LESSONS FROM THE BISHOP’S WIFE

Every year I watch the holiday classic, The Bishop’s Wife, from 1947. It stars Cary Grant and David Niven in one of their top five movie performances, in my opinion. It was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, but ended up winning only for Best Sound Recording. It was up against the post-war drama The Best Years of Our Lives, and in context I can see why it was overlooked. The Bishop’s Wife is certainly more understated and is, after all, a sort of romantic comedy.

Nonetheless, it has become an annual, mandatory holiday viewing for my family. I posted once upon a time some lessons learned from It’s a Wonderful Life, and thought it fitting to include some things I think about when I watch this movies as well. So here are some things to look for (minor spoiler alert).

 

1.Learn to stroll through life like Dudley, smiling and helping wherever you find yourself at the moment.

 

I love how this movie begins. The Angel Dudley (and what a common, ordinary, non-Biblical name that is!) is strolling through the crowded streets of town at Christmas time. He helps a blind man across the street. He saves a baby carriage from rolling into trafic. He looks over the shoulders of children gazing in wonder at the all the toys and delights of Christmas, and he smiles with them, sharing in their wonder and joy. He knows he is an outsider, but he can’t help empathizing with the children. It establishes a charm and tone for the rest of the entire film. Grant captures the smug insider knowledge of the heavenly as he interacts with the earthly and the mundane. His affect during the whole story is that he knows something all the other characters do not know about how things work (watch how he treats locks, especially) and that he is in on a bigger story.

As people of faith, we would do well to emulate Dudley. We know how things really work, or how they are supposed to. We are in on a bigger Story. We should be so smug and knowing as we love those around us. Love and help. A simple creed for a tremendous faith.

 

2. Pay attention to what the woman is paying attention to.

 

This is what stirs the conflict between Dudley and Henry, the Bishop. Dudley has nothing else to do except lavish his attention on Julia. For most of the movie the issue of an angel falling in love with a human being is skirted playfully. Thankfully, it is given only one moment of drama in the plot, and it is handled with the sensitivity of the times, that is, how scandalous and outrageous it would be for an affair of any kind.

But Dudley merely pays attention to what Julia is looking at and thinking about. When he sees her looking at the hat (that hat tho!) he helps her get it. When he learns that she misses Michel’s, he takes her there for lunch.

I once heard a radio talk show host give this advice to couples. Two words for each person. For the Women: Lighten up. For the Men: Pay attention. He rambled on in a lengthy discourse about his admonition, but the advice is perfect. Dudley knew the way to win Julia’s heart was to pay attention.

 

3. Desperate prayers often bring surprising and unexpected answers.

 

When Henry bows his head and fervently supplicates God for guidance, he does it with a mind to getting what he has chosen as the most important goal. Indeed, it looks as if his goal comes from heaven itself: a new, expansive cathedral on a high hill in the town. Visible proof to all of God’s presence, a beacon in a time when people most need hope.

Yet, this is not God’s plan at all. Dudley has no intention of helping the Bishop get a new cathedral built. Dudley could, as the Bishop intones, create one out of thin air. But Dudley wisely says, “You don’t want me to do that? How would you explain it?” And so Dudley sets about orchestrating the real goal of the heavenly with the human–improving relationships. At the end of the movie, when Dudley has to leave and leave no trace of his presence, this has been accomplished. Everyone is in right relationship. That is what brings the greatest satisfaction from watching this movie.

 

4. Help the smallest child win the snowball fight.

 

The charming scene when Debbie, played by Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu from It’s a Wonderful Life) can’t play in the snow with the boys who are forming armies for a snowball fight, Dudley shows her how to throw a snowball. With his help, the snowball flies an impossible distance and hits the ringleader right in the eye. One of the other guys even says, “She threw a curve!” You can imagine how much this delights Debbie, and the boys can’t wait then to get her on their side in the snowy battle.

As a teacher of middle schoolers, I can tell you that you don’t need magic snowballs to increase a child’s self-esteem. Just a positive word, or calling them by name when you see them, or even just talking to them like they are a real person and having an authentic conversation with them will go a long way. I get so much mileage investing in a brief talk with the neglected, marginalized, and outcast weirdos of middle school. Everybody already talks to the popular kids. You will make an eternal mark on the Kingdom by a sincere greeting or a small exchange with a child that doesn’t make anyone’s popularity list.

 

5. If you don’t wear the nice scarf you receive as a gift, someone else will.

 

Dudley is leaving the house when Matilda, one of the caretakers on the Bishop’s staff, offers him a hat. Dudley politely refuses the hat, but when Matilda offer him Henry’s scarf, a gift to the Bishop from her last year that Henry has never worn, Dudley smiles and takes it.

There is a second lesson here about never refusing a gift from someone, even when their giving it is more important to them than your receiving it. Otherwise, the things that we let lie around in closets or on shelves that we never use and just have, will find a new home. No gift given in sincerity is ever wasted. It just might not be appreciated by the one we intended.

 

6. When choirs sing, listen for angels.

 

For me, the most moving scene in this film is when Dudley accompanies Julia to the choir practice at the their former church. He encourages the boys that are there to begin singing. Soon, more and more boys file in singing the most beautiful song. And as Dudley conducts their voices and the choir grows gloriously full and loud, you can hear another choir singing, the most heavenly accompaniment. It makes me cry every time I watch it. To think, that the joyful noises we wring out of our sincere hearts can move beings in heaven, and that they sing with us–it takes the breath away. And it turns on the spigot, too. I’m telling you, I weep openly. We don’t often think that the Other World takes much interest in us, but they are always listening to us. Every praise and word of thanksgiving is broadcast in heaven. They listen. And they sing with us when we lift out voices.

 

7. Like the Roman coin, the small things in life we don’t value very much often have the most amazing stories behind them.

 

The Professor has an old Roman coin that he gives to Julia to contribute to the Bisop’s building fund campaign. He sees it as a trinket found in an old museum shop. When Dudley sees it, however, he tells the most amazing story about it, how it was one of a hundred that were a gift for Cleopatra, and when they were melted down in a jealous rage, this single coin escaped.

There are several other outcast and forgotten things in the film–the Professor’s neglected history of Rome, Debbie at the snowball fight, even Julia to Henry’s obsession with his cathedral. Our lives are filled with things and people that are neglected and valued little. One of my wife’s favorite shows is Antiques Roadshow. She is always amazed that seemingly worthless junk can have an unbelievable value in front of the right person and in a different context. Many times the same thing is true on the show Pawn Stars. You bring something in and suddenly it has a value you never imagined.

What have you neglected lately? What have you overlooked or disregarded as inferior? If it’s a person, take some time to look into their real value. Invest some interest and learn their story. You may have gems in your circle of influence that you never knew about.

 

 

8. When you want to know about love, ask the old men. We know.

 

I watch kids at school all day fall in and out of love and like. Middle school is a torturous place for the emotions. Everyone is worried about attaching themselves to someone in a meaningfully romantic way. It starts earlier than middle school, too, by the way. Most of my kids don’t hear me when I say to make some good friends right now, that they have plenty of lifetime and years ahead to find their true love. I’ve been and out of love myself over the years. I married my best friend and have been married thirty-five years as of this writing. I can tell you about it. I know some things. Ask me anything you want in the comments below.

 

9. At the end of the day, it’s not about building a bigger, better church. The cost of a church building could take care of the needs of hundreds, or thousands, of people.

 

I’m glad this movie makes this point, because I have been making it for several years, here on this blog and everywhere someone will lend me an ear for a moment. I think the greatest idol in modern Christianity is the institutional church. Nowhere in Scripture can you find a mandate for it. The great danger is that people think that by participating in the church–weekly attendance, committee membership, denomational affiliation, etc.–they are following Jesus. Doing church is not the same as following Jesus. I personally followed Jesus right out of the church. But you can read more about that on other posts here.

Just imagine, for a moment, all the resources tied up in all the churches in all the religions in all the world. Now imagine those resources redirected to alleviating the ills of the poor and needy.

I’m just going to let that rest right there.

 

10. Live every moment as if an angel is walking beside you. There probably is one.

 

We do not live in an isolated realm. God is not distant. He is near. He is here. It’s what Christmas is allegedly all about. The Good News has always been that there is a heaven far away that awaits us in some distant time.

The Great News is that the Kingdom of God is right here, right now. I believe in my heart of hearts, or as I tell my kids, from the heart of my bottom, that the real world and the spiritual world are right beside each other. Sometimes the wall between the two is thinner in some places than in others. I believe we have access to that spiritual realm, because I have seen and felt it break through into our own.

If that is true, then we can have an influence in that realm by our actions in this one.

Also, if that is true, it is not a great leap of faith from there to believe that we have beings from that world at work in ours.

Here’s a quick story, take it for what you will. In the early eighties I was driving my car at night when I suddenly had an epileptic seizure. My car veered into the guardrail, down an exit ramp, across three lanes of traffic, across a median, across three more lanes of traffic, through a storm fence, and came to rest under a parked 18-wheel rig. The impact took the top of my little Ford Pinto clean off. I was unconscious for all of this, but when I came to I was being pulled out of the wreckage by police and EMT’s. I was on my right side. I believe to this day that my personal guardian angel pushed me over to my side. If it hadn’t, I would have been decapitated. Why do I believe this? I had other seizures after that incident, and I have never fallen or moved to my right side. That one time I did. 

I know of many other such stories from a lot of different kinds of people.

 

If you haven’t seen The Bishop’s Wife, watch it. Watch it at Christmas. Let it work on you and don’t be afraid to laugh and cry. Open your heart to it and see what it can teach you.

 

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I am a teacher. I am a teacher by choice and by training. I’ve been paying for the education required to do my job for the last twenty years, and I will be paying for it likely for twenty more.
In a world where the word ‘love’ is bandied about far too casually (I love my mom, I love my dog, I love that pizza, I love that movie, I love you, ….), I love the students I teach. All of them. I tell them I love them, too. Every Friday, every class gets this speech at the end of class: “I love all of you. Have a safe weekend. Come back to me Monday. Call me if you need me.” Sometimes I have to make them all stop and listen so that they don’t get used to serious words and think they’re just a mindless habit.
I hug my students. I know all the precautions against that, but most of my kids will never get in their entire lives an authentic, non-sexual, non-threatening, non-invasive display of affection and compassion. Not in their entire lives, they won’t. I high five and fist bump the ones that do not like being hugged. I greet them all by name whenever I see them. Sometimes I can’t bring their name to mind as quickly as they are walking by, so I have to rely on “dude,” “chick,” “darlin,” honey,” “citizen,” “earthling,” or some other term of endearment
In the wake of the Florida shootings last week, My heart suddenly broke. I don’t know why this one affected me more than some others I have heard about. But instead of just watching or hearing about the event with a momentary pause of disbelief and a shake of the head, I was weeping. I cried out in my heart and soul. Maybe it was hearing the interview of the mayor of that county, who used to be a teacher in that very school district. Maybe it was imagining which of my students I would would be without if that had happened at my school. Whatever the reason, I was a crying mess when I got to school that day. I hugged all my fellow teachers and greeted every single student in the hallway by high five or hug. I got a lot of strange looks, but I was  sincerely loving everyone I came into contact with that morning.
There has been the usual backdraft for a tragedy like this. Solutions come from all directions, from ranting social meadialites to austere government officials to preening news reporters. There is no silver bullet for the myriad of social ills that prompted this individual to commit this heinous act.
We don’t need armed people in our schools protecting them. I have seen this bad idea floating around the social media. I respect veterans immensely, but please do not hire them, train them, arm them, and put them in my school. I have had gun safety training and own a weapon. I do not want to be expected to bring it to school. Do not let anyone that has a weapon into my school, not even an armed security guard or law enforcement official. Let’s never let the presence of guns be the norm. Normalizing the already ubiquitous presence of guns is a recipe for further disaster.
I have been trained to protect my school kids. I once hid a class of 22 students from an administrator during an active shooter drill. She was trying to put a stray student in a room for the drill and found my room locked, dark and silent. She used her keys to come into my room and stay with this lost child. When she flipped the light on she almost lost her eye for entering my room before the drill was over. I was between her and my kids like I was supposed to be. I was ready for whatever came through that door. 
I will take a bullet for my kids. Every teacher that I know well would say the same thing. Don’t bring more guns into my school. Ever. How about let’s grab some kids and love them. Let’s give them some boundaries and some rules and enforce them.
Let’s give them some expectations and some goals and help them reach them.
Let’s give them some self esteem and build up some character.
The best movie line I have heard in a long time was in the last Star Wars film: “We don’t win by fighting the ones we hate: we win by saving the ones we love.” That’s the gospel right there, y’all. That’s what Jesus would do.
Take all the energy of the hot air being spouted lately about solutions and let’s start saving the ones we love.
Let’s start calling the unloved, unwashed children by their names and giving them hugs and fist bumps, and clothes and hot meals and medical care.
Let’s start following through in meaningful and authentic ways when we toss an “I love you” at people.
Let’s get up off our praying knees after a while and walk towards people that are marginalized and disenfranchised and welcome them. Heck, let’s honor them.
Let’s get in the way of some bullets–some political ones, some rhetorical ones, some bad ideas, and God forbid a real one, and take the hit for our kids.
Let’s be radically rational and do what needs to be done. And that is, love them right where you are with what you have. 
I am a teacher. I live this every day. But I can’t do it alone. My kids are your kids. My kids will one day sack your groceries, deliver your mail, repair your cars and appliances, run your government, heal your illnesses and on and on.
Let’s create the world we want to live in. Let’s kill the old world and the old ways of thinking by loving them to death.
Let’s win. Let’s get busy doing the hard part of loving someone we don’t like very much, even the ones that totally disagree with us and voted against us in the last election.
And when evil or hate comes through the door it will be so out of place that it won’t be able to stay.
Now go find a teacher and a student and hug them. I mean it. We’ve been crying and we need it.

I got a familiar ping on my phone the other day. My dear cousin, who lives in Texas, sent out her daily Bible verse to a group text of which I am a member. People tend to think that because I have left the Institutional Church (IC) I don’t read the Bible, much less appreciate it or apply it. Nothing could be further from the truth.I don’t mind getting a daily Bible verse every day. I rather enjoy it. It’s fascinating to see what other people are reading and enjoying in Scripture. The verses are often completely different than I would choose to read or meditate upon, so when I get them I am reminded of what other people are doing spiritually, what is important to them, and what they find inspiring. And I don’t know any of the people in the group, I don’t think, other than my sweet cousin.

I have to own up to a couple of things before I go any further. The thing I don’t like about being on a group text is that I also get a ping every time someone responds to the original message. So I get a profuse number of “amens,” and handclap, angel face, and heart emojis for the Scriptures that strike a chord with the other receivers. Some of the responders also add a line of comment or two. The other thing is, that since I have a captive audience, so to speak, I am not above sending back the occasional benign snarky comment of my own. For example, the other day I got the message from Proverbs 51:10, “Create in me a new, clean heart, O God, filled with clean thoughts and right desires.” I could not help myself: I replied, a little faster than I thought possible, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and then we can get started on the garage.” [rim shot] Thank you folks, I’ll be here all week!

But other than the occasional sarcasm and humor, I am silent about the Scriptures that show up at different times in the day. I let them do what all Scriptures do to me. I let them resonate and change me where I need changing, or give mental assent to their importance and their prominence. I try to put my filter down that criticizes the ones that are meant to enforce denominational devotion and allegiance and enjoy a word from the Word.

A couple of days ago I received this verse: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–His good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2) I really wanted to respond with all the annotations in my Bible, but my NASB, held together with purple tie-dyed duct tape, was nowhere near. I merely responded with “I struggle with the intersection of this verse and Philippians 4:8. It’s a thin line to me.” (Phil. 4:8 says, “Finally brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything is worthy of praise, think on these things.”)

That didn’t spark any controversial or angry emojis in my text messages for the rest of the day, so I guess either the other recipients didn’t know what to say about that, or weren’t near their own well-worn copies of Bibles with which to reply. Perhaps they just thought that “Crazy Guy in the Scripture Text Group” was just at it again. I could sense unknown eyes rolling from all over the land. I imagined them linking hands in a vast, ephemeral prayer group, collectively lifting me up.

Still, this verse from Philippians has always anchored my faith. I think about it when I go to a movie, read a book, look at art, have a fine Scotch, or enjoying a premium hand-rolled cigar.  I think about it when I see a beautiful woman, a stunning sunset, a child in the park. I think about it when I hear a great punk rock song, especially from Rancid lately. I think about it when I eat an especially fine meal, or heck, even a pan of my own cornbread.

No Scripture has made me more aware of the presence of God than this one. All the moments that I find in my day that bring pleasure, that remind me of a creative process, that point to something transcendent, all those things, all of them, are good gifts from my heavenly Father. The Father originally made all the things in this world, and he made them perfect. The world is not like that now, but the story of the origin of Man took place in a place distant in time and place. The Garden of Eden was a lake in which all of God’s love was thrown into the center. As sinners in a distant time from that event, we stand on a faraway shore and only have the ripples that reach us. But like the enchanting sound of the waves on the shore, those ripples  sing of the far away event, and lap the shoals of our spirits.

So is there a conflict between the admonition not to conform to the world in one Scripture, and the imperative command to think on all things that are beautiful in it? The problem with thinking so is that it assumes that thinking about or experiencing things that have nothing to do with the Bible or which are distinctly non-church-like automatically means that one is outside the realm of Christian behavior. It assumes a set of norms and boundaries that are more dictated by the constraints of religious belief and institutional allegiance than by the aesthetic values of various media and art forms.

What form does beauty take, after all? Is there “beauty in the breakdown” (Frou Frou)? Is there something meritorious in the “the strange esthetic beauty of choreographed violence” (Peckinpah)? Can art, film, literature, even nature itself be beautiful without referring to or invoking a religious purpose? Can it all function on its own terms, and in doing so, point us to The God Who Is There?

Of course it can. In fact, if the Creator created creators to create, then when they do, it is at the very least an indirect manifestation of God’s presence. God is there and he is not silent. The ripples lap on the shores of our daily lives.

There is a terrifying place in the world. It is terrifying in the way that a roller coaster is terrifying. It defies gravity. It makes you feel like you could fly free of space and safety. You get in your car, say, and feel a rhythm coming out of the radio and it’s a sound that is glorious with rebellion and riot. But you also feel the restraining bar across your chest and the clank clank clank  of an impending free fall. You hear words that press the bar closer to your chest and prevent you from …from what, you wonder, as truth and beauty pummel you. You might want to get free of this restraint for a moment, just a moment, as the music swells and the tempo races. This is good, you feel in your heart; this is right, you feel in your bones. But this is bad, a voice tells you. And then you’re at the apex, and you are going to fall. Will you be restrained and controlled or will you follow this amazing, beguiling truth, this voice in a song and pounding metal angst that you recognize as, and in which you recognize, the voice of your father…

Right there it is. The crossroads. Can you let yourself believe that God is there in that crazy riot of sound? He is. Listen to the words. Listen to the truth. All truth is God’s. All beauty is God’s. Do not conform to the world, but become the way the world sees God. Embrace the truth at the crossroads. Embrace the God who is already there waiting for you in the mosh pit. Waiting for you on the roller coaster and He will not let you fall.

Waiting for you at the crossroads.

[The following is a review of the film. It’s actually more like an initial response, which I adapted from an email I sent to my brother-in-law. Suffice to say, there are major spoilers here.]

 

 

I have been a fan of Blade runner for such a long time. I have seen every iteration of it available and own two or three copies, including the Blu-Ray “Final Cut.”

First of all, what a profoundly sad story. I saw it a second time with Grace after watching it that first time on the IMAX in Columbus. The ethos holds up on a second viewing. Of course I always knew I would eventually own it and could (and will) watch it many times, but seeing it on the big screen was a moving experience. I would put it on a par with Terence Malick’s Tree of Life and the Leonardo DiCaprio venture The Revenant. I think it has that level of depth and sincerity. After watching the first Bladerunner with last week, I am almost willing to say that the BR2049 is a better film.

The reason I am not quite there yet is that I don’t think the sequel has quite the philosophical or theological impact of the first. The potential for the ideas is there, but I think there are fewer questions and more declarative portrayals in the second film. Yes there are some plot ambiguities and lots of unanswered questions (does K die at the end? [I choose to think so] What does Wallace do now? Why and how did Ana’s memories get placed in K? And where can I get me one of those cool emanators?), but the decisions about who we are as humans and our significance in the universe is a straightforwardly bald statement. Where the first movie asked not only should we be more human than the humans we are, but can we be, this second vehicle affirms that no, we are wasted and empty, and even a digital version of ourselves is more human than human. When Wallace places his hand over the womb of the replicant he has just seen “born,” he makes a profoundly deep statement about humanity. Calling a uterus the gulf between man and the stars makes the ability to reproduce the centerpiece of the “what makes us human” question. Ironically, that is truly a reductionist proclamation since all the other biological barriers have been transcended in the Bladerunner universe. New Motto: More Human Than Human Except for the Ability to Reproduce.

Maybe it is because the message is so declarative and seemingly final that I still hold room for the innocence of the first film. Really it has been almost forty years since the first Bladerunner (I need to just let that sink in). I expect some cynicism and some post-modern realism from Ridley Scott, but more so from the context of his recent film canon. I wish Bladerunner:2049 could be more successful, because that would mean that people are thinking about the ideological content of the film and not just the visceral excitement of the movie-going experience. It seems quaint to call the original movie the innocent one of the two, but the entire production lends itself to nostalgia and looking backward (into the future) at something that we lost.

I am glad to see Hampton Fancher’s name in the credits. I appreciate the continuity the writing team brought to the current film. I think they took every salient plot device and element and made a beautiful film out of them. The contrasts are significant to me. The first film was alive with blazing lights. Every building is lit, and Douglas Trumbull’s hazy, foggy, dusty cityscapes are real works of art. The first film is crowded and packed, densely populated and crammed with layered detail. The second film is sparse, with big, open, quiet spaces. The camera lingers on the wide shots and lets the emptiness register.

I love the misdirection of being led to believe that K was the son of Deckard. I felt his loss so powerfully when the leader of the underground replicants pointed out his error. She gives him a purpose when she puts a gun in his hand and tries to convince him to kill Deckard. It’s a hollow one, because he has the same repulsion as Deckard to killing.

And just what kind of replicant is K, anyway? He never answers a direct question throughout the whole film. If the latest generation replicants can’t lie, then he doesn’t lie if he never answers the questions. But he does lie to the lieutenant by not telling her everything he finds. It’s from self-preservation, of course, because he thinks he is the missing child. But Luv, the devastatingly evil servant of Wallace, a Bizzarro World version of Iron Man ‘s Pepper, if you will, lies to the lieutenant as well, or at least tells her she will lie to Wallace to justify killing her. K also has an uncanny knack of picking out the little details in a scene or at a location that are the most significant: the flower by the tree spied from many yards away, the serial number on the bones, the horse head on the ash tray at the orphanage, the piano key at Sapper’s, et al. Joi, his hologram lover, tells him he is special. It is his believing this that is both his downfall and his pathway to becoming a hero. Scott seems to be hitting us over the head with the thought that thinking we are special is our downfall. We are not. We are programmed. Our existence has no meaning otherwise.

And K, or Joe, is a tragic hero in the classical sense. He realizes who (what) he truly is, and acts anyway to save Deckard so that Deckard can be reunited with his daughter. When Deckard then asks K, “Why? What am I to you?” K characteristically doesn’t answer, but the lingering silence is weighted with the dramatic irony that he is truly nothing to Deckard. He just says, “Go meet your daughter.”

His daughter! Deckard and Rachel’s daughter. What a novel idea. Totally preposterous, of course, but they took all the right cues from the original movie—Rachel was special, the whole mystery about whether Deckard was a replicant or not, Tyrell was holding this secret all along and arranged for Deckard and Rachel to meet, and then to have them have a baby. It makes that unnerving and awkward love scene between Deckard and Rachel from the first movie at least a little more palatable. And Rachel was special because she was named! Like Luv in Bladerunner:2049, and Joi, too. The source of the confusion of the is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-replicant argument is that Deckard is named and has a serial number. What a wonderful detail to exploit for the new movie.

The overall production has to be viewed, like I mentioned, as a piece of the canon of Scott’s recent films. It makes a very interesting comparison study to look at the original Alien and compare it to the themes and set design of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. When you do the same with Bladerunner and Bladerunner 2049, you get a sense of Scott’s philosophical intuitions about humanity and our origins. Honest to goodness, I thought there was going to be a narrative that eventually tied the two worlds together. The themes of those last two Alien movies and in the Bladerunner franchise could be woven into a compelling narrative, but to hear Scott tell it, he is so interested in the minute details that a larger ideological canvas would elude him.

 

Except that I don’t buy that for one second. The buzz about Bladerunner:2049 being a flop is that audiences are not getting what they want when they go there. It’s a long movie, and it’s not the visceral roller coaster that Hollywood has conditioned us to expect at the box office. But that’s because Scott is making art first. He is making his philosophical statement first. That was what nearly killed Bladerunner out of the gate, his insistence on the details that portray his theology. It’s pretty obvious in Prometheus that the story arc plays second fiddle to the blatant anger at God, and in Alien: Covenant he is reinforcing the concepts that genetic manipulation and guided evolution are in the hands of man. But if you put Bladerunner and Alien in Group A, and Bladerunner:2049, Prometheus, and Alien: Covenant in Group B, you get totally a clear picture of what I mean, no pun intended.

Group A is dark and dense. They both have cramped quarters for the drama to play. The details are layered. The questions about humanity and deity are broad and nebulous, with portrayals that do not flatter the Creator. In Group B, the lighting is stark. The sets are more open. There is lots of room to breathe. The questions are settled. The light of understanding shines through. There are fewer people and there are more humanoids, androids, robots and the like. There is less nostalgia and more realism, if that isn’t too ironic a term for a futuristic world. (Remember, if the Alien and Bladerunner franchises ever collide, you heard me say it first. But someone will also put Predator with it, to make it the supermashup of all time.)

 

I am satisfied with watching worldviews onscreen. In fact, that is all you ever really get when you watch a film, as you know. You get the worldview of the director or producer or writer, whichever one is in charge of the final product. I am satisfied with watching art unfold in the form of a cinematic narrative or meditation. I remember way back when being a style over content junky. I still get a rush from style. All of the great and beloved Ridley Scott themes and motifs are in Bladerunner: 2049, and this new director handles them almost flawlessly: the huge busts and sculptures, the distorted human forms, the Creator that is blind, the killing of the father, et al: all the signatures of one of my favorite artists. I get more satisfaction from content these days, but I am still a style junkie. It’s rare in a film at all these days to get both. Bladerunner 2049 delivers in spades.

 

You were standing at the copier, your back was to me, and you were struggling to make the machine work. It’s a common sight, of course. You heard me come in and gave me the usual greeting: “How are you?” and I said my usual response: “I’m wonderful!”

I guess it was my fault for saying it in such a way that made you stop your world–your copy machine woe filled, teaching classes you don’t really like world–that made you stop and actually turn around in surprise and ask how I could be doing so wonderful. You said, “I want to know how to be wonderful all the time.” You said it in the exact longing tone that told me you were ready for an authentic response. You would love to be in on happiness. You would love to be in on some secret that you had likely missed, as if you were headed in the direction of wonderful once upon a time, but had somehow gotten sidetracked to unhappiness. Maybe you were stuck on the roadside of despair, or in a trench of disappointment, or perhaps even sidelined on a berm of hopelessness. You could see wonderful in the rear view mirror, you could see me waving from wonderful and you realized you wanted to be there, too.

I am wonderful. I am wonderfully made, have been on a wonderful ride, and I have nothing but wonderful days ahead.

I might not mean the same wonderful that you imagine when you hear me say it. The connotation is blissful and happy, full of joy and light in spirit. And while that is true, I am also literally filled with wonder. Filled with awe. Overwhelmed at the glory of it all. I have turned my head away from the ugly and the banal, and focused my sights on the beauty.

I am wonderful. I am an amalgamation of wonder. I have talent. I have relatively good looks. I have kept in decent shape for a man that has been thirty years old for twenty-four years. A colleague of mine tried to bean dip me recently. She did a double take at the result: I had no bean to dip, as it were. She registered her amazement. “You’re pretty solid.” I finished the thought for her: “For a man my age, you mean?” I’m overweight, but it’s pretty evenly distributed. I joke with my students that while they have been working on a six pack, I already have a keg. I have male pattern baldness, but I keep my head shaved. I have a good head for it. One of my students who knows such things once told me my eyebrows were “on fleek.” I didn’t ask her what that meant and I still don’t know, but it has been confirmed by others. I keep a neatly trimmed little chin beard that is slowly turning gray and white. My ears aren’t too big. My shoulders are broad. My arms, my “guns,” don’t have the same definition they used to have, but you can’t tell the difference under the long sleeves I wear rolled up quarter length.

I am also epileptic. Though I have never had an official diagnosis, for some odd reason, I am seizure prone. The condition is controlled by medication. I take four little orange striped pills a day and the seizures don’t come around. I’ve been seizure-free for over fifteen years. Any time I have ever had a seizure since I was diagnosed has been because I foolishly decided not to take my medication. I take the pills now. It gives me my life.

My wife has a saying that she is fond of: “God doesn’t make mistakes.” It’s a universal little idiom that applies mainly to human bodies and personalities. It most often comes up in conversations about gender, but we live by those words in our house. God is who God is, with no apologies and, unfortunately for our sanity most times, no explanation. But nonetheless, all the attributes are always at work. He is good. He is longsuffering. He is omniscient, and omnipresent.

And that’s where the wonder comes in. Every moment we have to be alive and alert, we are blessed to be in His presence. He is there in every atom and molecule, and every millisecond that makes up the trajectory of our Story. That means that he is in the sorrow and tragedy, the disappointment, the despair, the joy and the happiness. He is there when we have to put him aside to wail at our own misery and misfortune, and ponder our predicaments. He is there when we find him again, waiting to be discovered and communed with. I have certainly missed him in some self-absorbed moments of conflict, but on the other side of it, I have looked back at the bad and seen his hand. I have seen, “as through a glass darkly,” a hint of purpose. It’s not always been evident when the event is immediately behind you on the trail you are walking down, but when you have been around a couple of switchbacks and climbed higher, the scene and the scenery changes. A pattern emerges. A design comes into focus. And you go on.

We are near the same age, you at the copy machine and me. I know my setbacks and roadblocks, my stupidity, my ignorance, my overlooked and undeveloped potential, my laziness, my unexpected surprises of inspiration and discovery, my privilege and my blessing, everything that turns into what I call my Story. I don’t know yours. But this I do know: it is Wonderful. You are Wonderful. All of it, every angst-ridden grace-filled moment of it is wonderful. Wonder-filled. You are amazingly and incredibly loved, and your Story is shaped by forces completely outside any relevance to you, because you are part of the Great Story.

Be wonderful. Affirm this to yourself at every turn. Every time someone asks, as you have, how are you, tell them the truth. Tell them the fundamental, foundational truth, even if you don’t believe it at first. Muster the courage to name the Wonder that is your Story and say: “I’m Wonderful.”

Because you are. You are wonderful. I see it. I see it even though you don’t. The God Who Is There made you so. Say it. Say it until you believe it. Surround yourself with people who will say it about you. Wallow in it.

When you get around this corner, this ugly turn of events, when the copy machine is fixed and you have plenty of paper, when the kids settle down in the classroom and show to you one day that they really do understand what a gerund is or the importance of a prepositional phrase, you will look back and see how wonderful it is. This relationship with Grace is a wonderful, terrifying, love-filled wonder. Look past the moment. Be in the Moment. All of the Moments. Live out your pain and your joy. They were meant to go together.

In the meantime, just see it in me and rest assured. Take my word for it. I am wonderful. So are you.

In a few weeks, the Supreme Court is going to consider the case of the Christian baker that refused to prepare a wedding cake for a gay couple. The couple asked the man to do this for their impending nuptials. His response was that he does not make wedding cakes for gay couples, and further stated that is against his religious beliefs to do so.

The couple sued the man for discrimination. The courts in Colorado said the man could not refuse service to a customer based on their sexual preference. The baker said he had the right to refuse the service as an expression of freedom of speech.

I am amazed that the case is being heard by the SCOTUS. The state of Colorado has a law in place that is supposed to prevent this from happening: if you open the doors of a business to the public, you must serve whoever walks in the door.

Am I missing something? Of course I am, that’s why I have this blog, and that’s why I get strange looks when this issue comes up. My position is: bake the f*cking cake!

I recently got into a discussion with a dear friend who took me to task over this. But there are several questions unanswered for me here. I will list three of them for you.

What is the Biblical precedent for the baker to make this decision?

Where in the Bible does this example get any consideration? I know the argument that says that not everything we are supposed to do and not do is there in the Bible for us, the argument being that an action could still be right even if there were no admonition from the holy text to do it. I get that. But you know what, all the really important things we are supposed to do and not do are very clearly there. And there are so many more directions about how to treat people and love people that go directly against this man’s actions.

Paul the Apostle was a tentmaker, right? What would he have done if someone had come to him and said, “Hey Paul, Eli and me are going to move in together. Could you make us a tent?”

Paul: “You want a two-room tent, then, boys?”

Customer: “No, we want just a one-room tent. And can we talk about some floral designs for the front flaps?”

Would Paul have refused to make a tent for a gay couple?

What about Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, the carpenter:

Romans: Hey Joe, can you make us half a dozen crosses by Friday?

Joseph: Who you gonna hang this time, some more zealots?

Romans: Nah, got a passel of homosexuals we’re going to make an example out of.

Joseph: Oh wait a minute, guys, I can’t have people like that hanging on no crosses of mine!

Romans: The carpenter that got the tootsie pregnant is worried about some homosexuals?

Joseph: Oh for the love of—that again? For the last time, she was already pre–I mean, the child wasn’t mine!

Romans: Yeah, yeah, just make the crosses already.

 

Seriously, there is no place in Scripture where anyone’s actions would be an an example for a baker to follow and refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. Now, there are plenty of institutional religious reasons and denominational policies that would support his actions. If I am wrong about this, please direct me to chapter and verse in the comments below.

What sin is it to the baker if he bakes the cake?

Picture this. Your gay friends are getting married. They invite you to the wedding. It’s a wonderful ceremony. You go to the reception. You have some cake, and while you are standing there with your fruity punch in a paper cup, do you stop and think to yourself: “My this wedding cake is so moist and delicious, I’ll bet whoever made it condones the homosexual lifestyle!” Or, “This cake is so good, it’s a sin for me to even eat it!”

Does anyone really think the baker is committing some grievous offense against the Lord by making a wedding cake to celebrate the same sex union of a committed couple? Does the baker think that by making this cake, he will be disbarred from the bliss of the hereafter? Will God be ashamed of him for doing it?

Obviously, I hardly think so. In fact, the baker has made no public statement like this at all. The only thing he has said is that it is a matter of policy for him not to make a wedding cake for a same sex couple. Brownies, cookies, other baked goods of any kind he has no problem with. The problem is that he does not want to condone the wedding. He can’t even bring himself to a modicum of courtesy and just say something like “Congratulations” on the cake. He is refusing to make any cake that will be used in a gay wedding. Astonishing.

And I would love to open this can of worms with somebody: what does he do if the gay couple are Christians?

Rather, this cat has been making all this noise about Constitutional rights. He is waging a civil rights battle based on religious belief. He is only worried about his rights, so much so that he wants his rights to be favored over the civil rights of his customers, and so much so that he has closed his business rather than face the prospect of being forced to bake the cake. That is unbelievably self-righteous to me. It’s also judgmental. And it’s downright spiteful and rude, too.

There. I said it. It’s hard to write about this event without falling into judgement myself about the man. I don’t know him. And I don’t know all the context and nuances of this case. But if these facts are correct, this man has no more to lose morally than the tuxedo rental man, the floral arrangement man, the photography man, and so on, for the sake wedding. I’ve had some delicious wedding cake in my day, but no cake can be that good.

What would Jesus do if he was the baker?

Isn’t that the guiding mantra of modern Christianity? What would Jesus do? WWJD? I mean that  as a serious question. Imagine the gay couple going into the bakery and here comes Jesus out of the back, wiping his hands on his apron. How does the situation end up differently?

I would like to insert the delicate thought right here that, if the man was a Christian, the couple did indeed see Jesus that day.

You may argue that Jesus would not have baked the cake, but you can’t convince me he would allow the decision to be made by the Supreme Court, either.

Paul had something to say about taking people to court. And Jesus had something to say about serving God and serving Caesar. The state of Colorado, where this all happened, has a statute. If you operate your business in the state, obey the laws of that state. Deliver the cake to the wedding, but if it offends you, you don’t have to stick around.

If the state is going to compel you to deliver goods in this civil matter, turn the other cheek and throw in a dozen petit fours, too. And a few of the aforementioned brownies.

But over and above that, if God has called you to be a baker, then bake for all to the glory of God! He will sort out all the other stuff one day. If it were me, I would rather err on the side of being a loving, courteous businessman than a spokesperson and martyr for my religious beliefs. I’ll be a martyr for Christ, but not a Constitutionalist for his name’s sake.

Jesus didn’t refuse to give water to the woman at the well because she was an adulteress.

Jesus didn’t refuse to heal the Centurion’s son because he was a political enemy.

Jesus didn’t tell those bratty, annoying kids to shut up and remember their place.

Jesus didn’t refuse to be associated with the diseased, the rejected, the neglected, the downtrodden, the poor, of his day.

 

But he probably had a right to.

C.S. Lewis gives us a great illustration in his book, The Great Divorce. I acted out a scene adapted from this book in high school, the scene wherein a man gets a chance, along with many others, to get on a bus that picks them up in the afterlife in hell and takes them to heaven. This man meets the man he murdered on earth. He is indignant to find his victim in heaven, supposedly favored by the system. He immediately gets into a shouting match about his rights. He rants about having his rights, too, same as the other guy. The victim shakes his head sadly and implores the murderer to realize that it is not about any of us having our rights at all. In fact, it’s the opposite.

The man from hell will have none of it, and in the end he gets back on the bus and goes back to hell.

We are all going to hell if we insist on our rights. Not literally, but we doom ourselves to a hell on earth with each other if we base our interactions with each other on our rights. I have said for years that we live in a country that values the rights of people over people themselves. That’s why victims are enraged at criminals and justice is slow to be meted out, if it ever is. The constitution was never meant to abrogate our humanity. We were never meant to be subservient to the King of Rights in a Civil Empire. We were made to express the love of God to others and treat them better than we treat ourselves. We are to welcome the stranger, give shelter to the homeless, and put our right to wedding cake as freedom of speech aside for the greater good of serving each other.
We have plenty of Biblical precedent for that. Bake the Cake! For Christ’s sake!

Roadrunner

I came across a picture of me on someone’s Facebook feed. It’s an obscure pic of just me in my school teacher clothes standing in front of Ridgeway Middle School. That doesn’t mean anything to most of the people reading this, so let me tell you the story of how I was going to be a Roadrunner for life, and how I’m not now.

Once upon a time the now defunct Memphis City Schools built nine brand new schools. While they were being built many teachers were holding their breath about getting jobs there. I was not holding my breath because I was only a second year teacher, so I knew I had no way near enough seniority to even apply.

I was teaching at Airways Middle School in Orange Mound, a notoriously poverty-stricken and gang-populated area of Memphis, TN. I was trying to overcome the stress of being the only teacher to wear a tie to school every day, and figuring out how to make Macbeth accessible to students that for the most part had never experienced the world outside of a triangle that covered the school, their house, and maybe their church.

In the classroom next door was my friend, Chickatroyd. (her name has been changed to protect her identity). She was an enthusiastic math teacher who knew the principal being considered for the job to open the brand new Ridgeway Middle. We bonded over our desire to expose our children to some meaningful experiences, trying as teachers to create good little citizens.

Chickatroyd knew Dr T, the principal that had negotiated the privilege of handpicking her staff in getting to open this new school. Chickatroyd recommended me, so as the friend of a friend, I got hired.

Dr T got the gym floor painted with the Chuck Jones Roadrunner, the new school’s mascot. [This creature is not indigenous to the Mississippi delta farm region and the bluffs of the Mississippi River. I have no earthly idea how it was chosen as a mascot.] The upshot of her hiring practice was that everyone on that first year faculty knew each other personally. We were all related in friendships directly or once removed. I have never had that kind of camaraderie before at any job, nor have I since.

We opened our doors with a few things in the building still needing to be completed. From the first few weeks we worked elbow to elbow with construction workers as we welcomed students to our new home and tried to make them see that it could be theirs as well. We had a weak Internet connection, but we had enough to get footage of 9/11 as it was happening. There were some of us that had cell phones and were getting minute by minute updates as that defining moment in American history unfolded. The second year we were open, halfway through the school calendar of our faculty members died.

Few things can bring a group of people together like a catastrophic tragedy. We had children in our student body that lost family members in 9/11. We had stories of how it touched all of us in one way or another. A memorial scholarship was set up in the name of the departed teacher. Life went on.

The mascot for Airways Middle was the Jets. That school was right by the airport. But I was beguiled by the roadrunner. I did a little independent research and found that there were several features of the roadrunner to admire, the principal for me of which was that they mate for life. Taking my cue there, I pledged to be a Roadrunner for life.

The following summer I took a trip out west with my wife to celebrate our anniversary. In several places, I found carved roadrunners. I selected several of them and displayed them in my home office and in my classroom. With the new friends I had made, I was prepared to be a Roadrunner for life.

Until I wasn’t anymore.

My principal accepted a promotion to the Board of Education to head the department of Special Ed and Gifted children. We got a principal in place that only had elementary school experience, and he and I did not see eye to eye on many things. It is safe to say that we did not like each other very much. Soon I got a call from the principal of Cordova Middle, a school a mere two miles from my house. She said there was a 7th grade position available and that it was mine if I wanted it, she having seen me present at local education functions.

The mascot for Cordova Middle was the Cougar. So I packed up my now four years of experience and moved my job closer to my home, and became a Cordova Cougar.

After a couple of years some of my compatriots from Ridgeway Middle were also hired at Cordova Middle, and it felt for a bit like old times. While there was still the connection of opening a new school together and going through the 9/11 and the death of a fellow teacher together, we never reconnected on the level we had at Ridgeway.

We connected in all new ways and made a whole new relationship based on some entirely different experiences.

In some ways I was still a Roadrunner. I kept the little carved art pieces I’d collected out West. Teachers keep a lot of little reminders like that. Tangential reminders of coworkers and students, of schools, of education experiences.

I went on in my teaching career, which is now eighteen years in the making, with a brief stint as a Spartan, and am now a Timberwolf, albeit in a different state where that mascot is actually an indigenous animal. I am roadrunner at heart, though, I suppose, mating for life, in a sense. But that just means now I am faithful for the life of the relationship. Things change. The only thing that stays the same is that nothing stays the same, someone once said. I was a Spartan until I moved and became a Timberwolf. I’ll be a Timberwolf as long as this relationship lasts. I will do my good work and put forth my best effort, and be true to my school. I’ve just changed schools.

And one day, perhaps, it will change again, perhaps. And that will be okay.

So what? Well, some people think that because I bailed under the new leadership of “The Ridge” that it somehow affected my teaching. I have never won public accolades in my profession, but probably only because I never nominated myself or applied for any sort of recognition. No one else ever nominated me either, and that’s okay. I have a rather large file of personal, unsolicited notes from many students who showed their appreciation and devotion. I have made an impact. I have kept on doing the things that a good teacher, a good Roadrunner, will do. I am faithful. I am committed. I mated for life to this Noble Profession.

Along the way, I left the church. I left institutional religion and its mundane practices. I thought I would be a sort of church Roadrunner for life. I thought I would be a loyal Baptist for life and forever. There was a time when I couldn’t see myself not affiliated with a local congregation of believers. But here I am, unchurched. I have not been invited back since I left. When I told my principal at Ridgeway Middle School that I had an offer to go to another school, not from my looking for it or trying to find another job, his response was: “That might be a good fit for you.” Not “Hey, I want you to stay. You belong here. You’re one of us.” No, he was glad to see me go.

I admit I was not an ordinary church member. I held my Sunday School class at Starbucks. I scheduled a jeans and T-shirt day once a month so that newcomers and visitors that didn’t know the dress code would feel a little more at home. I recruited across all age groups for my Sunday School class, and had a range of ages of as much as thirty years. I initiated and taught a film class called Faith on Film, and trained adults how to read films for metaphors for God and the Great Story. As a member of the Future Planning Committee I argued against building another worship building and recommended we spend dollars on meeting the needs of the local neighborhood, particularly partnering with the two schools within a block of us. I even argued with the preacher on Wednesday Nights. Radical, I know.

When I left the church I did it quietly, without fanfare or self aggrandizement. I just quietly shifted all my duties and responsibilities and then left, fully intending to only take a six week hiatus. Here it is six years later and I have no intention of going back. Lots of people in that first year said, “We sure miss you.” Only five people said, “Come back. You belong here.” For three of those five, it was their job to tell me that. They were nonetheless sincere, yet returning to that congregation was far from a consensus.

I still follow Jesus. When I met him I mated for life, for eternity. I am faithful. I do not teach in the church any longer, but I still walk with the Lord daily. We have our disputes and trials and arguments, but our relationship is stronger than it’s ever been. When I left the church, I did not leave Jesus. I followed him. I will follow him through whatever comes. I am a roadrunner Jesus, but I am not affiliated in any other way.

For years, I used to say, “Go to church.” Now I say, “Follow Jesus, even if it’s not to church.”

And quite often I say, “Meep meep!”