The Unexpected Pastor’s Best Picture Countdown 2015

oscars best picture

Here’s my annual ranking of the  films that are vying for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. As in the past, the films are ranked not by prediction of who will win, nor by which ones I “liked the best,” but by my opinion of whether they should take home the Best Picture Oscar . . . You can find out who wins on Sunday night when Neil Patrick Harris will host the festivities. (NOTE: There are some unspecific spoilers in these capsule reviews.)

8. Whiplash

I may have liked “Whiplash” more if I had seen it before the nominations were announced. As it was, my viewing focus was impaired by my fairly constant wondering, “Why was this nominated for Best Picture.” I get why critics were crazy about it (95% on Rotten Tomatoes) – it’s an Indie film with strong performances and a plot about suffering for art (kind of like last year’s critics’ darling “Inside Llewyn Davis“, which I didn’t much like, either). But I just did not connect with “Whiplash.”

The sadistic fervor with which teacher J. K. Simmons brutalizes drum-student Miles Teller is worthy of Simmons’ Best Supporting Actor nomination, but there is little to redeem either character. Although we are clearly meant to root for the student, he comes across as much of a narcissist as the teacher.

The film’s message is “Sadistic teachers will damage you forever, but they’ll also make you great.” That Simmons’ Mr. Fletcher has managed to keep his job for so long in spite of his abusive methods stretches credulity, and the “stand up and cheer’ ending is both implausible and flat. It left me firmly planted in my seat with my hands occupied getting my coat and gloves.

To be fair, if you haven’t seen “Whiplash” it will be worth a view when it’s available on Netflix. The acting is excellent, including a surprise (to me) appearance by Paul Reiser as a nebbishy father. It’s been a long time since “Mad About You.”

7. The Theory of Everything

Eddie Redmayne reportedly studied with a dance teacher in order to learn to flex and contort his body as Stephen Hawking’s ALS progressed in “The Theory of Everything.” The hard work paid off – the transformation is striking and he may very well win the Best Actor Oscar on Sunday. But Felicity Jones, portraying Stephen’s wife, Jane, does most of the acting for the second half of the film after Hawking can no longer move or speak. She does a fine job, but there is a definite loss of momentum as the story focuses on her dedication and heroism, which I’m sure is real but casts a definite “we’ve seen this before” aura over much of the film.

What is missing is explication of why this particular situation – this particular man – is special. We don’t get any sense of why Stephen Hawking’s work is so important other than scenes of scientists standing around saying, “That’s brilliant!”  Maybe it’s my nerdy nature, but I would have preferred more focus on Hawking’s actual theories and what they reveal about the universe.

“The Theory of Everything” is a fine film for what it is, but it is not the Best Picture of 2014.

6. The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game”  is another worthy competitor for Best Actor, also portraying a genius with issues. But Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) is limited not by a physical disability like Stephen Hawking, but rather by his own somewhere-on-the-autism-spectrum (at least as Cumberbatch plays it) personality.

But the real strength of “The Imitation Game” is that it is not simply a character study. Unlike “The Theory of Everything,” the science behind Turing’s efforts to crack the Nazi Enigma Code is made quite clear (sometimes a little too clear in its more elementary explanations, though).

Where the film succeeds most is in illustrating the vital nature of the work Turing and his team are doing. The film makes it clear that not cracking the code means Nazi victories and lives lost. The moral calculus of war is explored adroitly in decisions about how to use the ability to read the code once it is broken. Finally, the depth of “The Imitation Game” lies not just in the hard-won successes of Turing and his team, but in the tragedy of the shameful injustice that beset him at the end of his life that serves as a framing device for the film.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel

It hurts me to put “The Grand Budapest Hotel” so far down on this list. I would not be disappointed if it won the Best Picture Oscar Sunday. Director Wes Anderson has long deserved the Academy’s recognition. Unfortunately, he doesn’t deserve it this year, at least not for Best Picture. Anderson is one of the few directors whose vision is so distinctive that when you see a scene or even a still from one of his films in isolation, you say, “Yep, Wes Anderson directed that.”  (Watch this, for example.)

If this was two years ago and “Moonrise Kingdom” was nominated as it SHOULD HAVE BEEN, it would be number one on this list. But it wasn’t nominated (and “Amour” was?! Does anybody even remember “Amour??”)

Anyway, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is nominated this year and, although I enjoyed it and will surely watch the DVD many times, it is neither Wes Anderson’s nor the year’s best. But there are plenty of delights. Ralph Fiennes turns in a stellar Oscar-nominee worthy performance as legendary concierge and seducer of women Gustave H. The precious (in a good way) visual design featuring Anderson’s usual dollhouse sets and miniatures deserves to win a Production Design Oscar on Sunday. The “Grand Budapest Hotel” entertains and enthralls, but there are better films nominated this year for Best Picture.

4. American Sniper

I did not want to see this film. I assumed it would be Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry in Iraq” picture, glorifying war and violence-as-solution and the “Go ahead make my day” attitude.

I was wrong.

Although “American Sniper” is in some ways a Chris Kyle hagiography (it omits his post-war prevarications), it is ultimately a wrenchingly effective indictment of war, particularly of the damage battle can do to the young men and women sent to fight on our behalf. Through Sienna Miller’s excellent portrayal of Kyle’s wife, Taya, the film also gives voice to those who are left behind when their loved ones go off to war. No one is left undamaged – not Chris Kyle who Taya observes has been changed by the war, not the soldiers who leave chunks of their body on the battlefield, not Taya whose marriage is threatened not by another woman but by Chris’s obsessive dedication to service and to those with whom he serves.

As one of the 99.5% of Americans who do not serve in the military, the film was a window into a culture I just don’t understand.

There are certainly problems with “American Sniper” – the denigration and stereotyping of all Muslims/Iraqis, the inference of a connection between 9/11 and the Iraq War, and so on – but it is appropriately nominated for Best Picture. In any other year, Bradley Cooper would be the front-runner for Best Actor; but there are just too many excellent performances in this competition. “American Sniper” is a consequential film, and worth the emotional investment inherent in viewing it.

3. Selma

“Selma” is an important and timely film. It is  difficult to watch at times but essential history to remember and to inform the present. It’s amazing that no feature films have been made about Dr. King until now. But “Selma’ is no mere bio-pic. It  is successful not only in portraying Dr. King but also in bringing to life others who were important in the civil rights movement. “Selma” centers on what happened in that Alabama town, but it is a film with an epic scope.  Especially notable is the depiction of Coretta Scott King as a rounded character, not just “the wife behind the man.”

It is a travesty that David Oyelowo did not receive a Best Actor Academy Award nomination even with all the wonderful acting performances last year. “Glory” by John Legend and Common (who is also in the film) should win Best Song – stay for the end credits to hear it. “Selma” may very well win Best Picture on Sunday, but the politics of the Academy are such that it appears unlikely that another “African American” film would win after “Twelve Years a Slave” took home the statue last year. If “Selma” does win, it would be a deserving addition to the pantheon of Best Picture-winning films. (Although I believe there are two films that deserve it more.)

2. Boyhood

I absolutely love the top two films on this list. I probably have more of an emotional attachment to “Boyhood,” though. While it of course centers on Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) “Boyhood,” it could have been called “Parenthood.” As a parent, I related to the profound changes experienced by the grown ups in the film.  Ethan Hawke is excellent as the father who grows up, but Patricia Arquette delivers the best performance of any actor or actress in a leading or supporting role last year (that I have seen). Her final scene of realization, despair, and letting go is incredible; any parent who’s ever sent a kid off to college can relate.  If she does not win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her honest, open, heartfelt portrayal of Mason’s mom, there’s no justice in the Academy.

Boyhood’s emotional heft is grounded in the 12-years over which it was filmed, but there is so much more to it than that. Director Richard Linklater’s film could have been just a stunt, but he draws out performances from real-life but not overly “dramatic” situations that give the film an aura of truth. Not only should Arquette be awarded  an Oscar on Sunday, but Linklater and editor Sandra Adair should win as well for this seamless masterpiece of a quilt stitched together from 12 years of cloth squares (or something like that).

1. Birdman

As much affection as I have for “Boyhood,” “Birdman” was the Best Picture I saw in 2014. I wrote an entire post on this blog about it. You can read the whole thing here, but the first paragraph sums up my regard for the film:

When we think of “breathtaking” films, what usually come to mind are epic spectacles of sound and fury. But “Birdman” is a film that takes one’s breath away through the transcendence of the art form of film itself. “Birdman” is an amazing, synergistic achievement of artists at the height of their power. The result is both enthralling and exhausting; “Birdman” achieves a rare existential immediacy that is a thrilling reminder of what filmmakers, and indeed artists of all sorts, can attain.

I’ve written about great acting performances throughout this list, but Michael Keaton is my choice for the Best Actor nod on Sunday. And Edward Norton should be the Best Supporting Actor winner (although J. K. Simmons will probably win). As I wrote before, “They don’t need to nominate anyone else based on  just his very first scene.”

“Birdman” is a triumph of the art of film, and is also laugh-out-loud funny. Besides the Best Picture and Acting awards, Director of Photography  Emmanuel Lubezki should be rewarded for creating the illusion that “Birdman” is one uninterrupted take (except for the final scenes).

My one quibble with “Birdman” is that I believe it should have ended when that long take ended, with the end of the play within the film. But then we wouldn’t have the reason for Emma Stone’s final smile to discuss forever, would we?



I wrote a great deal about Best Actor nominees in the list, but not much about Best Actresses. That’s because the Best Actress nominees, with the exception of Felicity Jones in “The Theory of Everything,” were not in movies that were nominated for Best Picture. I have not seen “Still Alice,” but everything I have heard indicates Julianne Moore will and should win on Sunday.


The best film I saw in 2014 not nominated for Best Picture was “Pride.” It was nominated for Best Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes. Here’s what I wrote about it on Facebook after I saw it:

One of the films nominated for Best Comedy at the Golden Globes last night was “Pride.” I was totally unfamiliar with it, but saw it in the Redbox and decided to check it out. Karen, Autumn, and I watched it today . . . what a wonderful film! It’s a true story about the British miner’s strike in the 80’s when a small group of gay activists in London decided to support a mining village in Wales. It’s about what can happen when very different people get to know each other – not only can they “get along,” but they can achieve great things. It’s not a preachy movie or a “gay movie” (whatever that means) it’s an inspirational comedy that made us laugh and even tear up a few times. And the soundtrack – mostly 80’s New Wave – is awesome!

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Signs of Things to Come – A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

(Lots of folks missed worship today due to weather, so here’s the sermon. The Scripture is Matthew 16:24-17:8, where Jesus says”Carry your cross” and then the Transfiguration is described.)

I am going to do something this morning that I’m not sure is a good idea – for the second time in  month I’m going to open the sermon with a quote from The Princess Bride. The movie has been on my mind because after I talked about it a few weeks ago, Celia Poteet let me know that there is a new book about making the film by Cary Elwes, who played Westley. So I read it in just a couple of days because it was so much fun.

Anyway, here is the quote from the Princess Bride that is an apt beginning for this sermon about bearing the cross and about the transfiguration:

“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

“Life is pain” may be overstating the point I want to make here which is this – pain is a reality in our lives. And truly, anyone who says you can make it through life in this imperfect, sin-scarred world without any pain or suffering or disappointment is selling something.  Or asking for a donation.

Especially Christians. Sometimes the Christian faith is presented as pain and suffering avoidance insurance. Just believe in Jesus, and go to church and follow the rules and send in a donation, and your problems will disappear. God will wave a magic wand and “poof!” you’ll be walking on sunshine and all your life will be rainbows.

Certainly, it is only natural to want to avoid suffering. We are certainly not called to SEEK suffering for suffering’s sake – our own suffering does not and will not save us – there was only one person who’s suffering was ever salvific and that person’s suffering saved the whole world.

But . . . the reality is that until we enter the perfection of eternity we are going to face sickness and stress and even death. Believing that those things don’t happen to good Christian folks is only going to leave us disappointed and doubting when the troubles inevitably come.

Life in Christ – life lived to the fullest – is not found in security – “Those who want to save their life will lose it,” Jesus says in today’s reading. As Pastor Chris Duckworth writes in his blog, “Life is found in relationship with Christ and with those whom Christ loves.”  And Jesus didn’t hang out with the “safe” people – he was known for being with the poor, the sick, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the rebels, children, and others who were either ostracized or looked down upon – or both.  Jesus risked his reputation – and his life – to touch the untouchables, to reach out to the marginalized.

That is part of what Jesus is saying in that invitation to his disciples – to us: “Anyone who wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Let’s take a moment to consider those last two words of Jesus’ invitation – “follow me.”  Where was he going? Where is he inviting us to follow?

In Matthew’s Gospel right before today’s reading Jesus told his disciples for the first time that he had to go to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed.

Do you remember Peter’s reaction to that news?

“Never! I will never let that happen to you!”

Do you remember Jesus’ reaction to Peter?

“Get behind me, Satan.”

Peter was tempting Jesus – like Satan had tempted Jesus in the wilderness – with taking the easy way. “Turn these stones into bread.”  “Don’t go to Jerusalem.”

But Jesus was born to go to Jerusalem – Jesus was born to die for Peter and for us.  Jesus did not run from suffering – from that point he turned toward Jerusalem, even knowing what waited for him there.

Because Jesus was born to suffer for us, and to be IN our suffering.

Jesus invites the disciples – and us – to follow him to Jerusalem, to walk with him to the Cross.  That is how we often describe the season that begins this Wednesday with Ash Wednesday – the season of Lent is our walk to the Cross with Jesus.

And the last Sunday before Lent is always Transfiguration Sunday.  The turning point. The turn toward Jerusalem. The turn toward the cross.

Six days after telling his disciples about his coming suffering and death, Jesus and his disciples arrived at what would come to be known as the Mount of Transfiguration. He took three of his closest disciples up that mountain with him. They witnessed something amazing – something that is beyond our understanding. Jesus was transformed – transfigured – his face and his clothes described by the Gospel writers as glowing and shining. Suddenly, the greatest prophets of the Old Testament – Moses and Elijah – were there, talking with Jesus.

And Peter – gosh, I love Peter – does the first thing that comes to his mind. You’ve heard me say before that I think of Peter as the ADHD disciple – he’s the one who impulsively steps out of the boat to walk on the water with Jesus, he’s the one who tells Jesus he won’t let him die in Jerusalem (he’s also the first one to confess Jesus is the Son of God), he’s the one who pulls out his sword when Jesus is arrested.

On the mountaintop, his impulse is one that I think we can relate to – “Let’s stay here.”  What he says doesn’t make much sense – let’s build some shelters – but the feeling behind it is “It’s safe here. Up here on this mountain there are no sick or dying or poor asking for help. No Pharisees or Romans. We’re a long way from Jerusalem. Let’s just hang out up here.”

Then God speaks from a cloud – “This is my son. I love him. I am pleased with him.”  Remember, those are the words we first heard when Jesus was baptized, when Jesus began his ministry. Now God reaffirms Jesus identity as he begins the last stretch of his ministry toward Jerusalem and toward the cross.

God says something else. As many times as I’ve read and preached on the transfiguration, I noticed something new this time. I think God is talking especially to Peter.

Peter who had argued with Jesus when Jesus said he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer and die.

What does God say up there on the mountain where Peter wants to stay? “Listen to him!”

Listen to Jesus. He knows what he has to do . . . for you.  For the world.

Listen to Jesus. You can’t stay up there on that mountain. You have to go back down, back down to the real world. There’s danger down there, and pain, and death . . . but you don’t go back down alone. Jesus is with you. Jesus will always be with you.

There are times when we’d just like to stay on the mountaintop, above it all. Sometimes the church can be our mountaintop – and it should be. We are safe here – safe to be ourselves, safe to share our doubts and our fears and our questions. Safe from the hostility that much of the world seems to have for Christ and for Christians.

The mountaintop can be people who believe and think like us. We can be careful to surround ourselves only with people who agree with us. But Jesus calls us to GO – to take the Gospel to all the world, not only to people like us but ESPECIALLY to those who are not.

The mountaintop can be the things we do to shield ourselves from the reality of suffering. It can be immersion in media or in substances or just staying away from those who are hurting or lonely. But part of carrying our Cross is carrying THE cross – carrying the hope of the one who died on the cross – to those who are suffering.

Jesus said to come down off the mountain. Jesus said, “Carry your cross.”  What does that look like?

As I considered that question I couldn’t help but think of someone who we heard this week lost her life because she gave it to others. You probably read or heard about Kara Mueller’s death in Syria. She died while in captivity to the evil that is ISIS or ISIL or the Islamic State or whatever you want to call it.

Listen to what she wrote in a 2011 letter to her parents: “I will always seek God. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love. I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”
Kayla Mueller saw God in suffering. She saw the God who suffered and died on a cross. She refused to stay on the mountaintop.  She found God down in that valley where troubles and danger lurked. She refused to stay on the mountaintop. Kayla Mueller’s journey took her to India and Israel and to the Palestinian Territories and finally to Syria. According to CNN, she was drawn to help Syrian refugees on the border between Turkey and Syria where she was kidnapped in August 2013.

Even in captivity, she was a light in the darkness. Again according to CNN, Reverend Kathleen Day, who headed a campus ministry Kayla had joined at Northern Arizona University, recalled that she wrote in a letter from captivity that she tried to teach crafts to her ISIS guards, including how to make origami peace cranes.  Listen to what Reverend Day said, “We delight in that. She said she found freedom even in captivity.”

As Christians, we are called to acknowledge that suffering is part of this fallen world, but we are never called to a fatalistic attitude that “well, that’s just the way it is.”  No! We are called to respond to suffering and lessen it where we can. Listen to more of Kayla’s words, this time to a Kiwanis Club meeting when she visited home a few years ago: “For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal. I will not let this be something we just accept.”

Brothers and sisters, you and I may not be called to go to Syria or India or anywhere other than our own neighborhood. But we are called to GO! To be inspired and emboldened by the mountaintop but to leave it, to follow Jesus down and confront the suffering we find there. We are called to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, where by his death he not only saved us but demonstrated that he does not avoid suffering, he is always THERE in our suffering.

“Carrying your cross” means to respond rather than turn from the suffering of others, to be willing to be vulnerable for another person.

I could name many examples of cross-carrying just in our congregation. Those who give up so much to care for sick loved ones, especially those who sacrifice much of their lives to do everything for husbands and wives and  mothers and fathers with suffering for dementia. There is cross-carrying in actions of concern for families that are struggling with relationships or finances. There is cross-carrying in sacrificial work for and support of the ministries of the church that reach out to those who suffer.

God is there in our suffering. God is there in the suffering of others. That is where WE are called to be as the hands and feet and mouths of God’s love.

Let me share just a few more words from Kayla, from a letter she wrote to her parents from captivity. They are words of faith, they are words of hope, they are words that exhort us to action – to cross-carrying, to following Jesus to Jerusalem, to coming down from the mountain:

“Please be patient, give your pain to God. I know you would want me to remain strong. That is exactly what I will be doing. Do not fear for me, continue to pray as will I. By God’s will we will be together soon.”

Let us pray for Kayla’s family that they will be filled by the hope of those words, that through the Cross and the empty tomb not even death can interfere with the hope of reunion.


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How Is Jesus Like a Lump of Coal?

It’s Countdown to Christmas Time, and that means the sneaky spooky spying Elf on the Shelf is back. Like a member of the North Korean Secret Police, the little informer keeps tabs on folks and reports back to the Dear Leader. It just creeps me out.

My objection is not singularly with the Snoop on the Shelf, though. It’s what he (it?) represents, the whole naughty/nice mode of parental blackmail. “Be good, because Santa only brings toys to the good kids. You don’t want to get a lump of coal in your stocking, do you?”

Why does this stick in my craw like a carelessly swallowed shard of turkey wishbone? Because it contradicts the most fundamental message of Christmas. The naughty/nice dichotomy is more of a threat to the “real meaning of Christmas” than a herd of Happy Holidays-proclaiming cashiers or a forest of Festivus Poles.

The essence of Christmas is GRACE.  Grace is God’s undeserved gift of forgiveness and salvation.

Here’s the thing – a Christmas system based on getting what you deserve is contrary to the grace embodied in the first Christmas. Jesus was most definitely not what we deserved. That baby in the manger wasn’t a gift for the “nice” . . . Jesus was born to save the “naughty.” Us.

The apostle Paul was clear on this: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst” (I Timothy 1:15).

I’ve written before that as a Christian and pastor I have no problem with Santa. I love Santa . . . because Santa loves all kids . . . not just the nice ones. I believe it is possible to incorporate Santa into our Christmas celebrations without losing the focus on God’s grace.

That means eliminating the naughty/nice stuff.  This is something my wife, Karen, taught me. Our kids knew they were going to get presents at Christmas because they were loved, not because they were “good.” Christmas is a great time to talk about God’s love for everyone. It’s the perfect opportunity for discussions about grace.

Christmas is about God’s no matter who you are, no matter what you have done love for the world. We celebrate because all of us sinners – all of us “naughty” folks – got not a lump of coal in our stockings, but rather a Babe in a Manger.

(NOTE: I have intentionally overstated my feelings about Elf on the Shelf. I am NOT saying that you can’t be a “good Christian” – whatever that means – and play Elf on the Shelf with you kids. I’m encouraging parents – and non-parents – to consider the messages we choose to convey about Christmas. But the Elf on the Shelf really does give me the willies.)

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Racism and White Privilege: Reflection and Confession

(NOTE: This post contains strong opinions and some strong language. Please keep in mind that this is my personal blog, and is not an official expression of my church or denomination.  Also, if the language bothers you more than the issues this post addresses, that might in itself be a catalyst for self-reflection . . .)

It was one of the many referrals (charging documents) I received as a Juvenile Probation Officer in the 90’s.  The police report said four young men had been walking along a town street and had come upon a kickball in the front yard of a home. One of them had kicked it, and they had proceeded to play with it down the street. The law enforcement officer had apprehended them in the act, returned the ball, and then charged them with theft. It was misdemeanor theft because the value of the stolen property was less than $300. Way less. One dollar and ninety-nine cents to be exact. None of them had previous records.

That same week, a young man in the same town stole a car. He took a joy ride that lasted until he was apprehended in the act. The car was returned to its owner, and the young man was taken into custody because of the seriousness of the offense. I was called because part of my job was to make emergency detention decisions. The young man had no record and his parents agreed to a curfew and other restrictions. So I let him go home and told him we would meet again after I received a referral from the law enforcement agency. A couple of days later I got a call – there would be no referral. The young man’s father was a friend of a law enforcement official, and they had “worked something out.”

Four kids were among those who ended up in the Juvenile Justice system that week. They had to come to my office with their parents over a $1.99 ball. Another kid, who stole a car, had things “worked out.”


You’ve probably already guessed – the kid with the car was white. The four who took the ball were African-American.


Let me be clear up front. I am not accusing any individual of racism. The law enforcement officer who charged the four kids with ball larceny probably did not know about the dropped car-theft charge, and vice-versa. Everyone most likely thought they were just doing their jobs . . . including me when I let the alleged car thief go home. It is not the individual actions and decisions but rather the comparative outcomes that are of concern.

It is the system that is racially rigged. It is our culture that is racially rigged.

Would four white kids kicking a ball down the street elicit a second glance? Perhaps they would even evoke a slight smile.

But four African-American kids in a mostly white neighborhood gets a, “I wonder what they’re up to?”

Getting the car-theft charge “taken care of” benefits everybody, doesn’t it? The kid is kept out of the system, and the system is freed to deal with more serious matters. The law enforcement official vouches for the family and its ability to take care of business without the system’s intervention. Tax money is saved!

This just illustrates the depth of the roots of white privilege. The African-American kids had no such connections, not because of anything they have done or haven’t done but because of a white-dominated power structure that predated their births by generations.

Don’t get too hung up on the specifics of this one incident. I was part of a justice system that then and now arrests and  incarcerates people of color at a significantly higher rate than it does white folks. Either you believe non-white folks are inherently more prone to criminal activity than people of European descent, or you acknowledge there is something systemic going on. Either you embrace racism, or you acknowledge systemic racism.

Take a look at the rates of arrest and incarceration for something like pot possession where usage rates are about the same, but where black folks are arrested and imprisoned far more often. Take a look at a for-profit prison system that thrives in a country where people are imprisoned at a proportion among the highest in the developed world and where most of those imprisoned are people of color. How can you not acknowledge there is a systemic cancer in our justice system, and that the cancer is racism?

It is not my intention to get into the specifics of the events surrounding the tragic death (and it is tragic, no matter what actually happened) of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

To focus only on the Brown/Wilson case is to miss the point. To endlessly debate the merits of Officer Wilson’s actions is a failure to listen to what the anger is about. The present incident is only a symbol for the harm done by generations of systemic racism and resulting white privilege in our country.

In my present profession, we sometimes better understand current congregational issues in light of controversies, conflicts, and pastoral improprieties that occurred in the sometimes long-ago past of a church. We talk about patterns that have become part of a church’s “DNA,” even when those who participated in the original incidents have moved on or died off. I was talking to some pastors recently about why it was difficult to get two nearby churches to cooperate – in part it is because of left-over hurt feelings from the founding of the churches decades ago. What it takes for such congregations to begin healing is to name those flaws in the DNA and to acknowledge their rootedness.

We must acknowledge that racism is a flaw in the DNA of this country. Racism is rooted in our power structures and systems.

It is time for those of us who have benefited from that system to listen to those who have been harmed. It is time for us to call out the power structures that have perpetuated the racial divide in our nation. I am reminded of something Martin Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation – “A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it actually is.”

We white folks have to stop our avoidance of calling the things of racism and white privilege what they are. We deflect and deny with our protests of “I’m not prejudiced,” and the pathetic, “But I have black friends.” We claim to be color-blind. Let us call these things what they are. Bull.

The purported color-blindness is particularly problematic. Yes, many white folks are color-blind. We are also color-deaf and color-dumb. We don’t see or hear, and certainly we do not speak up for, those who have been and are harmed by the systems of racism and white power in our country.

We defend Officer Wilson’s actions, but we can’t see why people of color might have reason not to trust law enforcement. We debate the Grand Jury’s decision, but we don’t acknowledge that the secrecy of the grand jury process, rather than an open trial, might concern those who have been failed by the system over and over again. We don’t even understand why it might be problematic for a few KKK members to be part of a police force that patrols a community comprised of a majority of people of color.

The game has been played with loaded dice for many years. Now, we want those who have been bamboozled to forget all that. “Trust us, these are fair dice. I know we’ve said that before, but this time we mean it. . . Let’s roll.”

The more comforting narrative for us white folks is that the problem is not racism, but the behavior of black folks. Oh, not all of them, but certainly the “thugs” that are responsible for the current unrest.

I almost never watch television news, but I tuned in after the Grand Jury’s decision was announced. I switched back and forth between CNN and (God help me) Fox News, and was distressed by the tone of the coverage. Mostly it consisted of back-slapping parties where reporters stood around talking about how scared they were and how the tear gas had been such an ordeal for them. It seemed disappointing that the marchers were non-violent. They finally found some looters on which to focus . . . that certainly made better television  than the peaceful marchers and fit the desired narrative.

No time at all was spent talking about why folks might be so outraged. Anger is unexpressed hurt. Decrying theft and destruction – even when it is the exception – is easier than actually dealing with the underlying issues. Sure, looting is wrong.  The vast majority of marchers have not been looting. But perhaps we would benefit from some empathetic reflection about what would cause someone to be so bereft of hope that their response to perceived injustice is, “F– it, might as well grab some Stoli.”

I believe it is the same hopelessness that led to a too-common refrain heard from African American young people with whom I worked in my previous profession: “What difference does it make what I do? I’ll be dead or in jail before I’m 25.”

The unremitting hopelessness that pervades the lives of great swaths of our brothers and sisters should concern us; especially us Christians.

But our response too often is that people of color should just “get over it.” Sure, there were problems in the past but we’ve moved beyond all that.

One thing I learned very early in dealing with people who are hurting is that you only provoke anger, not healing, when you tell someone who has suffered a loss to “get over it.”

It is up to victims to decide when to “get over it.”

As a Christian, my faith must inform my response to systemic racism, and especially my response to those who have been, and are, impacted by it. Nowhere in Scripture does Jesus tell anyone in pain to “get over it.” Therefore, I must resist my urge when confronted with something as unpleasant as racism, from which I have undoubtedly benefited, to tell others who have been harmed to “get over it.”

Didn’t Jesus tell us to deal with the log in our own eye rather than the speck in our neighbor’s? The marches – and even the riots – are the speck. The log is racism and white privilege.

We must confess our complicity.

I confess that I have benefited from white privilege. I have benefited from white privilege every time I have walked into a store and not been viewed as a potential thief because of my skin color. I have benefited from white privilege every time my presence on the sidewalk has not been a source of fear for others I approach. I have benefited from white privilege in every interaction with police officers who have not felt the need to search my vehicle or to question my presence in a particular area (or to ask me if I have a right to be in this country).

I’ll close with another story, this one from a little farther back. It’s a small thing, but I would surmise that upon honest reflection most if not all white folks could find some similar examples in their own lives:

I was in a 7th Grade drafting class where we sat on tall metal stools in front of drafting boards. One day a student was crawling around on the floor, just goofing off. He kept shaking my chair while I was trying to use a compass or something. I got frustrated. So I pushed him with my foot. When you’re in 7th Grade sometimes you’re like Superman and don’t know your own strength. I pushed him a lot harder than I intended and he went skidding into the chair next to mine. The kid cut his arm on some sharp screw or whatever.

The commotion got the attention of the teacher. He asked what happened. The kid next to me said I had kicked the kid on the floor. I was clearly in the wrong. The kid on the floor was bleeding. The teacher sent us both to the office.

The Assistant Principal had forearms the size of most peoples’ thighs. The tattoos only made them seem meaner somehow. You didn’t want to get “swats” from Mr. Lomax.

So there I stood with the other kid in front of Mr. Lomax’s desk. Hanging on the wall behind him was his “Board of Education,” with holes drilled through to make it more aerodynamic.  Mr. Lomax asked me what happened. I had to think quick – I had never gotten swats in school and didn’t intend to start. But I didn’t have much practice lying to teachers, either. “My foot slipped off the bar at the bottom of the chair. It just slipped – I didn’t know he was there.”

The other kid protested. “He kicked me! Look, I’m bleeding.”

My story was totally preposterous. No way could I have done the damage if my foot had just “slipped.” But Mr. Lomax bought it. “You shouldn’t have been on the floor.”

I watched as the other kid got three swift swats.

I felt victorious. And I had been.

Did it make any difference that the kid I kicked was African-American, and that Mr. Lomax, the drafting teacher – and I – were white?

Of course it did.

When I returned to class, the (white) kid who sat next to me was outraged. Where I saw a victory, he saw injustice. He was willing to call it what it was.

Go and do likewise.

One more confession. I confess that I have no real idea what it is like to be a person of color in this culture. I have no right to speak for anyone else. I hope it is clear in this post that I am writing from my own perspective.  If those who read it do nothing else, I hope they will join me in listening to the voices of those who live in and with the consequences of systemic racism.

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, Racism | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The War on Rohatsu-Bodhi Day, and Gantan-sai, and . . .

Between now and New Year’s Day:

  • November 23 – Christ the King (Christian)
  • November 24 – Guru Tegh Bahadur martyrdom (Sikh)
  • November 26 – Day of the Covenant (Baha’i)
  • November 27 – Thanksgiving
  • November 28 – Ascension of Abdu’l-Baha (Baha’i)
  • November 30 – St. Andrew’s Day / 1st Advent (Christian)
  • December 6 – St. Nicholas Day (Christian)
  • December 8 – Rohatsu – Bodhi Day (Buddhist)
  • December 8 – Immaculate Conception of Mary (Christian)
  • December 12 – Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Christian – Catholic)
  • December 16-25 Posades Navidenas (Christian)
  • December 17-24 Hanukkah (Jewish)
  • December 21 – Yule (Christian)
  • December 21 – Yule (Wicca northern hemisphere)
  • December 21 – Litha (Wicca southern hemisphere)
  • December 24 – Christmas Eve (Christian)
  • December 25 – Christmas (Christian)
  • December 26 – Zarathosht Diso (Zoroastrian)
  • December 28 – Holy Innocents (Christian)
  • January 1 – Mary Mother of God (Christian – Catholic)
  • January 1 – Feast of St. Basil (Christian – Orthodox)
  • January 1 – Gantan-sai (Shinto)

No way can I keep all that straight, nor can I know who is celebrating what.  So . . .

Happy Holidays!

Source for Holidays: Interfaith Calendar


Posted in Arts and Culture, Christmas, Faith | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Review and Reflection: “Birdman”

birdman poster

“Birdman,” and this post, are rated “R” for adult language and themes.

When we think of “breathtaking” films what usually come to mind are epic spectacles of sound and fury. But “Birdman” is a film that takes one’s breath away through the transcendence of the art form of film itself. “Birdman” is an amazing, synergistic achievement of artists at the height of their power. The result is both enthralling and exhausting; “Birdman” achieves a rare existential immediacy that is a thrilling reminder of what filmmakers, and indeed artists of all sorts, can attain.

in “Birdman,” Director Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Babel,” “21 Grams”) and Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki create the illusion of one uninterrupted take. There are no visible cuts in “Birdman;” the camera follows the characters through the labyrinthine corridors of the St. James Theater, onto the stage and out into the streets of New York.  Lubezki has achieved legendary results with long takes in films like “Children of Men” and “Gravity,” but in “Birdman” the seamless nature of the entire film contributes to the edge-of-your-seat experience. It is like watching an intricate dance where every precise movement contributes to the majesty of the whole.

All that, and it’s laugh-out-loud funny as well. A discussion of the serious themes of “Birdman” should not overshadow the fun of the film. There is plenty of snappy, clever dialogue as well as perfectly timed slapstick. You can amuse yourself counting the pop-culture name drops (from George Clooney to Justin Bieber) that are almost always biting references (Hugh Jackman’s not available for a serious role because he’s “shooting the prequel to the prequel of “Wolverine.”)

Sure, it’s a dark comedy.  There’s no happy ending (maybe . . . there is some ambiguity at the finish) where everything is neatly tied up. Like life. This is a film that earns its laughs by dissecting the faults and fears of its characters who are, if we are honest, a lot like us. We may not be actors and actresses like the people who populate “Birdman,” but we too struggle with the questions the film deconstructs.

What is it that gives us significance?  How do we know we really matter? What does it mean to be loved?

Those concerns are immediately raised by the Raymond Carver epigraph (that is carved on his tombstone) with which director Iñárritu begins the film:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.


riggan and birdman

What Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) wants is to be taken seriously.  Once he had everything that is supposed to make us happy. He was rich and famous. He was “Birdman,” a super-hero movie phenomenon. But he walked away from all that in the 90’s when he turned down $15 million to star in “Birdman IV.” His career spiraled downward, and now, he laments, “I’m a f—ing Trivial Pursuit question.”  Riggan’s final hope for significance – and love – is to write, direct, and star in a Broadway adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Riggan has poured everything into the play – all of his money, all of his credibility and connections, all of himself. But as the film begins, Riggan is experiencing nothing but obstacles in his Don Quixote-esque quest. Not the least of which is that he apparently is slipping into (or has already entered)  insanity. . . maybe; There is a magical realism element to the film that leaves the viewer questioning just what exactly is “real.”

Riggan is not only unable to shed his “Birdman” legacy with the public – A reporter asks, “Are you afraid people will say you’re doing this play to battle the impression that you’re a washed-up comic strip character?” – but that comic book character is a part of him, speaking to him, appearing to him, perhaps giving him telekinetic powers. Who is Riggan – is he Birdman, or vice versa?

Riggan wants to be known as a serious actor, not a superhero character. But in a way he wants what superheroes have – to be universally beloved. That is, of course, tragically unattainable. That Riggan is indeed a tragic, flawed character is vividly highlighted in a scene in which he walks the streets of New York and is confronted by a street-actor noisily emoting MacBeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech that ends with the declaration that life is “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”


Emma Stone brilliantly plays Riggan’s truth-telling daughter, Sam. She’s just out of rehab, her life a mess in no small part because her father’s quest to be universally beloved has neglected those closest to him. In an amazing speech both in content and delivery, she excoriates Riggan’s desire to find significance by mounting  “a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people, whose only real concern is going to be where they can go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over.” (Watch her face as the camera lingers in closeup after she is done her diatribe . . . The way she wordlessly conveys her realization that she’s said too much too harshly is simply awesome acting.)

But . . . as much as Sam belittles her father’s quest for significance, she has her own concept of what makes one matter.  She constantly berates Riggan for his lack of presence on social media. When Riggan ends up walking through the crowded streets of New York in his underpants (a hilarious scene that actually makes sense in the context of the film), she is elated when raw video of the incident shows up on YouTube and instantly gets hundreds of thousands of views. Sam’s idea of what makes one significant is ultimately just as hollow as Riggan’s.

This is a film where people get what they thought they wanted and it only results in more longing when it turns out not to be what they thought it would be.  Naomi Watts plays an actress who is finally attains her dream of performing on Broadway, but finds she is still dealing with the same stuff – especially her same self – as she was before. Edward Norton‘s character is a Broadway star, but the magic of the theater has morphed for him into jaded cynicism. When Emma Stone’s Sam asks what he’d like to do to her, his answer signifies yearning  – he says he’d like to scoop out her eyeballs and put them in his head, so that he can see Broadway like he did when he was young.

Film Fall Preview

Yeah, that sounds weird . . . but Edward Norton’s character, Mike Shiner, is a weird dude. He is the embodiment of a narcissistic actor.  He says he can only be himself on stage; everywhere else he’s acting. Speaking of acting, they might as well close the nominations for Best Supporting Actor at next year’s Academy Awards. They don’t need to nominate anyone else based on  just his very first scene.  In it, he dominates a read-through with Michael Keaton while managing a tour-de-force of acting in just one scene.  It is an incredible performance, as is his later destruction of a preview performance in which he ends up declaring that he will act with a chicken leg because it is “the only real thing on this stage.”

Norton is also part of the meta fun in “Birdman.” In this film about a washed-up former comic book movie-star, we have a former “Incredible Hulk” (Norton), a man who walked away from the Tim Burton “Batman” franchise (Keaton, whose post-Batman life has been nothing like Riggan’s), and a star in the “Spiderman” franchise (Stone).

The acting in “Birdman” is so strong it would be worth seeing it even if all the other elements weren’t so extraordinary. I should also mention Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s best friend/business manager/producer Jake.  I confess I have never liked Galifianakis in anything I have seen, but he does great work here as sort of the straight-man with the Sisyphean task of keeping everything backstage, including his unhinged star, together.

So, yeah,  I liked “Birdman.”  I rarely see movies more than once at the theater, but I’ll go back. I want to try to find the disguised cuts in Lubezki’s cinematography, to hear some of the fast-paced dialogue that I missed the first time. I want to revel in artists doing what artists do, using their talents to force us out of ourselves for a while.

But at the same time, they force us to look at ourselves in new and sometimes uncomfortable ways. Certainly, as a Christian I have very specific answers to the questions the film poses – I get my significance from being a child of God, I know that I am beloved by God.  In my worldview, looking for meaning elsewhere is inevitably deficient or even futile.

As a human, though, I know that I do look for significance in other places. I want to be “beloved” and taken seriously. I want my life to matter. I don’t always fulfill these quests in the most healthy or altruistic ways.  Even pastors try to accomplish significance through growing churches or perfect programs or excellent preaching. The issues in “Birdman” are universal.

I saw “Birdman” with my wife and my 23-year old son. We went out to dinner afterward and talked about the film throughout. We discussed it on the way home. This morning as we got ready for the day, my wife and I talked about it some more. And we didn’t just talk about the superb film-making or what actually happened in the ambiguous parts; we tried to get at what it all meant. That is testament to “Birdman’s”  power and relevance.

“Birdman” is only in limited release right now, but I hope it finds a wide audience. At one point in the film, the Birdman apparition (or whatever he is) says to Riggan, “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.”

I hope he’s wrong.

NOTE: The full title of the film is “Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” To use the full title in this post would have made it even longer.


Posted in Arts and Culture, Christian Living, Movies | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Death With Dignity? (The question of Physician Assisted Suicide)

“Agnes” had lived long enough. The disease ravaging her lungs had downsized her once vigorous lifestyle. She couldn’t spend her days “out visiting.” Her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren had to come to her now.  Not too long ago, just getting out of bed was a victory.

Now, even turning over left her gasping for breath. She was confined to the bed. And not her own bed. She lay in a hospital bed sucking on an oxygen mask stuck to her face 24/7. She’d had enough.

One evening she made calls to the family and to her pastor. The pastor had been eating dinner with his family when his cell rang, but he came right away. There was finality in Agnes’s voice that couldn’t be put off.

When everyone had crammed into the small hospital room, Agnes asked the pastor to read her favorite Psalm. She inhaled the words of Psalm 139 about being knit together in her mother’s womb, about being fearfully and wonderfully made, about God’s promise to always be with her.

Then she asked the pastor to pray. He did his best.

It was after the prayer that Agnes started asking members of her family to remove the oxygen mask that was keeping her alive. No one would – or could – do it.

So she raised an unsteady hand to her face. She fumbled with the mask and the bands that held it in place. She shot an exasperated look at her clan. Then she yanked off the mask.

Agnes managed a prayer, a plea, perhaps a statement of defiance: “Thy . . . will . . . be . . . done.”

Then she closed her eyes.

Anyone in the room could have replaced the mask and prolonged her life.

No one did.

Twenty minutes or so later, Agnes breathed her last. She had died on her terms.

In my roles as pastor and blogger, I’ve been asked about what has been labeled “Death with Dignity” or “Physician Assisted Suicide.” Let me first admit that I have mixed feelings about this matter. I can’t help but think of Agnes’s last minutes, nor can I disregard the other folks I have been honored to accompany in their last moments or hours. Each time I have been present at the time of death has been a holy experience. Often that final encounter has been preceded with meetings and decisions about continuing treatment, signing DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) Orders and so on. Decisions around death are burdensome in no small part because of their finality . . . there is no changing one’s mind once life has ended.

Recent inquiries about the issue of assisted suicide were spurred by the publicity attending the death of Brittany Maynard. While I am willing to address the issue, I will be cautious as to the particular situation of Brittany Maynard. While much has been reported in the press and shared directly by Ms. Maynard and her family, it is impossible to know all the details of her situation. Although it is unlikely that her family would ever read this, it would be nothing but hurtful at this point to castigate decisions made out of love. (“Christians” have done enough of that already.)  I believe that in circumstances such as these most people truly do the best they can. It is not for me to judge Brittany Maynard or her loved ones, but rather to continue to pray for them as they grieve.

After all, is what Brittany Maynard ultimately decided really that different from what Agnes chose? Both had reached a point beyond which they felt they could not endure life any more. Both made a choice to end their lives sooner than they could have been extended.

Is what Brittany Maynard chose really that different from what we chose for my mother? Alzheimer’s and other ailments had completely incapacitated her. Treatment for anything but pain was ended, and extraordinary means of providing nourishment were withdrawn. My mother died of “natural causes,” but her life certainly could have been prolonged, such as it was.

In making pronouncements we must be careful to remember that these are weighty issues freighted with not just our fears and hopes about death but with what it means to be alive. We must be careful not to judge those who come to different conclusions as they watch a loved one suffer and lose their very identity . . . or who suffer themselves.

But I believe there is a distinction, however fine, between withholding treatment and actively causing death. There is a difference between Agnes removing the mask that was providing “extra” oxygen and suffocating someone. Ceasing extraordinary medical intervention for my mom is different than administering medications that cause death.

My conviction about that difference is rooted in my faith. I believe that we are, in the words of Psalm 139, “Fearfully and wonderfully made.” I believe that we are made “imago dei” – in the very image of God.

And I believe that every human being is therefore a sacred creation.  Deliberately ending a human life is contrary to God’s desire.

I want to live in a culture that values and celebrates life, and fear that allowing the taking of life always diminishes its value. I may be wrong, but I choose to err on the side of life whether the issue is assisted suicide or abortion or the death penalty or war.

I am not someone who blithely parrots the “party line,” but I believe my denomination’s (ELCA) “Social Message on End of Life Decisions” gets it just right. Here’s an excerpt:

The integrity of the physician-patient relationship is rooted in trust that physicians will act to preserve the life and health of the patient. Physicians and other health care professionals also have responsibility to relieve suffering. This responsibility includes the aggressive management of pain, even when it may result in an earlier death.

However, the deliberate action of a physician to take the life of a patient, even when this is the patient’s wish, is a different matter. As a church we affirm that deliberately destroying life created in the image of God is contrary to our Christian conscience. While this affirmation is clear, we also recognize that responsible health care professionals struggle to choose the lesser evil in ambiguous borderline situations—for example, when pain becomes so unmanageable that life is indistinguishable from torture.

We oppose the legalization of physician-assisted death, which would allow the private killing of one person by another. Public control and regulation of such actions would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. The potential for abuse, especially of people who are most vulnerable, would be substantially increased.

Beyond what might be called an “ethics of life” that resists physician assisted suicide, I worry most about that last sentence in the quoted material. As a Christian, I am called to care especially for the people Jesus seemed most concerned about, those who have been termed “the lost, the last, and the left out.” People who are disabled or diseased or otherwise disadvantaged would be most at risk of being adversely affected by society’s acceptance of physician assisted suicide. Medical care is expensive, especially end of life care; certainly there are those who would benefit from another’s premature exit from this life.. No matter how carefully statutes are constructed that legalized physician assisted suicide, vulnerable people will most certainly be pressured to make irrevocable decisions.

The irrevocability of the decision for suicide also gives me pause. I have met many folks who have desired to end their life, but who have received treatment and gone on to live fulfilling lives full of love given and received. Of course people will find a way to commit suicide whether it is assisted by a physician or not, but the last thing we need to do in a world where depression is an unfortunate reality for many is to make taking one’s own life easier or normalized.

Perhaps the best response for those of us concerned about “death with dignity” is to do what we can to make sure everyone has the opportunity for a “life with dignity.” It is also crucial that we support movements such as hospice that are attendant to suffering of both patients and loved ones, with a goal that every death is a “death with dignity” as much as is possible; but acknowledging that “dignity” does not mean total control (which is always an illusion anyway) but rather embraced by love and compassion.

Finally, as Christians it is important to meet those who disagree with us not with judgment but with grace. Let us remember that suicide is not the, or even an, unforgivable sin. It is crucial that we listen before we preach, if we are indeed called to preach at all. We must hear the agonized suffering of those who would desire physician assisted suicide, and pray them into the hands of the Great Physician who promises an eternity free from suffering and even death, where God will wipe every tear from our eyes.

NOTE: To protect privacy, not only was “Agnes’s” name changed but also some of the details of her story were altered.

Posted in Christian Living, Christianity, ELCA, End of Life, Lutheran Theology, Psalm 139 | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments