Blue Like Jazz (the movie) opens April 13th nationwide. I was able to see a sneak preview last month and wrote this review for the United Methodist Reporter. Hope you enjoy!

“Life is like Jazz, son, it never resolves”

This advice, given from father (played by Eric Lange) to the main character (played by Marshall Allman of True Blood and Prison Break fame), reveals what some will see as the greatest strength, and others will see as the greatest weakness of Blue Like Jazz. Precious little is resolved at the end of the film, but you do gain a sense of joy and progression throughout the movie that should mollify those who need a well-resolved ending and will delight those who relish the film’s Jazz-like ethos that withholds resolution.

Blue Like Jazz, the book, is more of a collection of essays than a storyline. Blue Like Jazz, the movie, takes the concepts laid out in the book and explores them through a storyline set at Reed College in Oregon—called “the most godless campus in America.”

The movie begins with Donald Miller as an assistant youth pastor in a conservative, Houston, Baptist Church. He also works in a factory that produces communion cups, sealed with juice and wafer. While overt critique is never explicitly offered, there is a sense of foreboding with such packaged expressions of faith.

Miller begins secure in his faith, church and what he knows. “Back in Texas, I knew everything. Because I’m from Texas,” Miller explains in an opening scene. In quick succession, this security is shattered as he comes to realize that his mother (played by Jenny Littleton) is sleeping with the church’s youth pastor (played by Jason Marsden) who is married to another woman. He packs his things and treks off to Reed College on a scholarship arranged by his estranged father.

Miller is thrust into a world in which being a Christian is taboo. He is advised by his first friend, a lesbian (played by Tania Raymonde) with whom Miller shares both a classroom and bathroom experience, to “get in the closet, Baptist boy” if he is to “plan on ever making friends.” The film plays with this gay/Christian role reversal. At another point, Miller discovers that a character attends church. “You aren’t going to out me,” she worries. These scenes not only set up much of the course of the film’s story, but also solidifies director and screenplay writer, Steve Taylor’s ability to use irony, discomfort and cross-culture encounters to set up laugh-out-loud moments throughout the movie. These moments offer more than just humor and invariably make significant comments about the church and its relationship with the world.

Blue Like Jazz is more than a film about a Christian in a secular college setting. In many ways, it is an allegory for the realities that the rising generation of Christians  must increasingly face in Western society. Church-going Christians are less and less the majority. There is a growing hostility to the church, largely in response to what the church has done or failed to do. Miller, as a representative of the rising generation of church, must figure out what to do with the baggage laid upon him by the past. Miller speaks for many young adult Christians as he reflects on his early experiences at Reed College: “I wake up every day, feeling lost in a sea of individuality.”

Blue Like Jazz, much like the lead character, seeks to straddle the two worlds of “Christian” and “Secular” films. Those who dislike the church will find their voice consistently expressed in a way that will welcome them into the film and make them feel at home. This may, at times, go too far for conservative audiences. Still, these critiques are consistently tempered by characters and scenes that reveal beauty, hope and possibility for the goodness of the church—giving Christians a foothold in the film’s sometimes debaucherous setting. Blue Like Jazz drives its story along the fine line between Christian and secular in a way that seeks to draw both ‘sides’ a bit closer to each other.

Steve Taylor’s film, for all its play along lines of uncertainty, does offer advice for the church. Spoiler alert: When Miller, a clear representative of the church in this pivotal scene, confesses the church’s sins to an anti-church atheist, we see the most significant transformation take place. “Do you forgive me,” he asks, “for misrepresenting God?” In this scene it is unclear whether Miller or the atheist experience deeper transformation, but transformation is there and it is stunning. The moment is fleeting, but will likely be deeply rewarding for Christian and non-Christian alike. In the act of true apology, we see the ice break along the dividing line and hope for deep conversation rises from the frigid waters of contentious, contemporary discourse.

Blue Like Jazz is a playful, rich and deeply honest film with much to say to those both in and outside of the church. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the movie’s ideas or content, it will easily spark conversation and challenge most audiences to consider the perspectives on the church that they themselves do not naturally embrace.

                       Blue Like Jazz opens in theaters, nationwide, on April 13th

This is my review of The Hunger Games for the United Methodist Reporter. It will appear in the printed version next week.

Rather than dull the social commentary for mass consumption, Director Gary Ross sharpens the edge of the popular teen novel, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins in the screen adaptation that boasts $155 million domestic in its opening weekend. Those who watch The Hunger Games looking only for action, a compelling story and solid entertainment will not be disappointed. This is offered to the audience in spades. Though the film is rife with social commentary, it does not get heavy-handed. Instead it drives the story in ways more apparent in the film than in the book. Though die-hard fans of the popular book series will see this and other differences between the book and movie, none that radically change the storyline. Most will likely find them acceptable or even positive shifts.

The Hunger Games begins with a look at poverty in Collins’ dystopian future—the home of Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) in one of twelve poor districts that provide raw materials, goods and services for the politically dominant Capital population. The visuals of poverty do more to set up the contrast of poor and rich than the written word ever could and Ross takes full advantage.  We witness Katniss hunting in off-limits woods. She’s skilled with a bow and uses these skills to help feed her family. Soon it is revealed that this is day of ‘reaping,’ when a boy and girl from each of the twelve districts is selected by drawing to compete in a competition to the death—the Hunger Games.

While district residents dread selection, those in the capital relish the Hunger Games for its spectacle, drama and entertainment. The sickening reality of entertainment at the death of children is held up consistently through the movie. When Katniss’ twelve year-old sister is selected for the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to compete instead. Here, again, director Ross takes advantage of film in a way that books fall short. At the selection of children for the Hunger Games, a representative of the capital announces them triumphantly, expecting applause. The revolt of the district’s silent response is aurally stunning while their faces silently scream for revolution. Katniss is soon whisked away to the Capitol with Peeta Mallark (played by Josh Hutcherson), a boy we later learn has had a crush on Katniss for years.

After training, interviews and various demonstrations, twenty-four children are placed in a futuristic, forested coliseum. Director Gary Ross, actors Jennifer Lawrence and Lenny Kravitz (who plays Cinna, Katniss’ stylist) do an incredible job conveying the fear felt by Katniss Everdeen before being thrust into the arena. I felt the fear and anticipation in my body—along with, I presume, the rest of the theater. After an excruciatingly exciting countdown, the children are thrust into the game and after each other.

The violence is shown in quick motion, with minimal blood and gore. It spares the audience from being overwhelmed until you think for two seconds about what is being portrayed. The knowledge that this is a depiction of children killing children was enough to make me shift uncomfortably in my seat. This, I’m sure, is a part of the filmmakers’ intent: to set the audience continually ill at ease.

The Hunger Games continually asks questions of its audience. The director offers especially poignant challenge after the death of one of Katniss’ allies. While rising up from the now lifeless body of her young friend, she looks accusingly through the camera to the audience as if to ask, ‘does this amuse you?’ Director Ross and author Collins challenge the ways we are entertained by violence while serving up plenty of portions. It became clear to me that if I were to truly listen to the message of the movie, I should stop watching. And yet I don’t…I can’t because I am held captive—revealing something about myself that I perhaps don’t want to see. The Hunger Games continually walks an interesting line—critiquing questionable norms in our society while simultaneously pandering to them. I believe that this irony is intentional—and brilliant.

Because it seems to foreign and absurd, the alien costumes and strange appearances of the capital residents and impressive technology helps us to identify with the district heroine, Katniss Everdean. She becomes the heroine that we all root for and with whom most audiences will identify. This, too, offers an ironic twist for wealthy audiences who are far more like capital residents than those of the district. In the course of the book and movie, I caught myself co-opting Katniss Everdean as if her story is my own. I’m honestly not sure if this is a good thing or not—but it seems like a very “capital” thing for me to do in the The Hunger Games world.

I stepped out of the movie theater at the North Park Mall, situated in the Highland Park neighborhood of Dallas—one of the wealthiest in the world. I’m surrounded by botoxed men and women, shoppers wearing outfits that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. There are more blonde women than could be normal anywhere outside of Sweden. Makeup, expensive jewelry, plastic surgery and ignorance or indifference to the real plight fo the poor surround me. I am a member of a society reminiscent of the Capital in The Hunger Games. Not many movies encourage that level of reflection and realization. The Hunger Games is a must-see for anyone who wants to stay current on contemporary culture or speak to the questions raised by this well-executed movie.

Here’s a quick Easter post: it’s a nod to my favorite Easter sermon ever preached…okay my second favorite one (the women telling Peter is probably the best). I wasn’t there the day it was preached for the first time, but I’ve heard it repeated and I love it. Enjoy!

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful, bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed death by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
Hell was in an uproar because it is mocked.
Hell was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
Hell is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
Hell is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

St. John Chrysostom … Constantinople~400AD

It never ceases to amaze me that a 1,600 year-old sermon can continue to inspire. Perhaps that’s why it’s read every year in many Eastern Orthodox Churches. Sadly, I know far too many pastors who are no longer inspired by the story of Holy Week–who have lost their sense of wonder at the resurrection and who are so attuned to the end of the story that they no longer struggle with Good Friday and pause in silence on Holy Saturday. Whenever I need Easter inspiration, I turn to Chrysostom. Maybe that’s why the Eastern Churches use it–like a fail-safe. If the pastor can’t come up with the power of the resurrection AT LEAST the congregation gets to share in the blessings of Chrysostom’s words.

It’s easy for me, as a young pastor, to be critical of pastors who have been in ministry for a long time and are no longer blown away by the story. I wonder if I will be like them. I wonder how some of them stay freshly in love with the Holy Week story year after year. I hope that I can be like the latter.

I want to ask you to forget something for a second:

forget, for a few seconds, that the MTV show, Jersey Shore, ever existed. Forget Snookie, J-Wow, the Situation and any other stereotype that this show has put in your head. For just a few minutes, I want you to wipe the slate clean so that I might paint a different picture.

One of the things I miss the most about being in New Jersey is the shore. I didn’t live on the shore, but I grew up there. That’s where I spent time with my dad: fishing and crabbing and getting stuck in sand bars. I got seasick all the time and usually would prefer playing Atari, but that didn’t make the time any less special. I grew up, learning from my dad how to appreciate life, take care of what was given to me and how to sacrifice what I wanted for family time. He showed me how to love,respect and fear something at the same time.  I grew up on the shore.

I saw my first real sunrise on the shore. I have to confess that I belong to a group of people in the world who believe that a sunrise doesn’t count unless you stayed up all night to watch it. I was fourteen years old and after a night of hyperactivity, the anxious buzz that dominated my insecure life was stilled. I sat on the beach of Ocean Grove with my best friends and was overwhelmed by eternity unfolding before us.  I grew up on the shore.

The shore is a guaranteed way to make anything better. Prom weekend always involved a trip to the shore because that was guaranteed to make the weekend epic. Guaranteed, 100% you can bet the farm. Want to make a date special? Add a trip to the shore to walk along a boardwalk or a beach. Kissing along the shore always tasted better. Every woman that I’ve loved…I’ve kissed on the shore. I grew up on the Jersey shore.

New Jersey can be a tough place to live. The cost of living is high and salaries are low. There are practically no stay-at-home mom’s because no one can live off a single income. Houses are on top of each other, traffic sucks and everyone knows that the state government is corrupt. Schools are hit or miss, the state university system is far below national standards and EVERYONE struggles, but EVERYONE can get to the shore. Look to your left or right and it’s beaches all the way.  Look ahead and it’s rolling waves forever. There are no oil rigs in the distance, but if you’re lucky you might see dolphins or boats or airplanes dragging long banners across the sky.  No matter what happened, I could escape to the shore. I grew up on the shore.

Sometimes people wonder why the Shore matters to those of us native to New Jersey. As usual, “the Boss” speaks for all of us native New Jerseyans:

‘Cause down the shore, everything’s all right
You and your baby on a Saturday night
You know all my dreams come true
When I’m walking down the streets with you

The shore was the place where everything was all right. Everyone should have a place like that.

1: What if the wisemen passed through Bethlehem on their way to Herod?

2: What if they went to a king to find a lamb?

1: What if they passed the shepherds along the way?

2: What if they looked up to a star when God was giggling below?

All: What if we were like them?

1: What if Epiphany is a divine do-over,

2: a holy mulligan,

1: for those who are regarded wise

2: and for those who miss Christ along the journey?

All: What if we find the Christ child today?

In the Blink of an Eye

A prayer for the 10th anniversary of September 11th, led by four voices

1: In the blink of an eye, a mangled torrent of steel, jet fuel and earth ended hundreds of lives.  Our nation opened its eyes once again to tragedy.  And we wept.

Lord in your mercy

Hear our prayer.

 

2:  In the blink of an hour, thousands more would die.  People who showed up for work at a desk.  People who showed up for work, on a plane.  People who showed up for work on the back of a firetruck, never to return home.  They made one last phone call, said one last prayer and their eyes were closed.

Lord in your mercy

Hear our prayer

3:  In the blink of a day, tens of thousands flocked to scarred remains of earth, broken shards of buildings.  Churches opened their doors, restaurants opened their tables, donors opened their veins and their wallets.  The world opened its heart.  Humanity’s best reflected light in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  Covered in ash…covered in shock…covered in grief, we were all the same…and the world opened its eyes to hope.

Lord in your mercy

Hear our prayer

4:  In the blink of a year, we were at war—twice.  Revenge tangled with justice…confusion tangled good will…hatred tangled hope.  In some ways, we offered peace.  In some ways, we became like those who had hurt us.  We saw the world with blinders that follow injustice.

Lord in your mercy

Hear our prayer

2:  In the blink of ten years, we have adjusted to a new normal.  On September 10th, 2001 ,we had more wealth, more confidence, more naiveté, more innocence, more friends.  We had far fewer scars.  But scars, too, are signs of hope—reminders of healing–that life goes on, that the  arc of the time bends towards recovery.  Scars in our memories, in our land and in our skyline remind us that injury and death do not have the last word unless we give it to them.  Scar tissue is resilient, tough and hopeful.  We see the world with renewed hope.

Lord in your mercy

Hear our prayer

1:  And so we confess

2:  That we have not loved our enemies

3:  That we have not prayed for them

4:  That we have, at times, become like them

2:  That we have bombed their children instead of feeding them

3:  That our instinct to hate and hurt were in us before we were attacked

All: Lord in your mercy

Hear our prayer

1:  And so we celebrate

3:  That there is light in valley

2:  That we were able to participate in that light

4:  That the nations of this world struggle towards freedom

2:  That you were not silent on 9/11 and you have not been silent since

3:  That we have begun to heal

All: Lord in your mercy

Hear our prayer

 

1:  And so, wide-eyed, we look

4:  For a world of hope

2:  For a world of peace

3:  For a world of faith

2:  For a world of love

4:  In the long gaze of God.

All:  Lord in your mercy

Hear our prayer

A PRAYER in REMEMBRANCE of 9/11

With light, in three voices

Preparation

Set up a table or altar with 100 lit candles (tea lights are easy) and 1 Christ candle in the middle (bigger than the rest).

Arrange for 3 readers.  Position them around the room.

Arrange one acolyte to extinguish candles in the appropriate places.  You will want to line up an additional few acolytes for the last section.

 

 

Prayer

<extinguish six candles>

1:

On September 11th, 2001, 2,626 people died while they began their day at work in buildings so tall they scraped the sky. 125 died in the Pentagon—the only military personnel to die that day.  246 died aboard airplanes that no longer lived in the sky.  Nearly 3,000 lives were lost in a matter of hours. 

2:  For all those who suddenly lost their life.

3:  For all those whose prayers rose up and were suddenly silenced

2:  For those who made one last phone call goodbye

3:  For those who did not have time for that last call or who never got through

1:  For the innocence lost that day

3:  For images that are burned permanently in our minds

2:  For the questions that rise out of the ashes

3:  For all who mourned and continue to mourn.

3:  Lord in your mercy

Hear our prayer

<extinguish six candles>

2: Since September 11th, 2001, 5,000 American soldiers have died in Iraq and at least 1,700 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan.

1: For the family members of those who have lost their lives

2: For those families that wait with constant fear of bad news

3:  For those families who live with constant anticipation of any news

1:  For those who watch  their friends die

2:  For those who are willing to die for their passion

3:  For those who carry the weight of death

1:  For those who live in fear and distrust, never knowing which un-uniformed civilian intends them harm

2:  For those who live in the shadow of death

2:Lord in your mercy

Hear our prayer

<extinguish six candles>

3:  Since September 11th, 2001, roughly 16,000 Afghani civilians have died. 

<begin rapidly, but reverently extinguishing candles until only the Christ candle and a few others are lit>

3:  Since September 11th, 2001 countless Iraqi civilians have died at the hands of insurgents and coalition forces.  Conservative estimates place the death toll in the neighborhood of 60,000.  An estimate put together by researchers from Johns Hopkins, Cornell and an Iraqi University place the actual death toll well above 100,000.

There will be no websites with memorials to every victim, nor will there be plaques on walls.  For most will remain nameless in the eyes of the world—only known by the other members of their village as a father, mother, son, daughter, co-worker, friend.

1:  For those who have lost a loved one in sudden death.

2:  For those who have died with no relationship to the cause of violence

3:  For those who have given their lives to a cause they did not want

2:  For those who want the cause but not the cost

1:  For those who held a loved one in their arms

3:  For those who struggle with guilt following the death of the innocent

1:  For all the soldiers who have offered mercy

3:  For the soldiers who have not offered mercy

2:  For all those who have begged for their life

3:  For those who are in harm’s way but do not know it

<begin lighting candles again>

2:  For the church who struggles to find its prophetic voice in the midst of a changing world. 

3:  For Christians, who struggle with questions of conscience and loyalties between religion, ideology and patriotism

1:  For Muslims and Jews who struggle with questions of conscience and loyalties between religion, ideology and patriotism

Lord in Your Mercy

Hear our Prayer

3:  For the leaders of our world

1: For the terrorists in this world

2: For our bishops and the leaders of other churches

3:  for the pope

1:  for President Obama

2:  for Foreign Prime Ministers, Presidents and Dictators

3: for Ban Ki-Moon and the United Nations

2: for the soul of Osama Bin Laden

3: may he rest in peace

1:  For wisdom

3: for peace

2:  For discernment

1: for peace

3:  for restraint

2: for peace

1:  For justice

3: for peace

1:  for mercy and understanding

2: for peace

1: for peace

3: for peace

2: for love   <pause>

3: Lord in your Mercy

Hear our prayer

1: We humbly ask that you would bless us and keep us in the palm of your hand.

Lord in your mercy

Hear our prayer

We offer this time of quiet, praying that your mercy would fall upon us.

<wait at least two  minutes…TIME IT>

Lord in your mercy

Hear our prayer

1)  They both like to sing and write songs

 

2)  Wigs

3)  Roughly the same height (John’s got an inch or two on Gaga)

4)  Stirred up lots of controversy

5)  Their mothers pushed them to be great

6)  They live on the ‘edge of glory’ (glorification)

What else am I missing?

I’m a cynic, Jesus follower and a bit of a populist.  I view most big businesses with a pretty negative eye.  I’m used to corporate greed.  I’m not used to Home Depot.

We pulled into Home Depot to pick up some supplies—yes, I said pulled in. Three weeks ago, the tornado’s malice turned Joplin’s Home Depot into rubble.  Macabre winds made a victim of the store’s manager as well.

“I lost my house.  I was afraid I had lost my job too,” said one employee.   As soon as it was over, Home Depot, began rebuilding.  I asked a couple employees why and their mission was clear ‘we have to rebuild so that we can help others rebuild.’  In the two weeks it took to get an operational drive-through, Home Depot told all of its employees not to worry—you have a job, take 3 weeks and know that you will be paid as if you worked for those three weeks.    All 97 employees received three weeks paid time off.

Thanks, Home Depot, for doing the right thing.  I hope that others follow your lead.

I’ve never seen trees with scars—if we can call them that.  Scars seem to suggest that the majority of the skin is healthy with only the occasional mark.  What do we call skin that is nothing but scar?  That’s what the trees are like in Joplin.

But not just the trees.  The landscape is like this too—all scars.

I didn’t understand the word devastation until I came to Joplin.  Most people marvel at the statistics:143 deaths.  I marvel at the opposite.  I examine the homes and instead marvel that anyone survived.  The tornado swirls a home into a pile of splinters.  How do you survive that?

Under mattresses, in basements, clutching to loved ones.

Most residents of Joplin call themselves and their town lucky.

-lucky that they survived

-lucky that their family is alive

-lucky they found their daughter’s favorite Dora

-lucky that the tornado hit during graduation, when much of the town was out of the tornado’s path (the high school was not)

Some weren’t lucky.  Some were downright cursed.

The people of Joplin are scarred by their memory as well.  For now, most choose to look at the healthy skin that remains.  And that inspires me.

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