Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Radioactive Prophet

My 3 year-old son loves the song "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons. He wanders around the house singing it, he demands we play it on the radio regularly, and he asks to listen to it almost every night as his "bedtime song."

When I was hearing it for the 10,000th time last week (thankfully I really like the song, too), one of the lines struck me as familiar in a different way. In the buildup to the chorus, the lyrics sing "I feel it in my bones, enough to make my system blow." On this particular time, those words brought to mind Jeremiah 20:9: "God's word is inside me like a burning fire shut up in my bones. I cannot hold it in any longer" (emphasis mine).

Jeremiah was a prophet in the Old Testament who faced a lot of resistance from the powers that be (probably because he was bringing them bad news) and he speaks the words in 20:9 as part of a passage saying he wishes he could give up and go home, but God's pull on him is too strong, "enough to make his system blow."

As this thought struck me, it occurred to me that many of the lyrics in the song could be heard as the words of a prophet calling for change:
- "Welcome to the new age. Oh, I'm radioactive"
- "I raise my flag... It's a revolution, I suppose."
- "I'm waking up."
- "This is it, the apocalypse."
- There's even a reference to "the prison bus" and Jeremiah was imprisoned just before the quote in verse 9. (I know it's a stretch, but humor me.)

I don't think Imagine Dragons had Old Testament prophets in mind when they wrote the song, but I think it's a interesting way to think about following God. What if we were to imagine living in God's light as "a revolution," a "waking up" that "makes my system blow" and replaces it with something new? What if we expected the word of God to be radioactive, a force that burns inside us and contaminates and infects anyone or thing that gets close?

In my sermon this past week, I invited the church to imagine themselves as prophets, but I didn't paint it in terms of radioactivity and revolutions. Is that a terrifying or exciting idea? Certainly most of the prophets did not have beds of roses (actually none that come to mind), but they lived with a purpose and felt compelled to act and speak on behalf of God's people. What in your life gives you a burning sense of purpose and how could that be the spirit of God speaking to you in your bones?

"I'm breathing in the chemicals." -Imagine Dragons, "Radioactive"

(For more fun, try listening to Imagine Dragons' song "Demons" as a Psalm about sinfulness and imagine the line "I can't escape this now, unless you show me how" as a cry to God.)

Friday, December 6, 2013

In Gratitude to Nelson Mandela

Sometimes saints and heroes can function as a mirror that shows us our unkempt hair and smudged face and drives us to clean up the image of the person we see. Their excellence reminds us of our own imperfections, but simultaneously inspires us to work toward that excellence. I believe Nelson Mandela was such a person for much of the world, but certainly was for me.

Mandela has shown that Christian ideals such as forgiveness, loving your enemy, mercy, and compassion are not just good ideas, they are practical solutions. How often have we thought, "Sure, loving my enemy sounds good, but this is real life?" or "All that morality stuff is great for my personal life, but it doesn't work in politics or economics." What's particularly amazing to me is that Mandela at one time would have agreed. In the 1960s, he turned from non-violence and advocated violent acts as the only way to overturn the oppressive government. Love, peace, and compassion seemed an impossible path toward justice.

And yet, decades later, Mandela proved his younger self wrong.

By welcoming his opponents into his government, by refusing to seek revenge for decades of violence, and by introducing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (by which many pro-apartheid leaders were granted amnesty in exchange for publicly confessing their crimes and listening to the testimonies of their victims), he managed to sooth much of the hatred and fear that had permeated the country for decades. In fact, one could argue that his insistence on forgiveness, peace making, and reconciliation worked better at creating a stable transition to democracy than any of the other examples we have in recent memory. (Just look at the struggles that Libya and Egypt are having today.)

Mandela would have been perfectly justified with pursuing a different route, one that demanded greater retribution from former oppressors, yet he found the strength to believe and embody the words of his compatriot, Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death." In so doing, Mandela managed to heal a nation set it on a path that would have seemed impossible even shortly before his release. I pray that Mandela's life may continue to challenge us to recognize that ideas such as love, mercy, and forgiveness are not just pie-in-the-sky philosophies, but are practical, real-world Gospel.

“You're possessed with a power that's bigger than the pain.” -Everclear, "Heartspark Dollarsign"

Monday, December 2, 2013

How "Frozen" Warmed My Heart

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I went with my family to see the new Disney movie, Frozen. In most ways it is just like a typical Disney film: it's (very loosely) based on a fairy tale ("The Snow Queen"), has fun, singable music, and silly sidekick characters. Oh, and, of course, there's a princess.

There was, however, an unexpected, positive surprise in the movie for me that grew out of a typical Hollywood trope. At one point, the central character, Anna, asks Olaf, the talking snowman, "What is love?"

In many Hollywood movies, the script would then turn into some romantic Hallmark card about love being when your heart sings, butterflies in your stomach, and being unable to imagine life without your beloved. And the movie sets up well for that kind of answer with Anna developing fast and strong relationships with not one but two handsome men in the roughly 36 hours of the movie's main timeline. (Love is also something that happens at first sight, right?)

But that's not where Frozen goes. Olaf replies to Anna that love is making someone else's needs and desires more important than your own. He says it so simply that you almost miss the meaning. But to drive the point home, Olaf then does exactly what he said in an act of selfless love for Ana. (Without wanting to give it away, the ending also hinges on an act of selfless love.)

Now I love a good romantic love story as much as most people, but it was so refreshing to see love named for what it really is: choosing to put another ahead of yourself, even at the sacrifice of your own wants and needs. I've seen plenty of relationships (not just romantic) stumble over the other idea of love and wonder, "Why don't my feelings stay the same?" or "Why don't my feelings fix everything?" As Olaf correctly points out, love isn't a feeling; it's an action. And he echoes John 15:13: "Greater love has no one than this: that one lay down his life for his friends."

What's even more remarkable is that Disney seems to be on a roll with this. Selfless love was also a central lesson in Brave (along with a beautiful example of repentance) and was the course for Wreck-It Ralph becoming a hero in a scene that makes me cry every time I've seen it.

So cheers to Disney for giving a wonderful, practical description of love. It's nice to see love presented as something that is more than just wishes and kisses.

“We don’t know enough about love so we make it up.” -Jars of Clay, “The Age of Immature Mistakes”