Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Its About Sending a Message!

Well, filmfans and beloved TDK fanboys, its official: The Dark Knight is smearing all previously held records for summer blockbusters.* There hasn't been this much hoopla over a film since Titanic, when teen girls with all their disposable income shot James Cameron's tour de force up into the stratosphere.

Its making lots of money. Tons of money. And the speculation is high on why its sooo good.

  • Is it because of Heath Ledger's death - or his terrifying performance - or both?
  • Is it because it touches on the reality of urban terrorism and criminal-control of our cities?
  • Is it because the cast is so good, the script is so good, the humor so dark, or because the message at the end is both poignant and tragic?
To quote the Joker: "Its not about the mo-neyyy. Its about sending a message!"






Sending a Message
Now students of film know that the last frames of a film are the most important - they are the coup de grace of the screenwriter. They reveal what the message of the movie is, summing up what the characters (and the director & writer) believe in the final scene.

When a movie makes a lot of money, its reason is simple: its the message that grabbed the audience's soul. The stars and effects may get them to come see the film ONCE - but to see it again and again and again - what is necessary to really send the box office figures over the top - is because you agree with the message being sent.

In other words, if you agree with the film's message, you spend more and more of your money to see it, to invest in what you believe to be true, to experience it again and again. That's not hard to grasp, is it?

The message of the movie is that our souls are more important than money. Both the Joker and the Batman believe this. Both really have "disposable" income. Both are willing to sacrifice taht income to spread their messages: of either despair or hope.

Last night we studied the story of the rich young ruler from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10 verses 13-31. We started with Jesus WANTING the little children to come to Him, even though the disciples didn't think they were important.

When the young ruler comes up, the disciples think he's a shoo-in, but Jesus won't take him. This flabbergasts them. Then we end this account with Jesus promising a whole big bunch of things, from property to new relationships to those who actually invest in His work - His kingdom.

In other words, Jesus says, "Its not about the money, its about the message."

The Joker promotes a dystopian, "death and madness are supreme", anti-gospel.

But he's right. Its never about the money. Its about the message.

We will sacrifice any amount of money to feed our souls, to rescue our lives from the banal lives most fallen people have. We will do anything to make our lives meaningful.

And this, Jesus knows. That's what is so terrible about the Rich Young Ruler leaving. He's a good guy in our eyes - but he thinks its primarily about his money, his assets. They have given him respect and status and acceptance, and he dare not let them go.

At that, Jesus just shakes his head. "Children - how HARD it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven!"

The disciples are 'exceeding astonished': "Who then can be saved?"

They assumed, like we, good people who do well, go to heaven. But that was a false assumption - if men could save themselves, Jesus would not have to pay for us and our damning sins, would He?

"With man, this is impossible," Jesus agreed. "But not with God. With God, all things are possible."

Jesus affirms every single act of trust in Him, the Son. But He gave up everything He had in heaven to send us this message: you cannot do it. Your money and resources are NOT enough.

In the final scenes, The Dark Knight ends with Gotham's best and brightest, a Rich Young Ruler, falling away and losing hope -even as another takes up his sins as his very own.

You want to know why The Dark Knight is breaking box office records?

Jesus is using it to speak God's truth into our hearts. The message of the gospel.

Don't believe it? Watch it again.

Who's sacrificing everything - his normal relationships, his vast wealth, his lucrative jobs, his respect in the eyes of all - everything a man could want - to save his people?

"You'll see! You'll see."

I hope you will. I hope you will see the true inspiration behind this excellent film.

Amen.


[* BTW, if we adjust for inflation, Star Wars, Titanic and Gone with the Wind still reign supreme. But you also couldn't "wait for the DVD" or download it without paying to watch. So it's still impressive in its impact for a domestic film gross. ]

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Bourne (Again) Identity

One of my favorite movies that now lives in my little DVD library is The Bourne Identity starring Matt Damon as our amnesiatic American who cannot understand why he's been fished out of the Mediterranean with a bullet wound, speaks five different languages, has a secret bank account (with loads of money), multiple fake I.D.s and every police force and assassin in the world after him.

Good flick. Worth watching again and again.

HERE BE SPOILERS, SO STOP

For those who do not know (spoiler alert - BIG spoiler alert), there is a reason Jason has amnesia: he was shot after deciding he couldn't kill a man in cold blood in front of his children.

He repented. His moral compass kicked in, and he just couldn't do it. It was too brutal, even for him.

Now, I think the director Doug Liman knew what he was doing. You see, in this story of redemption, Jason ends ups killing only the killers who come after him. In other words, that terrible skill set he has by training? Well, Jason uses it on the bad guys. He wins every fight and effectively shuts down all by himself the very operation that made him a Black-Ops assassin for the C.I.A.

The next two movies show the consequences of his actions and are great moral tales on human responsibility and the need to fight evil - no matter how "high up" they may be.

Jason becomes a new man. He is, pardon the obvious pun, "Bourne" again.

The movie is based on the writings of Robert Ludlum. The naming of his hero and his seeking a new life and new identity is one of those "you got to have it" metaphors. I like it.

Jesus likes it.

Here, look at what He said about us amnesiacs who have forgotten religion cannot save us.
John 3:1-7 (NIV)
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him."

In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."

"How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!"

Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.'


In the movie, Jason has to repent, get wounded and hit the water before we see a transformation of the man (we being with the "good" version). We find out later he got himself into this mess and it took an extreme circumstance to bring him out.

And he never wants to be the man he was before, again.

Jesus offers this to us -hang on to your hats, because no one likes what He said:

"You must born again."

It has nothing to do with good works. It has nothing to do with having the right doctrine or the 'right' religion.

George Whitefield, the great evangelist of the 19th century was famous for quoting this. So much so that one Christian brother asked him why he kept on the same verse, week after week.

Whitefield replied, "Because you MUST be born again!"

I hate to tell you this, but no matter how good you've been, how nice you are, you must be born again.

"Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God."

We NEED the Spirit of God to make us 'new creatures'. We need what the Puritan's called "regeneration".

Jesus knows what you need to be a true child of God. A death (of self) and a resurrection (by His Spirit a.k.a. the Holy Spirit).

Jason Bourne had money, power, prowess and permission to do as he willed. But he had no real life until he was wounded, immersed in water and raised by another.

The parallels are numerous. And I think God uses such parables in movies to touch our hearts.

Will you be borne again? Will you do it today?

If you want to, pray this prayer:


God, I want to be a new person.
I want to be born again, like Jesus said.
I believe He paid for me on the cross
two thousand years ago to accomplish this.
Please forgive me and give me Jesus in my heart.
Thank you, God.
In Jesus' Name,
Amen.


And when you feel that heart change and soften, go tell someone "I have a new identity now."

"I've been born again."

Then go hang around some other "born again"s and smile and tell them what Jesus did for you.

They'll understand.

Amen.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Cinderella - Redeeming the Ashes

Last night, I went to DuPage County's Annual Fair and for the first time, they had Christian music - even better, they'd scheduled two top names in the Christian music scene: Jars of Clay and Steven Curtis Chapman.

Big names, IMHO, when you understand how Jars of Clay was so musically accomplished that they broke over into the secular market. A roomie of mine even got their CD "Flood" and enjoyed it thoroughly -though he didn't want to hear ANYTHING from me about Jesus. (Love ya, Scottie!)

But what was so powerful about the evening was that this was Steven Curtis Chapman's first concert after the death of his precious five-year old daughter. In a heart-wrenching family tragedy, one of his sons, while backing out of the driveway in a large vehicle, ran over his little sister and killed her.

The song "Cinderella" was written for her. Especially for her.

He talked about it -how the pain and grief would come in waves but how also the peace and relief and comfort from God would come to. "We've gotten very practiced at surfing in my family, as you can imagine," he soberly quipped. He talked about how God was not surprised, was not absent and was still in full control of life. He quoted scripture that had comforted him in this loss, this entrance into God's presence by his daughter that was far quicker than they had imagined (or desired).

This is what the psalmist said about God's sovereignty:

Psalm 139:16b

All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.


"My daughter did not lose her life," affirmed Steven, "it wasn't 'cut short' or ended too soon. She lived the very life God wanted her to live, every single day of it."

Here are the lyrics. (Try to imagine singing this without breaking down into tears. It is/was very nearly prophetic.)

Cinderella
by Steven Curtis Chapman

She spins and she sways to whatever song plays,
Without a care in the world.
And I'm sittin' here wearin' the weight of the world on my shoulders.
It's been a long day and there's still work to do,
She's pulling at me saying "Dad I need you!
There's a ball at the castle and I've been invited and I need to practice my dancin'"
"Oh please, daddy, please!"

So I will dance with Cinderella
While she is here in my arms
'Cause I know something the prince never knew
Oh I will dance with Cinderella
I don't wanna miss even one song,
Cuz all too soon the clock will strike midnight
And she'll be gone

She says he's a nice guy and I'd be impressed
She wants to know if I approve of the dress
She says "Dad, the prom is just one week away,
And I need to practice my dancin'"
"Oh please, daddy, please!"

So I will dance with Cinderella
While she is here in my arms
'Cause I know something the prince never knew
Ohh-oh ohh-oh, I will dance with Cinderella
I don't wanna miss even one song,
Cuz all too soon the clock will strike midnight
And she'll be gone
She will be gone.

Well, she came home today
With a ring on her hand
Just glowin' and tellin' us all they had planned
She says "Dad, the wedding's still six months away
but I need to practice my dancin'"
"Oh please, daddy please!"

So I will dance with Cinderella
While she is here in my arms
'Cause I know something the prince never knew
Ohh-oh ohh-oh, I will dance with Cinderella
I don't wanna miss even one song,
(even one song)
Cuz all too soon the clock will strike midnight
And she'll be gone.
I sat there, listening and my heart broke - for Steven, for my mother who died before I could tell her how much I loved her, for my landlady who's son overdosed just four years ago.

And then Steven did something that took my breath away.

He changed the ending.

And we'll be to-gether on that bright day
And the dance
Will go on!

Thank you, Steven.

We will continue the dance in heaven.

We will.

Amen.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

In Brightest Day, In Darkest Night (in the 'burbs)

This has got to be the second most beautiful day I have ever experienced, weather-wise. (Sorry you guys down in Texas area - Hurricane Dolly and all that).

It was so gorgeous we opened all the windows in the house and let the stunning breezes and brilliant Mid-West sunshine come flooding in. The sky was that stunning blue you usually only see in heavily retouched photographs. It was so bright and beautiful, I actually took up my landlady's challenge (the "Nancer") and began working on her car, grinding out its rust spots and priming and re-painting those little areas. It was very manly and it was fun using my graphic art skillz to do crisp and clean body repair.

I thought I was going to go see The Dark Knight yet again with a buddy, but he canceled, so I kept working. Then another bud came by and we ended up chewing the fat about our new church.

No Evil Shall Escape My Sight...
I ranted about how Christ isn't being lifted up and made some remarks about how suburbia draws in people who just want a safe life and how that kills us spiritually. I really warmed to the topic of bashing the 'burbs. He (being in his early 20's) understood my anger - we'd both also read a book called Death by Suburb in which the author Dave L. Goetz slams our Americanized Christianity that is so Starbuck's sanitized and comfort-oriented with its "starter castles" for homes.

Do I sound like a lout yet? Read on.

Then I had to go pick up "the Nancer" and proudly showed off the car and my "hard" work. When we got home, I promptly went to lay down from all my efforts while she made dinner (after working six hours). I must say it was very good: chicken-cordon bleu with stuffing. Of course I complained about all the smoke in the kitchen even as I solved the issue by waving it out the afore-mentioned open windows. I was soooo wise, and she had not been.

[Did that sound loutish? I thought so, too.]

Let All Who Worship Evil's Might...
Then I set up the computer so she could hear her pastor live with videocast, and I must say, we really did feel Christ's presence. We were greatly encouraged by the message from his South Barrington (another suburb) campus. When he was a teen, he had been hooked on drugs and was encouraging youth to not follow his self-centered lifestyle. He also pointed out how Jesus' disciples were teens when they began following Him - the proof of this was the fact that only Peter and Jesus needed to pay the Temple tax, because anyone under 20 years of age was exempt.

[Man, who'd have thought suburbs could have good preaching?]

So he was encouraging teens to begin following Jesus NOW instead of later and not seek the world's pleasures and I thought that was cool. And when it was finished, Nancy's daughter called and needed the phone number of a realtor who attends our Bible study, so I found on their website.

[Internet access, I guess it can serve others, huh?]

Beware My Power, GREEN LANTERN'S LIGHT!
We could hear music at the Fairgrounds six blocks away, and since it was a cool night Nancer suggested I go for a walk and I did so, marveling at the delicious air even while I used my custom-made (very cool) mini green superbrite LED. Yeah, I was a Green Lantern baby - with 17,000mcd of power! Yeah!

[Note: You can only be this geeky if you are safe from reprisals. A couple actually stopped their walk to compliment me on my green LED light.]

Once I got to the Fairgrounds, something made me walk alongside the fenceline, on the school campus next to it, and THERE I found a huge People Bridge that went from the school's campus to over the railroad tracks into a subdivision in north unincorporated Wheaton! I mean it was like turning a corner and finding a skyscraper! "I've lived here eight years and didn't know about this?!"

Who's the Brightest?
As I joyfully crossed my personal "Bifrost", I saw the most stunning sight - fireflies all flashing their festivities on my right side, in a little untouched corner of field.

But it gets better. This bridge emptied on the one street I knew in unincorporated Wheaton: Nepil Avenue. The Davis's live on Nepil Avenue; the mom loves my writing, the dad can do anything creative, works for United (got me airline tickets to see my Father when he had his stroke) and their children are WAY talented in art -and art -and more art. They gave me cookies, and a book of fantasy art covers and then said, "Oh, we have a free ticket to the Steven Curtis Chapman/Jars of Clay concert tomorrow night - would you like to go?"

Would I? I was praying for the very thing! (I have no money and no chance to win the ticket - I uh, won something else on WETN less than two weeks ago, so I got to wait.)

I told them I had not idea that there was a bridge from my neighborhood to theirs and I'd lived here eight years. "Oh - its new! It's already gotten weathered, but its just a year old."

Ah, I was wrong in my assumption I thought. I hadn't missed it all this time

On the way back, the fireflies lit up the night again and I bounced home, jubilant.

And then it hit me.

God was blessing me, pouring out His love for me. In the suburbs.

Even though I was a self-satisfied lout.

Who's Your Daddy Now?
Do I think I'm some hero for Christ?

No, not anymore. I'm more like those teens who live at home, eat momma's food, chat on the Internet and then whine "No one understands ME!"

How sad is that?

"You have placed me in a broad and spacious place, O Lord."

It was a very bright day. It was a very dark night -and the littlest lights - the ones created by God - were shining best there.

I saw them and was captivated. The Lord was blessing my soul, granting me solace and friendship and love.

And where was He, the Almighty Lord, doing this? In the suburbs.

Dear reader, I know I do not deserve it. I mean I REALLY understand that.

It is grace. All of it. God's grace to me.

I really don't know what to say.

"Thank you" is too pitiful, but its all I have.

Thank you, God.

I am not good, but You are.

Thank you for the Nancer and cars to fix and people to talk to and young guys to mentor and worship at home and good food and people who love me and accept me, especially when I knock on their door at 10 o'clock at night.

But thank you most of all for fireflies.

'Cause those little itty-bitty lights created by you make the bitter souls of men rejoice.

And if you can make those little bugs shine and be beautiful maybe you can do the same to us.

Even in the suburbs.

Amen.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight

I've seen it twice now, and I think I can give a fairly objective review, since the initial shock of the first showing wore off and I've been able to analyze it with more emotional freedom the second time.

It works on several levels because of the complexity of the characterizations.

The Joker is us - mad at the regimented walls of the civilized world, unforgiving when crossed, condescendingly sweet when he wants something, enraged when his demands are not met, and hurting everyone who dares defies him.

Batman is also us - grim, determined, fighting daily to protect the place where he was born and the people he loves from corruption and their own attempts at futile heroics. He stitches himself up and puts on a smile so he can go forth to do battle again. Protecting the ungrateful from the uncaring.

Director Christopher Nolan wants us to think and squirm and wrestle with evil - real evil. The Joker has been elected to put us in the awful untenable position of a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" mentality where he sets up Catch-22 rules for his victims in an sadistic attempt to show the absurdity of rules, morals, etc.

There are also some redemptive moments in this film - one where a cruel-looking criminal makes the right moral choice (we suspect even his faith has been restored - he is seen virtually praying before taking the noble action) and our hero/not-hero Batman makes a stunning decision to heal the soul of Gotham by taking on guilt that does not belong to him in the film's ending.

In the second viewing, I wept briefly for his choice. I think I refrained the first time because of shock. I'd expected a superhero flick, not a Greek tragedy. On one forum discussing The Dark Knight a poster called "Mia" denounced this action by Gotham's protector - felt it was too preachy in its final exposition; Batman too much of a Christ-figure.

Everyone else on the forum said "Huh?" "Well, maybe - but I think that's too much interpretation..." and so forth.

Funny thing is her forum profile said she wants to "Serve God, Climb the Corporate ladder."

I kid you not. Seems no one told her the two are mutually exclusive.

Perhaps the Holy Spirit was tapping on her soul with the message of this film and it upset her. Don't argue, please - no one wants to "climb the corporate ladder" unless they want power and wealth, while stepping on others.

Jesus said it doesn't work that way.

Matthew 20:20-29
Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

"What is it you want?" He (Jesus) asked.

She said, "Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom."

"You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said to them. "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?"

"We can," they answered.

Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father."

When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."


You see, Mia didn't like the movie because of the selflessness of the hero. The rich and powerful Bruce Wayne decided it was best for himself to be treated as trash to save the heart and souls of Gotham's people. I am pretty darn sure Nolan is a secularist, but even he can see the power of sacrifice and the nobility of it.

And we who believe see Christ as the regal son who gives up all He has to save us. A servant to our needs.

Mia smelled the gospel and growled at it. So do we followers of Christ. Oh yeah, we hate to "be fools for Christ's sake". We hate the injustice we sometimes receive. But Christ simply claps us on the shoulder and says, "You want to be Me, you have to learn what its like, lil' brother (sister). On my account, all men will despise you, but do not be afraid of them."

In the Old Testament we read the following:
Isaiah 53:3-4:

He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.


And so, I give The Dark Knight a thumbs-up for its last minute message which makes Batman so much like Christ.

But it barely made PG-13, and I mean barely by mere seconds of film. It is not for the trifler, the one demanding easy answers or a pretty hero. It is not for the innocent or naive.

Neither is Jesus, come to think of it.

But the big difference is Jesus did say, "Bring the little children unto Me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven."

And the violence and palpable fear in The Dark Knight is not for little children, not at all.

Take 'em to Jesus today - and let them meet The Dark Knight later. Much later.

Amen.


p.s. Yes, Heath Ledger was absolutely the Joker, and it was terrifying to watch. I utterly forgot the man and was awed by the psychopath. No wonder this performance destroyed his personal peace. "You'll see! You'll see." Brrrrrrrrrrr!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Batman Begins

Today I am seeing The Dark Knight at 11:00 a.m. - man, the buzz on this is powerful and incessant. I have never heard of theatres having Midnight, 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. showings for a Premiere!

I'm almost scared of over-hype. Oh, well, I'll find out, won't I?

I've spent all week looking at my past, my failures and God's grace to me. I have seen myself in Doctor Doom and even the Joker - it all depends on how we handle our wounds.

And frankly, I see myself now in the role of Batman. A bit of a spiritual version to be sure, but Batman.

Now I have, once upon a time, dressed up as Batman, ala Michael Keaton style - and got lots of eye-popping compliments. I am obsessive on detaileven though I have a low budget - so I work hard to make the costume look "real". I had real leather gauntlets, plastic armor for gloves and boots, even a custom-made cape and belt. I also did not have my goatee, and stood, in costume, about 6'4".

Yeah. I did. I made the little kids cry.

But I notice that Batman is a man with a mission to clear his city of corruption. The job is NOT being done by the professionals - the cops - and so he takes it upon himself to do the job.

Believe it or not, that is just like Jesus.

I say this after preaching the gospel to the incarcerated for eight years. No pay involved. Seems no one wants this ministry in the "big" churches. Ain't no money in it. Too dangerous.

Heh. Read on.
Matthew 8:28-34
The Healing of Two Demon-possessed Men
When he (Jesus) arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way.

"What do you want with us, Son of God?!" they shouted. "Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?"

Some distance from them a large herd of pigs was feeding. The demons begged Jesus, "If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs."

He said to them, "Go!" So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region.


Jesus scares everybody - first the demons, then the townspeople.

Is Batman scary? Yeah. Is it for a reason? Yeah.

Is Jesus scary? You betcha. And that doesn't sit well with the "religious" types, either.

Matthew 12:23-28

All the people were astonished and said, "Could this be the Son of David (our expected hero)?"

But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, "It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons."

Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, "Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges.

"But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you."

So I have to end this with saying if you are dark and scary and working for God, it's O.K. He likes it. Shakes things up for the good.

Just try to scare the right people, for the right reasons, at the right time.

Go be a Dark Knight... for Christ's sake.

Amen.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Clown Prince of Crime, Pt. 2

Are you getting tired of my self-recriminations?

I am.

But this week I am having two, not one, celebrations of my ordination, and I think God the Father is taking some time to show me how far I have come from the man I used to be. As I said, I reaped what I sowed: within one year of hurting my friends, two other friends got rid of me and alienated me from a dear family. Trust me, what goes around, comes around!

Hence, in God's sovereignty, He uses what I grew up with and loved - comics - to reveal things about myself. And that gets us back to the Joker.

The Joker has always been a laughing murdering psychopath, and many different actors have portrayed him over the years: Caesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill (voice), and now Heath Ledger (who's tapped to get a posthumous Oscar). He's incapable of love or kindness. Underlying that enormous grin is anger and bitterness, a wounded ego that will never forgive the world or God for what has happened to him.

Isn't that the way we all are, deep down, until we discover the love of God?

I mean, we like the Joker, don't we? He is our favorite villain, the very best foil for the grimly ascetic dark knight. If the Batman were a Puritan, the Joker would be a Hedonist. The Batman deals with his pain by taking on the demanding disciplines of perfection; the Joker by abandoning all rules of society and ethics, mocking every institution and moral with a boisterous enmity between himself and humanity. But down deep we know he's a calculating evil; we can call him insane but what he truly is is compassionless. His mind works just fine - its his heart that's dark and twisted. And that drives all his actions. (Here's a clip to prove that, with Mark Hamill's wonderful voice acting):






Have you ever noticed what makes great comedy? A great comedian? How they touch on our areas of pain. You see comedy is a releaser - it permits you to talk, albeit humorously, about our pain and this is usually from miscommunication, false hopes, shattered expectations. And when we "get the joke" or laugh at the punchline, it is because we understand emotionally and intuitively this wretched estate of a fallen world.

That's why I know the Joker is not insane. He's evil, but not insane.

He gets the joke. And wants the whole world to "get it" with him.

How do you fight that nihilistic logic? Don't appeal to humanity, it won't fly: history has proven again and again those who hope in governments or organized religions have consistently found interesting ways of killing off the defenseless and disenfranchised.

You have to go beyond logic. You do indeed have to have faith.

But it must be a reasonable faith - it cannot contradict what we have learned about Nature and Life; it must agree that 1) the World is full of pain and evil, and 2) we are clueless and powerless to stop it.

Someone has to love us and that Someone has to understand we are not lovable. We have failed again and again to experience love so we can grant it to others.

Romans 5:8
But God demonstrates His love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

In other words, while we were IN the problem, we were also THE problem, and so God solved the issue by making a blood sacrifice. He paid for all the broken Laws of life with Jesus.

Or in other words, while we were evil, God showed us love.

Faith in Jesus Christ appropriates that love. Admitting we are nearly mad with the problems of this world gets us to the place of confession, and finally, reluctantly we cry out "Save me, Lord!"

The relief and joy that follows is supernatural. I know. I have experienced it.

That is why I am not the Joker today.

God always gets the last laugh.

And the punchline?

"I'd already paid for you. You didn't have to run away."

The jokes on us.

Amen.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Clown Prince of Crime, Pt. 1

Ladies and gentleman, I present to you the Joker!

Again, I have had the privilege of writing up a cool villain for my favorite RPG, Villains and Vigilantes (see here). And again, I had to dig into the character to find out what made him tick and again, ran straight into myself.

The Lord of Creation, is very, very sneaky, do you know that?

You see the Joker is an artiste, a wounded man turned wholly to evil on his "life-changing" day. In The Killing Joke, writer and atheist Alan Moore suggests that the Joker was NOT a thief but rather a two-bit nightclub comedian, forced into a crime immediately after hearing the tragic news that his wife and child died. Unable to refuse the mobsters who'd entrapped him, he was forced into being "the Red Hood" - but upon facing Batman he fell into a vat of chemicals which altered his life forever.

Moore's rendition gives us some sympathy for the madman. It is intended to show that men can be driven to insanity by a cruel world, bad luck and random events.

What destroyed my sympathy for him was the brutality in which the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon, crippling her for life. It is a dark tale for adults. (Later on she becomes the Oracle, but still, Moore took Batgirl from us, and innocence, and I don't like it. Bruce Timm brought her back in the DC animated series, thank God.)

Still, it was an impressive analysis of WHY the Joker existed. I had to admit that Moore understood there had to be some terrible inciting incident to make such a brilliant homicidal maniac, the perfect opposite of Batman.

I wrote this over on the V&V forum:
The Joker is "the world's first fully functioning homicidal artist". He is ruthless, brutal and murderous, brilliant and mad, littering landscapes with corpses imbued with his "Joker's Grin." He feels it is his solemn duty to show the world what a joke life is - a grim, unrelenting tale, with our small pitiful lives being the grand cosmic joke. Thus he wants everything to be big, loud, festive and theatrical.
I believe at the end of the day, a Naturalist and Sceptic must admit that our lives ARE without meaning, if death has the last word. Because even if you reply "humanity" or "human kindness" is still being carried on - say someone does things in your memory - the fact is, humanity itself must die when the universe dies.

In Ecclesiates, chapter 1:1-4 we read:
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

"Meaningless! Meaningless!"
says the Teacher.
"Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless."

What does man gain from all his labor
at which he toils under the sun?

Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.

And Chapter 3, verse 19 Solomon writes this:
Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath ; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless.
Sadly, this is wisdom - if you have no hope in a Savior. Your focus is on your brief life and its little dramas, but if you look just a bit beyond THAT, you see very quickly you have no reason to imagine yourself any better than any other biological life. You live and die a very smart animal.

The Joker is a man of wisdom. Atheistic wisdom, but wisdom nonetheless. He is true to his worldview.

And its hideously scary.

I remember once thinking this way and living it out. Because my mother had died and my family had been abusive in the aftermath, I'd "learned" that death and pain was more powerful than life or love.

Later an acquaintance told me with a rueful grin, "I once asked myself, why not be evil? Then I watched your life and how you treated others and decided I couldn't do it."

I hope you read that right. He was not complimenting me on my kindness. He was convicting me of my sin; I was SO self-absorbed, so wicked, he swore he'd never be like me.

It shocked me then, but he was right: I cared not one bit for anyone but myself. I was entertaining, to be sure, but callous and heartless over minor infractions. I got rid of a girlfriend, a friend and two other friends by my constant narcissism.

There wasn't any God - there was only me and my pain and my entertainment.

Don't worry - I reaped what I sowed. Oh, boy did I.

(to be continued)

Friday, July 11, 2008

I am NOT Doom

Leonard Nimoy once wrote an autobiography entitled "I am Not Spock", during the height of ST:TOS re-broadcasts in the 70s. Like all Trekkers (no, not "Trekkies"), I got it and read it, devouring all I could about the man who played my FAVORITE hero - the cool, logical, super-strong, super-smart Vulcan.

About twenty plus years later, having reprised his role some 7 or 8 more times, he wrote another biography: "I AM Spock". At first glance, I was confused. Then I began to understand that he saw much of himself in Spock and vice-versa as the years continued. Wisdom and age had shown him he would never be free of this entity he created by his performance and thus, by extension, was now an indisoluable part of his life. People didn't want to come hear Leonard Nimoy speak per se, but the actor who crafted a great character we fell in love with. The danger of being an actor - a good one - I think. Peter Falk has his Columbo, Telly Savalas his Kojak - you get the picture.

I am not Doom. Not anymore, that is.

Oh, I don't mean since my last post. I mean since the events I mentioned in my last post: I was given a brief view of the man I was and God did that to remind me of how far I had come and Who took me there - Jesus.

I am not Doom. Doom does not care for imperfection or others who would waste his time.

Yesterday, on my "day off" as a caregiver, I went to a men's Bible study (at 6:15 a.m.) and then, thanks to a friend's request, helped someone move in (just for thirty minutes), and then went and visited an inmate at DuPage County Jail - a growing Christian who once had a successful business until drugs nearly destroyed him and his life.

You would want to know this guy - articulate and sharp, he has discovered the power of Jesus Christ and of God's love and mercy. I understand him because of my own sins. I understand the joy of revelation and the strength to resist destructive behavior by getting my joy from Christ. (I'll call him "Manny" for the sake of anonymity. )

As I sat down in the visiting booth and he came to join me (non-contact - glass between us), my Bible opened up naturally to the beatitudes of Jesus in Matthew 5-7. You know "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth..."

It was a great review both for him and for me, as we read the passages together. I explained what Jesus meant about killing our pride and our ego so we could get healed and be real. We talked about how the 12 Step programs are all based on these passages and the book of James. We talked about how loss and failure can be God using pain for good - bringing us to a place of repentance and listening. Then we read what Jesus said about divorce about how bad it was.

"Manny, you know, I tell people my divorce is the best thing that ever happened to me - 'cause it got me to Jesus. I mean, divorce sucks - and Jesus is blasting guys in this passage for casual divorce - these women would lose all their support in Jewish culture and no one would want them, and even though my divorce is 'Biblical', God still showed me MY sin on the day we met - not hers."

He nodded. "I had a business for 15 years, and because I got locked up, I lost my house and my car - everything. But I told my mother - and she couldn't believe it - that this was the best thing that ever happened to me."

We gave each other a thumbs up and big grin.

We understood each other. We understood our sin. We understood God's grace.

And now we are beginning to understand Jesus - our Brother.

Our [expletive deleted] BROTHER, Man!

Wow.

I am not Doom. Not anymore.

And neither is Manny.

Praise God.

Praise Him in the highest.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

I am DOOM!

Victor von Doom, that is.

I had a long day today, getting our car fixed and fiddling around with chores but I noticed something wasn't quite right in my heart. I was wondering what it was when I ran across a challenge to write up one of the greatest Marvel villains of all time on the V&V forums I frequent (see link at right).

I dove in, eager to reveal this megalomaniac in all his glory. He had to be fearsomely powerful and brilliant. And he had to have a motivation to be so. So I re-read Dr. Doom's origin.

Oh dear Lord.

I got scared when I saw the parallels between his life and mine. Doom is a perfectionist and controller. Nothing must be left to chance.

He was in college on a scholarship, unwilling to listen to his roommate, scarred himself terribly and in his anger left to build himself a suit of armor (a protective shell) and conquer those who scorned him.

His mother had died, and he was dabbling in the occult. He had no friends and everyone existed to serve his vision of being ruler - of being master of his small community.

It was eerie. I mean, I understood Doom - his narcissism, self-loathing, overconfidence, etc.

Even the tiny scar that "ruined" him (thus he wears a face mask - but he really destroyed his own face by putting the red-hot mask on before it fully cooled). Likewise, I have a bad toenail due to an accident when I was 17. It is funky and weird and when people see it, they grimace. I am ashamed of it. I hide it with full-cover sandals. This "imperfection" has shamed me and so - I want to hide my feet.

Its taken a lot of spiritual growth to get over that. And the hardest thing is now I am starting to see how I wanted my education to make me somebody, not to learn from wiser minds or mature in discipline, and thus enable me to help others.

This is awful.

I am Doom.

And tonight's Bible lesson - the one I taught? Its a re-hash of LAST week's lesson. I never do that, but somehow this week, I got a double-dose of insight and felt I should teach it again.

Please to listen to what Jesus said to His disciples:

Mark 9:33-35
They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all."


Yeah. Kills us, doesn't it? Those little Secret Life of Walter Mitty film clips that run around in your head - they're fantasies of self-glorification.

This Sunday, and the following Sunday, we will be celebrating my ordination. Twice, because we cannot get everyone together at the same time.

I am scared.

"You are not to be called 'Rabbi' ['Reverend'] - for you have one Teacher - the Christ!

I am really scared of how this will pump up my pride. It is sooooo easy to sit back and say, "Yeah, baby - look at me!" Add to THAT the fact that my favorite hero and my movie star I favor (don't I?) has been big (Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man), and my ego and narcissistic tendencies are flying high this Summer.

Oh, and he's in TWO movies, by the way. (Like you didn't know.)

And a young lady has taken an interest in me.

And we're moving into a BIG new church this month. Cost? $50 million.

Remember that Peter Gabriel tune - "Big Time"? I do.






"...and I will kneel in a BIG church - BIG TIME! I'm on my way I'm making it - BIG TIME!"

Pray for me, dear reader. I don't need humiliation per se, but I do need humility.

Thank you.

Jesus - please hear their prayer for me.

*shudder*

I think I know a cure. I think.

Yes. It will work.

I'm going to go watch The Passion of the Christ again.

And repeat over and over, as the Romans whip Jesus's body into a bloody mess, "That was for me. That was for me and my pride."

See you Friday - 'cause I need a few days to get my head on straight.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Independence Day - and then some

Happy Belated Independence Day, America!

I took the time to enjoy the perfect - 72 degree - weather here in Wheaton, grill hamburgers and watch fireworks instead of writing this here blog. I mean this with no exaggeration - it was paradise here; wind was 3 mph, sky was clear and humidity was next to nothing. I was stunned by it. I wandered around just grinning, feeling I'd stepped into a dream.

What made that experience all the more gratifying was the fact that my landlady and I had just finished watching The Civil War, A Film by Ken Burns.

You think American casualties were bad in World War II? That they're bad in Iraq?

Americans killing Americans - with all the courage and combat strategy that we have been trained with, being used to the best effect for the worst cause in human existence - piled up a body count that has never been equaled by ANY of our wars.

Let me give you one such scenario: in one battle - just ONE - the Confederacy lost 7,000 men.

Today, if we have 10% losses, we're stunned. Back then, 30% losses were common and were often exceeded.

But the real killer of the war was far more subtle. You see, this was the 1860's. Bacteria and the need for strict sanitation was unknown. Men lost inches of bone by being shot in the arm or leg, so they had, simply had to amputate - the lead balls were large and took out huge chunks of body parts.

And those amputations were no more than the actions of a butcher. The surgeon would cut off the limb, wipe the blade across his apron, clench it in his teeth as he tied off the arteries and go on to the next mangled soldier on the line.

The death toll from this was horrendous. Men died by the thousands from infection and disease - far exceeding the horrific numbers killed in direct battle. (Casualty & Disease Statistics here).

That's what killed most Americans: an invisible host carried by ignorant surgeons.

The same is true today.

We evangelical Christians decry the sin of America and wonder why she is so infected. Why she lusts and paws at the doors of greed and sensuality and immorality. I know why. I used to be exactly the same, so I speak as one having been wounded, amputated and infected. I have an answer.

The surgeons are sloppy. They attempted for years a form of physical holiness and did not deal with the interior. Cutting off limbs (no drinking, no dancing, no movies, no etc.) for decades in the evangelical community, and not dealing with the root cause of the disease: human pride. Unresolved anger at God for being holy and therefore separate from us. So then we either 1) try to "man-up" to God by being "good enough" (the "religious way") or 2) we rebel and do whatever pleases us, 'cause God's a tyrant - who cares? (the "worldly way")

Both stem from a lack of love for God, not believing He loves us.

You see, we all have this creeping dissatisfaction in our hearts because we "fall in love" with the things we cannot have. We thirst and hunger says Jesus, but He'll be glad to fill us up.

"Let all who are thirsty, come to Me and drink!"

We want the salty water of materialism, egoism and the "in-crowd" - especially if the in-crowd is young, attractive and sexually active.

We are infected. And that infection first takes our freedom, then our nation, then our lives.

"All who sin [disobey God] are slaves to sin [continual disobedience]."

Freedom doesn't come from doing whatever we want. We usually want the wrong stuff.

Freedom comes from doing whatever God wants - and let's face it, He doesn't want anything that is not good for you. He does want you to listen to Him because He paid for you with His blood. In this spiritual Civil War, He has decided to pay the cost Himself.

Funny how we think we are fighting for our freedom as we enslave ourselves (name an addiction) and those around us (golly, aren't we fun to be around when we don't get our way?).

In that sense, we have all become part of the Confederacy.

A Confederacy of Dunces.

We all know how the Civil War ended. But we do not like to think why it ended.

It ended because the South could not wage war anymore. Sherman knew and Lincoln understood that the South would never surrender if there was any other possible choice.

Robert E. Lee did not surrender until he was surrounded on three sides and had no more supplies to draw from.

Sadly, that is us too.

So when God takes away everything you have, and you believe He is waging war against you, keep in mind, He wants a union with you from this. You can fight all you want, but in the end, pray that you surrender graciously, as Lee did at Appomattox.

Because He will not have you enslave others anymore. He would have you live and be free.

Amen.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Wall-E & Eve - A Love Story

My bud and I took advantage of a beautiful summer day to rush like mad to the Seven Bridges theater and see Wall-E. We're little kids like that - and we're both PAST middle-age and unmarried.

Reader - go see this movie. Again and again. Wow.

Charlie Chaplain-esque antics along with a little friendly pet of a cockroach keep the viewer enthralled as Wall-E digs through all the trash left behind by centuries of human extravagance, rescuing little treasures he finds and sealing himself up night after night to watch old VHS tapes - romantic VHS tapes - specifically Hello Dolly.

At $180 million every penny of the budget was put up on the screen for you to see.

When Eve shows up, she's an angel - graceful, gliding, beautiful -

- and armed to the TEETH!! Poor Wally - he hasn't a CHANCE with her!

Until he conquers his fear - and through one event after another (he leaves the Earth to rescue her and discovers humans are idling their lives away on a luxury starliner) he restores hope to humanity, this ugly little robot who's been taking care of our trash.

Yeah.

Hard to miss that metaphor in a Christian worldview, isn't it?

Here goes: Christ came in meekness to handle our filth and redeem not only us, but the world.

"Behold, I make all things new!"

That's in Revelations. Jesus said it.

As an incurable romantic, I long for the day the Fall will be undone and there will be healing for all nations. But as an unceasing analyst, I know humanity does not have this power to create utopia - sin has entered the picture, tainting everything and everyone it touches. We need a new heavens and new Earth.

The family of Pixar is not stupid. They know exactly which heart strings to play in their story and they play it well. That's their genius.

The movie is G-rated - everyone can watch it. It has gotten top marks by several critics and I cannot fault that. Sign me up, I'm a believer!

But what is so touching, so painful, is to realize that our emotional landscape is this "future Earth" of Wall-E: barren with all the junk being compressed into little boxes. Stacked as high as skyscrapers, we just keep piling up our sins, hoping one day it will be fixed but not by us. All we can do is move them around to the people who wound us, the job that we hate, the failure of our friendships and relationships by our egos, etc., etc.

"If we say we have not sinned, we call God a liar and the Truth in not in us."

John wrote that in 1 John chapter one.

"If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us of all unrighteousness."

That's 1 John 1:9.

"Where are you? Did you eat of the tree I told you not to eat of?"

That's in Genesis 3. Adam is so ashamed, he tries to hide from God.

We understand him.

We understand Wall-E.

But thank God, He understands too. So He paid what we could not - and that was to draw us to Himself and redeem us.

Go see Wall-E. And if you feel barren, abandoned, alone and that you are digging through trash every day of your life, looking for SOMETHING good, you will find it...

..in Jesus.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

"Look Ma - I'm on top of the world!"

Remember that explosive finale to Jimmy Cagney's character in White Heat? I've never seen the movie, but all the pathos, all the missed dreams and foolish choices - all the hysterical laughter and rage in that one scene just before he is gloriously blown to itty bitty bits speaks deeply to all of us who dream of making it big one day - and are afraid how it will end for us.

What's the old axiom? "Be careful what you wish for - you just might get it."

Again, I haven't seen the movie, but I understand that pathos of reaching infamy in recognition and then self-destructing. Of wanting the right things but going about it the wrong way. Obviously, Jimmy's character wants his mother to be proud of him - he MADE it!

BOOOOOMMM!!

Why was this in my mind?

Yesterday, I climbed to the top of my home in Wheaton and cleaned out the gutters which had gotten filled with a morass of leaves and seedlings from our GENEROUS maple trees in May. I was able to see saplings sprout and grow in our gutters from the street. It was a weird sight, watching trees try to grow in those aluminum troughs. You knew they wouldn't go deep - but they were getting enough water and had enough rotting organic material around them to make the conditions right. (Our gutters don't empty well. We're working on that.)

But the reason it was notable - and I told Nancy later - was that I had little to no fear getting up there. 14 feet off of the ground. 20 feet by my sight, since I stand at 6 feet.

I hate unprotected heights. Don't mind airplanes or glass elevators (much), but man, you get me up on a roof and I get uhhhh - "careful". Very careful. Especially when I have to squat next to an edge to dig out the trash and then stand up to toss it. One good misstep and Mr. Gravity takes over and Justice goes to the hospital.

So why wasn't I afraid?

Grace. I was drinking grace.

Let me explain. I grew up around fearful people who yelled at you the moment you failed them - and I was the youngest. I learned fear and got a "do it right, NOW or ALL IS LOST!!" mentality. I inflicted this on other people.

But when I ran into Christ and discovered His power and love, I immediately got set free from this. I saw that God knew everything everyone did - I didn't have to fix anything. I just had to be humble. I went from being Michael Douglas in Falling Down to being Tom Hanks in Forest Gump.

Everyone noticed the change in me. Everyone. Ex-wife, old friends, mothers of old friends, etc.

Then something awful happened. I got very serious about being "right" with God.

I should have gotten serious about how God made me right with Him, but most people don't dig a non-performance based relationship with God. They tell you how to be HOLY - and not how to be Whole. You can get paid a LOT of money and support telling people what to do to please God, not how Christ has paid it all.

True story: I have a friend who got saved and was happy. He was in the military at the time and LOVED flying in the helicopters with the doors wide open. Then he went to a legalistic performance-based church. Fear entered into him and soon he was struggling daily with things he should have never have had to struggle so hard with again - fear, guilt, shame, anger, etc.

Notice I did qualify with "so hard". He's been struggling with legalism ever since.

He lost his love of flying with open doors.

This is why: performance in a fallen world exists to save ourselves from the effects of the Fall - death, disease, crime, accidents, etc. It is a good thing when done for the right reasons.

But not to get us to God. Not to receive His Perfect Love.

And we are told "Perfect Love casts out all fear."

I was on top of my world and I was not afraid.

I had been spending more time resting in His grace than ever before. I read my Bible when I wanted to and prayed when I felt hurt and alone. I talked to Jesus with tears like a little kid sometimes too. He knew I had run out of steam.

So He loved me. A lot. I don't deserve it. I KNOW my sins.

So I climbed up, did my nasty smelly job and got back down - and I was joyful I had been there.

Because I was on top of the world.

With Jesus, the One who casts out all fear.