2.26.2004

I got a sneak preview of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ the other night. For starters, I'll say that I thought (and still think) that the film is a genuine work of art. But, as I said to my wife afterwards, no one who wants to be entertained should go to see this film. This is not a movie-going public's kind of movie. It was excruciating to watch, even while it was moving. It was definitely not entertaining.

In a sense, I suppose it accomplishes everything that Mel set out to accomplish. It did a lot of what I expected it to do, and more. And, I think everyone who can see the film, should see the film. Those who are already overwhelmed with Christ's sacrifice or those who have a complete aversion to violence of any kind, should not.

My friend Jay called me today to say that he had seen it and was very frustrated. Jay, like me, is a pastor. And one of the things we are both keenly aware of is the general public's knack for turning art of any kind into fact, be it the Left Behind series, The Da Vinci Code, or The Passion of Christ. And if you, like I, assume the gospels to be the best historical resource for the story, then you, like Jay, will be frustrated. Gibson draws heavily on the liturgy of The Stations of the Cross, much of which is not in Scripture.

Personally, this doesn't bother me. But other aspects of the film do, at least upon reflection and the fact that Jay's opinion on things always affects me! The raven pecking out the eyes of the thief on the cross (the disagreeable one), being the chief of sinners. It was unnecessary, to say the least. And, while I personally enjoyed Gibson's creativity in bringing the character of Satan to life in various ways, I can understand how some viewers will simply be confused as to what Gibson was trying to portray and where he came up with that idea. I'm thinking here of the scene in which Satan appears in the crowd, while Jesus is being whipped, carrying some sort of demon baby in his/her arms.

Again, call me sick, but I liked it on an artistic level. But I admit that on a theological level, there isn't much to it. I'd love to hear why he chose to portray Satan in that particular way.

I give credit, however, to the opening scenes of the film as they seem to set the story in context. Satan is there in the garden tempting Jesus to give up on the mission. Satan tells Jesus that it simply is not possible for one man to bear the burden of sin and guilt for all of humanity. Within the first five minutes of the film we know why Jesus has to die, whether we understand the nature of that death or not. Likewise, I also found the brief scene of Satan's "unmasking" after Jesus' death to be very powerful. Satan has lost, Gibson is saying. Jesus will be triumphant. And so will we, is the implication.

After the film we were asked by the hosting pastor to remain seated through the credits and then to give him the chance to share a few thoughts. I am not one to enjoy closing remarks like this. They tend to be too pointed and evangelistic for me. I feel that, initially anyway, I'd just rather let the art do the work it was intended to do. What struck me, however, was the juxtaposition of those pre-programmed ads on the screen mixed in with Hollywood trivia and fun facts - like how much money Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones spent on their wedding, or what rank a particular athlete has in the amount of money racked up by endorsements. Strange. Such suffering and power combined with such insignificant fluff, on the same screen.

2.17.2004

I went to visit a lot of people last week. I came back from a pastors' conference the week before with a new passion for the spiritual calling of visitation, among other things. So often I am reduced to hand-holding and listening to the latest prognosis of my parishioners. I ask them how they are doing, when they will leave the hospital, how I can pray for them, etc. This, I must confess, is boring and takes an excruciating amount of energy, to boot.

Last week I was reminded of my role in spiritual conversation, in directing people toward God. I was reminded that I need to view every conversation I have with others as an opportunity to steer them toward God, to give them the nudge they may need to call out to God and receive his presence. It's seems embarrassingly simply when I write it down, like I should have known this all along. Maybe I did deep down somewhere. Maybe the "real me" had just gotten crusted over with other expectations that dulled the shine of my true calling.

At any rate I went to see Bill last week. Bill's been in a nursing home for several years now, after a stroke and the inability of his wife to properly care for him any longer. Bill and his wife Kathy used to be one of the easiest couples to visit, full of conversation and laughter. But Bill's condition has deteriorated somewhat and conversation with him can sometimes be slow. When I am with him, too often, I feel as though I do no good and he just needs time to rest, as much as anything.

Late last week, however, Kathy called me and asked if I'd go see Bill. I worked out my schedule, God gave me the sermon rather quickly, and I set up an appointment. I was bowled over by this visit. I had been praying all week long, with each person I went to see, that God will open a doorway for me to embrace my newly rediscovered role as a spiritual director of sorts. God had answered my prayer at nearly every turn. And when I sat down with Bill the conversation seemed again and again, to center around "the Lord" and around how badly Bill wished he could still do some things for the Lord. He was very emotional, which I understand happens from time to time. But this was not just emotion. This was something deep down in his bones, something he remembered and longed for, something I could pray for and about which I could converse. Our time together was rich and full of God, like never before, in all honesty. And I've been visiting Bill for nearly eight years.

I was able to be someone who spoke about God with Bill and to Bill. I was able to fulfill a role I hadn't in quite a while. I pray that more and more of my visits will be the same, full of hope, purpose and God.

2.10.2004

I have a blank spot in my preaching schedule coming up. It is the season of Lent. I had been thinking about preaching on the topic of holiness, or using the lectionary or some combination of both. One of the questions I am forced to ask, however, is one for which, I am discovering, I have no answer: “What is holiness?”

In the midst of this decision I came across a book on my shelf that I honestly didn’t even know I had. It is New Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton. The book is some 41 years old and I don’t remember ever picking it up. My guess is that I grabbed it off of a give-away stack at the Catholic seminary library where I used do some of my sermon study.

I am mildly fascinated with Thomas Merton’s life and writings, though I’ve never really read anything else by him. I read a book last year about him and three other 20th century Catholic writers, entitled, The Life You Save May Be Your Own (by Paul Elie). It was excellent, thought-provoking and theologically enjoyable. Merton spent most of his adult life as a Trappist monk in a monastery in Kentucky, my home state, and so I feel some connection with him.

I began reading New Seeds with some confusion as the writing style is not one I normally find easily attainable. But I stayed with it and am finding Merton’s take on the contemplative life refreshing and challenging. And, wouldn’t you know it? He has a chapter on the nature of holiness, or sanctity, as he sometimes refers to it.

Merton maintains that our conceptions of holiness often have too much to do with our own abilities and virtues, when in fact, true holiness ought to find its source in the mystery of God. He distinguishes between these two understandings of holiness by using Christ Jesus as an example. Christ, he states, was crucified precisely because he was not truly holy according to the standards of those who opposed him. He writes:

"So God Himself was put to death on a cross because he did not measure up to man’s conception of His Holiness…. He was not holy enough, He was not holy in the right way, He was not holy in the way they had been led to expect. Therefore He was not God at all."

Christ’s holiness, Merton goes on to say, consisted in that he “emptied himself” (Philippians 2.5-11). He became human and dwelt in the flesh among sinful human beings. In fact, he too was considered a sinner. This was his holiness, his sanctity. It should be ours as well.

We must “empty ourselves” as Christ did. We must deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow after him. We must make ourselves “nothing”, just as he did. In doing so, we live not so much in ourselves as in Christ. He adds,

We must live by a power and a light that seem not to be there. We must live by the strength of an apparent emptiness that is always truly empty and yet never fails to support us at every moment.

“This,” he says, “is holiness.” True holiness is not found by striving or in our own efforts, or by competing with others. Indeed, true holiness cannot be created by us at all. True holiness is only found by losing ourselves in Christ, as we are transformed by the Love of God living and working in us and through us in all that we do.

This is not fair, of course, as it flies in the face of the very thing I wanted to preach to my congregation: the need to pursue holiness as followers of Christ. What Merton says, and I am starting to understand and believe, is that this is not the pathway to true holiness. It is too concerned with my concept of what I “ought” to become or do, rather than with the Love of God living in me and expressing itself through me. At least this is what I think at first reading.

This does not mean, of course, that some of the very traits we normally associate with holiness are not valid, but that they do not come first. Perhaps these traits (and I’m thinking here of lifestyles, choices, character, relationships with others, and a desire to overcome sin in our lives, to name a few) are more results of holiness, rather than steps toward holiness. Add to this the concept Merton mentions earlier in the chapter that, “A man becomes a saint not by conviction that he is better than sinners but by the realization that he is one of them, and that all together need the mercy of God!” With that, then, the very nature of sanctity is in the realization that, if anything, we’ve only just begun!

Holiness, then, is not to be defined by certain ways of living or certain border behaviors that separate the holy people from the unholy. Holiness is not so much defined at all. Perhaps it is best pictured, rather than defined. If I am holy I am one whose life and personality is characterized by less of me and more of God. Or, in the words of John the Baptist, when my natural self (or “false self” according to Merton) is ever on the decrease and the person of Christ is ever on the increase in me and through me.

Ah yes. But will it preach? Stay tuned.