Thursday, December 11, 2014

5 More Great Movies for Exploring Faith

Several months ago I wrote a post about some of my favorite movies for exploring faith. In the months since, I've thought of several others that I think are great for raising questions related to faith. I started with five, but as I started writing the list grew to seven. I'm not saying these are "Christian movies" (or even that they are great movies), but each of them presents themes or questions that help me to think about and teach religious ideas. I hope they do the same for you.

The Hunger Games (2012, drama, PG-13): There is so much in this movie (and series) worth talking about. It raises profound questions about injustice and power. It asks honest questions about how to act ethically in a thoroughly corrupt system. (Such as, "Is it justifiable to kill when that's what's expected of you?") It challenges us to reflect on what we consider "entertainment." It explores the difference between survival and really living. The whole series reads like a modern retelling of the book of Exodus. Anyone who has not read the books or seen the movies really should.

The Secret of Kells (2009, animated, Not Rated): This beautiful animated film tells a fictional history of the creation of the Book of Kells. As the abbey of Kells fortifies itself against the advancing Northmen, a monk from Iona arrives working on an illuminated Gospel that will "turn darkness into light." Young Brendan is fascinated by Aidan's work, but his uncle, the Abbot, thinks it impractical in light of the coming Northmen. The film explores the importance of art and beauty as it relates to faith, warns against religious arrogance, and asks how people should act in the face of horror and fear. (Note: This is a great family film, but scenes of the Northmen might be scary for younger viewers.)

Signs (2002, sci-fi/thriller, PG-13) and The Village (2004, thriller, PG-13): Having two M. Night Shyamalan films on the same list might turn some people off, but I love his movies because even though their premises can sometimes feel stretched, they always make me think. Signs follows a former priest who's lost his faith following the death of his wife. A crop circle in his field starts a series of events that leads to a close encounter with aliens and possibly with God that gives a double meaning to the movie's title. It asks us whether we believe in fate and if God speaks in coincidences. The Village focuses on a small isolated community whose way of life includes appeasing mysterious creatures that live in the surrounding woods. One can easily see parallels between the village's rules and religious cults and the movie forces us to consider what lengths we'd go to in order to create a utopia -- and if such a thing is possible.

Phenomenon (1996, drama, PG): How do we deal with miracles? And do we even want them? When an average Joe mechanic suddenly develops off-the-charts mental capabilities and telekinesis, some people are amazed, but most become fearful and suspicious. Although the main character tries to use his powers for good, it's clear most people preferred him as an idiot to a miracle worker. It asks how minds and hearts are changed and explores the good and bad sides of belief and the connections between fear and wonder. As a bonus, there's a scene where John Travolta's character talks about eating an apple that I think is one of the best descriptions of the communal side of communion I know.

Mud (2012, drama, PG-13): Two boys growing up along the Mississippi River in Arkansas befriend a man named "Mud" who is hiding on an island in the river and may or may not be a liar, a fugitive, and dangerous. The movie sets up as a slow-burning crime thriller, but by the end you realize it's a movie about love: what we think love is, where we look for it, how we fail to show it, and ultimately the unexpected places we find it. This movie swam around in my heart and mind for several days after seeing it.

Departures (2008, drama, PG-13): This beautiful Japanese movie relates the story of a struggling musician who falls into a new career as a nokanshi (one who prepares the dead for burial). At times both deeply moving and laugh out loud funny, Departures asks honest questions about mortality and presents the importance and power of treating others with dignity -- even after death. A movie about finding your calling and finding holiness in simple places.

If you have some time this holiday season, I hope some of you will take time to enjoy one or two of these movies and please engage me in conversation in the comments, in person, or on facebook or twitter.

In the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Heaven's not that far...It's growing where we are.” -Jars of Clay, "Heaven"

Thursday, December 4, 2014

These 7 Things Give Me Hope

This year during Advent, my worship planning team came up with the idea of giving gifts each week, or more accurately, naming some of the gifts God gives to us. Each week we are sending worshippers home with "gift tags" like these pictured that name a gift we get from God and then have a question or activity to connect the gift with life during the week.

This week, in response to Jesus' message "Heaven and earth may pass away, but my words will not pass away" (Mark 13:31), we made this past Sunday about "Hope." The tags we sent home said, "Each day, name one thing that gives you hope about the future." As I've considered this challenge this week, I thought I'd share my list here to encourage and hopefully spread the conversation beyond my congregation.

So here are my seven things that give me hope for the future:
  1. My Kids - I'm biased, I know, but my kids are kind, loving, creative, whip-smart, and generous.* (My daughter recently took some of her allowance to school and gave it to one of her teachers whose smart board had died the day before. The teacher returned the money with a very touching thank you card.) If my kids keep these traits, I have no fear about their own future and if there's a handful more like them in the world, the rest of us will be okay, too. (*Most of the time.)
  2. Modern Medicine - One hundred fifty years ago, we didn't know about germs and we've since destroyed small pox and vaccinated many other diseases into an afterthought. Ebola is doing awful things in Africa now, but twenty years ago we thought AIDS might end humanity and it is now manageable. Just in the time I've been a pastor, I've seen surgeries that used to hospitalize people for days or weeks turn into out-patient surgery. (I once missed visiting someone following a hip replacement because they were released within 48 hours!) Cures and treatments that were once miraculous are now commonplace and more miracles are becoming common every year.
  3. The Fact That My Elders Were Just As Uncertain About The World Their Kids Would Inherit - I recently had a conversation with a mother who confessed she had been uncertain about ever having kids because "I didn't want my kids growing up in a world like this." "But," she said, "My mother and grandmother told me they thought the same thing in their youth." I've thought this same thing, but the world has never turned out quite as bad as the previous generation has thought and has largely thrived in the past century. If their pessimism was wrong, mine probably is, too.
  4. Music - Most people who know me know that I love music. I usually have it playing in the background while I work or clean and my idea of a self-indulgent evening is to sit down with a set of headphones and listen to a favorite album from beginning to end with my eyes closed. Music gives me hope because at its best, I find it to be a transcendent experience that opens my mind and heart to visions of the world as it should be. A great song can transport me to an emotional plain that inspires and energizes me to make myself and the world around me a better place. 
  5. Surprise - I am regularly surprised in my life. I'm surprised by compliments from unexpected sources, by unsolicited help, by small and even anonymous acts of kindness, by people who share hidden passions and interests, by children that blurt out simple but powerful statements of love and truth. It gives me the sense that there is much more goodness and kindness in the world around me than is known or seen. I tend to focus on tragedies and troubles (thank you, media), but there is a great deal of uncelebrated kindness happening, too.
  6. My Spouse - She's my biggest cheerleader and best support. I'm amazed and inspired by her. To crib from Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets," she makes me want to be a better person. Any future with her is worth looking forward to.
  7. My Baptism - Martin Luther once said that when the dark voices start whispering how worthless, hopeless, or sinful you are, a Christian should cry back, "But I am baptized!" As a Christian, when I feel hopeless about myself or the future, knowing that I've had God's promises poured over me -- promises that can't break, tarnish, or expire -- is a great source of hope for me.
I'd love to hear your own thoughts on where you find hope in the comments (or in person). Thanks for taking the time to read mine and may your holiday season be filled with hope. 

In the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“Author of the moment, can you tell me: do I end up happy?” -He Is We, “Happily Ever After”