Saturday, November 21, 2009

Life if Beautiful: A Spiritual Perspective on Thanksgiving

(Read Luke 17:11-19 and Philippians 4:4-9)

Life is Beautiful. This is the name of an Italian film which was released in America in 1998 and won the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, as well as Best Actor.

Life is Beautiful begins as a whimsical, slapstick, romantic comedy. Guido, an Italian Jew, is a happy guy, wearing a big grin on his face, playing silly jokes on people, and trying to win the love of a woman named, Dora. Robert Benigni, who plays Guido in the film and who won the Best Actor Academy Award, sets the tone for this movie with his jovial, fun-loving, and kind –hearted personality.

But somewhere along the line, after Guido has won Dora’s heart, after they have had a son named, Giosue (Joshua), the circumstances of the whole family’s life turn from good to bad. You see, Life is Beautiful is set in Italy during World War II. And since Guido and Giosue are Jewish, they are arrested and taken to a concentration camp. Dora, though not Jewish, insists on going with her family when they are taken captive.

You would think that the tone of the film would change dramatically at this point, and I suppose a sort of melancholy or sadness does arise. But Guido remains the same loving, laughing, spirited guy. The title of the film, Life is Beautiful, becomes ironic as Guido tries to protect his son from the ugly realities of life in a concentration camp.

What Guido does, you see, is keep Giosue with him at the concentration camp, hiding him from the Nazi guards and sneaking him food. Guido convinces Giosue that the camp is just a game, in which the first person to get 1,000 points wins a tank. He tells Giosue that if he cries, complains that he wants his mother or complains that he is hungry, he will lose points, while quiet boys who hide from the camp guards continue to earn points. Guido convinces Giosue that the camp guards are mean because they want the tank for themselves and that all the other children are hiding in order to win the game. Despite being surrounded by rampant death and sickness, Giosue does not question the fictional reality his father constructs because of Guido’s convincing performance and the boy’s own innocence (partially quoted from wikipedia entry).

Guido maintains this story right until the end, when—in the chaos caused by the American advance–he tells Giosue to stay in a sweatbox until everybody has left, this being the final test before they will win the tank. After trying to find Dora, Guido is caught, taken away and shot by a Nazi guard, but not before making his son laugh one last time by imitating the Nazi guard as if the two of them are marching around the camp together. Giosue manages to survive and thinks he has won the game when an American tank arrives to liberate the camp. He is reunited with his mother, not knowing that his father has died. Years later, Giosue realizes the sacrifice his father made for him and how he kept him alive and happy even in the worst situation imaginable. (wikipedia entry).

This movie offers a perspective on life that many people would consider inconceivable: that life is beautiful even amidst tragedy.

When you think about it, perspective makes all the difference in life. Yes, life is filled with sin and sickness and suffering, with pain and cruelty, but it is still beautiful. Life is still filled with love. There are always people to care for and be with. There are always flowers to smell and songs to sing. There is always air to breathe, a heart with which to feel, and a spirit that wants to live and soar.

In the Gospel of Luke, nine lepers took what God had to give, and they literally ran away with it. By healing them, Jesus reintegrates these lepers into a society which had thrown them out, giving them a new lease on life. They run to the priests, as Jesus instructed, to receive their welcome back into society, but they do not come back to give thanks for what God has done.

“Where are they?” Jesus said. “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God?”

The Samaritan leper who returns to thank Jesus and praise God, he is the only one with an attitude of gratitude, the only one with the right perspective. He has the understanding necessary to truly appreciate life. All ten of the lepers were cured of their disease, but only the one who returns is truly made well. Only he is able to rejoice completely, in body, mind and spirit, with all that he is.

My friends, we are designed, we are created to rejoice and appreciate life. Life is beautiful. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Phillipians 4:4).

Philipians 4 says, “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

The holiday of Thanksgiving is upon us, and it is such an important spiritual holiday because it is one way of resisting all the worry and fear that we live with on a regular basis. For one day, we focus on the positive and not the negative. We focus on the blessing and the abundance. We celebrate what we have, instead of striving for something more. We allow ourselves the luxury of being content. For one day, we focus on all that is good in our lives, how life is beautiful, and let the troubles we normally give so much thought to fade into the background.

Thanksgiving is more than a day of the year though; thanksgiving is a perspective on life. Thanksgiving is an attitude. It’s a way of living; it is a way of looking at life and seeing that God has blessed us. To put those blessings at the forefront of our minds instead of taking them for granted is the point of giving thanks.

An attitude of gratitude or an attitude of thanksgiving keeps our eyes open to God’s goodness and presence in the world.

Tonight I encourage you to accept Paul’s challenging invitation in Philippians 4:8, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Don’t dwell on what is wrong in your life or with another person, but on what is right in your life and admirable in another person. Don’t fantasize about a life that you don’t have, but embrace what you do have. Don’t try to change what another person is feeling, but honor who they are and where they are at.

Most of all, don’t look at life and concentrate on the suffering. Look at life and see that life is beautiful, that heaven is all around.

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