Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Oh so smart

It must be very humbling to have to admit that one of the guiding principles of one’s life came not from the Bible but from a mere movie. And not from a religious movie like The Greatest Story Ever Told or the Ten Commandments, but from a film that maybe few have heard of, and few would consider a ‘religious’ movie, if they had. Of course, that’s because it isn’t a religious movie.

I had never even heard of this film until more than a dozen years ago, when it was suggested to me by an old friend with whom I had worked on and off for twenty years or more. This friend was christened Episcopalian but he rejects that and all churches, and doesn’t even call himself a Christian, but the odd thing is, for the most part he acts like one.

When a childhood friend was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, this friend did not ‘let him slip away’ but instead, as his disease worsened, stepped up the content of his friendship. When the man’s wife, unable to cope with an ‘unusable husband’ abandoned him, got a divorce, and disappeared, this friend I am talking about, well, he did the unthinkable.

By night and day, and every day, he assisted his stricken, abandoned friend, turning his body over in his bed, bathing, feeding, and in general helping him through what would soon be over. Finally—and I don’t know the details, but assume this—the dying man went to a full care facility, because the care he now needed was too constant, and then, according to God’s mercy, he was taken.

Neither my friend, nor the other to whom he was the greatest friend, were or are ‘Christians’, nor sinless, nor perfect, and so ‘religion’ doesn’t know what to do with such people. If pressed to remark, the religious might say anything ranging from pious platitudes, to vague hopes, ‘God have mercy on them,’ all the way to ‘black and white’ pronouncements, ‘no, sorry—unsaved.’

Come Judgment Day, as C. S. Lewis observes, there will be surprises.

Back to the movie that my friend suggested, an old film starring Jimmy Stewart that I’d never seen or heard of before, and ‘black and white,’ but in a different sense, he presented me with a copy and I watched it—once only—and it was enough for me. In this film I encountered in a most unexpected way a truth that is usually missed in religious training, precisely because it’s not religious.

Aside from the plot of this film, these words stood out for me when I first heard them, and they have played out in my life ever since then, every day. ‘Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be…” she always called me Elwood, “…In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.’

Now, if any of you are avid movie watchers, especially of the classics, you have probably already guessed that the movie I’m talking about is Harvey. In fact, you probably recognized it from the title of the post, and then of course, the still shot was a dead giveaway. Why do we call things like an obvious hint a ‘dead giveaway’? In this case, for me, this film was a live giveaway, the missing piece that finally explained to me what to do about Jesus.

Yes, believe in Him, of course. Yes, follow Him, if you dare. Yes, go to church, read your bible, pray (if you know how), give to charities, volunteer, make sure your honesty is evident to everyone. That’s how I interpreted Christ’s saying, ‘In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:16) But what about what He says just a little later? ‘Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 6:1) Jesus doesn’t joke around in the gospels. He must be telling us something, but what?

A missing piece, maybe the most important piece, given by surprise where I’d never thought of looking—in a secular movie. But is it secular? And does ‘secular’ only have the meaning we give it because we’ve decided to be religious? In the mind of Christ, which is accessible to us when we do what He tells us, ‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ (Matthew 11:29) If we take upon us His yoke, what is secular? what profane?

The whole world and everyone in it is ‘what God looks like’ (Father Evely), and ‘salvation is with our brothers’ (the Desert Fathers), because ‘whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto Me’ (Jesus). All the religious training, knowledge, theological truths, bible verses, worst of all, all of our opinions about others and certainty of our own salvation, mean nothing if we work against God’s purposes.

What? Who’s working against God’s purposes? Christ says to us no less than to the Pharisees of His time, ‘You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.’ (Matthew 23:13) And who’s doing that? ‘Surely, not I?’ (Matthew 26:25) Yet, all that Paul says he regards as garbage (Philippians 3, NIV), what we might call his ‘smarts’, he considers trash. What does he consider worthy, then? What does he think is important?

‘…the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.’

(Philippians 3:9)

It is with this kind of certainty, not the certainty of our own salvation, but the certainty of ‘the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith’ that He sends us out, every day, to find Him in the world. ‘Oh so smart or oh so pleasant’? How does that fit in? It’s hard to put into words, which is why I recommend to you, dear reader, to watch the film yourself, for the first time, or if again, then with new eyes.

Then, see what Elwood means by ‘I recommend pleasant’.

Oh, and look a little deeper,
and maybe you’ll see who ‘Harvey’ actually is.

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