Saturday, March 29, 2014

5 Great Movies for Exploring Faith

After music, one of my great loves is for movies. As a pastor, I also have a tendency to see religious themes in a lot of places (it really helps with sermon writing and teaching) and I've had some thoughts of using my blog to occasionally explore some of those themes in books, music, and movies in greater depth. Following some recent conversations about movies, I thought I'd start there. So here are five of my favorite movies for discussing, thinking, and teaching about faith.

 (2013, animated musical, G) -- This is the movie that actually led to writing this blog post because of all my colleagues who have commented online about the religious themes of this movie. (In my favorite quote, one pastor friend quipped that "Frozen is in full accord with the unaltered Augsburg Confession," which is the founding document of the Lutheran church.") I've written about how Frozen presents the concept of love in my blog previously, but there is also self-sacrifice, death and resurrection, and the contrast of love vs. fear that all spring right out of Christian theology.

About a Boy (2002, comedy, PG-13) -- Hugh Grant plays a single, self-centered man living well off the royalty checks of his father's music who is out to prove that a man can be an island, but insists that he's not selfish because "there isn't anyone else. It's just me." All that changes when Marcus, an offbeat, bullied boy, makes a connection and Grant actually starts caring about people. At turns hilarious, goofy, and touching, the film explores our need for community and how love can change us from the inside out.

Les Miserables (2012, musical, PG-13) -- There is so much in this story that speaks to the lived reality of faith, but the contrast between the characters of Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean is a master's course on exploring law and gospel. Both characters strive to be righteous men, but Javert does so by following a strict legal code and Valjean does so by showing mercy and kindness. The film (and amazing music) ask the audience to consider what it means to forgive, to be redeemed, to be just, and the difference between what is "legal" and "moral."

Original Star Wars Trilogy (1977-1983, science fiction, all PG) -- Basically everything related to the Force in these movies can be used as a metaphor for faith. I could build a sermons series just around Yoda's quotes: "Fear is the path to the dark side.""You must unlearn what you have learned.""Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter." It's like shooting fish in a barrel. Beyond Yoda, look at how Darth Vader's eventual redemption is brought about by the love and commitment of his son. (Sound familiar?) Or try a different angle and you can say Vader sacrifices himself to slay evil and save the life of his child. I could go on, but I think I've made my case.

The Mission (1986, historical drama, PG) -- I know, I know, this is kind of a gimme. A movie about Jesuit priests has a religious message to it? Never saw that coming. But I include it because it asks profound and haunting questions about what it means to confront injustice in the world out of love. The conclusion to the movie lifts up two different options in the actions of the priests and leaves the audience to decide which, if either, was the correct response. Also, the scene of redemption for Robert De Niro's murderous character is one of the greatest images of grace ever filmed and Ennio Morricone's soundtrack is a religious experience in itself.

I'd love to hear where others find religious themes in movies. What would make your list? You can leave comments here or in one of the places I post on facebook. Maybe I'll post a second list sometime in the future.

“Thought I’d something more to say…” -Pink Floyd, “Time”

Friday, March 21, 2014

You Suck and I Love You

I was recently challenged by someone after worship who felt that my sermon that day was saying "you're not good enough" which this person heard enough of elsewhere. "Everyone else in my life tells me I'm not good enough. I don't want to hear that from God."

Now, preaching is an inexact science given that I never know if what someone hears is what I meant to say and I always dread speaking incorrectly. (In other words, because human beings are involved in both sides of the process.) In this particular case, I was not trying to say "you're not good enough," but I think this person was correct in that I didn't make that point as well as I could have.

I had been trying to say that God helps us grow to be more loving and compassionate than we would be on our own. This is the core of a lot of Christian theology, but after listening to the critique of my words, I couldn't help but think that it's a difficult line to walk. God does love us even when we screw up, but I also believe that God calls for us to grow and "improve." Where is the line between being loved as we are and being challenged to become more?

One of the things I love about theology (especially Lutheran theology) is the concept of paradox, that two seemingly contradictory statements can both be true. (It's partly where the title of my blog comes from.) This particular paradox was obvious even to the early church leaders. In Romans 5, Paul writes that God moved first: "While we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly... While we were sinners, Christ died for us... While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son." But at the same time, Paul writes in the next chapter that God's gift doesn't let us rest where we are: "How can we who died to sin go on living in it? [We] walk in newness of life."

My go-to line to describe this paradox is, "God loves us enough to meet us where we are, but God loves us too much to let us stay there." Which sounds good on paper, but isn't easy to live out. How do we both accept that we are worthy of being loved while also feeling motivated to change?

As I'm writing, it occurs to me that Lutheran thinking would say that being loved is the motivation to change, that knowing I'm valuable to someone automatically causes me to respond by reciprocating love. It would say it has to be this way because fear and guilt (which are typical "motivators" -- just look at political commercials) are the opposite of trusting love, which is the heart of the relationship God offers us. In other words, only love can drive me to deeper love.

And on my best days, love does drive me to grow, but I'll admit that some days, the love I need is the kind that grabs me by the lapels and slaps my face to wake me up. And sometimes it is guilt and fear that motivates me to seek love in the first place.

Perhaps faith is a constant search for the balance between these seeming opposites. Perhaps all of this is just to say that love and faith are themselves paradoxes, kind of like the statement: "Every time I find an answer about God, it just leads to more questions."

“And love is wild for reasons, and hope, though short in sight, might be the only thing that wakes you by surprise.” -Jars of Clay, "Surprise"

Friday, March 14, 2014

What Alec Baldwin Can Teach Us About Loving Our Enemies

Alec Baldwin is apparently done with the media. I learned this from a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post. Depending what you think of Alec Baldwin and his many public and political opinions, you may greet this news with joy, disappointment, or indifference (I'll take option 3 myself), but the op-ed article highlighted a fascinating quote from Baldwin's farewell interview:

"In the New Media culture, anything good you do is tossed in a pit, and you are measured by who you are on your worst day. What’s the Boy Scout code? Trustworthy. Loyal. Helpful. Friendly. Courteous. Kind. Obedient. Cheerful. Thrifty. Brave. Clean. Reverent. I might be all of those things, at certain moments. But people suspect that whatever good you do, you are faking. You’re that guy. You’re that guy that says this."

I happened to read this article the week after the assigned text for preaching was Matthew 5:38-48, which includes the command to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." These have never been the easiest words of Jesus to understand or follow, but coupled with Baldwin's words, I began thinking about what specifically makes an enemy. 

I almost never use the word "enemy" to describe a person, but there are people I may be angry with or distrust or find it difficult to like. How much of that anger or distrust is tied up in my judging them by who they are on their worst day and discounting the good they do? How often do I assume that the things that annoy me about a person are the "real" side of them and the good I see is just an abnormality? (Or, on the flip side, do I always assume the best about a person and ignore obvious defects?) 

Baldwin's point is that we often let that initial opinion or the most extreme fact about a person define them for us. I don't think that's anything new, but our modern social media does spread our worst moments faster and farther than ever before. The poorly phrased thing I once said to a couple people is now said on Facebook or Twitter, never to be fully erased. The stupid thing I did before a few strangers at the mall can now be seen by a million strangers on Youtube if someone happens to catch it on their phone. The writer herself makes the same point: 

"Still, everyone’s living in public, never far from a camera or a smartphone. And all our unsuccessful gestures get caught — in print, on tape, where they can stick." (Emphasis mine)

The fact is that we are all far more complicated than any one adjective or opinion. We have a wide variety of opinions, moods, and interests and no one of them -- good or bad -- defines who an individual is. (It's similar to those who take the craziest verses from the Bible and say, "See, the whole thing is a joke," but that's another post for the future.) It's easy to forget this with celebrities or others who we only know through the snippets of their lives we see on TV, but do we apply the same thinking to those we should know better? The thing is, I know people are complex (and made in the image of a complex God), but I don't always live that way. I can very often reduce people to a label like shy, super friendly, opinionated, or liberal/conservative and make assumptions (good or bad) based on that one trait.

Perhaps loving our enemies starts with choosing to look past the labels and see them as more complicated, rounded people. Perhaps it means refusing to think that the worst in a person is all that matters or that our point of biggest disagreement is the most important thing in our relationship. After all, if someone were to report on my words and actions on my worst day, I would come across as very unsympathetic. But you might also say I would appear very... human.  And that's a trait I share with friend and enemy alike.

“Your dirt removes my blindness; your pain becomes my peace.” -Jars of Clay, "Frail"

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Weight of Ashes and the Unbearable Lightness of Bread

One of the hardest things I do in my job as pastor is Ash Wednesday worship. It's not that it's a complicated service or that it's physically demanding in any way. It's giving the ashes.

In the Christian tradition, ashes are marked on the forehead at the beginning of Lent as a sign of repentance and of our mortality. As I mark the cross on people's foreheads, I speak the words recorded as spoken by God to Adam: "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." They are a reminder that we are mortal, with limited time on this earth. I am basically saying to people: Your life is precious. It's precious because it's short, so don't waste it. Or, if want to be blunt: Someday, you are going to die.

Now, imagine saying that to dozens of people while looking them in the eye.

To the person battling cancer: "You are dust..."

To the recent divorcee: "You are dust..."

To the new parents: "You are dust..."

To a child (including my own): "You are dust..."

Over the years, I've spoken those words to hundreds of people including infants and elderly, newlyweds and widows, poor and wealthy, and some who have indeed returned to the dust before that coming Easter. As I speak those words repeatedly, extending my black-stained thumb to touch the head of someone who will one day be dust, it's inevitable that at some point I start to choke back tears and feel my heart tighten within me with the weight of the moment. Your life is precious. Your life is precious. Your life is precious.

I can often get to the end of Ash Wednesday worship and be exhausted from those few minutes of ashes, but this year was different. Yesterday the ashes were answered in a way I'd never felt before.

Later in the service, we celebrate the Lord's Supper and once again, people come forward from their seats to receive these mysterious elements, a morsel and a sip that somehow contain an infinite mercy. And once again I find myself looking people in the eye and extending my hand to each of them, but this time I speak different words: "This is the Body of Christ, broken for you." And once again these words carry meaning deeper than the literal one because I am saying: Here is Jesus, the Bread of Life, who has come to feed our spiritual hunger. Here are the words -- "for you" -- that ring with good news.

What struck me for the first time this year was that in those words, I was saying the same thing as with the ashes, but in reverse. In sharing the bread I was saying: Your life is precious. It is precious because God decided it was worth the cross, so your life won't go to waste. As I repeated the words and looked at the ashes on people's heads, I felt my heart grow light and the corners of my mouth curl in joy. Your life is precious. Your life is precious. Your life is precious.

One of the things about religion that continues to drive me to explore it is the sense of paradox and mystery, that two contradictory statements can both be true (e.g. Jesus is fully God and Jesus is fully human) and that some statements can mean more than one thing. In between the ashes and the bread last night, I discovered that they carry the same message, but different meanings, and in that message is contained the heart of both Lent and Easter: Your life is precious. 

“...and life is just a dare we take.” -Jars of Clay, “Out of My Hands”