Loving Beyond the Words


I recently re-watched an interesting film entitled The Last Kiss. The film, released in 2006, creates a rather unsettling and multi-layered cinematic portrait of young men and women attempting to come to grips with issues of commitment, betrayal, parenthood, and covenant. Although I cannot describe the film as exceptional, it does create some memorable moments.

One of those moments revolves around the following words, spoken by an older and wiser patriarch to a younger man who has recently betrayed his girlfriend with another woman. This younger man begins to talk about how much he loves his girlfriend. The patriarch interrupts him with an observation that is as significant as it is stark:

Stop talking about love. Every idiot in the world says he loves somebody. It means nothing. What you FEEL only matters to you.  It’s what you DO to the people you say you love. That’s what matters. It’s the only thing that counts.

It was a moment that compelled me to reflect upon how frequently I over-romanticize love, allowing it to become little more than a self-gratifying inner warmth and a euphoric means to emotional self-aggrandizement. Sometimes, I throw around the word “love” with an almost devil-may-care nonchalance. I say that I love my wife. I say that I love my family. I say that I love Jesus. But I also SAY that I love homemade vanilla ice cream, and comic books, and vacations to far away places, and the food at my favorite restaurants. When it comes to love, in other words, my talk can become extremely cheap. I can say that I love just about anything or anyone and then pat myself on the back for my emotional tenderness.

Maybe the patriarch in The Last Kiss is right. Maybe “every idiot in the world says that he loves somebody,” or something.

In the parable of the great judgment, Jesus tells us that, whenever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner, we are, in actuality, doing those things for Jesus himself:  “Truly I tell you, just as you did these things to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did them to me” (Matthew 25:40). In that moment of Scripture, Jesus offers a teaching that we dare not ignore—a teaching that brings him into alignment with the patriarch in The Last Kiss:  “Stop simply talking about love,” Jesus seems to be saying in Matthew 25:40.  “After all, every idiot in the world says that he loves somebody. The words, in that case, mean very little until they are validated by tangibility.”

By calling to mind real acts of ministry like feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, Jesus relocates love from the inner realm of the felt to the outer realm of the enacted.  “It’s what you DO to the people you say you love,” Jesus essentially says.  “That’s what matters. What really counts is whether or not you dared to see my countenance in the faces of the people around you and then enacted something real for the purpose of ministering to their deepest needs.”

Perhaps Jesus is telling us that the most authentic love is love incarnated; love in motion and action; love demonstrated and offered in the form of tangible acts of mercy and compassion.

In Zimbabwe, it is customary before a communal meal for two people to stand outside the door of the room where the meal is to be served. One of these persons holds a pitcher of warm, soapy water, the other person holds a basin. Their purpose is to wash the hands of all who are about to eat—a routine expression of servanthood and hospitality in a culture where such things are still treasured.

Once during a trip to Zimbabwe, as my hands were being washed before a meal, I expressed my gratitude to the two young boys who were doing the washing. One of the boys responded in this fashion:  “It is we who are grateful, sir. You are helping us to love you by allowing us to serve you.”

That boy’s words were a powerful reminder to me that the love of Jesus Christ finds its most profound expression, not in the words that we speak (essential as those words may be), but in the tangible ministry and risky servanthood that we offer.

My prayer for the church is that its people will be so inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit that the words of the familiar song will finally become fully applicable: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love”—a love, not only spoken in our words, but, even more importantly, incarnated in our decisions, our priorities, and our frequent moments of serving, risking, and caregiving.



Life Lessons From “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”


November of 2017 marks the 44th anniversary of the release of “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.” I watched it every year during my childhood. These days, in my “adult childhood,” I still make it a point to watch it every November.

There are moments in “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” that are particularly noteworthy. Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, sometimes playful, these moments, long before I was aware of their impact, helped me to pay attention to the world and its nuances. Here are some of the moments I have in mind:

CB 1

SNOOPY’S BATTLE WITH THE ORNERY LAWN CHAIR—Tapping into the frustration that most of us have experienced with uncooperative folding lawn furniture, Snoopy’s passionate fight with the anthropomorphic chair ranks as one of the great moments in all of animation. I think about that scene whenever I have difficulty opening up the folding chairs at church, which is often. It is a slapstick lesson in fortitude, a ridiculous but cautionary moment that makes a case for a raw “get-r-done” kind of gusto.

CB 2

FRANKLIN’S UNIQUE GREETING WHEN ENTERING CHARLIE BROWN’S HOUSE—When Peppermint Patty and Marcie come through the door, they greet Charlie Brown with simple hellos. But when Franklin, the only African American boy in the story, comes into the house, he and Charlie Brown exchange a pronounced and audible slap of hands. In light of the fact that this was 1973, such a greeting was a slap heard round the world—a moment of communicational intimacy that signaled the continuing development of a new age in race relations, even in the world of animation.

CB 3

SNOOPY’S PANICKED EXPRESSION WHEN HEARING THE INVITATION TO PRAY OVER DINNER—Peppermint Patty calls for someone to pray over the Thanksgiving meal. Snoopy, in a split-second response, looks suddenly panicked, as though he’s afraid that someone might look to him for the blessing. That sudden look of canine consternation makes me laugh every year because of its creative illumination of a very common spiritual reluctance. “Please, God, don’t let anyone ask me to pray out loud!”

CB 4

SNOOPY’S TOASTED EAR—While preparing for Thanksgiving dinner, Woodstock the bird accidentally puts Snoopy’s ear in the toaster, then butters it. No dinner, I suppose, is complete without a spoonful of personal sacrifice and a dash of vulnerability.

CB 5

WOODSTOCK’S FONDNESS FOR POULTRY—It hit me in late elementary school that, in the closing scene, when Snoopy and Woodstock sit down for a turkey dinner, Woodstock is actually committing a form of avian cannibalism before my very eyes. I wonder if the turkey was accompanied by some fava beans and a nice chianti.

CB 6

AN ECLECTIC THANKSGIVING MEAL—The actual meal that Charlie Brown serves to his friends includes jellybeans, pretzels, popcorn, and toast, reminding everyone that the beauty of the feast is always in the eye of the (hungry) beholder.

CB 7

LINUS’ PRAYER—When Linus quotes the prayer that was prayed by Elder William Brewster at the first Thanksgiving meal, it is the only moment in the entire animation that his security blanket is not visible. What a winsomely subtle way of making the point that, when Linus experiences the security of prayer, he no longer needs the blanket.

CB 8

THE SPONTANEOUS REJOICING—When the children receive word that they are all invited to Charlie Brown’s grandmother’s house for a real Thanksgiving dinner, they erupt with a joyful fervency normally reserved for Steelers games and Springsteen concerts. Their child-like exuberance awakens within me the desire to do everything I can to make the church into the kind of place that always—always—invites children to the table.

CB 9

THE REALISTIC SINGING—In the car, when the children sing “Over the River and Through the Woods,” they are neither unified in their tempo nor disciplined about their tonality—meaning that they sounded exactly like every group of singing children that I have ever heard (except for the Jackson 5 and that time that the Brady Bunch kids became the Silver Platters). Their joyful and spirited singing reminds me of how grateful I am that music has occupied a significant place in my life. I want it to occupy such a place in many lives.

CB 10

THE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF THE MOVEMENT TO SUBURBIA—“There’s only one problem with that song,” Charlie Brown says about the bucolic “Over the River and Through the Woods” as the children sing the song together.

“What’s that, Charlie Brown?”

“My grandmother lives in a condominium!”

By uttering those six words, Charlie Brown concludes the production with a bold and prophetic acknowledgement of the frightening implications of suburban sprawl, generational compartmentalization, and architectural homogeneity. It is a subtle but appropriate warning to a culture that frequently runs the risk of forgetting that rivers, woods, and grandmothers are never to be taken for granted.

If you watch “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” this year, pay attention. It offers some wonderfully whimsical and insightful moments, even after 44 years.





It Was “Fifty” Years Ago Today


Fifty years ago, in early June, 1967, the Beatles’ eighth studio album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, made its way to American ears for the first time. Recorded over a four-and-a-half month period at Abbey Road Studios (formerly EMI), the album inspired both lavish praise and pointed criticism, not to mention a half-century debate over the album’s place in the history of rock and roll.

While I am committed to avoiding the kind of overstatements that often become bigger than the album itself, I remain convinced that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band represents a uniquely significant expansion of everything from recording technique to album art; everything from eclectic musicianship to innovative instrumentation; everything from evocative storytelling to stylistic experimentation. Whether or not one cares for the Beatles’ music, there is an excellent chance that, wherever one’s musical preferences lead, he or she will listen to many artists that have somehow been influenced by the impulses and musicianship embodied by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The songs, while strangely connected, take the listener to many different worlds. Some of those world are whimsical. Others are tragic. The creative musicality that holds the worlds together is what is most striking. It elevates the Beatles above other bands of the era (or any era) in terms of musical innovation and eclecticism. In many ways, it also elevates popular music to an art form.

While “A Day in the Life” is the song on the album that normally garners the most attention (no doubt because of its grand instrumentation and thematic creativity), my personal favorite is “She’s Leaving Home.” It is a haunting musical description of a young girl’s experience of running away. The melody line, more modal than tonal, beautifully captures the sadness and angst of the story. The sparse but poignant instrumentation heightens the sense of the voice’s isolation. The fact that both the girl and her parents “speak” in the song indicates a poetic complexity rarely embraced in the popular music of that era.

I invite you to listen to “She’s Leaving Home.” Allow it to remind you of a moment fifty years ago when a rock album intersected, artistically and truthfully, with real world dynamics.

“She’s Leaving Home” (John Lennon and Paul McCartney)

Wednesday morning at five o’clock
As the day begins
Silently closing her bedroom door
Leaving the note that she hoped would say more

She goes downstairs to the kitchen
Clutching her handkerchief
Quietly turning the backdoor key
Stepping outside, she is free

(we gave her most of our lives)
Is leaving
(sacrificed most of our lives)
(we gave her everything money could buy)
She’s leaving home, after living alone, for so many years (bye bye)

Father snores as his wife gets into her dressing gown
Picks up the letter that’s lying there
Standing alone at the top of the stairs
She breaks down and cries to her husband
“Daddy, our baby’s gone.
Why would she treat us so thoughtlessly?
How could she do this to me?”

(we never thought of ourselves)
Is leaving
(never a thought for ourselves)
(we struggled hard all our lives to get by)
She’s leaving home, after living alone, for so many years

Friday morning, at nine o’clock
She is far away
Waiting to keep the appointment she made
Meeting a man from the Motortrade

(what did we do that was wrong)
Is Having
(we didn’t know it was wrong)
(fun is the one thing that money can’t buy)

Something inside, that was always denied, for so many years
She’s leaving home, bye, bye

13 Reasons Why


At the recommendation of a friend who knows me well, I made the time recently to watch the first season of the Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why” (based on the 2007 novel of the same title). It is a hard-hitting and sobering treatment of a variety of gut-wrenching issues faced by young people (and older people) in modern times: suicide; drug and alcohol abuse; bullying; body-shaming; the complexity of social media; sexual pressure and assault; fiercely-guarded cliques; disappointing friendships; heartbreaking family dynamics; betrayal. At its essence, the show tells the story of a young, vibrant, and broken soul named Hannah Baker and the “13 reasons why” she chooses to end her life.

There is considerable debate around “13 Reasons Why.” Some critics and counselors believe that it romanticizes suicide and nurtures the dangerous idea that suicide can be justified by a set of clearly articulated reasons. Other critics and counselors believe that, if it is experienced in the context of healthy community, the show can be a powerful doorway into important and life-saving conversations about matters too frequently ignored. This debate, I think, is worth having but cannot be resolved here.

So, why am I writing about “13 Reasons Why”? To tell you the truth, I am not sure. I think it has something to do with the tears that I shed toward the end of the final episode. Tears over Hannah’s loneliness, isolation, and heartbreaking decisions.  Tears over how cruel people can be to one another. Tears over what I would imagine is an all-too-realistic depiction of some of the dynamics of high school life.

My experience with “13 Reasons Why” made me want to listen more attentively to the people around me so as not to miss their joy and their pain. It made me want to repent of all the different ways in which I have been guilty of bullying or ostracizing—through my fierce arguments or my insensitive words or my harmfully-wielded opinions or my posture of defensiveness. Most of all, it made me want to value young people even more deeply and to invest more of myself in the journeys that they are navigating.

If you ever consider the possibility of watching “13 Reasons Why,” please know that it is not for those who prefer their television shows to be thoroughly sanitized. It does not look away from the ugly circumstances that many people face, including suicide (meaning that potential viewers need to be aware of the starkness of the show and the possible emotional triggers that it may present).  There are plot contrivances that sometimes hinder the storytelling and sub-narratives that occasionally strain the viewer’s credulity. But, by the end of season 1, I felt as though I had been ushered into an important story, one that illuminates both the sweet delight and the crushing despair that might reside within the heart of the person standing right next to us.

Clay, Hannah’s friend, gives expression to the new kind of community that he hopes Hannah’s death will inspire: “It has to get better,” Clay says. “The way we treat each other and look out for each other, it has to get better somehow.”

Indeed. It has to.


The Sanctification of Social Media


As I reflect on my own journey with social media (more specifically, Facebook and Twitter), I am compelled to confess that, more than once, I have fallen into the narcissistic patterns that these particular modes of communication often nurture.  I have convinced myself, for example, that the content of my lunch or dinner is newsworthy enough to share; that my frustration over a mundane matter warrants a public hearing; that my opinion is too well-crafted not to be expressed; or that my joke is simply far too funny to be kept to myself.  Having an instantaneous audience is a seductive prospect, one that often inspires even the best of us to lower the bar concerning communicational boundaries.

Easily forgotten is the fact that contexts like Facebook and Twitter are without the interpretive nuances of tone, facial expression, and body language.  A playfully sarcastic comment, minus the buffer of a smile or a wink, can land upon a reader’s heart as an insensitive barb.  (There exists plenty of complex emotional territory, after all, that emoticons simply cannot cover.)  Also frequently overlooked is the varying degree of relational depth represented by one’s collection of Facebook friends and Twitter followers.  A polemical political or theological opinion on a divisive issue may be taken in stride by one’s relatives.  Casual acquaintances, on the other hand, may be utterly (and painfully) alienated by what they perceive to be a callous and arrogant disregard for other viewpoints.

To be fair, however, I must also acknowledge that I experience some of my most playful and rewarding connections in the cyber-chambers of Facebook and Twitter.  (In what other context could I possibly find the bishops in my life interacting with my childhood friends in a threaded conversation?!).  Moreover, some of my most substantive theological dialogues these days occur, not in church offices or sanctuaries, but in the Facebook message center.  And when it comes to daily chuckles inspired by the wit of friends and colleagues, there is no better resource than social media.

If, then, social media has the potential for both communal edification and communal destruction (building up and tearing down), those of us who are Christ-followers are left with the very specific and critical challenge of reflecting upon what it means to subordinate even our usage of social media to the transforming Lordship of Jesus.  To put it differently, how might the Christ-follower’s presence in social media create more light than heat, more windows than walls, and more mutual respect than reciprocal resentment?

This question cannot be adequately addressed in a single blog post.  But these are some of the convictions that represent my personal starting point:

When I move in the direction of humor in social media, I want to be certain that my humor is grounded in playful incongruities and random absurdities rather than personal insults and particularized belittlement.  All too frequently, I have utilized humor as communicational camouflage in order to validate a disparaging and demeaning perspective.  Such perspectives, quite frankly, are far better dealt with in the whispers of prayer than they are in the pages of Facebook.

If I am sharing a personal detail about my life, my joys, and my struggles, I want to be certain that it is an appropriate expression of self-revelation and not a manifestation of a narcissistic need to be coddled, pitied, or celebrated.  As I look back through some of my Facebook posts, it becomes clear to me how easy it is to cross the line that exists between playful (or prayerful) self-revelation and a self-aggrandizing display of personal matters that demand a far more intimate audience.

If I am articulating an opinion on a matter that is controversial, I want to make certain that my tone is graciously conversational instead of obnoxiously abrasive.  As convinced as I may be that I am right about something, does my tone convey my willingness to acknowledge the possibility that I am wrong?  And am I venturing into subject matter that demands something more than the kind of “bumper sticker theology” and “sound bite philosophizing” that Facebook and Twitter invite?  It is incumbent upon me to wrestle with these questions before posting a viewpoint that might very well become the only lens through which others might view me, thereby compromising the holistic nature of my witness.  Perhaps the most common form of idolatry in the human pilgrimage, after all, is the eagerness to bow at the altar of one’s own opinions.  I wonder how frequently I have utilized social media as a means of perpetuating the illusion that my opinions are more important than they really are.

If I am posting about my marriage, I want to make certain that I am doing nothing to cheapen or diminish the marital covenant in which I live.  Likewise, as I navigate my way through the social media network, I do not want to post anything that would trivialize or denigrate my friendships, my family relationships, and my professional acquaintances.

Most of all, I want to make certain that there is no inconsistency whatsoever between who I am in the pew or pulpit and who I am in the post or tweet, so that even my social networking might bear witness to who it is that occupies the throne of my heart.

Perhaps a Presidential election season is an excellent opportunity for us to bring even our relationship with social media to the foot of the cross.  If you do not make use of the social media websites, it may be time for you to face the reality that those websites represent a vast mission field that church leaders cannot afford to ignore.  If you already make use of these websites, I encourage you to make certain that your social networking in no way compromises the integrity of your discipleship.

A Review of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”

In recent days, some of my comic-book reading and movie-going friends have asked me for my personal review of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Just for fun, here’s my review:

I am not an uncritical fanboy when it comes to superhero movies. I experienced 2006’s “Superman Returns,” for example, as a blandly derivative and wholly uninspiring addition to the Kryptonian’s narrative. Marvel’s cinematic treatment of “The Fantastic Four” has been consistently unimpressive. And don’t even get me started on “Green Lantern!”

When I say that I greatly enjoyed “Dawn of Justice,” then, it is not the hollow commendation of an undiscriminating cinephile. There have been some strongly negative reviews of the film by critics, most of which have focused on the film’s relentlessly dark mood. One critic was led to “yearn for the lighter touch of the Marvel films,” as though it were this film’s responsibility to fit into an already-established cinematic equation.
For my money, “Justice’s” unflinching grimness felt deeply purposeful and necessary given the film’s central theme: the daunting maelstrom of horror, rage, and fear in a world where terrorists obliterate crowded assemblies and where an unthinkably powerful alien from Krypton has fallen from the sky and made his power devastatingly known. This is not a children’s film, a lighthearted romp through whimsical do-gooding. Rather, the superheroes in this film are both jaundiced and uncertain of their place in the scheme of things, as are the people they are trying to help. The story feels truthful and timely, a wildly imaginative exploration of the commingling of doubt and faith, despair and hope, vulnerability and power. The film is bombastic and fervently earnest, driven both by the conviction that heroism is always costly and the realization that easy giggles are hard to come by when the world is at stake.

To say that “Dawn of Justice” is a ferocious epic is not an overstatement. For two-and-a-half hours, I was challenged by the film’s deft stewardship of its narrative, engaged by its expansive and unsettling storyline, and moved by its commitment to its characters. Affleck’s Batman silences the naysayers who doubted that he could don the cowl with integrity. He broods with meaningful urgency and fights like a ninja. Cavill’s Superman is appropriately noble and tortured. Gadot’s Wonder Woman allows a mysterious charisma to complement her warrior spirit. And Lex Luthor? Jesse Eisenberg infuses his villainy with the kind of nuance and intensity that communicates an agonizing journey into madness.

In the words of Bruce Wayne, “How many good guys are left? How many stay that way?” “Dawn of Justice” is a sweeping and finely-crafted film that explores those very questions.