A Man, A Barren Fig Tree, and A Vinedresser

This past Sunday my church walked through the parable of the barren fig tree in Luke 13:6-9, exploring what it means to be open to God’s tilling of the dirt and the muck of our lives as we say goodbye to summer and welcome the fall. Strangely enough this is actually the fourth time in the past 6 months that the image of the fig tree has surfaced for me in my personal study and devotions, and to be honest I don’t even like figs all that much (unless they are in the form of a gluten free fig newton).

Every time I come across a fig tree in scripture I find myself seriously wrestling with the image. The tree is always barren, there is always a threat to cut the tree down, and there is always some sort of discussion about God’s judgment, our sin and a coming destruction. Luke 13 is no exception.

But the more I continue to reflect on the image of this fig tree, the more hopeful it seems to become. The more fruitful it becomes. And over the course of this past week I have been uncovering fresh perspective in Luke’s call to consider the image of the tree as a hopeful expression of the spirit’s working in my own life. After all, as my pastor suggested this past Sunday, nothing we do or experience is outside of the spirit’s reach.

 

A Motivating Question

“There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?”
– Luke 13:1-2

Before we arrive at the fig tree we are first presented with a motivating question or statement in verses 1-6 that helps provide us with a bit of context. Considering the circumstance of the fallen “Galileans” mentioned here (which is not mentioned anywhere else but does fit with other passages concerning Pilate), some followers of Jesus had begun to wonder about the reason for their death. Namely, as Jesus goes on to imply, they had begun to wonder if it was the sin of the Galileans that led to their suffering?

The idea of suffering as a sign of individual sin was a popular belief in Jesus’ day. Recognizing this, Jesus goes on to answer this (implied) question with a question of his own.

 

“Do you think (these Galileans) were worse sinners than all the (others)?”

 

We can be tempted to think many things in the face of suffering and loss. Is God good? Why does God allow this to happen? Why does this happen to (us, them, me) and not to others? What is the point of this suffering? Did something we (they) do cause this suffering to happen? All of these questions have to do with the way we perceive God’s relationship to us and to the world, and this is what the followers of Jesus were trying to wrestle with. Scholars understand the ones asking these questions were likely considering the challenge of following God (and Jesus) in the midst of a complicated political system, one that flows out of the persistence of Israel’s exile and the destruction of their temple and God’s seeming absence in the midst of ongoing oppression. These are human questions that reflect a common human experience shared with Israel’s long and storied past, and it should be noted that asking these sorts of questions is not the problem that we find in this passage. In fact, the question(s) are a part of what set them into relationship with Jesus.

The problem, rather, has to do searching for answers to their questions in the wrong places, places that lead them towards making false assumptions about God’s relationship to us and to the world. These false assumptions are what Jesus looks to challenge.

“Do you think (they) were worse sinners…?”
Equating suffering with the personal sin of the “Galileans” has led them to entertain a false dichotomy. As Jesus insists, if they suffered and died because of their sin then that must mean they were worse sinners than those of us who are still alive. So, logically speaking, in order for me to avoid similar suffering and death I must make sure to be less sinful than they were…. or more “fruitful” than they were.
To which we arrive at Jesus’ final and definite answer to this whole line of reasoning- “NO!”

This sort of false dichotomy leads nowhere helpful, nowhere good, and yet so often it is the first place we go in our efforts to reason with God in the midst of our own suffering or the suffering we perceive around us. We need a reason. But the truth is when we follow this line of thinking we end up divided, hating God, hating others, and ultimately hating ourselves. We are left, as Jesus is about to point out, as a barren tree in a barren landscape relegating everyone else to equal barrenness.
And so Jesus leads them towards a different way of thinking about God’s relationship with us and the world. a way that does away with this false dichotomy and opens itself up to the Spirit’s work.

“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

The Art Of Repentance
And here we arrive at a pivotal point in this passage, a point that I have found (so far) to carry equal force in all of the other “fig tree” references in scripture as well: the idea of repentance.

Repentance throughout the Gospel has little to do with living “perfect” or fruitful lives. It has everything to do with which direction we happen to be looking when we consider the fruit of our lives. In the case of the Gospels, we are either looking in the direction of Jesus or away from Jesus, and repentance simply means to turn our eyes in the direction that Jesus is heading, in the Way of Jesus.

Without the idea of repentance we are left with only the negative in this passage in Luke. As the chapter begins, they suffer therefore they are unworthy. They suffer therefore God no longer cares for their circumstance. The world is seen as a complicated, politically laden mess and therefore must be outside of God’s grace. But of course the truth of these kinds of assumptions, as Jesus points out, is that they force us to draw the same conclusions about our own lives as well. If this is how God looks and deals with the world, then this is how He must look and deal with me as well. Their suffering means that I have to earn God’s care for me. Their suffering means I must prove that I am more worthy of the grace that I have been given. Likewise, to find myself a sinner means I must deem myself equally worthless in the eyes of God.

Jesus chooses to answer their own line of reasoning with a question of his own, because He knows where their assumptions are leading. He switches the focus from “them” to “you”. He goes straight to the heart of the matter. If they think this is how God sees the Galileans, where does this leave them?

And then Jesus goes on to offer a story, a parable, about a lonely fig tree and its lack of fruit.

 

The Man and His Vineyard

“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none.”

Parables tend to place their audience directly into the story. Look hard enough and you will find you and me in the starring roles. So the first question I found myself asking is, who is the man in this picture? For me this is the most important question to ask because who we see the man to be determines who the tree is in this passage, and who the tree is determines our response.

So here’s what I know. The man appears to be the owner of the vineyard, this much is clear. The man is also the one in the story who calls for the tree to be cut down because of its apparent lack of fruit (“Cut it down! Why should it use up the ground?”). Beyond this though is where scholarship seems to be divided, approaching the question of the “man” in one of the two following ways:

1. In some commentaries, the man symbolizes God the Father, the Vinedresser is Jesus, and the tree is Jerusalem. In this view, the passage looks to echo themes of exile, the fall of the temple, and the judgement of God’s people. Some scholars view the passage this way because the most common interpretation of the fig tree is as a symbol of the temple and Jerusalem.

Hand in hand with this is a Judeo-Christian tradition that represents Jesus as the one who goes to the Father on our (humanities) behalf (Hebrews 7:25). As a part of His ministry, Jesus sees our circumstance and takes our prayers and our concerns to the Father (John 17:20-22). Jesus enters our suffering and failures and struggles and pleads our case to the Father, much in the same way as Abraham once pleaded for the case of Sodom. Scholars see this reflected in this passage as well. Jesus comes into the picture as the “vinedresser” in verse 7 in order to “plead” the case of Israel and Jerusalem (the fig tree) and make the request to delay the Father’s judgment for one more year (verse 9).

But of course this leaves us with a couple of problems. If we view it this way, it forces us to read verses 1-6 in an entirely negative context. Repentance in this case is not about hope but about their eventual (prophesied) failure to be obedient to God. The vinedresser lobbying to give the tree one more year becomes less about grace and more about a judgment already made. And of course, in my opinion, along with this we are also forced to wrestle with two opposing views of God, with the Father and the Son differing in their perception of what a good judgment is.

2. The second option, which also happens to be the direction I lean towards, finds scholarship connecting this passage more directly (and intimately) to verses 1-6. If we hold the first six verses in view, we find the man in the parable is the one making assumptions about the fig tree that the vinedresser hopes to challenge. If we look at it from this perspective, the man fits very well with the “some present at that very time” in verse 1 who were asking Jesus about the Galileans. In this case, Jerusalem (or in a more general sense, the place in which we live) is the vineyard while the Vinedresser is Jesus “addressing” their questions by challenging their assumptions about the Galileans (or in a more general sense, the others) whom I see symbolized in the tree.

The Lonely Fig Tree
For me, this second option fits better with the nature of the parables in the Gospels. Parables always proceed from an incident or a question that Jesus encounters along His journey towards Jerusalem, and the parables are offered by Jesus as a way of shedding light our circumstances and questions through revealing the truth about God in “hidden” ways. In this passage we find the honest questions that come from living in a world that does not look the way we believe it should, of a God that we sometimes feel is more distant and more removed from our world than we expect Him to be. To which we arrive at this lonely fig tree standing in the middle of a vineyard. So to further apply this parable to our present day, if the Vineyard is the place in which we live and the man in this picture is a reflection of you and me, what can the vinedresser teach us about God’s relationship to us and to the world?
First, I discover a God who has chosen to enter into our world, through Jesus, into the vineyard in which we live.

Secondly, I find a God who judges impartially rather than in the way of Pilate. One of the more powerful pictures in this parable is that of a tree stuck between these two opposing forces. To be judged by the world is to be left wanting and unworthy according to who the world says we are, and Pilate emerges here as a foreshadow of the lack of impartiality that eventually finds Jesus hanging on his own barren tree. To be judged by God is to see ourselves as purposed and worthy according to who Jesus sees (and declares) us to be- a people freed from the bindings of our own questions and assumptions and made alive in the spirit just like the woman whom proceeds this story in verses of 10-17. What is also worth noting is the way the ending of chapter 12 sets us up to encounter this message of impartial judgment.

Thirdly, I find a God enters into our world in order to plead the case of grace, the cause of love. Give them “one more year” the vinedresser says to the man, and see what comes from my digging and fertilizing and tilling and caring and growing. And how amazing is it that the primary picture of this caring, this growing is by using the manure, or the “shit” of our lives and this world to do this.

Yes there is suffering. Yes there is feelings of hopelessness and uncertainty. Yes we do have to contend with our lack of fruit and not measuring up again and again and again. But there is hope to be found in this parable. There is hope to found in Jesus. And this hope comes from learning to see and trust in God’s way of dealing with the messiness of our world and our lives, to repent and look in the direction of Jesus, in the direction of Jerusalem and the barren tree that he bore for the sake of the world.

As this passage points out, this is not easy. That much is clear. We want answers in the moment. We want to know why and we want to know how and we want to know when. But the truth about the work that Jesus is doing is that it requires trust, it requires patience. As I have already said, this passage looks at the suffering of the world, and then it turns our questions in on ourselves. “If” this is what the mess of the world means for them, what does that then mean for me? And then in the end of the passage it turns it back around again.

If this is what God is doing in my life, how much more is He doing in and for the world.

This is what hope looks like. This is where I find power in interpreting the “man” in this passage as you and me. The untold assumptions, and the unasked questions that Jesus pulls out of us is our tendency to judge the work of others in order to feel better about our own lack of fruit, to feel more certain about where we stand according to the judgement of Pilate. But through the act of repentance, the Spirit of Jesus sets each of us on equal footing in the light of God’s impartial judgment. Jesus’ persistence in asking each of us to offer one more year of grace, and then another, and then another yet as I imagine in my own eyes… is a grace that flows all the way back to us and then back out into the world once again, reforming our perspective and changing our assumptions along the way. This to me is what it means to anticipate the fruit of the spirit’s work in our world and our lives even when we can’t always see it so clearly.

 

 

The Measure of a Saint: Debra Lee Moffatt

“Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things.”
– Aurthur Schopenhauer.

Our world recently lost one of its more saintly souls. Today I had the privilege of celebrating the life of this saint, Debbie Moffatt. And yes I know, there is little doubt in my mind that Debbie would resist this title with every ounce of her being if she could. She would insist she belongs not with the saints but with the sinners, not on a pedestal but in the trenches. And she would resist this title not with any feigned sense of humility, but with a steadfast conviction that such titles should be reserved for those who need it, who truly deserve it.

And then she would turn around and call you a saint and call me a saint with equal conviction.

Which is exactly what makes her a saint in my eyes. Of course she was also was a mother, a daughter, a wife and a grandmother- each a reflection of the family God had blessed her with, and a friend to many. But the name she came to cherish most of all was “child of God”, and it is because she believed so strongly that she was a child of God that she gave her life to giving and serving whoever crossed her path. If there was a single constant to be found in the words shared by her family this morning, it is the idea that Debbie herself has been written and imprinted into the fabric of their lives “because” of the way she lived as a Child of God.

 
If the lyric “in the morning when I rise, give me Jesus” became a part of her daily ritual, her daily blessing, I am convinced that she longed for this to be so only so far as she would have more of Jesus to give to others, even as she continued to wage a courageous battle against ALS.

And that is the thing about saintly souls. They are the ones that help us to see God. And simply put, Jesus was imprinted all over Debbie.

 
Past, Future and Learning to Be Present
The older I get the more I struggle to remember my past and the harder it gets to predict an increasingly uncertain future, which means the most important thing right now is the present. And this is exactly how Debbie lived her life.

Not long before she was diagnosed, my wife Jen and I had an opportunity to reconnect with the Moffatts over supper. This was at their house of course with the full red carpet treatment included… even as two people neither of them had seen in a fairly long time. Because this is Debbie. This is the Moffatts. No matter how much space there was between you and them, the minute you entered their company you picked up right where you left off.

As the evening went on and we were enjoying a wonderful meal and relaxing over glasses of wine and some wonderful conversation, we found ourselves talking about their trip to Italy. If you wanted to see Debbie’s eyes light up all you had to do was ask her about Italy. At which point she suddenly turned from giddy, passionate and excited to somewhat serious, finding a timely moment… she was always so timely and sure of her words, something I am so not good at… to share something important that was on her mind. And what she (they) shared with me in that moment has stuck with me after all these years.

“Don’t wait! Don’t wait to experience the world.”

Of course this was not simply a reference to travel. Rather, it was a reference to living.

“Don’t wait.”

Choose to live. Choose to live in the present.

It would be short while later that Debbie would be diagnosed with ALS, a diagnosis they would get on the same day we happened to be officially celebrating the arrival of our new adopted son. I feel a degree of shame for not letting Debbie know this, but if I had I would have told her that the decision to adopt our son from Ukraine was a product of our best effort to take her words to heart. Our effort to not wait. Our effort to live in the present and to trust God with the rest.

And the fact that this led us to our new found “family” is even more fitting given Debbie’s heart and passion over the last few years.

I remember looking around during the celebration of our adoption for the Moffatts. We had not seen them in forever and had a feeling they might be coming, and they were the kind of people that you looked forward to seeing even when the room was full. We found out later why they were not there. I am grateful that my brother convinced them not to come. Because you see, even after receiving a terminal diagnosis, in true Debbie fashion she still considered coming to support us. Because that’s who she was.

 

Catching Up With the Past
Often life forces us to leave our past behind. It’s the nature of taking different paths, of becoming and discovering who we are. And as we leave the past behind we are forced to grieve the many losses of this life in order to anticipate the many gains, growth and new reveals. But sometimes our past also manages to catch up with us. And when it does, it can often catch us off guard, reminding us of how we got to where we are, with the good, the bad and the ugly.

It is no small thing that the most common phrase I heard coming out of the funeral today was “hey, another blast from the past”. It was like stepping into a time machine and going back 20 years And I love time travel. A bit obsessed with time travel actually. But this was different. All these people. All these stories. All these experiences. Vast memories being brought together through the life of a single person. And having shared this Church Community with Debbie for many years, these memories, this history has her face plastered all over it. It would be impossible to turn left or right into any of those stories and not find an imprint of her influence and her presence.

In The Shadows and the Light
There is truth to the idea that I came to her funeral knowing that Debbie gave me far more than I could ever offer her in return over my lifetime. Over many lifetimes. I came knowing that in the many ways I often saw myself as that “other” brother trying to navigate my way through the shadows of two other spiritual giants in the life of Riverwood past, Debbie was someone who always chose to ignore the shadows. In her house she made sure to shine the light straight on you. I hope and trust that she was looking down on that massive gathering of people this afternoon and being able to see the light being shone on her.

 
Grace and Admonition
We dropped by to see the Moffatts at their lakeside house a while ago because we happened to be in the area. Her speech was just beginning to slur (which of course, in true Debbie fashion she felt the need to “apologize” for), but she was still sporting all of her trademark spirit and energy and humour. It was my first time seeing Debbie since her diagnosis, and I’ll be honest, words failed me big time in the moment. Here was this courageous woman facing the biggest struggle of her life and she is doing the same thing she had always done. She was treating us like honoured guests, serving us until there was nothing left to give. She refused to let the disease dominate any part of the conversation. And, I am ashamed to admit that the only thing I feel I ended up doing in the moment was ranting about our own petty and superficial family issues.

And yet, for as terrible as I feel over this loss of words, what struck me the most is the grace that I found in her company without her having to say anything. I am even more grateful though for the fact that she did eventually say something (after I stopped spewing the trite and superficial complaining for a couple seconds of course). After we had exhausted our list of petty issues, she turned and said something so simple that it managed to bring everything into perspective.

“There is a battle going on out there right now” she insisted, “and it is causing the world to lose sight of what is most important- family.”

Not only does Debbie deserve screen credit on the Fast and the Furious, she also deserves credit for being an expert in admonishment. Her comment was generalized, but of course it hit right at the core of what I needed to hear in that moment. And she did it with such grace, with such purpose and such gentleness, that in all honesty I didn’t even recognize it as admonishment. It was simply the wisdom of a saint. And even in the middle of her struggle she found a way to elevate my petty issues to something important. A truly humbling moment.

Navigating A Valley of Strange Humours
I once heard it said that life is a “valley of strange humours”. Debbie embodied this. In all of our flaws, in all of our uncertainties, in all of our mess-ups and failures and successes and joys, in my years growing up as a young teen and a young adult the one thing I could always count on was the fact that Debbie would always find a way to laugh at all of our idiosyncracies, to laugh at the messiness of life. And the fact that she was also willing to laugh at herself meant that she was constantly teaching us how to do the same, to laugh at ourselves. I have since come to know that this is one of the most important things we can learn to do in life.

It was said many times at the funeral that one of the great tragedies of ALS is the way it steals, slowly, over time. And most tragic, as family members confessed, is that it steals memories. But what was also confessed is that Debbie’s smile, Debbie’s laugh was something many would never forget, and there is something rather poetic about this fact, that in the midst of the valley her laughter can still be heard. In the midst of tragedy her smile is still finding a way to persevere.

Loss comes in so many ways. And often the loss of these kinds of spiritual hero’s in your life remind us about all the ways in which life has moved forward, and the ways in which life continues to move forward. I didn’t have much contact with Debbie over the last number of years. With circumstances at home I didn’t have much contact with her while she was sick either I hate to admit. And yet there is not a moment that has gone by in the most recent weeks where I haven’t spent some time remembering how Debbie played a big role in allowing me to become who I am today. And being able to gain glimpses along the way of how she approached and faced her sickness, and to watch her family stand by her side the whole way and walk through it together through much pain and sorrow, has inspired much thought and conversation in our own home about what is most important as well, and what it means to live in the present rather than wait for an uncertain future.

And as the past managed to officially catch up with me this afternoon, I was also struck by the thought that a big reason why Debbie and her family was able to approach all of this with such courage and strength is because it is the way she lived her life before the sickness as well. A great inspiration to start living in the present today rather than tomorrow. Because none of us knows what tomorrow will bring. In my desire to be a youth leader to a small, rambunctious group of kids (including her own) in the early days of Rothesay/Riverwood, I see Debbie’s willingness to allow me to learn from my many mistakes and her encouragement to me to try and try again. In the years that I lived on next to nothing while struggling through school to get my youth pastor degree I see her constant desire to support me and pray for me in so many different ways. In the years after Rothesay changed names to Riverwood when the old community of the past began to give way to the new, The Moffatts were a constant voice of encouragement, comfort, familiarity and confidentiality. Change is never easy, and they had a way of reminding me I was not alone. I could say anything to them positive or negative without being judged, and while Murray was often front and center for those conversations, it was Debbie who I always knew was lingering in the background ready to offer me a timely and poignant word of wisdom along with a refill on my drink (or another slice of that cake).

And if ever there was a final point of convincing (which certainly isn’t necessary… Debbie is a saint through and through), I look to my wife Jen. Having met in her first few months of starting to attend Riverwood, and having left Riverwood for a new job not even two years later, it is significant that Debbie (and Murray) were two of a handful of people that she was going to miss with all her heart. Two out of a handful of people that she came to feel she had shared history with even after knowing them for barely two years.

Because, of course, that is Debbie. A saint. A mother. A daughter. A Wife. A grandmother. A friend. A child of God.

Angels, Humans and the Healing Power of a Melody

 

angelstatuechildprayingcreditShutterstockcom

A number of years ago I decided to embark on a study of angels in the Judeo-Christian (and surrounding) traditions. It was a fascinating and entertaining topic to explore, but the more I delved into the subject the more I started noticing a peculiar trend in the way angels were being described.

To me, angels had always been kind of synonymous with the idea of a song, and when I thought of angels I thought of the “chorus” of an angelic presence or a picture of trumpets helping them to set their heavenly voices on display.
angel-woman-clouds-wings_credit-Shutterstock

But where was the singing?

A discussion of angels is far more complex than this, of course, but in terms of challenging my very base level assumptions regarding what angels “should” be doing (how dare you!), it seemed nearly every time I encountered a story or a picture of an angel, especially when it came to the context of Scripture, they were either “shouting” or “speaking”, or generally doing something other than singing. And the few examples that did connect them to song appeared to vary in translation.

So I started to dig deeper, to see if there was anything more to this theory that angels did not, in fact, sing as I once assumed they did. Of course, coming to terms with this working theory involved a rather delicate dance through the richness of the Hebrew language and tradition, through which certain words might or might not denote a sense of musicality and where the influence of surrounding cultures complicated the picture even further. My efforts ultimately proved inconclusive, however, I did come to realize I was not the only one asking this same question. And there seemed to be enough compelling evidence out there to at least cause me to wonder, what if “song” in the Judeo-Christian tradition is a distinctly “human” discourse? What if music, in this specific tradition anyways, was recognized as a uniquely human gift?

My first thought? What does this mean for a voice like mine? You know, the kind of voice that appears more in line with fingers scraping down a chalkboard? Perhaps I am better suited for shouting along with the angels. After all, I did marry into a good Ukrainian family. Angelic praise in its finest form.

And good thing I have the drums to hide behind. Making a joyful noise is easier when no one can really see me… or at least making some kind of noise anyways.

But then I remembered something my pastor said a few years back that happened to stick with me (look at me paying attention). Finding himself one Sunday morning sitting in his customary seat in the front row where his back is always towards the congregation, he started to think about his experience of hearing our voices being sung over him instead of actually seeing us sing. And since our Church is very good at showing up fashionably late (or right on time depending on who you ask), oftentimes it would be the sound of the voices that was his first indication that the empty sanctuary he had entered minutes ago was now being filled by people.

And what struck him, according to his eventual confession, was that in singing we have a reflection of a true community. Where a single voice by itself may or may not hit the necessary notes, as a chorus even the most unlikely voice is able to find a melody.

Singing as an expression of community. We are stronger together, stronger in the places where we allow ourselves to lift one another up, and to be lifted up, in the context of our strengths and our weakness. Stronger in the places where we are able to recognize what we share as sons and daughters of God regardless of how well we can hit the right note on our own.

In this sense, if a song is truly a distinct human discourse, music then becomes the language of relationship. Relationship to God and relationship to one another.

In an interview from years back, Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman once described this same idea in the following words:

“As a musician, when I am singing, I always think of it as co-signing God’s blank checks. That there’s this currency that I’ve been given to operate with—notes and words—and I can pay them however I want.”

The cheque is the gift of the Spirit empowering our souls to create and to sing, and using this currency is our way of becoming “musicians”, of participating in the spirit’s moving in our world and in our lives as we sing and play “together” in a community.
And here is what is most incredible to me about this thought. The true power of community flows from the reality of our cultural diversity. And where is this diversity more properly expressed than through our music? A momentary glance through this list of musical regions and genres-

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cultural_and_regional_genres_of_music

proves just how important music is to building cultural diversity. It is a humbling thought to consider the sheer expanse of this universal language at work in our world, bringing definition to neighborhoods, cities, regions, and Countries.

But before you find yourself thinking, “yeah, this is all good for those who can actually sing or play, but what about the rest of us? Are we then left to fend for ourselves?” The truth about making music, the reason why it is an expression of true community, is that it is about more than just creating. It is also about hearing. When we discover music that speaks to us, speaks to our spirit, we are being moved by the Spirit to listen to the story that music is sharing and expressing. And in hearing that story, the invitation is for us to enter into that story, that melody, by harmonizing our own story with the one that we are now hearing. This is how music brings us together. This is what makes music meaningful and expressive, the idea that music is primarily a “relational” or social function rather than a solitary one.

A final and important learning for me through all of this “wondering” has been the idea that this sort of approach to musical expression, musical community if you will, is indiscriminate by nature. It does not draw lines between what is godly and what is not. It does not draw lines between who is good and who is not, or what kind of song is worthy of hearing and which kind of song is not. It simply expresses. It creates. And then it invites us to participate. It is human. And the great truth is that out of this humanity we are able to gain a better picture of who God is in the rawness and in the honesty of our human experience as well.

If music truly is a distinct human discourse, a gift of the spirit, then it remains a visible representation of God no matter what form it takes in our personal expression. God is being made known in the songs of our doubts and our questions as much as He is through our songs of intentional worship. God is being made known through a bad note as much as he is in the beauty of a perfectly constructed melody.

But most important, God is being made known in our willingness to enter into, to listen and to hear and to participate with, the songs that others are singing. This is where we are free to join in the chorus, to join in the dance even when we feel we don’t have a good note to bring to the table. And when we do this, we might just find ourselves surprised by the strength and beauty of the melody that follows.

angel

Learning How To Pray Part 2: Learning to Forgive

“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”
– Mark 11:25

I have written elsewhere about this passage (Mark 11) in its broader context (see my series of blogs on the Gospel of Mark). At the heart of the passage is the image of a fig tree. The fig tree is a metaphor, a rather difficult metaphor to get my head around. Which is perhaps what made it so compelling. I haven’t been able to shake its image over the last few months, which tells me that God is likely using it to say something important.

And given the centrality of prayer in this passage, this is what motivated me to begin to think about prayer, and more importantly my failure to pray well.

The Fig Tree and the Temple
I suggested in my previous blog that the best way I could understand the fig tree was by setting it in light of the cleansing of the Temple, which in this passage breaks up the two parts of the metaphor (11:15-19). The withering of the fig tree mirrors the destruction of the temple that Jesus foretells in 13:1-2, while the first fruits are a sign of what is to come, the promise to raise up the temple once again. And it is here that we find the great mystery, the mystery of Jesus’ coming death and Resurrection. Jesus “is” the new temple.

The withered fig tree, then, signifies a joyful expectation, the sign of something “good” that God desires to give to us, which is why a seemingly negative curse is explained in positive terms, a sign of faith, a sign of “something good” given to us in “prayer” (11:20-25).

And what is this good thing that God desires to give? I believe the answer to this question begins with the promise to erect a new temple that will be called a “house of prayer for all nations” (11:17), and it ends with the call for us to pray in 11:25. Prayer, according to this passage, is explained as the act of forgiving “so that your (our) Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” And if this is what prayer is, the good thing that God desires to give to us through this new temple is reconciliation; reconciliation to God and one another.

Prayer as Forgiveness
Now, to be honest, if I have a hard time praying I have an even harder time forgiving. As Josh Larsen suggests in his book “Movies are Prayers, “the prospect of forgiveness often seems like a pipe dream. Sometimes, beset by life’s disappointments and betrayals, praying in anger is all we can muster.”

But if it is true that it is our “faith in God” (11:22) that gives us the strength to pray- that leads us to pray, then it is this same faith in God that is able to move the necessary mountains that stand in the way of forgiveness, of reconciliation (11:23),

Prayer as Participation in the Work of God
If I am to become a better “pray-er”, I must learn to increase my faith in God’s promise, a promise to do what I cannot do on my own- forgive. And the way we increase this kind of faith is by looking towards Jesus. Jesus IS the Resurrected temple. Jesus is the house of prayer for all nations. Jesus is the one who is doing God’s work in the world on our behalf.

Which means something rather incredible. Jesus is praying for us. Jesus is praying for me. And it is because of this truth that I am able to claim the authority to say to any mountain that stands in the way of becoming a better pray-er, a better forgiver- move out of the way! And it is by praying that I am able to participate in the work that God is doing through Jesus in the world- moving mountains so that the good things God desires to give- Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Jesus, can be given into all the world, to all nations, to all people. This, according to scripture, is how we become the body of Christ, the house of prayer for all nations.

“What many are aware of today is the anomaly existing between their prayer and their life in the world. This is probably because they underestimate their worth as a partner in the dialogue of prayer.”

Praying Well
If I want to pray. If I want to pray well, I must begin by looking to Jesus. Jesus is the resurrected temple, the temple rebuilt. I must begin by seeing the work that Jesus, through the Cross, the very image of forgiveness at work in the world. Praying for me, praying for the world. And then I follow His example. I follow His call to have “faith, faith in God” to move the mountains that stand in the way.

And so I make the choice to participate in what God is already doing, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. This is what it means to pray, to align ourselves with the body of Christ, to become the body of Christ. Having the same heart, the same love of Jesus, for the world, a world that is hurting, and even a world that sometimes (or often times) hurts us. And when we share in this desire we increase our capacity to forgive and be forgiven, because this is what prayer compels us to do. This is what prayer expects. This is what prayer promises. This is what it means to pray well, is to see a contagious and ever spreading spirit of reconciliation- to forgive others so that we can be forgiven, flowing through the prayers of our daily life and world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cars 3- Where Nostalgia Meets Story

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Nostalgia is a tonic to the modern man, one which few can resist.
– Josh Spiegel

In the article The Pixar Perspective on Groundbreaking Nostalgia, Josh Spiegel argues that the success of Pixar appears to come from an unlikely place- nostalgia.

Unlikely, he surmises, because, “… it’s baffling that a company associated with breaking new ground in cinema and art, a massive influence on the financial structure and creativity of movie studios and theme parks, looks backward while moving forward.”

This sentiment rings especially true when considered against a world that appears to be changing at an alarming rate, and what he finds in the Pixar model is an important consideration for how to exist in the midst of all this change.

“Pixar has achieved, over many of its films, a nostalgia delivery system while concurrently making legitimately brilliant pieces of modern art… Where Pixar’s films have, so far, stepped correctly is by not letting the nostalgia drown out an original story.”

In other words, good art, good storytelling, is what reminds us of where we are, how we got here, and what matters (or should matter) for where we are heading.

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Considerations for the where, the how, and the what of  entering “the Second Half of Life”
Last year my Church offered a study on what it means to enter “the second half of life” and how to navigate it well. There were two important thoughts that I took away from this series:

  1. Growing up/aging is a difficult process
  2. Learning how to grieve well might be the most important tool for navigating this difficult process.

And perhaps the most important realization for me was that I am not very good at grieving.

And I don’t necessarily mean grief as in “grieving the loss of a loved one”, although that certainly can be a part of it. Change in life comes in many forms, and I often fail to consider the ways in which these gradual losses, the product of a changing world and growing older, have affected me in some powerful ways. Ways that require me to grieve. And by failing to consider these ways, I also fail to necessarily grieve.

And here is why grieving is so important. When we fail to grieve, we instead end up holding onto the past far too tightly, or we fail to learn, to grow out of our past. We see the whole world as “against” us instead of embracing the ways in which the world can help us to heal.

So with this in mind, here are 3 things that I learned from watching Cars 3 about what it means to grieve well in the midst of a changing world.

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1. Grieving well means learning to slow down in a world that moves far too fast
In the opening scene of the original Cars, the first words we hear are “I am speed”. Conversations about speed and the discipline of slowing down are built into the heart of this franchise right from the start.What stands out the most for me when it comes to this conversation in the original Cars is the way they use the idea of speed as a metaphor for the rate of change we are experiencing in the culture at large. A simple google search brings up a slew of articles commenting on this fact as more than just overblown sentimentality (such as “back in my day…”), but a recognized and a realized phenomenon. Things do appear to be changing at a faster rate than at any other point in human history. Dig underneath and we can also notice an acknowledgment that we (as a society) are also struggling to adapt or keep up with this change. 

Stewart Brand says as much in an article he wrote for Time magazine.

“The newest technologies–computers, genetic engineering and the emerging field of nanotech–differ from the technologies that preceded them in a fundamental way. The telephone, the automobile, television and jet air travel accelerated for a while, transforming society along the way, but then settled into a manageable rate of change.”
– Stewart Brand

The article goes on to suggest there is potential for culture and society to manage this change naturally, to adapt and reclaim it, but that in our current state this oblique expectation doesn’t negate the fact that managing the current rate of change is a serious problem that is having a measurable effect. A separate study (https://news.am/eng/news/219298.html) goes on to share this same thought in statistical terms, suggesting “researchers (are finding) that people in general (75%) are dissatisfied with how high technology affects their lifestyle, although both admit that they could not already do without electronic devices.”

And here in lies the problem. In our inability to keep up, we find ourselves unable to look back.

In the original Cars, this problem is explored by contrasting its sense of nostalgia for the old Route 66 with the onset of the freeway that eventually paves overtop of the famous route’s rich sense of Americana. And the realization is that, the more of these roads we build the more dependent we become, not just on speed, but on a different way of life.

images-4Cars has been recognized as a passion project, the product of an experimental trip down old Route 66 that was inspired by efforts to try and recapture a sense of what we have lost in our shift towards modernity. And there is a certain sadness that permeates the way the film reminisces about this apparent sense of loss, which thematically includes the art of patience, the importance of slowing down, and the ability to appreciate the journey and our surroundings. Perhaps most recognized though, is the loss of the art of “relating”- or sharing- through our nostalgia.

Nostalgia, in this sense then, is becoming a lost art. And as nostalgia becomes less sacred (the emerging generation appears to even be going so far as to “borrow” the nostalgia of the older generation), our ability to relate to our past becomes less and less a virtue. Less and less necessary. There is simply too much past that comes and goes far too quickly for it to be remembered as something of inherent value, which could very well connect back to the idea that youth are now choosing to grow up far more quickly than they have in years past.

And if Cars 3 has something important to say to this reality, it would be that the greatest loss in all of this is actually the loss of the stories, the “relationships” that we share across generational lines.

The way forward then, the way to reconnect these generational “gaps” in a changing world, is to begin to relearn and re-teach the value of slowing down, of relating in more intentional and more invested ways. To relearn the value of nostalgia is to regain a necessary awareness of the journey and of our surroundings that can give these relationships meaning.

2. Learning to grieve well by addressing the value of multi-generational relationships.
Referring back to the dramatic rate of change we are experiencing in the modern era as “the new norm”, an article for Psychology Today suggests that the rate at which this change happens is directly proportionate to the level of our communication. The two are synonymous, and as communication grows, so does our rate of change.

And given that the speed of our communication is now at “near zero”, it has become difficult to predict the potential impact this will have on the way we relate. The problem we appear to face today is that the more communication grows, the less investment and time it demands. And so we tend to be less attached to the things that should demand more.

Making sense of a Curious Target Audience
Cars 3
makes some intriguing cinematic choices. I saw it with my 15-year-old son, and as I suggested to him the film felt like it was written more for me than it was for him. Which is strange since, as an animated film, it would appear to be targeted to an audience even younger than him. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was possible that I was also the target audience of the first film as well.images-3

The first film was all about exploring what it meant for those in my generation to learn how to reinvest in the stories and the lessons of my parent’s generations. In a gradually changing world (at the time), the film reminded me of the value of taking the time to consider where we came from and what was important to those who came before me. Which brings me back to the intriguing cinematic choices of Cars 3. Cars 3 is not a fast moving film. It is more artful dialogue than pure spectacle. It is not the most likely candidate to hold kids attention, and it is definitely not a film that is looking to spoon feed its audience.

It requires investment. Which is interesting to me, because the film is not afraid to suggest that investing in multi-generational relationships is something that takes work, something that requires sacrifice. But it is an investment the film assures us is also entirely worth our investment.

These same cinematic choices were also interesting to me because the message I found in Cars 3 feels directed and squarely aimed at me. It follows the template of the original film, but it flips the premise on its head. This time the shoe that fit my parent’s generation in the first film is now on a different foot- my foot. McQueen is grown up and facing the same emotions and sense of loss that Cars embodied through the character of Doc Hollywood. And McQueen is now able to understand Doc Hollywood’s experience with mentoring McQueen- uncertainty, loneliness, fear, helplessness, irrelevance, the feeling of being forgotten/ignored. He understands why Doc chose to mentor him.

And in a world that feels like it has lost some of its ability to pause and value/remember the past, which we recognize in the onslaught of the new technology that now renders McQueen increasingly outdated and out-modeled and outcast,  we find that for as much as things change, the answers remains the same. Capturing the real life loss of Paul Newman (whom voiced Doc Hollywood), the film takes us through a beautifully rendered montage of the MeQueen/Hollywood relationship where McQueen comes to realize how much he valued Doc’s investment into his own life, and what he meant to Doc Hollywood, and this realization is what encourages him to invest in the young Cruz Ramirez in the final moments of the film. It is a surprising and refreshing emotional turn for a franchise that could have easily have found itself tired and outdated.

And here is where I found these final sequences and images in Cars 3 to hold the most power. Investing in Ramirez requires McQueen to accept that he, in fact, does have something to offer in a world that seems to have little need for him and his ideas. Which requires him to be vulnerable. It requires him to see beyond his own circumstances. And in accepting this truth we begin to see that Ramirez had actually craved and desired this relationship all along. And it is by recognizing this fact that McQueen is able to accept that Ramirez also brings immense value to his own life as well.

This is the true power of growing and investing in multi-generational relationships- it is a mutually giving relationship. And as a mutually giving relationship, it helps to close the generational gap.

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Learning To Grieve Well By Telling Our Story 
As science continues to catch up with the effects of insurmountable rates of change (including epidemic rates of anxiety, depression, growing economic uncertainty, and cultural voids), our ability to connect to the lessons of our past becomes that much more important for beginning to understand who we are, how we got here and where we are going. Returning to the success of Pixar, the reason why Pixar has been so universally embraced is that the films continue to encourage us to connect to this past by telling a good, personal story. And so nostalgia and good storytelling go hand in hand.

This is where the most important moments hit home for me in Cars 3. The montage down memory lane is more than simply superficial sentimentalism. It is the act of becoming vulnerable, of McQueen being willing to share his story with Ramirez. And it is the in the subsequent moments where McQueen is able to hear Ramirez share her own story, and in spite of the misunderstandings he has imagined of her, they both discover that they share much in common.

Which is why Cars 3 is an important film for someone like me, someone who does struggle to make sense of this world in the second half of life, someone who does battle through feelings of being irrelevant and discarded and uncertain. It reminds me I am not alone, and it encourages me to consider the ways in which others feel alone. And it is also an important film for someone from my son’s generation. In seeing Ramirez’s story, there is an opportunity to consider, through her own willingness to be vulnerable and brave, these same human longings- feelings of being irrelevant, discarded and uncertain, and to be reminded that no matter which side of the general gap we sit on, we all share this same struggle. And it certainly helps as well that she happens to be a strong female character, something that not only gives voice to a generation but also gives voice to a generation of young women.

 

Grieving Well Means Remembering Well
Grieving helps to shed light on what is most important, what life often causes us to forget in its hectic pace. And over and over again when we take the time to look back on what we’ve lost, what it tends to reveal is that what makes things like Route 66 such an important part of our past is the people that we share the road with. This is what it means to slow down. Nostalgia is formed out of the memories we make and the joy it affords in bringing us together. Nostalgia romanticizes the past, but it also gives life to the way we share these memories across generational lines, stories worth telling precisely because of the ways in which they bring us together. When we lose the ability to romanticize the past, to wonder if you will at the life we have lived, we also lose our sense of togetherness, which is what leaves us feeling isolated from one another.

In the original Cars, it might seem like simply a story about an infamous and legendary road. But what makes these films so underrated, in my opinion, is the way they use this road to shed light on the human experience. And the fact that it is able to speak to our human experience across generations is something that makes these films even that much more relevant and important.

 

References:
http://pixartimes.com/2013/06/11/the-pixar-perspective-on-groundbreaking-nostalgia/
http://longnow.org/essays/technology-moving-too-fast/
https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mind-blender/201403/why-is-the-world-changing-so-fast

 

 

The Sin of Envy- The Human Condition and the Spirit’s Reform

Over these past few weeks, I have been giving some time to the topic of envy. And as I was doing this I found my mind wandering back to my years as a youth pastor. Those years certainly included a lot of different games and, of course, a lot of great memories and relationships. But there is one particular game that stands out in my mind, if only for its pure dramatic flavour:

 

The game is called the Red-Black game (for lack of a better name).

 

The Red-Black Game
The game basically involves dividing the youth into two even-numbered groups, while I assume the role of mediator in the middle. I then give both teams two pieces of paper, one with a black circle and another with a red circle, while in the center of both groups I place a selection of desirable looking candy. I then give the teams a chance to deliberate, and after calling them back together instruct them to hold up a paper of their choosing on the count of three.

 

And here are the rules. If both teams end up holding up the paper with the red circle, then the candy in the middle would be divided evenly between both teams. If one team holds up the black and the other red, the team with the black circle gets all of the candy while the other team gets none. But if both teams hold up the black circle, neither team gets the candy.

 

Now here is the thing. For every time I have played this game, it never failed that there was at least one person from the group, usually more, who believed they knew how to beat this game. And the way they attempted to do this was by crossing the divided line and deliberating with the opposing team in an effort to create an alliance. The way for everyone to be happy, for everyone to win, they would insist, is for both teams to agree to always hold up the red circle. And to their credit, the plan usually worked… for a few rounds anyways. It was inevitable that the game eventually found a way to bring out that black circle, and… here’s the key… it always happened as a result of raising or changing the stakes of the reward in the center. And of course from there it would essentially just spiral out of control, to the point where youth were crying or storming out of the room angry- you know, the mark of any great and successful youth event.

 

But here is the thing. It also provided one of the more memorable and meaningful teaching times as well, allowing me to tie it into a lesson on “envy” in a sort of “real life example” kind of way. And this was as true for them as it was for me. When it comes to the 7 deadly sins, our current summer series (at Church), there is a tendency for me to view these sins as something that exists “out there”, the product of extreme examples that are not really relevant to my everyday life. What this game showed me, or reminded me of, is that we all carry a similar potential to give into these sins, a similar potential to give into envy. And often all it takes is the right game, or the right life circumstance to pull it to the surface.

 

Bringing Envy to the Surface
Author, blogger, writer Tim Challies argues in a series he did on the subject of envy that envy is something we don’t talk about near enough. Which is perhaps most surprising given “how much the Ancient writers and theologians talked about it” a whole lot. So what I want to do (with this blog/sermon) is give attention to a subject that I believe affects us all a in some form or another, a subject that likely deserves far more attention than many of us tend to afford it. And my hope is to do this by looking at the following:

 

  1. What envy is
  2. Why it is a problem,
  3. What we can do to guard ourselves against it.

 

WHAT IS ENVY?
I will begin by looking to google- because of course google has the answer to everything. Here is a simple online dictionary definition of the word envy:

Envy is the malign feeling- mean spirited, cruel- toward one who possesses that which we greatly desire.”

There are two things that I pulled out of this definition that I thought could be helpful in allowing me, allowing us, to begin to locate envy in our lives moving forwards in this (one way, yeah I know) discussion. First, if we want to recognize envy in our lives we can look towards the object of our desire. Secondly, it is helpful to look towards the/a relationship(s) that most closely share this desire.

And with these two things in mind, I want to turn to a passage of scripture that I think exemplifies the problem of envy in an instructive and powerful way, the story of Joseph found in Genesis 37-50, beginning with 37:1-4:

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob.

Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.[a]But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

Returning to the two ideas I mentioned above, I found the object of Joseph’s brother’s desire here to be “the love of their father”. The shared relationship is, of course, the “family” of 12 “brothers”. The malign feeling, then, surfaces because the brother’s see the special love that Jacob (also named Israel) gives to Joseph and believe it to be unjust, unfair.

 

A Growing Conflict
Now, as we read further into the story of Joseph we are able to note a growing conflict developing between the brothers. We notice it fist in verse 2, where it says that Joseph “brought a bad report of them (his brothers) to their father.” Which, if you have ever had siblings or had to live under a siblings shadow, it is easy to see why this would rile them up.

 

Actually, this did remind me of a time when I was about 7/8 years old. I found myself playing in the mud after a fresh rainfall, and I may or may not have tracked a tiny of bit of this mud into the house, only to have my brothers take this information to my parents. I was sent to my room without screen or play time for the rest of the evening and night. I don’t remember much about that time, but what I do remember is, the longer I was in that room the angrier my feelings towards my brothers became. And it didn’t help that their voices were all I could hear from the next room over.

The wonder of envy at work.

And then, when we take a look underneath the passage we are also able to note the presence of a certain cultural conflict surrounding the place of the firstborn son, which held much significance in the ancient world. And given that Joseph is the second youngest of the brothers, this special attention typically reserved for the firstborn upsets the paradigm, a paradigm which the rest of the narrative will look to address moving forward.

And then there is the fact that Jacob/Israel (one in the same person in this narrative) had two wives, with Joseph (and Benjamin) being from a different mother than his 10 other brothers. This is of course speculative, but this certainly could have been another source of this growing conflict.

Finally, we arrive at Joseph’s dreams (and these dreams are a reoccurring subject in his story as well). First, Joseph brings one of these dreams to his brothers, informing them that, according to this dream one day they (his brothers) will bow down to him and that Joseph, the second youngest of the family, will reign over them. Which of course, like any good sibling conflict does, incites their anger even more.

And as if this is not enough, Joseph then proceeds to bring a second dream to his father, perhaps thinking that he would take the news better than his brothers. But after informing his father that one day both his brothers AND his parents will bow down to him, like any good parent would likely do in this case, Jacob “rebukes” this crazy idea- in your dreams Joseph.

 

So two things to note here at this point in the story:

  1. Envy doesn’t come out of nowhere. It is something that grows.
  2. And often envy grows because we feel that someone or something is conflicting, challenging or threatening our sense of who we are or the way we believe things should be.

And as envy grows and conflicts, it ultimately begins to distort the truth we believe about ourselves, about others and about God.

Given this reality, it is relevant to note here that Joseph’s brothers are never said to be outside of their father’s love. Rather, they simply misplace the special love being afforded to Joseph, a love that we know stems from being “a son of his old age” (37:3). And if we look back, this connects us to the birth of Benjamin, a birth that follows a revelation of God given to Jacob in chapter 35. It is in this place that we locate the relevance of Jacob’s old age, which is anchored in the promise God makes to Jacob, now given the name Israel, of his family name being made into a fruitful nation of God. And by misplacing the context of this special love, the seeds of envy, as it is referred to in later biblical witness, begin to take root. There is hatred, and then more hatred, and then finally we come to this word “jealousy”.

 

The Relationship Between Jealousy and Envy
It is worth pausing on this word jealousy for a minute. In his blog series on the subject of envy, Tim Challies argues that one of the reasons that we don’t talk about envy enough is that we often confuse envy with other words, other sins. And the most common confusion is between envy and jealousy. So I found it worthwhile to look into how these words differ in order to better understand exactly what envy is and why it is a problem.

The Triangle vs. The Straight Line
The field of Psychology recognizes jealousy within the paradigm of a “triangle”, or the “triangle theory”. In this theory we have three persons or objects. The top of the triangle represents the shared person or object of desire, while the bottom of the triangle represents the two forces who share in this desire. The point of the theory is to suggest that the attention in jealousy is always on the on the object of desire. And what motivates jealousy is fear- fear of losing this object/person and fear of someone else having this object/person instead of us (and what this might mean for us).

Where envy differs is that it is has two components rather than three. And these components are always interpersonal- which means envy always occurs between two persons on a straight line, or the bottom of this triangle. And what is most important when it comes to understanding envy (theoretically) is that, unlike jealousy it wants nothing in return. While envy often grows out of a shared desire, as it grows the object of our (the envious one) desire falls further and further out of view, to the point where the motivating force of envy is no longer fear, but rather malicious intent, anger; a hatred that simply wants to see something “denied” to an opposing party rather than obtaining something for ourselves.

Returning to my personal story of playing in the mud, one of the curious things about sitting in that room is the way in which I can remember my desire to get let out the room fading further and further from my mind the more I listened to my brothers playing. After a while, the only feeling I had was that I wanted to see the play time taken away from them.
And I believe we can see this same theory at work as we continue to look at the story of Joseph. As Joseph is thrown into a pit and eventually sold into slavery to a passing caravan on their way to Egypt, the brother’s shared desire for the love of their father couldn’t be further from their view. They simply want to see Joseph denied the love of their father, because this is what envy is and what envy does. Author and activist Dorothy Sayers, whom happens to also be an expert in the art of mystery and languages, puts it this way.

“Envy is the great leveller: if it cannot level things up, it will level them down … rather than have anyone happier than itself, it will see us all miserable together.”

So if all this has something to say about what envy is, it was worthwhile for me to push this one-way discussion a bit further towards the question of why envy is a problem, which I hope is becoming a bit more clear at this point.

 

Why Is Envy a Problem
In the (necessarily) limited research that I was able to give to of the fields of Psychology and Social Sciences over these last few weeks, I found envy to be a much discussed and researched topic of interest when it came to the study of human relationships. And in my research, I found a common understanding that suggested, “for as long as the idea of human relationship has been in existence, we have needed a word to describe envy”.

Most of the scientists that I encountered spoke of envy from its etymological roots, helping to show that every culture and every language has in fact needed a “similar” word to describe envy. And so, even on this most practical of levels we know that envy is a problem. In fact, the research went so far, at least in one context, as to describe envy as the “central problem of the human condition”. And as I continued through the story of Joseph, I began to see more and more this same idea being expressed in the context of the God-Human relationship as well.

 

This One Thing
After having been sold into slavery Joseph ultimately lands in Egypt where it says “he became successful… in the house of his Egyptian Master”. So successful that his Egyptian Master (Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh) “made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had (39:4-5)”. It just so happened that this also put him in close proximity to his master’s wife.

So one day, it says, his master’s wife took notice of Joseph (and his handsome good looks) and asked him to “lie” with her (39:7). To which Joseph responds,

He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except this one thing (some translations say “yourself”), because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?”
39:9

 

In other words, I have been made Potiphar’s equal in this house except for this “one thing”, so why should I desire to have to one up him, to become better than him?

How often do I find myself asking this very same question in my own life? I am faced with the potential for envy and I ask, why should I do this? And how often do I pretend to have a great answer (or two or three) to this question? Far more often than I care to admit if I am being honest.

When I first came to this part of the story, my mind immediately went to another moment in the larger Biblical narrative to which Joseph belongs, a moment that took me all the way back to Genesis 1, 2 and 3 and the dawn of the God-Human relationship. Here we see that Adam and Eve have been given everything in the garden where they share communion with God and one another. Everything, it says, except for this one thing (2:17). And it is in this moment, in the midst of this shared community, that they become envious of the one thing God has that it appears they do not. They become blinded to what they have been given, and get hung up on what they do not have. And so they exchange this shared relationship for a life of envy, and we are able to recognize in this passage that God becomes more and more distant from the picture, even relegated to third person language.

From this point in the narrative we, as readers, are able to watch the problem of envy take root. It grows as a reflection of the central human problem, our common human condition. And it spreads outwards into every relationship that follows: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau- all the way to the story of Joseph. And so the story of Joseph appears poised to face this problem head on, recognizing that rather than living in a right relationship with God and one another, envy sets us against one another- it divides, it deceives and it destroys. And it is because of this that we stand in need of something- someone in the Biblical view, who can make things right again, who is able to address the problem that our inherent human condition represents. We are in need of God’s grace.

And as my pastor once suggested, we can already see this grace taking root in the garden, in a quiet moment found in Genesis 2 that finds God “clothing” Adam and Eve even in the midst of their rejection. He does what they were not able to do on their own in the previous verses.  And we can find these same notes of grace in the story of Joseph. There is hope to be found here. We are given a way forward, a way to combat the problem. And it comes, as it did for Adam and Eve, in a way I least expect.
WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT ENVY
But before I get back to the story of Joseph, I wanted to return to the field of Social Sciences for a moment, as I think it can help shed some light on the way that the story of Joseph leads us towards a restored vision, a revolutionary idea.

In the Social Sciences, common theories recognize envy as a problem but also see the answer to the problem in the context of our Tribal Past and our biological conditioning. Where envy posed a problem to human development, we (in the context of human relationship), adapted/learned how to use envy for our benefit. For example, if as a Tribe we observed another Tribe or member hoarding food, envy, as a biological response, would enlighten us to the fact that this was to our detriment. If they have the food, we will starve. So envy became anchored as a part of our DNA which helped to ensure our survival as a Tribe, as a family, as a community.

In more modern research, the same argument is also applied to our more civilized context. As a very condensed and narrowed reflection of an otherwise nuanced and complex discussion, what I found the research to share was a motivation to redeem (or reclaim) these elements of the human condition that have too often come to be associated with sin and shame. And we should embrace them for what they are- a part of our DNA, a part of what it means to survive, to progress as a human species. A part of what it means to progress as a civilization. Envy, in other words, is something to be embraced and harnessed for the betterment of our societal structures, for the betterment of our human survival.

One leading voice put is this way.

“Evolution, far from being a source of moral content, doesn’t really give us moral imperatives at all. It gives us different people with different dispositions… and so envy is appeased only at equality.”

And so the way forward in the field of Social Sciences is to use envy, a part of our naturally bred DNA, to attain equality and fairness, two primary concerns born from the development of human consciousness that are able to enhance, strengthen and progress the betterment and the survival of human, civilized society. Marks of the a more civil way, if you will.

And yet, the more I read the more I also encountered this belief that, even in light of this awareness, we still appear to be searching for an answer to, as one author puts it, “mother natures lack of direction” when it comes to envy, a problem that our institutions- political, social, economical- cannot seem to solve, but can only redirect. And it is interesting to note that envy is the only vice to be institutionalized in such a way, something that enlightens us to these necessary and intentional efforts of redirection. Just as we see this sense of disorder settling in with the garden narrative, between humanity and the created order that we are called to steward and between the man and the woman to which they are given over to something other than the original, intended relationship, we see this same disorder still rampant in our society today.

 

And so I found in much of this available research (in my view and understanding) that, for as much as the scientific study of envy has been able to help us better understand the flow and progression of our natural human tendencies, it is our innate awareness of the human condition, grown from the development of human consciousness, that has led us to feel the need to become more civilized than our tendencies allow. In other words, we are enslaved to the ways of our own human condition, and it requires something counterintuitive to our human nature to help motivate us towards a greater reality, a better way of living “together”.

Thankfully, in the Christian story, we do find a given direction, a greater reality to live into and to embrace. A way to frame this better way of living together. And we discover this direction, this greater reality by looking outside of ourselves and towards the counterintuitive and contrasting virtue of “humility” that we see in Joseph, and that his story will ultimately remind us has been embodied and demonstrated for us in the character of God Himself.

 

Humility: It is Not in Me, It is in God.
Joseph has been made overseer of Potiphar’s house, but in staying faithful to God and not giving into envy, Joseph finds himself being thrown back into the pit, back into prison after being accused of taking advantage of Potiphar’s wife (40:20). And once again the passage informs us that from the pit, from the prison, Joseph begins to find success. As he chooses to stay faithful to God, the one whom continues to be “with Joseph” in the midst of his less than ideal circumstance, he continues to grow in the way of “steadfast love” (vs. 21). And what is this love? Joseph grows in concern and compassion for the “dreams”, both figuratively and literally, of the people that surround him in the prison, and this eventually gives him a way out of the pit and back into the court of Pharaoh, where once again it is the third set of dreams that affords him an opportunity to extend this concern and compassion not just to the people around him, but to the whole land of Egypt.

7 years of prosperity followed by 7 years of famine in the Egypt.

This is where these dreams lead us towards. And as Joseph grows in success, eventually being afforded even the status of royalty in 41:42 (and it is incredibly fascinating to see just how much Pharaoh and the land of Egypt come to admire and appreciate Joseph over the course of this story as someone who is not an Egyptian), he uses this Royal position and power to advise Pharaoh in the direction of steadfast love, the direction of humility in the face of unprecedented self driven desire. Where there was an opportunity to be concerned for their own survival, Joseph advises him to consider the plight of everyone else, the people of the land.

And this humility, this steadfast love, catches Pharaoh’s attention, enough to cause him to say in 41:38,
where do I find a man like this”
To which Joseph responds,
“It (this) is not in me, it is in God.”

Pointing Us in the Direction of Hope
There is a curious interruption to the story of Joseph that we find in chapter 38, a passage that ultimately becomes all about Joseph’s brother Judah. And it follows a rather messy sequence of events that eventually lead us towards the climatic event of this little side trip- the birth of twins. And in the picture of this birth we are presented with two brothers whom we see wrestling their way out of the womb, fighting to be the first one out- the firstborn. And in a sort of thrilling last minute twist, while they immediately wrap the first arm they see in a scarlet thread (to indicate the first born), it is the second child who ends up being the first to see the light of day.

The passage recognizes this moment as a “breach”, a break in the intended order that we first encounter in the garden. But what is really amazing about this small interruption to the story of Joseph is the way it connects us to the larger Biblical narrative moving forward. This subtle, seemingly inconsequential moment eventually paves the way for Jesus to emerge as the one to heal this breach and bring hope to the divide. Jesus becomes the focus of the “remnant” which God has raised up Joseph to help preserve (45:7), the remnant that comes up again in the book of Jeremiah and the prophets.

The firstborn son of God… the only son of God, whom scripture tells us envy, the same envy that we encountered in the garden, ends up sending to the cross. And yet, though he was in the form of God, He did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but rather emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself… (Phillipians 2)”

In humility, in less than ideal circumstances, Jesus stays faithful to the way of steadfast love, even to the point of death. It is a sort of humility that offers us a way forward out of the never-ending cycle of misery that envy in all of its false allusions and promises, tends to grow. A sort of humility that we are called to imitate in Phillipians 2 as a way of living into the greater reality for which we were intended.

And this steadfast love, this humility that we see in Joseph, caught Pharaoh’s attention. It made a difference.

 

Humility in the Ancient World
When I was reading through some commentaries on the word/idea “humility”, I found it interesting to note that, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew scripture, this word “humility” appears far more often than it does in any other Greek source, document, literature.

Which tells us that this kind of humility was revolutionary, counterintuitive.

One commentary went on to say it this way.

“Freedom for the Greeks, and for this age, means individual and equal self-will.  Whatever restricts my freedom- the undercurrents of equality- is abhorrent.  To put myself voluntarily under bondage to another is unthinkable.

In the Christian story, all is set under God. This is where we begin. And it is humility to sets us in proper relationship to God. And all of Jesus’ ministry teaches us what this looks like when it is lived out in a practical and spirit-led way.

It is not fair. It is not equal. But it is redeeming.”

And so here we finally arrive at the heart of the problem that envy inevitably represents. As all sin is, envy is the product of idolatry. When we fail to set “all” under God we give envy free reign. We desire something in the place of God. And in doing so we give space to the things of life, the things of this world to battle for our attention. But when all is set under God, envy becomes unnecessary, an inconvenience to the greater way of living, an interruption in our relationship with God.

And when “all” is set under God, it allows us to return our sights to the object of our desire, and to recognize that the true object of our hearts desire is God and God alone. We become jealous for God and God alone. And here the key. When all is set under God, everything else becomes secondary. We become secondary to the greater reality of His love and His grace.

This is the way forward, the way of steadfast love, the way of humility which, as the commentary suggests, is the place where we can begin to be repositioned back into a proper relationship with God and one another, the very thing that envy once stole back in the garden.

 

It is Not Equal, It is Not Fair, But it is Redeeming
Returning to the story of Joseph, we find that the 7 years of famine has now entered the land, and Joseph’s brothers, in desperate need of food, are forced to travel to Egypt where they find themselves bowing before Joseph just as he once said they would. Only they don’t recognize him, but Joseph recognizes them.

And after sending his brothers back home to summon his younger brother Benjamin- to make his family complete once again, here is what Joseph does. Rather than isolate them or seek revenge for their envious action towards him, which he was in a rightful place to do given his Royal position. Rather than punish them or deny them their need for nourishment, he chooses to sit them all down and feed them, nourish them. He invites them back into proper communion with one another and gives them a chance to become who they were intended to be before envy gave way to the divide, the pit, to slavery.

And yet, even this doesn’t tell the whole story, and so we also see Joseph go on to do something interesting with this whole idea of communion. As he proceeds to give all of the brothers an equal share of food, each of them lined up at the table according to the proper order of firstborn to youngest, he then turns to his youngest brother Benjamin and gives him five times as much as everyone else.

This feels unfair. It feels wrong. It feels unsettling. But the truth is it is also freeing. It is what allows us to let go of a need to control the ways of God, to demand our own ideas of fairness above the ways of God. It allows us to let go of the need to cater to the voices that conflict, threaten or challenge who we believe ourselves to be or the way we believe things should be when things feel unfair, unequal. It means we no longer have to be left to measure something up or measure something down, the very thing that equality and fairness demands. It is, by human nature, discriminate.

And here is the thing. Just as the push to focus on the one thing denied to them in the garden distorted their view of all that had been given, the focus on this passage is not about the amounts, but on the provision. When we are in Christ, what we have or do not have is no longer our concern. We don’t have to measure up or measure down because Christ measured down on our behalf. And in doing so he declared us all to be sons and daughters in the eyes of God regardless of our earthly status or earthly condition. This is what we now share. This is what makes us all equal. And this is what, as Christians, we have to offer to others. A love that comes, not out of a concern for fairness, but out of a concern for grace. A love that informs our spiritual identity as sons and daughters of God over and against our place in this world. And it is this indiscriminate grace, freely given, that frees us to give up our rights for the sake of another, something that equality and fairness do not expect of us when we make them our god. As Christ demonstrates on our behalf, rather than seeing equality as something to be exploited, we are called to imitate Jesus, and since this is what Jesus did for us, so we are called to do the same for others.

But when we are in Christ, we no longer have to measure up or measure down, because Christ measured down on our behalf. And in doing so he declared us all equal in the eyes of God, regardless of our earthly status or our earthly condition. This is what we now share, and this is what, as Christians, we have to offer to others. A love that comes, not out of a concern for fairness, but out of a concern for grace. A love that informs our spiritual identity as sons and daughters of God over and against our place in this world. And it is this indiscriminate grace, freely given, that frees us up to measure down, not because we must, but because  in order to raise another up towards their given spiritual identity, something that equality and fairness do not leave room for when we make them our god. As Christ demonstrates on our behalf, rather than seeing equality as something to be exploited, we are called to imitate Jesus, and this is what Jesus did for us, so we are called to do this for others.

 

CONCLUSION
There is a point in the story (50:20/21) where Joseph’s brothers begin to wonder why Joseph does not retaliate, why he does not want revenge, why he does not want to even the score. And they fear Joseph. This is what envy does, it makes us fear one another rather than being able to embrace or serve one another. And it then learns to hate rather than love. And it is in the midst of this fear that Joseph’s response brings us to a final realization, a final way forward out of the cycle of envy.


What “you meant for evil… God meant it for good”.
“So do not fear, for I am in the place of God.”
“So do not fear, I will provide…”
50:19-21

 

  1. Do not fear
    Stop jealousy in its tracks. Do not give unnecessary power to the voices of this world that distort our perceptions of who we are and the way we believe things should be. If you are someone who feels the burden of these voices, who feels trapped by feelings of fear, anger, desperation in a world that is far from equal, far from fair. If you are someone who has had someone in your life measure you down. If you are someone who is desperate to measure up. If you are someone who has measured someone down. The words you need to hear from this story are “do not fear”. In Christ, set under God, these voices no longer have the power to define us. In Christ, we are all sons and daughters of one God, just as Joseph’s brother were all sons of one father (42:32). This is what we share. And while envy tries to divide us and set us against those in which we share the most, the good news is we have one who is in the process of healing this divide, of restoring us to our greater purpose.

 

  1. So Trust (I will provide)
    Trust that God is doing good even when things look and feel messy, unfair, unequal. Trust that God will provide for our needs even when we feel we deserve more than we have. Trust that God is in the process of meeting us where we are at, lifting us up in the midst of the lot that we have been given, and reminding us of what really matters, of the love that we already have. And learn to allow this trust to let go of the demands that envy makes. Let go of these notions of leveling the playing field, of getting what we believe we deserve. Let go of the hate that resents others for having more than we believe they deserve. Let go of the need to rally against the unfairness and inequality that life seems to bear. And instead, embrace the kind of steadfast love that Joseph embodied, the kind of grace filled humility that Jesus demonstrated on our behalf. Embrace the spirit that allows us to forgive those who have measured us down, not because it is fair but because it is godly. And seek forgiveness for the role we play in leveling others down in our lack of godly vision. Embrace the spirit that of freedom that calls us to give up our rights for the sake of another, the spirit that calls us to find our joy in seeing others given more than we think they deserve in our limited and distorted perceptions- more grace, more love, more of all that God has also afforded us in our own weakness, in our own human condition.
  2. And finally, be in the place of God
    The way Joseph was able to live in the sort of steadfast love that his story models, was by “being in the place of God. This certainly speaks to the worth of spiritual discipline- prayer, devotion, meditation, spiritual community, worship. But it also speaks to something more- of living into the “way” of God. It speaks to a movement. An invitation to break out of the sin of sloth that holds us back from living into the greater reality that awaits us.And as we near the end of Joseph’s story, we find him making the curious demand not to be buried beside his fathers Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham. Instead, he instructs them to take his ashes “wherever God leads them”. And as we read through the story of Exodus, the Israelites eventually take Joseph’s ashes with them out of Egypt, and eventually bury him at a place called Shechem, the same place that Abraham met God when God called Abraham to “go”. The same place that seems to come up again and again on this journey towards Jesus.

 

Shechem
And so we find in this word “Shechem” this idea of a movement, a movement that looks to break us out of the static and stagnant spirituality that these sins tend to create and foster. And instead, it pushes us to follow God to wherever He chooses to lead us. The root word of “Shechem” comes from the word “shoulder”, which carries this idea of putting the weight of our journey on the shoulders of our donkey, our beast, and to set off in the early dawn towards what lies ahead. And this is the call that we find in these final chapters being offered to the sons of Israel, whom eventually become the 12 Tribes of Israel. As Jacob blesses them (ch. 49) they are not made equal, but rather the blessings call them according to where God places them. The blessings call them according to the strengths and weaknesses that God sees in them and the circumstances of life that place them under God. This is where God meets them, shapes them, and yes, corrects them. This is where God begins to build His witness to the world of a greater reality, a greater way of living.

So no matter where this life finds us, no matter what we feel we have and do not have, when we have Christ, we have the only thing that truly matters- his love, his acceptance, his call to love and to serve others out of the same steadfast love that he offered to us in submission to the Way of the Cross. May we learn to do this and to be found as righteous in the eyes of the world as Joseph was to the eyes of Pharaoh. For this is where the world sees God, through the witness of His continual work in us. This is where the world is afforded a greater reality, a way forward, is through this sort of willing and spirit led humility that works to stand against the power of envy in this world and in our lives. So may that be our prayer, may that become our conviction. And through this same spirit may God increasingly become the object of our desire.

 

Sources

Slaying the Green-Eyed Monster of Envy

The Cure For Envy

The Call by OS Guinness

Sapien: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Ways of Understanding Envy by Jefferson M. Fish

Hara Marano (on fear and Jealousy for Psychology Today)

Envy by Helmut Schoeck

Jealousy and Envy: New Views about Two Powerful Feelings by Léon Wurmser, Heidrun Jarass, Taylor & Francis

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and our Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

https://www.aei.org/publication/the-origins-of-envy/

http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/08/hard-wired_envy.html

http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.ca/2013/07/in-humility-hold-others-above-yourself.html

http://www.preceptaustin.org/philippians_23-4

Genesis: A commentary by Bruce K. Waltke

Genesis by Derek Kidner

Humilitas by John Dickson

Humility: True Greatness by C.J. Mahaney

Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament by Sandra L. Richter

Equal is Unfair: America’s Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality

The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton

 

The Wonder of Women in Film- A New Hero For a New Age

WW3The buzz surrounding the success of the Wonder Woman at the box office this past weekend does not seem like it will be fading out anytime soon. And I think this is a very good thing. The actual numbers are relatively modest (or should I say, a more average size) when compared to other films in the Marvel/D.C. universe (in the D.C.U alone, Man of Steel earned 116 M, Suicide Squad earned 133 M, and Batman V Superman earned 166 M), but, as many have rightly pointed out, it is what Wonder Woman is doing for women in film (and in the world at large) that has sparked so much great and welcome conversation over the last few weeks.

So why is Wonder Woman’s success so important? Perhaps the biggest news surrounding its release is the film set a record for the highest-grossing opening weekend for a female director in Hollywood’s History. Given Hollywood’s very recognizable and publicized “old boys club” lack of demure, this record is far more monumental than it might first appear. It was as recent as 2015 that the EEOC filed a lawsuit against the movie industry (at large) for discriminating against females in the industry when it comes to wages and, more importantly, opportunity. But the truth is, Hollywood’s lack of female representation has not gotten much better since then. The rate of female involvement in areas of film, other than makeup and costume, appears to be trending downwards, and concerns over the disparity in wages continue to make headlines. What’s more, in data released last year it appeared there were actually fewer women working in Hollywood in 2016 than there were in 1998.

You can read a more recent update on the lawsuit here: http://deadline.com/2017/02/hollywood-studios-female-directors-eeoc-investigation-1201912590/

So why is this? According to the following study, one possible answer to this question is actually rather simple:
http://annenberg.usc.edu/pages/~/media/MDSCI/MDSC%20LUNAFEST%20Report%2010515.ashx

A Cyclical Problem
This study points out that the disparity in Hollywood is a cyclical problem. In short, old habits that refuse to die the hard way tend to give way to more of the same over longer periods of time. And the sad truth is the film industry is far too competitive to see any sort of wholesale change in the near future.

“There are unique pressures on the hiring structure of a film production. It’s a freelance industry, done on a project by project basis, unmonitored by any sort of HR policy. For an industry one thinks of as progressive and forward looking, it’s surprisingly risk averse. The hiring pattern tends to be one of hiring people like the ones who have gone before and those people are overwhelmingly men.”

Thus, the lack of women in the industry leads to even less demand and less opportunity and less female representation, and so the cycle continues to perpetuate itself in a downward spiral. And the more prominent a title or franchise or film is, the worse it seems to get for women in Hollywood:

“For males opportunities grow, while for females, they vanish. And it gets progressively steeper as they transition from short films to features and from lower to higher budgets.”

Perhaps one of the great tragedies of this reality- and there are many, is that more and more woman in Hollywood find themselves being forced to find work elsewhere, which usually leads them to the foreign markets. What is clear is that these markets end up the better for it, demonstrating strength in their diversity, while the North American film industry ends up bearing the burden of their absence. And given just how visible Hollywood is in the world at large, this is something that desperately needs to change.

Moving Towards a Solution
So what is the solution? According to the article, the solution is also rather simple- getting more women into the director’s chair means more opportunity for women in other positions. But even simple can be easier said than done, which leads me back to the significance of Wonder Woman’s success at the box office this past week.

Yes, the early months of 2017 saw the release of some more modest female directed films, including the critically acclaimed and emotionally charged A United Kingdom, and the underrated The Zoo Keepers Wife (which it so happens boasts a female director with a female lead in a story that is based on a book written by a woman and from a woman’s perspective). But most betting (or hopeful) hands have had their sights set on Wonder Woman for some time now. In what has become one of the more lucrative and dependable genres outside of the full-length animated feature, Patty Jenkins was handed an opportunity to truly change the game in an area that is typically dominated by supersized versions of masculinity (both on screen and behind the scenes). What made this order even taller was the divisive nature of the more recent D.C. films. Despite solid numbers, the D.C.U. has found itself in something of a slump (at least on the big screen), and WB has been intently looking at ways to right the ship both behind the scenes and on the frontlines. All this to say that Patty Jenkins had an incredible uphill battle to climb in many respects, perhaps even at one time appearing to have more to lose than she had to gain.

 

Harnessing The Power of Film
If you are someone who thinks that all of this sounds a bit melodramatic- it is only Hollywood after all- consider this. There is very little, at least on the cultural front, that can claim the kind of reach that a Hollywood film can garner. And whether we recognize it or not, movies, as one of the few cultural touchstones that can still pull us together around a shared experience, do play a significant role in shaping how we converse about different socio-political and religious issues. Film, as all good art should and does, is intended to mirror our world back to ourselves and then say something about it. And so when a film like Wonder Woman ends up defying expectations, this causes the world to sit up and take notice. It also encourages others to become willing participants in the conversation as well.

 

Further to this point, the fact that Wonder Woman has garnered both critical praises (it is currently sitting at an even critic/fan split of 93% on RT for goodness sakes, which I believe is the highest rating for any superhero film to date) and some record breaking numbers should indicate that many people, myself included, seem to be in agreement about the things this film is encouraging us to talk about. And I would think that gives us good reason to celebrate. Not only that, but Patty Jenkins, by nature of her name being attached to this film, has breathed new life into not just a franchise, but also the studio’s faith in this franchise. It should come as no surprise that conversation is already reported to be happening between Jenkins and the studio over a possible sequel, a studio which dragged their feet in getting a deal done pre-release. This now puts Jenkins in an even better position, as she seems to have gained all the leverage. There are very few circumstances that one could imagine in which Jenkins is not back in the director’s chair for the sequel, which means not only can she negotiate for a fair wage, but she can also ask for an even greater creative license and a list of demands. In short, she has garnered the power to begin to reshape WB’s most-watched and most important franchise, and this fact should not be understated.

wonderwoman2.0

 A New Kind of Hero For the Rest of Us
But here is what is so great about all this. Wonder Woman’s strong and recognizable presence on the big screen means girls (and grown women of course) now have someone to look up to, someone who looks and feels the same as them who can mirror their world’s back to them in a meaningful way. This is why we are seeing so many stories of critics and fans being moved to tears in the early screenings. Stories of little girls having a chance to experience the thrill of seeing their hero brought to life on screen. Stories of Mothers and Fathers being humbled by the ways in which a simple film was able to empower their child in ways they did not expect it could.

And the reach of this film doesn’t stop with the DCU. Kathryn Bigalow, a fellow female director who shook things up in her own right with the award winning Hurt Locker and the recently nominated Zero Dark Thirty, will also reap the reward of a more generous light being afforded to women in Hollywood over the next couple months. Her newest project, Detroit, is set to release later this summer, and it should further prove that, as an intelligent, proven and confident female entity in Hollywood, voices like hers deserve equal chance to be heard.

Nothing speaks louder in Hollywood these days than money, and if the solution is to get more women into the director’s chair, I think Jenkins has proved to Hollywood that women can indeed be bankable. People want to see women led and women directed films.


Making Sense of My Complicated Relationship With Feminism

 “I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy.”
-Roxane Gay

At this point, I would think it should be clear that Wonder Woman is a film with certain feminist aspirations. To which I would say this. I am someone who has a complicated relationship with feminism. I see it as important, but I also struggle with some portions of feminist thought. I find that it can sometimes get lost in its own ideology. That and, if I am being fully honest, my own experience with feminism has not always been entirely positive.

For me, I am more comfortable with the term “egalitarian”, which is the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.

But, while Wonder Woman is definitely interested in exploring some strong feminist undertones (as it should be), it does so with a degree of grace not normally found in a Hollywood film. And I think Patty Jenkins has helped me to make some sense of why I have a complicated relationship with feminism as a movement.

Similar to the way Roxane Gay puts it in her book Bad Feminist, Wonder Women recognizes that good feminism is not about forming a single, right ideology at the expense of all others. Rather, it is about uniting us, regardless of gender, around a common story, one in which all of us are created equal, one in which we all bring our own messiness into the picture as a means of co-existing together on equal ground. And it is when I can begin to accept my own mess, my own flaws, my own limitations as something beautiful, that I can begin to embrace what it means to lift up others up in the midst of their own beautiful mess. Messiness breeds diversity, and, as we find in the lesson of Hollywood, diversity breeds strength, not weakness. It pushes us away from the need for power and for dominance, and towards the art of hearing and seeing each other as we are and for who we are.

Popular theologian Leslie Newbagen describes it this way:

“I think we have to dig beneath the slogans and the mantras, and talk about human reality on the ground. And so, for an example, we shouldn’t be talking ideologically (whether it be women’s rights, slavery, etc.), what we should be talking about is what would it be like to walk in another’s shoes. That is, we have to bring the discussion down to the level of human pain, human suffering and human reality, because what we are dealing with are real people and not slogans. It is an imagination of empathy… I think it is imagination that imagines from me out to the other. That is, that I ought to start with my pain and my fear and my worry, and say who else might have some of those fears and pains and worries, and what kind of resources might I have, and what does the Gospel ask of me.”
– Leslie Newbagen

“I ought to start with my pain and my fear and my worry, and say who else might have some of those fears and pains and worries…” I think this gets at the root of my struggle with feminism. To me, each of us is called to respond to the stories of the oppressed, and feminism has done much to free women of the kind of oppression we get glimpses of in Wonder Womane. But, far too often I find that feminist literature doesn’t push quite far enough when it comes to the discussion of what it means to truly be free. For many authors and activists that I have encountered, it is the “right” to be free, the “right” to choose, the “right” to do and be what I want- the values of individualism, which is worth pointing out are foundational to Greek philosophy, that represent the highest virtue. And this individualism has led some forms of feminism (not all) to discriminate rather than include, to be more single-minded than diverse.

But, for as important as these rights are, a true freedom I think is found in something even greater- in living the sacrificial life. True freedom is not found not in my right to be and do what I want, but rather in the opportunity we are given to submit our rights for the sake of the oppressed. This, I believe, is an even higher virtue.

Redeeming Submission For the Sake of the Oppressed
To me, it is this idea of submission that needs to be reclaimed and redeemed, not in the sense of submission to oppression, but the submission of my rights for the sake of another, for the sake “of” the oppressed. And it is this form of submission, the kind that pushes us towards sacrificial living, that Jenkins has written into the story of Wonder Woman.

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Wonder Woman is both unapologetically feminine and undeniably strong. But as she grows up she begins to learn that power and dominance do not equal strength or true feminity. As a reviewer from the reelworldtheology website points out, we see this demonstrated in the film through the image of the sword. In mythology, as it was throughout the ancient world, the sword is a definite masculine symbol. It kills and dominates by penetration. It demonstrates one’s power over another. It is built on violence. And there is intention and significance given to the choice to show Wonder Woman in a position of “protecting and defending” through her shield and her rope. These are feminine symbols in the ancient world. And this symbol becomes vital to the revelation that the weapon intended to fight evil was never the sword, but Wonder Woman herself. And so, as she moves from the world of the gods into the early century of our human existence (the story takes place during World War 1), she begins to embrace what it means to exchange her (god-given) power for a greater virtue, not by the sword, but by compassion and service .

Encountering this world dominated by men also forces Wonder Woman to make sense of the world’s diversity, to begin to consider her feminity against the symbols of masculine force. And this begins to reshape her understanding of good and evil. What is perhaps most interesting about Wonder Woman is the way Jenkins manages to deal with this whole “god among men” narrative.

Jenkins tells a story of an all-female world of good “gods” who have been charged with defending the good in their world against the possibility of evil, which is personified in a fallen god intent on showing the gods the evils of humanity. Diana enters into a world dominated by this evil in order to conquer, once and for all, the devil that holds it hostage. But in the midst of a world dominated by power hungry men, her faith in humanities goodness begins to be challenged.

Jenkins could have used the social contrast of this era to emphasize Diana’s mission to “fix” the evils of man through a demonstration of her goodness and power as a woman. Instead, though, she chooses to turn this commentary inward on itself. As Diana enters into this world full of evil, she offers us a picture of a powerful god who becomes broken over the state of our earthly condition. Man, after all, is capable of committing acts of great evil. And this causes her to confront the idea that the devil she faces is not a fallen God, but the failure of mankind.

As the film goes on, two things happen. By entering into the story of mankind, she is able to see not only the mess but the potential for beauty. At the same time, the term “man” becomes increasingly fluid and ambiguous the deeper into their story she gets, leading us towards a final act that opens the term up to embrace the goodness of all hu”man” kind. In the world that she comes to discover, all of us are equal in the eyes of the gods, all of us in need of the same grace and mercy. The idea of her sacrificing her rights as a god for the sake of the goodness of the human race is then mirrored in Steve’s own act of sacrifice, leading us to an emotional picture of a love that is able to “conquer all”.

 

A Wonder Woman For a New Age
I am not the film’s core audience, and this might actually be what I appreciate the most about Wonder Woman. I can remember rather vividly the thrill of seeing Spiderman on the big screen, of seeing my own world mirrored back to me in a way that made sense, of being empowered to embrace a more nuanced sense of my masculinity that made sense to me. Walking out of the theater I remember feeling like I had the power to swing from the buildings and fly through the sky. That Wonder Woman could possibly offer this same experience to a world of younger girls makes me emotional. As this film’s core audience, Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot have given them a hero who is able to mirror their own world back to them in a way that makes sense.

To return to Roxane Gay, she says it this way:

“I learned a long time ago that life introduces young people to situations they are in no way prepared for, even good girls, lucky girls who want for nothing. Sometimes, when you least expect it, you become the girl in the woods. You lose your name because another one is forced on you. You think you are alone until you find books about girls like you. Salvation is certainly among the reasons I read. Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.” 

 

Wonder Woman has allowed a once neglected segment of our world to imagine their different endings, to imagine better possible worlds. And she does so by embodying the virtues of compassion, grace, and sacrifice. She does so by modeling what it looks like to give up her rights for the sake of another. That is where she gains her strength, her power, and that is where millions of women, young and old, can gain their power as well.

Now, if you haven’t had a chance to see Wonder Woman, go and see it. It is a film that recaptures some of the joy and wonder of the comic book movie. It takes a grand mythology and weaves it into an intimate and accessible narrative, and gives a platform to Gal Gadot to do something rather exceptional with the character. But, most importantly, the film deserves our attention. Jenkins deserves our support as she looks to give more opportunity to women directors, something that I believe, makes all of us stronger and better people.

A Few Other Films To Note
And while you are at it, here is a quick list of some other female directed films that you support as well (just for reference, there are 66 films slated for release in 2017 that were directed by women):

A United Kingdom

Their Finest

The Zoo Keepers Wife

Unforgettable

The Beguiled

Before I Fall

Pitch Perfect 3

Snatched

Megan Leavey

Detriot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aliens, Covenant and the search for our Creator

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*SPOILER ALERT FOR PROMETHEUS AND ALIEN- THIS BLOG CONTAINS SPOILERS

Ever since news broke on plans for Alien: Covenant, the second film in Ridley Scott’s proposed Alien (prequels) trilogy, I have been fascinated to see how he would handle the polarizing response to Prometheus. Prometheus deviated from the original Alien franchise, managing to be more philosophical in nature while Alien was much more, well, alien. Those who did not enjoy Prometheus felt it wasn’t “alien” enough, while those who did enjoy it tended to appreciate what the intentional departure added to the lore.
The complaints appear to have been taken to heart in Alien: Covenant, this in spite of Prometheus’ success at the box office. Ridley, or some higher powers, made the decision to move Covenant back into its more classic context, which of course means more aliens. At the same time though, Ridley keeps the film firmly in the Prometheus stream, which means more of the philosophical bent as well.

 

The danger of this approach of course is that you end up alienating both camps by stretching either vision too thin. At the time of writing this, entertainment news has been reporting that Covenant experienced a nearly 70 percent drop in box office revenue during its second week, which could be an indication that this is the case.  With its opening week numbers falling far below expectations, it is clear that interest in seeing this film on the big screen is low.

 

Personally I am bit puzzled over why more people did not go see Alien: Covenant. It is a good film that left me wanting more. And if you track the numbers, the consensus of both fans and critics remains essentially unchanged between Prometheus and Covenant, a clear indication that how you felt about Prometheus could very well determine how you feel about Covenant. For as much as the films represent two different visions of the franchise they are very much connected, with Ridley borrowing heavily from the Prometheus lore to lend direction to the more classical narrative of Covenant.

With all that said, in moving into a more detailed look at Covenant, it seemed a worthwhile process to look at both films together :

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PROMETHEUS

Prometheus sets out to tell the story of how the aliens in Alien came to be, a backstory that revolves around a crew and the search for their creator. In telling this story it explores a number of motivating questions that arises from this journey, with the two most important questions being,

Why are we here?
Who created us?

The search for life and for their creator is set in the context of the individual stories, namely Elizabeth Shaw (played by Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (played by Logan Marshall-Green).prometheus_movie_holloway_and_shaw

Through their stories, we come to know the competing struggle with the vices of our world (power, money, comfort, pleasure) that push back against their search for the creator. And what binds Shaw and Holloway together on this journey of discovery is the way these personal struggles shed a light on the existing tension between faith and doubt. The way the film incorporates the imagery of the cross in order to show the contrast between idolatry and self-sacrifice is beautiful and meaningful, and in being willing to give himself over to the more introspective process (as opposed to the greater horror roots), Ridley excels in exploring who these characters are and why they ask the questions that they do. It reminded me as a viewer that the search for God, creator, meaning can get messy, especially when set against the reality of our everyday lives.

A HUMAN LONGING
At the intersection of science and faith, which this film looks to hold in balance, we find a clear human longing- a need to know the truth about who we are and why we are here. It is this desire for truth that drives them to seek after their creator, to find answers.
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The way that Ridley explores this longing is equally compelling. In coming to know their creator, they realize the opportunity for discovery suddenly becomes that much bigger. Where they expected to find clarity and certainty, they find an even greater mystery. There is a sense in which they have come as far they can on their own and now must learn what it means to give themselves over to something greater, something other. It is their ability to give themselves to the forming nature of this mystery, to let go of the need to control, that ultimately shapes how they move forward in this relationship between faith and doubt.

 Caught Between Hope and Despair
In one of my favorite moments in the film, we see Charlie resisting the idea of giving up control. He his eyes he has found a god of his own making, a god that he could, in fact, create without the help of a higher power, and it leads him to dispel any notion of faith.

 “Now that I know that anyone can create life and it’s nothing special, what’s the point?”

For him he has arrived. He has seen the truth. There is no more mystery to gain, and he feels underwhelmed by what he has seen. He remains caught between the virtues of knowledge, progress, and rationalism, and this stifling realization of their limitations. And what we see growing in Charlie is a sense of defeat.

 

Shaw, by contrast, continues to move forward in faith. Meeting her creator pushes her to embrace an even greater mystery. In recognizing her own struggle, she is able to accept her limitations, which come through the story of her infertility, and consider what it means to give herself over to something other, something greater.

 “I can’t create life, so what does that make me”

Shaw approaches her creator with no expectation, but rather in genuine curiosity, and what she finds is a whole new world (of faith) that is now hers to explore.

 

In Prometheus, Ridley Scott scratches the surface of a larger discussion surrounding the relationship between creator and creation. He begs the following questions. Do we tend to create God in our own image, or do we look to find ourselves in the image of God? Where do we draw the line between creator and creation? Do we find God in human achievement? Or do we find God in the midst of our limitations? Does creation appeal to progress and perfection, or do its beauty and imperfections reveal something about the mystery of God? Does knowing God depend on certainty and clarity, or does it gain life in the idea of mystery and discovery.

Competing Emotions
I know that in my household these questions generated some very real and polarizing emotions, which led to some really great discussion. On one hand, some of us resonated with the fear and the despair that we found in Charlie. This is demonstrated primarily as the fear of the unknown, of being out of control and getting lost in the discovery. It is also the fear of deconstruction. The image that he finds of the creator is not the same image that he held in his own mind. For Charlie, what he finds in the creator lets down his expectations because his expectations were shaped around worldly ambition, and what he finds forces him to examine his own worldview. I think for many of us this same feeling can sometimes resonate with the ways in which we try to reconcile our own image of God with the picture of our own ambitions and what we actually see going on around us. If creation is intended to be a witness to God’s character, sometimes it is the more difficult parts of nature (and human nature) that make the idea of God the most difficult to reconcile.

If creation is intended to witness to God’s character, sometimes it is experiencing the more difficult parts of nature (and human nature) that make the idea of God most difficult to reconcile and accept.

 

On the other hand, some of us saw this story as a clear demonstration of hope and faith. Faith in the idea that we can know our Creator and that through our creator we can come to understand ourselves. Hope in the idea that we must wrestle with and grow into this understanding day by day, moment by moment, and that it is in this wrestling that we can see and embrace, not only the more difficult parts of our (human) nature, but also the beauty underneath. In faith, we can learn to give ourselves to the journey, to unraveling the mystery of who we are and who God is (if you will) even when things feel far from certain. And in those moments when we do encounter our creator, we can revel in the fact that the mystery becomes that much greater, that much more alive. In the wonder of living and the joy of discovery, we are given the opportunity to live into our role in creation in a way that holds us all together as broken and fragile beings.

Human and Inhumane
Finally, framed against this relationship between Shaw and Charlie, we also find the character of David (played by Michael Fassbender). As an android, he embodies the question of what it means to be human while also demonstrating what it means to be inhumane. He is the one who walks both paths, balancing the tension between hope and despair without the ability to truly understand either. It is through the character of David that the questions of Prometheus linger in the midst of its poetic finish. As we see the picture of his severed head, I also see the tension between reason and faith, hope and despair. There are no real answers in this picture, only struggle.

Which brings me to the opening scene of Alien: Covenant, a beautiful and poignant moment that leads us back to the same philosophical question that ends the closing scene of Prometheus, even it looks to turn our perspective of that story on its head.

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Alien Covenant
Alien: Covenant is technically proficient, not as large in scale as Prometheus, but a more grounded, tighter and more intimate treatment of the universal metaphor of space and planet and scope (with the planetary landscape being especially striking). The aliens move faster, and the threat feels even more real, and the filmmakers make use of the light of day rather than the dark (that we find in the original Alien) to give us a different perspective on the aliens.images

But, the thing that drives the film forward from its opening sequence are the familiar and lingering questions that Scott seems determined to flesh out in this trilogy.

 

The film is set 10 years after Prometheus, with a ship full of thousands of people and embryo’s ready to colonize a new planet. This makes the choice to open the film with a scene that predates Prometheus an interesting one. The scene features a conversation between David and Peter (featuring a brief return of Guy Pierce), and through some intricate use of spaciousness, resonating white and stark minimalism, Scott uses this scene to re-establish the question of the relationship between creator and creation going forward. But what makes this scene even more compelling is the way it asks us to reconsider our perspective of Prometheus in a significant way- what if we saw Prometheus as the story of David? How does that change our approach to the film?
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As the scene opens, we see David questioning the sheer absurdity of the idea that his creator will die while he will continue to live forever. For David, this relationship between creator and creation appears backward. The god is supposed to be greater than the creation, and it is by proving to Peter that he is able to create (through a composition he plays on the piano) that he proves his right to be a god, to usurp the control of his lesser creator. Peter does not answer his question directly, but instead we see him order David to make him to make him a cup of tea.

It is a brilliant on-screen moment that captures the heart of Prometheus’ philosophical concern for this relationship between creator and creation, and it really works to recast what was happening to David’s character in the course of Prometheus. He is looking to become God. Whereas Prometheus explored the human longing to know our creator, Covenant sets this more concretely in the complex nature of our relationship to the creator, and our tendency to be our own gods and to control our own destiny. For Scott, this is where idolatry and the thirst for power are born out of.

From here, Ridley Scott catapults us forward ten plus years into the future. Here we meet Walter, a more advanced Android (also played by Fassbender) who keeps watching over the ship while the crew sleeps, Oram, the ships standing captain after the untimely death of James Franco in the opening minutes of the film, and Daniels (second in command). What is interesting about Oram and Daniels is the way they tend to mirror Shaw and Charlie in Prometheus. In Prometheus, Shaw plays a person of faith (a Christian). Here it is a male character (Oram) who plays a person of faith (also a Christian). Given the death of Shaw, he follows in her footsteps and recognizes himself as the only person of faith left on the crew. And throughout Covenant we see Scott using their relationship to conjure up the same tension between faith and doubt that we found in his previous film.

 

The habitable planet that the crew happens upon (no, don’t go there… oh crap, they are going there) after the ship malfunctions and wakes them up 7 years too early, (hello Passengers) is actually the engineer’s planet that they had been searching for in Prometheus. After landing on this planet and deciding that it actually is habitable, the film begins to fill us in what has happened over the course of the last 10 years. As it turns out, David survived (after Shaw chose to repair him), and made this planet his new home. We also come to realize that in the last 10 years, David has grown into the role of a god, not only in wiping out the engineers (and Shaw) in favor of starting over with a more “perfect” created order made by his hand, but also in using some creative experiments to perfect his own creation (which just happens to cover the planet with the seeds of the aliens). David has assumed the role the creator that appears caught between malevolence of his destruction and the wonder of his ingenuity, and it is this version of David that the crew happens upon after landing on and searching this new planet.

 

What unfolds over the remainder of the film really flows out of two perspectives:
The relationship that develops between David and Walter
The relationship between Daniels and Oram.

 

These two perspectives then give shape to the larger questions of the film, which I will use the rest of this blog to explore:

  1. The idea of Covenant as symbolic and religious imagery
  2. The relationship between faith and doubt
  3. The human desire to become like God
  4. Our visions of what we think god should like

 

Covenantal Themes
The idea of “covenant” is woven into the film in some interesting ways. The most obvious symbolism is found on the “mother” ship and the fact that the people on board this ship all seem to be couples and paired off. Not only does this make for some interesting interpersonal dynamics, but it looks back to the idea of the covenant with Noah in the Biblical narrative. We see this fleshed out further in the image of David destroying the engineers in order to start over with a new creation, an image that suggests an idea of a God gone wrong.

Along with this we also see echoes of the covenant with Abraham, given that the ship contains human embryo’s that represent the hope and promise of this new community, becoming the “father” (and mother) to all future nations.

I have no idea if Ridley Scott wanted to use the idea of covenant with such intention, or how far he wanted the title to reach in the film, but it seems central enough to warrant reflection, especially considering the journey Scott has been on in recent years (with the loss of his brother to suicide and some subsequent films that also explore the idea of faith through religious symbolism). In any case, the picture of a ship called “covenant” certainly does enlighten us to the desire to explore the relationship between faith and doubt from some clear Christian symbolism, and for me, I found an invitation to consider what it means for my journey as well.

 

The Relationship Between Faith and Doubt
In the film, Oram is a man of faith while Daniels remains far more skeptical. While Daniels pushes Oram not to move blindly, Oram inspires Daniels not to give up hope in the face of adversity and wrong decisions. He models for her what it looks like not to give into the bleakness of their situation, to face the devil, as he at one point recalls, and to still manage to see the light.

 

And this is really where I find Covenant resonates the strongest. As someone who has seen the Alien films that chronologically follow this planned trilogy by Ridley Scott, I know the more nihilistic tone that will eventually win over in the original film of the franchise. And so the tension that Covenant tries to evoke between hope and despair arrives somewhat conflicted and intentionally oblique, almost to the point that we know where the twist of the film is going far before we arrive.

 

 

The Desire To Be Like God
If Walter looks to serve his creator(s), David looks to exercise the strength of his free will. He will not be controlled by his Creator, he will become God himself precisely because he has the will to achieve it. Echoing the story of Adam and Eve, he makes the choice to bite the figurative apple, a decision that opens him up to his godlike potential.

images-3It becomes clear early on that David will manage to survive this film. But it is the way that Scott explores the emotional journey that brings him there that makes it worthwhile, particularly in the scenes between David and Walter which manage to be the best parts of the film. This is where the opening scene recalls his growing concern for the relationship between creator and creation. In a striking contrast to Shaw, who looked to demonstrate the worth of servitude and faith, David finds his value and worth in his ability to create and to dominate. This is what allows him to stand above the others, and to reach for god-like perfection.

There is a moment in the film when where we come to recognize what it really meant for Shaw to find her worth in her creator. Walter is more advanced, a more perfected version of David, but for as outdated as David is, his free will has allowed him to progress beyond the programmed nature of Walter. Walter is able to imitate his Creator, but David has the potential to become the creator. We see this in a beautifully rendered scene in which David teaches Walter to play his personal composition on the flute. Walter can follow David’s movements and then replicate what he has been taught, but it is David’s ability to play by his own rules and ingenuity that ultimately bests Walter in the end.

But through this interpersonal struggle, we also gain glimpses of David’s limitations. In his pursuit to become god and godlike, Walter points out that he misapplies a quote to the wrong person. Walter recognizes that one small glitch or mistake can end up leading towards something horrible, something tragic- something not godlike at all. And the real horror comes when we realize the ways in which David violates the trust of others. This is a theme that reemerges in the hyper-sexualization that we find in the original Alien. Much of the sexualized imagery in that film is intended to feel like rape, a violation of spirit and body. This is the true darkness that we see creeping up in this prequel, and it is a testament to where misguided representations of god and religious conviction can lead us when we begin to create god in our own image… when we begin to think that we can become god.

 

Creating Gods In Our Own Image
One of the big themes in Prometheus is the idea that, in our search for a creator (or God), many of us tend to create an image of what we feel this God should look like far before we experience Him. And often these images are expressions of our self interest and demands. I know I do this in my own life. And when God doesn’t cater to my expectations, I feel let down, misguided or angry. In Covenant, David imagines a picture of god that is based on dominance and control rather than love and servitude. And as he becomes God, he values his creation, but not to the point where he would willingly give his life for it. His immortality is a sign of his god-like character, and in this immortality, he will rule the universe rather than endow it with value.

In David, Scott offers us a picture of the kind of gods we tend to create in our idolatry, gods that serve our needs at the expense of others. For Scott he sees a picture of human nature. But he also sees the possibility of a god that calls us to something greater.

 

A Creator We Can Emulate
It is human nature to strive after our potential, but as we do this we also live out of our limitations, our fallibility. One small glitch or mistake can often hinder us from living into the greater virtues that Walter embodies. This is why we search for a creator to emulate, something to hang on to when our world and humanity tips out of balance. A faith that can withstand the stuff that life throws at us on a daily basis. Alien Covenant leaves this question of faith unanswered, just as Prometheus leaves the picture of this creator/creation relationship lingering in the silence. But what it does offer us is a rather vivid picture of how easily things do tip out of balance. It reminds us of just how hard it is to give up control when we so desperately strive to stay in control.
I have an admission. Many people hated Alien: Resurrection. It is actually one of my favorites of the franchise, precisely because it is the one film in the series that kind of reflects the kind of hope that Covenant holds in balance. But for the moment, what Covenant does well is kind of give us the freedom to wrestle with the darkness that we know is coming, because often the darkness is just as real, and sometimes even more so, than the light. This is what the title reminds us of, that in the Biblical story God’s promise to restore us, to lead us out of exile and into freedom, arrives in the middle of a desert, in the middle of an uncertain faith. And yet the promise is what keeps us moving forward, pushing ahead to the hope of a new world, a world in which darkness might one day cease to reign and where the light shines brighter than the aliens that hold us back. Form this is a promise of resurrection, not in the way of David, but in the way of Jesus. It is a promise of a god who models self-sacrificing love on our behalf, rather than bend us to His rule. It is a God who sees us in our fallenness rather than revels in our weakness.

But in the meantime… at least we can be thankful those aliens aren’t bursting out of our chest.

 

 

Learning How to Pray: Reflections on Jesus, Thor and the Lord’s Prayer

Around 6 years ago I was given an opportunity to step into a temporary role as Youth Pastor to a small town Church in Saskatchewan (due to a maternity leave). During the 10 months that I spent with this Church I had the opportunity to make many great memories, including a commitment to a 3 and a half hour commute and the privilege of meeting and serving an incredible group of students. But one of the more interesting moments of this brief tenure arrived when the Pastor informed me he had decided to go on a sabbatical. This meant that I was now taking up the role of small “p” pastor to the Church as a whole in his absence.

Of course a part of this position was doing the sermons on Sunday mornings.

Going into this job also came at a time of serious transition for my wife and I, which included a period of loss (in the family and in my previous place of employment), the news of our infertility, and the prospect of doing the whole long distance relationship thing for ten months. For me personally, this job turned all of this into an opportunity to reflect on my profession and to rediscover my passion.

 

And it was in middle of all this that I ended up making the decision to devote my sermons to the subject of prayer, a subject that I find I return to often in times of transition. For the series I narrowed in on the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 11 (The Lord’s Prayer), and what I discovered in my personal study was that, more than any other Gospel, Luke finds Jesus consistently on His knees and giving himself to prayer in everything that He faced and everything that He did.

 

This also happened to be the year that the first big-screen Thor movie was released as a part of the growing MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe for those who are unfamiliar). What was really interesting, and timely, about my experience with this film was that it ended up offering me a rather powerful parallel between the “god out of water” story of Thor, and the god in flesh story that we find in Luke’s Gospel. And the more I thought about the film, the more it managed to impact the way that I saw prayer working both in scripture and in world around me, including in my own life.

 

CAUGHT BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH
What immediately impressed me after seeing the film was the way in which the story melded together the two worlds- Asgard and Earth, as a singular, connected reality. The film seamlessly moves back and forth between both worlds, creating an intriguing contrast between the two environments. In the film, earth lives under the great shadow of the unseen realm of Asgard, and the journey of one of the film’s central characters, Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman), is learning how to see the unseen world from the context of her own reality. In the context of the film, Jane has this unsettled passion to seek after the unknown, a passion that is fuelled by the idea that there is something greater out there than that which she is currently able to see and recognize. And what she discovers is a truth that is able to give greater meaning to the role she plays in her earthly environment. Unbeknownst to her, a battle has in fact been raging between the powers of good and evil in the realm of Asgard, a battle in which life as they know it hangs in the balance. Making the choice to recognize and accept the reality of this battle ultimately changes her perspective on who she is and her role in the universe.

 

Looking at it as a parallel, what I discovered in the Lord’s Prayer was a similar contrast between two aspects of God’s Kingdom and character. The prayer itself is divided into two sections, the first section that deals with the more expansive nature of God’s holiness and otherworldliness (if you will), and another that recognizes this holiness as something that is being expressed and lived out in our everyday context in the world. The prayer begins by shifting our perspective outwards towards the unseen nature of a “spiritual” reality, and then asks us to consider the reality of this same spirit in our everyday lives.

 

It is a prayer that broadens our view of the world by revealing to us to the intersection where God and our earthly condition meet. Here we find a picture of God’s Kingdom (the unseen reality) being made visible on earth (as it is in Heaven), opening up our perspective on just how big God is. By doing this, praying becomes the activity that helps us to see more clearly both who God is in the first half of the prayer, and who we are in the context of God’s expressive concern for His creation in the second half.

 

In the film, the two worlds, the unseen and the seen, act as a striking contrast when set against and aside one another. And as they are brought together, these interconnected realities offer us a breathtaking perspective on just how big our world actually is.

 

 

In both cases, prayer, or an image of prayer, acts a window between these two worlds, holding them in balance as they express the faith required to live out of a conviction in what we do not fully understand (shaping our hope) in the midst of our current reality (informing our perspective).

 

PRAYER AS CONVERSATION AND HUMILITY
What was interesting for me to learn about the prayer in Luke 11 is how the language in Luke represents the subject of prayer by setting it within a particular phrasing. He writes it using a phrasing that can be uttered in a single “breathe”. This stands in contrast to Matthew’s longer version that ends up far more wordy. Most commentaries that I read seemed to agree that this phrasing was an intentional literary device that Luke appears to use in order to emphasize a certain truth about prayer. For Luke, prayer is not just about words. It is something that is lived and breathed, the flows out of our conversation with the God who sees us, who is watching over and caring for us.

 

We find a similar picture being imagined through Jane’s incredible persistence in seeking after this truth, even when it appears the window to the other realm, and the possibility of faith is closed for good. Her character pursues this relationship with the “god” that came into her life and turned it upside down, the god who ultimately changes her life and her perspective forever. There is a powerful scene in the film when we see Thor standing at the top of Asgard and looking down on the world below. Here we see his longing, his desire, is to dwell with the one he leaves behind, and although he specifically can’t see her in this moment, the scene leaves us with a powerful sense that she is still seen by him, still watched over and cared for.

 

The Lord’s Prayer follows (in greater context) on the heels of a declaration by Jesus that God “hides faith from the wise and gives it to the children”. And now, as Jesus pauses to teach his disciples how to pray, The Gospel of Luke offers a clear distinction between the complicated, multisyllabic answer the disciples might have expected (one that gives attention to the lengthy diatribe of the rabbinic tradition of the law and the educated religious leaders) and the sort of prayer He is calling us towards. It is a prayer that can be spoken in a single breath, in a single word.It is a prayer that offers us words when we have no words left to speak or to explain. It is a prayer that speaks beyond the complicated notions and questions of our circumstance, and asks us to approach God as a child and to related to God as a child.

 

In the Lord’s Prayer, all of us are seen as God’s children, set in the same light and given the same ability to pray and to pray well. In this prayer, learning to give ourselves to the idea that this world is much bigger than we can see in the moment, learning to trust in God’s care and concern for his children, requires an equal act of humility no matter where we find ourselves in our lives, no matter where our questions seem to be leading us on our individual journey.

 

ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN
In the film, Thor begins to adopt the customs of earth which are seemingly set (initially) in contrast as a lesser form of life than that which we find in the realms of the gods. But, as the film moves forward, we see that Thor embraces his earthly setting as though it was his own. He looks to love and teach and form his experience of this world from out of the world in which he comes.

 

For Thor, he doesn’t see earth as lesser than Asgard. In fact, what we see is the image of a god who returns to Asgard in order to give greater worth to the earth (and its people) itself. This reminded me of the truth that Jesus continues to pray for each of us by name as He longs for the restoration of a created order that is still incomplete and broken. In Luke’s Gospel, both earth and Heaven all belongs to Him, and in the restoration of all things it is Heaven coming down to earth that shapes the ultimate vision of what is to come (rather than us escaping earth for the sake of Heaven). In this, Heaven and Earth, the unseen and the seen inform one another, become the greater expression of one another, and prayer becomes the bridging these two worlds as a singular reality.

 

PRAYER AND THE LANGUAGE OF FAMILY
In the Gospel of Luke, we find him giving attention to the word “abba” in a different way than has been used before in other Gospel and (Jewish) narratives. Jewish tradition would have used the word father, but mostly as it attributes in a more national sense to the people of Israel. Luke uses the Greek word “pater”, which is a (likely intentional) more intimate use of the same word. It is a term that begs a relationship that moves beyond the limits of our earthly divisions. It is a word that becomes a lens through which we are called to view Jesus’ earthly ministry. He has come to bring His (God’s) kingdom on earth on His terms, terms that are intimately tied to a concern for the whole of the created order.

 

In the Roman world, familial language was incredibly important. To refer to family that was not of “blood” in such intimate terms such as “pater” was, in literal and sometimes not so literal terms, against the law. Slavery was common in these days, as was a continued social and economic divide some things never change). To be tied to a family by blood was to be given both status and the family inheritance, and so to align oneself with these privileges meant “adopting” a very defined position in the family with the “father” assuming his position as the head of the hierarchal system and the family living on through the father’s name. It was possible for someone “not of blood” to be adopted into the family under Roman law, but only by assuming all of the privileges of a “blood” relation. In legal terms, to be adopted was to have these social distinctions erased and to inherit the family born privileges and all of the responsibility these privileges carry.

 

In a powerful way, the prayer in Luke applies the term “pater” to Jesus by declaring that, in Jesus we have now been adopted into God’s family as if by blood. In the family of God there is no distinction between slave and son/daughter, no hierarchal system which excludes one at the expense of another.

 

Paul of course was intently interested in fleshing out this same vision of adoption and slavery and family, and so it should not be surprising that Luke and Paul were friends. For Paul, to see God’s Kingdom being established on earth is to see all the limitations of social distinctions between slave and free, male and female, erased. And it would seem that for Luke, as a gentile convert and possibly a slave himself, this powerful realization reaches into his own story as well. What is also absolutely astonishing to me is that, this same inheritance that reinterprets Luke’s social status is not simply a heaven based goal or reality. It is something God is doing in the here and now, in the midst of our world, something that we are being called to see and to grab hold of and to become a part of in the here and the now.

 

The intimate sense of the word “father”, and the familial language it belongs to, is equally demonstrated in the development of the god-human relationship in Thor. Further, and maybe even more so, it is demonstrated in the relationship between Thor and his brother. Thor is originally presented as the firstborn, which in the context of Luke can be seen as the symbol of the Jewish law and the means through which the covenant and God’s blessing is passed down through the construct of the Jewish family by the “father” of the family. But what we discover along the way is that Thor is in fact an only son. His brother was actually adopted from the darker realm as a part of the King’s effort to pursue the peace of all nations and to extend the far reaching hand of Asgard’s rule for the sake of the greater good of all realms.

 

The theme of adoption in the film reveals the true heart of the King, and alludes to a greater plan and a greater purpose which the King’s adopted son struggles to see and accept for himself. The truth of his adoption causes him to feel lesser than Thor (a blood born son), simply a piece of the puzzle when it comes to the King’s personal project of establishing peace between worlds. He knows he is a part of the family on (the figurative) paper, but never truly experiences it as real in his life.

 

The truth though is that the King sees him through no other light than that of a legitimate son. For the King, there is no difference between him and Thor. And it is through the eventual sacrifice of Thor, who gives his life for his brother and the world that he embraces and sees as good, that forced his brother to face the struggle to accept who he actually is in the eyes of his father. The invitation that follows at the very end of the film for his brother to truly embrace who he is, is ultimately rejected, but what is revealed is that the real reason he rejects it has a lot to do with his struggle to understand forgiveness.

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PRAYER AND FORGIVENESS
This same invitation is offered to each of us in the Lord’s prayer, an invitation to see our own participation in the Kingdom of God as adopted children of the King from the light of who God is and who He says we are. Here we also find that forgiveness plays a pivotal role in bridging the two parts of the prayer, of looking outwards to God’s holiness and inwards towards God’s care of us.

 

“Father forgives us as we also forgive others.”

 

All through scripture forgiveness and prayer appear to be intimately tied. I once heard it said that we are only truly able to realize forgiveness in our own lives when we learn how to forgive others. When we fail to forgive, no matter how large or small, it enslaves us to the same selfish desires which that ends up dividing the two worlds in Thor (between god and man) and in the Roman/Jewish world.

 

In Thor, the hammer is sent to earth along with this “god out of water” identification in order to signify that power is found in the one who is able to exhibit the true virtues of love, forgiveness and service who will wield it’s power. The scene where Thor leaves the celebration meal to mourn the loss of his relationship with those on earth and his brother (whose inability to forgive continues to hold him hostage) is a powerful reminder of the heart of Jesus for His children, the one who demonstrated these very virtues on our behalf.

 

And ultimately, where we find some of the greatest symbolism of this reconciliation is by returning to the picture of Thor’s sacrifice. It is in this moment, where he gives his life for another, that true victory comes. The vivid scene of his death reigniting the hammer demonstrates a few important things when it comes to the story. First, it exercises the same conviction that we find in Luke that Jesus’ entire ministry was intended to help us see the father and to open us up to the father’s desire to be in relationship with us. In the film, the incredibly moving moment of a single tear falling from the king’s face indicates that it is the love and concern of a father for his children that is most important when it comes to his greater plan and vision for the world. This is what ignites the hammer.

Father, “hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come”.

And ultimately it is in the image of Thor giving his life as the king’s only son that we find the father’s heart for the people being revealed. This is what it means to begin to see the unseen. This is what it means to learn how to trust in the way the unseen reality informs what is seen, breathes life into what is seen.

And this gift of faith, this gift of life, moves the character Thor forwards into a relationship with the Kingdom of Asgard and the Kingdom of earth, with the promise of a window that will live between the two worlds. This same gift moves us forward in relationship with God and one another through prayer. We are bound together in a relationship in the shared blood of Christ. We are given the promise of a new kingdom in the here and now through the sacrifice of the one to which the metaphorical hammer truly belongs.

Given all of this, it is only fitting that where the film ends is with a picture of Jane joyfully giving her life to pursuing this relationship with the unseen world with renewed vigour. As Thor ascends to the other realm with the promise that he will return, she is given a connecting point between her and the otherworld. In this sense, continuing to give herself to this relationship, to this new reality, becomes her daily act of prayer. And what I find significant is that the this fits very well with the way in which Luke defines prayer as an act of “persistence”, the same persistence that Jane embodies by connecting with god in the midst of her own circumstance.

So no matter where I find myself, no matter where life takes me, prayer remains a vital part how I navigate my story. The simple reminder of this film, the conviction I found in this Gospel, is that prayer is the means by which I connect my earthly reality with the truth that there is a God who is carrying me, walking beside me, loving me and pursuing me every step of the way.

Prayer: An Introduction

“Prayer is one of the most incredible, most important, most often misunderstood, and least-utilized privileges enjoyed by believers in Christ.”

Every so often I seem to arrive at a place in my life where I am moved to consider and reconsider the role of prayer in my life. And I’ll be honest, most often when I do this I am just reminded of how bad I am at praying.

Perhaps more true is the idea that, along with feeling inadequate in my “prayer” life, I have a past that seems littered with people who are really good at praying. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that these same people represent some of the most important voices in my life at some the most important moments in my life. I have never hestitated to refer to these people as “spiritual giants” in my own spiritual journey. They are the ones who have left their mark on me, who have demonstrated in my weakness what it looks to be strong. They are people that have surfaced in some unlikely places and in some very timely moments.

And so I often find myself stuck trying to marry the tension of their inspiration and the reality of my own spiritual dissolution with the simple truth that I am also called to pray and to pray well.

About 6 years ago, when I found myself in this place, it led me to read Yancey’s book called “Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference” and to begin a journey through the Gospel of Luke. Over this past year, I found myself in a similar place. This time I was motivated to pick up Timothy Keller’s “Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy Witih God”, a book that also happened to coincide with a summer series on the Lord’s Prayer at our Church, a more recent study on The Gospel of Mark, and which now seems to be continuing with another book called Movies are Prayers by Josh Larsen. 

 

And so, as I continue to consider and reconsider the role of prayer in my own life in the midst of this summer season, I felt compelled to put some of my past and present thoughts and experiences with prayer into words. My hope is to do this by representing it in three parts:

  1. 6 years ago, while I was going through Yancey’s book, I also happened across a movie called Thor. It helped me to make some sense of the teaching on prayer that I was finding the in the Gospel of Luke (most notably the Lord’s Prayer), and so I initially wrote some of these reflections down in an earlier blog space. I wanted to revisit some of those thoughts and reimagine them for my present context.
  2. During my more recent journey through the Gospel of Mark, I was struck by the way in which “forgiveness” and “prayer” seem so interconnected and dependent on one another. I would like to reflect on what I have been learning about this connection over the last few months.
  3. Lastly, I would like to look at my experience with the three books (mentioned above) that have helped to shape my understanding of prayer in recent years- Yancey’s, Keller’s and Larson’s. All of them write from differing perspsectives, and what struck me about these three books is just how different all of the “spiritual giants” in my life have been as well when it comes to modeling the practice of prayer. Bridging these worlds I think has helped me to consider prayer in a much broader context than I once did, and has opened me up to the idea that prayer doesn’t need to happen in just one particular way.