A number of years ago while part of a work camp in Durham, North Carolina, I was assigned to work with a group of young people on the house of an elderly African-American woman. Before even meeting her, I was informed that she was a cancer survivor who had adopted her two granddaughters. I decided that I was not going to get to close to this woman. I was going to be there for the young people and minister to them. That, I had decided, was my purpose that week.
This mission week was in June 2001. Dad had died from prostate cancer in April 2001.
In my still grieving mind, I did not want to get close to someone who had cancer, because losing that person to cancer was too hard. Distance was my approach.
And so, on Monday morning, I fulfilled my approach. I worked hard. I answered the youth’s questions. We got started on tearing up a rotten floor and starting to build a frame for a concrete slab at the end of the wheelchair ramp. At lunch time, the crew gathered in the homeowner’s bedroom, where she had camped out while we ran around the house doing our thing. The youth wanted to include her in our lunch and our midday devotion.
I quietly slipped into the room, grabbed a piece of pizza, and settled in the corner. The homeowner said, “There he is! There’s the pastor!” I was taken a back at first. This was a time in a life when I was struggling with my call to ministry – never mind ordained ministry. It would be seven years before I would graduate from seminary and thirteen years before I would be fully ordained in the United Methodist Church.
I did not see myself as a pastor. Yes, I worked in the church. And yes, I got to go on mission trips as a part of job. And yes, I occasionally led worship. But, I did not think of myself as a pastor.
I was quick to correct the homeowner that I was not a pastor. I was just a youth leader.
She was quick to correct me. “This morning when you walked past me, I felt the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus passed by.
“In me??” is what I was thinking to myself. I thought for sure she was mistaken. There was no way that the Holy Spirit was moving through me to the point that she could feel it.
By the end of the week I had worked out of the stuff I was hanging on to regarding Dad’s death. I had reclaimed the hope of the resurrection and what that means as a person of faith. I had come to terms that God was indeed calling me to ministry. Yes, even me. And even though it would take me a few more years before I was completely comfortable that God was calling me to ordained ministry, this summer in Durham I accepted the call on my life.
Jesus passed by.
I was overwhelmed that someone I had never met before had sensed the Holy Spirit in me. And yet, that same person was the one who pointed me in the direction that God was calling me. God was at work in me, and while I believe that God wasn’t going to give up on me, this homeowner was a signpost directing me toward God’s call instead of away from it.
Sometimes we expect to see Jesus pass by like we would a parade. There is great anticipation. There is the grand marching band preparing the way. There are the preparatory floats getting us excited. And then, at the end of the parade, there is Jesus!
Most often, I think, we come upon the parade after its passed by and we feel disappointed because we missed it. We missed the excitement and the fun. But what I’ve learned over the years is that Jesus doesn’t pass by with all that fanfare. But, instead, in unexpected ways.
Jesus is the stranger at the gas station telling you your tire is flat.
Jesus is the child who runs up and gives you a hug.
Jesus is in the random acts of kindness done by neighbors for each other.
Jesus is the random phone call you receive asking you how you are doing.
Jesus is the friend who takes you out for coffee when they know you’ve had a bad day.
Jesus is the dog who loves on you no matter what.
Jesus is the young person who preaches to her friends by her good works.
Jesus passed by.
“I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
I have sung the Gaither-penned Easter hymn Because He Lives countless times. About fourteen years ago, the hymn became deeply personal. It took on a whole new meaning when my father died on Easter Sunday, April 2001. It changed the way I understood Easter and the resurrection.
And then one day I’ll cross death’s river;
I’ll fight life’s final war with pain -
And then as death gives way to victory,
I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know He reigns.
It is because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we have a hope to face tomorrow and whatever it may bring. It is because of this resurrection that death is not a big deal, because not only do we know the One who holds tomorrow, but we know the One who holds eternity.
The past few days as I’ve been pondering the reality that I will be a dad in January. As such, I’ve been thinking about this hymn in a different way.
How sweet to hold our newborn baby
And feel the pride and joy he gives;
But greater still the calm assurance,
This child can face uncertain days because He lives.
A week like the one the world has seen where everything seems to have gone crazy, causes just a bit of worry about brining a new baby into this world. A world filled with terror, hate, war, violence, injustice. And the list goes on.
Planes being shot down. War breaking out . . . again. Politicians debating the livelihood of immigrant children. Drive-by shootings on a daily basis. Corruption in government and in churches. Education systems struggling to provide the best for its children, and some barely surviving.
When you look at all of this, how can you not wonder, “How can we have a baby in this?”
But then we remember that we are people of faith. And while we may not live in a restored universe, we live in hope. A hope grounded in the promise that God has given through the ages, “I am with you always.” Just as Jesus was with the lame man as he ran through the streets, Jesus is with us. Just as Jesus was with the Samaritan woman as she spread the news about the Messiah, Jesus is with us. Just as Jesus was with Martha as she weeped the death of her brother Lazarus, Jesus is with us. Just as Jesus was with Peter as he stepped out of the boat to walk on the cool water, Jesus is with us.
And because Jesus is with us, we have hope. A hope that assures us that God has this. A hope that tells us that all of this sorrow and tragedy we see in the world is not a part of God’s plan. A hope that tells us that in the midst of an unrestored universe, God is working in us and through us to work all things for good.
And we have this hope, because Christ lives.
Let’s get this out of the way. Disney’s Maleficent was no where as good as we were made to believe. The character of Maleficent has captured the imaginations for decades. The film goes from Once Upon a Time moments to more, darker Grimm moments. To finally see her in a live-action film was an opportunity to create an amazing film. However, the film, while good, is not amazing. In short, it could have been better – I had hoped it would be better.
Maleficent attempts to be an origin story of its title character, which seems to be the post-Wicked norm. The story begins with Maleficent as a young girl, complete with horns and wings. She is a peace-maker in her world. When the other creatures have disagreements, Maleficent (played by Angelia Jolie) finds resolution. There is a great concern when a human child is discovered in their world. Maleficent is the one who shows the child, a farm boy, grace, even though he was trying to steal a crystal. The two children become friends and as they grow into teenagers, the fairy and the human share a kiss – “true love’s first kiss.” At this moment, it is like any other Disney film.
But as the two get older, they grow apart. The boy stops visiting the forest. The boy, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), as an adult works for the king. He overhears the dying king promise his throne to the one who kills Maleficent. What was that about true love?
Stefan becomes a trickster as he woos Maleficent into his arms and then gives her a sleeping potion. While in a deep sleep, he cuts Maleficent’s wings off. He returns to the castle with the wings as his bounty to the dying king. And upon the king’s death, Stefan takes the throne.
The moment when Maleficent awakens to find that her wings – her freedom – has been torn from her, is possibly the most deeply disturbing scene while also the most captivating. Even though your gut tells you to turn away, you cannot take your eyes off the screen as Maleficent screams out in anger and sorrow. Something that was so precious to her and apart of her identity was violently taken from her while in a vulnerable state. The allusion to sexual violence may not be a mistake.
The assault transforms Maleficent into a villain. But this villain is not soulless. We have seen her extend grace to those who are different, welcoming all. While Maleficent literally gets darker, the grace in her soul never really escapes. That part of her never really leaves her. She places a curse on Stefan’s daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning). On the edge of the forest one day, Aurora encounters Maleficent and says, much to Maleficent’s dismay, that she knows who the fairy is.
Aurora: I know who you are.
Maleficent: Do you?
Aurora: You’re my Fairy Godmother!
Aurora senses that some being has been watching out for her during her childhood. She believes, and rightly so, that Maleficent is the being who has been doing so. Aurora, instead of seeing the evil villain all of us have come to see in Maleficent, sees a somewhat holy and innocent being who is filled with compassion and grace.
This isn’t quite the 1959 Disney version of Sleeping Beauty. But, this is one reason why Maleficent is fascinating. It is rich with themes about things not being quite what they seem, which I think may have attracted Jolie to the film. There is talk about evil throughout the film. Maleficent tells Aurora a time or two that there is a great evil in the land. She is, of course, talking about herself. She knows the evil that dwells within her. Yet, at the same time, Aurora sees the grace in Maleficent. The grace she cannot see in herself.
It raises the issue that films like The Dark Knight Rises rose before it. What is the face of evil? Is evil as black and white as we want it to be? (I don’t have answers to these, just want to raise the questions.)
Angelia Jolie is able to make us fear Maleficent, while also extending empathy. We connect with her conflicted feelings of doing what is right and doing what is wrong (Romans 7). And while at first she is pretending to go along with Aurora’s assumption that she is a godmother, she plays into the role. Aurora’s love for her is strong enough to melt away the rage, hate, and sorrow at being mutilated by someone who declared love for her. This is true love, love for another that knows no boundaries. It is not romantic in the classic Walt Disney sense. It is authentic and real. It is Christ-like love.
Once Maleficent realizes what she has done, placing a curse that can never be broken because true love does not exist, she feels remorse. She is responsible for Prince Philip coming to the castle to awaken Aurora from her deep sleep. Yet, the kiss does not work. Maleficent stands over the sleeping beauty’s bed and whispers an apology:
I will not ask you for forgiveness. What I have done is unforgivable. I was so lost in hatred and revenge. I never dreamed that I could love you so much. You stole what was left of my heart. And now I’ve lost you forever.
She kisses Aurora on the forehead, and the princess awakes. Like in Frozen, Disney boldly transforms what true love means, as well as the face of evil. It is a more realistic portrait of the human condition. We are sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) who strive to resist evil, but often times fail. At the same time we are created in the image of the Creator, and as such we are grace-filled beings. We don’t need magic kisses from princesses and princes. No, the only “magic” we need is the Christ-like love we share with one another.
When it was released in April of 1968, it was not well received by many critics. However, Planet of the Apes would go down as a classic sci-fi film. Charlton Heston is George Taylor, an American astronaut who, along with his crew, crashes 2,000 years in the future on an unknown planet. Everything on this planet seems to be turned upside down. In this strange land, apes rule, and humans are hunted, caged, and enslaved.
At first, Taylor is injured and unable to speak. He tries various things to get the apes to understand that he is as intellect as they are. It is Zira (Kim Hunter) who sees something special in Taylor. At first it is evolution. She and her fiancé Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) want to study Taylor to see how humans are evolving. The dialogue, with intent, is similar to conversations humans have had about studying apes. After they get to know Taylor, a theory that was being forgotten returns to the surface. Cornelius’ archeological studies suggest that humans existed on the planet in a more civilized society than apes currently do.
It is perfect and brilliant commentary on the modern human condition. In the beginning of the film, in one of Taylor’s speeches, he says, “Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox that sent me to the stars, still make war with his brother?” A question, no doubt, theological and philosophically debated in 1968 in the midst of a war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. The effects of which were not lost on the film’s crew. Michael Wilson rewrote the original script by Rod Serling (the ending was the only contribution of Serling’s that Wilson kept). Wilson, like so many during the 1950s in Hollywood, was blacklisted for allegedly being communist. The Cold War and the changing tides of culture and thought and its effects on society hit close to home.
Nor is it a surprise the role of nuclear destruction (a great fear of the Cold War) plays in the film. Taylor’s longing for a war-free world is only met with a world destroyed by war. The iconic ending, with Taylor on his knees in the sand, yelling, “Damn them! Damn them all to hell!” reveals the truth. Don’t be mistaken, Taylor is not referring to the apes, but the humans he left behind. Taylor has not been on an unknown planet. He has been on his own, war-torn planet where everything has been turned upside down.
1968 was a turbulent time, as well, for people of faith. Many were trying to reconcile being at war for so long. Others were struggling with new laws of desegregation. Suddenly lives where changing, and not everyone was handling it well.
Since the beginning of time, religion has played a significant role in societies. It is appropriate that Planet of the Apes includes this as part of the story. The sacred texts, though only talked about and not seen, are a character in the film themselves. Dr. Zaius (Defender of the Faith and Minister of Science) and the others are the ape versions of Pharisees. While watching the film we know that Dr. Zaius is wrong in what he is doing.
And yet, how often do we do the same thing?
Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) and others like him, do their best to dissuade Cornelius and Zira from following these loftily ideals of humans being intelligent. They call upon the sacred scrolls to reason why the humans should stay in their place and things not change.
When we are scared of something or uncertain about changes in society, we use our sacred texts to justify who is considered “us” and who is considered “them.” The scriptures become security blankets for why we do not welcome those who are different from us. Planet of the Apes warns us against this narrow thinking. Dr. Zaius clearly understands that there is a truth and a reality beyond the boundaries of their land. It is safer if everyone believes what they have been taught. Only danger awaits them when they step outside the boundary. It could be argued that because Dr. Zaius knows about the destruction of humanity’s civilization by humanity, that they do not want to repeat history. That they want to be smarter than the humans and not make the same mistakes, and so they hide behind their religion.
It is safer when we hide behind our sacred texts.
As Christians, we follow a boundary crosser. We follow a Messiah who stepped over the social lines of division. Jesus sat and had lunch with the tax collector. He talked to the Samaritan woman. He touched the lepers. He healed the blind and made the lame to walk. All of those who were different and (sometime literally) isolated from the rest of society. It was taught that Jews and Samaritans did not interact. Jesus broke that “rule.” It was taught that you avoided lepers and bleeding women. Jesus broke that “rule” on both accounts.
And Jesus did so with love.
Planet of the Apes could have easily been a silly film about apes on Earth. Instead, it is filled with cultural commentary about the world in which we live and could live. And though the film has a few moments that are clearly reflection of the 1960s, it is a film that is ageless. Its message of peace over war, unity over segregation, balance of religion and science, is still a message to be heard today.
Last week was Vacation Bible School at Peakland United Methodist. It was my second VBS at Peakland, probably my 34th since birth – maybe 35th because I wouldn’t be surprised if I was at a VBS while in the womb. I’ve been pondering that this VBS was probably one of the best VBSs I’ve ever been to.
Perhaps it was the 100 children in the building.
Perhaps it was the close to 45 youth and adult volunteers who made it happen.
Perhaps it was the amazing curriculum from Group Publishing: Weird Animals.
Perhaps it was the excitement of putting loose change in a water-filled pool for Heifer International.
Perhaps it was the coordination across the generations in the various mission projects throughout the week.
Or perhaps it was the endless message of the gospel: Jesus loves you.
Every day during the week we were reminded just how much Jesus loves us. Even though we are left out, are different, don’t understand, do wrong, or are afraid, Jesus still loves us. We were often reminded of that love and that grace throughout the week. Even though we aren’t sure we want to be at VBS and scream and kick and hide under the table, Jesus loves us. Even though we hit our friend while on the playground or be difficult with our adult leaders, Jesus loves us. Even though we get really upset when we lose a game and stomp our feet, Jesus loves us.
Perhaps it was reading the blog posts that some of our adult and youth volunteers wrote about VBS. It was clear that there was a joy that moved way beyond the children to the volunteers as well. Perhaps it was leading the Bible story station with Pastor John. We took turns. I would go from telling the Bible story to 5-6 graders, to 2nd graders, to young 4-year-olds. The young 4s were the only group that did their Bible story in the “jungle” (also known as the Narthex). They listened – I mean – listened – to the stories and asked questions. They were engaged and willing to participate in the storytelling.
Perhaps it was the willingness of so many of the children to let me wash their feet during one of the Bible stories (based on John 13). Even though they didn’t understand, they were okay with it. And even though I had to wash my hands a number of times that day to get rid of that “I just touched feet” smile, it was okay. Because something spiritual, something holy, had happened. We were being Christ-like.
And perhaps that’s what made this VBS so special. We were all being Christ-like. Yeah, we had fun with the puppets and the playground. We had fun making stuff – but most of that stuff was for other people, like our friends at the Williams Home or L’Arche. We saw some really weird animals, but at the same time we learned that its okay to be different, like our friend Ray who brought some of his weird animals for us to see. I saw children patiently and humbly help their classmates who were different adjust and remind them of what was going on. I saw adult and youth volunteers take special care for those children who needed a little bit of extra attention during parts of the day. And I saw parents, filled with hope, pick up their children and rejoice with them when they learned how much money they had raised for Heifer International.
It was a good week – it was an amazing week! And after a week or so of rest, we just might start planning next year’s VBS.
Every Wednesday night I and others go to the local L’Arche community for Spiritual Life Night. It is an evening of song, storytelling, and prayer. A night is not complete without Gordon, one of the core members, sharing a solo, like “Me and Jesus,” as he does in this picture.
At a time when movies like God’s Not Dead and Heaven is for Real have motivated movie goers – both evangelical and progressive – comes a film from South Africa: The Perfect Wave. It is billed as “more than a love story.” The film is based on the real life events of Ian McCormack, who is well known as an atheists turned born again Christian. In fact, the story that the film portrays is a story he has told to millions of people around the world.
Scott Eastwood (son of Clint) plays Ian as he skips around the world including Australia, Indonesia, and Africa, in search for the perfect wave. Ian is portrayed as a somewhat selfish 24-year-old not concerned with his mother’s charity work or anything to do with the church. His family, on the other hand, are devout in their spiritual life and in their care for others.
Out of the blue one day, Ian decides to sell his car and tells his mother (Cheryl Ladd) that his going on his dream trip in search of big waves. He keeps a journal of the different waves he surfs on along the trip. Even though she cannot convince him to stay home, the mother has a bad feeling – a sixth sense, if you will, that something is going to happen to Ian. She makes no bones in telling people that she has heard the voice of God – there is a scene or two where she describes the occasion – as such, her Holy Spirit sense may have some weight to it.
Ian and his best friend set on this journey. As he searches for the next best wave to ride, he realizes that he is searching for something more. “I’m chasing something,” he narrates, “that’s more real than this.”
What Ian is in search for is love. It is the story of a young man’s love for surfing. It is the story of a faithful mother’s love for her son. It is the story of young men and women falling in love. And it is the story of persistent love of God. For the most part, the film is about Ian’s desire to find the perfect wave. Everything else in life seems to not matter as much as that perfect wave does. Then, after a relationship breaks up, the film takes a turn toward the deeply spiritual. Ian has a near death experience. After being pronounced dead, Ian experiences not only the love of God, but the voice of God. Who knew a jelly fish sting would have such an effect?
While the film has a few rough edges in its writing and occasionally in its acting, it is a solid family film. It is not, however, a film that will be attractive to the “unbeliever.” But perhaps, that is not the point. Perhaps the filmmakers want the mostly Christian audience to experience Ian’s story in a new way and then feel compelled to share it with others.
The film gets points for not beating the audience over the end with Biblical “truth.” It is open just enough for people to come to their own conclusions – meeting them where they are in their relationship with Jesus Christ. The film, for a brief moment, suggests that a person can be spiritual without being religious. Were not for the relationship Ian developed with a spiritual woman, he may not have had the Paul-like blinding light Jesus experience that he did.
For a complete listing of cities where the film is playing, you can click here.
Up reminds us just how brilliant Pixar is and why the studio has been leading the way in modern animation. Not to mention some the church’s greatest theologians. Up is the story of Carol Fredricksen (Ed Asner) who grieves the death of his wife, Ellie, as well as the death of life as he knows it. A major company has bought up most of the land around his house building parking lots and skyscrapers. Mr. Fredricksen does not what to change. Due to some unfortunate events, Mr. Fredricksen has to leave his house. However, he does not go quietly. Using a large number of helium-filled balloons to move his house to the beloved Paradise Falls.
What makes Up a summer blockbuster isn’t just the adventure, it is the amazing story that goes along with it. Which is what Pixar does well. The images alone are so beautiful it welcomes you into the story. The beginning of the film is itself a short film telling the story of how Carol and Ellie met as children, fell in love, got married, dealt with the unexpectedness of life, and eventually Ellie’s death. Most of this is told without a single word being spoken. The images are so powerful they communicate exactly what needs to be communicated, leaving you laughing or crying.
What follows is the story of Mr. Fredricksen refusing to move from the home that he and Ellie built together. The man who once loved adventure, has become a grumpy old man. He is not only grieving the lost of his wife, but also all of the dreams they had of great explorations. When he is forced to leave and join a retirement home, he decides to take matters into his own hands, and move his home to Paradise Falls. Russell, a Wilderness Explorer Scout, ends up on this helium filled adventure with Mr. Fredricksen as he tried to earn a “helping a senior citizen” badge.
Mr. Fredricksen comes to realize that even though he is older, it does not mean that adventure and following your dreams is over. He still has much to give to the world. This is the gift that he gives to Russell. His knowledge, his experience, his care, his mentoring, are all things that Russell benefits from. It is a strong reminder to the Church for the necessity of intergenerational ministries where young and old come together.
In the film, Russell opens up about his absent father. Mr. Fredricksen becomes a father figure to Russell. One of the warmest moments of the film is when Mr. Fredricksen is present when Russell receives his badge, standing on stage with the other proud fathers. More importantly, the two discover that they have a few things in common. They are both lonely, and they both need each other.
No matter our age, we have something to offer, and we need each other. Let us not forget what a grand adventure a community can go on when it embraces all the generations.