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I recently finished reading Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Hillenbrand has turned an amazing story into a profound book. Hillenbrand also penned Seabiscuit, which was turned into a film, and I can’t imagine it will be long before Unbroken finds it’s way onto the big screen.

I wanted to share with you a few thoughts I had as I read Unbroken. If you’ve read the book, I hope that it will resonate with you (I’d love to hear your thoughts about the book in the comments at the end). If you have not yet read Unbroken, I hope that this will encourage you to add it to your “need to read” list. Or, perhaps this can serve as a discussion guide for your book club or reading group.

Spoiler Alert: I am going to provide a thematic overview of the book, so you will get a sense of the significant turns in the story by reading this post.

1. Turnarounds aren’t predictable.

Louis “Louie” Zamperini was an angry young man headed for trouble. Smoking at 5, drinking by 8, stealing things just to get away with it. In every way, he was heading nowhere good. But the beautiful thing about life is that course-corrections are possible.

We too easily overlook or even discard people who seem like they are just too much trouble. But some things that have been used for bad purposes may also be used for good.

“In a childhood of artful dodging, Louie made more than just mischief. He shaped who he would be in manhood. Confident that he was clever, resourceful, and bold enough to escape any predicament, he was almost incapable of discouragement. When history carried him into war, this resilient optimism would define him.” (pg 7, italics mine).

2. Everyone needs a mission.

Louie’s course correction was a quick one, primarily because he was fast…really fast. Urged, encouraged and trained by his older brother, Zamperini discovered that he could outrun almost everyone on a track. No longer wasted his days getting in trouble, he began to experience the joy of giving his life to something with a sense of urgency.

We all need the internal confidence that our lives matter and that we have a mission to which we should give ourselves.

At 16, he ran a two mile race against college competition in UCLA’s Southern California Cross Country meet, and he won by more than a quarter of a mile. Hillenbrand rightly notes that what was more important even than the win was “the realization of what he was” (pg 18).

This reminds me of Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

3. People are capable of greatness.

Photo credit: Louie Zamperini (http://laurahillenbrandbooks.com/photos/)

What Louie accomplished in a very short a time as an athlete is remarkable. At the age of only nineteen, after only four attempts at this distance, Zamperini ran the 5000 meters in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. These games were made famous by the great Jesse Owens and the horrible Hitler. In 1938, still young by miler standards, he ran the fifth fastest mile ever. People began to speculate that he would be the first man to break the 4:00 mile mark and would be a lock for the Gold Medal in 1940.

Louie’s accomplishments inspired his family, his town, his state and his nation. Human beings, as God’s greatest creatures, can run or sing or sculpt or write or invent in ways that infuse our daily struggles with awe.

4. People are capable of monstrosity.

I remember asking my grandmother if she wanted to see Saving Private Ryan. Her answer: “Why would anyone want to experience that again?” Her brother had served in France during WWII. After reading Unbroken, I have a better understanding why she felt that way.

These numbers stood out to me in the book: 594. 0. 220. First, 594 was the number of bullet holes through Zamperini’s plane, Superman, on a single mission. Zero (0) was the number of survivors Louie anticipated when his plane, the Green Hornet, went down. 220 is the number of punches that Louie endured at the hands of his fellow POWs, who were lined up and ordered to strike each officer once as hard as they could.

Fact is that no number could measure the monstrosity that is carried out in war. Unbroken is a harsh and heart-rending look at the faces of evil unrestrained. [I intentionally say faces of evil rather face of evil, because I am not talking in abstract; I am talking about individual men and women who commit horrific evil against others.]

Mike Cosper writes, “Jesus taught us to pray ‘on earth as in heaven,’ inviting us to look at the world through the hope-filled promise of reconciliation…There is nothing so liberating as the news that we have a better King and an eternal hope…every tyrant’s days are numbered. A King was born in Bethlehem who will one day bring justice and peace” (italics mine). *

5. Relationships are essential.

Photo credit: Louie Zamperini (http://laurahillenbrandbooks.com/photos/)

Throughout the story, people are at the center of it all. There is the mom who prayed constantly and waited hopefully for Louie’s return. There are the band of brothers that manned the bomber along with Louie. Pilot Phil who survived the plane crash and lived on a life-raft fending off sharks and starvation and insanity for weeks. The fellow POWs who suffered unimaginable cruelty together. The Japanese guard who introduced himself as a Christian and did what he could to protect Louie and others. Photos became treasures because they represented a distant connection to friends, family or a girl back home. Even diaries were kept in secret as a relational link to one’s true self.

“We were created for community” is more than a tagline. Relationships are essential to our survival. Our hearts naturally give themselves to others, and when we cease to connect with other people, we become less than human. Jesus described hell as a place of eternal torment and a significant part of that suffering is to be left alone, forever. Heaven is something we enjoy together with God and with others. **

6. When stripped of everything else, God is still there.

During the ghastly ocean journey on the life-raft, Phil and Louie experienced a moment they would always remember. Hillenbrand wrote:

It was an experience of transendence. Phil watched the sky, whispering that it looked like Pearl. The water looked so solid that it seemed they could walk across it. When a fist broke the surface far away, the sound carried to the men with absolute clarity. They watched as pristine ringlets of water circled outward around the place where the fish had passed, then faded to stillness.

For a while they spoke, sharing their wonder. Then, they fell into reverent silence. Their suffering was suspended. They weren’t hungry or thirsty. They were unaware of the approach of death (Pg 160).

This is no accidental world. Louie would conclude: “Such beauty…was too perfect to have come by mere chance. That day in the center of the Pacific was…a gift crafted deliberately, compassionately, for him and Phil” (Pg 160).

In his address, “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis says that moments like these give us a taste of the eternal, but the transcendence is not in the ocean or the wind or the beauty or things like these. He writes, “It was not in them, it only came through them.”

Lewis continues: “It is not the physical objects that I am speaking of, but that indescribable something of which they become for a moment the messengers.” *** These experiences point us to something beyond themselves.

It would be years before Louie Zamperini would connect the dots between this experience on the open ocean and the Christian faith, but he would finally realize that God in his grace had both implanted in him a desire for transcendence and granted him a taste of transcendence.

7. Dignity is linked to hope.

Photo credit: Louie Zamperini (http://laurahillenbrandbooks.com/photos/)

In one of the more profound sections of the book, Hillenbrand remarks, “…the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity. This self-respect, and a sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain.”

When reading of the torture and humiliation, I cannot grasp the depth of loss they endured. In this tragedy, I know of no where else to turn but the suffering of Jesus, who endured the same at the hands of people he had created. Though I have only experienced a bird bath of suffering next to oceans of suffering endured by these POWs, knowing that Jesus is one who understands, cares, and enters into our suffering brings me comfort. I’m told, from others who have suffered much, that the realities of Jesus’ struggles comforts them too.

8. Defiance is a virtue.

A chapter titled Farting to Hirohito provides some comic relief. In the POW camps, the men invented all manner of ways to defy their captors. One of my favorite lines reads, “A fragrant favorite involved saving up intestinal gas, explosively voluminous thanks to chronic dysentery, prior to [roll call]. When the men were ordered to bow toward the emperor, the captives would pitch forward in concert and let thunderclaps fly for Hirohito.”

From timely expulsions to hidden escape plans to under-their-breath insults, these men managed to oppose evil by whatever means they could. We should all join the fight against injustice, and most of us have much greater opportunity than they did.

A wise friend once told me, “When my kids are teenagers, I just want them to be angry about the right stuff.” I agree. When fighting against evil, tyranny and injustice, rebellion is right. In our world, compliance is too often considered the highest value, but in many instances defiance is a much greater virtue.

9. The road to redemption is always surrender.

When Zamperini returns home, he struggles with reentry to a non-war world. Still fighting the horrors of his experience, he, understandably, drifts into a life of recurring nightmares, constant drinking, and vengeful desires. He descended into himself and seemed unable to find a way out.

But God specializes in hopeless situations.

Through an invitation of a neighbor and the coercion of his wife, Louie attends a Billy Graham crusade. At first, he is angry and resists Graham’s invitation. But at his wife’s prodding, he agrees to attend one more preaching session. Graham had extended his trip and was preaching several hours a day, seven days a week. In Billy Graham, Louie may have met a man who could match his stubbornness (being stubborn about the right things is a good thing).

At last, Louie surrendered and finally found freedom. He had been physically free from his captors for a long time, but now his soul was also free. He was free to sleep, to forgive, to live, to love.

God uses significant moments of crisis to change our lives, and Louie’s story is no different. But you’ll have to read the book to know more about his amazing journey.

9 Thoughts from Unbroken:
1. Turnarounds aren’t predictable.
2. Everyone needs a mission.
3. People are capable of greatness.
4. People are capable of monstrosity.
5. Relationships are essential.
6. When stripped of everything else, God is still there.
7. Dignity is linked to hope.
8. Defiance is a virtue.
9. The road to redemption is always surrender.

So, which of the above most resonates with you? Do any of these speak to your current life situation? And who is going to play the part of Louie in the movie?

-jdl

* Mike Cosper, All Oppression Will Cease, Even in North Korea, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2011/12/23/all-oppression-will-cease-even-in-north-korea/.

** For more in this line of thinking, see C. S. Lewis’ fantastic fantasy novel, The Great Divorce.

*** C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. Quotes taken from pages 30, 40, 42 in the Harper Collins Edition 2001.

Note: The “Some Thoughts on ‘How to Talk to Little Girls'” post has generated a lot of interest and brought new people to the blog. I thought I would repost a previous favorite to share with all the new readers. Enjoy…

I recently read Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel made famous by the television miniseries many consider the greatest ever (starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall). McMurtry’s story follows a group of men on a cattle drive from Mexico to Montana. In many ways, the book is about men, their internal drives or passions, and the friendships they share along the way. This motley group assembled over time, but the core of the group served as Texas Rangers during the days when they fought real battles throughout the region. Through many eventful, often difficult, years together, the men had become “compañeros.”  These relationships weren’t perfect, but they were characterized by intense loyalty, sacrifice, honesty, and memories. Every guy needs relationships like these, but few have them.

As I’ve observed guys who become real compañeros, I’ve discovered four things that create movement toward meaningful relationships: props, plans, risks, and laughs.

GUYS NEED PROPS

Women seem to get together with other women and start talking deeply without effort, but guys aren’t like that. You put them together and all you get is something along the lines of “how’s work?” or “you playing fantasy football again this year?” Those two conversations can fill an entire evening.

In general, guys don’t talk openly and freely without an external prop. It may be a task, a mission, a hobby, a shared history or some other event that brings them together. Men become close on a three-thousand mile cattle drive. They open up during a long winter in the trenches of wartime. They are brought together by an adventurous road trip. It isn’t always something grand. It may be something as simple as a regular hunting trip, a golf foursome or mission trip. It may be group of friends from your college dorm or a church small group. There is not any “magic” prop, but there is almost always some kind of prop that brings the guys together initially.

My group of friends and I came together as friends during college, but those friendships expanded through a college road trip to bury a “time capsule” on the Texas-Mexico border (modeled loosely on the movie, “Fandango”). We each included something of great personal value and a list of spiritual commitments and life goals in the bottle. Ten years later, we returned to dig it up. That event become an annual long weekend together that has become a highlight in our lives.

If you want to find real friends, I suggest you grab a group of guys and initiate some unique activity. In male relationships, activity opens the door for conversation. Men start talking deeply after they’ve worn themselves out, made fun of one another or blown something up in a bonfire.

GUYS NEED PLANS

Past performance does not guarantee future success. Just because some prop brought you together for a unique time of relating as friends, you may not continue in that kind of friendship in the years ahead. Most guys who have not found life-long compañeros reflect on certain friendships with a nostalgic longing to go back, maybe even with a tinge of sadness. They are sweet memories, but they are just that: memories of something good that once was but is now gone. Friends rarely intend to lose touch with one another. If your experiences together are going to grow into deep, lasting relationships, you need to commit to a plan.

With my group, we decided to take an annual trip together. We pick a destination and a date, and we all fly in for a long weekend each year. My “Fandango” trip with this group of 6 men helps me hit my annual laugh quota in single weekend. This takes a real commitment, but it’s worth everything it takes to make it happen. Our wives sacrifice on the home front to allow us to go. We take time off work. We split the costs evenly to make it fair (sometimes, we pick up the tab for one another when finances are tight). This commitment propelled us from being college friends to becoming life-long friends.

The bottom line is that you won’t become compañeros without regular time to laugh, play, and goof off together. This usually takes one person in the group who initiates an ongoing plan for being together and gets a commitment from the group. A plan creates a path for deepening relationships as you journey through the ups and downs of life together.

Most of the time, a particular place or activity becomes a big part of the group’s identity. Guys seem to have a desire for a tradition that makes this time special. As men move from the free-wheeling college years to the responsibility of their 30s and 40s, they need time “away” from the normal routine of life. I’d encourage you to try something that allows for a break from your normal responsibilities and demands some real commitment from one another.

GUYS NEED RISKS

The third element I see is risk. If there is no risk, you will settle into a cycle of conversation that repeats itself over and over without taking you anywhere. Think about your relationships with your father or brother or co-workers for a minute. I bet you could write a script for most those conversations as they revolve around the same topics with each phone call. This is just what guys do. We are strange beings. We privately long for a deeper relationship but we almost never acknowledge it.

Friends must continually take risks by sharing life at a vulnerable level. It amazes me how risky it feels to share what is happening in my heart even with my most trusted friends. We’ve been sharing life together for twenty years, but it still feels threatening to let them see my hurts, my unhealthy desires, my anger, my dreams, and my joys. It also brings freedom. The more I share, the more I’m freed up to be myself around them.

Most groups need a guy with the guts to be honest in front of others. Sometimes, it means saying, “You know what guys? I struggle with ______.” Or, “You know what hacks me off about my life right now? It’s ______.” In our group, it seems to be a different guy who leads out each year with an honest and bold statement about his life. Each time someone opens the door to his heart, I think to myself, “OK, here we go.” It’s become my favorite part of our trip. I find out that I’m not that weird, or maybe that I’m just as weird as everyone else. Somehow, that’s one of the things guys need to know: we are all jacked up. That kind of vulnerable sharing is relational fuel for men. Like a car, you have to refill the vulnerability tank regularly or the friendship runs out of gas.

GUYS NEED LAUGHS

With men, laughter both precedes and follows relational risks. Guys need to laugh, and I’ve found that guys won’t share openly until they have laughed freely. If you want guys to open up, you’d better crack one another up first. Some men don’t know how to laugh. Because of this, people will rarely feel comfortable enough around them to be honest about what’s in their hearts. Be careful sharing too much of yourself with men that can’t laugh. The other side of this is that men who have shared openly laugh even harder. The trust and confidence gained in deep relationships lead to uncontrollable laughs that roll out until they bring tears.

For guys, friendship never happens as spontaneously as we’d like. It takes props, plans and risks, but the investment leads to a kind of laughter that is only shared by true compañeros.

-jdl

As a father of a little girl who will have her second birthday in January, I was interested in the recent article titled “How to Talk to Little Girls.” The excellent Huffington Post piece by Lisa Bloom has created a buzz, with nearly 400,000 people “liking” the article on Facebook.

Bloom points out the dangers of highlighting a little girl’s physical beauty before or above other things. This is typified by the normal practice of strangers, or friends, who lead off a meeting with a little girl by saying something along the lines of “aren’t you the cutest thing ever?”

Kate, at the Beach this Summer

My daughter, Kate, is beautiful. I’m completely biased and entirely certain that she is adorable by any standard. When people meet her for the first time, I can affirm that they generally comment on how cute she is. Of course, I wouldn’t argue with their assessment at all, but I also see how this emphasis on her external beauty could shape her thinking over time. I would never want Kate’s joy in life or sense of self-worth to be dependent on man’s praise of her outward beauty.

We are a visually obsessed culture. I also have three boys, and I find myself flinching routinely during televised football games at the flaunting of female beauty on the sidelines and in the commercials. While I believe God created physical beauty to be enjoyed (God made female and male bodies unique for a reason), our society has obviously over-indulged the physical. This is a serious problem that most pastors and churches hesitate to address, usually because church-going folks are just as influenced by beauty-worship as non-church people.

The Bible signals a warning to us about overemphasizing physical attractiveness. Proverbs 31:30 warns, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain.” One of more blunt verses in Scripture, Proverbs 11:22 says, “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion.” These warnings tell us that this is not just an issue for American women of the 21st century. There is something universal in this struggle that isn’t going away in our time.

I am thankful that Lisa Bloom sounds the alarm for us about how our words impress unhealthy values on our littlest ladies. But I also want to issue a warning of my own about Bloom’s solution to this problem.

The Mind is Not Better than the Body

Bloom’s answer to our beauty-obsession appears to swap physical beauty for intellectual capacity. She writes:

Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything. It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23. As our cultural imperative for girls to be hot 24/7 has become the new normal, American women have become increasingly unhappy. What’s missing? A life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments.

While this sounds like a helpful corrective, I think it introduces a new problem. Notice what is important to Bloom? She directs us to the life she values more: ideas and books and thoughts and accomplishments.

Here is my question: Are these really better than beauty?

Perhaps they might make one more financially secure or more independent or more academically successful. It is certainly true that the life of the mind tends to outlast youthful beauty which inevitably sags with time. So, maybe it is better to some small extent.

But it is not enough.

Beauty and Intelligence and Performance and Morality Are Not Enough

So, here is my problem with Bloom’s solution to the beauty-worship problem: the mind-worship problem isn’t any better. A little girl does not need to hear that her value is determined by her boob size, but neither does she does need to hear that her value is determined by her brain size.  Intelligence and success and independence do not meet our deepest needs.

In fact, when we seek to find our value in our performance, it may be even more dangerous. It’s easy for someone who has accomplished much to take pride in their intellect or ingenuity or toughness or determination. A person who performs well may even demean beauty as “something you are born with” as opposed to accomplishments which they have “earned.” Dependence on performance can be just as crippling as dependence on beauty.

Of course, Religious people have their own spin on the performance problem. Rather than stressing beauty or intelligence or success, they put the emphasis on morality. Girls are taught that their value or goodness depends on their ability to keep the rules. This may be the most insidious kind of performance idol. Religious types construct their performance idols on the foundation of Scripture, which makes them even harder to detect. To the religious person, this moral performance trap feels righteous.

Why Little Girls (And Boys) Need the Gospel of Jesus Above All Else

I must recognize that I cannot control all of the voices that my daughter will hear. She will always live in a world that overvalues her beauty. She will also have to deal with pressures to measure up intellectually and educationally and financially. Countless voices will praise, or criticize, her according to unhealthy standards.

I cannot control all of the voices that my daughter will hear, but I do know which one I want to be the loudest in her ears. It is not the voice of her boyfriend, or the academic advisor at her college, or the CEO of her company, or even my voice as her father. It is the voice of Jesus.

Her deepest longing is not to be loved for her beauty, praised for her intelligence, or admired for her performance. No, the deepest longing of the human heart is to be loved, and this longing is so deep that only God can fill it.

The gospel, or good news, of Jesus says to us, “You are loved as you are. Regardless of how beautiful and smart and successful you feel, you are so broken that life on your own merits will never be enough. And regardless of how ugly or dumb or unsuccessful you feel, you are so loved that Jesus gave his life so that he could be with you forever.”

Most of us spend our lives working to prove ourselves. We exhaust ourselves as we try and try to convince people that we deserve to be accepted.* There is a cost to this kind of acceptance. It takes something out of us in the process and must be continually earned. The gospel frees us from this compulsion. When we operate from a place of gospel-security that is grounded in the love of God rather than in her own ability to measure up, we are truly free. Only then can we enjoy beauty and intellect and performance in freedom rather than compulsion.

I think that is part of what the Bible means when it says, “Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Rev 22:17).

If you find yourself thirsty, come as you are to Jesus who offers you acceptance and love and life at no cost to yourself. He gave his life to free you from the beauty trap and the intelligence trap and the performance trap. It cost Jesus everything, but you were worth it.

So, how should we talk to little girls?

When I talk to Kate, I will say:

“I love you. I love the way your hair rolls into ringlets and falls into your eyes. I love the way you read yourself books, even though you can’t read. I love the way you dance and twirl around the kitchen. I love the way you wave at cars that pass on our walks. I love the way you scream “Dad” in the middle of the night. I love the way you  say “do it again” when we do something fun. I even love the permanent marker custom design you put on my new Mac. But as much as I love you, Jesus loves you more. I sacrifice a lot because I love you, but Jesus sacrificed everything because he loves you. So if somewhere along the way you fail a test or love a boy who does not love you back or have a mastectomy or develop Alzheimers or gain some weight or lose a job, you will still hold infinite value because Jesus loves you. No matter what. You are loved exactly as you are. Always.”

I’d love to read your comments…
What in this post resonates with you? Do you find yourself fighting against the beauty trap or intelligence trap or performance trap? How do you talk to your little girls about these things?

-jdl

* Thanks to Tim Keller for this thought, which I once jotted down and then was unable to find as I wrote this post.

Thanks to EdStetzer.com for pointing this video out.

-jdl

I recently had the privilege to watch a wonderful documentary: Waste Land. It’s a beautiful film that stirred my soul with both sorrow and hope. I want to tell you about the movie and then offer some thoughts about its message.

Waste Land was directed by Lucy Walker with soundtrack by Moby. It received an Academy Award Nomination in 2011 for Best Documentary Feature.

The film follows the journey of Brazilian born contemporary artist Vik Muniz to Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill located just outside of Rio de Janeiro. Here we meet an array of characters called catadores, the “pickers” of recyclable materials who sell their goods for profit in order to survive. We enter the stories of these men and women who crack jokes, quote Machiavelli, pass along proverbial wisdom, and generally put a good face on their existence in the dump.

Muniz recruits several “pickers” to help him create works of art by beautifully shaping the trash from the landfill into images of the broken people who work there. These inspiring “self-portraits” (the pickers are in a sense painting themselves) are a perfect collision of dignity and despair. Art made from trash. Something good from something broken. The images themselves are magnificent, and so is the message–there are no “throwaways.”

The creation of these works of art reminds the catadores that they are of great value. As the art of their own faces comes into view, they begin to open up.  They share more honestly about the struggles and pain of their lives, but they also see more clearly the nobility of their lives. This juxtaposition gives the film its power. The irony of the title, Waste Land, is in full view here. Out of supposed waste, beauty emerges.

Beyond Waste Land

What I love about Waste Land is the reminder that humanity is beautiful. In all of the pain and pleasure, sadness and joy, evil and goodness of human lives, God has placed an inherent value in us that cannot be overlooked for long. We are the stuff of novels and paintings and songs and poems and food and dance and laughter.

Followers of Jesus know why this is true. God has set eternity in our hearts, and at some level we remember what we were created to be. When we experience a work of art that is true and beautiful, it awakens in us a memory of how things ought to be. It makes us mourn a world where things are broken and long for a world where all things are whole again. Too often, we turn down the volume of this proclamation, but a faint echo summons us to remember our Creator and to long for our redemption.

When we experience works of artistic beauty, portraits of human nobility, signs of grace and redemption, we should look beyond these to the one who made them. God has placed hints of himself in the world to be pursued. Like bread crumbs on the road, not dropped by accident, they serve a purpose to lead us to God.

The Bible says that we humans bear the image of God. The day he made us, God himself said that humanity was “very good.” He puts his fingerprints on each of us. Our Creator dreamed us up as his special creation and has chosen us to carry his glory in the world. Even in our sin-tainted state, we are noble. Evil has defaced the image of God in us, but it has not been erased. It is this mark of God the Creator on us that gives us a dignity that cannot be taken away. Humanity’s greatest stamp of approval is the incarnation of Jesus, who being eternal God also took on flesh and became one of us. Nothing could speak more loudly of the significance of human life.

This truth has huge implications for all people, but it ought to especially instruct us about our care for the poor, the forgotten, the abused, the unborn, the disabled, the suffering. They too bear the imprint of God. Even the people that our cruel world casts off as trash are God’s glorious creation. There is a dignity in every human life that is worthy of our love.

But there is also a potential danger in speaking of the glory of our humanity. We might be tempted to worship ourselves as the ultimate source of dignity and beauty. At one point in the film, after the auction of his painting nets a huge sum, Tiaõ says, “God was so good to me, so wonderful.” Vik Muniz, the artist, interrupts him and says, “You’re the strong one. You are the one who is doing everything.” Whether intended or not, God is excluded from the conversation, and Tiaõ himself is seen as the ultimate strength and beauty. Now, I do not know anything of Mr. Muniz’s spirituality, so I do not intend this as a statement about his faith or lack of faith. But I think the passing comment highlights a temptation for us. Muniz’s remark cuts off the pursuit of beauty before it reaches its ultimate end. It stops short of its goal. It effectively says, “Let’s honor the beauty of humanity, but let’s not ask where that beauty originates.”

If, however, we fail to pursue this beauty beyond ourselves, we deny the full power of art. Just as the beauty of a work of art directs us to the artist, so the beauty of humanity directs us to the Creator. In this sense, I believe Vik Muniz likely has a sense of what I mean, but he fails to follow the logic all the way through. In the film, Muniz does not praise himself or his work, but he allows the people and the works of art to speak for him. He knows that art reflects the artist; the beauty of his artwork points people to his skill as an artist. Since that is true, would it not seem wise to allow the beauty of humanity on the whole to point us to the ultimate Artist?

One of my favorite lines in the documentary deals with our sense of perspective. Muniz looks out over the unending slums and shanties and buildings of Rio de Janeiro and observes, “They are not pretty places except when you look from far away.” It is a poignant comment that is also true of the portraits he is creating from recyclable trash. I couldn’t help but think that perhaps we should try to see our world from even further away. From God’s perspective, there is greater beauty in our world than we can imagine in the midst of it.

The Gospel says that humanity was broken and discarded on the trash heap of life, but Jesus came to rescue and restore us. He redeems us, gives us a new perspective, and fills us with a new hope. In Jesus, we discover that we are a part of a living and cosmic work of art. The Scripture says that “we are his workmanship,” and he is forming us into something wonderful. It is Jesus, not us, that finally transforms our lives into something wonderful. Our ultimate nobility and beauty comes as Jesus creates and recreates until we experience a new heavens and a new earth where joy and peace rule forever.

The most powerful line in Waste Land occurs when Tiaõ looks at the beauty of his completed portrait and says, “I never imagined I’d become a work of art.” The statement reveals a fantastic combination of humility and glory. It is as though Tiaõ realizes his smallness and his greatness in the same moment.

Perhaps followers of Jesus have something to learn from this. The Gospel says that God is making broken and sinful people into a new and beautiful work of art. Because of this, we should live with a constant sense of humility and glory, smallness and greatness, brokenness and beauty. This is the art of God’s grace on the canvas of the universe.

Is it easy for you to lose sight of the beauty and dignity of human life? How would it impact you if could gain a new perspective and see your life as a part of God’s cosmic work of art?

-jdl

All photo and artwork rights and credit to Waste Land or Vik Muniz at the following:

As I watched this video, I felt my troubles shrink and my hopes expand. The beauty of the blues is that they simultaneously proclaim our despair and our hope without minimizing either. In this, blues music is very much like the Psalms.

Thanks to Ray Ortlund, who first posted this on the Gospel Coalition blog.

-jdl

Intersection_WebMain

People watch movies. People go to church. Most fail to see how the two connect. This is why we have just begun a sermon series called Intersection: Where Christ & Culture meet. My hope is that we equip followers of Jesus to engage our world thoughtfully, creatively and biblically. In the sermons, we will explore themes from the movies “Inception,” “Toy Story 3,” “True Grit,” and “The Social Network.”

There are many reasons one might preach a series that deals with films, but here are five that surfaced as I thought about this series.

1. Faith relates to all of life. If we are going to live healthy and whole lives, we will fight against the temptation for a compartmentalized faith. Too often, people put “Sunday” into a sacred compartment and then isolate that “church” part of  life from the other six days a week. This is not the life Jesus came to give us. Gospel-faith should influence every realm of our lives.

2. We need to be discerning. If we are going to watch movies (and almost all of us do), we need to process what we watch and be discerning about the things that we see. We need to ask questions of the films we view. What is the story about? What is beautiful about the film? What is looked down upon? What is exalted? Is it honest about life? What moral and ethical viewpoints are used? What is redemptive? What emotions does it stir? Is this beneficial for me? Then, we have the chance to see how these questions relate to our following of Jesus and interacting with our world.

3. We can learn from films. Films have the potential to open us to new ways of seeing our lives and our reality. They can ask good questions with which we need to wrestle. If we enter the theater with a healthy humility, good films will help us realize that we don’t know it all. They remind us that we are thoughtful and feeling beings who like to be stretched both intellectually and emotionally. Watching a movie is viewing the world through another person’s glasses, and a shift in perspective inevitably opens us to new space to explore.

4. Creativity honors God. Too often, the church has taken up the call to confront while abdicating the call to create. Both are needed, but we are way out of balance. Andy Crouch says that we are “creators made in the Creator’s image.” When human beings stop creating, some God-given possibility is being muted or suppressed. We honor God when we create something beautiful and good. [What’s the over/under on comments about bad christian films for this post? Just sayin’…] We need more followers of Jesus who are courageous enough to attempt the creation of great films.

5. Movies are bridges for the gospel. As we seek to present and defend Jesus to our friends, co-workers, classmates, and neighbors, films can serve as common ground on which to have conversations about issues of life and faith. Like the apostle Paul in Athens interacting in the public square through philosophy and poetry, we can describe life with Jesus through the shared experience of films.

So, what do you think? Like the idea of incorporating an occasional conversation about film into a sermon series? Would you add anything to what I’ve mentioned here?

-jdl

Finding Compañeros

July 21, 2010 — 6 Comments

COMPANEROSI recently read Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel made famous by the television miniseries many consider the greatest ever (starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall). McMurtry’s story follows a group of men on a cattle drive from Mexico to Montana. In many ways, the book is about men, their internal drives or passions, and the friendships they share along the way. This motley group assembled over time, but the core of the group served as Texas Rangers during the days when they fought real battles throughout the region. Through many eventful, often difficult, years together, the men had become “compañeros.”  These relationships weren’t perfect, but they were characterized by intense loyalty, sacrifice, honesty, and memories. Every guy needs relationships like these, but few have them.

As I’ve observed guys who become real compañeros, I’ve discovered four things that create movement toward meaningful relationships: props, plans, risks, and laughs.

GUYS NEED PROPS

Women seem to get together with other women and start talking deeply without effort, but guys aren’t like that. You put them together and all you get is something along the lines of “how’s work?” or “you playing fantasy football again this year?” Those two conversations can fill an entire evening.

In general, guys don’t talk openly and freely without an external prop. It may be a task, a mission, a hobby, a shared history or some other event that brings them together. Men become close on a three-thousand mile cattle drive. They open up during a long winter in the trenches of wartime. They are brought together by an adventurous road trip. It isn’t always something grand. It may be something as simple as a regular hunting trip, a golf foursome or mission trip. It may be group of friends from your college dorm or a church small group. There is not any “magic” prop, but there is almost always some kind of prop that brings the guys together initially.

My group of friends and I came together as friends during college, but those friendships expanded through a college road trip to bury a “time capsule” on the Texas-Mexico border (modeled loosely on the movie, “Fandango”). We each included something of great personal value and a list of spiritual commitments and life goals in the bottle. Ten years later, we returned to dig it up. That event become an annual long weekend together that has become a highlight in our lives.

If you want to find real friends, I suggest you grab a group of guys and initiate some unique activity. In male relationships, activity opens the door for conversation. Men start talking deeply after they’ve worn themselves out, made fun of one another or blown something up in a bonfire.

GUYS NEED PLANS

Past performance does not guarantee future success. Just because some prop brought you together for a unique time of relating as friends, you may not continue in that kind of friendship in the years ahead. Most guys who have not found life-long compañeros reflect on certain friendships with a nostalgic longing to go back, maybe even with a tinge of sadness. They are sweet memories, but they are just that: memories of something good that once was but is now gone. Friends rarely intend to lose touch with one another. If your experiences together are going to grow into deep, lasting relationships, you need to commit to a plan.

With my group, we decided to take an annual trip together. We pick a destination and a date, and we all fly in for a long weekend each year. My “Fandango” trip with this group of 6 men helps me hit my annual laugh quota in single weekend. This takes a real commitment, but it’s worth everything it takes to make it happen. Our wives sacrifice on the home front to allow us to go. We take time off work. We split the costs evenly to make it fair (sometimes, we pick up the tab for one another when finances are tight). This commitment propelled us from being college friends to becoming life-long friends.

The bottom line is that you won’t become compañeros without regular time to laugh, play, and goof off together. This usually takes one person in the group who initiates an ongoing plan for being together and gets a commitment from the group. A plan creates a path for deepening relationships as you journey through the ups and downs of life together.

Most of the time, a particular place or activity becomes a big part of the group’s identity. Guys seem to have a desire for a tradition that makes this time special. As men move from the free-wheeling college years to the responsibility of their 30s and 40s, they need time “away” from the normal routine of life. I’d encourage you to try something that allows for a break from your normal responsibilities and demands some real commitment from one another.

GUYS NEED RISKS

The third element I see is risk. If there is no risk, you will settle into a cycle of conversation that repeats itself over and over without taking you anywhere. Think about your relationships with your father or brother or co-workers for a minute. I bet you could write a script for most those conversations as they revolve around the same topics with each phone call. This is just what guys do. We are strange beings. We privately long for a deeper relationship but we almost never acknowledge it.

Friends must continually take risks by sharing life at a vulnerable level. It amazes me how risky it feels to share what is happening in my heart even with my most trusted friends. We’ve been sharing life together for twenty years, but it still feels threatening to let them see my hurts, my unhealthy desires, my anger, my dreams, and my joys. It also brings freedom. The more I share, the more I’m freed up to be myself around them.

Most groups need a guy with the guts to be honest in front of others. Sometimes, it means saying, “You know what guys? I struggle with ______.” Or, “You know what hacks me off about my life right now? It’s ______.” In our group, it seems to be a different guy who leads out each year with an honest and bold statement about his life. Each time someone opens the door to his heart, I think to myself, “OK, here we go.” It’s become my favorite part of our trip. I find out that I’m not that weird, or maybe that I’m just as weird as everyone else. Somehow, that’s one of the things guys need to know: we are all jacked up. That kind of vulnerable sharing is relational fuel for men. Like a car, you have to refill the vulnerability tank regularly or the friendship runs out of gas.

GUYS NEED LAUGHS

With men, laughter both precedes and follows relational risks. Guys need to laugh, and I’ve found that guys won’t share openly until they have laughed freely. If you want guys to open up, you’d better crack one another up first. Some men don’t know how to laugh. Because of this, people will rarely feel comfortable enough around them to be honest about what’s in their hearts. Be careful sharing too much of yourself with men that can’t laugh. The other side of this is that men who have shared openly laugh even harder. The trust and confidence gained in deep relationships lead to uncontrollable laughs that roll out until they bring tears.

For guys, friendship never happens as spontaneously as we’d like. It takes props, plans and risks, but the investment leads to a kind of laughter that is only shared by true compañeros.

-jdl

We launched our church because of the great need in our area for churches with both deep belief in the gospel of Jesus and deep love for the people in our area. Rather than retreating from our world, we wanted to be a church that engaged our world for good. It is hard to deny that the South is littered with the bones of dead or dying churches that are failing to positively and significantly impact our world for Jesus. That’s not to say that every church is a bad church, but it does point to some major issues at play in many churches. Two years into our church plant, I am more convinced than ever of the need for new and renewed churches to meet the challange of a rapidly changing culture. Statistics also bear this out (see the map below). For the first time in 200 years, the church in the South is on the decline by attendance.

April 26-27, I will be attending a conference that will address these issues and call us to make a difference at this critical time. I want to invite you to join me at the conference. It would be a blast to have a bunch of us dreaming and praying together about how God might use us to engage our world with the gospel. If you are interested, you can register at www.advancethechurch.com. Please let me know, and we’ll plan to connect.

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The following was posted on Pastor J. D. Greear’s blog (jdgreear.com) and is reprinted by permission.
Guest Blogger:
Mike McDaniel, Director of SendRDU
Map Source: American Church in Crisis by Dave Olsen

That’s the title for this year’s Advance Conference, April 26-27 in RDU. Last year we called for a resurgence of the local church. This year we’re focusing on the major issues that are standing in the way of that happening here in the South.

The South is changing. Urbanization and the vibrant growth of our cities have transformed the cultural landscape. Cities like RDU have become new centers of business and education, places where culture is being formed and made. And yet as our cities are advancing, the church is shrinking. For the first time in its history, the church in the South is declining at a rate faster than anywhere else in the country.

See for yourself. This map shows you where evangelical Christianity is growing in the U.S. (Pink indicates growth. Blue indicates decline).

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And this isn’t just a problem in the cities, either. These changes are felt in small towns, where small town southern values are clashing with new urban postmodernity, and religion is often more prevalent than the gospel. There may be churches on every corner, but most are plateaued or declining to the point where they will be empty in 20 years.

As we stand at this critical turning point, we must be prepared to respond. We believe that the decline of the church is not due to external factors, but internal failures of the church to faithfully communicate the Gospel and engage the changing culture around us. That is the vision behind the title Contextualizing the Gospel in the New South. We want to equip pastors, lay leaders, and members to respond by engaging the changing culture of the South with the unchanging message of the gospel.

This year we’ve moved the conference to the Summit to be able to offer it the cheapest price possible. Right NOW you can get tickets for a ridiculously cheap early bird rate of $50.

Speakers include: Mark Driscoll, Ed Stetzer, Johnny Hunt, David Platt, Tullian Tchividjian, Matt Carter

You can register at www.advancethechurch.com.

I wanted to share with you three reminders that justice is worth the fight. I can’t listen to these recordings without having my soul profoundly stirred. Where justice demands our presence, may we love deeply, live boldly, pray constantly, hope vividly, act relentlessly.

The most haunting song I’ve ever heard – “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday.

One of the greatest speeches ever delivered – “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King, Jr.


 

In the fight against injustice, God must be real – “A Knock at Midnight” by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Seek justice ’til Jesus comes.

– jdl