Being with God: The Parable of the Girl in the Woods

Being with God: The Parable of the Girl in the Woods

I shared the following parable with the community of teenagers at Lake Shore Baptist to help step into the story of Solomon building the temple (1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-14). I am not sure of the parable’s origin, but the following is my reconstruction and adaptation.

In a small, Jewish village at the edge of a forest, there was a young girl who lived with her mother. Every day, the girl, who was about 10 years old would go off into the woods near the village for a long stretch of time, and then return home. No one knew what she was doing in there, but it began to worry her mother. Eventually, when the girl returned home, the mother stopped her and told her she didn’t want her going into the woods anymore by herself. There were dangerous animals in the woods and it wasn’t safe.

The next day, when the girl had finished her chores, her mother watched through a window as she sneaked across their yard and into the woods. When she returned, her mother scolded her and lectured her again about going into the woods alone.

On the third day, the mother saw her daughter doing the exact same thing. Desperate, she sought the help of the town Rabbi. When the girl returned, the Rabbi was sitting on the steps in front of her house. He motioned for her to sit down next to him.

“Your mother tells me you travel out into the woods every day, even though she tells you not to,“ the Rabbi said. The girl hung her head and nodded. “May I ask what you’re doing out there?” he asked.

She looked back up at him with innocent eyes. “I go out there to be with God,” she replied.

The Rabbi was surprised. “Well my dear,” he said, “could you not go to the synagogue to be with God? Is God not the same in the synagogue as in the woods?”

“Yes, Rabbi,” the girl said, “God is the same, but I am not.”

 

[Image taken from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/556a1885e4b0bdc6f0794659/t/577a8e0cebbd1a47dbec29ed/1467649577049/AdobeStock_27621934+%281%29.jpeg?format=2500w]

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Sacred Stories: A Dance in Four Acts

Sacred Stories: A Dance in Four Acts

[The following sermon was preached at Lake Shore Baptist Church on October 15th, 2017. You can listen to a recording here: https://soundcloud.com/user-966895246/sacred-stories-a-dance-in-four-acts-by-zach-helton The art was taken from https://www.wikiart.org/en/marc-chagall/the-adoration-of-the-golden-calf-1966]

Exodus 32:1-14

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, and make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold,[a] and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

God said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” God said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that God brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” 14 And God changed God’s mind about the disaster that God planned to bring on the people.

(NRSV, with inclusive title and pronoun modifications)

A Prelude

The stories we tell as a community are vitally important. They shape our identity, inform our ethics, and form our imaginations for what our future can look like. Sacred stories have served this purpose for thousands of years. Something, though, in the past two hundred or so years, has gone awry. In the inspired dance between our sacred texts and ourselves, you can think of it as a four-act performance. But, something in the past couple of centuries has flattened it to one, maybe two, and you can hardly describe the relationship as a dance anymore as well as you could describe it as an exchange between a shop owner and a consumer. My adolescent dance recitals would go something like this:

Act I: Take up your Bible, or be seated in the pew, and take in the story, the letter, or the poem objectively, as it is: the Word of God.

Act II: Go and do what it said. Go emulate the hero or learn the lesson from the villain. Go obey Paul’s instruction, however strangely it may fall on modern minds.

I would propose, however, that there should be a bit more depth, a bit more play in this rhythmic relationship between the people of God and the stories of their ancestors. With our well-known and troubling story this morning, I’d like to try, as best I can, to name the acts of this divine, mixed-genre ballet as we ourselves get caught up into it.

So I’ll begin with…

Act I: Their World, Or The World Behind the Story

It was Babylon, 2,600 years ago, and another long work day had just come to a close. Israelites shuffled back to their ramshackle homes, carrying with them wages that they knew would have to be stretched thin to feed their families. They didn’t dare remember the days only a few years prior when they seldom had to worry about where their next meal was coming from. They dared not remember being surrounded by the glorious walls in a city, and with a magnificent temple that their ancestors built. They dared not spend time thinking about the day when they could gather at the end of the week to rest and hear stories of their superheroes and sing songs of praise to their good God. It was the end of the week now, and families prepared to make their way to meet together to hear a story and to sing to their God, but their songs had turned to wails of lament. See, they had been defeated, destroyed, exiled. They had hung up their instruments, for how could they sing God’s songs in a foreign land?

The teacher, the keeper of the stories, saw the people approach. As they grew closer, he saw faces heavy with defeat, and he again felt the weight of his vocational responsibility. It was his job to make meaning. The prophets, bless their hearts, had tried their best. And sure, the people heard their warnings, saw their bizarre protest art, but privilege is blinding.

Their prophets had warned them, over and over, that their tribe had lost their integrity. They were to be a people that represented God in the world. They existed to put hands and feet to God’s love, God’s justice, but time proved that they were far too easily pleased with comfort and routine. They would stretch out on their couches, ignoring the reality that those couches were resting on the backs of the poor and oppressed. They had forgotten that they were all once oppressed in Egypt, forgotten their common beloved-ness. The prophets warned that the people’s religion, their songs, their stories had been emptied, mindless repetition that made them feel satisfied, but having nothing to do anymore with a God who called them to mercy rather than ritual. The prophets called people out on worshipping not God, but the objects that were meant to point them towards God, that they were absurdly praising their own creation rather than remembering the living and uncontrollable force that had created them. The prophets warned that if the people didn’t stop acting out of fear, putting all of their trust in their military and wit, if they didn’t start believing in the power of justice and love, they would be overcome. And that is what happened. Now everyone struggled to come to terms with the meaning of their suffering, to imagine some way, any way forward.

And this is where the storyteller comes in, stretching their imagination, their capacity for hope. It was on him to remind the people through his stories that God’s justice is not about retribution, but restoration. It was on him to simultaneously call them to integrity while offering them grace. And so he set to work. He gathered everyone around. He led them in their songs of lament, gave voice and melody to the pain of their existence, and when the howls died down, he assembled his cast of ancestors and superheroes, and wove together a new story. He drew in a deep breath of God’s Spirit and began what we now recognize as…

Act II: The Story Itself

The people of God waited anxiously at the bottom of the mountain. They had seen Moses ascend, disappearing into the thick blackness of the foreboding smoke. They waited. Hours passed. They waited. Days passed. They went back to their work, still looking over their shoulders, waiting. Weeks passed. Daily rhythms resumed, though still uncomfortable. As they waited they started to feel the absence of their leader, started to feel their own vulnerability. They became afraid. Fear grew. Forty days passed. The fear took over. They exchanged integrity for survival.

The people gathered around Aaron, the brother of their late leader, and gave voice to their fear. “This Moses we once called our leader has been gone for forty days! That’s forty days without leadership, without protection from the tribes that threaten us at every side, without any word from this invisible God that supposedly rescued us!” Their fear was contagious and reasonable, and it quickly infected even Aaron. “You are our best hope!” they cried. “We need a God with us, to protect us, to go before us and show us what to do! Make us something strong, something impressive, something we can believe in, something to make us great!”

Aaron knew they were right. He knew they needed something they could see, touch, be inspired by, so he asked for all of the gold they had plundered from the Egyptians, and cast them into a calf, a symbol of strength and fertility. “This is Yahweh, O Israel, the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” Aaron announced this, holding the calf high. He had done it with the best of intentions, of course, but as they say, the road to Sheol is paved with good intentions. The crowd roared. Aaron felt the adrenaline, the confidence that came with cheers, so he went on. “Tomorrow will be a festival to God!” he proclaimed, so all of the people rose up early the next day to offer sacrifices to their golden god, they feasted, and celebrated, and their festival quickly transitioned into a tangled mass of licentious revelry. The people finally felt good about themselves. They had a leader, a god, and they were serving both and felt great about it, and isn’t that what religion is all about?

But meanwhile, up on the mountain, past the curtain of black smoke, the God they thought they were celebrating shook with anger. God spoke to Moses, who was still alive and well. “Go back to camp immediately!” God ordered. “Your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt have listened to fear, have forgotten who they are meant to be, and have exchanged me for something they’ve created, something they get to control. In my name, they sacrifice without caring why and they treat one another as objects for their own exploitation and indulgence. I cannot allow them to do such evil in the name of ultimate good.”

My people?” Moses asked, jumping up and preparing to head back down to camp. “That I brought up out of Egypt? Are these not your people?”

“Not anymore,” God said. “They would say they are, but they want little to do with me. Leave me alone now, so that I can destroy them. If they are not representing me, if they are not my hands and feet, a nation of priests showing all of humanity my love and justice, then they have no purpose. So I will start over, a new tribe, from your line, Moses.”

Moses dropped the staff he had just picked up. “No!” he cried.

“Excuse me?” asked the Almighty God.

“No! Please!” Moses implored, dropping to his knees. “You saved these people! They escaped Egypt to follow you, if you consume them, how are you any better than the Pharaoh that oppressed and tried to wipe them out for so long? What you’re proposing is… is evil, and you, God, are not evil! Repent, change your mind! Don’t do this! Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants who dedicated themselves to you, you promised them! God, I have to believe you’re better than this!”

There was a pause, a pause as thick and ominous as the smoke surrounding them, and God changed God’s mind. In the place of the promise of destruction now stood a new promise. Hope. Redemption.

The storyteller finished his tale, and looked around at the eyes fixed on him. Eyes that burned now not only with conviction, but with hope. He held out his hands, his palms facing the crowd. “So go,” he blessed them. “Go and remember who you are. Remember the purpose to which you’ve been called. And remember the chance you’ve been given to return to it.”

They dispersed. Some of the crowd forgot the story in the weeks and months ahead, but it still burned in the imaginations of many. Those would go on to tell their children, and some down the road thought it was important enough, true enough, inspired enough to write down. People throughout the centuries resonated with its symbols, its characters, its conflicts and tensions. They saw themselves in the rebellious tribe, in the interceding leader, in the conflicted but hopeful God. They were implicated by the story. Forgiven by the story. It would go on to be used and quoted by the Prophet Nehemiah, the composer of a Psalm, the community developer of Acts, and in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the Romans. They kept telling the story, they kept preaching the story, they kept listening to the story on and on through history, which brings us to…

Act III: Our World, Or The World in Front of the Story

We hear the story now with different ears than we brought to Act I of the dance. Where as they may have assumed a violent God, quick to judgement, we might take issue with this portrait. But as one teacher suggests, in this Act, we have a responsibility to not read these stories asking, “Why did God do this?” but rather, “Why did this storyteller say that God did this? What was he or she saying about God?” And that is why we must do the work of dancing the first two acts before we can arrive at this one, the one in which we ask the question: Is this still a story worth telling?

It is always a temptation to say no. After all, crafting golden idols is no longer much of a fight in our churches. God sending disasters of judgment on our cities is not something I walk around worrying much about, though I suppose some do. It’s tempting to toss this story out, to say that it’s outdated, and the violence of it outweighs any good it could do.

But our responsibility is to say yes, of course this story is worth telling. To recognize that surely there is something deep and true to our experience at work in this story for it to have survived for so long, to have made it into our world. Could it still have something to say to our world, which one author describes as a world in which religion is therapy, doing whatever it takes to make people feel good about meeting their religious needs? Could it have something to say to our world in which we would far rather engage in fruitless acts of self-gratifying piety than follow the God of self-sacrificing Love revealed in Jesus? A world where it’s much easier to post something on social media than to have an actual, humanizing conversation with a brother or sister? A world that would rather send thoughts and prayers to victims of a disaster than take concrete action and sand with the survivors? A world that would rather go to church and talk about love, reciting the right words about reconciliation, than put in the work of reconciling ourselves to estranged family or neighbors that look different from us? A world that would rather wear a golden cross around its neck than stick its neck out in an act of sacrificial love that that cross represents? A world that would rather act in fear and hoard up wealth than give it away to meet the immediate pain and suffering next door? A world that would rather act in fear and elect the most powerful-looking and impressive leader than confront and question that fear itself, asking God to replace it with love?

Yes, I think this is a story about our world after all, just as it was a story about theirs. It has not changed that humanity faces the daily temptation to exchange integrity for survival, that the people of God face the daily temptation to exchange fidelity and love for certainty and comfort. Our privilege still blinds us to the pain of the world. We may no longer fear the fiery wrath of a deity, or fear national exile, but the institutional church in our world is dying at a staggering rate. Across the western world, we are finally closing our doors after so many years of failing to do what God has called us to do, to be God’s hands and feet in the world, a family of priests, instruments of God’s love and justice. But as I said, the storyteller was not crafting a story of indictment to inspire guilt. This story ends with grace and hope, an invitation. This is a story that ends with a chance to make things right, which brings us to the most exciting and terrifying act of them all…

Act IV: Our New World, Or The New Story We Tell Now

But I can’t preach this Act, because that’s on you. This is a new Act, one that makes many uncomfortable, so many bow out before it begins. This is an Act of improvisation. The moves are not in the script or pre-decided choreography, but this ballet lacks an ending which you must now go and provide. What will it look like now for us to abandon the idols, to stop letting fear drive, and to choose something real? What will it look like to choose fidelity to love over success and safety? Go now and find out. Bring your stories back to us. This Act is yours.

Blade Runner and The Work of Becoming Human

Blade Runner and The Work of Becoming Human

Before seeing Blade Runner 2049 in theaters, I thought it would be wise to re-visit the original. I hadn’t seen it in two years, and honestly didn’t remember much of it. The only thing I really did remember was that I did not enjoy it. It was slow, dark, flat, and I wasn’t really sure I could have given a summary of the plot by the end of it. I wasn’t aware of all of the re-cuts done through the years, so I wasn’t even aware that what I had seen was the theatrical release. This time, I decided to go with the “Final Cut,” and my experience was very different. I don’t know it if was the different version that did the trick so much as a difference in posture. I began the movie this time with the mindset that while I did not have to like it, I did have to respect it. It has established itself so firmly in our cultural imagination that it cannot be belittled or ignored. Obviously there must be something to it.

This time, when the movie was over, I sat through the credits with my mouth open. When the screen finally went black and the synth faded out, I turned to my wife and said, “Oh man, I think I have to love this movie.” The themes rung so true to me after four years of pastoral work. The questions were so familiar. What does it mean to become human? What does it mean to find meaning in the face of death? Is it fair to rage at your creator? How can you break the pattern of dehumanization? I realized my posture towards this viewing of Blade Runner was also my posture towards many Bible stories. I don’t have to enjoy them to respect them and find them deeply true.

The scene that changed my mind about Blade Runner was the rooftop encounter between Batty (Rutger Hauer) and Deckard (Harrison Ford), beginning with the line:

“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave,” 

and ending with Gaff’s (Edward James Olmos) arrival and cryptic line:

“It’s a shame she won’t live! But then again, who does?”

In the seconds after, as we returned to Deckard’s apartment, I wasn’t sure what had happened exactly, but I felt the deeply familiar power that had been driving that scene. Later, I re-watched that scene a few times (approaching it almost as I would a lectio divina exercise) to soak in what had drawn me into that moment, and began to recognize the spirit of salvific grace.

By the logic the film had followed up to that point, Batty, faced with the inevitability of his expiration, should choose to take as many perpetuators of injustice with him as he could, just as he had done with his creator, Tyrell (Joe Turkel). In that earlier scene, righteous rage had consumed him and flared out to consume others, but this moment unfolds differently. Instead, with his line on fear and slavery, Batty sees something familiar in Deckard’s fear, and it inspires him to abandon retribution in favor of grace. With a white dove in one hand, he reaches out his other, nail-scarred hand to save Deckard, and for Deckard, this act seems to redeem the entire replicant race. In the wake of his salvation, all Deckard can do is watch as his savior laments but accepts his death, delivering what one critic calls one of the most moving death soliloquies in cinematic history:

“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

He commends his spirit to the mystery of death and his dove flies away. The only way Deckard can respond to this moment is go home to declare his love for Rachael (Sean Young), making her as human as she always wanted to be.

This strikes me as one of the most important themes in this story, as someone that is in the business of crafting stories and spaces meant to help us become more human. To me, to be fully human means to lean to obey the voice of love, to be formed into the image of Christ who was humanity at its fullest. We all share this struggle to become human, whether we acknowledge it or not. It is common to Batty, Rachel, Deckard, you, and me. It is through these moments of saving grace, through our own rooftop encounters, that we become more practiced in humanity, even (or perhaps especially) in the face of our own mortality.

I now have a better idea of why Blade Runner has survived in our cultural film canon for so long, but I wonder if it doesn’t have so much to do with what the movie says as how it says it. The movie is infuriatingly polyvalent. It reminds me so much of the tantalizing Bible stories I teach on a weekly basis, unclear and yet wrought with deep truth. It demands thoughtful participation. The community is left to read into the details and answer the questions for themselves. Who is Deckard? Does it matter? What does Gaff know? What is the unicorn? Any of these could make for a great sermon on the film. And then there is the world behind the film, the multiple versions and deleted or rearranged scenes. If we were talking about scripture, we’d call them textual variants, and an encounter or struggle with them enriches our experience of the story.

Blade Runner’s power also lies in the way it fictionalizes oppression and injustice in such a way that it slips past our egos and implicates us in abusing the replicants of our own world. It’s a story about our tendency to de-humanize others for our own comfort, even coming up with special language to separate them from ourselves. Who wouldn’t rather “retire” a robot than murder a fellow human? To some, maybe this movie is about Muslims, or Mexicans, or blacks, or women, or whoever it is inconvenient for us to recognize as humans just like us. If we were to recognize this humanity, that would mean we may actually be the antagonist in this story we’re living, and that hurts. But this is also a story about a cure to such dehumanization, alive in the relationships between Batty and Deckard, and Deckard and Rachael. When we can experience the company of the other, moving past our own bias and ego for just a moment, then it changes everything, and we see the same humanity, the same divine spark in their eyes as we see every day in the mirror.

I must also at least nod towards the important things this story has to say about the nature of God and God’s relationship to humanity. Are we the product of a blind and heartless universe caring only about unstoppable progress, or the children of a flow of benevolence and love? This unavoidably changes the posture we take towards the world, our neighbors, and ourselves. This is a question any Christian attempting to find meaning in a post-enlightenment world must wrestle with.

As I proved in my first watching, this movie is not for everyone. If you haven’t been on board with Blade Runner before this point, it’s probably going to be difficult to jump on board now. The viewer has to be in a certain place and be willing to give the film a certain level of respect up front in order to find the right eyes to see. Ford’s performance is confused, the plot is often less than clear, and the dirty, rainy world that Ridley Scott and his team created can be difficult to be in for any amount of time. But, if the viewer can come at it seeking to understand rather than judge, then I believe they’ll be able to see what has established this movie so firmly as a classic.

[Picture taken from https://cdn-images-1.medium.com/max/2000/1*7ag3HTtJlGrsrNxwO1nGnA.jpeg]

Stories about Stories: The Call of Michael King

Stories about Stories: The Call of Michael King

The following story is based on Exodus 2:23-25; 3:1-15; 4:10-17

In the United States, in the 1950’s, nearly a hundred years after the government declared all of the slaves emancipated, black and brown children of God still groaned under their oppression. They cried out from their unjust treatment, and God heard their cry. God had not forgotten God’s promise to dwell in the hearts of every human being, whether man or woman, black or white, slave or free. God moved through the world, like water flowing through a forest, looking for avenues open enough for love to flow through. God was looking for people who were broken in just the right places, so that the light could stream into them and transform the world.

In the south, in Atlanta, Georgia, a young black man named Michael King was walking home from school. He was taking a shortcut, walking down a dirt road past a peach orchard, when he saw smoke rising from the middle of the orchard. Curious, he left the road and headed towards the smoke. In the middle of the orchard, he found a peach tree burning, not surprising in the heat of an Atlanta summer, but as he approached, he noticed the tree was not burning up. In fact, the leaves seem to be growing fuller and the peaches more ripe in the fire.

God saw that Michael had turned aside to see and called to him from the tree. “Michael!”

Michael was terrified, he thought he might be dreaming, but he answered, “I’m Michael.”

“Kick off your shoes, Michael,” God said, “because the dirt under you is sacred. I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Jesus, and all of humanity.”

At this, Michael dropped to his knees. The voice said, “I’ve seen the misery of my people in the south, I’ve heard their cry, the way people treat them as less-than-human. I feel their suffering and carry it with me in my heart. I’ve come to start the long journey of their liberation, and I am starting it by sending you to lead the people, to speak unpopular truth to those in power, and to break the chains binding my people.”

If Michael thought he was afraid before, it was nothing compared to how he felt now. “Lord,” he stammered, “Who am I to do these things, to inspire hope? I barely have hope myself. Every day I feel my way through a dark cloud of depression. Who am I to inspire belief? I barely believe myself. I have so many doubts about religion, especially Christianity. I am no one, a black boy in the south, living in the shadow of the lynching tree.”

“Michael,” God said with patience, “I will be with you. I made humanity’s mouths, hands, and hearts, and my Spirit dwells within each of them, including yours. I’ve seen the way racism and segregation cut you, the way it breaks your heart with the same pattern it breaks mine.”

“Please, Lord,” Michael pleaded, “send someone else.”

“You think you will be alone?” God asked. “All around you are my servants, just waiting for someone to say something first. Alone you are right to be afraid, but with a community with my Spirit coursing through your every atom, working with me, you will have strength you never dreamed possible.”

Michael was silent for a few moments, and then asked a question that had eaten at him since the first time he remembered walking into a church sanctuary and introduced him to this mysterious and confusing being. “Who are you? What are you? You cannot be the one that the bigots make you out to be, and yet you have been silent for so long while we’ve suffered. Who are you?”

God also let a moment of silence pass. When the voice spoke again, it was steady and sure. “I am what I am, and I will be what I will be. Every time you breathe, you say my name. It is a baby boy’s first word, and a dying woman’s last.” Another moment passed. “Michael, the choice is yours, as it was Abraham’s, Moses’, and Jesus’. Will you join me?”

Trembling, Michael answered, “I will.”

The fire seemed to explode with joy, peaches bursting forth and falling to the ground ripe and full. “Then no longer will your name be Michael King,” the voice boomed, “but Martin Luther King, for you will speak as a prophet to power and lead a revolution in the community of my beloved.”

Michael picked himself up off the ground as the fire calmed back down.

The voice spoke one more time. “Let’s begin.”

Questions (about the story above as well as the Bible story):

What do you notice about this story?

What does this story make you wonder about?

Who do you most identify with and why?

What might the author be saying about God in this story?

Why did people think the Bible story was important enough to keep? What does it say about them that it still says about us?

How does this story encourage or challenge you?

 

[Image taken from https://www.trinitystores.com/store/art-image/martin-luther-king-georgia-1929-1968]

The Hard Questions Aronofsky’s “mother!” Demands of Christianity

The Hard Questions Aronofsky’s “mother!” Demands of Christianity

A good sermon is not just supposed to tell you something about God. At its best, a sermon draws you in to some kind of encounter with God. It does not inform or entertain so much as it becomes the instrument of an experience with the Divine. Movies, at their best, do a similar thing. They bring us into some kind of encounter with something beyond ourselves, holding up a mirror in front of us to help us to find meaning, to see ourselves in a grander narrative that we often only experience as a chaotic series of events. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (2017) takes this to the extreme. This is not an entertaining movie. In fact, one reviewer described it as a traumatic experience. It is not a story that the viewer can relax into and escape the world, but rather an intense, poetic and prophetic vision that comes at viewers in a close-up (Aronofsky steers clear of any wide shots), dream-like pace that weaves through genres at whiplash speed. Never has a movie more deserved an exclamation point at the end of its title. Each scene demands rather than invites viewers to ask the questions: What is happening? What does this mean? Or, as some have chosen to do, just walk out. And yet, if you are in a place where you can consent to such a demanding exercise, mother! is a deeply convicting, truth-telling piece of art, especially for Christians. mother! asks questions with which Christians cannot avoid struggling.

Like all good art, mother! is about several different things. It’s about patriarchy, the male ego, and the corruption of fame. However, in this case, director Darren Aronofsky expressed frustration that much of his audience seems to be missing the main interpretive key that makes his movie intelligible.

(This is where a traditional warning about spoilers ahead might be appropriate, but as there is not much traditional about this movie, what follows can only be considered spoilers inasmuch as an interpretation of poetry could be considered spoiling the poem.) 

Aronofsky says explicitly that this is a movie about the abusive relationship between Mother Earth, God, and humanity, dramatized through Biblical stories. This is a movie about religion at its absolute worst. After a confusing (but later clarified… sort of) opening sequence involving a woman burning alive and the mystical re-creation of a burnt home, it is established that Mother and The Author (no character is given a name, only a title) live in an eerily isolated house. We pick up that He is an author that has hit a creative wall, and Mother, His wife, spends her increasingly lonely days restoring and decorating their home. The first act proceeds to explore their relationship through a harsh re-telling of biblical stories. Man arrives, suffers a mysterious rib injury, and is followed by Woman. The two arrogantly make a mess of the house, which Mother inwardly resents while He responds with infuriating grace, since the Man is such an admirer of His work. Then, Man and Woman break His most valued possession over which He exiles them from his office, which He then boards up and paints over. Man and Woman’s two sons show up, fighting over their inheritance before one murders the other, and the slain brother’s blood seeps into the house as well as Mother’s psyche, reappearing again and again throughout the film. He responds to the murder, not by throwing everyone out, but opening the house up for a chaotic funeral in which house guests take it upon themselves to paint the thoughtfully constructed house without asking in order to make their mark, and begin trying to steal things as keepsakes. What Mother calls abuse and destruction, He calls life and inspiration. The first act culminates in the house being flooded, Mother angrily ordering everyone out, a reconciliation between Mother and Him, the conception of a son, and inspiration finally bringing about a new collection of writing.

The first act was frustrating, but the second act of the film should leave any viewer deeply disturbed, particularly Christians. This film does not treat the church generously, nor should it. Kristen Wiig’s character, The Herald or The Publisher, who starts as the one responsible for distributing His new, inspired words, is last seen throwing bags over people’s heads before shooting them, execution style, and attempting to execute Mother herself. The religious figures all throughout the film are those who are rudely walking all over Mother, refusing to hear her, shaming her, destroying the home she has built, and mindlessly feeding the ego of their narcissistic leader, Him. While the second act begins with scattered, pilgrim fans coming to pay Him homage, the growing, uncontrollable mass is eventually responsible for the most gruesome sequence of the film, breaking the neck of Mother’s infant son, taking pieces of him and eating them in an appalling eucharistic ritual. (This is the breaking point for some viewers, who will choose to bow out of the experience. It is tolerable only because the film is so obviously symbolic and moves forward so quickly.) Mother is rightly horrified. He responds by telling Mother that they have to forgive the people, because they only want to love Him. Mother responds to this with anger so intense that it destroys the home in an apocalyptic blaze. The film ends as it began, almost frame for frame. He re-creates the house to try it all again, this time with a new Mother, and the cycle starts over.

Anyone who calls themselves a Christian must leave the theater asking: Is this really true? Is this the way we have treated Earth and each other? Is this adoration-hungry God the God of our scriptures? Because if it is, it seems pretty imperative that we abandon this whole religious thing and try something else, and that we do it quickly. I’ve lived in these questions since I left the theater several days ago. Especially as a pastor, I can’t stop asking myself: Do I play a role in perpetuating this destructive, abusive thing? mother! strikes too many true and familiar chords to be written off as inaccurate or unfair, and the only thing that could keep us from recognizing the truth of this film are our own, religiously baptized egos. Kristin Wiig’s portrayal of the church and the mob’s destructive incarnation of religion in general (though don’t forget that Aronofsky specifically chose the Christian sacred stories to weave this narrative of abuse) paints a pretty accurate portrait of our history: Crusades, the Inquisition, clergy sexual abuse, defenses of slavery, failure to act in the best interest of our planet, failure to notice those whom we oppress today (Who made the clothes you are wearing? What did they get paid?)… this all seems pretty spot on. And is He an accurate portrayal of the God of Christianity? Is the God of the scriptures so hungry for love, life, and creativity that He (and I use a male pronoun here because this God is also certainly the God of patriarchy) is willing to overlook and forgive gruesome injustices done to earth and one another? Or worse, has His thirst for life and creativity sparked a movement so strong and so destructive that it cannot be stayed?

These questions should be disturbing to any Christian, but standing in our tradition, they are questions we have to ask ourselves, mirrors we have to look into. While I believe there is a way forward, nothing about this film lets viewers off the hook, nor should any review of it. I propose any viewer start putting the pieces back together by asking questions like: Where am I in this story? And, if I were able to magically jump into this story, what would I do or say?

May you imagine a better, truer, and more healing story than the difficult story Aronofsky told in mother!, and may you own your agency to move us closer to it.

 

[Image taken from https://www.facebook.com/OfficialMotherMovie/photos/a.1475187919207129.1073741827.1318140161578573/1520866484639272/?type=3&theater]

Stories about Stories: Jacob’s Dream

Stories about Stories: Jacob’s Dream

The following story is based on Genesis 28:10-22.

Jacob woke up one day after a very strange dream. The details had slipped away from him, but a residual question was orbiting his mind, an echo of a lost memory: Where is God not? He didn’t pay it much attention. After all, this was Tuesday, and it was time for school. All the same, though, it echoed over and over again, rolling around in his head.

He stumbled out of bed and began pulling on his clothes. As he tied he shoes, the question came to him again, Where is God not? He looked at his shoes, and decided to try a little experiment. Is God in my shoes? He wondered to himself. Just before he wrote the question of as silly, something sparked within him. My parents didn’t have to buy me these shoes, he thought to himself, but they chose to, because they care for me. If they only cared about themselves, they wouldn’t care if I had good shoes, but I do. Something within them led them to love me and buy me shoes. Isn’t that God? Yes, he concluded. God is in these shoes.

Jacob rarely bothered with breakfast, and he was still struggling to wake up as his mom dropped him off at school. Where is God not? his mind continued to echo. As they did every morning, they drove past a tall and impressive, stone Catholic church downtown. He looked up, as he always did, at the tallest point, there was a statue of Jesus standing there with his arms open wide. They drove on to school.

His first class was Algebra 2. Brutal first thing in the morning. Today, as he looked at a whiteboard filled with numbers, letters, and formulas, he decided to ask himself again, is God in this math? As he looked up again, he saw the board differently. Instead of a hassle, for the first time, he saw wonder. He felt like Neo, glimpsing the complicated, green codes that held his universe together. He totally missed whatever the teacher was saying, but for a brief moment, sat in wonder at the language before him. Yes, he concluded. God is in the math.

Later in the day, the lunch hour rolled around. He shuffled through the line and took his square of suspicious looking lasagna. As he made his way to his table to sit with his friends, the thought occurred to him again. Is God in this lasagna? Thinking about it, he imagined what was about to happen. He was about to eat his food, fuel for his body to do some kind of work. He thought about the people he was going to eat it with, thought about all of the stories they had shared over other suspicious looking meals at that same table. He thought about how those conversations helped him feel not as lonely, helped him get to know these students as people, not just classmates. He thought about people that sat alone, that didn’t have a space like this, and just as he thought, yes, God is in the lasagna, he had another thought, more on an urge. Whatever it was that made him grateful for his food, his friends, whatever it was that made him stand in awe in front of the mystery of mathematics, whatever it was that had compelled his parents to buy him shoes, it compelled him to walk past his table to another inhabited by only one guy. He knew this guy ate alone most days, and he was pretty awkward to be around. Nevertheless, he invited him over to his table with his friends. He knew his friends would give him crap about it later, but he didn’t care. God was in the food, and God was in the invitation.

That night, after a mountain of homework, he fell into bed and finally dropped his phone long enough to fall asleep. He dreamt again. It was the same dream he had the night before, but this time, he held on to it. Somehow, his entire day was unfolded before him. He could simultaneously see his bedroom, classrooms, lunch rooms, and everywhere he had visited that day. He saw the tall Catholic church, but as he looked up at it’s tallest point, looking for the exalted Christ, but Jesus was not there. Disturbed, he started looking around, and there he saw him. Jesus was in a shoe store, purchasing him a pair of shoes. He was in a cosmic classroom, molding mathematical formulas as if they were his clay playthings. He was in the school kitchen, serving the food. He was in the lunch room, pointing Jacob to the student sitting alone at his table.

“Oh Jacob,” said a voice from next to him, making him jump. He turned and Jesus was surveying the scene with him. “Whether you all know it or not,” he continued, “I am never further away than your very breath.” Jesus turned and looked at Jacob. “You can either go through the motions of your day, a boring story of cold facts and events. Or…” Jesus turned to gesture back to the grand stage of Jacob’s dream, “You can choose to see this. To live an exciting story and worship in the face of mystery. The choice is always yours.”

Questions:

What do you notice about this story?

What does this story make you wonder about?

Who do you most identify with and why?

What might the author be saying about God in this story?

Why did people think this story was important enough to keep? What does it say about them that it still says about us?

How does this story encourage or challenge you?

 

[Image taken from the St. John’s Bible]

Stories about Stories: The Binding of Isaac

Stories about Stories: The Binding of Isaac

A teenager sits on the couch of her grandmother’s house, utterly exhausted. The day has taken everything out of her, and all she can’t shake the anxious feeling that she’s forgotten something, some assignment or chore or piece of homework. In walks her grandma, all dressed, her purse slung over her shoulder, saying it’s time to go to church. The teenager would rather crawl into a hole and be buried than leave the couch, and she tells her grandmother as much. “I don’t have time for that,” she complains.

Rather than insist, the grandmother sits down next to her granddaughter and asks what’s going on. Well, the granddaughter has been waiting for just a time such as this, and the floodgates open. She starts to tell her grandma how much she had to do at school, how much homework her teachers demanded of her, how much energy soccer demanded of her, how much attention friends demanded of her, how she feels like she isn’t pretty enough and smart enough, and how many chores and responsibilities parents demanded of her. When she finishes, she just wants to collapse on the floor, such is the weight of their expectation.

The grandma gets the point, but instead of agreeing and staying home, the grandma says she wants to tell her granddaughter a story. “Once upon a time,” she starts, “there was an old man named Abraham.”

The granddaughter says she doesn’t want to hear the story, but the grandma shushes her and carries on.

“This old man named Abraham and his wife Sarah had been unable to have kids for years, and when they had gotten too old to have kids, Abraham’s God miraculously provided them with a son anyway, and they named him Isaac, which means laughter because of how ridiculous it was that this old woman had a baby.

“Now all around Abraham there were other kinds of tribes that served all sorts of gods. If the tribes wanted their crops to grow, they would sacrifice to their god. If they wanted rain, they’d sacrifice to their god. When the crops didn’t grow or the rain didn’t come, they’d sacrifice more. When the crops did grow and the rains did come, they’d have to offer a sacrifice of thanks, but they lived in constant fear that they weren’t sacrificing enough, that the gods would get mad and prevent the crops from growing or stop the rain. So they sacrificed more and more and more, and many of them even went so far as to sacrifice what was most valuable to them, their own children, just to survive.

“Abraham knew about these tribes, he knew how hungry gods could be, which is why when his God asked him to offer his own son as a burnt offering, he wasn’t surprised.”

The granddaughter’s face shows that she things this is horrific, but the grandmother continues.

“He went about gathering the wood, calling for a couple of servants, a donkey, and his son, Isaac, and started off on the three day journey to find the mountain where he would offer up his son. Eventually, they make it, and Abraham tells his servants to wait while he and his son go to worship on the mountain, and then he and his son would come back and get them.”

The granddaughter interrupts, pointing out that Abraham couldn’t come back with his son if his son were dead, but her grandmother shushes her with a smile and keeps telling the story.

“Walking up the mountain, Isaac asked the obvious question: ‘If we’re going to sacrifice to God, where’s the sheep to sacrifice?’ Abraham replied, ‘God will provide the sacrifice, my son.’

“When they reached the top, Abraham grabbed Isaac and tied him up. He made an altar, and put Isaac up on top. He took his knife and raised it up to kill his son, but then, God grabbed his arm.

“‘Stop!’ his God said. ‘Abraham, I’ve done this to show you that I am not like the other gods. They eat up their people, they demand and demand and take and take and are never satisfied, but that is not the God you serve. Look behind you, I have provided you a ram for your sacrifice, but don’t hurt your son. I ask for trust and mercy, not sacrifice. I’ll provide for you, and as long as you trust me and work alongside me to re-create the world into something beautiful, you’ll never have to worry about whether or not you’re good enough or you’ve given enough.’

“Abraham turned around and saw the ram. He freed Isaac, and offered the ram God had provided in gratitude that this God was not like the other gods.”

The grandma stops here and asks her granddaughter, “Well, don’t you see?”

The granddaughter, confused, asks, “See what?”

“Oh child,” the grandma says, “you spend all day with hungry gods that demand your sacrifices. You give and give, trying to earn your place in the world. But as long as you are trusting that God is re-creating the world into something beautiful through love, as long as you’re participating in that work, you’ll never have to worry about whether you’ve done enough, or whether you’re good enough. You are enough.”

[Image taken from: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/cosmostheinlost/2015/09/10/when-god-deprives-and-sacrificing-to-the-market/]