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The Real Thing (a reflection on “Lars and the Real Girl”)

A repost about one of my favorite movies, Lars & The Real Girl.

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Last night I began preparing for my summer preaching series, “Summer Blockbuster.” I’m going to take a look at movies that subversively — even to the authors and producers — tell the gospel in beautiful and compelling ways. One of those movies will certainly be “Lars and the Real Girl.”

Lars… is about a quirky young man, who suffers from a dissociative disorder and falls in love with a sex doll. Believe it or not, it is one of the most touching movies I have ever seen. The ragweed count must have been really bad in NorCal last night because toward the end of the movie my eyes were watering. In the film, Lars Lindstrom orders a sex doll (Bianca) over the internet and introduces her to his brother and sister-in-law, Gus and Karen, as his girlfriend. Bianca is a wheel-chair bound returning missionary who does not believe in pre-marital sex (which you would expect from a returning missionary), therefore, she lives in the house with Gus and Karen while Lars remains in the converted garage. Wisely, Karen suggests Biance see the local doctor, who is also a psychologist, since she just returned from the mission field. The doctor’s suggestion to Gus and Karen? Treat Bianca as if she is real. Gus and Karen follow the doctors orders, and so does everyone else in town.

awkward

Bianca attends church with Lars, gets carted around town by others, given baths, is invited to parties, everyone treats her as if she is real. Bianca even gets elected to the school board. How great it that!! There is a terrific scene in which a church council is discussing what to do about Bianca if Lars should bring her to church. One woman advocates treating her like anyone else. The woman goes around the room reminding the council of their and their family members quirks and failures. It was simply beautiful! And hilarious! It reminded me of Jesus writing in the sand in the midst of those who attempted to stone the woman caught in adultery. No one gets to exclude because God went to great lengths to include us all.

As the story moves forward, the thoughtful viewer recognizes what Bianca has become for Lars. She is a way for him to work through his terribly damaging emotional issues in a safe, non-threatening way allowing him to open himself to love, to being loved and involvement in the lives of others. But more than that, Bianca becomes a conduit of grace for the entire town. It takes a fake girl for Lars to become a real boy. Through doing so the viewer is witness to the only kind of grace there really is; the uncommon kind!

The movie simple ask, “What if we took everyone seriously? And took their needs, took the places they are mentally and physically — seriously? And what if we responded to others by immersing ourselves in what people need in order to receive healing instead of writing people off and penning others’ epitaphs prematurely?”

I don’t want to ruin it for those who haven’t seen it, but I will say: Even though a central figure is a plastic doll, the movie is one of the more real things I have ever seen.

Have you seen Lars? What did you take from it?

Purity Tests

There is a fundamental problem with “purity test.” If you hadn’t noticed, the American political scene is in shambles. Neither party is looking all that great and regardless of your personal political leanings, you’re likely not satisfied with all that is Washington D.C.. Here in Northern California the disenchantment is heard across the dial from Mike Malloy and Ed Schultz on the Left to Rush and Hannity on the Right.

One of the reasons – at least in my view – is the idea of purity tests.

For some reason, with America facing undreamed of obstacles, so much of our politics has become about pushing moderates out of the picture in order to anoint pure ideologues. Apparently, the worst thing someone can be in modern politics is reasonable, and if not reasonable, and least malleable, or perhaps possessing the simple ability to make concessions and compromise for the sake of the greater good.  It is a sickness of both the left and the Right. As a matter of fact, both parties have recently had to publicly reject the idea of a “purity test” in order to discern who is and who isn’t “fit” or “right.” You are either all or not at all. That’s how purity works. It’s a binary condition. Either you are or you are not.

Here’s the problem: Purity tests don’t work! At least not in terms of relationships and extending love  and well-being to others. Modern politics only illustrates this long overlooked truth. But this post really isn’t about politics. This is really about you and me and how we interact with others who don’t view faith, life, morality and the world as we do.

Jesus enters ministry when religious teaching was almost entirely about purity tests. It wasn’t just the much-maligned Pharisees either. Both the Sadducees and the Essenes were competing in the Jewish religious marketplace, and all three groups rigorously mandated that a series of highly visible, yet largely superficial, markers be demonstrable in order to illustrate who was in and who wasn’t. They each, in essence, had their own purity tests.

But Jesus bucks the entire system of purity. As you know, the Pharisees had reduced God-following to rules and restrictions codified to build a hedge around the Law. What started as 10 fairly straightforward Commandments had blossomed into a yoke of Law that no one could keep and probably no one wanted to keep. People – like the adulterous woman that was brought and accused before Jesus (John 8.1-11) – who stepped outside the hedge, failed the purity test. And, according to the Law of Moses, should have been stoned. Yet Jesus says, and I’m paraphrasing, “There’s something more important than your purity test.” When faced with the opportunity to apply the thumbscrews of purity, Christ rejects it. And not only in this episode, but over and over, when given the choice to accuse the impure and unclean, Jesus chooses grace.

The reason is simple: Jesus is much more concerned with people than He is purity. He is much more enticed by the prospect of relationships than He is enamored by the purebred. And as holy and giving as Jesus is, He chooses grace over purity not because it is an act of the Divine, but because an orientation of grace is the only way relationships can work! Grace is a thoroughly practical choice. If you choose to extend redeeming love to people, you must choose grace. If you reject them, they won’t hang around long enough to be redeemed. Jesus is teaching us that we have to accept people even if we don’t agree with them.

It’s simple really: Without a fundamental orientation toward grace, there is no way people can be in relationship with one another. For example, if our children are required to do everything specifically as we ask and when we ask, what do we then do when they fail us? Better yet, what happens in marriages when one spouse makes a mistake, or, God forbid, disagrees about a significant issue? What should we do with friends whose opinions differ? Cast them out? Spurn them? Turn our face away? Exclude them? Exclusion, interestingly, is the only place a purity test can lead. Purity Tests only add to the divisions, separations and ruptures in our world. If you are consistently giving others a purity test, soon there will be no more takers. No one can pass your highly personalized test! No one thinks, feels, and behaves exactly like you.

Now before the theological or behavioral police club me to death, I should mention that I am not talking about a lack of accountability or moral standards. They exist and are needed. What I am speaking of is the realization that everyone we know will eventually fail to do the thing we wished they would do when we wanted them to. And if purity is the rubric than each new failing threatens to end the relationship. On the other hand, if grace is the lens with which we see the world, then all people – regardless of who they are and what they practice – are potential allies and friends. They are hearts waiting to be redeemed by God, as my wife might say.

So say “goodbye” purity tests and the natural divisions you bring and “hello” to the embrace of grace.  In the end, it is the only way to have one another.

Loving Is Coming

Richard and Mildred Loving

Richard and Mildred Loving

We’re in a season of celebrating at my house. The reason? Rochelle and I decided a few weeks ago that life was too short not to live with great joy! Plus, we realized that there is much to celebrate in life (and my mom bought me a sweet grill). One of our upcoming celebrations will be Loving Day!

Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving began dating when Mildred was just 11 years old and Richard was 17. In the early years of their marriage, Mildred and Richard were arrested several times together. The reason? Mildred was black and Richard was white. And in 1958 it was illegal for them to be married in the state of Virginia. Apparently, Virginia has not always been for lovers.

Threatened with years of imprisonment, the Loving’s changed history when they challenged the Constitutionality of Virginia’s marriage laws and in 1967 won the day when the Supreme Court upheld their right to marry. From that day forward, every state, including those in the south, which had laws forbidding it, were required to recognize interracial marriage.

Mildred lived a quiet life after Richard’s death in a car wreck in 1975. Not one for the spotlight, Mildred said of her life, “I never wanted to be a hero, just a bride. It wasn’t my doing, it was God’s work.”

Each June 12th, couples across America celebrate “Loving Day” which celebrates the legalization of interracial marriage.

So for marriages like mine and kids with mocha colored skin and long, curly hair I say to Mildred and Richard, “Thank you for Loving.”

Loving Well

I haven’t blogged in a while, mostly because our family has been so busy setting up office and house. In addition, I had to hit the ground running here in Redwood City. It seems that life doesn’t wait for you to get settled.

On the preaching front, this past Sunday we began an 8-week study of the book of Philippians. I thought a good while about what to preach in these early days and I landed on a prison epistle. I can’t yet articulate all the reasons, but I do know this: How people treat one another is terribly important to Rochelle and me. We believe that Scripture bears this out. At the heart of the Bible is God’s deep concern for how people treat one another. In many ways, it is at the center of Jesus’ teachings and it is clearly at the root of much of what the apostle Paul writes. As Christ’s disciples, we are not free to treat one another just in any old way. 

I’m sickened, but rarely surprised, when I hear Christian folks — especially leaders — compare their treatment of others with how non-Christians treat one another. This has become especially true lately as I’ve seen any number of clergy -men and -woman “eliminated” or “downsized” or have their “support ended” or “decreased” in the face of our national economic down turn. Supposed Christian leaders have said, “Well, at my work, they would give you 15 minutes to gather your things and leave.” Another friend was told, “Well, ministers don’t get severance.” The list of the absurd goes on. 

I’m not saying that these kind of things happen. People get dismissed or fired. What I take exception to is the idea from Christians that extending even the smallest kindnesses during a difficult circumstance is somehow above and beyond their call to duty. 

Which brings me back to Philippians.

Philippians calls us  “to consider others as better than ourselves.” In plain terms this means we should search ourselves concerning how we would like to be treated and then go beyond that.

A friend of mine has a child with long term physical difficulties and he was recently released by his church. It took some friends to step up and say, “Hey, we’ll help cover your medical expenses,” which is a beautiful gesture, but one that shouldn’t have been needed. My friend’s church was willing to support and “love” him until times got tough, then Christianity went out the window in order that the budget could be met.

Now a smart person is saying, “Well, this gesture by his friends is Christianity. It is what Paul is talking about.” I say, “Yes, you’re right.” But I also say that as long as our churches continue to count on small confederations of people of good will to do the right thing, then most of what we do will be small. And, I say, Christian institutions should be more Christian than institution.

I once wrote, “How a church treats it’s most “insignificant” member is an indicator of how it will treat anyone. Paul is calling us to more than that. He is calling us to embark on a journey wherein how we treat one another holds primacy in all we do. In short, relationships matter. And as much as we like to talk about theology and ecclesiology, we might have missed this business of “doing unto others.” 

My prayer is that I can become the embodiment of treating people well. And I pray that those I worship alongside can treat others well too.

UnChurched

I want to join the ranks of the unchurched!

A lot has been written and said about unchurched people over the last 10-15 years, but there may be something significant to being “unchurched.” The technical definition of “unchurched” is someone who has not participated in a worship service in 6 months or more. I’ve never spent 6 days away from a church, and it’s been both a blessing and a curse — mostly blessing. However, there are simply some things about the way I was churched that I would like to undo. In these ways, I’d like to be unchurched. So here’s my new definition of what it means to be unchurched.

Unchurched – a person who has not allowed someone else’s airtight, locked-down, unquestionable convictions regarding age old and often irrelevant conclusions about systematic theology to drain their zeal to seek and search for an unsytemitizable God and explore the mystery of faith.

Unchurched - a person who chooses to live the radical reconciliation and love of Jesus, and does not allow that pursuit to be lessoned by the fact that more people in the church care more about domination than reconciliation.

Unchurched – a person who knows that true worship is serving the widow, orphan and stranger, not singing songs you like, while hanging out with people you like and listening to the preacher you like.

Unchurched – a person who knows that Bible studies are about humbly searching for God, not lying about your Bible reading and prayer life to impress other people who are also lying about Bible reading and prayer.

Unchurched – a person who leads spiritually by the Spirit of God not the latest budget report or head count.

Unchurched – a person who realizes that the people are more important than the church because the church IS the people, and how we treat one person reflects how we will treat all persons. 

Unchurched – a person who honors ALL people, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or anything else, because all people are made in the image of God–even Muslims.

Unchurched – a person who knows that the point of church is not to get more people in the church building, but to get more of the people in the church building OUT of the church building and into the community.

Unchurched – a person who walks, talks, votes and seeks justice and life for all people, in all forms, at all times, even when it means personal sacrifice.

Unchurched – a person who will not baptize any decision made by their community, state, or nation that does not align with  Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God just because the decision was made by their community, state, or nation.

Unchurched – a person who realizes that Jesus did not come to earth and die on a cross so that everything would be “family-friendly.”

These are a few of the ways I want to become unchurched. A better way to say it may be de-churched. Please join me in the ranks of the unchurched.

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