Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Redux: The Gospel According to The Time Machine

After a week of hurricane prep, hurricane resistance, and hurricane recovery, here's one of my favorites from the archives.  For the concerned, we lost power but didn't flood.  Thanks for the thoughts and prayers.

In George Pal's 1960 classic The Time Machine, H.G. Wells (Rod Taylor) invents the titular contraption and travels thousands of years into the future.  There, he does not find the Utopian society that he wished for, but a sharply divided "human race," which has evolved into, on the one hand, vicious, subterranean Morlocks, and, on the other, peaceful, laissez-faire Eloi.  Before Wells (known as "George" in the film...that's, apparently, what the "G" stands for...) knows about the Morlocks, though, he interacts only with the Eloi.  He finds their life idyllic, if dull.  On occasion, though, a great horn sounds, and the Eloi turn into strange automatons, marching mindlessly into caverns in the Earth.  We find out later that they are marching into the clutches of the Morlocks, and to their death.  Nothing George can do, no shouting, shaking, or pleading, can break the Eloi out of their trance.

Christians go into a similar trance when they hear the announcement of the Law.  "Love your neighbor."  "Give to the poor."  "Honor your father and mother."  We think to ourselves that these things are right and good, and that we will obey.  And so, we begin our march.  We think that to march is obedience, and that righteousness and success live at the end.  We cannot be shaken out of this belief.  But, like the Eloi, our march leads only to death.

St. Paul says that he was once alive apart from the law, but that once "the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died" (Romans 7:9).  The problem is that we can never know when we have loved our neighbors enough, or given enough to the poor, or honored our fathers and mothers enough.  The Law, the requirement, the superego, can never be satisfied.  Thus, the march can only end in death.

George must descend into the lair of the Morlocks to save the Eloi.  It's the only way.  Paul cried out for a savior from "this body of death" (Rom 7:24) and if the Eloi were capable, they'd do the same.  They are in a trance, though, convinced, like us, that the obedient march is the way to salvation.  But a savior must come from outside, someone immune to the siren song of the Law.  So it is:  "For our sake He made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).  The Law leads only to death, but it is only from death that we can be resurrected to new life.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Failure, Real Life, and Terri

In the TOTALLY under-the-radar 2011 film Terri, John C. Reilly and Jacob Wysocki play a high school guidance counselor and a troubled teen, respectively. They form an unlikely bond (sounds like a indie movie, right?) as Reilly tries to help Wysocki pull himself together. In this scene, Wysocki has confronted Reilly about a lie he's told, and this is Reilly's response:

"Life's a mess, dude." Truer words were never spoken, until seconds later when Reilly says, "Maybe I will do better, or maybe I'll do even worse. I don't know. I screw up all the time, 'cause that's what people do."

The story Reilly tells about the secretary in his office and the temp who replaces her is a moving (in an "oh my gosh, I'm just like that" way) description of the brokenness of human life, and yet another reminder of the distinction between our insides and our outsides. We think, as Reilly's temp does, that the important thing is how we appear. We know when it's appropriate to be sad, and so we make our display. We know we're supposed to love our neighbor, so we act the part. But Reilly (and usually, the people in our lives, too) see right through us. We are significantly more transparent than we believe we are, and everyone knows, inherently, that what's most important is what's inside us.

And then Reilly admits that, ultimately, he's just like his temp. He messes up. He does his best (we all do), but he's likely to keep messing up. This is true of enlightened guidance counselor types and this is true of Christians. We screw up all the time, 'cause that's what people do (see: the Armstrong/Hamilton Conundrum). I have a good friend who once said, "People are bad, and Christians are people." Simple, yet profound.

As usual, the best news for us is the Good News, and the Good News is only good if it's true for Christians, too: "Jesus said to them, 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners'" (Mark 2:17).

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Armstrong/Hamilton Conundrum

Despite the title, this is not a post about a Big Bang Theory episode. This week, we're interacting (again) with humanity's seeming inability to grasp the moral complexity of the rest of humanity. As Lance Armstrong gets dumped by Nike, a major sponsor, is stripped of his Tour de France titles for doping, and steps down from the chairmanship of his Livestrong Foundation, talking heads (on TV and otherwise) wonder what to make of the man. After all, he has, almost through force of personal will, raised tens of millions of dollars for the fight against cancer. On the other hand, he has been cheating the system and self-righteously lying about it for more than 10 years. Bomani Jones, being interviewed on Dan LeBatard's Highly Questionable program, actually suggested that these two sides of Lance Armstrong were "mutually exclusive."

These Armstrong discussions come in the wake of Josh Hamilton's season as slugger and recidivist for the Texas Rangers. As this article illustrates, people are confused about what to make of Hamilton, too. Tellingly titled "The Prisoner of Redemption," the piece (by Grantland's Bryan Curtis) details the expectations that have been placed on Hamilton since he "cleaned up his act:"

The problem with The Story [of Hamilton's recovery from drug and alcohol addiction and development into one of baseball's best players] wasn't that Hamilton was telling it too much. The problem was that The Story was too perfect. Its happy ending left no room for a fourth act. Which is to say, the improbable, occasionally strange life that Hamilton was continuing to live and the odd turns of fate that would occur over the course of a baseball season. Here, we come to the 2012 Texas Rangers.
In February, Hamilton went out in Dallas and started drinking. At some point during the night, he called Ian Kinsler. Hamilton committed no crime, and a relapse is about the most predictable thing that can happen to an addict. But drinking didn't jibe with The Story. For if faith had helped Josh ward off Satan's stench, why was Satan back?
This question hovers over Lance Armstrong's head, too, though he doesn't have the added Christian dimension: How, if these are indeed good men (having raised so much money for charity and having played baseball so well), can they have acted so duplicitously (having cheated the sports world, lying about it for a decade, and going out for a night of drinking)?

How can Christians be such bad people sometimes?

We've spoken on many previous occasions of Martin Luther's famous formulation simul justus et peccator ("at the same time justified and sinner"), and it will serve us well to discuss it here. St. Paul (a...duh...saint, and author of two-thirds of the New Testament) asked God to remove a thorn of perpetual sin and struggle from him (2 Cor 12:7) and called out for rescue from his "body of death" (Rom 7:24). He described the Christian life (or more accurately, the human life) perfectly with those astoundingly apt words in Romans 7:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do...For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do -- this I keep on doing (vv 15, 18-19).
Of course Josh Hamilton and Lance Armstrong have led lives that seem to belie all the good they've done: they're human (peccator). In a funny way, Bomani Jones was right: our two states are mutually exclusive, but that doesn't keep them both from being true at every moment, all the time. How sweet, then, is the news that our savior came to save (justus) those who consistently slip back into sin, who know what they ought to do but cannot carry it out, and who consistently fail. Christianity is not a religion to help bad people get better, but a religion to get bad people saved.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Fosbury Flop (and the High Bar of the Law)

It’s autumn now, which means that everyone can begin dreading stewardship season at church again. Preachers dread preaching it, congregants dread hearing about it, and everyone dreads being told how it all turned out. We’d all much rather think happier thoughts, like, perhaps, thoughts about the Fosbury Flop.

Dick Fosbury invented his “flop” (or at least brought it to the world’s attention) in the 1968 Summer Olympics.  It involves jumping over the high jump bar backwards, and landing on your back. It revolutionized the sport immediately, initiating an extended season of new world records. It was long entrenched as the only legitimate method of clearing a high jump bar by the time I began high jumping, in 1996.

I was a good high school high jumper, which is to say that I had no prayer of high jumping on the college level. I qualified for the regional meet, and could jump my height (a traditional benchmark). This meant that, in the main, I won or placed in most of the district and one-on-one meets in which we participated. Being among the best came with some perks. A good high jumper can use strategy to jump higher in meets or to psych out opponents…but sometimes, this strategy comes back to bite you.

Since the final standings of a high jump competition are determined simply by ranking the highest height cleared, jumpers can choose to pass on attempting lower heights, saving their legs and energy for higher jumps. This can also intimidate other jumpers, as in, “I’m nearing my personal best and that guy hasn’t even started yet!” I would often smugly pass lower heights, hoping my rattled opponents would fault out of the competition.

This is the mindset that a rich young man had when Jesus told him that, to be saved, he needed to obey the law: “all these [laws] I have kept since I was a boy” (Mark 10:20). “That’s child’s play!” he might as well have been saying, “I don’t even need to try!” In other words, he’s saving himself for the tougher jumps, the higher heights, the more challenging feats of obedience.

Then Jesus raises the bar.

At one district meet, I passed height after height, drunk on the scared looks I was getting from my inferior competitors. When I finally deigned to take off my sweats, a funny thing happened: I couldn’t clear the bar. Well, it was funny to everyone but me. There’s nothing quite so mockable as a high jumper who finishes a competition with no height cleared and in last place; especially one who has been so visibly unconcerned about lower heights.

When the rich young man comes face to face with the high bar of Jesus’ law, that to be saved he must sell all he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus, he goes away sad, “for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22). He’s come face to face with a bar that he can’t clear.

As “stewardship” becomes a topic of conversation in our churches, let’s remember how high the bar is: everything you own. We consistently believe that the bar is low enough to clear: 10%. So we wave dismissively: give us a challenge. We tithe, and think ourselves righteous. But when Jesus raises the bar, we realize that the standard is too high for us, that the bar has been placed far above our heads. The standard is not 10%, 20%, or even 50%…it’s everything.

Jesus raises the bar for a specific purpose: We need to be brought into touch with our failures in order to recognize our need for a savior. The rich young man is confident in his high jumping ability. He could jump that high as a child! So he must be shown his need. Jesus knows that the first word of God (the law) must be understood in all its destructive power before the second word of God (the Gospel) can be accepted.

When the disciples see how this interaction ends, they ask, “who then can be saved?”  Jesus answers with God’s two words: First, he destroys: “with man it is impossible.” Second, he comforts: “But not with God. With God all things are possible.”

Who can be a good steward? No one. With man it is impossible. But not with God. With God, we have been called good stewards, in Christ, no matter how egregiously we fail and crash once more into the high jump bar. Where the rich young man went away sad, crushed by the law, we can stay, acknowledge our failure, and be saved.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Slugger, Redeem Thyself

The Yankees are going down in flames, and they're doing it in a way that no one expected: the Bronx Bombers can't hit!  Long known for using their high-priced murderer's row offense to make up for shaky starting pitching, the 2012 Yankees and losing close, low-scoring games because they can't score any runs.  Alex Rodriguez takes most of the blame because of his overwhelming contract and suspicious, mirror-self kissing ways, but he doesn't even have the lowest postseason batting average on the team.  Robinson Cano, a perennial MVP candidate and fan favorite, has not had a hit yet in his last 29 at-bats, setting an all-time (in a sport that's been around and keeping stats since the 19th century!) record for postseason futility. 

Yankees fans, used to cheering the long ball, are growing frustrated.  A few days ago, a fan took the time to paint the sign at left and bring it to The House That Ruth Built (Yankee Stadium).  Big thanks to Dan Siedell over at LIBERATE for this picture, and be sure to check out his amazing thoughts on the intersection between the Gospel and art HERE. How do you think A-Rod feels, looking up into the stands and seeing this sign?  I know how I would feel!  I'd want to jump over the wall, clamber up to that fan's row, and scream in his face, "Look, I'm TRYING to get hits! Don't you think I'd be playing better if it was up to me? Don't you think I'd redeem myself if I could?"

Self-redemption is every human being's fondest hope, but it's also our impossible dream. In sports, people always talk about the disaster that can come from trying to make up for failures on the next play. Coaches always chide athletes to have a short memory; if you go into the next play, the next match, or the next game trying to make up for the mistakes of the previous one, you'll usually only compound them. The assertion is simple: we can't redeem ourselves.

The parallel to Christianity here is so obvious that it probably doesn't even need to be drawn. Humans refuse to believe that we are beyond helping ourselves; in fact we often protest that God only helps those who do!  We dearly wish that we could, ourselves, atone for the mistakes of the past, and say "Thanks but no thanks" to the offered atoning death of another.  We're uncomfortable owing someone so much.

We only acknowledge our need for a savior when the idol of self-salvation is unceremoniously ripped from our grasp. Alex Rodriguez, and the rest of Yankees, are almost there. One suspects that last night's Justin Verlander three hit annihilation will serve as the Hammer of God, finally convincing the Yankees, and their fans, that a savior from within is not enough.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

I Would Never Do That: Denial and Cheering a Downed Quarterback

On Sunday, the crowd at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium was getting tired of quarterback Matt Cassel's poor play, so they began to chant backup quarterback Brady Quinn's name. As the saying goes, the most popular player on the team is the backup quarterback. For this to be true of a player like Brady Quinn can only stand either as a testament to the putridity of Cassel's performance or a case of collective amnesia afflicting the stadium. Chanting the name of the backup quarterback, of course, isn't rare (see: Tebow, Tim), but what is rare is what happened next.

In the fourth quarter, Cassel had to leave the game with a head injury. As Cassel lay on the turf after the hit that injured him, his home crowd seemed to cheer in relief. "Finally! No more Cassel!" the cheer seemed to say. The stadium certainly cheered as Quinn entered the game. Here is Chief's lineman Eric Winston reacting strongly after the game:



On yesterday's Pardon the Interruption, Tony Kornheiser suggested that if this happened (there's some disagreement about whether the cheering started when Cassel went down or if it began as he made his way off the field; it is common to cheer injured players leaving the field, as a way to let them know that the fans are behind them) it was illustrative of the "darkest part of human nature." Interestingly, both Kornheiser and his co-host Michael Wilbon expressed surprise that this kind of thing could happen in Kansas City, traditionally believed to be home to one of the nicest and most loyal fanbases in the NFL.

As they expressed their surprise, I couldn't help but think of the similar surprise that Christians express when their heroes falter. Ted Haggard comes immediately to mind. "Really?" we exclaim. "Him? How could someone who seemed so faithful fall so far?" I've heard the Christian life illustrated as the climbing of a ladder, and I'm willing to accept this image if we can agree that the ladder is infinitely tall and that each rung we've climbed immediately disappears beneath us. In other words, we're always on the last rung, hanging on for dear life.

The impulse that led Kornheiser and Wilbon to assume that the denizens of Kansas City were above cheering a quarterback's injury is the same impulse that allows us to convince ourselves that we (and other, similarly advanced, Christians) would be above that kind of thing, too. It only takes the right situation, however, to show us that our hold on that ladder was tenuous at best and that our falls can be as spectacular as anyone else's.

The tragic irony of the ladder illustration is, of course, Jesus' stated intention to save those lying in a crumpled heap at the bottom of it while having nothing to do with those proficiently climbing. The longer we continue to convince ourselves (falsely) that we are in good standing and out of trouble, the further we remove ourselves from the outreached hand of our savior.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

"If I Could Just Beat Mike:" Kobe Bryant, the Jordan Rules Pharisee

The law/demand to measure up to Michael Jordan (the Jordan Rules), as we mentioned in a post about LeBron James, is as incredibly pervasive and as it is inflexible. Like all laws, there’s no wiggle room (i.e. the “jot or tittle” of Matthew 5:18). The law wouldn’t be the law if it were any less rigid.

Once a player is put under the demands of the Jordan Rules, they only have two options for response: meet the demands (perfectly) or be freed from the demands. LeBron has experienced the latter option. Which approach has Kobe taken?

In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee looks at the wretched tax collector and thanks God that he "is not like other men." Kobe seems to have chosen this role for himself, accepting all the pressure that comes with being a special case. Just this week, on the first day of training camp, Kobe loudly claimed that the new look Lakers are "his team," despite the presence of several multi-selection All-Stars, shoveling another helping of pressure onto his already overflowing bowl.

LeBron is more like the tax collector, who beats his breast and asks God to forgive him. LeBron has apologized for the arrogant press conference in which he announced that he was leaving Cleveland and has assumed a team leadership given (by Dwyane Wade), rather than demanded.

Kobe has been compared to Jordan since his rookie season— and the comparisons have only escalated as Bryant accumulated championships. In response to the Jordan Rules, Kobe has taken the first approach: to measure up—and this has been the worst thing he could have done! As a result, the Jordan Rules have perpetually had their way with him. Now, Kobe isn’t viewed as any other individual player—he’s viewed through the merciless lens of the Jordan Rules, which inevitably expose Kobe’s failures and inability to uphold the demands and measure up to the Greatest of All-Time.

The Jordan Rules strip Kobe of his individuality as a player—he’s just another shooting guard in the shadow of Michael Jordan.

In short, Kobe has never cried “Uncle” under the pressure of the Jordan Rules. But what if he did? Should he? We're not saying whether he should or shouldn’t "back down" from the challenge to measure up to MJ, in part because Kobe’s competitiveness is certainly entertaining, and therefore good for the NBA, but we are saying that, for his own peace of mind and personal legacy, continuing to try to "be like Mike" is the worst thing he can do.

The law makes him a Jordan copycat who, at best, is just a pale comparison. When Kobe won his 5th championship in 2010, the initial reaction wasn't fully celebratory. We could feel the demands to "Be Like Mike" in the background saying, "Jordan had 6 rings. Kobe’s got one more to go."

Just cry “Uncle”, Kobe, and drink some Gatorade!

This post is a collaboration between Nick and friend Matt Patrick. Visit his blog HERE.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Redux: "Earn This" and the Law of Saving Private Ryan

James Ryan walks through the American Cemetery in Normandy, an old man. He stops at a headstone, and falls to his knees, tears in his eyes. The headstone reads: John Miller. As Ryan’s wife comes to his side, he says through his tears, “Have I been a good man? Tell me I’ve lived a good life.” Moved, his wife assures Ryan that he has. Yet the tears don’t abate. James Ryan can’t be sure if he’s been good enough.

In Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg marshals a wonderful ensemble cast to tell a wonderfully scripted, beautifully shot, movingly acted, and soul-crushingly judgmental story. John Miller is tasked with taking a squad of 8 men to find just one. Private James Ryan is the fourth son of a woman who has lost the other three in World War II. It has been decided that she will not lose a fourth. Miller’s squad eventually loses every man in the effort to save Private Ryan.

Miller meets his own end defending a bridge by Ryan’s side. With his last breath, he looks at Private Ryan and whispers, “Earn this.” With these words, he dies. We flash sixty years into the future, and the octogenarian Ryan has clearly lived his entire life with this great weight on his shoulders. Has he indeed earned the salvation that Miller’s squad gave their lives for? Miller himself, earlier in the film, muses, “He better be worth it. He’d better go home and cure a disease, or invent a longer-lasting light bulb.” Has he discovered a cure for malaria? Has he invented cold fusion? That awesome upside-down ketchup bottle? As viewers, we aren’t given to know. What we do know, however, is that he’s worried. Why else does he beseech his wife to comfort him? We see that he has a beautiful family. His wife tells him he has been a good man. Clearly, leading a good life has not freed him from the judgment of Miller’s words.

Christians too often hear these words, “Earn this,” coming from Jesus’ lips as he dies on the cross. We hear sermons to this effect: “Is the life you’re living worth the death he died?” We live our lives trying to earn it, to become someone for whom such a sacrifice isn’t so radically inappropriate. We turn into old James Ryans, worried that it hasn’t been quite enough. The most shocking revelation of the film is that Ryan’s wife has no idea who John Miller is! Miller’s judgment has been so heavy that Ryan has not been able to share his name or story with his beloved for his whole life!

But Jesus doesn’t say, “Earn this” from the cross. He says, “It is finished.” Even more radically, he says, “I tell the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” The message of the Gospel is diametrically opposed to John Miller’s “Earn this.” Miller applies the law to Ryan’s future in a way that Ryan can never escape. No matter how profound an altruist Ryan may become, the profundity of Miller’s sacrifice will never allow Ryan to feel satisfied, or safe from Miller’s judgment-from-beyond-the-grave. One word of law destroys the grace Miller shows in sacrificing his life for Ryan. But it is not so with Christ.

No word of law escapes Christ’s lips from the cross. Incredibly, the word of law is applied to Christ (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). We are freed, and safe. We don’t feel compelled to hide what Jesus has done for us, as Ryan hid what Miller did for him, because Jesus expects nothing of us. Our Savior doesn’t say, “Earn this.” He says, “It is finished…you will be with me in paradise.”
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...