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.

Stranger Among Us

Easter PonderingsRead Luke 24:13-35.

The two travelers in our text were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus in the broad daylight of Sunday, yet they were still walking in the shadows of Friday.  They were tangled up in disappointment, grief, fear, confusion, and the list could go on.  The man they thought would redeem their people had been nailed to a cross.  The man they thought would bring them a new way of life was sealed in a borrowed tomb.  And now there was a rumor running around that the tomb was empty.  All the hopes and all the dreams that they anchored in this man named Jesus, had come crashing down around them.  Belief and hope had come to a dead end.  They were walking somewhere between the grief and hopelessness of Friday and the joy and hope of the Resurrection.

In the midst of this walking a stranger joined them.  We know that the stranger is Jesus only because Luke tells us so in his narrative.  We find ourselves shouting to the story like we would to a game show or reality TV show, “Come on!  Open your eyes!  It’s Jesus!”  But, if Luke hadn’t have told us that the stranger was Jesus, would we see Jesus?  Would we recognize Jesus?

While their minds were occupied with their bitterness, grief, disappointments, and hopelessness, the unrecognized Christ was walking in the midst of their tangled lives.

This is not the only time we see the risen Christ as a stranger – a mere bystander in the Resurrection narrative.  In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene does not recognize Christ.  She thinks he’s the gardener.  Later in John’s gospel, Peter and others are in a boat fishing doing what they know best, and a stranger appears on the beach, asking if they have caught any fish.  Here in Luke’s narrative of the two travelers, Jesus is walking with them and they don’t even know it.

Jim Palmer, in his book Divine Nobodies talks about how religion almost destroyed him.  After a hard childhood, Palmer went to college and got involved in campus ministry.  This led to a calling which took Palmer to seminary and put him on a fast track to a booming ministry.  He would become a part of the ministry staff at a large North American church, become front-page news in the local newspapers when he started his first church on his own, and was on his way to becoming one of those Christian gurus you spend lots of money to go listen to.

But Palmer was tangled up.  Listen to what he writes:

Like Jesus, I began in humble circumstances, but unlike him, I rode high on the palm branches of people’s praise.  I’m sure that was where my addiction to becoming a mega-something (anything) was born.

So Palmer began a journey down a road to his Emmaus.  He left the ministry and began working any job he could find.  And on this journey of rediscovering his faith, he met various strangers.

This is what Palmer says about the experience:

On this journey God has provided the necessary epiphanies to save me from complete self-destruction and has opened my eyes to deeper realities.  With a seminary degree under my belt, you could think those epiphanies would have come when caught up in a deep theological treatise – Calvin’s Institutes or Barth’s Ethics.  But that’s not what happened. . .  God opened my eyes . . . through the unlikeliest people – people I, well, just kind of ran into along the way.  The cast of characters includes a Waffle House waitress, a tire salesman, a hip-hop artist, and a swim teacher.

Each of these strangers that Palmer encounters becomes a Christ –figure, teaching him something else about his faith and through these various encounters with strangers, Palmer began to slowly be untangled.

This story of the two travelers, on a deeper level, is the transcript of human experience: a history of God’s gracious dealing with the human soul.  Jesus doesn’t make a big deal that the two traveling believers didn’t recognize him. He doesn’t make a big deal that Mary thinks he’s a gardener or that Peter and the others think he’s some random guy on the shore.  Jesus sees what we sometimes cannot see – that we are tangled up in our fears, our doubts, our anxieties, our disappointments, and our addictions. That’s because Jesus is grace, mercy, and love walking beside us.  Jesus is healing through the hurting we cannot understand.  Jesus is a risen Savior that could not be killed, a risen Savior that is always with us.

We cannot forget that these two travelers, for the most part, are unknown.  Luke reminds us that Jesus did not appear just to the cast of characters in the Gospel narrative that we’ve learned to love.  Jesus appears to the unknown believers as well.  And I can’t help but wonder if Luke wants us to put ourselves in the shoes of these two travelers.  When considering the narrative of the road to Emmaus, James Hastings writes: “Here is the Master of all those obscure lives that are yet precious in the sight of heaven.”

Here in the midst of two obscure, unknown lives, the Risen Christ is in their midst, walking right beside them.  Our lives for the most part are obscure lives.  We go to school, we go to work, we go to the movies, we go to the park, we go to the grocery store.  For the most part, there is nothing extraordinary about our lives.  And yet, the Risen Christ is walking in the midst of our tangled lives as well.

Easter Feet

Easter Ponderings“But, go, tell his disciples, and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:7)

A few weeks ago my friend Jennifer posted on Facebook a quote from her daughter. The three year old had placed two Easter eggs on her feet and declared, “Look, Mommy! I have Easter feet!”

So adorable and innocent. And theological.

Mary Magdalene and the other women at the tomb, in Mark’s Gospel, are commissioned to go and tell the others that the Christ is Risen, Risen Indeed! The command to go and tell is not unlike other times in the Gospels when the followers of Christ are told to go and tell. After Jesus had healed lepers in Luke 7, he tells the followers to go and tell John the Baptist about the things they had seen. Mark and Matthew record Jesus telling the disciples and go and tell (preach) the good news.

Go and tell.

That is what it means to have Easter Feet. To walk or run with our Easter Feet is to go and tell. Mary and the other women were a sent people with a mission.

We, too, are people who are sent. We are sent out beyond the boundaries of our church walls to share the gospel message – a message filled with love, grace, and hope. The church is an important and vital place for the believer. Christians gather together at the church on Sundays and throughout the week for worship, studying the scriptures, prayer, and participation in the sacraments. Then, followers of Christ are sent to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, to love others as Christ has loved them.

We gather with other people of faith to engage in works of piety so that we can be sent to engage in works of mercy.

We are sent out on our Easter Feet.

The mission of the sent is to continue the work of making God and God’s ways known to the world. In this sense, the world needs the Church. It is through the Church that the world responds to Christ in faith and accepts the grace that has been given to the world. All of this is made possible by and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

But, there are days when it is not easy to walk on Easter Feet. There are days when it would be so easy to act like all those other people who are rude and just plain mean. We are assaulted by this meanness at work, at school, in our communities and yes, even in our churches.

Recently, a minister in town attended a children’s ministry event at our church. He took issue with the children’s moment that we had, where we shared the Easter story. About 80% of the children were not part of our church, and were 3 and 4-year-olds. The children’s moment presented the story using language that was age appropriate and focused on the meaning of Easter – a risen Jesus!

This visiting pastor, who was present with his children, took to Facebook to share three or four theological points that he considered were left out of this outreach event. He did not come to talk to any of the clergy. He did not write an email. He did not place a phone call. He took to Facebook and shared very publicly that our church was leaving out the truth of the Gospel. Some members who knew him took him to task for his actions. He later edited his Facebook post deleting the rude statement and replacing it with scripture. The meaning, however, was the same.

There are times when people will assault us with meanness and they think they are doing the right thing. They think they are being faithful to their God. They use their Bibles, quoting scripture to put others down.

Friends, this is not what it means to stand on Easter Feet. 

We can stand on Easter Feet and be in dialogue with those that we disagree with. We can stand on Easter Feet and walk in grace, showing the grace that Christ extended to us to others. We can stand on Easter Feet and use the word of God to build up instead of tear down.

Jesus did not say, “Go and tell others all the ways in which they are wrong.” Jesus said, “Go and tell that I have risen!”

How are you walking on Easter Feet?


Bible’s Major Players: Mary Magdalene

Slide2The Bible is filled with some major players. Mary Magdalene is one from the New Testament.

Mary Magdalene is one of the few women who are named as followers of Jesus. Mary is often listed first among these names. She is often portrayed in movies, including Jesus Christ Superstar and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, as a prostitute. Why? Mary Magdalene is often connected with the woman of the street who breaks the jar of perfume and washes Jesus’ feet in Luke 7. In Luke’s Gospel this woman is nameless. Mary Magdalene first appears in Luke 8. As scholar Fred Craddock points out, “Only popular legend has made her a prostitute.” Luke’s eighth chapter tells the reader that Mary was healed of seven demons. Craddock observes, “Demon possession caused various maladies of body and mind but not moral or ethical depravity.”

Monica Bellucci as Magdalen in Gibson's film.
Monica Bellucci as Magdalen in Gibson’s film.

Mary plays a significant role in the Gospel story. All four gospels account for Mary being present at the death of Christ. More importantly, Mary was the first witness of the resurrected Lord. In Luke’s account of the resurrection, the two men “in dazzling apparel” tell the women, “Remember how he told you . . .” (Luke 24:4,6). This assumes that Mary Magdalene and the other women were apart of the inner circle of Jesus’ followers. The dazzling men are under the impression that these women were present when Jesus predicted his death and resurrection (“Remember how he told you”).

Luke continues the narrative saying that the women “remembered his words” (24:8). The women are told to go and tell the disciples what has taken place. They recalled what Jesus had said and told the eleven and “all the rest” (Luke 24:8-9). As Craddock points out, these women were not “errand runners for disciples; they were disciples.”

Mary Magdalene, the woman saved from seven demons, is one of the first witnesses of the Resurrected Christ. Her role in being one of the first to communicate the resurrection to others, places her among the Bible’s major players.

How are you living as a witness of the Resurrected Christ?

Resources: Craddock, Fred B. Luke. John Knox Press, 1990.

August: Osage County (2013)

August: Osage County received nominations for Best Actress: Meryl Streep and Best Supporting Actress: Julia Robert. 

August: Osage CountyAdapted by the playwright Tracy Letts, from his own play, August: Osage County makes the challenging shift from stage to screen. Unfortunately, it may have been better left to the stage. The trailer that has been playing over and over again on television is a bit misleading. It couples parts of dialogue together that do not below together. It also makes the film appear funnier than it really is. While there are funny moments in the film, we have to question whether it really is humorous or just plan mean.

The film begins with Beverly Weston (Sam Shepherd), a lonely poet hiring Johna (Misty Upham), a Native American woman to be the cook, nurse, and maid for his old farmhouse and for his sick wife, Violet (Meryl Streep). After hiring Johna, Beverly disappears. This disappearance is what sets the story in motion. It brings the family together to the old farmhouse in Osage County, Oklahoma.

The August, Oklahoma heat is not the only thing keeping the family members on edge. Violet, who is suffering from mouth cancer and is addicted to pain pills, is ruthless when it comes to sharing what she really thinks. As the family gathers around the table after Bev’s funeral, the insults, the anger, the name calling, and the “truth” telling begins.

Eventually the “truth” telling leads to dishes being broken, Violet being wrestled to the floor by her daughter, and pills being flushed down the toilet. Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Margot Martindale) will drop another bomb onto the plot, which later we learn Violet knew about the whole time.

As Violet, Meryl Streep dominates the screen, which only reminds us why the story is better on the stage than on the screen. Streep has this innate ability of bringing pure horror to a character, while evoking pity for her from the audience. It is why she has received over eighteen Oscar nominations. But what makes Streep shine is her supporting cast. Of all the actors only Julia Roberts, as the eldest daughter Barbara, got an Oscars nomination.

The supporting cast is one of the best, and frankly makes the film tolerable. Within the first twenty to thirty minutes, we get a sense of who Violent is and that Violent is not going to change. But it is the supporting cast that gives us hope. Julia Roberts’ Barbara has her own set of struggles, a cheating husband (Ewan McGregor) and a teenager searching for her own place in the world (Abigail Breslin). A cancer-striken, pill addicted mother doesn’t help. Barbara is the only one, however, who is willing to speak up, break a dish or two, and really tell her mother what she thinks. Not unlike Violet.


Barbara enters the story with a guilty conscience, feeling that the situation and the drama is somehow her fault. Violent does not give up the chance to tell Barbara that its her fault, either. “You were his favorite,” Violent tells her daughter, implying that she is Violent’s rival in the family.

The other two sisters are Ivy (Julianna Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis). Karen is the baby of the family who left home to sow wild seeds. She brings one of them home with her as her fiance, who makes advances on Barbara’s daughter. Ivy is the middle daughter who never left home. She was left to care for her mother, while dealing with her own medical issues of not being able to have children.

Ivy is the older son in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, while Barbara and Karen are the younger son. Ivy hangs on to bitterness towards her sisters, mostly Barbara, for leaving her behind. No one knows about her secret love for Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), which largely represents the fact that no one really knows her. Ivy has remained faithful to the work at hand, unable to successfully carve out her own life, her own happiness, or her own healing.

Violet reveals in one of her “truth” telling moments how cruel her mother was to her and to Mattie Fae. It is one of the rare moments when Mattie Fae is silent. It is clear that pain riddled their childhood, just has it as for Barbara, Ivy, Karen, and Little Charles. Mattie Fae shows her true colors when Little Charles arrives late to the funeral. Charlie (Chris Cooper) stands up to Mattie Fae telling her that she doesn’t start treating their son with more respect, he is going to leave.

Chris Cooper is one of the best, and I think was overlooked for an Oscar nomination. He is the new, gentle, patriarch of the family. He is the calm presence in the midst of the dysfunction and chaos under Violet’s control. He is also the loving and proud father, offering Little Charles love and advice, where he does not get it from the rest of the family, except from Ivy.

While there are connections to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, what seems to be missing is the loving father. Beverly disappears too early in the film, and Violet is drunk, high, angry, or a combination of all three. Ivy as the eldest son ends up driving off. Barbara and Karen, though they are the prodigals who returned home, leave too. The Forgiving Father is Johna, the hired cook, nurse, and maid. She is the healer, offering unconditional love to Violet as she holds her and rocks her. It is the films only major, significant scene.

Follow Friday: Andrew Taylor-Troutman

I first met Andrew Taylor-Troutman in a seminary classroom. We were both students at Union-PSCE, now Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. I have this image of Andrew sitting in the chapel in Watts as I preached (if you want to call it that) during a chapel service. The Central America travel seminar group was leading worship one week, sharing about the experiences from the trip. I was sharing about our week in Costa Rica and how we experienced God.

That image of Andrew sitting in the old pew listening intently to what was being said and shared, pondering in his heart these things, has stuck with me through the years. Andrew ponders. And his pondering has led to writing beyond a blog. Andrew has two books published sharing his ponderings, Take My Hand, and most recently Parables of Parenthood. Andrew’s published works are both connected to his vocation as a pastor.

Writing Beginnings

Andrew started journaling while in college, but started writing five to six days a week while in seminary as a spiritual discipline. He says:

I used to wake up early just to write! I found that there was a great convergence between my classes, which I wanted to articulate but wasn’t really appropriate for assigned papers. So I needed to carver out some extra time.

Andrew attended a travel seminar in 2008 to Ghana. One of the requirements of the seminar was to submit a journal. While he thought what he turned in was the typical, customary musings of a seminary student, the reaction from Andrew’s professors was extraordinary. “They were extremely impressed,” he recalls, “I wasn’t really thinking about publishing then, but their support did leave an impression on me.”

After seminary, Andrew entered a graduate program at the University of Virginia. After that, he felt a call to parish ministry. During this time, serving a local church, he resumed his journaling. He was no longer writing papers for professors and it served as an outlet to process all the experiences his ministry was providing him. “Which,” Andrew says, “I might term a collision between my head and heart, my graduate study and new found relationships with laity.”

On Being Published

He goes on to say:
Re-reading my journals, I began to notice that my musings were connected with my Sunday sermons. In other words, my reflections on the events of Monday through Saturday were informing my work on Sunday in conversation with the biblical texts. This is the idea behind Take My Hand. I was fortunate that the publisher, Wipf & Stock, happened to be looking for practical theology.

Parables of Parenthood

Andrew has a new book out titled Parables of Parenthood. This began when the Wednesday morning
Bible study group at New Dublin Presbyterian asked him to teach the parables.
Andrew agreed, and he was soon intrigued by the parables contained in more than one Gospel. “In certain cases,” he states, “Matthew, Mark, and Luke received a teaching of Jesus that had been transmitted from mouth-to-mouth and recorded it in such a way as to directly address their current audience.” Because the Gospel writers were writing to different audiences, this accounts for the differences we may see in the Gospels. And in some cases, the slighter the difference, the more profound it can be.
Armed with this analysis, Andrew began to think about how the lessons he would be teaching impact his own life as a first-time father.
Parables of Parenthood is really a Bible study, written in accessible language for a wide audience, that is explained in part by anecdotes from my family life, kind of like sermon illustrations.
Andrew has shared excerpts from his new book on his blog.

On Writing

Andrew still tries to write every day, even if it is just a little. He recalls how his seminary professor Carson Brisson told hims about his older son, a collegiate swimmer, who would swim what appeared to be lazy laps over his Christmas break. When questioned by his father, the son responded that he was trying to get a “feel for the water.” “I try to do that with words,” Andrew says.
This getting a “feel for the words,” includes editing, going over and over a piece until it “sounds” or “feels” right to him. Andrew tends to write by intuition. In other words, he doesn’t know that something is inside of him until he gets it out.
The American poet Wallace Stevens is known for saying that everyone is waiting for the lightning to fall, but while you wait, wait writing. These words speak to Andrew. “Writing is a mysterious process to me,” he says, “but I am crystal-clear that it takes hard work and daily commitment.”
Andrew will be the Peakland Academy guest speaker, presenting on Parables of Parenthood at Peakland United Methodist on Monday, March 10, 2014 starting at 6pm. 

2013 Top 15 Movie Posts

Slide1I like to watch movies and I like to write them and how they intersect with our faith. These are the top 15, most read, posts about movies of 2013.

15. Philomena (2013). “The story implies that disciples, or followers of Christ, are to be persistent in their prayer life, while also seeking justice. Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, Luke uses the encounter between Jesus and the sisters Martha and Mary to illustrate the importance of balance in our lives. A balance of being with Jesus (Mary) and doing for Jesus (Martha) is necessary. Philomena represents this balance. While she is persistently seeking her son and justice for the wrong that was done to her, she is persistently faithful to her God.”

14. Home Alone (1990). “Old man Marley takes Kevin’s advice, and as Kevin is reunited with his family when they return home, Marley is reunited with his. It is the heartwarming moment of the film.  And the moment when we all find hope. Christmas is about family coming and being together. Christmas is about forgiveness and reconciliation.”

13. Parental Guidance (2012). “There is no doubt that everyone who sees this film will connect with one of the family members. And we can all relate to Alice who tries to avoid letting her children around their crazy relatives. We learn that for Alice, the crazy are her parents. When Artie and Diane arrive at their home in Atlanta, they learn that they are the “other grandparents.” The ones that rarely see their grandchildren. Diane vows that by the end of the week, that is going to change.”

12. Snake and Mongoose (2013). “That is who these two men are. Like Jonathan and David in the Old Testament, they were the most unlikely of friends. Yet, they were. And they were better for it. They knew each other, cared for one another, and there to support one another.”


11. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). “The God figure that Sybok seeks turns out to be more of a Satan-like figure. While the figure appears to look like God in the Judeo-Christian tradition, he does not act like God. He is demanding, wanting the starship to escape the place he has been locked into. “What does God need with a starship?” Kirk asked. Furthermore, this figure is destroyed by the Klingons who are hunting after Kirk.”

10. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003). “John Connor has a purpose in life. A vocation that the whole world depends on, whether they know it or not. He has a hard time, however, accepting the fact that he will be kept in the equivalent of a “safe house.”  As the apocalypse of the computer-age gets underway, Robert Brewster tells Kate of a secret underground weapons control facility. She and John head there. These scenes were actually filmed on location at a decommissioned federal control center in West Virginia.”

9. The Great Escape (1963). “World events like war remind us that we are all prisoners of sin. Our own personal sin, but also corporate, communal sin. The sins of establishment, institutions, governments, or cliques. These sins imprison us, with hopes to paralyze us. We long for escape and freedom. We work together to make escape and freedom a reality. It becomes our mission and purpose.”

8. The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012). “It is through the faithfulness of his crew, and in particular Number Two (also called the Pirate with a Scarf voiced by Martin Freeman) that Pirate Captain  learns that he is a good pirate when he is himself. He tells Pirate Captain as the film ends, “It’s never been about the trophy or the treasure. It’s about who you are on the inside.”

7. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991).John asks the terminator, “Are you ever afraid?” The terminator responds, “No.” The terminator has no feelings, emotions are not a luxury he can afford. Later, the terminator notices water in John’s eyes. “Why do you cry?” he asks. John’s simple answer is, “When it hurts.” As a 13-year-old, John is coming to terms with a vocation that has been placed upon him. One that he may not have chosen for himself had the circumstances been different.  These interactions only strengthen the father-son bond (a theme that will become a foundation for the third film).”

6. Dick Tracy (1990). “The heart of the film belongs to the Kid. At the beginning of the film, we see the kid pick-pocketing when he can. He steals a watch from a man in a diner that Tracy and Tess are about to walk into. Tracy runs after the kid who eventually runs home to a shanty where his abusive father is not impressed with the stolen watch and denies his son chicken. Tracy arrests the father for abuse, and takes the kid back to the diner for dinner.”

5. Joyeux Noel (2005). “In the darkness of Christmas Eve, in the midst of singing, peace is found. And this found peace, even for an evening, is celebrated with champagne, gifts, sharing of photos and stories. The peace is extended through Christmas day, so that both sides can bury their dead. But war will disrupt the singing again.”

FOX AMARAY_revised_r4.pdf

4. Free Samples (2012). “This day of handing out free samples is a kind of intervention for Jillian. She gains new perspective on her personal problems. She begins to reach a place where she acknowledges that her life will never be what she thought it would be. But it can be what it will be. None more so than when she interacts with Betty. When Betty enters into the film, there is a noticeable change in Jillian. And it seems to make a difference.”

3. Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013). “Director Lee Daniels creates a visual treasure of sorts as he draws a parallel between Lewis’ involvement with the Freedom Riders and Black Panthers alongside his father’s serving in the White House. Lewis is the rebellious young adult whose actions are wrapped in the need for change. Cecil, on the other hand, is the speechless, unquestioning, servant. It is the parallel between keeping silent and speaking out.”

2. The Captains Close-Up (2013). “One of the recurring themes in the interviews was that of leadership. Each captain was a leader to the fictional starship crew, but seemed to be a leader to the acting crew as well. Interviews with cast members of the various shows revealed how much they all looked to the Captain who set the tone. Cast members of Deep Space Nine, talk about how scenes with Avery Brooks were usually cut up and took a number of takes. But those scenes with Brooks was a completely different case. Brooks set a tone when taping. He raised the bar for his crew.”

1. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). “All of the mental confusion, self-deception and great anxiety lead us to believe that Blanche lives in the shadows.  Even in a black and white film, it is clear by the lighting employed that Blanche’s narrative is filled with darkness.  Many films use the tools of light and dark to tell their stories. Yet, here in this 1951 film is the most astonishing use of this contrast I have seen. In a scene where Mitch is asking her about the darkness, she replies, “I like the dark. The dark is comforting to me.”

Repost: The Greatest Gift of All

Christmas Ponderings - devotions for the Christmas season

This post was first posted on December 24, 2012. 

In the A Charlie Brown Christmas special, Linus recites from Luke 2:8-14:

Sometimes, we can feel like Charlie Brown. We get caught up in the hustle and bustle of Christmas and wonder, “Is there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus, much like the angels on that first Christmas, remind us what Christmas is all about.

“Peace and goodwill toward men.”

Peace and goodwill is hard to come by these days, as it was that first Christmas.  Charles Campbell reminds us, “The political powers, in both Jesus’ day and our own, play on fear to get their way – whether it be the fear of the emperor, the fear of terrorists, the fear of the ‘other’ (the immigrant), or the fear of death.”

Government mandated oppression.

Discrimination against those were different than them.

The poor were kept poor.

People suffered from hunger.

Violence was evident on the streets daily.

But, that was in “those days.”

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7, NRSV).

The arrival of Jesus brought with it a “new day.” There is no longer need for fear, only joy. There is no longer need for corruption, only freedom. There is no longer need for hunger, only feasting. There is no longer need for occupation, only liberation. There is no longer need for war, only peace.

And yet, we struggle to see this “new day.”

Political parties inspire fear of the other party.

Hatred and bullying of someone, anyone, who is different from us is rampant.

The great divide between the have’s and the have-not’s gets wider and wider.

People suffer from hunger.

Violence is evident on our streets and in our schools.

Charlie Brown - Linus - Christmas PonderingsAnd there is something deep inside of us that wants to cry out like Charlie Brown, “Is there anyone who knows what Christmas is about?” Sure, we get all these warm fuzzies at this time of year that make us feel so good. It’s great giving and receiving gifts. It’s great going to parties. It’s great having family and friends around.

But, at least for me, there is something hard to swallow about Christmas. That is with all the joy, there is grieving and hopelessness. And I don’t mean to put a damper on things. From Central America and back, I have seen suffering at the hands of poverty, addictions, and violence. And while we try to not think about these things at Christmas, we have to remember this is why the baby boy was born. This poverty, these addictions, and this violence is the reason God became man. This suffering is the reason that Jesus was born.

Jesus is not just the reason for the season. Jesus is the greatest gift of all. In that lowly manger sits hands of grace that bring healing and hope into our hopelessness.

John’s gospel talks about Jesus’ birth as a great Light that penetrates  the darkness of the world. Matthew quotes Jesus telling the disciples that “You are the Light of the World.” This is just one of the many commissioning sayings of Jesus. God sent Jesus as the Light, we are the light-bearers. It is now our responsibility to carry that Light into the dark crevices of the world. Because we claim Jesus Christ, we now become a gift to the word.

Taking the Light to the oppressed.

Taking the Light to the poor and the hungry.

Taking the Light to the bullied and the bullies.

Taking the Light into the violent streets.

It is us who must act. It is us who must bring peace and goodwill to all. It is our gift to give.

On His Little Shoulders

Read Luke 2:1-20.

Christmas Ponderings - devotions for the Christmas seasonThe waiting is over. The Child has been born. And we rejoice. A silent night has become a holy night. All is calm as all becomes bright with hope.

As we peek over the side of the cradle, and look at the Peace Child, we feel peace. God’s great kingdom begins with this child. And this child will have authority over that kingdom. For it is as Isaiah wrote, “Authority rests upon his shoulders.” (Isaiah 9:6)

It is the authority to heal the blind and the lame.

It is the authority to raise the dead.

It is the authority to forgive sins.

It is the authority that welcomes the poor and the oppressed. The outcast and the “other.”

It is this authority that will cause those in authority to question him and plot against him. It is this authority that will create tension in the religious and political realms. It is this authority that will be the cause of the greatest weight on his shoulders – that of the cross.

And it starts here, in this cradle, with these little, infant shoulders. It begins with God putting on flesh. It begins with the welcoming of the shepherds – the poorest and often despised in their day. It begins here in the lowliest of places. It begins in the stillness of the night. It begins in a most unexpected way.

This little infant has the authority to bring peace on earth.

And when we look around the world and see the places (read: the hearts) where Jesus reigns, we find peace. The abusive father who turns to Jesus’ authority instead of that of the bottle, finds peace. The sister who turns to Jesus’ authority instead of her own stubbornness, finds peace. The hateful speech of a neighbor who turns to Jesus’ authority instead of that of the tradition he claims, finds peace.

photo by K. Byrne
photo by K. Byrne

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of our greatest theologians of the 20th century, told a German-speaking congregation in Havana, Cuba on December 21, 1930 in a sermon:

But now it is true that in three days, Christmas will come once again. The great transformation will once again happen. God would have it so. Out of the waiting, hoping, longing world, a world will come in which the promise is given. All crying will be stilled. No tears shall flow. No lonely sorrow shall afflict us anymore, or threaten.

The great transformation will bring peace. And it starts at the cradle.

As we peek over the cradle this Christmas at the infant Christ, let us remember that the weight of the world with all of its brokenness and sin is on his little shoulders. As we peek into the cradle, and look into his eyes of love, remember that Jesus does not bring peace by force, but by invitation. When we invite Christ into the dark places (read: hearts), peace will follow.

Guest Post: Catch What’s Going On

Rev. Lindsey Baynham is the Associate Pastor at Fairfax United Methodist Church. Lindsey blogs at Words of My Mouth.

Slide3Read Luke 1:46-55.

There are certain times in the year where I audibly cry out, “Already?!?” And one that perhaps bothers me more than others is in November. Right before Thanksgiving, there is a shift in stores—it seems that overnight all remnants of pumpkins and turkeys are replaced with snowmen and stockings. The shelves are filled with potential presents for loved ones and the deals are posted in every window. Even the music changes! You find yourself humming familiar tunes as you pace the aisles, get your car worked on or wait in line at the DMV. There is a visible change and I would argue a change within when the turkey and stuffing are behind us that is contagious as we look to Christmas.

But I believe that the change is too sudden. We too often skip over a time of waiting and anticipation to look to the presents or what I would call the hoopla of Christmas. We miss out on an opportunity to slow down and wait. Wait with expectant hearts for the Christ that comes in the most unexpected way; as a baby. We wait with excited spirits for a young virgin girl to give birth in a society that would shame her for not being married yet. And we wait alongside others—hoping in Emmanuel, who is God with us.

Just before our passage, Mary has encountered an angel, telling her that she will bear the Son of God. She responds as I think many would, “ How will this happen?” (Luke 1:34 CEB). How will this young girl take on the responsibility that has been given to her? How will she overcome the pressures of being unmarried in her ancient society? And what has she done to deserve this honor? So many questions it seems are left to be answered and the angel replies with confidence and concludes by saying, “Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37 NRSV). And so the angel leaves her and the young woman must wait…but she will not sit with this news alone, she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth who we learn in this chapter is also pregnant.

Elizabeth’s very being is altered and changed at Mary’s greeting! The Holy Spirit moves within Elizabeth and she recognizes that her cousin has been blessed to carry the Son of God. And Elizabeth’s words of praise and thanksgiving are contagious—giving joy to Mary.

And in verses 46-55 we hear Mary’s words of joy, of excitement, of remembrance and of promise. Mary trusts that God will take what seems impossible and make it into something incredible. She revisits the covenants made with her forefathers and knows that a new covenant has been made with the child that rests in her womb.

Our being during the time of Advent is one that is gradual, moving ever so slightly from person to person, home to home, church to church. In this season we wait to catch what is going around—the joy of Christ coming to earth, a joy that is peaked by waiting for the baby Messiah. We look to Christ’s birth with wonder and thankfulness for the time to prepare. And we look to Christmas with a joy that is contagious, spreading from heart to heart.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Slide1On December 9, 1965 an animated Christmas special aired on CBS. Some network executives had already made the commitment to air it, but they only planned to air it that one time. Little did they know that the simple story of Charlie Brown searching for the meaning of Christmas would be the second most watched show that week (second only to the western Bonanza), much less a Christmas tradition.

They only planned to have it air once, but they didn’t think it was very good. It is a miracle that the special ever made it to the air anyway. Producer Lee Mendelson got a phone call explaining that Coco-Cola wanted to sponsor a Christmas special and accepted the offer, even though he didn’t have one. He called Charles Schultz and asked if he could have a story in a week. They pitched the Christmas special and it was accepted. They had six months to make the special, which is usually not enough time. But the team of Schultz, Mendelson, and Bill Melendez made it happen.

There are so many things that make Schultz’ story so brilliant. One is that he insisted on using children as the voices of the . . . . wait for it . . . . .children. Yeah, it was not the normal way to do things. The other is that he was willing to talk about that which no one else was willing to do at the time. In fact, the tension between consumerism and the true meaning of Christmas is still so evident (like the current “War on Christmas?“). Yet, it is possible that we are so consumed by consumerism, that we miss the message that Schultz delivers in this timeless classic. Buy, buy, buy is not the meaning of Christmas.

charlie-brown-christmas2Charlie Brown is depressed, living in despair, as he does in most of the Peanuts comics. “Something is wrong with me,” he tells his faithful friend Linus at the brick wall. “Christmastime is here, but I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” The feeling that Charlie Brown thinks he is suppose to feel is that artificial happiness. The kind of happiness that can be bought.

This artificial spirit of Christmas is sweeping through town. When Charlie Brown goes to get advice from Lucy’s 5 cent booth, he drops a nickel into the jar and Lucy picks it up filled with joy. She shakes the jar, listening to the nickel rattle, and exclaims, “I love the sound of cold, hard cash.” As Charlie Brown walks pass Snoopy’s doghouse, he is surprised to find his beagle decorating the dog house. Why? For the chance to win a huge money prize. “My own dog has gone commercial,” Charlie Brown says, “I can’t stand it!”

And he really can’t stand it. Charlie Brown has been given the chance to direct the Christmas play. But he can’t seem to get the other kids to focus on the meaning of Christmas, which is something that Charlie Brown is trying to discern. He knows that there is more to this favored holiday than just money! He is just not sure how to articulate it.

CHARLIEHe is sent to get a Christmas tree for the play. This, the kids reason, will fix everything. Charlie Brown and Linus are told to get a nice, big, shiny, aluminum Christmas tree. We all know what happens, Charlie Brown chooses the wimpiest, littlest, tree in the whole lot. But it’s a real tree. It’s not artificial. It’s not a fake. It’s not a tree in disguise. It’s the real deal.

When Charlie Brown returns with the tree, he is laughed at and called names. It causes him to cry out, “Is there anyone who knows what Christmas is about?” And Linus, very humbly, steps up on the stage and quotes Luke 2:8-14 from the Kings James Bible.

This was another risky move by Schultz. Not all of his team thought it was a good idea to use the Bible on primetime television. They were certain that it would not go over well with audiences. Schultz’ wife recalls him thinking that scripture is not just for the church, but for everyone. And it was fitting that Linus, the little philosopher that he is, be the one who recites the scripture. In doing so Linus becomes a little theologian as well. In reciting the birth narrative from Luke’s gospel, Linus makes the connection between the message of the Gospel and Charlie Brown’s actions – a message that is not just for the church.

There is nothing artificial about Christmas or the meaning of Christmas. Charlie Brown’s choice to choose the tiniest and the weakest of the trees symbolizes how Christ chose each of us, the tiniest and the weakest.  Instead of being concerned with money and buying extravagant gifts, we should follow Charlie Brown’s lead and care for the tiniest, loneliest, and weakest.

Philomena (2013)

Philomena received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress: Judi Dench, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score.

philomena-movie-posterOne who is persistent continues firmly and strongly in a course of action, no matter the risk or difficulty. This is Philomena Lee. Journalist Martin Sixsmith, who was reluctant about writing a human-interest story, first told Philomena’s story. Sixsmith would later publish the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.

The film Philomena is based on that book.

Judi Dench, one of the greatest actresses of our time, portrays the aging mother in search for her biological son. Philomena’s story begins as a teenager when at one moment of weakness with a young man lands her in a home run by a collection of nuns. There she gives birth to her son, and watches powerlessly as an American couple takes him home.

For fifty years she wonders what happened to her son Anthony. On the occasion of his 50th birthday, Philomena seems unable to shake the desire to find out what happened to him.  She returns to the nuns to inquire, but they tell her that they have no information on him. She doesn’t let go though. She remains persistent. This is when she meets Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan). Martin had recently lost his government official job due to a scandal. Reluctant to do a human-interest story, he does it in an effort to turn his image.

The two embark on a journey to the United States in search for Anthony.  The journey is very much the frame of the story. And like all great journey stories, both characters learn a lot about each other and about themselves. It is a challenging journey because Martin and Philomena are two completely different people, age difference aside.

Philomena favors romance novels, while Martin prefers a more intellectual read. Philomena is not well traveled, resulting in her being awed by such wonders as the waffle maker at a Washington, D. C. hotel. Martin, a former government official, doesn’t see the wonder in such minor details.  But perhaps the biggest difference is religion. Philomena is deeply religious, making Martin stop on the side of a rural road in Virginia so that she can go to confession. While Martin is not religious and does not see the reason for it.

 Philomena: Do you believe in God?

Martin: Difficult to give a simple answer.

The two learn that the nuns were selling the teenage girls’ babies to wealthy Americans. They are able to track Anthony down, who was raised as Mike Hess and worked in the Regan administration. As they uncover the truth (I don’t want to spoil it for you) about Hess, Martin seems surprised and worried about how Philomena will respond. “I knew that,” she said.

Philomena has Martin stop the car at a rural Virginia church so that she can go to confession. “What I had done was a sin. Not telling people was a sin. Which was the greater sin of the two?” Philomena wonders aloud, still struggling with guilt of having sex as a teenager. Martin argues that she does not need to ask for forgiveness, the church needs to ask for forgiveness. Martin reasons that what the church did to her was unjust. “You don’t need religion to be happy,” Martin says.

And that scene sums up the struggle that both Philomena and Martin face, and so many of us, with religion. Institutional religion has good days and it has bad days. On the good it is just, on the bad it is unjust. Through the centuries, we know that this is true.  Martin recognizes that outsiders, like himself, look into the church and see the injustice, while those on the inside, like the nuns, cannot and are not willing to change. Philomena knows the reality of institutional injustice because she has been on the receiving end of the injustice of the institution. However, she does not stop believing in God. She is faithful. She is persistent.

Jesus tells the story of the persistent widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18). In the story, the persistent widow seeks the judge to ask for justice. We are not told the reason for the cries of justice, just that the widow is persistent. The judge, worn down by the nagging, finally agrees to give her justice.

The story implies that disciples, or followers of Christ, are to be persistent in their prayer life, while also seeking justice. Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, Luke uses the encounter between Jesus and the sisters Martha and Mary to illustrate the importance of balance in our lives. A balance of being with Jesus (Mary) and doing for Jesus (Martha) is necessary. Philomena represents this balance. While she is persistently seeking her son and justice for the wrong that was done to her, she is persistently faithful to her God.

And because Philomena has found this balance, she is able to forgive when others find it too difficult. When Philomena and Martin return to the nuns to find the truth about her son, Martin is angry with the nuns for what they had done. He sneaks through the building to find the one remaining nun from when Philomena was a teenager to demand some answers. In the heat of this powerful scene, the nun refuses to acknowledge that she did anything wrong, making Martin more angry, telling her that if Jesus was present, he would push her out of her wheelchair, clearly drawing on the image of Jesus turning over the moneychangers’ tables.

Philomena, on the other hand, forgives the nun. Philomena becomes the only one who is willing to welcome change, and it begins with forgiveness.

_D3S1363.NEFThe film is possibly one of Judi Dench’s best films. Dench is fabulous in this role. At the time of filming, Dench was 79 and slowly going blind. The director chose so many times to fill the screen with Dench’s face, even when she had no speaking part. By doing so, we can appropriate more the complexities of Philomena.

Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay, gives a commanding performance. Possibly one of his best. He manages to balance the humor with the intensity of accompanying Philomena on this journey. Both Dench and Coogan should be recognized by the Academy.