Friday, October 24, 2014

"The Lego Movie" is a Model for Being A Christian

One of my favorite movies from this past year was "The Lego Movie." There are a lot of things to like about the movie -- a fun premise, sharp humor, great animation, a heart-warming ending, and LEGOS! -- but I was reflecting this week (watching my kids build with Legos) that the movie also offers a model for discipleship as Christians.

For those who haven't seen the movie, the basic story is that a Lego villain named Lord Business wants to make a perfect world by gluing all Legos in place forever and a simple guy named Emmett is anointed the "special" who will save the world by the Master Builders who oppose Lord Business. In the movie, the Master Builders stand for creativity, freedom, and individuality while Lord Business promotes uniformity and following the rules.

Now normally when a movie sets up a difference like that, the final message is something like: Be yourself no matter what and everything will be fine. But that's NOT what "The Lego Movie" does. Lord Business is clearly the villain, but the Master Builders' sense of freedom has problems, too. They are so individualistic (and self-important?) that they have trouble working together and in one emergency they are so bad at listening to each other that the escape craft they build doesn't work. Without giving too much away, it's only when they use their individual talents as a team that they are able to succeed.

Just when you think the movie is going to say, "Be yourself," it adds on, "...but remember that you still need others." It's this both/and that I found interesting and think is a great example of being a Christian.

As a Christian, I believe that I am uniquely created, called, gifted, and set free by the Triune God.  At the same time, I believe I am called to love and serve others and have to live in community and relationship with them. Like in "The Lego Movie," I am a special and creative individual, but if I am only an individual and can't share my talents as part of a community, there can be just as much discord and trouble as oppressive uniformity.

I see both extremes expressed at times in the church. Some act as if God is Lord Business, demanding loyalty and uniformity in order to enforce a perfect world. Others see God as a Master Builder who says, "You're special and unique. You don't need anyone else." The church says neither.

Paul explains this in 1 Corinthians when he writes, "Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts make one body, so it is with Christ... You (plural) are the body of Christ and each of you is a part of it." He explains that everyone has special gifts, but those gifts aren't meant to divide us, but unite us by seeing our talents as part of a greater whole. Or, as one pastor I know was fond of saying, "Faith is personal, but not individualistic."

Martin Luther once summed up this paradox by writing, "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." Who would have thought that the heart of his message would show up in a fun kids' movie? And yet "The Lego Movie" provides a great metaphor for building up Christian disciples, brick by brick.

“I'd rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.” -Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues"

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Oops, Pope Francis did it again...

The world has once again been abuzz this week with word that Pope Francis is rocking the boat in Rome. The news this time is that a conference of bishops called by the pope to have frank discussions around "family matters" has discussed creating a more welcoming message toward LGBT and divorced people and unmarried couples who are living together.

It's important to note that doctrine and policy are not being changed, but the tone and emphasis are being changed. As one Vatican spokesperson I heard discussing the conference noted, the church has always stated that every person is a child of God, but now "that's the first thing we will say."

(It should also be noted that this is pretty much in keeping with Francis's M.O. up to this point. He hasn't actually changed any Catholic doctrine; he's just changed the conversation to emphasize portions of doctrine that have often been lost in the noise. [God's love for all people, the need to act with humility, presenting an attitude of servanthood to the world, etc.])

In the days since the document was released, there has been some strong pushback and attempts to clarify what is being said, especially from more traditional bishops. At this point, it's not clear what the final word or actions may be, but I'm still excited to see Francis making the effort to have the conversation.

I don't agree with the Catholic Church on everything that constitutes a "sin," but if we spend too much time telling those outside the church about sin, then that's all they hear and any word of welcome or grace (the most important part of the message) sounds false. The message shifts to one of "you need to get your life together before you're welcome in a church" and starts to include "faults" that go beyond sin like doubts or depression. Where else in our society do we have this kind of backwards expectation? We don't say, "get yourself healthy before you go to the hospital" or "become an expert in your preferred field of study before you apply for college."

This whole topic deserves more time and nuance than I'm going to give it in this blog, but please allow me to oversimplify by saying: the message from the church should always emphasize that sin (however we define it), doubts, or personal shortcomings should never stand in the way of being welcomed in church because we are all -- Christian and non-Christian -- imperfect and we are all -- Christian and non-Christian -- still loved desperately by God.

We don't need to get our life together to come to church because being in church--or better put, being in regular relationship with God and God's community--is how we are meant to get our life together. Francis has been showing through his words and actions that if we want to be effective at changing lives, it helps to first have a genuine relationship with a person. Jesus himself demonstrated this in his ministry (see John 8 as an example). If we start with loving people as they are and seek to serve rather than preach, I think we're far more likely to see the growth of God in them (and ourselves) that we hope for.

“Change has been; change will be.” -Collective Soul, “Reunion”

Friday, October 3, 2014

Making Words Dangerous

This week, a member of my congregation sent me an email about ISIS. The email shared a couple news items about ISIS's practice of martyring Christians (including children) who refused to renounce their faith in Jesus and convert to (a narrow, twisted interpretation of) Islam. Those who aren't killed are charged a "tax" or forced to flee their homes. "It's unbelievable what others are suffering," she wrote.

I've been heartbroken by these same stories and they have reminded me of a conversation in Bible study from a couple years ago. We had been discussing the Apostle's Creed and someone had raised the question of whether it had any real meaning for most Christians anymore. A woman in the class changed the whole conversation when she said, "When I say the Creed, I think about the fact that there are people who are persecuted for being Christians around the world and my reciting it is showing solidarity with them."

I replied to the email this week by saying that since ISIS's crimes against humanity have been in the news, that conversation has been in my mind whenever I recite the Apostle's Creed in worship. For some people saying those words is dangerous and that makes them more meaningful for me. I ended the email with the only words that made sense: "Lord, have mercy, indeed."

As I ponder this more, I think about the fact that I will likely never face death because of stating my Christian faith, and the question that inevitably comes to mind is, "What can I do?" Knowing there are those who die for their words in this world, what difference can my life make?

At this point, many people might start listing off various charities and causes that are working in this arena and I encourage anyone moved by these things to pursue that angle. (I certainly have several charities I support beyond my congregation.) But even though good agencies need financial support, I also want to believe that my ability to affect good in the world extends beyond my wallet.

And so in the process of writing the past several paragraphs, my efforts to answer "What can I do?" settled on a different question: "How do I make my words dangerous?"

You see, all my thoughts about the Creed and martyrdom kept coming back to one thought -- the words we say matter. I can forget this because words are cheap these days. Many of us send thousands of texts and emails a month, watch dozens of hours of television of people talking, and read books, blogs, and sports columns daily (sometimes doing several of these at once). We are surrounded by words to the point that everything is background noise.

But our words can be meaningful--and dangerous.

The book of James in the Bible has a lot to say about our words. Most of what James says is negative ("The tongue is a restless evil..."), but he also makes the point that the tongue is powerful, comparing it to a rudder that turns a large ship. Words can affect change and challenge the status quo--for good or bad--and that can make them dangerous for anyone who uses them.

When we say things like "I love you" or "I'm sorry" or "I forgive you" we are making ourselves vulnerable because we don't always know what someone will say back. When we reply to gossip or hateful speech with the words, "I don't feel that way," we risk feeling very alone. We may never risk our lives for the Gospel, but we can risk other things that are precious to us: pride, power, status. (Although those might not always be a bad thing to lose.)

Within this world, there are people who are dying for the words they use. How will I be mindful of mine to make them meaningful? Will my words carry the dangerous vulnerability of love and mercy? In what direction will my tongue steer the ship? On the eve of St. Francis's commemoration day, I remember his words, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace..." Amen.

(I ask that if you pray, please join me in using some of your words today to pray for innocent martyrs of all faiths.)

Speak louder than the words before you and give them meaning no one else has found.” -Ian Axel, "This is the New Year"