Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Miserable Ones

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen the movie Les Miserables, this may spoil a few surprises for you. And if you don't know the story, some of my comments won't make sense. So just go see the movie.

Back in the late '80s, Doug, his cousin Kim, and I saw the stage version of Les Miserables in Chicago. It was one of the most moving "art" experiences of my life. The man who played Jean Valjean moved me to tears when he sang "Bring Him Home."

Yesterday, our family saw Les Mis the movie, and it moved me to tears, too. The difference was that the stage version brought me to tears with the music while the movie brought me to tears with the story.

Without the restrictions of a stage, movies are able to recreate both the gritty and glorious elements of the real world. The movie makers took advantage of the tools offered them with wide, sweeping views of Paris (no doubt computer generated) and intimate (sometimes painfully prolonged) close ups. I believe the directors knew that storytelling would be the focus of the movie, so they opted for fine actors who were adequate singers rather than fine singers who could act. Some of the supporting roles seemed to be filled by genuine singers--like Marias and his band of brothers--but I found the other voices to be good enough, not spectacular.

I loved the homage to the stage play in the casting of Colm Wilkinson as the priest. He is the man who originated the role of Jean Valjean in London and Broadway. He played this small part well--with simplicity and sincerity.

As I analyzed the more technical aspects of the movie, I also asked myself what the two male lead characters might be saying about God. Valjean, the compassionate parole breaker, dedicated his life to God after a kind priest showed him mercy. Javert, the righteous police inspector, believed God was on his side in pursuing justice.

Does one of these characters personify God better than the other? I asked myself. I decided both men showed the danger of embracing an incomplete view of God.

Valjean, who showed kindness, self-sacrifice, and devotion, kept secrets from those he loved most. He was always one step ahead of the law, always looking over his shoulder. Without submitting to the law of the land, he never knew complete peace or rest.

Meanwhile, Javert was so focused on fulfilling the requirements of the law that he knew nothing of kindness.  In fact, the conflict between the justice he pursued and the grace shown him by Valjean was more than he could bear.

Our Divine Father is perfectly just and perfectly compassionate. He understands that both qualities are necessary. We cannot expect him to turn a blind eye when our attitudes or behaviors violate his clearly defined standards. But at the same time, we need not fear that he will respond to our wrongdoing without love and compassion.  He treats all of Earth's miserable souls with perfect justice and perfect kindness.

And His mercy (His compassion and kindness toward the miserable and afflicted) is on those who fear Him with godly reverence (Luke 1:50, Amplified).

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Still Bravely Singing

I recent years I’ve come to love a poem entitled, “In Flanders Fields.” It’s a WWI poem, apparently quite famous in its day. It voiced the heartbreak of those who had lost loved ones in the conflict, and the importance of completing the task to which those soldiers sacrificed their lives.

For a writing project a few years ago, I researched the poem, learning about the author and his inspiration. The poem was written by John McCrae, a Canadian physician. When World War I broke out, McCrae was sent to Belgium as a field surgeon in the Canadian artillery. In 1915, he was in charge of a field hospital during the Second Battle of Ypres [e-pray]. McCrae’s friend Alexis Helmer was killed in the battle, and his burial inspired the poem. In 1918, while still serving in the field hospital, McCrae caught pneumonia and meningitis and died.

Flanders is a region in northern Belgium. The poppies referred to in the poem grew in profusion in the fields where war casualties had been buried. Poppies have since become a symbol of remembrance for fallen soldiers. The poem reads:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
     Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
     In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hand we throw
     The torch: be yours to hold it high.
     If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
     In Flanders fields. 

Through the years people have penned various responses to McCrae’s plea. One of them is America’s Answer by R.W. Lilliard.

Rest ye in peace, ye Flanders dead.
The fight that ye so bravely led
We’ve taken up. And we will keep
True faith with you who lie asleep
With each a cross to mark his bed,
   In Flanders fields.

Fear not that ye have died for naught.
The torch ye threw to us we caught.
Ten million hands will hold it high,
And Freedom’s light shall never die!
We’ve learned the lesson that ye taught
   In Flanders fields.

From The Best Loved Poems of the American People, compiled by Hazel Felleman, Doubleday, 1936.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

This One’s for Ruth: My Thoughts on The Sound of Music

I had an unpleasant illness recently (are there pleasant illnesses?) that prompted me to spend an unusual number of hours in bed. Between naps, I watched TV and a couple of favorite movies. One of them was 1965’s The Sound of Music. It took me two days to get through the three-hour musical, but I enjoyed it, again.

Each time I watch it I’m struck by the same things:

Julie Andrews’ voice. Such expression, such effortlessness. I recently researched her life journey and learned that her step-father discovered her four-octave range when she was eight years old. Most of us can sing two octaves; many trained singers can cover three. She described it as “freakish,” calling it “an adult voice in a little body.” Sadly, vocal cord surgery in 1997 forever altered her clear soprano.

A personal connection: My father, who had a beautiful tenor voice, had a similar unsatisfactory result from vocal cord surgery. He didn’t sue anybody, but it was sure sad. Meanwhile, my husband, with a rich baritone, has had seven surgeries on his vocal cords—and can still sing beautifully. I think the conditions and treatments were different, but I’m still amazed and extremely grateful each time I hear my hubby sing.

The Alps. The mountains aren’t just a beautiful setting, they’re an important character. Could the story have been set anywhere else, at any other time in history? Without the Alps, there are no “hills” to be alive with the sound of music. Climb Every Mountain becomes a less meaningful analogy. And the movie would lack its dramatic conclusion—the escape by foot over the mountains.

The Nuns. I’d love to sing in a multi-part ensemble like that, singing lowest alto. One of the nuns, Sister Sophia,is none other than Marni Nixon. Who is Marni Nixon, you may ask. She’s the talented singer that dubbed the singing voices of several notable film actresses of the day. She sang for Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. In the DVD commentary for The Sound of Music, director Robert Wise comments that audiences were finally able to see the woman whose voice they knew so well.

Edelweiss. A lovely song that became a school choir standard in the ’60s. I distinctly remember my third grade teacher (1966-67) saying, “We are not singing Edelweiss for the parents’ program.” We sang Windy, made popular by The Association. My third grade teacher was too cool for school. She also had a blonde “beehive” and wore miniskirts and pink lipstick. She’s the woman who first inspired me to be a writer. I think of her when I hear the song Edelweiss. And silently thank her.
My favorite line. A Nazi sympathizer, Herr Zeller, attends a party at the Von Trapp home. In a tense conversation about Hitler’s suspected invasion into peaceful Austria, the Captain says to Herr Zeller, “If the Nazis take over Austria, you will be the entire trumpet section.” 

 Zeller responds, “You flatter me.” 

And then, the Captain says my favorite line in the movie: “Oh, how clumsy of me. I meant to accuse you.” 

So polished, so dignified, but so cutting.

Liesl is pretty, but pitchy. The dear soul was flat most of the time. If I can hear it, couldn’t the musical directors? Why didn’t they re-record her parts until she got it right? This really bugs me.

Which child is my age? I’ve always wondered which of the children is closest in age to me so I finally looked it up on the Internet. I’m the same age—a month younger—as the littlest girl, Gretl, played by Kym Karath (born August 4, 1958). Makes ya feel old, doesn’t it?

It’s nice to have a few movies I can watch again and again “when I’m feeling bad.” They’re like old friends that know just what to say to make me feel better, to help me “sing once more.”

This movie also makes me think of my dear friend Ruth who claims it as her favorite. This blog post is dedicated to her.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Step Out of the Traffic

I recently read an interesting article called, “Want To Be More Creative? Get Bored.”

The author talked about the value of being bored, of having time to let your mind process problems, time to “do” nothing and just let your brain work.

He said, “I’m not referring to killing time on your smartphone, your iPad, or your laptop. I’m not even talking about paging through a book. I mean bored as in doing absolutely nothing.”

His “bored” time is his daily swim.

“As I power up and down the lanes, I rethink what I've learned. I now have the time and space to solve whatever problems have arisen. It’s an important meeting with myself, and I keep it religiously. Because the day I lose it, I've lost myself.”

I’ve noticed this same phenomenon, but rather than “bored” I’d call it “quiet.” I can remember times when quiet produced some great ideas—things to write about, ways to solve a relationship problem, or even a new way to handle the clutter at my house. These quiet moments usually come in the middle of the night. And I don’t lie awake at night very often. Sleeping is one thing I do very well.

My world is rarely quiet. And I’m entirely to blame. I turn on the TV when I’m getting ready for work. I play the radio in the car. I turn on music when I’m cooking. Why is that? What am I so afraid of?

The only time I listen to the quiet is when I take a walk. I don’t have an mp3 player to take music with me wherever I go. But I dislike quiet so much that I sometimes take a book along and read while I walk. It’s a skill I’ve mastered over the years because I don’t like the “do nothing” feeling I get when I’m walking. I also dislike waiting without something to do. Maybe I need counseling.

God understands the need for quiet. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” (King James Version). Look how it’s worded in other versions of the Bible:

“Cease striving and know that I am God” (New American Standard).

“Let be and be still, and know (recognize and understand) that I am God” (Amplified).

“Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your High God.” (The Message).

So now what? Do I promise to create some quiet, “boring” space in my life? I don’t want to make promises I can’t keep. But I tell ya what: I’ll try. But keep it quiet.

[A Google search for “quiet place” surfaced this clever exercise: I don’t know anything about the source, so please don’t consider this an endorsement of anything weird.]

Monday, March 19, 2012

It Was a Difficult Week

I hope you’ve read the classic children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. I hope you’ve read it mostly because it’s a tremendous book. But I also hope you’ve read it because it will make you appreciate the kind of week I had.

On Monday, Abby and I were rear ended in the van. It was the other driver’s fault, but the other driver was not going to drive our van to the body shop for estimates. I would have to do that. And when would I find time to do that? I could tell it was going to be a difficult week.

The next day my neck hurt when I turned my head to the left.

Then, on Wednesday, I parked the car downtown. I didn’t know it, but someone went all Rocky on our bumper. My husband discovered the damage the next day. Nobody left a note. Nobody took responsibility. We’d have to pay for the repairs. I could tell it was going to be a difficult week. I think I’ll move to San Diego.

On Saturday, the transmission in the van went out. We couldn’t drive in reverse. Not only would I have to take the van to a body shop for an estimate but now I’d have to take it to the mechanic for repairs. And find another way to get around. I wonder if I could find a way to get to San Diego.

On Sunday the furnace freaked out. It blew cold air. And the fan ran on and on. We turned it off. The house got cold. I bet it’s not cold in San Diego.

The next Monday I drove the van to the body shop for an estimate. On the way there I couldn’t go faster than 30 mph. The transmission was getting worse. I decided not to drive the van to San Diego.

Then my cell phone died. Not ran-out-of-battery-died, but dead died. It really isn’t too surprising. It was practically an antique. But still. I was without a phone. And I’m pretty sure I gave my upgrade to one of my offspring.

This all came at a time when our bank account showed the effects of helping two daughters pay for college. The next few months are likely to be the “tightest” we’ve faced in a long time. So why did God choose this week to have both vehicles damaged, the transmission fail in the van, the furnace die, and my cell phone give out? It seemed like an obvious question. Even for someone in San Diego.

I told my pastor about our string of unfortunate events. He said he was sorry it had been a difficult week. He said I should trust God. He said God was working for my good and His glory. Hmm, not a “poor Becky” in there anywhere. So I decided to trust God.

My friend Randy loaned me his car. His new car. A cute little Mazda stick shift. I had great fun driving it around for a few days. And I realized I had wonderful friends that were willing to trust me with valuable possessions and inconvenience themselves for my benefit. Randy’s Mazda gave us a way to get around while the van was in the shop.

The transmission in the van had been replaced a year ago so it was still under warrantee. It’s now repaired at no cost to us.

The furnace repair man came and flipped a small red switch hidden inside the furnace. We paid only $85. The house was soon as toasty as San Diego.

The other day, as Doug drove home from work, a man pulled up next to him and motioned for him to roll down his window.

“I can pull those dents out for you,” he said. He suggested he and Doug pull into a parking lot to talk. “Most body shops will tell you to replace the entire bumper or the entire side panel,” he said. And he’s right. That’s what we’d been told. “I’ll pull out those dents and you’ll just have a little scratch in the paint.” Doug got his number. We plan to give him a call and see what he can do.

Then, a couple nights ago, I went to the AT&T store. I didn’t have an upgrade on my phone But Doug did. So I used his upgrade and got a groovy new phone with a full keyboard. Only $20 after rebate.

How ‘bout that? My good and God’s glory. And I didn’t even have to move to San Diego.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Thank You, Dr. Olney

Through the years, CBS Sunday Morning has been one of my favorite television shows. I say that even though I rarely watch it. The program airs Sunday mornings (obviously), and because I habitually attend church Sunday mornings, I hardly ever see it.

(I know, I could have recorded it, but that would have required me to be organized. However, I recently discovered I can watch it online. Sweet!;snav)

What I love about this show is that it tells human interest stories. It’s not “hard news”; it’s people. It may inform, it may inspire, but it does so by telling someone’s story.

I recently watched a story about a doctor, Richard Olney, who spent decades treating and researching ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) only to be stricken with the disease himself in his late fifties. (;contentBody)

As his speech faculties began to fail, he recorded his voice on his laptop saying phrases that he thought would be useful to him. He could click a button on his computer and it would broadcast his voice saying, “Good morning,” “Thanks for stopping by,” or “I have a speech problem.”

He also recorded a message for his wife: “I love you, Paula.” The same for his son and daughter.

It prompted me to wonder, “What phrases would I record if I knew I would lose the ability to speak?”

“I love you” is a good start.

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m proud of you.”

“Please and thank you.”

“I understand.”

“Sing me a song, please.”

“See ya later.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“How may I pray for you?”

“Tell me more.”

On the heels of this mental exercise I read Luke 6:45: The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.

The words I speak are formed in my heart. So I’d better be sure my heart is filled with good things. Things like gratitude, kindness, compassion . . . Philippians 4:8 says, Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Dr. Olney passed away recently. I hope I can learn from his story and chose my words carefully while I still can. Better yet, make right, excellent, and admirable words a natural overflow of what is in my heart.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Yep, That Sounds Like Me

My name is Becky, and I’m a Pharisee.

They say admitting your problem is the first step to recovery, right? So I admit it. I’m a Pharisee.

I credit my pastor with bringing me to this confession. In his sermon Sunday, he suggested we all might have a little Pharisee in us. I had to admit, I have more than a little.

Pharisees were a group of religious leaders in Jesus’ day who were known for their legalistic adherence to Jewish law. As my pastor said, “The Pharisees focused on externals. Pleasing God meant following a list of do’s and don’ts.”

Yeah, that sounds like me.

He went on to say, “The Pharisees viewed themselves as the standard of spirituality. They were spiritually proud.”

The more Pastor talked, the more I heard myself in his words.

I was very “Pharisee” when it came to my reaction to the death of Whitney Houston. I heard people refer to her as a follower of Jesus and I thought, “Really? A drug abuser?”

I did catch myself—“Yes, Becky, Jesus followers can make mistakes and fall victim to addictions.”

But that didn’t stop my self-righteous, legalistic, internal tirade. As images and interviews of Ms. Houston flooded the television I’d think, “Did you see that dress? Did you hear the words of that song? How can she be a Christian and use that language?”

Growing up, I learned to define Christianity as a list of do’s and don’ts. I understood that my relationship with God was based on my faith in Jesus, but from there I added things like--

  • “Good Christians don’t go to movies.”
  • “Good Christians don’t play cards.”
  • “Good Christians don’t dance.”
  • “Good Christians don’t swear.”

And the list could go on and on. And so, my friends, that makes me a Pharisee.

But I want to change. I want to stop expecting people to live up to my vain standards. Stop expecting Christians to dress a certain way, talk a certain way, live a certain way. I want to invite the possibility that people like Whitney Houston may know more about faith and the grace of God than I ever will.