11 December 2014


Warning: there may be spoilers here, depending on how you define "spoiler." The movie opens December 25, but the book has been out for several years. I will not divulge any secrets of the movie (there really aren't any), but I will highlight important differences from the Laura Hillenbrand book, as well as overall impressions of the film.

Another note: sometimes at advance screenings viewers are forbidden to post their reactions before the release date. Aside from "keep your mobile phone in your pocket," no such admonitions were given.

The other night I was invited to attend a special screening for the new Angelina Jolie directed film Unbroken (I also learned from the end credits that Joel and Ethan Coen wrote the script, with others-- this was a surprise. I am huge fans of those guys). Let me say from the beginning this is one of the best books I have ever written-- I know that is a cliche, but here it is true. It is a thrilling, nearly unbelievable true story of Louis Zamperini, American Olympic athlete and war hero.

The film did not live to the expectations or hype. Here's my prediction: those who have not read the book will universally love it, despite lukewarm reviews. The auditorium applauded at the end of the movie. Those who have read and loved the book will be disappointed, because, at least from my point of view, it leaves out the most important part of his life: his faith, and the impact it had on him and many others. The movie is being marketed amongst Christians as a testimony to Zamperini's faith (the company screening the movie even offers pastors sermon notes and study guides for the films it presents-- although I have not yet received them), but aside from a couple of references there is very little.

The first time we see a reference to faith is in a church service, where the pastor preached a sermon on forgiveness. Later his mother prays for her bored, troublesome teenager. During the war Zamperini was the bombardier on a flight crew. Following the crash of his plane after flying a mission, Zamperini sees the pilot praying a silently. The two exchange some sarcastic words. The big moment of faith-- and it is only that, a moment-- follows another crash. The crew was sent on a rescue mission, and the plane crashes into the sea, killing all but three crew members. After several days the three survivors face giant waves during a storm, and looking to the sky, Zamperini prays, "If you get me through this I will serve you for the rest of my life." I remember this distinctly from the book. They survive the storm. After more than 40 days adrift they are captured by a Japanese ship and spend the rest of the war separately in POW camps in Japan. Zamperini is especially tormented by a sadistic man the prisoners called The Bird. Upon his return to the USA his family greets him at the airport and the movie is over, save for a few sentences before the credits, like (paraphrased):

"Louis kept his promise and lived out his faith for the rest of his life."

"Louis was able to overcome his bitterness and forgive."

But we don't see this in the movie.

Ever heard this?: "Go to the graveyard and look at the tombstones. You'll see the birth year and the year of death, and the dash inbetween. The dash is where you live your life." Here you go. Louis Zamperini lived 1917-2014 (died July 2), meaning his dash should encompass 97 1/2 years. In the movie we only know him briefly as a kid and during his 20s. What about the last 70 years of his life? What makes the Zamperini story so incredibly special is how his faith impacted those years. His faith was born in the ocean on a raft waiting to be rescued. But after the war he was troubled for years by nightmares about The Bird, which resulted in alcoholism, and nearly destroyed his faith. He reluctantly attended a Billy Graham tent revival in Los Angeles in 1949. There his faith was renewed and he was transformed.

Rev. Billy Graham in the middle, Zamperini far right.

Louis Zamperini's Christian faith empowered him to overcome bitterness and forgive his captors: "Surely it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but you have held back my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back" (Isaiah 38:17). "Forgive each other; as the Lord has forgive you, so you must also forgive others" (Colossians 3:17). This is what is missing from the movie-- Zamperini was not "unbroken" because he overcame his physical and emotional suffering during the war, as awful as that was. He was "unbroken" because he overcame the resulting spiritual brokenness and was not defined by it.

One of the great cliches around the church is that preaching on Easter and Christmas is the easiest-- the stories preach themselves. And this man's life, even the first 30 years of it, is enough story telling in anyone's hands. This was Angelina Jolie's first major film as director, and it shows. The script from the normally funny and sophisticated Coen brothers was very disappointing-- none of their characteristic wit or irony. When I first saw the trailer months ago I thought it was destined for award nominations, but no: it was shut out from the Golden Globes, and Oscar will probably pass too. You'll hear the word "snubbed," but the truth is: it's just not good enough for awards. On its own, does the movie work? Sure. Like I said, those who have neither read the book nor are particularly interested in the remaining years of Zamperini's life will enjoy it.

04 December 2014

Join the Conspiracy!

(I'm a week late in posting this, but here you go.)

True story: several years ago when I served at a church in Duncanville, I visited a family in their home for a funeral visit. In the middle of the summer, a Christmas tree graced the living room. It was this family's practice to never take their tree down. The son of this couple met a young woman, and was going to her parents' home for the first time. She warned him: "You might think this is weird, but my parents keep their Christmas tree up all year long." "Mine too!", he thought. You knew the relationship was off to a good start!

Admit it: you love Christmas that much too. Maybe not enough to keep your tree up or lights on year round, but you dig the holiday. So do I. To get us in the spirit of things, let's count down our favorite Christmas cliches:

1. It's too commercial. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans will spend $600 billion this holiday season. FYI, that more than thirty times what we spend on Mother's Day!
2. The Christmas season unofficially starts too soon. Stores have had their holly, etc. up since Labor Day. Radio stations are playing 100% Christmas music three weeks before Thanksgiving. Your neighbor has already decorated her house.
3. It's lost its religious significance-- now, like Thanksgiving, it is a secular observance more than anything else.
4. Speaking of Thanksgiving, Black Friday is getting old. Forcing low wage earning employees away from their families so shoppers can save $10 on an iPad stinks. Retailers react differently: some are shaming those who open on Thanksgiving (because nothing says, "Give Thanks!" like shaming someone); others are stretching Black Friday to Black Week or month. $600 billion is not enough!
5. It's too busy. Office parties, Sunday school parties, school holiday concerts, you know the drill. Get those tacky sweaters ready!

Several years ago, a few pastors and congregations had an idea to combat some of our cliches. They called this movement Advent Conspiracy. They produced fun videos like this one. Instead of spending so much,  parishioners were encouraged to spend less. Instead of participating in the busyness, use your time more wisely. Instead of buying clothes or toys no one will wear or play with, donate that money to a worthy cause-- like water wells. In seven years, nearly $10 billion has been raised to provide clean drinking water to folks around the world.

Over the next few weeks at Custer Road, we'll learn more about this movement and invite you to join in. By doing so, you will rediscover the Christmas joy that is possible when we:

  • Worship Fully
  • Spend less
  • Give more
  • Love all

02 December 2014

A Remembrance of John Oestmann

Note: this sermon was shared at the funeral for John Oestmann today. I offer it here for those unable to attend the service, but also for anyone who has struggled with an untimely loss of a loved one. 

I first met John Oestmann when I became the pastor at Prosper United Methodist eight years ago. And did this guy make an impression! It isn’t often that I am made to feel small around others—but John was a giant in every way you can imagine. People always say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Well, that was never truer than when one considers our husband, father, brother, son, and friend, John. Many of us might have crossed the street when we saw this large, tattooed, sometimes Mohawked man approaching us. And if we did cross that road, we would miss out on knowing one of the best, most genuine, most dependable men we would ever meet. But the lasting impression John gave had little to do with his appearance and everything to do with the way he lived his life. One of my favorite lines from Pulp Fiction is, “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.” We all know John was a character and had character.

John, with his two sons James and Ethan (left), Peyton, Chance, and our James (back row).
I have John to thank for the only times my son James ever painted his fingernails—when he was in Mr Oestmann’s cabin at Camp Bridgeport. John’s love of the church camp is legendary—so much that the camp itself posted a tribute to John on its Facebook page yesterday. I had always heard of John’s Bridgeport exploits second hand until this past summer, when Pastor Jason, John, and I were all at camp together, though in different cabins. John’s towering, unique voice could be heard from anywhere: “OMEGA!,” leading the cheers of his group. His presence at Bridgeport next summer and beyond will be dearly missed.

Several years ago I began recruiting a new Disciple Bible Study class at the church, and one of my target couples was John and Angela. Angela remembered the other day me sending her 100s of emails asking for one good reason they should not participate. Finally she relented and she and John signed up with another dozen or so folks. We met every week in my home for nearly a year. And several years later, I can still say it was one of the best groups I have ever participated in—largely because of John. At the end of class when others were often uncomfortable praying, John stepped up. When the discussion bogged down, or we chased too many rabbits, John brought us back on track. When I was absent I knew John would faithfully substitute for me; and when I was assigned to another church in Dallas, I asked John to take on the teaching duties for the next year. Of course he excelled at it.

John was skilled at his work as an electrician too. Several years ago I set up an above ground pool at the parsonage. John came over to convert the outlet to something that would work with water, potentially saving all of us from electrocution. When our boys needed ceiling fans installed this summer, it was clear Christy would not allow me anywhere near it—so we called John, of course. He picked Ethan up from Bridgeport, then spent a couple of hours in my sons’ rooms doing this job for us—Ethan hadn’t seen his mom or family in a week but John still made time to help us out. Our James was thrilled to have both Ethan and Mr Oestmann in our home.

John was the ultimate husband and father. He cherished Angela: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” And you weren’t around John long before the stories of his kids’ latest achievements were shared. He was very, very proud of Ethan, James, and Lilah.

The other night as I sat with family planning this service, we spoke about John’s faith. I thumbed through his Lutheran Bible, highlighted and full of pages of notes. Here are a few random scriptures he noted: Psalm 33:12: “Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.” We know John was a patriot and proudly served our nation in the military. Jesus’ words from John 14:27—Pastor Sam read them a moment ago: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” And this, also from the Gospel of John: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

John was a man of great faith, and his untimely death no doubt has caused many of us to question our faith. Many of us are angry—we have lost someone dear to us and we want answers. We may even direct that anger toward God—and let me say that is not only ok but healthy. God can certainly handle our grief. Shouting to God, “WHY?” is an act of prayer, even when we do not intend it to be. But trying to find answers in such a situation can also lead to frustration. John’s death is unfair but it was not caused by God—God did not take John from us or have any more important need for him elsewhere. God’s heart broke as much as anyone else’s last Friday. Scripture tells us that Jesus himself experienced grief in the face of death.

One of Jesus’ closest friends, Lazarus, also died a premature death, and it broke Jesus’ heart—he wept openly. Yet in spite of his grief he saw a deeper meaning in his friend’s death: it was meant for God’s glory, that Jesus may be glorified in it. What did he mean by that? Well, not that God caused Lazarus’ death, but that even in the most raw of human emotions—the loss of our beloved—somehow the light of God’s hope and power can be seen. Offering words of comfort to the grieving—including himself—Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” This is a promise John held at the very center of his being—faith in Jesus Christ’s power over death and life—and it is that faith that will carry us through our questions, doubt, and anger. Later Jesus, from the Cross, cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” quoting from Psalm 22. He felt abandoned by God, as many of us do today. But that’s only verse one of the psalm; it also reads, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” That journey from despair to hope is one that God promises to walk with us: Psalm 55:22 says this: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and God will sustain you.”

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Life was meant to be lived.” This was how John approached his life, and it is the best way I can think of to honor his memory. There is a large, John-sized hole in our lives now—how can we fill that hole for each other, so that we can experience the healing power of love over the coming days? Maybe we can do that by being more available to each other—not just when things need to be fixed but the few extra moments of holding a hand or sharing an encouraging word.

A few years ago I came across this quote from Earnest Hemingway, who, like John, was an avid outdoorsman. From his classic A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway said: “The world breaks everyone, and some become strong at the broken places.” My prayer for those of us who are broken today is that we will be made strong in those broken places.

The other night at the Oestmann home we formed a circle in the middle of the room: Angela, Ethan, James, Lilah, John’s parents, sister and brothers, their spouses, Erica, others. We shared many tears together. We remembered John and honored his life. We prayed together. And as we shared holy time in the circle, my eyes kept returning to the mantle over the fireplace where this scripture can be found:

“Weeping may linger for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

Angela and the rest of the Oestmann family, I am so glad that scripture is in such a prominent place in the home. There’s no better word for you today. Our weeping may linger, but joy is coming. At this time of year we anticipate God’s coming to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus said this: “No one will take your joy away from you.” And so may each of you—family and friends of John Oestmann—may each of you know that joy. May the God of joy wipe away your tears and bring healing and restoration to your life. May you know, as John did, the great promise of our faith, that nothing in life or in death can ever separate us from God’s great love in Jesus Christ. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.