A dozen movies (sixteen, really) I’ll watch again and again

I love movies, though these days I rarely seem to have the time to go to the theatre.  Here are my personal favorites.  Some are cinematic masterpieces, some…aren’t.  But I love each one, because they make me think, or laugh, or count my blessings, or discomfit me upon each viewing.  Which movies do you love?

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12.  Waking the Dead (2000)

Waking the Dead is one of those rare instances in which the film is superior to the book.  Based on Scott Spencer’s novel, the film chronicles the stormy relationship between Fielding Pierce and Sarah Williams (played by Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly).  He is a rising political star; she is an idealistic social justice crusader.  She dies (no spoiler; it happens at the very beginning), and the movie begs questions about the lingering effects upon us of those we love.  Fielding is haunted by Sarah’s memory (and maybe by more than that), as he struggles to be a better man while navigating the hardscrabble life of Chicago politics.

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11.  It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

What makes a person great?  What grants meaning?  What imputes value?  There is no better measure for these things than the impact one has on the lives of those around him.  George Bailey is given the gift of seeing what Bedford Falls would have been like had he not been born, and the story is told as only Frank Capra can.  Plus, even seventy years removed, Donna Reed is stop-you-in-your-tracks beautiful.

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10.  The Others (2001)

This is one of the spookiest movies you’ll ever see.  Set on a fog shrouded Channel island, a mother and her two children are unnerved by slamming doors, voices, and apparitions.  Nicole Kidman is perfectly cast, right down to her alabaster skin.  Theologically, the film begs the question, “Is anyone forgotten?”

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9. The Breakfast Club (1985)

As a child of the 80’s, I had to include a John Hughes film on my list of favorites, and this is his best, in my opinion.  Virtually no one likes himself or herself in high school, and in that stage of life we all secretly yearn for a place in where we can let our guard down and be real people to one another.  (“Don’t mess with the bull, young man.  You’ll get the horns!”)

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8.  Three Amigos (1986)

Of all of Chevy Chase’s, Steve Martin’s, and Martin’s Short’s ridiculous 80’s movies, this John Landis classic is my favorite.  To this day, I can recite lines of dialogue to some of my junior high school-era friends, and they can reply without missing a beat.  Dusty Roads, Lucky Day, and Ned Nederlander save a Mexican village from the marauding El Guapo, who is infamous (IN-famous; it means “more than famous”).  They use a plethora of strategies.  Along the way, they try tequila, which is like beer.

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7. The Godfather (1972); The Godfather, Part II (1974); The Godfather, Part III (1990)

There’s no better film than The Godfather, and Parts II and III (yes, Part III too) are nearly as good.  Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy chronicling Michael Corleone’s road from idealistic war hero, to ruthless Mafia don, to old man seeking redemption, is a masterpiece of storytelling.  I’ve seen the movies a dozen times, and I still get emotional when Sonny is gunned down, when Michael confronts Fredo in Havana, and when Mary Corleone (admittedly, horribly cast  with Sophia Coppola) is killed.

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6. Big Fish (2003)

I often use Big Fish as a teaching tool, a window into the myriad ways truth can run far deeper—and is not entirely dependent upon—facts.  The film is also a story about fathers and sons, and about the virtue of granting oneself permission to know someone again for the first time.

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5. Star Wars: A New Hope (1977); The Empire Strikes Back (1980); The Return of the Jedi (1983)

My  inclusion of these films on my list of favorites is as much about the holistic experience of my childhood as the movies themselves.  I saw Star Wars in the theatre when I was five years old; I saw Empire Strikes Back at the Cinema 150 in Little Rock (a proto-IMAX experience); and I saw Return of the Jedi on opening day at the Malco in Jonesboro, Arkansas.  My brother, Robert, and I had every Kenner action figure and play set.  We added to them with cardboard constructions of our own.  For years, EVERYTHING was about Star Wars.  And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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4. True Grit (2010)

I recognize that to some people it is blasphemy to prefer the remake to the John Wayne original, but the Coen Brothers’ 2010 True Grit is a masterpiece.  The story of the pursuit of vengeance—and the pitfalls of that pursuit, even when vengeance is entirely righteous—is expertly told and filmed.  The dialogue is true to the language of Charles Portis’ novel, and it is different enough from the cadences of our everyday speech that it keeps the viewer’s attention.  Though many folks prefer The Dude, I believe Rooster Cogburn is the role Jeff Bridges was born to play.

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3.  A Christmas Story (1983)

Along with my #1 film, A Christmas Story is a movie that I watch every year.  We’ve all known a Scott Farkus in our lives, and who hasn’t been triple-dog-dared to put his tongue on a frozen flagpole?  I taught my sixteen year old son how to change a flat tire a few weeks ago, and I channeled Ralphie’s dad about the importance of protecting the lug nuts.  (“Fuuuuuuuudge!”)

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2.  Blazing Saddles (1974)

Watching Blazing Saddles in 2016 is an exercise in uncomfortable, side-splitting laughter.  With ruthless satirical humor, Mel Brooks exposes the absurdity of American racism.  I don’t think Brooks could make this film today (just as I don’t believe Norman Lear could make All In The Family).  Our collective ability to grasp such satire has given way to a less nuanced outrage at anything that discomfits us.  Rest in peace, Waco Kid.

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1.  The Myth of Fingerprints (1997)

Bart Freundlich’s debut film (and the one on which he met his life partner Julianne Moore) is my favorite movie by a fair margin.  I watch it every year in the week prior to Thanksgiving, since it chronicles a dysfunctional family who have come together for the Thanksgiving holiday.  It debuted at Sundance in 1997, and its cast consists of actors who were then on the cusp of becoming A-list (in addition to already-veterans Roy Scheider and Blythe Danner).  The film is all about the high cost of reconciliation and the desire to substitute it with a thin veneer of agreeability. (Tip: After seeing the movie, don’t go to Barnes and Noble and ask for a copy of Scream of the Rabbits.  It doesn’t exist.)

The Mystic Chords: Post-Election Thoughts

In the 1960s television sitcom “Get Smart” (whose reruns I watched as a kid every afternoon on Super Station WTBS), at the most crucial moments of discernment and decision, Max, Agent 99, and the Chief would sit across a table and activate “the cone of silence.”  The futuristic, Plexiglass cone would descend from the ceiling and envelop all the conversation partners.  But the cone never worked correctly.  It was an echo chamber.  Rather than facilitating listening, the cone of silence prevented anyone from hearing anyone else. Max, Agent 99, and the Chief could make out only a word here or a phrase there, and through their partial hearing they often came to the wrong conclusions.  They ended up frustrated and confused, unable to discern how to move forward.  The irony was that, at the very moment in which listening to one another was most important, the characters created conditions in which listening was impossible.

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On Wednesday morning of this past week, roughly half of the voters in our nation were relieved at the presidential election’s outcome, while the other half were shocked and saddened by it.  And, both sides also immediately called down the proverbial cone of silence, in which the echo chamber completely cut them off from hearing any divergent voices. Consequently, we have thus far heard only the sounds of our own disappointment or joy, fear or relief.  Indeed, more than a few people—again, representing both sides of the divide—have actually and honestly said to me that they aren’t interested in hearing from someone who cast a vote different from their own.  In our digital day and age that avoidance is easy.  Our cones of silence are so impermeable that even the Facebook algorithm, we now know, sends us only those news items that track with our own already-expressed opinions.

This across-the-board response is, of course, the fevered extension of what was surely the most toxic election cycle in my lifetime, and perhaps in our nation’s history.  Epithets and reckless speech first lobbed from the top then bounced down until common citizens began to believe the worst motives of one another.  Sound bytes prevailed; real conversation among people ceased; and even among folks who’ve known each other for years, suspicion began to take root.  At our Dean’s Hour forum just last week, Ambassador Linnet Deily shared poignantly, “I’ve never seen an election that has divided friends and family such as this has.”

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Of course, such a failure to listen becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It is human nature that when one feels unheard, one begins to speak more loudly, more vociferously, with less care, and with greater abandon.  Since Tuesday, some elements among both the relieved and the fearful have responded in ways that should concern us deeply.

On one side of the divide, news outlets report numerous instances of threat and actual physical assault across the country against Muslims, Latinos, and African-Americans.  Perhaps most distressingly, several of these events have occurred in high schools and middle schools, which reveal the extent to which our children also hear the bits and pieces of our rhetoric and respond in their contexts.  It is as if we have forgotten that we form our children in particular ways by careless words.  They are mirrors to us, and we should see ourselves in their actions.[i]  People of color and religious minorities are afraid, and their fear is real.  They wonder if the America they thought they knew—and in many cases the American dream that drew them here—is an illusion.

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Post-election graffiti at Maple Grove High School, Minnesota

On the other side, CBS News reports that a man in Chicago was pulled from his car and assaulted after a traffic altercation, while his attackers vocally cited the man’s support for Donald Trump as their motivation.[ii]  National Public Radio reports that the protests of the past few days in some American cities have becomes riots, with rioters attacking both police and the very livelihoods of small business owners, engaging in, according to police, “criminal and dangerous behavior.”[iii]

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Protest turned into riot in Portland, Oregon

As you know, in preparation for the fall Dean’s Hour series, I have spent the past several months studying the faith, lives, and leadership of four of the greatest presidents who have ever served our country.  As I have struggled through this election cycle, their words have sustained me in ways I did not expect.  This past week, as I have watched our nation and felt the echo chamber descend, the words of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address have come back to me again and again.  On the cusp of conflict far deeper than our own, the President reminded his fellow citizens:

“We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.  The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”[iv]

This begins here, at Christ Church Cathedral and places like it.  Here, we must model the better angels of our nature.  For us, of course, Lincoln’s mystic chords of memory extend all the way back to the days of Jesus and Isaiah.  They are our inspirations and models; they, and not today’s political candidates or elected officials, are the ones who rightly form our beliefs, our convictions, and our actions.  It is either serendipity or grace that today both the Prophet and the Savior remind us of what God will do in the midst of turbulent times.  Isaiah shares with us God’s promise to “create a new heaven and a new earth,” one in which distress and weeping are heard no more.  But, friends, until the Lord returns, the vanguard of that new heaven and new earth is no one but us.

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“The mystic chords of memory…will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

This is daunting, and never more so than in conflicted times.  But Jesus adds today the promise that he will grant us words and wisdom that no one can withstand or contradict.  In my past two sermons, as the election approached, I sought to convey the character and content of those words and that wisdom.  Three weeks ago, I conveyed St. Paul’s last will and testament, when Paul says, in the end, all that matters is that we hold fast to the faith and love of Jesus, and share it in all our words and actions.[v]

Last week, I talked about the bliss of communion with God that is felt most deeply when we recognize, in our most vulnerable moments, how we are connected with all who suffer and are vulnerable.  Not when you and I are strong and triumphant, Jesus says, but when we are weak, or afraid, or on the very precipice of life is the time to take note of that experience, so that we always remember, in both times of strength and weakness, to do good to those with whom we disagree; to stand up for those in need; to be kind, and be merciful.[vi]

As long as Christ Church Cathedral endures, I pray we will do these things, not because of politics on the right or the left, but because the prophets and the Savior compel us.  (What does it mean to be Christians, after all, other than follow the Way of Jesus?)  I pray we will deny the echo chamber and listen to those who differ from us.  That will not always lead to agreement–nor should it–but it will move us toward understanding and away from imputing false motives to one another. And I pray we will, without doubt or hesitation, stand with and for all of God’s children who are vulnerable and fearful in this world, whatever their color, creed, religion, lifestyle, or political belief.

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Riaz Patel

Yesterday I read a remarkable blog post[i] by Riaz Patel, a Muslim, Pakistani-American, gay man who supported Hillary Clinton.  In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s election, Riaz wanted to shed his echo chamber, to hear and understand those who supported Donald Trump.  So Riaz traveled to Ketchikan, Alaska to visit with third-generation fishermen who were themselves fearful of economic displacement from proposed environmental regulations that would upend their ability to make a living from the sea.  In a diner called The Landing, Riaz and his husband broke bread with locals Nicole, Jim, and Paula.  Together, they were a motley crew who could not have been more different in virtually every way, but they all spoke openly.  They all shared their fears and concerns.  In their conversation, the mystic chords held, and the better angels of their nature prevailed.  I daresay that neither Riaz nor his conversation partners changed their vote, but I have no doubt that their connection altered the way they saw one another and, God willing, their commitment to one another in time of trial and need.

We do well to embrace the words of Jesus and the words of those two prophets, Isaiah and Abraham Lincoln.  Today, tomorrow, next year, and until the Lord returns, we are called by God to embody the better angels of our nature. We are called to shed our echo chambers and listen to those who differ from us, to see the best in them and hope the best for them.  We are called to stand unequivocally with those who are vulnerable.  We are called to receive grace and reflect grace.  In these ways, and no others, will the mystic chords and bonds of affection that bind us as a nation be preserved.  In these ways, and no others, will we, at Christ Church, be the vanguard of God’s new heaven and new earth.

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[i] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-elections/donald-trump-president-supporters-attack-muslims-hijab-hispanics-lgbt-hate-crime-wave-us-election-a7410166.html

[ii] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/you-voted-donald-trump-yelled-man-beaten-chicago-streets/

[iii] http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/11/11/501685976/anti-trump-protest-in-portland-ore-turns-destructive-declared-a-riot

[iv] http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres31.html

[v] https://rectorspage.wordpress.com/2016/10/23/thinking-about-death/

[vi] https://rectorspage.wordpress.com/2016/11/06/the-election-god-and-our-bliss/

[vii] http://www.glennbeck.com/2016/11/10/what-a-gay-muslim-pakistani-american-immigrant-learned-traveling-to-rural-alaska-the-week-before-the-election/

The election, God, and our bliss

When Jill, the kids, and I lived in Roanoke, Virginia, we were frequent visitors to the Busch Gardens amusement park in Williamsburg.  Griffin loved the roller coasters; Eliza loved the water rides; and Jill and I enjoyed the European themes.  We could visit England, Italy, and France without ever boarding an airplane.

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The park was always crowded, and the year we visited during spring break it was crushingly so.  Eliza was five years old.  She was very small, and as we walked through the park, her hand in mine was feather light.  There is one spot in Busch Gardens that forms a bottleneck, funneling a huge volume of people through a relatively narrow archway as you approach the miniature cars, an area both our kids loved.  That spring break, as Eliza and I passed through the arch, suddenly the feel of her tiny hand in mine disappeared.  I looked down, and she was not there.  In the crush of people and movement, she was gone.  Time stopped.  The workings of my imagination went into overdrive, considering a dozen panicked possibilities in a split second: She had been taken.  She had been trampled.  She had been erased from the earth.  My complacent bliss turned, in an instant, into fear, confusion, and an unfamiliar sense that I hadn’t a clue what to do next.

Eliza’s smiling face emerged from the crowd one second later, and I picked her up—thank God—with a bear hug of relief.  If you are a parent, or if you have ever loved anyone in your life, you know how I felt in that moment, when Eliza’s tiny hand was drawn from my grasp.

I don’t recall experiencing anything akin to this emotion since that day years ago, until—and I do not offer this as a joke—the lead up to Tuesday’s presidential election.  For a time, I suspected I was being privately histrionic or overwrought, until other people starting coming out of the woodwork to share their similar emotional responses with me.  People on the right and on the left, both Trumpeters and the “I’m with Hillary” army—and the broad swath in between—feel as if something precious, something held perhaps too lightly for too long, may be about to slip from our grasp.  We wonder if we’ve been too complacent in our bliss.  We are anxious and confused, and, depending on Tuesday’s outcome, we don’t have a clue what we’re supposed to do next.

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I’ve been thinking on the word “bliss” lately.  When Sister Joan Chittister was here for the Faith and Reason Seminar in mid-October, she reminded us that the Beatitudes, which we read on this All Saints Day, rightly refer to our bliss.  We usually read “Blessed are they…” with the idea, either conscious or subconscious, that the “blessing” refers to some reward in the next life.  “Bless-ed” becomes “blest,” and the Beatitudes are then categorized as the hope of heaven.  “Blest are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God” is interpreted like the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, as if to say, “In the great hereafter, the poor will receive heavenly riches.  In the end, it’s all going to be o.k. for them.”

I certainly believe and hope it will be, but that interpretation lends us the excuse to be complacent, to say of that long list of people, both good and bad, included in the Beatitudes, “We need not worry about them.  God will take care of it all eventually.”

Sister Joan pointed out to us that this is a gross misreading of the Beatitudes’ intent.  “Bless-ed,” an etymological study quickly reveals, is best interpreted “blissful.”  And that casts a different light entirely on the Beatitudes.  The Beatitudes are all about, regardless of the circumstances we experience, where we find our bliss.

Matthew’s Beatitudes focus on our spirits, while Luke’s (which we read today) focus on our bodies, but this truth holds in either case: Our anxieties, our hungers, our tears, our struggles in this life are also those very depths in which we most often discover, to our utter and complete surprise, that we tap into the well-spring of God.  It is in those experiences that, even through our pain, we encounter bliss, that “peace which passes all understanding,” as St. Paul calls it.[i]  It is in the belly of the whale, at the bottom of the sea, we recall, that Jonah sings his salvation song.[ii]  When all else is stripped from us, God is there, waiting in love.  There we find our bliss.

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But neither does this bliss, this peace, this resting in the heart of God intend to lull us into complacency.  Immediately after sharing the Beatitudes, Jesus tells us what the encounter with God’s deep grace compels us to do: Do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who abuse you.  Give to those in need, and do so with gratitude for the blessings you bear.  Be kind, and be merciful.  Our own deep need, which leads to our own deep bliss, compels us to identify in solidarity with the grave concerns and needs of others.

This is not merely a posture we are to slip into on Sunday mornings.  It is a way of being in the world.  It changes how we see ourselves and how we see others.  The Christian spiritual writer Henri Nouwen says that this shift in our understanding is “the movement in which we become less and less fearful and defensive and more and more open to other people and their worlds.”[iii]

To end where I began, in this election season, we fear that our complacent bliss is slipping away.  But Jesus tells us insistently that we have found our bliss in the wrong places.  Our bliss is not found in our material things, or our societal privileges, or our nation’s military might, or the presumed superiority of our political opinions.  Our bliss, the deep peace that endures through all dangers, all uncertainties, all election cycles, finds its source in our connection to the God of love, and that eternal bliss leads us to deep compassion and concern for all of God’s people in this world.

We should start there, before we vote, before we obsess over the election results that pour in on Tuesday evening, and surely before we react to whatever new world we find ourselves in on Wednesday morning.  God’s bliss is not featherlight.  It bears the weight of glory, and it cannot slip from our grasp, come what may.

[i] Philippians 4:7.

[ii] Jonah 2.

[iii] Nouwen, Henri J.M. Ministry and Spirituality (Continuum: New York), 246.

To Work for God’s Good Pleasure

The theme verse for this year’s Every Member Canvass, which culminates on Loyalty Sunday, November 13, is Philippians 2:13, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”  St. Paul’s claim always reminds me of the fantastic 1981 film “Chariots of Fire,” and especially about the real-life Olympic runner whose life the movie portrays: Eric Liddell, known in his day as “The Flying Scotsman.”  Liddell was the son of Scottish missionaries in the early twentieth century.  He was made famous at the 1924 Olympics, when he refused to race in the 100 meter prelims, because they were scheduled on Sunday, and he would not break the Sabbath.  Liddell’s entire life was formed by his relationship with God.  And he experienced a connection between his running and the faith in God in which he had been formed.

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Eric Liddell, the “Flying Scotsman”

At one point in the movie, Eric Liddell’s sister asks him why, after winning so many medals, he still runs.  Liddell’s response is an epiphany.  He says, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast.  And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

That sentiment sets Eric Liddell apart from all the other runners in “Chariots of Fire.”  They run for the medal, for the trophy, for what they get in the end.  But for Eric, the purpose, the meaning, the victory is in the running itself.  Eric runs not to win; running is winning.  In the movie, the difference can be seen in Eric’s final Olympic race by the rapture on his face as he makes the last turn.  Others have looks of pained desperation, of darkness across their brows.  If they fail to finish—or if they come in second—they’ll feel lost.  But in the home stretch, Eric has already won.  The prize is his as surely as he lives and breathes.  Because he runs for God’s pleasure, Eric experiences victory in his races and in his life.

That’s what St. Paul means!  “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”  And, in all my experience of churches, across states and across denominations, that’s what sets Christ Church Cathedral apart.

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Ian Charleson portraying Eric Liddell in “Chariots of Fire.”  The ecstasy on Liddel’s face reveals that he has already won, simply by running for God’s pleasure.

I don’t believe that we worship, or serve those on the margins, or fight for God’s justice in the world, or study, or engage in fellowship with darkness across our brows.  I don’t believe we do these things because of grim duty or obligation that feels like drudgery.  I believe we do this work, and I believe that we financially support this work generously and, in many cases, sacrificially, because we feel God working through us, and we feel God’s pleasure.  What deeper joy could there be?  None of it happens—not the worship, not the service, not the justice, not the pastoral care, not the fellowship—without our financial support.  I have made my pledge, and I pray you will to, as we continue to will and to work for God’s good pleasure in downtown Houston.

Thinking about death

After a long and wasting sickness, a man lay dying in his bed.  He hadn’t been the best of husbands.  He’d been an inattentive spouse, and his relationship with his wife often had been rocky, but as he lay dying the man suddenly smelled the aroma of his favorite chocolate chip cookies wafting up the stairs.  Smiling faintly, he gathered his strength, lifted himself from bed, and slowly made his way out of the bedroom.  With great effort he climbed downstairs, gripping the railing with both hands.

With labored breath, the man leaned against the door frame and gazed into the kitchen.  He thought he might already be in heaven, for there before him on the kitchen table were dozens upon dozens of his favorite chocolate chip cookies.  Was this heaven, or was this an act of heroic love from a devoted wife, determined to coax her husband back to health and life?

Mustering one final effort, the man threw himself toward the table and reached weakly for a cookie.  Suddenly, his hand was smacked with a spatula by his wife who said, “Stay out of those—they’re for the funeral!”

I’m going to tell you a story.  At the outset, I’ll say that I am fine.  I don’t want you to think there’s some sort of awful punchline at the end.  I am fine.  But two months ago I experienced, in a day, three spells of intense lightheadedness, in which I thought I would pass out.  Within a couple of days after that, I developed a persistent, throbbing headache behind my right ear, accompanied by what was, by then, a continual haze of lightheadedness.  It felt as if I had a concussion.  As the days wore on, I had trouble concentrating.  I’d forget a word here and there, or I’d lose my train of thought.  I was mildly worried, so I visited my doctor.  He was more than mildly worried.  After examining me, my doctor said without hesitation that I needed an MRI to rule out a brain tumor.  Only after he had left the exam room did it occur to me that it was a bit ominous he never even broached the subject of what our next steps would be if the MRI were clear.

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That was a Monday.  The MRI was on Wednesday, and I learned the results—that it was, indeed, clear—on Thursday afternoon.  My headache and concussed experience lasted another ten days, most likely related to the nerve of the inner ear, but for those four days, between the first visit to the doctor and the results of the MRI, I walked through the world assuming that I might well have a brain tumor.

Conceptual artist Candy Chang says that “thinking about death clarifies your life.”[i]  I am here to tell you, she is right.  I would not want to relive the anxiety and worry of those four days any time soon, but, as I shared with the Friday morning men’s bible study the day after I received the MRI results, I hope I never lose sight of the clarity those four days provided.  It was razor-sharp and piercing.  It was also spiritually potent.  I’m someone who is paid to think about God all the time, and I do.  But rarely, if ever, have I so closely considered my own relationship to the God who creates me in love and to the blessed world in which that God placed me.  In those four days, there was no question about what matters and what doesn’t.  My perception of the outside world was concussed and confused, but my inner compass and center of meaning were crystal clear.

It is in similar circumstances that Paul, we are told,[ii] writes his Second Letter to Timothy.  Paul is in prison, slated for execution.  He is tired, and he is lonely, and he knows that he is about to die.  And thinking on that death clarifies Paul’s life.  He ends the letter today with a poignant and moving personal benediction: “I have fought the good fight,” he says, “I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”

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St. Paul in prison, awaiting death

For Paul, that fight, that race, that faith has been sharing with whoever will listen the revelation he has experienced in Jesus, which midway through his life stopped him in his tracks (literally)[iii] and changed everything.  Earlier in the letter he crystalizes that revelation: “Hold fast,” Paul says, “to the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  Guard that good treasure that has been entrusted to you.”  All the rest is commentary.

On normal days, this counsel from a dying apostle is easy to compartmentalize.  When the debit and credit ledgers of business beckon, or when personal grudges or personal desires frame our vision, or when the heat of a bizarre national political campaign brings out the worst in us, it is easy to say to ourselves that sharing the love of Jesus is a thing for Sundays.  It is also easy to excuse that compartmentalization by leaning, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable today, on the false self of our relative uprightness compared to all those awful people we assume (or hope) must be worse than we are.

On normal days, it’s easy to set Paul’s counsel as, at best, an aspiration.  But there are no aspirations when you’re sitting in prison, awaiting execution.  There are no aspirations in the days awaiting potentially dire medical test results.  There is only reflection upon the life one has lived, on whether that life has been authentic, and on hope for our lasting influence and impact after one dies.  Thinking about death clarifies life.

The artist Candy Chang, who offers this insight, says that such contemplation is not intended to be morose.  Candy Chang says that the clarity provided by contemplating death intends to instill a deep gratitude for life.

In 2012, Candy Chang wedded this insight to her vocation as a conceptual artist.  In her New Orleans neighborhood, she painted the front face of a dilapidated and abandoned house with chalkboard paint, and she wrote across it the phrase, “Before I die, I want to…”  Candy left chalk at the site, and she walked away.

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The next day, the wall was full of writing.  Dozens of passing people had stopped in their tracks—like St. Paul on the Damascus Road when he met Jesus—and paused to contemplate death.  They wrote:

“Before I die, I want to…sing for millions.”

“Before I die, I want to…plant a tree.”

“Before I die, I want to…hold her one more time.”

“Before I die, I want to…be someone’s cavalry.”

People wrote about their regrets, their loves, their deepest yearnings.  They wrote about what was most authentic and important, and they shed all pretense to what was not.  Their sentiments were true.  They were unselfish.  They focused like a laser on what more could be given, where love could be shared, and where grace could be found.

That New Orleans wall became like a latter-day temple wall in Jerusalem, where the Pharisee and the tax collector went to pray.  But no one approached Candy Chang’s art with the Pharisee’s air of self-righteousness, or with clouded rationalization and excuse.  No one did, because contemplating death clarifies life.  All comers approached like the tax collector, in humility, in tears, and leaning on grace.  They reflected upon the lives they’d lived, and they hoped for those who would endure, and they were grateful.

Whether our time horizon is decades or days, there is piercing clarity in asking, “Before you finish the race, what do you want to do before you die?”  St. Paul says, “Hold fast to the faith and love found in Jesus.”  Guard that treasure, and share it in everything you say and do.

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[i] http://www.npr.org/2016/01/29/464424348/what-do-you-want-to-do-before-you-die

[ii] Most biblical scholars agree that Paul did not actually write 2 Timothy, but that it was, rather, written retrospectively by the Pauline community some year’s after Paul’s death.

[iii] Acts 9:1-4