Jesus, Water Fountains, and Wedding Cakes

In the 1960’s, “States’ Rights” meant the “right”to discriminate against people of color.

Today, “Religious Liberty” means the “liberty” to discriminate against LGBTQ folks.

Advocates of both have invoked Christ.

But Christ no more died on the cross so you could have “whites only” water fountains than he did so you won’t have to bake a cake for a same gender wedding.

Today I read yet another article about a state legislature passing a so-called “Religious Liberty” bill. This time it is Mississippi, that paragon of “liberty” where the Confederate Flag remains embedded in the state’s standard.

But it’s not just Mississippi – many other states are considering such action, Georgia and Virginia‘s legislatures passed laws that were mercifully vetoed by their governors, and of course North Carolina finalized a “religious liberty” law last week.

Last week was Holy Week.

How heartbreakingly ironic.

It libels the name of Christ – who died for the whole world on Good Friday- to rationalize any kind of discrimination with his name.

Our nation already fought this battle. We decided decades ago that we could not be a country that stands for liberty and freedom while treating some of our people as less-than-us.”

During the Civil Rights era, businesses invoked  freedom and liberty to deny serving people of color. Worse, from my perspective as a Christian, they said God – the Christian God – wanted races to be separate

But forces of inclusion – many of them Christians – eventually won the legal war.

Why now do some think it is okay to exclude based on sexual orientation or gender identity? Why do they think God desires separation on this basis?

If you want to dislike LGBTQ folks, that is your right. If you want to believe their sexuality is sinful, go for it. Christians can and do certainly disagree about this in good faith.

But “public accomodation” means all of the public, not just those of whom you approve. It means you can’t keep people of color away from the lunch counter, or deny medical treatment (as the Mississippi law allows) to an LGBTQ person.

And please leave Jesus out of it.

Jesus hung out with those disapproved of by the upstanding folks –  especially the “good” religious people.

If last Friday teaches us anything, it’s that Jesus wasn’t executed for being too exclusive; it was his radical inclusivity that got him into trouble.

Some might answer, “Yeah, Jesus hung out with sinners. But he said, ‘Go and sin no more.'”

But nobody did that. “Sinning no more” is impossible in this life. Nobody stopped sinning.

Not even you.

———-
I realize this post has a more strident tone than is typical. Why am I so passionate about this? First, because some of the people I care about most dearly are LGBTQ and  therefore directly affected by these laws.  Second, because I am committed to sharing the Good News about Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, surveys show that one of the first things young people who are unChristians think of when asked about Christianity is, “Christians hate gay people.” These “religious liberty” laws are not only discriminatory, they are anti-evangelism; they reinforce the perception of the church – and of Christians – as judgmental and exclusive.
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If Jesus going to the Cross was all about love, why do I see so much hatred and judgment in churches?

This year’s Easter sermon responded to”Five Easter Questions to Answer for Millennials.”  Here is an excerpt, responding to the question in this post’s title. . .

Hatred and judgment in churches.  As a pastor, should I be defensive?

No.

As a visible representative of the church – not just this church, but the church of Jesus Christ – what I need to do is say . . .

“I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”

One of my favorite books is Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. In the book, Miller tells of being a Christian at a college known for its hostility to religion. He convinced the small group of Christians on campus to set up a confession booth during a school festival.  But it wasn’t the kind of confession booth you usually think about – people weren’t invited to come in to confess their faults, but rather to enter and be confessed TO by the Christians inside.

 blue like jazzListen:  “We are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus . .. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them.”

 And confession is my first response to those who ask this question about hatred and judgment in churches. To confess the church has not always done a great job of expressing God’s love for the whole world.  To say “I’m sorry” to those who are apart from the church – and even separated from God – because they have been let down or hurt by the church.

Although Jesus came to lift up the marginalized, the church has a history of affirming the powerful. The church has participated in the marginalization of women, of people of color, of the poor, of LGBTQ folks – and those failings are certainly not confined to the past in our churches.  Church authorities have perpetrated abuse, and have covered it up, caring more about the institution than the victims.  And I’m not just talking about the Roman Catholic church.

As a member of the Body of Christ, as a leader in the church . . .

“I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”

My own  perception of the judgmental nature of the church and of church people was one of the things that kept me out of church and away from God when I was a young adult. But what I came to understand was that the church is made up of people, and the Bible is exactly accurate in describing people as  imperfect, essentially messed up beings.

One of the primary reasons I have come to believe the Christian claims about Jesus is because the Christian view of corrupt human nature is so consistent with my experience of who I am.

The reason we’re in church, the foundational basis of our faith, is that we are messed up and need forgiveness.  We need a new start. That’s what the Cross and the Empty Tomb are about.

What happens, though,  is once we get into church we’re liable to forget why we’re here.  We look at all the folks on the outside and see how they need to change. We insiders look down on the outsiders.  We forget that we are still messed up and we become judgmental especially of those whose failings are different than ours.

I’m sorry. Please forgive me.

Part of our messed up human nature is that we give in to our desire to associate with only people who are like us, and exclude those who are different. That is reflected in our churches; What Martin Luther King, Jr. said in the early 1960’s is still true today – America is never more segregated than it is on Sunday mornings.

Our first step as individual Christians and as the church is to acknowledge that we fall short, to remember that we begin each worship service with confession and forgiveness because WE NEED IT, to strive together to be the people God calls us to be, loving unconditionally and letting God’s love so fill us that there is no room for hatred and judgment.

We’re working on it.

But, as much as I love the church, as much as I love being a Lutheran Christian, we are not saved by religion.  We are saved by Jesus.  We are saved by the Cross and the Empty Tomb.

 So my answer to this question is to acknowledge that yes, there is hatred and judgment in churches.  But that is not a reflection of God, but of the messed up nature of the people who are the church.

The church was never meant to be a haven for saints. It is a hospital for sinners. Sometimes we lose sight of that, and of the fact that we are saved not because we are better than anybody else but because the Cross and the Empty Tomb happened even when we were too messed up to save ourselves. We have received God’s grace – God’s undeserved, unconditional love – and we have failed to share it.

I’m sorry, please forgive me.

——

These are the five questions answered in the full sermon:

  1. How do I know Jesus was a real, historical person?
  2. Why should I be convinced a man really rose from the dead?
  3. If Jesus going to the cross was all about love, why do I see so much hatred and judgment in churches?
  4. How do you think this story could change my life after I leave the doors of your church?
  5. Is it ok for me to question what you’re saying?

You can hear the full sermon here.

I encourged those in the congregation to keep asking questions. If you have questions to which you’d like me to respond, you can ask them in the comments below or by using the “Contact Me” link above.

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The Unexpected Pastor’s Best Picture Countdown 2016

Best-Picture

It’s time for my annual ranking of the films nominated for Best Picture.  As in the past, these are not predictions,  but rather my opinion of which films are most worthy to win the Best Picture Oscar. (In fact my #8 probably has the best chance to win.) Tune in Sunday night to see what happens, and what host Chris Rock has to say about #oscarssowhite.  It should be an interesting show!

2016 revenant8. The Revenant

I begin with a declaration of independence from the critics and Oscar-pundits who have predicted and promoted a Best Picture win for “The Revenant.” Many also believe Leonardo DiCaprio deserves to finally win an Oscar for his portrayal of Hugh Glass, the Man Who Refuses to Die. Sorry, but I found this film to be sadistic and silly.

I am not opposed to movie violence and even gore if it is necessary for authenticity or to bolster a theme. The depiction of the D-Day invasion in “Saving Private Ryan” is an excellent example. But the bloody slog that is “The Revenant” is more analogous to horror movies like “Saw” that exist as a sort of viewer endurance test. I’ve read comparisons of “The Revenant” to Roadrunner vs. Coyote cartoons, but I believe a more apt comparison is to professional wrestling. In these ‘rasslin’ matches, the hero usually receives a furious and often bloody beatin’ and looks to be down for the count numerous times. But no! You can’t keep him down!  Such is the plot of “The Revenant.” There is no nuance.

“The Revenant” is unremittingly dark; there is not much if anything that is redeeming, The film is ultimately inexcusably ambiguous about the morality of revenge, as if Director Alejandro González Iñárritu is too busy laying on the carnage to worry about anything as bothersome as meaning. That’s fine for what it is, but it’s not enough for an Academy Award for Best Picture.

BUT . . . Let me take a moment to sing the praises of Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. You may have heard the old saying about great actors, “I would pay to watch him read the phone book.”  Well, I would pay to see a movie where Lubezki filmed the phone book. I first became aware of his work in the 2006 dystopian classic (and one of my 5 or so favorite films) “Children of Men,” and fell in love with his artistry in “The Tree of Life”  (one of my 3 or so favorites).  He has won the past two Cinematography Oscars (for “Gravity” and “Birdman”), and he should win again this year for “The Revenant.” Lubezki’s camera glides through, over, and around even brutally violent scenes as if floating  on a sea of molten glass. The beauty of stark wilderness shot with only natural light is a revelation. Lubezki’s work makes “The Revenant” worth seeing.

As does Tom Hardy’s acting. He should win Best Supporting Actor in recognition of his work not just in “The Revenant,” but also in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” But as for Leo’s predicted Best Actor triumph, I do believe he has turned in Oscar-worthy performances in the past, but not the grunting, suffering, perpetually downcast Hugh Glass.

  1. 2016-martianThe Martian

I enjoyed “The Martian” more than I did some of the films higher on this list. But regarding the Oscars, I feel about it the way I did about “Gravity” a couple of years ago – a great experience, a well-crafted fun ride of a film, but not Best Picture.  You could probably convince me that Matt Damon deserves the Best Actor award as much as anyone, because he carried the film with his humor, charm, and whiz-bang science knowhow. Ridley Scott deserves lots of credit too for turning what could have been a very tedious science-fair-on-Mars story into the crowd-pleasing entertainment that is “The Martian.”. I will probably watch “The Martian” again when it is on HBO, but for this Sunday it is definitely in the “It is an honor to be nominated” category.

  1. 2016-mad maxMad Max: Fury Road

Confession: I would not have watched “Mad Max: Fury Road,” at least not that I had to pay for, if it had not been nominated for Best Picture. I am no fan of action pictures; “Jurassic World,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Furious 7” were all  top-ten grossing movies of 2015 without any of my ticket purchase money. And I see lots of movies. I guess that makes me either discerning or a snob depending on where you sit.

But I digress . . . what I’m trying to say is that for “Mad Max: Fury Road” to be anywhere but #8 on my list is something of an upset. Being the discerning snob I am, I found something deeper than the admittedly awesome action set-pieces Australian director George Miller staged as he crashed and blew up millions of dollars’ worth of vehicles in the desert.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is a feminist myth of female empowerment, to which I say . . . good on ya, mate! “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” has been widely praised for the centrality, independence, and competence of Rey’s character, but Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa paved the way months earlier in 2015. On a more visceral level, Miller has created a totally original world for a movie that at its heart is a 2-hour long chase scene. I was surprised how much I cared about how it ended. I won’t be surprised when “Mad Max: Fury Road” sweeps most of the technical awards on Sunday.

  1. 2016-spiesBridge of Spies

This may sound strange, but one of the strongest testaments to what makes “Bridge of Spies” such a fine film is Tom Hanks’ lack of a Best Actor nomination for it. What I mean is that his performance doesn’t look or feel like acting; he is not nominated because he makes it look so easy. As lawyer and unexpected (especially to him) spy negotiator James Donovan, Hanks comes across as a determined, somewhat flawed, normal person in an extraordinary situation. He’s just plain real. Which is the genius of this film – it feels real.  Especially in the East Berlin scenes, Director Steven Spielberg’s attention to detail brings us right there in time and in place.

“Bridge of Spies” is certainly the best Spielberg/Hanks collaboration since “Saving Private Ryan,” and I was happy to see it nominated because it is an excellent film that was somewhat overlooked; like Tom Hank’s performance, it’s just expected to be good because of the people involved. That includes screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen, by the way, something I did not realize until they were nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (along with co-writer Matt Charman).

  1. 2016-room.jpgRoom

The conversation about Best Actress begins and ends with Brie Larson. Her wrenching, brave, and utterly convincing performance in “Room” is a statement by a young actress that this will not be her last nomination. There are many elements to admire in “Room,” but Larson’s performance carries the film.  Jacob Trembly’s portrayal of her character’s 5-year old son is also noteworthy because he comes across as an actual young boy, not one of the “wise beyond his years” kids who so often populate movies.

“Room” could easily have been an exploitative thriller about a woman and her son held captive for years in a garden shed, but it is tempered and humanized by the choice (as in the book) to tell the story from Jack’s perspective. Some critics have written that the second half of the film loses momentum, but I found it just as compelling and real, if not as pulse-pounding, as the first. “Room” is probably too small a film to win the Oscar, but it is a worthy nominee.

  1. 2016-spotlihgtSpotlight

“Spotlight” is a film that successfully evokes both anger and gratitude.  It leaves one furious not only at the Boston priests who perpetrated the abuse of young people, but especially at the Roman Catholic Church authorities who convinced themselves to cover it up “for the good of the church.”  It is an important movie not just because of the specific outrage it covers, but as a cautionary tale for anyone in power who becomes enamored of the self-deluded belief that their institution – whether church, business, or government – is more important than the people it and they serve.

The film’s focus is not on the perpetrators, however, but rather on the intrepid journalists who painstakingly documented the church’s sins. No film since “All the President’s Men” has been as effective an homage to the importance of a free and diligent press.  The former film took home the Best Picture Oscar 29 years ago; it would be no great surprise if “Spotlight” does the same on Sunday. If that happens, who would’ve thought five or ten years ago that two Michael Keaton films would win Best Picture in back-to-back years? (Although Mark Ruffalo is the actor who shines brightest amongst the excellent ensemble cast.)

  1. 2016-big shortThe Big Short

“The Big Short” is probably the best film I saw last year, but I’m going with my heart over my head and placing it at #2 on the list. (It’s my list. I can do that.) It is a genre hybrid of a sort that has never been made before, at least not that I have seen. “The Big Short” is a comedy/drama/based on true events/economics lesson.  It comes across like a movie for smart people, but allows everyone feel smart (even economically ignorant folks like me) with its effective use of sexy models in bubble baths and Jenga blocks to explain the insane group-think that led to the mid-2000’s economic collapse.

Even though you know the crash is coming, the film builds suspense as those who predict it are doubted, scorned, and shunned. The film is appropriately tough on those whose greed and self-delusion caused the collapse, but there is an undercurrent of moral ambiguity – the heroes of the film ultimately profit, greatly, by the inevitable collapse that caused so many regular folks so much misery.

Like “Spotlight,” “The Big Short” features an excellent ensemble with a standout actor; in this case Christian Bale, whose transformation into the math genius whose personality resides somewhere on the autism spectrum is worthy of the Best Supporting Actor award if Tom Hardy is overlooked.  Director Adam McKay and Editor Hank Corwin should also take home statuettes for pulling all the disparate elements together into a whole that not just made sense but thoroughly entertained.

  1. 2016-brooklynBrooklyn

My standard for a very good film is one that I am thinking about the next morning when I wake up. A great film is one I feel the next day as well. “Brooklyn,” much to my surprise, is a great film.
The other nominated films are bigger than Brooklyn. Their ambitions are bigger, their canvases are bigger . . . even the mostly claustrophobic “Room” deals with bigger issues and emotions than “Brooklyn.”  But it is subtlety that I most admire about this film.

The story is simple – an immigrant’s tale. There is romance, even the hackneyed plot of a love triangle and a decision that must be made between two suitors  . .. and between two countries. I don’t recall a film which does the familiar so well, and makes it fresh and new . . . like an immigrant experiencing a new country for the first time.

There is a moment in “Brooklyn” that I still “feel,” the moment when Saoirse Ronan’s Ellis steps through the door at Ellis Island and enters America. There is no fanfare, no speech, no “look at me” film-making . . . but no scene ever (or in a very long time) has caused me to thrill at the promise of America and the hope of those who risk everything to make a new life here.

Moments like that are what makes this film special. “Brooklyn” may not be as artful a film as “Spotlight” or as original as “The Big Short,” but for me it is the Best Picture of 2015 because of its quiet beauty and because it is a reminder in this age of Comic Book Blockbusters that there is power in subtlety and that understatement and honest emotion can be as compelling as explosions.

000

THE BEST PICTURE NOT NOMINATED FOR BEST PICTURE

“Inside Out” would be #3 or better on this list if it were nominated. It should have been. If you haven’t seen it, don’t let the fact that it is animated put you off. There is more depth in the first 15 minutes of “Inside Out” than there is in 2-hours of “The Revenant.”  And then some.

2016-inside out

 

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Too Smart for God – Chapter One – Who’s This Book About?

TOO SMART FOR GOD Book CoverHere’s the first chapter of the book I’ve been working on for the past several years. If you have comments or suggestions for improvement I’d love to hear them. Or if you know of any agents or publishers who might be interested that would be good, too – it’s getting close to the point where I’ll be looking in that direction. As always, thanks for reading!

Being absent-minded means stepping up to the urinal and hoping you have to unzip your pants.

If you’re really absent-minded you’re not worrying about whether your zipper is up, but hoping there is a zipper at all. Did I remember to put my pants on this morning?

Please look away for a moment while I check.

Okay. I’m pantsed and they are zipped.

Because this book has such a conceited title, I thought I would start out with an admission of my struggle with incognizance. As I told Alex Trebek during the contestant interview segment of my Jeopardy Tournament of Champions Semifinal, my kids made a lot of money from my air-headedness when they were younger. I would tire of looking for my wallet, or my keys, or my glasses, and I would shout out, “I’ll give anybody a dollar who can find keys!” or whatever.

Alex asked, “Did they ever hide those things on purpose so they could collect the reward?”

I don’t think so . . . but you can never tell about kids. They can be sneaky little suckers. I’m pretty sure they didn’t hide my glasses that one time they were on my face.

Do you see what I’ve done so far? At the same time I was being all self-deprecating about my absent-mindedness, I casually mentioned that I was smart enough not only to be on Jeopardy but to win enough games (four, if you insist on knowing) to earn a spot in the Tournament of Champions . . . and I made it into the semi-finals, no less.  Plus I name-dropped Trebek.

But I’m not simply sneaking in a humblebrag (at least that’s not all I’m doing). One of the foundational ideas of this book is that smart folks can be Christians . . . and Christians can be smart folks. We’re not all like the doofuses who seem to get most of the publicity.

It would be easy to blame “the media” for the popular conception of Christians as dumber than dirt, but we Christians shoulder the blame, too. We keep sending our money to television preachers who give simplistic answers to questions like “Why do terrible things happen?”

Usually their answers revolve around God trying to punish people those TV preachers happen to hate . . . and who aren’t in the donor database.

One of the things I’ve learned since I’ve realized I was a Christian – and especially since I’ve become a pastor – is that I don’t have to know all the answers, or even many of them. Christianity ain’t Jeopardy, or even Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (the other gameshow I’ve been on).

In real life, sometimes “I don’t know” is the smartest thing I can say.

So if I don’t have all the answers, why should you read this book? I can see you, standing there in the bookstore, perusing Too Smart for God in the midst of stacks of other fine books. The authors of some of those books – especially in the Christianity section – claim to have everything figured out. They even have God figured out!

Why should you march up to the register to invest your money and the promise of your time in these pages? Is it worth hearing another sales pitch about the bookstore’s Preferred Reader Program?

Or, if you’re reading this Sample Chapter on your laptop or phone or e-reader . . . with an almost infinite universe of other bits and gigs of data to download, why should you click on the button that says, “Add to Cart” and expose your credit card data to the possibility of being hacked by a teenager in his parents’ basement who in turn sells it to Russian gangsters or Nigerian scammers?

One good reason to take the plunge at the register or online is that someone has said Too Smart for God is “simply the best writing by an American author since The Great Gatsby, if not Huckleberry Finn.”

But because praise for my book by friends, family – or in this instance, myself – probably isn’t very persuasive, let me give you my strongest argument for buying this book:

IT’S NOT ABOUT ME.

I’m not just ripping off Rick Warren, who sold millions and millions of copies of The Purpose Driven Life, a book that started, with, “It’s not about you.”

This book really is not about me.

“Wait a minute, Dave,” you might protest. “Isn’t this your story? How you grew up in a family that went to church every Sunday, but became an agnostic/atheist (depending on the confidence of your unbelief on any particular day) by the time you got to college because you thought you were Too Smart for God, and that God was only for weak, stupid people? And about how you returned to the church in your early 30’s because it  was the only way the woman who is now your wife would date you and you eventually became not just a Christian but an unexpected pastor? Then how can you say this book is not about you?

Because this book is about GOD.

I know that might seem like a pretty bold claim, but it is actually meant with the deepest humility. Yes, I am going to be the vessel for the story; my life is the vehicle by which we’ll take this journey together.

A few years back I had to change planes with some friends in Edmonton, Alberta as we flew across Our Neighbor to the North. We had four hours between planes, so we rented a car and drove into the city to explore. If you’ve ever been to Edmonton, you know the North Saskatchewan River (a River to Remember if you ever want to be on Jeopardy – Trebek’s from Canada) separates the city from the area where the airport is located. There are only a few bridges over that river.

When it came time to get back to the airport, we couldn’t find the way onto any of those bridges. We would drive toward one, then find ourselves on a road way below it with no ramps to it or signs showing the way to get to one. We spent increasingly hectic time driving aimlessly trying to get on a bridge, but we would inevitably lose sight of the one we were seeking and get lost again. Edmonton is surprisingly hilly for a city located in Alberta, one of the “Prairie Provinces” (a nickname Jeopardy-aspirants should know).

We did not have GPS in the car or on our phones. We had declined the map along with the insurance at the car rental counter. How hard could it be to get from the airport to the city and then double back to the airport?

Too hard, apparently, for us.

Eventually we did find our way back, just in time to get on our plane. But we had no idea how we had blundered there until I got home, pulled up Edmonton on Google Maps, and traced our route. It was certainly not a straight line, and I could see how we had missed many opportunities to get back on track. On the other hand, we had seen areas of the city and its environs that we never would have experienced otherwise.  And we had a good story to tell.

This book is sort of my attempt to piece together a Google Map of my journey back to faith. Now that I’m a pastor, there are times when I am up front leading worship and wonder, “How did I get here?” Like the trip back to the Edmonton airport, it was not a straight line. Writing this account has given me the opportunity to see how the twists and turns led me to where, or rather, who, I am today – an Unexpected Pastor who was once Too Smart for God.

So please be patient with me as we go on this journey together. How it all works together is something I’m figuring out along with you. God is the real author of my story. God had a plan even – and especially – when I didn’t acknowledge God’s existence. All the time I thought I was running away from God, or more accurately, rejecting the very idea of God, God was writing this story in and through me.

Even when I kept driving around aimlessly, even though I didn’t have a map, God always knew I’d end up back at the airport.

Or back at church.

I don’t want you buy this book under false pretenses, however. Mine is not a story that climaxes in a dramatic moment when I see the light and realize I was on the wrong road.

The prototypical conversion story in the Bible involves a man named Saul who literally saw the light. When we meet Saul in Acts he is a despicable person. He hates Christians (which doesn’t in itself make him despicable), in his eyes Jewish apostates who are multiplying like rats ever since their leader died and supposedly came back to life three days later. Saul puts his enmity into action by rounding up members of the early church and throwing them into jail. At the stoning (death by throwing actual stones, not the use of mind-altering substances) of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, Saul didn’t have the guts to partake in the actual execution. He held the coats of those who hurled the fatal rocks. There’s something particularly smarmy about that kind of “I don’t want to get my hands dirty” participation.

In the ninth chapter of Acts, Saul is on his way to the Syrian city of Damascus. He is “breathing murderous threats against” Christians. They really piss him off. At his request, the authorities have given him a mandate to round up Damascus Christians and imprison them. Saul is portrayed as such a villainous villain that when I read this story I picture him twirling his mustache and rubbing his hands with glee as he nears Damascus.

But then! There’s a brilliant light from heaven, so bright it instantly blinds Saul. A voice says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” It’s Jesus! Saul gets the point, and after a follower of Jesus restores his sight he became the greatest evangelist of the New Testament and maybe ever.

And, like many others in the Bible (and many modern celebrities), his name got changed. Saul was hereafter known as Paul.

Now that’s a great story!

My story is not like that.

Because of the change he made – or rather that God made in him – Paul is my favorite New Testament Bible character. (Gideon is my favorite person in the Hebrew Scriptures – you’ll have to read the rest of the book to find out why.) There are similarities between my journey and Paul’s, but his is a different kind of adventure. I rejected Jesus, but I didn’t kill Christians. I just made fun of them. I was never knocked off my horse by a blinding light, nor did Jesus ever rebuke me personally.

If that ever happened, this would be a much shorter book.

As long as I’m being up-front here at the front of the book, I should probably tell you that my story is different from others who write books in the Spiritual Conversion genre. I didn’t do a lot of the dramatic and (self-) destructive things they did. I drank too much, but I am not an alcoholic or a drug addict. Before I was a Christian I got divorced and I lived with a woman who’s not my wife, but my sexual exploits are pretty tame compared to say, Wilt Chamberlain. I don’t have a tale of child abuse and/or neglect to share; the family I grew up in was pretty “normal,” whatever that means.

But I suspect my story is more common than dramatic stories like Paul’s and many others that get turned into books. It is more like the other great conversion story from the Bible, the one that happened not on the road to Damascus but rather on the road to Emmaus.

Luke tells this story in chapter 24 of his Gospel. It happens on the first Easter Sunday. Jesus died two days before. Two of Jesus’ followers – Cleopas and one who Luke doesn’t name, so I’ll call him “Dave” – have just left Jerusalem. They are walking toward Emmaus, a few miles away.

Cleopas and Dave’s journey is symbolic of their emotional and spiritual state. Jerusalem was the city of hope, the city where the Hebrew Scriptures promised that the Savior would take over and establish a perfectly just rule over the world. Cleopas and Dave, along with many who followed Jesus, had thought Jesus was that Savior. But then they had seen him nailed to a cross where he died just like any other man.

That wasn’t what the Savior was supposed to do! So Cleopas and Dave were walking away from Jerusalem. Away from hope. Away from faith.

They were at the end of their hope.

As they walked, Cleopas and Dave discussed the events of the last few days. They were joined along the way by another traveler. Luke tells us in an aside that this newcomer is the resurrected Jesus, but Cleopas and Dave don’t recognize him.

Jesus asks why they are so sad. They can’t believe their new companion hasn’t heard what happened to Jesus. Cleopas and Dave tell him the whole story.

Jesus gets angry. “Don’t you get it! Don’t you know the Scriptures?! Dying was what the Savior was supposed to do all along.” Then Jesus teaches them a Sunday School lesson about how the promises in the Scriptures had been about, well, him.

Then it’s time to stop for dinner. Cleopas and Dave sit down. They invite Jesus to eat with them. A meal is laid out. Jesus picks up some bread, breaks it, and blesses it. That’s when it comes to Cleopas and Dave.

This is Jesus!

This is the Savior they’d been waiting for!

Because he didn’t fit their idea of what the Savior should be, they had rejected him. Cleopas and Dave had walked away from their faith, but Jesus had been walking with them.

Luke goes on to tell us that Cleopas and Dave ran back to Jerusalem and told everyone their story of walking with Jesus, of finding him – and their faith – even though they didn’t know they were looking for him – or for it.

And that, my new friend, is what I will do in the rest of this book. I’ll tell you how I walked away from my faith because God and Jesus didn’t meet my expectations . . . and didn’t answer all my smart-guy questions. I’ll show you how Jesus walked with me even when I didn’t recognize him, much less believe him to be my or anybody else’s Savior. Finally, you’ll see how I realized, not in a flash but over the course of the walk, who Jesus is not just for the world but for me.

Like Cleopas and Dave, I can’t help but tell the world about it.

            That is what you’ll get when you read the rest of Too Smart for God. That and how to get on a game show.

And, if you buy this book today, I’ll throw in a FREE BONUS Christmas Short Story. It’s at the end of the book.

For now, take this book to the register or click on “Add to Cart.” Let’s take this journey together. I’ll be Dave. You can be Cleopas.

 

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The Women of Winter

Winter, 2015 films mentioned in this post: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part2; Brooklyn; The Danish Girl; Suffragette; Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Almost four years ago I encountered Katniss Everdeen for the first time. My daughter (then 14) talked me into taking her to the midnight opening of “The Hunger Games.” She had read all the books.  After seeing the film, I wrote, “As I got to know Katniss in the film, I was elated that my teen daughter was into a series with a strong teen female lead, a character brave enough both to fight and to cry, to assert herself and to sacrifice.”

The latter part of 2015 featured not just the conclusion of Katniss’ “Hunger Games” saga, but additional notable female role models. These realistically rounded characters are young women who rise above events and people that threaten to control them. They maintain their personhood in often dehumanizing circumstances. They are valued and valuable for who they are, not whose wife or girlfriend or daughter they happen to be. These women are portrayed by fine young actresses who will be a feminizing force in film for years to come.

AA BrooklynOne such actress is Saoirse Ronan, who shined in a small put important role in 2014’s Grand Budapest Hotel.  She plays Eilis Lacey, the main character Brooklyn, my favorite film of 2015. Although on the surface Brooklyn is the oft-told tale of an immigrant who moves to America and finds herself, as well as love, there is much beneath that surface in both the film and Ronan’s performance.

Early in the film during a scene at a dance, the shot tightens until only her face is in the frame. The camera lingers there for quite a while and nothing much seems to be happening, but in Ronan’s expression are the contradictory emotions of eagerness and caution, along with anticipation and uncertainty.

Those close-ups continue throughout the film, as we experience Eilis’ transformation from someone buffeted by events to a woman in control of her situation. She allows neither her suffocating hometown nor her blissful romance to determine her path or her person.  It is Eilis’ metamorphosis that is the heart of Brooklyn, and Ronan plays it beautifully.

AA Suffragette

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A different kind of transformation occurs in the life of Maud Watts in Suffragette.  Watts is portrayed by Carey Mulligan, also excellent in the summer 2015 film Far From the Madding Crowd.  In the hands of a lesser actress, her change from meek washerwoman to suffragette heroine would be unbelievable. But Mulligan makes it real by keeping it real; she is never histrionic even in the midst of tremendous suffering. And suffer she does! She is roughed up by the police and brutally force fed during a prison hunger strike.

But her greatest suffering is emotional. Mulligan bravely depicts  Maud torn apart by the rending of her family, especially when her son is taken from her  because she is considered an unfit mother. This is a choice rarely (if ever) made by male heroes – to be faithful for the cause they feel called to serve  or to have their children ripped from them. In Mulligan’s time being an instrument of change was incompatible with being a mother. (Maybe that’s not so different than our own time when women are still shamed for pursuing careers rather than full-time motherhood.)

Suffragette is not a great film – the action sequences in particular suffer from inexpert direction – but it is an important one. Unfortunately it was poorly marketed as a Meryl Streep picture; she is only on the screen for a few minutes. But it is worth seeing for Mulligan’s performance and for the importance of the subject matter. Our kids, especially our daughters, need to know who the suffragettes were.

AA Danish GirlTransformation is a theme in these films, and that is certainly true of The Danish Girl.  Although defending-champion of the Best Actor Oscar, Eddie Redmayne, is outstanding as the transgender pioneer Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, the heart of the film is Alicia Vikander’s performance as Gerda Wegener.

Gerda is no simple “stand by your man (or woman)” wife; Vikander portrays her as a complex woman who does support Einar’s need to become Lili, but is confused and conflicted by both her husband’s gender identification and her own reaction to it. She is loyal, yet independent, an artist in her own right.

Although neither Einar/Lili or Gerda are ultimately “faithful” in a traditional sense, this is the story of the love they have for each other. While Redmayne’s character is rightfully focused on the gender transition, it is Vikander whose vigorous spark empowers the film. Early in 2015, Vikander received some acclaim for her performance as a sympathetic android in Ex Machina. Her work in The Danish Girl is Oscar- worthy.

In addition to these three “small” films, the end of 2015 featured empowered women in central roles in blockbuster films as well. (Perhaps the tone was set earlier in the year with Imperator Furiosa and the other women in Mad Max: Fury Road, a film of feminist empowerment if there ever was one.)

AA Force AwakensOne of the surprises of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the centrality of Rey’s character. Pre-release promotion implied that the new film would be primarily Finn’s story, another epic film where men do heavy work and women are at the periphery. But Daisy Ridley’s Rey is a revelation. She is totally self-sufficient at the beginning of the film, living alone on a desolate planet, making a meager living scavenging wrecked and worn out spacecraft. But her genealogy and her destiny is for much more than that.

I want to avoid detailed spoilers here, but unlike traditional female characters Rey never needs to be rescued – when she is in trouble, by the time her (male) rescuers arrive, she is already out of the clutches of danger. However, that is not to say that she is totally self-sufficient. Her transformation from scavenging loner to rebel hero happens when she becomes part of a rebellion bigger than herself, and when she realizes she is part of an even greater whole (the Force). Rey’s story of self-discovery is only beginning. It will be fun to see how her character develops, and Ridley’s portrayal evolves, over the next few films.

AA MockingjayKatniss Everdeen’s film-story, on the other hand, has ended. In one of the final scenes of  The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part2, she lets go her arrow and demonstrates once and for all that she is her own person (that’s intentionally vague to avoid a spoiler). The Hunger Games saga is the story of the rebellion against the Capital and President Snow, but its power has been in its focus on the character of Katniss. At the time of the first film, Jennifer Lawrence was relatively unknown, but Oscar nominated for a film few people saw, Winter’s Bone.  Now she is an Academy Award winning actress who has inhabited a variety of roles in both popular and smaller films. She was the perfect choice for Katniss, and she will surely go on to play other archetypical characters and win more awards.

But at the end of 2015 a cadre of young actresses has emerged who will give Jennifer Lawrence a run for her money and for her Oscars. Let’s just hope that Hollywood continues to provide roles worthy of their talents.  That will be a good thing for those of us who love film, and especially for our daughters.

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Tamir: A Confession

TamirI am complicit in your death, Tamir, and in the life-negating injustice which followed.

I have never feared for my children’s safety in the presence of police officers.

But police officers gunned you down as you played with a pellet gun in a park.

I have never doubted that, if injured, my children would receive immediate aid from those whose vocation it is to protect them.

Yet you languished and anguished four minutes as your lifeblood drained before anyone came to your aid.

I have been taught in classrooms and by experience that my children would receive justice should they be victims of injustice.

Your family has been denied justice. A grand jury, guided by a prosecutor who acted more like a defense attorney for those who killed you,  has decided not to even bring your case to trial.

There will never be a public airing of what occurred, only the behind-closed-doors chicanery of the past months. The public has only heard the selective release of information favorable to the prosecutor’s apparent desired outcome.

And yet we fail to understand why people of color do not trust the “justice” system.

That prosecutor was supposed to be the people’s representative – your advocate – but the combination of the color of your skin and your class and your gender rendered you invisible and of no account.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” yet your family has waited 11 months for this unconscionable injustice.

I would not have waited patiently; to wait so long for justice for one of my children would have been completely contrary to my expectations.

I would have cried out, gone to the press, called public officials, demanded speedy justice for my child.

I would have been perceived as a grieved and aggrieved parent, righteously angry.

But when your parents cried out, the prosecutor implied they were only looking for a payout. His accusation echoed the repugnant views of my slaveholder forebears, who ripped children from their parents for profit, justifying the separation by denying sub-human slaves could have real parental affection for their offspring.

In the same way we have dehumanized you, the latest in a line of males of color lying in their own blood, denied the justice for which that blood cries out. Those who died before you were described in animalistic terms, their rage beyond the bounds of white reason.

Although the authorities have no problem apprehending white mass murderers alive, lethal force was required to bring you down, a 12-year old with a pellet gun.  You were described as “big for your age” so of course you must be gunned down; a large black male is most certainly a danger to orderly white society.

Tamir, we are scared. We are scared because we see our white domination of the system slipping away. We are terrified to hear that in the foreseeable future we white folks will not be the majority in “our” country. Our power and our place are threatened, and even though statistics tell us we are safer from violence than we ever have been, the fact that we will  soon be outnumbered by  the “other” causes us to tremble.

We will use our power structures to keep those “others” in their place as long as we can, desperately clinging to a white world that is no more.

We will continue our destructive, quixotic quest to “take our country back” from those “others” we perceive as threats.

Although I vehemently disagree with this course, I am convicted by the very fact of my ethnicity and my gender and my socio-economic status. I have benefited from this system. I am assured there is justice for me and for my children.

As long as justice is denied to you, Tamir, I am convicted and I am complicit. As my Savior commands, I put myself in your place and in the place of your parents. And I rage. And I lament.

But neither my compassion nor my confession will restore you or your family to wholeness.

Although this system bestows upon me place and power, I am ultimately powerless. For that system to which I am bound has failed you, and your family, and ultimately, all of us.

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“The Force Awakens” – A Christmas (Eve) Sermon

A Long Time Ago . . .(You can listen to a podcast of this message here.  The telling of the Christmas Gospel on which it is based, Luke 2:1-20, can be heard here.)

If the Star Wars universe was Lutheran, every time someone said, “May the Force be with you,” the people around would respond
. . . (Congregation: “And also with you.”)

Many of you have probably seen the newest Star Wars movie, “The Force Awakens.”  It is breaking all kinds of records at the box office.

I saw it last weekend with Karen and Philip. I wanted to see it before I heard any spoilers . . . Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything in this sermon.  We all enjoyed it. It may be a little intense and long for young ones, though.

So I was sitting there in the theater waiting for the movie to begin. The previews were over and the announcement about how rude it is to use your cell phone had just ended as well.

The theater became completely dark. Then, words in blue font appeared on the screen, familiar words that evoked memory and anticipation. . .

“Long ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .”

Then, trumpets and drums. Bah bah, ba ba ba bah bah. Ba ba ba bah bah. Ba ba ba bah.

John Williams’ “Theme from Star Wars” carried me back to 1977, when I was a teenager watching a movie I thought might be good, but really didn’t know. I was 15 again, experiencing “Star Wars” for the first time.

And simultaneously that music transported me into the intergalactic world of “Star Wars.”

The Star Wars Logo glowed on the screen. Words began to crawl from the bottom to the top, rising over a background of stars. Words that told a story. A story of good battling evil, a story of heroes and villains and light versus darkness.

Then the movie started, and it was the classic “Star Wars” story. Sure, there were new characters, but it was a familiar tale. In fact, the only real criticism I’ve seen of the film is that the plot in many ways is similar to the plot of the first Star Wars movie. But that’s a good part of what makes it so awesome – the retelling of the classic tale.

All in all, seeing the new Star Wars film, “The Force Awakens,” was a lot like Christmas Eve worship.

We gather here in anticipation of hearing the familiar story, maybe in a new way. But it is the story that we long for, it is the story that brings us together. It is a story that gives us HOPE.

When I hear the first notes of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” or when we sing “Joy to the World,” or especially when we get to “Silent Night” with candlelight, it really feels like Christmas. The music evokes recollection of Christmas Eves past, worshipping in places long left behind, with loved ones no longer here. The music of Christmas evokes powerful memories and emotions.

As we gather, we hear about familiar events and places – the census, Bethlehem, Galilee, shepherds’ fields.

And we encounter beloved characters in the story once again . . . Mary and Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, and of course the Baby.

Our hearts are stirred because the Christmas story begins the Greatest Story Ever Told.

Even better than Star Wars!

One of the unique things about Star Wars is the Force, that mystical, quasi-scientific power that binds the universe together. There are those who can channel the Force in powerful ways – the Jedi. They train and fight against those who have mastered the dark side – the evil side – of the force.

Star Wars is basically a good old fashioned drama of good versus evil, sort of a western in space where you can usually pretty easily tell the good guys from the bad guys.

Yes, it’s exciting and fun and the special effects are great.

But here’s the thing – the victory of the good guys doesn’t last. The new Star Wars movie is episode seven. At the end of Episode Six (“The Return of the Jedi”), evil had been defeated and peace reigned in the galaxy.

But here we are in the new movie and the dark side is again wreaking havoc. So the Force awakens to battle the dark side.

But the story we gather to tell today, the Greatest Story Ever Told, is different. Not just in that it is true.  Not just in that it happened.

It is different because the story that begins in Bethlehem with the birth of the Christ Child, ends with – SPOILER ALERT – the defeat of evil, the defeat of sin and death – once and for all!  That would happen when the baby grew up and died on a cross. He showed the world the extent God would go to show God’s love for me and for you.

You see, the story we gather to hear again today is the story of a different kind of force. It is the most powerful force in the universe.

The Jedi Knights in Star Wars fight with Light Sabers.

The weapon in The Greatest Story Ever Told is  . . . LOVE.

What does love look like?

A baby in a manger. That is certainly that is not the usual idea of power – a helpless baby wrapped in rags and lying in a trough where animals fed. But that baby was God, God in human flesh. Total power become totally vulnerable. God among us.

Star Wars happens in a fantasy galaxy.

The birth of Jesus is God entering the real world.

Our world. A world where he would experience cold and hunger and loneliness and betrayal and even death. A world where he would laugh with his disciples, and where he would cry with his friends.

Christmas is God saying to us, “I love you so much that I am willing to go through everything you must suffer in life, so that when you experience disappointment and struggle, not only will you know that I am with you, you will know that I have been through it.”

We try to pretty up the birth of Jesus into Christmas card perfection, but we lose its reality when we scrub away the filth and the smells and the pain of that birth where animals fed.  We run the risk of turning the real-world story into a fantasy.

That is so important!  Jesus was born into the real world so that God’s relationship with real-world people like us could be healed. That relationship between God and us is scarred by sin, and Jesus was born to break down that barrier.

When Jesus was born the force of love awakened in the real world in a way that it never had before.

God is love, the Bible says in First John. With the birth of Jesus, God is here. Love is here.

The darkness of this world is the absence of love.

We see the results of that darkness all around us. We see it in terror attacks and in violence of all kinds. We see it in hunger and preventable disease and in greed-spawned poverty. We see it in any attempt to divide the world into “us and them,” whether “they” are defined by ethnicity or nationality or religion or race or gender or who “they” love.

The force of love awakened in Bethlehem to break down those barriers as well, to conquer the darkness of division and bigotry and hate.

Hatred is birthed by fear. In an earlier movie, The Star Wars character Yoda said this: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

I agree with Yoda. Biblical he sounds.

With the birth of Jesus we no longer have to fear. We no longer have to hate. Over and over in the Biblical Christmas accounts we hear these words “Don’t be afraid.” The angel Gabriel says it to Mary, and Joseph hears it in a dream. It is the first thing the angels say to the shepherds. “Don’t be afraid.”

Sisters and brothers, because the force of love awakened in Bethlehem, we don’t have to be afraid. We don’t have to fear anything or anybody in this life, or even death.

In Jesus, we are free to love. We are free to live his summary of the law – to love God and to love our neighbor.

And we are free to tell this story, the Greatest Story Ever Told.

It is OUR story to tell. When we were baptized, we became participants in the story. As “The Force Arises” introduced new characters into the Star Wars story, this year 18 babies, young people, and adults were baptized here into the Greatest Story Ever Told.

It’s up to us to tell that story. Millions have seen “The Force Awakens” already and millions more will watch it. People are hungry for stories of good battling evil . . . Are we willing to share the Greatest Story Ever Told – the story of God in human flesh born in Bethlehem, growing up to die on a cross simply because he loves us, then rising again?

If we don’t tell the story, who will?

Our greatest witness is to share with others our part in the story. The best evangelism is to tell other people what difference it makes that the force of love has arisen in us.

Every year on Christmas Eve I take a moment to address those who are here who don’t know – yet – that they are part of the story; those who are here but think it as much of a fantasy as Star Wars, those who are like me when I didn’t believe a word of the story. It took me until I was 33 to realize I was part of the story that the baby in Bethlehem was born for me. Let me encourage you, if you are now in your faith – or lack of faith – where I was then – to be open to the story.

I am still surprised the force of love awakened in me.

And to everyone, sisters and brothers, may the force – of love – be with you.

(Congregation: And also with you.)

AMEN

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