Spoiler-free Monsters University Review

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We don’t go to the movies often, but Pixar movies are are never missed in the Toy household. So last Saturday, Sarabeth and I went on a date to see Pixar’s newest film, Monsters University. 

You’ll recall 2001’s Monsters Inc. being about monsters, but there was nothing scary about it (which actually made it even more brilliant). The prequel however, capitalizes on the scare factor, especially in the dark and phenomenal third act. I’m not sure how it received a G rating – just make sure your four year olds are okay with monsters creeping beside sleeping children’s bedsides.

And, actually, the above point is a compliment. I loved how much darker this movie was (though not quite Toy Story 3 dark, but definitely scarier). But upping the fear factor isn’t the only risk Pixar takes in Monsters University. The message itself is very bold, which serves as yet another strength for the film.

We all remember growing up watching animated movies tell us that we can be anything we want to be if we just believe enough and blah, blah, blah. Well, Ratatouille was the first film to tell children otherwise. “Not everyone can be a great cook…” A few more Pixar movies hinted at these harsh truths, then Disney itself started to jump on the truth-bandwagon (once Lasseter took the helm, it seems) with Wreck it Ralph (he still had to play the bad guy at the end of the movie).

Monsters University comes out and just says it: You might not be good enough at what you want to do; your dreams might not actually come true.

And I love that! It’s the truth every kid needs to hear but few people are brave enough to tell them.

As for the film itself, it won’t likely be my immediate go-to when I need a Pixar fix on a rainy day (it falls somewhere between Cars and Wall-e), but it was far worth our admission price. The jokes were slick and continuous, the story was fluid and engaging and if you liked Sulley and Mike in the first movie, you’ll absolutely fall in love with them in this one.

The new cast of characters is enjoyable and a welcome addition to the Pixar family (I especially liked Art, the dim-witted hippy). And Dan is a monster any man stuck in a dead-end job can relate to.

So the big question is: is it better than Monsters Inc.? Well, I’ll have to watch it a couple more times when I get it for my birthday in November (another tradition in our house) before I make that decision. (In my experience, Pixar movies get better with age, so I expect MU will be no different.) But I can say that it makes the original Monsters sweeter, and gives it more substance than it already had (as if it lacked any to begin with).

Can’t wait to revisit Monsters University, especially with kids. We’ll just hold them extra tight during the scary scenes, and those will be great memories to look back on in years to come. Go see it and let me know what you think!

Why Pixar is Superior

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It’s almost impossible to turn a corner in the street or flip through the TV and not see an ad for Disney/Pixar’s newest movie, Monsters University, which comes out this week. Sarabeth and I don’t go to the theaters often, but every summer we make an exception to hit the newest Pixar movie. This Saturday, for us, will be no exception.

You would be hardpressed to meet a person – kid or grown-up – who hasn’t seen at least two Pixar films in their lifetime. I always feel so sorry for the people who refuse to see “cartoons” because they think they’re just for kids. (Silly people – it’s the movies, not Trix!) Now, I can understand if some people can’t tell the difference between a Dreamworks movie and  Pixar movie (or even that there is a difference). If I was uneducated in this complex, competitive field of arts, and I went and saw… oh, I don’t know, Monsters vs. Aliens (DW), I would probably swear off those dumb “Disney cartoons” too.

But here’s what I’d like to say to those people. There is a difference – many, many, many differences – between Disney/Pixar “cartoons” and other cartoon movies.

For the purposes of keeping this post short, I’ll only be picking on Dreamworks, since it is Pixar’s most jealous rival. I’d also like to hear from you, the readers, your thoughts on the subject, as I haven’t quite yet figured out all of the major differences.

Dreamworks has produced some great stuff in the past – don’t get me wrong. I’ll never forget how groundbreaking Shrek was (its immediate sequel remains my favorite of the series), and How to Train Your Dragon, which came out more than a decade later, was a poignant, memorable, and honorable movie, worth many revisits. Oh, and I enjoyed Over the Hedge, but still, it was an afterthought just now. 

But the rest of their movies? They just seem to rely on pop-culture icons as fallback jokes, unnecessary innuendos that you can probably find in any Jim Carrey movie, and big-name stars as their voice actors that really don’t seem like they fit the character they’re playing.

Shark Tale, Flushed Away, Shrek the Third, and Bee Movie happen to be among the worst movies I’ve ever seen – (Megamind was the end of the road for me.) And the rest (save for the three mentioned above) were highly forgettable.

But a Pixar movie? Those are the ones that stay with you for a long time. I’ll give you Cars 2. That one was a mistake and shouldn’t have been made. But 1 out of 13 ain’t bad, right? And judging by the early reviews of Monsters University, it looks like it’s about to be 1 bad apple in 14.

The thing with Pixar movies that sets them apart from others is that their characters are flawed, and relatable, and in the end, selfless and loyal. I love that Pixar – and Disney, really – are still imparting these virtues to our children, and reminding us adults what it means to love and be faithful. These are the themes that bleed from these films, and never in a cheesy way.

Speaking of values and morals, I hear Monsters University takes its viewers in a very bold direction, and imparts a bit of  the world’s harsh realities to its younger viewers. I can’t wait to see this movie. I have refrained from watching the full trailer, so I’ll be in for many fun surprises. The video I have posted below is not a trailer nor a spoiler. It’s just a fun 30 second promo to get you pumped for seeing Monsters University.

Monsters University Acceptance

A Very Good Date Movie

“Chick flicks” are like nails on a chalkboard to me. Not only because of the goofball characters, shallow dialogue and lack of substance, but because everyone assumes that the couple lives happily ever after just because the girl finally agrees to go on a date with the guy who’d been begging for the past 90 minutes. I think it can only be considered a true happy ending if the couple actually seals their vows under the alter at the end of the movie. I used to call that a complete love story.

And then I got married.

Now I know that wooing the beautiful girl was just the easy part – the prologue, if you will. But it’s marriage that really bears the weight of true “happily ever” love. And most of the time, it doesn’t hold it. I’m sure there are plenty of readers who are wanting out of their marriage, or are doubting the stability of their love for one another. Our pastor preached a wonderful sermon on marriage last Sunday at Ninth and O Church, and you can listen to it here, called, “When Marital Dreams Turn to Matrimonial Nightmares.”

I consider the movie Sweet Home Alabama one of the best love stories to come out of the recent Hollywood vault. (The biggest reason is because there’s no sexuality. Some dialogue and projected world views might be unsuitable for children.) I’m sure there are others out there that are better, but like I mentioned, I don’t go out hunting for these types of movies. I consider it one of the best because it’s a movie about a fight for a broken marriage hanging on the balance between a second chance and divorce. What’s wonderful about it, is that the featured couple really never work things out between themselves, but they still give their marriage another go – they don’t wait till everything’s “perfect.” There are a couple of silly scenes, but all in all, I recommend it for spouses who need a boost of marital inspiration.

We live in a society that proclaims, if you’re not happy, then you’re free to go. That is the biggest piece of garbage that this country has swallowed. You divorce your spouse to hunt for another escapade, repeat the honeymoon, get married, have a bunch of fights … then what? You will never be fully happy with the person (or people) you married, but you will find the most joy in looking back at a lifelong commitment, unbroken by temptations and strife from within and outside the marriage. (Check out the movie Up for the best picture of marriage I’ve ever seen outside of real life). There’s joy. There’s happiness. Looking at your partner of so many years knowing that nothing has torn you two apart, as wild as a roller coaster you’ve been on, even when all things seemed hopeless.

If you’re stuck in a rut in your marriage, or if you just want out, or if you can’t stand just one more fight, I challenge you to get on your knees this very moment and beg the Creator of marriage to give you just a little bit more strength, a little bit more wisdom. Women and sisters in Christ, ask for a gentle and quite spirit which can prove to be more seductive than lipstick and perfume. Men and brothers, ask for the desire for integrity and dignity to stick with your marriage, through thick and thin, spurring every outside lust and temptation, and focus your attention back on your wife.

Couples, listen to the sermon, send the kids to bed early and have a date night and watch Sweet Home Alabama, and enjoy this excerpt from my upcoming novel The Man in the BoxRobbie Lake has been wanting out of his marriage due to the mundane nature of family life. So he finds a secret world hidden in a cardboard box which he returns to over and over again, fighting monsters and being hailed as a god – the complete opposite of home life. And one day his dad, noticing his family suffering the consequences of his absence, confronts him:

“I know I didn’t teach you much even when your mom was alive. But I had always hoped that you’d learned at least a little something from us while you could. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my marriage and I’m sure you have too, but the important thing is that you still get through them all. I don’t care if your kids rebel and run out on you, I don’t care if you lose all your money and you end up on the street, just as long as you end up on the street together. I pulled a lot of crap with your mother, but I never walked out on her.”

“You were let off easy because she died.”

“No. I still think about her. I still miss her. I wish we had more time together. Her dying only proved that had I left her when I wanted, it would have been the biggest mistake of my life. But you and your issues that you’ve got with someone else or your work or whatever… you’ve got to deal with it if you’re at all serious about staying with Rosalynn to the end. The world’s out to tear you apart. Are you going to let it?”

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A Sneak Peek at The Man in the Box

As most of you know, I’ve written a novel called, The Man in the Box. If all goes according to schedule, it should be released by the end of the year. I have been quite secretive with the plot, until now.

I am looking for a dozen or so people to review my book in order to help generate hype. Who doesn’t like recommending great books to friends and family members? If, after reading the brief synopsis, you are interested in reading an electronic advanced copy, please join The Man in the Box facebook page for your chance to win.

What would you give up to be a god?

Weary of the mundane day-to-day life as a husband and father of two, Robbie Lake longs to get away from it all. Being fired from his job of eleven years shakes him up and through a set of circumstances he inadvertently climbs inside a cardboard box, which mentally transports him to his childhood fantasy world long since evolving into something darker in his absence, waiting for him to return. Some want to worship him, and others want to kill him. 

Both the adoration and the thrill keeps him going back inside the box for more, but at the expense of his family. At a time when his wife needs him most, Robbie chooses to live a double life. But soon, murderous creatures follow Robbie home from the box and threaten his loved ones. They will continue to be terrorized until he decides to remain in the world that turns out to be filled with his deepest horrors.

Follow The Man in the Box on Facebook for updates and contests to increase your chances of winning a free advanced copy.

Not recommended for children under 13. Contains prolonged sequences of fantasy terror and violence.

Image Credits: Jungle, green eye

A “Brave” New Movie *Spoiler free*

First off, I get to call bragging rights. Pixar fans: I saw the Pizza Planet truck for the first time in the theaters. Yes, it is in Brave, believe it or not.

So the wait is over, and the weekend was a good one. Sarabeth and I saw Brave and loved it. It was worth every penny. The critics are being hard on it because it’s not as somber as Toy Story 3 or as “inventive” as Wall-E. Well, I did get choked up a couple of times, and you know what? It was actually refreshing to spend an hour and a half in the familiar territory of a good old fashioned Disney fairytale. So the only reason one would be disappointed with Brave is if one is expecting the edginess of The Incredibles or the sophistication of Ratatouille. Brave is a brand new fairytale; nothing less, nothing more. Go into it expecting that, and you will be more than pleased.

So let’s address some issues about the themes in the movie. If I weren’t familiar with Pixar and I were a parent, I would be quite hesitant bringing my child to see Brave. The trailers make it look like Merida, the main character, defies her parents and gets away with it. True, she does defy her parents, but she suffers great consequences for it. Parents need not be concerned. This isn’t The Little Mermaid where the princess disobeys her naïve and racist father and lives happily ever after with prince charming. As far as themes and lessons go, I prefer my kids watching Brave any day.

Now let’s talk about the feminist issues in the movie. There are none. Who started the rumor that this was going to be all about feminism? And who planted the idea in people’s minds that all Disney movies are feministic? The only gender-switching I see comes from the Shrek franchise over at Dreamworks and I don’t see people complaining about that. In fact, Pixar has gotten sued multiple times by feminist groups because they don’t meet their agenda or taste preferences. Brave is not a retaliatory response in compliance with the feminist movement. It’s simply a story about a young woman who would rather see the world and explore it before settling down and getting married. She is all girl, and – I think – a great role model for the love-sick vampire-craving adolescents today. Brave shows that you don’t have to have prince charming in your life in order to be content.

If anything, Brave is more about the relationship between mother and daughter than anything else. And there’s enough action and suspense that young boys will embrace it, regardless. Even for a fairytale, it comes at the right time. Merida’s mother, though good intentioned, does not listen to her daughter, or even hear her out. I think she’s a perfect representation of today’s media-saturated mother, who ignores her kids by keeping her nose in her i-pad or talking more on Facebook than to her kids. If that’s you, then let this movie hit home for you. Let it open up your eyes to what your missing in your child’s life, and let it teach you how your child needs you to listen and be apart of their life.

I can go on and on about Brave. As soon as we walked out of the theater I told Sarabeth that I want to go back and see it again right then. It was just so satisfying as a movie. As soon as we got home I made sure that there was room in my Pixar collection for Brave. It will be a very fine addition, which I look forward to revisiting many times. And the soundtrack? As usual with Pixar scores, it’s breathtaking. And even the new songs by Julie Fowlis (and Mumford and Sons) are a perfect mix of Celtic lore and contemporary pop.

I only had two complaints about Brave. The first one is kind of petty. I just wished they would have shown more of the bear Mor’du. He was awesome and ferocious, like the cave troll in The Lord of the Rings. But, being an animated movie (primarily) geared toward kids, I can understand why his screen time was limited. The second complaint is best summed up from this review I read here:

Still, while Brave is admirable for dazzling visuals, excellent voice work, and honorable themes, some scenes work better than others. There’s a surprisingly implausible sequence in which Merida must create a diversion so somebody can sneak into her family’s castle — funny, but poorly executed. On matters of love and freedom, the movie turns downright preachy, failing the “show, don’t tell” test.

When die-hard Pixar fans come to this scene, they will realize a particular truth about Pixar: They preach, but never with words. This is the first time Pixar has broken that rule, and it is a bit disheartening. But really, it’s a three to four minute sequence, of little consequence to the film as a whole.

See Brave. Take your kids (not suggested for four or younger, as some scenes even had me on the edge of my seat, and Sarabeth jumped at least once). It’s a great movie for the family in which every member can walk away having been taught a valuable lesson unique to each family role. And the cool thing abut it is, when it’s over, you’ll feel like you really were running through a Scottish forest and were given an extensive and intimate tour of a real-life castle (don’t be surprised if you sniff your fingers to see if you can smell the granite from the stone walls). The animation is that dazzling and life-like.

Disclaimer: There is some rude humor, but I wouldn’t deem it as inappropriate or offensive. Let’s just say a lot of guys lose their kilts and are running away from the screen.

Like to review books? Follow my suspense/fantasy novel to be released late 2012, The Man in the Box

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The High Art of Storytelling

So Brave comes out this week… finally! Sarabeth and I don’t go to the movies often, but it’s our annual tradition to go to each Pixar release. This is going to be a good weekend.

Now, as an avid Pixar fan, I do have a confession to make. For the most part, whenever I see a Pixar movie for the first time, I’m sort of… let down. But over time, with each viewing of a certain Pixar movie, I appreciate it more and more for what it is. I think it’s because their stories resonate and they age like fine wine. Ratatouille, for instance, didn’t keep me plastered to my seat with a big goofy grin the whole time. But it stuck with me days after viewing it. There were themes and deep issues that the movie provoked me to revisit. But I now consider it one of the finest films ever made. Wall-E bored me the first time I saw it. But after seeing it a few more times, and really digging into what the movie is trying to communicate (it’s not about going green), I now consider it one of the finest films as well.

It’s misleading when Disney markets Pixar films as being “the best comedy of the year,” because Pixar films aren’t just out to get a few laughs like competing animated movies. Heck, they’re not even trying to preach any sort of message. They’re just setting out to do what any good movie ought to do – tell an original and compelling story that is so effective that it will become a part of the viewer.

Story is to movies as location is to buildings. Story, story, story. Everything else is secondary. When the newborn Pixar Studios set out to make the world’s first computer-generated animated movie, the compliment they feared the most was, “The animation was astounding!” No. Hang the animation, as wonderful as it is. The guys at Pixar new they had truly succeeded with Toy Story because audiences around the globe absolutely loved the story.

This has been a good year for Sarabeth and me. I had been searching for an agent to represent my book, The Man in the Box, since 2009. I signed a contract with BlackWyrm Publishers a month ago: Three years and hundreds of rejections later. It was my passion to tell stories and my supportive wife that refused to let me give up. And every Pixar movie has played a role in teaching me how to tell a story.

Now, I know this isn’t anything like creating a cutting-edge feature film, nor will The Man in the Box make it to the New York Times bestseller list (though with your help, it could). But the point I’m trying to make here is this: We can do nothing great on our own. Did you know that Steve Jobs had the Pixar building built in such a way that if anyone wants to get from any point of the studio to another, you have to cross the lobby like everyone else? The reason for this seemingly obsessive idea was so that camaraderie would be encouraged and artists who wouldn’t normally talk to writers would bump into each other and exchange ideas. Unfortunately authors don’t have this advantage, and for the most part, we work alone. I have done everything I can to make my book, The Man in the Box as exciting, unpredictable and engaging as possible. But I know it’s still not perfect. So even as I write this there is an editor pouring over it somewhere. She has got her work cut out for her.

But we will be working together to make it the absolute best story we can possibly deliver to you. In the coming months I will be posting snippets of The Man in the Box for you to enjoy (or criticize). But I will need encouragement. I will need as many of my readers to join The Man in the Box Facebook page. There is little information about the story right now, but I will slowly and surely be revealing more and more. If you join, you will be alerted about contests to win free copies, favoritism for your blog, etc.

Oh, and any writers out there, I have included this list especially for you. I just came across it a few weeks ago, but I am convinced it is the purest piece of gold any writer could possibly attain in his possession. I don’t know if it’s official or not, but it is Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling. Do your readers a favor and follow these rules religiously. And go out and see Brave! We’ll discuss it next week.

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

[Image Credit]

Toy Story 3: The Wilderness of the Playroom

Being an emotional guy (it comes with the territory of being a writer), it’s rare that I don’t cry in movies. I seek out unity and beauty in storytelling, and when all the pieces flow together like a great symphony, I’m a goner.

Now, it’s fine to let the floodgates open in the privacy of your own home, but poor Sarabeth and I had no idea what sort of emotional toll was waiting for me at the theaters when we went to see the latest Toy Story installment.

Those who have seen it know what I’m talking about. During the closing scene, when Andy is giving all of his beloved toys away, Sarabeth, being more of a rock than I am, turns to me and can practically see the entire movie screen in my wet eyes and drenched cheeks.

“Are you okay?” she asked. I could only nod my head, not fully convincing her that I was. She rolled her eyes and shook her head, probably thinking, “I married such a sissy.” Needless to say, we had to wait until the lights came back on in the theater to make a safe and somewhat dignified departure. (Recently I asked her when she had seen me cry the hardest and she said it was during Toy Story 3. I personally thought it was when we watched My Dog Skip.)

To make myself feel better, I googled the question, “How many men in their 20’s cried during Toy Story 3?” The vast number of confessors helped restore my masculinity. But why such an emotional response? I’m sure there are many answers to this question: Nostalgia; saying goodbye to childhood; leaving Andy; we’re all just a bunch of saps… I would like to propose another answer. I think somewhere deep down we envy Woody’s loyalty. He’s not perfect by any means, and he could be faulted for a lot of things, but his biggest fault could be his steadfast devotion to others. And it’s not even his loyalty to Andy that we envy, it’s his loyalty to fulfill what he was meant to do – to be played with. But the passage of time had stripped him and his friends of that opportunity.

We have all been caught in the wilderness. With an abundance of motivation and a large supply of talents, we’ve been stopped in our tracks and refused permission to proceed with our goals. Maybe you’re waiting for your adoption papers. Or you don’t have the funds to invest in your talents. Maybe the economy turned your dream job into a nightmare. Or you’ve got plenty of love to give, but no one to give it to. These are all situations where we should feel most at home with many characters from the Bible, particularly the Israelites who were forced to wander the wilderness for forty years for their sins. Many of us are in the wilderness because of our sins – laziness, lack of faith, fill in the blank. And others of us are just suffering the consequences of a fallen world, or you just haven’t reached Gods timing yet. We can list off a hundred different reasons why we’re in the wilderness, but the fact is the wilderness is chillingly real and we are very much in it.

But the point is, what will you do while you’re in the wilderness? Will you follow my lead and pout, stomp your foot and complain to God while feeling sorry for yourself in the corner of a room? Or will you follow Paul’s lead and find joy in the darkness of a damp prison? Or Jesus’, spurring the temptations of the Devil? Or Joshua and Caleb, holding steadfast to the God they love even while everyone they know and love is falling dead around them and their day-to-day lives are more mundane than our own 9-5’s?

I think it’s appropriate that Disney/Pixar’s most evil villain is not a dragon or a witch or even a puppy-snatcher. In fact, Lotso, Toy Story 3’s antagonist, is probably one of the most evil villains in most movies combined. Satan comes to us in the form of a loveable, pink teddy bear who smells like strawberries. God might put us in the wilderness, but Satan is there to meet us head-on. He’ll convince you that a) the wilderness isn’t so bad, that life isn’t meant to be enjoyed so you might as well accept the status quo, or b) you deserve better than this, how dare God leave you in such a wretched state; curse Him, spit on Him, leave Him!

Brothers and sisters, no matter who you are or where you’re at in life, you’re in the wilderness right now. Life is a wilderness of wandering and finding truth, waiting out the storms and fighting the good fight. Those who trust in Jesus Christ know that there will be an end to this wilderness and we will live in Paradise in the end. But to those of you who do not put your hope and trust in God, this is the greatest paradise you will ever know and your wilderness will be waiting for you on the other side and it will never ever end, and once you’re there, trusting in God will do no good.

But while we’re here, trust n God that this meaningless wandering will come to an end, and that when you’re in Jesus, there is actually nothing meaningless at all about your wilderness stay. Joseph trusted God in prison. David praised God in hiding. And Joshua and Caleb? They were the only ones who had enough faith in God to see the promised land at the end of the 40 years, and their efforts were greatly rewarded.

Woody held out until the very end to do what he was meant to do. Even in the face of adversary from his friends, apparent abandonment from his owner, hostile adversaries, betrayal and even death, Woody never once lost sight of who he was supposed to be and what he was made for. And we shouldn’t either. We are here to praise God and worship Him. That’s our purpose for being here. I wonder, if they made a movie about Joshua and Caleb, if I would cry in the end of that one too, because I certainly envy and long for their loyalty. And you should, too.

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