The Force Awakens

A Sermon for Sunday December 27 (The First Sunday Of Christmas), Luke 2:41-52 and Colossians 3:12-17

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There’s been an awakening. Have you felt it? The Dark side, and the Light.

Those are the words that the sinister Supreme Leader Snoke says to his young apprentice Kylo Ren, a masked Darth Vader want-to-be, during the latest installment in the Star Wars movie series: Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

Three decades after jedi master Luke Skywalker and his friends have shattered the Empire by blowing up the Death Star and defeating The Emperor and Vader in Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi, the dark side of the force is rising once again.

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The First Order

And this time it appears in the form of the Nazi-like First Order, an organization led by Snoke and Ren, which is determined to rule the galaxy and extinguish the light side of the force, which is beginning to manifest itself in the life of a young woman named Rey.

Living alone on a desert planet, Rey survives by daily scavenging parts from wrecked space ships to buy meager amounts of bread to eat. Throughout The Force Awakens, Rey displays cleverness, compassion, kindness, humility, bravery and resiliency as she learns the ways of the Force and battles the Dark Side of The First Order.

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Rey and the droid BB8

For Star Wars fans and regular film goers, Rey has become an instant favorite, a powerful heroine for the 21st century. But some of the characters in the film, both good and bad, don’t fully understand her.

Even though these characters are well acquainted with the story of Luke and Vader and have seen the Force at work, they don’t recognize Rey’s unique gifts.

There’s been an awakening of the light side of the force in their galaxy. They have felt it. The light. The dark. They know it has to do with Rey.

But they’re not sure what to with this immense power associated with her. And so they put Rey in a box made of their expectations about how a young woman should act, which of course, she defies at every turn during the film.

 

Similarly, there’s been an awakening of a powerful force in our universe. We celebrate it every year in the seasons of Advent and Christmas:

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“The Nativity” by Carol Aust

–The light of the peasant child born in a smelly, dirty manger that got the attention of angels, shepherds and magi and frightened a terrible murderous king.

–The light of the child who grew up to be  man who–with only the clothes on his back and the sandals on his feet–would share a whole lot of love and grace with the poor, the oppressed and the sinners.

–The light of Christ that shines in the dark and which the dark cannot overcome.

We’ve felt this awakening. The Light in the dark.

But we’re not always sure of what to make of Christ’s birth or how to respond to this powerful force of Light in our lives.

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The boy Jesus in the temple

According to today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is 12 years old when he and his family go to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. Biblical scholars point out that a 12-year-old boy wasn’t “just a kid” by Israel’s standards—“he is becoming a man.” Jesus, like all 12-year-old boys of the time, is entering young adulthood. He is learning more about life and the world. He is discovering his purpose and calling.

Unlike his peers, though, Jesus is beginning to embrace his identity as savior and redeemer of all of creation. Jesus, scholars say, “isn’t just Mary’s boy or Joseph’s son. Jesus has a direct relationship with God as his Father, and he knows his life will follow a path of working for God.”

Oddly, though, Jesus’ mother Mary and stepdad Joseph appear to have forgotten about Jesus relationship with God and don’t seem to appreciate that their missing son is in the only place he could be: God’s sanctuary, preparing for his ministry.

And even after Jesus questions them, the gospel writer says Mary and Joseph were still unable to understand him.

Maybe they were so wrought with emotions that all they could think about was getting their boy home and nothing else. It’s a lot of pressure, for sure, to be the caregivers of Emmanuel—God-with-us who is both perfectly human and perfectly divine. And I suppose Jesus could’ve cut Mary and Joseph some slack and not talked back to them when they were clearly distressed.

However, I think there is something more to this gospel passage than a lesson to be learned about the relationship between parents and teens or that Jesus’ family life is a lot like anyone’s with mishaps and misunderstandings.

With no disrespect to Mary and Joseph’s parenting and their genuine concern for their son, I’d like to suggest that this incident says more about their and our desire to make Christ stay within the boundaries we set for him. And assumptions that Christ will stay there.

Mary and Joseph expect Jesus to stay with the caravan of travelers (extended family members and neighbors from their home in Galilee) and to not leave. When they discover Jesus is missing and search for him, the temple is the last place they check. And when they see him inside talking with the rabbis, they feel Jesus has mistreated them.

But it’s kind of silly that they’re acting this way because this is not just any missing Jewish kid. This is Jesus. Son of God. Savior of all.

His question to them, “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” makes a lot of good sense.

Where else would he go but to the temple? Why else would he be there than to be about God’s business of building a kingdom where the good news would be brought to the poor and the captive would be released and the blind would recover sight and the oppressed would go free?

None of this about Jesus was new to Mary and Joseph. They knew Jesus was God-in-the-flesh and the One who would conquer the Roman Empire that ruled over them and save the world from sin and death.

But maybe they didn’t know what to do with all that knowledge at the time. It was probably too overwhelming to contemplate on most days and much easier to see Jesus as an ordinary child who would always obediently stay by their side and never leave.

So rather than focusing on Jesus’ true identity and purpose, they chose to cling to a different version that placed Jesus in a box or within boundaries defined by their own view and expectations of him as a regular ole dutiful Jewish son.

Because when Jesus defied those views and expectations, as he so often does in the New Testament and life, Mary and Joseph panicked!

In the moment that they discovered Jesus was missing, they never stopped to consider that he might actually be safe or that he might be somewhere else doing God’s work—the work he was born to do.

They just freaked out.

And the truth is that we’re no different from Mary and Joseph.

We know and feel deep in our hearts that this child is the harbinger of hope, peace, love and joy. This baby laying in the hay, this 12-year-old boy in the temple, is the most creative, loving and merciful being there ever was, is, or will be, and this being, this God-with-us, cares about each and every one of us.

There’s been an awakening. We know it. We feel it.

And yet, we don’t always act on what we know and feel and what we say we believe. The entire concept of Jesus can be so difficult to comprehend, let alone respond to, at times that we choose to keep a much more manageable version of God-with-us for ourselves; we unfortunately put Jesus in boxes and within boundaries of our making.

Maybe it’s the one called home where Jesus is more known, read, talked and prayed about than anywhere else.

Or it’s the location known as the neighborhood where all the good Christians live and raise their families.

Or it could be the state of residence where the most devout believers of Jesus work and pay taxes and vote.

Or maybe it’s the nation where Jesus’ teachings have lived and thrived for more than 200 years.

Or quite possibly it’s the church with the most friendly and welcoming and inclusive congregation.

Whatever the box or boundary may be, when we turn around and realize Jesus is no longer where we thought we put him, we panic. We become frantic and upset and indignant:

Why isn’t Jesus close by so we bring him home and keep an eye on him?!?! What do you mean Jesus is far from here and with people who are so vastly different from us?!?! How could this be?!?!

No matter how accustomed we become to the boxes we make and the boundaries we set, Christ can never be contained.

Christ is always with the people and in the places we least expect. And when we try to keep Christ in, we inevitably shut others out—those whom Christ also calls beloved.

The apostle Paul reminds us to “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”

 The awakening of Christ’s Light is not a force that we can fully comprehend or always understand in utmost detail. And it’s definitely not something we can keep and manage in our comfort zones.

Instead it is a force that knows no bounds as it connects and flows through every living thing—a force that continually calls us to boundlessly share love and peace everywhere we roam.

We just have to set aside our own expectations and boxes and allow the Light to dwell within—filling our hearts, enveloping us completely and guiding all of our steps.

That, my friends, is not make-believe. It is true…all of it.

Amen.

…………………

Biblical scholar quotes come from editors notes in The Voice Bible

All photos come from Google Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Song for Dead Saturday: Hurt by Johnny Cash

“Hurt”
(originally written and performed by Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails)

I hurt myself today 
To see if I still feel 
I focus on the pain 
The only thing that’s real 
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting 
Try to kill it all away 
But I remember everything 

[Chorus:]
What have I become 
My sweetest friend 
Everyone I know goes away 
In the end 
And you could have it all 
My empire of dirt 
I will let you down 
I will make you hurt 

I wear this crown of thorns 
Upon my liar’s chair 
Full of broken thoughts 
I cannot repair 
Beneath the stains of time 
The feelings disappear 
You are someone else 
I am still right here 

[Chorus:]
What have I become 
My sweetest friend 
Everyone I know goes away 
In the end 
And you could have it all 
My empire of dirt 
I will let you down 
I will make you hurt 

If I could start again 
A million miles away 
I would keep myself 
I would find a way

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: Kid President’s Guide To Being Awesome by Brad Montague and Robby Novak

safe_image.phpOf all the movers and shakers and dreamers in this world, the one that has influenced me the most over the last few years (who happens to not be a renown politician, entrepreneur, entertainer, athlete, scientist, author and social activist ) is 11-year-old Robbby Novak, aka Kid President, “self-appointed voice of a generation.”  Along with his brother-in-law Brad Montague, Kid President strive to make the world more awesome through creative, inspiring videos, blog/social media posts, and now their New York Times best-selling book: Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome (which features numerous ideas on how to be awesome; illustrated transcripts of the videos and interviews with kids and adults who are making a difference in their  communities) Robby’s philosophy and outlook on life comes straight from the heart of a ridiculous, charming, silly, loving kid who sincerely wants people to embrace their awesomeness and “treat everybody like it’s their birthday.”

11046952_511758008964852_4478923496441481174_nThere is not an ounce of naiveté or empty platitudes within the pages of the book or the videos. Robby is not a kid who looks at life with rose-colored glasses. He sees the hurt in the world, and knows intimately about pain and agony and disappointment . And yet, despite his personal health struggles, Kid President is determined to spread love. “As human beings,” we are capable of lots of bad stuff,”he says, “but also cupcakes.”

In the “Who We Are” section of the blog, Brad explains the origins of Kid President and the desire he and Robby have to change things for the better:

We created our first Kid President video in July of 2012 out of the simple belief that kids have voices worth listening to. Never did we imagine our journey would take us the places it has. Who knew a little can and string could connect you to everyone from bestselling author Nick Hornby to actor Rainn Wilson or to the President of the United States?

We’re doing this because we believe kids can change the world. We also believe grown ups can change the world. It just takes all of us working together.

The idea for Kid President came a few years ago. My wife and I started a camp for kids who want to change the world, GO! Camp. We were blown away by the ideas and the hearts of the students there. These students wanted nothing more than to leave the world better than they found it. After seeing their creativity and compassion I couldn’t help but think – wouldn’t it be cool if we listened to kids more?

Robby, age 10, is my little brother-in-law. He’s full of life and ideas. Robby has Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) a brittle bone condition which has resulted in him having over 70 breaks since birth. What’s inspiring about Robby isn’t his condition, but the fact that his condition doesn’t define who he is. In spite of all he’s been through he not only keeps going – he dances.

The two of us work on each episode together. There’s no fancy film crew or staff. It’s just us having fun and hoping we create something that makes people happier than they were before they clicked play. Our hope is that each episode is received with the same love that started this whole adventure.

As Kid President says, “Love changes everything. So fill the world with it.”

Brad says in the book’s introduction that Kid President is a joyful rebellion:

The best moments are fueled by a joyful vision of what could be. There’s the way things are in the world, and there’s the way things could be…A joyful rebellion is you living differently not because you’re mad at how things are but because you are swelling with joy at the thought of how things could be. When you joyfully rebel against your circumstances, against mediocrity or negativity, you invite others into something really beautiful.tumblr_nkr1nsgu2B1qdpc8po1_1280

Even though he has adopted the moniker of Kid President, Robby isn’t trying to aspire to be President Obama or any other politician (today or in the past). He’s not asking for charity or looking for fame and power. He just wants to convey a simple and profound message that each and every person is loved and that folks are capable of showing love and using their gifts to do something extraordinary together (words that are echoed in Jesus teachings of a better way for humanity).

What might the world look like if we shed our fear of and anger at those who are different from us and learned to joyfully rebel and envision (and dare I say live out) how things could be? 

What might the world look like if we set aside the things that distract us and engaged with one another more, worked with one another more to follow our collective passions and build something beautiful and good?

What might the world look like if we made more time to say, “I forgive you,” and “I’m sorry,” and “You can do it”? What might the world look like if we were more compassionate and less hurtful in our words and actions?

tumblr_nlo971X3ko1rav3clo1_1280What might the world look like if we took more time to dance, to share corndogs and “treat everybody like it’s their birthday”?

If we did those things, maybe there would be less suicides among LGBTQ teens, less discriminatory laws , less threats of violence, less racism toward blacks and other minorities

So what are we waiting for? Like Kid President says, “This is life people. You got air coming through your nose; you got a heartbeat. That means it’s time to do something.”

Let us do something

Let us dance and joyful rebel 

Let us counter hate with love

Let us be heroes who change the world 

Together. Always together.

 

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: March, Book 2 by John Lewis

President Barak Obama, Congressman John Lewis and former President George W. Bush hold hands during the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Selma Marches in March, 1965. Photo Credit: Gerald Herbert, Associated Press
President Barak Obama, Congressman John Lewis and former President George W. Bush hold hands during the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Selma Marches in March, 1965. Photo Credit: Gerald Herbert, Associated Press

During a speech this weekend commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the historic Selma marches to secure voting rights for blacks, Congressman John Lewis said:

“We come to Selma to be renewed. We come to be inspired. We come to be reminded that we must do the work that justice and equality calls us to do…Don’t give up on things of great meaning to you. Don’t get lost in a sea of despair. Stand up for what you believe.”

This wasn’t the typical political rhetoric but great wisdom from a man who at the age of 24 was beaten and bloodied nearly to the point of death on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, a day that became known as Bloody Sunday and signified a turning point in the Civil Rights movement.

Bloody Sunday was also a seminal moment in Lewis’ life and for many people across generations, it’s the event they immediately connect to the Civil Rights icon. But that experience on the Bridge, in which he suffered a skull fracture, wasn’t the first time Lewis had been attacked by racists (regular citizens and police) or faced death.  It was an all-too common experience for Lewis who, as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the youngest of the Big Six Civil Rights Leaders. During his time in college, Lewis was an active member of the Freedom Riders who rode segregated buses throughout the South to challenge the non-enforcement of the United States Supreme Court Decision which ruled that segregated buses were unconstitutional.

march_book_two_72dpi_lgThose brutal, harrowing and fearful days of the Freedom Rides are chronicled in the marvelous graphic novel, March, Book 2 by John Lewis and Andrew Adyin with extraordinary illustrations by  artist Nate Powell.

Over the last 20 years, comics have become more than just funny pages for kids to read. And graphic novels have gone beyond the exploits of super heroes to portray–with breathtaking words and art–the real life figures who have shaped our country and world for the better.

And March, Book 2 (as well as March, Book 1 whose opening scene depicts the first attempted march on the Bridge) are as fine as pieces of literature as any history book or biography. The level of detail that is captured from Lewis memories is such an incredible gift to readers.

march-book-2-clothes-e1422956768462While I have considered myself to have better-than-average knowledge bout the Civil Rights movement as a preacher, admirer of Dr. King and former Birmingham newspaper reporter, I was still astounded by the particular hardships that Lewis and other activists faced during the Freedom Rides and on a daily basis. And I also was profoundly amazed by the activists’ sense of humor that served as the kindling to keep the spark of hope alive. And I continue to be moved by Lewis’ (among others) valiant commitment to non-violent protests for equality and non-violent responses to the horrendous violence they endured for simply wanting to vote, use a bathroom or eat at a lunch counter.

John Lewis gives a beautiful interview on “The Art and Discipline of Nonviolence” for Krista Tippet’s On Being, which still be heard and downloaded here. However, to see the stories come alive on the pages of March is mesmerizing. It is impossible not to be drawn into the story and witness the strength and courage that Lewis, Nash, Shuttlesworth, Williams, King, etc., exhibited during a tumultuous time in this nation’s history.  And it is also difficult to not be reminded of how some of the same scenes in the story are being re-enacted today, whether in Ferguson or Ohio, New York or Oklahoma.

Come to think of it, probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for some University of Oklahoma frat boys to get their hands on some copies of March and immerse themselves in the stories of brave black men and women, children, teens and adults who non-violently crusaded for freedom.

Actually, it would do good for all of us to read (and re-read) the stories of the Civil Rights movement so we can continually learn how to practice the ways of non-violence to combat the racism and hatred that is occurring in black communities today.

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Congressman John Lewis holding a copy of March, Book 2. Photo Credit: Yahoo News

As Lewis eloquently tweeted: “Our march continues. There is great work still to be done. Dedicate yourself to nonviolent social change, and we shall overcome.”

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: Dear White People by Justin Simien

Dear White People is one of the most important films of this day and age, and one of the best films of 2014. It was also snubbed by the white-centric Academy of Motion Pictures during Oscar time.  But, dear white readers of this blog, that doesn’t mean you have to snub it or the book which is equally wonderful and powerful companion piece of art. 

Justin Simien infuses the book, Dear White People: A Guide to Inter-racial Harmony in “Post-Racial” America with the same biting satire and wit that is found in his ground-breaking debut film. It’s the actualized version of Sam White’s commentary on her underground radio station at the fictional (but realistic Ivy-league) Winchester University. 

The book is a laugh-out-loud, thought provoking and convicting read. Although I have become more aware of my own prejudices and racist attitudes, this book shed more light on my whiteness and the privilege of my skin.  I was immediately taken aback by a paragraph in Simien’s introduction:

For black folks, being stereotyped is nothing new, but it typically can have a very real impact on their daily lives, even when it comes in the form of well-meaning gestures and questions from their white friends or colleagues like, “As a Black Person, why do you think people talk back to the screen in movies?” These are called “microagressions.” It’s not lynch-mob racism, but being spoken to or even treated in a kind way because of an assumption about your race by a member of a race that on the whole has cultural, political and economic control can feel unsettling.

This is one of many microagressions that I commit in my thinking or in conversations with other whites, and an assumption that, well, plainly put, makes me an ass for having such thoughts.

Amid the clever and humorous quizzes and charts where one can seriously discover microagression translations; determine whether you are “tokening your black friend”; and discern when it’s the right time to wear Blackface (ummm…never);  there are passages that hold the mirror of my racism up against my nose.

The section of the book that struck a deep chord with me was the chapter “Please Stop Touching My Hair,” in which Simien breaks down the racist implications in white people’s fascination with black people’s hair:

A white co-worker might wonder with admiration, no less, how a black woman can come to work with a Halle Berry-style pixie cut one day and a shoulder-length blow-out the next. “How does she do it?” this hypothetical white coworker might say motto voce. And while that’s a fair question, using your fingers to find the answer will only ensure that Sheryl in accounting will stop inviting you to lunch…

For some black people, being asked for permission to have their hair touched or, worse yet, having it touched by surprise elicits a visceral negative reaction. We can’t help it. According to the theories of Carl Jung…all of us have powerful genetic memories going back to our ancestors. Do not be surprised if a black person responds to a request to touch their hair by defiantly yelling out, “I AM KUNTA KINTE!” They are subconsciously recalling that scene in Roots where Geordi from Star Trek is being poked and prodded by a slave trader. Thus is the nature of genetic memory, probably.

tumblr_n971hrX0Tl1r8jjn6o1_500-1423262633Even if images from made-for-TV slavery stories aren’t the first things that come to mind for the person on the receiving end of all of this curiosity, the feeling of being on display at, say a petting zoo isn’t one anyone would want to feel at work, home, or play. Adding adorable phrases around the request doesn’t help either. Whether you’re saying, “Wow, that’s beautiful; may I?” “Your little naps are so cute!”; or “Lower yo’ head, boy, so Massa can inspect you,” it all comes across, more or less in the same way. There are, of course, some notable exceptions to this rule. In intimate relationships, for instance, it is natural.

The reason why this resonated–why I suddenly “got it”–is because of an incident that occurred about eight years ago at a Presbyterian Middle School Youth Conference in Virginia. A black seminary classmate, friend and fellow conference leader, shaved his head three days into the event. I and another friend (a white female and also a seminary classmate and conference leader) were so fascinated by his new look that we enthusiastically ran up to him and rubbed his head. Rightly so, he got angry and snapped back at us: “Don’t ever touch my head!” I remember feeling a sudden sense of guilt because I was unexpectedly scolded and also because I knew I’d done something wrong, although I wasn’t sure why. In the moment, my other friend and I thought he was being over-sensitive and we chalked it up to him just needing space or being tired/moody at that particular moment (which all of us get at conferences due to long hours, lots of high energy activities and little, little sleep).

But now I understand that what we did was wrong. We treated him like he was something on display, a pet at a petting zoo. This microagression (or maybe it was closer to a macro one) was even worse in the context–an all white conference in which he was the lone person of color. Although we didn’t realize it, our desire to rub his freshly buzzed head was racist. When I first read Simien’s words, I attempted to justify my actions, thinking that “Well, surely I would’ve rubbed the buzz cut of a good white friend who had shaved their head because a) it’s so dramatically different and b) buzz cuts feel cool. And maybe I have or would have. But a) that’s kind of creepy even if it’s a good white friend and b) the action doesn’t erase the fact that it’s wrong and racist to do that to a person who is black.  It’s a personal domain that shouldn’t be invaded and no one’s head, regardless of race and especially because of their skin color, should be on display for white hands.

To my friend, I’m sorry for violating your personal space and for offending you. And I lament that it took me this long to realize my wrongdoing.

The irony of this convicting book (which should also be read alongside the incredibly insightful But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race by Bruce Reyes-Chow) is that white people shouldn’t need black people to educate them about their humanity as Simien expresses with a quote from Audre Lorde:

When Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity…the oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves…

And yet, at the same time, if I didn’t get the education I’d never be aware of my sins and shortcomings and be motivated to change for the better. I suppose the difference with me is that  I don’t expect other black people to educate me, but am open to the views of people who are different (race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, etc.)—views  and voices that will reshape my heart and understanding of the world I live in so I can be a better participant in it. So I can take responsibility for my own actions and find an alternative and non-oppressive position in which to stand.

This book has affected my perspective in ways that other books haven’t.  From sections on black myth busting and a deconstruction of the idea that we a post-racial society, I am seeing with new eyes.  Simian’s voice and art is to be treasured.

Toy Story, Christmas and the Act of Surrender

MV5BOTc2OTA1MDM4M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjczMDk5MjE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Since I was a kid, my all time favorite cartoon Christmas specials have been How The Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas. Until this year. When I added a third one to the list.

At the beginning of the month, we DVRed the Disney Pixar animated short Toy Story That Time Forgot which features the characters from the beloved Toy Story franchise.

The show opens with Bonnie (the new owner of Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the gang from Toy Story 3, Toy Story Toons and Toy Story of Terror) playing with her toys two days after Christmas (but still in the Christmas season, mind you).

After Bonnie leaves the room for a bit, Trixie the Triceratops expresses her disappointment over not being played with as a ferocious dinosaur. Instead Bonnie makes her a goblin fairy, a customer at an ice cream shop, and a baby reindeer while the part of the dinosaur is played only by Rex or another toy. In this particular moment, the toy Bonnie chooses to be a prehistoric beast (or Kittysaurus) is an adorable Christmas Tree Ornament named Angel Kitty.

Angel Kitty is a cute toy who only utters simple (but profound in retrospect) philosophical-theological sayings. After Trixie finishes her rant, Bonnie races back into the room to pack up Buzz, Woody, Rex, Trixie and Angel Kitty for a play-date with her friend Mason.

After being referred to again as a baby reindeer, Trixie lets out a loud sigh, prompting Angel Kitty to say “Greet the world with an open heart.” Trixie, of course, just rolls her eyes and the rest of the group gives the kitten puzzled stares because they don’t know what to make of the newcomer’s positive tone.

When Bonnie arrives at Mason’s house to find her friend playing a brand new virtual reality video game system in the upstairs den, the girl tosses her toys into Mason’s playroom and picks up a pair of googles and a game controller.

The gang is stoked about Mason’s video game system, especially Rex, the video game junkie, who while shaking his small T-rex hands, remarks “You’ve got to be kidding me! He got an Optimus X for Christmas!…Sadly, the controls are beyond my limitations.”

Angel Kitty responds matter-of-factually: “Limitations are the shackles we bind ourselves.” Again, her companions look at her puzzled.

Buzz, Woody, etc. then climb out of Bonnie’s backpack and soon discover that Mason has also received a brand new toy line of battling dinosaurs called Battlesaurs, which have been taken out of their boxes and set up in a corner of the room.

TSTTF-2-300x168The Battlesaurrs are led by Reptillus Maximus and the Cleric. Trixie is delighted that she has found her place in a toy set filled with dinosaurs. Reptillus takes an excited Trixie (and Rex) to get suited up in their own battle armor while unbeknownst to them, the Cleric kidnaps Woody, Buzz and Angel Kitty, to be used later in gladiatorial combat ring known as the “Arena of Woe.”  As Reptillus shows Trixie his home, the two become smitten with one another and the worlds they live in.

During a conversation atop Reptillus lair, Trixie says to the brave warrior: “You must have the most amazing play-times.” Reptillus, unfamiliar with the concept of play-time, asks Trixie to explain. She goes on: “You know, play. When you give yourself over to a kid.”  Trixie’s words startle Reptillus who replies: “Giving is surrender! A Battlesaur would never surrender!”

Later, the two are called into the “Arena of Woe” to battle. Initially Trixie believes it’s all pretend play until Reptillus starts tearing apart Mason’s old toys who have also entered the ring, a plastic penguin and an old Sock Monkey. Turns out that Reptillus and the other Battlesaurs, except for the Cleric, don’t know they are toys. Mason has never played with them since he’s been sucked in by his video games. And the wise but evil Cleric is determined to keep the others in the dark so he can remain their ruler.

When Buzz, Woody and Angel Kitty are thrust into the arena, Trixie stands up to Reptillus and makes him stop, only to reveal that she has the name of Bonnie on her foot (just like Woody and Buzz had “Andy” the name of their previous owner’s on their feet).

The Cleric deems Trixie a “slave of obedience” and an enemy who should be disposed. Trixie narrowly escapes the arena to get Bonnie’s attention in the video game room. The Cleric commands Reptillus to go after her and while chasing Trixie, he runs into the box he came, shocked to realize he is actually an action-figure (much in the same way that Buzz learned he was not the real Buzz Lightyear in the first Toy Story film)

Back at the Battlesaur playset, the Cleric forces Rex (who is been outfitted with remote-controlled robotic arms) and the Battlesaurs to drop Woody, Buzz and Angel Kitty into a ventilation fan that would shred them apart.

136479165prejpg-e14e6b_960wWoody and Buzz scold the Cleric for doing such a dastardly deed during Christmas time. The Cleric is unfamiliar with the concept of Christmas which prompts Angel Kitty to explain with another nugget:

“The joy that you give to others is the joy that comes back to you.”

The Cleric, unfazed by the sentiment, orders Rex and the Battlesaurs to continue carrying the prisoners to their execution.  Angel Kitty then proceeds to play on her horn, a rendition of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

Meanwhile, Trixie reaches Mason’s video game power core, but Reptillus confronts her. Trixie attempt to convince Reptillus of the greatness and importance of being a toy:

Reptillus, your world is bigger than you know. Let me show you who you really are…You can be so much more! And you know it. Reptillus, it’s your kid who chooses what you’re going to be. It could be a dinosaur, a baby reindeer or something you’d never even think of. It’s about being there for your kid.

0Reptillus eyes grow wide and he replies, “(It’s about) Surrender”

And then he turns off the power switch to the video game console. As Mason reaches down to investigate, Reptillus does a trust-fall into the child’s hand. Mason stares in wonder at this awesome toy which Bonnie joyfully greets with a hello before playfully taking Reptillus from her friend and flying him around the room. Mason turns the power switch back on and prepares to play more video games, but Bonnie’s imaginative play inspires him to put down the goggles and controller to join her in the fun.

The two children race into the playroom, turn on the lights, causing all the toys to immediately freeze and thus saving Woody, Buzz and Angel Kitty from their impending doom.

An hour or so of play that involves a dance-off, the Battlesaurs, including the Cleric, are transformed by play-time and accept their role as toys who are there for their kid. They even go to bed later that night with Mason’s name written on their hands.

Trixie also is changed. Upon their return to Bonnie’s house, Trixie admits that she loves playing whatever role Bonnie assigns her.  “I’m Bonnie’s dinosaur and Bonnie’s dinosaur gets to be everything,” the triceratops says gleefully as she raises her foot with Bonnie’s name underneath.

toy-story-that-time-forgot-di-angel-kitty-1In response, Angel Kitty says sweetly: “Be grateful for your gifts, they are all around you.”

The gang looks at each other and give a collective “awwwwww.” But when they turn back to Angel Kitty, the toy ornament has disappeared.

 

I found myself moved by this entire special, much in the same way I get chill bumps when Linus tells Charlie Brown the meaning of Christmas by reciting the birth of Jesus from Luke’s gospel or when the Whos in Whoville celebrate Christmas by singing, despite the Grinch having stolen all of their decorations and presents.

The title, Toy Story That Time Forgot, is an obvious reference to the dinosaur characters but for me, the Christmas special also seemed to be a subtle nod to the story that we in modern times forget amid the hustle and bustle and commercialization of the season–the story of Emmanuel, God-with-us. The Christ child born in straw poverty in a manger.

41G-IhhPGPL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This simple half-hour animated short of imagination and wonder also reminded me of the words of the 20th century Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote:

If we want to be part of these events,

Advent and Christmas, we cannot just sit there like a theater audience

and enjoy all the lovely pictures.

Instead, we ourselves will be caught up

in this action,

this reversal of all things;

we must become actors on this stage.

For this is a play in which each spectator has

a part to play,

and we cannot hold back.

What will our role be?

Worshipful shepherds bending the knee,

or kings bringing gifts?

What is being enacted

when Mary becomes the mother of God,

when God enters the world

in a lowly manger?

We cannot come to this manger

in the same way that we would approach

the cradle of any other child.

Something will happen to each of us

who decides to come to Christ’s manger.

Each of us will have been judged or redeemed

before we go away.

Each of us will either break down,

or come to know that God’s mercy is turned

toward us…

What does it mean

to say such things about the Christ child?…

It is God, the Lord and Creator of all things,

who becomes so small here,

comes to us in a little corner of the world,

unremarkable and hidden away,

who wants to meet us and be among us as a helpless, defenseless child.

Middle Eastern "Mini-Nativity" by Kate Cosgrove
Middle Eastern “Mini-Nativity” by Kate Cosgrove

So what does it look like for us in this Christmas season if each of us greets the world with an open heart, frees ourselves from the shackle of limitations that bind us, gives joy to others, and are grateful for the gifts that are all around us?

What does it look like if we recognize that the world is bigger than we know and that the God to whom we forever belong chooses many wondrous roles for us to play in this life?

What does it look like if we set aside our personal agendas and desires for conquest to be there for the Christ-child who chooses to take on the role of humanity so that all might know unconditional love and mercy?

What does it look like if we are part of God’s story, God’s play and God’s imagination?

What does it look if we surrender?

 

 

A Year Ago Interview With Rachel Held Evans

DSC_0090In honor of author Rachel Held Evans completion of her latest book on the Church (coming to bookstores and smart tablets this Fall) and the re-release of her best-seller Evolving in Monkey Town (Zondervan, 2010, now titled Faith Unraveled), here is my interview from June 2013 with one of the most important voices on matters of faith, belief, and justice.

The interview was first printed in the 4th and final issue of the ground-breaking independent Christian progressive magazine PLGRM, published by Landon Whitsitt and entitled “Woman of Valor: An Interview with Rachel Held Evans.”

It’s hands down one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done (I used to do quite a bit of them as a newspaper reporter in Birmingham, Alabama from 1998-2001) and best conversations I’ve had about faith. It was also fun to chat with a favorite author, a heroine in the faith and another Southerner and SEC Football fan (albeit one who cheers for the Crimson Tide. War Eagle Rachel!)

I hope you enjoy her insights as much as I did talking to and learning from Rachel Held Evans:

A self-described “skeptic, creative and follower of Jesus, figuring out this journey of faith one shaky step at a time,” Rachel Held Evans is daily asking big questions, fostering dialogue and engaging people’s hearts and minds on her blog, http://rachelheldevans.com. …PLGRM got an opportunity to talk to Rachel about her two books, Evolving in Monkey Town and A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Thomas Nelson, 2012. Top 20 on NYT Bestseller List).

static.squarespaceLet’s start things off by talking about your first book, Evolving in Monkey Town. you write early on:

“Throughout history) Believers found a way to rethink and re-imagine their faith in the context of a new environment, one in which they no longer sat in the center of the universe.” (p. 19)

What are some of the current environmental shifts causing 21st century Christians to rethink  and reimagine their faith?

For Christians in the U.S., particularly evangelicals, there is a big shift from faith being centered in the Global West to the Global East and South. The movement is building elsewhere and that’s a big change to contend with. There are changes in what people of faith look like. The image of the White American Protestant at the forefront of faith is waning and evangelicals have to deal with that. We can go down screaming about it or say, ‘This is interesting and what can we learn from it and how can we connect with a servant heart like Christ.’

What are the ways in which believers are rethinking and reimagining faith?

I see this desire of evangelicals in America to move toward monastic communities, more rituals and connecting to the historical church. Evangelicals are asking, “What is my story and my past?” and are looking for ways to be more ecumenical and less self-centered and fractured. Families of faith are not the stereotypical nuclear family model anymore and we as evangelicals can either be freaked out by that or embrace it. We have to stop with the mentality of us v. the world and be more like agents of peace. We have to be less about power. We have to become less entangled in politics and patriarchy and become part of the change that is happening.

Evangelicals can infuse that fire in the belly, that emotion, that Spiritual fervor and passion for the Bible. They can bring an openness and progressiveness married with passion and excitement. They can be passionate about the gospel and social justice.

A couple of pages later in the book, you state:

“I’m an evolutionist because I believe that the best way to reclaim the gospel in times of change is not to cling more tightly to our convictions but to hold them with an open hand. I’m an evolutionist because I believe that sometimes God uses changes in the environment to pry idols from our grip and teach us something new. I’m an evolutionist because my own story is one of unlikely survival. If it hadn’t been for evolution, I might have lost my faith.”(page 21)

What are the convictions that the Church needs to hold with an open hand and heart?

When Jesus was asked what is the most important commandment or law, he said, “Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, body and soul.” We start our theology there with love. (The apostle) Paul reiterates this. For evangelical Christians, it’s about letting go of assumptions that our interpretation of scripture is inerrant or that our interpretation equals truth. At the end of the day, we all have to ask ourselves if our theology and interpretation of scripture makes us more loving and helps us to understand a more loving God. We have to be able to have different interpretations of scripture and still respect and love one another. We have to use the Bible or our view less as a weapon. Instead of our interpretations being a conversation ender, they should be a conversation starter.

You have shared in Monkey Town and on your blog that the catalyst which caused you to evolve more than a decade ago, and thus grab a deeper hold on your faith instead of clinging tightly to convictions was the story of Zarmina (a 35-year-old Muslim mother of five who was executed in Fall 2001 by the Taliban for allegedly killing her abusive husband.)

How does Zarmina’s story still impact your faith journey today?

(Learning about Zarmina) really was a moment when the worldview I constructed as a tower of cards fell apart. Zarmina was the card that got pulled ‘cause it stirred up these questions I long had about our circumstances in life and whether there was a hell. I asked myself, ‘Is it all about a cosmic lottery or luck of the draw?’ That’s when I started wrestling with faith.

Today, I see the questions that permeated around Zarmina’s story surface with recent events like the tornadoes in Oklahoma. I have a hard time saying God made that happen (and caused tragedy and death). I can’t imagine saying to a parent that there child died because God made the tornado. It makes sense on paper but if theology doesn’t work on the ground, it doesn’t work.

Zarmina’s story, particularly the image of her tennis shoes peeking out from underneath her burqa after she is executed, leads you to a reflection on the incarnation of Jesus in which you say:

“Being a Christian is about embodying a certain way…about living as an incarnation of Jesus, as Jesus lived as an incarnation of God. It is about being Jesus…in tennis shoes.”

What does “being Jesus in tennis shoes” look like in the world? Where have you seen Jesus in tennis shoes?

I don’t write about her often but it would be my sister Amanda. Doesn’t matter where she’s planted, she loves the people around her like crazy. She lives in North Carolina and has a neighbor, a 98-year-old woman, whom she looks after. She washes her clothes for her and brings her meals. Amanda went to India once and she is still invested in families she met and the relationships she made there. She gets invitations to weddings of family members she stays in touch with. Amanda went to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and still stays in contact with the people she served. Amanda loves her neighbor no matter what. She’s my little sister but I took up to her.

My husband Dan and I were visiting Amanda and her husband in North Carolina recently and we weren’t the only ones there. There was this perpetual cycle of people in and out of their home, visiting and eating. There’s this idea out there that you have to go to a poor place to find Jesus or a suffering area to see how much Jesus is loved or to love others like Jesus. But that’s not true. You can love Jesus in the suburbs. (Being Jesus in tennis shoes) is about loving your neighbor wherever you are.

In our culture where it’s about being busy, it’s hard to stop what you are doing and love your neighbor. I struggle with that all the time.

At the end of Chapter 19 on “Adaptation” you write that “I’m convinced that what drives most people away from Christianity is not the cost of discipleship but rather the cost of false fundamentals. False fundamentals make it impossible for faith to adapt to change.” (page 207)

It would probably be fair to say that you challenge those false fundamentals in prophetic, though-provoking and heart-felt ways through your blog posts, i.e. women’s rights, sexual abuse in the church, gay rights, mixed gender and mixed faith marriages, etc.

Which of the false fundamentals do you think suffocates faith the most?

Inerrancy of scripture and holding tightly to the idea that you have to choose between faith and science. We as evangelical Christians set up a false dichotomy and it’s a shame, this idea that (the science of) evolution is contrary to faith. But I do see us moving past it and I do see some serious progress.

What is the best way for the Church to deal with false fundamentals so that it can be about “loving God and loving other people” instead of “being right or getting the facts straight.” (p. 209)

Be appreciative of diverse perspectives. I get angry sometimes when people perpetuate beliefs that are hurting others. Now, there is a place for (righteous anger) for people who are suffering. Jesus was angry about people’s suffering and we should be angry too. But what I struggle with and have to remind myself is that the purpose of my writing or speaking out is not to change the minds of the “gatekeepers”. I have to say ‘Rachel, you are writing to help people through the day, those who are doubting and have been laid with burdens,’ and that helps me do my work with grace.

It’s about seeking out the suffering and marginalized. The motivation for me is to help out folks who are hurt by things that are said and equip them with ways to respond.

A Year Biblical Womanhood-med-whiteLet’s move onto A Year of Living Biblical Womanhood…You confess right away that “I’m the sort of person who likes to identify the things that most terrify and intrigue me in this world and plunge headlong into them like Alice down the rabbit hole.”

Alice in Wonderland is a terrific metaphor for your journey of biblical womanhood because, like Alice, you learn that things are not always what they seem and often the opposite of what you believed was true.

What did you discover about yourself as a woman and about the relationship between the Bible and women? What were the most strange, whimsical, wondrous or astonishing parts?

I think when we put limits on ourselves or give ourselves boundaries or rules, it’s amazing how much creativity can come about. I was continually surprised by the practice of taking the Bible literally. Covering my head when praying added an extra layer of reverence. It was mystical even as I stopped to do something physical.

What do you hope the Church will discover from your journey and experience? In your travels talking about the book, have you seen the impact your year of biblical womanhood has had on religious communities, Christian and otherwise?

It’s been encouraging to hear from women who, because of the book or a conversation on the blog, decided that maybe going to seminary wasn’t a waste of time after all, that maybe this passion they have for teaching and leading is a gift, not a curse. It’s also been rewarding to see how respond so positively to Proverbs 31 as a blessing rather than a to-do list or prescription. My hope is that readers will see that the Bible does not prescribe just one right way to be a woman of faith, that this notion of “biblical womanhood” as a list of rules and roles is a myth.  A woman who loves the Lord with all her heart, soul, mind and strength and loves her neighbor as herself is practicing “biblical womanhood.” Really, at the end of the day, it’s more about biblical personhood than anything else.  

Early on in the book, you paint this beautiful picture of how cultivating a gentle and quite spirit through prayer and contemplation is like becoming a great tree. And the roots you planted helped you confront your uglier tendencies, i.e. reacting less, listening more, holding back, choosing words carefully, avoiding gossip. A year later, do you find that you’re still able to root yourself more firmly in gentleness and a quiet spirit when “storms of nasty comments and critiques” come through?

Nothing beats praying the hours, which I’ve been able to practice with more consistency now that I’m not travelling as much. There’s something about working through the Psalms and praying the same prayers that have been prayed by Christians for many centuries and continue to be prayed around world today that reminds me that this faith thing isn’t really about me or about being right; it’s about being in relationship, part of a very big, very old community.

In the chapter on Domesticity which clearly had a lot of challenges and offered valuable learning experiences, you focus on your mother’s philosophy “It has to get messy before it gets clean” and you say further that “sometimes you’ve just got to tear everything out, expose all the innards and start over again.”

 What does the Church have to get messy, what does it need to tear out? What innards need to be exposed to start over or become relevant or survive in the 21st century and beyond?

Sexuality. There are a lot of presuppositions and prejudices. The most radical thing we can do is become better listeners. As we deconstruct, we can start treating women and homosexuals as people and not an issue. We can have a conversation that is constructive and helpful. It’s why I do guest posts on my blog and a series called “Ask A…”

It’s easy to keep everything in place you encounter somebody whose story challenges what you believe. A lot has changed about how we think about sexuality and we need to toss out everything we thought we knew and start over from scratch to understand all the concepts. Those of us who are straight really don’t know anything about being gay. We need to step aside and let others share their story.

During your exploration of the Proverbs 31 woman, you learn about “eshet chayil!” –women of valor and immediately your eyes are opened to the “acts of raw bravery” that occur daily in the lives of women.

It’s a poetic and prophetic reality that is lived out in small and large ways, which is particularly noteworthy when considering that human trafficking and the sex trade and violence toward women around the world is highly prevalent … and the back-sliding of women’s rights in this country i.e. over women’s health choices, right to have a voice, and the crude stereotypical portrayals of women in advertising/media

Can you speak more about the importance and power of “eshet chayil” in today’s divisive religious and socio-political climate? 

I like reclaiming Proverbs 31 from the fundamental way its been treated as a job description, making women feel bad how domestic they were or weren’t in life. It’s actually a poem celebrating what women accomplish in the everyday.

Proverbs 31 is also encouraging us as women to celebrate one another more. We don’t do that often because our culture says only a few are allowed to succeed. Competition (among women) is fostered. Once at a speaking engagement for women, I asked them to celebrate other important women in their lives. Their reaction was amazing. They immediately stood up and started sharing and crying and leaning on one another. We as women don’t do that enough.  I’m glad women are connecting to Proverbs 31 and that it’s being used to celebrate women instead of condemning them.

How can the Church be a better advocate for “women of valor?” How can the Church see and revere women as the solution instead of the problem? (page 242-246)

 I think we have to start by dropping all these notions of “ideal womanhood” or “real women.” We get it from the culture; we shouldn’t get it from the Church. Then it’s a matter of cultivating and celebrating the many gifts women bring to the world. In developing countries, it means partnering with women to ensure they receive the sort of education, job opportunities, and resources that enable them to live and work with dignity, provide for their families, and serve their communities. Everywhere it means treating women as human beings, not as some sort of sub-category. I love this quote from Dorothy Sayers:

“Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or “The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about woman’s nature.

“But we might easily deduce it from His contemporaries, and from His prophets before Him, and from His Church to this day. Women are not human; nobody shall persuade that they are human; let them say what they like, we will not believe, though One rose from the dead.”