Friday, September 28, 2012

Recovering the Church's "Mission"

What are we doing here?  What is our mission?  I’ve been thinking about this question a lot this week; it’s come up in a couple of discussions.  First, I heard a story about a member of the clergy in another diocese.  When the Bishop came to visit the parish, he asked them to identify their mission.  In other words, what were they doing there?  Unable to answer, the parish decided to start a soup kitchen.  That would be their mission.

The question of mission came up again as our parish began our Bible study on Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In just the second verse of the letter, Paul describes himself as an apostle “set apart for the Gospel,” clarifying: “the Gospel regarding his Son.”  For Paul, mission is inextricably linked to Jesus Christ, and specifically, the Gospel (the Good News) about him.

Soup kitchens are wonderful. The many things that the church does in that vein, from food pantries and United Thank Offerings to hunger walks and Habitat for Humanity, are great examples of Christian service, but they are not, ultimately, why we are here.  In other words, our mission must be, as Paul asserts, the proclamation of the Gospel, and those acts of service, laudable as they are, are results of the Gospel, not the Gospel itself.

The Good News about Jesus Christ is that he came from heaven to earth to save sinful humanity and to reconcile us to God.  We are an outpost, a giant set of speakers, for this announcement.  Everything we do is in service of it; indeed, we admit that “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

So know that as we go about our life in the church, we will continue to do the things that mark us as a loving community: Food pantries, United Thank Offerings, hunger walks, Habitat for Humanity, and all the rest.  But they will not be our mission.  Our mission will always be to proclaim the Goood News about Jesus Christ to the world.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Law and Death of Replacement Referees

The internet exploded yesterday. At least, the sports corner of it did. For those not in the know, the NFL has been operating this season with replacement referees, having locked out the unionized regular refs in a contract dispute. The replacements have performed, depending on whom you ask, anywhere from "predictably shaky" to "seismically catastrophic."  Monday Night's performance, though, was one for the ages.  Calls were missed or made incorrectly all game long, but the coup de grace was a time-expired Hail Mary pass that seemed, in replay, to be awarded to the wrong team, completely altering the outcome of the game. For the first time, it seemed inarguable that the replacement refs had cost a team a game.

The narrative after the game has only gotten more strident: these replacement refs are doing a job that they're not qualified to do.  Most of them are lower-division college or semi-pro refs; one of them even has the Lingerie Football League (NSFW) on his resume.  They're simply incapable of doing the job (controlling and administering the rules for the best, meanest, and most out-of-control athletes on the planet) that they've been given. Don't you feel for them?

St. Paul says that "sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death" (Romans 7:11).  When Moses came down the mountain with those commandments, and then Jesus clarified and sharpened them in the Sermon on the Mount, we were given a job that we're not qualified to do, a task that is beyond us. We look as hopeless in our trying as the replacement refs looked on Monday night. But, as Paul also says, "I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law" (Romans 7:7).  We wouldn't know how hard it is to referee an NFL game if the replacement refs hadn't failed so spectacularly. We wouldn't know how far from the righteousness of God we are if the commandments hadn't been brought down from the mountaintop to show us.

Failure, though, is the only thing that leads to an openness to salvation.  As NFL fans cry out (caution, naughty words) for the salvation of the real refs, they might as well be quoting Paul: "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24) It is to a dying man that a savior comes.  Jesus promises to be that savior for his creation (Paul rejoices, "Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!")...we can only hope that the real refs come back before He does.

Friday, September 21, 2012

I Can't Believe That Was Good: Drop Dead Gorgeous

I've written about Drop Dead Gorgeous before, but I've never mentioned the level of surprise by which this movie took me.  I remember thinking that the trailer was one of those "thank goodness they made a trailer to warn me away from this" jobs, but looking at it now, knowing what I know, the trailer isn't all that bad. It may have been the mere presence of Kristie Alley (whose tiny turn in Deconstructing Harry was only notable thing in her filmography since Cheers)

And Drop Dead Gorgeous?  It's drop-dead hilarious. Starring a veritable murderer's row of up-and-coming movie stars (Kristen Dunst, Denise Richards, Brittany Murphy, and Amy Adams) alongside longtime comedy heavy hitters (Alley, Ellen Barkin, and Allison Janney), Drop Dead Gorgeous tells the tale of a small -town beauty pageant that turns into a bloodbath. It's a mockumentary from a time before mockumentaries were hip, in the grand tradition of the King of Mockumentaries, Christopher Guest.

The mockumentary format allows a simple story to be told even simpler, with Modern Family-style jokes told directly to camera. In this case, though, there's an actual reason for a documentary crew to be there, and they don't seem to show up when needed and disappear when inconvenient, as they do in modern mockumentary comedies.

Janney takes home the prize for best performance as Kirsten Dunst's caustic aunt, but both Alley and Richards do unexpectedly great work as co-antagonists.  As over-the-top as the performances and story are, this is a tale grounded in real pathos, and anyone who's ever thought of killing that snotty classmate (or co-worker) that seems to get everything they want will understand exactly what's going on with these girls.

A laugh-out-loud (but also very apt) story of teen angst, drama, and competition, Drop Dead Gorgeous should be the next comedy in your queue, if only for the jaw-dropping scene during which Denise Richards shows off her talent.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Aristotle is of Two Minds about Jay Cutler

In sports journalism, athletes are constantly being referred to as "embattled." Perhaps quarterbacks are given this label more than any other athlete. It's safe to say then, that embattled Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is one of the more embattled people in the world. Sort of like how The Dude is the laziest man in Los Angeles county, which puts him near the front in the running for title of laziest, worldwide.  Cutler is a highly talented thrower with a knack for juxtaposing every breath-catching feat with a jaw-dropping interception. It doesn't help that his default facial expression is "I am sorely annoyed that I must be in your presence right now; I'd much rather be yelling at my pool cleaner. Oh, and I just ate something sour and am considering spitting it out."  It seems, though, that that's just the face God has given him.

A couple of years ago, Cutler had to leave the NFC Championship game with a strained ACL, and caught hell for it across the league, in real time, on Twitter. Last year, Cutler had the Bears playing really well, and on the road to the playoffs again, when he broke his thumb making a tackle, ending his season and the Bears' hopes. This season, he has played one great game, leading the Bears to 41 points in a week 1 defeat of the Indianapolis Colts, and one terrible one, throwing four interceptions during a week 2 drubbing at the hands of the Green Bay Packers.  Grantland's Bill Barnwell wrote this week about the Cutler phenomenon:
The problem is that we've somehow convinced ourselves that quarterbacks mill around at one level until they have a notably impressive game or season and establish a permanent new level of play, like they were characters in an RPG. That's nonsense, but we've spent the majority of Jay Cutler's career trying to pinpoint the moment in time when he took that big leap forward. We were sure Cutler had emerged as a franchise quarterback when he won that epic 39-38 game over the division rival Chargers in 2008. We were positive Cutler had taken the leap when he pushed a team whose most notable receiver was Devin Hester to an 11-win season and the NFC Championship Game in 2010. And we were definitely 100 percent onboard with the new Jay Cutler who led his team to a five-game winning streak last year just as he suffered a season-ending thumb injury. We keep telling ourselves that we've found the real Cutler, a guy who has eliminated his old faults and won't go back up the pipe to World 1-1.

The reality is that Cutler has followed up each of those big moments with disappointments, and we've used them as proof that Cutler's really a fraud and that those triumphs weren't actually meaningful after all. That shouldn't be a referendum on Cutler. It should be a referendum on us, the fans who are reading good and bad games as unassailable proof of Cutler's ultimate value as a player when they're really just peaks and valleys.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argued that you could tell what kind of a person someone was by evaluating their actions.  Does good things? Good man.  Does bad things? Bad man.  This is what Barnwell argues we do with Jay Cutler: throws touchdown? Good quarterback. Throws interception? Bad quarterback. Since Cutler does both of these things (though, as Barnwell notes, Cutler's "peaks and valleys tend to be more extreme...than they are for other players") we constantly flip back and forth between regarding him as a quarterback who has "finally figured it out" and one who won't ever "figure it out." We never attempt to get down to the root of the man because we are blinded by Aristotle (slightly more specific than being blinded by science itself). It is as hard for us to accept a person doing both good and bad things as it us for us to accept a quarterback who throws both touchdowns and interceptions...but of course this is the way things are. Quarterbacks (even Tom Brady and Peyton Manning...see Monday Night's game) throw both touchdowns and interceptions. People do both good and bad things. We must be considered more thoughtfully.

God tells Samuel that he "does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Sam 16:7), and unfortunately (as Jeremiah put it) "the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (17:9) Perhaps a more properly ethical way for us to judge our quarterbacks is to see them as incurable interception machines who are miraculously given to throwing touchdown passes from time to time. From that vantage point, Jay Cutler looks more blessed than most. Perhaps, then, with that kind of eye, we can even turn a more merciful glance to our own interception/touchdown rate.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Catholic Action 2: Protestant Peace of Mind

A while ago, I found this Bible in the sacristy of my church. I thought it was hilariously subtitled, "Catholic Action Edition."  I posted about possible exercises that might be included, things like, "What penance would John Maclane have to perform after the Nakatomi Plaza affair?"

Then, this week, I was rooting around the office of my new parish, and I came across the Bible below. I couldn't believe it. Not only was there a "Catholic Action Edition," there was a "Protestant Peace of Mind" edition. Without putting too fine a point on it, these two editions of the Bible highlight what has been a historical difference between the Catholic Church and Protestant Churches.

Traditionally, the Catholic Church has taught that humans must participate (at least to some degree) in our justification. In other words, God comes into our lives and gives us the assistance we need in order to move ourselves to the point at which we're worthy of an eternal life with him. Catholic Action.

Protestants protested (ha!) that this basically made God impotent. If he couldn't save a sinner (i.e. someone that wasn't going to be able to make the good choices required to participate in his or her own justification) then what kind of all-powerful God was he anyway.  And what kind of "good news" is it? Therefore, Protestants have traditionally taught that God saves the sinner despite their lack of participation. For instance, John Calvin talked about "irresistible grace" as one of his five main theological points. No action required. Protestant Peace of Mind.

These two editions of the Bible illustrate why I'm a Protestant. Peace of mind is so much more attractive than action required. The Gospel itself (the "Good News") is named after something that offers peace of mind, rather than requiring action.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Drowning Swimmer or Swimming Drowner? Human Nature in the YMCA Pool

This post will be an embarrassing one.

I've started swimming at the YMCA in an effort to keep in shape.  I think my choice of activities is partly due to residual Olympic-watching  excitement, and partly due to my longstanding hatred of running without a goal to score or basket to make.  Swimming, I'm also told, is among the best total-body workouts. So I hitched up the OP board shorts, grabbed a beach towel, ordered a pair of goggles from Amazon, and made my way to that chlorinated paradise. After 50 meters, I hauled myself out of the water, (practically) crawled into the bleachers, and dry-heaved until I could see straight.

You see, it turns out that there is a difference between the swimming you see in the Olympics, wherein Sun Yang looks mildly under-rested after the 1,500 meter freestyle, and the swimming at the Y, wherein drowning and death are real possibilities after comically short distances.  Knowing this difference didn't stop me from thinking myself exempt.

First of all, let me be clear: no matter what I write in the following paragraphs (during which I will no doubt succumb to the temptation to write in such a way that you'll think I'm a good swimmer), at no point have I yet swum more than 50 meters without stopping for a rest. Really, though, it's not that I'm a bad swimmer (see? There I go...), I'm just not in "swimming shape." My stroke is good, and I'm tall, so I cut through the water fairly well. It's just that my lungs and every muscle in my body scream in unison after seven or eight strokes. The result of this is that, for the first 25 meters (one length of my non-Olympic sized pool) after I rest, I feel like Michael Phelps.  For the second 25? I'm Homer Simpson finishing that package of expired ham.

This binary action in my swimming has shone a glaring light on my human nature: the fact that I am both sinner and saved, loved and human, justified and condemned.  As I swim up the pool after my rest, I literally find myself wondering if one of the swimmers in the other lanes will stop their own workout to tell me what a nice stroke I have, how powerful I look in the water, and have I ever considered swimming on the Y's adult team? I am not making this up...I had these thoughts this morning.  As I swim back toward the shallow end, in the second 25 meters, I catch glimpses of the lifeguard on the deck, and I worry that he's going to walk up to me during my rest and say something like, "Son, are you all right? You were flailing around a bit toward the end might want to think about stopping." Then I rest, watching warily for the guard...and then the process repeats itself. 

I literally have those self-congratulatory thoughts every single time up the pool.  "I bet I look pretty good right now."  Even though I wondered, not three minutes earlier, whether I would meet the crew of the Andrea Gail as I drifted into Poseidon's oblivion.  This is what Luther called simul justus et peccator. We are two things at once: justified and a sinner. I am, at once, perfectly content in my ability to uphold the law: "I bet I look pretty good right now," and totally in need of a savior: "George Clooney at your grizzled handsomest...reach out your hand and save me!"

As we come to grips with our dual natures, we might reach out for a savior more readily, accept another's righteousness more freely, and actually make it to the end of the pool.

Note: This morning (after having written this last night) I swam my first 100 meters without stopping. What's the record for gold medals in the Olympics again? Asking for a friend.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Law and Grace in Jiro Dreams of Sushi

There's not really a whole lot to David Gelb's 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of mostly consists of lovingly photographed sushi. Jiro Ono, the film's subject, is a master sushi chef who operates a 10-seat restaurant in a Tokyo subway station, which doesn't sound auspicious until you add that it's a Michelin three-star (the highest possible rating) rated restaurant at which meals begin at 30,000 yen ($300) and reservations must be made a month in advance.  A food critic interviewed in the film says that, based on time (your meal might take you fifteen minutes to eat, as Jiro frowns upon relaxation and is given to staring sullenly at his customers while they eat), Jiro's is the most expensive restaurant in the world.

One interesting dynamic in the film is Jiro's relentless pursuit of the perfect piece of sushi. He has a routine and follows it religiously every day, even so far as to board the commuter train from the same point on the platform. However, this pursuit is offset by his knowledge that actual perfection will remain out of his reach. He, and his tuna vendor (who says, "If ten tuna are for sale, only one can be the best. I buy that one.") both acknowledge that just when you think you know everything, something happens to remind you how much more there is to know, and how much more work needs to be done. This is quite reminiscent of God's law, which must always be beyond our reach (Matthew 5:48). Ironically (and graciously) it is in our acknowledgement of our failure to live up to the law, whether it be the law of perfect sushi or perfect righteousness, that enables us to do anything worthwhile at all.  In that sense, it is Jiro's realization of his shortcomings that allow his sushi to be so amazing.

A second dynamic that bears mentioning is that between Jiro and his son and heir, Yoshikazu.  Yoshikazu remains at Jiro's restaurant as a sous chef despite being fifty years old (and despite his younger brother having gone off to open his own branch of the restaurant) because in Japan, it is expected that the elder son will remain with the father and take over his position. Yoshikazu, of course, is in the unenviable position of following in a master's footsteps. One of Jiro's former apprentices notes that when Jiro does retire, even if Yoshikazu's sushi is the equal of his father's, it will be seen as inferior...and that it will only be seen as equal if it is, in fact, twice as good. Again we come up against the face of the unyielding law. There is literally nothing Yoshikazu can do to fulfill the expectation that is placed on him. He must do what his father has (and we Christians have) done; acknowledge our weakness and pray for a miracle. In a happy postscript, it seems as though Yoshikazu may have gotten his miracle: it turns out that every time the Michelin inspectors ate at Jiro's restaurant in the first year, it was Yohikazu who made their sushi!

Count me in for a trip to Jiro's subway station (the Ginza station in Tokyo) the next (and first) time I'm in Japan, but count me out for a lifetime spent in the relentless pursuit of perfection.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Scaled Law of Oscar Pistorius

The inspirational story of Oscar Pistorius has taken an interesting turn. For years, it seemed that "inspirational" was a legal part of Pistorius' name, included as a required element of every sentence in which he was mentioned. Pistorius is a double-amputee sprinter who runs on carbon-fiber "blades" that replace the lower half of both of his legs. For the first time, last month, such a competitor was allowed to compete at the Olympic Games. This didn't occur with no fuss; there was at least some question about whether or not the blades gave Pistorius a competitive advantage over runners forced to use their own, God-given, legs.

Pistorius acquitted himself well at the games, but didn't make the final in his only individual event, the 400 meter dash.  He seemed to say all the right things during each of his (seemingly several hundred) interviews, always remarking that he "happy just to be" there, and honored and humbled by the attention he was getting. For Pistorius, it seemed that it wasn't about winning.

Now it is.

Every four years, a month after the Olympics, the Paralympics takes place in all the same stadia. To same extent that he was an inspirational story at the able-bodied Olympics, Pistorius has been a dominating force at the Parlympics, winning the 100, 200, and 400 at the Beijing Games in 2008. The same was expected this time around, no doubt due to the fact that Pistorius had qualified (well, sort of) to compete against able-bodied athletes. On Sunday, Pistorius was beaten by Brazil's Alan Oliveira in the 200 meter dash, ending an almost unparalleled dominance. Check out this excerpt from the Associate Press story reposted on

The "Blade Runner" had never been beaten over 200 meters until Brazilian sprinter Alan Oliveira came storming down the home straight to win by 0.07 seconds and dethrone the icon of the Paralympics.
Pistorius later accused Oliveira of bending the rules

Having won his own legal battle to compete wearing carbon-fiber blades alongside able-bodied rivals, Pistorius suggested that Oliveira ran with longer prosthetics than should be allowed.
Oliveira won in 21.45 seconds after overtaking Pistorius at the line at Olympic Stadium in front of a capacity 80,000-strong crowd.
"Not taking away from Alan's performance -- he's a great athlete -- but these guys are a lot taller and you can't compete (with the) stride length," Pistorius said in a broadcast interview. "You saw how far he came back. We aren't racing a fair race. I gave it my best. The IPC (International Paralympic Committee) have their regulations. The regulations (allow) that athletes can make themselves unbelievably high.
"We've tried to address the issue with them in the weeks up to this and it's just been falling on deaf ears."
For Pistorius, it is "ridiculous" that Oliveira could win after being eight meters adrift at the 100-meter mark.
"He's never run a 21-second race and I don't think he's a 21-second athlete," Pistorius said. "I've never lost a 200-meter race in my career."
Pistorius has since apologized for the timing of his comments, though not for their content.

I, for one, am glad that Oscar Pistorius has revealed himself to be a human being, rather than an humanoid "inspirational story." He's done what we all do: apply a scaled law to ourselves, and the full law to others.  A common human refrain is, "I'm not perfect, but..." It sounds awful put into words in the way that Pistorius did, but we all do it, all the time. Our struggle to self-justify finds its most habitual form (we know of course, that we cannot completely justify ourselves) in the desire to at least be better than one other person. This is the theological version of running from the bear: you only have to be faster than one of the other people trying to get away.

Until we can start seeing the law as applying fully in all cases, and doing so to us, we'll always find ways to exempt ourselves (after all, don't we deserve it?) and to thereby put a band-aid on the gaping wound of our human need.
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