Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Movies that Move Me

Writer C.S. Lewis said “As humans, we seek an enlargement of our being.We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to (our)self. … We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. … We demand windows.”
Movies can be a window to other worlds. Every week is a little different here. For those who follow me on my blog JWORLD  you know I love movies. Other then sermons, it is what I post most about on my blog. Movies have been a big part of my life. On a very practical level, at a young age it was a place to go that was air conditioned where no one would bother you.
Also I was lucky, in the Bronx, there was the Lowes Paradise Theatre
This ornate theatre at the time had cut outs in the ceiling with stars and just being there was magical and gave me a window to another world, where things could be beautiful, where imagination was encouraged and even occasionally the hero would win in the end. I think there is a little sentimentality for me in going to movies in that they bring up those emotions from my childhood.
 Now of course there are plenty of movies that are just escapist, A good movie though can help you see the world beyond your own, can help you better understand the world we live in and can help you develop skills and values to improve your life. The experience of going to a movie is different then television. The fact that you are seeing it with others, reminds you that others are experiencing the same thing at the very same time in that very theatre, throughout the state, throughout the country even throughout the world, and that in some small way connects us to others. Movies are a one shot thing. (which is why with rare exceptions I disdain sequels).
In approximately two hours you can travel in time to bring you to the creation of the universe and/or into the future for exploration of the galaxy. In those two hours time can speed up and you can span a lifetime and see the trajectory and consequences of a decision or life, and that can help inform us in our lives our well. 
One of the most important things about movies, is that it allows us to see and be connected to lives and worlds other then our own.  It allows us to see the differences as well as the commonalities of human experiences of love, life, struggle, and death.  As I thought about this, I thought what movies could I share with you that would help you understand the environment I grew up in in the Bronx as a way for you to understand the context of my life.  Its not that easy. I realize they are only shadows or stories, or snippets of reality, but stories are all we have. There are movies that have the Bronx as a setting but are just fantasies that are really nothing like it, like Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx or the Warriors. Even a thought provoking movie such as Finding Forrester that tells the story of JD Salinger type writer living in refuge in his Bronx Apartment who ends up mentoring a young African American student in writing is set in the Bronx, but it could be anywhere.  Here is a short clip 

“The rest of those who have gone before us, can not steady the unrest of those to follow” 
Sometimes one line can make a movie for me.
This movie speaks of friendship, integrity, how helping each other allows us to unlock our potential, and the realization that we cannot escape or hide from our past and our suffering, we can only engage it and try to find meaning and move forward through deepening relationships in our lives. And although this movie didn’t reflect much of my experience in the Bronx, it probably means more to me then it does others because I spent summer days in the house that Ruth built and I understand what it means to not have someone see my potential.  There are other movies   that show the Bronx, and its inhabitants in a slice of life story, such as Fort Apache the Bronx, Or Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, which both did realistically capture a snapshot of the mood during one place and one time and from one perspective. Two movies that I would say captured the Bronx from the perspective that I grew up in. Both starred Chaz Palminterri who grew up in the Bronx not far from where I did. The first one is a Bronx Tale with Robert DeNiro.  It tells the story of a young man who from a young age is lured by the life of crime and his father a bus driver trying to keep him on the straight and narrow and in this scene speaks to the ethics of how we earn our money and what constitutes tough.  

This is an ok movie, and This movie shares the same challenge many families face and it shows examples of courage and  later in the movie also points to the fragility of life and how one decision we make, or how one persons intervention can change your life.
It constantly calls us to question how to maintain our morality in an immoral world and the consequences of our choices. Those morally ambiguous movies are the ones I like the best.
The movie that probably best projects the environment I grew up in was the movie called A guide to recognizing your saints. It actually was set in the borough of Queens not the Bronx, but it more then any other movie depicts my experience of living in an outer borough of NYC. 

Its summer, its hot!! People are pretty matter of fact in New York.  I knew and met many characters similar to the ones depicted in this movie. The movie shows the randomness of life and death.  it shows how our upbringing often shapes the trajectory of our lives without our even realizing it. It showed the yearning for more out of life, or at least the  yearning for something different, to break out of the rut of the cycle of our lives, and the tension that causes and how often we are held back by our allegiances to friends and family. (You went to coney island with someone you just met – with the inference that exploring was risky, and that he should stayed home with his long time friend) This one scene shows how just one person connecting with us or our connecting with another person can point to another world beyond what we know, beyond what we have been taught, sometimes it takes someone showing us or modeling for us that it is ok to cross boundaries, whether physical or the arbitrary boundaries in our minds.   
             I  loved the juxtaposition and metaphor of how we look at travel. He had never travelled to Coney Island by train, but this other person had come from another country.  Sometimes going even a short distance can seem like going to another country. Whether its going cross town or letting go of your presuppositions about how things are or how they should be, and opening ourselves to new ideas new ways of being, and new perspectives, although you may be risking the known, the journey will expand our universe.In the end we see the arc of the characters life, and the same story that sometimes we have to leave the place we are to find ourselves, or leave the place of mind we are in to find a more fulfilling life. But no matter how far we travel, we can not run away from our grief.
At some point we have to face it, if we are to have peace within. Clearly this is a theme that touches me and others who lived in such an environment.  
So I have through movies given you a window into my world. I ask you consider what movies are windows into your life, or what movies have provided you a window into another life, another world. And although it has improved recently, I understand the truth that there are not as many American movies that have lead characters or stories that are centered around People of Color and Women. And for far too long White Actors have played roles meant for People of Color. We have to face that and we have to demand change. Just good Oscars so White and you will understand. Another thing we need to face and understand and we face it every week and I ask you to be open to it as well, is our support for social justice and this community through our weekly offering. This month 50% of our offering will be going to support the Sanctuary Task Force Once you have had the chance to donate I invite you to come down to mark a joy or sorrow in your life.

Part II
IN looking outward, movies speak for those who do not have a voice, they allow us to develop empathy by seeing others lives, their fears, their hopes, their dreams, their sorrow, their joys. This point to the fact that movies can also be used to help us develop our inner life and our moral values.  They can show us stories of courage and overcoming adversity. They can show us we are not alone in our fears and anxieties, and we are not alone in asking the deep questions of life. Movies can be visually beautiful and starkly realistic. Movies can be morally ambiguous and they can be definitive and judgmental. 
They can allow us to experience emotions that we often keep hidden through years of protecting ourselves from pain. I still today always cry everytime Eliot realizes ET is still alive or when Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams after his long journey of self discovery  asks his dad to play catch. Theologian Paul Tillich once said that
“in the proximate, the daily, the apparently small, there is hidden in truth the metaphysical; the here-and-now is the place where meaning is disclosed, where our existence must find interpretation, if it can find an interpretation at all.”  
Movies can help us look inward. To balance what we see against our own interpretation of the world. And sometimes they help us better understand how to make our way in the world. I keep a separate youtube list of movies that inspire me that every now and then, when I need a pick me up I will play.  Here is just a sample.

Writer Brett McCracken writes “cinema is more than just a window. It’s also a magnifying glass. It focuses our attention on everyday reality in a way that makes us see everyday reality for what it really is: magnificence and curiosity.” Let us see everything for what it is. Let us look for the beauty within each other. And the next time you go to the movies, look a little deeper, open a little wider and look through the window to see yourself and the world around you in a new way.
May it be so.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Shabbat Service Reflection at 2018 General Assembly

The Torah portion for today is such a challenging reading as well as a telling one for us as individuals as well as congregations and as an association. The book of numbers tells the story of the Jewish people  wandering in the wilderness after achieving their freedom from slavery in Egypt. They were searching for their homeland continuing the story from the book of exodus. Throughout the journey in the wilderness there is a constant what the Bible calls murmuring, we might say complaining. There was an insurrection that was violently put down, and at one point even Aaron and Miriam challenged Moses for leadership. Even after Moses learned to delegate authority, people struggled with any form of hardship, even proposing going back to Egypt. It is natural to fear the unknown, Some people prefer the harshness but certain existence of how things were, but we if we are to be who we were meant to be we have risk a little uncertainty.
Different then the book of exodus when God was very forgiving to the people when they murmured, In Numbers God was willing to wipe out the people due to their complaining . The only thing that saved the people from God’s wrath was Moses holding fast to the hope for the people.  But even Moses (just like ministers occasionally) gets frustrated, with the people complaining and strikes the rock instead of talking to it to provide the water to save the people.  For this Moses is banned from ever entering Israel. Lets give Moses a break ok, He was working 70 hours a week, preaching and teaching and probably even creating a newsletter on tablets for the people. Now we can look at this story as how a large group of nomadic people learned to govern themselves, that is probably some truth to that.
But I see a beautiful story of overcoming insurmountable obstacles it is the story of sticking with it, it is the story of despite doubt and hardship continuing to move forward.  
I have to admit, growing up Jewish in the Bronx in NYC, I did not have a lot of experience with the physical wilderness. I hate to perpetuate stereotypes but My idea of wilderness was going to the Bronx Zoo.  Now my wife Jan on the other hand grew up camping her entire life. So after we dated a while she suggested we try camping for a weekend.  And being the willing suitor that I was I agreed.    After we had procured all the proper equipment for tent and fire building and the mandatory marshmallows, we headed out on the highway to unknown territory.
Then it started to rain….and then it started to rain harder. I’m talking Noah and the flood kind of rain.
I saw this as a sign of impending doom,
but I hung in there.  We finally make it to the campground and check in and as I get back into the car to drive to the campsite, mind you it still pouring down rain, our car is stuck in the mud.
But I remained calm, and I still hung in there.
I said to myself, I’ve seen something like this on tv. 
I can handle this.  That will impress her.   So I start rocking the car back and forth and then I tell jan to hit the gas and you guessed it, as the car lurches out of the mud all the mud just flies all over me head to toe.  At that point, I swallowed whatever little pride I had left and said we are going to a hotel tonight. But I washed myself off, hung in there and came back the next day and put up the tent in the rain and Jan created a fire in the rain which really impressed me.  I spent the rest of the weekend communing with nature and had a wonderful time. Maybe not the land of milk and honey, but it was nice
Sometimes doing new things, learning new things, can be difficult or messy.
It takes us a while to figure out how things work.  We often though when doing new things find a reservoir of skill and determination that we never previously knew we had.  Now for many years thereafter and later on with our children, we went camping often, and things got easier over time,
but it never would have happened it I first hadn’t agreed to go along on the trip into the great unknown and if I hadn’t stuck in there, despite the setbacks, despite the rain, despite the mud.
Sometimes we just have to stick with it and believe that it will get easier and live into that future.
So the wilderness can be seen as a place we need to travel through on the way to our destination, as a test, as a place to receive revelation, as a place to find enlightenment,
            The wilderness does not have to be a physical place but can also be a state of mind. 
Some people do not want to leave the comfort of the status quo, but to find transformation we have to journey into the unknown Its hard, muddy work.  We have to risk getting dirty and being uncomfortable. But this story of Moses and Hebrew people tells us, if we are ever to reach our destination, we need to stick together, even when we sometimes don’t agree with the direction. It may take us longer,  but if we are ever going to fulfill our destiny as a religion we have to stick together, and have faith in each other.
At  the end of this story, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam all die before the community reaches their destination. This message tells me that eventually old ideas and ways have to die if we are going to make room for new ideas, and new ways and new people. That is the hardest thing I think, to leave behind the skills that got us to where we are.
So I encourage you to be open to change, because another truth is the things we need to get us out of slavery, the things we need in the wilderness through the hard times, are not always the same skills we need to create something new.
May our journey bring us wisdom, may it bring us peace, may it bring us healing. I would rather die free in the wilderness with you than be a slave in and to the past. Let us go and find those who are fleeing, let us all gather and let us walk together into an uncertain future, a future where we can build the world we dream about. Let us all find our way home.