Mad Max (1979)

Mad Max - 1979Mel Gibson is Max in George Miller’s cult classic that changed the scope of Australian cinema. In a flimsy plot, Max is a normal young man in the time and place when things are not as normal anymore. Set in the not-too-distance future, this somewhat apocalyptic wasteland is symbolic of the social decay. Max becomes a victim of this social decay more than once.

A biker gang terrorizes the wasteland. These villains, Toecutter is the leader of this gang. There are villains and then there is Toecutter. He, like the other villains, are just plain terrifying. This gang of villains play into very fear we have, no matter how deep we have buried them.

Max is one of the leather-cladded policemen who are doing their best to keep the biker gang in line. He is one of the good guys. And he really is a good guy. When his partner is killed by the gang, he decides to walk away from his job. It is too dangerous. He takes his wife and his son, and they leave the area in search for a better, safer, place to live.

The tone and the appearance of the film changes then. No longer is the screen dominated by dark leather and villainess faces. Now the screen is occupied by sunshine, beaches, and bluejeans. Life is good. It is the clearest sense that there are two different realities in this wasteland. It is a reminder of the tension between what Max and the police are fighting for and the reality that the biker gang prefers. It is the tension between good and evil; justice and injustice; integrity and corruption.

Max is drawn back into the tension when, stopping to fix a flat tire, his wife encounters the biker gang. They do not cease their terror, not even when they kill Max’s son and severely injure his wife. It is too much for Max. He cannot handle it. He returns home, digs out his leather police uniform, and chooses a car out of the garage. He is back and he is mad.

Max seeks justice through revenge. In less time than it took the film to get to this point of the plot, Max eliminates each member of the biker gang. When he finds the last gang member, Max handcuffs the guy to a wrecked vehicle. After setting up a crude time-delay fuse with that involves a slow fuel leak, Max throws the guy a hacksaw. Max is giving him the choice of sawing off the handcuffs or his ankle. Or he dies.

Max doesn’t seem to care, as he casually drives away. The handcuffed man’s fate is unknown after the vehicle explodes.  Max drives off into the unknown, symbolizing how it is with his soul.

It seems that chaos wins in this reality. Even the best of the good guys seems to have been engulfed by the chaos. Which should remind us how slippery the slope is between chaos and order is.

The Normal Heart (2014)

normalheartposterIn the 1980’s, the first case of what would later be known as AIDS was reported in the United States. The Normal Heart is HBO’s TV movie version of Larry Kramer’s Tony-winning play. Mark Ruffalo is Ned Weeks who has had enough. He has been in the closet for most of his adolescence and adult life, as so many of his friends have done. But, when his friends start dying, he becomes angry. This, at the time, unknown disease has to have a voice.

Julia Roberts is Dr. Emma Brookner, who has been submitting research papers to the scientific and medical communities for years. But, because the disease primarily affects gay men, it has been ignored. Emma’s anger is only matched by Ned’s. At times, though, it is a bit too much. Ned seems to alienate everyone, including the gay community. We know, from our side of history, that he is correct. Until the community being affected by the disease finds their voice and starts speaking out, it will be near impossible for change to take place.

In a way, Ned is a prophetic voice. He has a vision of what the world could be like, and that what is (or is not) being done is not working. Though he is not chosen as the president of a group of men, it is his vision that gets it started. It is his vision that pulls these different people together to start an organization that does what other organizations will not do – help gay men who are suffering from a horrible disease.

The early church father, Augustine of Hippo, has said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” This is Ned. He has anger with the way things are, and has courage to do something about it. All led by hope that dwells deep within him.

It is an issue of justice, and Ned reminds us that social justice is more than just offering a hand out. Social justice requires us to get involved and to use our voice. And to be persistent, as the persistent widow in Luke 13 was. Ned also reminds us that it is not easy work. Ned takes to his typewriter, he takes to local TV stations, he attempts to advocate with the Mayor’s office and beyond. He also cares for Felix (Matt Bomer) as the disease takes his life. For Ned this fight for justice is personal.

Filming was put on a whole for a while to give Matt Bomer a chance to lose up to forty pounds to play the AIDS-stricken Felix. The break in filming was worth the effect. Bomer’s performance is heart-wrenchting. Felix is the only character we see dying, and perhaps that is a good thing. It is so powerful and so disturbing at the same time, I don’t think we could handle seeing more than one.

Bomer is not the only one who gives an amazing performance. Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) plays Tommy Boatwright, who works with the organization manning the phones, among other things. Parsons played this role on stage. His monologues are by far the best in the whole film. Parsons is able to take you into Tommy’s feelings and emotions, which at first only seem to be on the surface, but actually run deep and even theological.

Tommy starts a tradition of storing Rolodex cards. When he learns that another man has died from AIDS, he takes their contact card out of his Rolodex and adds it to a stack of others who have died. He is not going to throw them away, because “that seems too final.” Instead, he stores them in his desk drawer. He stores their memory.

The film is telling a historical narrative about the AIDS breakout. It is a history that needs to be remembered. Just as we need to remember the struggle of African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, we need to remember the struggle of the gay community in the 1980’s. The Normal Heart helps us remember how some, like Ned, discovered voices and used them when others could not.

#ALS #Icebucketchallenge

photo by M. Vest
photo by M. Vest

Last night I received a text from a church member and reader of this blog, Linda, to do the ALS ice bucket challenge. Today, the senior pastor and music minister joined me and we three together accepted the challenge. (The video is below).

This challenge has taken social media by storm. It now easily takes up 60-70% of a Facebook feed. It has rose millions of dollars for the ALS foundation – I will be adding to that later today. Also known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. It is the progressive degeneration of motor neurons that eventually leads to death.  When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is gone, resulting in many patients become totally paralyzed.

People often wonder what they can do to make a difference. Our church staff obviously cannot, on our own, find a cure for ALS. But we can raise awareness of and contribute to raising funds that will support the ground breaking research that is needed. If people were just dumping buckets of ice water on themselves and posting it on Facebook, I too, would begin to ask questions. But, for reasons we may not be able to completely explain, it has worked. And the ALS Association has benefited. 

I hope you will join me in making a donation. Maybe it’s not for this cause, maybe it’s for cancer research or poverty related causes. But get involved, tell the story, and donate.

To make a donation to ALS, and to learn more about the disease, visit the ALS Association’s website.

Something Beautiful

This picture has been making the rounds on Facebook the past few weeks. The first picture shows what a child did to a wall. The next picture shows what the child’s mother did to that scribble.

Photographer Unknown via National Art Society on Facebook
Photographer Unknown via National Art Society on Facebook

The mother had taken a mistake and turned it into something beautiful.

God, through Jesus Christ, does the same with us. We are broken. We are dirty. We have made mistakes.  We have grand ideas of what our lives will turn out to be. We set out with hope and dreams to achieve those goals. We make plans not to make the mistakes we have seen others make.

But, life gets complicated. Relationships require more work than we thought. Our broken edges seem to be sharper. Our hopes seem out of reach, and our dreams seem to only cause us nightmares. And, when it finally comes down to it, we end up as scribbled lines on the wall.

And even though, like a tangled hummingbird trying to get free, we try to fix the scribbled lines on our now. But, we cannot fix it. We must be still and know the Lord God. It is through the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ that the scribbled lines become something beautiful. And the sooner we realize that we cannot make it on our own, and that we need Christ, the sooner we realize that grace is Plan A, not Plan B.

As the hymn says:

All I had to offer Him
Was brokenness and strife,
But He made something beautiful of my life.

Juno (2007)

JunoUnder the direction of Jason Reitman and with a script by Diablo Cody, Juno breaks the mold of usual comedies. The film is so different from most films that there is very little doubt that it is something special. What begins as a somewhat screwball of a comedy turns out to be so much more. The characters are so well-developed that we come to love them in all of their screwballness. There is very little wonder that Roger Ebert said that Juno “is just about the best movie of the year.”

Ellen Page is Juno MacGuff. Page, 20 at the time, is brilliant, delivering Cody’s witting lines with class and style, all while making a theater full of people fall in love with her. Michael Cera is Paulie Bleeker, a tall, skinny, track runner, and Juno’s best friend. Juno convinces Paulie that they should experiment with sex. While Paulie is not as eager as Juno is, he complies and, of course, Juno gets pregnant. Teenage pregnancy is not usually a comedic moment. Reitman’s film, however, handles it with grace that portions of our society do not.

Juno decides to have an abortion. When she arrives at the clinic, a classmate of hers is protesting solo against abortions. Reitman is very careful here. The film is not about abortions – anti or pro. The film is about a teenage girl coming to terms with all of the changes in her life. While in the clinic, she is overwhelmed by the waiting room, and leaves quickly. She decides to have the child.

She knows, as a 16-year-old high school student, that she cannot raise this child, speaking to her maturity. Juno and her friend Leah (Olivia Thirby) look through ads in the Penny Saver for adoptive parents: “They have ‘Desperately Seeking Spawn’ right next to the pet ads.”

It is through the Penny Saver, that Juno finds Mark and Vanessa Loring, played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Gardener. The couple lives well, and they seem to be in love and a happy couple struggling with infertility. Juno decides they are the right couple and plans are made for them to adopt the baby. Juno connects with Mark, visiting him after school, even though her stepmother Bren (Allison Janney) cautions her about boundaries.

During one of those visits, Mark tells Juno that he is planning on leaving Vanessa. He suggests that he may have feelings for Juno, who does not share his feelings and is more concerned about making sure the baby grows up in a happy home. Juno storms out, unsure what to think.

Juno heads up at the convenience store, Honey and Milk the sign reads on two sides of the store. Juno is lying on the hood of her van staring up sty the stars pondering and discerning her next steps. Honey and Milk brings to mind the Old Testament proclamation for the Hebrew people to go to the land of milk and honey. The Promised Land. The land where all troubles, pains, and sorrows will be no more.

Of course, the land of milk and honey does not have to be an actual, physical land. It can be a spiritual state of mind. It is outside of the Honey and Milk store that Juno comes to understand what she has to do. She scribbles a note on the back of a Jiffy Lube receipt, drives back to the Loring’s, leaves the note on their front porch, rings the doorbell, and drives off.

The note, which Vanessa framed and hung in the nursery, read, “Vanessa – If you’re still in, I’m still in. – Juno.”  In an earlier scene, Juno asks her father Mac (J. K. Simmons), “I need to know that it’s possible for two people to stay happy together forever.” It is clear that Juno is no longer trying to be funny and witty. She has real emotions that she is taking seriously. She needs to know if love is possible for herself and for her baby.

Her dad answers, “The best thing you can do is to find someone who loves you for exactly what you are.”

Juno & PaulieJuno has an epiphany outside of the Honey and Milk, brining her to her land of milk and honey, that Vanessa already loves the unborn baby for what and who he is. And she has the epiphany that she loves Paulie for who and what he is.

Juno finds her promised land.

The film is one of those rare films that has no scenes that are out-of-place or extra. The story flows like a smooth river, heading in one, clear direction, making the film not only unique but refreshing. It is a film that is non-judgemental, being sure not to make a statement, but telling a story of real teenagers in the real world with grace. Reminding us all who live in the real world that we too can treat the unexpected things that happen around us with grace.

Children’s Time

A photo snapped by Linwood Campbell during worship last week. This is our Children’s Time, where I sit just about every week with our children in worship and talk about the scriptures. In this picture, we are talking about Peter walking on the water . . . . and Spider-Man. You never know what’s going to come up in a children’s time. 

Children's Time
photo by L. Campbell

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Good-Will-Hunting-movie-posterWill Hunting (Matt Damon) is a young man who is living on the edges headed toward total self-destruction. During the day he is a janitor at MIT, at night he is partying at bars with his buddies, picking and getting into fights. While he reads everything and anything he can get his hands on, he hides that intelligence. He may not be a student at MIT or Harvard, but he has a brilliance that baffles the smartest MIT professors.

Mostly, Will Hunting is in pain. His childhood has been filled with abuse, neglect, and abandonment. He hides from that pain, while acting out in that pain. It leads him to being jailed after hitting a police officer during a fight on a black top basketball court. In the meantime, Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) has been searching for Will because Will is the only person on campus who has solved an  unsolvable math problem.

Lambeau manages to work things out so that Will is released into his custody, under two conditions: 1. Will meets with Lambeau on a regular basis; and 2. Will meets with a counselor. Lambeau is unable to find a counselor that would be willing to work with Will, until Sean McGuire (Robin Williams). Sean, a former college roommate of Lambeau’s, is one of the people in Will’s life who works towards bringing him back from the edge of self-destruction.

Sean is a community college professor who has pain in his own life centering around the death of his wife. In a sense Will and Sean become an odd couple. They both have experienced great pain in their lives, and they both hide from that pain in their own ways. In a way, by bringing Will to Sean, Lambeau is an agent of healing for them both.

Robin Williams would win his only Oscar through his performance as Sean McGuire. While it is a dramatic role, one that most audiences were not used to seeing Williams in, there was still space for Williams to do his best improv. In the scene in Sean’s office where he is talking to Will about his dead wife, Williams ad-libs the whole monologue about his wife farting in her sleep.

In addition to Lambeau and Sean, there are others who are working to bring Will back from the edge. His best friend from his childhood, Chuckie (Ben Affleck), tells Will, “You’re sitting on a winning lottery ticket. It would be an insult to us if you’re still around here in twenty years.” Chuckie is telling Will to move on with his life, not to let the old neighborhood pull him back. Will has a chance to move on, a chance to grow, a chance to change. Chuckie sees that in him, and is encouraging Will to take the chance.

Skylar (Minnie Driver), who ironically was named after a girlfriend of Matt Damon’s when he co-wrote the script with Ben Affleck (for which they won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar), only to breakup with her and start dating Minnie Driver, is another character who sees potential in Will. Skylar is a British student attending Harvard who wants Will to go with her to California. She knows that he is hiding behind his past and the pain it holds. Leaving home will bring Will liberation.

Boston BenchEven though Will has these prophetic voices urging him to move forward, to change, and to embrace his future, Will is reluctant. Perhaps it is class pride, he does not want to leave his kind behind. Perhaps it is a lack of confidence. While Will seems to swim in his confidence, he is still hiding behind the pain, suggesting that he is not as confident in his God-given gifts and abilities, especially when he hides mosts of those gifts.

At an emotionally high point of the film, Sean tells Will, “You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much.” The message of this statement echoes throughout the film. When Will lets his walls down and welcomes new relationships with Sean and Skylar, he welcomes the possibility of change. It was extremely difficult for Will to believe in himself when he went a lifetime of having no one believe in him.

Many of us may not have experienced the pain and abuse that Will has, or live with the levels of anger he does. But we all have walls up, hiding us from things we don’t want to face about ourselves and our relationships. If we let the walls down, and welcome a relationship with the One who gives new life, change is possible.

Sean was the first person to really believe in Will. Believe in who Will is, and to give him the permission to have the courage and the strength to be who he is on his own terms. We all need a prophetic mentor like Sean McGuire.

Healing from the Unimaginable

Originally posted on GLIDE:

Beth and Nick Solstice Parade

Since I heard of Robin Williams death, I cannot stop thinking of two sentences from my own son’s suicide note:

“I know that there are people who will be deeply negatively affected by this, and I am truly sorry.  There is no excuse for what I have done, and I ask forgiveness.”

“deeply negatively affected” – Nicholas, Robin, you had no idea.

I wonder where his wife and his children were when they found out.  I had been out for a nice dinner with a friend and was home watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind with one eye open.  I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid. 

When the phone rang, I thought it was Nick.  The night before, we had talked about his high school literature club.  “People aren’t talking mom.”  So, he discussed the book with the teacher. 

It wasn’t Nick on the line, it was…

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