Friday, May 25, 2012

Can A Gorgeous Olympian Find Love...Please?

Lolo Jones, owner of a beautiful face, sculpted physique, one of sports' coolest names and the American record in the 60 meter hurdles, can't find a boyfriend. Why? She won't sleep with any of her suitors. Male depravity has never been in more glaring display than when, as Jones reports, a man told her that having sex with him would "make her run faster."

Jones is perhaps the first person I've ever heard make this admission without talking about their Christian faith.  A saved celebrity virginity is almost always presented as a testament to the celebrity's faith in God, and their desire to please Him.  I should note at this point that I can't afford HBO and therefore haven't seen the whole interview...I'm reacting only to the clip above.

Jones doesn't seem to make any such claim.  She doesn't hold up her successful preservation of her chastity as evidence of her righteousness...she just says that it's a gift she wants to give her husband.  Of course, none of us (even those of us who successfully saved themselves for marriage...we'll be distributing a survey later...) can claim sexual righteousness in the eyes of God.  The Sermon on the Mount prevents that (Matthew 5:27-28).  It is heartening that Jones doesn't try to.

Sexual activity is often the banana peel on which public single Christians slip.  It made everyone question the legitimacy of Britney Spears' claims to be a Christian.  Christians want to (and do) have sex before marriage.  It doesn't mean they're not Christians.  It means they need Christ (which, as they say, we already knew...).  I'm glad that if Lolo Jones' willpower folds before her wedding night, she hasn't tied her relationship to God to some supposed righteousness that she's struggling to maintain.  And I hope she meets a nice guy soon.  Can we get Tim Tebow her number?  As Dan LeBatard said on his show yesterday, they would have "Olympic babies who will save this earth."  I could get behind that.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Big Bang Theory and Receiving Gifts

People are terrible at receiving good gifts.  We can't just say thank-you and enjoy the present, we immediately begin to think about the scales of the relationship and whether they're in balance.  Witness the following clip from The Big Bang Theory's second-season episode, "The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis:"

The money line is, "You haven't given me a gift.  You've given me an obligation!"  This is exactly how we feel much of the time. How do you feel when that Christmas card arrives on December 24th, from someone to whom you didn't send a card?  Are you glad that a friend you thought was marginal has thought of you at the holidays?  No.  You immediately begin to devise a Mission: Impossible-style plan to get a Christmas card into their mailbox by Christmas morning.  Anything to keep the scales balanced.

When we Christians receive a really great gift (say, just to choose one at random, the salvific self-sacrificial death of Jesus Christ), we don't know what to do with ourselves.  What kind of response would be appropriate? 

We try to be ready for anything.  No matter how good the gift is, we'll be prepared with a response.  Of course, we can never be fully prepared for a gift like Jesus'...his very life.

Of course, when the gift is that good, no response is good enough.  There is no bath product cornucopia that can balance the scales when Leonard Nimoy's DNA is on the other side, and there doesn't seem to be an adequate response when Jesus' death for our sins holds that place, either.  If we turn a big enough gift into an obligation, we are crushed by it.

Let's acknowledge from the beginning, then, that this is a gift that tips the scales forever.  Let's treat the gift like a child would, with excitement and joy, and go play (Mark 10:15).

Friday, May 18, 2012

Can We Forgive Pete Rose?

ESPN Films is bringing back the acclaimed 30-for-30 series, which I’ve written about before, and is augmenting it with a series of web shorts.  These are stories that they feel are interesting and under-reported, but don’t really work in the standard hour-long format.  Here’s the premiere film (it’s eight minutes long), about Pete Rose:

As interesting as it is, you’re glad it’s not an hour long, right?  In his introduction, executive producer Bill Simmons said, “you might not want to spend an hour in Pete Rose’s world at this point of his life.”  No kidding.  Another lingering shot of his back as he looks out at an empty memorabilia store?

I was struck by Pete’s desire for a second chance.  In Christianity, we call second chances “forgiveness.”  Rose is desperate for it.  As he alludes, it’s a little funny that avowed steroid users like Alex Rodriguez are still making their millions of dollars while Rose, who admits to betting on baseball and on (though never against) the team he played on, is a literal pariah, forbidden to have anything to do with professional baseball.  Even Mark McGwire, poster-boy for steroid use (though he denies it) currently works as a batting instructor for the St. Louis Cardinals.  Can you imagine a more appropriate job for Pete Rose than batting coach for the Cincinnati Reds?  And yet, there he sits, behind a vinyl strap at a Las Vegas shopping mall, glad-handing customers and hoping to sell enough merchandise to pay his handful of employees.

Pete Rose has even taken the first steps that seem to be required for forgiveness: he’s admitted the wrongs he’s done.  He seems, in the film, to be honest, introspective (if a little over-proud of his admittedly amazing accomplishments on the diamond), and forgivable.  It seems sure that if Pete’s asked for it, God has forgiven him…but can baseball do the same?

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Josh Hamilton and the Comforting Spirit

On May 9th, Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton was a guest on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption.  The occasion was his record-setting offensive performance the previous evening, going 5-5 with four home runs and a double, a feat never before accomplished in the American League.  Hamilton is not only well-known as a great hitter, however.  A recovering alcoholic and drug addict, Hamilton spent three years out of baseball completely, going in and out of rehab.  Now that he's back, the taunts from opposing fans often concern his substance abuse.  He suffered a brief relapse during this last off-season.  During the interview, Hamilton offered a stirring reason for his fortitude:

Tony Kornheiser:  Do you carry [the potential for relapse] with you every single day?  Does it ever even get into your head when you’re actually playing the game?
Hamilton:  No.  You know, the fans get in my…well, they don’t even get in my head anymore.  But they wear me out…they bring up…I’ll share real quick with y’all: I was in Minnesota…in the outfield.  I moved from center field to left field, and I’m just getting absolutely worn out.  I’ve gotten worn out over the years and just kind of dismissed it, but the Holy Spirit just hits me inside and says, “You know what?  You’re going through, right now, a smidgen, a minute tenth of a percentage of what Christ went through for you.  These are the scoffers.  These are people, out here, who want to take your weaknesses and throw [them] in your face, and tell you you can’t do it, or you’re not worth it, or you’re not good enough.”  And [the Holy Spirit] said, “This is [why] Christ died for you.  And he didn’t have any weaknesses.”
Hamilton doesn't claim that he no longer has a problem.  He doesn't assert that Christ has healed him, though he no doubt prays for just that.  He acknowledges his weakness, throws himself on the mercy of the one without weakness, and in so doing, finds strength.

Here's the whole interview:

Friday, May 11, 2012

Movie Review: The Avengers

I was worried about this one for a couple of reasons.  First of all, I haven't really been all that into the recent spate of super-hero movies.  My favorite of the genre is probably either The Incredibles or The Rocketeer, both very self-aware films, and your average super-hero movie is a little more self-serious.  Secondly, I'm no Joss Whedon super-fan.  And he's only got super-fans, it seems.  You're either a devotee of Buffy, Dollhouse, Firefly, and Serenity or...well, you're just not.  And I'm just not (I didn't even love The Cabin in the Woods, though I did like it).  I guess it all comes down to whether you like Nathan Fillion or not, right?  Third, The Avengers was primed, by its very nature, to be the overstuffed sequel that doesn't live up to the original (think The Matrix Reloaded, Spider-Man 3, and most chillingly for our purposes, Iron Man 2).  The film casts six movie stars (though only one mega-star in Robert Downey, Jr., reprising his Iron Man performances) in central roles and has to find something for all of them to do.

Perhaps shockingly, then, The Avengers totally worked for me.  While a couple of the quips fall flat, and it stretches believability (I know, I know...) that a spy with two pistols and a gifted archer would be worth having around when The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) (not to mention the already-mentioned Iron Man) are on your team.  Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow squeezes off only three or four rounds in the whole film.

The Avengers is the best of the Marvel adaptations, save the first Iron Man.  Far better than the cheesy Thor or Captain America films, it even bests all three Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, with far better acting being the differentiating factor.  It's been a long time since I heard applause at the end of a movie, but The Avengers earned it, at least at the screening I attended.  Amazingly, Whedon finds something for all his Avengers to do, gives us a bad guy worthy of six heroes (Tom Hiddleston is great as the scorned yet Shakespearean Loki), and keeps the action pumping.  The New York City finale is gloriously over-the-top, and owes a debt of gratitude to Michael Bay's Transformers: Dark of the Moon (yes, you read that right: gratitude).

All in all, good, escapist fun, with a healthy dose of witty banter, exploding buildings, and yes, the salvation of the world.

The Avengers: 3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

From Derision to Compassion: The Death of Junior Seau

It was like a switch was thrown.  I was at an open gym, shooting baskets with a bunch of guys, talking about the news of the day: the apparent suicide of former NFL great and presumptive Hall of Famer Junior Seau.  Many of the guys couldn’t believe that a man who was so famous, so rich, who had so much, could be depressed.  What could possibly be so bad about his life that it wasn’t worth living?  The tone of the conversation quickly became derisive.  Seau must have been weak.   Fragile.  Pathetic.  Then someone suggested that his brain may have been irreparably damaged by the numerous minor head traumas he suffered over the course of his playing career.

It was like a switch was thrown.  All of a sudden, no one had a cutting remark.  No one was talking about how satisfied they were with so much less than Seau had.  We recalled the story of Dave Duerson, another former NFL player who committed suicide, who had shot himself in the chest expressly so that his brain could be studied; he had known his depression was physically sourced (subsequent medical examination of his brain proved him right).  The mood in the gym became somber, and the tone, compassionate.

I couldn’t believe how quickly derision became compassion.  Then I realized what had really happened: the group had collectively transitioned from seeing Seau as basically “able,” that is, in control of and responsible for his actions and mental state, to basically “disabled,” that is, the victim of forces beyond his control.  It is only natural to feel derision for people who are able to control themselves and do not, and just as natural to feel compassion for people who are unable to control themselves.

Here’s the thing: Christians are disabled.  Not especially disabled, just as disabled as non-Christians.  It is easy for us, especially the preachers and ministers among us, to think of Christians as “able” in a way that they (read: we) are not.

And the result?  Derision.

If we see people as fundamentally able to make good choices, possessing the ability to improve, and able to control their minds, our ability to be compassionate toward them will wither and die.  This is particularly damaging (as you might imagine) for preachers and pastors, but will damage any relationship.

At one time in my life, a close friend confided in me that he and his girlfriend were having sex.  We prayed together, asked for forgiveness, and I assumed that that would be the end of it.  But, despite their stated desire not to, they kept doing it!  I know: you’re shocked.  At the time, though, I was shocked.  I couldn’t understand (I was comically blind to my own nature…as, of course, I remain to this day) how someone could continually do something that he didn’t want to do (Romans 7:14-20).  As my friend's confessions to me mounted, my compassion for him withered.  Finally, it was replaced by anger: why couldn't he just stop?

As a pastor, I have come to know that  Paul's words in Romans 7 are not only true, but fundamental to pastoral care for people.  Compassion cannot exist where we see people as "able," because people are inveterate failures.  Pastors will either come to hate their people (because they're not following your good advice) or themselves (because you're not communicating the advice well enough).  In either case, hatred is the end result.

If we are to avoid hating those closest to us (including ourselves!), and are to avoid heaping scorn on those further away, we must begin to see people as the "disabled" creatures that they are.  Like Paul, and potentially, Junior Seau, they often "do the very thing they hate."  We can only be there, compassionately, when they cry out for a savior, with the Good News that there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).

Friday, May 4, 2012

Pulling John and Losing to Win

I'm addicted to documentaries; tiny ones that no one has ever heard of. Netflix Instant has been a godsend for finding my fringe documentary fix.  The last two I watched were Running the Sahara, the story of three men who, you guessed it, ran across the Sahara Desert, and Pulling John, the story of three of the premier arm wrestlers in the world.

John Brzenk (the "John" of the title) became the world arm wrestling champion in 1983 and didn't lose an arm wrestling match (a "pull") for the next 25 years.  You might recognize him from the 1987 Sylvester Stallone arm wrestling movie Over the Top (he won the part in a tournament).  Pulling John follows his wrestling (get it?) with whether or not to retire as he approaches 40.  The main story of the film, though, is the collision course of Alexey Voevoda (a demure Russian giant) and Travis Bagent (a bombastic American braggart), two young challengers to Brzenk's throne.  Both men revere Brzenk, and understand that they must each go through the other to get to Brzenk's level.

At the World Championships in 2003, Voevoda and Bagent met in the super heavyweight final.  (Brzenk is a middleweight, and, at the time, no longer regularly competed in tournaments.  It should be noted, though, that he made his name on beating super heavyweights in open weight class competition.)  In a huge upset, Bagent soundly defeated the heavily-favored Voevoda. If you're familiar with stories like this, you know what happened next: Bagent got even cockier, while Voevoda went back to Russia to work out.  It's during these Russian post-loss scenes that Voevoda begins to talk about what we might call "the theology of the cross."  He discusses losing, what it means to him, and how acceptance of the loss can bring greater strength.  At a critical point, one of his coaches says, "If you're strong, losing can make you stronger."

Now, it's dangerous to say that the theology of the cross "works," since it "working" entails something like a death.  But it is true that it is only from deaths that new lives are born.  Voevoda begins to know himself as a loser (lieterally...I would never call someone as strong as Voevoda a loser) and, through that knowledge, gains strength.  When he meets Bagent again, with the winner to face Brzenk, it's not close.

Luther said that the cross was the end of us.  Losing to Bagent was the end of the "invincible" Alexey Voevoda.  A new life was created.  It was this new creation that dominated Bagent and moved on to face Brzenk.  Track down the movie, because what happened next is...well, over the top.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Fifth Element and Two-Sided Life

I've talked about Luc Besson before. Check out the below scene from his 1997 action extravaganza The Fifth Element:

Mr. Zorg (played with pore-oozing panache by Gary Oldman) claims that he and the priest (Ian Holm) are really in the same business: that of life. Holm accuses Oldman of only wanting to destroy life by being an agent of destruction and chaos, while Oldman insists that life cannot exist without destruction and chaos. They both have a point.

Zorg embodies the Law. He causes death. As St. Paul says so eloquently in Romans 7, when the law came, sin "sprang to life and I died" (v. 9). Elsewhere, he famously said that the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23) and we know that sin exists as a result of the existence of the law (Rom 7:8). So Holm's argument is true: Zorg, by his very existence, destroys life. But Oldman is right, too.

At the beginning of Romans 7, Paul discusses his covetousness. He says, in essence, that he had no idea how much he was coveting, until the law came and told him "Thou shalt not covet." All of a sudden, he realized the extent to which he wanted things which weren't his! That's when he says that he dies. There's a point for Holm. But then, most profoundly, Paul recognizes his need for a savior: "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Rom 7:24) and finds his need met: "Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Rom 7:25) It was the law, and the resultant death (by "destruction, disorder, and chaos"), that led Paul to real life, that is, in Jesus Christ. There's a point for Oldman.

These two forces belong in the same room. Zorg and the priest. The Law and the Gospel. Destruction and salvation. The disorder and chaos of our lives drives us to an epiphany: we're dying! We need a savior, and the creepy creature living inside our desk isn't going to cut it. Luckily, the Gospel always trumps the law, the cosmic slap on the back that brings us from death to life. "Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
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