Friday, May 30, 2008

Sign. Me. Up.

Friday's Featured Film - 5/30/08

New movies are usually released to theaters every Friday, but who’s got 10 bucks these days to drop on a movie that may well be a load of crap? Given those odds, each Friday I offer an alternative on DVD that you can rent at your local video store (or in some cases, avoid at all costs). Some will be new releases, others you may have to hunt for, but all of them are available to light up your small screen should it be a lazy Friday night.

I, Robot

Summertime is here. That means hot days, cookouts, and vacations, but it also means that the big-name movies are hitting the theaters. We’ve already seen Iron Man, Narnia, and Indiana Jones hit the big screen, and more are on the way. However, as enticing as the big-budget summer flicks can be, they don’t always end up being all that good (Men in Black 2, anyone?). With that in mind, this Friday’s Featured Film is a summertime gem from 2004 that was expertly done but that many of you may have missed – director Alex Proyas’ I, Robot. Perhaps Will Smith’s most underappreciated film, I Robot is perhaps the perfect summer action movie: visually stunning, a smart story, clever wit, and great characters.

Smith stars as Del Spooner, a detective with the Chicago PD in 2035. Robots are now an integral part of everyday life, acting as quiet servants to the world’s residents. Spooner doesn’t trust them, though – largely due to a traumatic event from his past that we get glimpses of as the story progresses. His suspicion is amplified when his good friend, robotics guru Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), is found dead on the eve of the rollout of a groundbreaking new model of robot, the NS5. Though all evidence points to suicide, Spooner is determined there’s more going on than meets the eye, and launches an investigation, much to the chagrin of his skeptical boss (Chi McBride). The robotics company assigns a rep (Bridget Moynahan) to look after Spooner, and the two of them are presented with a curious puzzle when they encounter a robot named Sonny (Alan Tudyk), the last creation of Lanning who appears to be quite a bit more than clockwork and synapses. Together, they seek to find out what happened to Lanning and whether or not it’s a sign of things to come.

Smith is absolutely phenomenal in the lead role. I think we’re seeing in him the paramount movie star of our generation. Smith is a likeable everyman with an irresistible cool factor and a razor sharp wit and delivery. However, he’s got a softer side to him as well, and he plays Spooner brilliantly as a damaged and broken man rather than a cardboard supercop. Moynahan delivers yet another rock-solid supporting performance, proving in roles like this one and her more recent Lord of War that she’s one of the most underrated actresses around today. Somebody needs to find her a starring role. Tudyk’s charm is undeniable even behind a CGI veneer, Cromwell’s fatherly presence drives the story forward, and even Mr. Next Big Thing Shia LeBeouf injects his trademark wit into a supporting role. Proyas (The Crow, Dark City) brings his keen visual style to the film, but also doesn’t shroud Oscar-winner Akiva Goldsman’s (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, I Am Legend) sharp screenplay with bangs and flashes. The twists and turns of the story are well presented, the characters are deep, and the audiences’ brains stay engaged throughout in addition to their eyes. Proyas’ great success here has me looking forward to his next sci-fi foray, a 2009 release called Knowing starring Nicolas Cage. I, Robot is a fantastic film – a shining example of what the summer action film can be when done right. If you don’t feel like heading to the theater this weekend but still want that summer movie thrill, give this one a spin through your DVD player. You won’t be disappointed. - **** (out of 4)

I, Robot is rated PG-13 for intense stylized action, and some brief partial nudity.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Viva la Rebelution!

As a youth pastor, I’m always on the lookout for things that will be helpful in communicating God’s truth to teenagers. Recently, I picked up a book for my graduating seniors and was very impressed as I read through it. Though it’s not about theology per se, Alex and Brett Harris’ Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations is a powerful challenge to teens to live their lives with God’s glory in mind and not to waste what the world would have us believe are life’s disposable, “just have fun” years. Perhaps the most compelling part: it’s actually written by teenagers. The Harris twins (younger brothers of Covenant Life pastor and blogger Joshua Harris) wrote the book at nineteen, and their ability to discuss these issues on a peer-to-peer level with teens makes the book all the more powerful. These are not some 50-year old guys telling teens about the good ol’ days, they’re two nineteen-year-old guys who have risen above our culture’s pathetic dismissal of teens and launched a global phenomenon known as The Rebelution.

The Harris twins call teens to discard the modern idea of adolescence and embrace adulthood. As a teen, nothing annoyed me more than being dismissed because of my age. I desperately wanted to be seen and heard as an adult. I think teens today have the same desires – the desire to break away from childhood and be seen as important and mature. However, the book calls for teens to embrace this maturity by “doing hard things,” by challenging themselves to do things to the glory of God that are important and significant. The twins encourage teens to discard the low expectations that society has on them (as they put it, if a teen simply doesn’t do drugs and get into trouble, they’re viewed as a ‘good kid’) and live a life that meets the expectations of God – and not to wait until they’re 20 (or worse) to get started. Along the way, they offer practical advice and countless stories from real ‘rebelutionaries’ of how they’ve answered the call. All of this is written in a way that is simple, straightforward, witty, and smart. If you’ve got a teenager in your life, the next time you’re looking for an idea for a graduation, birthday, or Christmas present, Do Hard Things would be an excellent choice.

Sola5 Wednesday Recap - 5/28/08

This weekly topic is an effort to recap the Wednesday night Bible study I teach at Sola5, my youth group. I hope it serves to help us all in contemplating the ceaseless riches of God’s grace as revealed through the Scriptures.

Last night, we continued our study of the gospel of John by taking a look at John chapter 17. This was our last session in John before taking a break for the summer to do a question-and-answer series. With that in mind, though there’s certainly a lot of material in the chapter, I decided to go ahead and look at it all in one night. Christ’s prayer is certainly loaded, but I think there’s some benefit from seeing it as a whole rather than breaking it up over several studies. This meant a quicker overview than normal, but it was one that left us with a lot to ponder over the course of this week.

After spending several chapters talking to the disciples about his impending departure, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the task he’s leaving for them to do, Jesus ends his speech to the disciples and begins to pray for them. He turns his attention to the father and lifts up the disciples in prayer – but not just them. His prayer, as verse 20 shows, was for all those who would come to faith in him through the spreading of the gospel – from those who would hear the disciples’ testimony to us 2,000 years later. This presents us with the amazing reality that we we're on the mind of Christ – that he was praying for us. We discussed the fact that whatever Jesus prayed for us ought to be of paramount importance to us as well, since it clearly was to him. We ought to desire the same things he desired, and we ought to take great encouragement that the creator of heaven and earth cares for us on such a deep level.

However, Jesus begins his prayer by praying for himself. And what does he ask for himself? He asks that the Father would glorify him, since “the hour has come.” He is speaking here of the cross. Throughout our study of John’s Gospel, we’ve seen Jesus refer to his “hour,” or his “time,” and to the fact that it had not yet come. The references have always been to the purpose for which he came, the event that was of supreme importance in his plan. Now, he says, the hour has come. In a matter of hours he will be on the cross. Thus, he prays that the Father would glorify him – which the Father will do in his resurrection. Look also at the reason Christ prays for his glorification in verse 2 – “that the Son may glorify you.” Christ’s glorification in his death and resurrection ultimately was to bring glory to the Father. The cross was the supreme demonstration of the glory of God, both vindicating his justice and displaying his love. His justice was vindicated as sin was punished. The God who “will by no means clear the guilty,” (Numbers 14:18, Nahum 1:3) did not simply sweep sin under the rug and offer a cheap grace, but he poured out his wrath on Christ and was vindicated as the holy and righteous judge who cannot tolerate evil. Yet simultaneously his love was demonstrated because it was not me on the cross. Though I fully deserved his wrath, he took my place and poured his wrath out upon Christ – becoming both the just and the justifier (Romans 3:26). For no good reason to be found in me he showed me with his love and has called me his own, that I might know eternal life, of which I am undeserving. In verse 3 he pauses to declare what eternal life is – that we may know him. We will reap the benefits of Christ’s glorification as we spend an eternity soaking in his glory – the very thing we were created for and the very joy we are wired to experience.

In verse 6, the focus of Jesus’ prayer shifts to his followers, to us. He first prays that we would find our identity. Over and over he refers to us as belonging to the Father and given to him. He distinguishes in his prayer between the world at large and those whom the Father has given to him in his redemptive plan. We find our identity not in our name, our race, our social class, our nationality, our GPA, our job, or our talent level – we find it in Christ alone. Our identity, our purpose, should be wrapped up in the fact that a holy God has called us, hopelessly flawed though we are, to be his children. We should be saying with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) In verse 11, he again says that he will no longer be with his people physically, and he prays for our security. He says that he has perfectly kept his children while he has been on the earth, and commits them to the Father’s keeping as he goes to the cross. The great encouragement for us is that Christ has repeated declared that he and the Father are one in both essence and purpose. Thus, if Christ perfectly kept us, we can have full assurance that the Father will as well. Jesus is careful to say that he doesn’t ask we be taken out of the world, but that the Father guards and keeps us as we go about the work he has for us. Christ then prays for our holiness – that we would be set apart from the world around us just as he is “not of the world.” The word “sanctify” that he uses in verses 17 and 19 has the literal meaning of “set apart for a sacred purpose.” What a privilege (and responsibility) to know that we have been called for such a purpose. Finally, Christ prays for our glorification, that we would share in the reward which he is about to attain by his blood. Our ultimate hope and destiny is that we will spend eternity reaping the reward for the righteousness that we have through Christ. The creator of all joy has invited us into his presence to experience the joy of his glory forever. If that is our ultimate hope, then it should show in the way that we live our lives. I pray that all of us would have a bigger view of God and of the hope to which we’ve been called. However big your view of God is, the amazing thing is that it’s still too small. Seek his glory above all else this week.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Welcome Back, Indy

Last night, I had an experience that I never thought I’d get to have. I saw an Indiana Jones movie in the theater. Nineteen years after The Last Crusade, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford have reunited to bring their fedora-wearing, globe-trotting, death-defying professor of archaeology back to the big screen in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Fans, including myself, have been somewhat skeptical. After all, this isn’t quite the Indy we remember – he’s noticeably older, he’s in the 1950’s rather than the 30’s or 40’s, and as a result he’s fighting Russian commies, not the evil Nazis of previous outings. Couple those facts with the nature of the artifact he’s hunting this time (I won’t spoil it as other reviewers have, but let’s just say it fits the flavor of the era) and you’ve got a film that runs the danger of feeling a little silly. Well, let me assure you, it doesn’t feel a little silly. It feels a lot silly. And it’s a blast.

In an effort to stay as spoiler-free as possible, I’ll just give you the bare essentials of the plot. Indy (Harrison Ford) and pal George “Mac” McHale (Ray Winstone) are caught in the middle of yet another treasure hunt, this time looking for the titular crystal skulls, ancient South American artifacts rumored to grant the power of mind control. Drawn by the skull’s military potential are Russian agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) and her team of commie troops. On the other side is Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf), a motorcycle-riding greaser looking for his father figure – an old professor named Harold Oxley (John Hurt) who is an old colleague of Indy’s. Mutt seeks out Indy to help him save Oxley, whose life is in mortal danger because of his discovery of one of the skulls. It doesn’t take long for the red lines to start streaking across the maps, whisking us way to exotic locales from the Nevada desert to the Peruvian jungle. Along the way, we’re treated to quicksand, a nuclear explosion, and a jeep chase through the jungle that’s one of the most inspired action sequences in recent memory. Indy even runs into old flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) and gets the chance to sort out some relationships from his past.

Let me give you all possible warning up front: if you are the type of person who will watch an incredible action sequence in a movie and remark, “That’s impossible. No way,” then stay the heck away from this movie. The film is absolutely ridiculous. It has more than one of those moments. It has more than ten of those moments. As I walked out of the theater, a couple guys in front of us were having a discussion about the impossibility of vine-swinging at high velocity in the jungle chase scene. I really wanted to tell them, “Dude, you picked the wrong movie.” Trying to dissect the plausibility of an Indiana Jones movie makes about as much sense as meditating on the metaphysical implications of Dora the Explorer. I’ll admit, I spent the first twenty minutes or so of the movie seriously questioning if Lucas and Spielberg shouldn’t have just left Indy in the past. However, at that point, I simply told myself, “If the Ark of the Covenant can nuke Nazis and the Holy Grail can heal bullet holes, then why the heck not?” Of course the movie is ridiculous! That’s the point! Once I determined in my mind to just go along for the ride, the movie was terrific. The film was perfectly cast. Harrison Ford’s charm goes without saying, and Cate Blanchett is the epitome of camp with her over-the-top Russian accent and sinister bob hairstyle. She’s the type of villain you actually want to survive as long as possible so that the film won’t be deprived of her presence. I had my doubts about Shia LeBeouf taking on a rough-and-tumble role, but he was the perfect choice. Get used to seeing this guy around, because he’s really good. John Hurt provides comic relief as the two-French-fries-short-of-a-happy-meal professor Oxley without overdoing it. Winstone brings a nice cockney charm to his role, which plays perfectly to his complicated relationship with Indy. However, it’s Karen Allen who steals the show. As soon as Marion appears onscreen, it feels like she never left. Allen brings a fire and irrepressible charm to the screen, and her banter with Ford instantly transports us back to the wonder of seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time. The movie is visually stunning – from the jaw-dropping action sequences and effects to the subtle yet captivating 50’s style lighting and cinematography. The film has wit and charm to boot, including a pitch-perfect bit in the closing seconds involving Indy’s hat that will have audiences leaving the theater with a smile.

I’ve struggled since the moment I left the theater last night with how I’d star this movie. It’s always hard to rate a franchise that I love, since I want to give it four stars but don’t feel completely right giving Indy the same rating I gave other, much deeper four-star films. Does Crystal Skull have the significance and profundity of Saving Private Ryan or The Passion of the Christ? Nope. It’s hard-pressed to match Transformers on that front. Does it have the emotional resonance of Road to Perdition or Million Dollar Baby? Nope again. Does it have the brilliant plot twists of Signs? The deadpan writing of Juno? The artistic beauty of Hero? No, no, and no. How could it possibly be deserving of the same four-star review then? What the heck – because it’s really, really fun. - **** (out of 4)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is rated PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Sun is Hot, Study Shows

CNN: U.S. Ports vulnerable to terrorists, probe finds

Umm, seriously, didn't anybody read or see The Sum of All Fears? If Tom Clancy can figure out how to smuggle a bomb in, I'll bet the terrorists can too.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Iron Man Doesn't Disappoint

Well, I didn't post a "Friday's Featured Film" last week, but I did head out to the theater and take in Iron Man, which lived up to its reputation as a tremendously entertaining superhero movie. I'm not a comic-book reader, and so I knew next to nothing about Iron Man going in, but I found director Jon Favreau's (Elf, Zathura) film to be an exciting and smart action film.

The movie focuses on Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the billionaire head of a weapons manufacturing company and playboy extraordinaire. While on a trip to Afghanistan to demonstrate a new prototype for Army friend Col. James Rhodes (Terrence Howard), Stark is ambushed and kidnapped by a terrorist warlord (Faran Tahir) who wants Stark to build him a missile. Rethinking a wasted life, Stark instead begins to put his tremendous technical knowledge to work constructing a weapon that will allow him to escape - a battlesuit of iron. If he can free himself, he intends to take his knowledge and influence and use it to better the world rather than continuing to contribute to its destruction.

Downey turns in a simply great performance. He's not exactly the guy that one would think of to be the face of a blockbuster superhero franchise, but he was exactly the right guy for this job. Downey gives Stark a subtle, dry wit that is perfectly underplayed and makes for an intriguing lead character. I really believe that he's responsible for 75% of this movie's appeal. Couple his performance with good supporting roles from Howard and Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark's assistant and you've got a summer action movie that delivers on a character level as well as a visceral one. The only misfire was Jeff Bridges as Stark's mentor and business partner. Bridges' performance isn't necessarily bad, just a bit overplayed in a role that's too predictable. Some may find the movie's pacing to be a bit slow, but I thought it moved at just the right speed to allow the audience to get to know the characters well. This isn't your stereotypical superhero film - Iron Man combines a spot-on wit with eye-popping visuals and never takes itself too seriously. If you're looking for a great diversion at the movies this summer, you won't go wrong with this one. - ***1/2 (out of 4)

Iron Man is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggestive content.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Why You Should Watch the Stanley Cup Finals

The NHL's Stanley Cup Finals open tonight at 7:30 with the Pittsburgh Penguins taking on the Detroit Red Wings. If you're not a hockey fan, let me suggest that you give the Finals a chance largely due to this kid - Sydney Crosby. Crosby, who plays for Pittsburgh, is arguably already the best player in the league at only 20 years old. Here's a SportsCenter collection of his 10 best career goals.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Cold War, Part Deux

Perhaps the Cold War isn't over, it's just halftime. If indeed we end up trading stern looks and spy photos with the Ruskies again, it appears that we'll have Indiana Jones to blame. MSNBC is reporting that the opposition Communist Party in Russia is protesting the new Indy film as anti-communist propaganda, decrying the movie as "low quality" and warning that it "would raise a smile if there wasn't a danger of drawing into its orbit teenagers who know nothing about the 1950s." Party member Andrei Gindos called stars Harrison Ford and Cate Blanchett the "running dogs of the CIA" and suggested that they be barred from setting foot on Russian soil. You know, Harrison Ford did star in Air Force One as well, with Gary Oldman as a disgruntled commie terrorist, so I'm glad they're speaking out. I haven't seen the film yet, but now when I do I won't be duped into thinking that evil communists really did spend the 50s battling college professors for ancient crystal skulls with magic powers. That's almost as scary as the fact that Hitler almost got his hands on the Ark of the Covenant, which apparently was really God's holy A-bomb. Thanks for the heads-up, guys.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sola5 Wednesday Recap - 5/21/08

This weekly topic is an effort to recap the Wednesday night Bible study I teach at Sola5, my youth group. I hope it serves to help us all in contemplating the ceaseless riches of God’s grace as revealed through the Scriptures.

Last night, we continued our study of John (after a week off while I was at the Basics Conference) by looking at John 16:25-33. Jesus has spent the past several chapters preparing his disciples for the fact that he will no longer be with them in a physical sense. He is preparing them for the reality of the cross (and his eventual resurrection and ascension), but as we saw in our last study they really didn’t understand what he was talking about. Jesus addresses these concerns to them by explaining his purpose – what he came to do. As we watch the disciples’ faulty response, we are reminded of the absolute necessity of depending totally on Christ in every aspect of our lives.

In verse 25, Jesus begins by saying that though he has often spoken to the disciples in parables and figures of speech, the time is fast approaching when he will speak to them clearly about the Father. Seen in context, this is clearly a reference to his coming death and resurrection. The cross was the entire reason that Christ came to walk the earth – it was the fulfillment of his mission. Thus, we cannot accurately understand who Christ was without seeing his life through the lens of the crucifixion. What he would accomplish on the cross – and three days later by rising from the dead – would proclaim clearly to us the purpose of his life and ministry. No longer would the disciples have to snap together gleanings of truth from Jesus’ parables like a Rubik’s Cube, but now they would see clearly his purpose in all that he did – to point to our redemption by his blood. Jesus’ comments here point to three aspects of that purpose that are vital to our understanding his earthly work. First, he came to reveal truth. In verse 25 he tells us that part of his task is to “teach [us] plainly about the Father.” After all, Colossians 1 proclaims him as the “image of the invisible God.” The great God of the universe that is veiled from human eyes was made visible through Jesus Christ, so that we can look at Christ and immediately know with simple clarity what God is like. The Bible can be mentally intimidating at times (as one would expect from an infinite God revealing himself to finite creatures), but at its core the gospel message is one so simple and clearly presented that a child can grasp it – indeed, Jesus himself taught that we all must grasp it in childlike fashion. Secondly, Christ came to reconcile us to God. What good is it that we can know God if his just condemnation hangs over us? Christ says in verses 26 and 27 that he will bring his people into a direct and loving relationship with the Father, something only possible by his redeeming act on the cross. As Jonathan Edwards so beautifully put it several hundred years ago, “Christ has flung wide open the floodgates of mercy.” This is the message of the gospel – reconciliation for unworthy sinners like us to a holy and perfect God. Finally, in verse 28, Jesus remarks that he is going back to the Father, with the implication that we will remain behind. For what purpose? Christ has left us with a mission, with the great joy and sobering responsibility of taking this message of grace and forgiveness to a world in desperate need of it.

In verses 29-33 we see both the disciples’ misguided response to this revelation and Christ’s correction and refocusing of their attitudes. In verses 29 and 30, the disciples express almost an “it’s about time” mentality, saying that now that Jesus has started talking straight they can clearly understand and believe. Their attitude – and Jesus’ response in verse 31 – demonstrates a misplaced confidence. They thought that since they now could mentally grasp Jesus’ teachings that they were on their way. Jesus sharply asks them “Do you now believe?” He tells them that very soon when he is arrested, they will all scatter and abandon him out of fear for their own lives. Their abilities are not sufficient to produce the faith that God requires. As theologian Arthur Pink put it, “Like young recruits, they had yet to learn that it is one thing to know the soldier’s drill and wear the uniform, and quite another to be steadfast in the day of battle.” Their confidence was placed squarely in themselves, and Jesus responded with the same warning that would later be echoed by Paul in 1 Corinthians, “If any among you thinks he stands, let him take heed, lest he fall.” As my dad so wisely told me many years ago (on the topic of sexual sin, though it really applies across the board), “The moment you think ‘it can’t happen to me’ is exactly when it will.” We cannot trust our own abilities to sustain our faith – not our intelligence, our emotional stability, our courage, our dedication – nothing. All of those things will eventually fail us. So what hope do we have? We must fix our focus on Christ. Jesus assures them in verse 33 that this world will bring us difficulty, and we all know from experience that those difficulties are often too much for us to handle and cope with. Yet Jesus tells us that he has overcome the world. Our hope must be placed fully in the redeemer to whom the Father has given us, and from whom “no one can snatch them out of [his] hand.” Throughout the coming week, make it an focus of your prayer and Scripture meditation to, like John the Baptist, decrease (even in your own mind) so that Christ may increase.

Pray For the Chapman Family

This is heartbreaking news. I just read that the 5-year old daughter of Christian music artist Stephen Curtis Chapman was killed after being struck by a car in the family's driveway yesterday. I've heard SCC in concert multiple times, and he's one of the rare contemporary Christian artists who truly exemplifies what it is to make music and live life to the glory of God. He and his wife have been ambassadors for international adoption, and Maria was one of their three adopted daughters from China. Please be in prayer for the whole family in this tragic time, and especially for Chapman's teenage son who was driving the car that hit her.

Psalm 31:9
Matthew 5:4

HT: Joshua Harris

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Bitterness, Nostalgia, and NBA Basketball

I hate the New Orleans Hornets. It seems kind of petty and sad to actually see it in print, but it’s true. I came to this realization last night as I watched the San Antonio Spurs knock the Hornets out of the playoffs. Now, I have no animosity toward any of the Hornets’ players or coaches. I have nothing against the city of New Orleans. I hate the New Orleans Hornets because they used to be the Charlotte Hornets. I grew up as a die-hard Hornets fan. My dad would take me and my brothers to 5 or so games a year, and when I was in high school and could drive, I’d buy cheap playoff tickets every year that the team made it. I sat in the Charlotte Coliseum (affectionately known as “The Hive”) and watched the team play against Michael Jordan’s Bulls, Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers, and Grant Hill’s Pistons. I watched Alonzo Mourning block shots, Glen Rice rain down threes, and Baron Davis weave through defenders to dunk over guys a foot taller than him. I enjoyed fun times with family, nights out with friends, and several dates with a cute girl from school who would end up becoming my wife. I’ve got many great memories from my teenage years that the Hornets are a part of. So, when owner George Shinn (restraining myself) alienated fans with his behavior and demands and moved the team to New Orleans after my freshman year of college, I was pretty upset, and didn’t watch an NBA game for about 3 years.

Then, in 2005, a new NBA era began in Charlotte with the Bobcats – our expansion team awarded by the NBA after they recognized the raw deal the city got from the Hornets. I’ve become a fan again over the past 4 seasons. I’ve adjusted to the new colors and name, been excited by the young, scrappy players, and even attended a couple games while visiting family back in Carolina. As I’ve started watching NBA ball again, I knew I didn’t much care for the Hornets, but I really didn’t realize that I hated them until last night. I flipped over to the game to see what promised to be (and was) a good and exciting contest, but as soon as I saw that familiar logo, it’s like the anger came surging back all at once. Suddenly, I wanted to see the Spurs destroy the Hornets. I wanted to see all those fans in their matching white T-shirts go home sad. I wanted to know that the team had still never made it farther in the playoffs in New Orleans then they had in Charlotte. I remarked to Heather how much I hated that stupid yellow that had been added to the Hornets’ teal and purple. When I saw a friend at work today who I enjoy talking basketball with, I burst into a demented laugh while remarking that the Hornets were done for the year. Another friend accurately remarked that I sounded possessed.

As the day went by, I started asking myself the question – why does that team bother me so much? Why did simply watching a basketball game incite so much bitterness in me? I honestly think that it’s because watching the Hornets brings up all the memories I talked about before, with a stinging reminder that they’re done and gone, and I can’t add to them or relive them. I have lots of similar memories surrounding Carolina Panthers football, and those memories are relived in a way with every game I watch. I’m adding to them. I can look forward to watching a game with my little girl, to sharing that excitement and joy that sports can bring with her. We’ve got her a little baby Panthers cheerleader outfit to wear this fall. I can’t buy her a Hornets shirt, though. That chapter of my memories is closed. The night that I spent with Heather wearing white headbands and waving white towels with 22,000 other screaming people while the Hornets swept the Miami Heat out of the playoffs in 2001 is not one that I can have jogged to my memory with every new Hornets game I watch. It’s over. Watching the Hornets play last night jogged those feelings to my memory, but it did so along with the feeling that I’ve been robbed from getting to add to those memories. Because of my sinful human heart, my reaction was anger and hatred, pointed dead center at 12 basketball players that had nothing to do with the whole mess. The far better reaction, and the one I’m focusing on today, is to remember those memories, remember the joy they brought, and look forward to the new and different ones to come. Just because that team’s no longer there doesn’t mean my memories are cheapened in any way. Plus, I’ve got a new team to pull for, and a brand new slate of memories to make with them. In some strange way, God has used the experience to remind me of my propensity to lash out with (or hold in) anger when I feel wronged, and to remind me of his goodness that knows no end. Don’t get me wrong – I won’t be cheering on the Hornets anytime soon. In fact, if the Bobcats win only one game next year I hope it’s against them. But I don’t think I hate them anymore. Maybe.

Must See TV

If you’ve never watched FOX’s hit show House, let me humbly suggest you drop what you’re doing right now (or maybe not, since for some reason you’re reading my blog right now) and go rent the first season. Season 4 of the show just wrapped up over the past couple weeks with a two-part season finale that is among the best (and most heart-wrenching) episodes of TV I have ever watched. I won’t spoil the details in this day of DVR and webcasts, but if you are a House fan and didn’t see last night’s episode (or part 1 that aired last Monday), go over to, click on their full episode player, and watch it immediately. Let me just say that if you were skeptical about the show’s future after the major cast and story changes of this season, the writers knew exactly what they were doing. House probably now tops my list of shows I’m looking forward to in the fall (and that’s saying something, considering the fantastic finale of The Office and the long-awaited return of 24). Check it out.

Monday, May 19, 2008

No .com, But Lots of Crumminess

Well, I've now recieved my autographed (eBay beware) copy of the Crummy Church Signs book, and let me say that it is indeed crummy - and this is one of the few contexts I can imagine where that is a compliment. The signs were compiled from 2004-2007, and since I only discovered the website about a year ago they've been mostly all new to me. If you are a fan of Joel's blog (especially a newer fan), you ought to take a look at the book. I've had it for four days, and it's already been a fantastic coffee table book. Talk about a conversation starter - and here's hoping (or maybe not) that the next four years yields another wealth of material.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Reporter vs. Sled. Sled Wins.

HT: The Blazing Center

Friday's Featured Film - 5/16/08

New movies are usually released to theaters every Friday, but who’s got 10 bucks these days to drop on a movie that may well be a load of crap? Given those odds, each Friday I offer an alternative on DVD that you can rent at your local video store (or in some cases, avoid at all costs). Some will be new releases, others you may have to hunt for, but all of them are available to light up your small screen should it be a lazy Friday night.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Today, Prince Caspian - the second film based on C.S. Lewis’ classic The Chronicles of Narnia, hits theaters. So, my selection for this week’s “Friday’s Featured Film” was pretty easy. If you haven’t seen The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first film in the series, do yourself a favor and rent Andrew Adamson’s near flawless adaptation of the classic book.

The film, like the book, is set in WWII England and focuses on the Pevensie siblings – Peter (William Moseley), the oldest who dreams of joining his father in the army though he’s only seventeen, Susan (Anna Popplewell), the very bright and logical eldest daughter, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) the snide rebel of the bunch, and Lucy (Georgie Henley), the wide eyed, innocent, and sensitive youngest child. In the midst of the relentless bombing of London, their mother sends them away to board with an old professor (Jim Broadbent) in the countryside to be safe until the war ends. Once there, however, a game of hide-and-seek sends them through a magical wardrobe and into the land of Narnia – a land of fantastical creatures and talking animals that is ruled with an iron and icy fist by the White Witch, Jadis (Tilda Swinton). After befriending a faun named Tumnus (James McAvoy), the kids find that they may be long prophesied heroes who will join with the exiled king, a lion named Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson), to free Narnia from endless winter and usher in an age of freedom.

As book-to-screen adaptations go, I think that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe may well be the best I have ever seen. The Lord of the Rings movies may well be better films, but I believe that Lion better represents the spirit and content of its source material. If you (like me) read this book as a kid (or even as an adult), what you see on screen will be what you remember reading, with very little deviation. The length of the book (just over 100 pages) means that not a lot gets left on the cutting room floor, and Adamson (who helmed the Shrek series) keeps the sense of wonder and whimsy that is such an integral part of Lewis’ writing. If there’s one thing that gets lost in translation, it’s Aslan – not because the filmmakers did a poor job of bringing him to the screen (quite the opposite, actually), but because perhaps the only canvas big enough to paint him on is the one in the mind of the reader.

The Christian subtext of the films is no secret by now. Lewis wrote his Chronicles expressly as an allegory of the Christian faith. The similarities between Aslan and Christ are not easy to miss. Personally, I don’t really care for allegory. I find it too dense and heavy handed most of the time (don’t shoot me, but I think I’m one of the three reformed Christians on the planet who doesn’t care for Pilgrim’s Progress). However, for whatever reason (perhaps because of the fond childhood memories I have of the books), I absolutely love the Narnia allegory. There’s a simple power and beauty to the narrative and the film carries that over extremely well. On the whole, I probably prefer Tolkien’s (who, though a close friend of Lewis and his spiritual mentor, didn’t much care for Narnia’s allegory) mythology to Lewis’ but everything that is so simple and pure with the story of Aslan and the White Witch is brought beautifully to life on the screen by The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Tilda Swinton turns in a fantastic performance as the White Witch. During the crucial events at The Stone Table, she communicates the sick ecstatic joy of the Witch with amazing subtlety. The kids are good enough to make you largely forget that they’re child actors, and Harry Gregson-Williams (whose previous credits include the Shrek films and the Metal Gear Solid series of video games) adds a powerful and absolutely gorgeous musical score. If you’ve never ventured through the wardrobe and into Narnia, go pick this one up this weekend (and get a hold of Lewis’ books as well – they’re quick and delightful reads), and here’s hoping that Caspian will not disappoint as a sequel. - **** (out of four)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is rated PG for battle sequences and frightening moments.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Back From Basics

Well, the Basics 2008 Pastors’ Conference is in the books, and once again it was a great time of spiritual refreshment. As you may have noticed, I wasn’t able to post while at the conference, due to limits on time and wi-fi. If you’d like to get a good synopsis of the messages, I would encourage you once again to check out Tim Challies’ blog. Tim has really outdone himself this time by providing extremely thorough summaries of each conference session.

Voddie Baucham was really the highlight of the conference (which was on the theme, “Preaching the Gospel to Ourselves.” His two messages from 2 Timothy on enduring suffering for the sake of the gospel were powerful, and I’d encourage any Christian to head over to the Truth For Life website and order the audio. It was great getting to hear Alistair Begg preach after his absence last year due to prostate cancer. He is now cancer-free, doing well, and he offered some great advice from 2 Corinthians on the character of gospel preaching. Jerry Bridges simply exuded wisdom in his two messages. Though he’s not the most captivating speaker you’ll ever hear (his thoughts are much better suited to the printed page) his lifetime of following God makes itself evident in the advice he offered us all.

As always, the food alone was worth the price of admission (mmm, barbeque night), and the 20% discount at Parkside Church’s stellar bookstore is always too tempting to pass up. I bought Voddie Baucham’s Family Driven Faith and Jerry Bridges’ Respectable Sins, and look forward to reading both. Also, on our day off, we headed downtown and walked through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was pretty cool. If you’re a rock fan and find yourself in Cleveland, you’d do well to check the hall out. All-in-all, it was a great trip, and I would strongly encourage any pastors to check it out next May, when Alistair will be joined by ID scientist Dr. John Lennox and John Piper. Let the countdown begin!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Back to Basics

Tomorrow morning, I'll be headed to Cleveland, Ohio for Alistair Begg's Basics '08 Pastors' Conference. This will be my fourth year in a row making the trip up to Parkside Church, and each year has been a great time of fellowship with good friends and very rewarding spiritually. This year, Begg will be speaking along with Voddie Baucham and Jerry Bridges on the topic of "Preaching the Gospel to Ourselves." Should be a fantastic conference. I'm hoping to be able to post some reflections each night this week, but should I be unable to (or should you want a synopsis far more well written than mine), check out Tim Challies, who will be Liveblogging the conference for the second straight year. Pray for a good trip for me and for the others attending, that God would use this time to encourage and strengthen us in our ministries.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Friday's Featured Film - 5/9/08

New movies are usually released to theaters every Friday, but who’s got 10 bucks these days to drop on a movie that may well be a load of crap? Given those odds, each Friday I offer an alternative on DVD that you can rent at your local video store (or in some cases, avoid at all costs). Some will be new releases, others you may have to hunt for, but all of them are available to light up your small screen should it be a lazy Friday night.


Last Friday in my review of 3:10 to Yuma, I referenced that Alan Tudyk, who plays Doc Potter in that film, also was in the greatest TV show of all time. If any of you actually clicked on that link, there’s a decent chance that your next thought was, “What the heck is Firefly?” If that describes your response, perhaps the best way for me to explain it to you is by pointing you to Serenity, the 2005 movie that was based off of the show. Whether you are an avid sci-fi fan looking for something new and different or you’d rather sit through a marathon of Big Brother than watch a sci-fi movie, Serenity is a film that you owe to yourself to check out.

The film is a continuation of Firefly, a TV show that briefly graced the airwaves of FOX in 2002. Dumb decisions from the network executives cost the show dearly, and it was cancelled less than halfway through its first season. Yet, when the show made its way to DVD, it quickly found a cult following and spread by word-of-mouth with amazing popularity (in much the same fashion as the once-cancelled Family Guy); eventually attracting so much attention that Universal snatched up the rights and began developing a movie.

Set 500 years in the future, Serenity’s premise is that we had overpopulated the earth and were forced to move on, eventually colonizing a new solar system. Planets were terraformed as humanity sought to carve out a new niche in the ‘Verse. This ‘pioneer’ aspect to the world gives the show a unique character, as it’s often referred to as a “sci-fi western.” People fly around on spaceships, but out on the rim worlds they ride horses and carry six-shooters. If the concept sounds bizarre and a little dumb to you, trust me – I thought the same thing at first. Give it a chance, however, and you’ll be hooked – largely because the cast of characters is among the best ever assembled.

The film focuses on Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a sergeant for the Independents in the Unification War (think Star Wars’ Empire vs. Rebels conflict, except here the rebels lose and are left struggling to find their place in society, evoking strong themes from the American Civil War). After the war, Mal is disillusioned and seeks freedom above all else, finding that the best way to do so is to take to the skies and sail the black in an attempt to get out from under the long arm of the Alliance. He buys a ship and hires an eclectic crew: Zoe (Gina Torres), his right-hand woman and comrade-in-arms from the war, her goofy, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing pilot husband Wash (Alan Tudyk), Jayne (Adam Baldwin), a dumb brawler who’s handy in a firefight, and Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the girl-next-door mechanic. Over time, they met and took in a noble preacher with a mysterious background (Ron Glass), a classy ‘Companion’ (Monera Baccarin), and two fugitives – a psychic teenage girl (Summer Glau) on the run from the Alliance after they subjected her to horrific experiments, and her brother (Sean Maher), a brilliant doctor who left his life behind to rescue his sister. The movie picks up here, getting some of this backstory pieced together by dialogue and flashbacks. As the crew tries to keep food on the table and gas in the tank (while also dodging Reavers – savage men gone mad on the fringes of space), they are being tracked by an expert agent of the Alliance Parliament known simply as The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who wants the troubled and gifted fugitive back – at any cost.

Though a movie based on a flopped sci-fi TV show may seem like a tough sell, director (and show creator) Joss Whedon (TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel) has crafted characters so rich and engrossing that even those that aren’t sci-fi fans will find themselves sucked right in. My wife absolutely hates sci-fi (yes, I married her anyway) but Firefly/Serenity is probably her favorite film story ever, TV or movie. The main story is presented expertly so that newcomers can understand what’s going on right away while fans of the TV show won’t feel like they’re getting a rehash of old news. Whedon makes you care about every one of his characters, which adds to the adrenaline rush when we see them put themselves on the line in the terrific final act. The movie plays almost as a series finale for the TV show – the resolution that it deserved but never got – so the ideal way to view the movie is by first picking up Firefly and watching all 14 terrific episodes. However, I know that’s a lot to time to invest, so I’ll say that you’ll still enjoy the movie without seeing the show – in fact, I almost guarantee that you’ll want to pick the show up after seeing the film. My review here has been a little rambling, since this is a tough one to describe, but believe me when I tell you that every single person I’ve introduced to Firefly and Serenity has absolutely loved it - every one – from my parents and grandparents to my brothers to friends at church and teenagers in my youth group. This is a great film, a great show, and a story that Heather and I are hoping against hope will get the chance to keep flyin’. **** (out of four)

Serenity is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense violence and action, and some sexual references.


Well, Steve Sensenig made it way too close for comfort, but I held on and won the first ever Crummy Church Signs Caption Contest, thanks to your votes! Thanks for your support that has allowed me to feel a completely unmerited sense of personal accomplishment!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

For the Idol-aholics

If you, like me, are strangely entertained by the vocal circus that is American Idol, check out Christianity Today's interview with former finalists Mandisa, Chris Sligh, and Phil Stacey for an interesting look at faith behind the scenes of the show. Good article.

HT: Vitamin Z

Sola5 Wednesday Recap - 5/7/08

This weekly topic is an effort to recap the Wednesday night Bible study I teach at Sola5, my youth group. I hope it serves to help us all in contemplating the ceaseless riches of God’s grace as revealed through the Scriptures.

Last night, we continued our study of John’s gospel by looking at 16:16-24. Here we find Jesus continuing to talk to the disciples about his impending crucifixion. In the passage, Jesus pauses, realizing that the disciples are not understanding what he is saying to them. Rather than give them a play-by-play of upcoming events, he talks to them about the emotions that they will experience in the coming days, thus preparing their hearts to face what is to come.

First off, we see the disciples expressing their confusion over what Jesus has been talking about. They are especially puzzled by his statement in verse 16, “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” They begin to wonder amongst themselves what the heck Jesus is talking about. Here’s where we can take a lesson from them. Their plight is our privilege. This is hardly the only time in the gospels that we see the disciples struggling to understand exactly what Jesus is trying to say. We often look back on these situations and think, “Stupid disciples! It’s right there in front of you, it’s so easy to figure out!” It is this perspective that illustrates just how privileged we are as modern believers. Hindsight is 20/20. Whereas the disciples were having their entire spiritual and intellectual paradigm turned upside down by every word that came from Jesus’ mouth, we sit here with God’s completed written revelation in the Bible, able to trace his purposes and plans from start to finish. In a way, we have the great privilege of playing “Monday Morning Quarterback” – looking back at the story of our redemption and seeing God’s perfect wisdom at work. We are afforded a privileged perspective that the disciples would have envied. Whereas often we think, “If I could have just walked with Jesus like them then it would be so much easier to have faith,” the reality is that the perspective that we are granted through Scripture is one that opens God’s mind to us and grants us greater understanding than the disciples had. Next time you read about the disciples floundering over Jesus’ words, praise God for the fact that you have his word readily available, and may that reality cause you to treasure his word more.

In verse 19, Jesus picks up on their confusion, and addresses it, offering an explanation of what he had said in verse 20. He tells them that they are going to experience a great sorrow, but one that will not be shared by the rest of the world. They will weep and lament, he promises, but he also promises that their sorrow will be eclipsed by a joy so great that the sorrow pales in comparison. Consider the example Jesus gives of a pregnant woman preparing to give birth. The birth process is not exactly a fun one. When my wife and I head to the hospital next month for our daughter’s birth, I highly doubt she’s going to tell me, “This is going to be awesome!” During the birth, that probably won’t be the case. In fact, I’m considering wearing full body armor that night just in case. Yet, the pain and stress of that experience will be far outweighed by the joy that will come from our daughter entering our lives. The wonder and joy of a new human life causes the pain of the process to pale in comparison. This is the example Jesus uses to illustrate that though sorrow will come, hope will ultimately prevail – to the point where he can say in verse 22 that “no one will take your joy from you.” This joy will be an everlasting joy, an eternal joy.

The direct application for the disciples was Jesus’ death on the cross. Consider the heartbreaking sorrow that they must have felt when they watched their Lord, mentor, and friend brutally executed as a common criminal. We celebrate the fact that he came out of the grave on Resurrection Sunday, and we celebrate the forgiveness for sin that his death purchased on Good Friday, but have you ever paused to think about what the Saturday in between must have been like? Put yourself in the shoes of the disciples. They had left everything and cast all their chips in with Jesus. Now, he’s dead, in the ground, and you ran away. It’s over. What now? This sorrow was surely as great as any that we’ll experience in this life. Yet it was dwarfed by the joy of seeing the risen Christ the next day, of seeing his triumph over sin.

But what of us? The same principle is certainly applicable to believers today. We currently don’t see Christ. We are among those of whom the Scripture says, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” We go through times of suffering and stress in this life, whether great or small. All of us know what it is like to be weighed down with sorrow while the world marches on oblivious. Yet the trials and difficulties of this life are nothing in comparison to the joy we will have when we see Christ face-to-face. That is the hope of the second coming - that, as the hymn says, “faith shall be sight.” That coming may happen today, and it may happen 5,000 years from now. I have no idea. Anyone who tells you they do have an idea is lying or self-deluded. Yet I know this: I’m not going to live for 5,000 years. When this life is ended, whether by Christ’s return or my inevitable death, I will be with him, and I will experience and understand the very purpose for which I was created – to bask and revel in the glory of God for all eternity. Every joyous experience in this life is just a minute foretaste of the glory to come when I stand forever in the presence of the one who created all that is good. As we go through this week, I pray that Christ gives us an ever clearer hope in the joy that is set before us, that we may endure whatever birth pains this life brings our way because of the promise of the new life to come.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

An Evangelical Manifesto

I would consider myself an Evangelical Christian, but I'm usually reluctant to use that term because I think it's become so diluted and politically hijacked that it's nearly meaningless anymore. A group of concerned Christians is attempting to change that, however, with today's release of the recently publicized paper, "An Evangelical Manifesto." I've read the document, and I think it's a great statement of what our identity should be in Christ, some ways we've lost that identity, and what our attitude should be if we are to recover it again. Principled, yet not unneccesarily devisive, I would be proud to offer this declaration to anyone who asks what I mean when I call myself an Evangelical. I put my name to the document on their website this morning, and I would encourage my brothers and sisters in Christ to carefully read it, consider it, and do the same.

Read the manifesto here.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Anti-T.O.

I love sports. I'm a very competitive person - whether I'm cheering on my favorite teams or playing a pick up game with my youth, I like to win. The decibel level in my house when the Panthers score a touchdown, the Hurricanes put one in net, or the Bobcats sink a buzzer-beating three approaches 747 levels. Sports also provide great teachable moments in our spiritual journeys. Often times, the negative teachable moments get far more publicity. Chad Johnson runs his mouth about his tremendous worth and demands a trade, baseball players juice up for a competitive advantage, and Pacman Jones just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time 15 times in three years. That's why when a story like this one (written by terrific Charlotte Observer columnist Scott Fowler) comes along, we'd all do well to put away our rampant cynicism and see a living illustration of Paul's exhortation to "look not only to [your] own interests, but also to the interests of others." (Philippians 2:4)

Monday, May 5, 2008

Power Me to Victory (AKA A Shameless Act of Self-Promotion)!!!

I've made the top ten in this week's Crummy Church Signs Caption Contest! Head on over to the polls and help me win Joel's Crummy Church Signs book!

Judge Not

My pastor, Eric Fields, gave this terrific explaination of Matthew 7 during his sermon Sunday on church discipline. It really helped me to understand Jesus’ point better, so I pass it along to you.

“Judge not, that you be not judged,” is one of the most quoted lines from all of Jesus’ words, and is usually yanked completely from its context. So what is the point Jesus is actually making here? Usually, we assume that he means that God will judge us by the same standard we judge others by, or that he's saying that if we judge others then God's going to judge us, but ultimately this makes no sense. God will judge all men and women by one standard – himself. After all, if God judged us by our own standard, we’d all be fine, since we tend to be professionals at comparing ourselves favorably to those around us. Scripture makes it pretty clear that God’s standard of judgment is his own holiness. So, what’s Jesus saying here?

He’s saying that when we judge others, they are going to evaluate us by the same standard we apply to them. If we try to correct our brother, the first thing that he is going to do is evaluate us by that standard and look for the chance to respond with, “You hypocrite!” If I require a certain standard of others, I must be prepared for them to measure me by that same standard. Jesus isn’t saying here that we shouldn’t judge others at all, but that we should turn the mirror on ourselves before we ever look to others. After all, consider the famous “speck in your brother’s eye” illustration he gives in the next verse. He doesn’t suggest that we simply ignore our brother’s speck because of the log in our eye, but he instructs us to tend to our own failings first so that we will be able to clearly correct our brothers. Thus, Jesus’ call here isn’t to merely “live and let live,” but to be rigorous in our personal holiness so that we can encourage others to do the same rather than engage in hypocritical judgment.

It’s easy to see the faults in others while remaining blissfully ignorant of our own. Jesus’ message in Matthew 18 (the central passage of Eric’s sermon) is that we are all accountable to one another, and we have a responsibility to spur one another on in righteousness. This isn’t a license for a judgmental spirit; however, but a call to examine ourselves first against the standard of God’s flawless love, and then to walk alongside others and encourage them to do the same – for if we are to “win our brother” as Jesus calls us to in Matthew 18, we must cleanse all hypocrisy from our hearts and demonstrate to them the righteousness of Christ, not our own. That's a tough calling indeed, but one that God will accomplish in us by his grace.

Friday, May 2, 2008

I Laugh Because Otherwise I'd Have to Cry

This just became my new desktop wallpaper. Too True.

Friday's Featured Film - 5/2/08

New movies are usually released to theaters every Friday, but who’s got 10 bucks these days to drop on a movie that may well be a load of crap? Given those odds, each Friday I offer an alternative on DVD that you can rent at your local video store (or in some cases, avoid at all costs). Some will be new releases, others you may have to hunt for, but all of them are available to light up your small screen should it be a lazy Friday night.

3:10 to Yuma

I’ve never been a huge fan of westerns. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a cowboy, and the closest thing to a western I enjoyed as a kid was probably Back to the Future Part III (and that was mainly because it had a cool time machine). Yet in recent years, the western has made a bit of a comeback – most notably with Kevin Costner’s extraordinary Open Range, one of the best films of 2003. James Mangold’s remake of 1957's 3:10 to Yuma (itself based on an Elmore Leonard story) isn’t quite as good as Open Range, but it’s darn close – and it continues the revival of the modern western as a fantastic genre for exploring great characters.

Let me be clear – this movie is its characters. The film centers on Dan Evans (Christian Bale in another fantastic performance), a down-on-his-luck rancher who lost a foot in the Civil War and now is struggling just to provide for his wife (Gretchen Mol) and two boys. His youngest (Ben Petry) idolizes him, but his older boy, 14-year-old William (Logan Lerman), sees his dad as weak and instead idolizes Ben Wade (Russell Crowe in a perfectly subtle and nuanced performance), a charismatic Jesse James-type outlaw who’s making life miserable for the local shippers. While out rounding up the herd, Dan and his boys witness Wade and his gang violently robbing a stagecoach, and Dan reports this to the local sheriff and gets Wade apprehended. Mr. Butterfield (Dallas Roberts), a railway tycoon for whom Wade has long been a thorn in the side, seeks to have an example made of him, and offers a handsome sum of money to anyone willing to transport Wade to the town of Contention, from where a train departs for Yuma prison. Seeing an opportunity to pay off his debts and save his ranch, Dan offers to go along for $200. He, Butterfield, a grizzled old security man with a hatred for Wade (Peter Fonda), a sadistic goon (Kevin Durand), and the local doctor (Alan Tudyk, who played Wash the pilot on the greatest television show ever made) set off with Wade for Contention, with William secretly following the group.

From here, one could possibly criticize the plot as being formulaic, but the plot really only exists to give us insight into these characters. The group is being tracked down by Wade’s gang of cold-blooded killers, led by the psychopathic Charlie Prince (Ben Foster in an Oscar-worthy supporting role). As the tension escalates, we see that Dan’s actually doing this for more than just the money and we wonder with William if the cool and collected Wade is really “all bad.” The final shootout (yeah, that’s kind of a spoiler, but really – it’s a western, so you know there’s gonna be a final shootout) is tense and engrossing, and the journey that culminates there has a lot to say about human nature and what it truly means to be a man. Director Mangold, who previously helmed the solid Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, stays largely out of the way of his superb cast, and composer Marco Beltrami (the Terminator franchise) likewise crafts a minimalist score that is haunting in its emotion without beating us over the head. I saw this one on the big screen last fall and again on DVD last week, and it holds up on repeat viewing as every bit as engrossing as it was the first time around. That’s evidence of relatable characters and a compelling narrative, and fans of both will find plenty to like as they sweat out the ride to Contention and dodge bullets to ensure that Ben Wade catches his ride to justice on the fateful 3:10. - **** (out of four)
3:10 to Yuma is rated R for violence and some language.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Sola5 Wednesday Recap - 4/30/08

This weekly topic is an effort to recap the Wednesday night Bible study I teach at Sola5, my youth group. I hope it serves to help us all in contemplating the ceaseless riches of God’s grace as revealed through the Scriptures.

Last night, we finished up our study of John 16:1-15, taking a look at how Jesus prepared his disciples for life without him physically present. Last week, we saw how Jesus encouraged their minds in verses 1-4 by telling them of the difficulties to come but also of the strength he would provide to persevere. We then began to look at how Jesus encouraged their hearts in verses 5-11, since they felt a genuine sorrow at losing one who had become teacher, master, Lord, and friend. He told them, however, that his going away was actually to their advantage. This is where we picked up last night.

Jesus told them that once he is gone, he will send the Helper, the Holy Spirit to them, and he will guide them into truth. The Spirit will be present with them at all times, as close as their next breath, and he will instruct them in truth, Jesus says in verses 8-11, by convicting people of sin, by revealing righteousness, and by proclaiming judgment. We then took a closer look at these three categories to try and understand exactly what the work of the Holy Spirit is in our lives. First, he convicts us – he shows us our sin. At first glance, this hardly seems like good news. I don’t know about you, but there are few things I hate more than being shown that I royally screwed up. How is being shown that we are sinners a good thing? Because without knowledge of our sin, we have no knowledge that we need a savior. We all sin. Scripture is abundantly clear on this topic (Romans 3 is a great place to start) and our own experiences read like textbooks on how to make bad choices. I, D.J. Williams, have willingly sinned against a perfectly holy and just God, and I deserve his judgment and wrath just as surely as a murderer deserves to go to prison for life or face the death chamber. I deserve to suffer in hell. Me. Yet, this horrible knowledge is the first act of God’s grace in my life. Why? As John Newton wrote in the famous hymn “Amazing Grace,” “Tis grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” God’s grace has shown me my reason to fear his wrath, yet his grace instantly relieves those fears as it points me to the awe-inspiring reality that God has borne that wrath himself in my place. Thus, conviction of sin is the difficult first step into the wonders of the grace of God.

Secondly, he reveals righteousness to us. As we search the Scriptures - the very thoughts and words of God - no amount of human wisdom can comprehend their riches. Yet we are told that the Spirit that dwells within us reveals these truths to our minds and hearts, and allows us to contemplate not just intellectual ideas but truths that affect every aspect of who we are. Thirdly, he will reveal judgment – that the stakes are high and the times are urgent. The ruler of this world (Satan) is judged by the cross, and now God is in the process of bringing all things to their conclusion. Our time is short, and thus our stakes are high. I’ve never been a big fan of “scare tactics” when it comes to preaching the gospel, since I feel that they often actually diminish the significance of the grace of God by turning our salvation into a “get out of hell free” card. However, the truth is that Jesus talked more about hell than just about anyone else in Scripture, and none of us is guaranteed when we wake up in the morning that we will make it back to our bed that night. This should provoke a bit of a wartime mentality in our faith, knowing that this is not a drill and that these issues are the most important things we will ever wrestle with.

We concluded by seeing how Jesus encouraged the disciples’ souls by telling them in verses 12-15 the spiritual realities that the Holy Spirit would proclaim to them. First, in verse 13, he reiterated that the Spirit would come to declare truth. In fact ,the description of the Spirit’s work in verse 13 sounds incredibly similar to Christ’s descriptions of his own work – to take what he has received from the Father and reveal it to us. The Spirit will do this same work while being constantly present with us in such a palpable way that the Scriptures can testify that he will be in us. Then, in verses 14 and 15, Jesus tells them that the Spirit will declare their reward, which is the awe inspiring reality of the glory of God. Jesus says that all that he has (which in turn is all that the Father is) will be declared to us. This is remarkable! We are co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:16)! Our eternal destiny, the purpose for which we were created, is to spend eternity beholding and soaking in the glory of the one who created all that is good! Every moment of joy we enjoy in this life is but a miniscule foretaste of what it will be to spend eternity in the presence of the one who created that joy! That is what the Spirit comes to proclaim to us and accomplish through us. Contemplate that truth this week. As hymn writer Helen Lemmel wrote nearly 100 years ago, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”

O Love That Will Not Let Me Go

We sang this song last night at Sola5, and I absolutely loved it. It's an update of George Matheson's classic hymn, performed here by two of my favorite artists - husband and wife duo Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken.