Friday, December 28, 2012

Not a Norman Rockwell Christmas

If Norman Rockwell had dropped by the Osborne home over Christmas 2012, he would not have painted one of his happy holiday paintings. Because this is what he would have seen and heard...
  • babies crying at all hours of the day and night
  • young and old alike doubled over with fever, headaches, and stomach viruses
  • people running to the bathroom to throw up
  • people running to the bathroom to... you know
  • people cleaning up baby messes
  • wrapping paper, dirty dishes, leftovers, and dog hair everywhere
  • families leaving sooner than planned because they didn't want to stay in our petri dish of a house
My computer will show zero photos from this year's family "celebration." There was simply nothing photogenic about Christmas 2012!

But then...

I will always cherish watching my adult kids deal graciously with trial and being great parents and friends in spite of it all.

I will never forget my special all-day time (at Monkey Joe's, McDonalds, Bright Light Books, Wreck-It Ralph, pet store, and Subway) with my three oldest grandkids, because we didn't want to hang out with the sickies.

I grew yet another ton in admiration for my amazing wife Suzy, who knows how to give Jesus-love to people when they are sick and unhappy.

And of course I will enjoy my new Kindle Fire HD!

I also thought...

If Norman Rockwell had happened by the manger of Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, he would not have painted one of his happy paintings of the first Christmas. He would have seen and heard a baby crying at all hours of the day and night...filth, chaos, and confusion...and a family leaving sooner than planned because of the brokenness of this world.

So I suppose it was a pretty cool Christmas for my family and me after all.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Never alone

During my junior year of high school I was on the wrestling team. I had the bright idea that if I lost 15 pounds I could wrestle in the 145-lb. class and have a better chance of beating my opponents. So I practically starved myself for a few weeks, worked out in a rubber suit, and made weight - just barely - for our first big meet against our rivals from Woodruff High School. After weigh-in, I downed two Hershey chocolate bars for energy. I felt good. I knew I'd win. My opponent didn't look very strong. When it was time for my match, I strode confidently out on the mat and got in position.

It took about ten seconds to find out I had nothing to give.

I had no strength. Since I hadn't eaten for several weeks, I was Silly Putty in my opponent's hands. He threw me around like I was his little four-year old brother. All I could do is keep one of my shoulder blades off the mat. I managed to survive all three periods of the match, but the entire time I was on my back, trying not be pinned. When at last the ref's whistle signaled the end of the match, I was a goner. I could hardly stand up. I hobbled off the mat and dragged myself into the locker room, where I promptly threw up those two Hershey bars. I lay down on the locker room floor and prayed it had all been a bad dream.

And then I felt a hand on my shoulder, and heard a voice asking me if I was OK. I looked up, and saw my Dad.

Dad helped me off the floor and onto a table, where I lay for a long time trying to recover. Dad stayed by my side. He didn't say much, but I remember he told me he was proud of me. Then he helped me into the showers, where I sat under the comforting stream of hot water and cried. Dad waited on a bench. Then he helped me get dressed and walked with me back into the gym, where the wrestling meet had just ended. He stood by me while I faced my coach and teammates. He was there as everyone stared and a few chuckled. He walked with me out to the car and drove me home.

It was a humiliating night. But Dad was there the whole time. He was for me. He was with me. I was not alone.

Through the years, that experience has been a reminder to me of God's promise to be with us no matter what. And that's what Christmas is all about - God with us. Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, left heaven and came into our world of sin, misery, failure, and shame to be our Rescuer. As theologians put it, Christ left his pre-incarnate state and entered a state of humiliation. He chose squalor for his birthplace, a disreputable village as his hometown, and a couple of poor unknowns to be his parents. He quickly became familiar with suffering and acquainted with grief. He was tempted in every way, just as we are. He was a friend of sinners and tax collectors, but he hung out with anyone willing to listen. He showed the world what God was like. And then, three years into his ministry, he was arrested, tried, condemned, and crucified. It was God's way of taking the blame and paying the price for our sin. Three days after he died, Jesus rose again, ascended to heaven, and sent his Spirit to live inside us.

And he has never left us, not for a minute. He's lived up to his name - "Immanuel," God with us.

No matter who you are, what you've done, how you've failed, or where you've run, if you've put your trust in Jesus Christ you can know he is with you all the time. You are never alone. The One born in the manger of Bethlehem also died on a cross outside Jerusalem. And if he did that, you can count on it that he will never leave you or forsake you.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Son of Rambow

Son of Rambow (2007) is a touching, funny little British film about two young boys who make a movie together and become best friends. I recommend the movie highly. It's rated PG-13 but it's not a film for children, due to some bad language and what the rating industry calls "reckless behavior."

The acting of these young kids is amazing, especially that of Will Poulter, who plays the bully Lee Carter (below in the photo). Lee forcibly takes shy Will Proudfoot under wing and makes him be his stunt man in a movie that eventually becomes "Son of Rambow." By the end of the film, Lee has experienced the stubborn love of a friend and Will has tamed Lee's wild self-centeredness.

There's a note of suppressed sadness in Will's life. His father died some time ago from a brain aneurysm. Will often breaks his mom's rule and visits an old shack behind their house, where some of his dad's things are stored. To bring peace to his broken heart, Will retreats into the world of his amazing drawings. He invents stories that become part of his and Lee's movie. Lee grows to appreciate the talents of his young apprentice.

The Bible celebrates friendship like the one portrayed in Son of Rambow. "Two are better than one," says the writer of Ecclesiastes. "Pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up." Jesus, of course, is the best of friends. At one point in the movie, Will says to Lee, "Good morning, Lee Carter. I'm here to help you." Without knowing the truth of his words, Lee replies, "Jesus Christ!"

Will and his family are devout Christians on a journey to understand God in a broken world. I love the prayer they pray at bedtime: "O my God, I've come to say thank you for your love today. Thank you for my family and all the friends you give to me. Guard me in the dark of night, and in the morning, send your light. Amen."

Amen. See this movie.

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas is the strangest, most confusing big-budget movie I've seen in a long while - maybe ever. It stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, and several others, each of whom play as many as seven different characters from the past, present, and future. It's directed by the Wachowski  siblings (the Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). Rather than try to tell you the story (er, stories), I'll refer you here and you can read for yourself, but beware of numerous spoilers.

Cloud Atlas deserves its R rating. There's plenty of bad language, skin, and bloody violence in it. And for those and other reasons, I don't recommend this movie.

For one thing, it's long (172 minutes). An hour in, I congratulated myself that I didn't shell out money for it, as I used a Regal reward to get in for free. But that tells you that I wasn't liking Cloud Atlas very much - until another hour or so had passed. Then it finally started to grow on me. By the end, I thought that to do it justice, I really should see it again. But...no, I'm not going to do that. For several reasons.

Much of the acting is just not that good. Halle Berry in particular looks like she's in a high school play. And for me, Tom Hanks is totally out of place - in every iteration. The weird language his and Berry's characters speak in post-apocalyptic Hawaii is just silly. I can imagine Tom and Halle must have burst out laughing in take after take. In order to play five, six, or seven different people, all the actors had to have amazing makeovers. The prosthetics and wardrobe budgets alone had to be ginormous. In a way, it's kind of fun trying to identify who's who. But after a while, I was wondering if it was really all that necessary to make the same people play all those different parts. Obviously, the point was to show that people are connected over time and space. But still.

One actor who is really great in this movie is Jim Broadbent. In one of his five roles (as Timothy Cavendish) he is hilarious. Cavendish is a publisher who owes some thugs a bunch of money and ends up "imprisoned" in a nursing home. His escape with three other "inmates" becomes a really funny misadventure.

Another fine and haunting performance is turned in by Hugh Weaving (of Agent Smith fame). In one of the film's stories, he plays a devil-like character. I had a new image of Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness.

Along the way, Cloud Atlas manages to preach against Big Oil, nuclear power, capitalism, homophobia, and of course Christianity. However, there is a redeeming element that I should mention. The film ennobles self-sacrifice for the good of others. A refrain heard throughout the movie is, "Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future." That's true, so far as it goes. But John Calvin (1509-1564) had a more God-centered philosophy:
We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: insofar as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God's: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God's: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God's: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Grammar lesson 5

Often you will hear or read that something is different than something else.

For example, someone might state the truism that "women are different than men." But that would be bad grammar. The way it should be stated is "women are different from men."

Why?

Well, if instead of using the word different you stated the truism using the word differ, the reason becomes obvious. You wouldn't say "women differ than men." You would say "women differ from men." Therefore, you should say "women are different from men."

What's the difference between from and than?

The word than, like from, is a preposition. It usually follows an adjective when drawing a specific contrast between people, things, or conditions.
  • Florida is hotter than Minnesota.
  • Trees are bigger than bugs.
  • Cars are faster than tricycles.
Notice the specific contrasts in those examples. "Hotter, bigger, faster." It's easy to see how two things are being contrasted. In statements using those types of adjectives, you use the word than. But when two things are simply different, that doesn't really tell you anything. How are men and women different? How exactly does Florida differ from Minnesota? You don't know, do you? So that's why the word than doesn't follow the word different.

Except...

And here's where the English language is once again...different from many others. If a clause (instead of just a noun or pronoun) follows the word different, go ahead and use than.

For instance, it would be correct to say, "Writing about grammar is different than I expected it to be."  

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Grammar lesson 4

I feel sorry for anyone trying to learn English grammar. My church offers English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) classes. I admire the students in those classes. English cannot be easy to learn.

Even we who supposedly know English trip up over the words "who" and "whom." As an example, I'm reading a book titled No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden. Now, I shouldn't pick on this author, Mark Owen (actually not his real name, for obvious reasons). He's a Navy SEAL, for crying out loud. He's not a seasoned author. And dude, the man helped take out Bin Laden! Still, since he's probably not going to read my blog and come after me with his many weapons, I'll quote a sentence from his "Author's Note":
"This is the story of a group of extraordinary men who I was lucky enough to serve alongside as a SEAL from 1998 to 2012."
See the problem? Mark should have written that sentence this way: "This is the story of a group of extraordinary men alongside whom I was lucky enough to serve as a SEAL from 1998 to 2012."

There's actually a pretty simple rule that tells you when to use "who" and when to use "whom." Who is always a subject and whom is always an object. So, when you're wondering whether to use who or whom (or whoever or whomever), substitute the word he/she/they (subjective) and him/her/them (objective) and see which one sounds right.

Confused? Here's what I mean:
  • "Who/Whom shall I send?" (Isaiah 6:8a)
  • I shall send him (objective). Therefore, "Whom shall I send?" is correct.
  • "Who/Whom will go for us?" (Isaiah 6:8b)
  • He will go for us (subjective). Therefore "Who will go for us?" is correct.
In the sentence I quoted from the book No Easy Day, it's a no-brainer because the author-SEAL was talking about some extraordinary men with (or alongside) whom he was lucky enough to serve. Anytime you have the word "with" or "from" or "to" or "alongside" or "by," you KNOW that you follow it with whom, not who. Why is that? Because those words are prepositions, and they DEMAND an object - and whom is objective. That's why Isaiah 53:1 is correctly translated,
"Who (subject) has believed our message and to whom (object) has the arm of the Lord been revealed?"

Monday, October 08, 2012

Grammar lesson 3

What should you say when two different people possess the same thing? It's called compound, or joint, possession. An example would be: "Scott and Rebecca's kids are coming to see us." As long as the two people possess the same thing (in this case, three of my grandchildren), the rule is that you make only the second noun possessive. You wouldn't say "Scott's and Rebecca's kids" unless Scott's kids are different from Rebecca's.

But it's more perplexing when a personal pronoun enters the picture. Suppose you want to tell a friend about your new car, but your wife is standing right there and you don't want to sound like it's only YOUR car. I've heard people say things like...
"Want to take a ride in my wife and my's car?"
Worse yet, I've heard people say things like...
"Want to take a ride in my wife and I's car?"
What's the rule in this case? You certainly couldn't follow the normal rule for compound possession, because it would force you to say, "Want to take a ride in my wife and my car?"! When one of the possessors in a compound possessive is a personal pronoun, you have to put both possessors in the possessive form. So you would say,
"Want to take a ride in my wife's and my car?"

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Grammar lesson 2

One of the most ridiculous misuses of the English language that is now considered (politically) correct is what has become known as the "singular they." These days, we are supposed to substitute the word they, them, or their for the old, chauvinistic, universal he.

I ran across this trend in my morning Bible reading. The updated (2011) NIV translation of Jeremiah 8:6 says, "I have listened attentively, but they do not say what is right. None of them repent of their wickedness, saying, 'What have I done?' Each pursues their own course like a horse charging into battle."

Two times in that one verse you see what I'm talking about...
"None of them repent of their wickedness...Each pursues their own course like a horse charging into battle."
In the first sentence above, None simply means "not one." It's singular. So good grammar would dictate that repent ought to be repents, and their should be his.  

In the second sentence, Each is a singular noun. Their is a plural possessive pronoun. The two don't go together. So again, the word their should be his.

Out of curiosity, I checked the 1984 NIV (which is the one I normally read). It uses good English grammar. It renders Jeremiah 8:6, "No one repents of his wickedness, saying, 'What have I done?' Each pursues his own course like a horse charging into battle."

In the 27 years between the two NIV translations, the universal he apparently met its demise. In its place, behold, the "singular they"! I suppose it is unfair to half the population to always go around using masculine pronouns. So unless we want to use bad grammar, we must resort to saying "he or she," or "one," or (in writing at least) either "he/she" or the more awkward "(s)he." But never the universal he.

I've noticed what some speakers do to avoid offending women. They will alternate between saying "he" and "she," just to keep us on our toes! So in some situations I guess it's OK to use the universal he, as long as the speaker or writer gives equal time to the universal she.

To each their own.

I just wonder if it's really such a big deal. Ladies, am I missing something here?
 

Friday, October 05, 2012

Grammar lesson of the day

I had some great grammar teachers when I was growing up in Union, South Carolina. (Do they even teach grammar anymore?)

Take my fifth grade teacher, for example. Here's a picture of my classmates and me at Foster Park Elementary. (See, you'd probably say "me and my classmates," or "my classmates and I," am I right? Bad, bad.) That's me right there in the middle, second row. Our teacher was Mrs. Mazyck (pronounced "ma-ZEKE"). She was something else. She drilled us over and over again on rules of English grammar. She would play these records and we'd have to repeat what we heard - endlessly. But I must say, it worked. I learned things that came in handy later on in high school, college, and now in my life as a preacher.

So from time to time I'll share a bit of my knowledge and give a "grammar lesson of the day" here in my blog.

For my first lesson, class, let's talk about something you're never supposed to say: "The reason is because...." That's incorrect, you see. The RIGHT thing to say is "The reason is that...."

Suppose someone asks you why you're carrying an umbrella. You could say, "I'm carrying an umbrella because it looks like rain." Or you could say, "The reason is that it looks like rain." But you shouldn't say, "The reason is because it looks like rain." That'd be redundant.

And that's why it's bad grammar.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bithlo

I live in east Orlando in a residential community with a golf course, manicured lawns, and wide, grassy medians meticulously planted and tended by landscaping crews. It's quiet and comfortable here. Attractive people walk their dogs, run, or bike around our safe streets. Most of them, I suspect, have no idea that less than 10 miles away is a little community called Bithlo. Or if they know about it, they don't know about its unsafe drinking water, its poor health conditions, and its low income level. About a quarter of the people in Bithlo live below the poverty line. Many live in rotting trailers. Until recently there was no medical clinic in or near Bithlo. Public buses don't go out to Bithlo. Many residents have no car, so they must ride their bike or walk on East Colonial Drive, a dangerously busy highway, to get to a grocery store or pharmacy.

The Orlando Sentinel once described Bithlo this way:
"Junkyards pile cars several stories high. Drainage ditches aren't maintained well enough to prevent flooding after a hard rain. An old recycling facility that operated as a dump has sat neglected for years and is a suspected source of environmental contamination. Everyone in the community relies on well water, and black tanks at some well sites warn of contamination from an old gasoline leak at a nearby gas station."
Along with others, I used to joke about Bithlo. Not any more. Not since I met Tim McKinney, who gave me a tour of Bithlo and invited me to get involved in his ministry, United Global Outreach. Last year, members of our church helped create an after-school program for the Christian school Tim started, Orange County Academy. I go out each Wednesday afternoon with a team of volunteers. We play with the kids, help them with homework, and basically just try to love on them. I also give the Bible lesson and lead a time of singing. About half of the 42 kids in the school stay for the after-school program, which we've called the VIP Club. Most of them come from broken homes and know little or nothing of the lifestyle most east Orlandoans take for granted. The school is giving them a new start academically, socially, and spiritually.
To look at these kids, you wouldn't guess that they carry a lot of pain, but they do. Their stories speak of a deep need for gospel redemption. Through the work of United Global Outreach and scores of volunteers from churches and civic groups, redemption is coming to Bithlo. Along with many other groups, our church is trying to help that little community experience the love of Christ. If you'd like to contribute, let me know. One way you can help is financial. UPC is trying to raise some money so that United Global Outreach can double the square footage of Orange County Academy. Tax-deductible donations can be sent to UPC, designated for the Bithlo project.

"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy" (Proverbs 31:8-9).

Monday, July 30, 2012

Why say it that way?

As a pastor, I'm always interested to find out how different churches communicate their beliefs and speak about themselves to the world. Many times I wish I could say to these church leaders, "Why say it that way? Can't you think of a better way to express yourselves to people who are not Christians? Must you use language that makes absolutely no sense to the culture you're trying to reach?!"

For example, a man I met at Panera the other day handed me a business card he'd gotten from a church in Missouri. On the card was a link to the church website, so I thought I'd check it out. Here's what that church displays on its home page:
The Christians who meet together at [name of church] believe the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God, that Jesus Christ is its grand theme, and that salvation is wrought through the atoning blood of Christ alone by the convicting and regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. It is their desire to know the Lord Jesus deeper day by day and become more conformed to His perfect life so that lost souls may be saved and He may get the glory.
Notice all the Christianese in that paragraph. Take the first sentence. For one thing, it's way too long. But besides that, most people today think "inspired" refers to a Thomas Kinkade painting or a really fine concert. Could the writer have simply said, "We believe the Bible is true"?

Then there's this sentence: "...salvation (??) is wrought (??) through the atoning (??) blood of Christ alone by the convicting (??) and regenerating (??) power of the Holy Spirit." Now I love the vocabulary of Christianity, and I hate that there's such theological illiteracy in our day (even in the church). But honestly, most people reading that statement have no idea what it means. Maybe the author could have simply said, "We believe God gives hope to the hopeless and love to the undeserving." After all, the homepage of a church website doesn't have to be a page out of a systematic theology text. Its purpose is to get people through the door of the church on Sunday morning.

At the end of the statement above you have more tribal language. "Become more conformed to His perfect life" could be rephrased as "become more like Jesus." "Lost souls" could become simply "non-Christians." And what does "get the glory" mean? I'm not sure even I fully understand that term, though we use it all the time.

I don't mean to run this church down. I'm using it as an example of what most of us Christians are all too guilty of. In an earlier post I gave a plea for plain speaking within the church. I think we need to stop using cliched, unintelligible, "cute," or code language. It's turning people off and tuning people out.

And I've said nothing about silly Christian bumper stickers and church signs.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Paper towel dispensers

Wow, it's been way too long since I posted something on my blog. So I'm making a renewed effort to do so more regularly, because (as I read someplace that I'm supposed to say to myself every day), "I AM A WRITER!!"

Let's see, how 'bout I start with one of my pet peeves... "automatic" bathroom paper towel dispensers. I've mentioned them before. I haven't met one I've liked. Well, maybe one. But all the others either don't work at all, and I therefore look like a fool waving my hand above, below, to the side, and in front of the darn things trying to get them to acknowledge my presence...or they (reluctantly and for spite) roll out about an inch and a half of paper for me to dry my hands on. If there are other men waiting in line for a paper towel, I feel especially stupid. I know they are staring at the back of my head, thinking "What's wrong with this guy? Why can't he get a simple paper towel dispenser to work?" I've said before in sermons that a man's greatest fear is to be deemed a failure. Well, this is the place where that happens more than anywhere else - more than at home, more than in the board room, more than on the basketball court. It's in bathrooms. The great enemy of a guy's self-esteem is the "automatic" bathroom paper towel dispenser. 

I know why we don't like them and they don't like us. It has nothing to do with that little infrared thing on the front of the dispenser. It's about control. We can't control them. Unlike the old-style paper towel dispensers with the silver crank on the side (eww, germs!!), and unlike the less-old-style kind that you still see in some bathrooms, the kind with the lever you can push (eww, germs!!) that ACTUALLY WORKS, the "automatic" dispensers have a mind of their own. (That's why I put "automatic" in quotes.) No matter what you do, the dispenser has the power in the relationship. And we humankind don't like that. Ever since the Garden of Eden, we've fancied that we could be like God (Genesis 3:5). And when you're in the bathroom with one of these new, no-touch paper towel dispensers, you just can't be like God. The paper towel dispenser is, for that brief, hand-wringing moment of time, God. You're not in control. It is.

So the "automatic" paper towel dispenser is a metaphor. It's a metaphor for the humiliating realization that there are really a very limited number of things that we can control (like, zero). It's a God-centered universe after all and he always gets his way.


Saturday, April 14, 2012

What I'm Reading

I've got way too many reading projects going on right now (thanks to my Kindle), but they're all good. For enrichment as a church leader I'm reading Leading Change by John Kotter and Made To Stick by the Heath brothers. For personal devotions I'm reading through the Bible using the NIV One Year Bible, along with a daily reading from Sarah Young's Jesus Calling (and if you've never heard of that, it's not just for women and it ministers well to the soul).

For ministry enrichment I'm into David Platt's popular book Radical. A friend and I are working through John Frame's Salvation Belongs to the Lord. And for pure pleasure I'm reading Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler and Stephen King's 11/22/63.

Speaking of that last book, I've never read anything by Stephen King. You'd normally think of him as a writer of horror stories, and I'm not particularly into horror stories. But 11/22/63 is not a horror story (at least not yet). Here's a synopsis: A high school teacher stumbles upon a "doorway" into the past and returns to 1958. He wants to find Lee Harvey Oswald, kill him before he has a chance to assassinate JFK, and change history for the better. But as you might guess, he runs into all sorts of surprises along the way that make his mission difficult. I'm only about a third of the way into the book and it runs nearly 850 pages. So don't tell me what happens.

Blue Like Jazz

Soon after Donald Miller's book, Blue Like Jazz, came out in '03 or whenever it was, I read it and was captured by its honesty, humor, and gutsy message to Christians. Miller is a great writer and one of the funniest storytellers around.

Then a couple years ago I heard the book was going to be turned into a movie. That made absolutely no sense. How could a random collection of essays and reflections become a movie with any kind of plot? Well, the movie was just released and I saw it today. I wish I could recommend it as heartily as the book, but I can't. In the words of Randy Jackson, it was just alright for me.

It's an indie, low-budget movie, so I wasn't expecting a big Hollywood production. But the humor and creativity of the book just doesn't come through. In fact I suggest you not compare the movie to the book, and you'll probably like it better than I. Some of the same people (Don, the Pope, Penny, etc.) and the same place (Reed College) are there, along with the same bits of commentary on Christian smugness and self-righteousness. But IMHO the real Donald Miller's heart does not show up. On that score it was rather disappointing. The one scene that came close was at the end, when "Don" sits as Pope in the confessional booth and confesses his own sins. In the book, that's what an entire Portland church does at an outdoor Reed College festival. Church members take turns manning the confessional and asking people for forgiveness for the sins of Christians. (I want UPC to do that one of these days.)

On a personal level, I especially wanted to see Blue Like Jazz because I know the woman represented by the Penny character. Her real name is Penny, and she and I were in the same small group at a workshop I attended in 2009 at Seattle's Mars Hill Graduate School (now the Seattle School of Theology & Psychology). At the time I didn't know she was a friend of Donald Miller or the inspiration behind his spiritual breakthrough at Reed College. But she's a delightful person and every bit as compassionate and courageous as she is portrayed in the movie.

Even though I'm not crazy about the movie, it says things we in the church need to hear. The early scene where a pastor gives a stupid children's sermon while Don (wearing the "armor of God") splits open a cross-shaped pinata with the "sword of the Spirit" is very sad - because all too suggestive of the me-centered philosophy that drives many churches today. Also, the movie brings out how ill-equipped and unwilling most Christians are to take the gospel to places where it is unwelcome. Don's disappointment with the church is, unfortunately, something that is shared by countless young people today. I appreciated the positive portrayal of not only Penny but a Catholic priest and a Christian apologist, both of whom stay true to their convictions while being people of compassion.

So all in all, I find myself agreeing with the opinion of a Christianity Today reviewer, who writes:
"...the entire film builds toward a spiritual epiphany that is anything but satisfying. Christian moviegoers will find much to challenge them, to be sure—but those hoping Don's journey leads him to a clear understanding of the gospel might find 'Blue Like Jazz' a bit unsatisfying."

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Day of Prayer

I've begun a new practice.

I hesitate to claim a lot of success, because I'm only two months into this. But on the third Tuesday of each month I get away from the office and the house and spend the day praying, reading, reflecting, and writing. Both times so far I drove an hour or so to Cocoa Beach, where I hung out at a picnic table in a park. Both days were beautiful, but the park was practically deserted. The weather was just perfect.

At this park there's a boardwalk to the beach. So after several hours alone at the picnic table I walked the beach and prayed. I found it a perfect retreat for prayer and solitude. The ocean reminds me of God's vast grace and power - the perfect incentive to prayer. As the summer approaches the beach will be too crowded and hot, so I'll have to find another place to spend the day.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Company Men

The Company Men is a decent movie. Not great, but decent and worth renting. It's rated R for some crude language.

Ben Affleck plays Bobby Walker, a successful Boston (where else?) executive who suddenly finds himself without a job when his employer, GTX Corporation, downsizes. Thousands of GTX employees around the country are laid off. Eventually Walker's boss, played by the great Tommie Lee Jones, gets the axe too. So does Phil Woodward, played well by Chris Cooper (shown in photo), only he can't cope with being out of work in his 60s and, sadly, ends up taking his own life.

The movie is written, produced, and directed by John Wells, who up to this point mostly worked in television. It kind of shows. I didn't quite feel the angst of the characters. It seemed a little like a TV movie.

Nevertheless, The Company Men sends an important message. When the bottom falls out, you need to have invested sufficiently in your family so you can weather the storm together. And you need some friends. And you need to somehow be able to keep moving forward. And, although he's conspicuously absent here, you need God.

While Bobby Walker hangs on to his family, friends, and fortitude, his colleague Phil Woodward has none of those props. He is the shell of a man who, as they say, spent his life climbing the ladder of success only to find (too late) that it had been leaning against the wrong wall. He is like the rich fool of Luke 12:16-21 who stored up things for himself but was not rich toward God. He is Edwin Arlington Robinson's Richard Cory. In the end, when Phil lost his job he lost everything.

Bobby, on the other hand, has loved his wife well. There are touching scenes of them leaning on each other as a husband and wife should. It seems, however, Bobby had been slowly growing apart from his teenage son. Bobby's loss of a job turns out to be an invitation to get reacquainted with his son, and that's a good thing. Bobby Walker reminds us that home is not necessarily a house.

As Jesus said, the rain will come, the streams will rise, and the winds of affliction will blow against the houses we build (Matthew 7:24-27). It's not a matter of if, but when. If your house is not built on the Rock, it won't stand.

"On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand."

Monday, January 02, 2012

Unleashed

It occurred to me while walking my dog Dabo the other day, that living in this fallen world is a lot like being on a leash. Dabo loves to take walks, but I can see it's frustrating for him to be tethered to me. He wants to be free - to run in circles if he wants to, to chase the ducks sitting by the pond, to run after other dogs with not a care in the world. But no...he has to be on a leash. He has to be restrained, held back, forced to deny his passions and impulses.

Now from my viewpoint, of course, the leash is protecting Dabo. He doesn't have the good sense not to run out in front of a car, so the leash is potentially keeping him alive. But not from Dabo's point of view. To him, the leash is a kind of death. He's been created to run loose, not to be pulled this way and that against his will. He's been made for freedom, for fun and games, for joy. The leash is a curse.

Similarly, we were created as God's vice-regents to rule the world with freedom and joy, to be fully alive and human, to explore the universe without restraint or compulsion. But sin ruined that picture. Sure, we still bear God's image, and in our better moments we still create, explore, celebrate, worship, and love. But we never get very far away from the curse. Pain in childbirth, work made oppressive, hiding in shame, blaming our problems on others, misplaced affections - all are the leash we must tolerate this side of heaven. Not to mention loss, sickness, death, and the constant temptations of the world, flesh, and devil.

Whenever I take Dabo on a walk, we always go past this lake in our subdivision. Actually it's a retention pond. But there's a huge expanse of grass beside this lake that belongs to no homeowner. It's sitting there just begging for dogs to run around and play in it. So I always take Dabo off his leash by that lake, and we run around in a big circle. Sometimes he sees a big bird or a family of ducks at the shore, and he takes off after them, imagining himself the Vicious Lake Bouncer of Eastwood. We have the best time...for a short time. Then it's back on the leash for Dabo, and the slow, restrained walk home.

The last time Dabo and I did the lake routine, I thought of my friends Fran and Christie. They both passed away last weekend. They were faithful men, true servants of Christ. In this life they'd been tethered to this fallen, sin-sick world. When they breathed their last, off came the leash. They were in Paradise.

Run free, Fran. Run free, Christie. And await with joy that great day when we will be finally and fully set free to run and play upon the new earth.

Prayer for the New Year

Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) is one of my heroes. If for no other reason, I just love his name. But more than that, Zinzendorf was a German evangelical reformer and bishop of the Moravian church. He founded Herrnhut, a Moravian village that became a center of Christian renewal and mission. Zinzendorf himself was a missionary. He traveled to America, the West Indies, Switzerland, Holland, England, and Livonia with the gospel.

But another contribution Zinzendorf made to the kingdom of God was writing some great hymns. My favorite is "Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness." Another is "Jesus, Still Lead On." This one makes a very good prayer as we turn the calendar to 2012. Here is an 1846 translation by Jane Borthwick:

Jesus, still lead on,
Till our rest be won;
And although the way be cheerless,
We will follow, calm and fearless,
Guide us by Thy hand
To our fatherland.

If the way be drear,
If the foe be near,
Let not faithless fears o'ertake us,
Let not faith and hope forsake us;
For through many a foe
To our home we go.

When we seek relief
From a long-felt grief,
When temptations come alluring,
Make us patient and enduring;
Show us that bright shore
Where we weep no more.

Jesus, still lead on,
Till our rest be won;
Heavenly Leader, still direct us,
Still support, console, protect us,
Till we safely stand
In our fatherland.