the cemetery after a funeral. Walking out of your home after the eviction or foreclosure notice. Walking out of work for the last time after being laid off. Walking out of a medical building after a doctor has told you or a loved one “There’s nothing more we can do.” Walking away from a relationship after being told, “I just don’t love you any more.”

Or hearing on the news about another school shooting.

We’ve been in that place past hope.

And in that place, perhaps you’ve wondered. “Why didn’t God do something? Where was God, anyway?”

Because God is all-powerful, and God is all good. Why did God allow this?

Why did God allow ME to get to this place past hope?

Lazarus’ sisters Martha and Mary wondered the same thing. When Jesus was near, Martha went out to meet him. Mary stayed home – do you think maybe she didn’t want anything to do with Jesus just then?

That happens sometimes in that place past hope. We don’t want to hear, or can’t hear,  the platitudes and the preaching. We need to be angry for a while – angry even at God.

That’s okay. God can take it.

Anger at God is even a sort of expression of faith – you can’t get angry at someone who you don’t believe exists. You don’t get angry at someone unless you believe they have power to change a situation – but didn’t.

Martha makes that kind of an angry statement of faith when she comes face to face with Jesus. “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. But I believe even now that God will give you whatever you ask.”

She believes Jesus could have saved her brother.

Jesus responds by assuring her that Lazarus will rise again.

Martha responds that of course he will, on the last day when everyone rises.

Then Jesus makes the statement that is at the heart of this story. It is at the heart of John’s Gospel. It is at the heart of OUR story:

Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives believing in me will never die.”

Wow! Being in relationship with Jesus means that death will never have the final word.

In that place past hope – Martha is there because her brother has died – Jesus IS our hope.

And then Jesus asks Martha, Martha who is grieving, Martha who doesn’t understand what Jesus is about to do, Martha who is ANGRY at Jesus . . . he asks her, “Do you believe this.”

Listen to Martha’s response: “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

Lazarus is still in the tomb!  We know Jesus is about to raise him to life. But Martha doesn’t know that yet. Isn’t it extraordinary that Martha makes this confession about Jesus BEFORE the miracle, before the resurrection?

Even in that place past hope being with Jesus allows her to hope.

Jesus doesn’t explain why Lazarus has died. He doesn’t give Martha answers. He just gives Martha himself.

That’s what Jesus offers us. Jesus offers us himself – he offers himself on the cross, suffering and dying to show us love beyond imagining, he offers himself in the new life we have in him RIGHT NOW, the new life that began in our baptism.

Then Jesus asked to see the other sister, Mary, the one who didn’t come out to greet him. Presumably the one who is even angrier than Martha.

Mary went to Jesus and fell at his feet. Whether she fell there out of grief or exhaustion or just being overwhelmed, John doesn’t tell us. But we know in that place past hope our emotional and physical suffering becomes physical. It wears us out. There at Jesus’ feet, Mary says the same thing – the same confession of anger and of Jesus’ power – that her sister uttered at first. “If you had been there my brother would not have died.”

Jesus saw Mary weeping. He saw other mourners there weeping. He was, according to the NIV translation we use, ‘Deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”

That is a translation of a Greek word that means he felt strong emotion. He was worked up into an intense combination of sadness and anger. It is a word that specifically meant to snort with anger, like a horse.

What was Jesus angry about? He was angry at death. His friend was dead. Really dead. His other friends were grieving. Death is the enemy. Jesus hated death so much that he was willing to suffer and die to defeat it’s power. Jesus is on the way to the cross. Raising Lazarus will so anger the leaders that they will plot to kill both Jesus and Lazarus. Jesus will spend his last night before the Last Supper – the Wednesday of Holy Week – with Lazarus and his sisters. For Jesus, death is an ever-present reality. Jesus is horse-snorting angry-sad at death.

Jesus asks where Lazarus body has been laid.

“Come and see,” is the reply from those weeping near him.

And then, verse 35: “Jesus wept.”

Some have called this verse, the shortest in the Bible, a summary of the Gospel. Why?

This picture of Jesus weeping gives us the essence of his mission. He became one of us. So completely one of us that he wept – and he weeps – not just for us but with us. He does not feel sorry for us, he feels our sadness – and our anger – right along with us.

I have felt that snorting like a horse anger-sadness in the presence of death. To know Jesus is so close to me, loves me so much, the he feels it along with me is amazing – and comforting. We never suffer alone.

As Jesus wept, someone near him said, “See how he loved him.”

See how Jesus loved his friend, Lazarus. See how Jesus loved Mary and Martha. See how he loved the other mourners.

As they walk to the tomb, some of the others who are with him say, “He opened the eyes of a blind man. Could he not have kept this man from dying?”

In other words, why is Jesus upset. He could have stopped this from happening.

I wonder if Jesus thought, “Just wait.”

When they get to the tomb, John tells us Jesus again was deeply moved – horse snorting angry-sad. The tomb was a cave with a stone in front of the entrance.

Then Jesus said, “Roll away the stone.”

I think John leaves something out here. Do you think folks jumped up and ran to the stone to roll it away? Or do you think they might have laughed and wondered why they would risk hurting their backs or spraining their knees to roll that heavy stone away. After all, Lazarus had been dead 4 days. It’s hard to believe there’s something else – somewhere else – in that place past hope.

John does tell us Martha spoke up. She doesn’t want the stench of death to fill the air.

Jesus answered, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

Something about that, and something about Jesus, both quiets Martha and inspires enough people to roll away the stone.

Then Jesus prayed. “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing there, that they may believe you sent me.”

Jesus wanted the people to know that this was God’s work, and that he was, well, God in the flesh. Jesus didn’t just do miracles, even for his friends, just for the sake of the miracles. They are signs so that those who witness them – and read about them – might believe and have life in his name. Might have hope.

After the prayer, Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

I wonder how long it took Lazarus to make his way out of the tomb. He would have been all wrapped up like a mummy and would probably have sort of waddled out like a penguin.

Imagine being in the crowd around the tomb, watching, waiting, wondering. Imagine being Mary or Martha. Allowing yourself just a bit of hope.

You see some movement there in the darkness of the cave. Is it just your eyes playing tricks on you? Do you hear a rustling, maybe someone dragging their feet on the stone floor?  And then, there he is. Lazarus. Emerging from the darkness into the light. From the darkness of the tomb into the light of day. From the darkness of death to the light of Jesus.

Then Jesus told those who were there to take off Lazarus’ grave-clothes.

He was alive. Jesus brought him from death to life.

Jesus IS the resurrection and the life.  Even in that place past hope.

Wednesday afternoon I felt great. It was Ash Wednesday. It was Valentine’s Day. For the Nationals, it was the first day of Spring Training. We had 10 people gather first thing in the morning for Morning Prayer. Karen had gotten the flowers I sent her at work for Valentine’s Day. The noon Ash Wednesday service had gone well. I was happy just to be in church on Ash Wednesday after spending it last year in the hospital. A great day!

But then . . . then I saw an alert on my computer. Another school shooting, this one in Florida. The news kept coming in. Seventeen dead. More than Columbine. (Remember Columbine? Seems like ancient history now.)

I was horse-snorting angry-sad. Still am. I don’t know if you caught me wiping away tears during the moment of silence we had at the Ash Wednesday service that evening. I know I wasn’t alone.

The next day I saw a photo online. You might have seen it. A mother embraces her daughter, a student at the school. They are both crying – wailing. I’m sure there were many, many scenes like this one.

What made this photo unique was that it clearly showed the ash cross on the mother’s forehead.

That cross is a symbol of our mortality. It is a reminder of death. The reality of death intruded into an unexpected place on Ash Wednesday. On Valentine’s Day.

That cross is also a symbol of God’s love. A reminder that even the reality of death is not beyond God’s redemption, that death’s power was defeated once and for all on a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem.

Resurrection will come.

But, as it was for Lazarus, first there is death. Death is real. Death is the enemy.

Jesus was there for that mother and daughter, wailing along with them, horse-snorting angry-sad. He is there with every family who lost a child, and every family traumatized by the unimaginable fear of that day.

And he will walk with those children and parents and families through these next days – through the rest of their now-scarred lives. He will not let go.

Jesus will walk with every parent for whom it’s a little harder to let go of their children and send them off to school each day. He will walk with every child for whom there is more fear at a place that should be safe.

Jesus will be there even with those who do not recognize him or his presence.

There are no limits to his love.

Jesus wept. Jesus weeps. But he does not only weep. Jesus did not stop with weeping. He brought – and he brings –  life. And hope. Even in those places past hope.

But he does not do it alone. Not because he can’t, but Jesus invites his followers – us – into his life and hope-giving. In our story, he invited some to roll away the stone. He invited some to take off the grave-clothes.

Where is he inviting us – as individuals but especially as the people of God – to roll away stones and strip away the clothes of death?

What is he inviting us to do beyond weeping about what happened in Florida? What is he inviting us to do beyond weeping about the violence in our world? What is he inviting us to do bring life and hope to those who are bullied and lonely and those who experience pain because of their race or gender or ethnicity or religion or orientation? What is he inviting us to do about injustice and hunger and all the other things that make us – and Jesus – horse snorting angry-sad?

What stones are we being called to roll away? What grave-clothes are we being called to strip away?

Jesus weeps with us, yes. But Jesus also calls us, calls us into life-giving in a world that too often gives death.

Sisters and brothers, together we can roll stones away. Together we can strip off grave-clothes. But we can only give life and hope . . . and love, when we realize our life and hope and love are gifts from God through Christ. We can only love – really love without conditions or boundaries –  when we realize how much we are loved.

And let me assure you – in the good places and in the places beyond hope, you are loved.

AMEN

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Fear of God, the Grand Canyon, and Aslan

Yesterday’s post, “Why Are Atheists So Bad,” catalyzed a great discussion involving Christians and unChristians on my Facebook page. Discussion is the best result I can hope for from a post. One of the topics of that discussion was the fear of God.

I wrote in the post that Christians who realize they are saved by grace “try to act in ways that reflect God’s love because we are loved, not because we fear.”

A friend of mine responding to the post wrote:

“Fear of God” has always puzzled me. Were I to believe in God, He/She would be part of me, not my boss or disciplinarian. Live a good life, make mistakes, and learn to be a better person from those mistakes. It doesn’t need to be that complicated. I’ve always been suspicious of those that need to be feared. Aren’t they generally bullies?

I replied that for me, “fear of God” is like the fear I had of my parents when I was a toddler. They were a lot bigger than me, much more powerful, and I depended on them for everything. But I did not cower before them. I knew I was loved and trusted they would use that power inays that were good for me.

On a continuum of fear that stretches from respect to terror, my toddler-feelings for my parents – and my attitude toward God today – would be way over on the respect side.

Of course that analogy would not work – and would have the opposite effect – for someone who grew up in an abusive family.

Thinking about it over the past day or so, perhaps a better word than fear would be “awe.” I remember seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. No matter how much I had heard about its majesty and massiveness, I was overwhelmed – awed – at the sight of it. Certainly there was some fear mixed in; it was a long way down and in the gift shop I’d glanced through Over the Edge: Death at the Grand Canyon recounting all the known fatal misadventures at the canyon.

Marveling at the beauty and expanse of the canyon far outweighed any fear of its danger.

It is that sort of awe that captures the posture in which we are called to approach God.

Of course when dealing with the fear of God we can go too far the other way. We can strip God and by extension, Jesus, of power and might, leaving ourselves with a manageable God who can be molded to our purposes.

aslanThat’s what C. S. Lewis was getting at in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, in this exchange about Aslan, the allegorical Christ-figure in the Narnia books:

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …

“Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

What are your thoughts about the fear of God? You can use the comments below to continue the discussion.

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Why Are Atheists So Bad?

quoraYou know that saying about how there are no stupid questions? There are exceptions . . .

A Facebook friend posted a link to this query on the Quora  question and answer website:

 This may sound naive, but what keeps an atheist from committing adultery and doing other things that a Christian wouldn’t do because it is a sin?

Where to start?

Let’s begin with the assumption that adultery and other sins are “things a Christian wouldn’t do.”

More troubling than the profound theological error (“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” – I John 1:8),  is the smug superiority inherent in the question. Christians are just better than unChristians. We gather on Sunday mornings to celebrate our transcendent nobility, to rejoice that we are not like those unclean folks outside.

This self-deluded attitude lurks wherever Christians gather. We want to believe that “we” are better than “them.”

As many people who responded to the “naïve” questioner pointed out, Christians consistently – and famously – commit adultery and do “other things” just like everyone else.

The truth is that athiests – and agnostics, and Muslims, and Hindus, and Wiccans, and so on – can be, and are, just as “moral” as Christians. Many unChristians I know live lives of compassion and service beyond that of most Christians of my acquaintance. A person’s professed religion, or lack thereof, is not a great predictor of adultery or “other things.” Christian marriages, for example, are just as likely to end in divorce as those of unChristians.

Both inside and outside the church, Christian identity is misunderstood as being – or trying to be – the “good people.” Actually, the opposite is true – Christians confess that we are sinners, not just in the past but in the present and future, over and over again. That’s why we confess that we need – not just needed – forgiveness.

The Quora question illustrates a fundamental error about following Jesus common to Christians and unChristians:

Christians try to do the right stuff because they are scared of God. That is something atheists do not experience. Therefore, Christians behave better.

You can see that assumption not only underlying the question but also in the Quora responses by unChristians:

One of the things that scares atheists about Christians is that it’s often your fear of God that makes you behave.

 We choose to behave in an appropriate manner because it’s the right thing to do, not out of fear of going to hell or being denied heaven.

This is something Christians can’t seem to understand, living as they do with big dad in the sky running their lives. You fear punishment

 The unfortunate implication of your questions, is that you as as a Christian, only behave because you believe god is watching you. If so, that makes a law abiding or ethical atheist, morally superior to a Christian.

It is true that many Christians, misunderstanding the Gospel, live in constant fear of God’s punishment. Their picture of an angry, judgmental God waiting to smite them leads them to act in angry, judgmental ways toward those who do not believe as they do.

But the truth about following Christ is that we try to act in ways that reflect God’s love because we are loved, not because we fear. God is not waiting to smite us; God has already forgiven us. Comprehending the gracious loving God who suffered and died to show us how much we are loved leads us to act in ways that are gracious and loving, even toward those who do not believe as we do.

Realizing that we receive love and forgiveness as gifts rather than earning them with our obedience leaves no room for superiority, only humble love for God and others.

The Quora question and responses reflect what I have identified before as my biggest misunderstanding when I was an unChristian, unfortunately a misunderstanding many Christians share:

I thought Christians tried to do the right thing and avoid the wrong things because they wanted God to love them and forgive them.

Now I know that followers of Christ try to love God and love their neighbors because we are already loved and forgiven.

And forgiven, and forgiven, and forgiven . . .

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If You Want to Change the World . . . Don’t Make Your Bed

Admiral Willam H. McRaven gave the 2014 University of Texas  commencement address. Admiral McRaven inspired the graduates – and many who have who have heard the since-viral address – to change the world by following lessons he learned in Navy Seal training. The speech became so popular that it spawned a book.

Most of Admiral McRaven’s advice  is indeed inspirational and certainly worthy of the respect the speech, and the admiral, have garnered.

It is only his first instruction that I cannot follow or endorse.

I am not a morning person. Admiral McRaven puts great stock in starting the day by making one’s bed.

Not me. I know I’m not alone.

As a public service to other non-morning people, I gave the beginning of Admiral McRaven’s address a quick edit. I hope you night owls will find it just as inspirational. My corrections are in italics:

If you want to change the world, start off by making your  staying in bed. If you don’t make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day hit the snooze alarm at least one more time. It will give you a small sense of pride and will encourage you to do give the snooze alarm another task push and another and another. By the end of the day that one task completed extra sleep will have turned into energy for many tasks completed, especially late at night.

Making your Staying in bed will also reinforce the fact that the little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right sleep in, you’ll never be able to do the big things right stay awake after lunch.

And if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is unmade. That you left unmade. And an unmade bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better because you will sleep in again and not waste time pointlessly making your bed that you would just unmake again at night.

(Also, the cat[s] will appreciate not being displaced.)

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Nassar Survivor’s Wake-up Call to the Church

A couple of days ago I read a Huffington Post article about the first woman who had the courage to step forward and publicly accuse US Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of abuse.

Rachel Denhollander, one of 150 survivors who testified at Dr. Nassar’s trial, is quoted in the article saying, “Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse . . . It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help.”

Denhollander describes the shame-provoking assumption among congregants and leaders in her church that she had done something to open herself to abuse, as well as the implication that she should have forgiven her abuser more quickly.

Ashley Easter, an advocate for abuse survivors is also quoted in the article:

Many churches hold poor interpretations of Scripture that imply the victim is somehow at fault for dressing or acting a certain way ‘immodestly,’ that speaking up about abuse is ‘gossip’ or ‘slander,’ and that forgiveness is moving on without demanding justice for the victims. These stances are a stark contrast from Jesus’ ministry to the marginalized.

We have to do better.

First, we who are the church must confess that we have often missed the mark in the past. Not only have we held women complicit in their own victimization, we have been too focused on reconciliation and rushing survivors to forgiveness that will make us more comfortable, rather than acknowledging and sitting with the pain of women who have been victimized.

We must apologize to women who have been re-victimized by the very churches they have counted on for help and support.

It is essential that we acknowledge the ways patriarchal systems of “male headship” within churches and families have given men license to mistreat women.

Finally, we must care for survivors of abuse the way Jesus responded to marginalized individuals he encountered (see especially the Samaritan woman at the well) – with empathy and unconditional love.

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Strength in Weakness

This line from the State of the Union Address has me thinking this morning:

“Weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means of our defense.”

Those words remind me why Christianity – faithfully following Christ – is so counter-cultural.

That line is not particularly “Trumpian.” It could have been spoken by any Democrat or Republican president in my lifetime. It seems to make perfect sense, not just on a national defense level but in the “real life” world in which we dwell.

BUT, to take just one example from the twelfth chapter of  Second Corinthians:

9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Could you imagine any president saying that in a State of the Union Speech?

Neither can I.

I don’t imagine Strength in Weakness would be a popular political platform, nor would it be a successful subject for a self-help book.

It’s diametrically opposed to the idea of self-help.

“What do you mean I can’t help myself?”

It’s also not the kind of message church-growth types suggest. Don’t people want to come to church and hear how God wants them to have Your Best Life Now, or to be successful with “God’s Ten Steps to Prosperity” or something?

The Theology of the Cross is a tough sell. It rejects everything that looks to the world like success, and redirects us to a savior lifted up for our sake.

Jesus on the Cross embodies power in weakness. There can be no more powerful illustration of God’s love for the world.

To follow Christ is to follow him to the cross. It is the only way to the empty tomb.

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, Christianity and Culture, Church, Faith | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment