My wife, Jeanine, and I completed our annual quest to view the Best Picture Oscar® nominations before the telecast. Each year, I have tried to predict who would win with only limited success (currently I am batting .500; 3 right predictions in 6 years). My prediction will be revealed at the end of this post, but first I want to think about our culture as reflected in these 8 cinematic masterpieces.
This blog is not written by a movie critic; I am a minister of the gospel. As such, it is unlikely that the Academy is considering my particular demographic in their determination of what is ‘best’. That being said, I watch these films with the hope that I can gain a glimpse of a deeper truth embedded in these movies. What I have come to see is that all these films include elements of systemic ‘selectivism’ within our culture:
- The plot of Black Panther revolves around the divisions our world faces regarding race, asking the audience, in the guise of a superhero blockbuster with spectacular special effects, why wouldn’t the richest nation on the planet use its resources to deliver all the earth from societal injustice;
- The fact-based Blackkklansman retells the story of a black officer in Colorado Springs who becomes a card-carrying member of the KKK, thwarting the ‘organization’s’ plans for violence, and, in so doing, depicts the hate-filled rhetoric some spewed against those of other races, religions and orientations;
- The biographical Bohemian Rhapsody is largely the account of Queen front-man Freddie Mercury who feels like an outsider due to his mis-identified ethnic upbringing and his sexual orientation, culminating with him and his bandmates becoming “a group of outcasts making music for other outcasts”;
- The Favourite, described by one critic as a ‘punk Restoration romp’, is an elaborate depiction of the court and courtesans of Queen Anne in the early 18th century where the women lead and the men waste time and money in hedonistic pursuits;
- The true story of Green Book tells of an unlikely friendship forged by a black pianist and the white driver/muscle he hires for a road-trip concert tour through the Midwest and South in the early 1960s, enabling segregation, racism and ignorance to cast a dark shadow into the theater;
- Roma is a slice-of-life account of the interactions between a family and some young domestic workers in Mexico in 1971, telling the movie-goer about the living in a culture of class distinction, male dominance and revolution;
- The remake A Star is Born is about a self-destructive headlining musician and a young songwriter who fall in love, telling the story of the sacrifices we make (and refuse to make) for those we care about while championing the cause of the ‘unattractive underdog’;
- Vice, a fact-based and speculation-filled movie about the rise to power of former Vice President Dick Cheney, pulls the curtain back so we can see the machinations and manipulations that those in power are willing to employ when seeking to increase that power.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28 (NIV)
To a greater or lesser degree, these films all deal with what may be the greatest issue in our culture: division based on gender, race, wealth or sexual orientation. Some do it with great skill (Blackkklansman, Green Book and Vice) while others must be on so high an artistic level that simple movie-goers like me cannot fully comprehend (Roma and The Favourite). There is hope: the cultural zeitgeist inherent in these films seems to be reinforcing what the Bible affirms – that every human being is of equally incredible worth and that we ought to champion those who take up the cause of protecting and preserving the value of every soul. As I watch the Oscars® on Sunday night, I will celebrate the stories of Queen Anne, the Duchess of Marlborough, Ron Stallworth, Flip Zimmerman, Don Shirley, Tony Vallelonga, and Freddie Mercury – reminders of the intrinsic value of every human being.
And the Oscar® (if I were given a vote) goes to Green Book.
Yesterday, Valentine’s Day, I missed the small pink boxes of tiny hearts that used to be made by Necco. The good news is that, although the Revere institution filed for bankruptcy and shuttered the factory last year, Spangler Candy Co. (the company that took over the rights to Necco’s iconic brands) confirmed Conversation Hearts would return in 2020. While I am not a great fan of the product (they tasted like chalk and were always lagging behind the cultural vernacular), they were a good and inexpensive gift to hand to the kids. Because these confections are a rarely-consumed tradition in my home (like that bowl of mixed nuts at Thanksgiving or those ‘stocking oranges’ at Christmas) I did buy some second-tier Brach’s© Hearts yesterday.
These little hearts that say “BE MINE” or “TEXT ME” or “PUPPY LOVE” or “DREAM BIG”, which may have little or no taste, are not tasteless. They are simple expressions of affection, comfort and encouragement. In a world of incessant honking in the streets and ubiquitous trolling on the internet, a tiny piece of pressed sugar with the words “I (HEART) YOU” might be just what the doctor ordered. We all have times when we need that short and sweet interaction with someone who cares; at those crucial moments we do not want a poem or a lecture – we want a hug, a call or a smile.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6
Imagine if God produced a box of “Conversation Hearts” for you. Perhaps you would read “BE STRONG”, “BE COURAGEOUS”, “NO FEAR”, “I’LL GO WITH U”, “NEVER LEAVE U” and “NEVER FORSAKE U” (and those are from just one verse from one book in the Bible). Imagine you could place the hundreds of promises contained in the Scriptures, condensed to a dozen or so characters, in a pocket-sized box. Imagine taking one out in those discouraging moments and digesting it – chewing on it, enjoying its sweetness and reflecting on all the sentiment includes – and savoring the moment.
Whatever the date on the calendar, you have someone who loves you more than can be imagined: the God of the universe, as demonstrated in the death of Jesus Christ. It would take a lifetime to apprehend the incomprehensible fullness of this love, but it all begins with a sentiment that can be contained on one of those little hearts. “I (HEART) U”. This expression is something like the emotions contained in those crayon and construction paper cards that mothers keep in a special place. It is not simply what is said but what said by what is said.
It might be a good idea to swing by the grocery store and pick up a bag of discounted hearts, to open them up and read them as if written by God, and to act on them as if certain they are true. Then, literally or figuratively, hug, text and encourage the body of Christ…and wait for next year to get a pink box of chalky affection.
My daughter is currently spending a semester abroad at American College of Thessaloniki in Greece. In addition to taking a full slate of classes, she will (as part of the abroad program) be travelling through Greece to experience its unique culture and (because of proximity) be travelling throughout the Schengen Area of Europe to see the world. Already, her mother and I have seen pictures and heard anecdotes of all the beautiful places and the delicious foods our daughter has enjoyed. We are genuinely happy for her for this incredible opportunity and cannot wait until April to live vicariously through her.
While my wife and I have never been to Europe (we do not even have passports), we have the next best things. We have access to maps which can inform us of all the geography, roads and boundaries of Europe: we can know where everything is. We have access to episodes of “Rick Steves’ Europe” on PBS and “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” on Travel Channel, both of which have done multiple programs on Greece: we know can everywhere to go. We have access to literature like Eleni Gage’s “North of Ithaka” and Nikos Kazantzakis’ “Zorba the Greek”: we can know everything to expect. But that would only give us knowledge, and no matter how much knowledge we might gain, it would not be the same as living in Greece.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. John 10:10
As a parallel, there are plenty of people who know a great deal about living in Christ – through studying the Bible, attending worship services and reading biographies – but are not experiencing life in Christ. There is a great deal of difference between reading about God’s grace and experiencing His blessings or between singing of His mercy and experiencing His forgiveness. Simply because someone can quote Scriptures does not guarantee that they are living them out, just as knowing what is on the menu at Top of the Hub doesn’t mean you’ve eaten there. Knowledge of the culture of Christ’s kingdom is not the same as being absorbed by that culture, any more than reading about Greece is the same as being there.
So, I challenge all those who are reading this to experience what you know. Knowledge is important – even essential – in the navigation of life, whether we are referring to life which is physical or spiritual. But “book learning” is not sufficient. We need to apply that knowledge experientially, to immerse ourselves (intelligently) in the culture of Christ. We need to experience the fruit of the Spirit, the virtues of grace and mercy, and the love of God expressed in a billion little ways. Live out the life of Christ in all its glorious splendor.
The culture of Christ, like every culture, is experienced through community. If you, or someone you know, are looking for a community with which to experience abundant life in Christ, consider visiting us at Calvary.
Am I the only one who wishes that life would be easier? Am I alone in longing for simplicity in the workplace – there is a job to do, a way to do it and an absence of obstacles to its completion? Am I the only one who desires that life was a whole lot less messy?
These thoughts, no matter how comforting, are not based in reality: all of us, and all we work with and for, are – to some degree – messy. We all have unrealistic expectations, unresolved insecurities, and inexplicable weaknesses. We all have times when we think we are worthless and our situation is hopeless. That is the time when we need someone to come alongside. Thankfully, we have someone: the one about whom Isaiah prophesied and the one who fulfilled this prophecy: Jesus. Recorded in the Old and New Testament is a picture representing the heart of God for ministry.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. Isaiah 42:3a
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out…. Matthew 12:20a
In the days of Isaiah, reeds and bulrushes were literally a dime a dozen. They were everywhere and, as such, easily cultivated for a variety of menial tasks. Therefore, only perfect specimens were used and the bruised (bent, blemished or broken) reeds were discarded. Ancient reeds were of the same value of a Dixie© cup: I take medication twice daily with the aid of those 3-ounce wax-coated paper cups and (to the consternation of my loving wife) I reuse just one for days upon days. Christian ministry, according to Jesus, values the people around us that the world sees as replaceable and disposable.
At the same time, fire was essential for existence. Fire was the only source of heat (for comfort and cooking) and light (through hearth and lantern). Tending to the home fires was a constant chore. If one were to neglect the flames or use live or wet wood, it would be easiest to sweep the firebox and start over. If you have ever camped before, you know the work maintaining a fire demands, especially if one does not have a lighter (invented in 1823) or friction matches (invented in 1826); it would be wiser simply to rebuild and relight dry wood. Christian ministry, according to Jesus, values the people around us that the world sees as difficult and demanding.
The good news is that God has established the Church to ministry to the bruised reeds and the smoldering wicks. All around the world this weekend, those who might consider themselves nameless and voiceless cogs in the mechanism of life will gather together to remind one another that they are irreplaceable and valuable. All across the globe, people who the world would label as difficult and unworthy of the effort will come together and worship the One who equips His people with limitless compassion and patience.
Life is not easy. Life is not simple. Life is messy. But, thank God, we have the Church, the people of God committed to accomplishing His will. Therefore, there is always a place for disposable cups and dying embers like you and me.
Last week, I had a conversation with my doctor as part of a routine follow-up (just one of the perks of surviving another birthday). I am proud to say that all my numbers are improving, thanks to a nutritional plan that he recommended I follow. Part of the conversation included my continued craving for the doughnut I had been denying myself. The doctor then stated, “Don’t think about these things as things that you are denying yourself of enjoying; instead, think of all the things you are providing for yourself by your restraint.” As I think about what he said, I remember that I would rather enjoy cardiac health and longer life than three minutes of refined sugar and saturated fat, however delightful those three minutes may be.
I am a big proponent of delayed gratification (the practice of foregoing instant, but temporary, pleasure with the hope of receiving a permanent, and greater, blessing). There is a problem that I see as I exercise discretion through delayed gratification: I tend to focus on what I am refusing and neglect to fix my gaze on what I am gaining. I know that I am skipping dessert when everyone else is indulging; what I need to know is that these tiny steps of obedience are enabling me to spend time with my theoretical four-year-old granddaughter drinking imaginary tea at her make-believe soiree. These are the thoughts that make baked goods (even the always delicious hermits) resistible.
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23 (NIV)
Yesterday, as I celebrated my birthday, I spent a few moments reflecting on my past 53 years and all the things I wish I had accomplished by now. I spent time ruing some of the choices of my youth (refusing to limit my spending in order to afford some savings, allowing myself to take shortcuts which lessened both my workload and my stamina) and regretted the nevers of my middle-age (never owning my own home, never travelling to Europe). These moments of reflection upon my dalliances with instant gratification have not discouraged me; they increase my resolve to engage in the sacrifices I must make to seize the future God desires for me.
So, as get up early to spend some time in Bible reading, I pray that I will not focus on the sleep that I am missing but rather upon the deep well of scripture that I am drilling for the day of spiritual dryness. As I spend time in concerted prayer, I pray that I will not dwell on the television show I am missing but rather the conversations with God and the concerns for others that I am finding. As I limit my daily caloric intake, I pray that I will not fixate on the dietary restrictions but rather the increased days that discipline will add to my life.
The only way I can remain ‘on track’ for the long haul is not by thinking about each painful step, but by thinking of the finish line. May we all finish strong the race set before us through self-denial and seeking the greater joy.
More often than I care to admit or recognize, the disparate portions of scripture that read relating to different parts of my life that (whether it be through sermon preparation, prayer, or devotional readings) intersect to illuminate a truth that my thick skull would not have comprehended had it not been bombarded from diverse angles. This week, a verse from Proverbs (from a devotional), a verse from Psalms (through our church’s participation in “21 Days of Prayer”) and a verse from Acts (from last week’s sermon) have gotten me thinking. They all were used by the Holy Spirit to connect some dots, producing a picture of life that includes discernment, disappointment, and direction.
Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance…. Proverbs 1:5 (ESV)
I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me. Psalm 57:2 (ESV)
[Herod] had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. Acts 12:2 (NIV)
Initially, God directed me to the above passage in Proverbs and to a devotional where Tim Keller examined the difference between knowledge and discernment as they relate to the pursuit of wisdom. We must be ever increasing in our learning, gaining factual and practical knowledge from a variety of healthy sources. We must also seek understanding of this knowledge. We need to know what the truth is, as well as what the truth means in practice.
Next, God directed me to the passage in the Psalms, which states the truth that God fulfills His purposes for us. But what does that mean in practice? In context, David recited this plea as he was running for his life from Saul. It means that God uses all our experiences (times of joy and times of sorrow) as a means of fulfilling His purposes for us. Whether we comprehend God’s rationale for our situation, we must live with the understanding that He has a plan.
This leads to the final passage, which recorded the martyrdom of one the first disciples at the hands of Herod. Unlike His deliverance of Peter a few verses later, this passage appears to reflect that God did nothing to spare James’ life. That is what knowledge of the truth would tell me, anyways. But understanding of the passage tells me more: first, that Jesus secured James’ life after his physical death, delivering him from harm and granting him passage into His presence; and second, His purpose (whatever that may be) for James and the people James know was fulfilled.
Ultimately, the life of faith is found in the confluence of these verses (as well as thousands more). Whether it is budget meetings or bond hearings, weddings or funerals, winning the lottery or losing a job, God has a purpose for you. We can get a glimpse of this purpose through studying His word and seeking His guidance. But, whether we “get” what God is doing or not, we can trust that He will give us all we need to trust Him in the darker hours. We need only remember that God all things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose. But that is a verse for another day.
Later today, my daughter will spend 18 hours travelling over 4,500 miles, flying from Boston to Thessaloniki in Greece. When she gets there, she will study abroad for her spring semester and be far from home for 3 months. It is, without a doubt, a wonderful opportunity for her. However, I am anxious about all the logistics that a trip of this nature requires: will she make her connecting flights, communicate with reputable locals to get to the college campus and be compatible with her roommate? I fear that my anxiety will not subside until the first week of April, when Rebekah returns to the sweet land of liberty. Until then, I will pray.
But what should I pray? That the airplanes remain in the sky between uneventful takeoffs and landings? That everyone in Europe is kind and caring? That she will enjoy 90 days of Aegean bliss, akin to the images of Grecian villages in “Mama Mia”? I have to admit that I would like to offer these prayers, except that they all seem so self-serving, as if I am saying that in this world where so many are in the midst of genuine suffering, I want God to place my little girl in a bubble of security. There must be more to prayer than simply supplying the sustainer of the heavenly spheres with my personal wish-list.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7
As my daughter departs for her next adventure, I am choosing to take the Apostle Paul’s advice to the church in Philippi to heart. I am choosing, in this situation, to not be anxious as I present my requests to God. I will make these requests with all the gratitude I can muster, recognizing the enormity of my circumstance (able to offer prayers in the presence of our Great High Priest and offer petitions before the King of Kings). After I have emptied my heart of all the anxiety that it harbored, I will be blessed with the peace that replaces it. I may not understand God’s remedies to my requests, but I will remember that He loves my daughter even more than I do. And that will be more than enough.
As I pray for my daughter over the next three months, I recognize that my intercession will not change God’s will; it will, however, give voice to what I would like God’s will to be – protection and blessing for those I love. This will bring me to the threshold of faith (as the author of Hebrews says, that which gives us confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see) where I enter the place of God’s grace, trusting that He will always answer my prayers with what He knows is best, whether I comprehend its goodness or not.
So, please join me in prayer: continue to bring your heart’s cry before the throne of the Almighty and trust that He will perfectly answer your every request…and enjoy the peace that will keep watch over your heart and mind, whatever the resolution.
I have a simple question for all those reading this: when do we stop celebrating our “Season’s Greetings”? When the radio and television stations return to their regular programming? When the last Christmas cookies have been eaten? When the tree and decorations are taken down? When the final greeting card, initially misdirected by the Post Office, arrives? Until the next holiday is celebrated? Until the children return to school after their Winter Break? Once all the exterior lights have been boxed and stored away? I suppose we all must move on from all of those special gatherings with family and friends filled with all sorts of special traditions and resume the mundane schedule of everyday life, but when?
But what if I do not want to move on from Christmas? What if I still want to reflect on the gifts of advent – the hope, peace, joy and love that comes through the appearing of Christ? What if the remembrance of the 1st advent at Bethlehem, has whet my appetite for the 2nd advent when Christ shall descend from the clouds? While I can dispense with the carols and the cookies, I would like to retain the warmth of the manger, the worship of the shepherds, the hospitality of the city of David and the generosity of God, the Father.
When [the shepherds] had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child…. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Luke 2:17-20
I want to be like those shepherds, so impacted by the facts and sensations of Christmas that they were undeniably transformed. Because of the advent, these blue-collar laborers went from sheep herders shaking in fear to pastors leading lost sheep to verdant fields. They went back to their ordinary schedules with an understanding of the extraordinary sights and sounds of the Savior born in a Bethlehem manger. They were changed by Christmas, as is evidenced by their propensity for giving glory and praise to God. They had no special carols or cards or casseroles – they had the Christ and He was sufficient to sustain them.
I will, in the days ahead, put everything that symbolizes Christmas into boxes or, in the case of our tree, onto the curb – all the external stimuli that reminds me of that blessed event two thousand years ago. But, like the shepherds, I will continue to carry inside me all the sounds, scents and sights that make Christmas special. My hope is that the inward prompts of these sensational sensations will stimulate my soul to maintain a spirit of glory and praise every day in every place as I interact with everyone. Instead of celebrating Christmas throughout the year, perhaps I can communicate the hope, peace, joy and love of Immanuel – God with us – for a while longer.
Lord, help me to remember that on every day that ends with ‘y’ that Christ came to inaugurate “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
On Wednesday night, a group of us from the church walked down the hill to the Ashmont T station and sang carols for the commuters. While we were there, I could not help but notice that Ashmont station is a hub of activity. There were people using every form of transportation: cars, cabs, busses, trains, bicycles and walking. There was a steady stream of busy people, some rushing past our makeshift choir and others lingering for a moment but ultimately moving onto other matters. And there were so many noises: car alarms, public address announcements, stray musical sounds and digital voices from cell phone speakers.
Yet, in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, there we were, proclaiming the joy, hope, peace and love of the Savior and handing out candy canes to those who would take them. As Philips Brooks wrote 150 years ago, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light….” While the rest of the neighborhood was moving about, accomplishing the things of their “To Do” lists, we were being used by God to provide a gentle reminder of the reason we celebrate. Above the din of humanity, the soft sounds of the baby born in the manger, the angels and Magi who visited, and the good tidings for all people could be heard.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. Luke 2:1-4
Is our experience at the Ashmont T station a few nights ago what it was like in Bethlehem all those years ago? While it is unclear how many were living in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth (some scholars suggest as few as 300 or as many as 1,000), the biblical account of the events that occurred in Bethlehem are clear: so many people flooded this small village outside Jerusalem because of a governmentally decreed census that living space was at a premium. There were travelers, noises and activity aplenty and few, if any, stopped to notice the world changing couple that came to town. The urgency of the moment overwhelmed the importance of the advent, the appearing, of the Savior of humankind.
We, too, can get wrapped up in all that still needs doing that we overlook what has been done. We need to purchase gifts, wrap gifts, bake cookies, consume wassail, attend parties, visit family, connect with friends, worship on Christmas Eve, stuff stockings and settle down for a long winter’s nap. We can, like subway commuters and census participants, lose track of what is important as we engage in the things that are urgent. I pray that, in the midst of all the people, noise and activity of the next few days, you hear the angels’ song and delight in the birth of our Lord.
One of my favorite parts of celebrating Christmas is watching the Christmas specials on TV with the family (and if we are unavailable for the network broadcasts, we have most, if not all, the best on DVD). I am sure everyone has a list of their preferences: “The Year Without a Santa Claus”, “Frosty the Snowman”, “Prep and Landing”, or “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”. They are all wonderful in their own right, but my personal choice for the greatest Christmas special would be a tie between “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. These marvelous stories, regularly broadcast since 1965 and 1966 respectively, hold a special place in my heart.
At first blush, these two stories have very little in common. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” tells the story of a boy seeking the real meaning of Christmas while preparing for a traditional Christmas pageant which emphasizes, in a pivotal scene, a reference to the biblical account of Jesus’ birth. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” recounts the happenings of a fantastic location known as Whoville and the mean resident of Mount Crumpet who is seeking to rob the Whos of their Christmas joy. One has overtly Christian themes and the other has overly secular themes, seemingly the two opposites of the celebratory spectrum.
But these two masterpieces have more in common than you might think. Both the authors grew up in Lutheran homes. Both were based on works intended for children. Most significantly, both, at their cores, deal with the dangers of consumerism. “Charlie Brown”’s animated landscape is riddled with aluminum Christmas trees and its dialogue is filled with gift suggestions, leaving the protagonist with the zigzag shirt longing for more. “The Grinch”’s narrative couplets tell of jingtinglers and games like zoozittacarzay, and decry the noises of the season, all of which cause consternation within the titular green meanie. Both Charlie Brown and the Grinch want to stop the celebration of a consumption-centered Christmas.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:11 (NIV)
If you have not watched these specials at least once in the last 50 years, stop reading and watch them on Youtube© here and here. Both these Christmas specials come to the conclusion that the meaning and significance of Christmas is not the stuff under the tree, but the relationships we cherish while gathering around the tree. It is the relationships – for “Charlie Brown” it is Jesus and for “The Grinch” it is family – that makes Christmas matter. These relationships bring the school children around a tiny tree to sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and bring the Whos around the spot where the village tree was placed to sing “Fah Who Foraze, Dah Who Doraze, Welcome, Christmas, Come This Way.”
My prayer this Christmas is that we can all come to the same realization that the Grinch reaches: that Christmas can come without ribbons, without tags, without packages, boxes or bags. My hope this Christmas is that when we reach our breaking point and cry out, as Charlie did, whether anyone knows what Christmas is all about, some kind soul reminds you about the marvelous events that took place just outside Bethlehem. It is not about presents…it is all about presence.