Friday, July 24, 2015

At The Movies - Week Four: (Jurassic World)

This week we are concluding the sermon series that we've been working on for the past several weeks--a sermon series entitled "At The Movies."  Each week we have been using hit movies from the past year to serve as our inspiration and illustrations.  

This week we will be relying on this summer's biggest hit, Jurassic World to help us in our efforts to develop skills to experience God in the world around us.  I know.  That sounds like a tall order, doesn't it?  The fact of the matter is that God is all around us, and is still speaking and creating.  We just need to have eyes that are opened to the reality of God in the world.  

Our little weekly conversations throughout this month have been exercises on how to practice opening our eyes.  If you can find the spiritual center of a movie, connect it to Scripture and then again to how you can live a life more fully integrated into the kingdom of God...  then you are on your way to be fully awake to God all around you. 

In case you have no idea what Jurassic World is all about--nor any idea where the whole Jurassic movie franchise came from... I highly suggest you read Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park, which launched the whole thing.  Essentially, all four movies based on the book are centered around the idea that scientists discover a way to genetically reproduce dinosaurs, and then try to make money off of the idea by way of an amusement park.  When things go wrong because of corporate greed and human frailty---the dinos get loose and start eating people.  

Jurassic World takes place many years after the first failed attempts at an amusement part and the synopsis of the movie is simply this: 

Located off the coast of Costa Rica, the Jurassic World luxury resort provides a habitat for an array of genetically engineered dinosaurs, including the vicious and intelligent Indominus rex. When the massive creature escapes, it sets off a chain reaction that causes the other dinos to run amok. Now, it's up to a former military man and animal expert (Chris Pratt) to use his special skills to save two young brothers and the rest of the tourists from an all-out, prehistoric assault.

Or you can watch this movie trailer if you like: 

Most movies like Jurassic World often tap into general anxieties that are prevalent in culture.  During the Cold War, for example, there were scores of movies that often created metaphors both obvious and subtle to muse about the struggle between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R..  Jurassic World and all of the movies in the franchise actually reflect the anxiety over our increasing reliance on technology, rapid advancements in genetic engineering and manipulation and all of the ethical issues surrounding scientific discoveries that allow us to circumvent nature.

I've heard the way scientists approach these kinds of advancements as a kind of "Promethean thrill."  Prometheus was the god in Greek mythology who introduced humans to technology.  He gave humans fire and helped them advance in power and self-reliance.  He was punished by Zeus for this, a facet of the story that tells us a great deal about humanity's relationship to technology throughout history.  The tower of Babel story in the Bible is actually a story about how the technology of the brick brought about a new age of power and pride for humans.  

So essentially new discoveries and technologies bring a thrill to those who discover or invent them as they "gift" them to humankind.  But there is always a bit of anxiety surrounding not only how these technologies affect humans, but how those who discover them might also be consumed in the process.  

Jurassic World is full of themes of humans trying to control nature and scientific outcomes, and how human elements like greed and power subvert control over how technology and knowledge is disseminated and used.  

In addition there is also a warning in each film about how dangerous it is to have a lack of respect for nature and Science in it's "purest" form, which is devoid of greed, ambition, and centered on the greater good. 

I think that there are deeper anxieties that these movies tap into, however.  It's not enough that they reflect a general sense of disquiet in society at large, I think they unsettle something in each of us.  What they seem to be saying is this:  "There is something greater at work here, and you better not mess with it."

None of these movies acknowledge the "something greater" as God, though.  But I think that's exactly what's at work.  You see deeper still, there is a story that is embedded in each of us that Jurassic World resonates with more than just a little.  The story that I am referring to is the story of "the Fall" of humankind as outlined in Genesis 3.  

In Genesis 3 the first man and woman are told not to eat of a particular tree--the Tree of Knowledge.  The serpent comes to the woman in the story and tells her that the reason why God doesn't want her eating the fruit is because it will give her the power to judge, to be like God.  So naturally, the man and the woman eat the fruit and all hell breaks loose.  

The basic statement that eating from the forbidden fruit asserts is: "God is not in control--I am."  This is what you and I say almost every single day of our lives in one way or another.  And so we still take a bite of the fruit.  

The one word that sums up everything that is wrong in this story is a simple one and it is the word that we are circling around today:  Pride.  

Just like pride went before the fall of humankind, pride goes before all of the moments in our lives where we stumble and fall flat on our faces.  Which brings me to this week's little rhyme which will help us put our minds around all of this:  

The hardest lesson of all is that pride goes before a fall. 

I heard this story about two ducks and a frog who all lived in a pond and were friends--as they would be.  Anyway the pond dried up and they could no longer stay there.  The ducks told the frog of a pond nearby where they could fly, but they had no way to bring him.  The frog thought for a moment and then suggested that the ducks find a stick that they could hold between their beaks, stretched between the two of them.  The frog would then grab the stick in his mouth and they could fly him out.  They all agreed and got a stick.  The frog latched on and the ducks flew away.  They were high in the air almost to the pond when a farmer below them exclaimed loudly, "Well I'll be!  I wonder which one of them thought of such an ingenious plan."  The frog glanced down and then proudly announced, "I did!"  

The hardest lesson of all is that pride goes before a fall. 

In 1 Corinthians chapter 1 verse 25 we have this interesting verse from Paul's letter to the church at Corinth: 

25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

I love this verse because it uses some very Jewish humor and Greek hyperbole to get the point across that when it comes to wisdom and strength--God is in a whole other category than you.  In fact, your wisdom is flat idiotic when compared to God's wisdom, and what you perceive to be strength is laughable when compared to God's strength.  This isn't meant to make you feel bad, it's meant so you can keep it real. 

Think about the best advice you ever got.  Who gave it to you?  Think about them, too.  Now, here comes the kicker.  Did you take that advice?  If not, how did that work out for you?  I am thinking if you are anything like me, it did not work out all that well.  In fact, if you went back to that moment when you decided not to take that good advice, you probably felt a sense of pride that made you think, "What do they know?  I got this."  

Several years ago I purchased some bookshelves from Ikea.  If you have ever bought any furniture from Ikea, you know that everything they sell requires assembly and that the instructions are cryptic at best. Still not to follow them leads to despair as I discovered.  About halfway through my first bookshelf, I realized I had not followed the instructions and had to completely re-do it.  Even after putting together several of these shelves, I tried to not look at the instructions, and ended up making mistakes.  I thought I had it.  I thought I was smarter than the Swedish dude who designed the thing and created the step-by-step on how to build it.  I wasn't. 

The hardest lesson of all is that pride goes before a fall. 

C.S. Lewis called pride "the great sin" and that all other sins were "flea bites" in comparison to it.  It was, in his understanding, the sin from which all sins originates.  That makes sense when you realize how deeply Genesis 3 is embedded within us.  

So what an we learn from Jurassic World about pride and how not to let it run our lives?  

First, we learn that "the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry."  That is a line from the famous poem by Robert Burns, the great Scots poet.  It's rumored that Burns thought of this poem when he was plowing in a field and ran over a nest that a family of mice had built to help them survive for the winter.  The nest was destroyed and the mice scattered in terror.  

Burns realized how absolutely uncertain life is, and how pride in our own plans and efforts is absolute folly.  

Pride in certainty seems to be the ultimate virtue in our culture nowadays.  All the evidence you need for this is found on cable news shows that pit people with opposing views against one another for fun and profit.  It doesn't matter the topic, people on the news will fight about it.  And just wait.  Next year is an election year.  There will be more than a few people on TV who will be apoplectic with what seems like rage at those who disagree with them, but who are really just proud of the certainty of their own position.  I can't wait. 

Christians aren't immune to pride in certainty, either.  In fact, I feel like sometimes we invented it.  We are so proud of the certainty of our doctrine, our beliefs, our ideas on salvation, our interpretation of the Bible... but as I said, Pride in certainty isn't the ultimate virtue, especially for Christians.  

The ultimate virtue for Christians is surrender: surrender to God's will, to following Christ, to serving others... Jesus exemplified this surrender when he was in the Garden of Gethsemane before he was crucified and said to God, "Not my will, but yours be done..."  

Second, we learn from Jurassic World that when you are in control, you are not really in control.  One of the themes that permeated Michael Crichton's original story Jurassic Park is how even though the universe seems orderly, it isn't. And any attempts by human beings to create order will be subverted by the unpredictability of the universe itself.  This is referred to as "Chaos Theory."  

Quantum physicists have been exploring things like chaos theory for the past seventy years or more--but the ideas behind them are very, very old.  

In the book of Genesis chapter one we read that "God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form, and full of void." Which was another way of saying, "Everything was chaos."  The symbol for chaos in the ancient world was water, more specifically the sea.  Which is why when we read in Genesis one that "The spirit of God hovered above the waters," it's so significant. 

The ancients were trying described something that you and I need to embrace:  Only God can take the chaos of the universe and make it orderly, make sense of it all.  When you and I try to do it--we create a false sense of order that is bound to fall apart.  Our pride sometimes keeps us from acknowledging that we have no idea what is really going on--and just how much we need God to sort it all out.  

Third, we learn from Jurassic World that our worth is not measured in our accomplishments, it's measured in relationships, with God and with others.  I love how Chris Pratt's character in Jurassic World describes his relationship with the Raptors.  These incredibly dangerous creatures respond to him because he has a relationship with them.  In fact, he says "it's not about control, it's about a relationship."  

In fact, the main reason why the villainous Indominus Rex in Jurassic World breaks out and wreaks havoc on the whole joint is because the scientists and company executives did not see it as a creature, but as an object.  They saw it only as a means to end, that they thought they could control.  They didn't care about a relationship. 

In the end, the only relationship that matters to us when we are lying on our death bed is the one we have with the Creator who first breathed life into us.  

Our worth in the eyes of our culture is measured only in what we do, which leads ultimately to pride and to a fall.  But our worth in the eyes of God is measured in the distance between--as a popular Christian song describes--"one scarred hand and the other."  

There's a video circulating around the internet of a collegiate track event where a talented runner was so far in front of everyone else as he approached the finish line that he actually slowed down and started working the crowd in triumph.  Then this happened:  


This guy thought he had the race won.  He started celebrating, and then out of no where he got run down and lost.  

Maybe you are sitting here today and you've been wrestling with God for control over your life for a very long time.  You seem like you have it all together, perhaps.  I would wager that at some level you know this isn't true, but still--you might be faking it enough to make it.  

The danger of thinking you have it all figured out, that you've got things covered and in control all on your own without God in your life, without surrendering to God's will and God's way is when your plans get shattered, chaos happens and everything you measured your worth by is suddenly... gone.

The hardest lesson of all is that pride goes before a fall. 

Don't let your pride get in the way of living the life that God has always dreamed for you to live.  Open your heart, open your will, open your life to the unbelievable joy that comes from fully following Jesus.  Imagine what your life could be like if you surrendered to the One who loves you beyond all love and who wants the very best for you both in this life and the next.  

Saturday, July 18, 2015

At The Movies - Week Three: Someday My Prince Will Come

This week we are continuing the sermon series that will take us through the month of July, a sermon series entitled, "At The Movies."  Just like we've been doing throughout this series, we're going to be doing some exciting and imaginative things for the next couple of weeks. Sometimes, you just need to have some fun in church.  

But, as I mentioned last week, there's a deeper reason why we are doing this--aside from the obvious fact that it's pretty stinking fun, which it is.  The idea is that you and I are constantly out in the world doing theology, whether we know it or not.  God is all around us--God's presence is all throughout creation, and we are aware of this at some level, even if we don't bring it to mind every second of every day.  Everything is spiritual.  We just have to be awake enough to see it. 

This week we are using Disney's Cinderella as our inspiration and illustration for the sermon.  Now the clips that we'll be showing are from the latest version of Disney's Cinderella, not the 1950 version, which is probably more familiar to most of us here.  The basic outline of this version of the fairy tale goes something like this: 

Kenneth Branagh directs Disney's 2015, live-action take on the classic fairy tale Cinderella, which stars Lily James as the put-upon young women forced to endure a life of labor at the hands of her stepmother (Cate Blanchett) after her father dies unexpectedly. Forced to do every menial chore imaginable, Ella maintains her good spirits and eventually strikes up a friendship with a stranger in the woods who turns out to be the prince. When the royal court holds a gala ball, Cinderella wants nothing more to attend, and although her stepmother won't allow it, she gets help from a surprising source.

Here's the trailer for the newest movie: 

As we all know, Cinderella meets her fairy godmother, who enchants her dress to make it beautiful, a pumpkin to become a coach, mice as horses and the whole nine yards.  

In the end, the girl whose name essentially means "girl of ashes" is chosen by the prince, the stepsisters and stepmother get their just desserts, and everyone worthwhile lives happily ever after. 

This is an old story with a very familiar storyline involving the persecuted heroine who is finally seen to be a true princess, worthy of the hand of the prince, or king.  All she needs is to be truly seen. 

The oldest version of this story has been date back to 7 BC--the story of the orphan Rhodopis, who had a path to fortune and love that is almost identical to the one given to Cinderella some seventeen hundred years later.  There have been other stories as well--each of them with similar characters, obstacles, and triumphs.  They also all contain some sort of symbol that signifies the true nature of the persecuted heroine.  For Rhodopis it was an amulet, for Cinderella is was a glass slipper.  

There are 345 versions of this story in over 160 different languages.  There are Chinese, German and a particularly bloody version from Scotland.  All of these stories were developing seemingly independently, cross-culturally and with striking similarities that offset the cultural differences.  

Hundreds of films have been made of this fairy tale--or variations thereof. There are dozens of plays, musicals and songs based on it.  It's fairly imbedded in our cultural imagination with almost universal appeal.  

What is it about this tory that resonates with us so much?  

Essentially it comes down to this.  We love the idea of the person who is ignored, outcast, forgotten, abused, persecuted and overlooked becoming great. 

We love this idea, because for many of us--we feel like we are on the outside looking in.  We aren't one of the beautiful people.  No one really cares what we think, or whether we feel like if we just had a chance to prove ourselves, we could do something great.  

And there's something else.  When you look closely at the Cinderella story, you have to ask yourself a question:  How does the heroine actually attract the attention of the hero?  

Answer:  She changes.  

She puts on a disguise so that she looks like all of the successful, well-born, rich folk  And then she's able to speak to the prince, to dance with him, to make him see her for who she really is.  

Deep inside of us, we all suspect that this is true.  In order to get your chance, you have to get noticed.  But we also suspect that it's true on a spiritual as well as a sociological level.  In other words, we suspect that this is how God works. We say to ourselves, "If only I had a chance to prove myself to God, to show God that I am good, that I deserve better..."  "If only God could see how much I need this..."  "If only..."  

And so we wait to see if have been noticed.  To see if we've been able to do enough so that God will see us, and bless us, and give us the desires of our heart.  We all know the pain of waiting in those moments when it feels like there is no answer forthcoming, and we find ourselves wondering what we did wrong to deserve the silence.  

As I have done in the past two weeks, I want to take the big idea of this sermon and distill it down to something simple that we can all remember.  So what's the big idea?  Well, it's something like this:  Most of us spend far too much time and energy trying to do things so that God will love us.  We often find ourselves waiting to hear back from God on the matter.  And sometimes in the waiting we lose heart.  But what we all need to know is that God doesn't need us to do anything or to become something we are not in order to love us.  God is crazy about us from the beginning, and wants the very best for us always.  

And so here it is--my little rhyme:  God is always great for those who wait.  

There's a twist to this if you listen carefully.  I don't mean to say that this all about patience--although it's part of it.  What I mean to say is that for those who find themselves waiting to be noticed---God is great.  God sees you.  God notices you.  God knows you are meant for greatness.  

What sort of things do we usually find ourselves waiting on God to resolve, answer, or intervene on our behalf?  It could be a relationship.  Maybe you've felt lonely and isolated, and long for someone to spend your life with.  You've prayed for the right person--and maybe you've even been willing to go through some wrong persons in order to find that right person.  But nothing.  You wait and wait, and you wonder if there's something wrong with you.  

Maybe you have been waiting for things to pop in your career.  You've been toiling at the same dead end job for far too long... or maybe you would give your right arm for a dead end job because you've been living so long without a job at all.  You've been waiting and there seems to be nothing on the horizon, and maybe you start wondering if you'll ever find your true vocation, your true purpose.  

Perhaps it's health issues that are plaguing you.  I know what that feels like.  This past week I was waiting on blood test results, worrying about what the answers might be.  In the meantime you have to live your life, right?  You have to pay the bills, try to laugh with your kids, and in my case go on family vacation while you are waiting, worrying and trying to live with the disquiet in your soul.  In those moments, the waiting can be especially hard.  You might feel like your sins from the past are about to come home to roost, or that something is about to happen that may be patently unfair.  

Or maybe you are waiting on a child to come to faith, or maturity or both.  They're mistakes are killing you.  You pray for them, and wish and hope and wait.  Or maybe you feel like your faith life has hit a dry season.  All around you is deserted lands when it comes to your Christian walk.  

And in each of these scenarios we find ourselves saying, "God, if you would only see me.  If you would just give me a chance.  If you only knew what I was capable of..."  

To all of us who find ourselves waiting, hoping and feeling a bit on the outside today, I want to share a simply verse with you from the book of Isaiah:  

31 But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

Here the prophet is speaking to an entire nation of people who have been longing for a new world, a new life.  They have been ripped from their homeland, driven as slaves and outcasts to a new land where they don't belong.  And Isaiah speaks life and hope into their lives as they wait upon the Lord to fulfill his promises.  

Waiting in this prophecy is a virtue, full of possibility and expectation.  It's not something to be dreaded like going to the DMV or waiting in line for Peter Pan at Disney.  

Waiting, according to Isaiah,  is a blessed time.  A time for joy.  Because greatness is about to happen.  Greatness is always happening.  The God who comforts his people in the midst of the waiting is the same God who promised that they had a fully-fashioned and life-giving future--a future God designed, blessed and prepared ahead of time.  

God is always great for those who wait.  

So what do you do when you are in the midst of one of those blessed seasons of waiting?  Well, there are two ways to approach it according to Joyce Meyer.  You can wait passively or you can wait expectantly.  

Most of us wait passively.  We pray a whole bunch and then sit back and wait around to see what God is going to do.  We have, according to Joyce, a lot of wishbone, but no backbone.  When things don't happen on our timetable, or they don't seem to be happening at all, we turn our anger first to God, and then ourselves.  We ask that universal question, "Why me?" with our tiny fists shaking to the heavens.  And then we begin to wonder, "Maybe it is because of me."  

But those who wait expectantly have a much different outlook.  Expectant waiting is fully of hope, belief and action.  The person who is waiting expectantly doesn't sit around like a lump on a couch.  They are engaged in the world, fully believing that God is in control.  This belief enables them to expect the "suddenly" from God.  Have you ever been waiting on something to happen, a pot to boil perhaps, or the workday to end---and then you got distracted by work or another task?  In those moments it feels like time, which had been dragging, suddenly speeds up in a mystical way, right?  

This is what happens to the person who waits expectantly.  They not only believe in the "suddenly" from God, they experience it all of the time. 

So what can we learn about God from Cinderella?

First, unlike Cinderella who had to change her appearance in order for the prince to notice her, we never have to do that with God.  God sees you as you are, and loves you madly in spite of it.  You don't have to put on airs with God.  He not only notices you, he cherishes you without you doing a single thing.  

Jesus is proof that God will do whatever it takes to show you God's love.  Through Jesus God showed the lengths that God will go to in order to redeem Creation.  Jesus was executed by the political and religious powers of his day because he taught that God loved the world enough to send him to show it.  Then he was raised from the dead after being buried in a tomb for three days.  And those of us who hold on to this story as our definitive story--we find incredible hope in this knowledge of God's love.  

Second, there's no fairy godmother for you and me.  I wish there was.  But what those of us who follow Jesus have instead is community.  We have this family of faith who sees us in our need, reaches out to us when we are waiting and feeling alone, and surrounds us with strength when we feel our faith waning in our seasons of struggle.  

Third, we also learn that God wants our waiting to be more aggressive than passive.  God loves it when we trust him.  He honors our waiting when we choose to engage his world and actively seek to bring God's kingdom to earth all around us.  

Because in the end, waiting isn't really waiting if we are waiting on God.  It's trusting.  And serving.  

Because God is always great for those who wait.  

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

At The Movies - Week 2: "Everything Is Awesome" (Lego Movie)

Today we are going to be continuing the sermon series that we started last week--a sermon series entitled, "At The Movies."  This is a different kind of series for us because we're using movies each week of the series as our inspiration and illustrations for the sermons.  

As I mentioned last week, there's a deeper reason why we are doing this--aside from the obvious fact that it's pretty stinking fun, which it is.  The idea is that you and I are constantly out in the world doing theology, whether we know it or not.  God is all around us--God's presence is all throughout creation, and we are aware of this at some level, even if we don't bring it to mind every second of every day.  Everything is spiritual.  We just have to be awake enough to see it. 

This week we're going to be using one of my favorite movies from last year as our inspiration and illustration:  The Lego Movie.  

Here's a video clip that tells a bit of the story: 

So, for those who need a little help with the storyline, I'll share a bit more.  Just know that I'm going to spoil the movie a tad for those who haven't seen it. 

The wizard Vitruvius attempts to protect the "Kragle", a superweapon, from the evil Lord Business. He fails to do so, but warns Lord Business of a prophecy where a person called the "Special" will find the Piece of Resistance capable of stopping the Kragle.

8 and a half years later, Emmet Joe Brickowski, an ordinary construction worker with no special qualities, comes across a woman, Wyldstyle, who is searching for something after hours at Emmet's construction site. When he investigates, Emmet falls into a hole and finds the Piece of Resistance. Compelled to touch it, Emmet experiences vivid visions and passes out. He awakens elsewhere, with the Piece of Resistance attached to his back, in the custody of Bad Cop, Lord Business' lieutenant (whose head sometimes turns around to reveal his other side, Good Cop). There, Emmet learns Business' plans to destroy the world with the Kragle. Wyldstyle rescues Emmet and takes him to Vitruvius, who explains that he and Wyldstyle are "Master Builders" capable of building anything they need, both with great speed and without instruction manuals. Years ago, Lord Business rose to power, his disapproval of such anarchic creativity resulting in him capturing many of them. As the "Special", Emmet is destined to defeat him, yet Wyldstyle and Vitruvius are disappointed to find Emmet displays no creativity.

Emmet finds himself in the real world, where the events of the story are being played out within the imagination of a boy, Finn. His father "The Man Upstairs" chastises his son for ruining his father's Lego set by mixing characters with the wrong playsets, and originating hodgepodge creations. Finn argues that Lego are for children, but his father prefers to Krazy Glue his perceived perfect creations together permanently, as this is how adults play with Lego. In the Lego world, Lord Business' forces gain the upper hand. Realizing the father will glue all the Lego in place, Emmet wills himself to move and falls off the table, gaining Finn's attention. Finn returns Emmet to the Lego set, where Emmet builds a massive robot to assist his friends before confronting Lord Business. In the real world, Finn's father looks at his son's creations again and finds himself impressed. Realizing his son based the evil Lord Business on him, the father has a change of heart and allows his son to play with his Lego however he sees fit. In the Lego world, Emmet convinces Lord Business that Business, too, is special, as is everyone. Moved by Emmet's speech, Business destroys the Kragle and unfreezes his victims.

I loved this movie, despite the fact that I didn't really want to see it when my kids dragged me to the theater.  The hero of the movie is this little Lego figure--a guy with boundless optimism, hope beyond hope, but is forced to face a decided lack of self-confidence when things don't seem to go his way.  In the end, however, it's his belief in himself, and restoration of his hope that saves the day.  

The heart of the movie is the centrality of hope for a life well-lived.  And more specifically, defining hope as creative, generative potential.  

I created one of my little rhymes to help us grasp this kind of large theological concept.  Because when all seems lost, when you feel like there isn't any gas left in your tank, when there aren't any options at all, and you are at the end of your rope--remember this: 

There is hope at the end of every rope.  

How awesome is that.  You can't help but say it over and over again.  I once heard that God's address is at the end of your rope, so that's kind of the inspiration for my little rhyme.  

The fact of the matter is, however, that there's some fairly deep theology packed into that silly little rhyme.  And the best place to start our conversation about it is in the teachings of Jesus himself.  The Scripture we are going to today is in the Gospel of Mark chapter 4 verses 30-32.  

30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

This particular parable of Jesus has been famously hashed and re-hashed by preachers and teachers for a couple of thousand years.  It resonates with us. 

The reason why it does is because of something that psychologists call cognitive dissonance.  It's when what we think we know collides with our experience.  

The mustard seed is indeed tiny.  It also grows into a tree that can be up to ten feet tall.  When Jesus used this illustration, he was tapping into something that his listeners already knew--they knew that great things could come from small beginnings because nature did it all the time.  But their experience was often much different in the so-called "real" world where there hopes for a better life were often crushed before they even had a chance to grow.  

Jesus wanted them to understand more fully that the size of the seed had nothing to do with its creative potential.  He wanted his followers to experience the hope of the new world that was being born right in front of their eyes.  It might seem like small potatoes in the moment, but God was doing something amazing with a small seed.  

Another way of bringing Jesus' message home is to frame the parable in some very practical and personal terms:  Even if you've got barely anything left... when you have come to believe that your hope has dwindled down to nothing... God essentially says, "No problem.  I can work with it!  That seed is tiny, but I kind of like it that way."  

As I was pondering this sermon, I naturally got to thinking about Legos, and why kids love them so much.  I also began to wonder if there might be a deeper reason why kids love them so much other than the fact that they are fun to build.  By now you are probably noticing a pattern in the way I think about things.  I just can't help but complicate them a bit. 

First let's think about imagination.  

Child psychologists believe that there are essentially two kinds of imagination:  Imitative and Creative.  Imitative imagination is simply the mind's reconstruction of the past.  Creative imagination is the ability to use past experiences, feelings, and images to construct sensations or conditions never before experienced.  

Creative imagination is absolutely necessary for us to develop as humans.  It helps us cope with the rigors and trials of life.  And creative imagination thrives when there isn't perfection.  In fact, psychologists believe that the best toys for children are ones that aren't perfect--they are open-ended.  

Because what you need to develop your creative imagination is creative, generative potential.  

Let's pause for a moment to absorb what I just said.  Creative imagination is essential for us to develop as healthy human beings.  And the absolute most necessary ingredient to develop creative imagination is creative, generative, potential. 

Which we determined earlier is the basic definition of... hope.  

Have you ever been to a Lego store? If not, you should go.  It's an incredible experience.  At the entrance to these stores you will find some amazing Lego creations.  

This is my kid a couple of years ago standing just inside the Lego story in Downtown Disney, California.  The big green guy behind him is the Incredible Hulk made from Legos.  There were other creations at the entrance to the store, each one more elaborate and inspiring than the next.  

These are Lego masterpieces, created by master builders.  

But the most awesome part of every Lego store is not at the entrance--it's in the very back.  It's the Pick-A-Brick Wall.  The Pick-A-Brick wall is a huge wall that is filled with container after container of every Lego brick and building material you can think of.  

To your left, you can see a bit of what the Pick-A-Brick Wall looks like. 

Awesome isn't it?

After you've waded your way through the huge masterpieces at the front of the store and the innumerable boxes of Lego sets for sale (just waiting for you to put them together) you arrive at the Pick-A-Brick Wall, the one spot in the store that is filled with endless creative and generative possibilities... there's that phrase again... and a subtle message.  

What's the message?  "You can do this."  "All of that stuff that you saw on the way back to this wall?  Yeah, you can build that.  You can do even more.  You can make things---on your own."  "You can do this."  

The sad thing is that most of don't see the world that way.  We've become resigned to the lie that the older we get, the fewer possibilities there are for us to actually experience creative and generative possibilities.  We "grow up" and finally start listening to the voices that kept telling us, "You can't..."  We lose our hope.  

To quote one of my favorite songs by the classic alternative band The Cult: "And the world drags you down... and the world drags you down."

Our joy gets stolen by cynicism and boredom.  

Boredom is when you lose the urge to create, to hope.  Boredom is contagious, and far too many of us lead boring lives, and get nervous when we see someone starting to break out of the boredom.  If I am on the couch, and you are on the couch and you suddenly get up to do something that terrifies me.  

Cynicism is when you don't think that you could make anything new, or if it did it would be destroyed, mocked or worse yet--ignored.  Cynicism paralyzes us into becoming cranky, depressed, sad and isolated people.  

But Jesus invites us to something more.  The little story of the mustard seed is so powerful because it invites us to reconnect with the creative divine impulse that is already within us--the same creative divine impulse that God acts upon in the world all of the time.  

If I could have one wish for everyone here it would be that you would come to understand more fully why following Jesus is so incredibly transforming.  We've settled for a watered-down, sanitized version of the Gospel that tells us that the main purpose of becoming a Christian is to go to heaven when you die.  

It's bigger than that.  Jesus wants so much for you, not just after you die--but now, while you are alive on this side of eternity.  Jesus longs for you to know this, to respond at last to the longings inside of you to create, to do generative, life-giving things in the world, to be a new creation... 

to hope.  

I know for some of you that life seems less than vibrant.  The seeds of your hope and faith seem to have been crushed before they could really start to grow properly.  You are barely hanging on.  You are struggling with physical issues, you're waiting on a diagnosis, you're feeling your mortality.  Or maybe you keep staring at your bank statement hoping that it's wrong, in agony because you can't take one more month of bill collectors, the crushing weight of debt.  Or maybe your marriage is being held together by a thread.  Or you have no idea what your purpose in life is.  Or you have started wondering if God is even there at all.  

If all you have is a tiny seed, a fragment of hope left, barely enough to feel---don't worry.  It's enough.  God can use it.  

You might be at the end of your rope, but that's God's address, remember? 

Because there is hope at the end of every rope.  

There is hope at the end of every rope.   

Monday, July 6, 2015

Time For A Change?

All of the direct quotes for this blog are from "How We Got To Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World."  by Steven Johnson 

In the early 1600's, Galileo Galilei, made an observation in the Duomo of Pisa, when it shook with earth tremors.  The long swinging incense burners and lamps that hung from the ceiling all swung in a unified fashion according to the length of the chains that suspended them.  

This observation would eventually lead Galileo to create the first pendulum clock.  It would also lead him to a fuller understanding of the universe, and the fact that Earth revolves around the Sun, and not the other way around  

This assertion was believed to be heresy by the Catholic Church.  In his heresy trial in 1633, the following was read to Galileo following his conviction: 
“We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo… have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world.”
It's hard to believe, but roughly 230 years later, people were still struggling to come to grips with a traditional understanding of the universe and time that wasn't rooted in mysticism, church teachings, and a literal interpretation of certain Scriptures.  

In 1869, the United States had 8,000 towns across the country connected by over 100,000 miles of railroad.  Each one of those towns set their clocks and watches based on the position of the sun in their own particular context.  

The result was hundreds of potentially different clock settings, which complicated arrival and departure times of trains, made things absolutely miserable for the railroads, industries who relied on the railroads, and passengers.  

It was a logistical nightmare, one that the British had resolved by standardizing their time on a national level.  Many Americans, however, resisted such things, and vehemently so.  Standardized time was treated by many of the citizens of those 8,000 or so towns as something akin to an affront to God, or at the very least an act against nature.  

A newspaper in Cincinnati published the following editorial opposing standardized time in the United States:  "Let the people of Cincinnati stick to the truth as it is written by the sun, moon and stars." 

Funny old world, isn't it? 

Now we just all accept that if it wasn't for a standardized way of measuring time, the world as we know it would cease to exist.  Computers would not function.  Travel would be impossible.  Something as simple as a phone conference with global business partners would be a nightmare.  

But at one time, even the suggestion that the world wasn't the center of the universe produced incredible anxiety and anger.  

Not much has changed, honestly.  

Sometimes even in the face of change that is vital, necessary and inevitable, many of us dig our heels in out of fear, superstition, traditions, religious beliefs and the like.  

Meanwhile, time keeps on ticking.  

The world keeps on turning.

and revolving... 

Around the sun. 

A fact that the Catholic Church did not officially recognize until the 1930's when it finally pardoned Galileo, clearing his name.  

300 years after it branded him a heretic.  

Friday, July 3, 2015

At The Movies - Week One: (The Hunger Games) "Hunger For Righteousness"

This week we are launching a brand new sermon series entitled, "At The Movies."  July happens to be one of the leanest months of the year for church attendance.  It's a fact.  I think it's because it's hot.  I hate being hot, so I naturally apply it to most things.  

July also happens to be a month when lots of people go to the movies.  I actually love going to the movies.  It's something you can do in July that isn't hot and won't make you sweat.  Unless you're watching a naughty movie like 50 Shades of Grey, and then you're probably sweating because you're afraid you'll see someone from church in the theater with you.  

Although--if you are both in the theater than...  kind of a stand off.  

Anyway, we thought that it would be awesome to do a sermon series that incorporated movies into the sermons--as inspiration and perhaps illustrations, too.  So over the next few weeks we'll be using some popular films as themes for the various sermons that I'll be preaching.  

This week:  The Hunger Games

Before we dive into the meat of our sermon today, let me ask a question.  Why are movies so meaningful for us?  What is it about movies that speaks to us at what you might describe as a "gut" level?  

The first reason why movies resonate with so many of us has to do with what Psychologists call the "mirror rule."  When you have a huge screen in front of you and an actors face fills that screen, you are more likely to smile when they smile, cringe when they cringe, frown when they frown and when they scream, you feel like screaming even though you may not do it.  

Consequently, you find yourself identifying with characters, feeling their joy, loss, anger, etc.  

There are a host of other reasons why movies are so meaningful that are also connected to Psychology, but are exploited by filmmakers.  Most suspenseful, sad and emotional moments in movies have minor key music in the their background.  Minor key music makes you cry, makes you feel on edge, you name it.  Movies also crank things up to 11--even though the switch only has 10 levels on it.  The emotions are big, the music is loud, the explosions are enormous, everything is overpowering.  

The most important reason that movies are so meaningful to us is because they tap into something universal--a truth, a feeling, passion, conflict, etc.--and we make it specific when we watch. 

Throughout this sermon series we'll be practicing something that I hope you will decide to make a daily part of your life: recognizing that everything is spiritual. More specifically, we'll be learning how to find awesome Bible-based life-lessons in movies that weren't exactly created to deliver awesome Bible-based life-lessons.

Today, as I said earlier, we'll be focusing on the movie, "The Hunger Games."  If you aren't familiar with the Hunger Games, here's an official synopsis of the first movie:  
In what was once North America, the Capitol of Panem maintains its hold on its 12 districts by forcing them each to select a boy and a girl, called Tributes, to compete in a nationally televised event called the Hunger Games. Every citizen must watch as the youths fight to the death until only one remains. District 12 Tribute Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has little to rely on, other than her hunting skills and sharp instincts, in an arena where she must weigh survival against love.
You can also watch this quick movie trailer, which gives you a bit more: 

The capitol of the 12 districts in Panem is a thriving, prosperous metropolis. Everyone who lives there has plenty to eat, fine clothes to wear, the best of everything.  It becomes apparent as you watch the first of this series of movies that the 12 districts controlled by the capitol are filled with hungry, poor people who appear to be working their fingers to the bone just to survive.

Hunger is used as a weapon in this movie.  The elite hunger for power--and they are desperate to keep it.  The poor are kept hungry and hopeless.  Things look bad.  

The hero of the story, however, is the person who hungers for something more... Katniss knows that there is a better life beyond the misery and drudgery that is in front of her.  She tries to find small pleasures, little moments of joy in the midst of fear and dread.  And even when she is forced to compete in games of war--games of life and death--she uses her hunger for something more to compete and succeed without losing her soul.  

What Katniss came to understand is that hunger for the right things can make all the difference in how we live, and how we die.  

I thought of it like this:  An appetite for what's right leads you to the light.  

The fact that it rhymes makes it more awesome--you know it does.  

Today we're going to be looking at Matthew chapter 5 verse 6.  I know that it's only one verse, but it's a powerful one.  In fact, it's one among many powerful verses within the Sermon on the Mount, which has been the source for quire a few of my sermons in the last few months.  

This verse is part of what is known as the Beatitudes.  They are typically read like this, Blessed are the peacemakers... Blessed are those who mourn... and so on.  But the literal translation of the word "Blessed" is actually "Happy." 

The way we are familiar with hearing Matthew 5:6 is: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they will be filled."  

The literal translation is actually:  "Happy are they who hunger to be just."  Which is a lot different, once you start thinking about it.  On the one hand, you have a translation that is a bit more abstract--to "hunger and thirst after righteousness" is an action that seems to be pointed outward toward some ideal.  The literal translation to "hunger to be just" is pointed decidedly inward to very concrete ideas and actions.  

Jesus' words here challenges the idea of a rich and powerful way of delivering a kingdom.  It's subversive.  It doesn't seem to make sense.  What he's challenging his followers to adapt is a new awareness, a new consciousness about what it means to have true happiness.  

This kind of teaching that turned the status quo upside down was frustrating to a lot of people who wanted a different kind of kingdom--a kingdom built on the kind of power that came from money, strength, political sway, charisma and the like.  

But what Jesus says here is such good news for the poor and marginalized people who gathered to hear him.  They would have been drawn to this teaching because it subverted the status quo, not because it preserved it.  

Interestingly, everyone who gathered to hear Jesus speak that day was empty--whether they were rich or poor.  The only difference was that the poor knew they were empty, or at least were able to admit it.  

Empty people long to be filled, but they don't always respond well to their emptiness.  Hunger and thirst are not the issue--we are all created with hunger and thirst.  At a very basic level it's how we survive.  We eat when we are hungry, we drink when we are thirsty.  It's our body's way of telling us what it needs.  

But how we choose to fill ourselves is up to us.  

And hunger goes much deeper than just base appetite for food.  Hunger is something we feel deep within our souls.  Hunger for connection to others.  Hunger for meaning and purpose in life.  Hunger to know God and to be known by God.  Hunger for authentic relationships.  And our hunger for those things is also a part of how we are created.  

Again, how we choose to fill ourselves is up to us.  

This is difficult stuff to put our arms around.  I get that.  We are exploring some very deep theological and ontological issues here.  Ontology has to do with how we uncover the real meaning of things.  That in itself is enough to make my head hurt.  If we are being honest, a lot of this feels like we are stumbling around in the dark trying to find the light switch.  

Which is why I came up with that little rhyme to illustrate my main point of this sermon:  An appetite for what's right leads you to the light.  

What Jesus wanted us to understand is that it's something that starts within you, and then works its way out.  

First, Jesus said you are happy when you hunger to be just.  People who hunger to be just live illuminating lives.  You can see better next to those kinds of people.  I was sitting in a Starbucks with a friend of mine recently when a homeless man walked in.  He was a young guy--completely disheveled, dirty, carrying a backpack.  My back was to him, but my friend saw him.  Suddenly my friend stood up, interrupted our conversation and went over to the young man, who was digging through his pockets to find enough money for a cup of water.  My friend ended up quietly buying the guy the biggest frappuchino on the menu, and a cup of water.  He sat down a few tables from us and drank his drinks like a boss with a smile on his face.  

I looked down at the young man's leg, and saw that he had written something on it.  I finally figured it out.  It read, "Proud To Be A Christian."  

It made me wonder how many Christians overlooked this man, one of their own. It made me realize that I had done just that.  But not my friend.  He hungered to be just, and because he did--a bunch of us could see better that day.  

Second, I think that Jesus also wanted those who heard him to hunger for God's justice.  It's not enough sometimes to simply want to be a just person--even though that's a great place to begin.  At some point, you need to start thinking about how you can take some justice on the road.  When you begin to live an illuminating life, it helps you to shine that light in the darkness.  

There are things in your own neighborhood that need some justice.  In your community.  In your workplace.  In your school.  

I was reading the story of Charlie Coons the other day and it spoke to me about how hungering for God's justice is like shining light in the darkness.  

In 2008 Charlie Coons’s big brother volunteered at an orphanage in Jordan, and he returned with stories about dirt floors, children who had no shoes, and cold, cold nights. Charlie, 11 at the time, was so affected by this, she immediately decided to send them fleece blankets, creating one from a kit and inviting friends to make some, too. Soon the sixth-graders and other volunteers in her town had crafted 50 blankets to ship. The orphanage sent back a photo of a child with one of the gifts. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I made that blanket and now it’s helping someone,’?” Charlie says.  

Still, she was pumped to do more. Her dad, Ron, a Rotary Club member, lined up speaking engagements in their area for Charlie so she could raise money for her new group, which she called HELP (Hope Encouragement Love Peace). Her goal: to send blankets to orphanages around the world. Ambitious, yes, but just a few years later, HELP has sent some 700 blankets to nine nations with the help of several international children’s groups. Her next goal: to establish HELP chapters in all 50 states (Oklahoma, North Carolina, and California are already members). 

Sometimes all it takes is one person to start shining a light, and then before you know it there's another and another and another...  

Jesus also wanted his followers to not just hunger to be just, or to experience and share God's justice--he wanted them to think bigger.  He wanted them to hunger for a new, just world.  This was the hope that Jesus gave to his followers--that God was doing a new thing, that the kingdom of God was breaking through all around them.  

The thing is, when you hunger to be just, when you hunger for God's justice in your own neighborhood, when your light begins to shine and the darkness gets pushed back just a bit--you start to realize that the darkness doesn't have the power.  The power belongs to the light.  The status quo won't work for you any more once you see the world illuminated by the justice of God.  

At this point many people say, "But what can I do to shine the light to world?  I'm just one person.  I live in Lake County Florida.  What could I possibly do to end poverty, war, racism, hatred, bigotry... What could I do? 

Here's the good news.  God is already doing it.  You just need to join God in what God is already doing.  Maybe what you are being called to join God in doing is incredibly challenging--it could mean that you are being called to go there--wherever there is--in order use your gifts and talents to change the world. 

I know an incredible Christian couple who were successful physicians in Chicago with great practices, making lots of money.  He worked at Northwestern Hospital, teaching young doctors how to be doctors in addition to about a hundred other awesome things. She was a successful pediatrician.  They gave all of it up several years ago to move their family to Africa, where they have spent the last year or so on the front lines fighting Ebola--changing the world. 

The hungered to be just.  They hungered for God's justice and then the realized that if they wanted to be part of God's redemptive work to make a new, just world they needed to go where their light was needed most. 

You might be saying, "Yeah, well I live in Lake County Florida--and quite frankly I am just not feeling the call to Africa to go fight ebola."  I'm with you.  As inspiring as my friends story is, I am kind of glad that they got that call and I didn't.  Although, I strongly believe that when God calls you, the barriers in your heart to accepting that call get weaker and weaker until they come down. 

But maybe it's just as simple as refusing to engage in the same old tired arguments about all of the issues that are plaguing our society.  Or doing your best every day to embody peace, love, joy and hope.   Every single one of us can do that.  Every day.  

There's a line in the Hunger Games movies that is quoted by all of the rich and powerful who send the poor into the games to fight to the death.  They say, "May the odds be ever in your favor."  

I leave you with this bit of wisdom that helps us to reframe that a bit.  For those of us who hunger to be just, who hunger for God's justice around us and all throughout this world--for those of us who believe that the best way to fill that hunger is to live by Jesus' example...  The odds are already in our favor.  

Evil doesn't get to win.  And if you put your faith in trust in Jesus--you've already won.  

Shine your light.