Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Heart for God When It's Hard

I went to see an unusual movie today called "The Book of Eli". Denzel Washington and Gary Oldham lead an interesting, eclectic cast in this dark and violent film. It caught my curiosity because of the reviews and blogger comments on it being a "Christian" film in some respects although it was a very "R" movie. Some friends of mine had seen it and recommended it as well.
I am not interested in writing a movie review but I will say that the film has nicked me, meaning it will stay with me for a while and I want to talk about it a bit. First of all, when a movie gets under my skin and itches until I "scratch" it through contemplation or conversation (my favorite), that's when I know it was a good movie. Generally speaking, I come out of a theater (or turn off my tv/dvd player) and the first thought or words out of my mouth are, "that film could have been so much better - what a disappointment". Currently both film makers and we, the audience, have become so lazy in our expectations that we get what we deserve: Boring films with inane dialogue, tired out devices for humor or romance, obligatory sex and/or violence just to fill the minutes.
So when a film grabs me or, even better, surprises me, I really love to talk about it afterwards.
As I said, I don't want to review the film, I just want to zero in on this one moment that was like a laser of light in the bleakest backdrop I could have ever imagined. In a bombed out cement column (like you might see at a power plant), Denzel Washington's character and a young woman named Solara are hiding out from some very, very bad guys. The young woman cannot read and has never experienced anything but the darkest days of a destroyed world. She has never seen anything grow, never seen a blue sky, never heard music or witnessed the arts, never tasted anything fresh. She watches Denzel reading from a book, his very special book that he has protected at all costs. A book that has led them to being hunted down like animals. She asks him to read some of it to her.
Denzel looks up, closes the book and begins to quote Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me lie in green pastures, he leads me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. They rod and they staff, they comfort me". And then he smiles.
As a believer and a lover of God's word, that moment was transforming for me. "Why", you ask (and thanks for asking). I can't tell you how many times I have heard the 23rd Psalm read or read it myself or quoted it or sung it. It's one of the MOST recognized passages in scripture. But, as I was drawn into the story and the bleak, hopelessness of that post-apocolyptic world, hearing God's word spoken, those words of comfort and hope and peacefulness created an absolute moment of TRUTH. God's word piercing the deepest darkness. The girl yearned to hear more. For the first time, she could glimpse why this book meant so much to him.
I came away thinking about my own walk with God. We have so much, so much to distract us from God. Though "just" a movie, Denzel's character clearly understood the value and importance of a close walk with the Lord and spending time in his word. I thought of the believers in Haiti who are living in the bleakest possible conditions, believers in China where many must share one Bible, in Africa where they could be arrested for their faith without a moment's notice... and I asked myself, "would I have the courage, the strength of faith to proclaim God when its so hard. Would I spend time in the word every day, resting in his truth if everything else was taken from me?
I had a thought tickling me... I knew I had read somewhere these thoughts put on paper much better than I am doing now. I finally remembered it was an e-mail that I read (and saved) which was part of the eulogy for NBC correspondent, David Bloom who died in Iraq in the early days of the war. He was there covering the invasion and, at the age of 39, died in April 2003. Before he left, he seemed to have a premonition that God might have greater plans for him. Following is an e-mail that he wrote to his wife, Melanie, before he left Kuwait City. This e-mail was read at his funeral service:

"You can't begin to fathom - cannot begin to even glimpse the enormity - of the changes I have and am continuing to undergo. God takes you to the depths of your being - until you are at rock bottom - and then, if you turn to him with utter and blind faith, and resolve in your heart and mind to walk only with him and toward him, picks you up by your bootstraps and leads you home. I hope and pray that all my guys get out of this in one piece. But I tell you, Mel, I am at peace. Deeply saddened by the glimpses of death and destruction I have seen, but at peace with my God and with you. I know only that my whole way of looking at life has turned upside down - here I am, supposedly at the peak of professional success, and I could frankly care less. Yes, I'm proud of the good job we've all been doing, but - in the scheme of things - it matters little compared to my relationship with you, and the girls, and Jesus. There is something far beyond my level of human understanding or comprehension going on here, some forging of metal through fire."

"...some forging of metal through fire". My friend, Luci Swindoll, calls it the "Alchemy of the Heart" - taking something corrupt and flawed and passing it through the fire, tempering it until it becomes as gold. The movie for me today was one big illustrated reminder that until I allow God to temper me and draw me fully to himself, I will never be strong enough or courageous enough to have a heart for God when it's really, really hard.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Of All the Blogs I've Ever Written, This Is The Most Recent!

Every family has a phrase, sometimes a series of phrases that become part of the family lore. A young child mispronounces a word and the family finds it charming or hilarious and from that moment on "interesting" becomes "instering". My niece, Ali, was the originator of that phrase when she was 3 and she has just turned 30 but we all still say things are "instering". Once, when my boys were in high school, we visited their grandparents at a time share in Palm Desert. We were at the pool and a volleyball net had been strung across. A very boisterous, dare I say, obnoxious family was playing a super competitive game of water volleyball. The dad was especially loud and bellicose and, every time his teenage son made a mistake with the volleyball, he would slap him upside the back of his head and say, "Way to go, Smoothie". Now, we don't even know those people, never saw them again after that one afternoon at the pool but to this day when one of the boys muffs something, especially an athletic endeavor (like badminton or ping pong), someone in the family will invariable utter those immortal words, "Way to go, Smoothie".
It's part of who we are. It's those private, quirky words and phrases, the "inside jokes" of a family that make us feel special and inclusive. An entire family can be mad at each other, sitting around the table in silence, almost daring someone to break the tension when one of them whispers the "magic" words like..... "ooops, my fart sneaked out" and WHAM! The explosion of laughter that follows along with the obligatory milk/nose squirt, the choking on a piece of potato and the "laugh tears" dripping uncontained down someone's cheeks completely wipes the memory of "mad" away. The phrase becomes part of the tapestry of the family and is whipped out whenever we need a good laugh or, unwittingly, when it's the appropriate thing to say (like in a packed car after a visit to say, Miguel Jr.'s for lunch).
This Christmas my son, Andrew, introduced our newest favorite family phrase. My dad, "Pa" , likes it so much he is using it for nearly every situation he encounters. We were sitting around the table after an incredible Christmas dinner. It was, I do believe, the best ever (or at least, at that moment it seemed like that but, in retrospect, I probably say that every year). Andrew, looking content beyond words, pushed himself back from the table (no small effort) and announced, "Of all the Christmas dinners I have ever had, THIS was the most recent". There was a beat of maybe 2 counts then a barrage of laughter that took some minutes to die down. Andrew gave credit where credit is due - his Musical Theater teacher at Azusa Pacific University, Bart McHenry used the phrase when the kids would perform for him ("Of all the songs I have heard performed this year, THAT was the most recent..."). Nevertheless, we thought Andrew to be the funniest, most clever boy and we laughed and laughed then used the phrase tirelessly the rest of the day:"Of all the gifts I have ever gotten for Christmas... ok, you get it, I know.
The worst thing is I get such a kick out of things like that... more than my family, certainly more normal, well-adjusted people. My family often look at me as I am laughing uncontrollably at something they don't even find mildly amusing, saying things like, "There she goes again. Let's just leave her alone until she gets over it." I had one of those moments last night. A friend of mine was doing me a great favor and we were in a time crunch to get this small project completed. He got a phone call and, while I was not trying to eavesdrop, the person on the other end of the line was agitated and talking quite loudly. I could hear both sides of the conversation clearly. My friend remained completely calm while the person on the other end was recounting a small calamity which she felt needed his immediate attention. While he explained that he was in the middle of something and couldn't help at just that moment, the other person proclaimed what I am sure she thought was the piece de resistance as far as an explanation, "The woman has a pacemaker!!"
Now, you, a perfectly nice, normal person do not think that is funny. You shouldn't. It's not really funny. But, the not normal me, found it so funny that I had to bite the inside of my cheeks and slap my hand over my mouth so I would not guffaw all over the place and insult the sincerely concerned person on the end of the line. There was something so funny to me about that phrase being the culmination of her argument when the conversation had never been about a woman but rather a young adult man who was involved in a minor fender bender.
I keep thinking that is the perfect thing so say in conversations that aren't going well. The ones where I find myself frustrated beyond words and need some levity to straighten things out, I will henceforth say, 'The woman has a pacemaker!!" It's just another phrase to add to my family's lore. And because we are told that laughter is good medicine, I'm praying that using phrases that make me laugh long and loud will keep me from being that woman who has a pacemaker for a long, long time!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Winning The Resolutionary War!

Here it is, the first week of January: A brand new year. More than that: A brand new decade! Wow! Makes me all shivery! 2010: That's fun to say!
OK, so over the past few days my daily newspaper, the evening news, my internet provider, programs like Oprah, Ellen, Drs. Oz and Phil, Dateline and 20/20 plus any number of friends have been brimming over with advice on making and keeping New Year's resolutions: "Don't be unrealistic, just get started, accept your mistakes, count your successes" and on and on it goes. I can't turn in any direction without reading or hearing or seeing something about resolutions. I'd feel downright guilty if I didn't make at least one!
The thing is - this isn't the time we need the advice or encouragement. Heck, we all have tremendous resolve right now. It's a new year: everyone has a shiny, clean slate and success is just waiting to be claimed.
It reminds me of a scene from the Mel Gibson movie, The Patriot. [As a complete digression, I must say that I have always been a big Mel fan - the old Mel anyway, the "pre-weird rant, mid-life crisis, dump my wife of 30 years and my 7 kids for a newer model" Braveheart Mel. MAYBE he will make some resolutions to clean himself up and be the guy we all used to love and admire... but that's whole other blog]. But as I said, I digress. Back to the Patriot: Remember at the beginning of the movie when the South Carolina state congress, against Mel's objections, votes to declare war against England? The people are delirious with excitement. Fireworks are shot off, people are cheering and throwing their hats into the air. FREEDOM! (Oops, wrong Mel movie). Anyway, only Mel seems to know what lies ahead. He's battled before. He's a veteran.
Now fast forward to the scene where Mel's character and his oldest son, Gabriel, are watching out an upstairs window at a disastrous scene playing out before them in the open field below. The British are routing the patriots and the once idealistic, optimistic army of future Americans turn tail and run away as fast as they can in humiliating defeat. Mel puts his arm around his disheartened son and lets him know this is just one battle lost, not the whole war.
His timing is, of course, perfect (could the "old" Mel be anything less?) We don't need to be told what to do on December 31st or January 4th when our resolve and hopes are high. It's when the new bag of M&M's is suddenly, inexplicably 1/2 empty ("Melts in your mouth, not in your hands!" - obviously a brilliant scheme to hide all evidence) or an empty pint carton of Black Raspberry Avalanche Dreamery Ice Cream is found in your personal office trash can ("How in the world did that get in there?") Or when, despite every good intention, you forget to call your mother for three weeks or you accidentally nag your husband again (and again) about ________ (fill in blank).
It's losses in these individual battles that lead to complete defeat in the Resolutionary War. You see, it's in the middle of the campaign when hope for success dwindles. When the enthusiasm at the starting line is just a dim memory and victory is still too far off to seem attainable. Come January 27th or February 13th or March 6th I'll need my good, old friend Mel to put his arm around me (editorial pause as I close my eyes and imagine the old Mel, the "What Women Want" Mel, actually putting his arm around me) and tenderly encourage me that while I may have lost a battle or two, the Resolutionary War is still winnable. That's when Dr Oz and Phil, Dateline and my local newspaper should all run the articles we are reading this week!
Of course, it's also about making resolutions that both matter and are absolutely attainable. I made a list of a few resolutions that I intend to keep this year that aren't on the normal top 10 most common resolutions (you know the ones I'm talkingabout: lose weight, spend more time with family, get out of debt, stop smoking, stop drinking and whatever else).
For example: I resolve to:
1. Do a completely unexpected act of kindness for someone I absolutely loathe and despise. Really. First, it's Biblical - doing a kindness for your enemy will be like heaping burning coals on his head. Sounds totally worth it, doesn't it? (Of course, you cannot assume that if I happen to do something nice for you, I actually loathe you... I LOVE you!). Honestly, it's a great lesson in servanthood. The loath-ee might not even know... but I will know and it will be good for me.
2. Order something off a menu that I really don't like and eat it... it's probably going to be fishy... I hate to even think about it. BUT - I need to expand my horizons, open myself up to new experiences, and tastes.
3. Finish something: I know what that means to me - I will keep the "thing" to myself, but the point is, I've got some things in my life that I have had dangling in my head and heart for a long time and I aim to finish at least one of those "things" this year.
There are a few more, but you get the idea. Those are resolutions for me - just me - and they are completely attainable... at least it feels that way on January 6th.
So, are you with me? Let's all resolve to win the Resolutionary War this year! Hip, Hip Hooray! Hip, Hip Hooray! With a little help from the old Mel, how can we go wrong??