Ambition without purpose is ugly

What is ambition? On the college campus as we speak, millions of college students are striving to the end of the semester. They are cramming for these cumulative torture tests that help them second guess four months of decision making and dedication. They start questioning, “What was it all for?” The answer, of course, is that piece of paper at the end that validates four…five…six years of mental anguish, right? I hope that it’s more than that or things could get ugly, as they do for the protagonist in the new Dan Gilroy film, “Nightcrawler.”

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Bloom (Gyllenhaal) looks on to one of “Nightcrawler’s” many newsworthy scenes.

 

At first glance, “Nightcrawler” may appear to be a sleek commentary on the state of news and journalism in the “Grand Theft Auto” era of entertainment. It is that, but more than that it is a picture of what it looks like to pursue success without a greater sense of purpose. When you are not guided by love, passion, and an awareness of the people and world around you then all you are is a thief. That is who Louis Bloom, played with terrifying precision by Jake Gyllenhaal, is when we first encounter him snipping away spare fencing for pocket change.

Bloom is a line crosser and much of the film crosses the audience’s lines of comfort and convention. In situations where most would be pushed to emotional highs that would dictate behavior, Bloom is calm, collected, and quite eloquent. This is because he isn’t led by emotion. In fact, I’m not even sure what he is led by. Everything, including his goals that he is working towards seems to be leeched from the people around him. He is an actor playing a role and everyone around him is just a piece in the puzzle moving his story forward.

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Bloom spouting his adopted ideals to his news manager (Rene Russo).

 

This allows Bloom to violate the barriers of decency and compassion. As he is committing horrific, awful acts we are treated to, what might be, the mood of his mind as triumphant, Chariots-of-Fire-esque music scores the scenes of debauchery. What he is doing is terrible, but he will succeed because of it, it will help him win. Bloom doesn’t seem to mind what he has to do to cross the finish line. He never stops stealing.

He steals the scrap metal, he steals a profession, he steals camera angles, he steals knowledge from the Internet, and he steals the private moments of the people on the worst days of their lives. They can’t even die in private because blood sells. News, aka success, to Bloom and his station is, “A screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” Ambition without purpose is ugly.

Luckily, we are called to be more than that. We are the salt, the flavor, the restorers of this world. We are a beautiful aroma of God’s grace, sovereignty, love, and power to the people around us and the places we impact. What you do matters to God!

It is not an issue of being an actor in a story. God is co-authoring a story with us. Being a blessing to all nations means that you are part of a bigger mission and it affects everyone around you. Success is not a $15,000 piece of news footage, and it sure isn’t just a degree. It is in a faithful pursuit of becoming who God made you to be. So in your work, finals, relationships, rest, fun, let it be a fragrant offering to the Lord and a blessing to the world.

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Love is more than a theory

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Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything”

”Where there is life, there is hope.”

This is a climactic line in “The Theory of Everything,” an adaptation of Jane Hawking’s memoir “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.” Jane is, of course, the wife of legendary theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. It is interesting that in that way the movie is not so much about Stephen but Jane. My question is that if Jane wasn’t in Stephen’s life, and if she wasn’t a person of faith, would he have had a life at all?

Hawking spends much of the film trying to figure out the biggest questions in the universe. He is a man with many limits setting out to prove that that world actually has no bounds, i.e. no God. Which leads to the trouble with the film, at the beginning of the story I wasn’t familiar with what made Stephen Hawking who he is today and expected through seeing his life and paralysis depicted on screen I would find out, but by the end of the film I still had no idea who Hawking was or what he actually believed. What’s interesting, though, is that there is never a time when you don’t know what Jane believes.

This film, after all, really is about Jane and the life she led alongside this prolific mind. We see her transform from a glowing, sultry co-ed into a drained, frustrated, messy wife and mother as she shoulders the responsibility of being the care giver of Stephen and their three kids. We see her, in one telling scene, frustratingly explain to a fellow church goer what Stephen believes about the nature of God and the universe.

The conflict she deals with on what must be a daily basis gleans through a trembling, forced voice and jerky hand gestures as she rushes teaching about the laws of relativity and quantum theory. Her beliefs must come into question constantly in this household, so much so that she must, next to Stephen, feel silly or even less intelligent at times. What we know, though, is that Jane is also a Phd., a bit of information delivered in the closing text of the film.

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The real Jane and Stephen Hawking on their wedding day.

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“A Brief History of Time” spent 237 weeks as a best seller.

We only get a few scattered scenes of Jane studying, but we never see a graduation, we never hear her recite the Spanish literature she studied. Nor do we really see Jane interact with her children that much (they spend most of the movie as toddlers and infants). Jane’s role in this story is not of a doctor or a mother, her role is the hope and the life in Stephen’s life. She marries Stephen after they discover his aliment. She makes sacrifice after sacrifice so that he has the best life possible. She even chooses at one point to make both of their lives more difficult in order to save his. She loves, sacrifices, and serves in a way that can only be described as Godly.

The contrast between Jane and Stephen is starkest when Stephen is in pursuit of his theories of the origins of the universe. His quest is to prove the random, unpredictable, godless nature of the world. This may be fitting for someone whose infinite intelligence could never have predicted his degenerative disease. This theory of unpredictability is sought after, though, around a life filled with relationships that in film standards are nothing but predictable.

The minute Jane walks into her local church to join the choir to see it is led by a young, dreamy Hugh Grant type, the audience knows they will surely fall in love. A busty, seductive fire-haired speech pathologist enters the picture and we know it is only a matter of time before Stephen falls for her. All of the quantum theorizing in the world cannot disprove the laws of human attraction apparently.

By the end of the film, much like in the research of Hawking, there are more questions than answers. How did this world come to be? Is there an equation that bonds the entire universe together? I still don’t know by the end if Stephen believes there could be a God, but I do know that if it wasn’t for the God in Jane we may never have had “A Brief History of Time.” This is a film worth watching and questions that are worth engaging. Also, if I could predict an upcoming event in the universe it would be that both Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne will be getting some extra attention come February.

Waiting for the stump to sprout

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

~ Isaiah 11:1

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Our Advent candles at Graystone Church.

Today begins the liturgical season of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. It is the more upbeat of the two seasons for penitence, the other being Lent.  Both are periods of reflection and heart-searching, taking extra time to ask the Spirit to identify areas of darkness within us so that we may receive the Light of Christ and rejoice all the more on its culminating holiday.

As Christmas is the celebration of Emmanuel, God with us, Advent is a time to explore the parts of our lives and world where we feel God’s absence and desire for Him to show up. It arises from the experience of the Jews as they waited for over 400 years during the interim between hearing God through the prophets, and then hearing nothing until the birth of Christ.  That is almost twice as long as the United States has been an established nation.  Four centuries of silence…of seeming absence.  Thankfully we know the end of the story and the coming of a Messiah that would change everything once and for all.  A Messiah who did not disappoint even the highest hopes of His people.  It is this realized hope that gives us the courage to face and confront the things in our lives that are not as they should be.

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This year in particular it’s easy to see the darkness and sense of absence.  Violent conflicts and illness seem rampant around the world, and the division and pain of racism is very fresh in our national experience. Ferguson has forced us to ask the question: has anything really changed? Can things really be better?  Violence against women and sexual violence on our college campuses feels like another struggle that may never change.  Where society has advanced in one area, we step back in another.  There are also countless personal challenges that we each face, some known only to us.  There may be rifts in relationships, financial anxiety and a cycle of debt, loneliness, depression, patterns of sin. We each likely have at least one area of life that feels desolate and cut off.

Advent allows us to be honest about these places of decay and the temptation to hopelessness.  Isa. 11:1 depicts Israel’s feeling of being a stump, a people cut off from growth and flourishing.  A stump is not the picture of a bright future.  But the kind of Messiah we know and anticipate can bring life from death. There is no area of the creation too lifeless for the power of God’s presence to resurrect. Just as the Israelites waited in 400 years of silence and received a Savior beyond their highest hopes, so we wait for Christ to continue to restore all areas of His creation. This Advent, bring the most hopeless parts of your life and experience to Christ and ask Him to make Himself known in a way that you could never anticipate.

“O come, Desire of nations, bind

In one the hearts of all mankind;

Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,

And be Thyself our King of Peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice!

Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”