Thursday, August 16, 2012

Paging Dr. Elvis

Thirty five years ago today, the King of Rock 'n' Roll left us. I wasn't born when Elvis Presley died, but for millions around the world, the moment they first heard the news is engraved in their memories. For millions more, his memory lives on. He continues to sell records and pack stadiums. Over 600,000 people flock to his Graceland mansion each year (I was there not long ago). He has his own 24/7 channel on SiriusXM satellite radio. And every year since his death, fans have gathered at the gates on August 15th to hold a candlelight vigil in Elvis' honor. Last night, Memphis police estimated a record 75,000 fans were in attendance!

Elvis in 'Change of Habit' ©1969 Universal Studios
Elvis as Dr. John Carpenter in 'Change of Habit'
If you're a fan like me, you know the words to many of his songs, maybe you've been to Graceland a time or two, and if you're not celebrating Elvis Week in Memphis, maybe you're watching TCM - they're playing 24 hours of Elvis movies today!

Elvis starred in 33 movies - 31 Hollywood features and 2 concert documentaries. Critics dismiss many of his films as formulaic musicals with little substance. However, Elvis always dreamed of being a serious actor like James Dean or Marlon Brando, and he occasionally got the chance to show what he could do. Fans often point to Jailhouse Rock and King Creole as proof of Elvis' acting abilities. I want to look at another his more serious films and point out some lasting lessons that are worth your time whether you're a fan like me or not.

For much of the '60s, Elvis gave up the concert stage to pursue his film career, but when the roles he was given began to bore him, he wondered if he still had what it took to carry a live show. Then, following the enormous success of the '68 Comeback Special, Elvis decided to put the movies on hold and get back on tour. Change of Habit was Elvis' last big acting commitment - part of the contract with NBC-Universal that allowed him to make the '68 Special. In this final feature, he breaks the mold, singing only four songs and addressing some controversial social issues.

The flick co-stars Mary Tyler Moore as Sister Michelle, the leader of three Catholic nuns on a secret mission. Forsaking their habits in favor of more typical civilian clothing (thus the title of the film), the sisters take nursing positions under the leadership of Dr. John Carpenter (Elvis) in a poor neighborhood. Their goal is to get to know the needs of people in the community while avoiding the stigma that might come if people knew their true identities. What happens, however, not only teaches them about the people's problems, but also about problems within the Church.

Right away, when the young missionaries move into their new home, their neighbors are unhappy. Basing their opinions solely on the trio's appearances, the ladies upstairs assume the worst, yelling down from their window that the newcomers are not welcome. One lady tells the other they should call the local priest to warn him about the girls. When the secret sisters enter their apartment and we hear this exchange -

Sister Irene: "I think our neighbors are Catholic."
Sister Michelle: "Yes, it's too bad they're not Christians!"

Sister Michelle leading prayer in 'Change of Habit' Sister Michelle (Mary Tyler Moore) leads prayer in 'Change of Habit' ©1969 Universal Studios
Sister Michelle leads the nuns in prayer as skeptical Dr. Carpenter looks on
- this is not a cut against Catholics in general: it's a reminder that hatefulness and negativity are not compatible with the Gospel message of love. Sadly, Christians have earned a reputation for being close-minded and judgmental, but this is not what we're called to be. While the Bible instructs us to call people to repent of their sins, it also reminds us to do so lovingly, and to treat everyone honorably. We should not be ashamed to tell it like it is, but we must also be kind in the process.

"Be ready at all times to answer anyone 
who asks you to explain the hope you have in you, 
but do it with gentleness and respect."
- 1 Peter 3:15b-16a (GNT)

If we have become frustrated and bitter with the world, the doctor prescribes a change of habit. We should remember the grace God has given us, that we might extend it to others (see Matthew 18:21-35). It's not always easy, I know! But perhaps it would be easier if we take the advice of one of Elvis' later songs, and try to look at things from the other person's perspective.

Not only individuals, but the Church also needs a change of habit. For decades we've done things the same way because we don't like change, but sometimes it's necessary. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with tradition - many of our traditions are good - but to reach people in an ever-changing world, we need to be open to the idea that God may want to move us in new ways.

In the movie, Father Gibbons didn't want to change. He was set in his ways and didn't believe there was anything wrong with the way he ran things. In fact, to suggest there was room for improvement was an insult that, to him, smacked of arrogance. When Sister Michelle tried to point out that the church was not connecting with the people, Father Gibbons would hear none of it. "Don't instruct me, sister," he snapped. "I've preached more sermons in my time than you'll ever hear!" Father Gibbons didn't want help - "For 43 years, I've managed without you." - but he was in desperate need of it. Note that rather than looking for answers to the neighborhood's problems, he cowered in fear behind the locked doors of the church!

What is the answer? The movie doesn't say outright, but it does give us a few clues.

For one thing, Christians should not be hiding from the world's problems behind locked doors. We should be involved in helping people find solutions. Maybe that means starting a support group for single mothers, or helping people with drug addictions, or starting a prison outreach. In the movie, one nun decided to stand against inequality at a local grocery store. Another stood up to an oppressive mafia-type character. We should get to know the needs of those we're serving, and then get involved (James 4:17). As one character put it, "You're either part of the problem or you're part of the solution." If we do nothing, we only allow things to get worse, but if we let the Lord lead us, we can do amazing things!

"For God has not given us a spirit of fear, 
but of power and of love and of a sound mind."
- 2 Timothy 1:7 (NKJV)

Whatever we're doing, we should be giving people hope. After getting to know the neighborhood, the sisters decided to host a celebration to remind people where they came from and encourage them that better things are yet to come. People who know us should be blessed and encouraged every time we meet them, and we should look for ways to help them. Of course, the greatest hope we have is in the Lord Jesus Christ, who forgives sins and offers eternal blessings. May we live and speak in such a way that no one will encounter us without also encountering our Lord! (Acts 1:8)

On the individual level, this can be lived out in different ways. Sister Barbara chose to leave the convent behind and start a social activist group. Sister Irene chose to return to the convent and work from within the Church's infrastructure. But as the film ends, Sister Michelle struggles to find the best way to serve the Lord and do the most good. Just because the ministry is your vocation, that doesn't mean you're doing the most good (as seen in Father Gibbons in most of the film), and just because you choose a secular vocation, that doesn't mean you're not still serving the Lord (notice that Barbara is still in church at the end, even though she is no longer a nun).

The King of Rock 'n' Roll may have left us, but we serve a greater King who lives and reigns forever.

The same questions faced by the three nurses and Dr. Carpenter in Change of Habit echo on for us:
 How do you live out your calling to serve the Lord?
Are you doing the most good you can do?
Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?
Are you leading people into greater fear or into greater hope in the Lord Jesus?
What habits do you need to change today?
As we consider these questions, may the words of this song be our prayer:


1 comment :

  1. Good job, Kylevis! Glad ya'll made it back home safely. We do indeed serve a greater King who lives and reigns forever. And He is the same yesterday, today and forever!



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