Friday, February 27, 2009

Addis Ababa, Mr. Luthor?!

I was checking our ministry's post office box two days ago, and found something very strange in it.

It was an air-mail letter from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

I smiled as I looked at the postmark, knowing it had to be from someone serving Jesus in ministry, but remembering the first time I ever even HEARD of "Addis Ababa."

It was the summer of 1978 and my dad and I went to the Park Theater near Memphis State University, just east of midtown Memphis. With heavily buttered popcorn clutched in my 13 year old hands, I was mesmerized by Superman: The Movie, starring Marlon Brando, Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman. I loved the respect and honor they gave Superman, and Reeve looked so cool! But I felt very uncomfortable about the ending in which he defies his father to save Lois. Even at that tender age, I saw that the story had taken a wrong turn and it was... it was... well, it was wrong!

Superman would not let passion cause him to become a rebellious tyrant, re-working history because he did not like Lois dying. My hero turned into a cosmic cheater in the last few minutes of the film. This also creates a TERRIFIC logic problem. If he could fly THAT fast, why EXACTLY couldn't he have saved Lois the FIRST time?

I'm not the only one who saw that. From "" on YouTube:

It was nearly 30 years later to find out I was right.

This superspeed "time-reversal" was not the original ending. That had been reserved for the ending of Superman II, to undo the worldwide damage the three villains had caused, after he had been empowered by Jor-El's very spirit. Just watch:

You can read all about it on Wikipedia, and you can buy Superman II: The Richard Donner Version here.

It is far superior story, IMHO.

But, disappointments aside, I enjoyed that movie. And, like all geeks, can remember WHY Luthor was going to Addis Ababa and how excited Otis was getting about the trip.

They had found the power to destroy their foe.

I got excited, too, reading this letter. You see, I've never been to Africa, except in photos. I know conditions are terrible there, and I believe Satan and his angels are working overtime on these vibrant people full of passion. In fact, having worked in the inner city of Memphis and seen the drive and strength of my African-American brothers, I can tell you why Satan works so diligently on their community: they are powerhouses of word, music, play, art and all forms of lyricism.

I read the letter, and it was very simply worded. A youth pastor in a village had found out about the Matthew Visual Bible DVD we had given away through our ministry and wanted any materials we could spare. His English was a bit uneven, but reading between the lines, I saw his desire to train and equip children and youth with the knowledge of God and His Son Jesus.

That touched my heart. He's going to get his wish, though I have never met the man.

"Addis Ababa? Oooo - Mr Luthor! Are we going to Addis Ababa?!"

No, Otis. Probably not.

But there is something powerful going on there, that is beginning to destroy the power of Satan. A man is calling on Jesus to save his people, and place their hope and faith in Jesus Christ.

The least I can do is send them some help to defeat the powers that defy the living God.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Wall*E - and the Promised Land

I recently re-watched Wall*E and, as is my recovered discipline, been reading three chapters a day of the Bible. Right now, I am in Deuteronomy, where God is reminding the Israelites precisely Who He is and why He chose them - not because they were good, but because the lands they were going to take over were a moral wasteland, full of corrupt people.

I also saw in Wall*E this diligent little robot who's lonely and working hard, and just wanting one day to find companionship and love. The problem is, when his dream girl arrives, she's far too powerful and magnificent for him to handle. She can fly and can blow huge oil tankers to smithereens. The poor little janitor robot has no hope of winning her love. He's terrified of getting too close to her, of angering her and getting blasted to bits.

Part-irony, part-slapstick and all love story, Wall*E was a CGI Charlie Chaplain. There are scenes in this wondrous star-spanning love story that take your breath away with its glory (I am thinking of the scene in which the returning scout ship cruises under the rings of Saturn and Wall*E reaches up to scatter the ice particles).

When God chose the Israelites, they were much like this robot, working tirelessly, never seeing the end of their labors yet simultaneously hoping one day He would rescue them. They didn't know when it would occur, but they hoped it would. One day. Some day. Maybe.

Then when God showed up with mighty signs and wonders, the Israelites were so scared of Him, they begged Moses to go talk in their stead "lest we die!"

God was not there to destroy them, but to save them, to bring them into a land "flowing with milk and honey" (in modern parlance, a "land flowing with cheese pizzas and chocolate bars"!) But seeing all the power He had sure put the Israelites on their haunches!

I want to make a quick aside: I note that we can never "outgive" God. Jesus said "Give and it shall be given unto you"; even Buddhists recognize this principle and call it "karma." When God gives the Israelites "cities [they] did not work for", it was because - perhaps - they had been slaving away for the Egyptians for four centuries. They had been building pyramids all these years, and so when they left, they got to "move in" to very, very nice digs AFTER clearing it out of so much evil. Again, while God says its NOT a reward for "being good" (cf. Deuteronomy 9), I submit it may be 'back wages' for their physical labors.

What connection is this to Wall*E? Well, as the Israelites found out, it is sooooo easy to be 'over-blessed' and forget 1) Where you came from, 2) How you got there, 3) the Reason you were blessed and 3) Where your real blessing is.

You see, Wall*E arrives on a starliner full of gluttonous, lazy human beings that is simply stuck orbiting the sun generation after generation. What should have been a short cruise of 5 years had become a 700 year 'house arrest'. They'd forgotten they were only supposed to be there for a season, while their true home, Earth, was being cleaned up. They got comfy and became obese, shallow and weak. They had become shades of their true selves.

Enter Wall*E with EVA and the rescue of humanity's soul begins. They disrupt everything, and humans are constantly tossed out of their comfy chairs. But soon they talk to each other, not just their computer screens.

As an American, I appreciate the self-deprecating irony of Wall*E (much like Over the Hedge, another great poke at our sedentary lifestyle). I have to keep my heart and mind grateful to God for his material blessings but never let them overshadow the best part -

- being loved and known by Him.

We get can get very comfy in this world, and forget this is not our home. Like the humans did in Wall*E. Like the Israelites did, either wishing to return to Egypt or ignoring Him once they got settled in.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall be comforted." Jesus said that. He means that if you find this world depressing, that's GOOD - because it is not your true home.

I think God is very, very generous, but blessing us materially is dangerous business in a world destined to end. Even if nothing Earth-shatteringly cataclysmic happens, we are destined to pass away and live in a "new heavens and a new Earth".

Cheer up, little worker 'bots. God will provide. But don't be surprised if its through a great and awe-inspiring adventure that scares your pants off. What needs you must have met are more internal than external, as Wall*E and the Israelites found out. You can have joy if you know you are loved, its far more wonderful than any worldly blessing.

Or as the old Puritan said, smiling as he sat down to a meal of some paucity: "Bread and water... and Jesus too!"

Ask God to show you His love today and be rescued from all the materialism that surrounds you.

You'll be in heaven, I promise. First on the inside, then on the outside.


Monday, February 23, 2009

81st Academy Awards - I wish I'd not even bothered

Not much to say.

Hugh Jackman did a great job, to be sure.

Heath Ledger, via his grieving family, got the award he gave his life for.

Then The Curious Case of Benjamin Burton BEAT Iron Man AND The Dark Knight for "Achievement in Special Effects."

I began ranting. My landlady said to me, "I don't care."

I replied I did.

Now, I know the Motion Picture Academy cannot see past their agenda often, but when in the world did doing a digital mask over ONE actor's face outshine doing a detailed muscle/skeletal one-half face replacement MATCHING the muscular movement of the actor's other normal half perfectly (Harvey Dent/Two-Face) which is a FAR greater challenge - AND about 300 other effects shots?

Or even better: Iron Man? Do you know how many seamless transitions they had to do going from practical to digital to practical again? Never mind trying to fully render realistically a man in a chrome plated suit.

So the Academy showed its agenda: give no honor to those who portray self-sacrificial heroes - especially those kinds of guys fighting terrorists.

I'm serious. What is the message in these two movies? How to repent of being a self-absorbed playboy and risk your life to serve and save others, right?

What's the message of ANY Brad Pitt movie?

Have sex with a pretty girl before you die - 'cause life is short, sucker.

And Milk? So agenda-driven I felt like I was in the First Church of Homosexual Rights Activists?

Nope. Won't be watching that one.

I would rant more, but honestly, I am a romantic, and I don't hate the opposition.

But they sure hate us.

There is no reason for The Dark Knight to be so snubbed, and movies like The Reader to come out of nowhere and be nominated.

Hollywood didn't like Iron Man and Hollywood didn't like The Dark Knight.

We did.

We know heroes, and we know a myth well told when we see it. It isn't agenda-driven, its just... well, a darn good tale that spans decades of stories about a hero.

Fifty years from now people are going to look back, like we have at previous Academy Award winners, and say "What in the world were they thinking?"

Look at the list of "Best Picture" winners from years gone by and you will see what I mean. Some may be timely stories, but they are not timeless.

It was a great year for movies.

It was awful to see so many of them treated disrespectfully.

Thank God we have a better Judge of characters and of stories.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Learning from Lewis & Lincoln

I have been reading bits about C. S. Lewis's life from Alan Jacobs excellent biography, The Narnian and excerpts from Lincoln's letters and speeches in Philip L. Ostergard's The Inspired Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln.

Both Lincoln and Lewis were raised within the Christian faith, went to skepticism in their teens and early twenties, only to come to believe later in life. Both suffered the loss of their mother at an early age. Both had seen the horrors of war and served in the military.

In both cases, these men have reached almost sainthood, being glorified after their death in ways they were not within their lives. In both cases, they were regarded as evil, promoting perverseness and even rejected by their peers, again and again.

Lincoln was attacked by radical abolitionists as well as slave owners. He performed the most amazing act in the history of America, overruling civil liberties in a time of Civil War only to graciously restore them at its conclusion. He cited Christian principles of forgiveness, quoted the Bible extensively and used its wisdom to answer his most difficult situations.
When beginning his inaugural journey from Springfield to Washington, Lincoln said "Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended [George Washington], I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail."

- The Inspired Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, Ostergard, p. 242

Now C. S. Lewis has been over-quoted, but I see why: he is so accessible and did us myth-lovers so much service, that with one cut of his incisive words, he clears the foolishly romantic of some very muddled thinking and replaces it with something just as strong and mythical. He takes away cheap plastic well-wishing Christianity that capitulates before worldliness and inserts golden, strong, active Christian life of mind, heart and spirit. Lincoln upbraided Douglas for twisting words to mean whatever he wanted them to mean. Lewis did the same, constantly.

So I've been thinking about Christian leadership and its cost - the way the world twists and corrupts meanings and how many people think they know Christianity because they went to church or seminary or lived in a Christian home for part of their life. Many think Christianity is primarily a set of "Do"s and "Don't"s. It is rather a spiritual relationship between a sinner who would be a saint and a God who desires the same. Like anything, it does not matter how good or bad you are at it when you begin. It is the end product that matters.

Chesterton, who was famous for his witticisms and quips - the "Mark Twain" of Christian thought if you will - once said "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried."

Evey time I desire to quit the Christian life or hear of another saying how they gave it up, I am reminded of two things:
1) "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly", as Chesterton said. And when asked what was so different about Christianity from other world religions, Lewis promptly replied "Oh - that's easy. Grace!" So I admit I will be and must be a rather bad Christian since I a) have no merit and b) joined a club that will have me as its member (cf. Groucho Marx).

2) There is no place to go that I want to go without Christ. I liked the man from Galilee so much I got close to Him and even put up with his uppity holier-than-thou people so I could hear more about Him. Let me tell you - the second I found out that my liberal-minded self-righteousness was merely a thin veneer of envy, I was too stunned for words. I thought I was doing them a favor by attending services. It was the other way round.

Does God chose to save some and not others? I think He chooses to reveal the same facts to all. But I do know this: I was chosen because I was incompetent. My faith was a downright gift.

Election means God elects you. As C. S. Lewis and Abe Lincoln found out, we mere mortals cannot escape that Divine Hunter if He comes after us.

Men who have seen blood and death wrought by the hands of other men begin to understand that this world cannot be our home, that the only "safe place" must be out of this world.

Lewis taught that. Lincoln expressed it, again and again. Lincoln's last words were "How I would like to see Jerusalem!" Skeptics claim that was added later, but it would have been in line with all he wrote and the oft-told tales of his uncanny premonitional ability.

A week ago we celebrated Lincoln's 200th birthday. Because of the way his life ended, I firmly believe he is dining in heaven with Christ, along with Lewis.

I don't know about you, but I can't wait to see THAT seating arrangement! A black haired, big-bellied Ulster Irishman joking with a tall wiry frontiersman. Man, wouldn't that be a sight to behold?

"As they say in the States, 'funny meeting you here'!"

"Jack - the Divine Comedy only permitted us to meet here! And you are well aware of that fact!"

"I will laugh all the same!"



Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Green Lanterns in Love: Kyle Rayner and Soranik Natu, Pt. 2

Patrick Gleason did this coverIf you can see the smile on my face all the way from your computer, you ought to know who put it there: Pat Gleason.

Since I am trying to be faithful and "keep publishing" Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I will put his comment on my last blog up for all to see.

BTW, Pat, I was flabbergasted and honored - you really made my day!

Pat wrote this:
You get the no prize! (if DC had one that is.) I just came across your blog and wanted to validate your claim. You were right! I forgot I even drew that moment so far back in Recharge, but I always knew something was (or should happen with those two) So I had Natu gazing at Kyle as a bit of silent monologue.

And while the thought of you tying GL into the Gospels literally made me do a double take, I think that your conclusion "...please keep in mind He has to deal with you. He's just being patient - and respectful. You may, like Mary, look right at Him and mistake Him for a servant. When He calls your name, you'll come to your senses."

Was very on point and a good reminder. Very cool, brother.

Be well, and God bless.


Now I should move on, and give you a personal story with another spiritual anecdote, and there is one here, so I will use it, but first let me say: I am so happy to hear from Pat Gleason, to hear his approval and admiration and to discover he is also a believer in Jesus.

That is coooooooooooooll.

Lovin' your art, Pat, BTW. Love even the pirate signature. That is muy cool as well.

Now, how does this affirmation from Pat Gleason feel? Very good. Is there someplace in the Gospels that someone else felt like I do right now?

Yeah. In fact, when the Artist commends the Viewer for an insight, it is a happy time for both.

Here's where Jesus commended Peter - and yes, I think Jesus is very happy, even smiling, because not everyone saw what Peter saw.

Matthew 16:13-17
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?"

They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets."

"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?"

Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven!"

Can you hear it?

Jesus is casually chatting with His guys and saying, "So - what's everyone saying about me?"

They begin with what they know of scriptures: very notable prophets who also worked miracles - but NOWHERE in the scope or power that Jesus is doing.

Only one of the twelve sees Jesus as He is - the very Messiah, the Anointed One - "Christos" in the Greek.

Its like finding out Batman is really Superman in disguise (from Knight Time old Superman/Batman Bruce Timm episode, remember?)

Jesus says he did not have the power to see Him if God the Father did not give Peter this revelation.

So its cool - Peter is commended, but Jesus lets him know - "It wasn't because you were smart, Peter - it was a wonderful insight granted by God."

As a Christian who once was not "in" and now is, I remember those days of struggle. It was, especially for me, a divine revelation of who Jesus really, truly was.

Not just a prophet, not just a miracle-worker, but the very One who saves us.

Pat - thank you brother. I was sure I was right because you left the clues in plain sight. But hearing your confirmation just made my day.

And Peter?

C'mon - he was SO high, Jesus had to pull him back down in the next two verses!!

But at that moment, I know how he felt - and what a gift it was.

May you too have a special revelation of Jesus' true identity today.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Green Lanterns in Love: Kyle Rayner & Soranik Natu

I knew it!

I knew it; I knew it; I knew it!

All right - let me tell you what I knew and how I knew it.

In the latest issue of Green Lantern Corps (#33) which I did not purchase but browsed through, Kyle Rayner, our graphic designer turned Green Lantern and "Torch Bearer" of the GL Corps finally opens his heart to Soranik Natu, his fellow GL, and ends up showing some of his art from his sketchbook. Now, I know that sounds lame-o, but the images are not of flowers and sweet things, but rather Green Lanterns who died in battle. It is a book of his tortured memories.

Soranik sees the depth in the man and well - she kisses him and Kyle returns it. A dedicated healer and the walking wounded, a doctor and a soldier/artist embrace.

But I knew it was coming.

Hints of it were all the way back in Soranik Natu's origin. When she is rescued by Kyle Rayner, he's as pleased as anybody, and keeps talking to the guys.

But Soranik?

Look at that second panel! She's just awestruck!She just keeps looking at him. I mean Patrick Gleason drew her perfectly.

It's pure adoration and you can see it. Oh, and when did Kyle get the revelation to come RESCUE her? While he was on Mogo - and he was talking to the spirit of his dead girlfriend, to whom he joyfully recounts his adventures and wishes she were alive. His spiritual reverie is then interupted by an image of Soranik Natu being tortured (shades of Luke on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back if you ask me.)

But I was watching and well, you see it right there in panel two.

I knew it. I knew it.

You also see this "saving hero oblivious to damsel entranced" in The Matrix, when Trinity treats Neo so well everyone comments on it, but Neo remains clueless.

Do I have a spiritual metaphor for this?

Yeah. God is a God of love, right? And Jesus, His Son, shows us this love in person. Problem is, most of the time He trying to get us to see how much He loves us.

Rarely does He play with our hearts - waiting us out. But here, He does. He waits for a woman who loves him to see Him as He really is - letting her struggle through her emotions first.
John 20:10-17
Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?"

"They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him." (At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.)

"Woman," he said, "why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?"

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him."

Jesus said to her, "Mary."

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher).

Jesus said, "Do not hold [cling tightly] on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' "

Three times in the Songs of Solomon it is stated explicitly "Do not arouse or awaken love before it so desires."

I can see the smile on Jesus' face as He says her name. I can see her relief and passion as she grabs Him.

What I cannot fathom is that He is God incarnate and is being so coy.

I mean, He has all this power to make her afraid and fall down and worship and He's just saying "Baby, baby - let go - I still got to see my Daddy! But would you tell my men I'm going to meet with them?"

He's letting her process the event. He's not forcing it on her until she needs to know she isn't going to find any dead body, so she should stop. It is tender, this waiting.

It is gentle and respectful. It is love waiting until it is the right time.

That kind of love is rare. We need it, you and I.

When you think God is being foolish or incompetent or weak, please keep in mind He has to deal with you. He's just being patient - and respectful. You may, like Mary, look right at Him and mistake Him for a servant.

When He calls your name, you'll come to your senses.

He'll light your fire, I'll gurantee it.


Friday, February 13, 2009

The Punisher (2004) and Me (1986-7) - Extended Edition

I am no fan of the Punisher as a superhero. His cold-hearted vigilanteism is the stuff bad revenge movies are made of: Dirty Harry meets Rambo meets Reservoir Dogs.

But I have to say I did like this uneven, fairly predictable, retro, low budget 2004 re-boot for a few reasons: it covered some classic virtues, was made with some recognizable stars (some late 70s' favorites - John Travolta and Roy Scheider) and some pitch black villainy, notable in their distinctiveness ("Memphis" played by Mark Collie and Quinton, Saint's sadistic but poised right-hand man). This was paralleled along with some very unexpected goodness - Frank's neighbors, who nearly steal the show, their personal wounds worn magnificently on their sleeves and their compassion for Frank - another wounded soul - was so evident, I caught myself crying.

Yeah - it must be this February thing, but when I watch Frank surprised by a beautiful Italian meal from the grateful trio after he's defended them from Joan's ex-boyfriend, I think "Cool. They are showing their appreciation." Its a simple scene.

Then Frank sits down and begins eating like a Marine Corps grunt. He's in soldier mode, not "pals" mode. Food is not for relationships, but just for fuel - for the next battle. His behavior is the total opposite of the idyllic family reunion banquet he had at his 'retirement'.

As I said, I wept. You see, I understand Frank Castle. I enjoy a good meal, but I have often used food for comfort, for consolation. Back when I was attending the University of Southern Mississippi the year following my mom's death, I was walking with my girlfriend and saw a guy under a tree trying to study and chomp down a sandwich at the same time. I can still see it. A huge wave of empathy hit me, and I almost cried on the spot THEN. I had no idea WHY a stranger eating hastily would hurt me emotionally.

Then I saw The Punisher yesterday - saw that scene - and it connected.

Food was being used to salve his wound. Frank is becoming an animal in his pain.

They want to befriend Frank, to get to know him - but they can't. He's too hurt, too raw. Notably, however, he sees what he's doing - how he's treating them - and he stops an straightens up. Later, when Dave, the guy with all the nose and lip piercings, has had his rings ripped out by torture for guarding Castle's whereabouts, Castle asks "Why'd you do that? You don't know me."

"Because you're one of us, man. You're family."

Good stuff. A bright moment in a visciously dark movie.

They are family by wounds. By need. Not by blood, but by heart and spirit.

When my family disintegrated, I found another - they too had lost a lot of faith that there was any good in this world or a decent God who would judge. They loved me and helped me. From my gay roommate who knew I needed a better place to go to school to a Catholic family whose doors were never locked, and who would feed you till you popped.

God uses people to save people. Its that simple.

I wrote an essay on that time, and how C. S. Lewis helped me to keep my intellectual faith in God even as my heart was breaking. If you want a copy, its in a book called Mere Christians: Inspiring Stories of Encounters with C. S. Lewis. It just came out this month.

So here it is - from 1986-7, when I was wounded and wanted nothing to do with God.

Thankfully, He made a pre-emptive strike and loved me anyway.


Chapter 11: He Saved My Dying Faith

She was dead, and there was nothing I could do about it. My life as I had known it was over, and my home was taken. I was twenty years old and the only thing that kept me believing in the existence of God and the deity of Jesus Christ was an Oxford don named C. S. Lewis.

Lewis himself struggled with his faith in God after the death of his own mother, becoming less and less of a believer until he was fully entrenched in the camp grounds of brilliant heathens, warming themselves by the fires of humanists who had gone before. Within a year of my mother's death, I also drew near their camp, enjoying the bitter camaraderie of the wounded, neglected and abused. We were young men full of strength who read poetry and fantasy to salve our wounds, incurred living in a fallen world. Dark angels demand dark minstrels, and fools had better beware.

The times were not in our favor; the Moral Majority was reaching its height and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were in high form, proving the vacuousness of Christian thought, smothered in makeup, TV lights and requests for money. The movie Blade Runner was our Bible, and Anne Rice was our lady, her dark iconoclastic vampire LeStat living life as an immortal sans deity. Bright Christians running around with vapid slogans of God's love impacted us not at all. Their pain was too small, their wounds superficial and easily sneered at.

Bitter at a God who created people for us to love and then letting them and our dreams die, we renounced all that was didactic, holy, reverent. But the most amazing thing happened in the middle of this: I refused to let go of my faith there was a God who knew all and saw everything—a God who brought his children who die into heaven to give them eternal life and joy. For that, I owe a great debt to C. S. Lewis. I had heard Lewis’s mother died when he was young, and like all the terrifically analytical, I did not consider that losing your mother at the age of [nine] to be the same as losing her at the age of twenty--but the wounds are similar, especially considering Lewis lived in a different age. (We modern children have an amazingly long adolescence, thanks in large part to our entertainment and lesser responsibilities.)

Lewis’s main contribution to me was not that he was brilliant and concise writer, but a writer who had suffered great loss, developed a keen mind, and still placed his faith in Christ. His personal wounds enabled him to speak with tact and wisdom about the necessity of a God with a clear moral standard, a God outside space-time and therefore Lord of All. A God who permitted pain in a fallen world to awaken us, to save us from being lulled into hell, self-satisfied and smug as our last breath escapes. From Mere Christianity to The Problem of Pain, my mother, with me at her bedside, was taught by this Oxford don. Lewis had died before I was born, but Lewis made us think about the philosophical impact of Christian thought -what is now called a "worldview".

Why pain? Why suffering? Why Christ? Was Jesus God? What did Christianity offer that was so different from other religions? Lewis, in writing these books, was wrestling with his own theology, his own loss I think. Thank God for that. Because he forearmed me, though I did not know it. Lewis' argument of "Liar, Lunatic or Lord" arrested me. I knew Jesus claimed to be God, and either this was absolutely true or Jesus was absolutely insane. Of course, at that time, I did not know Jesus in any intimate way. I argued with my atheist friends, but slowly and surely I discovered the world was not my friend, that non-believers could practice utter immorality without remorse, and, despite my waywardness, many believers were kind –truly kind.

Lewis was right, but I couldn't admit how wrong I was. What Lewis did was speak to me logically as my heart was breaking. Those times at my mother’s bedside were having an effect. Lewis’s words kept coming back. He didn't lie to me; he didn't hide the facts, and he didn't live or write arrogantly. He was humble in his faith, aware of pain and the need for redemption. Intuitively, I knew this. Any man who will take the time to write books like he did was serious.

Later he said, while facing the end of his life, "Ten years from now no one will care what I have written." On that, Lewis was wrong, dead wrong. His work saved my dying faith. I look forward to the day I'll tell Jack this to his face.

With Jesus.

Justice Carmon is a freelance writer, caregiver, and Bible teacher who lives in Wheaton, Illinois. His work for Christ has included a tour of duty as a housefather in the inner city of Memphis and short-term mission trips and evangelical outreaches to the peoples of Kazakhstan, Russia, and India.
From Mere Christians: Inspiring Stories of Encounters with C. S. Lewis by Mary Anne Phemister & Andrew Lazo, p. 72.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Death of Captain America, Pt. 2 (after some TDK)

Sorry this is late. I had a bud over and we re-viewed The Dark Knight, and what it meant for us to lose a relationship that would have gotten us married.

Oops! Maybe I should re-word that!

Two middle-aged guys were reminiscing over losing their very significant girlfriends nee fiance'-types while watching The Dark Knight.

That sounds marginally better. :D

But watching this again did help. We saw there could be a greater plan for our stories than just what we had lost. We saw that maybe it was for the best. Remember how Rachel left a note that said "Bruce, let's be friends? 'Cause this Batman thing is too weird for me. BTW, I'm marrying Harvey."?

When she gets blown to itty bitty pieces, I remarked to my bud "See, this is what happens when you cheat on the hero. You KNOW he's doing it for Gotham. You know he's in love with you, and still, you leave him for the big political guy 'cause you can't take his weirdness. She didn't see Bruce as a hero. She saw him as an emotionally damaged playboy pretending to be Batman. She didn't see him as he was NOW - a hero pretending to be a playboy!"

Now, don't get me wrong: Bruce is hurt with Rachel's death, but he can take the loss. He's already been through losing his parents to a random act of violence and seen his own evil side. Harvey? Not so much.

But what does this have to do with The Death of Captain America? Well, at first glance not a lot. Except maybe, if Steve Rogers hadn't died, we wouldn't see his friends grow up.

Death changes us. That's what this series is about. The hero is killed, and what are we going to do about it?

We wouldn't see Bucky take on his mantle, and Sharon begin questioning her superiors. We wouldn't see Tony Stark realize he can't control everything, and see he can make really bad decisions with all the right intentions. That he's too busy looking at the big picture and forgetting its the little guys - the regular agents like Sharon - who can change everything.

If Tony Stark had concerned himself more with the internal actions of SHIELD, he would've caught Faustus.

But though he's tempted to drink again, he doesn't. He swings around and - and -

Well, he begins following Steve.

He opens Steve Roger's last letter and reads his wishes about how he wants Tony to help Bucky. He starts to realize that what made Steve great is his compassion, his empathy, his understanding.

When Bucky finally becomes the new Captain America, he tries to get a rowdy crowd to listen to him - and they began throwing beer cans at him. They refuse to listen to him. They know the real Cap - how he spoke, how he led. They refuse to accept him because he's not the real deal.

And that, my geeky, "I'd rather read comics and watch movies than deal with girlfriends", crew, is just like Jesus said.

When He spoke, people listened because there was something different about Him, in His voice, His ways. They were amazed. They were knocked off their feet. Why? I think it was because he had empathy and compassion along with His humility and authority.

Matthew 7:28,29
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

John 7:45,46
Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, "Why didn't you bring him in?"

"No one ever spoke the way this man does," the guards declared.

John 18:4-6
Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, "Who is it you want?"

"Jesus of Nazareth," they replied.

"I am He," Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, "I am He," they drew back and fell to the ground.

Furthermore, as Bucky discovered, if you do not have a great heart for people (and he doesn't, not yet anyway, with his history of being an assassin), no one will want to listen to you. You see, people need a leader who will care for them. A good shepherd will be listened to, says Jesus:

John 10:5
But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice."

Leadership requires compassion. Years ago, I learned a lesson that I've had to re-learn today.

People will listen to a person who cares about them. That's the criteria. It doesn't matter if you are right, factual, truthful, sincere, etc. I think those things are necessary for integrity. But if they beleive you care about them, they will listen.

Even if you have an awful plan. Even if you are stupid or misguided. Even if you will put them in grave danger.

In a media-saturated world, we hunger for someone who cares for us - the little guys.

Steve Rogers was selfless. He would die for his country. That's how he became Captain America.

And giving up your life to save others is heroic, certainly. But there is a price: you will be betrayed by those closest to you, not out of malevolence, but simply because they are unwilling to pay the same price to ride the same ride.

They will want out. They want control. They want life without danger and terror and challenges.

Sadly that life does not exist. Not here. Not now.

One of the great things Brubaker does is show how big the shoes of Captain America were. How many enemies he has and how hard it is for Bucky to be him.

He's learning.

Here's to all the men who've loved and lost, who've decided to step up and help, to those who've come back from the dead [metaphorically or not] to fight again, no matter the wounds, the loss, the mistakes of the past.

May God bless you and make His face shine upon you.


Friday, February 6, 2009

The Death of Captain America, Pt. 1

As I mentioned last week, I bought and read Ed Brubaker's monumental work, The Death of Captain America, Vols. 2 & 3.

What impresses me is how Cap is NOT dead - how he lives on in each of his friends, his grilfriend, his partners and fellow heroes. How he was an unstoppable force, and could only be brought down by betrayal by the person he loved the most - Agent 13 nee Sharon Carter. Sharon, under the influence of Dr. Faustus brainwashing, shot him as he lay on the steps to the courthouse.

All Steve can think is of how to get the innocents to safety.

Later, we hear what he whispers to Sharon as he dies.

"You take my breath away..."

Those were his final words to his love. Man, that hurts.

As a Christian, the image of a noble hero being betrayed and killed unjustly in front of God and country on the very steps of power is nothing new.

But what I think hurts me most - and you can see it in Bruce Marchiano's portrayal of Jesus Christ - is how upset Jesus was that everyone wanted him - their friend, trying to speak the truth to them - dead. [This clip is from Matthew, the Visual Bible. It's long, but watch the first two minutes.]

We usually don't think of the emotional price Jesus paid. We see glimpses of it. We know He wept over the death of Lazarus, over Jerusalem, over the separation and isolation from the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, but we just blow right past it if we do not know Jesus as a personal friend.

If we don't care if He cries, it is because we do not know Him.

We are told we can grieve the Holy Spirit of God. We can make God unhappy.

I know I did that when I was a pagan, a 'Christian' in name only - but I am afraid of grieving Him by a poor witness more and more. I forget the lostness, the darkness and depression that ruled every day of my life. Only sex, gaming or a good beer would grant me temporary relief.

I did not know God. I did not know I "took his breath away."

When Jesus died on the cross, we did just that. We are told He gave up His Spirit. Gave it up - not that it was taken from Him. Interestingly, in the Greek and Hebrew, the words for Spirit and Wind are the same. Pneuma in the Greek, ru'ach in the Hebrew.

When God breathed on Adam, and gave him His breath, Adam became a "living being". The image is close to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (cf. Elisha raising the Shunammite's son from the dead). It is God who gives us life by His power, His breath.

"You take my breath away."

Only someone you truly love can do that. Cap said that to Sharon as he died.

Christ says it to His church, His bride.

I know it is a weird metaphor, but perhaps you can now see why that image is so evocative, so touching.

Once upon a time, it happened.

True love, truly dying with passion for his beloved.

Happy Valentines' week, True Believers.


Forrest Gump, Monk and Me

I watched Forrest Gump today. Think its the 6th time or so, but this time was sort of brutal. Oh - I know - the whole movie is fairly brutal when you get down to it, but I mean do you know what jumped up and slapped me as I was watching, catching me completely off-guard?

It was the part where Forrest walks in to find his mother dying: "She had got the cancer," says Gump, "and died on a Tuesday." - and suddenly my mother's death AND the first time I saw this movie with my ex-wife came back to me.

I began wailing.

There was no one in the house except my cat and me - it was a good time to do it.

Movies do their job when they touch your heart. Someone ought to write a book on their cathartic nature. I knew what was going on - I was not crying over Forrest's loss as much as I was seeing myself in him - a young man dumbfounded and clueless of how he would live his life without his momma. Tom Hanks, on the accompanying DVD, said, "Forrest believes in three things: God, his momma, and Jenny. He filters everything through those three lenses."

That about sums it up for us Southern boys.

My mother's death - AND my divorce - hit me both full force. My loss and failure as a man. I was a boy acting bigger than I really was.

I had a deeper wound than I realised. And as I write this, this song came on over the radio, on KLOVE:

Sanctus Real - Whatever You’re Doing
From the album We Need Each Other

The line "It feels like chaos, but I believe..." is powerful to men of faith.

You see, it still hurts - but the pain merely proves we are alive and in different circumstances. Things change. They have to. And we can hate that fact and fear it instead of accepting it as - well, as God at work on us.

My landlady, Nancy, who is a second mom to me, and I have recently discovered "Monk" on DVD at the library. The series is in its 7th season, IIRC. Monk, for the uninformed, is a detective with OCD - Obsessive Compulsive Disorder - and he was widowed when his precious understanding wife was killed by a car bomb.

Monk fears every germ, every bit of "ick" that this world produces and is nearly paralyzed by his phobia. But with the help of friends, that same disorder makes him incredibly observant and able to spot inconsistencies at crime scenes, clues other detectives miss. When asked about his nearly superhuman sensitivity, he replies sardonically: "It's a gift ...and a curse."

That's true of so much of life outside the "norm" isn't it?

If Forrest were more intelligent or if Monk were "normal", neither character would interest us - and neither would have gone on their journeys. We appreciate them because of their failings.

You see, I think we all have a mistaken idea that being smart (or smarter) will somehow prevent suffering in a fallen world. It won't. It enhances the pain.

I think we also have the strange idea that everything we appreciate or love that ends is an aberration, not ordained by God. But the Bible says God "declares the end from the beginning" (Isaiah 46:10). Could it be that we wanted something from them they could not supply indefinitely?

I mean only God can supply indefinitely the things we hunger for - love, fellowship, grace, mercy, etc. We want people to do that, not an invisible deity. I understand that. So did He.

Do you know what cured my anger and rage back in 1995? The voice of Jesus. I heard Him speak so clearly and loudly (I tell everyone it was like someone put a Bose speaker inside of me on volume 10), it put me on my knees. Worship was immediate and beautiful and inevitable.

I don't know if you believe me, and I hate to just repeat what every other evangelical Christian will tell you, but... need Jesus. You need love in a Person who cannot die. Who will never divorce you or cheat on you or call you names. Who will never physically, verbally, or emotionally abuse you.

"Come to Me, all you who are weary. My yoke is easy and my burden is light. You will find rest for your souls."

If you don't understand how true this is - if you are just simply afraid of change or of losing what relationship(s) you have currently - I can only say you are missing the truest love the universe has to offer.

I lost my mother to cancer. My wife? To a divorce.

Jesus? You can't lose Him. Even I, in my anger and unbelief, did not.

From the mouth of Lt. Daniel Taylor:

"All the cripples down at the VFW keep asking me the same thing! Have I found Jesus? Have you found Jesus yet, Gump?!"

"I didn't know we were supposed to be looking for him, suh."

You are, Gump. You are.


Monday, February 2, 2009

The Sinestro Corps War, Pt. 2

I have had one crazy weekend of shopping bliss. I had so much fun, I am afraid of being a closet materialist. After three years of unemployment but constant service, I have been walking by faith from month to month. Now, with extra income, I was able to purchase some not-so-needed things.

One of which was a spot-on Hal Jordan power ring replica - yeah, baby! Custom made by a friend over on the League of Hero boards, it is a thing of beauty. The green LED in it is so powerful, I can find ojects with it in a darkened room!

The other major purchase? A 32" LCD TV - since we are all going digital this month and since we had a TV that was rescued from the trash 10 years ago, we had a bit of an impetus to upgrade - hard. Good news: we got it at a steal; this model sells for $500, and we found one for $380 - then we got another $50 off for it being a floor display model!

I admit it - my joy in thse things warns me that my heart is only a step away from my old style of life, where objects are more exciting than people.

Jesus warns against that. Our stories warn against that.

In The Sinestro Corps War, we see Coast City come back to life - not because all the buildings are new and beautiful - but because they believe in their hero, Hal Jordan.

He warns them what is going to happen - how he cannot guarantee their safety - and they refuse to leave. In fact shining green lights in window after window. They place their faith in him, and after his victory, you see thousands of people flocking to arrive by car - "Ghost City" (its pejorative nickname after it was rebuilt) is now Coast City - the City without Fear.

Yeah - its cheezy, but we love it. We don't need comfort as much as we need courage.

Its so much like Jesus. Here, see for yourself:

Luke 22:30-39
Then Jesus asked them, "When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?"

"Nothing," they answered.

He said to them, "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors'; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment."

The disciples said, "See, Lord, here are two swords."

"That is enough," he replied.

You see, Jesus is the Hero of Heroes. He knows what men need in a Fallen world - courage. He has taken good care of them until now. He reminds them that they lacked nothing. So His next words are about their responsibility as He handles his.

Jesus had a destiny to fulfill, and He is preparing His disciples to face a world that will hate them. No, He did not want them to be the aggressors, but He did not want them to lose, either. (I think He is also silencing any thoughts of military conquest at the end. "Enough of that kind of talk," is what Jesus meant, said one commentator.) He's telling them, like He tells each follower: "Look - I will do my job. You are to be wise, not fearful. You will be hated and attacked because I was hated and attacked. Get ready."

To their credit, when they see Jesus resurrected, the men understood that their real victory was NOT to be a military one, but rather one of the spirit - and yes, Virginia, they began the movement that ended up conquering the Roman Empire. They brought a lot more to the world than a couple more swords. They brought life. They brought hope.

Something about seeing your best friend come back from the dead does that to you.

Hal Jordan? He's become Coast City's messiah, no doubt about it.

Jesus - he's ours, of course.

Stay bright out there, lanterns!