Friday, November 30, 2012

Grace, Weight Loss, and Dodgeball

There was a time (perhaps we're still in it) when you could basically mad-lib a movie script and get it made: Loveable loser played by (insert comedian to taste, preferably Will Ferrell ) takes up or plays (insert sport) and is initially a failure, only to overcome the evil (insert either successful comedian or dramatic actor looking to have some fun), get the girl and save the (insert beloved gathering place or institution). Semi-Pro, Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory, Balls of Fury, Kicking and Screaming, Cool Runnings, and Major League all fit that formula in more than one way, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Our subject for today is Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, starring Vince Vaughan and Ben Stiller (it's almost unfathomable that Ferrell doesn't have a cameo in this movie).

Vaughan and Stiller own competing gyms, and take very different approaches to weight loss. Anyone who has tried to lose weight will recognize these two methods (perhaps not in this exaggerated form, but still).  Here's Stiller, opening the movie in a commercial for his outfit, Globogym:

Stiller clearly thinks that self-hatred is the only way to overcome one's natural inertia.  In other words, you're not going to get off the couch and lose that weight unless you hate who you've become. If you can't recognize your hatefulness? He'll be happy to tell you about it. Now Vaughan, at end of the film, for Average Joe's Gym:

You can immediately see the difference.  "You're perfect just the way you are. But if you want to lose a little weight..." And the final shot of Stiller, back to his pre-Globogym self serves as the nail in the coffin of self-hatred's long term success as a diet plan.

Theologians might call these two gyms Law Gym (Globogym) and Grace Gym (Average Joe's). The law says "Be fit!" but doesn't have anything other the the commandment itself to get you there. So it keeps yelling, telling you that you're not good enough, that you're not skinny enough, that you should hate this you and move on to a better one. Grace, on the other hand, says that you are beloved, despite yourself. In Christianity, we understand that this beloved-ness is on account of Jesus Christ (in other words, it's not quite "you're perfect just the way you are"). This relationship between law and grace holds true no matter the law, whether it's "Be fit," or "Be successful," or "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength."

Surprisingly, belovedness despite perceived fault is the only true motivator. Vince Vaughan is right: when you feel loved and accepted in advance, you can begin to consider what you really want to do. There's no need for a personal trainer! People who live under the weight of the law will, over time, like Ben Stiller, self-destruct. It is only grace that leads to a healthy life, no matter what you weigh.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Useful Law or: How I Got in a Fistfight with a 50-Year-Old Man

This happened on Monday. Seriously. On Monday I got in a fistfight with a 50-year-old man. I'm 34. I should note immediately, and in my own defense, that it was a really one-sided fistfight, in that he landed both the punches he threw and that I neither threw nor landed a single punch. He won on all cards. Except that, of course, he didn't.

Here's how it went down.

We were playing pick-up basketball, and an out-of-bounds call was disputed. Voices got raised, as is par for the proverbial course (court?). I thought he'd touched the ball last, and he claimed that he hadn't. We went back and forth a couple of times, yelling, but eventually, inertia led his team to claim the ball. In pick-up games, you check the ball in (pass it to your defender, who passes it back to you when his team is set defensively) rather than take the ball out-of-bounds. This man (let's call him's his real name) was the checker, and I was his defender. We were both still a little (a lot) hot under the collar from our dispute, and so when he checked me the ball, he put a little extra heat on the pass. When I checked it back, I returned the favor. Apparently, that was over the line.

He came at me with some serious hatred in his eyes. Before I could really understand what was happening, he'd landed a left-handed jab to my chest. I'm a pretty big guy (6'6", 240), so I didn't move. I said, "Are you joking?" In an apparent effort to show me that, no, he was not joking, Mike landed another jab, again with the left, to the same spot on my chest. Again, I didn't move. "You've got to be kidding me!" I said, too stunned to do anything in response but stand there gaping at him. This was a 50-year-old man! He's screaming at me about how he's "not [my] boy," and punching me twice in the was surreal.

An hour later, long after other players had intervened, he'd left the game and playing continued, Mike came up to me and apologized. He said, "I lost control." No kidding.

Now, clearly, we handled the situation very differently, and the way we handled it is a nice window into what theologians have called the two "uses" of the law. Let's say that the law says, "Don't attack another person." You know, just for the sake of discussion. The "first use of the law" (or, the "civil use") simply states that if you do go around attacking people, no one will like you, you'll have to explain your embarrassing actions to your 14-year-old son who was in the gym, and, eventually, you might even get yourself arrested. Good reasons not to attack someone, right? The "second use of the law" (or, the "theological use"), though, says something deeper, something more like, "If you attack people, you have broken God's law, and are liable to His judgment."

Here's the profound thing: it's only under the first use of the law that there's a difference between Mike and me. No one would disagree that it's better not go around punching people, even if they deserve it (which I didn't...I mean, the ball was out on him, as anyone with a brain could see!). But the second use of the law is the great leveler. Listen to Jesus in Matthew 5:
You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire. (vv 21-22, RSV)
Mike and I were both angry with each other. Each of our checks had some extra zest on them. I certainly thought him a fool. We are each, in the eyes of God, liable to "the hell of fire." In other words, as it relates to our standing before a holy God, Mike and I are both in desperate need of a savior, even though he "lost control," and I only stood there, dumbfounded. I'm glad I didn't punch him, but I can't count myself as righteous because of it.

We who are angry, whether we lose control or not, whether we punch or not, can count ourselves as righteous only because of  the gift of another, the perfect righteousness of our savior. That said, don't get in fistfights with 50-year-old men. You could end up with a tiny bruise.

Friday, November 23, 2012

From the Archive: The Fight Club Gospel: Hitting Bottom

There's a scene in Fight Club, starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, which finds Norton being taught by Pitt to make soap.

Pitt's character, Tyler Durden, embodies everything Norton's unnamed narrator aspires to be. It's Durden who makes speeches about "the things [we] own end up owning [us]" and when confronted with the ugly truth about America's consumer culture simply spouts invective: "[Expletive] Martha Stewart. She's polishing the brass on the's all going down."

Through a series of circumstances too intricate to go into here, Norton comes to live with Pitt, and begins to lose the trappings of Americana: his home, his job, his yin-and-yang coffee table. Pitt though, still thinks Norton is being a poseur, simply acting like he's ready to let it all go, while still being too afraid to really take the plunge.

This is a conversion experience of the first order. This is what we might call "the cross side" of Christianity. Jesus said that if any wanted to become his followers, they had to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him (Matt 16:24). We think that this means discipleship is a hard road, with a heavy burden to bear. We forget that people who carry crosses always end up in the same place: on them. Brad Pitt says, "First you have to give up. You have to know...not fear...know, that someday, you're gonna die." This is the first step to freedom: To know that the road of the cross leads to Calvary. He goes on: "It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything."

We resist. "Lose everything? Deny myself?" we protest. "But that'll mean weakness...and death. That'll be the end of me!" The somethings that we hold on to, the things we imagine are keeping us alive, are the very things that are killing us, and killing us for good. The things we own end up owning us. Ed Norton puts our greatest fear into words: "You don't know how this feels!" We cry so to God, "You rip my desires, my hopes, my life!...away from me. You don't know how this feels!" Brad Pitt holds up his hand, showing his scar, proving to the faithless that he's been here before.

Like Thomas, converted by the wounds of the risen Christ, Norton is converted by Brad Pitt's wounds. He has passed this test. He has carried this cross. Jesus Christ has borne his cross so that death can be a beginning, rather than an end, for us. He died so that we might live. He died, and we died with him (Gal 2:20), so that now we can be free. We have to know...not suspect...know, the reality of the cross. It is only then that we can really be.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

From the Archive: Crushed: The (Totally Predictable) Story of Todd Marinovich

Todd Marinovich was more than a highly coveted quarterback recruit. He was more than a highly-trained physical specimen. He was…a machine.

His father, Marv, had been a star football player at USC and had played in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders. As he played, he sometimes wondered how good he could have been if he’d been devoted to the sport from a younger age. When he had a son, he decided to find out. The story of Todd Marinovich’s childhood is well-worn territory. Magazine articles from the time (like Sports Illustrated’s “Robo QB”) and the recent ESPN documentary The Marinovich Project detail  an unparalleled training regimen. During Todd’s first month of life, Marv instituted a stretching regimen, flexing his infant son’s hamstrings and quads. From the time Todd could hold things, he was holding a football. As soon as he could stand, he was standing in cleats. Everything, from his diet (no sugar or processed foods, period) to his time (no vacations or after-school outings with friends — his mother had to literally kidnap him for a weekend away…she knew if she asked Marv, he would have said no), was engineered by his father to give him the tools he would need to be a great quarterback. (Many of the sometimes grisly details can be found in a Psychology Today blog post called “An Interesting Weekend on the Perils of Building Better Humans.”)

It worked…except that it didn’t. Marinovich began smoking marijuana in high school, saying that it, “gave me a buffer from a life that was too intense.” He went to USC as a blue-chip recruit and savior of the program. He was…except that he wasn’t. During his sophomore year he was benched for thinking he knew better than the coach…and for getting into alcohol and harder drugs. Marv is quoted in the documentary as saying that “when he was at home, things were pretty well structured,” lamenting the fact of his son’s rebellion at school. But in the next breath, he admits that things were “…maybe too structured.” Todd left school after his sophomore season, but was arrested on drug charges (cocaine this time) before the NFL draft. He was nonetheless drafted by the Los Angeles (at the time) Raiders. Drug problems continued to plague him. Howie Long, a then-teammate and current NFL analyst, suggests that “the pressure was on him from an early age, and I think that probably – in some ways – wore him down.”

Wore him down indeed. Inside of two seasons in the NFL, Marinovich was, by his own admission, “done with football.” The clearest thought in his head was a simple one: “I don’t want to be Todd Marinovich.” He “wanted to get as far away from football as possible.” The law brought only death (Romans 7:10). The regimen that was intended to make him a success only brought him torment and failure. A reporter covering Todd’s high school career cautioned that “you can’t build a jailhouse of achievement for your son or daughter and not expect a really bad result.” The law, the rules, the requirement…these things are the jailhouse of achievement that either others construct for us or that we construct for ourselves. There is no way out of this jailhouse but through capital punishment.

Happily, Marv Marinovich is not the single-minded monster of destruction that the disembodied Law is. When Todd was in the throes of his drug addiction and needed help, help that ranged from being bailed out of jail to being physically held and comforted while going through withdrawals, Marv was there. Marv, in this story, was able, perhaps miraculously, to be Grace to his son, even after being the Law. Today, they have a loving and close relationship. Todd is now clean, sober, and an artist, whose work can be viewed at

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Freedom and the Two Meanings of Flight

In his first live-action film since 2000's Cast Away, Robert Zemeckis directs Denzel Washington in Flight, a picture that pays homage to both common definitions of the word. In the movie, Washington plays a troubled-but-talented airline pilot who manages to successfully land a crashing commercial jetliner despite being under the influence of more substances than you could count, and whose alleged inebriation causes his heroism to be called into question.

The film, though, is only peripherally about the kind of "flight" that involves either flapping wings or screaming jet engines, and only spends about a quarter of its runtime there. Flight wants to go deeper: Denzel's Whip Whitaker is a man running away. In the same way that he uses one drug to counteract the effects of another, he uses one image of himself (strong, competent, and free) to obscure some more distressing truths about his person. Whitaker is on the run from the truth about himself.

Flight spends most of its time painting a graphic, realistic, and relentless picture of the life of an addict, and therefore of the life of a human person, echoing St. Paul's lines from Romans 7: "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 (v 19)," with one important difference: Whitaker thinks he knows what he's doing! It's always worked out before, and even when things seemed to be going tragically wrong, he was able to perform in ways that no other pilot (even a sober one) could.

In the film's most powerful scene, a fellow (though more honestly introspective) addict (Kelly Reilly) tells Washington that she's worried about him. "Worried about me?" he responds. "Worry about you! We're not the same...I choose to drink!" "It doesn't seem much like a choice to me," she replies.  Reilly's character has added the "I do not understand what I do" of Romans 7:15, and tears the blinders from Washington's flight from himself.

For every scene in which Washington promises sobriety (even when it is in his obvious legal interest to do so) there is a companion scene, showing us his continued spiral toward bottom. In the end, it is the bottoming out that leads to freedom.  "I might be a chump," he says in a final scene, "but I couldn't tell any more lies." The most common lie we tell is one to ourselves, that we have it all together, that we know what we're doing, and that we're in control.  It takes a bottoming out, (one that is surprisingly moving, due to its predictability, in Flight) to lead us to the promised land. "My grace is sufficient for you," the tagline might as well read, "for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9).

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Amar'e Stoudemire, The Ewing Theory, and Addition by Subtraction

Bill Simmons, author, editor-in-chief of Grantland, and owner of the sports corner of the internet, has popularized an idea that he calls "The Ewing Theory." From Simmons' Wikipedia page: "The Ewing Theory claims that when a longtime superstar who has never won a championship leaves the team via injury, trade, or free agency, and the media writes the team off, the team will play better."

The theory takes its name from Patrick Ewing, the all-star center and franchise player for the 1990s New York Knicks, due to the fact that the Knicks always seemed to play better when Ewing was either injured or had to be benched due to foul trouble.  In the theory's most classic example, during the 1998-99 playoffs, Ewing sustained an Achilles' tendon injury, and it was widely assumed that the Knicks' season was over.  However, they promptly defeated the Pacers, even without an answer for Indiana's giant center Rik Smits. They did lose in the Finals, to the David Robinson/Tim Duncan Spurs.

There are Ewing Theory claims being heard now about this year's Knicks. Amar'e Stoudemire, a perennial All-Star, began the season injured, and pundits immediately stopped talking about the Knick's chances. But the Knicks have begun the season undefeated, prompting some to wonder whether or not the Knicks might actually be better without their consensus second-best player. The thinking, by the way, is that with Stoudemire off the floor, Carmelo Anthony has more room to operate and doesn't need to even consider giving the ball to someone else (For the sake of clarity, it should be noted that Carmelo never gives the ball to other players, but with Stoudemire on the floor, he has to at least consider it).

So one of the questions facing NBA pundits this season is this: Have the Knicks gotten better by losing a great player? Has addition by subtraction occurred?

Of course, the addition by subtraction model is as familiar to Christians as a Thomas Kinkade print. A common prayer is to ask that "we might decrease so that [Christ] might increase." We know that we are only capable of anything because of Christ who strengthens us (Phil 4:13). What is less familiar to Christians is the underlying truth of the addition by subtraction formulation: no one subtracts on purpose.

The Patrick Ewing Knicks discovered by accident that playing without Ewing made them better. The current iteration of the team would never have sidelined Stoudemire intentionally. And in the same way, we never consciously decrease so that Christ might increase. This is something that God does to us, for our benefit, not something that we do for ourselves. We think too highly of our own abilities to ever think to add by subtraction. So, much like a torn Achilles' tendon or the ruptured cyst in a knee (Stoudemire's ailment), God must break us down against our will in order to resurrect us. It is the only way. I've heard it said that God's job (at least one of them) is to destroy the idols in our lives. Unfortunately for us, our main idol is ourselves. We must be destroyed in order to be remade. Fortunately, God promises to do just that.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Bad Preacher: Controlling God in There Will Be Blood

In Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 oil epic There Will Be Blood, no character can stand in the way of Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview. Several try, but they are mowed down by his titanic force of personality and will. Plainview literally seethes in every single scene in the film, even when sitting quietly by the campfire or going for a dip in the ocean. Day-Lewis' performance is so assured and immersive, his Oscar was a foregone conclusion.

Because of Plainview's (and Day-Lewis') dominance of the screen and the film, almost none of the other performances register, including Paul Dano's strange turn as both Paul and Eli Sunday. Paul shows up in an early scene, selling information that his father's ranch has oil on it, and is then never heard from again. Eli, however, is Plainview's main antagonist (although Plainview himself can only honestly be called an antagonist), a fire-and-brimstone-style preacher who wants to make sure that the church gets a piece of Plainview's oil profits.

Unfortunately for Eli, he is not the landowner, and Plainview is able to swindle the naive elder Sunday out of his ranch.  Here's Eli confronting his father about his stupidity:

In another scene, Plainview refuses to let Eli bless the new derrick, which leads (according to Eli) to the death of a worker and an accident involving Plainview's own son.

These two scenes go together to illustrate Eli Sunday's view of God: basically, Eli thinks that we can control God. First of all, he thinks that his blessing can compel God's protective action. No blessing, no protection. Either way, it's Eli who's in control. Secondly, he tells his father that God won't save stupid people. Again, it's people who control their salvation, not God. Smart, saved. Stupid, lost.

All too often, we think about God in the terms that Eli does. We imagine that he is beholden to us, either to our prayer life, to our faithfulness, or to our bidding. In fact (and this is good news), God operates outside of us, and despite us, saving us in our stupidity, and saving the world despite our attempts to destroy it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

An Inspirational Speech: Chuck Pagano and The Power of The Word

Here's Colts head coach Chuck Pagano in the locker room after his team won on Sunday. Pagano has been unable to coach the team this season, having been diagnosed with leukemia and undergoing chemotherapy:

My first response to this video was, "Really?  People are really inspired by the 'Rah rah I'm gonna beat this and we're gonna win' stuff?" I was all prepared to compose a post about that old sports saying that Father Time is undefeated. In the sports world, it's used to call attention to the inevitability of players aging and declining in ability. It happens even to the greatest athletes. There comes a point when they just can't do it anymore. Father Time is undefeated.

We might say the same thing of ourselves: Father Time is undefeated. We can never escape our ultimate fate; not even the best among us, including Chuck Pagano. We might extend our time horizon longer than anyone expected us to, but Father Time is, and will remain, undefeated.

So that's what I was going to write.

But then I watched SportsCenter. And Around the Horn. And Pardon the Interruption. And I listened to the B.S. Report. And people would not stop talking about Pagano's inspirational speech. Sal Iacono (of Jimmy Kimmel Live) told Bill Simmons on the B.S. Report that gamblers should be notified when a sick coach is going to give a speech before a game, because there's no way that team's losing. That's when I remembered that some words have power.

I'm still dubious about coaching speeches having measurable effect on the outcome of games, even speeches like this one:


But some words do have power. Words that proclaim forgiveness can be freeing. Words that proclaim freedom can be enlivening. Words that proclaim love can make life worth living. For Christians, these words are all sourced in one place: the risen Christ, the Son of God. When God speaks, his Word creates. Light. Love. Freedom. Life.

Perhaps Chuck Pagano's moving speech is but a pale echo of the true Powerful Words, but I think we can all be glad for an echo that reminds us of the real thing.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Perfect Makes Practice

Does being a Christian take practice? This question, though it might seem absurd on the surface, seems to inform a lot of what we spend our time as Christians doing. At a recent gathering, a speaker told a group of clergy something that we’d heard many times: that our relationship with Christ is much like any relationship we have in our lives. Like friendships, familial relationships, and intimate relationships, our bond with Christ must be managed, tended, and cultivated, or else it might wither and die away. In other words, in the same way that old friends can grow apart, Christians can become estranged from their Savior.

The ways in which we Christians endeavor to remain (or become) close to Jesus are often referred to as spiritual “disciplines” (or “practices,” for those for whom “discipline” is a dirty word).  Meditation, prayer, fasting, and solitude are just some of the “practices” that Christians engage in to cultivate “A Closer Walk with Thee.” Yours and mine might be different, but we all have things that we do to get the thing that we want most: intimacy with Jesus. In other words, practice makes perfect.  The better you practice, the more perfect your relationship with Christ becomes.

Let me suggest to you that, while spiritual practice can help you feel closer to Christ (which is a wonderful thing!), they are completely impotent in achieving that closeness.

Let us take St. Peter as our example. Selected as a disciple, Peter was as close to Christ, physically and personally, as anyone has ever been. Yet he consistently misunderstood Jesus’ teaching, to the point that Jesus once referred to him as Satan himself (Matt 16:23)!  Famously, Peter’s last experience of the pre-crucified Christ was his promise to never leave or forsake him, even unto prison or death (Luke 22:33). This proclamation didn’t stop Peter from fulfilling Jesus’ prediction about his faithfulness, denying him three times that very evening.  Peter’s practice was far from perfect!

By our every word and action, we, like Peter, run from God. Paul makes this clear in Romans 3:10-11: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.” We live our lives and make our decisions as though there is no God; we consistently think of ourselves first, before God and others; and when we regard God at all, we form him into our own image.

But, as always, there is Good News! When the women find the tomb empty on Easter morning, it is presided over by a young man with a message. “Tell the disciples, and Peter,” he says, “that Jesus is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Jesus preserves and cements what ought to be a broken relationship with Peter! By all rights, Peter should be very worried about the state of his friendship with this risen Christ he denied knowing. But their relationship doesn’t depend on Peter; it depends solely on Christ.

The same is true of us. We pray, we have quiet times, we walk labyrinths, we do myriad things to cultivate our relationship with our savior. But let us never worry that he is absent or estranged, for he has assured us that he will be with us “always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). For Christians, then, it is not “practice makes perfect.” It’s something closer to “Christ’s perfection frees you to practice.” In him, our relationship is always secure, and in him, our practice, whatever it is, is made perfect.
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