A Little-Known Movie That Should Have Won

I watched the Oscars on Sunday night.  On one hand, watching the elite in Hollywood compete to out-dress each other and heap sickening praise on one another was a bit too much for me.  As host Billy Crystal said, “Nothing takes the sting out of these tough economic times like watching a bunch of millionaires giving golden statues to each other.”  On the other hand, I love a good movie, so I was curious enough to weed through the nonsense to see which actors and movies were awarded the year’s best.

As you know, “The Artist” won six Oscars.  Obviously, there was something unique about it to win that many awards, but a silent movie about a man who falls deeper and deeper into self-destruction just doesn’t do it for me.  Right after “The Artist” was named best movie of 2011, I posted this message on Facebook: “Best film of the year: The Artist? Seriously? Granted, it wasn’t a stellar movie year, but The Artist?! Boooo.” Since then, many have asked me which movie I think should have won best picture.  I could refer you to My Top Movie Picks of 2011 blog post, but there was one movie I had not seen when I posted it that I would add to this list…and if I had an Academy Awards vote for best picture of 2011, it would have received my vote.

The movie “A Better Life” opened in June last year on 4 screens nationwide.  It cost $10 million to make and brought in a little less than $2 million at the box office.  A bust, right?  Wrong.  The film is about a gardener in East L.A. struggling to keep his son away from gangs and immigration agents while trying to give his son the opportunities he never had.  He’s an illegal immigrant, and after watching this movie, some of your thoughts and opinions about illegal immigration may be challenged.  Mine were.  For his work on this film, little-known Mexican actor, Demián Bichir, was nominated for the best actor Oscar – alongside Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and other stars (including the actor from “The Artist” who won having spoken only 2 words in the entire film!).  Perhaps you saw him during the broadcast, and perhaps you saw the scene they showed – which was powerful. 

This film – along with other films about illegal immigrants including 2007’s “The Visitor” – has spurred lively discussions over immigrant labor and the root causes of illegal immigration.  This is a discussion that Christians ought to be engaged in, because Jesus – the One we follow – had a lot to say about the “stranger” among us.  Illegal immigration is a complex and politically charged issue in our country right now, and watching films like “A Better Life” helps to humanize the issue – which is what it is above anything else: a human issue.  Please watch the movie, and please pray for the “strangers” among us that we would treat them as God would have us.

Here’s the trailer for “A Better Life”


When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.  Lev. 19:33-34

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’  Matt. 25:35-40

Why We Do Worship The Way We Do (And Why I Like It)

I hate to admit it, but I’ve been a pastor for 18 years, and there have been many times in my ministry career that I have not looked forward to going to church.  But I love going to church now more than ever before.  As a matter of fact, I look forward to it each week.  Here’s why…

I grew up in a church where every Sunday was basically the same: announcements, songs, sermon, closing song with an invitation to come forward to “receive” Christ.  This was the liturgy of a professed non-liturgical church, and this was the kind of church I ended up doing ministry in as a pastor.  I always felt like something was missing.  In this kind of church, my worship experience hinged upon whether or not the music minister delivered with relevant songs or the preacher delivered with a compelling sermon.  I was a spectator consuming whatever the ministry leaders offered me on any given Sunday.  It was what I was used to, but I felt empty most of the time.

Along the way, I experienced from time to time churches with a more charismatic feel.  Less order and more emotion.  There were times when this ministered to me, but overall, I still felt like something was missing.  These services require a stellar worship band and a preacher skilled in the art of ad-lib in order to work.  Sometimes it did, and sometimes it didn’t. But the problem still remained for me: I was a spectator. A consumer.

I’ve had some experience with more liturgical (as in traditional liturgy) churches.  Because of my background, not much of it made sense to me.  There was a lot of sitting, standing, and reciting, but no one was there to explain to me why we were doing this.  I doubt many regulars knew why either, and therefore, the worship service seemed lifeless and rote.  However, there was something about this type of worship that drew me in a bit.  I was no longer just a consumer.  I was a participant, but I didn’t know what all of it meant.

About three years ago, it started to make more sense to me.  I read two books, Ancient/Future Worship and Ancient/Future Faith by the late Robert Webber and my eyes were opened.  I understood better what the liturgical churches are attempting to do, and it made sense.  The way Webber explained it and the theological argument he made for it made sense. It seemed fresh, rich and meaningful to me, and so I – along with my associate pastors – embarked on a journey of leading our people into a more ordered and meaningful weekly worship experience.  Because of my past, I made a point to make sure that everything we implemented was explained well.  As a matter of fact, we have a descriptive paragraph for each of our service elements in the bulletin each week.

After a 2 year transition, here’s what our worship services consist of each week.  These elements are designed to usher our people into an involved and rich worship experience while also serving as a model for the way our lives are to be lived each day as worshipers.

Call to Worship
We desire to live lives that are wholly devoted to the Lord, impacting and shaping every area of our lives.  This call to worship is a call for God’s people to reorient their lives in submission and worship of the King of kings.  We start our service with this after an opening song, and we normally use a Psalm.  The leader calls the people to worship, and the people respond by – in essence – saying, “We are here and ready to worship!”

Worship In Song
We joyfully sing together because the Apostle Paul exhorts us in Colossians 3:16 to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly (by) singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”  Our song leader leads us in modern praise songs and in hymns with modern arrangements.

Confession of Sins and Assurance of Pardon
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), but – because of the death and resurrection of Jesus – “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  Confession of our sin and then reveling in the assurance God gives us of His forgiveness through Jesus is something that God’s people ought to engage in daily, and this is why we do it each week when we gather.  I love this.  As a church, we kneel and pray a corporate prayer of confession together.  Then we take time to silently confess our specific sins to the Lord.  Afterward, the leader uses the promises of God’s Word to assure us that the Lord has truly forgiven us.  What a beautiful exercise.

James Smith, author of Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, sums up this practice well.  He says, “On one hand, the moment of confession is not exactly something one would ever relish or enjoy.  One the other hand, there is something about this moment of confession – this moment of imposed honesty in the context of worship of a hospitable God, with a gathered people who together confess their sin – that can be incredibly liberating.  We might say that there is a strange sense in which we want to confess, we desire to confess.”  I agree, and I look forward to this every Sunday.

Prayer of the People
Jesus Christ is the King over all things and the Head of our church.  Therefore, thanking Him, bringing our requests to Him, seeking guidance from Him, and listening to Him through prayer is at the core of all we do.  We do this differently each week.  Some weeks we invite people to pray out loud about specific prayer items, and some weeks, we make time for people to pray silently.  Whatever we do, this is a time for all people to pray…not just the pastor or leader.

Giving of Our Tithes and Offerings
Everything we have comes from the Lord, and all throughout the Scriptures, we see that He expects His people to be extremely generous with the resources He has given them.  By taking an offering each week, we have the opportunity to worship the Lord and exhibit our trust in Him by giving back to Him a portion of what He has given to us for the furthering of His kingdom both here and around the world.

Singing of the Doxology
Since this chorus was written in 1709, the church universal has been singing it as a response to the Lord for His countless blessings.  We sing this each week after we take the offering as an act of corporate worship and as a reminder that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” (James 1:7)  We do this either acapella, with an acoustic guitar, or with a cool electric guitar accompaniment (ala Jimmy Hendrix!).

Scripture Reading
We believe the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, to be the inspired word of God, without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for the salvation of men, and the divine and final authority for all Christian faith and life.  Therefore, we give the reading of Scripture a high place in our worship services.  We have a Scripture reading team leader who coordinates this and helps our readers to read well publicly, and they do!  We also read portions of the Scripture each week together as a congregation.  This usually takes about 5-7 minutes as we read an OT passage, Psalm, NT passage, and Gospel passage and has been a very rich addition to our services.

Because “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17), I then preach from one or all of the passages read.  While the sermon is still a big part of the service, it’s not the main part.  So much participation and corporate worship has already taken place leading up to this, that the sermon – while very important – is not the “big event” of the service like it used to be.  And I’m OK with that because the rest of what we do is very important as well.

Celebrating Communion
God’s people are to be people whose lives are shaped by the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  Therefore, we meet together at the table each week in order to remember His sacrifice for us and to anticipate the day when we will join Him at the banquet table at the culmination of His kingdom (Rev. 19:6-10).  This is the climax of our service each week.  It’s our response to the Scriptures read, songs sung, confessions made, and sermon preached.  We have people come forward to receive the elements and invite them to respond when they receive the elements by saying “Thanks be to God,” or something like that.  I love serving the people communion, and I’m always moved each week at the way they receive the elements with joy and thankfulness. Once a month, we have a communion meal following the service where we eat lunch together around tables and take communion that way.  Rich.

As the corporate worship service ends and worshipers are sent home to live kingdom lives outside the walls of the church, I send them out with a benediction that calls them to this.  No matter what Scripture I use, I always end with “Let us go forth to serve the world as those who love their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  The people respond by saying “Amen” (“Ok, we will!” in other words) and the service comes to an end.

Some might ask, “Why do you put so much effort and intention into a service that only lasts an hour and a half each week? How will this even matter in the grand scheme of things?”  That’s a good question.  I’ll let author James Smith again respond: “While the amount of time spent in worship on Sunday mornings is limited, it is nonetheless both dense and charged.  Intentional Christian worship that includes these elements (like the ones above) and draws upon a holistic tradition of worship that activates the whole body, is packed with formative power.  Worship like this will always put us in the way of God’s nourishing grace through the particularly charged practices of the sacraments: the Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.  Given the Spirit’s unique presence in the sacraments, we ought not to underestimate the power of even a relatively brief encounter with the transforming triune God.”

Some people in my fellowship have not liked these changes and have left.  For some, the verdict is still out.  But for most of the people I’ve talked to (both young and old), this change has proven to be rich and wonderfully deep for them.  This weekly, intentional but “relatively brief encounter with the transforming triune God” makes me look forward to it every week.  The emptiness I’ve experienced for years when it comes to corporate worship is gone.  I come each week expecting to encounter God’s nourishing grace, and I receive it.  I know that many others in my fellowship experience the same thing, and as a pastor, I can ask for nothing more.

Parental Wisdom from “The Man”

Parental influence is a throne which no man can abdicate. The members of our family come under our shadow, and we either drip poison upon them, or else beneath our shade they breathe an atmosphere perfumed with our virtue. The little boats are fastened to our larger vessel and are drawn along in our wake.

O fathers and mothers, the ruin of your children or their salvation will, under God, very much depend upon you. The gracious Spirit may use you for their conversion, or Satan may employ you as the instruments of their destruction. Which is it like to be?  

C. H. Spurgeon was a 19th century theologian, pastor, father, and fellow cigar smoker.