Friday, April 09, 2010

Letters To God Review

Jasper Speaks:

I must admit that I went into this film a bit of a skeptic.The storyline just seemed a little too "Hallmark Channel" for me. I got to go to a free screening sponsored by the St. Louis Rams. That might seem odd but apparently one of the players is a strong Christian and they tied it into a Rams charity for sick kids so I suppose that makes sense. I went so I could spend time with my teens who were attending. I had a great time with them.

The movie begins with 8 year old Tyler Doherty, who is suffering from brain cancer and writing letters to God that he leaves for the postman every day. His mother is returning to work as a nurse and life is trying to continue after Tyler has undergone painful radiation treatments.

We are also introduced to the postal workers of the area (which area we never know). There is Walter the over achieving veteran postal worker who doesn't feel right taking time off; Lester the kind and gracious boss; Carl, the over eager middle and manger and Brady, the slacker Iraq ex-service man who is an alcoholic. In a not so shocking twist of fate, Brady gets assigned Walter's walking route which includes Tyler's home.

Tyler eventually is well enough to go back to school. His best friend Sam (Samantha not Samuel), is his protector and confidant. On his first day back a bully is particularly mean to him and Sam proceeds to smash the trouble maker's face in his lunch. The three wind up in the principal's office.

Brady continues to drink. He  doesn't know what to do with the letters to God that Tyler continues to write. He decides to take them to a church where the pastor tells him that he doesn't believe that they came into Brady's possession by chance. The pastor prays with him. Brady keeps the letters, unopened.Through collecting the letters Brady becomes a close friend to the family and his drinking stops.

The movie continues with more exposition explaining how Tyler's cancer affects the entire neighborhood. Tyler becomes the light of many people's world and he points several characters to a relationship with Christ. The movie takes a deeply emotional turn in its falling action. It concludes by letting us know that the story is based on true events and showing us several cancer surviviors that we assume had something to do with the film's production.

I will say that this, in similar fashion to the much superior film To Save A Life released earlier this year, has upped the quality expectations for Christian movies. However, To Save A Life captured real, gritty, life and made little apologies for its realism. Letters to God does play as I feared, much like a TV movie. It is a quality TV movie but nonetheless not what you expect when you attend a theater to see a film. It's scope is small and not quite full enough for a large theater venue.

The acting is far superior to many films of this genre. Jeffery Johnson does a fine job portraying the troubled Brady who is a complex character driven by his past mistakes with his own family and the uneasy pull to become a part of this new one. He is understated in his subtext. His feelings seem real and his character is one of the best written in the film. We see his hurt and regret and can believe that it is true as he battles his past and its demons.

Robyn Lively is not as strong but turns an adequate performance as the struggling mother of a child with cancer. In her most emotional scene, one of the few in the movie that actually rings true to  the doubts and grief of struggling with a terminal illness, Lively is a bit over the top and flirts with overacting. She does reign it in just as she brushes over doing the scene and making it unbelievable. You do trust her performance when it comes to the scenes where she shows love and emotion toward her sick son.

There is a surprise appearance of Ralph Waite (of The Walton's and more recently the Kevin Costner/Whitney Houston film The Bodyguard) as Sam's grandfather. He is a fine actor but the role was written in such a way that it seems a waste that someone with Waite's pedigree would play the part.

You get the sense that Tanner Maguire, who plays Tyler, is trying a bit too hard. Although, the script he has to work with makes believability hard to grasp. Tyler is written in such a way that Mcguire never really has the freedom to delve into the fears and hurts of someone struggling with cancer. He also is a bit too old to be believable as an eight year old. He often has a glossy look that I am not sure is meant to be Tyler's wandering thoughts to Heaven or Maguire's confusion on how to play a child who seems to not struggle much with the fact that he is terminally ill.

Bailee Madison is cute on 110 on a 10 point scale, playing the role of the best friend Sam. The director often uses her to make the crowd say "awww" and forget that cancer is messy. She is a fine young actress and I will admit that her final scenes and voice overs came the closest to manufacturing genuine emotion from me.

Actually the most restrained and believable performance was turned in by Michael Bolten (not the singer) who plays Tyler's older brother, Ben. We can  believe that he cares for his brother and sense his genuine pain at losing first his father (in a "sudden" way that is never disclosed) and now the threat of losing his only brother as well. Bolten never seems to overdo his emotions and the writers stay away from the emotionally manipulative tone that haunts other characters in the scripting of Ben. Bolten also demonstrates a quality musical talent in a scene late in the film.

The Gospel is very plain in this movie. Those who felt that To Save A Life lacked the over the top salvation message should be amply pleased by it's presentation in Letters to God. Although I thought the restraint shown in To Save A Life was necessary for the tone of that film, I am happy that the filmmakers of Letters To God did not shy away from the road to true peace. We see lives changed by the work of Jesus and His name is credited many times.

The movie is worth your time. Perhaps it would be best viewed in your home on a more intimate format than the big screen. Still, I would urge you to suck it up and buy a ticket to see it in the theater. Hollywood needs to know that faith based films can make money. It is always pleasant to go to a movie and be entertained and not have to feel like you have somehow compromised your values by watching it. Letters to God will help get us further down the road to consistent quality Christian film making. If we continue to put quality first, we can only expect for movies with a faith message to get better. I do believe that God can (and will) use this film to further His Kingdom and in the end, I know that is what matters most.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

God's Call?

Jasper Speaks:

I remember when I was young in ministry, how exciting it was for me when a young person felt called to the full-time ministry. I remember championing him or her.  I remember helping  to find a good Bible College for a perspective pastor or missionary to attend. I remember feeling somehow that I needed to "invest" more time with in these students so they could figure out what ministry was all about. I remember being so excited. Not so much anymore.

It seems that the phrase many are called but few are chosen comes to mind. I have seen many students start on this road and go careening off of it not long after. I have seen this process leave them confused and sometimes resentful of the church. That takes the excitement out of it a bit for me. 

I want students to listen closely to God's call on their lives. I think that is very important. I also think that is the point. We need to be helping students listen closely to God's call on his or her life. I think there was a time when I got so excited that a student would be interested in ministry that I might have done more harm than good. I may have moved them toward a decision that they were not equipped to make.

For me, the call is so real. I have no doubt that God has called me to a lifetime of service. I think that may skew my perceptive a bit. What I mean is that the call of God in my life is such a part of who I am that I sometimes have a hard time understanding why anybody would want to do anything else. I get excited to hear that anyone would consider doing what I do.

What I have discovered though is that often in my haste, I did not give the best counsel to those sensing a call. I immediately started trying to "prepare" them for ministry. I did not really give the Holy Spirit time to work on them and help them understand what He was calling them to do. I would then mourn when I saw a student crash and burn as they began to pursue the call. I would be disappointed in them that they didn't tough it out. I would feel a sense of failure myself.

But now, when a student comes to me sensing God's call, I proceed with more trepidation. I still get excited but I want the student to take time to really consider what they are undertaking. Ministry is not easy. Ministers are held to a higher standard. There is a lot of stress and pressure. Although, I can dream of nothing else that I would rather do with my life, ministry is not for everyone.

I try to find a middle ground in my counsel. I walk beside the student encouraging them to seek out ministry options. I ask them what they thought they wanted to do before this call. I ask them if there was an event or a moment in time where they first felt this calling. I ask them to get involved in doing ministry right now. I ask them to take time and pray. I warn them not to make a hasty decision. I invite them to spend time with me doing ministry and see what day to day ministry looks like up close. I pray for them.

In my twenty years of ministry there have been many students who have come to me sensing that God may want them in full-time service. Most of them move on to other things. A few have answered that call and are working hard in ministry right now. I pray that with age has come the wisdom to remind students that God calls Christians to be godly teachers, plumbers, politicians, doctors, lawyers, stay at home moms and all the other career choices out there. I pray that God would help me to guide students through listening to His voice and help them to determine how He can use them in ministry or not.
Laurie Update

Jasper Speaks:

And Laurie sees! Laurie is home. The long term issue has been her eyesight as after her hospital stay she was diagnosed as legally blind. However, she had surgery yesterday and today she is seeing clearly out of the eye that the surgery was performed on! Hallelujah! They will do the other once this one heals. What a walking miracle this girl is!

Monday, April 05, 2010

Keeping It Simple

Jasper Speaks:

I have a confession to make. I used to be a Complex Youth Pastor. I was overloaded with my schedule and underloaded with things that could help me. I was becoming increasingly easily angered. I was not my laid back old self. I had no idea why.

I also was not spending enough time with my wife and son. Sometimes even the time I was spending with them lacked quality because I was so distracted by all the “important” stuff I should be doing.   I was feeling guilty when ministry called me away from them. I was feeling guilty when they were calling me away from ministry. I was pretty much engulfed in guilt because I felt like I was not giving ministry or family my all.

I was trying to do a lot of ministry. I think I hoped that it would fulfill me and keep me motivated. I wanted to see our group grow both spiritually and numerically. I thought that maybe if we could keep up the pace, our students would grow because of the activity.

There was not really much wrong with our ministry that you could see from the outside. Our events had decent numbers. We were seeing kids saved. Kids were making decisions to live a greater life for Christ. So it seemed.

Then I started to hear a still, small voice ask “Is this for real”?  I tried to ignore it but it kept coming back. So, I started looking at our ministry with a more critical eye. Yes, students were coming to know Christ. There was no doubt about it. But I did notice that our discipleship program was built from one big event to the next. So many of our students were feeling a movement of God at these events but would walk away from their commitments soon afterwards.

I realized that we were doing a lot of filling the calendar and not a lot of filling lives. I realized that the problem started with me. I devoted a lot of time to working in ministry but I was not doing a lot to let God work in me. Soon the still, small voice was asking, “Are you for real?”

I started examining myself. I took a hard look at why I was beginning to act the way I was. I realized I was doing ministry without letting God fill me up. I was running on empty just trying to be the ringmaster to our many programs.  I repented of that. I returned to a regimen of time in God’s Word that was not all about studying for a message. I set aside more time to pray. I committed to a new accountability partner. In reality, I was once again doing what I tell students they need to do everyday. I was leaving hypocrisy behind and investing time in my own growth. The bonus was, very soon after, the angry guy left and the real me was coming back.

Then I looked at our programs. I took a deep breath and went to our student ministry leadership and said that I thought we should cut out some of the fat. I was floored when our team (of adults and students) immediately agreed. They were all tired of the complex ministry schedule we were keeping as well. How could we move from complex to simple?

We sat and discussed what we wanted students graduating from our ministry to look like spiritually. We didn’t start with how they would look in their senior year, we took the conversation farther. We asked what we would want them to look like as sophomores in college. We wanted to know what we would like to see after they had lived a year on their own away from the safe cradle of our student ministry.

We made a detailed list. We then broke it down to the most basic things. We took out phrases that were repetitive or unclear. Then we used those ideas to rephrase our purpose. We agreed on a three word statement that would define what we wanted to do. We chose Connect, Grow and Go. We wanted our students to connect to God and each other, grow in those relationships and go live the Christian life. We wanted to keep it simple.

Finally, we reexamined our programs and cut anything that could not be traced back to a specific statement in our purpose. Some of those cuts were easier than others. Still, we took a hard look and let some favorites be trimmed down or completely eliminated so that our simple purpose could be achieved. It was a tough process but the still small voice was now saying, “This just might work!”

We submitted a trimmed budget and calendar to the church. Then God moved. Students and leaders became more passionate about knowing God. They became more passionate about growing in their relationship with Him. They became more passionate about serving Him. By simplifying my spiritual life, I was able to genuinely lead others in the same. Taking care of me meant trimming the fat and letting God build muscle in my spiritual life again. I am glad he did.