Vol 5, Num 8 :: 2006.04.21 — 2006.05.05
I wish I could be one of those people who effortlessly recall poetry or can quote extensively from their favorite authors. I wish I were better at memorizing Scripture or could learn more of a worship song than just the chorus. It would be wonderful to have those voices echo inside one’s head and speak to the situation at hand?words of wisdom, or comfort, or the right words of despair when life goes badly.
Instead, I have lines from favorite movies that rattle around in my head. These are the resources God taps into when he wants to remind me of his dreams for me. I didn’t set out to memorize these lines; I didn’t write them down on notecards to refer to when I need advice. I think God chose these as refrains in my life. They usually come as a rebuke, a correction, or a push in the right direction?not necessarily what I would have chosen for myself. They aren’t even the lines I would say I admire most in the movies. It’s not the turn of a phrase that captures me but the emotional context of a scene, the particular mood of a character, the weight of making a big decision. These lines encapsulate moments where a person extends grace, becomes vulnerable, or challenges expectations. I tend to listen best to emotional language than verbal language, and perhaps that’s why these movie lines have been my companions for years and years.
“It’s not a way out; it’s more of a way through.”
?Mitch McDeere, The Firm
I am the world’s weakest person. When things get tough, you can always count on me to weasel out, back down, and move on. Maybe that’s tied to the fact that I moved around a lot growing up; I know what it feels like to have a clean slate and start over again from scratch. It’s easy to put the past behind you and start again with new friends. College in particular fed that mentality, as each year created whole new sets of people to interact with. If something gets difficult, there is always the next class, the next dorm, the next friendship to move on to.
Community is messy. Community isn’t all about your needs. Community involves impasses, and there are always two options: find a way out and move on to the next ministry, the next small group, the next church, or work through the problem. Working through often involves pain. I don’t like pain. I want to cut and run. But by God’s grace there are times when I see the value in community and friendship, in enduring the scars and working toward healing, when I can see the value in finding a way through a problem. This line always pops to mind as encouragement to seek that end.
It’s worth noting that this line does not appear in John Grishman’s original novel The Firm. In fact, the concept of working through the problems of the young couple is absent altogether. The book is all about running away and hiding the truth, but the movie rewrites the story to tackle the problems directly. It is immensely more satisfying.
“Have I fired anyone today? No. Why would I start with you?”
?Joe Reaves, Empire Records
Empire Records is the story of a living, breathing, fully active community. No one’s business is his or her own. When one of the teenage girls who works in the music store comes into work, shaves her head, and shows off her bandaged wrists, the group doesn’t just shy away from her awkwardly as I’d probably do. They stage a mock funeral to confront her death wish head-on. When one of the employees uses company cash to gamble, the manager doesn’t call the police; he is angry but vows to work it out in-house. Even a shoplifter who is being held for the police eventually falls into easy rapport with the crew. There are consequences to actions, but no one ever turns away from a person they don’t feel like dealing with. No one is shut out or given up on. There is grace and forgiveness, confrontation and truth, and opportunity and invitation to change.
Whenever I’ve messed up and been awful toward someone, when I feel like I’ve blown the umpteenth opportunity to do right, I take consolation in the fact that God’s outreached hand will never close to me. I will never use up my allotment of grace. He does not revoke his love. I hear God saying: “Why would I start with you?”
“I am the drum on which God is beating out his message.”
?Joan of Arc, The Messenger
Among the many film adaptations of the life of Joan of Arc, this one is perhaps most disparaged by movie critics and Christians alike. There is nothing holy, sainted, or calm about this Joan. She is half-mad, maybe delusional. She bellows and taunts. But I connect to this version of Joan. She feels God’s call beating down on her, drowning out every other sound, tormenting her. She doesn’t want this message; she doesn’t want this gift. She’s much like Jeremiah or Jonah, who felt threatened and burdened by God’s call on them.
One thing I hear so rarely in the church is how terrifying the Christian faith is. When new people walk through the door, we don’t tell them that if you take seriously the words that will be read, you will never be comfortable again. You might never have a moment’s rest from the awesome responsibility of living like Christ. The four spiritual laws begin with the phrase “God has a plan for your life,” but how often is it explained that God’s plan for you likely has nothing to do with getting a good job and marrying a nice person and dressing up on Sunday? It’s about emptying yourself and giving of yourself until it hurts, pouring out love even with the flow from our own veins. There is pleasure in giving oneself up to God, pleasure in doing what is right, what is sacrificial, what is loving, but it’s an acquired taste. It takes some getting used to. It might even take a lifetime to get used to. Christianity is not just freeing oneself from the grip of sin but surrendering oneself to the yoke of God. We are to pick up a cross and follow. It’s hard, hard, hard at times, and I like that in this film Joan can admit its pain. I like her acknowledgment that God doesn’t beat us down but that the utter holiness of his message can feel like a beating to our weak and sinful flesh.
?Quasimodo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
There are many film versions from which I could be quoting here, but, again, I am moved most deeply by the one considered the worst of the lot, the 1996 Disney version. True, the main characters are vastly altered from the book, but the one character that the movie gets right is its most important: the cathedral of Notre Dame itself. The original novel by Victor Hugo actually bore the title Notre Dame de Paris, and was more about the church than about a misshapen bellringer. It was a story about sanctuary.
Quasimodo is a deformed youth who has spent his whole life cooped up in the belltowers of the church, and although his benefactor Claude Frollo tells him the church provides him sanctuary from the crowds of people who would taunt and fear him, it seems to him more like a prison. He understands sanctuary only as safety from pain. The church is a sanctuary for Frollo as well, but only as safety from accountability. In the original novel Frollo is an archdeacon; in the Disney story he’s a public official with the church in his back pocket, but in either case he walks the tall parapets of the cathedral with an invincible air, and the cloak of the church protects him.
The true meaning of sanctuary is learned through the character of Esmerelda, a gypsy woman who would normally never set foot in a church but must claim sanctuary to escape a death sentence. Within these walls, she experiences what it means for someone to love and protect her, as Quasimodo takes up her cause. She reaches out toward God and asks him to have mercy on an outcast, as he had walked the path of an outcast himself. Here there is quiet, rest, time for reflection. There is safety from those who would seek her undoing. When Quasimodo later claims sanctuary on her behalf, he cries out with passion the full meaning of the word.
There are times when I’ve felt the church to be a sanctuary in its shallow senses. Growing up, I was instructed to keep myself cooped up inside the church where people are nice and moral, where I could be insulated from the world. There were times later on when I felt like the church was a cloak of righteousness I could wear without anyone checking up on me to see where I was spiritually. I used it as safety from pain and safety from accountability. It wasn’t until I graduated college, moved to a new state, and took six months to find a church, that I appreciated what being without one was like. It was so refreshing to return to a community of people who loved God. It was a wellspring of life, a joyous gathering, a place of rest, a safe haven from the creeping darkness of my own unchecked mind. It was safety from death. There were many Sunday mornings then, and from time to time even now, when I would mentally shout Quasimodo’s claim of sanctuary.
“As you wish.”
?Westley, The Princess Bride
This line is repeated in the The Princess Bride many times, each time with a new layer of meaning or a new twist on the context. But I am thinking here of the first times he says it, before the story has begun, when Westley is just a farmboy who serves the girl Buttercup with his whole heart. She torments and teases him, yet, no matter what, he always does what she asks with a reply of truest sincerity: “As you wish.” These replies are delivered without an ounce of sarcasm, cleverness, pomposity, or cheesiness. There is only love behind the words.
I so want to be God’s servant, but most of the time I have a faint heart for it. I tend to grumble and complain, doing what is asked but secretly thinking what a good person I am for doing it. What I lack is love. There are certain people in my life for whom I would drop everything and drive across town to pick up something they needed and not bat an eye. I love them, and that’s that. But for others in my life, including strangers, for whom it would become a chore rather than a pleasure. I would mentally make a checklist of how many favors they owed me or I owed them. Or I’d do it out of duty, or of wanting to do the right thing. But in some way I’d have to rationalize it to myself.
As I practice the art of servanthood, as I try to keep love as my focus rather than myself, Westley’s response buoys me. Those times when I am tempted to complain, tempted to keep score, tempted to become prideful, I push myself to mentally respond with a guileless, sincere, loving: “As you wish.”
“You have to see with better eyes than that.”
?Lindsey Brigman, The Abyss
This quote has been devalued somewhat as videophiles on DVD message boards use it to razz newcomers who don’t see the clarity differences between the older and remastered pressings of DVDs. But let’s return it to the content of the film: An undersea drilling crew has had close encounters with a mysterious species far beneath the ocean surface. A blurry photo is all the evidence Lindsey Brigman has at this point, and a military character is convinced it’s a Russian sub. He sees with eyes of fear. Lindsey sees with eyes of hope. She wants to make peaceful contact with this species. It’s not the clarity of the photo she’s talking about, it’s an outlook on life. She asks her husband to see the possibilities.
When I was younger, I always thought that the next big event would make me happy—if I could just get that new toy, if I could just get the right grades in school, if I could just go on my first date…. I thought that circumstances dictated how I would feel and think. But the deeper I got into a relationship with God, the less my circumstances seemed to matter. I could be content no matter what was happening in my life. Lots of money, no money, lots of friends, no friends, simple food, fancy food. My outlook is one of hope, one of seeing the potential in whatever situation I find myself in.
Usually. There are times when I give in to discouragement, frustration, and fear. There are times when I wonder where I’d be in life if I had chased after the success train from one station to the next year after year. There are times when I fixate on changing one detail in a friend’s life or at church, and I think it will make me happy if I can just make that one adjustment. I see things through a lens of control and surety. When I slip from my groove, I have to remind myself to worry less about my circumstances and more about regaining my better eyes.
“You haven’t been paying attention. We don’t get along so well.”
?Manual Jordan & Sofia Mellinger, Levity
If you haven’t seen the movie, you’ll have to imagine Sofia’s tone of voice here. Sofia is a self-destructive youth who gives Manual, a recently released convict, a tough time. Then out of the blue she offers to cook lunch for Manual, who declines, noting their mutual dislike of each other. Her “So?” is delivered with a mixture of bewilderment and offense. She’s bewildered because she probably never considered the idea of hanging out only with those who she likes and who like her in return; if she did she’d probably be alone. There’s a dash of offense thrown in because she can’t believe he’d think differently.
I was not at all expecting her response when he declined lunch. I thought she’d say “Suit yourself” and walk away. Instead she comes back with a one-word mindblower, roughly translated: “What do you mean you’re going to keep your distance from someone just because you don’t like that person?” I am still floored by this. Maybe it takes not having any real simpatico friends before you start hanging out with just anyone. But I want to strive toward this. I want to spend time with people just because they’re people. Maybe it’s the ones I dislike the most who will teach me the most about myself, or about the true variety in the world. Maybe I am being deluded by spending time with people who make me feel good about myself and are excited about what I do. Maybe I need the voice of criticism or a frank appraisal or a dose of humility. I have to admit I have acted on this one the least. But I still get God’s nudging. I keep hearing Sofia’s voice confront all of my excuses with one word: “So?”
“I’m not gonna live by their rules anymore.”
?Phil Connors, Groundhog Day
There is such glee in Phil’s voice as he says this, driving along the railroad tracks. He has just learned that he cannot die; each morning he wakes up and it’s still February 2. So he decides to break every rule in the book. On the surface it seems the height of hedonism or folly, but I think of it more in terms of absolute freedom. If you knew that you were immortal, what would you do? Would you be timid, would you pass up opportunities, would you stow away your life in a safe compartment, or would you live with reckless abandon?
Sometimes I wonder how much I truly believe that in Christ I will live forever. Don’t I still act scared? Don’t I worry about having a nice safe life? Don’t I still worry about what others will think of me? Don’t I still play by the rules of this world?
I need to risk more with my emotions. I need to risk more with my time and attention. The only area in which I’ve made some headway is abandoning the ball and chain of money fixation. My wife and I took a crazy risk in starting our own business together so we could prioritize time together, and we made it work. We just spend less, scouring thrift stores, diving in dumpsters, or gleaning blackberries from the roadside. It’s in those more adventurous moments when I find that voice of glee in my mind, that proud declaration that, though this be my one life, “I’m not gonna live by their rules anymore.”