Annie: It’s A Hard Knock Life But It Doesn’t Have To Be (Movie Review)

I knew we were going to Jamie Foxx’s Annie the first few bars into the trailer several months ago. My wife is a big fan of the 1982 Annie starring Aileen Quinn and Albert Finney, and she didn’t have to say anything. I wondered if a hard knock life with a black Annie and a black Daddy Warbucks could do anything different with the story.  (Of course, the New Deal isn’t really immediately relevant to kids today, but was it in 1982?) Could Foxx and Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Quvenzhane Wallis captivate audiences the same way?

I was pleasantly surprised. Then, I came home and found this was the ‘consensus review’ on Rottentomatoes.com: “The new-look Annie hints at a progressive take on a well-worn story, but smothers its likable cast under clichés, cloying cuteness, and a distasteful materialism.” Um, seriously, did we see the same film?

Annie (Wallis) escapes from the clutches of her foster parent, Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), weekly, attempting to reunite with the parents who abandoned her years before. She accidentally runs into phone magnate and mayoral candidate, Will Stacks (Foxx), and instantly becomes a ploy for gaining percentage points by his advisors, the sleazy Guy (Bobby Canavale) and the well-meaning Grace (Rose Byrne), which, of course, grows into something more. Those are all basically plays on the same points, right?

But ultimately, Annie teaches Stacks to care and to recognize that wealth and power aren’t the most important thing. If anything, the materialism gets condemned pretty well — and right before Christmas no less. The redemption isn’t left solely to Stacks though – even if Guy deserves more comeuppance than he gets – because Miss. Hannigan’s turnabout was, for me, the moment that the film mattered for more than entertainment’s sake.

I imagine, if you’re going to see Annie and you’re reading this ahead, that the point isn’t going to keep you from it. But Diaz’s Hannigan recognizes her errors, her own obsessions, and the belief that her admirer (David Zayas) has in her is rewarded. She recognizes that the bitterness and alcoholism is the aftershock of her own betrayal and abandonment; while Annie has been abandoned, she’s not bitter – she’s the one encouraging others.

Two points remained with me after the film. The first is that we can’t control our situations all the time, but we can control our reaction – and what we exhibit (it’s the same lesson we learn in Unbroken). The second is more specific: that there are kids in our schools and streets and communities who need love – and literacy. I’m aware that some of those kids have parents who are trying really hard amidst work and life to care for them; I also know that many of them are homeless or, in every regard that matters, orphaned. It’s up to us to recognize what we can do and do it. But we can’t imagine for a moment that Annie is just a cute story with music; it’s the reality of some kids’ situations and we can do something about it.

At Christmastime, people seem more receptive to the message that there is hope – that the dark doesn’t have to win, that it’s a hard knock life but it doesn’t have to stay that way. That’s the hope found in the baby in the manger, in the cross and the empty tomb, and in organizations like United Methodist Family Services that aid at-risk kids and children who need adopting. You can do something about it- everyone can make a difference.

To learn more, visit www.umfs.org.

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Exodus Gods & Kings: Aiming For Greatness (Movie Review)

Exodus Gods & Kings was one of those ‘no-brainer’ films for me: it involved my favorite Old Testament figure and it was directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Prometheus, Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, etc.) A dozen brave souls from church went together to see and discuss it, but the end result was a mashup of Cecil B. DeMille and scenes from Gladiator, without nearly the degree of introspection of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. In fact, I’m not sure exactly what new look Scott wanted to bring to the age-old story of Moses, God, the pharaoh, and “let my people go.”

The film has the look, at the right times elegant and at others gritty, as long as you can look past the two main Europeans, Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton, playing Moses and Ramses. The special effects, from the chomping crocodiles to the burning bush to the crossing of the Red Sea, all have enough flash to make us think better of it. And the battle scenes, Scott’s period-piece flair, are hectic and action-packed.

I know from various interviews that Scott wanted to tell a big story with a naturalistic take on the various phenomena that are attended to in the Exodus event of the Old Testament. You’ll get no argument here that a certain amount of creative license has to go into the telling of an oft-told story. I’m not threatened by that: show me something that makes me think about it in a way I haven’t seen it before. But several points along the way left me wondering which story Scott was trying to tell.

#1 Scott seems to focus in on the Moses (Bale) versus Ramses (Edgerton) story from the get-go. There’s plenty of sibling rivalry (and Scott dedicates the film to his deceased brother and former creative partner, Tony) but the finale fails to emotionally connect us to the way that the two seem destined for confrontation. We understand Ramses wishes he had been his father’s favorite (Scott has him tell his sleeping child that he “sleeps well because he knows he’s loved” but Ramses can’t sleep) but the angst doesn’t develop organically (Sigourney Weaver as his mother is a blip on film). I see all of those earmarks in the first third of the film, but the middle and ending fail to satisfactorily wrap them all up.

The ‘other’ brother, Aaron (Andrew Tarbet), has few speaking lines, which is ironic, given that he’s the one appointed to do the talking because Moses isn’t much of a talker (Exodus 4:10-17). Of course, Scott needed Moses to be a warrior so Bale could play twelfth century B.C. Batman but to fail to investigate his hesitancy at speaking and leading doesn’t jive with the Maximus Decimus Meridius-like figure that Scott went for here.

#2 Moses is a faithless person, raised in the pharaoh’s palace without knowledge (subconsciously buried?) of his past life as an Israelite baby. He lacks the connection to the Israelites (which I get) but his transformation doesn’t really occur (from doubt to faith) until much later than seems necessary in the Biblical narrative. There’s no reason to expect his forth-with-it-ness throughout the story if he doesn’t believe. Of all of the points, this is the one that came closest to helping me re-examine the composite Moses in my head, but even it seems flat and not completely ripped into by the end of the film.

#3  God’s depiction and involvement as a direct actor and participant in the Biblical narrative is what ties the whole thing together. Here, he is a vengeful child, a figment of the imagination, a passing storm – all or none of the above. [If Moses is insane, then Aronofsky has already portrayed a Biblical figure as insane in a much more profound way.] But Ridley, intent on the humanistic take, fails to see that God is what drives this story, not Moses, in the Old Testament, even as he has Moses say, “This isn’t a very convincing story, or even a well-told one at that.” God acts in Exodus (the book) to move Moses, to move Pharaoh, to act divinely; in Scott’s version, God is nearly an afterthought. [It’s what leaves the Passover scene feeling empty, because sin and grace and protection aren’t unpacked (sheep or first/perfect sheep? Exodus 12), and it’s instead like Moses made it up.]

#4 Moses’ relationship with Zipporah (Exodus 2:21-22) shows a flash of romance, but seems to be a strange insert into the story; when we return to her character again, it’s one of several endings that Scott doesn’t seem happy with, as if he doesn’t know how to wrap the whole thing up without ending up in Canaan – and that would take forty years of wandering. Scott seems interested in these side stories to the main Moses narrative (like making Aaron Paul a contemporary of Bale’s Moses, as Joshua son of Nun (Ben Kingsley)) but none of them flesh-out, not even Miriam (Tara Fitzgerald), whose early scene may be the most compelling one on screen.

Finally, all of these good-but-not-great pieces scream a Director’s Cut. But after two-and-a-half hours of this, I was bored. Was the plague on the firstborn sons chilling? Of course! Were some of the scenes well-shot and powerful? Absolutely! But the script was too convoluted, the acting at times too ham-fisted (was that Moses or the Dark Knight in the stable scene?), and the overall package trailed off in the end like a story that didn’t know what to do with itself. For all of its differences from what I believe and think about the creation story, Noah was a better, more thought-provoking film.

Maybe Scott should’ve made Joseph: Slaves & Rulers and done better. He could’ve been epic, and not had to worry about God-as-character so much. I don’t mind the creative license to fill in the parts that are glossed over in the narrative, but to reduce God’s role to a fireside hallucination seems to be an adventure in missing the point. It’s a shame, because Moses is a figure we could all learn something from if shown in the right light.

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The Night Before Christmas Prep (Sunday’s Sermon Today)

I recently polled Facebook to see what people did to prepare for Christmas.

“We donate to an organization and place the card on the Christmas tree and open it last.”

“My wife and I will decorate our tree in the living room, and that night camp out on the floor and watch a christmas movie under the tree.”

“We fill a boxes with items marked with the countdown till Jesus birthday! ( usually starts on December 15th) It’s filled with small gifts, letters, sayings and love! We are making three this year!”

“We bake MANY Christmas cookies to give to friends and relatives. My mom did it and now we use many of the same recipes.”

There were favorite movies listed – from Andy Griffith’s to How the Grinch Stole Christmas to White Christmas , the participation in Christmas Eve services, and even some experiences of Christmas caroling. Oh, and lots of food-related traditions!

I remember growing up, Christmas was a full-time sprint. Even now, the day after Thanksgiving, when my family travels to my parents, we go out and cut down a Christmas tree, Griswold-style. [This year, my father really went against the grain- he replaced the blade of the saw for the first time in twenty years! Needless to say, the tree was cut down in record time.] An afternoon was spent making dozens of Christmas cookies, my mother wrote over a hundred Christmas cards, we went Christmas caroling, and I had an annual spot as a wise man in the Living Nativity. And I remember that I just wanted to cut to the ‘good stuff,’ the present getting. [Off the record, the truth is that I hated decorating. Don’t know why; I just did.]

But the older I get… the less I care about the Christmas present getting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s plenty of fun to receive gifts from people who know and love me. But along with the gift-getting not being the only thing I look forward to, there’s also a change in my attitude toward all of the preparations for Christmas.

Now, I write nearly two hundred Christmas cards. I’m the one searching out new Christmas music to add to the collection: from Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Third Day to this year’s Pentatonix and Idina Menzel. I’m the one showing our boys the Christmas specials from the tried-and-true Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman to new classics Prep & Landing and Elf. [They’re not ready for The Santa Clause or A Christmas Carol yet!] I’m the one who is giddy about Christmas like Arthur, the youngest Claus in Arthur Christmas- and somehow, all of those preparations my parents worked to accomplish before Christmas seem super important now.

Those preparations may get me “in the mood” for Christmas, but it’s the work of our church that  really fires me up – whether it’s collecting coats or making turkey baskets, or meeting new people who come to check out our church at Christmastime. There’s joy in the preparation, not just in the actual celebration. There’s wonder in the buildup, in Advent itself, as we roll toward something, epic. Something so epic it took a whole squad of angels to announce, so epic that they went to the least, the last, and the forgotten-about in the society of Jesus’ day to get the word out.

Yep, they went to the shepherds.

The shepherds keeping watch of the flock – someone else’s flock because they were too poor to own the flock – by night. Then one angel appeared to them and the glory – the brightness – of the Lord shown around them, and to quote Linus, they were sore afraid. They were so afraid it hurt. They did not see this coming – they were unprepared.

But the angel said one of my favorite lines in the Bible – a message that God is speaking into our world right now: “Do not be afraid – for this is good news of great joy for all people- the Savior, the Messiah, is born!”

Friends, these unprepared, simple shepherds were told where to find the baby and they went. If no one had told them where to go or what to look for, they could not, they would not, have found Jesus. But the angel showed up and gave them the good news and told them to look for a baby in a manger.

I don’t know about you, but I can get sucked into thinking that Nativity Scenes are pretty normal looking. They’re in front of churches, at zoos, even in front of the bank! But no one, not even in Jesus’ day, expected a baby to be born and placed into a trough that animals eat out of. They might not have had USDA or Health Code regulations, but it was just common sense!

And the angel said that the baby would be in a manger – and that they should go look for him because he was the Savior of the world.

So, these men, who moments before had been scared stiff, so afraid it hurt, sore afraid, recognize this message of great joy for all people, and they go. 

They went with great haste and found the baby lying in the manger, and told everyone there – Mary? Joseph? the innkeeper? Others who were clued in? what the angels had told them. And “the shepherds returned [to the fields] glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”

The shepherds were renewed in their effort of being good shepherds because of what they had seen. They knew this was different, spectacular, and they had to tell people about it. It wasn’t for them to keep it in – they had to share.

So, let’s recap:

-God chose to send angels to deliver the news to the lowest of the low – otherwise they wouldn’t have known. God picked the shepherds intentionally but they also needed to be told.

-The shepherds went fast- they knew it was important.

-The shepherds could not be silent because they knew it was great news.

These shepherds became the first evangelists, the first preachers, the first bringers of good news without any preparation or advanced thought. And the word of what had happened spread like wildfire.

So, I ask you today, have you heard the good news? Do you know that a Savior was born 2014 years ago, who would grow up to be the man who would live and die so that you could be forgiven? So that your relationships with others and God could be made right?

Do you recognize that there are people outside of churches and families and communities – and inside them to – who don’t know the good news because no one has told them?

Are you ready to move with great haste – without reservation – to grab your coworker, your spouse who won’t come to church, your children, your grandchildren, your parents, your friends and say, “There’s good news, not just for later, but for right now, and you need to hear it?”

Darius Rucker sings,

“I wonder what God wants for Christmas
Something that you can’t find in a store
Maybe peace on Earth, no more empty seats in church
Might be what’s on His wishlist
I wonder what God wants for Christmas

What do you give someone
Who gave His only Son
What if we believe in Him
Like He believes in us.”

I love Christmas, I really do. Not for the trappings, not for the doing, but because it’s the moment when the world, whether it’s ready to accept it or not, says Jesus’ name. You see, I don’t believe you can keep Christ out of Christmas – you can only try and deny it – but it’s our job to keep Christ in Christian, to be prepared to give an answer for the joy we know.

I think God wants for us to believe – and for us to believe enough to share that good news with others. So I hope you know - not know about or mentally understand or have heard of – the joy of Christmas this year. I hope you believe. 

I’m praying that this year, you will take the next three days and boldly invite people to church. Quite frankly, if someone doesn’t get it on Christmas Eve – well, it’s going to take a Christmas miracle. [I’ll get to that on Wednesday.] The truth is that people want to be invited, want to be welcomed, want to be told that they’re loved. So, if we know how all of that can happen – how they can meet the God of the universe and we don’t tell them, it’s like having the best Christmas gift in the whole world, plenty for everyone, and not sharing!

I hope that you will wrap yourself in bows made of family and friends, drink deep of the cheer spent singing loudly for all to hear, eat well in the nourishment of God’s holy word, and experience that excitement, that absolutely electric energy that the shepherds knew that day.

I hope you’ll spend a lifetime running to the manger – and then shouting, celebrating, sharing, excitedly, the good news for all people.

It’s the best way to prepare for Christmas.

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Twas Three Nights Before Christmas (A Mustard Seed Musing)

So, A Visit From Saint Nick (sometimes referred to by the story version title, Twas The Night Before Christmas) influences next Sunday’s sermon. Just for kicks, I sat down to see what I’d come up with if I played with Clement Moore’s poem. I can say for sure that his rhymed better.

Twas three nights before Christmas, when outside the church

Not a pastor was stirring, no one went to search,

The poinsettias were hung from the railing with care,

On Christmas Eve they assumed…maybe people’d come there.

 

The children showed up dressed up in their best,

With joy in their hearts and love in their chest.

Then Moms in their jewelry, and Dads in their coats,

Settled into the pews, prepared to sing notes.

 

The sermon they were sure would maybe be riveting

But nothing they’d hear would make their life pivoting

With no expectations that their lives would change

They went through the motions, no knowledge of strange…

 

When suddenly in the midst of worship there arose a clatter

They turned in a flash to see could be the matter

Through the back doors came a blast of bright light

And the preacher knew this was going to be some kind of night.

 

On the man’s face there was some kind of glow

He’d burst in to see if this be worship or some kind of show

Had the people come waiting for entertainment near

Or was there an expectation that God would be here?

 

With wings unfurled, both bright and thick,

The people knew a message awaited, bold and quick,

Rather than wait for a moment, the angel came

Up to the front, and with boldness proclaim:

 

“This Christmas, make it more than show

Take your heart and your love and then go!

Take the gospel of forgiveness well past this wall

Run fast, tell it quick, bring it to one and all!”

 

Then without another word, he turned back to go

And the people said later that they’d never know

If the message was a warning or invitation made

They knew they were loved by God’s messenger paid.

 

The children ran to see him fly out of sight,

As the church people spilled out of pews into the night

God’s presence was felt and they knew it was given

That to tell of Christ’s birth, they’d better get livin’.

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Is It A Wonderful Life Without Jesus? (Sunday’s Sermon Today)

Are you afraid of the dark? There’s something disquieting about it. I know as a kid I didn’t like to go into our basement by myself. My family made a joke about the three men who lived there (real funny, right?) and somehow, realizing how ridiculous it was for there to be people living in our little house and for me to not know it, I got over being scared of going in the basement.

But I still don’t like being in the dark much. The dark is different – other- we can’t see where we’re going and sometimes we run into things!

There’s a joke my kids like: “Where was Goofy when the lights went out?” The answer, of course, is “in the dark.” That’s pretty much where the people of the world were before Jesus – and not just because electricity hadn’t been harnessed yet.

Where were Mary and Joseph in an occupied country before Jesus was born? In the dark.

Where were the shepherds before the angels appeared to them?  In the dark.

Where were the wise men/people/kings before they followed the star?  In the dark.

Without Jesus, we’re in the dark. John 1:5 states, “the light (and by that he means Jesus) shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Martin Luther King Jr. made it practical for us: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

God sent Jesus to earth to live with us, to show us what light and love look like. Unfortunately, not everyone ‘got’ it, that Jesus was the light. They were too used to the dark, and too comfortable stumbling around blind. Unfortunately, the church and church people have not always taught people about how much God cares about love first.

Sometimes, the church shows up and says, “you’re getting this all wrong.”

Sometimes, church people show up and say, “the way we do things is better than yours.”

Do you like being told you’re wrong or that someone else does things better? I know I don’t!

But the truth is that the gospel of John says that Jesus focused on something different when he explained his purpose: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Jesus’ purpose was to show love. Jesus’ birth was about setting up God’s greatest display of compassion. It’s not that Jesus came near but Jesus came with. He didn’t come close to us, but to be us, to be with us, to teach, to heal, to love, and to save.

That is the good news of Christmas: that’s the good news of great joy for all people.

God loves you. God wants what’s best for you. God wants you to know that his way is full of grace and freedom and love that will give you a way through, out, around, and over the problems at home, at work, with addiction, with pride, with broken relationships, self-doubts, and out-of-control emotions.

I’ve known that truth since I was a little kid. I was blessed to be raised in a Christian home, by a mother and father who had been raised to love God through Jesus Christ by their parents. It wasn’t a big decision, a “conversion experience” that changed my heart from disbelief to belief, but it’s instead been a gradual opening of my heart to understanding better what God wants from me. And I’m still growing.

But what if my parents weren’t raised in church? What if I didn’t grow up in church? I think sometimes that I’d be in the dark about what it meant to be loved by God.

I could sleep in on Sundays. I wouldn’t be a pastor. I probably wouldn’t have met my wife at a chapel service. I wouldn’t know a good number of my closest friends.

That’s the kind of alternative reality that reminds me of It’s A Wonderful Life, the Frank Capra story about George Bailey, who lives his whole life trying to be “good” and to do the right thing, but who continually bangs his head against the brick wall in town of the evil banker, Mr. Potter. Mr. Potter finally causes George’s whole life to unravel, all of the deals he’s made and all of the people he’s helped in the attempt to be ‘good,’ come undone. And George wishes he had never been born.

Because this a Christmas movie – there’s an angel named Clarence. Of course, Clarence takes George on a spin through memory lane, although this isn’t reality, this is reality where George doesn’t exist. George sees that his town is now Potterville, that the people he helped never received help, that all of the good he did thinking it was ‘just the right thing to do’ served a greater purpose. And when he repents of his wish, when he chooses to make a different life then the community wraps itself around him and he experiences grace again.

George realizes that it wasn’t about doing the right thing for praise or to feel good about it, but that there was a higher purpose, that he brought people together and inspired them, too. George realizes the grace of what it means to experience Christmas, to experience God-with-us, Immanuel, through the friendship and care of his angel, Clarence.

George experiences Christmas for real for the first time because he experiences life without Christmas. George experiences the grace of second chances. George experiences the grace of community.

But that’s a story you say. How does it relate to real life and death and all of that stuff in between like mortgages, and layoffs, and getting uninvited to Christmas dinner, and raising our kids, and dealing with our addictions?

How about a real life version?

I was recently told the story of the Knoxes who had planned out their vacation to travel overseas at Thanksgiving to see their grown son, his wife, and their three grandparents (two of whom they’d never met before). But the Tuesday of their visit, their son went to sleep and never woke up. So they grieved and tried to help their daughter-in-law, and had to return to the U.S. They consoled their two other children, and then went back home. Then they went back to church.

And everyone cried, and hugged them. DURING THE CHURCH SERVICE!

It’s been several weeks and they will be wrestling with the absence, the sadness for awhile. Being in church doesn’t make the real world go away. But they knew they were supposed to be back in the church they’d worshipped in for thirty years. Because that’s where their community was. That’s where they could be held, comforted; that’s where they could find people who would listen to them scream and cry, who would dry their tears and cry with them. That’s where they were reminded that death isn’t forever; that Jesus’ resurrection means resurrection for them and for their son, too.

So, I wonder, if we could see the world without Jesus and recognize that it’s not so wonderful. Without grace, life is cold and harsh. Without grace, where do the Knoxes go?

In another story shared with me this week, a young man named Bryan broke his C5 vertebrae by diving into shallow water here in Florida. As the family was swirling in this disaster, they connected with Alan Brown, who twenty-six years ago, suffered the same injury in the exact same way (diving in shallow water) and has been in a wheelchair since. Brown rushed to Bryan’s bedside to talk to him and his family. When Alan gets there, he sees that Bryan is in the same hospital, and in EXACT same hospital room that Alan had been lying in 26 years ago. When Alan was asked how it felt to be back there, he said, “I go back there a lot.” Of course he does, always helping others with their injuries. He then said, “I leave there crying. But it fuels me.” Brown was asked what he told Bryan’s family. Did he tell them their son would be okay? That their lives would change? Nope. He told them this, which I’m carrying with me everywhere today: “You’re not alone. You’re never alone.” (Brad Meltzer)

The story of Christmas is that we are not alone. Immanuel, God is with us. God wanted to be with you and with me so he came as a a baby. That’s a true story – and it shines for us to see in the month of December.

But in the story of Christmas, not everyone can see the story. We need people to point to the grace in Christmas. To point beyond doing the right things, whether it’s giving of our time, or our money, or our stuff, because it feels right, to doing good because we recognize that we were loved first. By God. In the story of Christmas, we need a reminder that the world has hope, that we have hope, that there is hope.

In the story of that first Christmas, it’s angels – maybe not quite like the wingless Clarence – but angels who announce the coming birth to Jesus, the coming birth to Joseph, the baby’s birth to the shepherds – who are in the dark themselves, and to the wise men- who follow the star through the dark.

So, who is it that bears the good news today? Who reminds people that their lives, whether everything is going well now or everything is going poorly, matter to God and that God has a plan? Who tells them what God is really hoping that they’ll get out of Christmas this year?

I think that’s our job.

A week ago, I found myself in an interesting conversation with a person of faith, who has some beliefs about God that are similar to mine, and then some that are… not. We talked about the importance of Christmas, the importance of generosity, and the importance of telling people about Jesus. And then the woman told me, “We need to grab onto as many people as we can because this world is going to hell in a hand basket – we know how this is going to end!”

And I thought, Um, maybe we’re not on the same page.

See, I do believe that everyone has a choice to make: will they accept Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and recognize that the miracle of Christmas was God breaking through, or will they continue to move through life and figure that they can do it better on their own? But I don’t think the message of Christmas is about judgment, about hell, about the end of the world.

I think it’s about the beginning. I think it’s about the wonderful life that the angels proclaimed to Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds.

I think it’s about God saying to each and every one of us, together in community, that we are made in God’s image, that we are loved unconditionally, that we matter, that what we’ve done or what’s been done to us doesn’t have to be what we’re known for. That we can change and grow and be miracle workers, too, if we’d just accept the message.

The message that we’re not supposed to be afraid of the dark anymore.

The message that we’re forgiven even before we admit we’ve got a problem.

The message that says the message is for everyone, not just the good ones, or the privileged. Mike Slaughter even says that it’s not really the gospel if it’s not good news for the poor!

The message that this is all about what God is going to do, has done, and is doing- to bring peace on Earth.

That’s the message I want to share on Christmas. That’s the message that I want to shine like a bright light into our community, to highlight the divides we’re seeing in Ferguson and Staten Island, to reflect into the dark corners of homelessness and hunger, to remind people that they are not alone.

It’s the message our church is sending with coats for kids, and through Toys for Tots, and in turkey baskets. It’s spread through the dinners for homeless men like the one we’ll share on December 30, through the Empty Bowls program on Super Bowl Sunday, through the auction in May, through VBS.

The world wants us to believe that it is dark outside and it’s going to stay that way. The world wants us to be convinced that it’s dog-eat-dog, that only the strong survive, that every person is an island.

To which I say, not so fast.

I say that there’s a new day coming when the light will be all there is, when all of our pain, frustration, addiction, homelessness, hunger, not enough, all of our want will be no more- and everyone will have enough. Because everyone will have enough in the light, in the glory of the kingdom of God.

I recognize that everyone is communicating a message. We’re all shining or reflecting something. This Christmas, I want the lights of this church to announce that the gospel of Jesus Christ is to set free those in bondage to desperation and addiction, to free us from isolation and having to fight through the darkness on our own, to make love the way we act and speak and live.

I admit that we’re not there yet – but I believe we’re supposed to strive for it. To shine for it.

Because no one should be afraid of the dark.

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“No One Is Free When Others Are Oppressed” (A Mustard Seed Musing)

Facebook makes me want to throw up sometimes. I’m not talking about other people’s taste in clothing, or food, or even sports teams. No, I’m considering the bile expounded upon by folks I know – and some I’ll never meet- about the death of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. While one may argue for self-defense in the first, the second is a near replication of Fruitvale Station’s real-life Oakland BART incident. Friends, this is getting ridiculous.

A long time ago, twenty-plus years at least, my mother sat me down and had me watch the PBS miniseries Eyes on the Prize. I remember wondering at first why Mom thought this was so important we’d skip cartoons or playing outside or whatever it was we were giving up. And then she explained how wars had been fought and people had struggled to make our country truly free. And free for everyone. And how the freedom was still being fought for. And how my sister and I should be fighting for the freedom of others.

I was fourteen.

“No man is above the law and no man is below it.”–Teddy Roosevelt

As an adult, I look around my corner of the world and it seems that we have made the law into something that protects those it wants to protect, but even in the case of death at the hands of the said law, justice can’t be had for others. I don’t have an argument for what happened in Ferguson or Queens: but when a person dies, our law (and our conscience, we hope) should beg for a serious investigation. Unfortunately, some are quick to dismiss these deaths as the end result of poor decisions on the part of the dead; I thank God I am not held guilty for my past mistakes. Some want to make this political but it’s not left or right or middle to be a human; when you’re dead, you are no longer registered with your party. You can debate the law (stealing cigarettes, selling them tax-free): I will not debate justice.

So, I find myself this day wondering what the world has come to when anyone can read about the death of a man and use that moment as an anthem for us versus them, or cheer the “way it was deserved”. I find myself wondering how we can understand the past (we don’t) and think that white people aren’t privileged in America (we are) or think that violence in our outrage will somehow make things better (it won’t) or that if the races of these individuals were switched, there would be trials (there would be). Okay, so of the first two I am sure, and of the last, I submit my humble opinion.

Yes, we shouldn’t steal, shouldn’t commit acts of violence, shouldn’t disobey the law. But when we assume justice instead of acting it out (“truth in action,” said Benjamin Disraeli), when we use violence to combat violence (“hate cannot drive out hate,” said MLK), when we sit in silence while others are persecuted (Abraham Lincoln called that cowardice), we fail to be a humanity that was made in the image of God.

I beg you to pray for the world we live in, and pray for our children who will reap what we sow.

I beg you to pray for the fallen on every side, and those who mourn them.

I beg you to pray for those who have taken lives, that God would bring peace to their hearts.

And I beg that you would pray for you and I, whether you agree with my words or not, that God would reshape our hearts and make us compassionate, and pure, and grace-filled.

I beg you to pray for love.

“What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of”–“What The World Needs Now”

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One Magical Christmas: An Angel, Santa, & A Kid Walk Into A Situation (Movie Review)

I had a vague recollection of a movie from the 1980s where some unfortunate, tragic events occur and show a family what the Christmas spirit is really about, tugging at the back of my memory. So, I searched by various terms (the only other thing I could remember was “shooting in a bank robbery”) and discovered the film was One Magical Christmas. Given that I’m a Christmas film junkie, and we’re doing a sixteen-film Christmas Film Eliminator at Hollywood Jesus, I used the wonders of Amazon Prime and sat down to watch the film thirty years later.

Mary Steenburgen plays the matriarch of Grainger household, burdened by an out-of-work husband (Gary Basaraba), two children, a terrible job, and a growing stack of bills. But unlike some who find the glass half-full, or see the silver lining, Ginny Grainger is angry at the world. Especially at Christmastime.

But Grainger’s daughter Abbie (Elisabeth Harnois) believes – and she ends up joining forces with an angel (Harry Dean Stanton) and Santa (Jan Rubes) to right wrongs and to bring her mother some Christmas cheer. It’s interesting that it combines the heavenly and the North Pole-y to make it work. [That’s Disney for you.] And the plot holes are at times wide enough to roll through lying down. But it still works in that sacred place that is Christmas movies.

Grainger is saved, and her husband is … healed? fixed? resurrected? because of faith. Faith in Santa, faith in the angel, faith in love or Christmas or something that brings them to the place and time where miracles happen and love occurs. Isn’t that what we really want from Christmas? We don’t have to understand it- heck, we put aside the need to get how reindeer or sleighs fly, how many animals were in the stabled when Jesus was born, if someone upstairs or in the North Pole or in heaven, really knows if we’re naughty or nice, because internally, we want to believe. 

We know we need faith- even when we’re not sure what we should have faith in. And Christmas films seem to point faintly to something miraculous and spiritual and heavenly. Because, to paraphrase the Lion in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, “there’s an older, deeper magic still.”

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