Thursday, December 09, 2010

My favorite word in the Bible

My favorite word in the Bible is not "Jesus" (although he is far and away my favorite Bible character, if that's even an appropriate way to talk about him). Neither is my favorite word "love," or "faith," or "cross," or a word with similar spiritual overtones.

Instead, my favorite word in the Bible is... (drum roll, please)...

"BUT"

That's right. The oft-maligned, under-appreciated, over-used little word "but" is my favorite word in the Bible. Why, you ask? Take a look at some of the places you find it in the Bible:

  • Genesis 50:20 - Joseph, speaking to his guilty brothers, said, "You intended to harm me, BUT God intended it for good."
  • Psalm 30:5 - Here's a double dose: "For [God's] anger lasts only a moment, BUT his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, BUT rejoicing comes in the morning."
  • Psalm 73:26 - The psalmist Asaph wrote these words affirming the faithfulness of God: "My flesh and my heart may fail, BUT God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever."
  • Acts 3:15 - Peter, preaching on the streets of Jerusalem, proclaimed to the city, "You killed the author of life, BUT God raised him from the dead!"
  • Romans 5:7-8 - There is hardly a better summary of the gospel than this one from the apostle Paul: "Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. BUT God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
  • Romans 8:32 - Paul went on to explain, "He who did not spare his own Son, BUT gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?"
  • Ephesians 2:1, 4-5 - Doctor Paul first gives the diagosis, then he follows it up with the prescription: "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.... BUT because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions - it is by grace you have been saved."
  • Hebrews 2:9 - The writer of Hebrews asserted that at the present time we don't see humankind in their place of dominion over creation. "BUT we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor...."

As you can see from this little survey, the word "but" holds a place of great honor in the Scriptures! It is often the key to gospel hope. It is often the bridge between problem and solution, the pivot upon which the promise of forgiveness turns. May we never ignore or belittle the "buts" of the Bible.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

127 Hours

The movie 127 Hours is the true story of Aron Ralston's five-day, "between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place" ordeal in a Utah canyon back in 2003. You can read about the ordeal here.

Ralston is played with excellence by James Franco. He ought to win an Oscar.

Most of the movie's 94 minutes are occupied with Ralston's thoughts while trapped in the canyon, his recollections of the past, and his efforts to free himself from the boulder that fell on his arm. In a way, 127 Hours resembles Cast Away, the 2000 movie starring Tom Hanks about a man trying to survive on a deserted island. Nearly the whole time, it's just Franco, the canyon, and the sky above. But director Danny Boyle relies on more flashbacks, music, and sentiment in 127 Hours than Robert Zemeckis did in Cast Away. For the most part, it works splendidly too. There's a lot of angst in this movie, a lot of regret over selfish actions and lost relationships. All this leads up to one of the most dramatic, excruciating movie scenes I've ever not watched.

The spiritual implications of 127 Hours are many and deep. During his five torturous days deep in the canyon, Ralston discovers the depth of his sinfulness. He has been a thoroughly self-centered man. He has ignored his parents' love, used his girlfriend, and refused to let anyone really help him or know him. He didn't even tell anyone where he was going that fateful day. He is Adam hiding behind fig leaves. He is Samson - proud, boastful, self-sufficient. He is David before his downfall with Bathsheba. It took the trauma of 127 lonely, painful hours for Ralston to come to the end of himself.

In the most memorable scene of the movie for me, after he obtains his freedom he looks at the boulder that fell on him and says "Thank you." He is now free indeed - free to love, free to need. But to get to this new place he had to repent. He had to (literally) obey Christ's words in Matthew 5:30 - "If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell." Ralston had to throw away his idol if he was ever to be truly alive.

Another significant moment in the movie comes when the truth about providence and the sovereignty of God is revealed to Ralston. (Of course, whether Ralston ever submitted to that truth I cannot say.) About the boulder, Ralston/Franco says something like, "That boulder has been waiting there for centuries until I happened to fall into this canyon. It was waiting there just for me." Ralston is right. Nothing happens by chance. If not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from the will of God (Matthew 10:29), so not one stone rolls down upon the arm of a mountain climber apart from the sovereign plan of God. That boulder was a "severe mercy," intended by God to bring Ralston to faith.

The story of Aron Ralston is still being written. I hope it ends in God's glory and Ralston's joy.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Town

The Town, a film directed by and starring Ben Affleck, tells the story of four bank robbers who live in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, and the relationship that almost turns one of them around.

The film opens with the claim that Charlestown is home for an inordinate number of crimes and armed robberies. Sure enough, Doug MacRay (Affleck) and his buddies are experts at robbing banks and armored cars. They work for a powerful drug lord whose day job is running a flower shop. Apparently what holds Charlestown together is a Mafia-esque loyalty to family... regardless of how much pain and heartache such loyalty causes.

An interesting romantic plot weaves in and out among the elaborate holdups. There are some cool chase scenes and lots of bullets flying everywhere. I liked the movie a lot, even if the story was fairly predictable. The acting is really good, and the relationship between Doug and Claire draws you in. I felt the movie stopped way too short of dealing with the angst between Doug and his father. A brief visit in the prison where his father is serving time is the only glimpse you get into Doug's father wounds.

The movie's sub-plot is that everyone has a hungry heart. Doug is looking to break free of Charlestown's violent grip, and desperately wants the love of a woman of virtue. Doug's quasi-girlfriend Krista turns to drugs and sex for significance. Doug's best friend James's idol is power. Claire is no less empty, but her idol (humanitarian good will) looks a lot more respectable. No one seeks the glory of their Creator or a relationship with the One who proved his love on the cross.

The main character of the movie is, of course, the Town. People who grow up there are called Townies. The Town owns and controls its people until they get desperate enough to break free. And if they're not careful, even then the Town has a mysterious power to woo people back in. The Town is therefore equivalent to Bunyan's City of Destruction in Pilgrim's Progress. The gospel frees us from our captivity to sin and invites us into a new life with a new Love - a Love that won't let us go but liberates us to find our true selves.

(Be aware that The Town is rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use.)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Children and Stewardship

It's never too early to teach your children to store up their treasures in heaven. Here's a story to prove that kids can "get it."

A couple weeks ago, I preached a sermon on giving. My children's message that day was about giving, too. I told the children a simplified version of the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. Then I gave each child in the group a $1 bill, and challenged them to invest it in order to see how far that $1 bill could go for the Kingdom of God. I gave the kids a couple of ideas. They might use their dollar to buy supplies for a lemonade stand, for example. Or they might use it to help buy posters to advertise a yard sale. In other words, if the kids invested their $1 bill instead of spending it on something that perishes, they might be surprised to see how much money they could give to God.

A week went by. Then last Sunday, a parent sent me a letter in which he reported the results of my little experiment. His two children (ages 6 and 10) decided to put their dollar bills together. With their $2, they bought a book from Goodwill, which they sold on Amazon.com for $20. After Amazon's fees the total return on their investment of $2 was $15. They gave that $15 to our church!

How inspiring! And what an unforgettable lesson these two kids learned - that by investing a little, we can give a lot to the Kingdom.

Parents should model and teach principles of financial stewardship to their children as early in life as possible. Your kids are impressionable pieces of clay when they are young. It's harder to change financial habits later in life (as many of us adults can easily testify). But if you can help your children understand that everything we have is God's, and that God gives us money in order that we might share it with others, they can grow up to be givers instead of spenders.

As Jesus said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35).

Friday, October 01, 2010

Edge of Darkness

Edge of Darkness is Mel Gibson's latest movie. He plays Thomas Craven, a Boston homicide detective whose daughter gets caught up in a convoluted, deadly plot to expose a corporation for what it really is. It's a story of cover-up, conspiracy, and government complicity in making this world a scary place.

It's not an easy movie to watch, for several reasons. For one thing, with all the unfavorable news out there about Gibson (e.g., racist rants, abuse allegations, etc.), it felt to me that the anger he displays in this movie is a bit too real. He goes after people with a vengeance. It's understandable, given what his character has to deal with. I'm just saying you can't avoid drawing a connection between reality and cinema. In addition, it's a violent movie with lots of people getting blown away. That's why it's rated R for strong, bloody violence and language. You have been forewarned.

Oh, and another, annoying reason I found Edge of Darkness hard to watch is that I could barely understand the dialogue at several key points, particularly when Ray Winstone was on screen as Jedburgh. Maybe it was everyone's Boston accent, but I had to turn on the English subtitles on my TV. I wonder, why don't movie directors tell actors to enunciate?!

On the other hand, there's a strong, positive message here about the role of father as protector and lover of his children. There's also redemption, as we see a father-daughter relationship restored and past mistakes forgiven. In contrast to a betraying friend, a greedy corporate lawyer, a conniving senator, and other unsavory characters, Thomas Craven is someone with values of justice and mercy.

If only he walked humbly with his God (Micah 6:8). The only answer to injustice this movie provides is to point a gun and pull the trigger.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dabo

It has been an exciting week in the Osborne household. And it all has to do with animals.

As I've posted before, Suzy and I have been adoptive parents of a cat for several years. Her name was Cleopatra (or Cleo for short). Notice I said "was." She died last week.

It was the weirdest thing. On Sunday, September 5, we came home from church to find that she'd vomited all around the house. And for several days she kept vomiting (even though she stopped eating entirely). We could find nothing unusual that she'd ingested. She was an indoor cat, so it couldn't have been something outside. But she was really sick. She acted very strange, too, like she'd aged 20 years or something. She walked slowly, and when she wasn't throwing up she just lay on the floor like an old cat. I took her to the vet, and they wanted to do all these tests. They theorized that it was renal failure or something like that. But it might have simply been that she was dehydrated. That made sense. Especially since the tests were going to run into the hundreds of dollars.

So the vet gave us some bags of fluid, and since Suzy is a nurse she injected it under Cleo's skin twice a day for a couple days. Cleo showed no response. The vomiting continued. Finally on Wednesday night of last week, she passed away in her sleep.

Suzy and I were sad. We'd grown very fond of Cleo and she was a great kitty. Very affectionate. We remembered how forlorn and skinny she was when we first brought her home from Gulfport, Mississippi, where our grandkids found her hiding underneath their church. She was a symbol for us of redemption.

Well, I'm the most surprised of anyone for what I'm about to tell you. The very next day, we go get a dog.

We've had several dogs in our family over the years, so I'm a dog lover. But after our last dog died 10 years ago or so, I insisted that we would never again get a dog. They're too much trouble, I said. They'd tie us down, I said. They'd ruin our home, I said. But what did I do when Suzy suggested we get a dog? I said yes. YES! I was such a pushover!

Suzy has always wanted a bichon frise. She'd had her eye on this bichon frise puppy at a nearby pet store. So sure enough, after she got off work on Thursday, we met at the pet store, said hello to this little puppy, and a couple hours later we walk out of the store with this dog under our arms.

We love him! We struggled to come up with a good name. We figured since he's French we ought to give him a French name. But they all sounded too girly. So we blended a French name with a name only a select group of Southern football fans will understand: Dabo.

Dabo is the first name of the head coach of Clemson University's football team, Dabo Swinney. His brothers called him "Dabo" when he was a little kid, intending to say "That boy." So we named our puppy "Dabo." For a second name, we came up with "Leblanc." The reason for that is that Suzy wanted to name him Jean Valjean, and I protested. But in Les Miserables, Valjean is also known as Monsieur Leblanc. So that settled it. Our puppy would be called Dabo Leblanc.

He's a really good puppy. He's already doing pretty well with his "outside" business, although he's had a few accidents in the house. He's very affectionate, as I'm told all bichons are. He likes to run and play fetch and chew on things. We're learning his routines and trying to follow the rules.

I have to admit, it's fun being a dog owner again. I just didn't expect it to happen quite this way.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Invictus

Invictus is the story of Nelson Mandela's rise to the presidency of South Africa in 1994, and the role played by his support of the Springboks (South Africa's national rugby team) in reconciling blacks and whites after apartheid. The film is directed by Clint Eastwood. Morgan Freeman is excellent in the role of his friend Mandela. Matt Damon co-stars as Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springboks, whose transformation from bitter Afrikaner to Mandela supporter is a metaphor for what took place in the nation as a whole. I thought Damon was very believable, particularly turning in an authentic-looking performance on the rugby field.

I didn't know a lot about Mandela before watching Invictus. Admittedly, the movie is one-sided. It focuses exclusively on his efforts to reconcile the races in post-apartheid South Africa and his contributions to human rights. There is controversy, of course, about his criticism of US foreign policy and his early activities while leader of the armed wing of the African National Congress. But his conciliatory tone during his five years as leader of a nation torn by years of racial strife is inspiring. He admirably illustrates Romans 12:21 - "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

The movie points out that while Mandela was in prison, the poem "Invictus" was his inspiration. Written from a hospital bed by William Ernest Henley, English poet of the 19th century, "Invictus" eulogizes man's "unconquerable soul." It ends with these well-known words,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Umm, no. Not true. One of the most basic truths of human existence is that there is a God, and we are not him.

Henley wrote his poem from a God-less worldview. In the first stanza, he thanks "whatever gods may be" for his perseverance through suffering. He goes on to boast that his head is "bloody, but unbowed." And most stoutly, in the third stanza he writes,
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
That is an extraordinary boast for a man who at age 12 developed tuberculosis of the bone. If his poem accurately reflects the state of his heart, Henley should have spent less time praising the human spirit and more time fearing the one "who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him" (Luke 12:5, NIV).

Henley's poem may have inspired great deeds of victory for Mandela and the Springboks, but it is a lie that will lead to spiritual defeat.

The Bible says to boast in nothing but Christ (Galatians 6:14). Every beat of our hearts is a gift of God's grace. He alone is sovereign. To be sure you will be safe on Judgment Day, you must enter the "strait gate" that Henley talks about in his poem - the one that Jesus offers in the gospel (Matthew 7:13). That gate is Jesus himself, who took our place on the cross because of "how charged with punishments [is] the scroll" of our lives.

If you are trusting in Jesus, who winced and cried aloud under the bludgeonings of the cross, and whose head was bloody but unbowed, then you can face death with courage. Until then, be willing to be conquered by the grace and mercy of Christ.



Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Inception

I have a new favorite to add to my "Top Ten Movies" list: Inception. I've seen it twice. I loved every minute of it.

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Memento, The Prestige, etc.) Inception stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb, an expert at extracting secrets from people by entering their dreams and unlocking the buried information. But we learn that Cobb can also plant ideas in people's minds via their dreams. So in this story, he pulls off an ingenious layering of dreams in the mind of a tycoon named Robert Fischer in order to rescue a Japanese businessman and at the same time free himself from a life behind bars.

The technical wizardry required for such a feat is left largely unexplained - a wise move on Nolan's part. Rather than occupying our time telling us how the dream machine works, Nolan focuses on the internal conflict that drives Cobb and the lifelong burden that has haunted Fischer.

Dreams are great fodder for stories anyway. The Bible treats dreams as a milieu for communication from God and a place we go to express our deepest anxieties and hopes. Inception captures the latter very well. Cobb cannot escape the mistakes of his past. He is doomed to relive them over and over again in his dreams. Because he has never experienced redemption, his guilt is inescapable. Only the great exchange that happened at Calvary can eradicate guilt once for all. Unfortunately, the cross is absent in Inception. It's up to Cobb himself to figure out a way to put the past behind him and move on.

The other great theme in this movie is fatherhood. Cobb longs to be reunited with his children, and Fischer lives with an unfulfilled need of an affirming father. I won't give away how this theme gets developed, lest I spoil the adventure for you.

All the other elements are there in big supply: Matrix-like special effects, great acting and character development, awesome sound and music, and plenty of suspense. But ultimately it's a story about the human heart - its capacity for love, its wounds, and its irrepressible cry for wholeness.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The power of words

I had quite an interesting encounter today. I was at the local library preparing my Sunday sermon. Mine was the only table in the library because they were doing early voting. So this guy comes wandering over with his laptop looking for a place to plug in and work. He's an African American, I'm guessing 40 years old. I tell him to take the other half of my table.

So we sit there quietly doing our work, when I notice he's laughing a little bit. Then he looks up and speaks to me. He says, "You don't have to study so hard. God's going to give you your sermon."

He's not a crazy man - I've talked with plenty of crazy people in my time. This guy's for real. He's kind and sincere.

He goes on. He says God gave him a word for me. "You don't have to study so hard. God's going to tell you what to say this Sunday."

How does he know I'm a preacher? How does he know what I was doing at the library?!

We have a good conversation. I find out he owns a trucking company. We get to know each other a little bit more.

Then he continues the "prophecy." He reaches out, takes my hand, and says, "You're going to have a lot of influence. God is going to give you three groups of people: constituents, comrades, and counselors. You have the anointing. God is preparing you for influence."

Now, I have always been a skeptic when it comes to "words of prophecy" and such. While I love the Pentecostal and charismatic friends I've made over the years, and believe that we Presbyterians have a lot to learn from them, I have serious reservations about their theology. Nevertheless, I cannot just dismiss what this guy said to me today. He told me that he never goes to the library. Something just "told" him to go there today. Is it just a coincidence that on this day, because early voting was going on, there was only one table in the whole library, and that he and I came at the same time and sat at this table?

I had a similar experience back in the 1990s when I was pastor of a church in South Carolina. A member of my church had a strong charismatic leaning. He was a good friend and we often met together for prayer. One time he took me by the shoulders, looked deeply into my eyes, and shared what he called a prophetic word. I can't remember now exactly what he said, but the gist was similar to what this fellow told me today at the library. God had a special call upon my life and would use me to influence many people for Christ.

It would be enough to swell my head were it not for the way these fellows pointed me away from myself and to the cross. I don't know how to interpret these messages, but at the very least they were words of comfort and blessing spoken at critical moments in my life. Whatever gift these guys possess, I like it!

Perhaps it shows the power of encouragement. Maybe we all ought to be a lot more ready to tell our fellow Christians that God loves them, that they are needed in the battle, and that they have the anointing of the Holy Spirit for a special calling. "A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver" (Proverbs 25:11, NIV).

Has anything similar happened to you?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Your prayers matter to God

Last Sunday I preached on prayer from Matthew 6:5-15. I made the point that some Christians struggle with prayer because they don't really "get it," at a deep level, that God is their Father. In other words they don't really get the gospel. Because the more you understand and feel God's love for you, the easier it is to talk to God and take your sins, concerns, needs, and desires to him. Makes sense, right?

But there could be something blocking the gospel from getting to the heart. Take me, for example. When I was growing up, the main emotion I felt when in the presence of my dad was fear. He wasn't physically abusive, but he was very critical and sometimes scathing in his verbal attacks. He had a way of sneering at me that cut holes in my heart. I never felt that I pleased him or made the grade.

When I was in college, money was an issue. I had an on-campus job, but it didn't pay much. My father shelled out a lot of bucks for my four years at the college I attended, and I didn't take out any student loans or win any scholarships. So when I needed spending money, I was afraid to ask my dad for help. I felt it would only make him mad and resentful. So instead of asking for cash, I would sell my record albums. I even sold my Giannini 12-string guitar - a beautiful instrument that I miss very much. It had a deeply resonant sound and was easy on the fingers. I sold it for much less than it was worth - all because I didn't dare go to my father with empty pockets and ask for a handout.

Many of us do the same thing with God. We are afraid to ask for a handout, afraid to go (AGAIN!) and ask for forgiveness, afraid to depend on him in helplessness.

But the Bible says that's exactly what God, our Father, WANTS us to do - depend on him! Jesus says in Matthew 7:9-11, "Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!"

The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines prayer essentially as "the offering up of our desires to God...." When you don't tell God what you need, you are denying your legal right as an adopted child of God. Moreover you are denying God the opportunity to do that which glorifies him, namely, to meet the needs of the helpless and empty. If, as John Piper says, "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him," then prayerlessness amounts to seeking satisfaction in something besides God and hence denies him glory.

Your prayers matter to God because you do. The gospel makes it possible to pray not with slavish fear but with safety, shamelessness, and joy. Ephesians 3:12 says that because of Jesus "we may approach God with freedom and confidence." Take your desires to God.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Zookeeper's Wife

The Zookeeper's Wife, by Diane Ackerman, is subtitled "A War Story." It tells the true story of Polish zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski (pictured below), who lived in Warsaw during the rise and fall of Nazism. They saved over 300 Jews from death in their house and in animal cages.

Using Antonina's diaries and other first-person accounts as a guide, Ackerman tells the historical facts while also taking us into the heart and mind of Antonina. She who was a lover of animals became a lover of victimized human beings. This book reveals both the brutality of German war criminals and the humanity of individuals who would have otherwise been lost to history. At times fearful for her life and that of her husband and son, but always courageous, Antonina Zabinski is an inspiring model of grace and compassion to the suffering.

For those who don't know much about the Warsaw Ghetto or the Jewish Uprising of 1943, this book would serve as an excellent introduction. Ackerman writes in a somewhat detached way of the atrocities suffered by the Jews and Poles, letting the facts speak for themselves. The horrors of those years are utterly inconceivable to me. At one point Ackerman writes this:
Then, one terrible day, a gray rainfall settled on the zoo, a long, slow rain of ash carried on a westerly wind from the burning Jewish Quarter just across the river. Everyone at the villa had friends trapped in that final stage of annihilating Warsaw's 450,000 Jews.
Clearly, the Holocaust is glaring proof of man's total depravity. The brutal, senseless snuffing out of human life, Polish culture and history by the Nazis shows why the even greater atrocity of the cross was required as payment for fallen man's sin.

The Zookeeper's Wife is in many ways a historical recasting of Milton's Paradise Lost. Thankfully, the story is not finished. Jesus is making all things new (Revelation 21:5). As Tolkien put it, everything sad is going to come untrue.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mexico mission trip

I was privileged to be part of my church's mission trip to Mexico this summer. We left Orlando on July 31 and returned August 8. We stayed in a nice hotel in downtown Merida the first and last days. The intervening seven days were spent in a little village in the Yucatan Peninsula called Quintana Roo. There were 27 of us. Since this was a family mission trip, we had people of all ages on our team - kids, students, and adults.

Our two main projects were house construction and Vacation Bible School. We worked under the direction of Yucatan Helping Hands, a ministry of Byron (aka "Bruno") and Inez Ahina. Bruno and Inez are amazing, fantastic people. Bruno left his career as an architect in Seattle some years ago to go to Mexico and build houses for poor people. His and Inez's lives and testimonies were a big inspiration to all of us.

It was one of the most fulfilling weeks of my life as well as one of the most back-breaking! We woke up early each day, had a quick breakfast, went to our work sites, and did house construction until 1:00 or 2:00 p.m. Those four or five hours seemed like an eternity to me. I haven't been that hot, tired, and sweaty since my high school football days when we had two-a-day practices in August!

We finished three houses. Each one was made entirely of concrete. Our team's job was to put a roof and pour a floor for each house. The roof was the hardest part. First we had to get long concrete beams in place, then put concrete blocks between the beams. Then we had to mix cement, gravel, sand, and water with shovels (no mixer or wheelbarrows), carry the mixture in buckets up on the roof, and pour two layers on top of the blocks. The final layer of concrete had to be mixed with calcium, which burned our skin. All of this in the blazing sun! The floor wasn't nearly as hard, but it still took a lot of concrete which again had to be mixed and hauled in buckets - a very long, wearying process.

We estimated that 80 kids came to the afternoon VBS program. It was easier physically than house construction but we still faced many challenges, especially thunderstorms that forced us to change plans at the last minute several times. The VBS leaders from UPC did an outstanding job preparing for each day's activities and then coming up with "plan B" when necessary.

In spite of these difficulties, it was satisfying to welcome several families of Quintana into their brand new homes! And the looks on the faces of kids and parents alike made the VBS program worth all the trouble.

Some other highlights of the trip for me:
  • Staying in the same house as the "young guys" - Caleb, Danny, Victor, Jack, Timothy, and Josue (one of our three Mexican interpreters). It was a great experience for this ol' pastor to share space with them. We slept in handmade hammocks and sweated it out together. The guys often had fun at my expense, but I loved every minute of it.
  • Swimming in an underground cenote (sinkhole). One afternoon we took a bus ride to this place, walked down rocky steps to an immense cavern with stalactites, bats, and a 70-degree spring. After days of unrelenting heat and sweat, this water was delicious.
  • Visiting the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. This was our Saturday afternoon activity before returning to Merida at the end of the week. The Mayan temples were fascinating and we had a good guide who spoke openly of his Christian faith.
  • Getting to preach on Friday night. We had a closing fiesta at La Nueva Jerusalen Presbyterian Church. We had financed the addition of walls and a water system to this church and had partnered with them during the week. It was a rare privilege to preach from Revelation 21 about Jesus making "all things new." I had a Spanish interpreter, of course, because I know maybe 10 words in Spanish.
As I look back on the trip, I think about the great attitude and work ethic of the team from UPC, the warmth and friendliness of the people we met in Quintana, and the chance to participate in God's redemptive program in Mexico. I also think about living more missionally.

This is how I expressed it to the elders of UPC:
The whole of the Christian life ought to be a mission trip. God calls us as his followers to “spend and be spent” in service to Christ and people… to be tired, uncomfortable, loving, and sacrificial all the time – not just one or two weeks out of the year. If UPC is to be a missional church (and we must be), we have to lead our people to be outwardly focused and engaged in blessing others as a way of life. By God’s grace, we must not let UPC go the way of most other American churches: self-absorbed, caught up in material values of comfort and self-centeredness, and immune to the aching needs of the unreached, suffering people around us and throughout the world.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reunion of high school friends

During the summers of 1971 and 1972, when I was 17 and 18 years old, I went on trips out west with a bunch of other high school students. The trips were led by an organization called Teens' Camping Tour of the West. A free spirit by the name of C. Peter Cole was the tour leader each time. The trips were three weeks long.

We teens and all our belongings were packed into three VW vans. Each van had a name from the Peanuts comic strip. There was Red Baron, Snoopy, and one other I cannot remember. Two adult leaders were also in each van. We left from Statesville, NC. The 1971 tour was a visit to many of the national parks out west: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Grand Tetons, etc. The 1972 trip was a tour of the Canadian Rockies - Banff & Jasper National Parks, the Columbian Icefields, and more. We camped out each night under the stars, cooked our own food, shared campsite chores, and pondered the great questions of human experience.

These trips were incredibly formative, unforgettable experiences. My eyes and heart were opened to the majesty of the American West and the meaning of friendship. It is not insignificant that these were profoundly changing times in America. So many cultural and political forces were at work in our lives as we beheld the beauties of a country we'd never seen before. It was the era of drugs, hippies, psychedelic music, antiwar protests, sexual experimentation, Watergate, and so on. So it's no wonder that now, at age 56, I still look back on those two trips out west as a time that helped shaped me into the person I am today and, at a deep level, crystallized my hunger for God.

The first trip was a particularly profound spiritual experience for me. It felt as though I had walked through Narnia's wardrobe into a new and exciting frontier of ideas, dreams, and emotions. I came back to my hometown of Union, SC, a different person. (I also came back madly in love with Susan Jeter, who had gone on the trip with me. A year later she would dump me in one of the most painful experiences of my life, but for now she and I were on Cloud 9.)

Anyway, on to the point of this post...

On these trips, I grew very close to a small group of 4 people from Sanford, NC. Their names were Mary, Karen, Nancy, and David. I got together with this little group a lot during my junior and senior years of high school and into my freshman year of college. We felt we shared a dream that no one else quite understood, a dream that needed to be celebrated, preserved, nurtured.

But like most friendships that develop in your late teens, these relationships gradually faded into the sunset. We lost touch with each other as academic life, then career, marriage, and parenting responsibilities took the place of youthful road trips and carefree camp-outs. I think the last time I saw Karen and Nancy was when they came to visit me at Furman University in (I think) 1973. Soon afterward I fell in love, got engaged, graduated from college and got married - and said my last goodbyes to these friends from the past.

...Or so I thought.

A few years ago Mary and her husband Heinz were passing through Orlando. Through an unlikely series of events we connected, and my wife and I joined them for dinner at an Orlando restaurant. Mary and I reminisced about our experiences of three decades earlier.

Then, about a year ago, I got hold of Nancy's email address and found David and Karen on Facebook, and after an exchange of messages with them and Mary it was decided that we would attempt a reunion this summer. Sure enough, this weekend it's happening. Suzy and I are flying up to Raleigh, NC, and the "old" group is going to spend a long weekend together at Emerald Isle, one of the North Carolina beaches. I'm glad Suzy is going to meet the friends I have spoken of so often.

About the pictures above... All three are from my 1972 trip to the Canadian Rockies. On the pyramid that's Karen at the top, Nancy below her, and David and I are on the bottom row in the center. The group picture in the middle shows trip leader Peter Cole in front, Karen is in the white sweater at the far left, Nancy is standing next to her, I'm the shy-looking guy in the back, and David is the tall guy in the grey sweat-top. Mary is not in either of these photos because she traveled in one of the other vans. The bottom picture is of Mary by herself.

It's not often that friendships are renewed after more than 35 years. I'm looking forward to seeing these people again, sharing our stories, and celebrating the gift of friendship that God has given.

"Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up." (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10, NIV)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Solitary Man

The new film starring Michael Douglas, Solitary Man, is a disquieting look at what a lot of people base their lives on: money, sex, and power. I had read a review that said something like it's a movie you will love but not enjoy. I ditto that. I saw the movie last weekend, and I did love it but didn't enjoy it. Because it takes the laminate off the sinful nature that, truthfully, still resides in this heart.

Michael Douglas plays the role of Ben Kalmen, a car salesman who had been at the top of his game but lost everything because of shady deals and illicit love affairs. He's bereft of decency, faithfulness, and empathy. He reminds me of the man Jesus talks about in Luke 12:16-21 - a greedy narcissist. There is redemption here, however. It's offered at the end of the movie by his ex-wife, played by Susan Sarandon. Ben's story demonstrates the truth that "the way up is down."

A particularly sad scene was the one where Ben forgets his grandson's birthday. Ben's daughter, played ably by Jenna Fischer, does a good job of giving tough love to her boundary-ignoring father.

Douglas is perfect for this role because it complements so well his interpretation of Gordon Gecko in 1987's Wall Street.

John Calvin said that the human heart is an idol factory. In Solitary Man, you see the futility of searching for life in the idols of wealth, youth, and sexual freedom. Without God in the center, we are truly solitary. Not only are we alienated from others but we are alienated from God. We must "repent" - that is, return to the God who created us and who alone can fill the aching void in the heart.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What you won't find in the Bible

Ray Ortlund's recent post on his blog, "Christ Is Deeper Still," is an interesting take on the "one anothers" of the New Testament. As you may know, there are a lot of "one another" statements in the New Testament that tell believers how they ought to treat one another. Examples are "love one another," "bear one another's burdens," "admonish one another," and so forth.

Ray came up with this list of "one anothers" that are NOT in the Bible, yet unfortunately are often practiced by Christians:

"Humble one another, scrutinize one another, pressure one another, embarrass one another, corner one another, interrupt one another, defeat one another, disapprove of one another, run one another's lives, confess one another's sins, intensify one another's sufferings, point out one another's failings..."

Here are a few more I came up with:

  • Avoid one another
  • Gossip about one another
  • Judge one another
  • Lose patience with one another
  • Feel superior to one another

Each one is a call to repentance.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Big Love

Suzy and I have been renting DVDs of the HBO television series Big Love. We're now into Season 3. The series stars Bill Paxton as Bill Henrickson, a polygamist married to three women. Henrickson is a "reformed" former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and runs a home improvement warehouse business near Salt Lake City. His three wives are (l to r) Nicki, Margene, and Barb. The family is portrayed as inactive Mormons, disaffected with (and rejected by) both the ultra-weird FLDS sect as well as the local mainstream LDS church.

The acting is generally quite good. There is constant drama within the Henrickson household, as well as between the Henricksons and various members of the FLDS cult who live in nearby Juniper Creek. And the neighborhood Mormons are constantly trying to woo the Henricksons back into the LDS fold. In the episode Suzy and I just watched, Bill and his wives are "dating" a potential fourth wife named Ana. We'll see where that leads.

It all makes for a fascinating albeit disturbing expose of both Mormon beliefs and those of its radical FLDS off-shoot.

Coincidentally, I was reading Escape by Carolyn Jessop when we got interested in Big Love. Escape is Jessop's true account of her years in the FLDS and as wife of polygamist Merril Jessop, now the sect's de facto leader. As the title of her book indicates, Carolyn Jessop escaped the tight grip of the cult and her abusive husband a few years ago and started a new life with her eight children.

In Big Love, the Henricksons do not look like their troubled, legalistic counterparts in Juniper Creek. They come off as decent, hard-working, moral people who love their country and love each other. However, under the veneer they are constantly deceiving each other, trying to get their own way, and refusing to deal with the honest questions and struggles of their children. Bill Henrickson is just as chauvinistic, authoritarian, and manipulative as the husbands in the FLDS, he just wears a coat and tie.

The show's writers do a good job of revealing the characters' nagging doubts about the ethics of polygamy. It's like Bill and his three wives must constantly tell themselves, "Polygamy is OK...right?" Methinks they do protest too much their own morality. What is especially telling is the unhappy, promiscuous lifestyles of the Henricksons' teenage children. Of course, that doesn't surprise me. The parents are rarely shown having a meaningful, lengthy dialogue with any of their kids.

If you've forgotten how wonderful is the gospel of grace, or how beautiful is the Biblical pattern of marriage, watch Big Love.

(Disclaimer: If Big Love were a movie, it would be rated R for some sexual dialogue and nudity.)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Michael

My fourth (and youngest) child, James Michael, turns 21 years old today.

I posted about Michael almost exactly three years ago, when he was about to graduate from high school. Now he's a rising senior at Florida State University. Time has passed quickly. It's been awesome to see Michael grow in maturity, knowledge, talent, and vision for the future.

He is a creative writing major at FSU. I know I'm biased, but his writing is excellent. He's a senior staff writer for the FSU campus newspaper. He writes for the Arts & Life section, where his passion for movies and music shows. Recently he got a big promotion.

Over the years, I have loved all the things Michael and I have done together. We've eaten lots of burgers together. We've seen lots of movies and gone to some concerts together. Last year he, my other son David, and I went skiing in Vermont. In August of last year Michael and I visited Seattle together. I'll never forget walking around the waterfront with him and all the good food we had.

When Michael was little, he played baseball and soccer - all the little kid sports. In high school he developed as an actor and writer. He's a great communicator and wordsmith, an insightful thinker, an amazing dancer, a good singer, a discerning audiophile, a loving uncle to his nieces and nephews, and a guy who cares for his friends and family. One of his qualities I like most is his authenticity. He is not a fake, and I admire that. He's funny, serious, humble, and sensitive. I could go on and on.

Forget his accomplishments; I just love him for the person he is.

Happy birthday Michael. May it always be true of you, "Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit" (Jeremiah 17:7-8).

Monday, April 12, 2010

Clash of the Titans

I wasn't going to do it, but I did it. I went to see Clash of the Titans today. In 3-D, no less.

Like I said on my Facebook status update, it was ridiculously fun. Ridiculous because of the over-the-top special effects and the irony of heavy hitters like Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes having major roles. But also fun because of crazy mythological creatures like Medusa, scorpions, and witches, and the death-defying antics of our hero, Perseus (played by Sam Worthington of Avatar fame).

Actually there's a lot of gospel application in this movie. Perseus is a demigod - both god and man. He is ridiculed, rejected, scorned, and nearly killed by the very people he ends up saving. Perseus has to travel to the underworld to engage evil in hand-to-hand combat. Hades (played by Fiennes) is a horrible, self-centered, deceptive being intent on the destruction of humankind. Zeus (Neeson), the father of Perseus, turns out to be a beneficent (if somewhat naive) god who has the best interest of human beings in mind.

What particularly stood out to me is the way the movie illustrated man's stubborn attempt to live independently of God. The citizens of Argos, early on in the movie, wanted to stop living as though they needed help from the gods. Andromeda, princess of Argos, rebuked her parents and townspeople and called them to honor their creator. But she was largely ignored. The citizens of Argos said they were tired of being thankful. The gods had let them down too many times, so from now on they were going to rely on themselves.

Romans 1: 21 says that "although [human beings] knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened." How ironic and sad that we puny little mortals, whose every breath is an unmerited gift from God, think that we don't need God. Like Zeus in Clash of the Titans, God has powerful ways of showing us our weakness. Every now and then he raises up a Kraken to humble us and prove how dependent upon him we really are.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lucy!

I'm a granddad to another little girl!

Lucy Elize Page was born around 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 23, at Jacksonville Memorial Hospital. The proud parents are my daughter Jennifer and her husband Tim. Suzy and I were able to be there (in the waiting room) when Lucy came into the world. She's beautiful and doing great - just a little jaundice issue, but other than that she and Jennifer are doing fine.

The doctor put Jennifer on Pitocin early Tuesday to induce labor. Progress was slow throughout the day. Twelve hours or so later, Jenn was at about 4 cm dilated when Suzy and I decided we had time to run out for a sandwich at a local diner. We had no more sat down and ordered our food when Tim called to say, "Get back over here, Jenn's going to have a c-section!" So we left the diner and hurried back to the hospital in time to help gather up Jennifer's stuff and head to the waiting room. Apparently the baby's heartbeat indicated the possibility of trouble, so a c-section was the right course of action. In no time at all Jennifer was prepped and Lucy was delivered into the world without a hitch.

It was weird, but Jennifer seemed to be the only patient in the Women's Center that night. She and the baby got undivided and caring attention from her doctor and the nurses on duty. I was impressed.

Today everyone was resting up and recovering from the excitement of the night before. I'm so glad Suzy and I were able to be there to help Jennifer & Tim, and to welcome their daughter Lucy into the family.

Jennifer and Tim picked the name "Lucy" partly because of their affection for the Lucy character in C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. "Elize" was the name of my grandmother on my Dad's side, and it's also Jennifer's middle name.

The name Lucy is derived from "lux," which means light or radiance. I found that in the 4th century A.D. there was a Saint Lucy, the patron saint of the blind, for whom a festival of light is celebrated in some countries today.

Lucy Page, may the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," make his light shine in your heart to give you the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). And in turn may you "let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Grandbaby #5 on the way!

My daughter Jennifer, due to deliver her baby last Saturday, went to the hospital today (Tuesday) to be induced. So sometime later today, or perhaps early tomorrow, I anticipate that I'll be holding my fifth grandchild in my arms!

Jennifer and her husband Tim didn't want to know the sex of the baby ahead of time. So it'll be a big surprise and a wonderful blessing either way, boy or girl.

What we DO know is that God created this child's inmost being; he knit him or her together in Jennifer's womb. He or she was fearfully and wonderfully made. This child's frame was not hidden from God when he or she was made in the secret place. When he or she was woven together in the depths of the earth, God's eyes saw that unformed body. All the days ordained for this child were written in God's book before one of them came to be.

"How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!" (Psalm 139:13-17)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Talitha's Baptism

Last weekend my wife and I drove up to Tallahassee for the baptism of our granddaughter Talitha - our son David and his wife Lindsay's first child. I was honored they had asked me to perform the baptism. Their pastor, Mo Leverett, was kind enough to let me have that honor and to assist by holding the water and asking the congregational question.

I was moved to tears when, after explaining to the church the meaning of baptism as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, I took Talitha in my arms and looked at David and Lindsay. It was time to ask them the three questions I always ask parents at baptisms. But I lost it. It was simply overwhelming to see how faithful God has been to me and my family. David and Lindsay love Jesus. They are also wonderful parents who will rear Talitha to know and follow Jesus.

As I stood there I also thought of my other children - Rebecca, Jennifer, and Michael - and recalled the promise that God gave Abraham 3,000 years ago: "I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you" (Genesis 17:7). God has been good to me beyond my deserving in giving me four wonderful kids. The three oldest ones are married, and they have equally wonderful spouses.

Something that made the baptism extra special was that Mo Leverett sang a song he had written for and about Talitha. It was truly beautiful and moving. Mo is an accomplished singer-songwriter and has made several records. I appreciate how he so thoughtfully ministers to his flock. Shortly after the baptism Mo preached an excellent sermon on Philippians 3:1-11.

After the worship service the whole church celebrated Talitha's baptism with a potluck lunch. I was touched by the love Centerpoint Church has for families like my son's. It's a warm, gospel-loving body trying to reach the urban neighborhoods of Tallahassee.

Lord, thank you for allowing me to experience the truth of Psalm 127:4-5 - "Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons [and daughters!] born in one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them."

Monday, March 01, 2010

Shutter Island

What do you get when you cross Martin Scorsese with Alfred Hitchcock, and throw in a little Twilight Zone as well? Shutter Island, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as U. S. Marshal Teddy Daniels.

It's 1954, and Daniels (a veteran of WWII, and still reeling from memories of the liberation of Dachau) is called on to investigate the escape of a patient from a maximum security hospital/prison for the criminally insane located on Boston's Shutter Island.

I really liked this film. I liked the old B-movie look, the haunting music (which perfectly contributes to the foreboding atmosphere), the acting, the special effects, and especially the engaging story. It's not as scary as the previews would lead you to expect. But it's a psychological thriller punctuated with several different disturbing plot lines. Director Scorsese keeps you guessing about what's really going on the whole 138 minutes. I won't give you any clues; you'll have to figure it out for yourself.

One of the underlying themes of the movie is the power of guilt and shame. We deal with our transgressions in all sorts of creative ways, but the point is we must deal with them - either by denial, repentance and faith in Jesus, or something else in between.

Fear is also a big theme of the movie. I like my son's analysis, which I'll quote from his review in the FSU newspaper: "Shutter Island, while obviously no slasher, is deeply, deeply rooted in every fear of the American 20th century, from insanities and lobotomies to the Atomic Bomb to the Holocaust to the advancement of technology to the perils of suburbia...."

Shutter Island is rated R for disturbing violent content, language and some nudity. I didn't find those things objectionable. However, scenes of violence involving children will definitely offend some of you, so be advised.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Book of Eli

On my day off I went to see the new Denzel Washington movie, The Book of Eli, with a friend from UPC. This is a movie with a heavy religious element. It's not often that Hollywood treats religion favorably, but here's one case where religious people come off looking like the smart ones and everybody else is shown to be fools.

If you plan to see the movie and want to be surprised, stop reading here because I'm going to give some things away.

I say again, STOP READING HERE!!

OK, so if you're still with me it means you don't plan to see The Book of Eli. The big question, of course, is what book the title refers to. The answer: the Bible. And not just any version of the Bible, but the New King James Version of the Bible. The movie takes you years into the future, after a nuclear holocaust has wiped out most of humanity, scorched the earth, left cities in ruins, and taken most everyone's hope away. The movie suggests that it had been at least in part a religious war, and the Bible was at the center of hostilities. Somehow every single copy of the Scriptures had been burned or destroyed - except one. Eli (Denzel Washington) managed to save that one copy from destruction, so he hid it away in his backpack and guards it with his life. He reads it daily and knows it by heart. Some time back he heard God's voice directing him to take his Bible across the country to the West. So obediently he packs up what few belongings he owns and starts walking across America - or what's left of it anyway. Along the way he meets up with assorted pagan bad guys and protects the book from theft and damage. He's an amazing sharpshooter and an accomplished martial artist who can handle a sword with deadly force.

While this is a religion-friendly film, it's definitely not family-friendly. A lot of blood gets spilled, heads and hands get severed and go flying, and the body count is very high. It's a dark, violent movie filmed without color to give it a post-apocalyptic tone. Not only that, some of the language is offensive. And, the Shyamalan-ish twist at the end of the movie is completely unbelievable - as if you could believe anything else up to that point.

But if you don't mind those things and decide to see the film, what you'll see is a movie with a message that Christians will appreciate: The Word of God is divinely inspired, authoritative, powerful, and life-changing. There's even a scene where Eli prays before a meal. It's a humble, sincere prayer that catches the attention and warms the heart of Eli's traveling companion (played convincingly by Mila Kunis).

Those are the positive elements. On the other hand, I don't remember the name of Jesus ever being mentioned. And at the end of the movie, when Eli finally gets to his destination, the Bible is placed on a shelf alongside the Koran and other religious texts, as if to say that at the end of the day, all religions are equally valid and will get you where you need to go. Also, at one point Eli sums up the entire Bible with the Golden Rule. So he completely misses the meaning of the Bible. The Word of God is not a book of maxims designed to help you get more out of life and become a nicer person. It is the revelation of Jesus Christ, our Prophet, Priest, and King. Every page, every story, every psalm, every proverb, every narrative reveals the Savior and our need of him.

Still, I'm willing to give mild kudos to whoever came up with the story. Perhaps some who discredit the Bible or never bother to read it for themselves will pick it up and find it to be the entryway to light (Psalm 119:130).

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Reflecting on another birthday

Today I am 56 years old.

I remember when my parents were in their mid-50s. I thought they were so OLD! Now that I'm that age, I think I'm 32 or so. I don't mean physically, just ... metaphysically. In fact, physically I know I'm aging fast. I have a little arthritic feeling in my finger joints, and when I bang up against the racquetball court wall I feel the effects for days.

Still, I don't feel like I'm 56. I'm still trying to figure life out. When young bucks call me "sir" I stiffen up and want to correct them. I don't know what being 56 should feel like. I think it will take turning 60 to shock me into reality. Gee, that's only four years from now. AAGGHH!

But I like being in my mid-50s. I'm doing what I really enjoy. My wife and I are healthy and active. Three of our four children are happily married and independent. We're able to travel and see them often. I'm able to devote time to God's people and Kingdom expansion. I have great friends. God could take any or all of these privileges away in a heartbeat and still be God, but he has blessed me far more than I deserve.

In a letter to William Farel in 1541, John Calvin wrote: "When I consider that I am not my own, I offer my heart a slain victim for a sacrifice to the Lord . . . I yield my soul chained and bound unto obedience to God."

Lord, that's my prayer to you on this, my 56th birthday.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Avatar

Many of my friends and church members have asked for my opinion about Avatar, the new James Cameron epic movie about the planet Pandora and the US military-industrial complex plot to destroy its happy culture.

I didn't like it so much.

What?! What's not to like?

For starters, I just don't get all that impressed anymore with whiz-bang special effects that cost billions of dollars to create. And I saw the movie in 3-D on one of the biggest IMAX screens in central Florida. Sure, the computer-generated effects were dazzling. But I'll take a simple story with believable, human characters over this expensive spectacle any day.

As many others have pointed out, the story just isn't all that great. I've seen the same thing many times. Greedy, hateful power-mongers armed to the hilt try to destroy a peaceful, nature-loving people and get chased away with bows and arrows. And I really didn't care all that much for any of the characters. (And the bad guys are after unobtainium? Give me a break!)

And here's another thing... I'm offended by the caricatured portrait of evil, capitalist, imperialistic America that (in my opinion anyway) is the sub-plot of Avatar. Movies have amazing power to reconstruct history. That's not Hollywood's fault, but there's little doubt that Hollywood is populated by influential people who don't care for this country or its story. I wonder which view of America is the predominant one among young people today: America as the friend of countries like earthquake-ravaged Haiti, oppressed Iraq and Afghanistan, and Holocaust-decimated Israel; or America as the evil empire that exterminated the Native Americans and bombed North Vietnam? It bothers me that people who have no problem enjoying the vast benefits of capitalism and military security turn around and lob a hateful critique at capitalism and the military. And that's what Avatar is, it seems to me.

I didn't say anything about the religion that permeates Avatar. Actually, this is the one thing I did appreciate about the movie: once again, we see that even pagan filmmakers cannot help it that their slip is showing. That is, the image of God in human beings is inescapable. It shows up in movies, art, and stories of all kinds. We instinctively know there is a God who is the source of all life and to whom we are ultimately accountable. Romans 1 says that we resist this knowledge. We try to suppress that still, small voice that whispers, "There's Something (or Someone) out there." We try to silence our conscience that tells us we are sinful. But every so often that image of God leaks out. James Cameron has invented a world in which all creation is somehow connected to a Source. It's a world in which people pray to a Being that actually intervenes in time and space. It's a world in which people die and come back to life, a world of breathtaking beauty, of loving community, of peace and justice.

Followers of Jesus know that what Avatar promises, Christianity provides.

The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones is one of the worst movies I've ever seen. My friends know how much I like movies, and that I'm always looking for redemptive themes and reasons to like a movie. Not so this time.

I echo what Roger Ebert had to say about this movie: "The Lovely Bones is a deplorable film with this message: If you're a 14-year-old girl who has been brutally raped and murdered by a serial killer, you have a lot to look forward to."

Here's what happens: Fourteen-year old Susie gets murdered by a neighbor (played well by Stanley Tucci), her spirit goes to "the in-between place" - a beautiful world that director Peter Jackson (yes, of Lord of the Rings fame) spends WAY too much time showing us - while her parents try to figure out who killed her. Of course, it's no mystery to the audience; there's no one else in the cast that could have possibly murdered the girl. So there's no suspense on that point. The only mildly suspenseful moment occurs when Susie's sister breaks into the murderer's home and discovers (implausibly, I might add) something that gives him away.

So many stupid things happen in this movie that people in the audience were actually laughing by the end. Which is tragic, because the film revolves around an utterly unbearable, disgusting, evil event. There are several strange comedic moments, including - believe it or not - a soap suds fight between Grandma (played by Susan Sarandon) and Susie's little brother - a scene that had no business being in a film about a serial killer. It's always fun to see another soap suds fight in a movie, right?

If the film reflects Peter Jackson's view of the afterlife, it's especially sad. The "gospel" according to Jackson is that if you're a good person (meaning you love your family, develop your talents, and stay out of trouble) you get to go to an impersonal, lonely place and look on as people on earth reel hopelessly from grief and injustice. There's no God on earth nor in the "in-between place" - nor, presumably, in heaven (which doesn't ever come into view here). Tragic events on earth have no purpose; there is no sovereign God, not even a Force, that helps things make sense.

Christianity, on the other hand, does not cover up the unthinkable horror of rape and murder by inviting us to a psychedelic afterlife. It says instead that there is a loving, personal God who was himself brutally murdered and who daily steps into our pain and provides real hope through the cross. Meanwhile the saints in heaven cry, "How long?" But when Jesus Christ is revealed and the creation's groaning ceases, we will experience a renewed earth where righteousness prevails.