Friday, March 31, 2017

Five Came Back on Netflix: A Review

By the late 1930s, Americans were in love with the movies.  Motion pictures were part of weekly life, an opportunity to escape the humdrum of daily life but also to learn about the world (with a Hollywood twist, of course).  When World War Two began, Hollywood producers were a bit ambivalent about how to approach the war effort.  This was not true of five film directors--both established and emerging--who wanted in on the action and were willing to make the sacrifices to be involved.

Directors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens were considered among the top directors in Hollywood prior to the war.  All offered their services to the military and found themselves involved in the war effort in various ways.  Each came back changed significantly.

In the book Five Came Back, Mark Harris told their story.  I reviewed his book here about three years ago.  The book has been adapted into a three-episode series now on Netflix.  The result is both informative and emotional. 
Laurent Bouzereau, the director of the series, has called on five modern directors-- Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Lawrence Kasdan and Paul Greengrass--to share insights, to provide context, and to give perspective on the impact of the war had on these creative men.   For example, although George Stevens was best known for his light romantic comedies in the 1930s, after filming the Dachau concentration camp during the way, he said, “I could never make a comedy again.”  He did direct powerful dramas like A Place in the Sun, Shane, Giant, The Diary of Anne Frank, and The Greatest Story Ever Told.  These are movies that I grew up watching.

Neither the series nor the book address the faith commitment of these men, but both explore how several found themselves struggling to find meaning in the savagery that humankind practices on its own.  This is reflected in their later work.

Although I loved the book, the documentary series is a separate and unique experience.  We see not only excerpts from the directors’ films, but very graphic and sometimes horrifying war footage, often in color.  Scenes from the liberation of Paris and the discoveries at the Dachau concentration camp are especially moving.

Once again, we are asked to consider why these men chose to serve, but we also are forced to see that war changed them as it does all who are involved.  I highly recommend the series.

Sacred Space and Sacred Presence

Church architecture has always fascinated me.  The spaces we create for worship and their theological implications challenge my thinking about how we try to express the spiritual through the physical.  One of the most interesting and challenging papers I wrote in seminary was on the subject “The Church and Architecture” for Dr. John Newport’s Philosophy of Religion class.

In recent years, I have come to realize how easy it is to confuse sacred space with sacred presence.  Sacred space--whether constructed or naturally occurring--provides an environment where we can prepare to encounter God.  Sacred presence occurs whenever we perceive God in a meaningful way. 

There can be a beautifully designed sacred space, but we do not necessarily find God there unless our hearts and minds are prepared to do so.  We have all visited beautiful spaces that were created for the worship of God, but meaningful worship no longer takes place in that space.  These places have become architectural artifacts that witness to past, often forgotten, practices.

On the other hand, we can experience the presence of God anywhere.  We may be in a cathedral, in nature, in our bedroom, or in an automobile.  My theology affirms that God is always near us, even when we are unaware; however, in times of prayer, need, and openness, God’s presence is manifested in intimacy, power, or any hundreds of other ways.
In the most fortuitous situations, sacred space and sacred presence intersect for a significant corporate or individual time of worship.

What makes the difference?  First, personal preparation is important.  When we come to God with a prepared spirit, heart, and mind, we are better prepared to experience the desired presence.  This is true whether we are alone, with two or three others, or a large crowd.  Second, being part of a faith community worshipping together in a space often facilitates our receptivity to the sacred presence.  Certainly, being present with others does not always enhance our worship of God or guarantee our experiencing the sacred presence, but when we are immersed in committed relationship with others, we are in a situation where God’s presence can become real.

Although many congregations value their buildings, authentic faith communities will understand that it is the relationship with others that facilitates their awareness of God in the space they occupy.  We celebrate our sacred places, but it is sacred presence that we crave.

Monday, March 27, 2017

When the Horse is Dead, Dismount

You can do a Google search on this quote, but the results on its origin are ambiguous.  Most likely, it is a Native American tribal saying popularized by leadership gurus like Peter Drucker.  The meaning, of course, is clear.  When something no longer work, it is time to move on.

This is easier said than done.  In business and industry, abandoning a project may mean the loss of jobs and capital investment.  In education, old approaches must be unlearned and new ways learned.  In the church, there may be some fear that we are giving up part of what makes us faithful when we end a program, ministry, worship service, or building.  It is not only about change, but loss as well.

R. Buckminster Fuller  said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”  So what do you do when the existing model is already obsolete?  You had better get to work on an alternative!
Of course, it is important for people to face reality first.  The old no longer works. People need to honor the past but get ready to invest in the future.  We can come up with a new way of doing things but we need to get to work now. 
A sense of urgency is not a bad thing.  Knowing that we only have a short time to come up with something new challenges our creativity and builds community.  Of course, some will not be willing to do this hard work and probably will leave rather than deal with the tension. Honor their choice but don’t regret their leaving.
Finally, sometimes quick fixes are only temporary and are only the first step to a more sustainable existence.  Hold the new approaches rather lightly.  Experience and learning may well push to the next level of innovation.
Getting off the dead horse is good advice. Finding a new horse will take some work.