Faith and Film (prt. 2): The Mission

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By Joe LaGuardia

When I was in high school, my sister Gina and brother-in-law Frank invited me to join them for dinner in Manhattan with one of Frank’s clients. Frank was a personal trainer and this client had meant a great deal to him; the client, a Jesuit priest whose name I’ve since lost, had become a sort of mentor and father figure to Frank.

I don’t remember the fine details of our conversation over dinner, but I do remember enjoying the priest’s explanation of Catholicism and the Society of Brothers, commonly known as the Jesuits. I, an evangelical mostly reared in the south, had certain assumptions of Catholics that this particular Brother sought to correct. He did a good job, and I’ve respected Catholics in general and Jesuits specifically ever since.

One other thing I remember clearly is that the priest recommended I watch the 1986 movie The Mission, staring Robert DeNiro. He thought it might be a good historical primer on the work that Jesuits had accomplished over the centuries.

In The Mission DeNiro, a Portuguese conquistador and slave trader, warred with the Jesuits and their work in converting South American Guarani natives. DeNiro ends up killing his brother over a love triangle and runs away to the Jesuits. Father Gabriel, played by Jeremy Irons, takes him in as a sort of disciple.

Much of the movie focuses on DeNiro’s transformation from warrior to wounded servant. The journey he takes is one of redemption, and–as any good epic goes–a discovery that his biggest enemy is himself. God forgives him, but he cannot receive it because he cannot forgive himself.

In one of the most powerful scenes of the movie, DeNiro made a long climb up a waterfall to reach the mission with a band of priests and natives. He is hauling his armor in a sort of net knapsack, and after climbing all the way he falls in exhaustion and pain. A native grabs a knife and cuts the chords to the knapsack, and the armor plummets down the mountain. DeNiro finds liberation. His past, now behind him, no longer enslaves him. The natives accept him as one of their own.

For years and years, I have spent much of my Christian walk trying to figure out what baggage I keep bringing along with me in my ascension towards Christ. What is it that I am holding onto? Where do I need the fresh waters of the mountains and the salty tears of my soul to bless and baptize me? Where do I need Christ’s liberation and permission to forgive myself for all of the stupid things I’ve done and continue to do?

These questions haunt me, and the images of The Mission still ring in my imagination. Its amazing how one Manhattan dinner with a stranger who happened to be a priest made such an impact on my life. I can see–as I realized back then–why this man was so important to Frank’s life.

The last I checked, Frank lost contact with the priest, so I am unable to contact the priest and tell him how much that conversation meant to me. I am unable to convey (on this side of heaven, at least) how his wisdom, grace, and movie recommendation changed my life.

I was a born again evangelical when I met with Gina, Frank, and that priest over dinner so long ago; and I feel I was born again a second time after I walked away from that dinner.

Final Farewells and wishes of peace

Paul in prisonBy Joe LaGuardia

The following article is reprinted from The Rockdale Citizen.  Please note that although Joe LaGuardia will no longer publish in the Citizen after April 29th, he and a community of Baptists will continue to publish for Baptist Spirituality and other publications.  Please be sure to subscribe to our blog to keep up on our inspiring and thought-provoking publications. 

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Over the last week, I’ve been reading the “farewell remarks” from St. Paul’s epistles.  Although he writes to a variety of communities, each remark sounds similar, such as the one penned in his second letter to the Corinthians:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell.  Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you” (13:11).

In others, he includes a challenge for the saints to be an encouragement one to another, to speak with words of wisdom rather than malice, and greet each other with a holy kiss.

As I plan to depart from Conyers and move to Florida next week, I can’t help but keep Paul’s farewell words in mind.  That doesn’t mean I consider myself to be like Paul–he’s a saint for a reason, you know–but I do think his concluding challenges are something to ponder.

For one, he encourages churches to live in peace.  Too often, our communities are so fractured that people cease to speak to one another or get together.  We forget that, like families, churchgoers fight every now and then, but are expected to reconcile.

Reconciliation is not the same as reprimanding.  The world is good at reprimanding: our justice system and courts tell us what we’ve done wrong, and we are reprimanded as punishable by law.

Reconciliation provides the space for people to speak with each other, confront each other, and open a space for repentance.  Without the opportunity to repent and apologize–to ask forgiveness–true reconciliation does not occur.  Our peace may be a false one otherwise.

I learned this the hard way after my father’s death.  The person who shot my father and two other people at a town hall meeting some three years ago was sentenced to three life sentences.  The perpetrator will never get out on parole and he escaped the death penalty only because his state governor put a moratorium on capital punishment.

As I have worked through my grief, I have forgiven the man and moved on.  But that is not reconciliation.  Until he repents of his crime and apologizes (he gave a sort of apology when he was sentenced in court, but refused to take full responsibility for his crimes), he has robbed me (and himself) of reconciliation.

Being the church means being places of peace and peacemaking.  We are to follow Jesus’ example by putting others before self, reaching out with unconditional love, and forgiving rather than retaliating against others.

A second challenge that Paul gives the church is to be people of encouragement.  Christian encouragement does not originate from a “You’re okay, I’m okay” mentality.

Rather, encouragement originates from a deep-seated confidence and knowledge that we are blessed by God and are, in turn, called to bless–and be a blessing–to others.

Encouragement comes from the words we speak.  We are to avoid chatter and gossip, and distance ourselves from those who do. God’s blessing–his love and peace–are to shape our words and actions towards others.

After all, as Christians, we’ve inherited God’s promise to Abraham so long ago, an inheritance to be a blessing to all the nations of the world (Genesis 22:18).

Last, Paul challenged the church to greet each other with a holy kiss.

I don’t recommend this action these days any more than I recommend living by all the 600 laws as outlined in the Old Testament book of Leviticus.  Nevertheless, there is a truth behind this statement.

We are to make sure that our departure from one another–whether we part permanently or temporarily–is inspired by our willingness to embrace each other the next time we meet.

No matter how much Christians fight, disagree, celebrate, praise and pray, we are to look forward to that next meeting, in this world or the next.

A holy kiss is but a cultural gesture of that embodied peace, a sign that the community is under the lordship of Christ.  It implies that we are family and suggests that we are not saying “Goodbye,” but “See you later.”

It is as the old hymn states, “God be with you ’till we meet again, by his counsels guide, uphold you.”

Simple Truth: “God is Love; Jesus Saves”

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By Joe LaGuardia

This is the tenth anniversary of my seminary degree.  I went to seminary with a love for the Bible; and, although some Christians warned me about learning too much in higher education, I left with a deeper love than I had before.

I grew up in a household in which learning was simply another step in becoming a life-long learner.

In the academy I learned about the language of the Bible, theology, traditions, history, and Bible interpretation.

In my personal devotion, I learned that the Holy Spirit moves where it will and that God will forever require us to be holy as He is holy.  No amount of learning can replace one’s responsibility for cultivating an abiding relationship with the Lord.

In the church, I learned how to listen to people and how to make room for others with patience and prayer.  The church has been for me an incubator of mutual learning and sharing, inculcating the rich ways of God and of faith centered around liturgy and congregational celebration.

And, yet, even with all of this learning, I am impressed with the utter simplicity of our faith.

I have hundreds of books in my personal library.  They all express different things for different reasons.  But no matter what I read, I always return to one truth about how the world works, a  truth summarized in John 3:16-17.

In the passage, Jesus, speaking to an educated rabbi, Nicodemus, says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

It expresses a beautiful and simple truth that “God so loved the world.”  God is not a distant being who set in place the laws of nature only to leave nature to its own devices.

God is a creator–love itself–that seeks a relationship with all living things.  Whereas some see the world “going to hell in a handbasket,” God sees the potential in every soul to turn back to him in an attitude of repentance and belief.

God loved us so much, God gave us His son.  This theological quip has caused great debate for decades, but its simplicity cannot be overlooked.  Jesus came to be God in our midst that we might know, obey, and worship God.

Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection point to that higher calling of sacrifice and glory in which God wants all of us to share.

God does not want anyone to perish, but share in eternal life.  For those who do not know Christ, life is a fatalist enterprise.  Sure, we can enjoy life to the fullest and build great relationships and fulfill vast accomplishments; but, without the promise of eternal life, all our years on earth are fleeting.

There is an old joke that reminds us, “Death visits us all. I know I’m going to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

When you believe in Jesus and experience the blessing of knowing eternal salvation, life no longer seems fearfully short.  It becomes grand and full of surprises.

God does not condemn the world.  Too often, God’s followers are quick to condemn everything about the world.  Christians rush to judgment; they tend to exclude others who don’t think, believe, or behave like they do.

God shows us a better, inclusive way.  God embraces the world in all its fragility and failure and gives the gift of grace where it is most undeserved.

God is not pushy.  God does not coerce or force people to accept that gift of life; it must be freely chosen and received by the one who surrenders to God in sincere belief.

For all of the stuff I learned over the years, this simple truth–that God is love, that God gives us Jesus, and that belief in Jesus leads to eternal life–is far more precious than anything I’ve taken away from any book, class, or mentor.