Saturday, February 23, 2013

Getting Out Alive

If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up. Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies. (Psalm 27.10-11)

Under Siege

So it’s the Second Sunday of Lent and Oscar night, the one time during the year when my two greatest passions—faith and film—nod at each other in passing. (I should clarify: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t schedule its awards ceremony to coincide with Lent. Still, the two often overlap.) This year I’ve set a new personal best in seeing the nominated films. Other than two Foreign-Language nominees and four Documentary Shorts, I’ve seen everything. And what’s struck me about this year’s slate is the preponderance of movies about survival. It can be said that virtually all of the Best Picture nominees portray individuals dealing with traumatic events that threaten their wellbeing. Not all of them make it out alive. But this theme of facing horrendous odds is even more pronounced in the specialty categories.
  • In addition to Beasts of the Southern Wild (my favorite film of 2012), the Live-Action Short Nominees Asad, Buzkashi BoysDeath of Shadow, and Curfew present young people whose lives are irrevocably shaped by trauma, as does War Witch (Foreign Language Film) and Inocente (Documentary Short Subject), which introduces us to a 15-year-old homeless girl whose only hope exists in her extraordinary artistic ability.
  •  Literally all the Best Documentary nominees tell survival stories. Two (5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers) ponder the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. How to Survive a Plague recounts the genesis of ACT UP, the AIDS activist group that pressured the government and drug firms to develop effective treatments. The Invisible War paints a heartbreaking—and enraging—picture of veterans whose lives are forever scarred by rape while in the military. Searching for Sugar Man is the redemption tale of a 70s pop star presumed dead after his career tanked and he survived poverty as a day laborer in Detroit.
  • Chasing Ice (Best Song) is a harrowing documentary that chronicles climate change’s visible impact on the planet’s survival.

The pulse that races through these films beats with the sense of being under siege. There are no easy answers in these movies. Forces beyond their characters’ control raise seemingly insurmountable barriers and we can gauge how we’re feeling about our predicaments by how few of them earn that old “ triumph of the human spirit" cliché. These pictures have been chosen for the industry’s highest honor because they speak to us in urgent, inescapable ways. And what they’re telling us is not overly optimistic.

Souls at Their Extremes

Perhaps the Oscars’ close proximity has filtered my response to this weekend’s texts. But it seems to me that they, too, present vivid portraits of endangered survival. The Old Testament (Genesis 15.1-18) recounts God’s covenant with Abraham, who’s lost all hope of fatherhood. In Psalm 27, David feels beset on all sides, yet he resists the pressure to give up by declaring, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (v1) In Philippians, Paul contrasts the waywardness of those who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ” with the assurance of believers, whose “citizenship is in heaven.” “Stand firm in the Lord in this way,” he says. Then the Gospel (Luke 13.31-35) gives us the poignant moment when Jesus predicts His imminent death and mourns that, had things gone another way, His story might have ended differently. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem!” He cries. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Everything in these texts feels in flux and uncertain. The voices we hear are weary and confused. There are deeply struck notes of trepidation, conflict, and loneliness. The cries come from souls at their extremes, hanging on to hope against all hope, belief in spite of all evidence that things are not working out favorably. Abraham is too old to have children. David is a warrior king in retreat. The fledgling congregation at Philippi is in danger of being overtaken by heretics. And Jesus is facing certain death because His own people won’t listen to Him. To a one, these people travel rocky roads. They’re struggling to survive. And the vivid emotions that enfold them require turning to the only help they know: a God Who is personally involved in their lives, Who is a Friend that sticks closer than any sibling, Who will go with them to the end. There is optimism in these stories, but you have to look for it, because the situations they describe are bleak.

God is With Us

Reading the texts—my head swimming with movie images of children, families, nations, and a planet at grave risk—the stubborn faith that David proclaims in Psalm 27.10-11 grabbed my heart and lifted it. “If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up,” he says. “Teach me Your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.” While conflicts and confusion that befall us may not achieve the epic scale of Scripture and movies, they nonetheless bring us to points of crisis when we feel our very survival is at risk. Loved ones come and go, often laying responsibility for their departure at our doors. Unforeseen circumstances threaten our inner sense of self, stability, and strength. Time keeps ticking, stacking up regrets and disappointments that erode our hope for the future. Opposing opinions and false ideologies rob our clarity of purpose. The feeling that no one listens to us creates profound grief.

If we are to survive, we have to know that God is with us. Those nearest to us may walk away, but the Lord will take us up. When we place our lives in God’s hands, we pray David’s prayer: “Teach me Your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path.” God alone is able to carry us over life’s rocky roads. Only God can help us stand firm in the midst of chaos. Only God can provide stability in the time of trouble. If we emulate David’s confidence in his Maker, we will discover the truth at the end of Psalm 27: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” Whatever we face, if we place our patience and trust in God, God will take us up. We will get out alive.

Surviving life’s traumas and terrors is the binding theme in this year’s Academy Awards. And we see a similar array of survivors in Sunday’s texts.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Keep Talking

Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. (Romans 12.12)

The proliferation of wireless technology has fixed it so we never shut up. With smart phone in hand, we can fill up every spare moment with conversation. Either we’re chattering away, texting like houses afire, or shooting back emails. Our time is now so consumed with communication we can’t spare a minute to spell things out. We’re well past quick-typed acronyms and emoticons. Abbreviations now litter our speech. “That’s more than I need to know” has become “TMI.” “She’s my closest friend” is reduced to “BFF.” Where did this talking sickness come from? It’s as though having the capability to talk with anyone, anywhere, at any time unscrewed our corks and we’ve lost all control over torrents of words pouring out of us. We’ve become afflicted with a bottomless need to tell everyone everything, whether or not what we have to say really needs to be said.

Now suppose all these gizmos we’re attached to could only access one number and the responder at the other end was God. Would we be as enthusiastic about technology? Would we use it as freely and frequently as we do with other people? Would lines wrap around the block, with crazed consumers camped out overnight to get their mitts on the latest iPhone? Probably not. Talking to God—or texting or emailing God or scrolling through God’s Facebook posts—doesn’t have the same appeal that bending another human’s ear has. It’s estimated that Americans, on average, spend more than an hour of each day interacting with one another through their mobile devices. Imagine how that figure would plummet if our gadgets were solely dedicated to reaching God. Would we even know how to fill an hour in conversation and exchanging messages with God?

Prayer is the mother of all wireless technologies. And nothing we’ve invented—or ever will invent—can top its reliability and effectiveness. Prayer comes with a time-tested guarantee of no dropped calls. Satellite coverage is never an issue. It never goes to voicemail. Our words never break up. We never have to worry about having the Listener’s undivided attention. It’s never too early or late to call. Indeed, prayer’s technology is so advanced that we don’t even need to open our mouths. We can pray in our heads and the unspoken things on our hearts still reach God. That’s why all our excuses for not praying more make no sense. It’s ludicrous to think we don’t have time to pray, when we can pray whenever we want to tell God something. It’s silly to confine our prayers to certain places, like church or our bedside, as if they’re celestial phone booths. No matter where we are, we are never out of God's reach.

So why aren’t we praying more? Nothing whatsoever is stopping us from staying in frequent contact with our Maker. Maybe it’s because praying feels awkward to us. Maybe we don’t spend more time in prayer because we don’t know what to say. That makes sense. But it also makes sense that the more we pray, the better we get at it. So there may be long stretches of silence. So what? It’s okay to hang on the line with God. The silence can be illuminating. It encourages us to dig deeper and articulate problems and emotions that make us uncomfortable. If what we have to say is too much for God's ears, why would we ever trust another human to handle it?

Romans 12.12 urges, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” We can employ Lent’s focus to alert us to dozens of prayer opportunities that come our way every day. Five minutes here, fifteen there—it all adds up. When a moment to pray presents itself, make the most of it. Consider giving your friends on speed dial a break. Tell God the same things you would say to them. Bend your Creator’s ear every chance you get. Keep talking.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Always Content, Never Complacent

I have learned to be content with whatever I have. (Philippians 4.11)

“I don’t like Paul.” I’ve heard several people say this lately. My response is always the same—a sympathetic nod—because Paul isn’t easy to like. On one page, he takes our breath away with eloquent dissertations on God’s grace. On the next, he trips all over himself, snarling at his detractors, belittling women, and mistaking swagger for certainty. But while I too quarrel with Paul’s personality and more than a few of his ideas, I like him very much. I like him because he’s difficult to like. I like him because he’s never reluctant to admit to his messiness. Most of all, I like him because he’s our finest example of a sincere Christian trying to figure out how all of this is supposed to work and what it all means.

I see Paul as a sort of lead investigator in the faith lab. He’s constantly at work, observing new phenomena, combining ancestral beliefs with novel approaches, debunking outdated myths, replacing them with fresh paradigms, and always—always—struggling unlock the Gospel’s revolutionary truths. Paul insists on publishing his findings as he goes, a daring proposition for anyone carving out new territory, let alone someone tasked with establishing the principles and practices of a radical faith movement. As a result, we’re privy to his blunders as well as his breakthroughs. It’s why we see him barrel down a dead-end alley one place—for instance, in his condescension toward women’s roles in the home and church—and then reverse his direction elsewhere, as he does by declaring, “there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” in Galatians 3. These flaws attest to Paul’s obsession with figuring things out. Despite his irksome vanity, he’s not interested in proving how smart he is. He’s doing his best to put everything together for the sake of the Gospel. He may not be likeable. But he’s always sincere.

We can get closer to Paul by recalling that, like many of us, he’s the product of a highly prescriptive faith environment. Before Christ charges him to be an Apostle, he already knows the Hebrew Bible by heart and has gained respect as a model seminarian. On top of that, he’s a Roman citizen, a foreign-born Jew of the merchant class, a person of privilege. So he comes from an entirely different place than the other disciples. By the time he’s stopped by a vision of Jesus on the Damascus Road, he’s sure he’s got a handle on how things work. Now he has to start all over again. And one of the key shifts in Paul’s life occurs when he learns to differentiate between complacency and contentment.

In Philippians 4.11-13, we find Paul’s magnificent contentment confession: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have… In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” And what is his secret? “I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me.” We can assume Paul’s talking only about his physical and material needs. Yet I’m of the mind it runs deeper than that. I believe he would also add, “I know what it’s like to be religiously complacent and how to be content with unanswered questions. I can remain committed to trying to figure it all out, while conceding it’s more than I can ever comprehend.” Now his famous “I can do all things” statement becomes an epic declaration of faith in the making.

I’m thoroughly convinced that every Lenten desert contains a Damascus Road of some kind—a bracing encounter with Christ that calls us away from shallow lives of religious complacency and leads to the deeper mysteries of faith. We won’t figure it all out. We’ll make blunders and find ourselves backtracking from ideas we’ve embraced in the past. Not everyone will be happy with us. But in our pursuit of right relationship with God we can find contentment. Paul told Timothy, “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.” (1 Timothy 6.6) Pursuing God’s will and way inevitably requires us to start over, clearing away ready-made answers to make room for questions we can’t possibly resolve. But when we combine that with contentment, we will gain strength for our journey and discover lives of faith that are anything but complacent.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

"I" and "We"

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us. (1 John 4.11-12)

Lent invites us to participate in a global event that replicates two emblematic treks: the New Testament stories of Jesus’s 40-day sojourn in the desert and the Hebrew Bible’s account of Israel’s 40-year wilderness journey. In one, we watch as Jesus’s personal identity as God’s Chosen Son is tested and refined. In the other, we witness the formation of community, as the Israelites’ ordeal becomes a crucible that forges their identity as God’s Chosen people. While being “chosen” is central to both narratives, they play out in remarkably different ways that Lent asks us to reconcile. The great tension in Lent’s discipline urges us to examine our lives in two spheres that often generate conflict: individuality versus community, personal versus public, “I” versus “we.”

As we end our first week in this metaphorical desert, we’re apt to wonder what we’re supposed to be doing out here. Like Jesus and the Israelites, it’s too soon in this process for us to ascertain its real purpose. (And this year is different than all the previous ones, because we are different.) Ostensibly, we enter Lent in search of God—all the while knowing we will never actually see God, because no one ever has. Even so, the question that haunts us is, “How shall we meet God?” Or, put another way, “How will God find us?”

If we undertake Lent purely as a solo quest—cocooning ourselves in private introspection and prayer—we won’t complete the task it assigns to us. On the other hand, if we ignore its personal demands and treat it as a group effort, our work will also go undone. Lent’s ultimate goal is to restore awareness that God has chosen us, as individuals and a community. That is where our true identity, personally and publicly, is discovered and sustained.

Fortunately, we know where our journey culminates. No matter how circuitous this year’s route may be, it stops at the foot of the cross, where God’s love for each of us is lavishly displayed. Then it ultimately lands at the empty tomb, where resurrection empowers Christ’s followers to change the world. And there it is again: individuality and community, personal and public, “I” and “we."

First John 4.11-12 beautifully synthesizes the Lenten dynamic for us. God’s love for each of us transforms us so we can love one another. Although we will never actually see God (not in this lifetime, that is), God’s love enables others to see God in us and us to see God in them, because God lives in all of us. “And God’s love is perfected in us,” John says, which brings the personal aspects of Lent’s refining process into the picture.

We have been chosen, as individuals and a community, to discover and reveal God’s love. In this respect, Lent’s desert is neither a wasteland nor a lonely place. It runs wild with rivers of love that flow over us and through us, individually and collectively. As God’s love is perfected in each of us, God is more clearly seen by all of us. So the answer to both questions—is Lent about “me” or is at about “us”—is an emphatic “Yes!”