My daughter convinced me to go see Spider-Man: Far From Home for a second time. The movie was re-released in theaters last week, this time with four additional minutes of footage which had been deleted from the original movie. The additional four minutes don’t add much to the story, and I can understand why most of it was cut. But they do help us understand how much Peter Parker wanted his summer vacation plans to work out—which, of course, they didn’t.
This is the second time this summer that a blockbuster movie has been re-released in theaters with new scenes added in--Avengers: End Game being the first. It has raised a good deal of talk about the lengths to which movie producers will go to break box-office records and bring in the cash. It raises other questions, too, about what makes for good story-telling.
Each time a movie is released on DVD or re-released in theaters or on TV with previously deleted scenes added back in, people will ask why those scenes were cut in the first place or what was the point of adding them back in. In fact, the whole process of movie-making is a question of what scenes to put in and what to leave out. Decisions are made about how much information is needed and what is irrelevant, what action moves the story forward and what slows it down, what dialogue engages the audience and what leaves them feeling bored.
A good movie provides just the right amount of information, action, and emotion. The finished product flows effortlessly from scene to scene, drawing the audience deeper into the story until it reaches an exciting and satisfying end. We don’t see the painstaking work involved in writing the script, casting actors, shooting scenes, adding special effects, and making final edits. We will never know about the thousand difficult decisions someone made to do this, don’t do that, add this, and delete that. We just see the end result—and possibly a few minutes more of deleted scenes added back in for a re-release.
Unlike a book or a TV series, a movie has to do all its story-telling in a short amount of time. (The three-hour, one-minute Avengers: Endgame was pushing the limit for most people.) The decisions about what to put in and what to leave out become much more important.
It’s an interesting metaphor for life.
The Bible reminds us that human life is short. Our lives on earth are like “grass [that] withers and the flowers [that] fall” (Isaiah 40:6–8) and like a “mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Paul the Apostle tells us, “The time is short…. Do not be engrossed in the things of the world, for this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29, 31 paraphrased). In other words, the story of our lives will end—and sooner than we would like to think.
Everyday we make decisions about what to do, what thoughts to dwell on, who to talk to, and how to fill our time. Each decision to add something into our day is a decision to leave other things out. We should remember Paul’s warning that “the time is short” and be intentional about how we spend each day.
That doesn’t have to be as stressful as it sounds. The good news for Christians is that each of our personal stories is part of a greater story being directed by an all-knowing, all-powerful, master story-teller. We are promised that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13).
So, use your time well today. Think intentionally about what is a good use of your time and what isn’t. Listen to the director, and trust that the amazing story he wants to tell through your life is worth all the effort.
Last week I enjoyed a two-movie weekend. Sometimes, it’s hard to choose between new releases, so (as my daughter likes to quote from a taco commercial), “por que no los dos?”
Blinded By the Light (2019) is a comedy/drama based on a true story. Javed Khan is a young adult living with his Pakistani family in a small industrial town in England in 1987. He’s been journaling and writing poems for years, and he dreams of being a writer, but his family’s traditions and financial woes make his dream seem impossible.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2019) is a comedy based on a book. Bernadette Fox is a grown woman living with her husband and daughter in modern-day Seattle. She walked away from a brilliant career as an award-winning architect to raise her daughter and to hide from past disappointments, until her life starts unraveling at the seams.
It was strange seeing these two movies almost back to back. Javed and Bernadette had almost nothing in common. They differed in race, gender, nationality, age, financial security, interests, and life experience. Yet they had something very important in common. The dream Javed was looking forward to with longing was the same dream Bernadette was looking back on with regret. They both desperately, deeply wanted to create something.
Thankfully, both Javed and Bernadette found the inspiration and motivation they needed to give life to their creative dreams. Both movies end happily with the anticipation of great things to come. And if their happy endings inspire others to follow their creative dreams, that’s even better!
Now, I’m not one of those people who encourages everyone to follow their dreams. Many times, our dreams are selfish, greedy, and lazy. Achieving those dreams helps no one but ourselves. Sometimes, we wish for success in things which are far beyond our abilities, like being a best-selling author, a Broadway star, or a million-dollar athlete. Even if our ultimate plan is to benefit others with our success, the pursuit of success itself can be a selfish thing if it means we have no time for family, friends, or the needs of our communities.
But there are other types of dreams which are planted inside us like vines. They tend to stay there, even if we ignore them or try to pull them out. They long for a little sun and a little fertilizer so they can stretch and grow, putting out new shoots and producing fruit.
Some people are born to be writers, or artists, or composers, or builders. We are called to create, because, in creating, we call attention to our own Creator.
Writers give voice to thoughts and ideas and help us understand life at a deeper level. Artists open our eyes to the beauty of the world but also its present darkness. Musicians stir our emotions, reminding us of the eternal soul within. Architects, designers, inventors, and builders push us to the edge of what is possible to see that there is still more “possible” just beyond us.
These are gifts from God. He gives a little creative spirit to some and a great deal to others. He blesses some with great success while others are hardly noticed. We don’t get to choose the gift, and we won’t know where it will take us if we pursue it. But if that vine is wriggling and growing inside you, demanding some time in the sun—find your inspiration, find your motivation, and run after that dream. You’ll regret it if you don’t.
Yesterday, July 31, much of the book-reading world celebrated the birthday of Harry Potter. The day of Harry’s birth was revealed in the first of seven books about the boy wizard. For lovers of the series, the last day of July became a day to celebrate the books and their main character.
Although I’m a big fan of the Harry Potter series, I didn’t do anything special to celebrate yesterday. But today, I couldn’t help thinking of Harry and his fictitious friends. I had three checks I needed to put in the mail. That meant three envelopes needed to be addressed, three return address labels needed to be added to one corner, and three stamps needed to be added to another corner. I was putting the stamps on when Harry popped into my head and I smiled.
In the fourth book of the series, Harry’s uncle receives a letter from the mother of his schoolmate, Ron. Not used to sending mail the “normal” way, she concludes the letter with a P.S.: “I do hope we’ve put enough stamps on.”
Let’s just say, the thoroughly-nonmagical Mr. Dursley was not amused.
There are many instances in the Harry Potter books of wizards and witches who have grown up in all-magic families not knowing how to navigate the non-magic (or muggle) world. They prefer the old customs of wearing long robes and capes and are much more likely to get around by broomstick or magical fires than by car or train. When they are forced to be seen in public, they look out of place—or, as Mr. Dursley would say it, like weirdoes.
Like the magical folk in the Harry Potter series, Christians can also feel out of place in the greater world around them. If we believe the things the Bible teaches, we may see the world very differently than our non-Christian neighbors. Some Christians are more comfortable with older customs such as traditional families, respect for leaders, and valuing hard work. They might be overwhelmed by modern technology and distressed by modern values. The impulse to hide away and associate only with other Christians can be strong.
Other Christians go to great lengths to look just like everyone around them. They hide in plain sight, never letting anyone know what makes them special.
We need to fight that impulse to hide!
The magical folk in the Harry Potter series are required by law to hide their magic from the world. Christians, on the other hand, are required by Jesus’ command to get out there and shine for all the world to see.
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
Today, I challenge you to celebrate what makes you different. Don’t be afraid to be noticed. Get out there and let your light shine!
Last weekend, my family went to see the new version of Disney’s The Lion King. The movie was made as part of Disney’s campaign of remaking live versions of classic animated movies. However, this movie—starring a cast of lions, hyenas, a warthog, and a meercat—contains no live shots of animals and, apparently, only one live shot of scenery.
So what makes this version new? The original film, released in 1994, employed mostly traditional hand-drawn animation. It looks like a well-made cartoon. The 2019 remake uses very realistic computer-generated animation and “virtual-production techniques” that include filming the voice actors acting out their parts and then recreating their facial expressions on the animated animals. Much of the animation looks impressively real, as if birds are actually flying through the air, grass is actually blowing in a breeze, and lions and hyenas are actually talking to each other.
If you haven’t seen the movie yet, you can watch the trailer here.
The art of animation has come a long way since Walt Disney made his first animated short film in 1928. The word animate means “possessing or characterized by life; alive; full of life.” To animate means “to give life to.” 
The Bible also equates life with breath. In Genesis 2:7, “the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” God animated humans with his own breath.
Yet, there is more than one type of life described in the Bible. Humans were given life when God formed the first humans from the dust of the ground. Yet when Jesus came, he offered a new kind of life, one that stretches into eternity: “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24). “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
Life changes with Jesus. What came before is so different, it’s as if we weren’t alive at all. It’s like the difference between a virtual-reality computer generated film and a hand-painted animated film. The computer generated film has more color, more depth, more feeling, more detail, more…life!
But just like a computer generated film is still just an imitation of real life, there is also something greater in store for us than the Jesus-filled life we lead now. When we have outgrown the physical bodies we live in now, God has something even better waiting for us.
“So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).
Our new lives will be even more real than anything we have experienced before. There will be more color, more depth, more feeling, more detail, more…life! It will be a life without tears or pain or death (Revelation 21:4).
Praise God today for the physical life he gave you, the new life you have in Jesus, and the amazing life you will have for eternity. What amazing gifts these are!
Lion photo by Luke Tanis on Unsplash
Today, I had to retrieve my passport from a safe-deposit box. It reminded me of something I wrote years ago about our eternal citizenship. I made a few tweaks to it, but most of this is from my book, Standing Firm: Are You Ready for the Battle?
Between 1975 and 1979, a communist group known as the Khmer Rouge controlled the government of the small country of Cambodia in Southeast Asia. To maintain control and to institute a new, highly controlled way of life, the Khmer Rouge outlawed anything to do with the Cambodians’ former way of life. They banished schools, churches, banks, hospitals—even families. Children were taken away from their parents and raised in the new thinking of the Khmer Rouge. Anyone who disagreed with the government, or anyone who could be considered a threat to its stability, was brutally murdered.
Around two million Cambodians—almost one third of the population—died, either at the hands of the Khmer Rouge or as a result of the terrible living conditions which resulted. A great many were taken to large fields where they were killed and buried in shallow graves. Those fields came to be known as “the killing fields.”
In 1984, a major motion picture was released to document some small portion of the terrible events in Cambodia. In that story we see the horrors of war and hate. We see death, brutality, and destruction, and all without any reason we can comprehend. We see evil in human form, the fullest expression of sin and its consequences.
The Killing Fields tells the story of an American journalist in Cambodia during the takeover of the Khmer Rouge. As bad as things got there, with bombings, random killings in the streets, and a lack of food and other necessities, the American never completely despaired. Like other foreigners in the land, he could go to an embassy for help, hop on a helicopter, or take a truck offering safe passage out of the country. The passports they held in their hands proved their citizenship to another country and their right to walk away and leave Cambodia before their worst fears became reality.
The American’s friend and interpreter, a Cambodian national, was not so lucky. It was not until the American had to leave his friend behind that he finally realized the full horror of the situation his friend faced.
As Christians, we also have citizenship in another kingdom, and our names are on a list guaranteeing us safe passage out of this war zone when the time is right. We live in this world, and we might be very attached to it and not want to leave, but this is not out our home.
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). The New Testament calls us “foreigners” or “aliens,” “exiles,” and “strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13 and 1 Peter 2:11). Jesus also said, “the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21). It is a spiritual kingdom made up of people all over the world—from every tribe and language, people group and nationality—all who acknowledge Jesus as Lord.
The heavenly passport we hold can be a source of hope in a war-torn world. Or we can leave the passport in a safe-deposit box and forget about our true citizenship while we bicker over things that have no eternal significance.
Ask yourself today, where do you belong? Which Lord will you follow? For which kingdom will you fight?
I am a big fan of movies, but there are some genres I don’t care for. Horror is at the top of that list. I don’t like anything with ghosts, demons, monsters, creepy aliens, or oversized-sharks. So, I have a hard time explaining how I became a fan of the Netflix series, Stranger Things.
Stranger Things has a TV-14 rating based on language, some sexuality, and, most of all, some very scary monsters. I wouldn’t recommend it for pre-teens, even though many of the lead actors in the show were under age 14 when the show started in 2016.
The third season hit Netflix on July 4. Watching it, I still have to close my eyes or hit fast-forward during some of the gorier parts. But I don’t watch it for the gory parts. I watch it for the characters. In any genre of story-telling, my favorite characters have always been ordinary folk who step up and become heroes during extraordinary circumstances. Stranger Things is all about people like that.
There is something else I like about this show, something you only get from fantasy, science-fiction, or horror shows. It provides a visual allegory for the battle between good and evil being fought on a spiritual level. In Stranger Things, the monsters come from another dimension—the “upside down”—after a “gate” is opened between their dimension and ours. In our world, we are also called to do battle against enemies who are not like us.
The Bible tells us, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). We don’t fight these enemies with ordinary weapons but with special armor God provides—truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, the Word of God, and prayer (Ephesians 6:13-18). Learning how to use this armor takes time and practice, but with our armor in place we can heroically stand up against our enemy and make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of everyone around us.
I’ve noticed another similarity between Stranger Things and the real spiritual battles we face. Although the stakes are high in each season of the show, the characters who know about the monsters are reluctant to tell anyone else what they know. In season one, a mother “knows” her missing son is near, but her knowledge is based on flickering lights, strange sounds, and something that seems to be alive inside the walls of her house. How can she explain that to anyone without sounding crazy? Who would take her seriously?
It can be difficult for Christians, as well, to talk about spiritual things with people who don’t believe in God or the Bible. Even some Christians think the Bible’s stories about Satan and demons aren’t meant to be read literally or such supernatural beings aren’t active in the world today. So when we’re struggling with fear, depression, doubts, and anxiety, we may not consider addressing them as spiritual issues. When we watch our neighborhoods and nations spiral out of control with violence, bigotry, and immoral behavior becoming the new normal, we may not think to put on our spiritual armor and march into battle.
Even if we recognize supernatural forces at work, we may not know what we should do about it. I think it starts with getting a good grip on what we believe about God and his intentions for this world. Then we need to take up our armor and learn how to use it. There are many good Christian books to help with both these goals. I wrote one on the Armor of God which I’ll be re-releasing in August. If you would like to join my email list to receive updates on the re-release of Standing Firm: Are You Ready for the Battle? just use the link below. You will also receive a free excerpt from chapter one of my upcoming book, Finding Your Part in God’s Master Story.
In the meantime, read through Ephesians 6:10-20 and think about how you can use the Word of God and prayer to stand up to the enemy in your life.
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I was skeptical last weekend when I went with my family to see Toy Story 4. The original Toy Story was a charming movie with lots of heart, but I was disappointed in the two sequels. The odd character of Forky in commercials for number 4 didn’t inspire confidence in the new movie, but I still went. And I’m glad I did.
Toy Story 4 has all the warmth of the original movie. It also has humor and just enough excitement to keep it interesting. The original toys are all back along with a few new ones, including Forky, a “toy” made by kindergartner Molly out of pieces of trash. We also learn what happened to Bo Peep, who appeared in the first two movies but not in number 3. She is now a “lost toy” after leaving an antique store where she sat unwanted on a shelf for two years.
The theme of the movie is belonging. The toys classify each other by whether or not they “have a kid.” Those who don’t belong to someone, desperately want to—except for Forky, who takes a while to be convinced he is a toy. He thinks of himself as trash and keeps trying to get back to the trash can where he feels he belongs.
From the first Toy Story movie to the latest, we are reminded that toys are made with a purpose—to belong to a child. To bring joy and comfort to that child. And in fulfilling their purpose, the toys receive love and joy in return. A toy without a child is a toy without purpose and without love.
The Bible tells us we were also made with a purpose. We are not the result of random evolution. Each of us is the result of an intentional, loving design. We have a creator. He made us for himself, and he loves us deeply.
“God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
“For you [God] created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Psalm 139:13-14).
Did you catch that? We are wonderful in God’s eyes—and our purpose is to love and serve him.
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).
We are not trash. We are not accidents. We have a purpose.
Unfortunately, sin and its consequences get between us and God. Because of sin, so many people in this world are like the lost toys in Toy Story 4—not knowing where they really belong. Jesus came to bring them back—if they will let him.
That’s a great story to tell, isn’t it?
The Tony Award for Best Musical was awarded on June 9 to Hadestown, a show I was fortunate enough to see in its pre-Broadway debut at the New York Theater Workshop. Hadestown is a retelling of a Greek myth about Orpheus and Eurydice, set during the Great Depression.
There are several versions of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but the basic story is about an extremely talented musician (Orpheus) who falls in love with a beautiful girl (Eurydice) and then quickly loses her to an untimely death. Orpheus decides to visit the Underworld—the home of Hades and his wife, Persephone—to ask Hades to release Eurydice back to life on earth. Orpheus sings for Hades, and his emotional song moves Hades to grant his request—with one condition. Orpheus must travel back to the world above without ever looking behind him to see if Eurydice is following. Only when Eurydice reaches the light will she be returned to her living body—and only if Orpheus never once looks back.
While watching the musical Hadestown, it’s easy to forget that the story it’s based on is a tragedy. Yet the narrator, Hermes, tells the audience right from the start that “this is a story about a man who tries.” Orpheus tries to save Eurydice from death. He does not succeed.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of another story about a man who descended into Hell to save someone he loved. His name is Jesus. Like Orpheus, he descended into the realms of death. “He was delivered over to death for our sins” (Romans 4:25a). Also like Orpheus, he came back to the land of the living. He “was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25b). “God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24).
The difference, of course, is that Jesus did not look back. Everyone who chooses to follow him is raised with him to a new and eternal life. “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:11). “By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also” (1 Corinthians 6:14).
This is the good news of the Bible. This is the Christian message—that Jesus died to lead us from death into life. He asks us to believe in him. He asks us to follow him. The question is, will we look back? Will we allow the pleasures of life, our insecurities, or our independence to pull us back into the darkness of a life without Jesus?
Will you be someone who only tried? Or will you follow the one who has conquered death and trust your life to him?
This new life in Jesus is one of the things even Christians disagree about. Some Christians believe in a permanent salvation, starting when one accepts Jesus as their savior. Others believe that new life begins when one accepts Jesus, but that salvation can be lost if one “looks back” and forsakes their faith. Still others believe that salvation is a life-long process (even extending after life into purgatory), involving faith, obedience, and participating in the sacraments of the church.
If you have ever wondered about these differences in Christian beliefs, you may be interested in a new book I’ve written on Christian worldviews. By clicking on the link below, you will receive a free download containing a short excerpt of the book and you will be added to a mailing list to be notified when the book is published. (I also included a few statistics about the crazy things some people believe, just for laughs.)
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Last weekend, I saw the latest X-Men movie – Dark Phoenix. Like all the movies in the X-Men franchise, this movie grapples with questions about what makes us human and what gives us value. The X-Men are mutants – humans with mutated genes that give them different powers. Some mutants have the ability to read and control minds; others fly, turn into beasts, change their appearance, move things with their minds, or shoot laser beams from their eyes. This is all comic-book science-fiction, and there’s no end to the powers the writers have come up with.
In Dark Phoenix, the main character is a young woman with exceptionally strong powers. As a girl, not yet able to control her power, Jean caused an accident that killed her mother. Professor Charles Xavier (who puts the X in X-Men) offered Jean a home at his school for mutants, but Jean was afraid that he was just another doctor wanting to “fix” her. In a very touching scene, Charles reassures Jean that he doesn’t want to fix her because she isn’t broken. Yes, she’s different. But she can embrace her differences, learn to control her power, and do wonderful things – if that’s what she chooses.
Sometimes, we all want to be reassured that we are valued just the way we are. We see the mess in our lives and try to fix everything different or uncomfortable or unattractive about ourselves so people will like us. I know I’ve been guilty lately of not wanting to post any pictures of myself until I find a way to look younger. And so much of our social conversation these days is about accepting people who are different than us. There would be a lot less hatred and violence in our world if we could just let people be who they want to be instead of trying to “fix” everyone who looks, thinks, or acts differently.
Here is where the Christian message can get tricky.
Jesus loves people. All people. He doesn’t care what color their skin is, where they are from, who they voted for, or what kind of clothes they like to wear.
Jesus loves and accepts all the people. But he doesn’t want them to stay the way they are. Because deep down on the inside, every one of us is broken. Every one of us needs forgiveness for living a life that doesn’t always bring honor and glory to God who created us. Every one of us needs to put God first in our lives, so we can learn to be the people he created us to be.
Yes, you are broken. So am I. But Jesus is making me new. My job as a Christian is to love people the way Jesus loves them - without exception. It's not my job to fix them. I can only invite them to meet Jesus who is the only one who can heal the brokenness inside.
“This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24, NIV).
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Stories are a metaphor for life. That's a deep way of saying we can learn life lessons from stories we read or watch on stage or on big or small screens. When viewed through a Christian worldview, even secular films and books can tell us something about our Christian walk. Here you will find a collection of blog posts with lessons I have learned from stories. I hope you enjoy them!