Friday, February 27, 2009

Under the Same Moon: Immigration as a sign of the kingdom

Last night Ellen and I watched Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna), a movie about a Mexican boy's quest to be reunited with his mother working in the U.S. The boy, Carlitos, is nine years old and lives south of the border from El Paso. His mother, Rosario, is working in Los Angeles. They have not seen each other for four years, though they have weekly phone calls from pay phones. But circumstances change, and Carlitos goes off in search of his mother. It's a powerful, moving film that had us in tears at many points. Not only does it put a human face on the realities of contemporary immigration, it also serves as a timeless tale of the love between mother and child.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that if Jesus were preaching here today, he would probably use immigration narratives as the basis of his parables. I can totally imagine him saying, "The kingdom of God is like this: An undocumented worker gave up everything of the life she once knew, to journey to a new land, to gain a better life for her and her family . . ."

Or perhaps: "There once was a son whose mother was in a distant country. He left his home to search for his mother until she was found . . ."

What is striking to me is that at first Carlitos thinks that his mother doesn't care about him. But he gradually realizes that her absence is actually a paradoxical sign of her love for him. He has no idea of the sacrifices and pain she goes through on his behalf. It is not until he goes on his own journey that he realizes his mother's immeasurable love for him.

I can easily imagine Jesus saying, "You know this kind of love that propels people into extraordinary circumstances and compels a mother and child to be reunited with each other? If that is how much simple human beings can love, how much more so is God's love for you!"

Often in evangelical circles we emphasize the shepherd going off to search for the lost sheep. This movie shows us the flip side - the waiting parent of the parable of the prodigal son. Rosario's story is a counterpoint to Carlitos's journey. And both are seeking, in different ways. Carlitos gives us a picture of the yearning seeker who feels the absence of his mother so much that he is drawn to find her once again. It's a picture of the God-shaped hole, the heart that is restless until it finds the beloved that brings wholeness and completion.

One particular scene also jumped out at me as a Christlike model of substitutionary sacrifice. As it unfolded, I thought to myself, "Wow. I can't believe that just happened." It was an amazing picture of the cost of sacrificial love. But I can't say more because I don't want to be a spoiler!

The film is of course also about immigration issues, which are woven throughout the plot. It reminded me of the complexity of immigration policy and how the system desperately needs reform. Book plug: Check out the new IVP book Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate by World Relief immigration experts Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang. It debunks myths about immigration and gives guidance for how Christians can be involved on both a public policy level as well as on a local grassroots level in practical ministry to our immigrant neighbors.

The film also invites us to consider where we are within it. As Carlitos goes on his modern-day odyssey, he encounters a variety of characters, some predatory, some compassionate. Which will we be? Where are we in the story?

Ultimately, Under the Same Moon depicts how we are drawn toward reunion with the beloved. It's a picture of the great lengths that love will go to for the sake of the other. Great movie. I highly recommend it.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Next week is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and I've been thinking about what to give up. People say that for things to be "living sacrifices," we should give up that which is "most alive in us," or else it's not really worth giving up. There's no point in giving up coffee if you don't drink coffee. But giving up something that will be a noticeable, even painful absence in your life can be far more significant and transformative. In past years I've stopped getting new books for Lent (including library books, comic books and other books), and I think I might do that again, to focus on getting through books I already own.

But the most "alive" consuming obsession in my life right now is probably Facebook. Now that I have 643 Facebook friends, there's a critical mass of constant status updates that can take hours to scroll through, especially if I click through all the various links that are highlighted or stop to comment or look at pictures or whatnot. I need to remind myself that I got along just fine without knowing the day-by-day goings-on of all my old friends and classmates. My irrational fear is that I'll miss out on something important, but the reality is that it's really not a big deal if I don't read everybody's Facebook status all the time. (See this Boston Globe article about how technology means that we are never alone anymore, and that's a problem.)

Another dimension is the fact that how we use Facebook can be spiritually unhealthy. There's a great discussion going on right now at The Mommy Revolution, triggered by the post "Carla is Jealous of your Facebook Status." Often our posts are designed to show off some aspect of our lives, and this can generate envy, discontentment, resentment, etc. I blogged a while ago about the different kinds of Facebook statuses, and I have to confess that some of my statuses are shamelessly self-promotional. (My current status is "Al will be his undergrad alma mater's commencement speaker this May. Figuring out what to say besides "Congrats, and good luck finding a job in this economy...") So I might have to start limiting my Facebooking. I'm not sure I'll drop it entirely, but at the very least it shouldn't be the first thing I check every morning.

More significantly, though, I've been thinking about the dynamics of God pruning things out of our lives. There are various ways of interpreting and applying John 15, some more ecclesial and others more individual. But here's a personal implication of the Father pruning branches that don't bear fruit. Some areas of my life are overgrown, and I spend entirely too much time on some things that detract from my potential fruitfulness elsewhere. To mix biblical metaphors, my life has weeds that crowd out the good seed, and I need to be both pruned and weeded.

Giving up things for Lent is something internal we do of our own volition, but it strikes me that pruning and weeding are external activities that are done by God to us. And I've been noticing some areas of pruning in recent months. I had a few speaking engagements that were cancelled (I think partly because of the economy), and though this was not really that big a deal, it felt like a bit of a pruning, that I'm not called to be a big-time conference speaker or whatnot. My Christianity Today column ended, and even though I knew in advance that it was just a one-year stint for 2008, that felt like another pruning - drop the magazine writing. I also dropped one of my doctoral classes for the spring because of the amount of space and time I would have needed to do it adequately. And I've been increasingly feeling like this blog is something that is inadvertently getting pruned. I intended to blog more from NPC last week, but just didn't get to it. I just don't feel like I have as much to say that's worth blogging about. Maybe because I waste too much time on Facebook!

So, all this to say that this Lenten season will probably be a time of scaling back, both by external circumstance and internal choice. This mid-thirtysomething season is a time of realizing that doing some things means that I can't do others. Life is full enough as it is, between work and family and church and school and everything else. I need to stop being so spread out and let myself be pruned somewhat so I can go deeper and be more fruitful overall.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

At the National Pastors Convention

I'm in San Diego now for the National Pastors Convention, connecting with my authors and schmoozing with folks and whatnot. Things are off to a good start. Yesterday we had plenary sessions with main speakers Efrem Smith and Shane Claiborne. Efrem encouraged pastors that "Now is the time for the church to be the church." We need to minister more than ever in this time of foreclosures and lost jobs. The economy is putting stress on individuals, marriages, families, etc., and people need to know that the church is there for folks to help people through tough times, and that God is a God of hope who can bring new life from the valley of dry bones.

Andy Crouch gave a seminar on cultural creativity in the church, extending and furthering his thinking since the publication of his book Culture Making. He observed that most Christians think that culture is made by someone else; folks in New England talk about culture being made in Hollywood, and people on the West Coast talk about culture being shaped by Washington. And Christians tend to think that culture is mostly made outside the church. But Andy said that all of us are called to be culture makers, both within and outside of the church. When the church becomes culturally generative outside its walls, that creates energy and vibrancy within the church.

One objection that Andy gets is that the church needs to focus primarily on evangelism and doesn't have time for culture making. He cited D. L. Moody's notion that God gave him a lifeboat and said, "Moody, save all you can." While not at all dismissing the importance of evangelism, Andy recalled the recent airplane crash landing in the Hudson River and observed that yes, we certainly save all we can and get everybody into the lifeboats - but it doesn't stop there. People, once rescued, are not meant to stay in the lifeboats indefinitely. The goal is to get them back to land, back home, to deploy them to continue to do what humans are supposed to do.

Andy also lamented the "churchification" of cultural creativity. He meant that Christians tend to only think of church applications of cultural gifts - if we have gifted musicians, we invite them to play on the worship team. We don't imagine that gifted musicians can live out their Christian callings as artists in the community or marketplace. Andy mentioned Fringe in Atlanta, where a group of musicians who meet in church created a space for younger generations to discover classical chamber music. It's not "Christian" chamber music - it's just excellent chamber music. Fringe is creating a new cultural good and making something of the world.

We also "misunderestimate" our ability to create culture, especially on a local level. We have "creativity envy" of others who can do things "better" than we can. We just need to get over that, because all of us can create something that no one else can create. Also, we may well be doing too many things. Each of us has the capacity to do a few things well, and we may need to cut out some other things that we are not necessarily gifted or called to do. 

During Q&A, various people lamented the fact that it's hard work to do culture making. Andy responded that we shouldn't think of culture making as one more thing to do on top of everything else we have to do like worship and evangelism. Rather, culture making should be a posture and attitude that infuses everything we do in the church. And Andy said that when churches invest in culture making, the return is that the church becomes infused with energy and vitality and draws out more people with more resources. Culture making doesn't take up a bigger piece of the pie - it becomes a pie factory and generates more capacity for cultural goods.

There's more that could be said, but I gotta go. More later.