Monday, June 26, 2006

God @ The Movies: Garden State

Movies are today’s parables. For the next several weeks we’ll look at different genres of movies, scouring them for spiritual insights into the human condition and the whereabouts of faith and God in the daily details of life. Jesus told stories of life, called the parables that enabled his listeners to more clearly become open to God’s love and truth. Stories have a way of opening our hearts before we can choose to close ourselves off from viewpoints that challenge us, especially with the radical love of God.

The four great questions we'll adress over the next several weeks are: "Who are we; where did we come from; what should we do, and where are we going?"

Today we begin with a movie that was one of the bigger hits of ’04-‘05 among the twentysomething crowd: Garden State. A caution with this movie-it’s rated R because of the language & a couple of scenes containing sexuality. Keep that in mind if you haven’t seen it and are thinking of going to the video store tonight to watch it with your kids-don’t do that! Growing up as the youngest of 4 boys in a family in northeast, blue collar Edmonton I heard my share of choice language. My brothers could use the f-word as a noun, adjective, adverb, and pretty much every other figure of speech you could imagine.

This first clip sets the the story in motion.

In the first few 4 minutes of the movie we learn a lot, don’t we? We are introduced to the main character, Andrew Largeman. You and I are invited into his life. But you immediately realize that something is messed up here.

Just look at his bedroom. Is it the kind of decor Marita would be proud of? No! There’s nothing going on in there. Anyone want to volunteer his bedroom for clinical trials? His bedroom is absolutely sterile.

Webster’s defines it as: “free from all live bacteria, all living organisms and especially microorganisms”. Totally mind-numbing.

And then we learn more. Andrew doesn’t return his father’s phone calls. His father is crying on the phone because his mother has died but her death is odd. She drowned in the bathtub. Which only makes sense when later on we find out she’s been a paraplegic since Andrew was 9.

And still, despite this news coming through the speakers of his answering machine, Andrew can’t FEEL a thing. Why? Well, we soon find out. He walks into his bathroom, opens up the cabinet and there we see each shelf lined with prescriptions of antidepressants. That later we find out he’s basically been on since he was 10 years old.

Andrew Largeman is going home for the first time in 9 years but he decides to leave his meds at home—that for the first time since he was 10 years old, he’s going to take a vacation from the medication he’s been on.

The day of his mother’s funeral, he meets up with some old high school friends who have very interesting jobs…Let’s see, there’s Mark who works as a gravedigger and moonlights as a jewelry salesman. And then there’s Jesse who developed a patent for Silent Velcro and sold his patent for millions, bought a manion, and is bored out of his tree. And then there’s Tim who’s a knight at a restaurant called Medieval Times. He happens to be dating Mark’s mother. And the first night Andrew is home, he’s invited to a party with Mark because Largeman is a bit of a Hollywood celebrity: he did an amazing job potraying a mentally-challenged quaterback in a TV movie.

But this party scene feels different than most of the others you’ve seen in movies, doesn't it? At this party you have people smoking pot, ecstasy, coke lines, alcohol being abused, and casual sex being alluded to. So while watching the party scene, someone may well say, “Oh, it’s just like Hollywood to glorify the party scene.” But that’s missing the story!

The difference in this movie is that we’re experiencing this party through the eyes of Andrew Largeman and suddenly, all of it feels SO hollow, SO empty, SO dissatisfying. It’s very likely that you’ve never seen a more un-glorified party scene in the movies than in this one.

And then the next day, Largeman meets someone who revolutionizes his life, Sam, played by Natalie Portman. She is the exact opposite of everything he’s been. If Andrew walks through life numb, practically sterile, and cautious, Sam walks through life greeting every moment with feeling, with color, with vulnerability, throwing caution to the wind.

The two begin spending a lot of time together and you watch Sam model for Andrew the type of life he’s been missing out on.

There’s this old proverb that goes, “Wherever you are, be fully there.” And THIS is what Sam models. Even watching her on the screen, you feel as though you’ve rarely met an individual quite like her. A person with such presence. Who can live in the moment. Who can be in the present moment. Not in the past. And not in the future. In the present.

It’s Sam’s ability to greet every moment with such truthfulness and presence that eventually gives Andrew permission to be truthful and present himself such that over time he reveals to his friends a huge secret that he’s been carrying since he was 9 years old—the very reason his mom has been a paraplegic all her life.

Andrew’s sitting in front of the fireplace at Jesse’s mansion with Sam sitting next to him and Mark and Jesse sitting across from him and Andrew says,

“I was the reason she was in a wheelchair. I pushed her. So there that is. It’s the truth. It’s just a complete freak accident, you know? It’s one of those things you replay a million times in your head and you see how clearly it was a complete freak thing. My whole life she was depressed for no reason. And one day I was a little kid, I was 9 years old and I just hated her for that. And I…pushed her. But it was innocent. I was just completely frustrated…because I couldn’t make her happy. And any other time, any other day, she would’ve just yelled at me and sent me to my room. But this day. On this particular day, the door of the dishwasher had fallen open. The latch on it was broken and it would just randomly fall open. The latch. It’s really amazing how much of my life has been determined by a quarter-inch piece of plastic. …So she fell back over the door and hit her neck on the kitchen counter paralyzing her from the waste down.”

Remember the first time you went home after leaving, be it for University or a job? Although I didn’t move out until I got married, I almost lived out of my car the last few years of living 'at home'. Sure, I slept there, but would often leave in the morning, drive to university, spend all day there & then afterwards most of the evening with my friends only to return home to sleep.

Coming back in I distinctly remember walking through the back door of my house and feeling ambivalence; it’s good to be back home…but at the same time, it’s not. Not all the memories in that house were pleasant, if you know what I mean. It was the place I lived but somehow I was NOT home. And that tug of, “Oh yes it is.” “No it’s not.” “Yes it is.”

And though no one ever verbalized it, I was in a really significant rite of passage. A rite of passage where I’ve left and am in the processing of leaving one home but I’ve not yet made a new home for myself. So what was I to do? What are you to do in that situation?

This conversation here and this theme could be one of the reasons this movie connected with so many people, so many of us. Ronnie Fauss says that it’s this theme of “going home” that is perhaps explored more in this movie than in any other and is the reason so many people in their twenties and thirties connected so much with this movie as the loneliness that so many of us feel in this stage of life is addressed with an unflinching authenticity.

Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave and grow old wanting to get back to. John Ed Pierce

There are many perceived rights of passage to adulthood. Some of the most common misconceptions are that you can drink alcohol, have freedom, make money, not be told what to do, but of course they all lack deep meaning. Finding the ‘new home’ is the key.

Over the course of several heartfelt conversations between Largeman and Sam, Largeman realizes that he does not feel like he has come home at all, because nothing is familiar. Through this processing, he concludes, “Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people who miss the same imaginary place.”

My goodness but that sounds like what a church is and is supposed to be.

Way back in the Bible in Jeremiah 29 we discover a people without a home, too. Almost 600 years before Jesus was born the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem and took the Israelites captive and took them back to Babylon. They were deported.

Now, consider for a second what things have to change in order for the Israelites to make this place, Babylon, HOME. Well, just about everything! Their symbols for God’s presence—the Temple as well as their religious and political structures. For the Jewish people, land was everything. Jerusalem was the capital of the Jewish people and understood as the residence of YHWH God. The temple Solomon built existed in Jerusalem. So they longed to return back home, to the place where God had been revealed to them in the past, the place where God lived and their identity as a people was rooted.

It’s these people who are without a home—these Israelites who are Jeremiah’s audience in chapter 29. “These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.”

Here’s the problem, though. While in Babylon, the Israelites wanted desperately to return home to Jerusalem. False prophets were rising up and basically saying, “Now is the time. Rise up against Babylon in holy war.” We don’t know exactly what they were saying, but we know it was the opposite of what Jeremiah called for—a time of peace.

But here's what Jeremiah calls for in verses 4-14 (The Message).

This is the Message from GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies, Israel's God, to all the exiles I've taken from Jerusalem to Babylon: "Build houses and make yourselves at home.

"Put in gardens and eat what grows in that country. Marry and have children. Encourage your children to marry and have children so that you'll thrive in that country and not waste away. Make yourselves at home there and work for the country's welfare. Pray for Babylon's well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you. Yes.

Believe it or not, this is the Message from GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies, Israel's God: "Don't let all those so-called preachers and know-it--alls who are all over the place there take you in with their lies. Don't pay any attention to the fantasies they keep coming up with to please you. They're a bunch of liars preaching lies--and claiming I sent them! I never sent them, believe me." This is GOD's Word on the subject: "As soon as Babylon's seventy years are up and not a day before, I'll show up and take care of you as I promised and bring you back home. I know what I'm doing. I have it all planned out--plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.

"When you call on me, when you come and pray to me, I'll listen. When you come looking for me, you'll find me. “Yes, when you get serious about finding me and want it more than anything else, I'll make sure you won't be disappointed."


"I'll turn things around for you. I'll bring you back from all the countries into which I drove you bring you home to the place from which I sent you off into exile. You can count on it."

So the Israelites were living in this foreign land, always looking to the future for that day when they could be back home. And the false prophets were egging them on, “Rise up, revolt against the Babylonians, and go back home.” And Jeremiah was saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. That’s not what I’m hearing. Stay put for now. Abandon your plans of escape. And be there. Build houses and live. Build gardens, marry, keep the people strong, and strive for the best life in the place where you are.”

Interestingly, this new set-up here in the auditorium, even though it is more ‘homey’ with couches, tables and coffee tables, has probably taken a few of you aback. It may not yet be 'home'.

The problem with that future focus is that we miss God’s presence, God’s unexpected presence in the here and now…as Henri Nouwen says, “the treasure you are looking for is hidden in the ground on which you stand.” It’s so much easier to think that the answer is in the future, because that takes some of the pressure off what we’re suppose to be doing in the here and now. It also helps us to deny whatever pain is in the here and now, and look instead to a time when our lives will “REALLY” begin, when things will be different. But God is right here, right now...in whatever foreign landscape that lacks meaning, in whatever foreign landscape that leaves us unsettled. God is constantly creating new possibilities in this life, even in the places that we yearn to run from. Melody Porter

At the end of the movie, Largeman has undergone this transformation. For the first time in his life, he’s realized this sense of homesickness that he’s felt for so many years—that he’s been running from. He’s prevented himself from feeling. But what Sam does is that she gives him permission to be himself. To EXPERIENCE the here and now. In a relationship of honesty and vulnerability. In grieving the death of his mom. In the comfort, warmth and messiness of friendship.

And here I think God is saying to each of us, “Abandon your plans of escape. And Be where you are. Plant gardens and live and live well.” I don’t know what your planting gardens may look like, but listen to the words of Kyle Lake as to what it may sound like,

Live. And Live Well.
BREATHE. Breathe in and breathe deeply. Be PRESENT. Do not be past. Do not be future. Be now.

On a crystal clear, breezy 25-degree day, roll down the windows and FEEL the wind against your skin. Feel the warmth of the sun.


If you run, then allow those first few breaths on a cool autumn day to FREEZE your lungs and do not just be alarmed, be ALIVE.

Get knee-deep in a novel and LOSE track of time.

If you bike, pedal HARD… and if you crash then crash well.

Feel the SATISFACTION of a job well done—a paper well written, a project thoroughly completed, a play well performed.


If you must wipe the snot from your 3-year old’s nose, don’t be disgusted if the Kleenex didn’t catch it all… because soon he’ll be wiping his own.

If you’ve recently experienced loss, then GRIEVE. And grieve well.
At the table with friends and family, LAUGH. If you’re eating and laughing at the same time, then might as well laugh until you puke. And if you eat, then SMELL. The aromas are not impediments to your day. Steak on the grill, coffee beans freshly ground, cookies in the oven. And TASTE. Taste every ounce of flavor. Taste every ounce of friendship. Taste every ounce of Life. Because-it-is-most-definitely-a-Gift.


As Ogden Nash once said, “There is one fault that I must find with the twentieth century, and I’ll put it in a couple of words: too adventury. What I’d like would be some nice dull monotony, If anyone’s gotony.”

You find what you look for. Madeline L'Engle

What are you looking for? Escape?

Abandon your plans of escape. And be there. Build houses and live. Build gardens, marry, keep the people strong, and strive for the best life in the place where you are.

4 Comments:

Blogger Anna said...

I have come here time and time again a read many of the sermons and notes that you have left for our encouragement, this latest sermon was amazing it really hit home and I thank you for that, You do a great job, My friend Marilyn Huston atends there when she is in university and she speaks very highly of you and youre congregation, I may never get the chance to atend the church on a Sunday morning but I will always be reading what you write whenever I get the chance.
God Bless

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Heidi said...

Hi! A friend from my church and bible study group shared the link to your blog with me some time ago. I have loved reading it regularly as well as trying to read all the past entries I missed before knowing about it. Your recent entry with regards to movies made me very excited. I (and a friend of mine) have been watching movies with the very mindset that they are "today's parables" for some time now. And if I may...I'd just like to make one really really huge suggestion if I may, even if it's just for your own viewing. The movie Grand Canyon with Steve Martin, Kevin Kline and Danny Glover is awesome. I first saw in Grade 9 Sunday school class...and watch it regularly now...sharing it with everyone I can. That's all...thanks!

4:26 PM  
Blogger Stew Carson said...

Hi Anna. If you're ever in Edmonton, please vsit with us. A friend of Marilyn's is a friend of CoHo!

1:12 PM  
Blogger Stew Carson said...

I haven't seen Grand Canyon yet, Heidi, but I'll look forward to getting a viewing this summer! Peace.

1:13 PM  

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