Wednesday, April 28, 2004

He Would've Given It A Thumbs Up If Not For The Handcuffs

Dan Leach stopped short of giving Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" his full imprimatur. In Leach's opinion, the film "didn't completely follow the Bible account."

Quite obviously, neither did Leach.

According to published reports, the 21-year-old Texan impregnated his girlfriend, Ashley Nicole Wilson, last year. In January of this year, inspired by the CBS hit series "C.S.I.," Leach hanged Wilson, then made it look like a suicide, right down to the note next to the noose found in her apartment.

March 7, shortly after seeing "The Passion of the Christ," Leach stood in front of his home congregation - the Avenue N Church of Christ in Rosenberg, Texas - and asked for prayers, saying he was embarking on a journey that would take him away for a long time. Later that day, he confessed to killing his pregnant girlfriend, an act that would have to be considered a double murder to remain consistent with how most conservative Christians view the unborn. Police didn't detect remorse in Leach's mea culpa; instead, he told them he had to fess up to keep his place in heaven secure.

The tragedy of this case begins and ends with the deaths of Ashley Nicole Wilson and the baby she carried. But somewhere in the middle is a disconnect between Bible knowledge and daily discipleship so drastic you don't know whether to laugh or cry.

A worldwide directory of churches of Christ lists the Avenue N congregation as "non-institutional," a term used to describe a church that doesn't believe in supporting parachurch ministries, such as missions and relief organizations. (No word yet if Leach will try to invoke his "non-institutional" status to try to clep out of jail time.) Somewhere along the way, Leach learned "the Bible account" of what happened to Christ on the cross and that you can't go to heaven if you haven't been forgiven.

What he obviously didn't get was everything Jesus said pre-propitiation. Subtle truths, such as, "Don't kill people" and "Don't tear apart what God has joined together." And more esoteric teachings, like "Whatever's in your heart determines what you do" and "I don't want rote obedience; I want your heart."

I'm sure it thrills the flock at Avenue N to know it took the work of a Vatican I Catholic, Mel Gibson - Catholicism being somewhat institutional - to convict unto confession one of its own. (I'll go out on a limb in guessing Avenue N doesn't genuflect toward Rome, seeing as how "The Christian Chronicle" quotes a member of another church of Christ in Rosenberg as saying there's virtually no communication between his church and Avenue N.)

Leach told authorities "The Passion of the Christ" was one of several "pricks in his heart" that prompted his profession of guilt. Fortunately for him AND for those of us who think our theology superior, the pricks in Jesus's hands and feet are sufficient to save us from both our unspeakable sin and our misguided doctrine.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Needle in a Haystack

Matthew 19:23-30
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is very hard for a rich person to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. 24 I say it again – it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!" 25 The disciples were astounded. "Then who in the world can be saved?" they asked. 26 Jesus looked at them intently and said, "Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible."

A decade before Mel Gibson turned the movie industry (and religion) on its ear with "The Passion of the Christ," a guy named James Barden wrote, produced, and scored a film entitled "The Judas Project," which turned the movie industry (and the 11 people who paid good American money to see it) on its funny bone. The idea was to show what it might look like if Jesus first came to Earth today instead of 2,000 years ago. Instead, it showed what it might look like if a bunch of previously out-of-work actors read a really bad script on camera. The movie grossed roughly half a billion dollars less than Gibson's flick and became to Christian film what "Plan 9 From Outer Space" was to sci-fi cinema. (I can't decide which is funnier: the website panning "The Judas Project" or the one ripping "Plan 9.")

While I was too busy laughing at "The Judas Project" to seriously explore the idea it endeavored to posit, the above passage from Matthew 19 has me wondering how Jesus would tailor that text to fit '04. Best we can tell, wealth and holiness were first-century synonyms. That more fully explains the dumbstruck disciples when Jesus said a camel could navigate a needle's eye more easily than rich people could earn eternal life.

If wealth indeed equaled righteousness circa century one, then help me fill in the following blank: "It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a __________ to enter the Kingdom of God."

(To bring it completely into present-day patois, maybe we should change the beginning of the equation, too: "It's easier for the Red Sox to win a World Series than for a __________ to enter the Kingdom of God.")

Would Jesus target political conservatives, who say they're Right while virtually ignoring those Left behind or at the very least attaching quids pro quo in their benevolence to the very "least of these."

Would he finger liberals, who blow the trumpet of tolerance to drown out their promotion of permissive behavior; and who'll defend the defenseless all the way, just as soon as you're all the way out of a mother's womb?

Each of those two types carry too much baggage to be considered the modern-day equivalent to the first-century wealthy. It would have to be someone who, though certainly not perfect, would be rendered reverent, even by those who didn't share his or her parochial perspective. People whose pictures of piety are taken not with zoom lenses but wide-angle. I'm talking the surface saved, the brazenly holy, the...uh oh...

"It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a church-goer to enter the Kingdom of God."

Now that would make a great movie.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Hand in Glove

Amy has often said during our 15 years together, "You have the weirdest friends." It's a difficult point to argue on its merits, but I'm still usually able to muster some catty retort, such as, "Present company included."

What she really means is that, for whatever reason, I'm a nutcase magnet. (See my previous column for incontrovertible evidence.) Society's slag sidles up to me with frequency and abandon. Quite honestly, it's a badge I wear with honor, though it's nothing to brag about, for it's not intentional. Probably more like a genetic defect that resonates with the world's third wheels.

Well, Amy got a taste of my medicine Easter Sunday night as she exited the church building into the chilly evening air. (I'd say the weather was unseasonable but that would suggest Abilene actually has seasons.) As she was getting into her car to go home, a woman approached and asked, "I don't suppose you'd want to buy these gloves, would you?" Having never been asked that question, Amy was working without a net at that point, replying, "What do you need?" The woman - somewhat long in the tooth but short in stature and fragrance - answered, "I only have 11 cents, and I need something to eat."

Amy told her she'd take her to get some food, thinking they'd find the nearest drive-thru. Turned out, she needed breakfast for the following morning. Easter in Abilene means capricious climes and a good excuse for supermarkets to close early. The only store open was the one with the highest prices (starts with "Albert" and ends with "sons"). Then again, you only know these things when you actually have money to spend. Any amount over free is exorbitant when you have nothing. And this woman had nothing. Amy had a lot, so she shared, telling her new acquaintance to get "whatever she needed," which in this case totaled $42.

The stuff in the basket was legit - bacon, eggs, milk, peanut butter. No scratch-off cards or cancer sticks or cheap liquor. Amy took her home, which is to say the place she lived, a small shanty on Abilene's north side which she shares with a couple she believes is mentally unstable. (No word on what they think about her.) She has a son, a Marine now living in Germany who was recently hit by a car and is now convalescing on the other side of the world. She said she owed the couple she stays with $10 in rent and doesn't get her social security check for another 90 days and, "You don't - oh, God forgive me for asking this - you don't have $10 I could borrow, do you?" Amy, not knowing for sure, opened her purse and, of course, sticking out of her billfold was the corner of a $10 bill. What a coincidence.

Having invested $52 and 90 minutes in this woman and what with it being Easter and all, Amy figured she had nothing to lose when she said, "Do you know what Easter is all about?"

"Oh, yes," the woman answered, "I know all about God and Jesus. Maybe I'll come over and see your kids sometime at Highland."

"That would be nice," Amy said, then added, "Would it be okay if I prayed for you?"

"Oh, I wish you would," the woman replied, "and could you also give me a hug?"

Amy did both and drove back to her home on Abilene's south side that she shares with a husband she's now convinced is mentally unstable and three civilian children, all of whom were at the moment safe and sound and sleeping comfortably under warm covers near a full fridge.

As she recounted her own personal Easter service, I couldn't help but think that two millenia after the first Resurrection Sunday, Christ had indeed been raised once again.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Postcards From the Edge

Sneak a peek inside my mental scrapbook from a week in L.A.

Sign Of The Times
Runner-up for the best sign I saw in So-Cal goes to a dry cleaner in West Covina, which had this on the marquee: "Come celebrate March Madness with our 'full coat press.'" The undisputed champion, though, has to be the "Adopt-a-Highway" marker along the 101 that was sponsored by a company called 1-800-FUNERAL. I'm not sure which angle fits more appropriately: the fact that so much of that organization's business comes from that stretch of the 101; or that if anyone actually attempted to pick up trash along that route, their loved ones would know whom to call.

Do We Really Need This Much Convenience?
A convenient store in Puente advertised "Barbecue, Video, Liquor, Realty." I'd love to hear the guy telling his wife when he gets home, "I stopped off for some beer and brisket, and they were offering a free movie rental with the purchase of a beachfront condo in Santa Monica. I thought you might be upset, so I got Prince of Tides."

Nominated For Best Performance In A Printing Store
Where else but Hollywood do you see soap stars in a Kinko's? I'm in the store on Hollywood and Vine last Friday when in walks Thaao Penghlis (pronounced "thaao penghlis"), the veteran soap actor who was involved in perhaps the most unintentionally hilarious subplot in television history. Penghlis not only played Tony Dimera on Days of Our Lives but also his identical twin cousin, Andre. Read that last sentence again. Maybe that's why he was at Kinko's. He was making a copy of himself...or was it Andre... (cue the diabolical laughter, the goth music hitting a crescendo, and CUT!)

Honesty Is The Best Policy...Nudity Is A Close Second
One of the strip clubs that litter Sunset Boulevard took any mystery out of the decision for the Christ-follower struggling with purity. On the sign above the buliding was a caricature of a seductive woman...with horns coming out of her head. In case you were debating whether to patronize such an establishment, invoking the highly-underrated "Jesus Hung Out With Sinners" clause; the answer is yes, Satan is in here.

Maybe It Was My Red Boots And Cape
Living the bulk of one's life in Nashville and Abilene doesn't adequately prepare one for the kinds of conversations one has in a place like Hollywood. After a Palm Sunday worship service at the Hollywood United Methodist Church (the one with the huge pink AIDS ribbon on the side of the building), I stepped into a market around the corner and had this checkout-line exchange with a young man who did not share my interest in the opposite sex:

GUY: "Are you Christopher Reeve?"

ME (slightly stunned): "He can't even walk yet, can he?"

GUY: "I don't know. I was just going to ask you for your autograph."

ME (to the cashier): "Can I get a receipt?"


L.A. was good for my anecdote reservoir, but it's good to see my family again. I hope they like the beach.

Friday, April 02, 2004

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

There might come a day when I don't think it's cool to tell my buddies, "I'm in L.A. this week." But I doubt it. Just 24 hours into my latest So-Cal sojourn, I've already seen enough to bloat my blog for weeks. (By the way, "Bloat My Blog" is the name of a smoothie bar here.) And for every champagne wish and caviar dream, there's a hearty helping of hopelessness.

I landed yesterday in Ontario, one of roughly 900 airports in the Greater Los Angeles area. After spending all afternoon advancing a quarter mile on the 101, I realized why there's so much tarmac: it's actually quicker to fly from LAX to, say, Burbank than it is to drive.

I eventually reached Camarillo, a working-class burg about 30 miles north of L.A., where I hooked up with my good friend, Todd Bouldin, now the senior minister at Camarillo Church of Christ. He hoodwinked me into speaking to his Wednesday night class on evangelism - probably as an example of how not to do it. Todd strolled in a couple of minutes before 7 in a white, short-sleeve shirt unbuttoned to the navel, khaki slacks, sandals, and sporting a tan that didn't come from a bottle but after shave that did. I told him, "I'd love to see you trot that look into the pulpit at North Boulevard (his home congregation in Murfreesboro, Tennessee)." He flashed that impossibly-toothy grin of his and began rubbing in the fact that he doesn't live in Abilene and I do. ("The Toothy Grin," by the way, is also the name of a smoothie bar in Camarillo.)

After church broke up, we found the nearest sushi bar and talked about life in the mission field, his field being southern California and mine being the Latin world via Continent of Great Cities. Turns out the very reason Max Lucado's congregation took the name "Church of Christ" off their sign in San Antonio is one of the reasons people often wander into Todd's sanctuary. Seems our fellowship hasn't made enough of a dent in these parts to have scared people off. So when they see the words "church" and "Christ" on the same marquee, they step in to take a look. This is a congregation of regular joes with a genuine faith trying to figure out what it means to be Jesus in this sea of humanity. Praise the Lord.

Two days away from setting back the clocks, the sun rose at approximately 2:45 a.m. Thursday, which was fine because I couldn't sleep anyway knowing I was going to play golf at the famed Bel-Air Country Club that morning with my Uncle Pat. He joined Bel-Air in 1957 under the aegis of none other than Bing Crosby, who along with Fred Astaire, Clark Gable, Randolph Scott, and later Sean Connery, James Garner, Bob Newhart, et al established Bel-Air as the only place for Hollywood's "in" crowd to hang "out."

It's also a great club to join if you're exploring ways to "outsource" excess cash. Excluding initiation fees and monthly dues (which I can't even afford to type in this column), you could drop several hundy at Bel-Air without even getting out of your car. You can have your car washed, your shoes shined, your swing smoothed, your clubs caddied, your pants pressed, your thirst slaked, and your appetite sated, all while having your keister kissed. (Matter of fact, there's a smoothie bar right off the 10th hole called "Kiss My Keister.")

When one of the assistant pros said a "Mr. Pitt" would be joining us, I thought, "Forget Mr. Pitt, where's the missus, Jennifer Aniston?" Turned out our "Mr. Pitt" wasn't Brad or even "Mr. Pitt," Elaine's boss from Seinfeld. No, our "Mr. Pitt" was the caddy assigned to us. Guy named Joe Pitt, a Bel-Air bagger since '72. Joe's a Vietnam veteran and lifelong Cubs fan. He's not, however, much of a fan of our current President. Said Bush lied about why we went to war in Iraq. I didn't agree with all of his political persuasions, but I figured 8 months in Nam gives him the right to think whatever he wants...and out loud if he so chooses. Joe was one of a couple hundred working stiffs employed by Bel-Air to cater to the pretty people. Princes and paupers pari passu. What a place. And what a shot! I eagled the first hole, a par five, after my second swipe of the day came to rest two feet from the hole. Got around in 76, one of my best rounds in a long time on one of the finest courses on the planet. In the group ahead of me was Al Michaels of ABC. I nearly had a David-and-Goliath moment on the 17th when my approach shot missed his temple by an inch or two as he made his way back up the 18th. I apologized, but afterward thought it might've been better for my career had it firmly embedded in his forehead. Not the way I wanted to ascend to the microphone of Monday Night Football, but you take what you can get. Later in the grillroom, Uncle Pat and I chatted him up for a few minutes. Pat said, "Al, you and Grant are in the same business." I thought to myself, "Sure, Al, you've done a few NFL games in your day, but have you ever done play-by-play for the Canadian Tour's Classic? I thought not."

As we wound our way through Bel-Air's surreal scapes, Pat would point out the homes of various stars and dignitaries belonging to Bel-Air. He remembered a great story from Jack Benny, legendary entertainer and notorious tightwad. Benny found himself "paperless" while sequestered in a restroom stall at the club one day. When he heard another member enter, he asked if there were any extra rolls of toilet tissue on the vanity. The man said no. Benny then asked if there were any paper towels handy. Again the man said no. Desperate but undaunted, Benny asked, "Got two fives for a ten?" Priceless.

Five minutes and one world away from Bel-Air, Hollywood's hookers and homeless wandered aimlessly down Sunset Boulevard where it intersects with La Brea Avenue. I was equally as lost as I searched for a hotel where I could hunker down for a day or so in preparation for producing a video for Continent of Great Cities. You could take an aerial photo of any city block in this section of town and the combined worth of the people in the picture might not match that of a single automobile the Bel-Air member is paying a hundred bucks to have washed at that very moment.

Meanwhile, coming through my rental car stereo speakers was the all-new Air America Radio Network, an election-year attempt by the liberal left to take back some of the ground Rush Limbaugh has gained for the GOP.

They don't have an Abilene affiliate.

My head is swimming from this 24-hour foray into the City of Angels. The hoi polloi and the high-and-mighty. The hackers, the whores, the holy. Many who fall into more than one category. All crammed together into a couple hundred square miles. And somehow Jesus Christ is Lord of all.

I need a smoothie.