Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Actor's Studio

Well... have you seen it? If you live in Lima, you know what I'm talking about. Have you seen it? I'll bet you have. As a matter of fact I'll bet that Shawnee Road was the busiest it's ever been on Saturday today as most of the town drove by to see the Tuttle Construction building.

I know we past it on our way home from Xavier's basketball game yesterday. It was both an example of awesome power and terribly frightening all at the same time. It's the worst nightmare when it comes to gas leaks. Thank goodness all the employees had been evacuated and at this point there haven't been any fatalities or major injuries. It could have been worse.

Far worse.

Someone interviewed in the paper yesterday likened the explosion of the building to a scene from a movie, which is interesting. You see movies are actually works of fiction and fantasy. They are staged and acted for our enjoyment. They are the opposite of reality. If yesterday's explosion had happened in a movie most likely now the building, the explosion, the fire, and the smoke would all be computer generated. A total work of digital fiction. Yesterday, people had to be evacuated. Friends and family were worried out of their minds. Real firefighters and gas company techs suffered real injuries because they put themselves in harms way. No stunt doubles. Real people dealing with a real emergency.

The explosion here in town couldn't be more unlike the movies, for it was totally live, totally unpredictable, and totally unexpected. If they blow up a building in a movie its on a shooting schedule weeks in advance. Nobody went to work at Tuttle expecting their place of employment to get leveled. No movie is like that.

Why all this talk about movies? Well, today we're focusing on how to deal with hypocrites, and to understand hypocrites, you have to understand movies and theater. I saw this because the word hypocrite is actually an interpretation of the Aramaic word "upokrites", which means "an actor, a stage player". Jesus is using a word to describe somebody who is pretending to be something they really aren't, just like an actor.

Those of us who like watching TV, movies, or like going to the theater know that you've seen a great performance from an actor when they have enabled you to suspend your disbelief long enough to believe they are really the character they are playing. When our Beeson class went to London last year we saw the musical "Wicked". to be honest, I really didn't want to go. I even thought very briefly about skipping the performance to use the evening to go see more of London. You see I'm not all that big on musicals. I just don't get it when people are acting out some scene when all of a sudden they break out into song. That never happens in real life. I never walk into the office, start a conversation with Cathy, our secretary, about needing more paperclips, only to start singing some tune about it.

"Paper clips, Cathy. We must have more paper clips, Cathy (cause I don't like using staples)"

But having gone, let me say this... if you've never seen it, you need to go. Particularly if you really liked, or hated the Wizard of Oz... and I'm not saying any more or I'll spoil the story. The actors in the production were tremendous talents, but one stood out above and beyond the rest. Idina Menzel, who plays Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the show, was beyond spectacular. Between her acting and singing, I found myself totally engrossed in the story, and even once and twice, I won't say I shed a tear, but I think that theater was awful dusty.

That's what an actor is supposed to do. Become so believable to us that we believe the actor who playing a part, is real. Is the truth.

I was in Florida this week doing research on my doctoral dissertation. If you want to know why I scheduled myself to be in Florida four days in the middle of January it's cause Mother Bucher didn't raise no fools. Two days ago I drank my morning coffee wearing nothing but a t-shirt and shorts out on the patio next to a swimming pool. This morning my coffee froze in the 30 seconds it took me to walk from my door to my car. You don't ever have to wonder why I went to Florida in January ever again.

Anyhow, before I leave my hotel to go do some work, over the free continental breakfast I saw Al Roker interview Erik Estrada on the Today show. You remember Erik Estrada, right? He had his 15-minutes back in the seventies when he played a motorcycle cop on CHIPs. In this interview, Al kept calling Erik, Ponch, which was his character's name. Estrada even corrected him, with a smile (I think), a couple of times. Seems Al can't separate the character from the person. And I suppose other actors like Alan Alda, Jason Alexander, and Scott Baio would tell you that's not all that uncommon. I mean, poor Scott Baio... how'd you like to be called "Chachi" the rest of your life?

Make no mistake about it, by using the word "upocrites", Jesus knows what he's doing. In his world the theater is popular. The Greeks, and then the Romans after them, loved nothing more than to go to the show. To call somebody who purported to be the epitome of what it meant to be an expert on knowing about and following God an actor, was a loaded statement. It meant that Jesus thought they were playing a part. Putting up a facade. So practice and obey whatever they say to you, but don't follow their example. For they don't practice what they teach. They crush you with impossible religious demands and never lift a finger to help ease the burden.

Hypocrites are faith-killers because in the name of supposedly trying to challenge others to become more faithful, they end up encouraging false faith, or worse, no faith at all. They absolutely deadly to churches and the kingdom because they play a part. They act. And in the process they draw us into something other than the truth. It'd be like Scott Baio still trying to make people think he's really Chachi, lives in Milwaukee, and hangs out with Ralph Malph. Only in their case, they it's isn't Milwaukee they claim to be from... but rather from the Kingdom of Heaven, where they are supposedly the noted experts as to how to speak, look, act, and think. And they are faith-killers because it doesn't take much for people to figure out their just actors, really trying to fool you into thinking they are something they aren't largely for their own purposes.

As a pastor there's a lot of things about this job that aren't all that appealing to me, but the hardest thing for me to do is ask for money. I mean, it's not because I don't believe in what we're trying to do here. I do. Hungry people in our community, an all over the world, eat, both physically and spiritually, because this church exists. That alone is reason enough to keep pressing forward, and boldly asking for people to financially support what is going on. And it's not like we asked for more money that it wouldn't be used for good things. I have dreams of on-staff counselors available to help people who are hurting from divorce, abuse, disease, or due to a loss of a one who they loved. I have dreams of staff who help Charlotte and I form and teach faith formation classes and raise up accountability groups where people can be sanctified - become better people who do become more committed to doing the right thing - in grace. I have dreams of new events to draw those who have no church home, to this church, not so we'll become bigger, but rather so they'll make with God and others. I have dreams of partnerships with churches and agencies in the city of Lima of help provide at-risk children safe places to go before and after school.

But make no bones about it... I am reluctant, nay even loathe the though of asking for the additional financial support to do these things. And why?

Because too many people believe that churches, and particularly pastors, only care about money. How much they can get and spend. And despite the fact we try to go to great pains to be above-board with our finances (anyone can come in and check our financial numbers, and we submit to a yearly audit as required by our denomination) it just doesn't matter. Thanks to a few people on TV and some news stories, all of us have been smeared. When Oral Roberts went up into his tower... when Jim Bakker embezzled money from his Christian amusement park to buy an air-conditioned dog house... when people found out Jimmy Swaggart made millions of dollard of year even as he professed constantly that with out financial support his ministry would fail... when Ted Haggard got caught doing a whole bunch of things he himself condemned even as his salary enabled him to live in a fabulous home... the nails were driven down onto the coffin. Actors, hypocrites, playing a part supposedly on behalf of the kingdom, in order to live like kings. And so the rest of us have to be extra-careful because people are watching and wondering whose kingdom we represent.

Now I want to make it clear that there's a difference between a hypocrite and a faithful person who still struggles with sin. You see there's a lot of people out there who think the church is filled with nothing but "hypocrites", nothing but actors who say they are in it for God, but really are just in it for themselves, and they like to point to the fact that people in the church are sinners just like everyone else.

Well... duh. Of course they are. Church-folk were born imperfect into this imperfect world just like everyone else. Who reading this isn't ashamed of something they've done, or said, because their day sucked or they had to provide for their family or at the time they just didn't know any better? I mean, come on.... that's just the way the world is.

But I gather churches are largely populated by people who earnestly want to be faithful. Who want to do what God wants them to do. They are people, by associating themselves with others in a household of faith, willing to represent that household in the world, and they don't want to do it poorly. They care about their communities, their world, their kids, and most importantly, they care about what God thinks, and what God wants. They aren't actors looking to de-fraud others. To make the burdens of others so great as to make themselves indispensable. They aren't acting. They're real. They're not interested in lies... they hear too many of them every day (Amen?). They want to hear, live, and speak the truth.

So be careful.... don't mistake a faithful truth seeker for an acting facade creator. They are two different things.

But in dealing with the reality of hypocrites, remember a few things...

First, don't be surprised when you hear some new example of someone who offered them self up for a position of influence in the Christian movement, falling from grace. It makes no difference how long you've been a Christian... the temptation, the lure, of taking something you shouldn't have or don't deserve never truly goes away. I can safely say, having watched too many of colleagues and friends give into temptation, to succumb to the depths while in the depths, that this will continue to happen. And if this a temptation to those who are faithful, you can only imagine what kind of lure being a spiritual leader is for those whose aspirations are less than holy.

But, second, and more important, don't let examples of actors pretending to be faithful men or women of God, hypocrites, steal your joy, or worse torpedo your trust in the faithful as a whole. The giants of our faith are rarely found in the spotlight. The giants of faith who earnestly pray the 51st Psalm - create in me a clean heart, Oh God. Renew a spirit in me. - are rarely those most visible to world. They are real people, who have lived real lives, with real problems and challenges, and yet still have a strong faith intact. Disconnect yourself from these people, and then all you have left are people proclaiming themselves to be experts while they attempt to sell you their book or ask for a donation so they can keep speaking to some other souls. If I need prayer, I'll go to the Men's small group that meets in the Community Room on Wednesday morning at 7am. They've loved and lost. They've been well and ill. They've dealt with all the imaginable kinds of pain you hope you'll never encounter in this life. And yet they still pray. And what's more if someone is in real pinch, whether in this congregation or not, we know we can call those guys, and they'll step up to the plate to help. It's people like them who are the backbone of this church, and of every church.

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