Echo Middle School’s Cinema Series

Echo Middle School just wrapped up its cinema series, where we explore theological themes in movies from the previous year. Jesus was the master storyteller, using parables with unexpected twists and surprise endings to help his audience imagine and feel the impact of God’s Kingdom. Jesus framed these stories with material common to the lives of his audience: struggling first century peasants from Palestine. His stories had such impact partly because he observed and listened to the world around him, truly understanding where people were coming from before he set out to take them somewhere new. When he awoke their imaginations about the possibilities and realities of God’s Kingdom, it was like pulling back the curtain of another world. He was always careful to describe this higher reality in terms and symbols that were accessible to the people of this world. Jesus told stories that were familiar parts of the fabric of everyday life: fathers and sons, farming, lost sheep, and the plight of the poor.

We value the ways of Jesus above everything at Echo, so one of the skills we try to coach our students in is the ability to look at their culture with critical and redemptive eyes. We want them to discover what their culture is saying, dreaming, and feeling – then we want them to discern how what they discover would be re-framed, redeemed, or rejected by the Kingdom of God. We often show music videos, play popular songs, and examine movie clips or other media to coach our teens how to rightly interact with the voices of their culture.

During this series, we looked at several films as cultural parables of spiritual truth. These would all be great movies to pick up and watch together as a family. Your Echo student should have some good thoughts about discerning God’s truth in these films if they came to our cinema series.

We Bought a Zoo – This movie is heartwarming and innocent, but it also addresses some deep themes about loss, family tension, and courage.

Hugo – This is one of the best movies I have seen in years. It is a story masterfully told about an orphan boy discovering his purpose, and helping others rediscover their own in the process. This one is a “must see.”

Real Steel
– This is a popcorn flick, but behind the rock-em-sock-em robots is a powerful story about endurance and getting back up when we are knocked down. We compared this story to the story of Paul’s journey to Rome in the book of Acts.

The Adjustment Bureau – This is a science fiction love story, but it is laced with philosophical questions about destiny and free will. We had a conversation about divine providence, fate, and choice with scenes from this film as the backdrop.

Coram Deo – Salt and Light

Echo High School has been having a conversation about what it means to live Coram Deo, or in the sight of God. We are centering our questions around the manifesto of Jesus as laid out in the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew’s Gospel chapters 5 through 7. In it, we find so much about what walking in the ways of Jesus is and is not, much of it corrective criticism to the way the Christian faith has been practiced. This week, our conversation goes to Mathew 5:13-16.

Matthew 5:13-1613 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Jesus uses two different metaphors to communicate the purpose or effect of being his disciple. The metaphors for salt and light were more vivid to the ancient audience of this teaching than they are to us, so let’s break them down.

1. SALT of the earth – Salt was much more meaningful and valuable to those in the ancient world. Now, we think of salt in terms of sodium and cholesterol. Salt was connected with several ideas in the ancient world. First, it was the most common preservative. There were no refrigerators in a very hot climate, so this was a very important. Salt was used to keep things from going bad, and to hold putrefaction at bay. When Jesus compares his disciples to salt, this is one of the associations they would have made. If followers of Jesus are to be the salt of the earth, they must have a certain antiseptic influence on life. They should be preservers, holding infection or corruption at bay. I want to be careful and clear here, because no one likes it when someone takes the morality of another on as a personal project. This shouldn’t give you permission to be judgmental, bossy, self-righteous, or superior. It doesn’t mean you should try to be the conscience of others. It does probably mean that you should bring out the best in others, to be someone whose company makes it easier to do the right thing, and not the opposite. It means to influence others to be their best.
Second, and most obviously, salt lends flavor to things. Food without salt is bland and boring. When Jesus said his followers were to be the salt of the earth, he meant that they should flavor life. The sad reality is that so often, people connect Christianity (and religion in general) with precisely the opposite. They assume that religion is what takes the flavor out of life. Interestingly, this was an early criticism of the Jesus way by the Romans – that Christianity took the fun out of life. If life in the way of Jesus is grey, pale, and gloomy; if all it offers is renunciation and suffering, then what flavor could it bring? I think if that is the face of your faith, you have gone wrong and are far from the vision of Jesus. We need to discover and demonstrate the radiance of the way of Jesus. For those in Christ, it should not look like a funeral when we gather, but a feast.

2. LIGHT of the world –
The second metaphor, the light of the world, is equally powerful. Matthew’s readers may have remarked that Jesus referred to himself as “the light of the world.” When Jesus commanded his followers to be the lights of the world, he demanded nothing less than that they should be like himself. This means that we shine not with our own glory, but with the reflection of his light. Think about the way a bride on her wedding day glows. It is not that she is inherently radiant, it is the attention of those gathered and love and adoration of her groom that causes her to shine. A light is something that should be seen, something almost impossible to hide. The houses in Palestine were very dark, with only one little circular window. They lit their houses with these little oil lamps that they put on a stand. Light can also be a guide, something that chases away the darkness and reveals the truth of the situation. It can make clear the way.

SO WHAT? Taken together, the idea behind these metaphors is a command to demonstrate a public faith that is potent, influential, and effective. This is a counter cultural command in an age where people are told to keep their religion to themselves. Jesus says: “Let all see it and benefit from it.” However, he does caution that this should be done in an attractive and compelling way, not an ugly or obnoxious way. There is a big difference! Jesus says in v. 16: “Let your light shine before people, that they may see you good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” In Greek, there are multiple words for good. There is the word agathos, which simply means good or high quality; and there is the kalos, which means that thing is not only good but it is also captivating, beautiful, and attractive. The word here is kalos. We hear this and might wrongly assume it means playing righteous, like being the good girl or good guy – somehow projecting an aura of purity or righteousness. This is not quite what he means. What some people think is “goodness” is often repulsive. This is not “theatrical goodness.” If that could ever translate into a showy self-righteousness or superiority, this is NOT what Jesus means. What Jesus means is for you to show your world something beautiful. Show them something compelling. Show them something attractive. “Christians,” those who walk in the way of Jesus – have a little bit of a “perception problem.” At least that is how I heard one person describe it. I think it goes much deeper than our culture’s perception; this is reality. The findings in David Kinnaman’s book unChristian should shake those who claim to follow Jesus to the point of self-reflection. It is not that the church really does resemble Christ and the culture just has it wrong or is seeing us through their jaded glasses, it is that in some ways the church has actually wandered away from the teachings and the heart of Jesus. When people look into the lives of those who claim to follow Jesus, they see so little of Jesus. This is the major problem. Jesus here describes people that do not embody the ways of the Kingdom of God as salt that isn’t salty and light that is invisible; in other words, worthless. If it is not doing what it is supposed to do, if it is not what it claims to be, discard and dismiss it. Of course this is the joke: Jesus’ audience could not imagine tasteless salt or invisible light. They didn’t exist in their minds. This is Jesus’ point: there is no such thing as a disciple who doesn’t act like a disciple. Such a disciple is not a disciple at all! The transformation of your life as a result of walking with Jesus should be evident and obvious; it should be noticeable like the presence of salt and light.

Questions for you and your teenager:
-What is the difference between being influential and being obnoxious about your faith?
-What are some of the things that prevent followers of Jesus from being influencers?
-Why is it so easy to be influenced instead of being the one that influences?
-What do you think Jesus would say about peer pressure based on this passage?

Coram Deo – The Beatitudes

Echo High School has started a new conversation called Coram Deo. Coram Deo is a Latin phrase meaning something like “before God,” it refers to something that takes place in the presence of or before the face of God. To live Coram Deo is to live one’s entire life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God. It means to be aware of his presence and to know there is no higher goal than to offer honor and glory to God. It is the foundation of true religion. The Sermon on the Mount might be summed up with this phrase. Look at how it starts in Matthew 5:1-2. We read that he sat down to teach and we think of something informal, but this is exactly the opposite of what is intended. In the day of Jesus, a rabbi would sit down to teach formally. This means that what we have here is the cornerstone of the creed of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most important parts of the Bible. It is has been of huge historical significance, influencing the lives of people like Dietrich Bonheoffer, Martin Luther King Jr, and others. It lays down the ethical and spiritual foundation of the teaching of Jesus. We are going to explore the Sermon on the Mount over the next several weeks as we work out what it means to live “Coram Deo.”

Matthew 5:3-12 – The Beatitudes
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This is a very famous passage and it is often taught one statement at a time. That might be helpful, because many of these statements have lost their meaning because of historical distance, but we also need to understand that these were given as one address, and so we need to understand what they mean collectively. The big idea here is the inversion of what we would assume to be “blessed.” The beatitudes describe people with objective happiness, a happiness that is unmovable and unchangeable. They are worded in a shocking way, a way that begs the question: “Why would those with nothing be happy?” Why would the destitute, the heartbroken, the suffering be happy? The answer is that they have found Christ and the Kingdom of God, and that gives them true immovable unconditional happiness. So, the poor in spirit, for instance, have realized that things mean nothing and God means everything. Because of this, they have discovered a different kind of happiness. Jesus flipped the cultural norms on their head, redefining happiness. Where our happiness is something inextricably tied to our circumstances, Jesus talks about a happiness that is higher, one that is above these things. This happiness is a deep reality that is not affected by the circumstances around us. Our happiness is often tied to our emotional state. It is about what happens to us – what forces from “without” conspire to affect us – more than it is about something from “within.” This form of happiness is elusive and evasive, so we spend so much of our time and energy pursuing it; chasing it.

If they were spoken today, it might say something like “happy are the unemployed, for they have to depend on God.” Or “happy are those whose relationships are strained, for they will learn to forgive.” It is not saying that we should seek out those realities, that in our pursuit of happiness we should find a way to mourn, to become poor, or to get persecuted. It is saying that because happiness is deeper than any of these situations, we should be able to walk through them and remain happy. The blessings of the beatitudes are for a people ready for the kingdom’s coming. This passage shows what kingdom-ready people should be like; they are prerequisites for the kingdom as well as kingdom promises. Here a few big themes from the beatitudes:

First, Kingdom people do not try to force God’s whole will on a world unprepared for it. Many first-century Jews had begun to think that revolutionary violence was the only adequate response to the violence of oppression they experienced. Matthew’s first audience no doubt could recall the bankruptcy of this approach, which led to crushing defeat in the war of A.D. 66-73. But Jesus promised the kingdom not to those who try to force God’s hand in their time but to those who patiently and humbly wait for it – the meek, the poor in spirit, the merciful, the peacemakers. But this is not just about challenging the bloodshed of revolution. Today, this means there is NO room in Jesus’ picture of blessedness for proud, forceful, superior religion. What is being described here is something far sweeter than we often see parading around under Jesus’ name.

Second, God favors the humble, who trust in him rather than their own strength. Jesus promises the kingdom of God to the powerless, the oppressed, who embrace the poverty of their condition by trusting in God rather than favors from the powerful for their deliverance. This promise provides us both hope to work for justice and grace to endure the hard path of love. Such humble people yearn for God above all else. Mourners may refer to the repentant, those grieving over their sin and failure.

Finally, as the Beatitudes exalt the values of the Kingdom, they condemn the worldly counter-value. One of the things that must be considered here is that Jesus is challenging the cultural norms of his day. When he says that the poor in Spirit are blessed, he means to imply that the culture that values self-confident, competent, self-reliant people are not in alignment with the ways of God’s Kingdom. When he says that meek are blessed, he means to imply that the proud, powerful, important people that flaunt and take advantage of others are not blessed. When he says the persecuted are blessed, he means to imply that the popular, adaptable, uncontroversial people that play it safe and protect their comfort are not blessed. Understand what I mean here: I am not implying that we should just try to live like the beatitudes describe. You should not try to mourn, or to be poor, or to be persecuted. What I am saying is that Jesus has invited all of us into a life found only through faith in Him that is the source of true happiness. This happiness is the way of the Kingdom of God, and is deeper than any circumstances or emotion. He is saying there is a different way to live, and that way is His Way.

The characteristics Jesus lists as belonging to the people of the Kingdom are also those Jesus himself exemplifies as the leading servant of the kingdom. Jesus is meek and lowly in heart; he mourns over the unrepentant; he shows mercy; he is a peacemaker. This is the exact opposite picture of the wordy paradigms for religious celebrities. Let’s live Coram Deo, and show the world something more like the real Jesus as we try to Echo Him.

Food for thought:

-What do you think it means to live Coram Deo?
-How are the values that Jesus described in the Beatitudes counter-cultural?
-How have we exposed ourselves to misery in the way we allow our happiness to be dependent on our circumstances or emotions?