Friday, February 27, 2015

Truly I tell you, you can't control Heaven.

Currently our church is studying the SEVEN LAST WORDS OF JESUS FROM THE CROSS. This is my second of seven reflections on how each relates to me. We call it, LOVE'S LAST WORDS, because Jesus, full of love as he died, mustered up all his strength to say seven things that would change the world forever. 

BLOG #2 of 7: HEAVEN.

Flashback part 1: (January 25, 2015).

Him: You're going to Hell!
Me: Who? Me? What? You don't even know me. 
Him: If you love the world you don't love God. You're going to Hell.
Me: (Internal talk: Wait. Breathe. Just talk to him) What's your name?
Him: Luke
Me: I'm Tony. How about getting to know me before condemning me to Hell.
Him: If you don't repent, you're going to Hell. 
Me: Ok, but you know anything about me, Luke....  I love Jesus, bro! 
Him: Not if you're part of Hollywood, you don't. 

I was working production in Los Angeles on the SAG AWARDS, a live telecast celebrating actor's achievements in TV and Film  I've done it for three years, and it's a blast, with a great group of people to work alongside. I had to run an errand for the production coordinator during the celebrity red carpet arrivals. Since all of the production crew must be dressed to the nines, too, "black tie," I fit in with the rest of the tuxedo wearing A-listers. I darted out of the theater on the side street and ran into a group of  "protesters."

I had never been the "victim" of this type of harassment. I've seen them before doing their thing, and tried to start conversations (to no avail), read articles how they show up at funerals,  gay pride parades, and set up at city centers and the like. But never have I been the one being condemned.

OK, so hold up for a second. 

Let's talk about Heaven.
How do we "get" to  Heaven?

Ask that question of ten people and you might get ten different answers, even from smart, churchy, seminary, theologian-type people.

Some possible answers you might hear are:
  • Accept Jesus in your heart 
  • Repent of your sins and turn to God
  • Believe Jesus died for your sins
  • Believe Jesus is God
  • Believe Jesus is the only way to Heaven
  • Live a good life, be a good person
  • Acknowledge your immorality and confess your sin to God
  • Follow Jesus
  • Get saved and be baptized
  • Stop sinning and get baptized
  • Acknowledge you deserve Hell and ask God to rescue you from that punishment
  • Humble yourself before God and he will lift you up
  • Raise your hand, come to the altar, pray the sinner's prayer
  • Have faith in God, it's simple
  • Just pray
  • Get right with God
(and I guess, according to the protesters, ya just add "or go to hell," on the end of each of these to add some punch).

Me: I'm a pastor, Luke.
Him: Just because you're a pastor doesn't mean you're going to Heaven.
Me: Um. ya. You're right, but I know Jesus, like really know him!  I know the gospel. 
Him: If you did, you wouldn't be a part of this.
Me:This? What do you mean?
Him: Debauchery, greed...
Me: Luke, you're condemning me, judging me harshly and you just met me. You don't know my heart. 
Luke: Anyone who loves the world, cannot be a friend of God. All those people in there are going to Hell, and I'm here to tell them that. All these Hollywood movies are sending people to Hell.
Me: Dude, I have friends in there. I love the people in that building. What makes you think yelling at them is going to help them? And have you seen any of the movies we're celebrating tonight?
Him: It's all blasphemous
Me: What? Boyhood? Birdman? Stories about people finding themselves, looking for hope and purpose
Him: God is the only hope, without him, you're going to Hell. 

Wow. At the heart of what he was saying, there was truth. But clouded in horrible judgement and misconceptions.
I tried. I really did. I had to walk away. Our conversation was going nowhere.

What the heck? 

No wonder so many of us are confused, discouraged and exhausted by even thinking about Heaven (and Jesus), let alone trying to have a conversation it.

To any and all who've been treated poorly by anyone claiming to represent Jesus: I'm sorry. Not all those who represent Jesus are like that, and before you write Jesus off, get to know him-he will rock your world. (Do people still say that?).

Jesus said seven WORLD ROCKIN' things from the cross.  

Last week I blogged about his amazing, scandalous forgiveness that just seems unreasonable, and in some circumstances unfair. If I had to rank these seven sayings, his first two are just out of the gate, life altering.
  • Father forgive them (his accusers, mockers, murderers), for they do not know what they are doing.
  • Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
Jesus was murdered for claiming to be God. 
 He was called a blasphemer He broke society's rules. Big societal NO-NO's like ....uh...working on the Sabbath (Saturday), and touching people who were bleeding or sick (a religious regulation that kept people oppressed and ostracized, away from God, even).

Jesus also forgave anybody and everybody. So y'know, murderers, prostitutes, whores... Swindlers and extortionists, people who stole money and manipulated hard working money earning civilians the equivalent of Enron. And Jesus would hang out with them and forgive them.  Then he would send them out on his behalf to recruit others.

And I'm sure he could stomach a Hollywood mucky muck or two, as well. He even forgave HIS OWN murderers in the very act! Who does that?

Man, we royally miss the the point, don't we? I'm not just talking about those unhappy campers hurling the fire and brimstone. 

I'm no different. It's our human propensity to separate and segregate others. Why do we do this? Because we are prideful and entitled. We flat out don't like people because they are not like us, or they don't think like us, or act like us, and even because "they" don't look like us. 

This isn't just happening on red carpet fashion shows. 

It's happening both in the church and on the street.
We love to say who's in and who's out, don't we? 
We love to CONTROL who's in and who's out. 

But Jesus won't stand for that.

His interaction with the criminal on the cross is evidence of that. Jesus would have nothing to do with our rules, our systems, our formulas, or our divisive ways especially when it came to who was in and out. Jesus was fully human, yet fully God. He lived totally outside of our Earthly laws. 

He lived a life of love and was killed for it.

And he hung, innocent, between two criminals, one turned to him, belittled him and mocked him. This criminal was dying and bleeding just like Jesus but he  demanded Jesus rescue him if he truly had the power of Heaven he claimed.

There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” -Luke 23 38-39
The other criminal, nailed to the cross for his crimes as well, (of which are never fully "itemized" but could have been  murder, theft, rape, or all of the above), recognized his actions justified his punishment.
 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence?  We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”  -Luke 40-41

This criminal humbled himself. He knew he was wrong, and notice Jesus didn't have to hurl insults at him.

He looked at Jesus and simply said, "Remember me when you come into your Kingdom." Jesus looked right back at him and said, "Truly I tell you, today you'll be with me in paradise."

See ya in Heaven buddy! You're goin' with me! YOU'LL BE WITH ME. 

(Notice: The most important part of Heaven is being WITH JESUS).

Many people have been miffed, rattled, encouraged, and stimulated Jesus' interaction with the criminal for centuries. Why?
  • This criminal didn't get baptized
  • This criminal only had a few hours, if that, to "get right" with God. 
  • This criminal  didn't specifically ask Jesus for "forgiveness," outloud.
  • This criminal didn't raise his hand, or come to an altar
  • This criminal didn't profess his faith or even confess his multitude of sins one by one
  • This criminal didn't hear a sermon 
  • This criminal never said the sinner's prayer, or shouted Amen

YET, Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise
 (Luke 23:38-43). 

I just love this because it is so messy! I love messy! Messy can put is in our place and turn us upside down!

Any attempt we try to convey a list of rules, a formula, or overlay any specific one way to get to heaven, OTHER than simply COMING TO JESUS, is just....wrong. Even saying "coming to Jesus," requires an explanation. 

Yes, the criminal realized he had deserved punishment and he recognized the greatness of God. (All this is a bit implied in what he said," but the only words he said to Jesus were "Remember me, when you come into your kingdom."

Was this an acknowledge of his faith?

Maybe so. And I think it was a simple faith. So simple it is even hard to nail down and describe, difficult to understand, maybe even unfair in comparison to the faith of others.  (Listen to a podcast from our church's lead pastor here).

Doesn't this make you squirm? It does for me.

We want absolutes, especially when it comes to Heaven. But honestly, if we want assurance of Heaven, it's works in our favor it's not dependent on US, on our good and bads, etc

The only absolute we have, in regards to Heaven, is that JESUS is the KEY and he HOLDS the key! Heaven is about being WITH HIM!

So what do you think about Jesus? What do you think about Heaven?

Jesus is obviously not going to let your criminal history, past, sins, bad choices, fill in the blank negative blah blah blah prevent you from being with him, and being with him in Heaven.

And add to that all the things we use to separate others... and ourselves... from heaven.
  • Religions and/or rule following
  • Political parties
  • Hollywood parties :) 
  • Ethnicity or race
  • Sexual orientation
  • Denominational affiliations
  • Social economic status
  • Education
  • _____________________
  • Not even a past of refusing, mocking or working against Jesus (The apostle Paul, St. Paul, was a famous "Christian killer," who experienced Jesus, miraculously changed and ended up telling everyone about this amazing grace, writing most of what we know as the New Testament). 

And for that reason, I'm glad. Because I'm just like that criminal. 

I feel so thankful. 

Because Jesus looks at me, a guy who's far from having it all together, who's messed up a lot, and says, "You'll be with me." 

And I'm sure of it. I'm just a simple person who's simply said YES to Jesus , and  he welcomes me, whether I'm in a suit or in rags. 

No matter who believes it or not.

If you're someone who follows Jesus and wants others to know him, to understand Heaven--then just love people and talk to people about this story. 

  • Talk to them about the thief on the cross, don't leave that out. He had no good works, no great life to show God. 
  • Share the love of Jesus. Our God who would die for us. Share who Jesus REALLY is, the things he did and said, and be careful not to put our judgements on who is in and who is out. 
Can we just do this with out picket signs?

Let's leave the deciding the "who's going to Heaven and who's not" work to Jesus, he's a bit better at it then we are.

I'm pretty sure when I get to Heaven, I'll be surprised by who I see there. And I'm sure, many will be surprised I got in, too. Heck, even I know it's a gift and miracle I get to go! (Thank you Jesus!).

And I hope..really hope I get to see Luke, my picketing protester, in Heaven. That he would truly understand the amazing, scandalous love of Jesus, that would even include him, too.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Father, forgive the BULLIES, for they don't know what they are doing.

Currently our church is studying the SEVEN LAST WORDS OF JESUS FROM THE CROSS.
 I am inspired to write seven blogs reflecting on how each relates to me. We call it, LOVE'S LAST WORDS, because Jesus, full of love as he died, mustered up all his strength to say seven things that would change the world forever.  BLOG #1. FORGIVENESS

I’ve tried three times to contact him. I googled him.  He lives two hours from where I live in California (which is ironic because when I knew him we both lived in Illinois). He has an email because I found it on his website, for his job, in which he is well known. I emailed him twice. I messaged him on Facebook once, but I haven’t heard a thing back.

Let me back up.

It was October, about a year ago. I was called in as an “emergency grief counselor,” to comfort and pray with high school students, like a priest, through the unthinkable. One of their peers took his life. Students questioned, sobbed, and even confessed their own depression, self-hatred, and temptations to end it all.

I prayed. I listened. I sat silently, as words don't always help in these situations.
 If you’ve read my blog posts before, or know my story, suicide and its destruction is a companion I know far too well. I tried to keep my own emotions at bay, but as I left the campus, I erupted and nothing could stop it. I almost had to pull my car over for fear of running off the road as I couldn't stop crying.
Sadly, my reaction this October day was tied to a completely different tragedy from my past. The pain these students carried in their self worth issues, rivaled my own pain, that had marked me some twenty-five years before.

Like many, my middle school and high school years were marked with awkwardness. Those already tough times of coming into one’s identity, crowded with questions, family challenges, and puberty is hard to make out alive, let alone normal. But my story included some of the most deeply cutting, evil moments of bullying. (Of which cost me lots of money in counseling, but that also saved me in so many ways). 

We humans can be downright awful to each other. And from age 13-17 I incurred some scars. I have had much healing and I'm glad that those days are in the past. But there are times, like this day in the car, when I am teleported back in time against my will, to relive and remember those moments. And it can still hurt, and hurt bad.

I hear the names I was called in those dingy hallways like it was yesterday. I can see the hateful faces that pressed me up against a locker or two. I'm glad I didn't have the guts to follow through with my own suicidal temptations.

One bully in particular, in sixth and seventh grade, left me significantly bruised (in more ways than one). His name is hard to forget. After all these years, I never thought of ever looking him up. Why would I? I wanted to get as far away from him as possible. Although, I admit, I dreamed of a day when I'd have my revenge. I hoped I would be bigger, smarter, and more condescending then him so I could make him feel small, as he did me.

 I even fantasized about being on one of those outrageous talk shows like Maury Povich or Jerry Springer, where people confront their baby daddies, cheating girlfriends, and extortionist grandmothers. I imagined inviting him there on false pretenses like you won a million dollars or you have a secret crush from high school who's now a celebrity. Then I would turn the tables on him and shame him in front of America for the things he said and did. And I’d gloat in hearing the crowds boo him and stir a riot where they all beat him over the head with metal folding chairs.

Yes, I’ve had those thoughts. And yes, I thought, at one time, it would make me feel better. I'm not proud of that. But that October day, this twenty-five year old pain resurrected in me and with it a new opportunity for forgiveness was birthed, and a new narrative began.  All because the words of Jesus, from the cross, echoed in my mind in a new way.

Jesus was bullied. Jesus was hurt, stabbed, spat upon, beat up, bruised, ridiculed, forgotten, mocked, whipped, and mutilated beyond human recognition. And the first thing he says from the cross, out loud, is a prayer of forgiveness. He tells God to forgive those whipping him, mocking him, pulling out his flesh, and nailing him to the cross. He forgives those who are killing him!

I was overwhelmed in my car with this fact: God is a forgiver! God forgave me for everything I've ever done, and will continue to shower me with grace for the rest of my life. I was like the one nailing him to the cross, I was the one mocking him, and he had forgiveness in his heart for me.

Every time we sin, every time we steal, kill, destroy someone with our thoughts, words, and actions, we have no idea what we are really doing. We have no idea the pain we are causing, and the dishonor we show not only God, but every victim of our our actions.We have no idea the years of pain we inflict on people through judging, deceiving, bullying, divorcing, cheating, betraying, _________(fill in the blank).

(And God knows this. And God has compassion on us, even while though there are consequences for our actions, and for those who exercise their free will to hurt others. God is a just God. He will discipline fairly and in a righteous way)

It wasn't easy, and it still hurts. But I knew, in some way, I had unforgiveness in my heart toward my bully, and I knew I had to deal with it. I'm still not sure how this all happens, and it truly is a process, but a new freedom came to me in my car. I realized he didn't really know how it was going to affect me. He had his own fear, insecurity, or pain that caused him to hurt others. And it was time for me to reach out to him. So I did.

I still haven't heard back from him, but if I do,  I will tell him how his bullying actions hurt me.  I won't shame him. I won't guilt him, but I'll say I forgive him because I want to, because God helped me to forgive and heal. And I'l tell him I'm actually still in process of learning to let it go and I'm still healing twenty-five years later.

Believe it or not, I'm still learning to believe God loves me. I'm still trying to accept he made me in his image, and I belong to him. I'm not all those names I was marked with years ago.  It's crazy how things can have a lasting affect on someone. But I've done the same things. I've hurt others in the same way. In fact, there might be some out there that are still in pain because of things I've done, who need to forgive me.

So I pray, we can be a people who forgive, because God forgives us.

God loves us, and that changes the way we relate to others.

GOD LOVES YOU and I hope you will be encouraged to take a look at the hurt you carry, or the grudges that way you down, by starting with the cross. If you have UNforgiveness toward someone, or plot revenge in your mind or wish evil against any person , or have hate for anyone in your life who has hurt you...then you aren't free, and you don't understand the saving love of God. (And please know this can be a long process for some).

Start with JESUS, the man, the savior, the one died FOR you, AND FOR the one who hurt you.  The only way we can forgive is to know the forgiveness of Jesus.

 Colossians 3:13
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

  • Have you seen the movie Unbroken? There's so much more to his story. And it was all about forgiveness.  It humbles me when I want to hold grudges on those who "hurt" me. 
There are countless examples of people who have forgiven murder, abuse, adultery, and the like because the power  of God is at work in their lives that is supernatural, enabling them to do what seems unreasonable.

I want to be unreasonable.

Forgiveness doesn't mean we become best friends, or even have to stay in contact with those who hurt us. (Sometimes it's better we don't). Forgiveness is about our heart and mind, how we think and feel. We can forgive. Even if it takes a lifetime to do so. It is worth it. That is why I had to reach out to my bully, and I hope he can know the love and forgiveness of God.

Father forgive my bully, for he did not know what he was doing.

How about you?

FATHER FORGIVE ____________________.......

Need more help? Read this!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

DON'T get over it.

 (For links and more stories click on the orange words).

Hard to believe my life was radically altered about 22 years ago through two teenagers. So when I get the chance to speak in front of high schoolers, I remind them that they can change the world. If it wasn't for two brothers named Rob and Jason (15 and 17 at the time) I might not be alive. I could be dead, or living a dark, empty life.

See, when I was 16 when I was befriended by some high school peers who genuinely cared about me, invited me into their family, and boldly shared the love of God in such a real way, that I responded, followed, and gave my life to learn about this great God who loves us and revealed himself through Jesus, and the Bible. I certainly didn't deserve it, and had a lot of maturing to do in life to understand it. And some times, I  still feel unworthy of it, but I am motivated to live in response to the love I was shown, and share it with others.

It still seems crazy to me that I am who I am and doing what I do. It's been a good, long, hard journey, but I am so grateful.

So last month when I was speaking to a few hundred high school students at a weekend retreat, I told them story. I spoke of how I've seen God work in my life through others. I told them of Rob and Jason. I recounted working through hard family times, my personal journey of understanding my identity, and shared one of the darkest times I've ever experienced.

I spoke about the phone call I received one Sunday morning, two years ago, on October 14th, 2012.
 (For more on this anniversary see my former posts.
 The phone call that I hope no one ever has to have.
 Caller: Is this Tony Gapastione?
Me: Yes. 

Caller: This is Dr. So & So from BLAH BLAH...(some hospital in San Diego). We need your permission to take your grandmother off life support. She assigned you as her 'do not resuscitate' contact. She's suffered a self inflicted gun shot wound to the head. She is brain dead.
I don't remember much from there, besides falling to the ground. My knees just gave out as if I was standing underneath a crumbling building. I couldn't hold myself up, I just wept in my driveway. It is still hard for me to think about, let alone, type..

The story is long, deep, and extremely sad.

But I went on to tell these students of the many people who came around to support me during that time, much like Rob and Jason did twenty-two years ago. I described the people who prayed. The recounted the many people who just sat there with me (like my wife), and I encouraged these students to be like the people who literally held me up when I couldn't stand up because I was filled with sadness.

Well, I'm sure you can imagine these high school students could identify with the pain of death. Many have dealt with their own depression at the young age of 15-17 and many of them have experienced the tragic death of loved ones through suicide.

We ended our time together at that retreat, standing up and praying together. We linked arms resolving to believe God was with us, and he would get us through whatever dark times we'd encounter, together.

After I finished, a student came up to me with tears in his eyes. He said nothing. He just stood by me. He kept wiping his tears, trying to form some words.

I put my arm around him and asked if I could pray for him. 

He looked at me and said, "I just need to get over it. How did you do it?" 

I stared back at him.

"Do what?" I asked. 

"How did you get over your grandma's suicide?"

Oh, you must have misheard me. I'm not 'over' it, at all. I don't think I'll ever get over it. But God continues to walk with me through it. 

And when I said that, it hit me.

I don't think I'll EVER GET OVER 'it.' God, being the good Father that he is, would ever expect that of ANY death we'd experience. Because death was never his plan. In fact, I love when Jesus is at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, the original language says he just roars, from the pit of his stomach. It was never his plan, death was not his plan! So even Jesus weeps over death, and offers us himself, his love, and his perspective.

That's what I told that student.

God's perspective is that THIS LIFE is not the end. There is more. He is with us now, and he is preparing a place for us to be with him. Read John 14.

Please don't hear me saying, or in any way endorsing we should mope around and allow depression or sadness to take over our lives.

But we can acknowledge our feelings and emotions, not hide them, and walk through them with God and others at our side.

We can learn how to see life the way God sees it, with HOPE. 
If you are reading this, suffering through the pain of death in any form, I want to encourage you that you ARE LOVED. God is with you, and he is FOR YOU! Talk to him, walk with him, and reach out to others to pray with you and hold you up when you can't stand on your own. I'd encourage you to join a church family. (Not just sit in a building on a Sunday, but connect, engage and be a part of something supernatural, a group of people alive, serving together, and living on a mission).

Don't try hard to "get over" death, pain, sadness. Just fall, and fall into the loving arms of your creator, the ONE who made you, loves you, and wants to be with you, and let HIM pick you up, and walk you through whatever it is you are dealing with.

That's what I told that student at the retreat.  That's what I want to tell myself. That's what I want to tell you. I hope you all can have a Rob and Jason in your life. People to love you, pray for you, help you, hold you, and speak the truth to you.

That's my 2 cents.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

The perfectly good and acceptable life of abundance and temptation.

 Matthew 4:1-11 says, "The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, and there he was tempted by the Devil. (This was right after he was Baptized and heard God's voice say, "This is my beloved son,  in whom I am well pleased).

 (Duccio di Buoninsegna  (c.1255 - c.1319)
The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, 1308-1311)

We only see three recorded temptations in that Matthew passage, but the Bible says that Jesus was tempted in every way (Hebrews 4:15). So that includes lust, greed, shame, judgement, sex, name it, EVERY WAY.

Satan even tempted Jesus with suicide by throwing himself off the temple.

That's eye opening for me.
I'm both comforted and frustrated.

I'm comforted because I'm not alone. Neither are the millions of people who have heard the lying whispers (or shouts) that their life is worthless, or to throw their body off a bridge, or in front of a car, or worse.

Jesus was not only tempted to kill himself, but to betray his Father and deny his identity. (That is probably the biggest daily human battle. To believe our identity as loved ones of God).

I'm frustrated because I'm no different, but I expect to be.

I expect that because I'm promised a full abundant life (John 10:10), it should go with out saying that temptation, pain, conflict, depression, and confusion (to name a few) would not be included.  I thought the "blessed" life would be easier.

The scriptures teach otherwise.

Somehow it is perfectly acceptable to God to allow Satan's pitiful suggestions to make it to our ears.
This past weekend at our All Church Retreat I confessed some lies I believe.  I realized I often let the words, "You are a screw-up," enter my mind. A few people approached me after, in shock. How could you believe that about yourself?

 I'm human, Satan hates me, and unfortunately I fall short by believing lies.
 I wish it wasn't true.

 God allows us to make bad choices, label ourselves negatively, and to endure the hurtful actions of others.  We don't like to hear that, but he does. Instead we demand God enclose us in an impenetrable bubble where we could never experience pain. But the Bible says, God will go so far as to lead us to places in which those things might occur (he did for Jesus and many others in the Bible).

What? Why?

 Because he's powerless? No. Because He's sadistic? No.

In God's divine wisdom he grows our trust in Him through/despite pain.  He can raise us up to places where we can help others with what we've gone through.

Some of the most godly servants and leaders are those who've gone through gnarly trials and endured much conflict and death, living to "testifiy" to God's faithfulness amidst it.

God uses what the devil intended for evil. He shapes our character which can result experiencing life abundantly. He doesn't remove us from the trials, temptations, and pain the world inflicts because in enduring them we become more like Jesus.

Does God want to hurt us? NO!

God values us. And he values His choice to give us free will. He uses all things for our good. He helps us in our weakness learn, and grow strong in his love for us. (But I'd also say it breaks His heart to see us in pain, that's why he promised someday, he would make ALL THINGS NEW, in Heaven).

But please know:

He gave us his Spirit and his word's promises to shape us, and to guide us to live good lives.
He also gave us each other. He gave us people to care, to pray, to hold us, to affirm us,  and to love us at all times. We are meant to be family. But when this doesn't happen (and it will because humans hurt others), we must know God is always constant and present with us.

I've come to learn the most secure people in the world are the ones who understand their insecurities AND confess them, replace them with truth, and invite others in to uphold them in encouragement.

That's why we have the Holy Spirit, the word of God, and His people (the Church)... to help us.  

Living in that love and truth is what makes the abundant life.

May we all get better at that.

 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.

Hebrews 3: 12-14

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The complexities of the "A" Word

Sometimes when I use the word, I look around to see who will scoff, wag their finger, or roll their eyes. Sometimes...just sometimes I imagine getting tarred and feathered for using it. It's a dangerous and coveted word that can conjure up many emotions, opinions, and nasty comments.

Here are some simple definition of the "A" word I speak of:
1-A person who produces works in any of the arts that are primarily subject to aesthetic criteria.

2-A person who practices one of the fine arts, especially a painter or sculptor.
3-A person whose trade or profession requires a knowledge of design, drawing, painting, etc.
4-A person who works in one of the performing arts, as an actor, musician,  singer; or performer.
5-A person whose work exhibits exceptional skill.

So why do I have complicated relationship with this "A" word?  
Because of definition number 5:
 "A person whose work exhibits exceptional skill."

I feel pretty safe about definitions 1-4.  I produce a lot "aesthetics" in my job. I make a lot of media/branding to tell stories and illustrate truths. My job description includes spacial design, and I spend lots of time writing, acting and performing in numerous ways both for my full time job and for fun and my hobbies/passions (because I love to, and occasionally get paid to, as well). 

BUT the complications come from one question.

Who gets to declare that a person has exceptional skill? 

Simon Cowell can eat his heart out because I am my own worst critic. First of all I can feel a bit presumptuous even declaring myself an "artist," because I don't feel worthy of calling myself that at times.  But even more how weird is it to  self-identify as an "exceptional artist." That being said, I  lean on labels from others in this area, finding my identity in how others see me. But when you're telling stories, speaking, making art, and filmmaking you automatically become the object of people's opinions. And no one enjoys being judged critically and no one wants to be called a shoddy artist. If I'm labeled an artist who does crappy work, I'd rather not be called an artist at all. BUT so much of making art is being Ok with creating some "non-exceptional" stuff once in a while. It's imperative simply because 1-you must, 2-you want to, 3-you have ideas and 4- you need to practice! As creators/artists we simple must practice making our art! If for no other reason but to express ourselves, (and find ways to deal with the negative critique that might come after).
This is the complexity of being an ARTIST for me.
My first role in a community theater was Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry the IV part 1. I came alive. I gave two months of my life, five nights a week to perfecting my accent, sword fighting training, and rehearsing like crazy. Then came opening night! It was like being born again... only to die the next morning. That role got me a word whipping by the local newspaper critic. Over the next two years I starred in many principal and supporting roles at that theater, and never once did that critic give me a good review.  The first few times it really threw me off. I remember irrationally thinking I could devise a plan to buy up as many papers as I could to lessen the chance people could read them. All I could think about was my name being smeared in those negative words and the whole city reading them. He really had it out for me. (No joke,  in one Agatha Christie play, I literally had a small "walk-on" role with no more than a page of dialogue, and this critic gave me a paragraph lashing in his column). That was almost twenty years ago, and in some way those words still haunt me, but now I'm finding strength in them. 

I attribute this growth over the years to a great/supportive wife, loving friends, encouraging community of artists (so thankful for CREATIVE CREW RWC), and ultimately a bit of just having to "grow-up." I thank God that I've been able develop a thicker skin to recognize my life and work don't need to rely the approval of others. I've been challenged to create despite and because of criticism. Don't get me wrong, I want to better my art, and I seek and welcome feedback. But I've learned, and am still trying to apply, that I don't have to allow the power of negative words to attach to my identity.

This week I was reading this great book by Austin Kleon, "Show Your Work" who confirmed some practical tools in being an "A" word. (The whole book is fun, quick, and filled with great nuggets of wisdom).

In his 8th chapter he says artists need to learn to "Take a punch."
 "Don't feed the trolls. The first step in evaluating feedback is sizing up who it came from. You want feedback from people who care about you and what you do. Be extra wary of feedback from anybody who falls outside of that circle. A troll is a person  isn't interested in improving your work, only provoking you with hateful, aggressive, or upsetting talk. You will gain nothing by engaging with these people. Don't feed them, and they'll usually go away."

What if we didn't focus so much on end product or the "grade" of our "art/work?" What if  we allowed and elevated the  process of creating art to the same level as our end result? What if we simply enjoyed what we did, and sought out healthy, constructive feedback from people who had our good in mind? (And yes, yes, I know some of us want people to like our work, so they'll support it, and invest in it, and keep being our audience.  I want that, too, and  agree. But we must keep the negative, judgmental, and value based critiques in their place.

These thoughts are present for me right now because I spent my week preparing, collaborating, and installing a project that I had been working on since January based on EASTER. These thoughts have flooded my mind because just five short months ago I was doing the same thing, only it was Christmas, and I had an interesting critique come my way.

 I wanted to tell a story. I wanted to take the age old, simple story that took place in Bethlehem, and plop it down in our current city. Two thousand years ago there was a sign in the sky, a star. And today we have very different signs. What if those signs we'd see in 7-11's or flashing in bars, pointed us to the true north of Christmas? I was so excited about the idea, and a bunch of others were, too, as they flocked out to work together as a team and see this concept come to life.

We worked on the idea for about three months, collaborated with over thirty stage designers/carpenters/creators and "A-words." The installation took three days to complete and we were all shining with pride over the whole process.

But then one handwritten, anonymous comment crept in,  attempting to blow out our little light. 
"Would Jesus approve of neon lights? It feels wrong. Remove the cultural obscenity."

I read those words over and over. I scratched my head. I shrugged my shoulders. I was confused. It's not like a bedazzled a manger, or made a neon crucifix (although, that's art, too).
Did I commit heresy? I mean, this person called our work, "obscene."


I was deflated...for a few hours... and then I got over it.

 It didn't knock me out, I didn't lose any sleep or appetite, or try to devise any plans to keep the comment from others.

See, I had this perspective:

It was Christmas. I wanted to tell and illustrate a story. I wanted to take the two thousand year old traditional story that took place in Bethlehem, and plop it down in our current city. I wanted people to see the relevance of Christmas in our city, today. And we did get LOTS of positive feedback, but the most important fact for me, was that our team created and collaborated on something beautiful. We worked hard, and we accomplished what we intended.

So now, I'm reminding myself of this, as we head into this next season of SHOWING WORK for the Easter season. I'm attempting to take Austin Kleon's advice. Here's some of the projects brewing:
  • I casted vision for both a print and video branding illustrating HEAVEN!
(with the awesome design from my friend Mr. Jeremy Milford).

  • I wrote and directed an interactive story-telling experience for Good Friday. Please come experience the amazing words, music, and interaction created by a talented and passionate group of people centered around Jesus' crucifixion. (Friday 4/18/14, 7pm, PCC).
  • I worked on the ethos of our community's worship space to enhance our imagination of the season. It starts THIS SUNDAY as we RE-FRAME our perspectives on eternity.
  • I collaborated on and helped produce a video story celebrating the changed lives of six people getting baptized debuting  Easter Sunday April 20th. (8am, 9:30am, and 11:15am).

So, don't worry if you're expert or not, it doesn't matter. Practice, try, create, fail, and start again. It's OK! Enjoy who you are, and enjoy the process of creating. That's how we learn, and... THAT IS HOW we become an exceptionally skilled artist! (Lots and lots of practice).

If you're like me and you're an A-soul, or you have an A-soul in your life-- an Artist's soul that is, then be encouraged with these reminders...And go out there and CREATE!

 “You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
Winston Churchill

“To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

“I pay no attention whatever to anybody's praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Monday, March 31, 2014

He got off the ark, got drunk, got naked, and started over.

It was 10pm last night when about twenty of us crowded in the coffee shop, with only 30 minutes until closing time. I still had the aftertaste of popcorn in my mouth. We were about to dive into what millions of movie-goers were talking about this weekend.

We had just seen THAT movie.
 Y'know, the one about the guy, the boat, and the animals?

Gosh, is it just me, or did this movie just seem to set people off?

To be honest, I didn't read one critic's review, media professional's article, or amateur film fan's blog (like mine).

Now, post-flood, I'm still not sure how much I want to read all the stuff going around because with the few status updates I saw, I had enough to convince myself I needed to avoid the hailstorm of controversial naysayers and make my own opinion.

Even before I saw the film last night,  I reminded myself, "It. Is. A. Movie."
This movie was made by an artist. Someone attempting to tell a story. Albeit a very famous, and "sacred cow" of a Biblical story, it is still an "attempt" to tell a story, which in the artist's words was "loosely based," on the original story.

And with that, I'd recommend you do the same. 
It's a movie, made by an artist, attempting to tell a good story.
(And I think he succeeded amazingly well).

Take it in... and see what you can take-away, see what you can learn.

If you go expecting something to line up with what you were taught in Sunday School, you'll be disappointed. (I wonder how many will see it that have no preconceived notions? People who don't know anything about Noah. Do they exist? It'd like to talk with them!).

This film is dark, violent, and not the happy, shiny story we see in cartoons and flannel graphs. But who wants that anyway??

 I like stories that look more like real life, that look more life MY life, which is the exact opposite of a perfect, got-it-all together fairy-tale.

Besides have you actually read the Bible? It is full of dark, crazily imperfect people who make tons of mistakes. (Murderers, prostitutes, and swindlers were all chosen and used by God).

For instance, most Sunday School lessons leave out the little part about Noah getting so wasted that his kids found him flat faced and naked (It's in this movie), right after he saved the world.  THIS IS IN THE BIBLE! Ya, oops, that's God's chosen one. "Cover him up quickly," his kids said in the text, and us Bible teachers, sorta did the same thing. Just leave that part out and talk about the dovey, dovey, abovey, abovye.

But that real, human experience is what I loved about this movie. It was full of pain, toil, jealousy, doubt, love, sacrifice, mercy, hope, death, and life. It's all there if you're wiling to find it and wrestle with it. (That's why I'd suggest going with some people you can pull it apart with over a meal/coffee).
Are there things that seem similar to movies like Transformers or the Never Ending Story?
 Ya, and even though I wasn't expecting it, I like it.

Are there things that might just seem a bit far-fetched, and supernatural?
Ya! But why not? Have you read this part of the Bible before? Genesis 6:4.
There are some things that truly deserve a "WTF?" (For all you people who might get offended by that, I mean, "What the FRICK.").

Are there things in the Noah movie you'd label ridiculous?
Duh? Yes. But, that makes for good conversation!
Did Russell Crowe have to sing in this movie?
YES! Did he not learn anything from Les Miserables??
If you get mad about anything, get mad about that. He sings again.
Just kidding.

The song he sang in Noah was actually really cool. (Your father is the healer, in the wind, something like that).

Sorry, I digress.

Noah's story complies about four chapters in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. It's an account of the world being flooded and every species of animal on the earth coming along for the ride. That's a little far-fetched in my opinion,  even though I believe it's true, I still don't get how it happen! That's the beauty of it. We get to use our imagination!  Disagree, ya, but don't write off the film because one guy attempts to tell the story. He had to give us something to watch for two hours! Big deal if he claims to be an atheist. (Which really surprises me).  He does an amazing job illustrating the human condition, and our human desire to know our life's purpose and to converse with our creator.

I'd say, God is and will use this film to "talk to" many people.

And God tends to use anyone he wants, even donkeys, to teach people truths.  

So there we were, gripping our espresso drinks, chiming in how the film affected us. Some were heated and felt it sorely represented Christianity. Others were open to the creative license and found the nuances exciting and even debating the mythical nature of Genesis.

For me, I saw myself in Noah. 

How often do I doubt and forget God's mission for my life?

How often to I feel lost in the midst of desperately trying to obey and honor God?

How often do I trample over those I love trying to do the work of God?

How often am I reminded of God's grace and call from the unexpected (a child) in my life? 

The answer is ALL THE TIME.

So, Darren Aronfsky, thanks for making this movie.
Thanks for giving the world something to talk about for a few weeks.
Thanks for causing us to open up our Bibles to read and wrestle with truth.
Thanks for reminding us, that God's stories have been passed down from century to century just like this: sitting around fires, or coffee shops. We are story tellers and receivers, retelling over and over again, what the great creator has called us to, redeemed us from, and brought new life through.


Thanks for showing us Russell Crowe's butt because we all have the opportunity to start again.

That's right.

 God allows us to start again, even when we fail, or think we've failed,  or gotten pissed drunk, or almost killed our (grand) children, or misinterpreted the Bible, or intentionally fabricated some truth.

It just so happens that there's something amazing called grace, and sometimes there is a rainbow waiting in the sky for us that confirms it.