A Christmas “Miracle”

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Sometimes God uses ye olde tyme movies to remind me of how I should act as a disciple of Christ.  This Christmas it was the old 1947 classic, “Miracle on 34th Street.”  We watched it with the kids on Christmas Eve after church, and the message of this 60+ year-old movie really hit home for me.

First of all, the movie taught me that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  One of the big messages of the movie is about how commercial that Christmas had become.  This movie was made in 1947!  We tend to romanticize the time after WWII as an idyllic time of peace, godliness, and morality, but in many ways they had the same issues that we do in 2010.  They were verging on the most prosperous times in American history, and consumerism was beginning to run amok then just as it does now.  It was great to talk with the kids after the movie about the trap of consumerism and how we wanted to avoid it.

Secondly and more importantly, the turning point of the movie reminded me of an important lesson about church that God has been drilling into my head for the past 18 months or so.  The plot of the movie revolves around a man named Kris Kringle who believes he is Santa Claus; he gets hired by Macy’s to be their in-store Santa (a big deal in the days before malls and thousands of mall Santas).  Hundreds of kids come to see Santa to ask for the presents they want, and one kid in particular asks for a fire truck.  When Kris assures him that he will get his fire truck, mom gives him the evil eye and says that Macy’s doesn’t have any more of them!

Here is where the movie turns: Kris takes a notebook out of his pocket and tells her that Gimbel’s, the chief competitor to Macy’s, has just what she is looking for and it is on sale too.  The flustered mom can’t believe that Macy’s Santa would send her to a competitor and vows to become a regular at Macy’s because of their focus on customers!  The owner of Macy’s thinks it is a great idea, and soon every department store in America is helping their customers find exactly what they want, even if it is at a competitor’s store.  They do it because they think it’s genius marketing that will attract more customers to them, but Kris Kringle does it just for the good of the little boys and girls who should get the Christmas presents that they want.

This is a pretty good reminder of what our attitude is supposed to look like as a church…the Kringle one, not the Macy’s or Gimbel’s version.  Kris thought of those kids first.  The bottom line at Macy’s didn’t count; the needs (okay wants, but bear with me) of the children did. 

How might that look if we adopted that attitude amongst ourselves?  How would my life look like if I didn’t prioritize my wants and my advantage, but instead just helped people to achieve their goals and dreams?  How would my interactions go if I weren’t looking for my own advantage but for opportunities to show the love of God to them and serve them?  I think it would look a lot like Christ:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. ” (Philippians 2:3–11, NASB)

 
How would our churches minister if that was our goal?  Allow me to share a case in point: We had a family come to worship at our church a couple of weeks ago.  They just moved here from Georgia, and were in their words looking for a traditional Baptist church.  They were a very nice family who seemed like they were serious about their faith and were kind and friendly.
 
As a pastor it is tempting to try to show them why they should come to my church.  I am a shepherd and I think that our church is pretty awesome!  And since I think it is awesome, other people should also think it is awesome, right?  So they should come to WG because it’s a great place for them to grow in Christ and build authentic relationships with other growing disciples.
 
Only they were looking for a traditional Baptist church and told me that.  We aren’t by any definition a traditional Baptist church, and I am by no means a traditional Baptist preacher.  Frankly, we aren’t really what they are looking for.  There are a couple of churches near ours that have more of the “traditional” feel that it seemed like this family wanted.  So I had a choice to make: what’s best for this family, or what’s best for me and my church.
 
I naturally welcomed these folks and several others did as well, and told them that we would love to have them.  I also told them about the churches in the area that I knew were good biblically and were more conservative and traditional than we were.  They were kind, and I think that the drum kit and maybe my preaching style told them that we weren’t a good fit.  They haven’t been back and didn’t give me a card or anything to contact them.  I hope they took me up on my suggestions for church finding!
 
Now before you think I’m all cool, realize that I know the deal.  It’s a bit self-serving, but I would rather have the family find somewhere they really want to be than reluctantly keep coming to our church and never dive in with both feet.  And yes, it also feels good to help them in their search.  And I think that it honors Christ more than me trying to shoehorn them into my way of doing business.  So in all it benefits me to be other-focused as well.
 
For 2011, what resolutions are you making in order to have a more Christ-centered attitude in this area?  Where can you make a change to be more interested in His good and the good of His people than self-interested?

Pixar Just Does It Right…

Pixar is pretty much money in the bank when it comes to good movies for the family.  Their animation is the best in the business, and when they pull out the stops for a major motion picture like they did for Toy Story 3, you can bet that it’ll be a winner.  We went and saw it last night with the kids and thought it was great.

 Great movies revolve around characters, and Toy Story 3 brings back all of the characters we love in this installment.  It’s been 11 years since the last Toy Story, but the characters are as lovable as ever and thankfully voiced by the same people. Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Rex, Hamm, the Potato Heads, and Slinky Dog are all back for more fun.  In this movie, their owner Andy has grown up and is leaving for college.  The toys have an identity crisis, as Andy doesn’t play with them anymore!  They wonder if they will be put in the attic, sold at a yard sale, given away or even thrown in the trash.

The toys end up at Sunnyside Daycare, where the action of the movie ensues.  The daycare looks great at first, but the characters soon learn that Lots-o’ (short for Lots-o’-huggin bear) rules with an iron fist and without mercy.  The main plot revolves around the toys escaping from Lots-o’ and his thugs, with the humor and thoughtful lessons that we’ve come to expect from this franchise.

Read the full review at Plugged In.

The Good:

Pixar movies are always good for laughs.  I especially liked when Buzz has his circuits put in “demo” mode and he morphs into Spanish Buzz.  He suddenly knows the tango and gets all passionate for Jessie.  It is quite funny.  I also love Mr. Potato Head in this movie.  There is a scene near the end where MPH has to take all his pieces off of his potato body and stick them on something else to help the team escape.  He becomes “Mr. Tortilla Head” for awhile, and the effect is quite amusing.

There are also several good moral lessons in this movie.  The minor ones revolve around commitment and the team sticking together.  There is a big lesson in the broken heart of Lots-o’, who is lost by his owner and replaced.  This leads him to anger and resentment, which makes him the antagonist in the film.  Our 4-year-old Abby and I talked about Lots-o’ at dinner after the movie.  She thought he was mean, but I told her that he should have talked to God about his hurt heart instead of getting angry and hurting other toys because he was hurt.

Pixar always shines when it comes time to deliver a heartwarming and emotional punch at the end. (see my post on “Up” for the same thing)  Toy Story 3 doesn’t disappoint.  The real lesson of the movie in my opinion is that the toys were getting their sense of worth and significance from the wrong places.  For Woody it was being owned by Andy.  For the other toys it was from being significant and played with by a kid, with Andy being the one they really wanted.  (PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD) At the end of the movie, as Andy passes his beloved gang off to a friend of the family and plays with them one last time, they learn that their true worth is just in being themselves: toys!

There is also a great lesson about the old adage of the grass being greener on the other side, and about expectations.  When the toys get to Sunnyside they think that it’s going to be a panacea, but it turns out to be a prison for them.  There is a great lesson in being careful about things that look too good to be true in there.

There is one scene that Christians are going to cling to as a theological point, and I am willing to bet a LOT of money that it will be an evangelistic sermon illustration in about 1000 churches this summer.   At one point the gang is facing certain annihilation in a trash incinerator.  There is nothing they can do, and finally the toys join hands as they accept their fate and wait for their destruction.  Then at the last moment, the Little Green Men squeaky toys use a huge claw (which is a nod to their introduction of the first movie) to rescue the gang.  This is going to be used again and again to illustrate humanity’s situation and inevitable eternal death, and Jesus’ saving us in grace. I can just see the lesson now: remember, “Jesus is the claw!  Jesus is the claw!”  It’s a stretch to get there though, so I wouldn’t use it.

The Bad:

There is precious little not to like about this movie.  In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed it and my family did too.  If you really want to nit pick, Ken and Barbie shack up after knowing each other for about 10 seconds.  Ken is also way over the top effeminate in the realm of clothes (Ken wears 21 different outfits in the movie) and his handwriting.  His sexuality is never a question, but the cheap gay jokes that the kids certainly missed don’t really add to the movie.

My only other complaint is that I expected perhaps too much.  Everyone told me that I would cry at the end of the movie.  I liked the lesson and enjoyed the movie.  I thought it was touching.  I said “Awww.”  But no tears, no lump in my throat, no amazing epiphany.  Then again, I am not sentimental about possessions and that has to play into it.  Several friends said at the end of the movie that they were sad that they had thrown away toys as a kid.  I am too, but mostly because my old GI Joe’s and Transformers would be worth a lot of money now. 🙂

Overall:

This is a great movie with a great message about self-worth, about commitment and loyalty, and about totalitarian government. (okay, that last one is a bit of a stretch)  Take the kids and have a good time.  Take a date and enjoy the magic of Pixar.  But don’t go and expect it to end world hunger.

“A Team”: A-Plus

I grew up in the 80’s, so all of the 80’s television shows are right up my alley.  I was super-excited when the trailers for “the A team” came out.

Yeah, that looked cool.  At the same time, I watched almost every episode of the old TV series, so I was a little worried about how the remake would handle these characters that we all knew so well.  I pity the fool who tries to reprise the role of B.A. Baracus, because no one can be Mr. T.  And since George Peppard passed away in 1994 I was really concerned with who could possibly fill his shoes.  I can’t help but remember the old commercials for the “A Team” action figures:

I figured going in that this movie would be a shoot-em-up, with more money spent on special effects than on the screenplay if you know what I mean.  And going in with the expectation that I would enjoy the action and not worry about the plot holes, I had a great time.  We were originally going to go see this as a guy’s night movie but the ladies wouldn’t have it; Laura thoroughly enjoyed it as well, and that is saying a LOT about an action movie.

The Good:

In my friend Mike’s words, this movie was “pitch perfect.”  Go in expecting it to be a crazy action movie, just like the TV series.  For goodness sake, at one point the team flies a tank.  Then they use its main gun to change their course to land it in a lake.  That’s pretty par for the course in this kind of movie, and the action came fast and furious.

They captured the essence of the characters I know and love perfectly!  Liam Neeson did a wonderful job of playing Col. John “Hannibal” Smith.  The other actors did a great job as well, and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson was surprisingly believable as B.A. Baracus.  I am a huge MMA fan and Rampage is the former UFC light heavyweight champion; I was really worried about how well he could act, but he did a fine job.

I was not expecting the amount of genuine humor in this movie.  I thought there might be a few “groaner” laughs and maybe some wit, but this movie was full of actual “laugh out loud” funny moments.  I was blown away at the quality of the dialog.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not going to win a screenwriting Oscar or anything; that said, there was some witty repartee and enough genuine humor to keep almost anyone interested in the movie.

There are also some good moral messages in this movie, if you can believe that.  B.A. Baracus has to do some soul searching, and Hannibal helps him remember himself in the movie.  The members of the team are all Army Rangers, and their loyalty to one another is exemplary.  There is also a good plot line about good triumphing over evil and justice triumphing over injustice.  Granted you’ll have to dig a bit to get these out of a summer blockbuster, they are still there to be found.

I was also worried going in about sexual content, but the movie was great.  If you’re a fan of the show you know that Face is quite the ladies’ man.  While that facet of his personality is part of the movie and plays a role, in reality it is a genuine love interest that advances a crucial plot point.  There was no nudity and really no cheesecake.  (though Bradley Cooper is a handsome fellow and the ladies might enjoy some of the beefcake)  See below for more, though.

The Bad:

There is violence.  Lots of it.  If you go to this movie, expect lots of things to blow up, bullets to fly everywhere, and people to die.  There is no blood or gore, but it’s a summer action movie.  Expect that going in.

There is a good dose of language in this movie.  Like WAY too much  for a PG-13 movie.  My favorite movie review site has this to say:

One full “m‑‑‑‑‑f‑‑‑er” and at least two more that stop short of the full obscenity. Around 25 s-words and three obscene gestures make for an even fouler adventure. God’s name is misused about 10 times, often coupled with “d‑‑n.” Jesus’ name is abused nearly that many times. There is also a couple-dozen uses of “h‑‑‑” and about a dozen each of “a‑‑” and “a‑‑hole.” Other language includes “d‑‑n,” “p‑‑‑ed,” and “b‑‑ch.”

Because of the language I would not recommend this movie to kids.  Laura and I were both really surprised that it got a PG-13 rating rather than R, if only for the language.  I didn’t think that the MPAA would let the first reference in the above quote go in a PG-13 movie.

While there is no nudity, Faceman does get caught in adultery early in the movie.  There is also a scene at the end where there is some dialog after he receives a conjugal visit in prison.  They didn’t bother me and my sensitive conscience, but this movie is certainly not squeaky clean.

More than anything, though, the big issue with this movie is the ethic that the ends justifies the means.  The team is a crack group of Rangers who get framed for a crime they didn’t commit, and set about proving their innocence.  They do that, though, by escaping from federal prison, lying, killing, and all that jazz.  No innocent people die, but they still completely ignore the concept of justice in their actions in order to prove the injustice of their conviction.

The Bottom Line:

I loved this movie.  I absolutely loved it.  Laura enjoyed it too!  Don’t go see it expecting it to be a chick flick or a tale of redemption.  Don’t go to ponder the meaning of life or to make you want to be a better disciple of Jesus.  But if you want to just be entertained for two hours and take in a pretty darned good summer action film, make “the A Team” part of your plans.

A Royal Time in Persia

Laura and I drove to Kingman, AZ yesterday for a wedding rehearsal and wedding that I will be officiating this afternoon.  Kingman is not a big town, so once the rehearsal was over we were looking for something to do.  Thankfully there is a movie theater in town, so along with some friends we decided to see what was showing.  After a quick perusal of the offerings (and checking them against my favorite movie review site) we decided that “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” was for us.

You can read the Plugged In review here.

I was interested in this movie because I used to manage a video game store.  This movie is based off of a video game of the same name that was one of my favorites.  It had a good plot line, lots of acrobatics, and a neat “hook” that let the makers of the game make it very difficult but still playable.  I was really hoping that the movie would carry the art style of the game forward and that it wouldn’t be campy.

I was really pleased with the results!  I am very sensitive to sexual content, and while the love story between Dastan and Tamina was one of the major plot arcs the presentation was really tasteful.  Laura is really sensitive to graphic violence and with the exception of a single scene she thought it was great too.  So from those perspectives the movie was very watchable.

The good:

I loved the cinematography.  The art style and action sequences were amazing.  The CGI of the wide shots of Persian cities was fantastic, and the acrobatics of the movie were really top notch.  Just like the games of the same name, the movie showcased an acrobatic style reminiscent of parkour or freerunning

I loved Sheik Amar, who was played by Alfred Molina.  He is an unabashed capitalist and entrepreneur, whose goal in life is to avoid paying taxes to Persian bureaucrats.  He was consistently hilarious throughout the movie.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays a very believable Dastan.  Laura and I were both impressed with the casting of Gemma Arterton as Tamina, the princess and love interest.  She was feisty and funny in appropriate places; more than that, while she is attractive she breaks the mold of bombshell beauty that leading romantic interests often take.

I also really appreciated the moral message of the movie.  (plot spoilers ahead)  In the very beginning of the movie, the king adopts Dastan because even though he is a street boy he shows integrity and a willingness to sacrifice himself for others.  The movie is a classic good vs. evil play as well, with the good guys overcoming in the end.  Dastan is framed for his father’s murder, and through the course of the movie he maintains loyalty to his family at great personal cost.  He never tries to take advantage of Tamina and grows as a character. 

There is a great scene in the movie where Dastan’s father tells him that he is a good man, but that he has the capability to be a great man and should do the right thing regardless of the personal cost.  Dastan follows his dad’s advice at a pivotal moment late in the movie, and it pays off for him in earning him the trust of his brother who has assumed the throne.

The bad:

The movie is set in ancient Persia, so there is a pantheon of gods.  Tamina is a priestess of a god who isn’t named.  The whole movie revolves around a dagger that has the ability to turn back time in 1-minute increments which was given to humanity by the gods, who will be angered and destroy the earth if the dagger is misused.  Personally this didn’t make the movie difficult to watch for me, because the whole premise of the movie is fantasy.  Go in knowing that there will be no authentic worship of the true God!

Tamina is introduced in a fairly clingy outfit and wears a revealing outfit once.  I wasn’t bothered by her attire and I am sensitive to sexual imagery.

The title of the movie is biblical…Daniel 10:20 in particular.  In that text, the Prince of Persia is likely a reference to Satan!  However, I don’t think that the movie picks that up at all and certainly Dastan is an honorable and good man.

The verdict:

I loved this movie.  I thought it was well-written and directed.  I thought the characters were well played and interesting, and the plot had a nice development and twist in the end.  It’s not quite the spiritual training that The Book of Eli or The Blind Side are, but it’s fun.  Laura and I liked it enough that we are thinking that our oldest two kids (13 and almost 11) would probably enjoy it and it would be okay for them.  If you’re looking for a good action movie with a love interest in it, this is a good one!

Life is better together

First off allow me to apologize for blogging so little over the last couple of weeks.  I love to blog, but it’s a task that is pretty low on the scale of responsibilities in my life.  If I don’t blog you, my wonderful readers, will likely make it through the day; if I don’t prepare a meaningful message for Sunday my congregation really suffers.  The past couple of weeks I have been absolutely buried in grading papers for the end of the semester, so my blogging time has evaporated.  My bad!  Thanks for hanging in there with me.

My family went to California for the weekend, so I had a bunch of free time this weekend.  I was “batching it” on Saturday night, so what did I do?  You guessed it: I graded papers. (being a grownup sucks sometimes…)  That is, I graded papers until 9PM.  At 9PM I got an Instant Message from my best friend in Arizona, commanding me to turn the TV on because there was an old Chuck Norris movie on cable.  Naturally, I quit grading papers to watch the Chuckitude!

The movie was called “Breaker! Breaker!”  Go read the IMDB reviews and you will note that this movie probably didn’t get any Oscar nods.  If you go read the user reviews on the link above you will get a good feel for the quality (or lack thereof) in this movie.  I agree with the title of one review, which said “I am dumber for watching it.”

So why was I quoting it before Bible study yesterday, yukking and joking and having a great time about it?  It was simple: Michael and I IMed each other through the movie.  We treated this movie like we were the MST3K crew. (If you’re not familiar with Mystery Science Theater 3000, click the link and choose “theater”)  We chatted back and forth about all of the plot holes and weird scenes, the odd dialog and cheesy action.  I enjoyed this movie thoroughly, even though it is potentially one of the worst movies in history, because I had a good friend with me while I endured it.

Michael and I will now have cheesy movie lines and odd characters as inside jokes for months, and that was what made the movie worthwhile!  Without that, I never would have watched it.  I might have made it 5 minutes hoping it got better before I quit, but with a good friend it became not only bearable but enjoyable.  I started looking forward to the horrible parts because they were where the humor was!

What a great lesson and reminder.  The principle of the “parable of the horrible movie” is that with friends, even the worst experiences can be manageable and even enjoyable.  I see the theme of community so often in the New Testament, from Hebrews 10:24-25 to 2 Timothy 2:1-2 to 1 John 1:3 to all of 1 Corinthians.  God wants us to have good friends in Christ to make the tough times bearable and the good times even better.  He wants us to live in community so that we don’t take ourselves too seriously or sink too low when times get tough.  He wants us to live by what Hebrews 12:12-13 teaches: “Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.”

So let some people into your life this week.  Build the relationships that can help when life stinks.  I never could have enjoyed “Breaker! Breaker!” with someone who I didn’t know well; it wouldn’t have worked.  Likewise, sharing life only happens when we know people well.  So build some relationships in your church this week and this month!