Cinema > Sermon

GTY_audience_watch_horror_movie_jt_140621_16x9_992Sometime I wonder if Jesus spoke in our churches, if he wouldn’t get asked back. His style was so different from what most people hear on Sunday morning. Actually, his approach reminds me more of the cinema than a sermon.

Discovery > Clarity
The movies that cause me to roll my eyes are always the ones I can see where things are headed. It’s predictable. Weather the director has made the foreshadowing too obvious or the characters in the film are not realistic, the audience never wants to feel like they are on a rail road track forced to head in a certain direction. It can almost feel insulting when you can see the girl is going to break up with her idiot boyfriend and marry the handsome but troubled stranger after 5 minutes into the movie.

On the other hand, my favorite movies are the ones that surprise me. The ones I end up discussing and thinking about long after the credits roll. I love movies with twist endings. I’m inspired by films that cause me to think and stir something inside me.

Similarly, Jesus taught in a way that allowed people to discover the truth. That’s why he told so many stories. People were free to uncover the truth on their own. They left with their own interpretation and even misinterpretation.

Often, sermons today are known for prescribing solutions. How often do pastors tell us what to think rather than cause us to think? When’s the last time we left a church service with more questions than answers? It seems to me, most of Jesus’ listeners walked away confused, uncertain, and with plenty to talk about. Today, we often leave far too sure of ourselves and thinking about where to go to lunch.

Many churches pride themselves on teaching the Bible verse by verse (expository preaching) but Jesus never taught this way once. His inductive and inspirational style always kept crowds guessing. One of Jesus’ favorite lines was “You’ve heard it said… Now I tell you…” Sometimes I wonder if the church today has settled for just “You’ve heard it said.”

Nuance > Knowledge
As I’ve studied film, I’ve come to admire how much thought goes into the color tones, wardrobe, backdrops, and script. Everything is done for a specific reason and to evoke a certain emotion in the viewer. For instance, next time you watch a movie notice how the colors of the protagonist will usually be bright or when the negative turn occurs in a film, is typically in the evening. Film makers care about every painstaking detail so their art is communicated perfectly. If you think of all the great films, they had a subtlety to them that left you appreciating the way the director told the story.

As I’ve studied Jesus’ teachings, I’ve discovered a similiar kind of art form. His words were loaded with nuance and symbolism. His stories painted these complex and beautiful pictures of a kingdom we long for. Sometimes, he would make subtle references to his rabbinic tradition or the surrounding culture. His teachings remind me more of a master painter than a sermon. I’ve grown to appreciate his craft and creativity.

In the prodigal son story, the audience would have been offended by the son requesting his share of the inheritance. They would have been shocked by the father running to embrace him. They would have understood the powerful symbolism behind the father giving his son the best robe, a ring, and shoes. The would have been stirred by the sacrifice of the fattened calf. They would have been troubled by the father’s words to his other son, “‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”(1)

Most sermons are not characterized by this same kind of creativity. Today, sermons often feel cookie cutter and formulaic. They can sometimes feel over-rehearsed or scripted.

So why don’t pastors teach like Jesus? I think in the pastor’s concern for being accurate, they’ve forgotten the craft Jesus explored. Perhaps some have learned to trust what their congregation is expecting rather than the Spirit of God. Others are so fearful of being wrong, they don’t dare be creative. After all, artistic expression is inherently risky, so much so, it got Jesus killed. However, great art is what transforms lives, not sermons.

For so long I think I was reading from a prescribed script when it came to communicating to others about God. Ironically, now I think I’m starting to read the Bible and see how Jesus did it. Like a good movie, his teachings refresh and awaken something inside me. I discover something new every time and I find myself memorizing some of the best lines. Best of all, I find his stories coming up in conversations as easily as “Have you seen that movie?” I’m not interested in converting others with the good news. I’m excited to be inspired with others like a good movie.

 

  1. Luke 15:11-32

 

The Stories We Tell

852I still get flashbacks when I climb the stairs in our home.
Growing up, my parents would get into arguments late at night. They assumed my sister and I were asleep, but often their arguing would wake us up. It was then I’d sneak out of bed and sit at the top of the stairs to listen. Sometimes, I’d sit there for hours memorizing the shadows on the ceiling while they’d seesaw from whispers to screams and my tears would mix in with the carpet. Because my parents didn’t explain what they were arguing about or how they resolved the conflict, I would create a story in my head. Often that story involved me being at fault. Sometimes, it was because I was dumb or irresponsible or a failure.

Neuroscientists have discovered our brains crave meaning. We are actually wired to create stories. If no one shares with us a truer or better story our brain will take events and experiences and craft its own. It has to in order to find meaning. So much of modern counseling has to do with taking what’s happened in our past and reframing those experiences into a truer or better story. For me, this reframing has been a long road but I no longer think my parents arguing was my fault. While the top of the stairs still haunts me from time to time, God has created a better story that no longer ends with shame. The story has changed and so I’ve discovered a different meaning to those experiences.

What story are you believing?
When he left.
When she hurt you.
When you couldn’t look yourself in the mirror.
Our painful memories can become prisons where we lock ourselves into a shameful story.

When Stories Changed
I hear Christians all the time complain about the changing culture. The rhetoric is filled with false nostalgia and culture wars but I do think there’s some truth to what they’re saying. The culture is changing, but I don’t blame it on the gay agenda or the democrats of some other ridiculous scapegoat. I blame the changing culture on Christians.

See, there was a time when Christians were most of the world’s great artists. Many composed symphonies or painted masterpieces or wrote scripts or penned poetry that inspired the world. Their art told a better and truer story that compelled the world toward love, forgiveness, and freedom. Things weren’t perfect of course, but at least it was hopeful.

Slowly, Christians began exchanging the desire to write new stories for the need to protect the stories they already had. Churches turned from splendid stain glassed steeples to drab multi-purpose rooms. Instead of bold artists exploring new creative landscapes they became defenders of doctrine. Where there was once beauty, there is now bullet points. The creation story was no longer a story that evoked awe and wonder but a textbook to battle science and secularists.

This left a void.

Soul Cravings
I said at the beginning our brains crave meaning. Since Christians were no longer authoring new stories and charting new territory, our culture began finding meaning elsewhere. However, the stories are different. They are shadows, but they still speak.

Every once in awhile you’ll watch a movie and when it ends you’re not quite ready to leave the theater. It spoke to you. It called out of you something true or noble or brave. You felt a surprising surge of motivation to ask that girl out, or try for that job, or just drive fast.

Maybe it’s a song you’ll sit and listen to in your car while the rain pours down in a parking lot. It wells up in you something that’s gone dormant or possibly even something you’ve tried to forget. The Bible calls this when deep calls out to deep and it can feel like our soul runs ahead of our mind for a time. Like rumors of a land we once called home. We can almost envision the prison we’ve grown accustomed to creak open ever so slightly.

We are all searching for a better story.

The Last Chapter
This helps me make sense of heaven and hell. See, I don’t think the Bible is lying when it says there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God found in Jesus. (1) Therefore, sin does not keep us from God, our shame chooses to. What if hell is simply my decision to believe a bad story about myself? I choose to be that 12 year old on the top of the stairs who is dumb, irresponsible, and a failure. I decide this will be my story and shame becomes my meaning. I choose to slam the prison door closed.

Just like the trafficked girl chooses to believe her pimp loves her.
Just like the houseless man chooses to believe this is now home.
We choose to believe the hellish story about ourselves rather than something more.

Do you choose to believe the story,
He left because I am not worthy of love.
She hurt me because I deserved it.
I couldn’t look myself in the mirror because I’ll never change.
What story of shame are you holding onto?

No wonder after the first sin, God’s first words to the first two humans experiencing shame for the very first time was,

“Who told you…?” (2)

The author of life still asks us this question today.
I really think the Christian faith is an invitation to imagine a better story. As those who are made in the image of the Creator, he draws us to craft a new story. The great Artist calls to us a reality about ourselves that is truer and better than anything else we’ve settled for.

He reaches out his hand and offers a way out of the prison cell.
He opens our souls and reads us a new story.
He picks me up from the top of the stairs and gently tucks me back into bed.
He sees your shame and forever covers it in his cross.
He spots you from a long way off and goes running to embrace you and bring you home.

Today, I choose to believe this story about myself. It rings true. Far better.
I’d love for you to join me.

 

  1. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. -Romans 8:38-39
  2. Genesis 3:11

 

 

 

Dear Christian, This May Be Why You Were Silent On Sunday

Paul Cox, Brian SullivanA terrible tragedy occurred yesterday. 50 people died and another 53 injured in an Orlando nightclub. Many of the victims were of the LGBTQ community.

In light of these events , I noticed something peculiar. Many of my Christian friends did not even mention the tragedy. I spoke with some Sunday morning and I had to bring up the topic. I browsed social media and the Christians were unusually quiet. I polled many who went to church that morning and hardly any churches mentioned the events from up front. The deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history occurred and among many Christians, things were business as usual.

If you fall into this category of Christian and silent, I’d like to offer 6 possible reasons why:

1. You’re Getting Used To It.
There has been 50 school shootings since Sandy Hook. Over 998 shootings in total. Sadly this news has become common. Could it be you’ve grown numb to these tragedies? Does it feel like your soul has given up? Are you tired of crying? Please beware of a lack of compassion as you follow One who cried drops of blood for people.

2. Too Political.
Already, many are posting opinions on gun laws and terrorism. Our country is finding reasons to further divide while we miss the simple reason to unify.
People. Human beings. Those made in the very image of God with unsurmountable beauty and worth are gone.

Christian, has politics become your idol? Has your opinion overshadowed human life? Please understand when you make this tragedy political, you dishonor the lives for whom Jesus died.

silence is evil3. Mourning Could Mean Condoning. 
I cringe at even writing the sentence above, but sadly it could be true. I wonder if that’s the gritty truth behind why many pastors were silent behind their pulpits yesterday. Have you so embraced your stance, any compassion could be seen as a weakness on your position? Have you set your feet so firm, your heart no longer reaches out?

Dear Christian, do you remember the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s and how the church was unusually quiet toward the LGBTQ community then as well? Many suggest this missed opportunity to love was the beginning of the end of the institutional church in America.

4. Didn’t Know Who To Blame. 
As the details of Orlando came forth, we were unclear of the motivation and nature of the shooter. I suspect many Christians were waiting to see where to point their condemnation rather than compelled to express compassion. Was it easier to sympathize when you found out the shooter was Muslim? Is it easier to point a finger rather than kneel in prayer?

Dear Christian, your religion is becoming inspired by what you’re against rather than who you are for. Please remember, your battle is not against flesh and blood and that battle has already been won.

5. It May Have Been God’s Will. 
What a dangerous thought. I recognize a vast majority of Christians do not believe this, but your silence still speaks. When there is a vocal minority and a silent majority, this damning message wins. Most of the LGBTQ community sees church as enemy territory and Christians as openly hostile toward their lifestyle. Regardless if you have perpetuated this opinion or not, it is how you are perceived. Christian, to remain silent means others continue to assume the worst.

For those who believe this tragedy could have been God’s will, I’m sorry. I’m sorry you view God this way. I’m sorry you feel like a disappointment to any angry god. I’m sorry your sacrifices will never be enough. Jesus is better than you think. Please love mercy again.

6. What Your Group May Think.
Any healthy organization has the ability to critique itself. The Bible is unique in that it is filled with prophets who continually point out the hypocrisy of the religious. We must do the same.

Christian, have you found yourself a part of a group that no longer questions itself? Has this group become easily threatened and overly certain? Did you keep your compassion silent in order to not question your group? These are elements of cults, not Christianity. Ironically, your lack of acknowledging your doubt is exactly what creates the religious extremism that murders 50 people.  Meanwhile, Jesus never once responded negatively to someone with a sincere question. Please remember your faith is not a list of belief statements to agree to but a dynamic and personal relationship with the Creator. Therefore, there is no certainty in relationships, only trust. Please allow your loyalty be not to a group or a church, but to a God who already knows your doubt and is more than comfortable talking about it.

All of these reasons are inspired by fear. You have become afraid of others, God, or yourself. But Christian, perfect love drives out fear (1). You are loved by Someone who said 365 times in the Bible to “fear not”.

Terrorist’s produce fear, you are asked to share love. This love looks less like solutions and more like solidarity. This love mourns with those who mourn and cares for the suffering. A love that does not cast condemnation but makes peace. A God of love that holds the families of the victims in their pain and holds you right now in your pride.

 

  1. 1 John 4:18

 

Not Quite Compassion (pt. 3 of 3)

Boy-Alone-on-Long-Road-HD-WallpapersIt’s been a long road.
My journey toward compassion has had it’s stops along the way. I stopped short at comparison. There’s nothing wrong with being thankful for what we have, it’s just not quite compassion. I also stopped short at charity. There’s nothing wrong with being generous or serving people, it’s just not quite compassion.

While I have much farther to travel toward compassion, here are a few ways I know I’m headed the right way:

A Name.
I’ve seen compassion destroyed the moment I allow myself to label someone. If I can categorize, I can minimize, and then excuse myself from caring. Labeling someone is dismissive. It strips the other of their uniqueness and robs them of their story. It ends the conversation. You cannot label someone and maintain a humble curiosity.

I really think that’s why I can be so spiteful and mean in the car. It’s because other’s around me are no longer human. They’ve become obstacles in my way. They’ve become an annoyance in my self-centered world. It’s anything but compassion.

However, when I learn someone’s name, everything starts to change. I cannot categorize or label. The other becomes a unique creation of God and I start to get interested.

Take time to learn the name of the barista or bus driver or one of your houseless neighbors. Watch how this changes things.

Laura and I have this magnet on our fridge with a picture of a bunch of houses. In the blank houses, we’ve written the names of our neighbors in the immediate vicinity. I know it’s a small thing, but it’s a step toward compassion.

When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. “Zacchaeus!” he said. “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.” -Luke 19:5

A Reason.
We’re really good at creating stories about people. We do it all the time. We imagine why our coworker didn’t reply to our email is because she is irresponsibe. We assume why the person on the street is homeless is because he’s lazy. I presumed Laura wasn’t listening to me yesterday because she thought I was boring.

These stories have a way of growing in our head and take on a life of their own. Everything that person now does proves the story we created. The story becomes reality as we find ourselves less and less connected to that person while compassion slowly dies.

However, if we take time to really listen and understand, we may discover
The coworker has been distracted by a child who is suicidal.
The homeless man lost his wife last year.
Laura was just feeling sick and needed some NyQuil and a nap.

When we look for the real reason why people are the way they are, we’ll discover an increased compassion. We honor the person by taking time to understand the true story. When we discover the reason, we become more connected.

Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. -Psalm 139:1-3

A Response.
I can’t become compassionate on my own. I will only love to the extent I feel loved. I will cringe when other’s get breaks until the day I receive something I don’t deserve. Jesus said it best:

 “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” -Luke 4:47

This is the sad reality behind why so many Christians are not compassionate. They imagine a god who is angry or disappointed or separated. Compassion cannot develop from any of these views of God. We become what we believe.

God is love.(1)
The more I experience this love, the more compassionate I will become. This love will fill me and spill onto everyone I come into contact with. This may seem simple, but it’s a step we easily forget.

So, take time each day to be loved.
If there’s anything I’ve learned about this long road toward compassion, it is that I often need to sit and rest.
I let God speak into my soul’s greatest need. I rest in the knowledge I am fully known and fully loved.
There’s nothing I will ever do to make him love me more.
There’s nothing I will ever do to make him love me less.
I am loved.
The cross was the definitive statement of this love.
And so I get up from the shade, continue down the road, and determine again to love others. Compassion calls out, and we respond by going a little further each day.

We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first. -1 John 4:19

 

  1. 1 John 4:8