Rosebud: Continuing My New Years Resolution Plan

Last year I started a New Years Resolution Plan called Rosebud that I got off one of the podcasts I frequent. The process essentially looks like this:

Step 1: List Three Roses-
This is the stuff that I would consider the greatest strengths, successes or accomplishments of the past year, the stuff that has managed to blossom into a Rose.

Step 2: List Three Thorns
This would reflect my greatest personal struggles of the past year.

Step 3: List Three Buds
This is a list of what I would like to “bud” into Roses in the coming year.

Step 4: Come up with a word for the year
This should be a single word that can help reflect the direction I want to head in the coming year, a single word that can give my year a theme or a recognizable flavour.
The great part of the Rosebud system is that it allows you to document these things by year so that you can follow your growth, keep yourself accountable, and target the yearly summation of your  hopes and expectations in ways that are more practical, personal and balanced.

So looking back, here were the 3 buds from last year that reflected the things I had hoped to bud into Roses:
1. More focused writing
2. Small Steps, namely in areas like debt repayment, giving more, and taking smaller more manageable trips (because opportunity to travel and see new places is important to me).
3. Travel (in the manner mentioned above)

And my single word for 2017: Time

So how did I do?

The first bud was definitely successful (more focused writing). There were some lulls in 2017, but I am happy in general with how much “time” I was able to give to writing more and writing with more focus. My hope down the road, if I can continue to focus my writing, is to be able to take that time and figure out a way to turn some of it into a book.

The second bud (small steps) came with some hits and some misses. The latter half of the year saw some setbacks in certain areas (I was not where I wanted to be in terms of finding areas to give more), but at the same time we made some positive (small steps) towards positioning ourselves to be better equipped this year to tackle some small steps.

The third (travel). Not where I wanted it to be. I think looking at some of the thorns of last year, this lack of budding increased some of those thorns (namely anxiety, social isolation). Some of this is due to a phase of life. So much of our time (which is important to travel) was invested into our son over this year. And no regrets there at all, but it does speak to a reality that we have to learn how to navigate together if we are to increase our investment in “family” time. And I think (small step) travel is one of the best ways to do that. And the truth is it does help my anxiety as well, and that means I am better equipped to really give into the family in other ways as well.

 

So on to 2018:
3 Roses:
1. More focused Writing
I wanted to include this again not as a retread but as a way of making sure I don’t fall off the wagon. I just wanted to acknowledge that it did become a noted strength in 2017, not because my writing is great but because I feel I have been able to articulate some important things for myself in times and in ways that I have needed.
2. Engagement at my job
This wasn’t on my radar when I did this in 2017, but by the end of last school year I was not very engaged with my job. I am a school bus driver by trade, and last year was a really tough year. So much so that rather than engaging with my kids I just wanted to hide most days as I tried my best to trudge through it all. At the beginning of this school year I made a commitment to reengage with the students and to reinvest in the time I was spending with my bus (small steps). I feel like it has payed off. I am seeing stronger relationships, and although there are still challenges I have stayed engaged and involved and creative.

3. Risk taking and lifestyle changes
We made some tough choices this year, especially in the latter months, to try and reposition our family towards where we needed to be. Some of these choices involved taking a risk and a step of faith. But I feel like this is a positive strength for us as a family, The ability to make changes and to maybe do some things a bit off course than the way we normally might do it makes me excited for the potential and possibilities down the road.

3 Thorns
1. Anxiety
This is a retread, and for good reason. I suggested last year that this is one that will likely be ongoing. The struggle this past year grew from manageable to a negative and not very manageable in the latter half.

2. Social Activity
Again, a retread, and again for good reason. It goes hand in hand with the anxiety. When my anxiety is high the number one place it manifests is socially. And when social activity is low, anxiety grows. It is a bit of a vicious cycle.

3. Time
Time was a positive last year in certain respects. It was my word for the year, and I chose it because it was necessary for my buds to grow. But time also remained allusive and not balanced in other respects, especially in making use of the summer (we are all on the school system and are off for those two months), and also in balancing family time with a crazy schedule for our kid in the fall months.

3 Buds
1. Make Travel Goals
I have put this at number one not as a selfish goal but as a proactive one. Some of the changes we have made in our house involve planning with more intention, so I think with this bud I wanted to see something more intentional as well, keeping in mind that I also want to approach this according to the “small steps” mantra of last year. So here are some possible and intentional ideas:
Toronto- The ball was dropped on me getting our son Sasha (and us) back to Toronto. And time is ticking for opportunity to get him over there so that he can build some relationships with his extended family. This is a manageable trip. We know how to do it and we know how to do it on a budget. Couple this with the fact that they are also opening up a brand new, multi level go cart track in Niagra, and this will be a great opportunity for Sasha to get down there again and for all of us to see family.

Old Mid-West Trip– This will coincide with my second bud, but I had this idea for a blog that revolved around the Western. I wanted to pair some movies with a visit to some Western icons that are not far from where we live. Hopefully I can find that opportunity this year.

Duluth– Our son Sasha really wants to get back there to do some snow boarding.

Memphis/New Orleans– this is the year to think about racial issues and civil rights. A few different anniversaries are being celebrated in 2018, including an important anniversary of New Orleans.

Detroit and Cleveland- A short trip over the border from Toronto are two of the top cities to visit in North America in 2018. I had been hoping to get Sasha down to Detroit so that I could take him to the museums and introduce him to some of the history of race relations and civil rights. He got really interested in that last year in English class. Maybe this is the year where that is a possibility.

Omaha– weekend away with my wife. What better place than this mid-west city and the gondola ride down their canal.

2. More Focused Reading Challenge
I typically stick with the generic Good Reads challenge, and typically I make my goal of reading around 50 books in the year. This year I hope to become more intentional with my reading challenge. My goal is to research different creative ideas around how to read and what kind of books to read and then formulate it into a plan. I think this will help slow my reading down, give it more intention, and branch me out to different ideas and opportunities.

3. Creative Giving Ideas
Rather than just giving more, I hope to be able to look at this as branching out in more ways than just financially. It used to be a really big part of my character to come up with creative ways to give. And if this is an opportunity, it is an opportunity to challenge my social thorns as well. Because to give creatively means to give of time, to give towards specifics, and to know the people and situations and circumstance and personal ideas where giving might be meaningful or purposed.

One word for the year: Intentional

My Most Anticipated Films of 2018

Lots to get excited about in the year ahead when it comes to the world of film. A new direction for the Transformers universe (Bumblebee). Years of investment will finally pay off in Infinity War while diversity will finally come to the Marvel universe in the very promising Black Panther, an exceptionally intriguing multi-verse and multi-ethnic take on Spiderman, and the release of not one, but two new X-Men films.

But the real story of this year I think will be the unusual anticipation of a slew of new (and prominent) sequels for Paddington , The Incredibles, Pacific Rim, Jurassic World, Fantastic Beasts, Wreck it Ralph Tomb Raider, Cloverfield, Mission Impossible, Sicario, Oceans, Predator, and The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo.

And as if all of that was not enough, we also get more Star Wars (Solo), some big name originals with franchise potential (Ready Player One, Red Sparrow, A Wrinkle In Time, B.O.D), tons of great indies and smaller productions, and a follow up to the live action Beauty and The Beast (Mulan) that I am actually quite excited about.

And lets not forget Sherlock Gnomes. I mean come on. Who didn’t enjoy the first one. I know I did.

So with all that said, and perhaps willingly granting my anticipation of Infinity War and Solo right off the hop, here are the films I am most anticipating seeing in 2018.

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  1. Paddington 2
    The original swept me off my feet. The sequel looks to be even better. And judging by early reactions (plenty of screenings have already happened for this one) it has a chance to be one of the best of 2018.
  2. Annihilation
    A killer trailer, memorable source material, an incredible cast and the director of Ex-Machina come together to make this a must see film this year.
  3. First Man
    It’s hard not to consider this new film by Damien Chazelle to be in the running come next awards season. It is biography and it is distinctly American at a time when American seems desperate to find itself again. More than this though, the film harkens back to Apollo 13, one of the great space films of all time,

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  4. Isle of Dogs
    Wes Anderson follows the success (and brilliance) of Fantastic Mr. Fox with another animated feature set in Japan. Everything about this trailer looks and feels like Anderson, dripping with intrigue, creativity and charm. By far one of my most anticipated animated films, and in a year that will give us The Incredibles 2 and another Wreck It Ralph, this is no small feat.

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  5. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
    A film 17 years in the making, the story behind this story is probably the thing that intrigues me the most about this (once upon a time) time travel narrative turned 17th century period piece. It has gone through multiple actors before settling on Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce, and has been considered one of the most troubled productions in film history, even spawning a documentary to try and shed light on this intriguing sentiment. It is a movie about the ways movies (and movie production) can impact people, providing us with a potentially fascinating look into the world of film culture at large.

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  6. Ready Player One
    I could not put the book down. The trailer looks to bring all of the stuff that made it such a fun ride to life. It’s one big geek fest celebrating everything that made 80’s Hollywood so magical. And with Spielberg on board I can’t wait. This is going to be one heck of a ride.

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  7. Sisters-Brothers
    I love Westerns. So much of American cinema owes much to the Western, and with this particular entry into the genre we get to watch an indie director and a stellar cast weaving the age old Western tropes (in the most positive sense possible) over 1000 miles of the rugged and notorious American landscape.

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  8. Wrinkle In Time
    A childhood favourite, I have been looking forward to A Wrinkle In Time ever since it was first announced. And now that they are promoting the heck out of it my anticipation just keeps growing.

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  9. Bilal
    With the subtitle “A New Hero”, this is a tale that jumps straight out of the pages of its ancient subtext. In terms of Biblical narratives I could easily note the long projected The Apostle Paul finally making headway, the epic looking Samson or the curiousity of the oddly marketed Mary Magdalene. But this is the one that really caught my eye. It lives and breathes as a Biblical epic, and inspired by the true story of one man standing against injustice is bound to be a larger than life big screen presence in 2018.

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  10. Please Stand By
    From the director of the emotionally rewarding The Sessions, this is a film that celebrates the wonders of geekdom and fandom while also managing to shed light on the challenges of living with autism. It looks to be an important film and a touching film, but even more than that a whole lot of fun.

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  11. A Quiet Place
    Three things elevate this film to my top must see list of films. First, I feel like I really want to see just how they handle the plot of this film. It would seem to me a real challenge to centre a film around a group of people who have to be completely silent. Second, I love horror and in a year that will also see Cloverfield: The God Particle, the fantastic looking Winchester and the next installment in the Conjuring universe, The Nun, this is the horror film that seems most unique to me. And lastly, it comes from the director of Away We God, and to say I loved that film is an understatement.

  12. Road Trip Movies
    We don’t get one in 2018, we get two, and so I thought I would highlight both of them. The first is called The Long Dumb Road, a film about two people from different walks of life who happen across each others path and end up on a road trip across the American South. I have long been fascinated by the American South and its culture, so this was a huge buy for me. And it just feels and looks like it has the potential to really hit home on the whole question of equality in a time when this discussion continues to be prominent on the American stage.The second Road Trip movie is called American Folk. In a similar way it follows two strangers who are brought together (in this case from the both of them being stranded), only here theme is music and musicians and the backdrop is 9/11. Again, fascinated and a huge buy.

 

 

3 Honorable Mentions:
1. Fast Colour
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a beast right now, as is bringing together the producer for La La Land and the producer for Jackie. In the case of Raw, following Beauty and the Beast, we can also see her in Cloverfield (can’t wait for that one) and a Wrinkle In time. That’s huge. But this is the film that will truly showcase her in a leading role, telling the story of a woman forced on the run when her superhuman abilities are discovered. It feels very X-Men in story, but decidedly unique and fresh in tone.


2. Maze Runner: The Death Cure

The Scorch Trials really caught me off guard and managed to work its way into being one of my favourite films of that year, or at least the biggest surprise. It is a film that our whole family can get behind which is great, and this final film in the trilogy looks to end on a high note.
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3. My honourable mentions could just as easily be another top 12 list in its own right with many competing categories including most anticipated superhero film (Black Panther) and reboot (Oceans 8). But the one I have to include here is Pacific Rim Uprising. This one just looks to be bonkers good, and given how much I enjoyed the first one my expectations are sky high.

 

My Year In Film: Cinema and the Importance of Remembering, Making Memories and Finding Meaning in This World

If there is a single cinematic theme that has been lingering for me in the closing moments of 2017 it would be the theme of “remembering”, or the importance of “memory making”. It showed up in some surprising places and with surprising force, guiding an exploration of loss, grief, identity, self reflection, relationships and our need to belong.  In one case it even looked at the power of nostalgia to shape the way we see our lives in a new way.

Here is a look back on an important part my personal cinematic journey this year, one that called me back to this practice of remembering the importance of memory making. And please be aware, all of the films discussed here will contain a degree of spoilers.

A GHOST STORYdownload-1
One of two like minded ghost stories I saw this year (the other being Personal Shopper), this film managed to offer a poignant and poetic cinematic picture of the importance of remembering in the midst of loss. The fact that a single bed sheet with two holes cut out for eyes could challenge my perception of life and loss so profoundly is a testament to the power of the moving image.

At the forefront of A Ghost Story are two competing ideas: how hard it is to remember and how easy it is to forget. And the thing that binds these two ideas intimately together is the notion of time.

 

downloadThe film narrows in on the story of a young couple, aptly named C and M, but as the film progresses through the sudden loss of C, it is the house that carries their story forward, transformed through the sudden feeling of emptiness and connecting us at once backwards and forwards in time as it calls us to consider and to wrestle with the brooding silence. And on this same note, there might not be a better use of a single song to really capture a films tone than the one C composes on a piano in this film. Its presence, followed by its absence, is a gut wrenching realization of the power that silence has to truly shake our world.

 

In one particularly powerful scene we see another family in time sitting (and imposing their own noise) onto this house as they wrestle with the idea of legacy. To which one of the family members laments the fact that no matter how hard we try to do something or make a life that matters, all of this is eventually destroyed, forgotten. That C lingers in the background haunting this sentiment and giving a sense of timelessness to the house they embody is a truly captivating moment.

 

At one point M writes a note in the midst of all of the destruction of her life and sticks it in a wall. We never see what is written on this note, but it symbolizes her best effort to persist in the midst of the destruction, to remember the past that is now building her towards an uncertain future, and to take the necessary steps to move forward.

 

But what is especially fascinating about A Ghost Story, especially in this singular moment, is the way the film shifts our perspective from M to C. In Personal Shopper the ghost is allusive and mysterious, kept ambiguously absent from our sight. In contrast, the ghost in A Ghost Story is fully imagined and fully present. In this film it is not so much about M’s struggle to see C, as it is in Personal Shopper, but of C’s struggle to be seen by M, of his ghost coming to terms with what his presence, and his lack of presence, means to the world around him. It evokes this sense not of struggling with the unanswered questions, but of the importance of engaging with these questions of our struggle and of meaning in the first place. We never see what is written on this note, but what we do know is that this note allows C’s ghost to eventually move forward into the light, to pursue these important questions.

At one point in the film we are given a glimpse of a secondary ghost that lingers in the house next door. The ghost next door can’t remember who he or she is waiting for, and ultimately realizes in its eventual fading that whoever it is, they are not coming. In the end of film we are given a picture of a secondary C standing in house watching himself watching M. For C it is a point of remembering in a way the ghost next door could not. His memory of the past he left behind allows him to embrace the moments of his life, good and bad, that have allowed him to be seen, to be needed, a life that is brought together symbolically in this film through a song. For C, it is the idea of this song breaking through the silence, through the mess, that connects him back to M and the world she inhabits, ultimately leading him to this note which has been stuck in a wall and out of reach until the destruction of their home, their lives, becomes so vast and so final that it opens up a crack wide enough for him to reach it. And whatever this note says, whatever this note means to C, we know it is important. Important enough to allow him to finally move forward in the midst of his own lingering memories.

 

 

PERSONAL SHOPPER
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Similar to A Ghost Story, Personal Shopper is another fascinating exploration of what it means to remember in the midst of loss, grief and the destruction of our lives, using the presence of a ghost to propel its story. It just looks at it from a slightly different perspective with slightly different nuances, shifting our perspective from the ghost to the one who left behind struggling to see the ghost.

Stewart gives the performance of her career playing a young woman caught between her professional life on the outside (an assistant or personal shopper for a celebrity supermodel) and the despair she carries on the inside (the loss of her brother whom she shared a heart condition with). The way the film brings together these two realities makes them feel far less apart than they might first appear. The glamorous, dressed up lifestyle of Maureen’s career reveals a much less dressed up sense of sadness and weariness, providing a stark reminder of what lies underneath the masks we all tend to wear in our everyday lives. And we see this even more realized in a couple scenes where Stewarts character is literally left bare, not in a sexualized way but in a way that reveals the depth of her weariness.

 

download-1In all of this, what sets Personal Shopper apart is the way it leaves its ghost just out of reach. In the midst of Maureen’s sense of loss and the prevailing grief that deconstructs the slow destruction of her imagined world of playing dress up, we see her desperately seeking, longing for something to give her hope and healing. And so she begins to see glimpses of her brothers ghost haunting a world she doesn’t understand, and she begins to hope for the chance to reconnect with the loss of that memory, that reality, that person with which she continues to feel so intimately tied even in his absence.

 

On the other side of this is the presence of a possible dangerous stalker who is trying to infiltrate and upset the professional world she inhabits. As a viewer the film leaves us uncertain about the identity and the existence of either of these presences, allowing this to focus our attention on Maureen, who is left swimming in a mix of fear, sadness and desperation, wrestling with the films important questions. What gives us meaning? What is it that binds us to the people of our lives in a meaningful way? What does it mean to remember these people that allows this meaning to exist beyond their presence, beyond ourselves? And where do we find hope that this meaning can carry forward in the midst of all of the destruction in our world and our lives? How hard must we fight to stay connected to this sense of hope?

 

As an added piece, it is interesting to note the fact that her brother was a carpenter, a fact that allows the questions of this film to offer some concrete images in the midst of its own ambiguity, the sense that maybe, just maybe there are some answers to be found.download-2

These are powerful questions that expand my understanding of what it means to remember in ways that can help motivate me to recognize what hope is and to hold on to it when things feel hopeless. And it challenges me to reclaim hope as more than a memory, but also an expectation? As the promise of new life that we are free to imagine in the midst of a life lost.

The film also allowed me to consider the power of its ambiguity, to recognize and embrace the struggle to hold on when these expectations are challenged. To recognize that we don’t, and won’t always have a firm grasp on these things, and to learn to be okay with that. The film doesn’t do the work answer these questions for us, nor does it suggest that the struggle of the ambiguity and the unanswered questions or the conviction that forms our expectation has power the other. It simply lets us sit in the tension, leaving room for us to ponder and to wrestle with these things along with Maureen.

 


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BLADE RUNNER 2049
One of the great cinematic moments of 2017 also managed to bring me face to face with one of the most profound explorations of memory and what it means to remember this year.

download-2As a sequel to the 1982 film, Blade Runner 2049 introduces us to a new Blade Runner (K, played by Ryan Gosling) who is created to hunt down the old generation of rogue replicants who are not complying with the larger Order ( the order for these human/android hybrids to be programmed to be slaves and workers for the benefit of society or, should they go rogue, ultimately be hunted down and destroyed). This job eventually leads him to discover an untold question about his own past, a question that forms the central concern of the films story going forward.

 

The discovery is a box buried under the tree that sits at the home of a replicant K was called to destroy, a box that we find out contains the bones of a baby, the remains of the miracle this rogue replicant references in his final breathe. And what adds to the mystery of this box is that it appears to be tied to a date K notices scratched into the trunk of the tree, a date that conjures up a forgotten memory in his own mind.

 

download-3What concerns the story itself is the prospect of rogue replicants being able to procreate and the challenge that posits to maintaining the order. What concerns K specifically is how and why these dates are attached to his own memory and how that defines his place in the larger order. Memories are implanted artificially, but this memory seems strangely distant and real. And so K sets out to discover the truth about his memory, the truth of who he is, a journey that blurs the line between where human and android begins and ends.

 

As the questions of the film begin to get clearer, this idea of our memories becomes a powerful way of understanding our humanity. Caught at this intersection between human and android is this question of our memories, and at heart of being human is the genuine capacity to remember and to connect ourselves to these memories. What pushes this further is the connection of memory (and remembering) to recognizing the difference between being born or being created. In the world that K inhabits, to be born is a miracle, an action that pushes back on our ability and our need to control, while the other represents our mastery of this world, our need to control our place in this world. And what is important to this futuristic and dystopian reality is the question of what the world might look like in the absence of a miracle.

 

At the heart of this miracle, the thing that pushes back on our need to control, is our ability to remember. This is what is given to us in the miracle of a birth, both a memory and the ability to remember. Take these memories away and we are left with something wholly unrecognizable. something unable to give or receive meaning with intentionality. This is what a hologram named Joi comes to represent. When K goes on a journey to discover the truth about who he is, the memory that gives him meaning, he removes Joi from her memory base and transports her through a mobile emitter (which allows her to take shape outside of her memory base). The danger of this though is that if this emitter is destroyed all of Joi’s memories, and thus her ability to give meaning to K’s world, disappears for good. downloadThis is used to shed light on the possibility of K’s own humanity. If he is human it is the memory he is chasing that gives him meaning. And if he dies, it is the loss of these memories that challenges his humanity.

 

The film answers some these questions in its powerful conclusion, but it leaves others unanswered allowing me to wrestle with the kind of ambiguity that Personal Shopper evoked even while trusting in the message of A Ghost Story, the truth that these are important questions to be asking. Where Blade Runner adds to the picture is by offering something a bit more concrete about what this journey looks like out in the world. The film left me as a viewer to ponder where we are given and afforded meaning in our own lives and what those memories are that infuse my own life with a sense of meaning with purpose in intentional ways, even as I also feel obligated to impose these same questions out into the world around me as well. Blade Runner challenged me to consider the things that are able to fade away without any lasting meaning, and pushed me to hold a little bit more tightly to the stuff that is worth building our memories around.

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COCO
I have written elsewhere about Coco’s powerful message surrounding the importance of remembering in a life full of loss, and the joy that this practice of remembering, this practice of creating memories together, can infuse into our sense of being, our sense of meaning not only as an individual, but as a family.download-2

What is worth noting again though is the way this film uses memory to expand our perception of where we find meaning in this world.

A Ghost Story asked the question of us personally and looked at it from the lens of our own journey in this life, calling us to consider the importance of spending time asking the bigger questions of what gives this life meaning, especially as it connects us to others. Personal Shopper looked at these questions from the perspective of struggling with life’s ambiguity in the midst of all these questions, calling us to consider the ways in which our memories are tied to our relationships and the impact and ability of these relationships to bind us to the memories that give life meaning, even when we can’t see it in the present. Blade Runner 2049 pushed these questions even further for me, asking what it is that sets these relationships, this sense of the miracle we call a meaningful life, apart from the world we are desperate to control in the midst of all its ambiguity, apart from the world we look to create when given meaning feels allusive. And in all of this Blade Runner stood as a poignant reminder that it is relationship that gives this world meaning and it is our memories that connect us to these relationships.

I noted in my review of Coco that one of the central things I wrestled with in that film was the way it connects these relationships that give us meaning directly to the idea of family, and particular to Coco, the mutli-generational family households that are familiar to Mexican culture. The film expands the importance of remembering, or celebrating our memories of others, into the grand tapestry of our bloodlines and our generational ties. It is a good challenge to the exclusivity we tend to find sometimes in our ideas of the North American household that sometimes tends to separate us from our connection to the people in our past that have helped shape our family name.  At the same time though it caused me to wonder if the film was not being inclusive enough.images As the father of an adopted child, it seemed to me that family, as a primary expression of these relationships that give us meaning in this world, must have a more expansive reach for us to be able to participate.

With this in mind, if Coco pushed this concept of memory and remembering further for me in this cinematic jouney, it is towards a greater consideration of some of the poetry that I found in Blade Runner 2049’s final images. Coco helped me to see that in the bigger picture of these important questions, questions of meaning and relationship and memory, is the presence of the walls we create to hold and encase the memories we deem important. In A Ghost Story this becomes a literal home. In Personal Shopper this was a shared heart. These are defined places. But Blade Runner 2049 considered what it might look like to break down these walls, to consider the ways in which who we are reaches beyond the question of bloodlines or technological advancement, the two worlds that K finds himself caught inbetween. Blade Runner challenges our tendency to narrow our perception of just how far this sense of meaning can reach, and imagines what it might be like to extend this sense of meaning into a world that we don’t entirely understand or relate to. We tend to narrow our sense of meaning to the places we can control, to the confines of our personal space, and this in turn sets the stage for how we are able to see and respond to the world that exists around us.

And so the act of remembering, and miracle of memory that infuse this world in Blade Runner 2049 with meaning is intimately connected to learning how to see beyond these walls that we create for ourselves. It is connected to our ability to  see our life in the world as meaningful and to give life into the world in a way that gives others meaning regardless of their story, regardless of where they are coming from.

In Coco we sense glimpses of just how wide and colourful the world really is in the expansive picture it creates of the Land of the Dead. But we only ever get glimpses of how far our memories, our ability to relate to the world around us, can actually reach if we were to see beyond the confines of our walls. download-1Only a passive mention of what this sense of meaning, might look like if it were extended outwards, as it is imagined in Blade Runner 2049 and again in the story of Coco, beyond our bloodlines, beyond our family name and into the world at large. This is where K is able to find his given meaning, and it is where we find Coco, however briefly, extending this meaning outwards as well in the midst of his search for his father.
CARS 3
download-1If there was a single film this year that managed to bring together all of these  aspects of remembering and meaning and memory it was Cars 3. It managed to recognize our relationship to the places that define us- our homes, our culture, while pushing us to see the world that exists around us, expanding our understanding of this world through the experiences and memories we make when we step out of our places of comfort. Cars 3 uses the passage of time as a means of bringing together our past and the distance that time creates, and the experiences we gain on this outward journey as we move forward.

And the way it does this is by conjuring up a brilliant use of nostalgia, recreating images of a national icon (Route 66) that once existed to connect a Country to a common identity, while contrasting this with a world that continues to move forward, with a ferocious sense of velocity and destructive force, in a way that seems to be constantly threatening to disconnect us from this sense of identity. And it is in this place of tension that it calls us to both remember and to live anew.

 

But as all of these other films have done, it also reminds me that living in this way is never easy. And more often than not this journey has way of causing me to question, where do any of us fit in all of this uncertainty. downloadWhat makes this journey called life meaningful when the past seems so fleeting the future so uncertain. In Cars 3, pieces of the puzzle are found in remembering the past. There is a deftly realized sequence that brings Cars 3 back full circle to where we started in the first film, recognizing that the ghosts in this film is the faded track, the familiar old stomping ground. Other pieces are found in the choices we make in the present. For as much as the past feels distant, there is opportunity in seeing what is right in front of us, which in Cars 3 is the opportunity to give into a young life in the same way that someone once gave into the life of the main character so many years ago.

And the final pieces are found in our consideration of an uncertain future. We can’t know the impact of our choices today, but the more we see the world the more opportunity there is to give it meaning that comes from outside of our control, outside of ourselves.

And so it becomes a constant wrestling, a juggling act. The effort to hold onto the stuff thats important while also making room for the world that calls us forward. And Cars 3 reminds me that when we feel lost in this world, i this life, when the forces of threaten to push back in our uncertainty, when the stuff that steals our memory feels too strong to resist, the most important place to keep looking is towards the relationships that sit in our path, past present and future. This is where we find the opportunity not just to see how meaning there really is in this world, but how much more meaning we can find in our ever widening experience of this world should we embrace it. A story about cars thus becomes a story of what it means to be human, to exist in a shared story of a common grace brought together across time and across experience. A story of life in the midst of loss, faith in the midst of shattered dreams, and of building anew along the wreckage and destruction that time often leaves in its wake.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
And where there is new life there is also the opportunity to connect this sense of meaning to perhaps the most important question of all. The question that shapes the longing we find in Personal Shopper. The question that shapes the undercurrents of the lingering and undefined spiritual longing in A Ghost Story. The question that permeates the lingering philosophical consideration that meaningful relationship and pictures of humanity reaches beyond bloodlines in Blade Runner 2049. The question that pushes through the culturally bound expressions of family in Coco.

This is the question of meaning. Given meaning and created meaning. Meaning that comes from outside of ourselves or meaning that we try to control. As one character in the rather wonderful midlife crisis film Brad’s Status laments, “You’re 50 years old and you still think the world was made for you?” It echoes at a crossroads of humanist reckoning and spiritual longing. And in a film like Downsizing, where these two things could have been seen as irreconcilable, they are afforded an opportunity to come together in an unexpected way, a way that is able to shape our practice of memory making in a profound sense, a way that forces us to look outside of ourselves not just to a world looking to survive, but to a world looking for meaning, for a reason to live. As A Ghost Story first reminded me, these are important questions to keep asking.

This is the meaning that we see breathing through the incredibly realized spirituality of remembering and forgetting in Your Name, or the pastoral pondering that motivates The Pursuit of Silence as a life of constant self and spiritual reflection (remembering), or the culturally defined faith that gives direction to a Past Life. Or the way that the religious history, and remembering this history, brings together faith, family, culture and world in Keep Quiet.

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Perhaps most poignant for me though was the way that Star Wars: The Last Jedi recognized the importance of a spiritual force permeating our experiences, our memory making, in a way that gives it worth outside of ourselves, through the givenness of an other. This force is what binds us to our places of identity, which in TLJ comes in the form of recognizing the markers of our faded and forgotten and hidden past, and facing the tension that exists between our places of belonging, pushing ourselves to see beyond blood ties and being open to discover a universal given worth, one that breathes outside of the exclusivity of these walls and bound by a common humanity and a common struggle.

In all of this I have found important sentiment for examining my own life. As I look to reconcile this practice of remembering and memory making in my own life I find myself wrestling with these same ideas of created and given meaning/worth. And I have pondered the role that my own life plays in giving meaning into relationships and into the world. And what these cinematic moments have taught me the most is the opportunity my faith affords me in accepting meaning, accepting worth and then giving it freely outwards without exclusivity, not bound by walls.

Hopefully this is something that can shape 2018 moving forward.

 

Jumanji and the Game of Life

jumanji3

For what it’s worth Jumanji was the last place I expected to find meaningful theological discussion. But it actually presented me with an opportunity to engage with my son in some heathy and timely dialogue surrounding faith and God. A likely testament to how simply and effectively the film handles its narrative.
Particle Man
On our way to see this film my son happened to start talking about his school year and some of what he has been learning. He mentioned that he was struggling to believe in the idea of God or religion. Using his limited vocabulary (he was adopted from Ukraine so his english is still limited) he went into some pretty impressive existential and philosophical reasoning for why faith in God was a difficult thing to understand. He made reference to the fact that we are simply particles coming together with other particles to form something real, knowable, seeable, touchable, and went on to say “I believe in myself” while suggesting that, on the other side of this equation he can’t see, know, or touch God in the same way. And so we should do our best to spend this life being our best selves, but he is not sure we need God to do that.

I went on to dub him “Particle Man”, a hero destined to change the world for the better.

Lives Versus Life
If you have seen Jumanji you will know that it does some neat things with contrasting the way we play this game (of life) with 3 lives versus 1 life. This idea sparked some conversation about this contrast afterwards when we got home. When the game is going well and we are advancing to the next level and making progress, the game is fun and enjoyable to play. But in these moments we aren’t always paying full attention to our surroundings, or anticipating what could be coming around the next corner. And we don’t always concern ourselves with the bigger questions of why we are doing what we are doing or what the end goal of this game really is working towards.

In Jumanji lives are measured by bars on your wrist. When a bar is lost it has a way of making us more intently aware of these questions. It causes us look at the game differently. It has a way of encouraging us to think about why we are doing what we are doing and what risks are worth taking.

It also makes us far more aware of the people we are playing the game with and the ways in which we need these other people (with their strengths) in our life in order to play the game well. Especially in those times when our weakness- our struggles, our insecurities, our failures, our sins, become more apparent.

The message of the film of course doesn’t intend to reach into the realm of theology (with its one life to live, so make the most of it message). But it did set the stage for some really good and timely discussion in our home about some of the bigger questions. Questions about what it means to recognize our strengths while also being okay with our weaknesses, something that follows these characters as their avatars begin to expose their real world struggles, the stuff they have been hiding behind in the every day. This can be especially pertinent in times when we like to believe we don’t have any weaknesses at all, something Johnsons character must come to terms with over the course of the film.

Or Questions about how our weaknesses reveals our need for an other in our lives, and how our strength can help the weaknesses of others in their time of need. There is a key scene in the film that really drives this point home, showing the power that this kind of sacrifice and sacrificial language can really change the way we play the game in some real and amazing ways.

And ultimately this is what we are reminded of in the story of scripture. God came into this world to be that visible, knowable, touchable other who demonstrates this sort of self sacrificial language on our behalf. A God who then calls us to follow in his footsteps and to do likewise for the life of others. These are the most important rules for the game. This is the way to the next level. This is the end game. This is the bigger picture.

The next morning following our evening viewing my son asked me to give him a marker. He said he will draw three bars on his arm. And then he’ll show this game how its supposed to be played. I suggested that when you get as old as me life has a way of reminding us of just how fast those bars are fading every single day. I can keep trying to scratch them back on all I want, but I can’t control them from disappearing. Which is a reminder to me to keep playing the game according to the most important rule. Love God and love others.  Which is really what I hope and pray this Christmas season can be for our family, and especially for my son in the midst of his questions and his wrestling. A time of fresh perspective. An opportunity to see the one who entered this game to make God knowable, touchable, seeable. Who taught us how to play this game on His terms rather than ours. Who infused it with purpose, gave us our strength, and offered grace and meaning in our weakness, the same grace we are called to give to others.

May this be the spirit by which we play, and may we remember the spirit by which He came this season.

A Conundrum Full of Questions

The other night I couldn’t sleep, and so I came downstairs. My son happened to be curled up on the couch rather than in his room. I found myself looking at my son and wondering about what I had to offer him as his father. I wondered about all the things I wanted to promise him. I thought about his hopex and dreams. And I thought about all the ways this world can steal these promises, these hopes and these dreams.

And then I just started to write. And what came out was this series of questions:

 

The Meaning of a Life
The moment we discover gravity is the moment we realize that we cannot fly. And so we learn how to walk.

The moment we learn to walk is the moment we learn to die. And so we begin the work of learning what it means to live.

But what is life if not the slow process of dying?

And so we choose to believe that death gives life meaning.

But if death gives life meaning, why do we spend so much of our lives trying to find a way to fix death? We work and we give and we fight so that someday we might conquer disease. We could not imagine a public request for money to help fund a cure for cancer while also hearing that this same cancer cannot or should not be cured.

Which begs the question. Would most people not accept a pill that could cure them of all disease, especially if this disease was threatening to take their life? Or would they take it?

We hope for more. We hope for better. We hope that one day life can change. This is human nature. To live life we must face death. To change life it seems we must change death.

But what kind of world, what kind of life do we expect to find on the other side of death and disease?

What motivates us to long for this world?

Which begs another question. Would most people not accept a pill that could cure the life of someone they love, especially if this disease was threatening to take their life? Or would they give them this pill?

And so we find motivation to live through investing in the life of others.

We learn that we are not the meaning of this life, and so we work to make others lives meaningful.

But how do we convince others that their life has meaning if ours does not?

When we work to make other lives meaningful, it gives our life meaning.

But what are we helping others to live for if not the long road towards death?

And if we are helping them to live for more, what kind of life do we expect them to find on the other side of death and disease? What do we believe should motivate others to long for this world?

And so we hope that they too will find motivation to live through investing in the lives of others. Because we also need to be reminded that this life has meaning. That there is something to hope for on the other side of death and disease, that fine line between meaning and meaninglessness.

Hope that maybe, just maybe there is a chance we are able to fly after all.


 

A Marriage Analogy
First we enter the Honeymoon period where anything is possible. Love is ours for the taking. This new world is an enchanting and wondrous place. Romance is very much alive and well. Everyday is made up of big, extraordinary moments.

We believe we can fly.

 

And then reality sets in.

Routine. Struggle. Conflict.

Innocence lost.

 

Which presents us with an opportunity.

We must learn to walk. We grow through the struggle. We find meaning in the routine. We come to cherish the small moments in the midst of what is sometimes an overwhelming sense of conflict. We realize that one day this romance will be stolen, one day death will take its toll.

And then we learn to live.

 

But we also learn to live for more.

The reason we walk is to remind ourselves of what it was like to fly. We spend the rest of our lives trying to reclaim the wonder and the romance that the world stole and continues to steal away. In the midst of this reality- the routine, the struggle, the conflict, we find ways to fall in love with our spouse over and over and over again.
Where reality steals, we give.
We give towards the relationship that offers us meaning. Because in giving we are able to let them know that they mean something to us.
We hope for more than til’ death do us part. We hope for new life.

Patriarchy, Coco and the Power of Redefining Family

 

Lately I have been gaining more and more interest in the work of author Carolyn Custis James. She talks a lot about the importance of contextualization when it comes to engaging with the Bible and Christian theology. One of her biggest passions is learning how to read scripture in the context of a Patriarchal society, although much of what she has to say about contextualization can easily translate to any societal norm, especially when it comes to dealing with familial structures (to which the Patriarchy belongs).

She argues that the best way to navigate this conversation is to see the Patriarchal society as the backdrop to the world into which scripture first spoke, not the message of scripture itself. When we see it from this lens it becomes possible to recognize how the stories of the Bible are reshaping and even confronting the notions of Patriarchy. She goes on to say that for many who live(d) in a Patriarchal society, the Biblical narrative (sacred scripture) was revolutionary. It exposes it as a system of oppression, a process of exclusion, and illuminates the work of God in the world as the process of reconciliation rather than opposition. For those of us who don’t live in a Patriarchal Society, or at least not in such obvious ways, this context is not as easily understood. The Patriarchy was a way of structuring the family in the ancient world, and what makes this even more important is that for ancient culture, these family structures also tended to shape and impact their approach to politics as well. And so in the ancient world, the family represents two competing forces- oppression (exclusion) and freedom (belonging), which is why contextualization becomes so important for us today, especially when it comes to comes to recognizing how the idea of family also plays a central role in God’s work of reconciliation.

download-1Coco and The Contextualization of Family
As a Pixar original animated film, the creators of Coco were interested in giving voice to an underrepresented (and also currently oppressed) culture by highlighting the multi-generational household that defines the family context in Mexican culture. It then contextualizing this for a modern and international audience (which comes most clearly in Pixar’s efforts to intentionally translate the film seamlessly for English speaking audiences). From what I have heard, the film does well in celebrating the strength of a culture that values strong generational ties, incorporating some the quirks and subtleties that give this culture so much colour. It also becomes a metaphor for the oppression the culture faces in our modern age, using that line between the living and the land of the dead to imagine a very real U.S./Mexican border. Here it brings these same competing forces- exclusion and belonging, to light in a powerful way.

However, the film also does some interesting things in exploring the ways in which this family structure gives attention to what is ultimately a very human struggle- the struggle to forgive, the reality of rejection, identity issues and the struggle to belong in a system that often excludes based on elevating the worth of blood ties and family name. It reminds us that while we can see the oppression on a socio-political level, what is not always as easy to see are these same things happening on a deeply personal level in the context of our own families and relationships on our own soil and in our own homes.

downloadBy the end of the film we see these two competing forces come together through a resonating message that, however messy family can get it is also the context in which we are able to learn forgiveness, grace, and the merits of unconditional love, all of the things necessary for belonging. For Coco (and the Mexican tradition it brings to light), the call to “remember” ones family is not necessarily about narrowing our perception of the places to which we belong, but it is about the opportunity to envision these acts of forgiveness, grace and love into our personal context.  But in a world as vast and as colourful and as intricate as the one Coco illustrates for us on screen, it also operates as a stark reminder of just how quickly theses things can become lost when our vision of family becomes too narrow, when the family structure and name becomes our idol, the means by which “we” belong (somewhere) rather than the model for how we relate to and include the “world”.

 

Adoption: A Metaphor For the World
As parents of an adopted son (internationally) and as parents who could not have biological children, so much of our ability to function as a family lives and dies on our ability to claim ourselves as a legal family in the eyes of the law. And so much of our ability to function as a family depends on seeing family as a cross-cultural journey. All 3 of us need to be able to hear and understand that family is not bound by a Patriarchal structure, or in our own modern context, by blood or by legal construct or shared culture, otherwise we would could not truly belong, we would not be fully included or accepted in society according to equal measure.

So the more I read and hear from James, the more I become convinced there is a very good reason why adoption becomes the singular, most dominant metaphor in response to the Patriarchal society that we find in the backdrop of scripture, because no matter which context the family takes, whether it is the nuclear family of American society or the multi-generational households of Mexican society, it still doesn’t reach broad enough, it can never be big enough to encompass God’s vision for His people and his world. Adoption, then, in it’s Christian context, is the only idea, the only familial narrative that truly reaches across our dividing lines, that touches us all and enables us to belong across borders, across multi-generational lines, and above any and all contextualization.

Reaching Towards Adoption
The truth of the Patriarchy, or any other familial system that binds us in terms of blood and status, is that these are things that can be stripped away and stolen. They are, by nature, exclusive, which means no matter what form they take they will always carry the potential for oppression. And it is this realization that pushed Carolyn James to look for something that could not be stolen, a truth about our identity that moves beyond contextualization and towards a universal truth about the work of reconciliation she saw saw breathing between the lines of the sacred scripture. And her search returned her to the pages of Genesis 1 and 2 in order to ask the question, what does the Bible have to say about us “in the beginning” that is true in birth and remains true in death. She arrived at 3 central truths (as she explains to Pete Enns in a recent interview with The Bible For Normal People podcast), of which the most important for me was number one:

We are image bearers meant to know the God we are imagining.

Out of this truth flows the mission of God’s people as image bearers, which is to break down the things that separate us from knowing God and of being a part of God’s family. And she creates a powerful picture of a nation which exists in the story of scripture to as an adopted people called to extend this message of adoption to the world, a world held hostage by their family structures, a world full of people in desperate need of freedom and a place to belong. For the early Jewish nation, and later the disciples of Christ followed by the apostles and the growing Church, this message of adoption was a reminder that the family of God knew no bounds. The family of God was not defined by the blood of relatives, but by the blood of God Himself. A blood stained image that uses the idea of sacrifice to flip the worlds power structures on its head. A self giving service that attempts to redefine the ways in which we belong and challenge the ways in which we don’t.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the Bible is interested in doing away with the idea of family or family structures, only that it wishes to set the idea of family into the bigger picture of God’s grace, work and story, the same story to which we are called to belong. This becomes in this narrative the contextualization of God Himself into our world and our circumstance, a contextualization that comes in a way that is fully realized in the incarnation, in the Gospel witness.

Reaching towards the Christmas Narrative
In the Christmas story the message of adoption that has been given to the Israelite Nation comes full circle. It has now been given to the world. As God’s image bearers created to know God’s image, each of us has been given the full imagining of God Himself, God in the flesh. And in this revelation we see ourselves for who God made us to be, sons and daughters of God, a title that cannot be stripped away or stolen by opposing forces. This is a familial structure that has been established through the birth, through the ministry of Jesus, and through the Cross, the final demonstration of what it looks like to belong to God’s blood-line. Here God demonstrates the nature of a Father and His first born son in a world which desperately needed to reshape its perspective of a Patriarchal order. In the Gospel story the Father (God) becomes bare and the first born becomes a servant, and in its place we are able to see stories of the oppressed and the marginalized, the women and the sick, the sinners and the broken, being raised up and being made visible through the act of adoption in an ancient world that had made them invisible, giving them the full rights of the firstborn son and the Father in the family of God.

In Christ each of us has been welcomed into the family of God because we share in the blood of Christ. And it is because of this that each of us has been called from our own context to continually broaden our perspective of family to include all nations, all peoples in this adoption truth regardless of context, regardless of culture. To go back to the story of Coco, for as much as it tells a wonderful story and is a celebration of a wonderful culture, I can’t help but feel like this same Gospel, this same message of adoption, would be as welcome in the context of that story as it was for the ancient Israelites and as it certainly is in my own. For all the potential for family to be oppressive for young Miguel, the truth of the Gospel is that family is also the place we can be redeemed when we set it in God’s story rather than our own.

A Story To Remember: A Celebration of Cliches, Crisis and Christmas

If I was to try and summarize my life story in a few sentences it might go something like this:
I grew up in a home that valued faith and Christian tradition. I went to Church every Sunday, I attended Sunday School and Youth Group and Christian Private school, and eventually went on to graduate from a Christian University. And then I went through a crisis of faith. After a period of searching I came back to God, got married, became a youth pastor and eventually started a family.

 

Of course there are a few curves and corners I could add to this, including a decision to step out of Pastoring and an international adoption. But when I take these sentences at face value it’s hard not to feel like it comes across as a bit cliché.

The Measure of a Cliche
A cliché can be considered, according to its definition, “an expression or an idea that has become so predictable or overused it has lost its original meaning or effect.”

So what happens when this represents your life? How do you find meaning in a story that feels too familiar, too predictable, somewhat like the overused baptismal testimony I gave all those years ago.

Or maybe a better question might be the one Tom Albrighton asks in his article If cliches work, use them, which is the question of why (or how) clichés become clichés in the first place? I found the way Tom attempts to answer this question helpful as well, suggesting that they become cliches BECAUSE they’re so useful.

Albrighton goes on to explore this idea further, suggesting that “clichés endure because they serve a unique purpose… they get worn out precisely because of their appeal.”

In other words, when I look at my story, rather than see the cliché it is possible for me to see a story that serves a very real purpose, a story in which who I am today owes much to who I was or where I’ve come from. In this sense, growing up in a faith based environment is the thing that prepared me to face this crisis of faith, and it is the crisis that eventually helped me to see that my faith had meaning.

Carolyn Gregoire says it this way in an article for the Huffington Post, simply titled Cliches.

“(Some cliches) have stood the test of time because they do reveal certain universal truths about human nature.”

My story, for as much as it feels like a cliché, is important precisely because of the truths it has “revealed” about my life, about God, about others, and about the world to which I belong.

 

A Cliché In Crisis
In the summary above it should be easy to point to my crisis of faith as a pivotal point in my life story. This is the moment in which so much of what I thought was true about my life, God, others and the world was shaken. And stirred, but not in the cool, collected James Bond kind of way. The illuminating affects of post secondary education made all the more immediate in the light of friends and family who seemed to be walking away from Christianity (and faith) had left me uncertain about where I stood. It kind of deconstructed my world and left it in pieces, and when the old paradigms had been torn down I found it difficult to consider what exactly to build in its place.

 

To say this in another way: Scholarship recognizes the idea of a worldview, or the stuff that shapes our underlying view of the world, to function largely according to the hidden or unspoken (or assumed) beliefs that help us make choices and decisions in the day to day. This is referred to as the iceberg analogy, with a small portion of our worldview actually visible, or above water, and the vast portion of our worldview hidden out of sight, or under the water.

 

What my crisis of faith did is it attempted to first pull these hidden beliefs to the surface and then secondly threw the entire iceberg into question, including questions about how deep the iceberg goes or even if the iceberg exists at all. And when the iceberg was gone it was gone, leaving me with the feeling of sailing aimlessly on the water with no sense of direction, unable to reconstruct a belief system, another iceberg, to take its place.

This crisis of faith wrecked me. It not only reshaped how I viewed my story and my upbringing, but in order to find my way again I was forced to exchange those old beliefs for something I remained equally uncertain of. And this loss of identity, partnered with a growing sense of uncertainty, caused me to spiral into a place of despair. I became severely depressed. My undiagnosed anxiety was through the roof. I felt hopeless. Mostly though I felt stuck, stuck between two worlds of thought, two competing worlds of experience that seemed like they couldn’t be farther apart or more irreconcilable.

 

And frankly, the feeling sucked big time.

 

I remember falling asleep one night with the weight of this existential crisis (for lack of a better term) weighing particularly heavy on my shoulders only to be woken in the middle of the night in sweat and panic. A familiar sense of fear and dread that I recognized only from the chronic nightmares that had plagued me as a young child resurfaced. In that moment I had become convinced that God no longer existed, and when I say God I mean my life, my identity, and ultimately my sense of community.

I got up the next morning understanding that I would never be the same again. I forced myself to put one foot in front of the other, choosing at that moment to go through the motions in a world that no longer made any sense, a world in which I no longer belonged.

Or more importantly, a world I no longer accepted.

 

Where Crisis Meets Community
There is something to be said about the loss of community that follows this sort of personal, existential crisis. Neiburh argues in his exposition on the revelation of God that without a common experience, a shared experience, community is impossible, or if not impossible certainly incredibly difficult. And when you lose that sense of community it becomes easy not just to feel lost, but to remain lost.

I admit I remained lost for far too long.

But I also couldn’t seem to let go. And so I continued.

One foot in front of the other.

 

Coming To Terms with the Idea of God
I waded in these waters for a while, wearing a smile, pretending to belong. But eventually it all came to a head.

I was house sitting at the time, and following a lengthy online discussion about the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life I found myself contemplating the vanity of it all. I had resigned myself to sitting alone in the dark with only the dim, shimmering light of the moon left to break the silence. And in this moment I decided to have what I determined would be a final and fairly direct conversation with God. In all of the questioning and pretending I had also been looking, or hoping desperately for a way forward, a solution to my discontent, something that might make sense in a senseless world. I looked into other faith systems, religious pluralism, atheism, yet very little of it made sense when I tried to rationalize it all against my confusion, my questions. The only thing that really made sense was this- the life I was living, that we all were living, was at least in some sense of the word, a lie. A biological construct intended to trick our brains into believing that life has meaning, that the things we think and feel and do according to countless chemical reactions and genetic markers are in fact expressions of some form of personal autonomy.
And yes, I realize this sounds like a cheap form of nihilism. Just because this might be true doesn’t mean people can’t find meaning and beauty and purpose in the midst of this realization.

But that still didn’t make any of it true.

And for as much as I tried, I could not get past this fact. Now that the curtain had been pulled, now that I had seen the light, I could not go back. I could not get past the idea that the only way for any of this to have meaning was to accept the delusion of created or manufactured meaning. And no matter how much philosophy I read or how many great thinkers I approached, once you sifted through all of the colourful academia, it all essentially boiled down to this truth. And if I had let go of my old value system based on reason, how could I in turn accept something that felt so unreasonable.

 

I was literally at the end of my figurative rope. And so I turned to thoughts of suicide. The reality was that I could no more reconcile life with God than I could make sense of life without (a) God, which admittedly really narrowed my options. And so I decided if I started on a cliché, ending on a cliché didn’t sound so bad. So I went all in. I made a final bargain with God. Give me something, anything or it was time for me to let go of the rope.

And with that I fell asleep.

 

And God Spoke into the Darkness
I still remember the feeling of getting up the next morning. The shimmer of the moonlight was gone. The clouds had rolled in, and with it a cold, bitter rainfall followed. The world had not changed. I was still exactly where I had left off the night before. My words had fallen on deaf ears, the ears of a God who did not exist in a universe that had no real meaning.

 

But then something happened.

 

God spoke into the darkness.

 

The voice arrived unexpectedly and within the doors of the Church (the irony is not lost on me). It arrived through the timely and faithful prayers of an individual whom I did not know and who did not know my circumstance. In a place of deep skepticism and unbelief God used this individual to interrupt the path I was on and remind me that God still cared.

 

I know this kind of religious language, this sort of religious experience, is subjective and suspect at best for many. There is no sure way to qualify it or explain it. But I also know that when it comes to telling my story, I cannot simply explain it away either.

 

It turns out that God had spoken to this individual while they had been praying earlier that day, and God gave this person words tor write down and to share specifically with me. I call it my Letter from God. When I encountered this person they were hesitant at first to tell my anything. They felt a great deal of uncertainty and fear surrounding what they had to share.  But eventually they did, and nearly at the moment when I was about to walk back out the door. And the words of this letter hit deep into the darkness of my struggle. It not only recounted my personal and private conversation with God from the night before, but it provided me with a way forward.

 

I remain forever grateful that this person had the courage to share this letter with me. When I first heard the words the only thing I could think to do was laugh. Not the best reaction I’m sure, but it was all that I could think to do at the time. And while there were other things shared in this letter, the single word that sticks out for me is this- remember. And ever since that day I have found myself on a journey of self-reflection, of remembering.

 
Remembering To See God Again
I have revisited and reimagined my child hood experiences finding new ways to engage with my story. And the thing that continues to surprise me is the way God left His footprints all over my journey in ways I had (and have) long forgotten. And here’s the thing. Although this letter represents a pivotal point in my life story, my faith in God moving forward did not depend on this letter to give it meaning. This letter did not take away all of the struggle. I still have my doubts. I still have my questions. I still struggle to trust that there is meaning in the midst of so much vanity. What it did do though is show me how to best position my life in a way that could allow this uncertainty, this mystery, to draw me closer to God rather than push Him away. And that comes through the act of remembering and learning how to remember well.

 
It is by the grace of God that I am able to believe again. And it is by the grace of God that my belief looks different today than it did before. And here in lies the challenge of rediscovering faith in my life. All of us live with unspoken assumptions that inform our choices every single day. For as much as this is called a worldview, it is also an act of faith. As our character is shaped by the things that surround us- culture, biology, family, relationships, societal norms, environment- we also learn what it means to trust in the sort of foundation that these things afford, allowing us to make choices and act accordingly without needing to second guess or scrutinize our decisions.

 

But every once in a while something ends up letting us down, and so we begin to question our choices and we challenge our assumptions. We lose some of our ability to trust. And sometime this pushes us to make a decision to change our environment, to allow ourselves to be shaped by something new, something different, to surround ourselves with a fresh set of cultural, societal and environmental influences.

 

But in the end we still come back to the same place, living according to the unspoken assumptions that inform our choices, simply from within the context of a different environment. Sooner or later all of us must choose to learn what it means to trust in something again, otherwise we aren’t truly living. And the thing about trusting is that it frees us necessarily from having to depend on manufactured meaning by offering us meaning that comes from outside of ourselves, the sort of meaning that can only come through the presence of a shared community, the presence of an “other”.

 

The Hope and The Hopeless
And what it came down to for me is this. I believe all of us fall into one of two categories, those who have hope and those who have lost hope. Pare back our unspoken beliefs far enough and every single one of us will find we sit somewhere on either side of this picture, even if we don’t recognize it in the moment. And where we sit informs how we make and determine our choices.

I found myself on the hopeless side of this picture, and what I realized was that I could not live without hope. And for me, God, or the idea of God, gave me hope. Having faith allowed me to trust that God had given my life meaning rather than trying to create it or manufacture it myself.  And this meant I had a place to begin again.

One foot in front of the other.

Only now I could see the footprints of God going ahead of me into the darkness, forging the way into the uncertainty, welcoming me into the difficult questions- into the positive of embracing the mystery. A local pastor once said it this way.

“Everything passes and vanishes, everything leaves its trace. And often you see in a footstep what you could not see in a face.”

– Daren Redekop

 

It is no small thing that I find myself writing this during the season of Advent, as there is no greater expression of this mystery for me than the incarnation, the Christmas season, a time when God spoke definitively into our human story in a way the world did not expect.

A true hope for a world.

The Anticipation of Advent and the Act of Remembering

I heard it suggested that, between our experience of the here and now and the appropriate mix of fear and expectation that often shapes our consideration of the future, we find a human tendency to immortalize the present while neglecting our past. This is especially true in times of struggle or crisis, where personal failures and encroaching hardship, or encounters that alter our view of the world can sometimes work to disassemble us from the voices of our past.

When we set this same tendency into the context of faith or religious conviction, as I have found myself doing lately, being disassembled from our past only heightens the struggle that this failure, hardship and existential crisis becomes, which also limits our ability to reconcile our day to day experience of this world with the hopeful promise of our faith and religious conviction.

I think this is why we find the Divine answer to this human tendency being represented in the Jewish and Christian scripture often through a single word or concept: the call to “remember”.

 

Remembering: A Purposed Response
For the ancient writers, the practice (or process) of remembering allows us to anticipate the ways God can (and will) speak into the uncertainties of this world, not only into an unknowable future, but also into our limited perception of the present.

As Doug Ward puts it in his article “The Biblical Concept of Remembrance”,

“The Semites of Bible times did not simply think truth, they experienced truth.”

For this  “zakar, the Hebrew word for “remember”, is both “thought” (literally rendered “think”) and “deed” (to record, or literally act in faith).” For Ward, the act of “remembering” in the Bible usually leads to or results from purposeful action.

And we see this all over the Biblical witness. We see it in the command to remember the Sabbath and the promise given to Jeremiah to write His name on our hearts, both of which position us in such a way as to remember or consider our creator, as the teacher of Ecclesiastes so wonderfully puts it in chapter 12.

We also see it in the Biblical narrative itself, from the call to remember the Exodus to remembering Jesus. From the exile and forgetting God and forgetting the language of scripture in Nehemiah. From the practice of carrying the ark to the making of alters.

One interesting story that Ward points to as another example is Numbers 15 and the thread to the temple that coincides with “the forgetting of the language, to the exile and the forgetting of God.” He mentions that “the tzitziyot (tassels) that the Israelites were commanded to attach to the corners of their garments (Num. 15:37-41) are another form of remembrance that God designed for His people, (with God saying) ‘You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord that you may obey them….”

Ward goes on to point out that “it eventually became customary for each tassel to consist of eight strands and five double knots. According to one Jewish numerological tradition, the numerical values of the Hebrew letters for the word for tassel (tzitzit) totalled 600. Fittingly, six hundred plus eight plus five is 613, the traditional number of biblical commandments.”

So this act of remembering is clearly important to the God/human relationship. When we fail to remember we find pictures of exile. And in remembrance God’s people find pictures of freedom and grace. And the powerful thing is, in scripture this act of remembering moves both from God to us and from us to God. We hear cries for God to remember us in our struggle, and we see praises to God in remembrance of what He has done in our lives. We also see God calling us to remember His works, and God remembering us in our time of trials. And as a recent study through the book of Ecclesiastes instilled in me, this practice of remembering is what reminds me of just how fleeting the present moments of our lives can be and how important it is to remember our Creator in the moments we have been given, as these are the things that speak meaning into the “vanity”, hope in the hopelessness.

 

A Personal and Communal Transformation
There is little question that this process of remembering remains a deeply personal and intensely subjective exercise. And yet, as spiritual practice, the ancients saw it as more than individual meditation. For them it was also seen as the outward expression of our shared human experience. Even for the teacher in Ecclesiastes, whom bears a name that can translate between that of an individual speaker or an assembly, or one who “assembles” a community, each of us is a bi-product of the outside forces that shape our worldview, the stuff that intersects with our lives and give it meaning, purpose. These forces, the stuff that shapes us, is typically what also defines the community to which we belong. And our worldview, or who we are, is being shaped and reshaped by the experiences of our past, our present and the unknowns of our future that happen within the context of these communities.

The act of living then, or in religious terms, the act of faith, or the act of meaning (as the Teacher would put it), is about the ways in which we are personally transformed through a shared human experience.

The more we live the more we experience, and as our experience transforms us, it our ability to remember that connects who we were to who we are now and ultimately towards the person we are becoming. It is when we disconnect our present from our past that we become blind to this transformation, unable to engage with ourselves or the world around us, and thus what disconnects us from ourselves also ends up disconnecting us from our community. This is why this process of self-reflection, of remembering is such a necessary part of our common humanity- our community, our shared human experience. To consider what shapes us, to consider the forces of our lives, we must also then consider the shape of our community.

 

The Stories That Make us and Bind Us
In the book the Londoneer’s, one of the true to life characters bemoans the product of London’s multicultural existence by suggesting that what is perceived as a positive means of co-existence has actually appropriated a culture with no identity at all. The answer to bridging the diversity of human experience with a common humanity- a communion of saints and sinners, is not the absence of faith and conviction or the stuff of personhood. Rather it is the ability to remember. It is our story which we know best and which remains ours to tell, and so this is where we must begin- by remembering our story and considering the ways in which our story, the stuff that makes up our worldview, is able to cross paths with another. In other words, we remember our story not only to remind us of ourselves, but we tell our story so that we can hear and recognize the story of others. And in this act we are given a better reflection of who we are, of who God is, and who God is shaping us to be as His sons and daughters.

As we enter the season of Advent, a time of waiting and anticipating and ultimately remembering I have been encouraged to heed the words of the Teacher from Ecclesiastes, to take up the cause of remembering the one who entered into my story all those years ago. The one who wrote His name on my heart and called me by my name. The one came into this world to share His story, the story of God, the story of our Creator, so that we might have hope, that we might have life. For this I am forever grateful. And as I consider this, I hope to continue to remember all of the ways that God has showed up in my past and my present and ways that I continue to wait on Him to shape my future in the midst of this Advent season.

 

Brigsby Bear And An Unexpected Story of Adoption

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Brigsby Bear is the sort of film that (I think) benefits from viewing it without knowing much about the actual story going in. I say that to suggest you take the time to watch it before reading this post, as I will be dialoguing rather directly with the film itself.

The film centres on Mooney’s character (James) who is on a journey of discovery, and as viewers we are given a like minded opportunity to discover the world that this eclectic team of writers, directors, comedic talent are also building around him through the story itself. It is a world that defies categorization in many ways but, as we are able to watch the layers of this film slowly being peeled back, it is also a world that feels more and more recognizable as the story unfolds.
Someone suggested to me that this is the kind of film that will stand out for people in different ways depending on the experiences we read into it. For me personally, as someone with an adopted child (internationally), I couldn’t help but view this movie through the lens of that journey. In the context of the film James is being returned to his “original” family after having been abducted as a baby, but the integration process of reentering the world for the first time mirrors what I saw and learned in the process of our adoption. The parents find themselves having to work through the unknowns (and knowns) of their child’s past while learning what it means to accept that past for all that it carries with it- abuse, darkness, loss, confusion, along with joys, comfort, identity. The process James goes through is learning how trust this new world, this new family he has entered into while also dealing with the emotional reality of the “family” and memories he is being forced to leave behind in the process. For as negative we might assume all this is and was (and we would probably be right to a great degree), what the film exposes for me is that this was the only family, the only world he had ever known up until this point. And that fact alone is significant to consider.

 

We adopted our son from an orphanage at 12 years of age. His birth parent(s) lived close to the orphanage before he was placed. So life in a confined area of a somewhat isolated community in a corner of a rather large Country was all he knew. The experience of being introduced to a whole new world, of having to learn to trust in this world (and shifting world view), was very real for this brave kid who had very little time to consider or prepare to face this new reality.
And as the adoptive parents of this kid I definitely resonated with the struggle of James’ parents in trying to define who James would be in this cross cultural context based on their own perceptions of who he should be in adjusting to this new world. This is especially true when it comes to working through this on a “psychological” and sociological level. It is far too easy to take the wrong approach when it comes to our role as new parents to this unfamiliar kid. downloadAnd when I do it causes me to miss who this kid really is in the process, in a given moment. It also, and this perhaps the greatest struggle, causes me to miss what this kid actually needs in the process, in a given moment.

This struggle that I observed in Brigsby Bear is a struggle I (we) face every single day as adoptive parents. The fact that the experiences of our kids past remains a big part of who he is was a really hard thing to learn, and something we are still trying to wrap our minds around. This is true about the stuff we know. Even more true for the stuff that we don’t know, just as the parents of James must come to terms with his past being locked up in isolation for all his growing and developing years.

I have come to learn there is no greater reward than seeing some of these pieces of his past that are hidden to us now come to the surface. And yet for every new piece of the puzzle that makes up this wonderful kid that we have the privilege of discovering, I find myself having to relearn some of the lessons and realities of Brigsby Bear all over again.

I think a big part of the struggle on the side of me learning how to be a parent is that there is a mythos that is built into my interpretative process that I must continually tear down as well. There is a part of me (us) that assumed we were “saving” this kid from the darkness and abuse that he should never have had to endure. And of course a big part of us wanted him to have the opportunity to be able to leave that past behind for a more favourable future. The hardest thing was coming to learn that a big part of adopting was being willing to accept and embrace all of that stuff as a part of who he was and a part of what would shape him moving forward in this new family, this new world. This world he was leaving behind might seem entirely negative to us, and something that we felt compelled to save him from, but in reality these were friendships, realities, relationships, experiences that he was leaving behind, that he would find himself grieving and missing and reinterpreting through the lens of this new worldview. There is a scene in this film where James is sitting down and facing his captor that was especially powerful for me as I considered this thought. download-1There has been little tougher for me than allowing my son the freedom to wrestle with his memories of his birth parents and celebrating his memories of life in the orphanage. Because as a parent it just makes me angry to consider what he had to endure in such a brief amount of years. But for him it is important. It is necessary. It is life giving even. And the film does a masterful job at juxtaposing the world of James’ isolation against his emergence into the world he is now coming to discover. For years he had been raised on episodes of Brigsby Bear where the imagination of these childhood images ended up mixing with subtle and confusing messages that had fostered empathy for his captors, for the world that had been handed to him. We catch glimpses in this show within a show of strange phrases such as “Prophecy is meaningless. Trust only your familial unit”, or “curiosity is an unnatural emotion!” These are phrases meant to instil in him a sense of compassion for the world that has kept him safe and fear for the world outside that might or could infringe on this sense of safety. And a part of the process for him as he remerges back into the world is figuring out how to come to terms with what is real and what is not, what is the truth and what are the lies that he has been told, and perhaps most significantly which emotions he can actually trust when it comes to what is good and what is bad in his mind.

 

And here’s the thing about the journey that James eventually embarks on as he confronts these conflicting emotions and thoughts. In losing this sense of safety and familiarity, and in being forced to face these fears, to confront the greater reality of this world, the film never devolves him into a caricature, a fish out of water story. A part of the fascination of Brigsby Bear as a film is coming to learn what it is that James knows and what he doesn’t know and how this all translates into his new social reality. He is educated but completely unaware at the same time, which becomes a fascinating study of James’ character as a layered and complicated (and wholly interesting) entity. And this is where the film uses the character of the bear itself to help pull these idiosyncrasies together in a meaningful way.

 

The way James has come to view himself is through this bear. And so this bear becomes his way of coping, of growing into his new reality and discovering new relationships and new experiences. Which was meaningful for me to watch on a symbolic level, as this was also true in the experience of our adoption. It is common for adoptive children to arrive with a greater level of maturity when it comes to understanding experiences other children their age have never faced. But it also true that they arrive in this cross cultural context with a level of maturity that seems below others in their age group. And this is difficult to know how to reconcile as parents. But what I have come to realize is that there is danger in simply choosing to see their ability to abandon some of these less mature aspects as the marker of the eventual maturity we want to see them reach. Far more often it is the places where these two seemingly competing notions are able to come together where our son has been able to grow into his new reality most effectively. For James’ parents, and for his sister, coming to accept Brigsby was in a very real way coming to accept James as well.

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One of the interesting ways about how the story of Brigsby Bear moves forward is that things never truly resolve when it comes to James’ development or when it comes to offering us definite statements regarding the good and bad of his past and present (the kind that I want to impose). And I think this ambiguity was intentional. James never truly becomes normal, whatever normal means. The abusers are never truly given a full exposition regarding who they are and why they did what they did. The only resolve we really find is the idea that growth, healing, resolve, creativity- these all happen in the context of a caring community. And that really is what adoption is about- providing, showing, building and exemplifying the true strength of family as a caring community, one that can hopefully build a sense of trust and belonging as the unknown and untold parts of this story, and our story, continues to move forward.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Considering The Vanity of it All: Reflections on my journey through Ecclesiastes Chapter 12

The last time I remember spending quality time in the book of Ecclesiastes I was working as a Youth Pastor for a Lutheran Church. The funny thing is, when I was hired as Youth Pastor it was my first time stepping through the doors of a Lutheran Church. So I had a lot to learn, especially when it came to getting my head around the liturgy and the traditions. I also learned that Lutherans love to sit around and have long talks about theology… a lot of long talks. My dream job!
When I think back to those years, some of my most memorable discussions happened around a series I was asked to do on the book of Ecclesiastes. And if there was one thing I took away from these discussions, it is that the themes in this book have a powerful way of digging underneath the surface and getting very, very personal very, very quickly in ways that other topics might not.  Which tells me this is a challenging book not just to teach, but to read, to study, to meditate on. A challenging book for many people for many different reasons. And I think, if I could take my best guess, this it at least partially because the book has a way of exposing the things we bring to our reading of the text out of the particular places we find ourselves on this journey called life, most notably our fears and our anxieties about matters of faith and matters of doubt.
Making Sense of Life and Death
When I was preparing to speak on Ecclesiastes this time around, an old cartoon came to mind:

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The more time I spend in Ecclesiastes, the funnier this cartoon gets. And truth be told, this is how I tend to picture the teacher of Ecclesiastes in my mind. Sitting up in his bed and thinking about life and death, struggling to figure out what it all means. The teacher is on a journey, having grown old and left to ponder the worth of his life. So we get everything, the good the bad and the ugly of this candid reflection. This also means we find contradictions of course, reflections that we see changing and overlapping from one moment to the next as he tries to weigh his experiences and struggles through the lens of a complicated ancient world (and in truth, Ecclesiastes ends up as a hard book to categorize, especially as it tries to fit into the OT canon and the wisdom tradition). In an effort to find meaning and purpose, the teacher offers us a very intimate portrayal of what is a very personal and very human struggle, on one hand finding solace in things like work and rest, merriment and relationship, while on the other seemingly haunted by the idea that even these sort of temporary joys remain allusive and finite.

 

The Little Prince and The Search For Meaning
I have written elsewhere in this space about this film, but “The Little Prince”, based on the novel by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, had much to add to my own reflections on Ecclesiastes, especially when it comes to fleshing out this very human struggle. It tells the story of an aging Aviator, who is searching for someone to share his story with, and his growing friendship with a little girl who lives next door, a girl who ends up, after facing the vanity in her own life, wanting to help him find the right ending to his story, the one she believes would be more just. The story that the Aviator wants to share is the story of the little Prince and his rose who both live on one of many asteroids in the sky (the stars that the Aviator and the little girl look up at and admire). The Prince forms a relationship with this rose but eventually becomes distracted by the promises of the world around him. He decides to forget about the rose and heads out to explore the other asteroids in the universe. As he does this, we come to discover that each of these asteroids represents one of the many places in which we tend to find our identity in this world of ours- admiration, success, money, work.

 

In a similar way, the teacher in Ecclesiastes is searching for wisdom. He writes, “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had failed to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Nothing was gained under the sun.” (2:11)

And so he record his thoughts, saying, “I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the sun.

A note about the phrase “under the sun”. It is mentioned over 30 times in this book. It is an all encompassing phrase that depicts a sun rise and a sun set, the days of our life measured and counted.

And what does the teacher find when he studies all that is done under the sun?

“What a heavy burden God has placed on humankind.” 1”13.

No wonder Charlie Brown can’t sleep.

 

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Looking Between the Bookends: The Search For Meaning
Just to reinforce this idea, a further word on the structure of the book itself. Ch1 and Ch 12 act as bookends, told from a Narrators perspective, which hold together the words, or the searching of the teacher that makes up the body of this work. These bookends are marked by the phrase vanity of vanities, all is vanity, or all is meaningless.

 

In this light, the recognition that life is meaningless, the vanity of it all, becomes the starting point towards the books final word, the conclusion of how, and if, God fits into this whole discussion as a sacred text. And as one commentator (Donald Berry) puts it, this starting point moves us through 3 essential crisis of faith (or meaning) that the teacher sees as the root of this very human struggle, this wrestling with the vanity of it all:

1. Ignorance of the ultimate, or those big questions surrounding who God is, where He is and why He does what He does.

2. The sense of life’s injustice, that in looking at the world around us life is inherently unfair.

3. And a perceived lack of gain or reward for our actions and effort, the fact that for as much as we try and try and try again, this world, and our life, still spins outside of our control.

And as readers, as we move through this book, we become aware of these three crisis of faith through the realization that there is nothing new under the sun (1:9), the limitations of self indulgence, hard work and even wisdom to truly define us in chapter 2. The plight of the oppressed and oppression in this world in chapter 4. Envy, lonliness, worry, the foolishness of our actions all come up as the Teacher also considers the inability of material possession, wealth and status to bring us true joy and satisfaction.

 

And so the sun rises, the sun sets, we get older and death eventually has its way, with all of these temporary and finite sources of identity and purpose eventually fading away with into the vanity of it all.

 

Here we arrive at the true challenge of learning how to read this book well- to know how to move from this place, the vanity of it all, to the idea of a God who gives this heavy burden, this persisting sense of vanity, meaning.

And this challenge exists both in understanding the authors intent or purpose for writing this book, but also for understanding who we are as readers and hearers of the text. Here the teacher assumes that we are either aware or we remain unaware of the vanity that he observes, struggling with or choosing to deny the struggle. And (he) is convinced that for us to move towards the God of 3:11, who it says is making all things beautiful in His time, the same God who resurfaces again in the final chapter (12) as the book pushes towards its conclusion, the result of its searching, we must learn how to face this vanity, this sense of meaninglessness, head on. And the result of facing this vanity? Here, after all has been measured, after all has been considered, is the end of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of humankind.

And here is something I have found important for my own study of these final words: Fear God does not arrive as an alternative to all the vanity, all the meaninglessness. Rather, it is the end result, the conclusion of this grand experiment called life, this search for wisdom that has consumed the teacher, the result of wrestling with the uncertainties of life instead of running away.

 

A line in The Little Prince puts it this way. “What makes the desert beautiful, is that somewhere it hides a well.”

 

Fear God: A Complicated Notion
So what does this phrase actually mean, practically speaking, this call to fear God? I have struggled with this phrase for a while now. I think the first clue we get though is found in the “for” statement that follows:
“For God will bring everything into judgment, every secret and unknowable thing regardless of good or evil.”

 

If life is simply a roll of the dice. If the way the cards fall is less than fair or just or forgiving when we take a long and searching look at the state of our world, then it is the judgment of God that arrives not as a defeatist notion or condemnation, but rather as a source of life, a judgment that breathes hope into our reality, a renewed sense of purpose. It is in this sense of hope, this renewed sense of purpose that we find unconditional love, forgiveness, and grace. These are the things, the teacher believes, are the things that can help us make sense of this world, of the question of God. We begin with vanity, but the vanity opens us up to our need for God.

In all Things “God”
The words “all, whole, every” in chapter 12, and through the whole of the book, carry a certain force in this text. They tell us that God is source of everything and everything belongs to God. And when all else fades away, as the book insists it will, God will remain.

 

And here is the amazing thing. if this is true, if this something we can truly trust and give our lives towards, then this means we also belong to God, the God who is making something beautiful out of the mess, out of the tragedies, out of the brokenness, in the midst of so much hurt and pain in this world that surrounds us every, single day. And this truth arrives not in our moments of certainty and clarity, but in the places of our uncertainty, in the unknowable, n our limitations, and in our lack of control over taming the evils, the injustices that we see in this world.

Yes, this book recognizes that the feeling of vanity, of meaninglessness might not always feel welcome. It never feels welcome actually. But the teacher reminds us that the vanity represents an opportunity to see God at work and to learn what it means to trust Him even when we can’t know or see what’s ahead. The teacher reminds us that where we cannot control the evils and injustices in this world, in faith God is able to use us as agents of hope of something better, something meaningful.
And here’s the thing. I think the whole point of Ecclesiastes, of the Teacher’s reflections, is to teach us how to position our lives in such a way as to “consider” the work of God in a world that often seeks to blind us to it so that we can then be God’s hands and feet in this world, God’s presence and voice in the meaninglessness.

 
From Vanity To Grace
In the film The Little Prince, as the Prince goes from asteroid to asteroid searching out the universe, eventually he comes to the same realization as the teacher. All is vanity. And while he has long forgotten his relationship with the rose, eventually he remembers the value that the rose gave his life. And so he desires to return, to fin this rose again, only now he fears he has wandered too far, and that there is not enough grace in the world to help him find that rose again.

In one particular scene in the movie, we find the Aviator and the little girl lying in the grass and staring up at the stars imagining the lessons of the Little Prince for their own lives as they consider their own discontent with the world around them. The Little girl laments having to grow up, to grow older, to which the Aviator says, “Growing up is not the problem, forgetting is.”

Learning to Remember
If all of this seems a bit lofty or difficult, or even too theological, we also arrive at a final, very practical piece of wisdom in the opening verses of chapter 12 that can help us make sense of what it means to Fear God in our day to day life. This is the same advice that the aging Aviator gives the little girl, now coming from the mouth of the Teacher: “Remember” the teacher says. “Remember your creator.”

And while this passage speaks about remembering “in the days of our youth”, I think it more accurately supposes a concern for the present, regardless of age. What I hear in these words is a sentiment to never stop remembering regardless of how old we are, to not let the stuff of growing up cause us to forget who we are as a reflection of God’s work, God’s grace. If you are 7, remember. If you are 70, remember. It is never too early or too late to remember your Creator. Because it is this act of remembering, this act of positioning ourselves so as to see God in the vanity, that remain our source of life and hope and meaning in our final breathe.

 

My Story
On this same practical note, this verse is an important one for me in my own life. Sometimes I am very protective of this story. Sometimes I feel the need to share it, usually to remind myself of what it means in my life. It is a story that fits with the text of Ecclesiastes and the words of the Teacher. It comes at a very tough time in my life, a time when I was wrestling with many of the questions of Ecclesiastes and when circumstances had kind of left me bare and wondering who I was. One particularly tough night everything kind of came together in a perfect storm. I remember laying in my bed much like Charlie Brown and thinking about life and death. I was at the end of my rope, struggling with suicidal thoughts. And in that moment I had a very direct conversation with God. I asked him to give me something, anything, to hold on to. I made it through the night. The next morning I went on my way. I was broken on the inside, but still doing life on the outside. I was very involved at my local Church. And this day I was heading out to meet with someone at the Church for something completely unrelated. When I got there, there also happened to be someone else there, a third party who at one point eventually asked to pray for me. I said yes and they prayed for me. This prayer ended up catching me off guard, as this person, whom I did not know and did not know my situation, ended up recounting my conversation with God the night before. As it turns out, they had been praying earlier that afternoon and God had given them words to say specifically to me, words that I call my Letter from God.

 

This letter said a few things, but the thing I remember most are the words “remember”. Remember back to a time when your faith was strong. Remember back to a time when I expected God to work in my life.

 

And so from this time forward I began to give myself over to this remembering process. I built into my life a practice of self reflection. I went through my old photos and old letters. I spent time thinking back over memories of my life. And what I found is, the more I looked the more I saw God working in ways I had long since forgotten. In more recent years, I started a blog, following my 40th birthday actually, so that I could (and can) keep reflecting and keep remembering through the written word. My 40th year was a really tough one for me to be honest, and it kind of rekindled some of that encounter with God all those years ago. It gave me my first real sense of growing old, of the kind of loss that comes with growing old. And I had the feeling this loss was only going to grow harder and harder from here on in. And so I continue the journey, continue the search, wrestling through the vanity to try and see God, and to allow God to infuse this vanity with a sense of joy, a sense of purpose.

 

The Strength of Aging Well
I found myself in a discussion with my brother and my sister in law recently while I was working my way through Ecclesiastes. They are both connected to the field of social work and social services. After having read through and reflected on Ecclesiastes in preparation for this, I came away with the thought that, man, it has a really negative view of aging. Getting old, according to the Teacher, seems like it is really going to suck. So enjoy life while I have it.

 

My brother and sister in law said something to me that caused me to go back and read through the book again with a different perspective. They were talking about long term care homes and the struggle of seniors in these homes. They said the number one problem that seniors face in these places is depression. There is a loss of identity that is very real for them, a sense that they no longer matter or are needed in this world. That they have nothing left to contribute. And sadly this is something that many people my age (and younger) tend to perpetuate. The truth is, after all, that life has a way of swooping in and stealing our faith, stealing our sense of meaning, of God, of what matters. And we can try and try and try and give ourselves to creating the best life possible, but in the end it is out of our control, just like the powerful montage in the movie UP that shows an aging man coming to terms with the cruel realities of this world, a reality that leaves him shutting himself away from the world and giving into his own sense of misery and grief.

 

And yet, their (my brother and sister in law) conviction was that there is a really simple solution to the problem- social activity. Social interaction. This is the same thing that we see in the movie UP, a friendship giving the aging man a reason to come out of his house, to face the world and to go on living. Giving the aging population the opportunity to contribute to society on a daily basis. They brought up statistics. The aging population today has much to offer still. They are the ones (not all, but many) who are known for saving, for having worked long hours and building the sort of ethic that has much to give to our economy, to our society. My generation (and younger), statistically speaking, is not great at saving, has not had a lifetime to accumulate, and is known for having gone through multiple careers before we have even reached 25. We (and they) are known for contributing in other ways.

Two generations that live very differently, and yet the one thing we share is the one thing that is a big part of the solution- time. We have time to give and the aging population needs our time, something I have neglected in my own life. And in the view of the teacher, time is what we have in the present, however fleeting it will eventually become.

 

It’s kind of funny. The last time I spent time in Ecclesiastes I was a good deal younger than I am now. Having moved away from years on the assembly line doing wharehouse work, I was still a bit stuck in a mindset that tended to look at aging with a lot cynicism. In the wharehouse you fell into one of two categories- you were either young or you were considered a lifer. And we often argued about where the line was, that point of no return when you become too old to leave. And the assumption was this- young means the opportunity to make something of yourself. Old means it’s too late to be something meaningful. And those of us who were young used to look down on the lifers.

But then I started to get older myself. And I realized how much my young self didn’t know. How little I could really depend on those ambitions, those opportunities that I assumed gave worth to my youth.

I bring this up to say, when I considered this conversation with my brother and my sister in law in the light of Ecclesiastes, I found myself reading back through the text and discovering that the text actually presupposes the value of aging. Yes, there is much that aging steals away from us and much that we can rightly grieve. But this call of the teacher to fear God, to consider the work of God, to remember our creator, is a practice that no only allows us to age well, but a practice that gains that much more worth in the text the older we get. The call to remember our Creator in this text is not so that we remember while we are young and forget when we are older. It is so that when we grow up, when we grow older, the vanity doesn’t steal our vision of the God who is carrying us forward, who is the source of our meaning. And here is what I missed on that assembly line all those years ago. How amazing is it to find a witness of faith in someone who is 80, someone who has experienced and face the vanity head on and still managed to say, I trust God with all my life, all my heart. And how much empathy did I need to give myself as I fail to do that (in so many ways) as I cross that dreaded 40 marker. And instead of fearing becoming a lifer, I wish I would had known what it meant to fear God instead.

If I have something to offer to those who are young, it would be that I never knew back then how much I would  need the voices of the aging  and the experienced in my life, voices that made the decision to remember their creator.  And I feel shame over the fact that I neglected what I could also give to the aging as well, those who might be struggling to remember their creator in the midst of the vanity of life.

 

But as the text says- grace. Remember your creator in the present. Do the work of fearing God today. And for me, I see an importunity to invest in the live of the young people in my own place or work, and perhaps to push myself to sit and listen with those who are older than me.

Learning to See the World Again
“The world conspires to make us blind to its own workings; our real work is to see the world again.”
– Adam Gopnik (in his commentary on The Little Prince)

This is where the teacher leaves us, with the work of seeing God again, of seeing the world from His perspective. If there is a final message to the film, The Little Prince, it would be that it is in community that our commonness becomes uniqueness. It is when I learn the name of my neighbour and hear their story that they, and I, become distinguishable, are given meaning. The Little Prince learns this when he finally remembers and considers the value of the Rose. The Aviator learns this when he finds friendship with this little girl, one who is wiling to hear his story. And the girl finds this when she is forced to face the ending of the Aviators story, something that reminds her of the worth she has in her own.

And in the same way, in our communion with God, our shared struggles, our wrestling with the vanity, whatever that may be, becomes a personal expression of God’s grace, a grace that then is able to extend meaning to the world around us as well. And as Christians, we have the ultimate expression of this communion in the coming advent season. The celebration of the most practical examples of God’s work in our lives and our world- Jesus. In Jesus God chooses to enter into the vanity and the meaninglessness in order to share in our struggle. And in this sharing we find our meaning, we are given meaning.

 

And here is the truth this offers to us as ones who trust in what we cannot always know, what we cannot always see. God is okay with the mess. God is okay with us trying to make sense of him from the places that we find ourselves, however uncertain those places might be.

 

Merest Breathe, All is Merest Breathe
As a closing word, one commentator that I read left me with a word that I found very helpful. The word “vanity” is what the indicates breathe. And in translation it can move between two meanings. One indicates the fleeting sense of “breathe”, the vanity. The other is life giving, the breathe, or the exhale of the spirit of God Himself. This commentator suggested that maybe the text is better translated as “merest breathe, all is merest breathe”, a picture of God exhaling his spirit over our struggle, our finite efforts. And in translating it this way, maybe there is a picture here of God breathing life into the emptiness, of breathing meaning into vanity. I think this fits with the teachers own conclusion of his search, his journey. When all else fails, as he would insist, God remains. And it is in God that we find our true identity. Amen.