Devotional – Thursday, April 30, 2020

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Philippians 4:8

Despite a laundry list of teaching responsibilities inundating my to-do list as I close down my virtual instructional sessions for this semester’s statistics courses, on occasion I found myself with some time, albeit small, to browse through the television channels. Purposely avoiding the news channels so as to avoid endless banter, finger-pointing, drivel, and promoting personal narratives, my endeavor found me evaluating movies currently airing which, in turn, drove me to think about movies in general. Life right now as we cope during the COVID-19 pandemic seems very much like a movie, but the biggest and best movie is how each of us is conducting our lives granted to us by God.

Any great movie has a powerful opening. In most of the great ones, the viewer is hooked under negative pretenses, while others depict a more positive scenario. Classic opening scenes set the tone for the entirety of a motion picture. For example, the progress of mankind, when apes banging on femur bones like drums, tossing those bones into the air, only to come down into a world of space exploration and science, all while Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra crescendos to a climax of epic proportions, as in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or Mufasa, king of the jungle, and his wife welcoming into the world the baby lion cub, Simba, a character whose life and choices would frame the plot of the entirety of the Disney classic film, The Lion King. Or maybe it is the Iowa corn farmer who, while tending to his crop, hears a voice whisper, “If you build it, he will come,” in the classic baseball film, Field of Dreams. Movies that open up with powerful scenes certainly draw our attentions for the remainders of the films.

There are so many others: The GodfatherCitizen KaneGood Fellas. The list goes on and on. For me, though, the classic opening scene that hooked me and has always stuck with me and moved me to tears revolves around the hopes and dreams of a frog. Opening in a swamp, this movie reveals the frog playing a banjo and singing. The song, written by Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher, alone sets the tone for the entire plot of the film:

Why are there so many songs about rainbows
and what’s on the other side
Rainbows are visions, but only illusions
and rainbows have nothing to hide….
Who said that every wish would be heard and answered,
when wished on the morning star
Somebody thought of that and someone believed it
and look what it’s done so far…
What’s so amazing that keeps us star-gazing,
what so we think we might see…
Someday we’ll find it, the Rainbow Connection,
the lovers, the dreamers, and me.

Every time I hear this song and watch this opening scene in Jim Henson’s iconic film, The Muppet Movie, I think of God’s plan for me. I was raised by my parents, Steve Earle and Pamela Culp, to be an upstanding, humble, morally driven boy who, if given the choice to do right or wrong, would always choose the pathway of doing what was right. As outlined in the epistle Paul wrote to the Philippians, in my youth I was taught to make decisions that were true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable. But every movie has that plot twist, and so would my life as a Christian.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the struggle between the astronauts and HAL, the computer machine, served as the twist in the film. In The Lion King, disobeying his father, Mufasa, and following him and his uncle, Scarr, to a barren land, little Simba runs into a stampede. Mufasa making every attempt to save the young Simba, hangs from the edge of a cliff just above the stampede running below him. Mufasa falls to his death and Simba’s uncle, Scarr, lays guilt upon little Simba by making Simba believe that he was the root cause of his own father’s death. Little did Simba know that Scarr’s plan was to take over as king of the jungle and so he killed his own brother.

In Field of Dreams, the main character, Ray Kinsella, has followed three whispers from the voices he hears in his corn field and plows over a significant portion of his corn crop to build what he amounts to a baseball field, one that legendary professional baseball players of the past could play yet again. Facing bank foreclosure of his families’ assets and property, Ray Kinsella is faced with a choice: destroy the baseball field he just built to appease what outsiders believe are ghosts or follow through with what appears to be a silly venture.

In The Muppet Movie, Kermit and his friends are trying to make their own movie but come across numerous pitfalls along the way. Kermit’s constant dismay is evident. He had reached his low point.

My movie as a young Christian man took a turn in 1994. Heading off for the first time to college, I allowed the sins of the flesh to overtake my life. Amongst a multitude of other sins, heavy alcohol use, moderate drug use, and consistent infidelity in relationships consumed my life at that time. I completely lost my faith and shied away at the mere mention of the word, “God.” My liberal sciences education, coupled with my path to becoming a medical doctor, a scientist who would question the pillars of religion, at the time made me hate the idea of Christianity. I became selfish and arrogant. The choice to choose bad had overridden my training in choosing always to do good, and this continued until around 2011. In short, my own movie plot had certainly twisted.

But the best part of all movies is the ending. In parabolic fashion, when movies start out, they start out with the purpose of “hooking” the viewer’s attention, so they start out very high. They reach the plot twist, some might argue the “low point” of the film before rising back up at the end. Whether it is 2001:A Space Odyssey and the symbolic rebirth of the Starchild prepared for the next leap forward in his own personal evolution; or Simba realizing that the jungle and its inhabitants need him to take over as ruling king and do so as a compassionate, but strong leader in The Lion King; or the voices that Ray Kinsella heard while plowing over his families’ livelihood, only to learn that “if you build it, he will come,” “go the distance,” and “ease his pain” all meant that his own late father, John Kinsella, would come back so Ray can make amends for the awful things Ray said to his father as a young man before his dad passed and he could apologize for those words. “Hey, dad, want to have a catch?” and following through with said baseball tosses as the sun set on them proved to be an ending that would make the toughest of men weep like infants.

Our lives often follow this type of parabolic model. Mine did, for in 2011 I had an epiphany. I realized that all of the good instilled in me by my parents and the wonderful parishioners at First Christian Church of Baton Rouge from the late 1970’s through 1994 was the real version of Trey Earle, the one that Jesus Christ wanted and God expected me to be, not the heathen I became in the younger adult years that followed. I once was lost, but now am found, arguably the most powerful lyric in “Amazing Grace.” How true!

The ending of our individual movies have yet to be written, but the beauty of our faith is that we can write our own endings, as long as we do so with love, compassion, humility, truth, purity, and honor, just as Paul advised the Philippians to do. The power of faith in our loving God is that he allows us that ending and to ask forgiveness of our transgressions through prayer. The most abundant messages of thanks, then, can go not only to our God, but also to the lovers, the dreamers, and all others who help make us better versions of ourselves.

At the end of The Muppet Movie, Kermit and all of his friends serving as cast and crew of his movie are just about to begin movie production when Gonzo crashes into the set backdrop causing it to crash to the ground, an explosion to occur on the ceiling and a hole to open up. Kermit is devastated, for all of the work, all of the money for production, all of the time spent planning and working to culminate to that big day when principal shooting of the film would take place, was gone in an instant. As Kermit’s friends console him, a large rainbow comes through the small hole in the ceiling and shines down on the entire cast and crew, including Kermit. Kermit realizes that his ending, hopes and dreams from those early moments in that swamp with that banjo, truly lied in his fellowship with the people who loved him, his friends. Kermit’s final words were:

Life’s like a movie, write your own ending,
keep believing, keep pretending,
we’ve done just what we set out to do,
thanks to the lovers, the dreamers, and you…

I now know how to write the ending to my earthly movie. I hope you do as well.  

Offered by Trey Earle

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