Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Frozen Part Three

This is my third, and final, post about Frozen.  The comic relief of the movie is Olaf, the talking snowman. Which by the way, is any movie not made better by a talking snowman?  I think not!  Olaf has but one dream...to experience summer.  We, of course, know the irony of this, even if we are full time Floridians.  The moment summer awakens around us, with its humidity and relentless sunshine and rain which adds more humidity to the air...snow does not stand a chance.  It starts to melt away.  

Yet, even as we laugh at Olaf's dream to some day experience the beauty of summer, how many of us cling to dreams that are far-fetched?  On the other hand, how many of us had a dream that we persistent, persevered and waited patiently until...wait for it...it came true!  When is a dream worth pour our sweat and tears into pursuing and when do our dreams have a snowball's chance in...well you know the cliche?

That is the rub.  Throughout Scripture God calls God's people to do unthinkable things and take huge leaps of faith.  Abraham and Sarah leave the only home they know.  Noah builds an ark when there was not an ominous cloud in the sky.  Moses goes back to Egypt, the very place where he is a wanted man.  Deborah, a great judge, uses her wisdom to thwart a foreign army.  Ruth bucks conventional wisdom and goes to a land that had just suffered a famine.  I could keep going, but God seems to be a God who nudges us toward what is difficult.  

At the same time, people do resist.  Every single prophet, starting with Moses, initially offers a reason why she or he cannot possibly do what God is calling her/him to do.  The best example is, of course, Jonah.  Who turns tail and runs in the exact opposite direction of where God called him to go.  Thus starting a long line of men who refused to ask for directions when lost.  The disciples are famous for this too.  Think of all the times after a parable they said, "Um Jesus, we don't get it."  Or Peter walking on water for a split second until he saw what he was actually doing and sank.  Or Peter denying he even knew Jesus in the middle of the night.  Or Paul thinking he knew exactly what to do with Christians, until he got stuck by a blinding trace of God's grace.

Yet, there are also moments when it is not wise for us to risk everything.  Think of the woman who put her last two coins in the temple coffers.  While most preachers really like that image, especially at stewardship time...I actually read Jesus words as condemning practices that prey on the poor and religious institutions that have unending appetites for more, more, more.  Despite what we may think, Scripture is not a divine rule book.  Or if it is, the rule book is about as clear as NCAA rule book is today.  The contradictions of Scripture are not there to disprove Scriptures' wisdom, but rather to invite conversation into the wonderful diversity of life. 

Too often today we want religion boiled down into simplistic steps we can apply to our life.  Yet, too often our lives are wonderfully complex and uniquely messy.  Such that, for some of you, I could say, "Risk, dream, get out of your comfort zone and do something different."  Others reading this, I could say, "Slow down.  Breathe.  Rest for your endless Martha-like tasks are making your soul restless."  And others, I might say, "Well, it is a little of both."  And still others, there might be a fourth way yet to be explored.  

Original Christians were not named after Jesus, rather they adapted the identity as, "The People of the Way."  While there was one destination (whole/holistically following Jesus), there were multiple and endless ways to reach that destination (which honestly most of us do not reach in our life times).  So we, like Robert Frost, stand at countless pathways and forks in the road.  Sometimes we need like Olaf and Rev. Dr. King and Bishop Tutu and others to dream impossible dreams.  Other times, we need to face reality.  And here is the good news that supports us no matter where we are in life's journey: there is more than a trace of God's grace found down ALL pathways.  Sometimes, even if we missed the road where we could have taken a leap of faith, there is always another exit ramp and another way the dream manifests itself.

By the way, eventually our good friend Olaf does experience summer with a little help from Elsa.  You will have to see the film to appreciate that fully.  Which reminds us that when we dream dreams, it is good to listen to the wisdom of the Beatles, we all "get by with a little help from our friends."

May the traces of God's grace in your life guide you this week as you listen to where God is nudging you to go.  And may our dreams and hopes and deepest desires find a taste of reality in our lives this week.

Blessings ~  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Frozen Part Two

The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen.
A kingdom of isolation,
and it looks like I'm the Queen
The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn't keep it in;
Heaven knows I've tried

Don't let them in,
don't let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don't feel,
don't let them know
Well now they know

It's funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can't get to me at all

It's time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me,
I'm free!

Let it go, let it go
And I'll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone
Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage on

The cold never bothered me anyway!

These are some of the lyrics to the ubiquitous anthem from Frozen. The second time we saw this movie was on a Disney Cruise.  When the moment for this song came, half the theater began singing along.  And while I agree that a Disney cruise is 'preaching to the choir', I also think there is something about these words and the point they come at in the movie that has captured the imaginations of so many. If you have not yet seen the movie, the words will be out of context.  Although, I would be curious to hear responses to these words without the benefit of seeing/experiencing the whole movie.  

It is difficult for me to go back to that second naivete and try to read these words without the plot line of the movie playing out in my imagination.  Yet, I think what the words give voice to are moments when we feel like we cannot be authentic or be our true self.  We hid something away.  Our Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Bisexual friends have done this for a long time.  They have felt controlled by the reality of judgement and violence.  Beyond that, I think we all have things about ourselves that we hide from others.  Even people who post everything to Facebook are still hiding somethings, perhaps even trying to write a narrative of their life that even they do not fully believe or understand.  

We also have moments when we are forced to hide.  Maybe because of fear.  Maybe because of past experiences.  Maybe because we are uncertain or unclear about who we really are.  And in those moments, even if we are surrounded by a thousand people, we still feel alone.  Or as Elsa sings, "A kingdom of isolation...and it looks like I'm the queen."  We've all been there.  Feeling alone; feeling misunderstood and a case of mistaken identity.

As I said in my last post, like all Disney movies, on one level Frozen is about identity.  Elsa, for good reasons, believes she will not be accepted by others for her powers.  Her powers have hurt others and the linger grief that has caused her has totally dictated the narrative of her life.  Take a quick exit ramp with me and connect to another popular movie, Spider-man (Toby Maguire version).  Early on Spider-man is trying to figure out his powers and his uncle gives him some great advice, "With great power comes great responsibility."  The two are interwoven.  Elsa believes she cannot fully be herself with others around.  I know of very few people who don't at one time, or another, in their lives question both who they are and who they are in connection with others.

So we do conceal and we numb ourselves (usually through addictions or medication or food).  Yet, Elsa needs to understand that her powers and her relationships (especially with her sister Anna) can co-exist.  It is not easy.  The easy path would be to stay in her ice castle brooding and believing that she cannot have both her powers and her loving relationships to others.  In some way the modern dilemma has always been how much of ourselves do we "let go"?  Of course, some discretion is good.  We don't need to over-share our whole lives.  But we also cannot be so closed and contained until one day we burst.

Perhaps this is too much credit/analysis/over thinking of a cartoon.  But I believe that stories are one of the ways we communicate, really communicate, what is valuable.  In the 1980s movies about wealth dominated the box-office because we truly worshiped money.  In the 1990s movies about friendships started to balance that as a generation of latchkey kids started having disposable income.  Now, movies like Frozen and the Hunger Games trilogy cause us to reflect on what is entertainment and identity in cultural systems.  I believe God works through creativity.  God works through art, poetry, music, and movies to help us hold a mirror up to ourselves.  And if we are willing to stare into that mirror, seeing dimly at times, we may just find wisdom that truly is a trace of God's grace.

Blessings ~ 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Frozen Part 1

After all the posts on Abraham and Sarah...it feels like time for a vacation or at minimum something not so serious.  So in a huge leap, I will spend a few posts focusing on the movie Frozen.  If you have not seen the movie, it might help to have a brief synopsis.  It is about two sisters, Anna and Elsa.  Like all good Disney movies, someone has to die early on in the movie.  Think here of Bambi's poor mother or Carl's wife in Up.  But this time, Disney is more equally opportunity, with both mom and dad dying...real progress if you ask me. 

Anna is the eternal optimist; Elsa holds the secret power of being able to make winter appear (totally should have typed "spoiler alert" first).  Eventually, Elsa's powers are discovered and not by some careless blogger.  So, she goes off on her own, which is where the ubiquitous song, Let It Go comes into play. Trust me, if you have not heard this song, ask any eight year old girl, she will sing every word.

Anna goes after her, meets Kristoff and his pet moose.  By the way, is there any movie not made better by a pet moose?  I think not.  And...well the rest, you will have to watch the movie.  It has received well deserved praise.

First, unlike previous Disney movies, neither Elsa or Anna need "saving" by any man.  There are men in the movie who play important roles, none of which include the trite and cliché role of saving the princess.  These two princesses are perfectly capable and brave.  Second, the movie is just good story telling.  The movie reminds us why we go to movies, which is to be enthralled with a narrative that captures our imaginations.  But stories are not simply escapism.  The best stories shine a light or hold up a mirror to our lives.  They reflect back to us who we are as a people and our deepest desires.

One of the reasons why Disney movies are so successful is not only marketing, but they almost always center around the question of identity.  Think of Toy Story, where Woody has to come to terms with what it means to not be the favorite toy any more and Buzz Lightyear has to come to terms with truth that he is just a toy...not an intergalactic space ranger.  Think of Cars where Lighting McQueen has to deal with whether friendships or fame are more important to who he is.  Same is true here, can Elsa really be a good sister given her powers or is it easier just to form an ice castle where she is an island by herself?

The question of identity is paramount today.  And if you don't believe me, watch commercials.  Companies no longer just sell a product, but a sense of who you are.  Are you a Mac or PC kinda person?  Do you drive a Chevy or a Mazda (zoom, zoom)?  Are you the kind of parent who cares enough about your kids to give the best kind of peanut butter?  Seriously, when did my choice of cereal become a defining moment of life?  The honest answer, never!  It does not matter.  Only identity is the only thing that does matter in some ways today.  Theologian Andrew Root points out that our identity use to come from our family at the turn of the 19th century and previous to that.  You were a farmer because your dad, grandfather, uncle, great-grandfather, etc. were farmers.  But around the mid 20th century, we started letting our job define who we are.  But one of the marks of the post-modern era is that we no longer want we do for a living to be so central; we do not want to be confined by our paycheck.  But where does that leave us?  We continue to question if it is not family primarily and it is not our job that defines us, what does?  Our consumerism has been all but delighted to say, "You can buy your identity!"

I fully realize the irony that Frozen is a financial boom to Disney, so in some ways they are selling us a sense of identity.  But I also think the movie asks questions about family and about who we are and who we want to be.  In the next post, I will talk about some of the music from the movie.  But for now, I invite you to ponder prayerfully where is it that you find your deepest sense of identity, how do you see yourself?  Who helps define who you are? 

I pray as we ponder this, we will find a trace of God's grace in our lives to help.

Blessings ~

Friday, July 11, 2014

Perhaps Needs to be Forgotten

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”  Genesis 22

While the last post talked about the passage of Hagar and Ishmael which has been tragically forgotten, this passage is all too frequently remembered.  It is remembered as an example of, "What kind of God would ever even let this story be told...not even saying that it might actually have happened??"  We see this as an illustration of the stereotype of God as violent or vengeful in the Hebrew Scriptures.  So, we keep coming around this passage like we do at a car accident.  We are at once repealed and yet we cannot help ourselves for gawking at this train-wreck. 

I have yet to find a real great commentary to help me get my heart around this narrative.  Some scholars say that it is "evidence that God does NOT want child sacrifice!"  I think God has a lot better ways of communicated that.  Other scholars say this is a passage that points out how difficult it is to hear our still speaking God, that Abraham just thought he heard God say this.  But that would also throw into question how reliable any of Abraham and God's conversations were.  Was Abraham supposed to leave his family?  Or change his name?  Or have a son with Sarah?  Like dominoes, sometimes our efforts in once place, set off a chain reaction in unintended ways.

So where does that leave us?  Does God want us to hurt or neglect our families?  I think there are far too many stories in Scripture that testify otherwise (the Prodigal Son comes to mind first).  Perhaps the best way I can hold this story right now is brokenness done in God's name that causes too much pain.  I know families who have essentially cut off their son or daughter for his/her sexual orientation.  I know families who shun each other with heavy grudges.  I know brokenness between siblings that is passed on to the next generation.  And I don't believe God asks for this, nor should church dogma and books of order.  

To be sure, when we were dealing with Noah, we talk about how God changes God's mind.  God initially thought the flood was a great way to solve a problem, only to realize the means led to another end.  Humans are beautiful and broken.  Maybe this is another moment of God changing God's mind.  

Most of all, this reminds me that I don't have God figured out.  God's ways are not my ways.  And I think we should be careful reducing stories down to moral nuggets.  We like to do this, treating Scripture as fairy tale.  For example, the message of the Three Little Pigs is choose your building and housing wisely.  Or maybe the message is that there are wolves in our midst.  Or maybe the message is that pigs are not the best contractors.  You see, even when you think you have found the message, there is always something more if you probe longer.  

We need stories like this to keep that truth front and center.  I need a story like this to make me uncomfortable...lest I get so complacent thinking that every story in Scripture has one, and only one, ethical application.  Scripture stories are vast and varied, they are deep and wide, and cover ground sometimes that is best left un-explored.  But there are moments of family brokenness.  Just as womanist theologians have re-claimed and re-interpreted Hagar, perhaps we need to hear from our sons and daughters who have felt sacrificed in the name of religion.  It is painful.  It will make us wince, but it is also a way for our still speaking God to get a word in edgewise.

May there be a trace of grace...even the smallest smidgen of grace...as we ponder this narrative for us today.

Blessings ~

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Not Forgotten

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.  Genesis 21:8-19

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

Martin Luther once observed that the life of faith is holding in tension the agony and ecstasy. Faith is about holding together joy and pain; blessings and brokenness; or what I sometimes call the messy middle of life.  Most of the time, we tend toward one extreme.  We say we are a glass is half full, optimistic person.  Or we say that we are a realist who see that the glass is really half empty.  We are a party sunny or party cloudy kind of person.  This gets translated into our politics especially, we are supposedly either a Republican or Democrat, even as most of the country claim to be staunch independents...or in other words, in the messy middle.

Essentially we are holding together the both/and places in life.  Our last post was on laughter, this one could be on grief.  Right after the joy of welcoming a son...FINALLY...Sarah has moment of envy and jealousy.  She doesn't like seeing her son play with Ishmael, who was born to Hagar from Abraham.  And God plays marriage counselor by saying, "Do not be distressed, do what Sarah asks."  So, Abraham sends them away.  And Hagar is distraught...she sees no other option than to put Ishmael in some reeds and wander away, essentially abandoning her son.  It is a gut and heart-wrenching moment.

How many times have we been there...between the proverbial rock and a hard place.  We see no good options, back into a corner.  So, we surrender, we throw in the towel, and give up.  This passage is a moment of agony, right after the ecstasy of Isaac's birth.  

Yet, this passage, which is too often forgotten, is central and a foreshadowing of the life of the God's people.  First it is a wilderness moment.  In Exodus, we will hear all about God wandering with God's people for forty years.  In the Gospels, Jesus will go to the wilderness right after baptism.  But the FIRST person to do that, to experience the pain/desert/deserted place of a wilderness is Hagar and her son, Ishmael.  Before God's people knew exile, the father and mother of the three great mono-theistic religions sent someone into exile.  And not just any one.  Ishmael is the father of the Islamic religion.  This story will find echos in the story of Moses, whose mother is distraught by Pharaoh's genocide plan, that she will hide him in a basket among the reeds until Pharaoh's daughter finds Moses, and takes him to be raised right under the nose of the Pharaoh.  The taste in your mouth right now is irony!  But the first one to feel the hopelessness to the place of abandonment was Hagar.  Her story, Ishmael's story are truly central and tragically forgotten.

So, how do you really live between hope and despair or agony and ecstasy?  Because, let's face it, most of us anesthetize our pain with food or prescription medication or shopping.  I don't have some great answer to that modern day quandary.  It is a puzzle.  But I also think the church should do a better job helping us.  Rather than trying to play into the anesthetization of saying all God wants is our praise and not also our pain.  Or we talk about God's plan or will or whatever way we try justify that we simply do not know how to explain away the existence of pain.  So, maybe like Hagar, we should feel that pain.  Name it honestly and openly.  This will not work for everyone.  For some to feel that rawness is a vulnerability that will open to addiction.  For others, the pain will open a wound that has not had time to really heal.  Again, this is less about prescription and more about descriptions. 

Have you ever had a Hagar moment where you feel so distraught? 
Have you ever been between a rock and a hard place?
Did your faith help or hinder?

As you pray those honest questions, there is one final point about this narrative.  Our African-American sisters have seen this passage as vital for their faith.  One of the most powerful books I have read is Sisters in the Wilderness by Delores Williams which uses this passage as a lens for theological insight.  I commend this book to you for exploring more about our history as a country, slavery, and the importance of the Hagar story for Womanist theologians.  

May God grant us wisdom and peace in the living out of the difficult moments of life.  And may we like Hagar find more than a trace of God's grace.

Blessings ~

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” Genesis 21:1-7

Isaac means laughter, what a great name.  The one who before he was born awoken laughter from both his father, Abraham, and his mother, Sarah.  The one who you can imagine when he was born caused laughter to erupt as tears flowed down his mother's face.  Sarah is the saint of laughter.

Then, somewhere along the way, church became a very serious and somber business.  After all there are buildings to maintain and budgets to fund.  There are services to plan, sermons to preach.  Committee...O yes...the committees.  Always another meeting.  And rarely do we associate these moments with laughter.  But I think we should all go buy a portrait of Saint Sarah, place the photo in our board rooms, back rooms, and even bath rooms to remind us that laughter is the best prayer to God.

When did you laugh this week?  Honestly, this was not a week filled with laughter for me.  But, sometimes the lack of laughter has more to do with me than anyone else.  A pastor friend of mine was fond of quoting Lincoln, "Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be".  We often think that our happiness is dependent on forces outside our control.  While it is true that there is much brokenness in our world, there are forces that seem bent on spreading dis-ease in our world (cable news networks or radio hosts come to mind here).  It is easy to nit-pick your way through life, where nothing is quite good enough.  The sauce on your food, just a tad too spicy.  The day was too sunny or cloudy or too party cloudy.  Life is not about perfection, but finding peacefulness.  And no one can give us peacefulness.  You cannot purchase it along with a People Magazine and breath mints at your local store.  

My wife and I enjoy watching HGTV; and almost every show has the premise surrounding buying or renovating a home...perhaps the most stressful time in your life.  So, why NOT invite some cameras in for filming that moment in your life for national consumption?  So many shows also are bent on one person in the couple being overly grumpy about the house.  Then, in the end, we all want a happy ending, so both in the couples are suddenly so excited about the best decision ever.  On the one hand, that is just television.  On the other, people are trying to make up their minds to be happy.

We all know and admire people who seem to have an endless supply of happiness.  It seems to radiate from every pore of their being.  Of course, others help.  Watch a comedian; read funny stories or blogs; hang out with friends with a good sense of humor.  But at some point it needs to come from within too.  Touching the part of our soul connected to our funny bone that enjoys laughing so hard our bellies hurt.  

I pray you will continue to ponder prayerfully laughter and joy and happiness in your life.  Where is happiness coming from outside and inside?  And how are we thanking God for the saint of laughter, Sarah!  May the traces of God's grace tickle your life with laughter this week.

Blessings ~

God's Calling - We don't have it all figured out

  A few weeks ago, I offered the analogy of the Slinky as a serendipitous example of the ways calling can go off course and still end up in ...