Friday, March 16, 2012

If Only... and Midnight in Paris

(No.2 in a series on the 2011 Oscar Films)

"I find that the further I go back, the better things were, whether they happened or not"  ~ Mark Twain
There’s a decadent French pastry cafe near us that’s to die for… you know what I mean. Isabelle Brien’s has creamy cappuccino, buttery almond croissants, savory french toast (obviously), and a sweet name that reminds me of my grand-daughter. It’s a fine breakfast with ma belle femme on a Saturday morning. 
Which is why I’m thinking about film critic David Edelstein’s recent remarks on the film Midnight in Paris, when he boiled down the basic philosophy of Woody Allen's films in one sentence: "Life is meaningless… the best you can do is find a good restaurant." Seems like alot to ask from your beef bourguignon! However, food and feasting do hold incredible meaning for us - if we'll listen. 
And in Midnight, Allen has his fine restaurant. Paris is romance par excellence, and we're treated to a visual feast from the opening credits. In classic Woody style, he also sets the table for us with some great questions. Yes, we do often find ourselves dissatisfied, with our time (doesn’t every age?), and our circumstances can feel meaningless, as even Solomon discovered – so what to do? Have another croissant! Merci!
Or, as Paris suggests, why not escape to the “good old days” - even the ones that haven't happened yet?

Nostalgia Calls
On vacation in the “City of Lights” with his upwardly mobile fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams), Hollywood screenwriter Gil Pender's (Owen Wilson) dissatisfaction with life kicks into high gear. If only he could go back to the golden age of literature - Paris in the 20's! Hear the heart of Hemingway; see the flair of Fitzgerald! If only he could leave the shallowness of his day-job behind, and finally pen something with substance!  If only he could marry Inez, and return to Paris to write - ironically, a novel about “a guy who owns a nostalgia shop.”
But while Inez indulges her “if only” with the insufferable Paul (Michael Sheen), a pseudo-intellectual who prefaces his sentences with “If I’m not mistaken…”, (a sure clue that he probably is), Gil strolls deep into the heart of the city. Eventually, he sits down to rest…
And at the stroke of midnight, an elegant taxi appears to whisk him back in time, to the golden age of his dreams! There’s Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) to dispense literary advice, Salvador Dali (hilariously played by Adrien Brody) to show him the essence of love and art, and even Ernest Hemingway himself (in a great turn by Corey Stoll) to suggest the meaning of life:
Hemingway: Have you ever made love to a truly great woman?
Gil: Actually my fiance is pret-ty sexy...
Hemingway: And when you make love to her, you feel true and beautiful passion, and you for at least that moment lose your fear of death...
Gil: ...No, that doesn't happen...
Hemingway: I believe that love that is true and real creates a respite from death. All cowardice comes from not loving, or not loving well, which is the same thing...and when the man who is brave and true looks death squarely in the face, like some rhino hunters I know, or Belmonte [the matador], who is truly brave, it is because they love with sufficient passion to push death out of their minds, until it returns, as it does to all men. And then you must make really good love again...think about it.
L’amour! Surely this is the meaning of life? But when Gil finds himself smitten with the alluring Adriana (Marion Cotillard), he soon discovers (surprise!) that she is also dissatisfied with her own age. Alas, this has all been tried before, with gusto: wise Solomon went this route to cure his meaninglessness, and 700 concubines later, he came to a different conclusion (see Ecclesiastes 7:2).
We Want to Change our Circumstances…
As Gil loses himself in the past, surrounded by his real-life idols, Allen flirts with the question: Is a change of circumstances, or even the ability to “turn back the clock” the real issue? Is romance, or beauty the meaning we’ve been searching for all along? Or might there be something even deeper? Listen to CS Lewis:
Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth's expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things - the beauty, the memory of our own past - are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers...  C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Could it be that the search for the good old days are less about the days (or whatever it is we think we need), and more about our hearts? Perhaps this is why "the past seems so much more vivid, more substantial, than the present," writes A.O. Scott.  But maybe "... the good old days are so alluring because we were not around, however much we wish we were..." Maybe this is what Solomon was getting at when he said,

"Do not say, "Why were the old days better than these?" For it is not wise to ask such questions.”  Ecclesiastes 7:10 
...But God Wants to Change Our Heart
So allow me to suggest...

A New Philosophy: Life is meaningful, so find a really good restaurant!
Wait, you say - that sounds a bit un-spiritual! But remember how Jesus kicked off his ministry? His first miracle, announcing what his whole mission was really about, took place at a feast - a wedding. 180 gallons of water were transformed into the finest wine. What was going on?
Like you and I when we attend the marriage of friends, Jesus was thinking about his own wedding! That day when He would take His ransomed bride and throw the most amazing party and feast that has ever been, beyond our wildest dreams:

"On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine--the best of meats and the finest of wine."  Isaiah 25:6

Which means that in holding up his glass of fine wine, Jesus was trying to show us the meaning of life! There's a wedding coming...

And you must remember that the way there, to the feast – as well as the meaning of your every moment today - is completely unexpected. The “foolishness” of the cross (I Cor. 1:18), where real love won the day, opens the door to life. Real celebration. Because on that "good old day," the King of Love pierced the heart of evil, and a world of darkness was flooded with light .…and meaning was revealed. Forgiveness flowed forth. Slaves to sin were set free, and brought back to God – our deepest longing.
Three days later, Christ stepped out of the grave, having "swallowed up death in victory." So that this day, this moment, you could find your meaning, and new strength to love, in Him. 

Midnight in Paris is full of whimsy and wonder, a great film to enjoy and to help us explore what really matters: where we look for meaning. So the next time you take a bite or lift a glass, pause and wonder...and give thanks. There's a greater, more lavish feast coming. Think about it...

Note: Taking an x-ray picture of our heart (our dreams and escapes), as counselor David Powlison says, is an important clue for discovering what rules and enslaves us, and where we tend to look for meaning. The place where we sip our usual daydreams, indulge our if onlys...then I'll be happy!"? can tell us alot about what we're really living for.
Here's a few of our everyday, garden variety if onlys
If only I had more money…(living for pleasing ourselves, pleasure)
If only ______ would notice me! If only my nose was straighter, my butt smaller, my hair less curly (or straight)… oh, if only I hadn’t had that second croissant! ...(living for approval)

If only my kids were nice, obedient children...(living for good behavior, pride, and nice circumstances in life...)
It’s a smorgasboard of poison - often masquerading as real food - that's never ending. And when we find ourselves dining there for our meaning and joy (instead of enjoying them as gifts, with thankfulness), we not only grow sick and in despair, but miss the greater meal and greater affection our hearts were made for. Only Christ is strong enough to conquer the idols that enslave, setting us truly free to love well again. So learn to feed on him, for He has prepared a real feast for you in His Gospel. Taste his mercy, kindness, and love - and see that He is good!  

Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do Eccl. 9:7

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Telling Your Story

Interrupting our look at the Oscar movies of this past year to ask, "How well do you know your own story? Are you able to speak the meaning of your story to others?" A great resource for diving in to the meaning of your own story is To Be Told: God Invites You to Coauthor Your Future, by Dan Allender.
Allender says, "Mirrors are needed to see who we are. Our stories can be a mirror in the hands of our friends and loved ones." Good counseling, like an insightful friend, can help us to know our own stories as others "who know our past help us look into our present."

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Moneyball, and the Father's Blessing

(No. 1 in a series on the 2011 Oscar Films)

There’s a scene in the Oscar-nominated film Moneyball that took my breath away. But hold that thought a moment....
This artfully crafted film starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, General Manager of the 2001 Oakland A’s, is much more than a sports story about baseball lore. “Converted” by his number-crunching sidekick, Peter Brand, (Jonah Hill), Beane chucks the conventional wisdom of the baseball sages to put together a team where money and status bow to passion and heart - and the question of someone's real worth is brought into focus.
We see it in one especially funny bit in the film when Billy, surrounded by his team of seasoned scouts, keeps asking “What is the Question?” over and over, while the “experts” feed him what it really takes to win: a right stance on the mound, a sweet-looking swing, and even a good face for TV. But as the story unfolds, Billy and Peter wonderfully seek out the “hopeless cases,” players that the rest of the world has ignored. As Brand puts it, it’s like a fielding a team on the “Island of misfit toys.” Not unlike what God does with the church, I thought – the God who delights in choosing the weak things to shame the strong.
But one of the sweetest scenes for me (you knew I’d get to it eventually), however, is when Billy is serenaded by his daughter Casey, played by Kerris Dorsey. Shy and reluctant and first, she gives in to her dad’s requests in the middle of the music store to sing out instead of just hum. Why? Because she longs to hear the words her father will say to her…that she is worth more to him than others, and that she is treasured and delighted in. She wants his blessing, and to know that she is not alone...

I’m just a little bit caught in the middle
Life is a maze and love is a riddle
I don't know where to go, can’t do it alone I’ve tried
And I don’t know why
I am just a little girl lost in the moment
I’m so scared but I don’t show it
I can’t figure it out
It’s bringing me down I know
I've got to let it go...

Watching Billy’s face as his daughter plays the guitar and sings to him is a wonder, and Pitt plays it perfectly. It’s a study of deep joy, and of awe - and yes, of pure delight. To hear her voice makes his own soul sing. There’s nothing more beautiful.  
The Father’s Blessing
The scene especially reminded me how we long, even ache, to hear our father’s blessing. A strong case can be made that ancient Jacob, that deceiver who conspired with his mother Rebekah to steal his father Isaac’s blessing, was plagued his whole life by repeated attempts to fill the “blessing void” inside him with another person. Maybe it's partly why it’s a breeze for him to work seven years to win his Rachel (that, and her beauty). And when he finally comes to that climactic scene of wrestling in the dark with God Himself (in the person of Jesus, I would suggest), what does he want? He says it himself:
“I won’t let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26)
Out of this wrestling, Jacob gets more than he bargained for - a limp, and a new name: Israel (which means, “he struggles with God”). Note well: It’s the 2 marks every believer will carry with them the rest of their lives.
The Singing Savior
This longing for a blessing during the “dark nights of the soul” needs a vision. It’s why I love the coronation scene at the end of The Lord of the Rings,The Return of the King. There we see the assembled throng, as Gandalf lifts high the crown of the new king and places it on Aragorn’s head. But what happens next is the real wonder. He opens his mouth, and begins to sing over his rescued people. We get the sense that in the back of Tolkein’s mind, Zephaniah 3:17 is resonating:
"The Lord your God is with you, He is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing."   
In this life, you and I will often find it hard to sing. At such times, we must remember this: someone else also wrestled in the dark – for you, and for me.
But why would he do it? Why would the God-man Jesus want to take this on, for rebels like us? As Tim Keller asks, “Really, what do you get the man who already has everything?” Jesus had his father’s blessing already–  but he put it all aside, choosing instead to be hung on a cross and forsaken – for you. Because you were the one thing he didn’t have. You were the “joy set before him,” his true Rachel. And when morning comes, he will sing over you!
In Moneyball, there’s a reason that Billy comes to a place of dissatisfaction. Yes, baseball has a certain romance – the ninth inning home run, the rare no-hitter. But a winning season, just like the accolades of this life, is all just so….temporary. Like us, Billy wants something more, something that will last.
So remember this: the father longs to hear your voice. He loves it. The Savior who wrestled for your blessing longs to bring it forth. And though he speaks to you now by Word and Spirit, one day your fading ears will come alive to a new voice – one that will sing over you with such beauty, your heart will melt in gratitude. Until then, know that in Christ, you have his blessing right now (see Eph. 1:3)... and then listen for his song of comfort in the night.
Note: The psalmist remembers, and sings his songs in the night (see psalm 77). In the painful night times of your life you may also ask the question he asked: “has his unfailing love vanished forever?” (77:8). Here is where you must also ask yourself, What am I really longing for? Pain relief only? And who (or what) am I trusting in as my “Blessing substitute”? See how the psalmist himself wrestles for his hope, as he reminds himself of the Gospel story: “With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph” (77:15).

Friday, February 10, 2012

Glorious Forgiveness

Counselor Ed Welch shares the story of a young man who left Christianity behind, only to show up at a worship service later in life. When Ed found the young man afterward and asked him what brought him back to seeking Christ, he simply said, "my father asked my forgiveness for his anger. I knew God must be real, because he had never done that before."

Why is having to ask forgiveness such a rare thing? Parent to child, spouse to spouse, friend to friend - why are we not quicker to run to the "sinner's place" with these precious relationships? (See Stanley Voke's excellent article, The Sinner's Place). I mean, if what Jesus says about us all is true in his famous Sermon on the Mount, that essentially we are all adulterers and murderers who live with adulterers and murderers, then why are we surprised?

I'm convinced that this is so for two reasons:

1.) We're all so addicted to self-righteousness (see Rom. 10:3), that this leads us to a very small view of sin, and also the cross.... we simply refuse to be the bigger sinner, with the bigger log in our eye. Yet our willingness to reveal the truth about us actually displays God's strength and grace!

2.) We're all addicted to the idea that good behavior (morality) is enough of a goal, and so sin and grace simply aren't the main themes of our lives - when they should be our norm.

Do you want to give others around you a taste of God, and His grace? Then own who you really are - an adulterer. Do you want to give others a taste of glory? Then own your lusts, your addictions to your gods (including your "electronic dis-associations" that keep you from loving people, as Dan Allender calls them), and also your anger when those addictions get blocked.

This will be impossible on your own, so pray. Unless you see your sin as the log; even greater, unless you see your great debt against a holy God as the real issue, forgiving others will be impossible. But once you know the great debt you've been forgiven, you may claim the righteousness of Christ as your new clothing and be rid of your own rags - they're only the Emperor's new clothes anyway. Then a new freedom will come to ask forgiveness of those you've failed to love and hold in awe, as a fellow image-bearer of a glorious God.

This, perhaps like nothing else, will show people why the Gospel is true - maybe even more than your preaching and counseling - for they will see why it is that you need a Savior. As Jesus said, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners...." (Luke 5:32) Which camp will you be in?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Who is Your Father? (Impossible Parenting 2)

I'm convinced that most Christians know about God's love in theory, but in practice, tend to have a warped view of Him as "Father." Our upbringing, wayward hearts, and the deceitfulness of Satan may all be against us.

So what if our family background taught us that "father" meant someone who was absent, or even distant or cruel? (Sadly, it's an increasing reality in our culture.) Or what if we were taught about God, yet without a true understanding of grace, and so we now wonder if we can really rest in the arms of a good and loving Father? 

It becomes a crucial question on a practical and interpersonal level too, for one of my best hopes for my family to see the real heart of God in this "impossible calling" of parenting - in addition to prayer - is a changed me.

For these reasons especially, our hearts so often need to be bathed in the gracious promises of the Father; to hear the words spoken to His own beloved Son Jesus: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." (Matt. 3:17)  Amazingly, the Gospel tells us that now, because of what Jesus has done in His righteous life, atoning death, and glorious resurrection, that very same statement the Father spoke of Him also applies to us!

"Behold the throne of grace... there Jesus holds a smiling face" (John Newton) 

If you belong to Christ, you can insert your own name: "_____ is my beloved son (or daughter), in him (or her), I am well pleased!" Now, as members of God's new family by grace, God wants us to call Him our "Abba," (or Daddy) Father: 

"For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of Son-ship. And by him we cry, “Abba (“Daddy”), Father” Romans 8:15

J.I. Packer, in his classic book Knowing God, says:

"If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all ... “Father” is the Christian name for God.…Our understanding of Christianity cannot be better than our grasp of adoption." (pp. 201–202)

How vital this is for us to trust! The reason is this: 

The more we know we are loved by our Father, the more we will begin to love others well. It is for this that we were made!

Consider the great mindfulness of your Father - His thoughts are on you 24/7 (see Psalm 139:7). He is continually attentive, full of thoughtfulness, and knows your every sigh, sorrow, and pain. Yet how prone we are, especially when conflict and great stress arises, to instantly trust ourselves and forget the Father's love! 

The good news is, God's Word is for you. In it, you will find law (commands) and Gospel (free gift) side by side...and to gravitate to the law alone without the gift will destroy you. (Actually, that's part of it's job - as a mirror to show you your dirty face (heart) and destroy your pride, and lead you to the soap (the blood of Christ) which alone can cleanse you (see Gal. 3:24). 

So all that is left for you is gift - and the beautiful surprise is, it comes to you again and again, right in the middle of your mess (Rom. 5:8). Christ has kept the law and all its commands perfectly in your place. He is the true, obedient Son - the real and last Adam and older brother who has come to bring you back to the Father. And now His words of promise are intended to go deep into your soul and transform your false thinking and painful emotions, for “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of God.”

So try the following. Print out the following promises of God and read them once a day for 30 days. Then choose a specific promise to meditate on each day. Begin to let the Word of God fill your mind and transform your thoughts with a new view of the Father's heart, and His amazing grace. Remember that they also express the heart of Jesus, for he said "Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father" (Jn. 14:9). 

Finally, as you go, begin to share your reflections of your Father  with others, for community (His body) is one way God shows his perfect Father-heart to you ... then thank Him for all He's done, and that He so passionately desires for you to grow in intimacy with Him: 

Zephaniah 3:17  "The Lord your God is with you, He is mighty to save.  He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing."

Galatians 4:4-7: But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, (daddy) Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.

John 14:18:  “I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you.”  

Isaiah 54:10: "Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you." 

Isaiah 54:4  “Fear not, for you will not be put to shame; Neither feel humiliated, for you will not be disgraced; but you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more." 

Isaiah 51:12  “I, yes I, am the one who comforts you. So why are you afraid of mere humans, who wither like the grass and disappear?

Romans 8:32 God, who did not spare his own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will [the Father] not also, along with Christ, graciously give us all things?

Luke 15:20,22,23,31 (Parable of the Prodigal (or "extravagant") Father): 
So the son got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. And the father said to his servants, "Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate." 

Hebrews 12:7,10: Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons

Isaiah 49:1, 6, 15:  "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Impossible Parenting, Part 1

You would think a guy who counsels others and has raised 3 kids of our own (my youngest is now 17) would have this parenting thing down to a science by now. (If this were a sitcom, they’d cue the laugh track at this point. Pause a moment for the effect).

But that’s just it, isn’t it – raising children isn’t a science – despite the plethora of self-help books and videos that overwhelm the shelves down at the local Barnes and Noble, or that beg for your time (and money) at your favorite internet hot-spot. Oh sure, you can tell me about the latest "wonderful book you’re reading," and the sure-fire platitudes and proverbs that you’re banking on to “get it right” – even if they’re attached to a Bible verse. (This last crowd might be the most dangerous. I know, I’ve been there. Really, we should know more about God than to think we can cage Him like that. Think instead that He’s more like a lion on the loose…)

But a science? Really? That would mean this life – not to mention parenting - is akin to a kind of controlled experiment, taking place in a sterile lab or clean room somewhere. No extraneous elements to foul the result. Just a dash of this and a drop of that, and you'll get the desired result. It's so darn perfect, because in this world, everyone manages to follow protocol to a “T.” 

Cue that laugh track again. (I am sorry, but if that’s what you think life is (or even should be), I can’t help but chuckle. And then ask you what world you're really living in.)

But of course, I’m learning the hard way too. Sometimes I even act as if the above scenario is true; after all, it does fit well with the "American way" of "Father Knows Best" and "Work hard enough and you too can be a success!" Not to mention that Lord knows I’ve read enough books to have a boat load of tips and suggestions – some of which are actually very useful. But lately, I’m preferring what this seasoned parent confessed:
It took me seventeen years to realize I couldn’t parent on my own. It was not a great spiritual insight, just a realistic observation…

Now, a statement that offends my sensibilities like that needs to be unpacked, so I eagerly read on...

... If I didn’t pray deliberately and reflectively for the members of my family by name every morning, they’d kill one another. I was incapable of getting inside their hearts. I was desperate. But even more, I couldn’t change my self-confident heart…I need grace even to pray. 
                                                                                       ~ Paul Miller, A Praying Life

Please don’t get me wrong. The purpose of quoting that statement wasn’t to make you groan, “Oh, I see, the issue is I’m just not praying enough… and if only I prayed more, things would work out fine with my kids.” Wrong. My purpose was to help you, as a fellow struggling parent, to actually breathe a sigh of relief. To get off the treadmill, and allow yourself to catch a wind of the freedom that can truly come by not having to play God. Call it "weakness parenting." 

So, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you and I just aren’t in control of how our kids turn out. (And no, that doesn't mean we do nothing - on the contrary. Love is most free when it flows from a heart that is becoming unhinged from our pathological addiction to self righteousness, and moralism. But more on that later.) 

And that’s a good starting place for this awesome calling of parenting… don’t you think? Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Our Greatest Need for the New Year

Our greatest need for this new year is not to resolve to turn over a new leaf, be more religious, or get more disciplined. Rather, it's simply to rest in the outstretched arms of a real Person, and to know that at our worst, we are unbelievably loved, forgiven, and accepted: