“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”
I met my wife in an elevator in Burbank. (A line that’s more humorous if you’re aware how Johnny Carson said the line “beautiful downtown Burbank” when he was the king of late night TV.)
My wife to be was obviously moving into the large apartment complex where I lived but turned down my request to help. But later she did say she could use assistance getting a TV up to her apartment. I’ve often thought if it wasn’t for that TV my whole life would be different. In some ways the movie La La Land is an echo of our story. I was a photographer/film school student from Florida and she was a model/actress/pianist from Colorado. Our studio apartments just happened to be in the same building on the same floor. A different version of that is played out everyday in Los Angeles.
To make a long story short—my wife and I have been married 31 years. If you knew us then you probably wouldn’t have bet on that relationship lasting a year. This is my Christmas story.
My favorite Christmas movie isn’t a Christmas movie— but it’s one I watch every a year or two, usually around Christmas time. In fact, I watched it in the pre-dawn hours this Christmas morning. Tender Mercies just hits me in the heart. It always has. I saw it three times in the theaters when it first came out in 1983. I was in film school at the time and I couldn’t tell you then why that film resonated so much with me. And I’m not sure I can now.
I’m very comfortable with the mysteries of the heart. I do know that in a world of cookie cutter Hollywood filmmaking Tender Mercies shines today just as it did over 30 years ago. Robert Duvall won his sole Academy Award for his role and Horton Foote won an Oscar for his screenplay. (Tender Mercies also earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Song, and for Bruce Beresford’s directing.)
The acting (Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Wilford Brimley, Ellen Barkin, Allan Hubbard, and,of course, Duvall), the cinematography of Oscar-winner Russell Boyd, the art direction of Jeannine Oppewall, the editing of William M. Anderson—and probably 100 other talented people— create a feast of understated and authentic filmmaking. It’s also a study in minimalism.
How this movie is not on the AFI top 100 list is beyond me. It’s easily one of my top ten all-time favorite movies, right up there with On the Waterfront. But beyond the performance praise there is a redemptive theme that runs through the story.
So Tender Mercies came into my life in 1983, my wife in 1984 in that elevator in Burbank, and then in 1985 I had another encounter, also in Burbank. After two years and through many relational ups and downs with my future wife we walked into Emmauel Church where Steve Goold was the pastor.
This is where the story takes a major twist. You could call subtitle this A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Hollywood. It wasn’t as dramatic as Moses and the burning bush, Jacob wrestling with the angel, or Paul on the road to Tarsus, but it was life changing.
Like Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies I had a transformation. Culturally I was raised in the Christian tradition, loved Christmas like most kids, but you wouldn’t have looked at my life and seen a spiritual heartbeat. What you would find was a life that to say it politely was messy. (Just like that Duvall character in Tender Mercies.)
Pastor Steve (as we called him) was the key person in my life to change that. He was around 40 years old at the time and had Hollywood good looks, but much more importantly he was full of wisdom and grace. No man has had a greater impact for good on my life.
And while I moved from California two years after I met him, our paths crossed with his wife Pam for dinners and conversations in Florida, Iowa, and Minneapolis. And over the years we also talked on the phone and traded emails. Pastor Steve weighed in on some of the biggest decisions of my life and gave me direction.
“The goal of our instructions is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”
The Apostle Paul
Sometimes people come into your life sometimes only for a short season, but leave a lasting ripple effect. Pastor Steve was that person for my wife and I. When I heard that he died in September I felt a mixture of grief and gratitude.
I will always be thankful that Pastor Steve showed us tender mercies. And if you encounter one person like that in your life consider yourself fortunate. And on this Christmas day, I do not say this lightly, but Pastor Steve exemplified what it meant to be the hands and feet of Christ as he ministered to lost and broken people.
P.S. Let me add that over the years I’ve visited a wide variety of churches including Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Brethren, Spanish Pentecostal, Congregational, African-American, Lutheran, charismatic, Evangelical Free, community/non-denominational, conservative, liberal, and the one thing I can say is you won’t find uniformity in the Christian faith, but you will find unity. And that unity centers on why people around the world still celebrate Christmas day—about finding “a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
Two days ago the New York Times published an Op-Ed piece titled Am I a Christian Timothy Keller? Keller (@timkellernyc) is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhatten (“A church where skeptics are welcomed.”) As a video producer I’ve had the good fortune to work with Keller a couple of times. If your life is messy and you’re looking for some tender mercies I’d recommend checking out his books (Hidden Christmas) and/or podcasts.
Horton Foote (1916-2009)
Screenwriting Quote #56 (Horton Foote)
Postcard #6 (Waxachacie, TX) Area where Tender Mercies was shot)
New Hope “Hope is a dangerous thing.”—Red in The Shawshank Redemption
Scott W. Smith