Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Hello? It's me, God.

Exodus 3:1-5

There are at least two voices of God in the 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments.” One is Charleton Heston, which creates the impression that Moses is talking to himself at the burning bush. Viewers may wonder if God or Moses is supposed to be a ventriloquist. 

The cinematic device also makes you wonder if Cecil B. DeMille was actually that deep. Is he intentionally raising psycho-theological questions about the inner call of Moses? Or does he really like Heston’s manly voice? 

Later in the film, when God spoke as a pillar of flame, the uncredited voice is Donald Hayne, a sometime actor and DeMille’s production assistant. Both baritones affirmed the 1950s notion that God has a male voice. We Boomers quickly grasp the irony in that, because it was our mothers who ordered us to remove our muddy sandals when we entered the house.

When I was a student at Eastern Baptist College in the sixties, we loved watching rebroadcasts of DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” and the burning bush was one of our favorite scenes. We’d watch slack-jawed as Heston, with magnificently unrestrained intensity, crept toward the bush while a oddly familiar basso profundo intoned: “Put off thy sandals from thy feet, for the place wheron thou standest is holy ground.”

That’s either a scene of awesome power, or – given that Moses and the bush are both over-acting - a classic of unintended humor. “How do we know,” my Eastern classmate David would ask, “that God sounded like that? How do we know he didn’t sound like Truman Capote?” David is now Father David, an Episcopal priest, and I’m sure neither he nor I have been able to read that passage since then without hearing it in a high-pitched, nasally whine.

Even so, the scene does have power. It tells you what it feels like when God calls you to ministry. Heston and Heston, in scenery-chewing dialogue, do their best to communicate the awesomeness of the encounter. 

Heston is playing an unlikely candidate for God’s mission. I mean, Moses is past his prime. He’s a common sheep herder. He’s inarticulate. He’s a confessed murderer. And the fact that he thinks God is speaking to him directly suggests he’s a borderline schizophrenic. Moses recognizes these deficiencies and he’s incredulous that God is calling him to free the children of Israel. 

But God sees qualities in Moses that no one else sees. God sees qualities in all of us that are hidden from view, both to ourselves and to others. 

Sometimes God calls the oddest people to service. Consider Malcolm Muggeridge, the acidic English journalist and agnostic who, late in life, suddenly perceived a convincing case for Catholicism. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair now devotes much of his time to Christian ministry. And former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, known in his heyday as Jimmie McGroovie, is seeking ordination in the Episcopal priesthood after resigning in shame because he lied about having an affair with an aide.

These are good examples to keep in mind when we find ourselves facing Moses’ dilemma, when we are called by God to an important ministry but know there are millions of people more qualified. God sees the possibilities that are hidden from us.

Even when we’re not looking at ourselves in a mirror, we probably know dozens of people who got God’s call when they least expected it, or when they felt unworthy.

I often think of Irvin Shortess “Shorty” Yeaworth, a film director and musician who died in 2004. In 1970, Shorty, who was six feet tall, organized a school for aspiring filmmakers in his aging studios in Chester Springs, Pa. 

“Cinema Institute” was open to all but it mostly catered to young boomers from Christian backgrounds. The institute was designed along lines of a dental or barber college: inexperienced students were assigned to work on real films while experienced professionals guided them. Customers who wanted to make a movie could do it on the cheap by assigning the job to Cinema Institute, and in a few short weeks the school churned out presentable documentaries on nearby Valley Forge National Park and a Mary Kay cosmetic convention in Philadelphia. 

I worked on a biographical drama called “The Quiet in the Land,” the story of Christopher Dock, an 18th century Mennonite school teacher. I was selected for the job by my Eastern Baptist College mentor, Professor John L. Ruth, who was author, senior producer and star of the Dock film. I was the film’s key – and only – grip. (The details of that experience must be left to another blog. Suffice it to say that I learned you can’t love filmmaking if you don’t love stress.)

Even so, Cinema Institute was a great experience, in part because I met a lot of people who, like Moses, were called by God to change the focus of their lives. Foremost among the faculty was Don Murray, the Oscar-nominated actor and who lived in the same dormitory style accommodations as the students. The institute was held in January and the 200-year-old buildings in which we lived – a Revolutionary War hospital converted to a film production studio by Shorty – were haphazardly heated. Ice formed in the toilet bowls each morning, and the showers spewed out frigid water. Most of us – including Murray – skipped the showers. We were a redolent hippy horde when the course was over.

One of the classrooms was a small sound stage that simulated a living room, with a fake staircase that disappeared upwards into a nest of black-hooded overhead lights. Posted on the wall was a black-and-white glossy of actor Steve McQueen posing on the staircase. Trivia buffs recognized the scene from the 1958 horror film, “The Blob,” which was McQueen’s break-out starring role. 

The director of “The Blob” was Shorty Yeaworth himself. The film, generally assigned three stars and credited as a ground-breaking model of fifties horror drama, was well-known to all of us at the Institute. Shorty also directed other horror films that shivered the timbers of my easily-entertained generation, including “Flaming Teen-Age” (1956), which he also wrote, “4D Man” (1959), and “Dinosaurus” (1960).

Whether or not Shorty was on his way to becoming another John Ford, he certainly had a knack for the off-beat and his directorial style was widely copied in the fifties. In 1960 he had reasons to believe he would rise even further in cinema history. But the Presbyterian layman and choir director heard God’s call to service, and he abandoned the genre of the weird forever. The creator of “The Blob” began producing and directing films with a Christian message, including “The Gospel Blimp” and “Way Out,” both in 1967. He directed over 400 films for motivational, educational and religious purposes. The films were popular in churches and passably diverting, but none of them achieved the notoriety or generated the income of the cult classics of his youth. But Shorty never looked back. He heard God’s voice and he answered God’s call. I’m sure he gave little thought to what he had given up.

Despite having turned away from the Hollywood hegemony, Shorty had a lot of friends in the film-making community, including “closet” Christians like Murray, who directed “The Cross and the Switchblade” starring Pat Boone and Erik Estrada, in 1970, and Robert Lansing. 

In later years Shorty devoted himself to easing tensions between Palestinians and Israelis. He died at 78 in July 2004 when he apparently fell asleep and his car went off the road near Petra in Jordan. He was working at the time on an entertainment complex in Jordan called Jordanian Experience at the Aqaba Gateway.

I ran into Shorty several times over the years. He always remembered my name, a remarkable feat of memory that I was too young and self-absorbed to appreciate, and he never failed to ask about other former students of the Institute. I’m sure one thing we students have in common is that whenever the original “Blob” appears on the Sci-Fi channel, we nod knowingly and tell whoever is in the room, “Yeah. I knew the director. Him and me was buds.”

One of the best models of Christian ministry I’ve known is the Rev. Harold Wilke of the United Church of Christ, who was born armless.

Harold served on the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York and directed The Healing Community, which promotes awareness about access to a life of faith. He published numerous books and articles, including “Creating the Caring Congregation,” for congregations moving to integrate persons with disabilities into the faith community.  He was a founder of the National Organization on Disability (NOD).

If you know of Harold, you probably remember his unusual role at the the White House signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990. Following the signing, President George H.W. Bush passed the signing pen to Harold. He accepted it with his foot – because he was born without arms. 

Harold Wilke had more dexterity in his left foot than I have in my right hand. I had lunch with him once and watched him perform the simple act of eating. Using his toes, which were covered by a faded black sock, he would slip a napkin into his collar, adjust his silverware, and slip morsels of food into his mouth without spilling a crumb. If I asked him a question, he would stare thoughtfully into his coffee, absent-mindedly swirling it as he answered. All with his foot. When we finished eating, he’d slip his foot back into his shoe. 

After you knew Harold for a while, you no longer noticed he had no arms at his side. A lot of people didn’t notice it at all. “When I preach in a robe,” he once told me with a rye grin, “people come up to me and say, ‘that was a fine sermon. I notice you’re not one of those preachers who pounds the pulpit.’”

After I got to know Harold well enough to ask impertinent questions, I wondered aloud how long it took him to get dressed in the mornings.

“Faster than you, I’m sure,” he said, pausing for my reaction.

“Look,” he said. “I lay my clothes out every night on the floor. When I get out of bed in the morning, I roll onto them and slither into them like a snake.” He twisted and weaved his shoulders hypnotically to show me how it was done.

I never did talk to Harold about his call to ministry, possibly because I thought it might be more personal than how he puts on his underwear.  But I’m sure there was a time when God came to Harold as God did to many of us, and said, “Have I got a job for you.” And I wonder if Harold’s first reaction was to complain like Moses: “Are you kidding, God? I’m nearsighted. My socks all need darning. People stare at me like I’m a side-show freak. And did I mention  you didn’t give me arms?”

Probably Harold Wilke would not have been the first person you would think of as a candidate for ministry. Possibly his initial interviews with an ordination council had their awkward moments. But God knew what God was doing. 

Harold was born with a profound disability and profound insights into what it was like to be disabled. He became the premier leader in developing ministries with and for disabled persons, and he was a prime mover in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. What a poorer world this would be if Harold Wilke had turned away from God’s call.

Probably Moses wouldn’t have been the first person you would think of as a candidate for ministry, and the biblical record is clear that Moses tried to evade it. What a poorer world this would be if Moses had turned away from God.

You may not be the first person anyone would think of as a candidate for ministry, either. But God has given each of us gifts we may not even know about yet. And when God calls us, the hardest thing in the world may be to say yes. 

But what a poorer world this will be if we turn away from God.

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