We love a redemption story.
The profound appeal of rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches or the fall-from-grace-followed-by-a-spectacular-comeback is about as ingrained in our American psyche (and soul) as rooting for the underdog, generosity to those in distress and second chances.
When I walked into the movie theater earlier this month for an 11 a.m. show of the new film Crazy Heart, I was expecting to love it. I am a die-hard Jeff Bridges fan (he is the Dude, after all) and almost as big a fan of T Bone Burnett who co-wrote much of the original music for the film.
What I wasn't anticipating was being deeply moved spiritually -- transformed by it, in some small way, really.
As I sat through the previews in the darkened, almost empty theater, I did something I haven't done before in that kind of a venue: I prayed.
For whatever reason, I felt led to talk to God before the film started. "Help me to see what you want me to see in this movie," I prayed. "Let me be open and awake to your truth in it. Allow it to change me."
Crazy Heart is an extraordinarily beautiful film about real redemption. Bridges, who plays the protagonist, Bad Blake, and rightfully took home a best actor Golden Globe last week, gives the performance of his already august career. Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing Jean Craddock, a fledgling journalist and Blake's love interest, is so good and true and believable that she more than once moved me to tears.
Bad Blake is a down-on-his-luck country singer who lives on the margins, basking in the last vestiges of the light of tremendous success he enjoyed some years earlier, before alcoholism and despair all but snuffed it out.
Despite the nickname he embraces with a swagger, Blake is not a bad man. He is weak and ill, floundering in the hell he has created for himself with one unfortunate decision after another and the albatross of addiction.
Blake has redeeming qualities. He is a remarkably talented musician. He tells true stories of pain and loss. And he possesses a yearning for and ability to love ardently.
He is not a lost cause, even if he doesn't believe that about himself much of the time.
When he opens his heart to love and be loved, he is transformed, though not without once again stumbling over his own weakness and selfishness.
Blake is on his last legs, but he's not out of chances.
He just needs to make enough room in his topsy-turvy world for them to happen.
As I watched the film and listened to the glorious music (Bridges has a beautiful voice, as does Colin Farrell, who plays Tommy Sweet, a country superstar who was mentored by Blake and owes him a debt for his mega-success), the big story behind (or above) the plot began to come into focus.
While God is not a character listed in the credits, I believe the film is told through God's gracious, and sometimes mournful eyes.
Blake is loved and cherished, beautifully and wonderfully made -- a creator in the image of the Creator.
But he keeps getting in his own way, repeatedly screwing up, failing and disappointing himself and those who care for him most.
He hits bottom and rises.
Still, in the midst of true redemption, not all is set right. There is no magic pill, no secret password to undoing all he's done. He has to live with the consequences of his mistakes. But he lives. And there is hope for beauty and love in his future.
A magnificent, heartbreaking song emerges from the pain and destruction. It's called "The Weary Kind," and serves as the musical theme for the film.
It says, in part:
Your body aches...
Playing your guitar and sweating out the hate
The days and the nights all feel the same
Whiskey has been a thorn in your side
and it doesn't forget
the highway that calls for your heart inside
And this ain't no place for the weary kind
And this ain't no place to lose your mind
And this ain't no place to fall behind
Pick up your crazy heart and give it one more try
Bad Blake's is a weary redemption. But he is redeemed.
I walked out of the theater and checked my voicemail. There was a message from my editor at the Sun-Times asking me to give him a call.
I knew why he was calling before he told me. My journey at the paper was over.
The reasons for my departure from the paper where I've written about God and faith and religion and what (and why) we believe, are sadly familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the slow decline of the Fourth Estate in recent days.
Budgets are being cut. The news hole in the physical paper is shrinking.
The man who dispatched me is the same fellow who hired me a decade ago. I cannot imagine he took any pleasure in sending me on my way.
Learning that my tenure at the paper was over left me feeling sad and, yes, weary.
As grateful as I am for the extraordinary opportunities, both professional and personal, my time at the Sun-Times has given me, I was even more grateful for the transformation of my heart that had taken place in that dark theater.
My heart was soft and pliant. I was not angry or bitter.
I was, and am, grateful. For the door closing and another that is sure to open.
For lessons hard learned.
For encountering the living God in unexpected places.
And for the hope of redemption.
Thank you for taking this journey with me and I wish you grace and traveling mercies for whatever happens next.