Watching As Spiritual Discipline

amelieMovies have always been important to me. I’m not sure when they became so important to me or how it happened, but as I have gotten older, I realize that they can be used for so many different things. We’ve watched movies together as a family for a family movie night, I’ve watched movies to unwind and distract me, I’ve watched movies to help me to laugh, and I’ve watched movies to provoke my mind and help me to think deeper thoughts.

It’s the last way that I’ve watched movies that has actually been a larger focus of mine over the years. When my wife and I were living in Connecticut, we were newly married and had a number of single friends. We would host movie discussion nights at our small little house. We had some fun times and great discussions as we worked our way through some interesting films.

Film is story. I know that there are people who don’t see much redemptive qualities about films, but I firmly believe that any medium that can be used to tell honest and profound stories is worthwhile. The stories aren’t always nice and neat, they are sometimes raw and unrefined, maybe even offensive, but isn’t that the way that life really is to us if we’re honest about it?

While I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to take a movie theology class. A lot of my friends scratched their heads at that one, but I explained it was about finding the God stories in movies. The class for me was a confirmation of things that I had thought all along, that people are searching for God, they don’t always find him or come to the right conclusion in their search, but there are lessons learned along the way.

To me, watching films can be a spiritual discipline. Yes, I read God’s Word as the primary source of knowledge and understanding of who he is, but movies are helpful, especially to understand perspectives that are not my own. I know the questions that I have, the things that dwell deep within me, but how about the questions and stirrings in others. In film, we feel those stirrings, we hear those questions, we see the struggles that are real in other people.

Now I’m not naïve enough to think that this is the case with all films. It’s kind of hard to find the deeper meaning of life and the searching for God in “Dumb and Dumber” and other films whose sole purpose is to entertain. But many movies are so much more than just entertainment, they are stories of struggles that are not specific to the fictional characters within their frames, but allegorical depictions of real-life struggles that have been felt by writers, directors, producers, and others.

I still watch films for the entertainment value and to laugh, but I feel the need to watch films that stir my mind, that help me to contemplate who I am, who God is, and who I am as I am in relationship with him. When I look at films from that perspective, the act of watching becomes a spiritual discipline, something that helps me think deeper about myself, others, and God.

It might seem far off to some, and I get that, it’s not for everyone, but I think that it’s like so many things that we see in our culture, a tool. Tools are meant to be used and I’ve seen people use average and ordinary tools to do extraordinary things. Maybe average and ordinary films can be used to think extraordinary thoughts and to help us reflect deeper than we might without them.

Conflict and Tension

I’ve never been a fan of conflict. While I’m not necessarily one to shy away from it, I don’t seek it out or look for it either. It’s a necessary part of life as we deal with people, but not a necessary part of life that I relish or look forward to experiencing. Necessary and unavoidable, yet my own experience is that we steer away from it as often as we can. When given the opportunity to face conflict or turn tail and run, I’ve seen people (including myself) turn tail and run more often than not.

In our increasingly growing PC world, we are always fearful of offending. God forbid we actually speak truth to someone who needs to hear it and they are hurt by our words but they also take those words to heart and consider what they mean. In our efforts to avoid offense we can actually be doing more damage than good by avoiding truth and encouraging or enabling bad or unhealthy behavior.

When conflict arises, tension will generally arise and join it. The longer conflict goes unresolved, the greater the tension that will build up. While we may think that the avoidance of conflict will reduce tensions, it will usually go the opposite direction and increase the tension. It’s like shaking up the soda bottle, you’re only increasing pressure within and unless you release that pressure, it will build up to explosion. Releasing the pressure gradually is a much more palatable solution.

I always used to wonder about tension and whether or not it had any benefits. In a staff discussion a few years back, we parked on the issue of tension and a thought came to me that has stuck with me ever since. When we are trying to build our muscles and grow, we need to put the muscles into tension in order for them to be stretched, even to the point of breaking. Once stretched and broken in tension, the muscles repair themselves stronger than they were before. Without that tension, not only will growth not occur, but atrophy may take place. So, we need tension to grow. If we avoid tension, we avoid growth.

But conflict and growth are uncomfortable, we don’t really like to deal with them. If we can avoid them, we will, even if it means we avoid growth. We’d much rather stay comfortable, safe, and pain-free, not to mention the mess that is caused when we acknowledge conflict and tension and actually step into it to deal with it.

I don’t know a quick fix for dealing with conflict. I know how conflict has been resolved when I’ve stepped into it, so my experience has helped me understand the benefits of engaging it. Still, avoidance seems much more desirable to me than facing it head on. There are no formulas, there are no guarantees, there are no promises of calm waters. More often than not, you’ll have to go through the storm to come out on the other side. During storms, there may be casualties, but if everyone works together, those casualties can be avoided.

Moving On But Not Forgetting

It’s hard to believe, but yesterday marked the three year anniversary of my father’s death. I feel as if I say this every time that I pass a milestone, but in some ways it seems like it was yesterday while other ways it feels as if it’s maybe even been longer than three years. Time if funny when it comes to loss and grief.

While the loss and grief are still new, there is such a tension as to what to do and how best to handle it. How do you grieve through the remembrance? How do you recognize the day without giving it too much recognition? What happens when the day passes you by and you don’t really do anything to remember or acknowledge it?

Every time an anniversary, birthday, or other significant date comes, there is always a tension in me as to what to do and how best to handle it. Do I live into it or move past it? What’s the appropriate level of recognition for it?

When it comes, I feel that I at least have to think about it, otherwise, I feel as if I’m not honoring it. Why is that though? It’s not like those we’ve lost can tell whether or not we are recognizing the day. It’s not as if we are hurting their feelings, they don’t know the difference in how we acknowledge, or don’t acknowledge, the day.

How do we honor the day and the memory of those who we’ve lost while not getting bogged down in the emotion of the moment or feeling sorry for ourselves? How do we continue to acknowledge the loss while still realizing how important it is that we are moving forward? How do we move forward without seeming as if we’ve forgotten the person whom we’ve lost?

The first few years after I lost my parents, I felt the need to stop at the exact time that they died. It was as if I needed to take a moment to remember, acknowledge, and think about them. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been missing them all along, it just felt necessary to me, almost as if I was obligated to do something special in that moment. It was almost as if I didn’t stop to honor the moment that I was forgetting them in some way.

The thing about grief is that it hits everyone different. Even talking through this anniversary with my brother, he had a whole lot of other things going through his mind than I did. We’ve both had a very different approach towards the loss, mine was significantly impacted by my children (in a positive way), my church community, my friends, and my wife.

On the other side of the day, life moves on. It’s essential that it moves on, after all, we can’t stop it from happening. I miss my dad. I feel that pangs inside me when I hear others talk about conversations they recently had with their dads and I just want to say to them, “Enjoy every conversation and every word,” but I’m pretty sure that they do.

Time marches on and I can’t forget. It doesn’t really matter how I acknowledge the day, it’s just a day like any other. The remembering, the rituals, whatever they may be, aren’t for anyone else but me.

Today, I might walk a little slower, ponder a little deeper, sigh a little longer. I’m grateful that God’s given me another day and I’m looking forward to the day when I see my dad again.

Love you, Dad. See you again!

Room to Grow

I sat down with a friend after a Bible study the other day. Although we hadn’t planned on a conversation, this friend is one who I am always willing to engage because of the wisdom and insight that I get from him every single time that we talk. My constant prayer is that I can live my life similar to his in the ability to never leave any person the same as when I met them. I know that the work that is done is the work of the Holy Spirit, but to be used and available and willing is a huge part of that.

As we sat and talked about some of the things that we are experiencing in our lives, I had an epiphany. We were talking about people development and watching people flourish and grow or remain stagnant and plateau. God has grown me an awful lot over the years in that my automatic response when I would see someone who would remain stagnant and plateau was to blame them for their laziness or lack of initiative. I’ve come to realize that there’s another side to the story.

While there is a responsibility on all of us as individuals, leadership plays a key and important role in helping others develop into who they were created to be. Sometimes, people find themselves in environments where they are not able to develop for one reason or another. It could be that those who are supervising them are lacking in self-confidence and keep things close to their chest, not freely doling out responsibilities for fear of losing their own self-worth and identity.

As I thought about it more, what stood out to me was that there are times when there are people that we lead who need to have their boundaries and limits expanded far beyond what they would normally expand them to themselves, if we don’t recognize the need to expand these boundaries and limits, we may be stifling growth.

It’s easy to see this from the perspective of parenting, at least to me it is. As children grow older, responsibilities need to increase and as those responsibilities increase, the amount of freedom that is given to them should increase as they show their ability to fulfill those responsibilities. If there is an imbalance at all, there are a variety of scenarios that can play out.

1) Increased freedom with no increased responsibility

I feel like I see this all the time. Parents will constantly give out freedom to their children without requiring more responsibility for that freedom. When this happens, we perpetuate the entitlement that has become endemic to our culture. If we don’t increase responsibility when we increase freedom, then we will end up with lots of children (and people) walking around who expect things coming their way without them giving anything in return.

2) No increased freedom with increased responsibility

Here is the recipe for stunted growth. When children (or people) are asked to do more and increase their responsibility while not being given increased freedom, they will become frustrated and will most likely stagnate. Everyone is knit together differently, so there’s no magic formula to see at what point someone stagnates, but it will happen eventually. I would hazard a guess that there might be a very small segment of the population that might still flourish despite the lack of freedom that they are given, but the overwhelming majority would end up becoming complacent and remaining the same.

3) Increased freedom with increased responsibility

This is the “Win” of all the scenarios. As responsibility is doled out and given, so is freedom. As someone proves themselves capable, so they are given an increased amount of freedom. That increased amount of freedom will (hopefully) spur them on to better things and to become better themselves. Growth should take place, in theory, as they begin to see the progression and the relationship between responsibility and freedom.

This realization is a huge thing for me. As I raise my own children and as I lead people whom I lead, it is essential for me to realize this relationship between responsibility and freedom. Having three children of my own, I have already seen the vast difference in their personalities, so it’s also essential that I not embrace a “one-size-fits-all” philosophy towards them. They are different, the process may need to be changed and tweaked accordingly. It takes energy, it takes investment, it takes time. I am not a patient man.

I’m curious as to whether this theory resonates with others. Like I said, my own experience with children is only nine and a half short years in the making. My experience in leadership is longer, but it’s only been the last few years that I have looked more intently at it. So, what do you think? Do you see the connection and relationship between responsibility and freedom? Are you tracking with this? Does it make sense?

Speaking of Now

Having eulogized both of my parents at their respective funerals, I know a little bit of something about speaking words of someone when they’re gone. I consider myself fairly fortunate to have had an open and honest relationship with my parents, enough that not many things were left unsaid between us when they finally died. There were no major regrets felt by me, nothing that I felt I should or shouldn’t have said. Sure, there are always things you wish you could have said more, but I don’t feel like I missed saying anything important to them.

The thing is, while I know they aren’t wasted words, speaking kind memories after someone has gone, they sometimes feel as if they could have been even more significant if the person of whom they are about had been present at the time of their speaking. Like I said, I said all the things that I really needed to say to my parents, but I never stood in front of them and gave them one big tribute the way that I did at their funerals.

It kind of makes you think about the value of words said while people are still alive. Do we reserve the strongest and most powerful words for people once they’ve passed or are we honest with them while they sit across the table, room, computer, or phone line from us? Do we tell them the things that they need to hear or just what they want to hear? Do we encourage them and tell them how much they mean to us?

I’ve had two fairly distinct situations in the last week where encouraging words were spoken over someone who is still here. I shared about one of those experiences the other day, celebrating the 85th birthday of my wife’s grandmother. It was neat to hear the legacy tributes that were shared, the encouragement to her of her faithfulness, devotion, faith, and selflessness. It was probably also great for her to hear those things. While she exudes confidence, I am sure that in her 85 years of life, she’s had some doubts here and there, wondering whether or not all the sacrifices that she was making were really worth the efforts and, well, the sacrifice.

But those words were spoken over her, not over her lifeless body, over her life-filled body with ears that can hear, eyes that can cry, and a brain that can process. Those words will mean the same and still hold their power and strength either way, but they are so much more satisfying to the giver when the receiver can actually hear them.

The other distinct situation was the small birthday gathering of a friend who turned 40. A bunch of guys gathered around a firepit to just talk and hang out. While I had had grand plans of having everyone share stories, I realized in the midst of the time that co-opting it from what it had organically become would have turned it into something that it was not and most likely would have devalued it in some way.

As the time wound down as these men stood around a fire celebrating this brother and friend who is moving into a new decade of his life, the one who was being celebrated looked around the circle and spoke encouraging words over each and every person there. I had to chuckle to myself as I thought, “Wait a minute, this is supposed to be about him, not all of us.” That’s just him though, always wanting to spur others along.

I couldn’t resist co-opting the moment after he had finished his journey of encouragement around that circle. I spoke words over him and we all circled up around him, laid hands on him, and prayed over him. It was a holy and sacred moment, a moment of which you don’t experience many in life. Heaven touched earth and I had a sense that the Father was pleased by what he was seeing.

Not only was the Father pleased, but I am pretty sure that the one who was being celebrated was pleased as well. I think he was glad to have been the recipient of this time and celebration. I think he enjoyed it far more than he would have had he not been there, right?

Words are important. It was a stark reminder to me throughout all of these events, a reminder that I sadly need more than I’d like to admit. We can be quick with words or we can be slow with words. Sometime we wait too long to share them, sometimes we share before we’ve really had the chance to think through just what it is that we plan to say. Either way, words can hurt. In the words of INXS, “Words are weapons, sharper than knives.”

But words can lift up, they can lift us out of the pit, the ash heap on which we currently reside, and carry us up to the mountain, or at least out of the muck and mire in which we find ourselves. It’s important that we share them, especially those encouraging ones, now rather than waiting until tomorrow. After all, none of us knows what today or tomorrow holds.

If you’ve got something to say, say it, don’t wait until it’s too late. The words will be much sweeter for you when they’re shared with someone who can be physically and emotionally present to hear them and appreciate them. Everyone likes to hear an encouraging word, so why not share one today!

Gathering Together

This past weekend, my family and I traveled up to Mystic, Connecticut to celebrate the 85th birthday of my wife’s grandmother. Although I got a cold on the way that was eventually shared with others in my family and everyone was a little cranky from all the traveling, the time together was nothing short of celebratory and even a taste of heaven.

Having lost both of my grandmothers when I was in college, having my wife’s grandmother has been special not only to me and my wife, but to our children as well. She turned 85 last week, but she certainly doesn’t show lots of signs of her age. Sure, she’s slowed down a lot in the time that I’ve known her, but she’s as witty and wise as that day. She’s thoughtful and loving as well, thinking so much of others. She’s always quick to send a card for special occasions but also just to encourage people and to let them know that they are being prayed for and thought about by her.

It’s moments like the ones that we spent last weekend that remind me what a celebration we will experience one day when we will be united together with all of those who have gone before us. Thinking about the laughter and the shared memories, the stories, and the fun only give a glimpse of what we will experience when we one day stand before our Savior.

I chuckled during the weekend at the fact that I’m about halfway to 85 myself. I could only look, act, and feel half as good as my grandmother-in-law if and when that day actually arrives for me.

With 85 years of memories, there are lots to share, but I was struck by the fact that many of the memories and stories that were shared were stories of encouragement, love, prayer, and faith. Her children and grandchildren shared of the faith that had been instilled in them through her. She and her husband had put a priority on that faith and it was evident throughout all of the generations represented this weekend.

As the years swiftly move past, it seems that time acts as a filter of sorts, filtering out the less important things so that what remains is what you can hold closest to your heart. That theory was affirmed this weekend. All five of my grandmother-in-law’s children were there along with all twelve of her grandchildren and all but four of her sixteen great-grandchildren.

Sitting in the lobby of the hotel, passersby would stop to observe the whole family, wondering what on earth was going on. What was this crowd that had gathered? So many strangers came up and wished the “birthday girl” a happy birthday. The celebration was infectious and contagious, it was neat to watch the smiles spread on the faces of those walking by, especially when they discovered what the celebration was all about.

The celebration of a life that is lived is usually reserved for after a person passes. I was so glad to be part of such a celebration that took place while we can still enjoy the company and presence of the one being celebrated. I don’t know how many more celebrations that we can have with my grandmother-in-law, but I look forward to every single one, no matter how far we have to travel, how tired we are, and how cranky everyone gets (including me).

I don’t know how long I’ll be here on this earth, but I do know that I’ve watched a number of people go before me who have set the bar high on standards for living. I’m not talking about how much money they made or how monetarily rich they were, but how rich they were in their relationships with others. Those who serve as examples for me have shown me what is valuable and I can only hope and pray that the example I set for my kids and their kids might be a fraction of what’s been passed on to me.

We Cannot be Silent – A Book Review

we cannot be silent

There is a revolution sweeping the nation and the world. Some are rejoicing over it while others are mourning the loss of what used to be. According to Albert Mohler, this revolution that is sweeping through our country and our world is wiping away sexual morality and redefining an institution that has been in place for thousands of years.

While some may think that this revolution sprung up overnight and suddenly appeared, others may realize that the revolution has been years and decades in the making. In fact, Mohler claims that the revolution came long before the legalization of same-sex marriage. It is this revolution that is the subject of his book “We Cannot Be Silent.”

In his book, Mohler walks through how he believes this revolution began, looking back at the sexual revolution within the United States. He carefully and thoughtfully walks the reader through this revolution, looking at the technological advancements that have taken place to aid and abet the revolution. Mohler suggests that the institution of marriage had already begun to weaken and experience structural integrity with the advent of birth control, artificial insemination, and other advancements. Mohler suggests that Christians began to compromise as well by failing to maintain “a vital voice and the ability to speak prophetically to the larger culture concerning matters of marriage, sex, and morality.”

Separating sex and procreation through the advent of birth control enabled a more carefree approach to sex. As long as sex was connected to the possibility of pregnancy, there was a biological check on sex outside of marriage and promiscuity. Birth control opened up a whole new opportunity for the two to no longer be so connected. Not only birth control, but the social acceptance of extramarital sex and cohabitation were among the other factors, “that have fueled the expansion of that revolution into terrain that the early sexual revolutionaries could never have imagined.”

Technological advancements were not the sole perpetrators, however. Mohler suggests that no-fault divorce also eroded the institution of marriage, making marriage more of a contract than a covenant. Mohler even suggests that, “In the end, we will almost surely have to concede that divorce will harm far more lives and cause far more direct damage than same-sex marriage.” Statements like this throughout the book helped me to gain respect for Mohler for his honest assessment of the situation.

Over and over again, Mohler points to the Christian church as compromising its own morals and values, not necessarily by condoning the behaviors that were embraced by society and culture but by simply not speaking out in opposition to what was being widely embraced outside of the church. Mohler is not accusatory of those with whom he disagrees but, like Jesus, reserves his greatest criticisms for the religious right who must share ownership of the current state of affairs and degradation.

Throughout this book, Mohler uses resources from both sides of the same-sex marriage debate. While he certainly has an agenda and viewpoint, he presents it fairly and humbly, without accusations to anyone but those who are within the church. Perusing the endnotes and the resources referenced there would likely interest those on both sides of this debate.

Mohler offers a humble confession and apology to the homosexual community for behaviors against them by the church. He says that the church has failed, “to reach out to our neighbors with true love, compassion, and the gospel of Jesus Christ.” The church has been guilty of an idolatrous pursuit of comfort which has lead us to associate with those who are like us. Mohler boldly states that, “Both love and truth are essential as we establish a right relationship with our neighbors in a way that consists with our ultimate commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Humble confessions like this, in my opinion, go a long way to trying to restore and repair the relationship between those within the church and those in the LGBT community.

He honestly confronts the cries of millions of evangelicals who have claimed that we live in a Christian nation when he says, “At this point, we must respond with the sobering reality that America has never been nearly as Christian as many conservative Christians have claimed.” While he still points to the Judeo Christian values on which this nation was founded, he doesn’t use them as a false support to claim that our nation is Christian.

Mohler addresses the transgender revolution as well. He is critical of the new ideology and mindset among many within the culture who are changing definitions that have been in place for years. He writes, “Arguing that we should draw a clear distinction between who an individual wants to go to bed with and who an individual wants to go to bed as requires the dismantling of an entire thought structure and worldview.” While he clearly states his points and leaves no room for misinterpretation of his own viewpoint, he still maintains a humility and Christlikeness by claiming that there is a need for the church to “develop new skills of compassion and understanding” in dealing with those who find themselves in the midst of their own personal struggles in this area.

As Mohler talks about this shift within our culture, he raises consciousness of the breakdown that is taking place regarding tolerance and religious liberty. Mohler writes, “The remaining question is whether champions of tolerance are prepared to tolerate proponents of a different ethical vision.” Mohler rightly asks this question, wondering whether or not those who claim to be so tolerant are tolerant enough to be able to accept opposing opinions and ideas. It would seem that tolerance is an easy word to trumpet while not being quite as easy to actually live out, especially when it comes to tolerance of ideas that fly in opposition to your own.

He also speaks of the death of religious liberty, writing, “This is how religious liberty dies – by a thousand cuts. An intimidating letter here, a subpoena there, a warning in yet another place. The message is simple and easily understood. Be quiet and get in line or risk trouble.” He raises the alarm on the breakdown of religious liberty that he sees. While the erosion of those liberties may seem subtle, over time, these subtle shifts can result into a significant shift over time, a point that Mohler hopes to get across throughout the entire book.

Religious liberty is dying and tolerance is being advocated while seemingly only being a ruse for the tolerance of ideas that are embraced by the majority. What happens when there are those who embrace a minority viewpoint that is in opposition to the majority? The evidence up to this point has not shown that tolerance means much more than tolerance for the majority viewpoint, all others must fall in line and succumb.

The last chapter of the book is dedicated to hard questions for which Mohler provides his own answers. While that might sound harsh, if the reader has gotten to the end of the book, Mohler’s viewpoint won’t be a surprise. Those for whom this book was intended will most likely find this chapter helpful. Mohler may not change the viewpoints of anyone, but he does offer helpful insights. His status and position within his conservative denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, may be helpful to those who might not look as objectively at this topic as Mohler tries to do here.

At the end of the book, Mohler adds an addendum as the book had gone to press prior to the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage. Mohler claims that this decision is not just a legalization of same-sex marriage but a redefinition of marriage, opening up the possibilities for further expansion in the future into areas such as polygamy and other distortions of traditional marriage.

The majority decision and the rationale of the majority of the justices alludes to the fact that, “…any opposition to same-sex marriage is rooted in moral animus against homosexuals. In offering this argument the majority slanders any defender of traditional marriage and openly rejects and vilifies those who, on the grounds of theological conviction, cannot affirm same-sex marriage.” Mohler’s frustration is evident here, implying the obvious question, “Is it possible to hold an alternate viewpoint without being accused of bigotry or prejudice?”

I appreciated Mohler more in reading this book. While I was familiar with him prior to this book, I felt like this book gave me a clearer picture of him and his views. His honesty and humility were evident throughout the book and I think that it would be hard for even those with opposing viewpoints to accuse him of being unfair, harsh, or hateful in laying out his viewpoints.

I have been personally impacted by the cultural shift about which Mohler writes. I have friends who are gay, some who have embraced same-sex marriage and participated in it. While I don’t embrace their viewpoints, I still love them just the same. My disagreement does not mean that I hate my gay friends any more than my dislike for Duke or the Yankees means that I hate anyone who embraces them as “their team.”

I think it’s important that both sides of this issue begin to address and answer some difficult questions. Whatever happened to good, old fashioned differing opinions? Why is it that we can’t disagree without somehow wanting to discriminate? Regardless of whether or not you agree with Mohler, the opinions laid out within this book are important to consider and formulate our own opinions, not simply embrace the opinion of the majority or masses.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)