“Into the Hand of a Woman” (Or, A Well-Placed Tent Peg)

Jacopo Amigoni 002(This is the second sermon in our 10-week Wonder Women of Faith series.  This week’s Wonder Women are Deborah and Jael. Their story is found in Judges 4 and 5, but the reading in worship was Judges 4:1-10. You can listen to a podcast of the sermon here.)

Our story begins with the A-B-C-D cycle typical in the Book of Judges.

A – The people of Israel Abandon God. After the previous judge, Ehud, dies, the people turn again to idolatry instead of God.

B – They are Battered by Enemies – Employing 900 Iron chariots, King Jabin’s army commanded by General Sisera conquers and cruelly oppresses the tribes of Israel for 20 years.

C – They Cry out to God.

So now it’s time for D. It’s time for a Deliverer.

Who will he be?

Surprise! She is Deborah.

Deborah is a multi-tasking woman. I’m sure many women can relate. She’s a wife. She’s a judge – literally. She sits under a palm tree and people come from all over Israel to have her settle their disputes. A woman!

And she’s a prophet – one of fewer than 10 female prophets mentioned in the Old Testament, along with a handful in the New. (You think there were more than that who didn’t make it into the Bible that men wrote and put together? I have my suspicions.)

Deborah – Wife, Judge, Prophet . . . And now deliverer – or at least one of the three deliverers we will meet in this story.

Deborah is truly a Wonder Woman.

God tells Deborah to send for Barak – whose name means lightning. Deborah does what prophets do – she speaks God’s Word to Barak: “Hey Barak. God commands you to round up 10,000 men and go attack King Jabin’s army commanded by Sisera. Remember he’s got lots of troops – oh, and iron chariots, too. (And we don’t have any of those.) But God’s going to give you victory.”

If I’m Barak, my answer is, “Uh huh.”

You heard what the real Barak said to Deborah: “I’ll go if you go with me, but if you don’t go with me I won’t go.”

So this man – General Lightning – tells this woman, Wonder Woman that she is, that he won’t go into battle without her.

This story is full of surprises! First a woman in charge and now this reaction from Barak – that’s not how God’s generals in the Bible act.

When I first read this I thought maybe Barak was a little . . . scared if not a lot needy. General Lightning is kind of a mess.

But that might be a little hard on Barak.

I got to reading and thinking about this. What if Barak is actually . . .  kind of faithful? What if he knows and believes God is with Deborah, so it’s not really about taking Deborah herself into battle but rather the assurance of God’s presence?

Whatever the reason for Barak’s request, Deborah says she will go with him. BUT, she says, it will be a woman that ultimately defeats Sisera. General Sisera will be “delivered into the hand of a woman.”

Who will that be? Deborah? You might think so, but we’ll see . . .

That’s where our reading ended but I want you to know the rest of this story – it’s a good one and it’s hardly ever read or especially preached on or even taught in Sunday School.

How many of you know this story? (A handful of folks raised their hands.)

What happened next is that Sisera heard that Barak and his army were on the move. So General Sisera called together his 900 iron chariots and all his fighting men to meet them in battle. It should have been an easy fight . . . for General Sisera. All those chariots gave him a huge technological advantage.

But Deborah told Barak to attack. She said, “The Lord is going before you!” Barak and his 10,000 men streamed down from the mountains toward the enemy army.

God somehow throws General Sisera’s army into a panic. And it starts to rain. Creeks, streams, and rivers overflow their banks. That makes lots of mud. All those powerful chariots get . . . stuck.

Every single one of those enemy soldiers are wiped out. Except one.

General Sisera.

He runs away on foot – not very dignified behavior for such a powerful general.

It gets worse for him.

He runs to the tent of a man named Heber the Kenite. Heber the Kenite’s family have some kind of alliance with King Jabin, so General Sisera thinks he will be safe.

But Heber the Kenite isn’t home. Only his wife – Jael (remember that name) is there.

Kenites are not Jews. So Jael is both a woman AND a gentile.

An unlikely hero, right?

Jael invites General Sisera into her tent. Sisera is apparently exhausted from the battle and the running away, so he lies down. He tells Jael if anyone comes looking for him, “Tell them I’m not here!”  Now things turn kind of weird – Jael mothers General Sisera. She covers him up with a blanket. Then he asks for some water, but she opens up a container of milk instead.

And General Sisera, safe and cozy in the blanket and soothed with the milk, falls asleep.

Jael picks up a tent peg and a hammer. She approaches sleeping Sisera. She places the pointy end of the tent peg on his temple.  She raises the hammer . . .

I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

And that’s how General Sisera was ultimately defeated by a woman.

So who’s the Deliverer in this story? I’d say there were three – Deborah, Barak, and Jael. Two women and a man.

Judges 4 is less Wonder Woman and more The Avengers: Age of Sisera. Israel is rescued by a team of unlikely heroes. Deborah the wife, judge and prophet. General Lightning, the reluctant warrior. And Jael, tent peg assassin.

God uses unlikely heroes to accomplish God’s purposes. God uses people marginalized by their cultures – like Deborah, who would have been considered second-class because she was a woman. Don’t ever think God doesn’t have a plan and a purpose for your life because somebody thinks you are less than them.

God uses flawed people like Barak – and you and me. God uses “Normal” seemingly random people like Jael – and you and me. Don’t ever think God doesn’t have a plan and a purpose for your life because you’re not perfect or you’re not special enough.

The church is a collection of marginalized, flawed, random people. We are God’s version of “The Avengers,” each with our own superpowers like hospitality or teaching or serving or leadership or giving or mercy – gifts of the Spirit to build up each other and the church and to share God’s love in Christ with the world. WE together are called to tell in word and in action the story of God’s deliverance of the whole world – and of the One who saved the world.

Together, Deborah, Barak, and Jael, were the “D” in the Judges cycle. They delivered Israel from King Jabin and Sisera’s oppression. They freed Israel from what were ultimately the consequences of their walking away from God.

We, too, have an unlikely deliverer. He was born as a member of a people who were occupied and oppressed, born to a poor unwed mother and a laborer-father. He became a refugee, and as an adult never had a permanent home. But he saved not just Israel but the world. He saved not from earthly powers but from the power of sin and death and evil.

He saved the world not with armies and weapons – even tent pegs – but by dying on a cross. He saved the world with love, sacrificial love, servant-love.

Jesus is our once-for-all deliverer. His deliverance is eternal.

But the truth is, we still live out that ABCD cycle.

It’s a cycle that makes Judges very frustrating for me to read. It happens twelve times in Judges – 12 times the Israelites Abandon God and then get Battered by Enemies and Cry out to God and get a Deliverer. Then it happens again . .. and again.  It gets more and more aggravating each time.

“Why don’t you learn?!” I want to shout at God’s people. “Just stick to worshipping the God who rescued you from slavery in Egypt and from each time you got battered by enemies. Just stop with the idol worship!”

You know, the things that frustrate us most in other people are the things we see in them that remind us of ourselves.

It drives me crazy when other people procrastinate. (I wrote that line at  5:51pm yesterday.)

This cycle bothers me so much because it’s my cycle.

Things go along great and I get farther and farther from God. I am much less likely to remember to thank God in the good times than I am to plead with God in the challenging times. As I move away from God in those good times, other things fill up my God- space – idols like stuff I want and things I want to do. My biggest idol, the number one thing that replaces God is . . . me.  Myself. I start thinking maybe I’m okay on my own, I don’t need God so much. (Yeah, Pastors fall into this, too.)

Then, as they always do in this life, stuff happens. I am battered by enemies – whether those enemies are health or finances or relationship challenges.

So what do I do?

I cry out to God. “Help!”

Do you see yourself in that cycle?

It’s our human cycle.

We abandon God and turn to our idols, whatever they are – money, power, sports, popularity, success, patriotism, politics, social media – whatever good things we turn to idols because we look to them for peace, love, and joy instead of God, because we look to them for freedom instead of God – when we turn to them it’s not that we lose our deliverance or our freedom we have in Christ – it’s that we can’t experience that deliverance and freedom.

God is always with us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. But we can separate ourselves from the experience of God with us, from the experience of God’s love, by turning to idols. And the biggest idol is . . . ourselves.

These stories in Judges call us to repentance. They remind us of the consequences of abandoning God for idols, and invite us to turn back and cry out to God.

These stories assure us that God will always answer, even when we like the Israelites don’t deserve it. (And we never deserve it.) And God will always remind and assure us that we have already been delivered, that we are forgiven, that we are saved, and that we are already – and forever – loved.

AMEN

(Preached June 3, 2018, at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville, ELCA)

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That’s Just the Way “They” Are

WMATA Metro LogoThe four young women burst into my car on the DC Metro late one afternoon last week. Probably in their mid-teens, they entered with the loud exuberance of unrestrained youth. Mindful only of their group and oblivious to the sparse sprinkling of their fellow-riders commuting to the suburbs, they were too loud, too rambunctious, too . . . much.

Some passengers glanced up from their phones and newspapers to greet the girls with brief looks of rebuke. Most just ignored the commotion.

For the space of one stop, the young women laughed uproariously at adolescent humor, uttered an occasional curse word for effect, and one became so overcome with hilarity she dramatically fell out of her seat and rolled on the floor of the Metro car.

It was all finally too much even for one of them who became uncomfortable and encouraged the others to tone things down. The other three ignored her and continued the boisterous antics.

The train stopped. The Metro doors slid open and the young women piled out onto the platform. The one rebuker continued her entreaties. As the doors closed behind them, I heard her say, “Y’all are why white people think black folks . . .” (The young women were African–American.)

I didn’t hear any more as the doors shut and we pulled away.

I heard enough to wonder what it must be like to go through life knowing that to many you represent all people who look like you . . . or worship like you or speak the same language you do.

I wondered what it must be like to know that any misstep only confirms and contributes to prejudices you carry as a burden you didn’t ask for and cannot simply unload.

Those of us  in dominant cultures, ethnicities, and religions move through life confident our foolishness – and worse – won’t adversely reflect on all those like us.

We justify our preconceived notions of “others” by holding up examples that support our prejudices and saying, “That’s just the way they are.”

The behavior of those young women was certainly over the top. But that’s how young people in groups act sometimes.

That folks would observe those young women and think, ‘That’s how black folks act,” is sad.

That a young woman would think – would know – people would respond in that way is heartbreaking.

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Women Who Challenged Moses (and God): The Daughters of Zelophehad

d of z 2(This is the first sermon in a ten-week series, “Wonder Women of the Bible.” The story of the Daughters of Zelophehad takes place during the wilderness wandering of the People of Israel, and is recorded in Numbers 27:1-11. The sermon was delivered at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville on May 27, 2018. You can listen to a podcast here.)

Let’s start with names. Today’s reading revolves around the importance of a name. Zelophehad’s daughters say, “Why should our father’s name disappear?”

There are names upon names upon names in the Bible. Did you ever decide to read the Bible all the way through, and then get to the begats – the genealogies – and give up?

Did you ever notice how few men are included in those lists of names?

To remember a name implied and imparted importance. Women just weren’t considered that important.

We have name after name of men who apparently didn’t do much of note, but think about how many women in the Bible were pretty important . . . and nameless. I found a website with a list of 107 of these nameless women, including Noah’s wife (no, she wasn’t Joan of Ark), Job’s wife, the woman at the well, the Widow of Nain, the woman caught in adultery, and Jesus’ sisters. We know the names of at least some of Jesus’ brothers, but none of his sisters.

To decide whose names are remembered and whose are forgotten is power.

It is power not just over the past but power to shape our present and our future. How long has the church gotten away with making women second-class citizens and used carefully chosen Bible verses to justify it?

I wish I could say how long did the church get away with it, but we’re not there, yet. There are still churches where women can’t preach or teach men, or be leaders in congregations.

In too many churches its taught that men are supposed to be in charge – not just in the church but in the home and in the community. You can justify the marginalization of women, and patriarchy, and even misogyny by the choices of men who wrote and compiled Scripture, and by men who choose what and who to preach about.

It’s not just those “other” denominations. There are churches in our own ELCA who won’t call a woman pastor. I hear and read form women pastors that not only do they have more trouble than men getting calls, but that their authority is not taken as seriously as a man’s, and that congregation members comment on the way their dress and other things they would never mention to a male pastor.

This is why I’m so excited about this sermon series. We get to intentionally disrupt those patriarchal systems that codified what – and especially who – is important and worth remembering. I’ve heard from several folks who looked at the list of women in this series and have said, “Some of these I’ve never heard of.”

I’ll be honest – one of these women someone requested a sermon about I had to look up to see who she was. (I’ll tell you who when we get to her in a few weeks.)

And this is why the five names we are given in today’s reading are so important:

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah.

Zelophehad’s daughters.

Their father had died. The Law – God’s Law – said only sons could inherit. So Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah would have nothing.

These women could have just kept in their place.

They could have accepted the status quo.

They could have said, “It’s not fair but it’s the Law.”

All the pressure of Law and tradition and society and culture and decorum and propriety argued and pressured for their acquiescence and silence.

Nevertheless, they persisted.

The writer of Numbers tells us, “They came forward.”

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah came forward. They stood before Moses and the other leaders, before the whole assembly. They stood at the entrance – the doorway – of the Tent of Meeting.

They spoke. “Our father died in the wilderness.” He wasn’t part of the rebellion. “Why should our father’s name disappear . . . because he had no son?”

That’s a good strategy, isn’t it? “Do it for our father! Do it for a man!”

Their approach was excellent. They started with questions, then they made their demand:

“Give us property among our father’s relatives.”

Can you imagine what it took for Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah to come forward and to stand in the doorway? What it took to speak and present their demand to Moses and those other leaders, and the whole assembly – all those men?

It took Holy Chutzpah.

I didn’t make that up. It’s from a sermon about this story I found online by Rabbi Amanda Greene.

You’ve heard of chutzpah? It’s a Yiddish word that means audacity or insolence. The classic story from Judaism that illustrates chutzpah is about a man who kills both his parents then has the chutzpah to go to court and plead for mercy because he’s an orphan.

Originally chutzpah had a negative connotation, but when it’s used in English it’s come to mean more of courage or boldness in the face of opposition.

I agree with Rabbi Amanda Greene. For Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah to come forward, and to stand in the doorway, to speak, and to make demands took some Holy Chutzpah.

Their story is a call to Holy Chutzpah, to challenge injustice even when we’re walking into the headwind of tradition or swimming upstream against a current of “The way things have always been.”

How Holy Chutzpah is received often depends upon gender. Men who come forward and stand in the doorway and speak and make demands are “tough” or “driven” or “they know what they want.”  They are called “leaders.”

When women, even and especially today, come forward and stand in the doorway and speak and make demands, they are “pushy” or “bossy” or “hormonal.”  They are called . . . witches.

You don’t think there were some men among those gathered there at the Tent of Meeting who whispered to each other about those “pushy Daughters of Zelophehad” . . . or worse?

Sadly, the same thing happens today and our daughters hear those words and get those messages. They are then less likely to come forward and stand at the doorway and speak and make demands. They are less likely to have Holy Chutzpah.

I don’t know about you, but I want my daughter and the daughters of our congregation, our community, and our country to have Holy Chutzpah.

And the day is changing. The church is lagging behind, as usual, but we’re getting there. At least some parts of the church.

It took the Lutheran Church until 1970 to ordain a woman pastor – Elizabeth Platz, who served as campus chaplain at the University of Maryland.

Five years ago, we elected our first woman churchwide bishop, Elizabeth Eaton.

Just this month, two synods finally elected our first African American women bishops – The Reverend Patricia A. Davenport in the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod and The Reverend Viviane Thomas-Breitfield in the South-Central Wisconsin Synod.

After her election, Bishop Breitfield was asked why she thought it had taken so long. She responded, “I think that, sometimes, our beloved ELCA is stuck on just being, “Oh, this is the way it is.’”

Yes, sometimes we are stuck. Too often.

But this story about Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah reminds us that we don’t have to be stuck. We don’t have to settle for the way things have been or are.

We can be, and are called to be, part of God’s ever-expanding revelation and revolution of grace.

We can be, and are called to be, part of the shattering of glass ceilings and the breaking of barriers and the tearing down of walls.

Like Moses of all people!

What really stuns me in this story is Moses’ response to the demand. He’s an old man, tired and frustrated from leading over a million complaining, stubborn, sometimes rebelling, people through the wilderness. If anyone should be set in their ways, it would be Moses, right?

It would not have surprised me if Moses’ response had been, “No! Only men can inherit.”

Like one of those bumper stickers:

GOD SAID IT
I BELIEVE IT
THAT SETTLES IT

But Moses doesn’t do that. He says, “Let me check with God and I’ll get back to you.”

In effect, Moses acknowledges there’s a chance he’s gotten it wrong. That maybe his interpretation of what God wants has been filtered through his own experience and prejudices and desires. So he goes to God.

And God says, “They’re right.”

And God makes a new law – daughters can inherit if there are no sons. Progress.

For the first and only time in the Torah, Law is made based on someone’s request.

Not just someone – five women: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah.

Remember their names.

Remember their names when you think it is God who favors men, and not the men who have interpreted God’s Word and God’s will to legitimate and perpetuate their own power.

Remember their names when you believe that patriarchy and leadership limited to males is God’s will and not a manmade (literally man-made) perversion of God’s will.

Remember their names when you think the possibilities of inclusion and grace are limited by the way things have always been done, or the way we’ve always thought God wanted it.

For a long time, the whole church taught what God wanted was men in charge and women quiet, not just in churches but in homes and in the world. As we go through this sermon series, pay attention to these women who snuck through the cracks in the patriarchal system. Pay attention to these women who couldn’t be silenced, who through their Holy Chutzpah and the work of the Holy Spirit we remember today.

The Bible for too long was used, and is being used still, to prop up patriarchy and to keep women from coming forward, standing in the doorway, speaking up, and making demands. The church has been complicit.

But, I heard Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber say something about this on a podcast just yesterday:

“Sometimes the origin of the harm can be the genesis of the healing.”

The Bible – and the church – have been the origin of the harm done to women. The Bible and the church – WE – can be the genesis of the healing.

AMEN

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Children at the Border: The Cruelty of “Whatever Works”

“Just shooting one would be all that it takes . . .”

In my mid 20’s  I worked for two years at a Wilderness Camp for delinquent young men. It was rewarding but often challenging and frustrating work. Living in the woods 5 days a week with a group of ten adolescents could make you a little crazy.

You learned to eat fast. The program operated on a positive peer culture model, so if one or two members of a group acted stupid during mealtime, the whole group had to go outside and deal with the problem. That could take a while; often the remainder of the time allotted for eating. Sometimes three or four of the six groups would be outside at once.

It was after a spell of consistently interrupted mealtimes that my co-worker uttered his facetious (I hope) idea for a solution. “Just shooting one would be all that it takes. You’d do it in front of everybody and we wouldn’t have any more dining hall problems.”

He was most certainly correct. If we implemented his strategy, we would be able to finish breakfast, at least for a while.

It would have “worked.”

Fortunately, we did not determine what is ethical and permissible by what “works.”

Utilitarianism – the philosophy that actions are correct if they are useful, especially for the majority – seduces with its promise of success, but ultimately those who embrace it are sucked into a morass of self-centered rationalization.

A philosophy that favors actions that benefit the majority seems “logical” to members of that majority. Selfishness becomes rationality. The needs and desires of minority “others” can be “reasonably” cast aside for the good of “us.”

None of that sounds like Christianity, or especially like Christ.

For Christians therefore, utilitarianism is contrary to the faith we profess to embrace, and to the One we claim to follow.

“Because it works” has never been and never will be Christ’s test for what is ethical. When we sacrifice our faith on the altar of utilitarianism, we no longer follow Christ, but rather the means to our own ends.

As you have probably heard, the Trump administration has implemented a policy that results in the separation of children from their parents at the border. The administration explains this cruel practice will “work” to reduce illegal immigration and keep “us” safe. The policy will make parents think twice before looking to America for safety and opportunity.

The administration is probably correct. The policy will indeed “work” to reduce some undocumented immigration.

Utilitarianism says the child separation policy is a good thing.

But what does Christianity say? What would Christ –  concerned for “the least of these” rather than the majority – say?

Does this policy “love our neighbor as we love ourselves”?

For Christians, those are questions to ask before “will it work?”

Christians and Christianity – and therefore Christ – continue to lose credibility and the respect of those outside our faith by embracing utilitarian leaders and policies.  “America First,” “Religious Freedom,” and “Enhanced Interrogation” are  examples of Orwellian newspeak for utilitarian selfishness.

The unmitigated cruelty of ripping children from their parents exposes this anti-Christian and anti-Christ way of thinking and acting. It is not just this present policy that is the issue, but the hellish utilitarian philosophy it so callously illustrates.

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An UpLyfting Ride

lyftIn these dark days of divisiveness, you’ve got to find hope where you can.

Last week, hope surprised me in a grey Honda Accord.

Lyft driver Rayan* picked me up at my San Diego Hotel. I’d spent a few days with my wife who was attending a conference for work. I told Rayan that I was on my way to rent a car and head up north of LA to see my daughter.

He replied that he hadn’t seen his family in quite some time. They still lived in Jordan. He’d left there 15 years ago for a better life in America. He hoped to get back at the end of this year or the beginning of the next.

We commiserated about how hard it is to be far away from people you love. He told me a little about his move to America and how much he liked it here.

Rayan asked me what I did for a living.

I told him I was a pastor.

He told me he was Muslim.

The conversation did not desist or deteriorate.

We talked about how much our faiths have in common. We recalled our joint Abrahamic roots and prophets we share.

He reminded me how important Jesus is to Islam. I told him about our church’s forum last year when we invited some of our Muslim neighbors to speak and share about their faith.

We discussed some of the misunderstandings members of our faiths have about each other, and how awesome it would be if  Christians and Muslims  got to know each other rather than making assumptions about each other.

Rather than listening to voices whose power and authority come from stirring up distrust and disdain.

As we approached the car rental facility that was my destination, Rayan said, “There would be peace if only Muslims acted out the faith we claim to follow.”

“And if Christians would act like followers of Christ,” I added.

We said our goodbyes.

Outside the car, I sat on a bench and opened the Lyft app.

Rayan got five stars.

—–
* I’ve changed Rayan’s name and some of the details since I didn’t ask him if he wanted to be featured in a blog post.

 

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Review: Paul, Apostle of Christ

paul apostle of christ.jpgI have been posting brief reviews of films on my Facebook page, but am going to start posting them here as well. I welcome your comments, especially your disagreements (which are much more interesting than agreement, but those are welcome, too).

I saw “Paul: Apostle of Christ” yesterday kind of on the spur of the moment.

It was not what I expected, a dramatization of Paul’s exploits as recorded in the book of Acts. The film provided a speculative narrative of the time between the end of Acts (Paul in jail) and Paul’s execution. Only brief hazy flashbacks dramatize any of the events in Acts – and only Paul’s pre-conversion persecution of Christians and, very briefly, his Road to Damascus experience and subsequent healing.

Whether this divergence from my expectations is a good thing or not, I’m not sure. Certainly the Acts narrative with its nonstop action would have been more exciting if familiar. This film involves a lot of talking in whispered voices when Luke meets with Paul in prison.

A couple of the sub-plots were interesting – the conflict among the underground Christians in Rome whether to fight back against persecution, and Luke’s struggle with his faith in the midst of that persecution. Another thread about the illness of Paul’s jailer’s daughter was less compelling because of its predictable outcome (he is DOCTOR Luke after all).

But . . . despite the stilted dialogue (why do people in Bible movies talk like they are in Bible movies – they wouldn’t have sounded like that in Bible times) and limitations of the 5 million dollar budget, I think the film is worth seeing. There are lots of things to talk about especially the contrast between Paul’s acceptance of his suffering in the name of Love, Luke’s struggle with it, and those who advocate taking up arms.

Perhaps the best line in the film was spoken by either Priscilla or Aquilla (who are leaders of the underground Christians in Rome – not sure if they were ever in Rome in the Bible) to those who wanted to overthrow Nero – “God calls us to care for the world, not to rule it.” Many implications of that sentiment NOW.

It is certainly better than films purveying Christian pablum like “God’s Not Dead.”

One caveat – there is lots of blood. While most violence takes place offscreen, the bloody results are shown including dead and about-to-be-dead children. One guy in a Roman temple pours a bucket of blood on his face. Plus Christians are lit up as lamps with much screaming. So maybe adolescents and older would be appropriate.

Finally, the film is more about Luke than about Paul. Luke is portrayed by James Caviezel, who played the title role in “The Passion of the Christ” Once I got past my initial reaction when he first appeared on the screen and I thought, “There’s Jesus,” I thought he did an adequate job within the limitations of the writing. And “Game of Thrones'” James Faulkner similarly succeeded as Paul.

And one other thing – I’m not sure how much sense the film would make to those not familiar with Paul’s story or who Luke is, so this might not be the best film for non-Christians.

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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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