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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?


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

I ran across a verse this morning in my Bible reading that grabbed my heart and hasn’t let go all day. Isaiah 30:18 says:

The Lord waits to be gracious to you, and he exalts himself to show mercy to you.

It caused me to reflect on things that keep me (and you) away from God.

  • We stay away because we think we are too sinful, and we stay away because we don’t realize how sinful we are.
  • We stay away because we have not achieved enough, and we stay away because we have achieved so much.
  • We stay away because we are insecure in our failure, and we stay away because we are secure in our success.
  • We stay away because we are lonely, and we stay away because we are surrounded by people.
  • We stay away because we are insignificant, and we stay away because we are significant.
  • We stay away because of our self-doubt, and we stay away because of our self-confidence.
  • We stay away because of weakness and strength, sorrow and joy, shame and glory.

All these things keep us away from God. Needlessly. The Gospel says that nothing stands in our way; Jesus has taken it all.

Whatever it is that keeps you away…let it go. Now.

Let nothing keep you away from Jesus.

He waits to be gracious to you. He stands at attention in his readiness to show mercy to you. 

Let nothing keep you away.


Several weeks ago, I posted about a video I had seen detailing the violence that many Christians are experiencing in parts of India, and I shared about some of my experiences in India. You can read that post here – Violence Against Christians in India. At the time, some footage of the video was in question. The video has now been released with confirmed video of violence against Christians. I warn you that this footage is raw and brutal. I personally believe that those of us who live in comfort need to be jolted by its awfulness, but it may not be for everyone.

As I said in my previous post, I was moved to tears by the video, but I hope we will also be moved to prayer and to action for our friends who are suffering for Christ.

Persecution in India: Francis’ Response from Cornerstone Church on Vimeo.

Footage courtesy: Voice of the Martyrs
Music courtesy: The Champion and His Burning Flame


When the Apostle Paul was planting churches in the first century, he wrote a letter to a church-planting partner named Titus. He wanted to make sure Titus had not been distracted from first-order business in the church. In the letter, he wrote, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained in order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.”

Global-mission-of-GodThree quick observations help us learn something about the appointment of elders in church plants.

First, there was something that remained undone in the preparation of the church until elders had been put in place. This was not optional, supplemental or secondary. The local churches were incomplete until they had God-ordained leaders.

Second, there was period of time that passed from when these churches were launched and when the elders were in place. Presumably, this allowed time for church health, spiritual growth, character evaluation, doctrinal training, and missional living to develop within the people. We are not told what period of time passed before the establishment of elders in each church, but it is clear that a period of leadership transition is normal for most church plants.

Third, Paul (the visionary leader for the church planting movement) designated a trusted leader named Titus (a regional pastor) to appoint elders for the churches. Paul writes to Titus: “This is why I left you in Crete…” It was a priority for Paul and for Titus in the launching of new churches. Most church plants follow the pattern of a leader or leaders, often from outside the core group, who oversee the church until elders have been raised up from within the new church.

The Global Movement of God

When you step back and look at the big picture, this pattern makes sense. A church is not a stand-alone organization designed for its own good. A church is a part of The Church, a global movement of God to replicate the life and mission of Jesus in people of every tribe. The movement strategy is to launch new local churches that will reproduce authentic Christ-followers in every people group. For the movement to reach its full potential, each new church must join in the global multiplication of churches.

If a new church is indeed part of this global movement, it is clear that establishing healthy leadership in each church is essential to success of the movement as a whole. It is also clear that the elders of the local church should see themselves as leaders in a movement that extends far beyond their local community. They are a team of leaders on assignment in a local church to further reproduce the life and mission of Jesus in a specific place, with the purpose of furthering the global mission of God.

Churches often lose sight of their role in the global mission of God, and a new church struggling to reach the lost, update the website, pay the bills, and survive the next Sunday is especially vulnerable at this point. It takes just a few people to distract or derail a church in its early years. This is why transitional leaders must guard the gate closely and prioritize the training and appointing of elders in a church plant. This is also why the initial elders must understand and embrace their role in God’s movement called The Church. The first elders in a church bear a great burden to keep a rapidly-changing and often immature church on course so that it can maximize its redemptive potential in the world.


Persecution in India: Francis’ Response on Vimeo.
Footage courtesy: Voice of the Martyrs
Music courtesy: The Champion and His Burning Flame

A Note about the situation in India:

Orissa has one of the worst records for violence against Christians, due in part to the activities of a religious fundamentalist group. Many churches have been destroyed and Christian workers continue to be attacked. There is a law prohibiting conversion and, since 2000, baptism requires the permission of the government. About a year ago, Hindu radicals went on a “bloody rampage that left 50,000 Christians fleeing for their lives into the state’s forests.” (GFA, 2009). – Cornerstone Church

This afternoon, I watched this video of the brutal persecution of our brothers and sisters in India. I was moved to tears, just as I had been similarly moved to tears five years ago when I taught in India. My hope is that you are also moved, but I hope that we are moved to more than tears. I hope we are moved to prayer, moved to action in our churches, and moved to assist churches in India and around the globe. 

1753172-R1-039-18Five years ago, I had the privilege of teaching a History of Doctrine course to a group of 43 graduate students in India.  As I taught these young students, my heart was jolted by their commitment to Christ. In the course of 18 days, I preached, taught for 5-6 hours per day, graded work late into the night, met with students in my makeshift office, and shared tea and meals with these remarkable students. During this time, I had the chance to be both teacher and student.  

What the Teacher Learned

I had planned my last lecture especially well. In closing, I would give them the charge that they now carried the message of Christ to the world–what had been passed from Jesus to the disciples to the church planters of Acts to the elders of churches throughout the globe now came to them. It was their task to carry that same message into the world.

I barely made it through the lecture as I fought through my tears. I had learned something of the hardship they faced and the enormity of their task, and it was more than I could handle. Knowing that these 23 or 24 year old young men would likely take the message of Christ into a heavily overcrowded and poverty-stricken region where very few Christians lived was daunting. That they would most likely set up their churches in an 8 x 10 ft storefront made of cinder blocks seemed impossible. Yet, there was also hope.

1753222-R1-006-1AI was humbled as I watched G–, a student with a learning disability who had once been rejected by his family as a failure, give up cricket games to study my notes (I was told he had to read them three times in order to understand). G– scored 98% in the course (much better than I had done as a student!). One employee at the school was a wonderful fifteen year old young lady that had recently been rescued from human-trafficking as a bride-for-sale. Another student said he dreamed of turning his tribal people from head-hunters to soul-hunters, and I’m certain that he was being serious. When I witnessed the ridiculous levels of poverty in Delhi, I was undone. It honestly took me six weeks to recover (meaning that it took six weeks to become somewhat numb again to the hardship).

Sharing in the Sufferings of Jesus

1753202-R1-024-10AOne connection that gripped me was a student I’ll call M–. M– is from China, although his father is Burmese.  After pastoring 4 years as a teenager, he snuck across the border from China to Myanmar (Burma) and then into India en route to bible college and seminary. Without any stops, that was a ten-day journey on busses and trains. He acknowledged that he shouldn’t be in India because China wouldn’t give a visa for this, but this was the only way he would become trained as a pastor. He had not seen his mother, father, brothers or sisters in five years. His father died while he was away, and he received a brief phone call from a relative. He planned to return to China and pastor a house church along the China-Myanmar border amongst his people.

1753192-R1-021-9In an email to my wife, I wrote, “It is good to be here to learn from as well as to teach and encourage these young men. They truly are young men, which means that I am getting older, but it also means that the task of leading churches in these harsh areas has been left to the young, and that is a little overwhelming for me, as I think of what they will face and the fact that many of them will be forced to face it alone in a village of people hostile to all that they stand for. Gives my prayers a new sense of urgency.” I still feel that way.

A Prayer and Plea

I leave you with an excerpt from my last journal entry from India 5 years ago. May we in our luxury and comfort and silly church battles become broken for those around the world who face such difficulty in being Jesus’ disciples. May our prayers sustain them as we lift them up to our Heavenly Father. May their devotion to our Rescuer spur us on to greater love and faith and ministry.

M–, my new friend from China who travelled 10 days journey illegally to be here, came to see me today. We talked for a few minutes about ministry and he wanted some information that I will email to him. We talked for a few more minutes before I had to turn to some work that needed to get to the copier before close of work today. As our conversation ended, he looked at me and said, “You leave Friday. Tomorrow will be busy day for you. We may not talk again.” I truly thought he was going to cry. I told him that we would eat lunch together tomorrow. I can tell that it feels good to him to know that someone outside of his people knows of his plight. He loves to talk about his people and the ministry he hopes to have among his people. All of the students love to talk about the plight of their people.

Marip Tu is the student on the right

Another student gave me a book today, one that was privately printed by a secret group (he seemed nervous about giving it to me and wanted me to read it “privately” in case someone was offended by the book). It’s over 500 pages long. I leave in less than 48 hours. When in the world am I going to read that? But in a note on one of his assignments, he had mentioned that he hoped to turn his people from head-hunters to soul-hunters. I included a note that I would pray for his people later that day. Two days later, he asks me if I could read this book. I could make no promises there, but it is at my bedside tonight. The students have a great burden for “their people.” There isn’t much national pride for India, but they all dearly love “their people.” And for most, that results in sadness and spiritual burden due to the hardness of the people to the gospel.

Clearly, there will be some sorrow for me in leaving these friends, brothers and sisters. There is much work to do here, and they bear an inordinate burden for the Church. But I will be happy to be home, to be with Nan, to be with the boys. I thought today about being with my church family and longed to be a part of worshipping with them. Going home will be good, but this too has been good.

May God be lifted up in His Church, both here and there.