Friday, July 29, 2011

Ten Films You Must See Before You Die.....

Taking a break from the debt crisis and other concerns, I want to give you my list of top ten American films. In future posts, I'll list my top ten foreign films, top-ten documentaries, top ten TV shows, and top ten TV mini-series (thank-you HBO). Finally, I'll reveal my top-ten Christian films (you might be surprised).

Living here in Paducah, KY., if you ask the average Christian for their all-time favorite movie, you'll get a response of either "The Passion" or "Left Behind." Don't get me wrong. I loved "The Passion" and it's on my top ten Christian list. But there are some "secular" films which entertain as well as speak to us prophetically, revealing the fact that we are created in God's image. I'm taking a chance that some may think me less than spiritual, and may even start praying for my soul. That's the risk I'm willing to take so that you can be exposed to these OUTSTANDING films!!

Growing up, I was raised on movies, going to Saturday matinees and watching 2 movies, several cartoons and a Three Stooges comedy, all for the price of a quarter. What a deal! I frequented student film festivals at UCLA and USC. What can I say...I unapologetically love films. As a pastor, I used films as illustrations in my sermons. I believe that many film illustrations can be very  powerful and effectively drive home the point of a sermon.

Here is my current list of top ten favorite films of all time, with synopsis (courtesy of Netflix). If you haven't seen any one of these, I hope you'll try to find them at Netflix, iTunes, your local rental store or in some cases, your local library. Let me know what you think, or if I've overlooked your all-time favorite film.

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)--Oscar-winning film from best-selling novel.
Southern comforts abound in this big-screen adaptation of Harper Lee's novel as lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck, in an Oscar-winning role) defends an innocent black man (Brock Peters) against rape charges but ends up in a maelstrom of hate and prejudice. Meanwhile, with help from a friend (John Megna), Finch's children, Jem (Phillip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham), set their sights on making contact with a reclusive neighbor (Robert Duvall). This is a chance to see a young Robert Duvall in his film debut.

Toy Story 3 (2010)--In this installment of the Pixar animated franchise, toy cowboy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), his astronaut pal, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and their friends cope with their owner's departure for college -- and their new home in a day-care center. Joan Cusack, John Ratzenberger, Don Rickles, Michael Keaton and Ned Beatty also lend their voices to this delightful sequel that earned a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film.

The Hurt Locker (2008)--Tense film. Puts you there in Iraq with a bomb squad. 
Kathryn Bigelow directs this gripping drama (winner of the Best Picture Oscar) following one of the U.S. Army's elite EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) teams operating in the ferocious war zone of Iraq. As the squad identifies and dismantles improvised explosive devices and other bombs, they must also contend with the frayed nerves and internal conflicts that arise from living in constant peril. Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse and Guy Pearce star.

Crash (2005)--This film deals with race and bigotry as well as the disconnection and loneliness in our daily lives. The movie symbolizes L.A. as less of a melting pot and more of a cultural collision; how we are so desperate for some kind of connection that we would even crash into someone just to make contact with another human being. Sandra Bullock is excellent as a pampered, stuck-up Hollywood wife who comes to the realization that she has no real friends. No one really cares about her except her Mexican housekeeper.

Tensions erupt when the tangled lives of a Brentwood housewife, her district attorney husband, a Persian shopkeeper, two cops, a pair of carjackers and a Korean couple converge over a 36-hour period in the diverse metropolis of post-9/11 Los Angeles. Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard co-star in this Oscar-winning Best Picture from writer-director Paul Haggis. 

Walk the Line (2005) --A biopic about a real music legend. 
This critically acclaimed film distills country singer Johnny Cash's (Joaquin Phoenix, in an Academy Award-nominated role) transformation from man to icon -- from his hardscrabble days on an Arkansas farm to his time inside Memphis's Sun Studios, where he finally found a voice for his talents. Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for her portrayal of Cash's beloved wife, June, alongside co-stars Robert Patrick and Shelby Lynne.

Shane (1953)--Amid stunning vistas, this Oscar-winning Western from director George Stevens follows reformed gunslinger Shane (Alan Ladd), whose determination to avoid a fight is tested when greedy cattle barons threaten the community of homesteaders he's joined. Jack Palance plays Shane's unabashedly evil nemesis, and the film's enigmatic ending -- after Shane realizes he's become a disruptive force in the family that's taken him in -- is a cinema classic.

The Pianist (2002) --Famed Polish concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody, in an Oscar-winning role) struggles to survive the onslaught of Nazi tyranny during World War II in this Roman Polanski-directed drama based on Szpilman's memoirs. In spite of his well-known musical talents, Szpilman spends several years holed up in Warsaw, barely alive and subsisting on scraps, until grace comes in the form of a second chance -- at music, at freedom and at life.

Rear Window (1954) This is a classic Hitchcock thriller. If you saw the contemporary film, Disturbia, with Shia LeBouf, it's good but can't compare with this original. Also, this film was shot on a Hollywood sound stage and Hitchcock effectively creates the feel of NYC in the midst of a heat wave. 
As his broken leg heals, wheelchair-bound L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) becomes absorbed with the parade of life outside his window and soon fixates on a mysterious man whose behavior has Jefferies convinced a murder has taken place. Meanwhile, other windows reveal the daily lives of a dancer, a lonely woman, a composer, a dog and more. Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter and Wendell Corey co-star in this Alfred Hitchcock-helmed classic.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)  I could easily have chosen "Platoon" or "Apocalypse Now" or "Patton" but this is my selection for memorable military films which give us insight into the horror of war. These films serve as a reminder that we should not forget the sacrifice paid by so many for the sake of our freedom.
As U.S. troops storm the beaches of Normandy, three brothers lie dead on the battlefield, with a fourth trapped behind enemy lines. Ranger captain Tom Hanks and seven men are tasked with penetrating German-held territory and bringing the boy home. Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski paint a harrowing picture of the price of war and heroism -- one that netted them Oscars for Best Director and Best Cinematography, respectively.

Schindler's List (1993) Liam Neeson stars as Oskar Schindler, a greedy German factory owner made rich by exploiting cheap Jewish labor. But as World War II unfolds, he becomes an unlikely humanitarian, spending his entire fortune to help save 1,100 Jews from Auschwitz. Co-starring Ralph Fiennes, Steven Spielberg's holocaust epic won seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and is an unforgettable testament to the possibility of human goodness.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Radical Hospitality Part 2: Welcoming Mike and Sally into our home

So here's the story of our attempt at being hospitable to total strangers. It all began after church one Sunday in February when we met up with another couple for lunch at a Mexican restaurant on the south side of Paducah, KY.

As we entered the restaurant, our friend, Bill, was talking to some guy who was asking for money. The next thing I know, Bill invites this guy and his wife to join us for lunch.

As we ate lunch together, our two guests reeked of alcohol. Renee was seated next to the guy whose name was Mike. When she she learned that they were homeless, and his wife, Sally, was pregnant, Renee instantly volunteered our home: "You can stay with us tonight." I think I almost choked on my meal at that point. While I really appreciated my wife's desire to be hospitable and do the "good Samaritan" thing, she could have at least given me a heads up or  some advance warning. I'm thinking "Honey, just pull me aside and let's talk about this before we extend an invitation." But no...maybe Renee figured that I was spiritual and mature enough to realize that this was the right thing to do.

We brought Mike and Sally home with us where they proceeded to take much needed showers as well as wash their clothes. We drove to an abandoned lot to pick-up their their suitcase full of clothes which they had hidden in a shack.

Mike and Sally stayed with us for a total of two days, but they were in and out of our lives for the next several weeks. They fabricated the story about Sally being pregnant which was intended to elicit sympathy and it worked. However, what was true was the fact that Sally had a master's degree in counseling and had worked in Seattle, Washington for a while. She came from a family of lawyers here in Paducah, KY and for whatever reason, she did not want to stay with them. Sally and her husband, Mike, were alcoholics.

After their two-day stay with us, we received phone calls almost daily asking for a meal, or a quick visit for a clean shower, or a ride somewhere. I prayed and asked the Lord for wisdom in wanting to do the right thing and seeking to be loving and gracious. Along the way, Renee and I talked and prayed with them. They both claimed to be Christians. I suspect Sally may have truly known the Lord but her husband Mike was such a "player" that I only God knows Mike's heart and his eternal destiny.

The last time I saw Sally, it was to visit her in the ICU at the hospital where she almost died because of health issues, complicated by her alcoholism. She was happy to see me and before I left, I prayed for her and asked the Lord to take care of her and give her rest, healing and wholeness. Her husband, Mike, had finally landed a job on a barge making good money, but he quit the job the minute he discovered that Sally was in the hospital. He loved Sally, almost to a fault, in the sense that he had to be in control over her and everything going on in her life.

About 3 months later, Sally died and her family here in Paducah held a memorial service for her. In the obituary, there was no mention of her struggle with alcohol, or homelessness.

I don't regret entertaining these strangers and I suspect that we will do something like this again. Maybe next time Renee and I will talk about it before we actually rush into something. But then again, it will probably be spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment, with the decision having been made days, weeks, months, years before in our quiet moments with the Lord where we offer ourselves as His bond slaves to do His will whenever and wherever. I suspect that Renee and I need more encounters with people like Mike and Sally who push us out of our comfort zone. What do you think?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Radical Hospitality: Welcoming strangers.

When is the last time you offered hospitality to a total stranger?

After reading the book, Lone Survivor, I realize we can learn a lot from middle-eastern culture. Lone Survivor is about four US Navy Seals who depart for the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border for a reconnaissance mission early in July 2005. This is the story of the only survivor, Marcus Luttrell, and the extraordinary firefight that led to the largest loss of life in American Navy SEAL history. Over the next four days, terribly injured and presumed dead, Luttrell crawled for miles through the mountains and was taken in by sympathetic villagers who risked their lives to keep him safe from surrounding Taliban warriors.

These Afghan villagers tended to Luttrell’s wounds and protected him from the Taliban at great risk to their own lives. Marcus learned later that the entire village stood ready to protect him even if it meant going up against the Taliban. This is hospitality middle-eastern style, and it’s more biblical that any hospitality that we can imagine here in the U.S. For you and me, hospitality is an industry which involves hotels pampering the customer for a hefty price. That’s our idea of hospitality, a far cry from biblical hospitality.

Biblical hospitality is more akin to the radical hospitality practiced by the  Bedouin culture. The Bedouin are tribal nomads who live in Israel and along the Sinai. They live in tents and raise goats, living pretty much the same as herdsmen in the time of Abraham. A complete stranger can stay as long as 3 days without being asked of his whereabouts. He is considered and treated as a guest and enjoys the clan’s full protection. 

In Genesis, we read that Abraham was sitting in his tent door in the heat of the  day when three strangers suddenly appeared in his camp. Abraham runs to meet them. He offers these men hospitality, ordering his servant to wash the dust from their feet. Then he tells Sarah to start baking a fresh batch of bread, and then he runs to pick out a tender calf to be slaughtered and roasted for dinner.
Jesus set forth hospitality as a way of better displaying and communicating the love of God for sinners.  When we take in and help those in need, we not only imitate our God; we also advance His healing work in this world.
Jesus says in Luke 14:12-14, “When you make a dinner, don’t call your friends, or your family members, or your rich neighbors…but when you make dinner, call the poor, the lame, the crippled, the blind, and then you shall be blessed, for they cannot pay you back, and they can’t invite you to their “homes” for dinner.
I don’t know about you, but when I look at the Scriptures and consider the hospitality practiced by the Bedouins and middle-eastern people, I am ashamed. I am not hospitable. I do not welcome strangers into my home, most of the time. In my next post, I will share about our encounter with a homeless couple and their 2-day stay in our home. 
What are your thoughts on hospitality? Are you hospitable? Can I come and stay at your house? Can someone off the street come and stay at your house, no questions asked? What does Biblical hospitality look like in America in the year 2011?

Monday, July 11, 2011

If you're having a bad day, read "Unbroken" --a story of courage, survival & redemption

I don' limit myself to reading just Christian books as you can tell by checking out my current reading list for 2011. I really think there is much that God wants to show us in books written by secular authors as well. 

Besides, the mindset of sacred vs. secular is a Hellenistic (Greek)  invention. To the Jew, everything was spiritual. The Hebrews did not compartmentalize their lives according to sacred vs. secular. Having said that, a "secular" and spiritual book you need to read before you die is "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand. It's on Amazon's top-10 bestsellers list for the past year. 

If you are having a rough day, week, or year and feel like throwing in the towel, then this is the book for you. You come face-to-face with a man who wouldn't give up and couldn't be broken by man, but only by God who used all these unbelievable circumstances of endurance & torture to prepare him for his ultimate surrender. 

Unbroken is the amazing story of Louis Zamperini, a kid from Torrance, CA. in the mid-30's who was a running phenomenon. He competed in Hitler's Berlin Olympics, shook hands with the Fuhrer. He enlists in the U.S. Air Force, and his plane is shot down over the Pacific. He and 2 other crewmen survive the crash and spend 47 days afloat on a disintegrating raft, fighting off aggressive sharks, scorched by the sun, unquenchable thirst, starvation, only to be rescued by the Japanese who spend 3 yrs trying to break his spirit. 

Louis Zamperini amazingly survives these 3 yrs as a POW, and then struggles as a war hero upon his return home. In 1949, when Billy Graham held his first major evangelistic crusade in Los Angeles, Louis' wife dragged him to the big circus tent on Figueroa St. to hear the young evangelist. God (the wonderful "hound of heaven") tracked Louis down and brought him to the point of surrender that night as Louis left that tent a changed man, having encountered Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord.

This book will give you insight into the Japanese culture and mindset and their treatment of POWs, as well as our military effort in WWII. You'll learn about the strengths and weaknesses of U.S. planes that carried our servicemen over vast distances of the Pacific Ocean.

"Unbroken" is an incredible story of courage, survival and redemption in the life of one man, Louis Zamperini. It's a spellbinding story which will leave you with nothing but praise to God for his goodness and mercy which He so richly poured out on Mr. Zamperini and graciously bestows on all of us daily!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Why Me?

                                     Why Me?

I’m reading the book, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” by Aron Ralston. You’ll know who he is if I tell you that he’s the young man who amputated his right arm which was caught between a boulder and a canyon wall during what began as a routine day hike in the canyons of Utah. From midday Saturday, April 26, 2003, until midday Thursday, May 1, with very little food and water, he chronicles his desperate attempts to free himself, his poignant videotaped farewell messages to family after his body would be discovered.

His is an amazing story of one man’s courage and survival in the midst of unbelievable odds. But what is missing throughout the book is any belief in God. At one point during his ordeal, Aron prays to God (although we don’t know which God he is praying to) but when he doesn’t get an immediate answer, he starts praying to Satan, in an attempt to make a deal with the devil.

What is astounding to me is that in the midst of a 120 hrs of self-examination and introspection, he never really considers that God can save him and deliver him. He never comes to grips with his sinful, selfish existence which has led him to this terrifying ordeal. The person of Jesus Christ doesn’t really exist in Aron’s mind other than some ancient historical figure, or a “swear word.” I am left wondering why doesn’t Aron call upon the name of the Lord? Why do I see things differently? Why do I hope in God? Why has God opened my eyes?

Friday, July 1, 2011

Before you die, you must read: "Witness" by Whittaker Chambers

It’s summer time when you spread out your blanket on the sand, catch some rays and settle in for a good read. First up on my list is “WITNESS” by Whittaker Chambers. I have Carl Weber (Manchester, NH) to thank for pressuring me again and again to read this 800+ page book. Recently, I learned that Broadway playwright and film director, David Mamet, had come out of the closet as a conservative. In a fascinating interview in the Wall Street Journal, Mamet credits this book as having a profound influence on his conversion from liberalism to conservatism. 

Whittaker Chambers was a member of the American Communist Party and was a Soviet agent, paid to spy on the American government. In the late 1930's he broke away from communism and became one of Time magazine's top editors for over ten years. In the late 1940's, he agrees to testify in senate hearings about the role of communists in the U.S. government. He reveals the names of influential Americans who were also Soviet agents. One of them, Alger Hiss, was a beloved member of Washington, DC's inner circle. The subsequent controversy and trial divided the nation then and now as to whether Alger Hiss was a Soviet agent.