Faith and Film (prt. 3): Rocky

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By Joe LaGuardia

Watching Rocky was a family affair growing up in the LaGuardia household. Not only did we watch every Rocky movie as a family, we literally saw our family in the series reflected back to us.

There was Rocky, a metaphoric character for my father. He, like Rocky, lacked certain social graces and came from a middle class neighborhood not too different from Philadelphia (he was from Brooklyn).

He came from a family of boxers, and he managed to woo my mother with the gift of gab: Legend has it that he walked up to my mother in a club and said, “See this place? I own this place! Wanna’ dance?”

Adrian is very much like my mother. Shy and mild-mannered, my mother worked hard to get beyond my father’s big personality and shadow.

Micky is my grandfather. I don’t say, “Like my grandfather,” because he practically is my grandfather. Micky (Burgess Meredith) and my grandfather talk the same, sound the same, have the same mannerisms, share the same punch-drunk broken-flat nose, and echo similar “boxer” colloquials: Grandpa’s favorite line of advice was (in Burgess Meredith brough), “Hit ’em low! Sweet and low!”

My grandfather taught self-defense and boxing in the Navy in World War 2, and he went on to train boxers in the Brooklyn neighborhood he lived all his life. He was a part of the Police Athletic League (PAL) and helped keep kids off the streets by focusing on family and fitness (sound familiar?).

I would say that Paulie resembles one of my sisters (Gina), but that wouldn’t be fair. Or nice, although she and Paulie do share a certain restless energy. (And I think both my sisters would make intimidating and frightening loan sharks, or assassins like Alicia Keys and Tereji Hensen in Smokin’ Aces.)

Where am I in all this? I’m Butkiss the dog, merely observing all the action swirling around me…

I write all of this for the fact that I am not quite sure how the Rocky franchise has shaped my faith. It’s like trying to ask whether my faith is a product of nature or nurture–it just is so intertwined in my life as a cult film that I have no doubt it contributed to my upbringing in a major, albeit subtle way.

Perhaps the greatest contribution comes from the first Rocky installment. There, Rocky has a coming of age journey in which he meets Adrian, realizes he is not cut out for life in the mob, and gains prestige not by winning the “big fight”, but by staying on his feet.

That is a mirror of my life in so many ways! I’ve never been a winner in big things: I never held a job that made lots of money, and I was never the popular kid in school. I’ve never gone against big shots, but I like to think that I have been able to stay on my feet to the fifteenth round. I believe that dedication, determination, and faithfulness—not some flashy pitch or manipulative marketing–is what gets you through the next round.

I have come of age facing a fork in the road: One road, the wide road was that of living into an Italian stereotype of being a tough guy, muscling my way to destruction. The second road was the narrow way of giving up my familial identity and surrendering everything to the non-violent Christ, including the tough guy vibe.

I must admit that my wife was a little upset when I turned in the sleeveless shirt and Camaro for Oxford shirts and a Honda, something she reminds me of every wedding anniversary (“You remember, when I met you, you were…”).

Thanks to Netflix streaming service, my son and I began to watch the Rocky series–his first time through it. I wondered what things he might pick up from the series. My father passed away when my son was young, but my son wears my father’s boxing trousers and glittering boxing shirt around the house sometimes in his honor.

My son never knew his great-grandfather, so Micky doesn’t hold the same hypnotic sway over him, and he wasn’t raised to be a tough guy, so that is not one of the “coming of age” conflicts that confronts him.

He left me half-way through the first film because he was bored.

Tonight we started watching Rocky II, and my son is giving another go at it. As we sat together, however, I felt myself falling into some of the attitudes I haven’t faced in a long time, including that dastardly fork.

I am finding it hard to stop the film and move into the real world of my life now. Nostalgia works that way sometimes, threatening to hold us down to the point of drowning us in the past.

That is the difficulty of the thing. Dad and Grandpa are gone. Mom has found her voice in a second marriage upon living independently (and doing an amazing job of it) in the last six years. I can’t afford a Camaro because I have big-boy bills to pay. And my wife complains more of my eating habits than the shirts I wear (or don’t wear, rather). The last time I went to Brooklyn was for my grandpa’s funeral over a decade ago. When I preach, I keep the tough-guy, New York lingo to a minimum–only when I’m cracking a joke (a “wise crack!”) now and then.

Rocky presents for me a conundrum whereby I am introducing my son to a life he’ll never know and saying goodbye once and for all to a life that has slipped out of my fingers and no longer exists. Perhaps the movie moves me to grief more than anything else. It is a letting go…and a letting God.

Despite natural disasters, God is still in charge

IMG_2094In early June, a group of us from Trinity Baptist went on a mission trip to my home town of Staten Island, New York.  There, we helped rebuild a home damaged by Superstorm Sandy in one of the hardest hit areas, the New Dorp community.

I’ve been on mission trips before, so I had some idea of what to expect: long days, hot weather in dark places without the comfort of either air conditioning or adequate lighting, questionable food that likely was not on my diet.  But, aside from the fact that some of this was true, it was a relatively easy-going trip.

There was no air conditioner, but there was a constant cool breeze coming off of the beach.  The food was pretty good, and the homeowner was nice enough to bring us pizza for lunch a few days while we were there.  For a bunch of misfit missionaries tasked to help relief efforts in a destitute place, we had it made.

IMG_2097While I worked comfortably, I couldn’t help but think of the irony of the whole thing. We were on mission in a place that faced some of the most treacherous natural disasters last year.  While I was thanking God for cool weather, it was weather that damaged the house in the first place.  While the group and I asked God’s blessing on pizza, families had been torn asunder and would never eat with loved ones ever again.

IMG_1966Although official reports gave a modest statistic that less than 150 people died in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, there were untold hundreds more–at least 200 in Staten Island alone–who died as undocumented victims.  These were illegal immigrants who were either unclaimed by loved ones (for fear that they would be deported) or unrecognizable by authorities.

People lose their lives in our nation every day–by natural disasters, gun violence, random auto accidents, you name it–and I’m worried about lunch.  Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned in New York was humility and who is really in charge.

“God is our refuge and strength,” the author of Psalm 46 wrote, “a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change..though its waters roar and foam” (v. 1-2, 3).

I think we would all do well to run to God as one who provides refuge because all of us will face hardship one way or another.  I may have helped someone with their home last week, but it may be my roof next week that gets smashed by a windswept pine tree and needs volunteers for rebuilding.  You never know.

IMG_2088Psalm 46 encourages us to seek God as a refuge because we need to rely on God no matter where we are in life.  Only then do we discover that His presence has a calming affect: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God” (v. 4).  Floods may come, but water becomes an obedient river at God’s feet.

We will certainly be in need a time or too, and at other times we will whine and complain that the air conditioning is broken or lunch was lousy, but we all need to heed the challenge of Psalm 46:8: “Come, behold the works of the Lord.”

IMG_2112I saw what kind of destruction an 18-foot storm surge can bring, but I also beheld how a small group from Conyers could create a new floor, walls, and laughter for a family who lost everything.  It was not the hardest trip I’ve ever taken, but it was certainly a memorable experience fit for the Kingdom of God.

We are thankful to our church, Trinity Baptist Church, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia for providing the resources for making this trip a reality.  We also thank Church at the Gateway, Staten Island, New York, and Touch the World Ministries in hosting and facilitating groups in Staten Island.

Final leg of New York, superstorm Sandy networking trip

1351685806-Statue_of_Liberty_SandyMonday was the final day of our trip, and Darrell and I had to travel–with luggage in tow–from Staten Island to Manhattan where we met some folks at Metro Baptist Church.  It required two trains and a ferry, all through a thick soupy fog that did not allow us to glimpse Mother Liberty whatsoever.

Both of us have good ties with Metro: I know the pastor from undergraduate college in Florida, and Darrell knows the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel stationed there in the Big Apple.  The trip was personal and professional, and I was happy to see Pastor Alan again.

We broke bread together at a local diner and shared stories.  Metro has been on the leading edge of moving supplies to Sandy victims throughout the city, as far as Brooklyn and New Jersey.  No sooner did the storm hit did other CBF churches and partners contact the historic, urban church as a way to mobilize support.

We told them of our efforts over the past four days and our growing network in Staten Island.  They admitted that their relief efforts had yet to extend to the island, not for lack of trying but for lack of sustainable partnerships.  They were impressed with our–and Trinity’s, as small as it is–commitment to help the storm-ravished borough.

We spent the rest of the day walking the city and familiarizing ourselves with the Port Authority, where we later caught a bus to LaGuardia airport.  We were disheartened, however, to hear that Southwest Airlines was having issues in Baltimore, and that our flight to Georgia was going to be delayed.

We headed to the airport and caught a flight to Baltimore where we waited for the next plane over 4 hours.  I had plenty of time to reflect on our trip, and two little circumstances helped bring the trip to some sense of closure.

The first circumstance was quite mundane, but profound. I purchased Jon Meacham’s new book, Thomas Jefferson and the Art of Power to read while waiting, and the book was captivating from the start.  I knew the quality of Meacham’s writing from Newsweek, (editor-in-chief for a time), and from his last Pulitzer-prize winning book on Andrew Jackson, American Lion, so I wasn’t surprised at how good the book was.

Meacham’s introduction recalls the grace and gifted leadership of Jefferson, a man well ahead of his time and passionate about politics, religion, science, and the arts.  Jefferson, a founder of our country and president from 1801 to 1804, proved to be a keen leader who, in the words of Meacham, knew how to bend history and progress in the nation’s favor.

This was profound to me.  Finding myself to be a citizen of a nation that’s wrestled with an anxious election season this past November and the current partisan crisis looming over the so-called “fiscal cliff,” I realized that leadership is not something to take lightly and rush.  Leadership is something that requires prayer and patience, gravitas and–if Jefferson was correct–a certain amount of creative diplomacy.

I spent four days meeting with various churches and pastors, family and friends alike, and I know that the power to harness these relationships and help a community in need is what might tip the scales in our favor and once again bend history and progress towards effective ministry.  Collaboration, which I am convinced is one of the few ways to move Christ’s Church forward with some efficacy and grace in the new millennium, takes some creative diplomacy!  It’s lofty, for sure, but I think a little “lofty” can go a long way now and then.

The second circumstance that seemed a fitting end to our trip happened on the plane from Baltimore to Atlanta.  It was a late flight, no thanks to the delay, and everyone seemed to be either sleeping or reading.  I devoted time to looking at a clear midnight sky that kissed the constellations Orion and Canis Major, Canis Major being home to our solar system’s closest (and brightest) star, Sirius.

Meteors were falling around midnight, and I watched in awe at how they looked very differently when observed from 30,000 feet.

And then it happened:  A long streak of blue flame and sparks billowing like a locomotive dropped past the plane.  It was a meteor so close to our plane that its trajectory started above our altitude and ended well below it.  I knew it was close because it passed between the plane and a well-lit city located not 20 or 30 miles away from us.

I assume that if the meteor was the size of a school bus, it may be much farther than I surmised–perhaps 10 miles off our wing.  But if it was the size of something smaller, say, my Toyota hatchback, then it couldn’t have been more than a half mile to a mile off.

It happened so suddenly I didn’t have time to get anyone’s attention.  Since no one else saw it, I am now officially calling it my “Man on the Wing” experience.  Twilight Zone fans will appreciate the reference.

No matter how close or far it came, I was mystified with its power and concluded that it was nothing short of a miracle.  Now, I know meteors are no miracles, but the fact that I saw it was indeed miraculous–that I can share in that moment, perhaps with no one other than God and the stars above, a mighty phenomenon rarely observed that closely.

After we landed, I asked a few people about it and also spoke with the captain.  With weary looks, they all politely humored me, but I knew I couldn’t explain something that amazing.

God has a mission and purpose for each of us.  We all try to explain it, some even try to explain it away: But God shows us what we need to do and expects us to do it.  Sometimes we try and force God’s purpose for us on others; but, most often, when God calls us to something specific, we have to go it alone, with only the heavens and God along for the ride.

Upon my return to Atlanta, I will explain the need to help families rebuild in Staten Island.  I realize that people did not see what Darrell and I saw; nor have they experienced the trip, with all its adventures and rich stories.  So goes the life of a minister: We try to tell stories and hope people commit to be a participant in them rather than respond with a kind gesture and weary, “I’ll leave that to you” look in their eye.  Leadership insights and falling stars aside, I can only do so much; God has to take care of the rest.