A Walk Among Tombstones: Working Through Penance (Movie Review)

Liam Neeson’s latest isn’t what you were expecting: it’s not Taken 3. Instead, it’s a violent, spiritual walk through the twelve steps, as retired Matthew Scudder (Neeson) works to make right a decade-old mistake by solving a series of abduction/murders in New York City just before Y2K. Adding to the nuance is the unexpected friendship Scudder strikes up with TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley, Red Band Society, Earth to Echo), a down-on-his-luck kid seeking his way in the world. The film’s vibe is more Mystic River than Expendables but that gives us another side of Neeson to appreciate, and the film is better for it.

Taken from Lawrence Block’s novel of the same name, drug trafficker Kenny Kristo (Downton Abbey’s Daniel Stevens) hires Scudder, now working as a private investigator after leaving the police force, to track down the men who abducted and brutally murdered his wife. We soon find out that the two men are making a pattern of kidnapping the loved ones of known drug dealers, getting the ransom money, and sending back the women in parts. It’s not technically a whodunit, even if it feels that way, because it’s more about Scudder determining their motivations and drawing them out than figuring out who they are.

The moodiness of Dennis Lehane mixed with the familial feel of Edge of Darkness give this an ethereal feel even as the city is painted in shades of drab grey. It’s the color of Scudder’s soul: he’s been sober for eight years and he’s proud of that, but the wrestling inside his soul over what he’s done won’t leave him alone. Many of us can relate, because the truth is that repentance doesn’t always mean someone can forgive themselves.

Honestly, I went to see this for Neeson, not knowing much about the story or Block prior. X-Factor’s ‘Astro’ is a scene stealer, and his hilarious vibe gets channeled in spots [seriously, for outrageous exposure, check out the pilot of Red Band Society... right now]. What we haven’t seen a Neeson character do before is mentor someone; sure, he cared about his wife and daughter in Taken/Taken 2 but this is different. It’s like his Scudder wants to not only serve his own penance learned through Alcoholics Anonymous, but he also wants to keep TJ from making the same mistakes.

[As an aside, I'd have to give credit to Stevens: his role is dark, dark brooding. He... smolders. And having never seen an episode of Downton, I'm not talking McSteamy-ish smoldering, but real acting chops. Where did this guy come from? And how many more of his 2014 films can you catch before they leave the theater? The Guest... Night in the Museum 3... The Cobbler...]

This one isn’t for the faint of the heart- there’s a fair amount of torture for sure (but not as bad as Prisoners). But the way that the twelve steps are worked in, the way that confession and change and growth occur in Neeson’s Scudder? Those make this a wonderful, terrible ride, when you count the cost of his soul and how he’s ended up in this place. [It also makes me realize I need to check out Block's other works, which are under-read in my fiction experience.] Go for the adventure, stay for the soul, but either way, buckle up.

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The Song: Story-Driven vs. Message-Driven, Interview With Writer/Director Richie Ramsey (Movie Interview)

Having seen The Song, I was impressed by the story, the acting, and cinematography. How were you able to achieve that level of quality in all three phases? That’s quite the trifecta.

Thank you very much! This is ultimately the result of being surrounded by a great team of very professional and gifted people. I was fortunate to have qualified outside and honest input on the script early on. That was tremendously helpful in shaping it over several drafts. Our director of photography, Kevin Bryan, is just incredible. He has a great combination of technical expertise, artistic giftedness, and an eagerness to take creative risks. As far as the acting, it was largely a matter of casting the right people, and we’re very fortunate to have found them.

Alan Powell seems to be a real revelation as the protagonist/antagonist. How did you come to select him as your leading man?

Yeah, I think the three lead actors, Alan, Ali, and Caitlin, will give the audience a sense of discovery – that they’re seeing gifted actors on the cusp of great careers. It was basically the standard audition process for all the roles. Our casting director, Regina Moore, sent out audition notices. Tapes poured in. She narrowed them down, and we watched and sifted through the dozens of actors that were left. When I saw Alan’s tape, I knew I needed to see him audition in person. He came in and nailed it and had great chemistry with both actresses. And, it’s also been tremendously helpful that he and I are philosophically like-minded. From the beginning, he really “got” the movie and believes in the story and what it ultimately communicates.

How did City on a Hill go from the episodic not a fan videos to a released-in-theater production? How did you get involved? [Were you responsible for the contextualizing of Kyle Idleman’s sermons into a fictional universe where the themes played out? If so, bravo! That’s still one of the most haunting book/studies I’ve ever lead as a pastor.]

Thanks! Yeah, I wrote the dramatic content for “not a fan.” And, I think when we sat back and watched that as a staff, we felt we were ready to take on a feature film.

How did you settle on the Song of Solomon as your ‘text’? What other sources did you look to in writing and producing the story in addition to Song and Ecclesiastes?

As you mentioned, we frequently partner with Kyle Idleman on our projects. He’d been teaching Song of Solomon for years, and he and the leadership at City on a Hill felt the time was right to undertake a project tackling its various subjects – marriage, romance, and intimacy. So, when the leadership of City approached me about it, I started researching anything affiliated with Solomon. This brought me back to Ecclesiastes, and, because of things I was going through at the time, that book deeply resonated with me. I thought it not only had a very discernible and compelling narrative – a man of means searching for meaning in all the wrong places – but, I also thought it spoke powerfully and profoundly to the human condition. So, I was determined to incorporate it as well.

A few drafts into the screenwriting process, the direct texts of Solomon – Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes – became the film’s narrative voice-over, and they just immediately elevated the whole story. There’s such power in those words.

In the visual delivery, I found myself seeing a mashup of Mumford & Sons with Johnny and June Cash. Where did you get the ideas for the way that you wanted the film to look and feel?

Having lifelong ties to Kentucky, I’ve always loved roots music. And, in recent years I’d become a fan of the Avett Brothers and other artists in the Americana genre. I’ve also noticed how God is an acceptable topic of discourse in this kind of music -one can sing about Christian themes, and mainstream audiences still dig it  (Mumford & Sons is an excellent example). So, once I settled on the idea of our modern day Solomon being a singer-songwriter, I thought this should be his genre.

When we were in story development, my wife recommended that I use Pinterest to create photo boards for all my characters and locations. We printed these out and they were made into a giant collage in our production office. For Jed, our main character, there were lots of pictures of Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, etc. For Shelby, we had Nicole Atkins, Cat Power,

(though they’re not exactly in this genre) and a few others. We even had photos of Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, and Emmylou Harris (She has since joined our soundtrack, and I’m just absolutely thrilled!) to help us design Jed’s parents, who were also Country Music stars in the previous generation. This helped our art team get on the same page about what the characters, sets, and concerts should look like.

And, yeah, there’s no denying that Walk the Line was an influence.  It’s arguably the greatest music biopic ever made.  That or Coal Miner’s Daughter. Though I will say Alan’s remarkable resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix is purely coincidental. It wasn’t the reason I cast him. If there’s anyone I wanted him to resemble, it was Scott Avett. But, I also heavily studied Once, Crazy Heart, O Brother Where Art Thou and several other really good music movies.

What do you hope audiences take away from it? Did you have a target audience in mind?

I want audiences to take away from the film what Solomon wants readers to take away from Ecclesiastes: “Remember your Creator,” who is the only hope you have that life has any objective meaning, and “delight in the wife of your youth.”

Jesus ended many of His stories by saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” That’s my target audience – “He who has ears to hear.” I think movie-goers will resonate with the acting and musical performances and the cautionary tale/love story. I think Christian audiences will further appreciate the frequent references and tie-ins to the lives of Solomon and David.

You’re married with four kids (snooping on your blog found that). What advice would you give to a couple setting out on the first stages of marriage? Does any of your advice change after parenthood? Ten years in?

Congratulations on asking what is by far the most difficult question I’ve been asked in an interview! I think my wife might laugh at the idea of me giving marital advice, but, hey, that’s some advice right there: make your spouse laugh. I’m certainly not a perfect husband, but I think one thing my wife and I do well is we’re best friends. Obviously, it’s important to be more than that, but it’s important to be that. And, I think it’s important to give your spouse a place in several areas of your life that no one else – especially, no one of the opposite gender – can have. And, I think it’s important to maintain that after children. Our children know they’re loved, but they know that their parents’ relationship takes top priority.

I’m intensely critical of “Christian” films, and this one strikes me as one that would transcend categories if people hear about it. What choices did you make to keep the message the main thing and yet appeal to the masses?

Yeah, we like to say The Song is descriptive rather than prescriptive, conversational rather than conversional, and story-driven rather than message-driven. The film has a controlling idea…a message, if you will…but, it’s still story-driven.

As far as deliberate choices that were made: Like I said before, the music was a deliberate choice. And, I really wanted the stakes in the story to be universal and primal. Everyone, on some level, cares about love and meaning. Often in Christian films, what’s at stake if the hero succeeds or fails are things that are only meaningful and valuable to Christians. In The Song, things that even non-Christians care about hang in the balance if our character ultimately fails.

And, finally, I think it’s really important that Christian filmmakers and audiences ultimately take to heart that Christianity is not a genre, but the truth. There have been many very successful Hollywood productions that carry a message or very big worldview idea. But, they’re successful because they’re still story-driven rather than message-driven, and the filmmakers are able to stay story-driven because they believe their worldview is actually true. So, they don’t feel they have to sacrifice story or quality to accommodate message. In their minds, they’re just keeping it real.  If Christianity is true, then it follows that everything that is true is Christian. And, everything that happens every second of every day has Christian significance. I think it’s crucial that Christian filmmakers, Christian leaders, and Christian audiences realize that the primary responsibility of a Christian artist is not to adhere to arbitrary “Christian” genre requirements or to pander to the sentiments of a subculture, but to skillfully and graciously tell the truth.

What’s your next project?

I’m in development on a film based on a true story, but unfortunately I’m not at liberty to say more than that at this time. I’d love to spill the beans, but I just can’t.

Thanks so much for your time. I watched The Song weeks ago and still find it coming to mind as I consider marriage… and God’s love for us.

Thanks so much for having me and for your encouraging words!

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Red Band Society- First Look (TV Review)

Everyone has two stories: the one they want you to hear and they one they don’t.–Charlie

Within the opening vignette of FOX’s premiere of Red Band Society, I’m hooked. I’m talking belly laughs…and a deep perspective on life that makes sense when you consider that no one wants to be in the hospital, and often, they’re facing their biggest fears, often death. Often the humor reserved for mortuaries, prisons, and… pastor support groups.

And our semi-omniscient, comatose narrator, Charlie (Griffin Gluck), has us set up to recognize that what we’re about to see and hear is only half the truth about what is really going on inside the hearts and minds of the kids and physicians/nurses working in a pediatric ward, not limited to angry/stuck-up, popular girl Kara (Zoe Levin), bulimic and edgy Emma (Ciara Bravo), and stuck between them, cool-and-experienced Leo (Charlie Rowe).

Life is full of black holes- we can all fall in at any time.–Nurse Jackson

The seemingly most jaded character (so far) is Nurse Jackson (Octavia Spencer) who delivers this pithy warning to one of her charges. It’s the only nice thing we hear her say because she’s been hardened by the suffering she’s seen… Or at least we’ll assume until we learn otherwise.

It’s true though, right? We all get lost sometimes, and we can’t always see the potholes, or black holes, and we need someone to point them out if they’re able. Thankfully, the kids in this ward have Nurse Jackson, even if they aren’t always thankful, and even if they don’t always know how much she cares.

When you’re in a hospital trying to get better, the most important part of you that needs to survive is you.–Charlie

As I’ve provided pastoral care to people in hospitals, I’ve seen patients treated like they were their condition by friends and family. It’s like they lost their identity outside of being sick. Sure, what the kids are going through is serious, but the sickness isn’t all they are. We often get stuck in parts of our lives where we think our mistakes or our sin or our situation or are job is what we are. But these kids, and our lives, are waaaaaay more complicated.

If no was in my vocabulary, why would I be asking you to say yes?–Jordi

One of the more enterprising new patients, Jordi (Nolan Sotillo), checks himself in and comes after the doctor who he thinks can fix him, Dave Annable’s Dr. Jack McAndrew, a kindhearted McSteamy-ish lead. Jordi’s determination earns him a spot– and I found myself thinking that his approach was a lot like prayer. In fact, there’s the story Jesus tells about a persistent widow and a judge where she refuses to give up and he finally gives in (Luke 18:1-8). I’m not saying that there’ll be a pro-God treatment in this show, but the way Jordi’s heart and asking with no hope of a yes for a yes end up working? Yeah, I think we should pray more.

Overall, Red Band Society proves to be worth a second watch, to see where they take this. Charlie is right, life doesn’t end by entering a hospital – but too often we think we can’t make it past the crisis we’re facing. Hopefully, this show will let us learn a little bit about ourselves.

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Aliens & Strangers (Sunday’s Sermon Today)

The question in the psychological evaluation went something like this: “When you arrive at a new place, do you barge right in and take over or do you lurk at the back until you’ve assessed everyone?”

Somehow, neither answer sounds great, does it? “Barge” versus “lurk”? Take over or assess? Both of them obviously show off something about you based on the way that you answer! Often, as we get older, it’s been so long since we entered something new, or since we felt like an actual outsider, that we’ve forgotten what we would do in that setting! But most of us fall somewhere on the continuum.

Abram AKA Abraham is clearly a lurker- he’s seventy-five-years-old and he’s still living in his father’s basement! Well, okay, they didn’t have basements back then, but we get the impression that he’s the kind of guy who would still be living at home, playing World of Warcraft online with his friends, ordering pizza as the only basic food group, and working at a comic book store. [Hold on, that doesn’t sound all bad…]

It says in Genesis 12 that the Lord showed up to Abram and told him to go – that God would make Abram into a great nation and that he would be a blessing to all the world. It’s here that I think we can see what must’ve been working on Abram’s heart for … seventy-five years.

It’s the kind of thing that makes Luke stare off into the dual sunset of Tattoine; it’s the kind of thing that made Peter Parker wonder what awesomeness awaited after the spiderbite; it’s why all of those women in Jane Austen novels ventured off to the big city.

It’s the belief that there’s something more, something better, something not yet. That this isn’t home, that there’s more that could be, that this isn’t the best there is. It’s the kind of thing that only God would know about a person because it’s not the kind of thing Abram’s behavior is showing off– and it’s not like they had support groups set up for people to talk about their feelings.

But God showed up and tells Abram to go…

And Abram and his wife, Sarai, take off, and they end up first in Egypt.

You can read about this fun little side story in Genesis, but here’s the important point: Abram gets scared that someone will think Sarai is pretty, and that they’ll want to bump Abram off to get to Sarai, so that they could marry Sarai… so he claims to be her brother.

Amazing. Definitely not a take-charge-and-dominate sort of personality. Not someone we’d peg to be a leader, or to even exhibit qualities of a God-following leader. But God chose Abram, not us.

Abram and Sarai leave Egypt, and after some family drama, the two of them are still wrestling with what it is that they are going to, because they know what they left. The safety and security of hundreds of years of living with family, the extensive understanding of what it meant to be shepherds and farmers there.

And into this mess of what is surely some confusion, and some doubt, and some isolation, and some frustration, it says in Genesis 15, that the LORD appears to Abram again in today’s scripture.

Consider the main points of this vision.

  • The LORD tells Abram not to be afraid.
  • The LORD tells Abram that God alone is all Abram needs.
  • The LORD tells Abram that even though he and his wife are really old, that they’re going to have a baby.
  • The LORD tells Abram that his offspring will be many and they will inherit the land.
  • The LORD is going to bless the world because of Abram.

Flip with me to Hebrews 11, and check out what the writers in the New Testament had to say about Abraham (the new name God gave him). It’s the way we can figure out how Abram responded to God’s four promises above.

Abraham by faith went somewhere he didn’t know obediently, even though he didn’t know where he was going.

Abraham by faith was a stranger in a strange land without a home, enduring life in tents while waiting for a place with a foundation.

Sarah, even though she was old—Abraham gets it worse because he “was as good as dead”—knew God was faithful because she became a mother.

And they, Abraham and Sarah, join a list of saints who lived by faith who didn’t see how everything would play out but believed anyway. They knew how the story was supposed to end but didn’t get to actually read the final chapter. They were foreigners and strangers.

Have you ever been a foreigner or a stranger? Do you remember what that feels like?

I have to admit that I haven’t been homeless often. I’ve lived in twelve different places in 37 years, but they’ve mostly been legitimate. There was this one time I broke my leg and a house full of female seminary students let me sleep on the couch, but I digress…

But some of us here, some of us outside of the circle of accepted ‘normal,’ they probably understand how things can be when you don’t fit in or have a real home.

I recently had a conversation with the woman who regularly cuts my sons’ hair. I don’t always end up in a hair salon but one day that was on my soccer dad to-do list, and I ended up surrounded by giggling kids, lollipops, and televisions turned to Barney, and Scooby-Doo, and Mario Kart.

And I had a deeper-than-average conversation with a woman I’ll call Mara. While I don’t remember how we got there, I know that Mara told me that she had fled the country of Lebanon at 1987 as a civil war that had wracked the country was winding up. She told me that she’d often raced home from school because of the bombing but she didn’t remember being scared.

Mara told me that she and her parents had emigrated to West Virginia, and that she’d ended up in Virginia, now raising a senior high student by herself. She nearly broke down in tears as she told me how her son loved the United States so much, and how, her voice dropping to a whisper, he wanted to be a Marine and help protect the freedoms he’d come to know here.

That’s when Mara told me that she’d also been threatened, told she was taking a job from an American. How because of her darker skin and thick accent, that she didn’t ‘belong here.’

Mara understands what it’s like to be a foreigner and a stranger in a strange land.

And I would argue that if we are to be faithful followers of the LORD of Abraham, of Jesus himself, then we must admit that we should feel some of that, too.

In I Peter 2, the author urges his listeners, “as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us….Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.”

I wonder sometimes if we’ve grown too comfortable in the midst of the world that surrounds us, too knee-deep in culture. It’s a fine line, as someone who appreciates what we can learn from others, even people who disagree with us. But if we’re going to be like Jesus, then we should look different. We should consider what it means to be like Jesus—especially in a world that doesn’t understand how Jesus could win by losing, why God would send his son to die on the cross…

We need to recognize that we weren’t always “in” but sometime ago, we were out, too.

Seriously, how many of you have Native American Indian blood? Okay, you all are the originals, the people ‘from here’ (if you’re reading this inside the U.S.)

Everyone else? At some point, you were an illegal immigrant’s son or grandson or great grandson! You came here… illegally. Probably avoiding religious persecution, and you ended up here in the melting pot called America.

But the thing is, we’re so far removed from that – I don’t even know who my first ancestor in America was—that we’ve lost sight of what it was like to be on the outside looking in.

Check out Ephesians 2: “Therefore,” writes Paul, “remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

We were once outside of the love of Christ—because we were in our sin. We were once outside of the covenant of Abraham because it was made with his line, to the Jews, and frankly, we’re all technically Gentiles. But Paul continues, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.”

You were a stranger, but Jesus introduced you around.

You were an illegal alien, but Jesus gave you an eternal green card.

You were an alien, and Jesus kept Will Smith from phasing you with that thing that wipes out your memory.

You were a sinner, stuck in your selfish, arrogant, misguided, self-destructive behavior, and Jesus showed up and died on the cross for your sins.

The cross, the great equalizer. It’s like Jesus nailed to the cross hung there on Calvary and said, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” or maybe it was, “all of you who are weary, come home.”

That’s the thing, isn’t it? We all want to find a home. Whether it’s the place to live that we call our own, or the place that’s safe to raise our kids, or the spot in someone’s heart where we finally know that we’re loved unconditionally, we yearn to be home. To be someone and mean something.

And Jesus shows up, just like God showed up in the life of Abram, and says, “you matter, you are loved, you are MINE.”

Some folks reading this don’t know that. They might’ve heard it before, but all of the stuff they’ve done or had done to them makes them think that they don’t really matter. Unfortunately, in a world where domestic violence and child abuse are daily entrees into the news, there are people here who can’t imagine that they would matter.

To those people I say, “believe it. You are loved by the great and powerful God of the universe.” And I will keep saying it until the day I die.

Other folks reading this don’t remember a time when they weren’t aware that they were loved. They have heard it so often or internalized it to the point where they have an understanding and they no longer worry about it anymore.

To those people I say, “remember when you were alone, held down by your sin or your isolation. If you’ve never felt that, imagine what it would be like to be there, unable to imagine that you could be free. Now channel that to be compassionate toward those who don’t know Jesus yet…”

I saw it summed up really well in one of those Facebook posts this week. Some of you saw it because I shared it.

Jesus says, “Love one another.”

A series of questions are asked: “What if they’re immigrants? What if they’re gay? What if they’re poor?”

It goes back to Jesus, and he asks, “Did I stutter?”

We make this way too complicated. I believe that the church will really be the church when no one worries about whether they matter or whether or not they’re included anymore. I believe the church will be the church when we’ve put down our preconceived ideas about who matters to God, who is saved, and what God is looking for, and recognizes that God loves everyone.

In a week, our District Superintendent is going to stand up here at Charge Conference and ask us as a church the three questions that Adam Hamilton said are most important to the church being the church (from his book Leading Beyond the Walls).

Why do people need Christ?

Why do people need the church?

Why do people need this church?

People have questions; Abram had questions. It’s in seeking the answers to the questions faithfully that Abram grew to be the man after God’s own heart, the one who would faithfully pick up and move, the one who would lead his people out of the known and into the unknown, into something better.

I hope today that you will faithfully wrestle with these questions– and that you will help the church be the answers. Remember when you were an alien and stranger; remember when you lived condemned by your sins.

If we can’t answer why a person would need Jesus or why a person would need church, or why a person would need this church then maybe we’re not doing church right, and we need to change.

Or maybe it’s just been so long since we considered those basic questions that we need to fall in love with Jesus, and with church, all over again. Maybe we need to get out from behind our computer, or (figuratively) out of our parents’ basement, or up from behind our pew, and be the church the way that Jesus did.

Take heart in the fact that he that lives in you has conquered sin and death and reigns eternal. We live in the now and in the not yet, like Abraham, having not quite made it to the eternal- having not yet been perfected– but recognizing that the God who spoke in visions also spoke through Jesus and speaks to us today, with a simple message:

“This is home.”

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Mike Yankoski’s The Sacred Year: Old Practices For A New Day (Book Review)

Using a framework of divine practices, centuries old yet ultimately vital to today and tomorrow, Yankoski moves through a series of chapters that are anecdotal and practical all at once. Reading the book IS hearing his story, but it’s also a method toward experiencing parts of your life you haven’t before. And it all started with a speaking engagement where the author saw something in someone else that reminded him of himself… and he didn’t like it.

The Sacred Year is the third book I’ve read this year encouraging me to slow down and enjoy the ride. Like the first two (Hands Free Mama and The Well-Played Life), The Sacred Year inclines me to think that the book reflects a growing discontent in our culture’s busy-ness, but also the moving and breathing of God’s spirit in my own life, seeking to catch my attention. As a pastor, I find myself pushing the boundaries of what it means to be fully available at work and at home- some people find this astonishing because I am doing ‘God’s work.’ But Yankoski’s book asks us if doing more actually makes us more blessed, if we’re not confusing what we do with who we are.

From “single tasking” to baking bread to Lectio Divina and daily examen, Yankoski explores methods you’ve heard of before, but sometimes might experience in a new way. For the longtime Christian or a new person to exploring faith and themselves, the Sacred Year allows us to consider how big the world is around us, how sacred our calling is, and how much more there is for us to experience— if we’d just slow down.

Having read the Sacred Year for review, I’ll admit a rarity: I’m highly tempted to buy the book for myself, to revisit and consider, to digest and meditate on, and finally, to put into practice these sacred methods that are as old as the Church. And which ultimately have been drawing people closer to God for years.

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What The Church Can Learn From The Pitch (That’s the Soccer Field, Y’all!) (Mustard Seed Musing)

What a night.

The playoff game was intense as our home team Richmond Kickers faced off against a rival from South Carolina. The winner would move on and the loser would go home for another offseason of wondering what went wrong. It wasn’t our normal Saturday night activity: we’d never attended a professional soccer game as a family. But the price was right ($5 per person) and our sons are both enjoying playing soccer, so why not give it a shot?

Ten minutes in, the Kickers scored and pandemonium broke out, but after ninety minutes of regulation, the score was tied and we’d run up a significant food bill. Almost thirty minutes later, the Kickers substituted their star player, who’d been injured for a month, whose one (and only) touch of the night was to head in the game winner. Pandemonium redux.

An hour later, resplendent with autographed soccer balls and freshly minted pictures with players, our family of four returned home exhausted… and converted. Our kids want to make sure we’ll go back for the next playoff game, we’ve told family and friends how great the experience was, and we’ve ‘liked’ the team’s Facebook page. All because of one stellar experience.

Which begs the questions: can church be like that? What can church learn from the soccer experience?

The environment was right. One of the many thoughts I’ve had in comparing church with the soccer experience revolves around the fact that everyone, and I do mean everyone, was friendly. We were warmly welcomed, the activities were planned for the kids to participate in, and they had food kids like. Happy kids = willing-to-do-this-again parents. What would it look like if church was a place where families could come and know that their screaming, snotty, uncomfortable kids (from infant to teen) would be accepted? What would it look like if new people walked in and were greeted by ushers and signage? What if the things surrounding the main thing (soccer game, worship) were also important to those families, from the food to the Sunday School or small groups?

The ‘participants’ opened up to new people. Our eldest decided after the game that he’d like to get go onto the field with the other jumping kids, elated by the win; before long, he’d determined that it would be good to get his souvenir soccer ball autographed. (Before long, our youngest decided if our eldest could… yeah.) The players were magnanimous in giving autographs and pictures, and stopped to get down on the level of the kids who approached them. I often find myself thinking that no advertising can beat good relationships. My kids think these soccer players are awesome, not necessarily because they played well, but because they were friendly! Seriously, my kids asked for autographs from guys who never got out of their warm-ups! What would happen if church was more approachable? If new people were treated with honor? If the smallest, youngest people in the church were treated like they were most important?

The joy of the game is contagious. Now, a win goes a long way- you have to compete to win- but there’s something about experiencing anything done well that makes you want to experience it again. From the play on the field to the interaction after the game, there was an infectious sense of how much fun this could be. Maybe that doesn’t always translate to church, but what if worship would be fun and infectious? What if when you left church, you had heard a message you wanted to Tweet about? What if you had something happen that made you want to share a picture of what your church had done in mission? What if you wanted to let everyone else know about the ‘deal’ they could get by coming next week? [Quick note: technically, church is in fact free to attend. Good deal there.] What if church was something that you enjoyed, and made you feel better about life, so much so that you wanted others to enjoy it, too?

I know futbol, er, soccer, isn’t for everyone. But it seems like if we could help people recognize the value, get fired up enough by the experience, we might see change happen, we might see community grow. We could learn a lot by considering the experience.

Frankly, I’d love it if someone showed up face painted for church.

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A History of Trees: Genesis 6:9-22 (Sunday’s Sermon Today)

One fall day, a young boy tagged along to his father’s greenhouse. There, he marveled at his father’s work, the greenery and flowers, the stages of plant life, and the woodwork that his father did as a hobby. Entering for the first time in weeks, he asked his father about a simple wooden cross that he hadn’t seen before. It was even bigger than those around his house, and even than the one in his church’s sanctuary.

So he asked his father, “Why are you carving that one so big? Did you need another one?”

The boy’s father explained that he had been studying the way that the different trees showed up in the Bible, and that this new one was a different kind of wood than he had used before. “This one,” he said, “is a mustard tree.”

The boy’s interest was peaked. “A mustard tree? Like hamburgers and hotdogs mustard?”

“Yes,” his father smiled. “But not quite so smooth.”

“Why that tree? What’s so special about the tree?” the boy asked, running his hand over the beam of the cross.

His father, aware that a real moment was in the making, put down his watering can and rake, smoothed out a spot on a nearby bench for the boy to sit down and said, “You can learn a lot from the history of trees. Sit down, and let me tell you a story.”

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“We know that a long time ago, when there was nothing but God, that God created the world. Shaping the sun and the stars, the land and the sea, the plants, the animals, and finally, the people, that God breathed breath into these people called Adam and Eve, and there was the beginning of something special. God made them to be with him, and like him in their ability to love and relate to each other.

“Adam and Eve had two rules: to govern over the animals, and to not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. See, there were two trees that were special. One was the tree of life, and one was the only tree from which they should not eat. We don’t know what each tree was like, but we know that people think of what they ate, the only thing they should not eat, as an apple.

“See this apple? Seems pretty harmless doesn’t it. But in the story, it’s that they ate what they weren’t supposed to. They disobeyed God. And because of it, they were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, the place God had made just for them. They ate, disobeyed God, and they found themselves outside, figuring out what to do next.

“Before too long, they had children, and their children disobeyed too, especially one called Cain. Cain was a farmer- he grew things out of the ground. But he wanted the best things for himself, and he thought he should get all of the credit. He couldn’t see that God was still with them, even outside of the Garden. So one day, out of jealously, he killed his brother Abel, who had watched over the animals, and found himself kicked out of his family, ashamed, and all alone.

“After several families had come and gone, all of the people who were living then were full of selfishness like Cain. They took what they wanted from the land, tearing down plants and trees carelessly, and never planting where they had cut down. They killed animals just for fun, and thought they should just take from each other, too, even if it meant killing other people. They disobeyed, and failed to love God, and gradually lost the way they were supposed to be like God.

“But there was one man, one family, lead by a father named Noah. We don’t know what Noah did beforehand, but one day, God showed up and told him to build an ark. We’ve talked about the ark before but it was BIG. God told Noah to make it out of gopher wood – what we call cypress. Can you imagine how many trees it took to build a boat that would house two of every animal, and Noah’s family? It must’ve taken a whole great garden, a forrest even.

“Noah obeyed, and the ark became the way that God saved humanity. Then the rain came down. Water helps crops grow and gives people water to drink; it washes us clean. But this much water wasn’t good for most of the earth; thankfully Noah and his family were on the ark!

“We know that many people died in the flood, but rather than running away from something, Noah went toward God. The ark was the way God used the remnants of the Garden to save his dream for people and the whole world, that one day there would be peace. Of course, wherever there are people, there is trouble,” said the father. “But that’s how we came to understand that God started with a garden and a few trees, and used trees to be the means by which Noah was saved. I’m sure you’re getting tired of this story though.”

“No, I’m not!” the boy protested. “But what about the mustard seed?”

“Well, if you’ll keep listening…”

************************************************************************************

“Things went from good to bad and from bad to worse and back to good again for thousands of years. People didn’t quite know what to do with what God had said, but they tried hard, and some sought to build up a relationship with the same God who had created people in the Garden of Eden. But they couldn’t agree on what God wanted or how God expected them to behave. And that’s where Jesus enters the picture.

“Jesus was born on Christmas, just like we celebrate every year, but his birth wasn’t like yours or mine. There were no hospitals, no electricity. Instead, it says his father Joseph found a quiet corner of a stable- can you imagine a baby in the middle of all of these animals- and cleaned out a wooden manger for his son to sleep in.

“Wait, wood showed up again?” asked the boy, incredulously.

“Certainly. There is even a story about how the same Garden where the tree for the manger came from might’ve also been where the cross came from. But I’m getting ahead of myself. See, Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph in the wooden manger, but he wasn’t just a baby- he was actually God’s son, too! It’s a miracle that shows how important it was for God to live life like us and to know us and to be Immanuel, God with us, just like God was with us in the beginning, in the Garden.

“So Jesus grew up, just like you’re growing up. He did the same things that you do, like playing with his friends and going to school. And just like you, he learned from his father, Joseph, about their jobs, cutting wood and making it into new things, because Joseph was a carpenter. But Jesus also learned from his Heavenly Father, and before he was too old, he started to teach other people.

“Like how to love your neighbor,” said the boy, excitedly. “I remember that one from Sunday School!”

“You’re right! He taught about love and about what it meant to be with God. Jesus obviously liked to tell stories that used gardening and woodwork to get his point across. He told the people who followed him, said the father, pulling a Bible off the shelf, ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15:1-5).

Wood was pretty important to Jesus’ ministry- he went out in Peter’s boat to go fishing that was made out of cedar and ended up preaching to those who gathered around. One time he even calmed a storm from the boat when Jesus’ friends thought they were going to get swamped by a storm. I bet they thought they were in the middle of a flood! But God had told us he wouldn’t destroy the world by flood again, and Jesus told the storm to be quiet, and it settled down.

“But my favorite thing Jesus had to say about wood came in Matthew 17, said the father as flipped through the Bible. ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’

“That’s why you’re making the cross out of a mustard tree!” the boy practically shouted. “Because Jesus said you could have faith like that tree.”

The boy’s father smiled. “That’s part of it. You know that Jesus ended up making some people angry who didn’t like that he said we should be kind to each other, that we showed God we loved him by how we treated other people. They ended up getting the people to vote to have Jesus crucified- basically, they nailed him to a tree that they had put together like this,” said the father, turning back to the cross.

“Here’s where we understand the story of the Garden of Eden and the story of Jesus come together. God wanted so badly to be with us, to make it like it was before sin, before bad choices, before disobedience, that he was willing to send his own son, who was perfect, to die, so that we could be forgiven.”

“But why did Jesus have to die?” asked the boy.

“That’s part of the mystery,” said his father, shaking his head slowly. “I don’t understand it all, but I know we’re told that if we believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection, that we’ve accepted God’s forgiveness for our sins, our mistakes. I know that the cross, the tree, reflects back on what happened in the Garden and what will be when God makes everything right. No more sickness, or disasters, or broken relationships.

“The cross is that sign that the way the world worked before isn’t the way it’ll work forever. That Jesus did something crazy- he won by losing.”

“So I get the cross part,” said the boy, “but why make one out of mustard tree boards? Isn’t the cross kind of it? Does it really matter?”

“Well,” said the father, flipping forward in his Bible again, “do you remember the second tree? The tree of life? It doesn’t really get mentioned after Genesis’ first few chapters, but it comes up again at the end. Listen to this: ‘Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.”

“Jesus told us that he was going to prepare heaven for us, and we have this image of the tree of life bringing it all back together again. Jesus said if we had faith as small as the mustard seed- like the one that grew this tree (again pointing to the cross)- that we could move mountains, do the impossible. Living forever seems impossible. So does being forgiven for the bad things I’ve done. But if we believe, just a little, Jesus said it would happen. So what if the tree of life wasn’t a mustard tree?”

“The smallest seed- the littlest faith. Jesus said it was enough to bring us into the Garden, into relationship with God. And that faith, that relationship, it’s what really gives life. It’s what helps us hope, and shows us love, and directs us on who we should be so that we can be like God.”

“That’s why the cross is made out of mustard tree. It’s a reminder to me that the God of the Garden of Eden still grows things today, like new trees and faith. That there’s hope waiting at the end of all of this, that the trees still have plenty to teach us.”

“I believe!” said the boy. “I know God loves me and I’m working to figure out how to love him back.”

“That’s a good start,” said the father, with a grin. Reaching back into a shelf and digging out a jar.

“What’s this?” asked the boy, as his father dropped something small, nearly invisible into his hand. “Wait, I know!” he exclaimed.

“It’s a mustard seed.”

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