The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son… No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it…
Hebrews 12:6, 11
Years ago, Joe Simon recorded a version of “Your Love is the Choking Kind”. My Granny used to shake her head and say, “ooh, I don’t want that kind of love”. Indeed…none of us does, lol. When God is growing us, pruning away the dead things out of our lives, it’s excruciating! We wish He would just leave us alone at times because His sanctifying work can be a bit much. But God loves us too much to simply leave us alone. In fact, He’s promised to never leave us or forsake us. If anything, He’s left us hidden with Christ in heavenly places…and when He needs us to be of earthly good to our neighbor, He doesn’t mind painfully applying the pruning shears that we might “bear more fruit”…While we don’t always appreciate the kind of love the Father has toward us, it’s the only love there is…thank God for that, because you’ll never find a love so complete or faithful anywhere else…
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
As a parent, I always want my kids to ‘not fail’ in the places in life where I failed when I was their age. This is always, however, a setup for despair and disillusionment as our children are truly a “chip off the old block”…ultimately, the Adamic block. They are just as much sons of Adam and daughters of Eve as we are. Seeking to make sure my children avoid every “pitfall and peril” (to quote Doc Brown) is a self-righteous motivation on my part. The gospel provides significantly greater news…God’s Kid has perfectly “not sinned” in the very places where I have always sinned…and He became sin to justify me and make me a child of God. Now that, boys and girls is what we call…Good News!
The most explicit reference to Christianity in Steven Spielberg’s quasi-autobiographical film, The Fabelman’s revolves around young Sam Fabelman’s love interest in a Christian girl with whom he attends Grand View High School. Sam (a stand in for a young Speilberg) has just been physically attacked for his Jewish heritage by his peers, one of whom is psychotically deranged. In the midst of the attack he exposes the infidelity of one of his bullies who in turn pressures him to tell his girlfriend the accusation was a lie. When Sam confronts the girl, she’s accompanied by her friend, Monica who invites Sam to her home to accept Jesus in his heart. We, the viewers, however can infer she intends more than evangelism…When Sam arrives in her bedroom, we see a shrine dedicated to ‘Jesus’, i.e. the Eurocentric pretty depiction thereof. Alongside images of Christ, we see pictures of the typical pop icons any suburban teen girl would have idolized in the 1960s. Monica remarks about how hot Jesus is…and how though he could have come to us as a girl, He chose to come as Jewish boy…a handsome Jewish boy (hint, hint). She gives Sam that knowing look and a consequent invitation to kneel together in prayer quickly escalates to…well, you know. The two eventually end up on the bed over which looms a gigantic crucifix surrounded by lights arranged in the shape of a heart. A parent’s beckon short circuits their teenage antics, but not before Monica suggests they meet up behind the school for more…um, ‘prayer’.
Monica represents a caricature of modern American Christianity most recognizably parodied by the likes of Ned Flanders on The Simpsons. She embodies virtually every Cliché about moralistic Christian culture familiar in the popular mind…a depiction made even more exaggerated and comedic by her pervasive preoccupation with sex. I remember wanting to immediately dismiss this character as mere comic relief in an otherwise serious drama about coming of age, yet Speilberg takes a different direction – he and Sam take her seriously. Their relationship grows beyond the aforementioned one time fling we see in her bedroom. She’s invited to a Fabelman family dinner where she gets to witness the family in all their wackiness. There’s the rambunctious monkey Sam’s mother bought to bring her laughs, the stereotypically critical mother in law with witty snapbacks and cutting remarks, the ongoing tension between Sam’s parents…yet in the midst of this, something else happens. Sam’s parents bring up his interest in film as his mother notes how he still sleeps with his camera under the bed at night. Though Sam has previously tried to suppress his cinematic calling, Monica insists that he enter the upcoming Senior Ditch Day contest as a photographer. Sam resists at first, but when she mentions he can borrow her father’s sophisticated 16mm Arriflex camera, Sam revives and commits to the assignment.
When the film opens, we see Burt and Mitzi Fabelman taking an apprehensive Sammy to his first film, Cecil DeMille’s Greatest Show on Earth. The shot contrasts law and grace as Burt initially attempts to allay his son’s fears by explaining the technical mechanism by which the celluloid moves through the projector and impacts the audience’s visual and mental faculties. We don’t initially see the adults, but the camera pans to reveal Mitzi, who consequently seeks to demystify the movie going experience by emphasizing the artistic aspect of film, as she informs Sammy, “movies are like dreams we never forget…”. A critical scene in the movie involving a train crash significantly impacts Sammy who seeks to replicate the traumatic moment using his model trains as props. Burt, who purchased the trains as a Hanukkah gift, remains aghast that Sam would show such a lack of consideration for the trains, but Mitzi understands, as she remarks, “I know why he needs to crash them…he’s trying to control the moment”. Mitzi secretly gifts Sam with the use of Burt’s 8mm camera and invites him to capture the crash on film. The ensuing home movie becomes their little secret, and yet buds into a persistent hobby that eventually involves implementing his sisters as actors and at times, several rolls of toilet tissue as costumes.
Sam’s growing penchant for making home movies manifests into makeshift Westerns and travelogs eventuating in his pursuit of photography via the local boy scout troop he joins when the family eventually moves to Arizona. It is at this critical point in his life that he also discovers the films of John Ford, most notably The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. While Sammy had been traumatized by the train collision he observed in his first movie going experience, the several traumas that would unfold in his life would also inform his filmmaking. There persisted a sort of a symbiotic relationship between intense plot points in his personal life and the development of his filmic voice and expression. One of the most effective scenes is the scene where without dialog, he ‘speaks’ to his mother by handing her a film reel and locking her in a closet where she must confront her conscience after Sam inadvertently discovered her adulterous relationship with Burt’s best friend, Seth Rogen’s ‘Uncle Bennie’ (one of several incidents Spielberg has confirmed actually occurred during his childhood). In the scene, Mitzi for all intents and purposes enters a figurative confessional booth…sans a priest to hear her confession and give her absolution (at least initially).
That moment illustrated the power of film to act as ‘law’, i.e. a mirror showing us ourselves as Mitzi painfully ingests the ‘director’s cut’ of the camping trip film Burt had guilted Sam into producing as a way to console Mitzi after the death of her mother. While the entire family had gathered in the Fabelman living room to view the PG rated edit, Mitzi would now be subject to viewing the outtakes in which her affectionate attachment to Bennie was undeniably and vividly captured. During the ‘family friendly’ viewing, she had commended Sammy’s directorial prowess noting, “wow, you really see me…”, yet she was unprepared for just how penetratingly the camera (and the law) truly sees us. It is also worth noting that this moment represented an inversion of Mitzi and Sammy’s relationship as she had initially gifted him with a reel of developed film because she understood him…she “got” him whereas his father, a computer programmer by trade tended to focus on more practical aspects like his disdain for Sam mishandling his model trains, his insistence on referring to Sam’s passion as a mere hobby, his prioritizing of urging Sam to attain his driver’s license as opposed to developing his inherent artistic craft, etc. Mitzi and Sam on the other hand would sit together in closets and view intimate screenings of his home movies all while viscerally engaging with the full range of emotions such films evoked. This time however, Mitzi would be shut up in the closet alone facing the very horror that had initially inflicted Sammy at their first movie outing. When Mitzi comes stumbling out of the closet, literally unable to stand, bowed over and broken by her own guilt, the moment is so poignant that even Sam can’t help but finally offer her forgiveness, as he assures her, “I won’t tell anyone”…i.e. ‘I’ll cover your sin’.
Seeing this potential in cinema scared him into burying his talent and disavowing filmmaking…that is until he begins his relationship with Monica. Sam’s passion for filmmaking resurrects as he commences documenting the famed Grand View Senior Ditch Day, an annual tradition in which the alluded to upperclassmen pretend to ditch class for an afternoon excursion, in this instance a leisurely day at the beach. The completed film is slated to be shown at the Senior Prom…yet, something else significant occurs that night. In a desperate attempt to regain control of his unraveling world after his parents announce their intent to divorce, Sam rashly proposes to Monica and asks her to join him in his Hollywood aspirations. Monica refuses and then responds by expressing the most Christian sentiment in the movie, “Sometimes we can’t just fix things…all we can do is suffer…” after which she storms off.
Monica’s words are ironic coming from someone who symbolizes the all too typical churchy realm in which trite and pat answers often abound in response to the complex and challenging circumstances we face in our experience this side of things. There are in fact things we have to just suffer through…some things have no easy Christian answer or applicable Biblical principle with which we can resolve our issues…though I wish they did. It’s at this moment Sam also sees the power of editing to extend grace. After Monica deserts him, Sam’s film screens for the assembled Prom guests whose eyes light up and whose facial expressions betray the sense of wonder, awe, and amazement we who grew up on Spielberg films know all too well. Sam observes the audience as they view with bewilderment his deft approach of employing the right cut at the right moment, using the right camera angle to invoke sentimentality; or simply put, the director’s role of mediating the invisible realm for us spectators and creating the illusions that both traumatize and inspire us… all while evoking that innocent part of us that is still open to imagination, truth, and beauty…i.e. that part of us that still believes…
Of note is Logan’s portrayal in the Senior Ditch Day film…Logan as we recall initially appeared as one of Sam’s chief antagonists who had instigated and inflicted racially motivated physical violence. Sam had portrayed Logan however in an endearing light, editing the film to cause the racist bully to shine as though he was some kind of metahuman among mere mortals. Logan is appalled at such grace extended to him and desperately inquires of Sam why he would so kindly regard him in his cinematic depiction. Confused by such a gracious portrayal in light of the way he knows he and Chad have maligned Sam, Logan begins to express intimations of guilt, compunction, and vulnerability…which he of course immediately attempts to deny. Reconciliation occurs though as Logan offers Sam a toke…along with the sage advice that, “Life’s nothing like the movies, Fabelman…” Indeed…there are no easy answers to the relational tension and difficulties we often encounter in this age…yet through the things we suffer, the lens by which we view life can come into a clearer, crisper focus…and we can inadvertently help others see the truth, beauty, and grace that transcend our world despite its brokenness.
Sam finally realizes that his inescapable calling is to have his very soul torn apart as both his Uncle Boris (and later his hero, John Ford) intimated…In an earlier scene, the eccentric uncle (played by Judd Hirsch) shows up unexpectedly and becomes a short term guest at the Fabelman home in Arizona. Boris becomes the only other character besides Mitzi who truly understands Sam and his gifting. The two form a bond as Sam excitedly expounds on his vision for what would later become his first ‘magnum opus’, Escape to Nowhere (perhaps the precursor to Saving Private Ryan?). Boris grabs Sam by the cheeks leaving an impressionable sense of pain and charges him to remember the stinging sensation that will one day drive the development of his filmmaking craft. Prophetically, Boris exclaims, “You will make your movies, and you will do your art…Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on earth. BUT!! It’ll tear your heart out…” Indeed…torn out so others can experience grace. Sounds like someone else I know who’s very flesh was torn so that we could experience not the escapism of sentimental cinematic illusions…but the transcendent hope of eternal life. And hey, Good news…You don’t have to accept Him into your heart…He’s already accepted you and promised to give you a new one…
A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.
This verse is not ultimately about making sure you maintain a decent reputation by setting a good moral example and living in a godly manner…though such a lifestyle can in fact benefit your neighbor when done so with grace and humility. The Gospel however, offers us a greater hope on behalf of the merits of Christ. By grace, you have been chosen and given a name in the family of God…you are called heir, son, daughter, and friend because of the record of the One who “made himself of no reputation”…by whom we have been made the righteousness of God. What better name could you hope for?
Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost...
I noticed an ad for wine in which the stream of liquor effortlessly and elegantly flowed into a wine glass… It was posted near the liquor section at my local grocery store. I thought about how liquor ads give you intimations of ‘the good life’, but never publish the consequences of continuous alcohol consumption, including renal failure, liver cirrhosis, brain damage, etc. This is how sin functions…as temptation provokes us to consider what the ideal life ‘could be’ if we would just exercise autonomy and gratify the desires of the flesh. Christ, however, absorbs all the consequences of our self-indulgence, and while God’s Law serves as a PSA warning against the dangers of living for self, through the gospel, Jesus literally gives us Himself as life. The former we have to pay for with our wallets and ultimately our health…the latter is freely given at the expense of the Son of God.
If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small.
This Proverb has rarely been a comfort to me as it typically reminds me of how poorly I tend to handle adversity in my life. Like many of the Proverbs, today’s passage serves to highlight just how far we fall short of God’s standard, which Jesus summarized as, “You shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. The impossibility of God’s imperatives meets us in and through the difficulties we encounter in the midst of our closest relationships and most mundane circumstances. In short, we experience ‘the law-in-life’ as we face trials that may affect our health, our finances, our marriages, or just our overall wellbeing. While we discover that the law gives us more than our strength can handle, we also find grace that gives us better than our sin deserves…
I saw the subject line of the email…and it indicated something about missing assignments…I was familiar with this as the school would often send out such alerts. I panicked…”How had my kid fallen behind? In what subjects? What were the implications for his grades?” Then I remembered, “he’s switching schools”. We had transferred him to the neighborhood school in the new district to which we had just moved. So, whatever this email entailed was now a moot point. I was reminded that when it comes to the Law’s accusations, we have been transferred out of darkness and into Christ. According to Romans 7, we have died to the Law…its threats and accusations have nothing more to say to us! The burden of missing homework has been swallowed up by the blessing of a Divine transfer…
The King James version uses the word ‘happy’ to describe the state of the person who ‘does these things’. What are the ‘these things’ though? Based on the context of John 13, Jesus is referring to washing one another’s feet, deferring to one another, bearing with one another, being the bondservant of all, etc. As I consider these injunctions however, I realize I can never be blessed or ‘happy’, because I don’t delight in doing ‘these things’. I mutter my under my breath, ‘this is beneath me’ as I help my 7-year-old ‘wipe’ and as I disinfect the bathroom…nearly every night. I hate having to put up with the persistent faults of the people who live with me. I don’t want to understand your point of view…I just want to get my point across in a conversation. I can’t be happy…because I can’t be humble. And I read somewhere that I can’t be holy…if I can’t be humble. Thank God that Jesus perfectly rejoicing in our place constitutes our righteousness. As the writer of Hebrews depicts:
For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, ‘I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.’ And again, ‘I will put my trust in him.’
Yeah…that’s Christ…and by extension of His grace, that’s you too…perfectly rejoicing in God and trusting in His righteousness…even when you aren’t.
Allegedly Nietzsche originated the quote, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” The late German philosopher might have been onto something here…yet from a slightly different direction than Scripture reasons. The things that don’t kill us do in fact make us stronger, but stronger in the sense of trusting our own righteousness and bolstering the ‘old Adam’.
I would submit that whatever isn’t presently killing us functions as ‘law’ in our lives. Yes, ‘the letter kills’, but what I’m getting at pertains to our inclination toward and efforts at keeping the law. Whatever isn’t presently putting you to death in daily life…whatever is outside of that one thing or several things you wish weren’t afflicting and causing misery in your life…whatever exists outside this paradigm is ‘law’ (i.e. you trying to do the Christian life…you trying to do life period).
Where God is not actively putting me to death, I am actively trying to achieve life by multitudinous efforts at finding life by way of law. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 7, “When we were in the flesh, the law worked death in our members”. The good news for us is that under grace, death works righteousness in these mortal bodies.
“Every thing is meaningless!” Says the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. Life really does have no meaning…we only find wisdom in death, namely the Cross where Jesus died (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18). The Preacher continues to reflect, “the dead know nothing“. Yes, it is death that sets us free from the one thing creating our present anxiety and exhaustion: ‘knowledge‘ and our incessant pursuit thereof. The good news is that God in Christ became Wisdom for us having become the proverbial fool in our place. In Adam, we climbed a tree to become gods. In Christ, there’s a better tree onto which God climbed to forgive our stupidity. That God alone is our wisdom. That truly wise Man alone is our God.