If you’re adding film titles to your 2013 must-see list, here’s one to consider: Longford, an HBO drama telling the true story of British Lord Longford, played by Jim Broadbent. I’ve recommended it many times since I first saw it in 2009 and did so again a week or so ago. Few films still have me thinking about them years afterward.
A devout Christian, Longford visits prisoners as part of his spiritual practice. In the beginning, the film shows him in an interview saying that the greatest achievement in his life is visiting and helping prisoners. Then the story begins.
A notorious criminal asks him to visit her, a woman convicted of a heinous crime involving the most vulnerable and precious members of society. They begin meeting regularly, and he helps her over many years in her legal battle. His long-term relationship with her becomes the greatest achievement of his life’s greatest achievement.
Yet his efforts collapse in complete and utter failure. If I told you why it would be a spoiler, yet your guess probably comes close. Lord Longford is devastated and broken, an object of public scorn.
Time passes and he eventually writes a book on another topic. In an interview about this book, the subject of his visits with this prisoner comes up. The interviewer asks him if he regrets helping her. Longford pauses and says no. (Disclaimer: I don’t have a transcript of the film and so this is my memory + paraphrasing kicking in.) He says he is grateful to her. He says that deepening his faith is what his spiritual journey is about and that his experience with her helped him at that. The film doesn’t end there and I won’t say anymore about the plot lest you plan to watch it and think I’ve spoiled it enough already.
I heard a sermon a couple years ago that I still think about from time to time, as I did this morning when my notes from that morning popped up. In that sermon, the minister described a pseudo-baptism scene from the movie "Nacho Libre," starring Jack Black as a Mexican priest, named Ignatio, turned wrestler, named Nacho. Nacho wants his wrestling partner baptized before their match with “Satan's Cavemen” to better increase their chance for a win and so shoves his head in a bowl of water and declares a blessing. Disclaimer: I've never seen the movie, but this link goes to a clip of the scene.
The minister said this scene should tell us there is a better way for telling others about Christ than to push them into it. He gave the example of Philip in the story from Acts and went from there to cover much good and earnest theology about being a witness for Christ and about the movement of the Spirit.
But I couldn't stop thinking about the priest shoving the guy’s head into the bowl of water. Skipping past the false theology, past the adolescent sacrilege, what does it say about the hunger for a concrete splashing of grace, the reality of the place of baptism in the human narrative? It’s like finding a hieroglyphic or prehistoric drawing showing the offering of life for life.
Two weekends ago I attended the funeral of a baby boy who died two months too early and with one too many chromosomes to be compatible with life longer than it took to look his parents in the eyes and form a bond that will never break. To have this moment of meeting this side of heaven had been the parents’ prayer since they got the amnio results many weeks earlier.
The congregation sang the classic hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” The grandfather, a jazz pianist, played his version of “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” The father, dressed in a gray suit and white shirt, read the few lines of hope in the book of Lamentations’ long lament.
But this I call to mind, And therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; They are new every morning; Great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I will hope in him” Lamentations 3:21-24 ESV
When he finished, he sat back in the pew and the mother, his wife, dressed in navy blue, leaned her head on his shoulder as she did for most of the service. The minister spoke on the Lamentation’s passage, how even that passage of hope is bookmarked by the word ‘hope,’ as if there should be no doubt what the words in between were about. “Therefore I have/will hope.” This struck me as true, that a writer in lament would write the reason for hope but also include not one but two note-to-self reminders that the hope is for the lamenter and not only an abstract principle. A proof of sorts, certainly hard-earned with gasps and tears: If....then. “Therefore I have/will hope.”
The minister said, and I wrote this down, “All of life is a fight of faith.”
Then we stood and sang the hymn, "It Is Well With My Soul."
I’m of a mindset that nothing is wasted. I believe this. Not prudently, as in “nothing should be wasted,” but confidently, brazenly. Metaphysically. Nothing is.
Annie Dillard shares a similar view, only she calls it "a crackpot notion," a "little ghost story" she never tires of telling herself:
Imaginative acts--even purely mental combinations, like the thought that a certain cloud resembles a top hat--carry real weight in the universe. A child who makes a pun, or a shepherd who looks at a batch of stars and thinks, 'That part is a throne and that part is a swan,' is doing something which counts in the universe's reckoning of order and decay--which counts just as those mighty explosions and strippings of electrons do inside those selfsame stars. This jolly view soothes the Puritan conscience; it gives the artist real work. With his thumb in the dike he is saving the universe. And the best part of it is he need not find a publisher, or a gallery, or a producer, or a symphony orchestra. Thoughts count. A completed novel in the trunk in the attic is an order added to the sum of the universe's order. It remakes its share of undoing. It counteracts the decaying of systems, the breakdown of stars and cultures and molecules, the fraying of forms. It works. (from LIVING BY FICTION)
Last night I went to a high school graduation party for a lovely young woman who had been in a Wednesday night children’s program at the small church we both used to attend. I was the “leader” for that group of girls, fourth grade or so to sixth. I loved those girls. While she was still in my group, the church imploded. The grief was great and sent us in many directions. If I could do it over I would have stayed in better touch. Last night, there she was, nearly grown up.
Deep in the archives of this blog, there is a post I wrote at that time about helping the girls make a journal of their own by covering an old-fashioned composition book with their choice of scrapbook paper and decorating it with ribbons, stickers, beads, or whatever they liked. I thought of this last night when I saw her.
This morning, a coincidence struck me. Last month I had discovered a stack of unused composition books that were left over from that time, and so I covered one with decorative paper and have been using it since as a writing notebook. In fact, the coincidence came to me after I wrote the above two paragraphs in that very notebook.
I like to think that coincidences are signs of something big moving under the surface, some unifying cords of meaning that we are to attend to, follow, ponder, grab hold of. I like to think that our time together in that group, even as we cut paper and glued ribbons, even though the separation that followed was too long and wide and a matter of regret, planted seeds of attentiveness and faith. I’m going to pray that the lovely high school graduate never stops paying attention to her life, never stops cultivating it with great care, never stops inviting God to help her write her future.
This morning over at the Good Letters blog, Kelly Foster writes about pessimism and prayer, the murderous and the marvelous in “Reckoning the Marvelous.” Kelly is a good friend, an incredible writer and a beautiful person. Do yourself a favor and read her ongoing work at Good Letters, and this post in particular.
I could even see myself clinging desperately to my own vigilant anxieties as if they could buoy me or conversely, as if remaining anxious and vigilant would somehow communicate to God, as if he was unaware, my utter seriousness and desperation for the need for a happy ending in this case.
I could almost see myself physically holding the tension, grasping after it, squeezing it in my hands, clutching it to my chest. I could almost envisage my anxiety as a pulsating cloud, a more powerful force for good or for a solid outcome than God.
My boyfriend, who is about as gracious and empathetic a human as you will ever meet, made a simple but profound point when I confessed my panicked visions to him.
“Maybe we have to make space in prayer for the belief that good things happen too,” he said, kindly, kissing my forehead and putting his arm around my shoulder.