Vanity, It’s Definitely My Favorite Sin

The Devil’s Advocate

In 1997, I was quite captivated by a movie starring Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves entitled “The Devil’s Advocate”.  I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Pastoral Ministries and Bible, preparing for my entrance into a Master’s program, eagerly ready to embark on a call into “the ministry”.   The movie struck an analytical chord in me, first of all because Al Pacino is one of my favorite actors, but secondly, because the movie seemed to get the aspect of “demonology” visually depicted that was most accurate for a Hollywood movie, and painted a grim picture of just how far any one of us particular “Humpty Dumpty’s” can fall prey to his many times unsuspecting devices.

Ironically, the lead attorney who has never lost a case (Keanu Reeves) plays Kevin Lomax, and Al Pacino plays a character by the name of John Milton (ironically the name of the author of Paradise Lost), but who is none other than Mephistopheles himself.  In the introduction to the movie, we witness Kevin Lomax representing someone accused of child molestation, that as the case unfurls, he actually finds out is guilty as Hell.  Nonetheless, as he cross examines the prosecution, he finds more holes in their story than a high-powered lawyer has a right to, and as a result, the jury rests with a “not guilty” verdict.

Fast forward through the movie’s twists and turns, after Lomax now has a carrot of an even higher-profile job being dangled before him from John Milton, and a credulous ride on the dark side that he could have never imagined, the movie then concludes with Kevin realizing the error of his ways through his chaotic dance with the devil, and we then enter the same introductory scene.  Only this time, the now enlightened and virtuous Kevin now refuses to represent the guilty pedophile.  Our hearts soar as we see this spiritual epiphany of Kevin revealed to us, while the reporter Larry grabs Kevin and his wife (played by Charlize Theron), and essentially lets them know that Kevin is now the hero, and he wants to do a story that will be the ultimate “do-gooder” story sure to grant him a new kind of fame. As Reeves and Theron smile at each other with a sense of utter righteous nirvana, the scene then fades as Larry now turns into Al Pacino’s character (Satan) who then says with his shit-eating grin, “Vanity, It’s Definitely My Favorite Sin”.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3M68wcB6L0s

Vanity’s Slippery Slope

The thought occurred to me as I considered my own entrance into a “do-gooder” profession at the time, just how imperceptibly oftentimes Satan can take the good that we would do, and can “ipso-facto” turn it into a narcissistic plunge without us even recognizing it, until it’s web around us is fully grown and we’ve been consumed by it ever so completely.  It’s a very slippery slope that catches us incognito, and in its aftermath, it devastates not only our own lives, but also the star-gazed lives of those who falsely project their spiritual hopes and dreams upon us, looking to us for their proxy of Christ himself.  Of course, the apostle Paul hammered this age-old problem out for us quite clearly  in the book of I Corinthians, correcting their “celebrity preacher” propensity, when he reminds them that it is neither He, nor Apollos, nor Peter that is anything at all, but that it is only Christ that we all should follow.  He further reminds them in Chapter 13 quite shockingly, that we could even become so good in our own eyes, perhaps even giving our bodies to be burned alive for those who follow us, and yet; if we have not love (the true motive of righteous living), we are in his words…nothing.  Or perhaps a close second dilemma, is that of being nothing more than a sounding gong or a clanging symbol that everyone can hear, yet no one can seem to turn off as we genuflect at the sound of our own voice and virtuous tabloid.

When I was a rebel pastor, I was constantly confronted both with my own potential for good, and equally my ability to disappoint, continually humbled as I would step into the pulpit to even attempt to say “Thus Saith the Lord” to anyone.  As a result, I tended to preach on topics that I myself was working through in my own life, before I could even begin to hold out anything sacred and substantive for others to take a hold of and embrace for themselves.  I saw the potential for vanity in me, as I looked out Sunday after Sunday at vanity’s equivalent congregational reflection staring back at me; equally caught up in having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.  The kind of power quite frankly, that is only made perfect in the weakness we experience both from our arduous journey into our quest for righteousness as nothing more than sinners saved by grace, and from the malevolent force called “this fallen world” that is persistently antagonistic to such a paradoxical caveat of true winning.  Yet it is only here that Christ can form the crucible of love that has even the remote possibility of making us into someone who would even dare to say, “follow me, as I follow Christ”.

All is Vanity Saith The Preacher

I realize I have written about this in some form or fashion a lot lately.  I guess you could say it is my soul’s quiet preoccupation as I reflect on all the world’s fool’s gold that abounds, and in constant amazement that no matter how much I know it, it is still so easy to fall into its predatory grasp time and time again, as vanity indeed thrives everywhere in our culture today.  I see it in the eyes of “road rage” as I sneak out into an intersection with plenty of room to cross, as those I encounter speed up, almost as if to taunt me with the idea of smashing into my car because I dared to cross while they were on their way to God knows where. I see it in bowed up chests and laser like stares, as men and women walk confidently and defiantly with observable chips on their block, daring anyone to look at them in the incorrect way as they live out their daily survival of only the fittest.  I see it in the media outlets and political pundits who put forth their “two cents” on every matter under the sun, arrogantly claiming their lack of “deplorable” status, distancing themselves from the obvious “dregs of society” that suck up all the space that they occupy.  I see it also in Hollywood’s constant big-headed projection of itself as the standard of which we are all to aspire and work for.  And I now see it equally in the church, where ministers dangle very closely on the precipice of being far too caught up in their own reflection, while the casualties of their unsuspecting tutelage continue to wonder who will yet take up the basin and the towel, rather than succumb to a form of self-consecrated, white-washed simony that rivals the marketplace of which we are all apart.

I believe Tom Conlon tells us the truth of the matter in his song Ohio, where he writes these words that I have reflected upon a good bit lately.  He says, “Everyone wanna be famous, no one wanna be righteous”.  And, well, I suppose both he and the devil are both right after all, because vanity; well it really is our (my) favorite sin.

Selah

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=43&v=3775n_mb05A

 

 

Awkward Dinner Conversations on a Ship of Obtuse Fools

An Epiphany of Sorts

It was about a year and a half ago that I found myself on a particular “ship of fools” shall we say.  I don’t mean by my deprecating comments to exclude my own ability to “play the fool” from time to time in regard to what I will reflect upon today.  But what alarmed me this precise evening, was a specific “comfortable numbness” to the things that should actually really matter, but that were not only “uncharacteristic” of my chosen drinking buddies this insightful evening, but that also sounded an alarm inside of me as to just where we are at with the culture, and even the Christian sub-culture at large.  And in the aftermath, it has since then caused me to further cogitate on the abysmal shape we are currently in regarding our once revered and assumed virtues once taught by the Alpha and Omega himself.

For those who don’t know, I’m in the educational software business as a sales dog, and I travel quite a country mile in my particular territory to get the job done on most weeks of the year. As is also typical, at least two to three times a year, I leave on an overcrowded and suffocating jet plane to our corporate office for various sales meetings of sorts.  After all day meetings and “death by PowerPoint”, we are typically whisked away, absent of any down time, to a posh restaurant or venue where dinner and drinks are served, and where those of us across all departments spend time getting acquainted, sharing stories, and enjoying some sodality of sorts.  And on one particular evening not too, too long ago, we were scheduled to go on an excursion upon a luxurious yacht for a moonlight dinner cruise.  That sounds nice enough I know.  Yet as fate would have it, the weather was not conducive to taking the coveted “three-hour tour”, and we simply spent the evening in dock and went about the business at hand without missing a beat.

Party Foul

Now in my usual Mark Prince manner, I am somewhat the “life of the party” when I’m up to the task, and I found myself this particular night at the table with a group of ladies that ranged from their early 30’s to late 40’s, leaving me (yours truly), as is now often the case, as the Senior at the table.  As I was enjoying my dinner and a few adult beverages, I was also doing my level best to get the table laughing and engaging everyone to make the night go both fast and well.  And then, without really noticing it, we wandered adrift into this conversation about love and marriage, as each one talked about everything from their almost picture-perfect marriages, to some who had pulled the plug on the institution long ago.  And then there it was, like a lady of the evening waltzing in and settling down in the front row at church during the middle of a really bad sermon, an awkwardness and a hush you that you could have heard a mile away plopped down on the dinner table right in front of us–when I rather abruptly related the struggles of marriage to individuals not being will to die.  Mic drop!

Now as I peeled the elongated stares off of the center of my forehead like dead skin on a wound, it occurred to me that we were in the middle of a Sunday School lesson that both no one had graduated from at this particular table, and that no one was volunteering to take part in for the present or near future.  So, I guess you could say that my popularity contest with the ladies took a sharp turn now going from “hero to zero”, and I was now center stage with my pants down left to explain my most unwelcome and equally unfamiliar conversation.  At that point, as I tried to simply explain, that in order for marriages, or any relationship for that matter to work long term, it all boils down to someone, at some point, and oftentimes the same person quite frankly, being willing to essentially “die” to themselves, forgive, and live and let die.  As I then continued to peel the remaining skin off of my forehead, in a moment of apparent frustration, I looked at them and said, “Damn, have none of your gals ever been to Sunday School for goodness sakes”?  Of course, this didn’t go quite how I planned, and from then on, my only course of action was to make an attempt at a quick joke amid the deafening silence, and slowly disappear out of my chair like an escape artist to the barstool of rescue awaiting in the next room.

Who the Hell Wants to Die Anyway?

And of course, the thought then occurred to me quite perceptibly so; that no one wants to “die” anymore. In fact, we see it just about everywhere we turn our heads these days.  For instance, I see it often and quite sadly at a plethora of dinner tables in any given restaurant in America, where aged depravity coupled with long standing marital bitterness comes full circle to our bated eyes, as elderly couples sit opposite one another drinking their wine and eating their food without even a glance in the other ones direction, reflecting alone in their quiet and un-blissful misery of “till death do us part”.  And the profound sadness I feel as I witness this time in marital “living Hell” is almost too much to bear.  I can scarcely take it in.  And as unpopular as it may seem, and equally out of step with the current ethos of pervasive thought in the public square and average living rooms, the lack of death in our individuals’ lives is the fresh steamy dog shit on the squeaky clean living room floor!  It simply has to be addressed, yet we’re finding ways it seems to simply sweep it under the rug, and then in a quite diversionary manner, imagine that the stench is simply a newly discovered aromatic that will over time simply “blend in”.  But of course, the lack of death in relationships across the board “is” the crux of the problem, despite its unpopularity at dinner conversations on your ship of choice. It is indeed why marriages exit on irreconcilable differences and the like, why siblings grow apart; why kids grow up without Moms and Dads; and why there are after all wars, wars, and rumors of wars, as a Nazarite once opined long, long ago.

The Cruciform Road Less Traveled

Several years now I watched a fascinating and equally poignant movie entitled “Calvary” that almost no one even heard of.  It was a subtle “Christian” masterpiece if I must say, that was not even remotely billed as such, but that hammered the nails of its message right into the feet and hands of any who dared to receive it’s unwelcome and yet healing balm it offered us.   In one particular scene Father James Lavelle, played by Brendan Gleeson expresses to his daughter as they brisk about on an Irish seashore, that “I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues”.  To which his daughter Fiona replies, “What would be your number one”?  Father Lavelle then readily replies, “I think forgiveness has been highly underrated”.  And later, for our conclusive purposes today, the movie then comically explains why the subject of death is such an awkward and unpopular dinner conversation aboard our various ships of obtuse fools, when it explains in particular wittiness, as the person simply called “the writer” says to Father LaVelle, “You know how you can tell you’re really getting old”? To which Father Lavelle says “No, How”?  To which the writer then retorts, “No one says the word ‘death’ around you anymore”?

And perhaps that explains it after all does it not?  You see the truth is, that the Outlaw preacher came to die because the world on its own terms both wouldn’t and couldn’t, without some cosmic divine intervention. It was indeed an experiment already tried for quite some time and was found wanting, and still very much is.  In fact, Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter, that in describing the virtue at its core, it is; or rather should be, the ability to be willing to be “defrauded” at times, and to even “suffer wrong”, to which is oftentimes the real “one-two punch” to the gut of our eternal unwillingness to budge in our relationships, when quite frankly; someone almost always has to be the one who is willing to, well…die.

But the bruised reed from Bethlehem came in by stealth quite cleverly, and fooled the world in a constant mad dash to always incessantly fight to be #1, and to stoically never let anyone else see them sweat, so help them god.  And while we are dead set on living and winning still, He turned the world upside down by cruciform losing, which is why many today call him Lord; yet sadly wear his statement of “deathful” winning around their necks, rather than as a quite regular mantra as to how we all should actually seek to live.  And as a result, the talk of death on the ship of obtuse fools still makes for a most awkward dinner conversation.

Selah