Month: December 2011

What I learned at the movies in 2011

The tagline of this blog is stories about living a bigger story.  My theology is centered on the idea that, at it’s core, life is about the story of God unfolding all around and even inside each of us.  As such, stories, both big and small, mean a great deal to me.  I see most of life, from the ordinary and mundane to the extraordinary and spectacular, as a series of stories weaving in and out of the larger, macro story of a God who still very much loves the world and will not leave things as they are.  So needless to say, I am a fan of stories.  I don’t think there is a story-telling medium in existence today that is more effective or dynamic than the movies.  I learn so much from the stories that movies tell us.  2011 was no exception.  Here are a few movies, in no particular order, that taught me something significant this year.

Another Earth: An indie film made on a barebones budget of less than $200k, the story is driven by questions about redemption and how deep it can actually run.  This film taught me that real redemption sits high atop a mountain peak and we must bring our regrets there to barter.  It taught me that we cannot carry both regrets and redemption at the same time.  None of us have shoulders broad enough to bear that sort of weight.  Another Earth makes the statement that everyone must choose one or the other.

Drive: This might be my favorite movie of the year.  Ryan Gosling barely says a word and yet his character drives the entire narrative (no pun intended).  The story is straightforward and void of the sorts of twists and turns common to today’s action dramas.  This film taught me that human character is usually not as simple as good vs. bad.  We all have a little good and a little bad within us and there is a choice to be made between the two in every moment of life.  And sometimes, there is good in the bad and vice versa.  If that doesn’t make sense, go watch the movie and pay close attention to the scene in the elevator.

Bridesmaids: I like Kristen Wiig.  A lot.  She’s the main reason I still watch Saturday Night Live.  This film taught me that friendships do not just happen.  Friendships require work, trust, compromise, and understanding.  We often think of our relationships with those closest to us as the pillars against which we can lean at all times but sometimes, even the sturdiest pillars give way and we find ourselves at a loss because the ones closest to us seem to let us down.  But in the end, it is the unwavering commitment of deep friendship that pushes past our disappointments and gives us hope for tomorrow.  Also, I think Jon Hamm has a career in comedic films once Mad Men is over.

The Descendants: Having loved both Sideways and About Schmidt, my expectations were high for this film and Alexander Payne did not disappoint.  The Descendants actually exceeded my expectations, as I would consider it head and shoulders above both of the previously mentioned films.  This film taught me that the most painful burdens of life are only bearable when we share it with the ones who love us too much to allow us to bear them alone.  And in sharing our burdens, we find that the love holding us together is the same love that carries us forward, beyond the pain and into new territories where we begin to feel alive again.  I walked out of the theater and felt more in love with my family.  That’s the power of this film.

The Tree of Life: I’ve always felt about Terence Malick films the way I feel about abstract art: I don’t get it but I feel like I should if I don’t want to be considered an idiot. But here’s the thing about The Tree of Life: I don’t think it’s meant for the audience to “get it.”  The film is about life, its infinite nature, and the ways in which our quite finite, human stories seem so large and are yet so miniscule in the big picture of things.  I think.  Or maybe the movie’s just about Brad Pitt being angry?  I don’t know.  The point is, this is a film large enough to teach us all about whatever it is we need to learn at any given point.  For me, I learned that the tension between how important my life feels and reality of its smallness against the backdrop of the universe is a tension shared by the whole of humanity.  And in embracing this reality, we may find that the tension is no tension at all but is instead a healthy paradox that somehow coexists and even fulfills the other.  My story is clearly finite and miniscule and insignificant, and yet, without it, the whole of the universe would not be quite what it is.  In this way, my story is as big as the story of the stars.  

Resolutions or Resolve?

Obstacles cannot crush me.  Every obstacle yields to stern resolve.  He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind. - Leonardo da Vinci

The few days between Christmas and the New Year are a unique time.  We step down from the peak of holiday cheer and many of us begin our slow descent toward another 364 days of blah.  But for most, the descent begins very close to the peak.  The New Year provides hope for new and exciting possibilities.  We tell ourselves, “This year is going to be different!”  But usually, it only takes a few short weeks into January for reality to set in, cynicism to take over, and we begin to wave the white flag of surrender as our plans inevitably go awry.  “This year will be different!” slowly but surely turns into “Maybe next year.” 

I think that many of us participate in this annual ritual of disappointment and wasted opportunity because we lose ourselves in the joy of making audacious resolutions without really considering the sort of daily resolve required to fulfill and actualize our resolutions.  When time comes at the end of December to throw away the old calendar, marked up with goals unmet and expectations unfulfilled, we tell ourselves that the new calendar we put up will be different.  This year’s calendar will end up full of goals surpassed and expectations exceeded!  Most of us are quite good at convincing ourselves.  But year after year we throw away calendars that signify the disappointment of squandered potential.  The truth is, making resolutions is easy and momentary but living with daily resolve is consistently difficult.  And yet, it is this difficult daily resolve that moves us forward and helps us achieve the greatness of our potential.

So as we look forward to January 1, 2012, remember that the other 365 days (leap year!) are teeming with just as much potential as the first.  In waking each and every morning, may we resolve to spend our days wisely, maximizing the gift of life God gives, living fully, loving generously, and opening our eyes to the endless possibilities all around us.  And when life is difficult and obstacles arise, as they inevitably will, remember the above quote from Leonardo da Vinci.

Obstacles cannot crush you.  They will yield to your stern resolve.  You will not change your mind, you will not give up, and you will not fail because your eyes are fixed on one brighter than any star, Christ himself, the light of the world. 

The soul felt its worth

O Holy Night.  

The stars are brightly shining.  It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.  

Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ’til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.  

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Most of us know and enjoy John Sullivan Dwight’s English version of O Holy Night, paraphrased from the original French poem Minuit Chrétiens by Placide Cappeau.  I love the opening lines.  In particular, I am captivated by the thought when Christ appeared on the scene, the soul felt its worth.  What a wonderful expression of the restorative and redemptive work of Immanuel.

At the end of every calendar year, the chaos of our shopping malls reminds us that we are still very much connected to a system that expresses worth and value with dollars and cents.  This is why the Christmas story is so wonderfully subversive and miraculous.  The coming of God in the person of Jesus reinstated in all of humanity its intended value and worth.  God created us in his image and in the person of Jesus, he reminds us that he has not forgotten the way he created us and what he created us for.  The birth of Jesus reminds us that surroundings do not matter.  A stable full of animals is as good as a palace full of kings.  An unwed teenager is as good as a noble queen.  And peasant shepherds are as good as the social elite.

So whether you celebrate Christmas this year with the finest of everything or a humble meal in humble surroundings, remember that your worth was restored at the coming of the Messiah.  You are worth the journey God took to come be with us.  You are of highest value to God himself.  He made the world, he made you, and he loves you enough to remind you this time every year that he came for you.  So remember that Christ has come and is coming again.  And in remembering, may your soul feel the fullness of its worth.

The disappointment of Christmas

Christmas 1991.  I wanted nothing more and nothing less than a video game for my Nintendo called Battle Toads.  For months I reminded my mom on a daily basis that this was my only Christmas wish for the year.  From all indications, I was well on my way to getting what I wanted.  She all but promised me the game.  I was ecstatic.  Christmas morning couldn’t come soon enough.  I don’t remember exactly what time I got out of bed on December 25, 1991 but I do know it was quite early.  I ran to the tree, found the box from my mom with my name on it, and ripped through the wrapping like a boy possessed.  I noticed that the box was much larger than a typical video game box.  My worst fears were realized when, to my dismay, the wrapping paper gave way to a box of Frosted Flakes cereal.  Tony the Tiger had never been more disappointing.  I threw the box, yelled something obscene at my mother, and ran to my room.  A few minutes later, she walked in holding the box of Frosted Flakes and encouraged me to open it.  I refused for a while but her gentle insistence won me over and inside the box I found what I’d been expecting.  I was embarrassed and elated.

When Mary gave birth to Jesus two millennia ago, Jewish expectations were running at an all-time high.  The expectation was that a Messiah would come and free them from the tyrannical rule of Rome.  This Messiah would rule as King, ushering in the eternal reign of God over the entire world with the nation of Israel positioned as his blessed and chosen people.  But we all know now that the story didn’t go exactly according to plan.  Jesus is literally born into filth, celebrated by peasant shepherds, chased out of the country by Herod.  In his adult years there are rumors that he may indeed be the expected Messiah, but he disappoints everyone.  Not only does he fail to conquer Rome, he dies a criminal’s death on a Roman cross.  This is the epitome of letdown, a magnified version of unwrapping a gift, expecting something great, only to find a box of cereal.  And yet, in the end, the death and eventual resurrection of Jesus does in fact usher in the eternal reign of God over the entire world and enacts the blessing of God over all people.  The fullness of Immanuel, God with us, is not realized until thirty-something years after the Nativity scene.  It isn’t until Easter morning that Christmas night actualizes its whole meaning, because it is the death and resurrection of Jesus that fulfills the promise born to us in the manger.  Christmas and Easter are two ends of the same story.

Has Christmas ever left you feeling deflated?  Have you ever experienced the hangover of December 26?  We enjoy the weeks and months leading up to Christmas, full of hope and expectation, embracing Advent, only to find that the morning after we’re left with nothing but more stuff.  I’ve felt this way plenty of times.  But I am comforted by the fact that the first Christmas left an entire nation deflated, feeling flat, and wanting more.  If our Christmas story ends at the manger, we will all be left utterly disappointed, holding cereal boxes in our hands instead of the great big gift of new life that God offers.  It is only when we allow the story to unfold, to take us all the way to the garden, the cross, the grave, and the road to Emmaus, that we can celebrate the entirety of God’s magnificent gift.  So this Christmas, remember that the Nativity scene is only the beginning, rolling the opening credits, teasing us with what’s to come.  It is not the end.  Christmas celebrates the start of something and invites us to an entire lifetime of hope and expectation.  So celebrate well.  Eat, drink, be merry.  And remember that this is only the beginning.

Leading into a mission that matters

Make a statement with your life that’s consistent with your heart, that gives voice to what you really feel is important.  We don’t have a lot of opportunities, most of us, to take stands – that are seen, anyway, that are visible.  But my feeling is that you take it, whether it’s seen or not, whether it’s recognized or not, whether it’s cheered or jeered.  You do it because it’s in you to do it, and because by doing it you’re being true to who you are. - John Robbins

I recently started reading a really thought provoking book on leadership called The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner.  I’m still early on in the book but already I’ve been challenged by many of its ideas on effective, transformative leadership.  Having spent the last eight years of my life working in full time church ministry, I find myself asking big questions these days about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.  I’ve never thought of myself as an exemplary leader by any stretch.  I have had the luxury of being surrounded by some incredible men and women who have modeled this sort of leadership and I have become adept at mimicking them.  As I think about some of these individuals who’ve influenced and shaped me in my own leadership over the years, I am reminded of something Kouzes and Posner write in their book:

…leadership begins with something that grabs hold of you and won’t let go.  This is where leaders must go to find their voice.  To find your voice, you have to explore your inner territory.  You have to take a journey into those places in your heart and soul where you bury your treasures, so that you can carefully examine them and eventually bring them out for display.

The difficult work of searching one’s self is a universal trait shared by every great leader I’ve ever known.  I wanted to follow these individuals because I knew they’d been through the mess of sifting through ulterior motives, selfish ambitions, and pressure to cave in to the status quo.  I trusted that they’d thoroughly explored their inner territories, armed with integrity and brutal honesty.  And they’d come out on the other side convicted of their core beliefs and values.  They’d come out of the mess refined with a fixed vision and mission.  These are the sorts of leaders I admire and trust.  This is the sort of leader I want to be.

A while back, I heard Andy Stanley say, “Leadership is stewardship.  It is given and it can be taken away.”  I heard him say this only once, about five years ago and it’s still ringing loud and clear in my head.  I agree completely.  Leaders aren’t born or manufactured in some factory run by John Maxwell.  Leaders are appointed.  They are appointed by the collective yearning of those who would follow, fueled by a desperation for a mission that matters.  If we are to steward our leadership well, we must satisfy the yearning for meaningful mission with integrity.  We must do the hard work of digging deep into our own self, until we get to that place where our treasures are buried.  It is from this place we must lead.  Anything else is a compromise.

I don’t think there is an environment where this matters more significantly than in the church.  Leadership in the church is a unique gift because it is a calling to lead broken humanity toward the restorative and transformative reality of God’s kingdom.  It is a paradox because the leaders are just as broken as those being led.  And it is within this paradox that the words of John Robbins carry such great weight: Make a statement with your life that’s consistent with your heart… take [a] stand… whether it’s seen or not… recognized or not… You do it because it’s in you to do it, and because by doing it you’re being true to who you are.  Leading other people into the reality of God’s kingdom is as much about our own journey as it is about theirs.  So lead well.  Lead honestly, with integrity.  Choose to take a stand and entrench yourself there.  Search your own heart and pour it out on those looking to you for guidance.  Give them a mission that matters to you.       

Compassion, Charity, Apathy

Every thoughtful activist knows how the desire for success and the fear of failure can pervert our actions and even lead to fraud, causing us to settle for the appearance of victory rather than persisting for deep and lasting change.  When we are trapped in the dualism of winning and losing, we are possessed by false powers. – Parker Palmer (The Promise of Paradox)

For years I intentionally kept loose change and a few dollar bills in my car at all times so that I’d have something to give panhandlers at stop lights.  It felt good to hand someone something of value and say, “God bless.”  I was convinced that this was the behavior a good Christian and a giving person.  It gave me the sense that I was generous, kind and Godly.  It was a convenient way of satisfying any lingering guilt I may have had about my lack of participation in one of the central tenets of Christianity: To love one’s neighbor as oneself.  But a couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a good friend who challenged me to see things differently.  He talked convincingly about the difference between compassion and charity.  He argued for the need to stop handing out charity and instead, to step out of the car and sit with people, to feel a bit of their reality.  He pointed out that compassion is different from charity because compassion requires that we suffer with (this is what the word compassion literally means) those in need, rather than simply providing a temporary physical fix from the distant comfort of our own privileged realities.

This conversation began reshaping my view on what I’d been doing with my loose change.  My ideology began breaking at the seams and what I’d thought was good and kind began to seem lazy and arrogant.  I stopped handing out change to panhandlers.  But instead of refocusing my efforts on a more intentional expression of compassion toward those in need, I simply stopped doing anything at all.  The realization that what I’d been doing was not the best option threw me into a cycle of non-action, rather than reoriented action.  Not handing out loose change evolved into not smiling, not having my window rolled down, and eventually, not caring.  Rather than exchanging charity for compassion, I instead exchanged charity for apathy.  And here is what I’ve come to understand through this process.

Charity is convenient and self-centered. 

Apathy is comfortable and self-absorbed. 

Compassion is costly and selfless.

We’ve all heard it a million times: It is better to give than to receive.  The saying is absolutely true, but not in some intellectually esoteric way.  It’s universally true in its simplicity.  Getting is nice, but giving makes us feel great.  Particularly in giving to those with needs greater than our own, if we are not careful it is possible to attain a sort of twisted satisfaction.  The sin in us whispers gently that we as givers are somehow better, more accomplished, and of more worth than those who receive.  This is a subtly poisonous paradigm of winners and losers.  And I believe that it is from this place that charity most often flows.  Charity can split us.  Those who give charity are the winners, those who receive charity are the losers who have been uplifted to a place of temporal mediocrity by the winners.

But compassion shatters this paradigm.  Compassion forces us to step into the realities of others.  Compassion is loving others as we love ourselves.  Maybe loving them more than we love ourselves.  Compassion is costly and painful and often without immediate results.  Compassion doesn’t make us feel like winners.  Instead, it makes us feel human.  Compassion reveals the beauty of humanity hidden behind the cracked facades of socioeconomic, ethnic, and political divisions.  As Parker Palmer writes, compassion pushes us past a desire for the appearance of victory and begins to burn us up with a desire for deep and lasting change.

This is the time of year when we remember and celebrate the coming of God to earth in the flesh of Jesus, the most subversive and provocative act of compassion in the history of the world.  God did not extend convenient charity to us, giving us a tidy little handout.  And he certainly did not sit comfortably in apathy, doing nothing.  God, who ought to be the most self-absorbed, self-centered entity in the universe, instead gave selflessly.  And his gift of compassion was costly.  Jesus stepped into our reality and suffered on our behalf.  He went to the grave and crushed it for us.  Christmas and Easter are two ends of the same story.  My hope is that we, as the people of God and followers of Jesus, would choose this sort of subversive, provocative compassion in our own lives.  Find a place to step into the reality of another.  Settle in there.  Experience their hurts, frustrations, and suffering.  Refuse apathy and charity.  Be compassionate.