Sunday, February 27, 2011

There are times when we need to stand up for what's right, even if that means standing alone!

Imagine being 17 years old and having to be the leader of your family. Now imagine that your father who has been in and out of jail for cooking crystal meth has jumped bail on his most recent release from prison and put your house up as collateral on his bail! We find out all of this in the first ten minutes of “Winter’s Bone” truly one of the most intense and powerful films released this past summer.

Young Ree Dolly is our 17-year-old heroine of this story. She lives with her two younger siblings and mother in a remote part of the Ozark mountain range of Missouri. Her mother spends her days in complete silence giving the appearance she is unable to speak, though it appears that a mixture of depression and constant drug usage has caused her to appear so disconnected from the world around her. Her aforementioned father is never around, whether he is in jail or not. When he isn’t in jail he spends his time cooking meth for various distant relatives who also live in the same mountain range.

It is these relatives that Ree decides to journey around the mountain visiting and asking for information of the whereabouts of her father, as she is given a week by the Sheriff to find her father, or else prove he is dead and unable to come to trial. If she fails to do so, the house will be taken by the county, thus leaving Ree and her family homeless.

As Ree began her journey to visit her drug dealing and cocaine snorting relatives I couldn’t help but see a parallel between her and the character of Noah in Genesis 6. You see in Genesis 6 God observed that the people of the world had become so evil that He was sorry He ever made mankind. The Lord then decided that He would destroy all humans and start over, with the exception of Noah, who found favor in the eyes of Lord (v. 8). Think about that for a minute. Noah was the only man on the entire planet of earth at that point in time that found favor in the eyes of the Lord! Pretty amazing! On a smaller scale though, our character of Ree is the only person on the mountain other than her two younger siblings who doesn’t do drugs of any kind. She like Noah, represents the one pure person among a whole group of people who are doing evil!

This as one could easily predict does not bode well for her. As she makes her rounds of the various family members they do not treat her very kindly and are very unhappy that she is poking around trying to find out information about her father. At each stop, we as the audience begin to get the uneasy feeling that Ree’s father is probably in fact dead, and it is probably one of his own distant cousins who did him in!

Finally the relatives decide Ree has been poking around enough and they kidnap her and take her into custody with plans to execute her! That however, is when a powerful plot twist takes place: one of Ree’s distant relatives who you would never have expected intervenes, calling her execution off stating that ‘I will take responsibility for her’

This part of the film is not unlike the parable of the good Samaritan that Jesus told in Luke 10:30-37. In this story that I am sure most are familiar with, Jesus tells us the story of a Jewish man who was attached by thieves who beat him severely and left him for dead on the road. The first two men to come upon the beaten Jewish man were a Priest and then a Levite, and both don’t stop to help the suffering man. Both of these men would have been Jewish and thus one would think, much more inclined to help a fellow Jew in distress. However, the third person to come upon the man is a Samaritan who feels deep compassion for the injured man (V. 33) and thus takes action! He pours medicine on the wounds, which most commentators believe was probably a mixture of wine and oil (certainly not cheap products!), bandages the Jew up, places him on his own donkey and takes him to an inn. There the Samaritan spends the night nursing the Jewish man back to health and the next day leaves the innkeeper with money to continue to help the man rest and recover.

It is important to note that back in Jesus’ time Jews despised Samaritans. You see Judea was broken up into two sections. Jerusalem was the capital of the Southern half and Samaria was the capital city of the Northern half. The Jews despised the Samaritans because they had at one point in time intermarried with Gentiles, which the Jews saw as against the Laws of God. Therefore they didn’t socialize with Samaritans and shunned them if they ever ran into one!

That is why Jesus’ parable is so amazing! He made the hero of the story a person with whom his audience would have hated! Thus is the case with the hero who immerges as the good Samaritan in “Winter’s Bone!” This character gets Ree out of the dangerous situation, and brings her back home, even helping her nurse the wounds she has incurred from the angry mob like relatives who were ready to kill her!

Throughout this movie, Ree demonstrates an incredible ability to stand her ground in the midst of adversity. She refuses to fall into the drug snorting, meth cooking, lifestyle of everyone around her, and it fine with standing alone when it comes to trials. She takes care of a her younger siblings, making sure they stay in school and even teaches them life skills like cooking and how to hunt wild animals for food.

Yet when she does need someone to help spare her life, a character with whom we as the audience have disliked tremendously throughout the movie, steps up to the plate and saves her life. Much like the Jewish people hearing Jesus tell them that a Samaritan helped save the life of a fellow Jewish man, our initial reaction as movie watchers can easily be surprise and perhaps a bit angry, but God has a way of using people with whom we sometimes least expect to accomplish His work! Paul writes in Romans 11:33-34 “Oh, what a wonderful God we have! How great are his riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his methods! For who can know what the Lord is thinking? Who knows enough to be his counselor?” (NLT). Simply put, God’s ways are not our ways, and the people He chooses to use are not always the people we would choose to accomplish a task.

As the movie closes, Ree is forced to undertake a task in order to save her family that is gruesome and quite dark! I certainly will not spoil the ending, as I suggest all of you readers out there see this movie. It is one of the 10 nominations for this years Best Picture award at the Oscars, and it deserves to be spoken of among the other movies on that list

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Never Act Like A Know It All With A Believer Who Is In A Time Of Sorrow

Sorrow and pain are part of life. That is a fact that I do not enjoy talking about very often, nor do I take joy in thinking about. However, it is a plain fact. That fact alone is possibly what inspired Michael Stipe of R.E.M. to compose their 1992 smash hit “Everybody Hurts.” The fact that the song became such a big hit for the band tells me that people connected with this song as well. Let’s take a look at a sample from the lyrics:

“Sometimes everything is wrong. Now it's time to sing along
When your day is night alone, (hold on, hold on)
If you feel like letting go, (hold on)
When you think you've had too much of this life, well hang on”

Universally speaking I think almost everyone has felt this way at some point in his or her life. I know I have felt despair at times in my own life, and can relate to what Stipe is saying right here. I used to think that feeling this way somehow meant that I wasn’t a true Christian because Christian’s aren’t supposed to ever been sad or angry. How wrong I was though. Look at what the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah says in Lamentations 3:17-18: “Peace has been stripped away, and I have forgotten what prosperity is. I cry out, ‘my splendor is gone! Everything I had hoped for from the Lord is lost!”’

Wow! That is powerful stuff right there! Jeremiah was someone who God used to prophecy to the city of Jerusalem that “I have plans for you…. Plans for good and not disaster to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11) Now Jeremiah is writing here in Lamentations that all his hope from the Lord is lost! This is just one example though. I have previously mentioned in a different blog about how the Apostle Paul had a “thorn in the flesh” that God refused to take away even though Paul pleaded with Him three times (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) That definitely had to cause Paul some loss of hope. Even Jesus Himself when He was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane about to die on the cross for our sins stated that “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38).

Therefore, I think I can conclude that feeling agony and despair is not a sin, in fact I think sometimes God uses this time of pain to help us grow. Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes that “Sorrow is better than laughter, for sadness has a refining influence on us (7:3). It is important to understand what Solomon’s metaphor or refining is here. When raw copper is harvested it is black in color and not very usable. It is then put into a refinery where it is melted down repeatedly until all of the impurities were out of it, and the copper was in it’s purest form and also at it’s most valuable.

You see friends, God takes us through trials and tribulations because He knows it will help us to grow in our Faith in Him. It certainly is not always fun, and when those trials come we should not ever close up and stop talking with our fellow Brothers and Sister’s in Christ. Let’s now go back and look at some more lyrics from “Everybody Hurts:”

“Cause everybody hurts. Take comfort in your friends
Everybody hurts. Don't throw your hand. Oh, no. Don't throw your hand
If you feel like you're alone, no, no, no, you are not alone”

This section of the song reminds me very much of the message of Romans 12:15-16 where Paul writes to the Church that “When others are happy, be happy with them. If they are sad, share their sorrow. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t try to act important, but enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all! (NLT)

That is one mistake a lot of Believers make when someone is suffering or grieving within their midst. We think we know it all sometimes, and make stupid statements like “God has a reason for what you are going through right now” or “Well, [insert name of deceased family member here] is in Heaven now so they are no longer suffering” While statements like that may be true, they are not helpful to a person who is grieving! That certainly is not ‘shar[ing] in the sorrow’ or even an attempt at living ‘in harmony with each other.’

What should we do then you ask? I find that often times it is much more beneficial for me to listen and let the person who is grieving talk. I re-assure them that it is okay for them to feel angry, agony, grief, and or despair. There is no wrong feeling when it comes to times of hardship. In the examples I have shared above we see God fearing people and even Jesus felt deep anguish at points in their lives. I also tend to simply give people a hug and let them know that I will do anything they need. If they need a meal, I’ll be glad to cook, if they need a ride somewhere, I’m glad to drive them. In this way I demonstrate to them that I don’t know it all, and never will claim to, but I am glad to listen and to help in any way I can. The Church is supposed to be a safe haven for people and it is supposed to be a community. We are supposed to enjoy each others company and share in each other's joy, but we must also never cease to bear one another's burdens as well.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Man looks at the outside, but God looks at the inside

I’ve always been amazed how God sometimes chooses the person whom you would least expect to accomplish His amazing plans! Such is the case with the young George VI of England in the 1930’s as Britain is headed towards war with Germany. The incredible movie “The King’s Speech” tells his true-life story. He is the son of King George V and has the apparent leadership skills to be the next in line to be King, but he has one big problem, he stammers (in today’s vernacular, stutters) whenever he gets nervous, like say when he needs to address a large crowd. As a king, he would need to do this quite often, and his father knows that while he loves his eldest son dearly, his stammering problem would be too much of an obstacle to overcome if he were to name him his successor as King of England.

However, George VI is still the Duke of York, and therefore needs to give public speeches, so his loving wife Elizabeth seeks out a Doctor who may help him with his stammering problem. While perusing the classifieds one morning she comes across a man named Lionel Logue, who says that he can help her husband with his speech problem. She agrees to have her husband come with her to an appointment so Lionel can evaluate if he can indeed help young George VI, who is known by his family by the nickname of Bertie.

Over the course of this wonderful true story, Lionel helps Bertie by using some rather unorthodox methods, such as having Bertie listen to classic Mozart pieces on headphones while reading Shakespeare, and recording Bertie’s voice as he reads. Bertie is shocked to find that he can read without stammering while listening to music, and Lionel begins coaching Bertie through the delicate procedure of figuring out why Bertie began stammering in the first place, and acts as much like a psychiatrist and a speech therapist rolled into one.

As they get closer as friends, Lionel begins encouraging Bertie that he could be King of England if he were to try hard enough. Bertie, initially angry with Lionel for meddling in his personal life, storms out of Lionel’s office in anger, leading Lionel to remark to his wife that he has a patient who ‘could be great’ if he were to reach his full potential. I believe that when God looks at us, He also sees certain potential in each one of us, and sometimes perhaps, He too is frustrated with us when we don’t trust Him enough to walk out His plan for our lives!

In 1 Samuel 16, God tells Samuel that he is supposed to anoint the man who will be the next King of Israel. God tells Samuel that He is going to choose one of the sons of a man named Jesse. However, as Samuel approaches each son the Lord tells him that He “has not chosen this one.’ After approaching each son present at the house and being told by God that none of them are His chosen person, Samuel asks Jesse if he has any more sons. Jesse replies that his youngest son is in fact out in the fields shepherding his flocks. Samuel asks Jesse to summon this young man, and when the young man is brought before Samuel, God reveals to Samuel that this is in fact the man He has chosen to be the next king of Israel. This young man’s name was David, a man whom would become one of the finest kings in Israel’s history! You see “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."(1 Samuel 16:7b NIV). Therefore, though David was young and not as fit looking as his older brothers, God chose him because he looked at David’s heart. This is what Lionel is looking at in Bertie, a man who outwardly doesn’t look like he can be a leader because of his stammer, but inwardly has the heart to lead his country!

As the story progresses, Bertie’s father King George V becomes ill and dies, and Bertie’s younger brother Edward is named the next King of England. The problem is, while Edward is great at giving speeches, he wants to marry a woman who has been married two times before him. As head of the Church of England (which a position given to every King of England) Edward cannot marry a divorced woman, so he chooses to abdicate the throne to Bertie. This is where Bertie decides to continue seeing Lionel to help him with his speech problems.

As I watched this wonderful film, my mind was drawn immediately to the story of Moses in the Old Testament book of Exodus. You see, Moses was the man God chose to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt. Moses however, had a problem. In Exodus 4:10 Moses says to the Lord “O Lord, I’m just not a good speaker. I never have been, and I’m not now, even after You have spoken to me. I’m clumsy with words.” (NLT) Most Biblical scholars agree that Moses probably meant by this that he stuttered. When the Lord responds to Moses by saying that He will help him to speak well, Moses still begs God to send someone else. Then we are told that God became angry with Moses and said he would send Moses’ brother Aaron with him to be his spokesperson and that He (God) would speak through both of them (v. 14-16).

In some ways like Lionel was to Bertie in this movie, Aaron became the person who helped Moses to become the man God already knew Moses could become. As the book of Exodus unfolds we see Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh many times and for the first several times Moses tells Aaron what to say to Pharaoh and Aaron speaks for Moses. However, by chapter 11 Scripture mentions Moses speaking to Pharaoh directly. In chapter 13 he addresses the Israelites directly. It certainly appears the over time God allowed Moses to become a better speaker.

In 2 Corinthians 12:9 Paul tells us that the Lord spoke to him about the thorn in his flesh, and that God said “My power works best in your weakness.” You see God is a God of the impossible and when He chooses to use someone He will give that person what he or she need when they need it. In Psalm 46:1 David writes that “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” (NIV) I am sure Moses felt like he was in time of trouble many times while fighting to free the Lord’s chosen people. I’m sure Bertie felt that way too as he began facing the challenge of being a king of country headed towards war; a king who didn’t have a strong speaking voice, but whom his country could be inspired to hope in and fight for.

As Bertie is preparing for his official ceremony to be sworn in as King of England, Lionel sits a chair that is usually occupied by another member of the English government, that he knows he has no business sitting in, and Bertie tells him to get out of it. Lionel asks him why he should listen to him. Bertie stammers a bit, but finally states somewhat angry ‘because I have a voice’ at which point Lionel states ‘yes you do!’

You see, in life we all need to find our voice, and use it to fulfill the potential that God has for us in each of our individual lives. In Matthew 6:33 Jesus told us to ‘seek first the kingdom of God’ in our lives because knowing His will is essential to our ability to serve Him. He also told us one chapter later in Matthew 7 to “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (v. 7-8 NIV). I don’t know about you but it sounds to me like God truly does want to reveal what His plans out in our lives if we are willing to listen. He also often uses other people to speak His truths to us in our lives. Like Lionel did to Bertie in “The King’s Speech” if we surround ourselves with other people wiser and further down the road in their walks with the Lord, we will encounter people who will challenge us to move closer to the plan God has for our lives. We won’t always be comfortable with what they tell us, but if we take what they have to say to heart, we will more than likely look back one day and realize that what they said helped shape us into what we have become!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Nirvana and Nihilism: Another way to share the Gospel?

Back in high school I distinctly remember a friend of mine telling me that I needed to check out this band from the 90’s that changed rock and roll music forever. I also remember looking them up and listening to some of their music and instantly being drawn into to their hard edged, yet still harmonious rock and roll sound. Ladies and gentlemen I had discovered Nirvana, and I was hooked immediately! However, I then began doing some reading about them in Christian publications and I found out that Nirvana received almost exclusively negative press from these writers. They cited their music was ‘too negative’ and ‘overly nihilistic’ and therefore not suitable for listening by people who considered themselves Christ followers. They also cited the fact that lead singer Kurt Cobain committed suicide as a reason for steering clear of his band’s music. I decided that I first should look up what ‘nihilism’ was and then give Nirvana’s music another listen, because while I certainly heard the ‘negative’ side of Cobain’s lyrics, I also thought that there was certainly a lot of parts of books in the Bible like Psalms, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastics that could be called ‘negative’ as well.

First let me define ‘nihilism.’ Nihilism is the basic belief that life is meaningless, and thus there are no morals or values that can be lived by, because there is no absolute to dictate what those morals should be. It is extremely pessimistic and often leads people who follow in its belief towards suicide, much like Cobain. However, while this may sound extremely dark and depression (and it is!) Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer once pointed out in his 1968 masterpiece “The God Who Is There” that “nihilism is correctly realistic” in a sense that it understands that the world is ultimately hopeless on its own. However, nihilism fails because it refuses to acknowledge there is hope in Christ, who provides the source of Absolute truth that the nihilist says doesn’t exist. Nihilism though, as Schaeffer saw it in some ways made Evangelism easier in today’s society, because so many people in our society today are without hope and joy, and therefore our looking for any kind of hope in their lives. Enter the Christian who can give a message of hope that reassures such people that they are correct to feel hopeless in a world full of darkness, but that Jesus is the Light of the world who came to shatter that darkness and give them eternal life (John 3:16-21).

Which leads me back in a roundabout way to Nirvana and Kurt Cobain’s lyrics. There are some excellent lyrics splattered throughout their three albums, but right now I would like to focus on two specifically. The first is the song that became a huge hit for them when it burst onto the radio and MTV back in 1991, entitled ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This song featured lyrics that are rather obscure and little hard to understand, but ultimately in my view reflect a person crying out for recognition in a generation of people who’s mentality in life is to quote the song’s chorus “here we are now, entertain us!”

You see this is where people of my age range (20-30) find themselves. So many of us are looking for the next big high for entertainment. This is one of the reason’s that the Church today in America is trying to constantly make their worship services more ‘relevant’ to the culture by making the music louder and the lyrics to the worship songs strictly being of the ‘I’m so happy all the time because it’s so wonderful being a Christian” variety. Christian speaker and author Marva J. Dawn has written about this is detail in her 1994 masterpiece “Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology Of Worship For This Urgent Time”

This mentality is many ways is ultimately what I believe, and Dawn has written, is killing the Church. While most people may on the surface have the ‘here we are now, entertain us’ belief that Cobain wrote about, I think most people once they are in a Church that is ‘dumbing down’ the Gospel for the sake of attendance figures, truly feel ‘stupid and contagious’ in some ways, to quote from the rest of the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” People know fakeness when they see it, and they much rather have you be real with them even if it is not entertaining. They don’t want to come to a Church where they ultimately leave feeling dumber than they were before, or worse that they were supposed to buy into this ‘happy all the time’ belief system and then be ‘contagious’ in a sense that they must catch the ‘happy bug’ and transmit it to others!

Christianity my friends, is far from this twisted presentation that unfortunately is present in our American church culture today. You see, there are plenty of verses and passages in the Bible that talk about pain and agony being a part of the Christian life. There were many Psalms in which David wrote about suffering and mourning (check out Psalm 55 for one example). There are also the Old Testament books of Ecclesiastes and Lamentations that speak of sorrow being a part of the life. Jesus himself lived a life that was well acquainted with suffering (Isaiah 53:3) and He also openly grieved when his friend Lazarus died (John 11:33-36). He also suffered agonizing pain in His death, but was then raised again to demonstrate His dominion over death and the sin that leads us down the path of death and destruction!

Which leads me to the second Nirvana song I would like to discuss in this blog. The song “Come As You Are” has always been one of Cobain’s finest songwriting moments in my view. The song is written from a man to a woman telling her that he wants her to simply ‘come as you are…as a friend.’ This is simply how the Lord wants us to be when we seek Him in worship. Jesus told us to ‘Come to me all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). He knows about all of our sin and pain that we are carrying with us, and he wants us to bring all that to Him and lay it down so He can take it all and cleanse us (1 John 1:9). You see He doesn’t call us servants but He has indeed called us friends (John 15:15) and we who believe in Him for redemption of our sins are now given the rite to be called Children of God (1 John 3:1).

That message of love that Cobain wrote so well in “Come As You Are” truly reflects the heart of God in my opinion. In many ways since the Church is considered the Bride of Christ, it makes sense that a love song written by a man for a woman could contain eternal Truths, and many love songs do this well, but this specific song has always communicated this better than most in my view, and it is ultimately a great way to show God’s heart for a world that grows more and more desperate for some kind of meaning and hope everyday!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

As Believers We Aren't Perfect, But God Can Use Us Anyway!

Hard times fall on all of us. Life doesn’t always work out the way you plan it at all. Sometimes people whom we trust abandon us. All of these things, plus an awful lot of fear and anxiety must have been going through the mind and heart of 17 year old Novalee Nation, the heroine of a beautiful movie that I saw recently entitled “Where The Heart Is.”

The movie begins with us learning that Novalee is a 17- year -old girl who is pregnant and not married. She has bounced from foster home to foster home since her Mother abandoned her. Her boyfriend, Willy Jack Pickens, has a plan to move across country to become a music star. They depart Tennessee with plans to go to Vegas. However, on the way it is apparent that her boyfriend is becoming less and less excited about the idea that he is about to be responsible for a new baby. When Novalee asks Willy Jack to stop at a Wal-Mart in the small Oklahoma town of Sequoyah so she can use the restroom. He sees his opportunity. He gives her ten bucks, sends her off inside, and takes off. When she emerges from the store, she sees that he is gone, and the only thing he left is her old Polaroid camera sitting on the pavement of the parking space.

If Novalee ever had a reason to simply give up right there and ask God “now what?” it sure would have made sense at this point. However, she sits down in the parking lot for a while, gathers herself and heads back inside the store. For the next several weeks as her third trimester is nearing its close, she lives in Wal-Mart! She manages to keep it a secret, and meets some of the town folks who are immediately kind to her. She meets a woman who is the official town welcome lady who goes by the name of Thelma “Sister” Husband. She gives Novalee a daily planner and welcome basket as well as a buckeye tree. She tells Novalee that she is the phone book and that she should call her anytime she needs anything.

Next she meets Moses Whitecotten, a man who works at Wal-Mart once a week as their photographer. Then about a month later she meets Forney Hull a young man who works at the small town library. She goes to the library to learn how to take care of the buckeye tree that Thelma gave her. It is then that Forney suggests she re-contact the person who gave her the tree, which leads her back to Thelma’s house. Thelma invites her inside and ask her to have dinner with her and Mr. Sprock a fine southern gentleman who Thelma admits to sleeping with even though they aren’t married. She even confesses this in prayer asking for God’s forgiveness for the ‘fornication that took place right on this kitchen table this very morning.’

While this is certainly a major inconsistency with Thelma’s professed Christianity, her hospitality, and love for people speaks volumes. After Novalee has her baby girl whom she names Americus, Thelma takes her in and basically adopts her as if she were her own daughter. Thelma also is a recovering alcoholic and she is also known to have always been willing to pick up fellow Alcoholics Anonymous members who had fallen off the wagon from time to time and give them a ride home. All of these qualities and actions echo how Jesus himself spoke about the importance of Christians to ‘share food with those who are hungry’ (Luke 3:11) and ‘give shelter to strangers’ and ‘water to those who are thirty’ (Matthew 25: 34-40). They also echo what the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 6:2-3 about sharing each other’s troubles and that ‘if you think you are too important to help someone in need, you are only fooling yourself (v. 3 NLT).

Throughout this entire movie though is an overall theme of God ultimately being in control and looking out for young Novalee. As is often the case, He works in this movie primarily through people. Take for example night she goes into labor, Forney is outside Wal-Mart keeping an eye on her. He had seen her go inside right before the store closed and decided to watch and see if in fact she actually lived there. When she collapses on the floor in labor pains he bursts through the store window and, though it isn’t shown, we assume he calls the paramedics for her and waits with her there until they arrive.

Another example is how at the hospital she meets a young nurse named Lexie Coop who is a single mother who has had children with several different fathers. Thus, Lexie understands the fears the Novalee is experiencing with being a brand new single mom. Therefore, they become fast friends!

Then there is Moses Whitecotten, the photographer who helps nurture in Novalee the love she has for photography. He gives her an old camera of his, and encourages her to take photos of the town and its people. This leads her to becoming one of Sequoyah’s main photographers as she photographs weddings and various events and people for the town paper.

Another scene demonstrates how God sometimes intervenes directly in our lives takes place about three years later, when during a tornado, Novalee and Americus are inside of a storm basement shelter. As Novalee is coming down the stairs and before she can close the doors, the storm hits its peak and Novalee is forced to hang on for dear life to the railings of the stairway as the winds howl above, Americus, obviously scared begins to run toward her Mom. The teddy bear Americus is holding is ripped out of her hands by the suction of the twister and Novalee lets go of the railing with one arm to try and catch it. She misses the bear, but when Americus herself begins to be sucked up into the storm, she is able to catch her with that same arm that she missed catching the teddy bear. At that same moment is she is clinging to her daughter with one arm and holding on for her own life with the other, the door to the shelter slams shut, instantly blocking out the wind! I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t help but thinking of how that scene shows how God does intervene in our lives when we need Him the most!

Even Willy Jack Pickens five years after he dumped Novalee off at the Wal-Mart, is given a harsh wake up call that ultimately leads him to seek out forgiveness. This to me illustrates how for some people, God needs to allow hard times to hit in order for them to seek Him and come back into fellowship with Him.

One other part of the movie that brings up some thoughts on morality occurs within a conversation between Lexie and Novalee, after one of Lexie’s boyfriends is caught molesting two of her children. Upon being caught, he beats Lexie severely and takes off. It is in that aftermath that Lexie asks Novalee ‘what can I say to my children when they ask me why this (the molesting) happened to them?’ Novalee responds by saying:
“You tell them that our lives can change with every breath we take... and tell 'em to hold on like hell to what they've got: each other, and a mother who would die for them and almost did... You tell them we've all got meanness in us, but we've got goodness too. And the only thing worth living for is the good. And that's why we've got to make sure we pass it on.”

While The Bible does not have a lot of backing for it, I have always believed that most people have a moral compass inside of them that has a sense of right and wrong, regardless of whether they are a Christian or not. Thus in a sense we do have ‘meanness’ and ‘goodness’ in us but the ‘only thing worth living for is the good.’ While have all been born sinners since the Fall of Man, I think there is one specific passage in Romans that sheds some light on the possibility of a moral compass within people. In Romans 2: 14-15 the Apostle Paul writes “Even when Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, instinctively follow what the law says, they show that in their hearts they know right from wrong. They demonstrate that God’s law is written within them, for their own consciences either accuse them or tell them they are doing what is right.” (NLT) That ‘instinct’ in a sense could be a moral compass that guides humanity towards what is right, even if they don’t have Jesus living in their hearts.

To conclude let me say that overall this movie sums up what Solomon wrote in Proverbs 27:19 “As a face is reflected in water, so the heart reflects the person.” (NLT) While the people in this movie are far from perfect and don’t always behave in a manner that reflects Christian morals and values, their hearts truly seem to be in the right place. In this story, God uses these less than perfect people to show love to a young girl who truly grows up and begins raising her own child in their midst.

In some ways isn’t that true of all of us who claim to be Christians. We fail often too, yet God still uses us to accomplish His will. As Paul wrote to Timothy that he was writing him so that “All the Christians there would be filled with love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and sincere faith. (1 Timothy 1:5b) You see as Believers we should be motivated to help those like Novalee Nation in our lives. We must demonstrate all of the hospitality that Thelma “Sister” Husband showed towards Novalee and many others in Sequoyah. Once we are Redeemed by Christ, our hearts are pure and we can be filled with His love for each other and the world around us, especially those who are downtrodden and in desperate need of compassion!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Finding Godly Thoughts On The Road

This past Halloween I decided to dress up as Jack Kerouac. I wore a black and charcoal button down shirt, a pair of jeans and carried around a rolled up scroll of paper with the words “On The Road” written on it, as well as a rolled up fake cigarette. No one knew who I was supposed to be. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, as Jack Kerouac is not extremely well known among most people my age.

He was a 1950’s writer who wrote stream of consciousness prose about his observations of America while traveling by car across the United States. He became a huge hit and one of the burgeoning authors who would make up what historians would later call the ‘beat’ writers of the 50’s, who would heavily influence the people of the hippie movement a decade later. While his writing did often discuss episodes of fornication from both Kerouac and his other friends the book, it also expressed compassion for the poor and victims of racism, as well as portraying and conveying the true beauty of the American landscape. The topic of God also crops up here and there, as Kerouac was raised in a Catholic home and though he tried Buddhism at one point in his life, he kept to a consistent belief in God throughout his tragically short life.

For this blog I am doing something a bit different. I have decided to pull a few quotes out of the aforementioned “On The Road” memoir and discuss them in light of scripture. So for this post, I am writing about a non-Christian book, whereas up until this point I have discussed a couple of books by Christian authors. I plan on doing this a bit more often, considering I cover mainstream music and movies and the Biblical Truths they convey consistently.

Here is the first quote I would like to discuss:

“Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk--eal straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious."

There is a lot here to break down. First and foremost, I think it is really quite good that Kerouac is realizing that boys and girls in America are engaging in sexual intercourse at an alarming rate in their relationship without ‘proper talk.’ When you bear in mind that he wrote this in the mid 1950’s it becomes all the more amazing. It is also worth noting that the word ‘sophistication’ here more than likely used here by Kerouac to mean ‘make impure or adulterate’ as opposed the normal definition we usually use it for today meaning ‘to refine’ or ‘make more complex.’

This actually somewhat reflects what the Bible says about sexual intercourse outside of marriage as being immoral (1 Cor. 6:18-20 is one example), though Kerouac doesn’t completely condemn all sex outside of marriage, just sex that happens too quickly in a relationship. However the final line in this segment is also well spoken. “Life is holy and every moment is precious.” In God’s eyes our lives are very important. What we do here on earth matters in eternity. As the Apostle John writes in 1 John 3:19 “It is by our actions that we know we are living in the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before the Lord.” Therefore not only are our lives important and we should desire to live a Holy life (1 Thessalonians 4:7), but we should also realize that every moment that we have is a gift and is therefore precious.

Another aspect of Kerouac’s work that I have always loved is his aforementioned compassion with which he writes for the American migrant workers and victims of racism and bigotry. He always wrote about how he would feel sad seeing people who were down and out while he was hitchhiking around the country. One example is here where he is watching a caravan of jalopies driving out west:

"They have worries, they're counting the miles, they're thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they'll get there--and all the time they'll get there anyway, you see."

This compassion for those who ‘have worries’ about ‘money for gas’ and ‘how they’ll get there’ reflects the heart of our Father in Heaven as well. God desires that those of us on earth who are blessed with much to be generous to those who are not as blessed as well are. Jesus told us in Luke 3:11 that “If you have two coats give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.”

Far too often though, we see less and less people acting on these commands. The temptations to keep everything for ourselves become greater and greater it seems the more and more we have. Jesus also taught that it would be harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than it is for a camel to travel through the eye of needle (Matthew 19:24). Kerouac himself later on in his life found the amount of fame, and thus wealth, that he received from the success of “On The Road” was ultimately harder to cope with than his life beforehand, when he was an ordinary person. In some ways he felt more connected to humanity and the pain of the common man when he, in a sense, became one of them himself, hitchhiking across America.

Ultimately though, while Kerouac’s work feature a large amount of stories about fornication, binge drinking, and drug consumption, it also features an overarching theme of compassion and love for a human race that although broken is still precious in God’s sight. “On The Road” is a story of just that, a journey around our great country and the people that one encounters on that journey. However, it is also a story about one man’s desire to find God in the world, and even though Kerouac often looks in the wrong places, he never gives us as readers the impression that he has stopped searching!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sometimes we need to be in silence in order to hear

We live in a technological golden age. That is a plain and simple fact. In our society today, everyone over the age of eight has a cell phone, anyone over the age of 12 is on Facebook or Myspace or Twitter, and it seems just about every college student has an iPhone, iPod, iPad or Mac Laptop. Hey I won’t lie, I have a cell phone, I am on Facebook, I own and use an iPod, and had a Mac Laptop in College (I now have newer Mac desktop that I am currently typing this blog on). However, considering how much we have to constantly distract and keep noise around us at all times, our generation has a tendency to claim they are bored so very often.

I personally have come to believe that God does not want us to be constantly surrounded by noise and fast paced, technology driven living. This is message of the Five For Fighting song “Slice” that I believe God is speaking to all of us through.

This song asks us to recall a time ‘a long long time ago” when “chevy’s and levee’s played on the radio” (an obvious reference to Don McLean’s “American Pie”) a time before cell phones where there were just “20,000 lights swaying on a Saturday night.”

You see at the end of early rock and roll concerts fans would in unison light their cigarette lighters and hold them in the air as a sign that they wanted the band to play an encore. If you have ever been to a concert you know the sense of community that can be present there. It is the same kind of sense of community one might feel at a baseball game. See at a sporting event or a rock concert the people gathered there are all unified on one thing. At a sporting event thousands of people are there to cheer on their home team to a victory. At a rock concert thousands of people are in attendance to hear their favorite band play their favorite songs live in front of their very eyes!

Gathering in community is important for us as Believers. The author of Hebrews even commands us to meet together to Worship and to encourage each other (Hebrews 10:25). The main difference between rock concerts or ball games and church is that in church we are gathered in community to Worship the one true God who loves us and desires us to Worship Him in joy, so that the Joy we have in Him will be seen through us as we go out and love the people in the world that He created. It is this concept that John Piper writes about in his book that I am currently reading “Desiring God.”

As “Slice” continues on, the singer speaks of how America seemed so much simpler before blogs, cell phones and other technology took over. You see I think what he is trying to say is just 30-40 short years ago a person could truly get away from distractions. For example, back then when Friday evening came a person could get away from the office and spend uninterrupted time with his family, because there were no cell phones for him to be reached on 24 hours a day.

The Psalms have a lot to say about seeking God in the quiet and stillness of our hearts. In Psalm 46:10a the Psalmist is writing from God’s perspective stating “Be still and know that I am God” in Psalm 37:7 David writes “Be still in the presence of the Lord and wait patiently for him to act.”

I don’t know about you but how often do we do this? I know I don’t do this nearly often enough. You see friends, God desires to meet with us, but in order for Him to truly be able to do that. We need to strip away all our other distractions and seek Him and Him alone. That has gotten harder than ever in the age in which we live, but thus we simply need to make more of a conscious effort to do just that.

One of the great things about one of the Churches I am a part of, is that we set aside time each Wednesday evening to come together to seek the Lord in Prayer. As I have made it priority to go at least two or three times a month, I find God speaking to me more clearly than He ever has before! If any of you readers out there have ever found yourself in a desert time in your walk with God, I recommend that you truly strip away your distractions and be quiet in His presence. He often speaks like He did to Elijah on the mountaintop in 1 Kings 19:12, in a quiet whisper, that we need to be in complete silence to hear.

It is no wonder that the Bible tells us that Jesus went off very early in the morning to a solitary place to pray (Mark 1:35), He was demonstrating to all of us the importance of seeking the Lord in the stillness of our own hearts! While it has become very difficult in our culture to be in complete silence, I believe it may be all the more crucial in our times that we live in right now!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

We are commanded to use our gifts for His glory

I am not a typical guy when it comes to my taste in movies. You see action movies and sci-fi movies are rarely the type of movies I genuinely enjoy the most. For me a film needs to have a good story in order to hook me. It needs to be realistic to the fact that life can be messy. I don’t care how many cars you blow up or aliens from a different planet you have in your movie; if you don’t have solid story with memorable characters and a genuine message, I am not going to like your movie.

That being said, my favorite movie of all time is “Jerry Maguire,” writer/director Cameron Crowe’s 1996 masterpiece that works like an incredible modern day parable similar to the one Jesus told in Matthew 25:14-30 about a wealthy man who gave a certain amount of money to each of his servants and asked him to use it in a way that would make the man a profit. As the parable goes, the wealthy investor gave different amounts of money to his servants and then went away on a journey. When he returned months or even years later and called the servants to him to ask how they had used the money he gave them, each man stepped forward and stated how much he had been given, and on almost every occasion they had each doubled the amount they had started with by investing it in various ways. Each servant is then blessed by his wealthy employer and given more responsibility. All accept for, that is, the servant who simply buried the amount of money he had been given and risked nothing to try and multiply it; this servant was punished by his master severely.

Jesus tells us the Kingdom of Heaven is the same way. You see God gives all of us gifts that he wants us to use for His glory, and if we chose not to use them, He will not bless our life. In “Jerry Maguire” our protagonist who the film is named after, is a successful sports agent who has tons of clients whom he cares very little about personally, but plenty about when it comes to getting them the most money, and the biggest contracts. When he has an epiphany and writes a mission statement about how agents like him should care less about money, and more about their clients as people, he finds himself fired from the agency he works for, and dumped by all but one of his clients. So he takes his one client (a Arizona Cardinals tight end named Rod Tidwell) and one loyal co-worker (Dorothy Boyd) who agrees to join him in starting his independent agency, and begins life fresh.

Jerry draws a lot of his inspiration from a man who was his mentor, an agent named Dicky Fox who makes appearances throughout the movie sharing pieces of wisdom about life. My personal favorite of these quotes is as the film is building to a climax and Dicky appears on screen and simply points to his heart saying ‘if this is empty, this (pointing to his head) doesn’t matter.” I remember the first time I saw this movie that I began immediately thinking that that one line could easily be the finest summation of 1 Corinthians 13: 1-3 I had ever heard!

However, there is even more to this movie than that! Jerry and Rod develop a friendship throughout the movie that much like Rodger Maris and Mickey Mantle in “61” illustrates Proverbs 27:17 once again. Jerry challenges Rod to play the game of football because of his love for the game and to quit smart talking his coaches and whining to him about ‘showing him (Rod) the money” all the time. Jerry tells him to put his heart back into his playing, and maybe then the Cardinals will be willing to offer him a bigger contract.

Jerry also goes through an incredible character arc throughout this fantastic film. He immediately falls in love with Dorothy Boyd’s young son Roy. He also begins to have feelings for her as well. However, when Jerry initially fails to secure any big contract for Rod, Dorothy chooses to take a job out of town. Jerry then decides to rush into a marriage with Dorothy in order to keep her and her son in town. This is where Rod begins to challenge Jerry on working on his marriage with Dorothy. He always asks him how his marriage is going and even dares to ask him why he got married in the first place. Jerry responds that he did so because of her loyalty to him that she showed by giving up her job at the agency to go independent with him. Rod’s response to this is to laugh, and state: “well that’s a reason, it isn’t sexy, but it’s a reason!” Indeed loyalty is important but it certainly shouldn’t be the only reason you do something as life changing as marrying a person!

Ultimately as this movie concludes both men learn a lot from each other and do a fine job of illustrating what it looks like to live out the Apostle Paul’s words in Colossians 3:23 “Work hard and cheerfully at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people” (NLT). In my view this verse ties in quite well with Jesus parable in Matthew 25. You see friends, God gives every one of us gifts and talents. For some of us like Rod Tidwell in this film it is the gift of athleticism to play a game for all of us to enjoy and be entertained by watching! For others of us, like Jerry Maguire, we are given people skills to be able to negotiate and work with our fellow humans to improve each others lives. Still others are given the gift of writing or composing music, while others are given the gift of teaching or called to be Pastors. Some are given the call into the mission fields of foreign countries, others given the ability to solve complex math equations or discover cures for diseases. Whatever it is that the Lord has given us to do in life, we are commanded to use those gifts for His glory, and that means we must put our full effort into everything we do. Anything less and we are wasting the gifts He has given us!