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Of Movies & Miracles

As I write this, I am in between my two jobs for the day and on my twelfth straight day of working.  Thankfully, I have the whole weekend off, but if I am loopy & have bad grammar in this post, at least you'll know why.  I just wanted to bring some extra attention to this really cool story that in the midst of all my other craziness I was able to be a part of.  

            A few years back, when I first moved to Pittsburgh, I was feeling a bit like I do now in Austin—out of place, not quite at home, really uncertain of my future.  I was living at home, and I was far, far away from the community I'd developed in college in Missouri.  I didn't know anyone in Pittsburgh besides my family, and while I kind of liked the church they attended, it wasn't the friendliest.  Somehow all my angst catalyzed me into doing some soul searching.  I began to really wrestle with my faith, which I alluded to in my previous post, & it was a time when seeds of change sown in earlier years began to sprout.  I started reading and thinking differently about my faith and church.  I didn't doubt God's existence as much as I wondered what He was really up to.  I had seen people get burned out, turned away, and screwed over by the church (and other Christian organizations).  And just as I was wrestling with how to deal with all this building frustration and discontent, I discovered I was not the only one feeling this way.

            There were several books I read at this time that impacted me and kept me from giving up on the church altogether, and one of them was a little paperback called "Blue Like Jazz."  I don't even remember exactly who recommended it to me, or how I came across it.  (Maybe my journals tell the story, but they're in a storage unit in Branson!  If you remember, leave a comment!)  All I remember is that I was reading it while I worked at an independent coffeeshop and when I finished, I felt so grateful to the author, Don Miller, for his gut-wrenching honesty, that I sat on my stool and wrote him a letter.  (I never sent it.  It's still in my journal.  In Missouri.)

            While some circles consider the book controversial, I know a lot of people have responded to the authenticity and frustration that Miller conveys in its pages.  One of the more moving and profound stories he tells centers around a local college where they have a festival that gets so wild, they shut down the campus and bring in medical units to deal with the drug abuse.  Don & his friends decide that would be a good weekend to spread the word that the campus also has a few Christians who attend.  He jokes with them about setting up a confessional, but his friends surprise him by taking it seriously:
            “Okay, you guys.” Tony gathered everybody’s attention.  “Here’s the catch…We are not actually going to accept confessions.”  We all looked at him in confusion.  He continued, “We are going to confess to them.  We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are very sorry.   We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and lonely, we will ask them to forgive us….We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them.”
            All of us sat there in silence because it was obvious that something beautiful and true had hit the table with a thud.

            That scene inspired director and musician Steve Taylor to make a movie based on “Blue Like Jazz.”  I found out about the project at the beginning of this year, when I read Miller’s latest book, “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” (in which he tells a bit of the story-editing process.  It was an EXCELLENT book.).  I got all excited because I love Steve Taylor’s movie work, and I love Don Miller’s writing, and it seemed like such a great way to reach a broader audience with a message of honesty and hope.
            But a couple years after the script was done, funding for the project fell through, and a couple months ago Donald Miller announced on his blog that the movie was dead.  Even though I follow Don on Twitter, somehow I missed this news until I started seeing a mysterious hashtag: #savebluelikejazz.  Two guys who are fans of the book apparently felt as disheartened as I did that the movie wasn’t getting made, but they decided to do something about it.  They started a Kickstarter page to raise money, with a very “meager” (for a movie budget) of $125,000 in 20 days. 

            Word of mouth spread through social media and people began pledging $10, $25, $100, $300 to the project.  Within a week they had well over half their goal met.  Suddenly hope was sparked anew in Taylor and Miller.  They had all but given up in the movie, but thousands of people came together to help this movie get made.  If you know me, you know I’m pretty much broke, but I pledged to this, because I am very passionate about it.  There were some disparaging remarks made about couch potato Christians who only give to movies and ignore Africa (or something to that effect), but the truth is, I think it’s past time that stories like this get told theatrically.  I don’t think “Christian Movies” should become some sort of weird sub-genre that includes movies like “Facing the Giants” and “Fireproof.”  I think people like Taylor and Miller need to pave the way for Christians to tell good stories cinematically, with characters who genuinely wrestle with faith and aren’t crazy.

            I share this whole thing because I think it’s an amazing story about people coming together to support something really cool.  I feel like I’m a part of it, and not just because I’m getting a phone call any day now from Taylor or Miller.  I also share it because it’s encouraging to me on many levels.  Like I said, I hope projects like this pave the way for more stories to be told—stories that don’t have to fit neatly in the “Christian” genre.  (Like the stories my friends & I write…)  It also encourages me because I have to do some support raising over the next few months for Ireland, and my number isn’t *quite* as big as theirs was, but it is very high—more than I’ve probably made in my whole life.  It’s a scary number, but watching their goal get met (and surpassed!) so quickly reminded me that if God wants us to do something, we just have to ask and let Him work. 

Because we all have a story to tell...and an audience to tell it to.


Glee, Sorrow, and Searching

Or, Further Thoughts on Grace & Love

This week's episode of Glee centered around religion and spirituality, which  naturally caught my attention even more than a typical episode.  My heartstrings got tugged in a lot of conflicting directions as the characters wrestled with faith and their differing beliefs.  Glee didn't go out of its way to answer any big theological questions or to raise one path over another, but it did display some beautiful, heartwrenching themes.

There were two main plot lines: one about Kurt, a boy whose father ended up in a coma, who maintained that he did not believe in God, and Finn, another boy who saw the face of Jesus in his grilled cheese sandwich and began to pray.  While at first these seemed like overdone caricatures, this turned out to be a very complex episode.  Kurt, the boy whose father was near death, pushed away his friends when they offered prayer and hope.  But I think the most beautiful thing about it was that his friends didn't give up on him. 

I've been a believer in God for so long that sometimes it is easy for me to forget that there are people who honestly struggle with the idea.  I used to argue with such people, and try to reason with them.  Though backed with solid theological apologetics, I'm not sure I ever persuaded anyone to follow Jesus through arguments.  Likewise, no one in Glee talked anyone else into seeing spirituality their way.  But they did try to be respectful and honest.

As is the case in every Glee episode, the cast sang: this week, they sang songs that reflected their feelings about faith.  Finn, after finding out that God does not speak through grilled cheese sandwiches (according to the well-meaning guidance counselor) sang REM's "Losing My Religion."  His girlfriend Rachel, a Jewish girl, sang "Papa Can You Hear Me" from Yentil to express her conflicted feelings.  Mercedes and her church choir sang "Bridge Over Troubled Water" to Kurt to let him know he was not alone.  But perhaps the most moving song for me was when all the kids sang "One of Us," Joan Osborne's once-ubiquitous 90's song about God.  This came after the Glee club had been warned not to sing religious songs of any kind during school (a side topic that stirred up old indignation from my fiery days as an outspoken Christian in a liberal California high school).

I used to hate that song: "What if God was one of us?"  It didn't make sense to me, because I believed God had become one of us, in the person of Jesus, and the person she describes in the song was not how I pictured Him.  But today when I heard it, in one of those moments that God keeps shining a light on to show how I've changed since those aforementioned high school days, I realized I kind of liked it.  I remember being so indignant about it, and how the Christian magazines I read were also ripping on it.  But now I think, it's kind of an amazing question.

"What if God was one of us?"  To an atheist or agnostic, it's kind of an interesting idea.  Perhaps because of all the cartoony representations of Jesus we get in the world, they've never stopped to think about what it would mean for God to actually be like one of us.  I don't know.  But the whole song is full of interesting questions.

What really got me were the lines "What if God was one of us?/ Just a slob like one of us/ Just a stranger on the bus/ Trying to make his way home/ Back up to heaven all alone
Nobody calling on the phone."  For the first time, I heard them as kind of a challenge.  After all, didn't Jesus say that whatever we do to the least of these, we have done to Him?  What if we stopped looking at those around us as faceless, and remembered that they are people, made in the image of God, searching and lost and messed up and broken, just like us? 

This doesn't make our life any easier.  We will meet people, like Kurt, who have been through so much in life that the idea of God doesn't make sense.  They may want our friendship but not our God, and like Mercedes, we won't win them over with a perfect argument, or a heartfelt song.  (But what is the alternative?  Giving up and burning that bridge?)

THIS, my friends, is why Grace (or vitamin G, as I like to call it) is so important.  We will face moments like the ones depicted in this episode of Glee.  And we will have to choose how to respond to hurting friends and family.  It's not a magic potion that will make everything better.  But Jesus also said that Christians would be known and identified as such by their love.  Tell me: when was the last time you saw THAT in a movie or a TV show?  When was the last time you saw that in real life?  Most of the time, Christians are known for their arrogance, hypocrisy, and tendency to judge.  Oh, and for being crazy.

We have gotten so caught up in being "right" and seeming righteous that we've neglected things of deeper importance.  Like...go on, say it with me...grace.  And love.  And wouldn't it be cool if we actually were known for our love?  Our deep, profound, crazy, inexplicable, supernatural love?  Because if I were to stake my life on something that actually would change even the hardest hearts, I'd bet on Love.


Vitamin "G" Deficiency

This morning, I was all set to write a really angry post.  I mean, I had my soapbox all dusted and ready.  I was working on a title, and I even had a subtitle ready. (Something scathing, too, like "Silence, Ye Brood of Vipers.")

I mean, it's been one of those weeks.  Just by reading articles and posting links, I have gotten into some interesting discussions/arguments.  And if anything, it has reinforced that I have indeed changed many of my views over the past few years.  And that change, is a good thing.  A "real good thing."

See, in my younger days, I was quite the conservative evangelist.  I had a list in my head of things that were spiritual, and things that were not.  There were things I was allowed to and supposed to do as a Christian, and things I was not.  It was a simple kind of faith in which formulas and checklists were the path to righteousness.  A + B = C.  Simple as that.  And if you didn't adhere to such guidelines and believe the same things as me, you were probably, sadly, not going to make it into heaven.

But around ten years ago, perhaps a little more, God really began to change my heart.  It's a long story, and a good one, but, I won't go into it here & now.  The point is, it was a winding path to help me rediscover a pretty vital characteristic of God.  Let's call it "Vitamin G:" Grace. 

Grace is the reason I'm not ranting and raving in this post.  Because of grace, I can take a deep breath, even when I'm frustrated and remember that I need it as much as anyone.  See, sometimes I get frustrated with people who have a vitamin G deficiency.  I've noticed a decrease in this essential supplement lately.  Have you?

Symptoms of a lack of G include:  pride, self-righteousness, judgmentalism, and the certainty that your opinions and beliefs are superior to everyone else's.  Also, a lack of vitamin G can actually be contagious.  As I learned for myself this week.

I find that when I am confronted with people who exhibit a lack of G, I get...itchy.  Squirmy.  Indignant.  And then...angry.  For about ten minutes, it's possible that it's a holy, righteously indignant anger, on par with the spitfire vehemence Jesus reserved for the Pharisees.  After that, it all goes downhill.  So to people who I may have hurt with my venomous reaction, I apologize.

But the real point of all of this is that we ALL need more G in our lives.  We need grace for ourselves, and we need grace for each other.  What is the point of the church, if not to display one of God's deepest, truest characteristics to the world?  We live in a world that is desperately in need of grace, and we have a responsibility to dispense it.  If there is anything I've learned over the past decade of my life, anything God has revealed to me about himself, it is that His very nature is Love.

We do a great injustice to the broken and marginalized of the world when we neglect to offer them grace & love because they do not meet our standards or prerequisites.  Indeed, that is one of the very things Jesus chastised the religious leaders of his day for.  Yes, there is a need for structure and rules at some level, for accountability and an understand of God's precepts set forth in the scriptures.  But at some point we need to realize we've been going about this evangelism thing slightly backwards; whereas Jesus went out to the sinners and marginalized of his day and hung out with them, we expect those around us to clean themselves up first and then meet us at church.

Let me be clear: I need grace as much as anyone.  One of the ways God ingrained that in me was by helping me be aware of my own failings, and then revealing his breathtaking, unimaginable grace and love for me.  Despite my failings.  So I must remember to show that to others.  That includes, as hard as it is for me to remember, those people who themselves are grace-deficient.  How can they learn grace, if I don't strive to exhibit it?

And if a lack of grace is contagious, how do we combat it?  What is the remedy?  I'm sure there are many, including a deeper understanding of God cultivated by reading more scripture with an open heart, allowing the Spirit to tug at your heart with examples of God's lavish, scandalous, extravagant grace.  The next best thing is to be in the company of those who practice grace.  I said at the beginning that I started this morning with an intention to write an angry, grace-less post, on the same topic.  Thankfully, I went to church first.

I am deeply and profoundly grateful for Gateway Church in Austin.  It's brought a lot of much needed healing into my life and is one of the things that keeps me from becoming a total cynic and giving up on the church altogether (not God, mind you, just the church).  Knowing that there are honest Christians out there like me, wrestling with faith and trying to live it out authentically--it keeps me going.   And that's why I write, too, to encourage others like me to keep going.  We have to keep going.  We have to keep up vitamin G, and work together to help God's kingdom come & will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.