I was reading the other day and I came across this statement from some genetic researchers: “Our story-telling brains are what makes humans unique.” So let’s start with a story.
There’s this movie that I really like. It’s called Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It was a very well-written film, but it didn’t do well in the theatres, probably because Jim Carrey wasn’t funny, Kate Winslet wasn’t sexy and Elijah Wood wasn’t a Hobbit.
It’s not written or produced by a Christian, but it has an interesting premise. Jim Carrey’s character, Joel, receives a card in the mail, explaining that his girlfriend, Clementine, has undergone a process whereby she has had Joel erased from her memory. Joel struggles with this for a little while and then decides that his life would be easier if he underwent this process as well to have her “unwritten” from his memory. Of course, it wouldn’t be good drama without a conflict and that arises as, during the process, Joel realizes that he really doesn’t want to forget Clementine, because, even though the memories are shaded now by sorrow, they have helped form who he is today.
The title comes from a line in the poem by Alexander Pope, “Eloisa to Abelard:”
“How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.”
The thought of this stanza of the poem, as well as the film, is that by simply forgetting and/or being forgotten, we are healed and all is right with the world – all is sunshine and bright.
The text you will be reading for our Bible study over the next week is Romans 12 & 13 and it has a slightly different take on things. If you would take out your Bibles – and turn with me to the 12th chapter of Romans.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Bible, Romans is in the New Testament, about 3/4ths of the way into the Bible, following the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts, Luke’s continuing saga of Christ’s followers. Romans is teh sixth book, right after Acts.
Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome before he arrives and he spent the last chapters explaining to them that the Jewish people were not to be scorned, but rather prayed for, because they are the original benefactors of God’s mercy and favor. In fact, he goes as far as to say that God has closed the door to sacrifice, imprisoning all men in sin, Jew and non-Jew alike, so that all may come to grace through Jesus Christ and be blessed by His mercy.
Continuing in Romans 12, starting with verse 1:
1Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 2Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…
Theologian Wesley Kort tells us that there are two ways we should embrace our study of the Bible. First, we read it Centripetally. Centripetal force is moving or directed toward a center or axis. That is, we immerse ourselves in the reading and becoming transformed. But, we also must read it, Centrifugally. Centrifugal motion is directed outwards – in Kort’s writing, we return to our world after being immersed in the Bible. But when we return, we return as different people, and our world appears to us in a new way—“somehow invisibly infused with the kingdom of God.”
You see, too many Christians, I think, read the Bible and follow Christ Centripetally, spiraling deeper and deeper into the Scripture and isolate themselves more and more from the outside world. We must, at some point, move back out, spinning away from the axis, into the world, in service, in mission, in relationships.
Our bodies are meant to be living sacrifices – but not on an altar in a church where no one can see us, but in the world, acting as servants, becoming Christ to a dying world. True Christianity contains three elements: it is Missional, it is Relational, and it is Incarnational. You see, we cannot just accept God’s mercy and keep it for ourselves. We must take that mercy and extend it to our brothers and sisters. Paul even hints earlier in Romans that one of the reasons the Jews were separated from God’s covenant – by their own act, not God’s – is because they hoarded His mercy. Yet – yet, Paul writes in Romans 11, if their flaws led to the salvation of the entire world, how much more will the whole world benefit from Israel’s return to the mercy of God in Christ?
Leonard Sweet writes,
“I heard the story of a member of the church approaching their pastor and telling him that they had been called into full-time ministry. The pastor did not respond in the manner they were expecting when he said, ‘Oh, I thought you were a Christian.’
“This set the member back a bit. He answered that of course he was a Christian. Then the pastor said, ‘Then, too late…’ by which he meant that when we became disciples of Jesus, we accepted the call into full-time ministry.
“So much of the time we write a check and think we have done our part. Or, if we are really trying to be spiritual, we may go on a mission project for a few days a year. In reality Christ turns us into ‘Mission 365,’ as my friend Tom Ingram calls it. We are in mission in the car, in mission at the grocery store, in mission at Starbucks, in mission on Twitter.”
Being a Christian means we are living sacrifices – or in the words of the Blues Brothers – “We’re on a Mission from God”
Returning to Romans 12, verses 9-13:
9Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Live in harmony with one another, bless those who persecute you, rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. It’s not an accident that this passage follows Paul’s exhortation to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. This is what happens when your mind is renewed. This is the proof in the pudding, as it were.
Did you know that every day, more text messages are sent than the entire population of the world? We have FaceBook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, Bebo – all sites dedicated to “social networking,” yet we’re more distant, father apart than we ever have been before. Tell me, when was the last time you spoke to your neighbor – or even waved at him from your front yard? We have e-mail, voice-mail, cell phones, Instant Messages, text messages, Voice-Over-Internet, but how often do we consciously choose to use technology over actual face-to-face interaction? How often do we choose e-mail over even having a telephone conversation?
There is an African concept called ubuntu. The philosophy of ubuntu says: “I am related, therefore, we are.”
How often are you relating to people? Christians shouldn’t be people who follow Christianity. Christians have to be people who follow and fall in love with Christ. But how much time do we waste trying to get people to follow our particular rules, regulations and traditions, rather then trying to help them fall in love with Jesus?
Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. Christianity is meant to be lived in relationship.
There is an old Jewish proverb that the story is the highest form of truth. Being an incarnational Christian is all about context.
Let me ask you a question. Are you a mirror or a prism?
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there’s a scene where Clementine is trying to explain her philosophy of life to Joel:
“There’s all these emotions and ideas and they come quick and they change and they leave and they come back in a different form and I think we’re all taught to be consistent. Y’know? …You choose to do something with your life — that’s it, that’s what you do… And my feeling is, that’s how you die, because you stop listening to what’s true and what is true is constantly changing. You know?” (written by Charlie Kaufman)
And if you think about it, Clementine is right. Not that truth is not constantly changing, but that our perception of that truth is constantly being changed, developed, better understood.
There is a Jewish learning exercise called Hevruta is the practice of studying sacred texts with a partner. Jewish scholarly life is built around people sitting around a text, reading it aloud, and then engaging in conversations and stories about that text.
The traditional study of Hebrew scriptures is with a partner, with whom head-to-head, nose-to-nose debate, dialogue, even shouting-at-the-top-of-your-lungs, is part of the learning process. They don’t ask, “What are you studying?” But, “What are you learning?”
Studying infers a solitary, sedentary ingestion of information. Learning is a social, active, exercise—a dialogue that must necessarily engage two or more persons in order for true learning to be accomplished. In the Jewish tradition, “learning” is a verb, a never-finished action.
Leonard Sweet writes, “Truth is best discovered in conversation; and truth needs multiple perspectives for it to be trusted.”
Sweet also writes,
“There are three alternatives for living a unique Christian way of life. One is to imitate Jesus; two is to follow Jesus’ principles, whether found in His teachings or His stories; three is to be in such a relationship with Christ that you begin to share his life, his spirit and his presence.”
We are not called to be imitators of Christ, but rather implanters and interpreters of Jesus for the world we live in. Jesus didn’t come to teach us how to be “like God,” he came to teach us how to be true humans, living in communion with the Father. And just like Jesus used parables that took an agricultural approach – the sower, the vine and the branches, etc., because that related to his audience, so I can use an R rated film to make a point to an audience who relates to it.
We have gotten so caught up in being the church that we remember and like, the traditions and customs that sometimes we separate ourselves from the very people we are supposed to be trying to reach. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like many of the traditions of the church, but that doesn’t make them Biblical doctrine.
A little while back, I interviewed Phil Cooke, a Christian TV producer and media guru, and I asked him if he had an opinion on why it seemed that most of the time, atheists create more realistic and believable Christian characters than Christian film and TV writers often do. His response was at first surprising, but the more I considered it, the more sense it made.
He quoted a California Pastor named Erwin McManus. McManus, speaking to an audience of Christian media creator-hopefuls, pointed out that he was more moved by the death of Mufasa in The Lion King on Broadway than by the death of Aslan in the film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
The point he was making was that Christians often become lazy. They forget that they are speaking to a world that is outside their circle – a world that doesn’t know the conventions and concepts of the church. They create a Pastor and because they know how he is supposed to react, they assume everyone else will too. I myself used to wonder, when reading the Left Behind novels, how these people who’d never darkened the door of a church prior to the Rapture, somehow learned how to speak like Southern Baptists.
Meanwhile, the atheists – at least the ones I counted off to him – were committed to excellence, so they took the time to research and develop three-dimensional characters, rather than take any shortcuts or make assumptions about the viewers knowledge.
Being incarnational as Christians is often the hardest thing to achieve, because it means going completely outside your comfort zone, meeting and learning where people are, whether they’re in the jungles of Africa or the concrete jungle of Los Angeles. But we are called to be transformed, to renew our minds and become a living sacrifice – which involves being willing to live for your faith more often than being willing to die for it.
Back to our question – are you a mirror or a prism? A mirror simply reflects the light – a single instance of the light – and only back to the person or image standing in front of it. A prism takes the light in and refracts it into a rainbow of colors that spread much larger and much farther than a mirror image ever could.
As we learn to be more missional, relational, and transformational, we become better Christians – we become more loving, more giving, more Christ-like and more effective.
You see, in the movie, as Joel goes through the process of erasing Clementine from his life, he realizes that he can’t live in a world without her – even if he can’t be with her. In many ways, it reflects the true human condition – as the mathematician Blaise Pascal stated, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.”
We know inherently that we need Jesus, just as Joel realizes, in his sleep that he needs Clementine, even the broken, sorrow-filled remembrances of her.
Think for a moment about your memories. What you remember is not personal, but social. Your “memory bank” is full of relational moments, not isolated, individual personal recollections. We find out who we are only in connection with others.…
So I encourage you, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.
Take what you have learned and take it to the world who so desperately needs it.
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
Love all and serve all, be a friend to the friendless, love your enemies, bless them that persecute you.
And in loving Jesus, rather than imitating him, invite him to live in your heart and transform you from the inside out.
Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.