Mightier (and more annoying) than the sword

My second group of kids this morning at Regan Aymett‘s class at Learning Way Elementary was a little bit of a problem today during my Raise Your Hand Tennessee volunteer hour. They were all boys. We were doing the first half of an activity, with no writing required, but they all had pens, and one of them had a four-color pen — the type that has four different little sliding levers, each of which causes a different color of ballpoint pen to pop out.
The boys were fighting over the pen. I took up all the pens and set them in a basket on the table, but one of the boys kept trying to grab the pen from the basket when I wasn’t looking. I finally took all the pens and carried them over to Ms. Aymett’s desk for safekeeping. I was trying to walk a line between sounding firm and yet not sounding annoyed, like they were getting to me.
In truth, they were getting to me.
Meanwhile, I am wearing a shirt today that is relatively snug-fitting, and when I am sitting in a relatively small chair, leaning forward to indicate my interest in what the kids are saying, my belly pushes out and it gaps up a bit. At one point, the boys were going on about how they could see my belly. I tried to straighten up and readjust the shirt, and then one of them talked about how bushy and funny-looking my eyebrows were. I tried to say something about it being rude to talk about someone’s appearance, but the boys weren’t having it.
Later, I had to go back and get the pens so that we could start on the second half of the activity. At the end of the session, as Regan cheerfully intoned “Class, class!”, one of the boys was removing the cap from a felt-tip marker. It stuck or something, so that when he pulled it off his arm went back too far and he poked the boy next to him in the eye.
I hope that I do an OK job as a volunteer for an hour a week, but it sure makes me appreciative of the people like Regan who deal with this all day, every day.

Faces at the Cross: Joseph of Arimathea

First United Methodist Church
March 6, 2016

During the season of Lent, each different worship service at First United Methodist Church is focusing on one of the “Faces at the Cross”: someone associated in some way with the crucifixion story. When the Rev. Lanita Monroe asked me to fill the pulpit this Sunday, she asked me to preach on this Sunday’s subject, Joseph of Arimathea.

I want to read you three passage, from three different gospels, each from the Common English Bible. Each of these passages is about today’s Face at the Cross, Joseph of Arimathea:

Luke 23:50-56 (CEB)

50 Now there was a man named Joseph who was a member of the council. He was a good and righteous man. 51 He hadn’t agreed with the plan and actions of the council. He was from the Jewish city of Arimathea and eagerly anticipated God’s kingdom. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. 53 Taking it down, he wrapped it in a linen cloth and laid it in a tomb carved out of the rock, in which no one had ever been buried. 54 It was the Preparation Day for the Sabbath, and the Sabbath was quickly approaching. 55 The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph. They saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was laid in it, 56 then they went away and prepared fragrant spices and perfumed oils. They rested on the Sabbath, in keeping with the commandment.

John 19:38-42 (CEB)

38 After this Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate if he could take away the body of Jesus. Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one because he feared the Jewish authorities. Pilate gave him permission, so he came and took the body away. 39 Nicodemus, the one who at first had come to Jesus at night, was there too. He brought a mixture of myrrh and aloe, nearly seventy-five pounds in all. 40 Following Jewish burial customs, they took Jesus’ body and wrapped it, with the spices, in linen cloths. 41 There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish Preparation Day and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus in it.

Mark 15:42-47 (CEB)

42 Since it was late in the afternoon on Preparation Day, just before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph from Arimathea dared to approach Pilate and ask for Jesus’ body. (Joseph was a prominent council member who also eagerly anticipated the coming of God’s kingdom.) 44 Pilate wondered if Jesus was already dead. He called the centurion and asked him whether Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that Jesus was dead, Pilate gave the dead body to Joseph. 46 He bought a linen cloth, took Jesus down from the cross, wrapped him in the cloth, and laid him in a tomb that had been carved out of rock. He rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was buried.

When Lanita asked me to preach on Joseph of Arimathea, I was delighted – I’ve always found him an interesting character.

I once tried to write a novel about what happened to the disciples in between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. I knew I wasn’t a trained scholar of Bible history, but I told myself it was going to be more allegory than speculative history, and so if the characters used modern speech patterns or if I got some minor detail wrong, it wasn’t a big deal. But I eventually decided the story was too big for my skills as a writer. I still have the manuscript on my computer somewhere, and I look at it occasionally.

When Jesus was arrested – and willingly surrendered, telling Peter to put away his sword – the disciples seem to have made themselves scarce. Peter, of course, famously followed Jesus to the place where he was being tried, but then denied three times that he knew Jesus. We hear about John being at the crucifixion, and Jesus speaking to him. And we hear about Judas Iscariot’s remorse and death. For the most part, the 12 disciples seem to have laid low on that sad Sabbath day. They didn’t disperse, or leave Jerusalem, and when the Sabbath was over they were found together in the same place on Easter morning. But the Bible doesn’t tell us much about what happened to the disciples in between the crucifixion and the resurrection.

We can assume that this was a moment in which most of the disciples had lost faith, or were at least in a state of confusion – their shock and disbelief on Easter morning indicated that they weren’t expecting Jesus to return, even though he’d spoken about it during his ministry. So many of Jesus’ teachings were in parables or metaphors, and the disciples did not seem to have the courage to take the idea of Jesus rising from the dead literally. This was a moment when Jesus’ followers might have been reconciling themselves to what seemed to be proof that he was just a great teacher and not the world-changing messiah that they’d been promised.

It’s hard for us, knowing the outcome of the story, to imagine the despair that Jesus’ followers must have felt. They believed he was the Messiah. Many of them, not understanding the true nature of his kingdom, had assumed that his destiny was to lead the people of Israel to political freedom, overthrowing the rule of the hated Roman Empire.

Now, Jesus – the miracle worker who could raise others from the dead – is dead himself. Hope is over. The game has ended, and our team lost. The disciples clung to each other, but they must have been questioning whether they’d wasted the months they spent following Jesus.

Joseph of Arimathea, however, is the other way around – and that’s one of the things that’s interesting about him. Joseph was fearful while Jesus was alive and yet somehow found boldness after Jesus’ death.

Joseph was a wealthy man, and he was a member of the Sanhedrin – a council, or court, composed of 70 members, plus the high priest. The Sanhedrin was responsible for questions of Jewish law.

We know that Joseph was wealthy, but we don’t know from the Bible what his occupation was. There are legends and traditions, which developed in church history, that Joseph was involved in metalwork somehow. In the middle ages, when the church was fascinated by the holy grail, the cup used during the Last Supper, there were legends – and they were only legends, with no apparent basis in fact – that Joseph had been the first keeper of the grail.

During Jesus’ lifetime – according to John’s gospel — Joseph had kept his admiration for the controversial teacher from Nazareth quiet, out of fear of his fellow members of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus, with whom Joseph worked to bury Jesus’ body, first came to Jesus under cover of darkness, and it’s implied that Joseph had been just as anxious not to let anyone know of his interest in Jesus’ teachings.

And yet, now, with Jesus’ beaten and bloody corpse nailed to a piece of wood, Joseph of Arimathea chose to take a step out of the darkness. It was at this moment in which he decided his devotion to Jesus would no longer be a secret.

By earthly measures, by conventional wisdom, the cause of Jesus of Nazareth had already been lost. Joseph of Arimathea had nothing to gain and everything to lose by allowing his feelings to be made public. It’s like someone deciding to root for the losing team after the game has ended.

The idea that Joseph would oppose his fellow members of the Sanhedrin is a remarkable one. The Sanhedrin were about preserving the peace, and the status quo, and the power of the existing religious elite. They surely convinced themselves that they were doing what was right for their own people and what was right in the eyes of God. It not only took courage for Joseph of Arimathea to stand up to them, it took spiritual perception. It took spiritual perception for him to realize the truth in Jesus’ teachings, a truth that seemed to run counter to what the Sanhedrin stood for. It can be hard to question and move past long-held convictions when they turn out to be against the will of God.

I highly recommend the book “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” an award-winning biography of the great theologican Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. One of the things that comes through in Bonhoeffer’s story is the extent to which so many elements of the official state-sponsored church in Germany – the reichskirke – were easily co-opted into support of the Nazi cause during Hitler’s rise to power. They thought that their patriotic and religious duties were one and the same, and Hitler seemed to be doing great things for Germany. So they rationalized and they made excuses and they just went along.

Most of them went along.

Bonhoeffer and a group of other pastors began to see the Nazi regime for what it was and they began to form a movement called the Confessing Church which distanced itself from the German government. Bonhoeffer, of course, eventually gave up his life for the cause. He had been sent to safety in America but deliberately returned to Germany to stand with his fellow Germans. He played a part in a conspiracy to assasinate Hitler and was eventually executed by the Nazis.

In the movie “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” Jimmy Stewart, playing a character named Jefferson Smith, says that lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. It’s at this moment, when the cause of Jesus seems to be a lost cause, that Joseph of Arimathea decides to go public with his admiration for Jesus and all that Jesus stood for. Mark, in the Common English Bible, says that Joseph “dared” to go to Pilate and ask for Jesus’ body. And given the uproar that had surrounded Jesus and led to his crucifixion, it was an act of daring to ask for his body and give him a dignified burial.

It seems like an odd, even offensive, comparison to make, but one of the things that happened to pop into my head as I thought about Joseph of Arimathea was the story of the Rev. Louis Sanders.

Robert McGill Thomas, a Shelbyville native, became one of the all-time great obituary writers for the New York Times. I never got to meet Mr. Thomas, even though he visited Shelbyville quite frequently and even kept a house here. But after his death, I read the wonderful book “52 McGs,” which is a compilation of 51 of his best obituaries from the Times, along with his own obituary. Robert Thomas was best-known for writing obituaries of unusual and off-beat subjects, and it was from the book “52 McGs” that I first learned about the Rev. Louis Sanders.

Rev. Sanders was a member of the Christian church – Disciples of Christ, like First Christian Church across from Hardee’s – who attended Vanderbilt Divinity School. In 1963, he was head of the Fort Worth Council of Churches, not unlike Lanita being the head of Bedford County Ministerial Association. Following the Kennedy assassination, he was working on organizing a memorial service for JFK, but it was also his duty to make sure that someone was available to preach at the funeral service for – well, for Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who had been arrested as an assassin and then shot two days later by Jack Ruby. The Fort Worth Council of Churches felt that Oswald – or at least, Oswald’s family – deserved some sort of funeral service, an act of simple Christian compassion, even though at that moment Oswald was perhaps the most hated man in the world.

Two ministers agreed to officiate at Oswald’s funeral, but then when they discovered the services were outdoors, at the graveside, they pulled out at the last minute, afraid that they themselves might be killed by snipers. So Rev. Sanders, who had come to the service as an observer and had left his Bible in the car, performed the ceremony, reading the 23rd Psalm and a passage from John 14 by memory, and giving a two-sentence eulogy which mainly mentioned Oswald’s mother and how much she loved her son.

There is, of course, no comparison to be made between the man Louis Sanders eulogized – a man guilty of a horrific crime – and the one whom Joseph of Arimathea buried, who was blameless. The comparison is only in the courageous acts of mercy which were made despite overwhelming opposition from the community.

For Joseph of Arimathea, giving Jesus a tomb was compassionate and kind. We don’t know what he was thinking or feeling about the teacher from Nazareth whose body he claimed, but he at least knew that Jesus had been mistreated by his fellow members of the Sanhedrin.

I don’t believe he had, at this time, a complete understanding of Jesus’ true kingdom. Almost no one did. Had he known Jesus was about to rise from the dead, the courtesy of a tomb would have been, well, somewhat meaningless. The fact that Joseph of Arimathea offered a tomb probably means that he thought Jesus was going to need a tomb.

But Joseph at least recognized something of Jesus’ holy nature, and had the courage to stand up in the face of opposition from his fellow members of the Sanhedrin.

There may be many times in our life, in our faith, in our service to the church in which we don’t fully understand God’s plan. But we have to do our best to be faithful, and sometimes our faithfulness is rewarded in unexpected ways. The conspiracy in which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was involved failed to assasinate Hitler, and yet Bonhoeffer in martyrdom became an example and an inspiration to millions, drawing attention to his valuable writings.

Abraham and Sarah trusted God to give them descendants even when they were past their child-bearing years. Mary and Joseph trusted God even when she was unmarried and mysteriously pregnant.

Joseph of Arimathea donated a tomb thinking that it would be the eternal resting place of a great teacher who was killed before his time. Instead, the tomb itself would become a symbol of the greatest event of human history. The empty tomb of Jesus speaks to resurrection, and rebirth, and hope. Joseph of Arimathea had the wisdom and vision to follow God, and the courage to trust in God without knowing the complete plan. May each of us be able to say the same.

mission trip update

This is the text of an e-mail I sent out last night to a variety of friends and family members. I got a few bouncebacks, so if you think I might have tried to send you one it might be that I have an out-of-date e-mail address for you in my files.

If you would like to be included in further updates, please let me know and I will add you to the list for future updates.

Friends, family, and mission trip supporters:

I have good news!

First, a little bit of background, because I think I am sending this to some newer acquaintances as well as old friends. (If you’d rather not receive future updates, just let me know.) From 2003 to 2010, I took a series of mission trips through a small, non-denominational organization called LEAMIS International Ministries. I went to Nicaragua, Bolivia, Costa Rica and five times to Kenya. I had already decided prior to the 2010 trip that it was time to give my supporters a break, and then the 2010 trip ended up coinciding with Mom’s cancer – I found out she was incurable on the morning I left for Kenya.

By 2013, however, I was talking with LEAMIS’s executive director and co-founder, the Rev. Debra Snellen, about going to West Africa — specifically, Sierra Leone.

I started raising money, and many of you receiving this e-mail were generous enough to give. But the trip had to be postponed – at first, it was scheduling problems and a family situation involving our host in Sierra Leone, the Rev. Gregory Bangura. Then, the trip was rescheduled, although this time Rev. Bangura was going to bring us into neighboring Liberia instead of Sierra Leone. Then, the Ebola crisis shook both countries (as well as nearby Guinea) and we had to postpone the trip again for safety reasons.

Now, with the Ebola situation finally quiet, we are moving forward, and have set new dates for the trip – which is now back in Sierra Leone. The trip is now scheduled for Nov. 16-30. (Yes, I will be out of the country and will miss Thanksgiving.)

Unlike some of my trips, this will not be a big team trip – just me and Debra. LEAMIS has a program called The Jethro Project (named for Moses’ father-in-law, who gave him some good advice about not spreading himself too thin) which conducts Bible-based leadership training for native pastors in developing nations. Many of these pastors have had only some rudimentary Biblical training, but haven’t had any practical training in leadership skills or principles. LEAMIS’s curriculum uses concepts from recognized authors like John Maxwell, along with tools like personality tests.

We’ll also teach some practical skills which the pastors can share with their congregations in various parts of Sierra Leone and Libera. One of these will be SODIS, a system for sanitizing water by leaving it in the sun in plastic soda bottles, where ultraviolet rays can kill harmful bacteria. SODIS (you can learn more at sodis.ch) only works in cases where the water is clear; muddy water won’t work. But it’s cheap, easy and practical, even in the most remote settings. We may end up teaching some cottage industry skills as well. Debra tells me that Rev. Bangura is more of a type-A personality than some of the host pastors we’ve worked with and will likely make the best use he can of us during our short time in Sierra Leone.

Debra and I have been a two-person team once before, during our 2007 trip to Bolivia.

During my initial fundraising, thanks to your generosity, I turned in $2,100 to LEAMIS, and that money has been sitting in LEAMIS’s accounts waiting for the trip. I never did have a hard-and-fast cost estimate on the trip, and I think at one point I thought it was going to cost a total of $3,000 including air fare. Fortunately, the air fare to Sierra Leone is going to be less than what we were told several years ago, and while some aspects of the trip are still being firmed up it looks like most of what I have to send LEAMIS is already taken care of. There still may be some additional costs depending on how those final arrangements come together.

This next paragraph is not directed at those of you who have already given to this trip. I am not asking any of you to give again. But if you have not yet supported the trip and you — or your church, Sunday School class or other group — would still like to make a contribution, I will probably have some other trip-related expenses between now and November – such as a $160 visa fee just to enter Sierra Leone (that’s three times more than any of the visa fees charged by other countries in which I’ve worked), travel insurance, and so on. Depending on what cottage industry workshops we end up doing, I might have to buy some supplies to take with me.

In order for your contributions to be tax deductible, you can still make them payable to LEAMIS, and I can get LEAMIS to reimburse me for legitimate and documented trip-related expenses. Checks made out to me are not tax-deductible, but that’s up to you.

You may mail your check directly to

LEAMIS
P.O. Box 104292
Jefferson City, MO   65110

or give it to me and I will forward it to LEAMIS. If you submit directly to LEAMIS, please let me know so I can thank you promptly.

Now, here’s the fun news. I almost hesitate to mention it, because it makes me sound like a tourist instead of a missionary. But I can’t help myself. You all know that I take this mission work very seriously, as does Debra. But LEAMIS always tries to leave a day at the end of a two-week trip – especially for team trips, but usually even for two-person or three-person trips like this – for participants to debrief each other on the experience, discussing what we learned and processing how our hearts were touched as we unwind a little bit in a pleasant environment before returning to the U.S. Usually, this is done in-country. On four of my five Kenya trips, I had the opportunity to visit wildlife parks on our debrief day. In Bolivia, we visited a city that had a zoo and a beautiful cathedral – although there was a record cold snap on the day of our arrival, which led to a miserable, bit-by-bit 24-hour delay in our departure for America.

But Sierra Leone – much smaller and poorer than Kenya – doesn’t really have a suitable place for us to hold debrief. So instead, we’re going to take advantage of our layover on the way back. When you fly from the U.S. to Sierra Leone, you change planes at Charles DeGaulle Airport … in Paris. So we’ve arranged the itinerary to give us a day in Paris on the way back, and we’ll debrief and unwind while seeing a few sights. Seeing Paris – even though I won’t get to see much of it! – is a bucket list item for me. On my first Kenya trip, we changed planes in London – another city I hope to see one day – and it was so frustrating not to be able to leave the airport!

I just had to share that.

Anyway, please keep me, Debra, and the trip in prayer. I appreciate all of your prayers, thoughts and encouragement over the years.

hello larry

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about my regular weekly volunteer hour at Learning Way Elementary. Unfortunately, a combination of Monday holidays, weather and a doctor’s appointment made my participation spotty during January and the first half of February, but I’m back on track now.

As I posted to Facebook last week, there’s a new automated security check system at Bedford County schools. When you arrive at school as a visitor, you give them your driver’s license, and they scan it and run an immediate background check. The system then prints out a visitor name badge sticker personalized with your name and driver’s license photo. Once the license has been scanned the first time, you’re in the system and all they have to do is look you up on your next visit.

Of course, I had a background check back when I first signed up for Raise Your Hand Tennessee, the volunteer program through which I work at Learning Way. But this new system scans every visitor.

Unfortunately, there seem to be a few quirks. Last week, my name badge got printed out as “L Carney,” and when the receptionist looked me up this week, she told me that there was no way to change it. So I’ll be “L Carney” from this point forward.

The first group of kids I worked with this morning helpfully suggested the name “Larry” to go with my new first initial.

Someone on Facebook posed a good question last week – if the system has gotten my name wrong, does that also mean the background check isn’t reliable?

I was disappointed to find out that today was “Hat Day” at Learning Way. Had I known, I’d have worn the floppy hat, made of baobab tree fibers, that I brought back from one of my Kenya trips.

Another new development since I blogged last is that Regan Aymett, the teacher in whose classroom I work, managed to get donations to buy rubber fitness balls for all of her students to sit on. I sit in a regular chair, but the kids are all on rubber balls – not unlike the one that Leo Laporte sits on for some of his podcasts on the TWiT network.

Leo, of course, has not always had good success sitting on his ball, as you can see in these clips:

The purpose of the balls is to help keep the kids active even as they’re seated and working on classwork. The kids seem to have adapted well to them.

risen

risenA week or two ago, the youth of First UMC Shelbyville asked our youth director, Alden Procopio, about the movie “Risen.” Alden thought – correctly – that she ought to see the movie before recommending it, so she and Rev. Lanita Monroe went earlier in the week. They liked it so much that Lanita sent out an e-mail blast inviting all ages, not just the youth, to attend the 4:15 Sunday matinee.

So I joined the group today, walking from the church to the theater and back again. The short review, which I’ll expand on below, is that I really enjoyed it – I thought it walked a fine line between an innovative approach and reverence to the source material.

I get frustrated with some of the ham-fisted attempts to put faith on film. Not surprisingly, three of the four coming attractions before tonight’s movie were faith-based. One of them, a fictional story about a teacher suspended for using a Bible verse in her classroom, seemed like a perfect example of what I normally don’t like in this genre. The movie (judging only from the trailer, which can be inaccurate) is really black-and-white, portraying the chief opponent as a one-dimensional villain and the teacher and her supporters as a persecuted minority. Any non-Christian would find it laughable and unconvincing, but non-Christians wouldn’t go see it in the first place. The movie is aimed at Christians – but its primary purpose (again, judging from the trailer) seems to be reinforcing how great we are and how nasty and evil anyone who disagrees with us is. The question of how and when faith can be expressed in taxpayer-funded public schools is a complicated one, and not always a matter of black and white, heroes and villains. But a more-nuanced treatment probably wouldn’t sell group tickets to churches.

Sorry; excuse me for getting off on a rant there. I only bring it up to contrast it with “Risen.”

Now, to be fair, any Biblical epic is going to suffer from a little bit of the same preaching-to-the-choir effect I described above. Few non-Christians are going to be interested, so any claims of evangelistic value are going to be wildly overstated. But I think a well-done Bible movie at least has some value in terms of inspiration. It certainly served that purpose from a couple of our youth, who said during the post-movie discussion back at the church that the movie had helped them imagine the crucifixion story.

By way of confession, about 10 years ago I tried to write a novel which was not unlike “Risen” in intent – it was supposed to tell the story of what happened to the disciples in between the crucifixion and the resurrection. I still have the incomplete manuscript; I gave it up because I decided I didn’t have the Bible scholarship to do it justice, and my original excuse that it was going to be “more like a parable than Bible history” was just that, an excuse.

“Risen” brings the story to life in a way which I found creative and reverent.

The story is told through the eyes of Clavius, a Roman tribune, played by Joseph Fiennes. Pilate (Peter Firth) sends a war-weary Clavius, who seems to be Pilate’s protégé, to the crucifixion site to break the legs of the three convicts and hasten their deaths. (If you remember the Bible story, you know that Jesus was already dead by that point and was pierced in the side instead.) Then, the next day, when the Judaean religious authorities complain to Pilate, Clavius is sent out to put Pilate’s personal seal on the tomb and post a couple of guards there.

Minor quibble: It’s sort of a Hollywood cliché that in movies, ancient Romans speak with upper-class British accents. But when working-class Roman soldiers are given working-class British accents (not Cockney, but something like that), it just sticks out like a sore thumb.

On the next day, the tomb is discovered to be empty – and Pilate commands Clavius to investigate, and to locate Jesus’ body in order to refute the rumor that he has somehow been resurrected.

This leads to what seems like a first-century police procedural, as Clavius and his newly-assigned deputy, Lucius (Tom Felton), track down rumors, dig up newly-buried bodies and try to intimidate everyone.

Clavius keeps telling people that he’s after the truth, and that he’ll allow them to go free if they’ll give him the truth. Eventually, of course, Clavius comes face-to-face with a truth he did not expect.

From that point forward, the movie changes in tone a little bit, bending the rules to depict Clavius as being present (albeit in the background) for several Bible scenes involving Jesus and the disciples. As long as you accept this as a work of inspirational fiction, and don’t take it too seriously, I’m fine with that. After all, as previously admitted, I tried to do the same thing. Think of it as “Ben-Hur” for the 21st Century.

The filmmakers do get several little details right. Jesus actually looks (gasp!) Middle Eastern, rather than like that blankety-blank Warner Sallman painting. The crucifixion wounds are in Jesus’ wrists, rather than his palms. If you tried to crucify someone by putting nails through their palms, the nails would tear through the flesh. Only by nailing just above the wrist – which still would have been considered the hand by the gospel writers – do you have the proper bone structure to hold someone on the cross for several days (which is how long crucifixions normally took). Clavius gives the disciple Bartholomew an accurate description of how crucifixion actually kills a victim – by suffocation. The victim must keep pushing his body up to breathe, and eventually, after days of agony, he gives up, exhausted, and is strangled by his own weight.

Rev. Lanita, in talking about the movie to the youth, lamented that they fell into the common trap of portraying Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, when the gospels don’t refer to her as such. (The idea that she was a prostitute comes from someone in church history speculating that she was the same woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, even though the Bible does not give us any specific reason to make that connection.)

It all seemed to work, at least for me. Fiennes is absolutely great as Clavius. You can feel his weariness, but then he shifts it aside and becomes an intimidating interrogator, and he makes his conversion – which, by the conventions of this type of movie, has to be somewhat sudden – believable. He still seems like the same person. With a lesser actor, this movie could have easily descended into camp.

Firth and Felton are also great on the Roman side, while Stuart Scudamore (running a close second to Cumberbatch in the silly name rankings) is quite good as Simon Peter (IMDb lists him as “Peter,” but he seems to be referred to mainly as “Simon” by the other characters). Stephen Hagan is just a tiny bit too giddy as Bartholomew, but I’ll let it slide – especially since the more-common mistake in Bible epics is to be universally-gloomy. This movie actually had a few moments of welcome and appropriate humor, such as one where one of the Romans makes a disparaging remark about the Jewish high priests just as we, the audience, see them approaching him from behind. There’s also a scene between Simon and Clavius late in the movie which incorporates some funny byplay.

I just really found the movie inspirational. I doubt many people who aren’t already believers will be converted by it, because I doubt they’ll go see it in the first place. But we probably shouldn’t expect movies to proselytize anyway. I think this is fine as a creative expression of faith, one which someone like me (and the teens from church) can simply enjoy on its own terms.

I highly recommend it.

Executive Suite

When I got home from work today, “Executive Suite” was on, and I watched I guess the last hour or so of it. I’d watched the whole thing once before.

It’s a 1954 movie, directed by Robert Wise and the debut of legendary screenwriter Ernest Lehman. I find it interesting because it is, or winds up being, a movie about capitalism, which is not a common topic for popular entertainment.

The movie was pitched as an all-star drama, and for most of the movie, it manages to be that. The long-time chairman of a major furniture manufacturer has died, and various parties are jockeying to take his place. At first, McDonald Walling (William Holden) is watching this from the sidelines, trying to figure out how changes at the company might affect him. He’s more interested in design and research than in the operatic backroom bargaining, and his wife (June Allyson, who seemingly always played the supportive wife) wants to encourage him to follow his passion as a designer, even if it means leaving Treadway Corp.

But Walling becomes dead-set against Loren Shaw (Frederic March) taking over the company. He sees Shaw as one of the forces that has led the company to cut back on research and innovation and to put out a shoddy product line in hope of short-term profit. The conflict between the two men turns into a climactic scene in the boardroom as the board gathers to vote on a new chairman.

Shaw believes that a company’s overwhelming responsibility is to its stockholders, period, and that means cutting out anything wasteful that might cut into the profit margin here and now. Walling argues, passionately, that the company has to take a longer-term approach. He argues that Shaw’s approach demoralizes the employees and ultimately destroys the company and harms the stockholders. He argues that there may be a place for a value-priced furniture line, but it should be based on innovation rather than simply on cutting corners and turning out a second-rate product. He invokes the company’s responsibility to its own employees and says that they need to produce a product of which they can be proud.

It’s a surprisingly academic discussion to be the climactic standoff of a Major Motion Picture, but it’s played with surprising passion. And the basic arguments are, if anything, even more relevant in 2016 than they were in 1954.

At the height of the Red Scare, a critique of American corporate culture apparently raised some eyebrows, so much so that, according to Ben Mankiewicz’s outro to the film, producer John Houseman (Professor Kingsfield from “The Paper Chase”) was asked to sign a loyalty oath. But this film is virtually a celebration of capitalism – it simply holds that there’s a good kind of capitalism, one which serves the customers (and values intangibles like pride of workmanship) because that’s in the long-term interest of the stockholders, and a bad kind of capitalism, one which puts too much emphasis on maximizing short-term profit without considering the long-term consequences.

Logan’s Run

I see that I already have a blog post tag for “Logan’s Run,” so I must have blogged about it at some point in the past. But I don’t feel like going back and looking.

The 1976 movie “Logan’s Run” is airing right now, as I type this, on Turner Classic Movies. I remember it from my adolescence, although I only saw it edited on network TV, not in the theaters. It was followed in September of 1977 by a TV series, a relatively short turnaround for that sort of thing. It was right in the wake of “Star Wars,” which had come out that summer, and studios and TV networks were snatching up anything science fiction-related.

The original novel by by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, which I’ve never read, was a Vietnam allegory, published in 1967. By 1976, Americans were trying to forget the war – well, except for “M*A*S*H,” which was as much about Vietnam as Korea. So the politics were played down, although the central allegory – young people sent off to die because that’s what the system demands — remains.

The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic domed city – a seeming paradise, in which you work only a few hours a week and there are a lot of leisure options. There’s just one catch, and it’s a doozy. When you are born, a crystal is implanted in your hand. As you approach your 30th birthday, the crystal changes color and you are summoned to “carousel,” a ceremony in which participants float up into the air and explode. (The TV series substituted the explosions with a less-disturbing effect that looked like the transporter on “Star Trek.”)

The public is told that carousel is simply a first step to reincarnation, but there are some, called “runners,” who doubt the official theology and try to evade their pre-ordained fate. There’s virtually no other type of crime, so there’s no regular police force, but there’s a special squad called the “sandmen” who track down such runners.

Our central character, Logan 5, starts the movie as a sandman and is sent undercover to infiltrate a sort of Underground Railroad for runners. He, too, begins to doubt the line about reincarnation, ultimately pitting him against his former partner, who considers him a cop-gone-bad and is obsessed with tracking him down, even outside the protection of the dome.

Logan was played by British Michael York in the movie, and then by all-American Gregory Harrison (of “Trapper John, M.D.”) in the TV series. Jenny Agutter was the female lead — a runner who befriends Logan — in the movie, followed by Heather Menzies in the TV show.

The movie features a very brief cameo by Farrah Fawcett, but by the time it was released she was starting to explode from “Charlie’s Angels” and that poster, and so some theaters even advertised “Farrah Fawcett-Majors in ‘Logan’s Run'” or what have you.

IMDb still lists a remake as being bounced around. At one time, it was supposed to star Ryan Gosling; now, it seems to be limbo.

Birthday greetings

I’d like to wish my little sister, Elecia, a happy birthday. As I noted in this blog post 10 years ago, you have to use discretion in this sort of thing, and it would be rude of me to talk about a lady’s age. So I’ll move along to other topics.

By the way, I certainly hope you enjoyed Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, along with viewers in all 50 states and many foreign countries. I’ve been watching the game for years, of course, ever since Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” was a hit on the radio. It was a good close game, and each team had a 50/50 chance of winning. They literally had a 50/50 chance of winning the coin toss — even though that was a specially-made commemorative coin and not a simple 50-cent piece.

I’m glad GoDaddy didn’t have a Super Bowl ad this year. Their ads are so salacious, it’s almost like watching “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

I’m sure that some people weren’t into the game, of course. Maybe some of them were watching the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore romantic comedy “50 First Dates.”

Now, of course, there will be months without football. People will have to satisfy themselves with other programming — like the police drama “Hawaii Five-O.”

But, getting back to my sister, I want to say how much I love her. She’s always been there for me. She’s a hard-working 9-1-1 dispatcher. She’s a mother of three wonderful children, and those kids were always her priority through thick and thin. She’s caring and big-hearted and thinks of everyone else first. I hope she has a very, very happy birthday, however old she is — and I can’t think of the specific number at the moment, but I’m sure it will come to me eventually.

another jet flight

When I first blogged about the online shopping site Jet back in August, it was being touted as a membership-based shopping site, a cross between Amazon and Costco or Sam’s Club. Few if anyone had actually bought a membership at that time, because the site – which had some heavy-hitting investors and the money to launch with a bang — was offering free trial memberships of three or six months. The stated premise was that the company would sell its goods more or less at cost and would make its money solely on the annual membership fees.

Soon after my blog post, the company announced that it was changing its concept a bit and would not be membership-based after all.

I placed a couple of orders with the company early on, about the time of my blog post, but then in the last quarter of the year I was busy with Christmas shopping and my personal shopping was sort of on a day-to-day basis.

But since the first of the year, I’ve ordered from them a couple of times under the new model. I don’t think the discounts are quite as deep as they were under the old model – although it’s hard to compare, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment – but they’re still good, and if you have never used the site and have any interest in making routine household purchases online it’s worth checking out.

I did have one glitch with my most recent order – and I’ll explain that in a moment, too – and it’s a cautionary tale but not a deal-breaker.

The way Jet works is that they try to have low, competitive basic prices on household goods – some in bulk quantities, others in individual quantities – but on top of those competitive prices, there’s a discount formula that rewards you for putting more and more items in your shopping cart during a given order. The first item you decide to buy goes into your cart at its basic price, then the second item goes in at its regular price less a small discount, then the next item gets a slightly larger discount, and so on.

This rolling discount plan can save you money – but it also makes it harder for you as a shopper (or for Jet’s competitors) to comparison shop for one specific item.

Any purchase over $35 gets free shipping (and it’s fast shipping, except as explained below), and I believe that threshold is measured before the discounts are applied, which is good news for the buyer. (I know that was the case last fall, but I haven’t tested it recently.) You also get a discount for using a debit card (which I would do anyway) or by waiving the free-return policy for certain low-cost household items that you probably wouldn’t try to send back anyway.

But here’s the thing. Jet has a seamless ordering process, but (sort of like Amazon), some of its products are being sold directly by Jet, others are being sold by other partner sites. Some of the items from partner sites may have slower shipping and use different carriers. Your order may arrive in several different pieces – some directly from Jet, some from its partner merchants.

The glitch I wrote about earlier had to do with one of those partner sites. On my most recent order, I found what was clearly described as a new, original-manufacturer Canon ink cartridge for my printer, and the photo which accompanied the item was of the authentic Canon packaging. The price was good, so I ordered the cartridge. But when it arrived today, it turned out to be a remanufactured cartridge from a third party. I’ve bought remanufactured cartridges before – in fact, I have two in the printer right now – but that’s not what I ordered this time, and I could probably have gotten a remanufactured cartridge just as cheaply, or for even less, from any number of other sources.

Fortunately, Jet has good customer service. I had not waived my free-return rights on this item, and so within seconds I had printed out a pre-paid FedEx label for returning the cartridge. They will refund the money to my debit card once it arrives. That process was automated, but I also sent an e-mail to the company complaining about what I considered a deliberately-deceptive listing by one of Jet’s partner sites. I received a quick response promising that they would look into the matter, but that’s easy to say.

But that’s a glitch. All in all, I’ve been happy with my purchases from Jet and will continue to do business with them in the future. I suggest you check them out.

DISCLOSURE: For years, this site – like a lot of others on the web – has been part of the Amazon affiliates program. When I include an Amazon link for a product, and someone clicks on it and buys something from Amazon, I get a very small commission. I don’t make any significant amount from this – at times, it’s been years before I’ve gotten to the $10 threshold at which they deposit accumulated commissions into your checking account. My participation in this program does not affect the views I express or the topics I cover here, as evidenced by this post about one of Amazon’s competitors.