Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview


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My Review of THE MIRACLE SEASON

The Miracle Season, rated PG
***

The Miracle Season is an emotional and inspirational film based on the true story of the Iowa City West Girls Volleyball team’s 2011. The film has a surprisingly strong cast, is directed by Emmy nominee Sean McNamara (That’s So Raven, Hoovey, Soul Surfer) and written by David Aaron Cohen (Friday Night Lights), and Elissa Matsueda (Spare Parts).
Erin Moriarty (Captain Fantastic) stars as Kelly Fliehler. The film opens with a voiceover from Kelly talking about her relationship with best friend Caroline Found, played by Danika Yarosh (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), who goes by “Line”. We see them in flashbacks as young girls and then teens. They play on the Iowa City West Girls’ Volleyball team.  Caroline is the team’s captain and setter and has a personality that is extremely upbeat. The team won the Iowa state championship in 2010 and with Caroline being a senior, they are aiming at a repeat in 2011.

***SPOILER ALERT ***
Caroline’s mother Ellyn, played by Jillian Fargey (Bates Motel) has been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and is in the hospital. The week before school is to start Caroline decides to take a moped – that her father Dr. Ernie Found, played by Oscar winner William Hurt (Kiss of the Spider Woman) doesn’t know she has been riding – to the hospital to visit her mother. But Caroline is killed in an accident on the way to the hospital. We see her mother attend Caroline’s funeral, but shortly after the funeral she dies as well.
The film is primarily about how the Iowa City West Girls Volleyball team and Caroline’s father Ernie deal with these losses. We see Ernie’s faith shaken from the losses. The film focuses on the team’s 2011 season. The team is coached by Kathy Bresnahan, called “Bres”, played by Oscar winner Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets). After the tragedy, Kelly and her teammates don’t want to continue playing.  But Coach Bresnahan convinces Kelly that she needs to replace Caroline as the leader of the team, and that the team should play the season in honor of Caroline.
********************

The film uses a lot of music (Katy Perry, Britt Nicole, etc.) Themes include teamwork, tragedy, loss, grief, encouragement and faith. The Miracle Season is an inspirational well-made film based on a true story. It is better than many sports films I’ve seen. It features strong acting performances from Helen Hunt, William Hurt and Erin Moriarty.

Live Like Line: The Story of Caroline Found. In this fourteen-minute video Frank Deford tells the story of the 2011 Iowa City West Girls Volleyball team. Only watch after you see the film The Miracle Season.

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NEW BEGINNINGS

Spring is a time of new beginnings as we transition from the long, cold and dark winter.  Where I live in the Midwest, while the calendar may show that it is Spring, the weather has not yet made that transition. In fact, just a few weeks ago we had our biggest snowfall of the season.
Some can get down, or even depressed, during long winters. But Jon Troast, a talented singer/songwriter I recently saw in concert, said about a period of depression that he experienced “The Lord is more concerned about our faith than our comfort.” Unlike C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, where the White Witch cast a spell decreeing that it must always be winter but never Christmas, we know that God is faithful to bring Spring and new beginnings in our lives.
Locally, farmers have not yet been in the fields to plant. My wife and I always enjoy seeing the “little green rows” of the corn and soybeans as they quickly come up out of the fertile Illinois soil. Life can come from death. Jesus himself, in speaking of the resurrection of the body, said that what you sow does not come to life unless it dies. (1 Corinthians 15:36).

I like this short poem from author Eric Metaxas, titled “Renaissance”, which speaks to new beginnings in the Spring:
“Glory, glory,” said the bee.
“Hallelujah”, said the flea.
“Praise the Lord,” remarked the wren.
At springtime all is born again.

A few weeks ago, Christians celebrated the new beginning of Jesus’ resurrection. For the believer, Easter is a wonderful time of new life and new beginnings. Shortly after Easter, I, and many of my friends and co-workers, transitioned from our long-time employer as the organization goes through a massive transformation. For many, this was very unexpected and equally unwelcome. It was like a death, and some became depressed in the months leading up to our final days. Now we are experiencing new beginnings. Some will retire, but many are looking for new jobs, new beginnings. The loss of a job, or even retirement can feel like a death. But life comes out of death. Think of how many funerals you have gone to where someone is soon to, or recently had a baby.
One of my favorite hymns is “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, with lyrics by Thomas Obediah Chisholm. It speaks to God’s faithfulness each day:
Great is Thy faithfulness!” “Great is Thy faithfulness!”
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
“Great is Thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!

For those of you that are currently in the winter season of your life, look up! Take heart. God is faithful. The sun will rise after a dark night and spring will follow winter. Look for those little green rows of refreshment. Hope and trust in the Lord and not in your circumstances.  (Habakkuk 3:17-19).

If music refreshes you, is a balm for your soul or raises your religious affections, take a listen to Andrew Peterson singing RISEN INDEED.  Here’s an excerpt:

And so the winter dies with a blast of icy wind
Like a mournful cry—it’s giving up the ghost again
Another sheet of snow melts away to gold and green
Just look at Peter go, he’s racing to the tomb to see

Where has my Jesus gone?
He is not dead; he is risen, risen indeed

And now the flowers bloom like a song of freedom
Behold the earth is new, if only for the season
And so the seed that died for you becomes a seedling
Just put your hand into the wound that bought your healing

And let your heart believe
He is not dead; he is risen, risen indeed


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THIS & THAT: A Weekly Roundup of Favorite Articles and Quotes

    • Good News Hearts in a Bad News World. Scotty Smith prays “By the truth and power of the gospel, may a faith-full heart beat within our breasts. Free us to trust and worship you more, and fear and vex less. You’ve hidden our lives safely in Christ; now make us less shakable when shaky things are going on—whether in Syria, our homes, or hearts.”
    • His Head and Heart Were God’s. John Piper writes “If you look at Jonathan Edwards from the wrong standpoint, everything is wrong. Some people look at him as a great eighteenth-century thinker, writer, and preacher, and that is as far as they go.”
    • Puritan Documentary. Puritan: All of Life to the Glory of God is the latest documentary from Steven McCaskell (Luther).
    • Deep Theology. Sinclair Ferguson writes “This is deep theology indeed. Yet virtually the profoundest statement we can make about God is that the Father is “in” the Son and the Son “in” the Father. It seems so simple that a child can see it. For what word can be simpler than in?”
    • What Made Paul Washer’s “Shocking Message” So Very Shocking? This looks like a very interesting series. Tim Challies writes “Today I am kicking off a new series of videos I’m calling The Great Sermon Series. The premise of the series is finding and examining modern-day sermons that the Lord has chosen to use in unusually significant ways. What we will find, I think, is that the Lord uses sermons to save, stir, and edify his people–and that sometimes he does this through unexpected messages and messengers. The series begins in 2002 in Montgomery, Alabama, with Paul Washer’s “Shocking Message.”

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10 Quotes about Servant Leadership from John Maxwell

I recently read John Maxwell’s classic book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of  Leadership with a mentee, something I’ve done a number of times over the past ten years. We came across Chapter 5: The Law of Addition, which states that leaders add value to others. This is perhaps my favorite of the laws. I wanted to share these 10 quotes on servant leadership from the chapter:

  • I believe the bottom line in leadership isn’t how far we advance ourselves but how far we advance others. That is achieved by serving others and adding value to their lives.
  • If you are a leader, then trust me, you are having either a positive or a negative impact on the people you lead. How can you tell? There is one critical question: Are you making things better for the people who follow you?
  • Being an “adder” requires me to get out of my comfort zone every day and think about adding value to others. But that’s what it takes to be a leader whom others want to follow.
  • The best place for a leader isn’t always the top position. It isn’t the most prominent or powerful place. It’s the place where he or she can serve the best and add the most value to other people.
  • Great leadership means great service.
  • When you add value to people, you lift them up, help them advance, make them a part of something bigger than themselves, and assist them in becoming who they were made to be.
  • Effective leaders go beyond not harming others, and they intentionally help others. To do that, they must value people and demonstrate that they care in such a way that their followers know it.
  • Leaders who add value by serving believe in their people before their people believe in them and serve others before they are served.
  • Inexperienced leaders are quick to lead before knowing anything about the people they intend to lead. But mature leaders listen, learn, and then lead. They listen to their people’s stories. They find out about their hopes and dreams. They become acquainted with their aspirations. And they pay attention to their emotions. From those things, they learn about their people. They discover what is valuable to them. And then they lead based upon what they’ve learned.
  • I believe that God desires us not only to treat people with respect, but also to actively reach out to them and serve them.

Do you have any good quotes about servant leadership to share?


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My Review of SGT. STUBBY:  AN AMERICAN HERO

Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero, rated PG
***

Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero is based on the true story of the official mascot of the 102nd Infantry Regiment in World War I, and the most decorated war dog in U.S. military history. I found the animated film both entertaining and interesting. However, with much of the film taking place during intense war action, I can’t say that this film is really family friendly and wonder if it will struggle finding an audience.
The film, which was endorsed by the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, was directed by Richard Lanni and written by Lanni and Mike Stokey. While the animation in the film was average at best, the musical score by two-time Oscar nominee Patrick Doyle (Hamlet, Sense and Sensibility) was superb, subtly adding a great deal to the film.
As the film begins, it is the early months of America’s involvement in World War I. We see a hungry stray Boston terrier looking for food. As a military parade goes by, a 25-year-old private Robert Conroy, voiced by Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson films, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), throws the hungry dog a cookie. The dog then follows Conroy and the rest of the men of the 102nd Infantry Regiment back to their training ground at Yale University. Conroy and the dog, whom he names Stubby due to his short tail, bond, and Conroy’s leadership allows the dog to stay and participate in the basic training exercises.  Stubby even learns how to salute. Conroy’s closest human friends are the German American Schroeder, voiced by Jim Pharr and Elmer, voiced by Jordan Beck.
When Conroy and his fellow troops are shipped out to the frontlines in France to assist the battle-weary French soldiers, Stubby somehow sneaks aboard the U.S.S. Minnesota. When he is discovered onboard, he becomes their official mascot and is even given his own dog tags.
In France the unit formed one of four infantry regiments in the 26th Division, which was nicknamed the “Yankee Division”, because it was made up of National Guard units from the New England states. The Yankee Division would take part in some of the most intense fighting of the Western Front in 1918, from February to November on the front lines, taking heavy casualties.
We see Stubby proving his worth, from scaring away rats, sniffing out the presence of the enemy, and in a powerful scene, warning French civilians of mustard gas that is coming into their village. For his actions in combat, Stubby was promoted to sergeant.
Oscar nominee Gerard Depardieu (Cyrano de Bergerac), voices the likable French soldier, and restaurant owner/chef, Gaston Baptiste. Although he is in good spirits, we see his weariness, the result of being in intense battles for years, and not having seen his family. Together, with Conroy and Stubby, the three form a bond, becoming the “Three Musketeers”.
Conroy’s sister Margaret, voiced by two-time Oscar nominee Helena Bonham Carter (The Kings Speech, The Wings of the Dove), narrates the film, giving the viewers updates on where Conroy and his fellow soldiers were, based on letters from the battlefield that she receives from her brother.  She was like a mother to him after they lost their parents.  Adults will find the history very interesting, but it will be over the heads of young viewers who will instead enjoy Stubby’s brave exploits.
The film shows the horrors of war (gun fighting, grenades, mustard gas, etc.), and also addresses issues such as German Americans fighting in the war, the deadly Spanish flu of 1918, and soldiers being wounded and killed.
I enjoyed Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero, and learned a lot about World War I. While the animation was just average, the film features an excellent musical score as it tells the stranger than fiction story of the most decorated dog in U.S. military history, who participated in 17 battles over 18 months. However, due to the intense war scenes that are included in the film, I do not consider this film to be for youngest viewers, and wonder if it will struggle to find an audience.  Themes in this film include sacrifice, teamwork, loyalty and friendship.


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My Review of ISLE OF DOGS

Isle of Dogs, rated PG-13
***

Isle of Dogs is a creative and entertaining stop motion animated film about a 12-year-old boy who searches for his loyal dog who has been banished to Trash Island as a result of the dog flu. The film is well made and includes some positive themes.
The film is directed by six-time Oscar nominee Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Royal Tenenbaums). It is written by Anderson, Oscar nominee Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom), Jason Schwartzman (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom), and Kunichi Nomura (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Lost in Translation). The strong cast includes four Oscar winners (F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens and Frances McDormand) and seven Oscar nominees (Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bryan Cranston, Greta Gerwig and Bob Balaban). The musical score is by two-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water, The Grand Budapest Hotel). The cinematography is by Tristan Oliver (Loving Vincent, Fantastic Mr. Fox).
The film is set twenty years in the future in Megasaki City, Japan. The city has a dog overcrowding problem plus the dogs all have snout fever and the dog flu. To protect the people of Megasaki City, Mayor Kobayashi, voiced by Kunichi Nomura, orders that all dogs are to be sent to Trash Island, a depressing and deserted island just off the coast of Japan where the city’s trash is sent. The dogs will have to fend for themselves on the island.
Mayor Kobayashi decides that the first of the dogs to be sent to Trash Island will be Spots, voiced by six-time Golden Globe nominee Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan).  Spots is the loyal guard dog for the mayor’s 12-year-old ward and nephew Atari, voiced by Koyu Rankin, whose parents were killed in a tragic accident.
Atari secretly decides to pursue Spots. They had each worn an earpiece which had served as a tracking device. Atari plans to use the tracking device to help him find Spots on Trash Island. Atari steals a small plane that he flies to the island where he meets a group of alpha dogs. They include a long-time stray and pack leader, Chief, voiced by Oscar nominee Bryan Cranston (Trumbo), former sports mascot Boss, voiced by Oscar nominee Bill Murray (Lost in Translation), King, a former dog food commercial star, voiced by Oscar nominee Bob Balaban (Gosford Park), Rex, voiced by three-time Oscar nominee Edward Norton (Birdman) and the island gossip Duke, voiced by Oscar nominee Jeff Goldblum (Little Surprises). The alpha dogs eventually agree to help Atari find Spots.
Four-time Golden Globe nominee Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation) portrays Nutmeg, a purebred and well-groomed dog who used to do tricks and demonstrates some of them for Chief.  Mayor Kobayashi sends his people to Trash Island to bring Atari back home.
Scientists back in Megasaki, led by Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) and his assistant, voiced by Yoko Ono, work on a dog flu vaccine. Tracy, voiced by Greta Gerwig, is a high school exchange student from Cincinnati, who is investigating the ouster of dogs for the Manifesto, the school newspaper.
The film is told with a prologue, four chapters and a flashback. The film was narrated by Golden Globe nominee Courtney B. Vance (American Crime Story). It includes some violence, which is usually obscured by dust clouds, which may remind you of the old Road Runner cartoons.
Isle of Dogs is a very creative animated film that contains witty humor and some positive messages; it is unlike any other animated movie you’ve seen.   Themes include friendship, kindness, evil, violence, repentance, sacrifice and reconciliation.
Content concerns include a small amount of adult language and brief nudity, not intended in a sexual nature. The film could easily have been rated PG, but I would hesitate to call it a children’s film as it is often dark.  But there’s enough humor written into the script (and the scene backdrops) to make it enjoyable.  You’ll love every time the dogs look into the camera.
It was also interesting to read a Japanese person’s enlightening view of the film in The New Yorker.


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MUSIC REVIEWS and NEWS

Resurrection Letters, Volume 1 – Andrew Peterson
****

Ten years ago, Andrew Peterson, one of our most respected singer/songwriters, was working on an album that he says was more or less on the resurrection of Jesus. As he started working on the songs, he realized that they actually were more about the way Jesus’ resurrection plays out in our lives rather than the resurrection itself. So, the album was creatively titled Resurrection Letters, Vol. 2.
This year, Peterson finally began work on Vol. 1 with producer Ben Shive, who also produced Vol. 2, ten years ago. But Peterson felt it would be odd to write about Jesus’s victory over death without spending time writing about his death itself. That led to an EP, Resurrection Letters: Prologue. See my review here.
Now it is time for Resurrection Letters, Vol. 1. And it has been worth the wait. A Deluxe Edition version includes Resurrection Letters: Prologue. Below are a few brief comments about each song on this wonderful collection from one of our best songwriters.

His Heart Beats –  This joyful song is about our Lord waking up, coming back to life in the grave. It begins with a drum beat that sounds like a heartbeat. It includes piano, drum, acoustic guitar and backing vocals. The Lamb of God slain for us is a lion ready to roar. His work is already done, he has defeated death, the final enemy, and the grave. Death no long has dominion over him. He took one breath and put death to death. The song includes the chorus of the much-loved Matthew Bridges 1851 hymn “Crown Him with Many Crowns”.
Key lyric: The blood that brought us peace with God is racing through his veins.
Risen Indeed – This is a song that Peterson wrote in 2009 on the Resurrection Letters Volume 2 tour and was saving to record for Resurrection Letters Vol. 1. The song begins with piano and builds with base and drum. He sings of Peter racing to the tomb and then of Jesus speaking Mary’s name. Abraham could not have dreamed of how all of those promises would be fulfilled in Jesus.
Key lyric: He is not dead; he is risen, risen indeed.
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