Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Living as a Joyful Noise

A few months ago, Amber and I went to the theater to watch the movie Joyful Noise, starring Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton as church leaders trying to lead their choir to victory in a national competition.

Joyful Noise choir © 2011 Alcon Film Fund, LLC

While, on the surface, this might sound like a goody-two-shoes, family oriented Christian movie, it's not. The choir's opening song proclaims, "There's not enough love in our hearts," and it doesn't take long to find out they're telling the truth. It’s a movie full of back-stabbing, blackmail, judgmentalism, self-centeredness, pride, lying, swearing, and sexual sin - and that's all exhibited by the Christians in the film! Dolly's character even at one point shares her belief that "sometimes a small sin is justified" when you believe you're working for a higher purpose - a stance that is not Biblical at all, though I'm sure there are people who agree with her. Sin is always wrong in God's view, and God never calls us to sin (Psalm 5:4; James 1:13). When we are not sure how to avoid sin, we would do well to consider 1 Corinthians 10:13, pray about it, and remember these words:

"Between two evils, choose neither;
between two goods, choose both." 
- Tryon Edwards

To be fair, you could say the filmmakers were simply trying to make their characters "real". The sad truth is that Christians do sin more often than we'd like to admit. As followers of the Lord, we recognize that God calls us to give up sin and be different from the rest of the world -  

"Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you 
formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, 
be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, 
‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.'" 
- 1 Peter 1:14-16

 - but the truth is that we are still humans in need of a Savior, no matter how long we have been believers. As one pastor once put it to me, "Christians are not sinless, but we should sin less." This progression toward becoming more and more Christ-like and learning to sin less and less is what John Wesley referred to as the process of sanctification, and it's something that all believers should aspire to, though we will never be fully perfect in this lifetime.

"My little children, I am writing these things to you 
so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, 
we have an advocate with the Father, 
Jesus Christ the righteous."
- 1 John 2:1

The key to our perfection is to constantly reevaluate ourselves to make sure we're following God with our whole hearts. When sin creeps in - whether in our actions or attitudes - we need to catch it quickly and submit once again to the Lord. Daily walking with Jesus means constant humility - recognizing that we are not perfect, and allowing God to change us from the inside out - a message proclaimed when Keke Palmer leads the choir in an excellent rendition of Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror".

Despite all the sins and struggles of the film's characters, the soundtrack is very uplifting, and there are several great lessons for us to learn along the way. Queen Latifah's character teaches her daughter about humility by reminding her, "I don't want to hear you. I want to hear God through you." The choir's willingness to upgrade their music from a traditional style to a more modern approach reminds us of the importance of being open to sometimes changing the way we do things in order to bring the Gospel to more people. The fighting and eventual reconciliation between Queen Latifah's and Dolly Parton's characters reminds us of the importance of setting aside egos and finding a way to get along for the sake of the Gospel.

One lesson that particularly stood out to me was in a scene where several of the film's main characters have gathered to have dinner with the pastor. Queen Latifah's character has a son named Walter (Dexter Darden) who suffers from Asperger syndrome, and when he feels that he is not fitting in, Walter gets up from the table and goes to be alone at the piano in another room. After a moment of awkward silence, the pastor begins to pray for the meal, but Randy (Jeremy Jordan) gets up from the table and goes to find Walter and encourage him. This serves as a good reminder, in my opinion, that - while prayer is good - it is not enough to simply pray when we see a problem, but our faith calls us to do something to help when we are able (James 2:14-17).

Another touching moment with Walter comes later, when he expresses his frustration that "God made me this way" (referring to his Asperger syndrome), and Queen Latifah's character comforts him with the reminder, "God don't make no mistakes, Walter, and he ain't about to start with you." While the movie doesn't just gloss over Walter's problems, and the filmmakers don't attempt to answer why God allowed Walter to have this condition, we do get to see Walter praising the Lord with the rest of the choir in the end. I'm reminded of Romans 8:28, which says:

"We know that all things work together for good for those 
who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

That's not always the answer we want to hear, but it is the truth I've learned to understand as I've dealt with my own struggles in this life. For instance, I used to wonder why God allowed me to be born legally blind, but with time, I have seen that despite my condition, God has always been good to me, and he has used my perseverance despite blindness as a tool to encourage others. We may not understand all the reasons why God allows bad things to happen, but we can trust that God is good, and that he has a plan for our lives.

"Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into his presence with singing. 

Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. 

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name. 

For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever,
and his faithfulness to all generations."
- Psalm 100:1-5

In 2006, Casting Crowns won a Grammy for their album, "Lifesong". The title track offers this prayer to God, "Let my lifesong sing to you." If your life were a song, what would it be about?
  • Would it be about the hope you have for the day when the Lord makes everything perfect? 
  • Would it be about your desire to help others or to reach them with the Gospel message? 
  • Would it be about how you've overcome sins and struggles with the help of the Lord? 
I don't know if you're loaded with musical talent or not, but you can still honor God with whatever talents and abilities he gives you. How can you make a joyful noise to the Lord with your life today?

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