For King and Country

With the American holiday of Independence Day smack in the middle of this week, I’m all kinds of discombobulated, so sorry for the even-later-than-usual post.  Happy belated 4th, if you’re in the states or an ex-pat—I mean, happy as a relative term.

Patriotic holidays have always been…squelchy for me, even before I was a person of faith.  I’m a historian and a writer, and both of those lenses make it hard for me to pledge allegiance to stuff—much funnier in light of my also being an Enneagram Six, which means that my personality desperately wants to pledge allegiance to stuff and be loyal forever but can’t because we’re super skeptical about how that’s going to go.  But certainly this year I was not feeling all that proud of the red, white, and blue.

Before we get into a discussion, Internet, about the respect for the soldiers and the need to recognize sacrifice and all that, let me tell you a couple of things.  I sit in the middle, as with nearly everything:  my maternal grandfather served in the Navy in WWII and stood with pride at every possible parade or service he could up to his death; my paternal grandfather was a Conscientious Objector, a pacifist who had to write the American president to get permission to be a CO because his mayor and governor both dismissed his claim as unpatriotic.  My stepbrother served in Afghanistan and watched his best friend’s head get blown off by a sniper.  I have watched classmates and family go to war and I have watched classmates and family stay here.  I have friends who have served and friends who have not.  I myself nearly signed up for the Army before I realized that I am temperamentally unsuited for it in every way, shape, and form.

But for this particular holiday, none of that matters.  One of the unfortunate things about American patriotism (nationalism) is that we bleed our holidays together.  Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day become a hazily similar mix of troop support and fireworks, flags snapping smartly along street lanes in small towns and everyone settling into the heat for a good American barbeque.  And I have nothing against fireworks and barbeque, but the Fourth of July is a historical thing.  We are celebrating, as a nation, the time when our ancestors told an empire that enough was enough, that freedom was a right.

indexFunny how the right of freedom was terribly limited even as the words were written, which we’re getting better at acknowledging.  But Independence Day is, as I said, squelchy to me because I ascribe to a faith system that believes in freedom up to and including from global systems and human-made power structures.  I am free in Jesus Christ, not because I’m American.  I’m also free as an American, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

Several years ago I was doing pulpit supply (basically substitute preaching) for a small church near the Land of Pilgrims and it was Independence Day weekend—it may actually have been July 4 that Sunday, actually.  At the children’s moment, an older gentlemen stood up  and told the kids it was the holiday weekend and had them recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag that he brought out of the corner so they could see it.

I was so floored I couldn’t have said anything even if it were my place to do so, which it decidedly was not.  In this “nation under God” (a phrase that is very modern and not original to the Founders, who very much understood there to be a separation of Church and State; God is in the Declaration of Independence as the Supreme God, Providence, and a Judge because the Founders were appealing to the divine right of revolution, not because God was the overseer of this new nation) we get really mixed up about who’s in charge.  Here’s the thing:  our earthly citizenship is fine and dandy, but it is not and cannot be our ultimate allegiance.  “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” says Psalm 24; when we take our American pride into God’s house or when we elevate it to a civic religion of our identity as Americans being a cornerstone of who we are, that’s a problem.

That’s idolatry.

So I hope everyone had a good Independence Day, I really do.  I had sloppy Joe’s and watched part of a cornhole tournament (yes, there really is such a thing) and saw some fireworks from the back porch; I get the delight of celebration.  But when we cheer on the fact that we as a country separated from another country because they were trampling on what we perceived to be our rights, we should cheer only after taking a really hard look at whether we’ve become what this nation fought against in the first place.  And whether we’re celebrating a national identity that idolizes the eagle, the flag, or the soldier.

We can be Christians and Americans.  But our being Christian had better shape how we’re being Americans, or there are some things we need to figure out.

 

 “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.  This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.”  (Daniel 2:44-45, NIV)

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I Am Too Poor to Die

It’s been a strange few weeks here in the Land of Pilgrims; there have been several graduations, a sermon, lots of unexpected conversations, and a few deaths.  It’s the deaths paired with the graduations that have me pondering because it’s such a be2a37bhginning/end moment.  In working on a funeral for one of the deaths (things they definitely don’t teach you in divinity school, in case you were curious) I had the opportunity to be part of several conversations about the way one dies, and realized anew an important thing.

It is fucking expense to die in the United States of America.

I mean to die as in the fading of a long life, not necessarily to die of a quick and unplanned tragedy like a car accident.  And I mean to die, not to be buried; after all, that’s what we have life insurance for, which is its own bizarre horror that we have to ensure our loved ones can afford to do something with the bodies we leave behind because our society can’t bear not to profit off of such a simple thing as returning us to the earth in some way.  I mean to die; to grow old and infirm, to have a body that shuts down system by system, to be mortal.  I mean to have the cost of medication, and nursing homes, and people to help you close out your earthly affairs, and people to ensure your stuff goes to the right people when you aren’t there to oversee it.  I cannot afford that.  I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to afford that.

Tied up in this is the awareness that I do not have children or a spouse, and it is highly improbable I’ll ever have the former and uncertain about the latter.  Despite our American individualism, our society is in no way built to accommodate that.  Where once it may have been the community to take in those without biological family, now it is often the State—because what friend can afford the cost of a nursing home?  Of medical care so that dying doesn’t hurt the whole way down?  I can’t afford to die by measure of people, either, not just money.

This is a sobering thing, not because I’m scheduled to die anytime soon (to my knowledge, at least, though human knowledge of such things is essentially non-existent) but because I am old enough now to see these possibilities.  My body is beginning its falling apart, as mortal things do, and I can feel that in a way I couldn’t in my 20s.  I don’t bounce back as easily as I once did.  And my friends (most of whom are 20 or 30 years older than I) are teaching me about the quiet shift from the autumn to the winter of one’s life.  It is the worst to think I will outlast them, although they would be outraged and furious if I did not.

I’m preaching in a couple of weeks on Psalm 130, a psalm of hope for the ending of spiritual dark times, and it’s just been interesting to have that in my mind while saying goodbye to these acquaintances whose bodies simply stopped, these people who could not stop dying in order to afford it.  Scripture has no language I know of to deal with the modern cost of dying; it focuses on the spiritual cost, the emotional cost, but the idea of working a lifetime to be able to afford death at its own pace frankly sickens me.  I don’t know what to do with that feeling other than entrust you with it, Reader, you who may have watched someone dance awkwardly through the system with a fistful of precious dollars and a body that no longer obeyed, you who may still think you’ll live forever, you who might also have no one guaranteed to sit with you at the end.

What a society we have built that the natural aspect of our bodies ceasing to be should ever be counted an encumbrance, an annoyance, a cost of which to be afraid.  Death itself is the simplest thing, but how much there is before it!  How can we say we are not a fallen race when we profit from pain and make wretched the process none of us can outrun?

God, in Your mercy, be with the poor who never lived comfortably and now cannot afford to die comfortably, either.  Be with the lonely who have no one to walk with them until they see You.  God, in Your mercy, help us learn to let each other die in dignity, as fully human as You envision us to be.

 

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
   Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
    to my cry for mercy.  (Psalm 130:1-2, NIV)

The People We Are

There’s a worship song that’s stuck in my head at the moment but in that frustrating way where it’s only one phrase, one part of the song running over and over again without letting me get to the rest of the song so I even know what it is.  The phrase is “this is the people we are,” and it’s a sucker punch to me today because I am having a really, really hard time with the people we are.

umc502I just finished my United Methodist Church Annual Conference, which is four days of 1,800 people bickering and worshiping and chatting and judging and connecting with each other.  It’s a very weird space, to be honest, that is both outrageously holy and maddeningly horrible.  It was less painful than last year and we passed a lot of pretty toothless legislation of how the conference would encourage churches to think about taking stands on some things.  I don’t mind so much that that we aren’t forcing churches into action because I love that the UMC is trying to hold a lot of different opinions together; what I mind is this appearance of engaging things without being anything other than lukewarm.

Is this the people we are?  Are we folks who value unity more than decisiveness?  Because #TrueConfession:  I am that person.  If I decide that I like someone or some organization, I will fight like hell to keep it together even if I know that that isn’t the best course of action.  (It takes an awful lot for me to like someone or something, so part of it is the invested time.  I’m also hella allergic to change, which is hilarious considering my life pattern and my profession.)  So will I avoid the conflict of saying we need to take a stand on this?  Yep.  For as long as I can.

To some degree, I think that’s a good trait.  My being less inclined to force a decision means I get invited to a lot of different kinds of spaces that I might not otherwise be.  It means people feel that I don’t judge when I listen (which is sort of true; some of that is that I have a better poker face than people think).  It means that I will stay in a conversation or relationship for a while because it matters to me to preserve that even when I’m mad about it.

But for sure there’s a downside.  My being less inclined to force a decision means I stay silent when I absolutely should not.  It means I allow myself to be a bit of a doormat sometimes.  It means I don’t call people on bullshit that is harmful and cruel.

One of the things that is hard to talk about in a post-modernist world (which is a fancy term that just means we are beyond the mindset that somebody termed “modernist” that characterized the last half of the 20th century) is the idea of Truth.  One of the tenets of the post-modernist school of thought is that situation determines concept; if I’m from, say, Texas, I’m going to think about things like spacial relation and a relationship with Mexico differently than if I’m from Vermont.  Or if I’m a white woman (which I am), I’m going to approach a text or event differently than if I’m a black man.  And I can’t ever not be affected by that; if I’m a white woman from Texas, I can’t ever sidestep the way that shapes my thinking.

Unfortunately, this really easily becomes a conversation about whether or not there can be any idea or concept that is true across contexts.  If my viewpoint can be changed by my outlook/situation/background, it will always be different than anyone else’s since no one else has the same combination of events and personality and such that I do.  So can anything be capital T True?  Some post-modernists would say no, all is relative.

I think that’s crap, and I think that’s how we get into spaces like this Annual Conference’s wishy-washy legislation and my general distaste for asking people (myself included) to declare where we stand on Hard Issues.  It is not relative that children should not be starved or separated from their loved ones and traumatized.  That’s bad.  It just is.  Why it’s bad can be relative; how it happens can be relative.  But the idea of whether or not you should be able to harm children carries across every aspect of healthy humanity.  Likewise, we shouldn’t be afraid of people simply because they look different than us.  How that fear manifests is relative.  Who that fear is about is relative.  But simply looking at a person and fearing him/her without any other information at all is not a mark of healthy humanity.

So when we have legislation in the Church that talks about how the Church deals with sexuality, I get that it’s a firestorm because the how is murky depending on ideology and position.  When we have legislation that deals with U.S. wars and the Church’s position in supporting or speaking against them, I get that people get heated.  But when we have stuff that’s about whether we should speak against kids being put in cages and left alone, or whether it’s a bad idea to treat women as subhuman, and there’s debate on that?  That’s crap.  Those are absolutes.  The value of a human being a human and not being harmed for simply being a human is a Truth.

Unless that is not the people we are.  In which case, we need to really look at what kind of people we have actually become.

 

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.  (1 Peter 2:9-10, NIV)

Pastors Work More than Sundays

Greetings from the Land of Pilgrims, reader!  I’ve safely made it back up to my homeland for the summer to serve as “seminarian in residence” (the staff voted on it, I did not come up with that) at my home church.  This is the end of the first week and hoo boyo, I did not actually know what pastors do for a living.

image3d

There’s supposed to a thing of 3D balloons in this.  If you can see it, bully.  It does not exist in my world.

So this week has been weird because I’m at a church I know well but at which I’m functioning in a totally new capacity.  Previously, I’ve been a congregant, a teacher, a leader of sorts, but I’ve never been on staff.  I’ve also never really had to see the whole picture of this church, noting the connections across the wide web and paying attention to the full administrative layout.  It’s a whole new way of thinking, which makes this feel like a new church, which is terrifically jarring in its way.  It’s sort of like those godawful drawings from the 90s that seem to be just geometric patterns until you cock your head just so and all of a sudden there’s a ship.  (I was never, ever good at those.  I couldn’t see the damn ship even after friends outlined it to me.  I don’t know what that means about my brain processes.)

But anyway, I’m learning to see the ship now and it takes some doing.  This first week was just shadowing Interpreter, the lead pastor, to as many meetings as possible (and oof is that a whole other weirdness, to add that role to the complex mess of Interpreter and I).  I worked about 35 hours from Sunday morning to Thursday night and I swear to you at least 80% of that was meetings.  Not that I’m complaining—when they’re run well, I actually like meetings (I know, it’s an illness) because they’re concrete ways to get specific kinds of information from people in a set amount of time.  But holy crow, the vastness of the information this particular pastor has to oversee is daunting.  I can’t do this for a living.

The thing that I’m trying to tell myself (since this is only the first week and all and panicking now is a bad idea) is that I probably won’t have to; each church is unique to itself and has its own way of doing administration and business, for better and for worse.  Even if I were assigned to this particular church at some point down the line (and that would top the weirdness meter), it won’t work like it does under Interpreter because churches change just like any family/organization.  This is a fantastic learning opportunity, to see this scale and be able to add or lose bits as I need them in moving forward.  And Interpreter is really good at making sure to toss me at whatever he can so I can see that, too, and then ask questions about it and compare it to what I already know so that I actually understand rather than just observe.

I’m not in the camp of folks who say “oh, Jesus didn’t have to go to meetings like this and it’s a perversion of the priesthood that we have to” because Jesus and I have very different kinds of ministry due to our time and cultural differences.  I go to meetings but He got crucified, so I think I’m okay with my lot.  Even Paul was nearly stoned to death a few times and was then executed, so I’m not going to say that going to two meetings about the facilities in the same day is a cross to bear.  But it does mean that I have to be super mindful of what my own spiritual life looks like while I’m doing this.  One of the meetings this week was basically a clergy support group where some area pastors can get together and remind each other why they felt called to this on the days when there is just one email too many, and that was fascinating.  We ended up talking about how necessary it is to have some kind of life outside the pastorate, some hobby or whatever that is not this kind of service to remind ourselves of who we are outside the metaphorical collar.  Nobody is going to give us that because there is always something to be done.  But we have to give that to ourselves; no one can serve water from an empty well.

It’s funny, this being my second internship in a church setting, to think that I could actually learn how to pastor.  You can’t.  It’s a monstrosity of a job with 1,000 arms and it’s a different color every day and sometimes it eats you; yes, the pastorate is, in fact, the kraken.  But there is ministry, and service, and love, and hope, and the good work to which we all are called, professionally or not, in most of it.  (Not all.  Poorly run meetings are Hell.)

But damn is this whole thing hard for an introvert.  Reader, I have peopled so much this week.  Pray for my people skills.  I’ll keep you updated on the meetings.

 

This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.  Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. (2 Corinthians 9:12-13, NIV)

Dress for the Job You Want

At least, that’s what folks tell you when they’re giving you job advice.  A variation given me by one of my div school profs was “dress for the game you’re playing.”  I get these, in the sense that you shouldn’t show up to a job interview in cut-off shorts and an old band shirt, but as a woman this becomes quite a tightrope of expectations—and all the more so as a woman pastor, because of course pastors have this whole other set of rules by which we need to live (please read the sarcasm there).

I’ve been thinking about this because Friday night I was invited to the birthday celebration of one of my parishioners.  It was at a rooftop bar in downtown Wicket Gate and the parishioner (who is really close to my age, which is to say a millennial) told me to “look spiffy” since it was, after all, a Friday night in the city.  In case you haven’t gathered, I’m not much of one for late nights on the town and I’m definitely more comfortable spending Friday night watching “Star Trek” episodes (“The Next Generation” forever, fight me on it) than bar-hopping with friends.  It’s just not my scene, so I don’t really have clothes for the occasion, but hey, I welcome the challenge.  I ended up wearing dark jeans, boots, and a shirt that has only one strap over the shoulder like a sari.  What this translates to is that I was basically in a tube top with my shoulder tattoo on display and my newly-buzz-cut hair making me fierce as all get-out.  I felt pretty awesome, I won’t lie—but I very nearly talked myself into changing about four different times because how dare I show so much skin.

womenpreach2That, Reader, is bullshit.  And I wanted to call myself on it, and my culture, and all of the expectations that go along with it.  I, as a female, can bare my shoulders and arms all I want, because if you can’t handle my collarbone being on display I am not the problem.  And I, as a pastor, should not have to worry about losing the respect of my parishioners for looking like a millennial out on the town on a Friday night because that’s what I am.  Hiding that does no one any favors, and in fact continues the weird mess the Church has gotten itself into of seeming to be this off-limits Sunday space where you put on skirts and haloes for an hour and then go live your actual life the other six days.  Over and over again I read articles about how we millennials want authenticity above all else, and I am so glad that I went to that party and drank drinks (which definitely surprised one other parishioner who was there, in a good way, because he didn’t think pastors can drink—and how, darlin’) and wore this shirt that proclaims I have skin, and a body, and a hand-sized tattoo, and I am not going to be ashamed of any of that.

I still think that you should dress for the job you want, but I don’t want a job where I have to wear a completely buttoned-up blouse all the time.  I don’t want a job where I have to hide that I have a female body, not to the extreme of wearing short shorts in the pulpit but to the extent of recognizing that when I’m not on the chancel I am more than the office.  And that seems to work well; I ended up spending most of the party talking with this couple who had never been able to find a church home in the five years they’ve been together because both of them have a lot of pain from being turned out of their previous churches for being gay.  They told me basically their life stories and one showed me pictures of his kids from a previous marriage and perhaps they’ll come to my church at some point, I don’t know.  What I do know is that I was absolutely acting as pastor for them that night, even and especially in a one-strap shirt with an amaretto sour in one hand.

I was dressed for the job I want.  And I got to do that job, because I’m pretty sure God doesn’t care about what I’m wearing.  After all, God is the One Who made me female.  God is the One Who called me to the pastorate.  I have the utmost respect for that office, but I refuse to stop being a person in my daily life because I could not be a good pastor if I did.  That parishioner didn’t invite A Religious Leader to his party.  He invited his pastor, his friend.

And told her to look spiffy.   Reader, she did.

 

For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
(Psalm 139:13-14, ESV)

The Poor Will Always Be with You

There’s a guy who hangs out by the parking garage I pass on my way into school and the library where I work.  He used to hang out in the alley behind the restaurants and pass him on my shortcut through and he’d tell me the weather forecast for the day, sitting in a wheelchair and directing the traffic that was coming out of the coffee shops while the city rumbled into another day. I eventually learned his name, which I felt was only polite considering I saw him more often than some of my professors.

He’s not by the garage every day, but probably once a week or once every other week.  Every time he asks me if I can buy him a hot breakfast.  Lately he’s switched to asking for a gift card to the grocery store.  On Thursday he stopped me to say I had said “maybe next time” and it was next time and I had no card for him.

I tell you this, Reader, not to ask advice.  I don’t tell you this to complain about it, either.  I tell you this because I was struck when he asked me about the gift card by what an absurd request it really was.  I work a little over half time between my two jobs—anywhere between 20 and 30 hours a week—while being a full-time student.  And when I filed my taxes this year I was able to say that I had made $6,200 in 2017 in a city where rent below $700 is nigh impossible to find unless you have several roommates.

Now, I tell you this not to complain about my financial status but to give you context:  I am not that far ahead, socioeconomically speaking, of this guy who begs by the parking lot.  I am subsidized by the generosity of my home church so that I can live in this expensive city and finish this degree and even hope to pay off my student debt before I die (unlikely).  I can do this because I have that safety net, but I am poor.  And this week I was just so much more aware of it because my car was in the shop and any discretionary funding I had went to making sure it runs because I cannot be without a car and I certainly can’t afford another one.

Let me be clear, lest you worry:  I’m not in danger of losing my apartment or not being able to eat or anything.  But I am aware that I am one minor disaster away from being totally strapped, a fact I discovered the hard way last summer.  So I don’t know what to say to this man who is even poorer, who is homeless and hungry.  What I do is learn his name, say hello to him, chat with him about the weather, and say maybe next time I can get you a card, maybe one day I will be able to afford it, maybe.

I don’t feel guilty about that maybe not coming yet, but I am highly aware of this exchange and the ways it curls around my understanding of faith.  In the Gospel of Matthew, a woman pours expensive perfume on Jesus while He’s staying at Simon’s house and the disciples freak out about it.  What a waste of money!  She should have given the money to the poor!

mary-anoints-jesus-300x222“You always have the poor with you,” Jesus replies to their thoughts that were no doubt churning across their faces, “but you won’t always have Me.”

Considering the very next story after this in Matthew 26 is that of Judas’ betrayal and the Last Supper, such a statement is a sucker punch.  Because it’s true; the poor are still here.  That man is still here.  Hell, I am still here.  But Jesus—at least, in His human form—is not.  Granted, we who are in the season of Easter can be aware that Jesus’ whereabouts are pretty incredible; Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed!  But the disciples only knew cost at that point, only knew that the money for the perfume could have been spent on the poor—or the car, the plumbing repair, the unexpected doctor’s visit, the license fee, the whatever.

So, for us who don’t have Jesus in the same way but still have the poor, what do we do?  We aren’t going to buy any perfume any time soon, I don’t think; the Spirit isn’t much into being anointed.  How do we think about having Jesus?  How do we understand the fact that we still have the poor?  Can this story and especially this verse still speak to us at all or is it something truly applicable only to those disciples who had Jesus with them for a short time?

It’s important to consider the woman and why she who had such money in the first place chose to spend it that way.  It’s important to understand discretionary spending at that time and not to minimize spending on things that matter to you now.  But I’m still feeling this pull of what we are doing with money and how we two poor people can have a conversation about what to do with the little money I have.

Just pondering.  I don’t have any answers.  Nor do I have any grocery gift cards.  For now, I have only that guy’s name and the ability to say good morning, it is indeed supposed to rain later.

 

When Jesus was at Bethany visiting the house of Simon, who had a skin disease,  a woman came to him with a vase made of alabaster containing very expensive perfume. She poured it on Jesus’ head while he was sitting at dinner.  Now when the disciples saw it they were angry and said, “Why this waste?  This perfume could have been sold for a lot of money and given to the poor.”  (Matthew 26:6-9, CEB)

Paul: Apostle of Christ

Greetings of the Easter season to you, Reader!  Today is a fairly overcast and chilly day here at the Wicket Gate, but it is Friday and the Spirit of the resurrection remains while I settle in to make something coherent of my sermon for Sunday.

I hope that these first few months of 2018 have gone well for you.  Thank you for your holding this space (to whatever degree you did; forgetting it existed is totally valid) while I took some time to figure out where my soul went.  It came across the river to the church where I work, it turns out, and we meet from time to time when I remember to tune into the presence of the God Who called me in the first place.  School is still awful, and in point of fact is more awful with each week because I wanted it so badly to be what it is not.  But there are only a few weeks left in the semester, I’m going home to the Land of Pilgrims for the summer, and then I only have one more year.  This, too, shall pass.

In the meantime, I wanted to do a short film review.  On Holy Saturday I went to see Paul, Apostle of Christ because I never stop being fascinated by the marriage of Scripture and Hollywood and y’know, I kinda liked it.

image3One of the first things I had to recognize was that I have learned (whether I have been deliberately taught this doesn’t matter) to be overly critical of anything having to do with Scripture and theology, so the first 15 or so minutes of the film were me trying to remember how to be charitable in watching.  The film is set in Nero’s Rome, where we learn Paul is imprisoned and facing execution.  Luke (who is here a real person who really wrote the Gospel) travels to Rome to get the last of Paul’s stories—what becomes the Acts of the Apostles.  The story swings between the conversations of Luke and Paul, the frustrations of the Roman prison guard, and the small and fearful community of Christians trying to deal with Nero’s war on them and their faith.

I know that a lot of people are not fans of Paul at all, but I have a soft spot for him.  I’m definitely not a fan of some of the things his letters have been used to do—I am a female cleric, after all.  But in this film I give all the snaps for the guy who played Paul; he did it with gravitas and dignity and curmudgeonliness and a bit of humor, which is how I imagine the actual Paul to have been toward the end of his ministry.  And the way they work the language of Paul’s letters into his lines is fantastic; exploring what it must have been like to look back over his life and hold fast to the belief that grace is sufficient, that nothing separates us from the love of Christ, that even Nero can’t stop the Kingdom gave new weight to the words.

The way in which the film complicated the Romans was marvelous (although I hate hate hated the flatness of the prison guard’s wife).  Not all Romans were on board with Nero’s crazy and many understood he was nuts but didn’t know what to do about it.  And not all Romans were cynical about their worship—many were truly devout to their gods.  And definitely not all Jewish leaders were terrible people, so props to this film underscoring and bolding the fact that it was Rome that killed Jesus, it was Rome that persecuted the early Christians, and it was Rome that outlawed the faith.  Not Jews.

Also, holla holla for no conversion moment.  The Roman guard is primed for it, but one of the things that drives me batty about Christian films is that there’s always this weirdly coerced conversion moment to somehow prove the efficacy of the message and y’all, it’s not necessary.  God’s word won’t return void, so you don’t need to include an uncomfortable template for your film audience to understand that we should give this Jesus Guy a go.

There were definitely some things I think weren’t grand about the film:  they really overdid the slo-mo emotional moments and the heavy-handed music, which I get but always irks me.  The story has pathos abounding, you don’t need to help it in post-production.  Women are still only mothers and wives rather than leaders in their own right, but at least they have decent speaking roles now.  The fact that the Jews weren’t being blamed for the plight of Christians was great, but there seemed to be no Jews around to do much of anything.  Where did they go?  We know they were part of the early communities.  And lastly the whole film was dedicated to “those persecuted for their faith,” but I doubt that that extends to all people persecuted for all faiths and I always get a bit squelchy when Christians, mostly American Christians, talk about persecution.  There has never been a time when American Christians were persecuted.  Never.  Not in the whole history of this country.  But sure, the early Christians were, and we need to remember that.  It is good to question how one holds both of those truths.

All in all it was a good movie that made me want to go back to Acts and the letters and read them, which is exactly what one would hope for out of a movie like this.  There was even a great one-liner about the repetitiveness of Acts, which I appreciate.  And Paul has a line to the Roman guard that “you will be fully known and fully loved—I pray for that for you.”

I pray that for both of us, Reader.  And I delight in the example of Paul to do so.  Go see the film if you’ve a free evening—or just read Acts with some inspiring classical music on in the background, if you’re all booked up.  I’ll be back in two weeks with something new, or something old, depending on how you view the ever-appearing examples of this faith thing.