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Jul 11

Coach Lesson Four: Listen

Posted on Friday, July 11, 2014 in Coaching

After covering the logistics, the first lesson I teach our coaches is on listening, a subject Joel Comiskey hits on in lesson four of his book that I’m currently going through with our coaches — “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group.”

Comiskey points out that coaching is quite simple — it consists of focusing on the needs of others rather than your own, primarily through careful listening.  But while it’s simple, that doesn’t mean it comes naturally.  He cites Stephen Covey, who said, “Most people do not listen to understand; they listen in order to answer.  While the other is talking, they are preparing their reply.”

Fortunately, with intentionality and practice, we can become much better listeners.  It requires hard work and some intentional skills.  Comiskey mentions eye contact, which is one of five steps to attentive listening I talked about at our Helping People Grow May Term  group:

  • Squarely face the person
  • Open your posture
  • Lean towards the other
  • Eye contact maintained
  • Relax while attending

These steps are helpful for communicating to your leaders that you are listening and are interested in what they have to say.

Comiskey also talks about the importance of paying attention to non-verbal communication.  This is one of the reasons why I much prefer in-person coaching meetings to phone calls or even Skype or FaceTime.  Non-verbal communication such as body language and voice inflection actually make up the majority of a communication experience and much of that can be missed if you’re not in-person.  Or, of course, if you’re not listening well!

Listening is a basic skill but one that’s incredibly essential to any relationship — we would all benefit from becoming more effective listeners.

Jul 10

Coach Lesson Three: Plan

Posted on Thursday, July 10, 2014 in Coaching

Our NCC small group coaches are slowly working through “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group” by Joel Comiskey.  Lesson three focuses on the importance of planning rather than simply hoping something will happen in your coaching.

Plan to Pray for Your Leaders

I appreciate the fact that Comiskey starts out by emphasizing a need to plan to pray.  When we first started our coaching system, I neglected to tell coaches that one of their key responsibilities is to pray for their leaders.  Hopefully I thought that was a given, but regardless I now try to be clear that they need to be praying for their leaders and regularly checking in to ask their leaders what they can be praying for.  Comiskey reminds us that we are engaged in a spiritual battle — through prayer we can support our leaders even when we aren’t with them.

Plan to Contact Your Leaders

When it comes to coaching, the more proactive we can be about contacting our leaders, the better.  I try to send our coaches regular reminders to be contacting their leaders, but the best coaches won’t need a nudge from me.  My own coach is very intentional about this — at the end of each meeting, we get the next meeting on the calendar, which is a good way to ensure they happen on a regular basis.

Comiskey also hits on group coaching and phone calls.  While I generally steer coaches toward one-on-one meetings, we give them flexibility and a few have found coaching as a group to be very effective for their leaders.  Coaching phone calls, on the other hand, can be a potential solution for coaches and leaders who have trouble coordinating their schedules (a common problem in DC).

Plan Your Questions

Our initial coach training emphasizes two things — listening well (which Comiskey hits on in lesson 4) and asking good questions.  On the questions front, we want our coaches asking open questions, which have a neutral tone and can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no” response.  While it may be a struggle to come up with such questions in the midst of a conversation, Comiskey reminds us that we don’t have to — we can plan questions in advance as we think about individual leaders’ specific circumstances and needs.

In addition, after a coaching meeting we should always record our observations and insights in order to remember what we should be praying for as well as to better prepare us for the next meeting.  Being able to refresh our memory before each meeting will enable us to build upon each conversation.

Plan Your Visits to Small Group Meetings

Having coaches visit small groups has never been an official part of our system, although I’ve recently begun throwing it out as an option to our coaches.  Comiskey wisely points out that there are some issues a coach will never be aware of unless they visit the leader’s group and he provides some guidelines for doing so, declaring that your primary objective is to encourage the group and the leader.  We’ve been hesitant to require this, given our short semesters and concern that leaders would misinterpret the visit as checking up on them rather than as trying to encourage them.  But it’s something we may explore more in the future.

Remain Flexible

Comiskey reminds us not to let our plans lock us into a course of action, but as I’ve mentioned, we often remain flexible in other ways as well.  We encourage our coaches to do what works best for them and their leaders — group coaching, coaching phone calls, and small group visits are all options they can try if they think it will be effective.  We really want them to take ownership and discover what works for them.  And as we like to say at NCC, “everything is an experiment!”

Jun 5

Ministry is Spiritually Hazardous to Your Soul

Posted on Thursday, June 5, 2014 in Pontifications

Writing about three pastors who resigned over extramarital affairs, James Emery White makes a point (well, it’s one of several) that all pastors need to remember:

Let me tell you something that you may have never heard before: Ministry is spiritually hazardous to your soul. If you haven’t found that out by now, you will.

First, it is because you are constantly doing “spiritual” things, and it is easy to confuse those things with actually being spiritual. For example, you are constantly in the Bible, studying it, in order to prepare a talk. It’s easy to confuse this with reading and studying the Bible devotionally for your own soul.

You’re not.

You are praying – in services, during meetings, at pot lucks – and it is easy to think you are leading a life of personal, private prayer.

You’re not.

You are planning worship, leading worship, attending worship, and it is easy to believe you, yourself, are actually worshipping.

Chances are, you’re not.

When you are in ministry, it is easy to confuse doing things for God with spending time with God; to confuse activity with intimacy; to mistake the trappings of spirituality for being spiritual.
All pastors need to come to the decision point that White did:  ”I was going to be a public and private worshiper; I was going to be a student of the Bible for my talks and for my soul; I was going to pray for others to hear, and for an audience of one.”
Mar 31

Thoughts After Seeing Noah

Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014 in Cultural Activism, Pontifications

SPOILER ALERT!  Don’t read this post if you haven’t seen Noah (which you should definitely go see).

Personally, I loved the movie Noah and think we should be glad that it beat out Divergent and Muppets Most Wanted (both of which  are also good movies) at the box office this past weekend.  Thousands of people watched a movie based on a Bible story highlighting questions of goodness and wickedness, justice and mercy.  Those are conversations worth having and hopefully it provoked many to explore the Genesis account and discuss the movie with their Christian friends.

Many Christians, of course, were upset by any deviations from the Biblical account — or from their own interpretation of the Biblical account.  While I hope many non-Christians dive into Scripture, I’m also hoping Christians revisit the narrative as well to discern what is actually in the Bible and what are the gaps they’ve filled in themselves.

Toward that end, some thoughts on elements of the film:

The Watchers.  I assume there’s a Biblical reason for it, since everyone does it, but the filmmakers followed most Christians’ example and conflated the “sons of God” with the Nephilim, who are both mentioned in Genesis 6:4. No one really knows what either was, although one of the most common interpretations of the “sons of God” is that they were fallen angels who wanted to sleep with human women — we should probably be grateful the filmmakers opted for a different interpretation.  The Nephilim were some sort of giants — they’re called “men of renown,” so I suspect they were more human in appearance than the film portrays.  The Nephilim are mentioned again in Scripture — they are the giants in the Promised Land in relation to whom the Jewish spies felt like grasshoppers (Numbers 13:33).  I found the backstory given to the Watchers to be fascinating, even if the Ent-like rock creatures themselves weren’t my favorite interpretation (see Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters for that).

Vegetarianism.  This is where I really want Christians to re-read their Bibles.  It sure doesn’t seem to me that God gives humans permission to eat animals until after the flood (see Genesis 9).  Prior to that, they only talk of eating plants.  Abel does raise flocks (possibly for wool?) and sacrifice animals to God, but there’s no mention of eating them.  I’m as carnivorous as the next guy, but that doesn’t change the fact that Noah was probably a vegetarian before the flood.  To suggest that the wickedness of man included eating  animals when they weren’t supposed to makes sense to me.

Environmentalism.  More broadly, is there an environmental angle to the film?  Well, it is portraying a Biblical tale where God wipes out all humans but one family while preserving the animals, so it’s kind of hard to avoid a somewhat pro-environment message.  But also, keep in mind that we’re dealing with a mere 10 generations after the Creation, among peoples whose history would be primarily oral.  It makes complete sense that God is referred to as “The Creator” and that those who follow Him believe it’s important to preserve those things He’d declared to be “good” in the Creation account.  I also found the reference to taking only what we need to be reflective of a culture that lives much more closely to the land than we do today.  They’d be more akin to the tribal cultures we are familiar with than our own cultural context.  Rather than reacting against what we may interpret as environmental propaganda, let’s use this as an opportunity to wrestle through to a better understanding of Scriptural context.

The Wives.  Did Noah, his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives enter the ark?  Technically, yes — two of the wives just did so within the belly of the third.  Granted, this is a significant deviation from what we assume happened based on the bare bones description in the Biblical account, but it did set up a very interesting question worth wrestling with — do we trust in God’s provision or do we try to meet our needs our own way?  Interestingly, it was in trying to meet the need his own way that Noah got messed up in the head and decided that humanity should end with his family, which then blinded him to God’s provision for that need.  And before you say, “Eww, gross, you wanted Ham and Japheth to marry their nieces?”, be reminded that logic dictates a lot of intermarriage in the first few generations of humanity.

Noah Goes Nuts.  Well, the drunk, naked Noah is Scriptural, so they had to set that up somehow, right?  Actually, I felt like it raised a lot of interesting questions about hearing from God.  In the Biblical account, God simply “speaks” and Noah acts, but there’s no record of Noah responding to or interacting with God.  With the Bible, we too often fall prey to forgetting that its characters were people like us who experienced God in many ways similar to our own.  We assume a big, booming voice from heaven very clearly told Noah what to do.  The suggestion that his instructions actually came by way of visions and his grandfather is intriguing.  And the suggestion that he got his wires crossed and misunderstood (when he wanted to kill his grandkids) is humbling.  Maybe there aren’t as high of stakes, but how often do we wrestle with whether or not we’ve clearly understood God?  And how often are we more certain of what God said than we should be?

The Creation Account.  I loved the scene where Noah recounts Creation. And I thought the filmmakers did an excellent job of walking a fine line of leaving evolution open as a possibility without declaring it to have happened that way.

Methusaleh’s Death.  I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that if you do the math, Methusaleh dies the year of the flood.  I’m glad they kept it that way.

Animals 2 by 2.  I’ve heard Christians compliment them on getting this right, when actually this is one area they got wrong.  While there was one pair of each of the unclean animals, there were 7 pairs of the clean animals (Genesis 7:2-3).  This is a place where filmmakers stuck to the popular understanding even though it’s not entirely Biblical.  Can you imagine how much they’d be getting attacked if they’d actually been Biblical on this point?

Anyway, those are some general thoughts I had following the film and reading others’ commentary. Personally, I think the fact that we are even having this discussion is a win.

Mar 27

10 Things To Remember When Watching Noah

Posted on Thursday, March 27, 2014 in Cultural Activism, Pontifications

I’m excited about the upcoming Noah movie, but am also well aware that a lot of Christians have expressed concerns and the movie has already come in for a great deal of criticism.  While I can’t speak to the legitimacy of much of that criticism until I’ve seen the movie, some of it has demonstrated a need for Christians to revisit the Noah narrative themselves, to make sure their critiques are, in fact, Biblical.  There are also a few other things they need to be aware of.

Toward that end, I’d recommend rereading Genesis 6-9 and remembering the following:

  1. Who were the “sons of God” who married the daughters of men and had children by them?  Angels?  Fallen angels?  We don’t know.  Given the context, many interpretations have a very sexualized nature to them, but Noah filmmaker Darren Aronofsky says they took a more metaphorical approach to avoid being too graphic for families.
  2. Who were the Nephilim?  These “heroes of old, men of renown” are also a mystery to us.  Personally, my favorite interpretation is found in Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters, but that, too, is just a guess.
  3. What did the “wickedness of man” at that time involve?  Well, apparently violence, corruption, and evil — the Bible doesn’t get any more specific than that.  We should be careful not to project our own ideas of the most heinous sins onto the situation and assume we’re correct.  The Noah narrative occurs just a few chapters in Genesis after God gave man stewardship responsibility for the earth, so an interpretation that part of the wickedness involved stewarding the earth poorly is valid and not necessarily an attempt to create environmental propaganda.
  4. How did the people of Noah’s day respond to his building of a boat?  Here again, we don’t know.  Regardless of how many sermons we’ve heard on how we need to be “fools for Christ” just like Noah seemed to be when he built a boat in the middle of the desert, the Old Testament narrative is silent on this question.  The New Testament does refer to this time, but simply to draw a parallel with the Second Coming and state that most people were oblivious and caught unawares by the flood.
  5. How did God speak to Noah?  You guessed it — we don’t really know.  The Bible says He “spoke” which we tend to assume means a big, booming voice from heaven, despite the fact that our own experience of God’s voice tends to be different than that.
  6. How did Noah respond to God?  He obeyed.  But apart from his actions, we have no record of him speaking to God in response to what God tells him.  When God told Abraham He was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham urged Him to show mercy.  Why didn’t Noah do the same?  Apparently this question drove much of the film’s explorations of what it means to be righteous.
  7. How did Noah refer to God?  Well, as noted, typically he doesn’t — his conversations with God are almost all one-sided with God speaking to him. But on the one occasion he does speak in reference to God, he uses Yahweh and Elohim, which we usually translate “The LORD” and “God.”  However, it’s worth remembering that out of respect many Jews today are cautious about pronouncing God’s name and instead use substitute names for God (e.g., “the Creator,” which we hear in the film trailer). That’s worth keeping in mind when considering criticizing the film for not including the word “God.”
  8. Did Noah get drunk and naked?  Yes, he did.  The film may or may not merit criticism for how it portrays that, but remember that it is in fact part of the Biblical narrative.
  9. Was Noah a “preacher of righteousness”?  Yes, but that doesn’t come from the Old Testament narrative, that’s from 2 Peter 2:5.  Since the film seems based on the Old Testament narrative, I’m not sure we can fault them if that’s not part of their characterization.
  10. Isn’t the film adding extrabiblical material?  Well, yeah, but so does the Son of God every time the actor playing Jesus changes his facial expression.  Any portrayal of Bible stories is going to fill in gaps, hopefully they just do so in a way that doesn’t contradict what’s actually in the text.  And hopefully we as Christians are aware of when we’re projecting extrabiblical understanding of our own (if you believe there were 3 wise men, you need to re-read your Bible — but that’s another post for another time).

Rather than prejudging the film and staying away, I’d encourage Christians to see and evaluate it for themselves and, more importantly, engage friends, family, and coworkers in the discussions of faith the movie is already provoking.

A major movie is highlighting a Bible story and drawing out themes of goodness, wickedness, mercy, and justice.  The culture is ripe for frank and honest conversations about faith.  Are we ready?

Mar 14

Coach Lesson Two: Learn

Posted on Friday, March 14, 2014 in Coaching, Growth, Pontifications

I’m continuing to work through “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group” by Joel Comiskey in conjunction with our team of small group coaches, which I lead.  Lesson two is on learning – specifically, learning from failure, learning from your own small group leadership experiences, and learning about your leaders by spending time with them.

Learning from Failure

Comiskey points out that there are no shortcuts – we learn from experience and we gain experience by making mistakes.  While mistakes invite self-condemnation and attacks from the enemy, the reality is that Jesus uses inadequate people – it is in our weakness that He becomes strong.  We must continually cling to that truth and keep trying.

God hates passivity.  Comiskey quotes Henry Cloud and John Townsend in Boundaries: “The sin God rebukes is not trying and failing, but failing to try.”  As Hebrews 10:38 says, “But my righteous one will live by faith.  And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.”

Learning from Leading

For small group coaches, one of the best experiences to learn from is leading small groups ourselves, which is why we make that a prerequisite for coaches.  This allows us to draw from our own experiences – both positive and negative.  In fact, often it is our failures that are more helpful to our leaders than our successes.  I’m always amazed at God’s ability to redeem anything, and in coaching one of the most gratifying experiences is to see God repurpose our own negative experiences to benefit our leaders.

Learning through Spending Time

Simply put, we learn about our leaders through spending time with them.  But how much is enough?  And how much is too much?

While we ask our coaches to meet with their leaders a minimum of three times each semester, over the long term we seek to learn how much time a leader needs from us.  That will vary depending on the leader.  As Comiskey notes, the key question is whether or not the leader feels cared for.  It may be as simple as asking, “How much time do you need to spend with me to be a more effective leader?”

We are life-long learners.  Comiskey identifies the foundational coaching principles as listening, caring, developing, strategizing, and challenging (which he explores in the following lessons).  As we learn from our failures, from our own leadership experiences, and from interaction with our leaders, we can build upon those principles and continue to grow in our ability to coach.

Feb 27

Coach Lesson One: Receive

Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2014 in Coaching, Growth, Pontifications

Our small group coaches have begun working through Joel Comiskey’s training manual “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group,” which I highly recommend.

The first lesson focuses on our ability to receive.  As it’s been said, ministry flows out of being.  The effectiveness of a coach depends on his or her own relationship with Christ.  Comiskey reminds us that you can’t lead a person beyond the place where you are and that your character will eventually find you out.  No matter how talented or gifted you are, that’s no substitute for virtues like honesty, faithfulness and good judgment.

So what’s the key to receiving well?  Comiskey points to spending time with God each day, taking a day off each week, and prioritizing relationships with those closest to you.

Time with God

Henry Blackaby has said that what we need more than anything is unhurried time with God.  Spending time with Him each day enables us to know Him better, learn from His Word, be empowered by His Spirit, and grow accustomed to His voice.  It’s essential, but far too often we allow it to be crowded out by other activities or by liberal use of the snooze button (or maybe that’s just me).  We need to remember Who it is we are meeting with and make it a priority.

After being convicted by Blackaby’s “unhurried time” statement, I’ve tried increasing my often rushed morning quiet time to a full hour so I have plenty of time to read a devotional (by Blackaby, coincidentally), read my Bible (a friend and I pick a new book to focus on each month), journal, pray, and spend time silently waiting on God.  Rarely do I actually spend a full hour (that darn snooze button) and it fails to happen altogether far more often than it should, but the key is to be moving in the right direction.

A Day Off

God didn’t design us to work 7 days a week.  That’s just the way it is.  If we do so, we’ll get out of balance and burn out.

Several years ago Heather and I read “The Rest of God” by Mark Buchanan (which I also highly recommend) and began being much more intentional about setting aside a day each week where we refrain from “work” and only do activities that recharge us.  I’m an introvert and she’s an extrovert, so it may not always look the same for us, but we’ve both found it extremely helpful.  I’m able to be much more productive during the week when I know that I have a day off approaching.  And implementing Sabbath gave me time to add back into my life activities (like cooking and reading) that bring me joy but had gotten squeezed out by busyness.  More joy is always a good thing.

Close Relationships

We all need close, intimate relationships where we can know and be known.  We grow in our relationship with God as we are able to share our lives – the good, the bad, and the ugly – with our spouse and close friends.  If you don’t prioritize your family life and those closest to you, you won’t have much to offer those you are coaching.

Heather and I always have room for improvement, but we have established many ways to ensure we remain close and connected, including date nights every other week, monthly goals/calendar/budget breakfasts, and an annual prayer retreat.  Keeping our relationship on solid footing enables us to more effectively minister to others.

So how are you doing in terms of receiving?  Do you have a daily quiet time, a weekly Sabbath, and are you cultivating your relationship with family and close friends?

What is it you need to do?  Don’t just ponder it – go do it.

Jun 18

But what if they bleed all over the furniture?

Posted on Tuesday, June 18, 2013 in Care, Pontifications

I’ve heard it said that the Christian 4-letter F-word is “Fine.”  As in, “how are you today?” “Oh, I’m fine.”  I can’t remember the last time I had a meaningful conversation with my spouse, my boss’s criticism is causing me to question my self-worth, and I don’t understand how a good God could let my cousin’s kids lose their dad to cancer, but “I’m fine.”

If everyone in your small group is “fine,” they aren’t going to experience much life change.

When someone brings their hurt and pain to the group, rather than thinking “Oh no, what do I do about this?” your inward response should be, “At last! Now we’re getting somewhere!”

All of us have experienced the hurts and wounds that come throughout life and small groups should be a safe place for God to bring them to the surface and deal with them.

So don’t freak out.

Depending on how you’re wired, your tendency may be to shut down those expressing their hurt in fear that they’ll bleed all over the furniture (figuratively speaking), make the other members uncomfortable, and derail the direction you planned to take the group.  Instead, you swiftly and smoothly tell them you’ll pray with them after group and then refer them up the ladder to a church staff member who can guide them to the “professional” help they need.

Yes, there’s a time and place for that, but don’t short-circuit the process of what God wants to do in and through your group.  A healthy group should be a place where members can process and deal with hurts and wounds from both the past and the present.

So what can your group do?

  • Be present.  Most often, people who reveal their hurts simply want others to be there for them.  Hear them out and demonstrate a commitment to walk with them through the pain.
  • Validate their pain.  Acknowledge the legitimacy of their emotions.  Let them know you’ve been there too – their reaction is totally understandable.
  • Clarify the situation.  Depending on what hurt or pain they’ve experienced, they may have a skewed perspective of the situation.  Help them to think it through and gain clarity.
  • Supply strength.  They may need the group to provide emotional support and strength that they are lacking on their own.  How can you as a group come around them and provide the resources they need to deal with or walk through the situation?
  • Make a plan.  Will time heal wounds and you simply need to walk with them through the process?  Or do they need to take specific steps to deal with the situation?  Where steps are called for, help them to think them through clearly and realistically.
  • Maintain group identity.  Be aware of how others in the group are responding to the situation.  While other group members can grow through providing support to the hurt person, don’t allow the group to become solely about that person’s issues.  Maintain boundaries that permit the rest of the group to continue to grow and process their own issues.

It’s been said that you can’t know you are truly loved until you are truly known.    Through being honest about the hurt they are dealing with, your small group member is letting you know them at a deeper level.

As the other members experience this and come alongside the hurt member in their pain, they know that they can be real and honest about the hurts they experience and the group will be there for them as well.

Say hello to true community.

Previously posted at BibleStudyInsider.com.

Dec 29

From whence come redemptive stories?

Posted on Saturday, December 29, 2012 in Pontifications

Having just seen the film version of Les Miserables, with its fantastic depiction of the redemptive nature of grace and the law (described well by by Tullian Tchividjian here), I’ve been thinking about where powerful stories of redemption have come from in the past and from whence they originate today.

The Les Miserables movie, obviously, is a film version of the stage musical which is derived from the novel by Victor Hugo.  Such classic works of literature, many of which were written by deeply religious people living in deeply religious cultures, are often a source of such redemptive story lines.  I think of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (another by Victor Hugo), Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes, and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  More recently I think of the works of such great Christian authors as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  Many of these become further popularized in our day when they are turned into movies or musicals.

But what are the “classics” currently being written?  How can we identify them in a day where sudden popularity means instant film treatment?  And which of those carry redemptive themes?

Growing up, it seems like the Newbery Medals were meant to show us which books were destined for greatness and several of my favorites received that distinction — The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, The Grey King by Susan Cooper, Julie of the Wolves by June Craighead George, The High King by Lloyd Alexander, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell.  Which of those will truly stand the test of time — and which contain redemptive themes — may be open to debate (although I’d say L’Engle is inarguably redemptive and if you’ve never read her Walking on Water, you need to).

I don’t think one can speak of modern, redemptive stories without talking about Harry Potter.  The books and movies were both wildly successful and are unlikely to simply disappear into oblivion over time.  And as much controversy as they engendered among some Christians, they clearly concluded with Harry serving as a Christ figure.  Author J.K. Rowling, herself a Christian, felt like the religious parallels were always obvious, but refrained from pointing them out because she didn’t want people to realize where the series was heading.

So, what do y’all think?  Got any good examples of modern tales that speak Truth as powerfully as Les Miserables — and do so outside the Christian subculture?

Dec 21

Truth in the Marketplace

Posted on Friday, December 21, 2012 in Cultural Activism, Pontifications

“For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee.  And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and the kings to the brightness of thy rising.” (Handel’s Messiah)

Given that this blog was originally focused almost exclusively on the importance of regenerate art and that I recently saw one such piece and am eagerly anticipating another, I thought another post on the subject was warranted.  (Not to mention that it’s been forever and a day since I last posted, but anyway…)

Tonight Heather and I continued our annual tradition of seeing Handel’s Messiah, which continues to amaze me.  Although I first saw it at National Cathedral, I prefer seeing it in a secular setting, as we’ve done at the Kennedy Center the last several years.  Why?  Because it demonstrates the power of great art to break through barriers and communicate the Gospel to people who might otherwise be unwilling to listen.

Messiah consists of three parts – The Advent of the Messiah, The Passion of Christ, and His Resurrection — and includes many powerful passages, including the following:

“I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth, and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.  For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first-fruits of them that sleep.  Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

Handel knew the power of regenerate art.  He told one admirer, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.”

Having seen Messiah, I’m now eagerly looking forward to the film version of Les Miserables, which releases Christmas Day.  Assuming it’s faithful to the musical version, which included the strong religious themes of the book, it will communicate a powerful picture of grace to a wide audience.

I once had a coworker who didn’t fully understand why myself and others he knew were so keen on art’s ability to shape the culture and communicate powerful truths.  Then one morning he walked into the office and said, “I get it.”  He’d been to see Les Miserables over the weekend.

Christopher West says it well:

Les Mis sings gloriously of the hope of the Gospel itself.  And that’s one of the things I simply love about this musical: it’s a thoroughly sacred work of art that has been whole-heartedly embraced by the secular world.  For the “miserable ones” of this story, redemption is real, heaven is real, and “to love another person is to see the face of God…”  You “have to tell this story from the point of view that God exists,” says Tom Hooper, the film’s director.  It simply doesn’t work otherwise.

So, how did a musical which portrays Catholic bishops as beacons of love, presents Christian virtue as lighting the way to heaven, and weaves divine mercy throughout ever come to be celebrated by the moguls of London, New York, and now Hollywood?  Maybe because Les Mis is good art that simply unfolds a human story without an agenda.  Honest, artful story telling moves, challenges, and transforms the heart in its own way, and in its own time: overt altar calls aren’t needed; nor desired.  For when the deepest cries of the human heart are given voice and given hope, everyone with ears to “hear the people sing” listens and responds.”