Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Impossible

The 2004 Christmas time tsunami that struck the coast of Thailand without warning is realistically recreated in the film The Impossible out on DVD. It stars Naomi Watts who had some Academy Award interest for her role as a mother caught up in trying to survive the tsunami's devastation. Ewen McGregor plays her husband.  They are British parents of three boys who are on vacation at the Orchid Resort. The story is based on a real Spanish family who experienced the full trauma of the tsunami and survived. Over 200,000 people did not. Over 1,000 children were orphaned. Although this family was separated for a time they were able to find one another and receive the medical care they needed. The devastation of the tsunami was total. While the film zooms out to capture a sense of the widespread destruction and the chaos that ensued as so many people sought help, the story of the film is about the personal experience of this one family. Ms Watts spent weeks in a water tank made to simulate what it was like to be caught in the powerful force of a tsunami. Her character in the film sustains major injuries and nearly dies. It is clear to see how so many people never had a chance of surviving. Although the film shows how a few did. They did only through the help of others. One small boy was caught in a debris pile and was softly crying. No one was around until mother and son in the film came close enough to hear his voice. Mom wanted to find where the crying was coming from. Her 16 year old son who knew how badly his mother was hurt just wanted to find help. She prevailed and they found the boy who surely would have died had they not discovered and kept him with them until they found a hospital. Later on he was reunited with his own father. The emotional center of the film are a number of these vignettes which show how small caring acts for one another were actually matters of life and death. While there were a few people who couldn't be bothered to extend themselves for someone else in need, most did. Maybe it was a villager who drove some survivors to the nearest hospital, or the local doctors who worked tirelessly to help the injured, or the people who shared their cell phones when their batteries were nearly depleted and there was no way to recharge them, or an outstretched hand to another stranger who was overcome with emotion, or someone of another nationality joining in a search for the lost family members he had never met. In some ways it was like scenes from the bombing at the Boston Marathon where many people ran into the blast zone so they could help.

At times the camera would pan the sky as if to ask if there were any answers to the tragedy unfolding below to be found there. Other times, the camera panned an ocean, calm and serene now, as if to suggest you never know when it will turn destructive again. The uncertainty of life. What is more sure is a steely will to live and a genuine concern for others, too. Even at the extremes, especially at the extremes, life is precious, too precious not to share.

The film does not delve into the question of Why? But, the title is a reference to it. The title screen, The Impossible, comes at the end reflecting that the hardest part of the tragedy was still to come. How to come to terms with the "survivor guilt". Why, me? Why did I survive when so many did not? Is the film saying it is an impossible question to answer or is it an impossible situation to deal with? Perhaps both. Christians are often quick to label surviving a tragedy where many others died a miracle. But, what about the others whose miracle did not come that day. Why not? We cannot so glibly assign motives to God. We don't know. One wise pastor said once we can't confuse God with Life. Life is not random but sometimes it looks that way. Maybe the best we can do is to live our stories within God's and trust the outcome to him.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Learning forgiveness

Alex is a middle aged man who worships at a pretty average church. Most Sundays there doesn't seem to be a whole lot happening. He's not sure why he keeps going every week. There is not much innovative like in some churches. It's pretty traditional and truly he is bored sometimes. But ,even though he can think of many other places he would rather be some Sundays, he and his family are most always there. Somewhere along the way, Alex, has absorbed a core intuition: worship is not what we do only; it is something God does to us. He is mature enough to know that what feels like "going through the motions" at times, is not all that is happening. In his church, there is a time every week when the congregation kneels and confesses their sins to God, and then hears the announcement of the good news of forgiveness in the assurance of pardon. Some Sundays the confession rolls off his tongue without thought. At other times the words almost stun him and feel like they are exactly the words he needed. Some times the prayer of forgiveness felt like a cleansing shower and other times it just washed over him without any recognition of what was being said.

One night Alex and his wife received a call saying their teenage son was in trouble. Afflicted with depression and anxiety, he had spiraled out of control. His destructive behavior was part defiance and part a cry for help. When Alex got that call he had never dreamed of where it would take him. He found himself ushered into a strange room where his son was curled up in a corner. He could only imagine what his son was feeling but no matter what his son had been doing, Alex knew who he was and whose he was. When Alex's son became aware of his father's presence, he grasped his dad around the waist as he had done as a child and sobbed, I'm so sorry, Dad. Please forgive me.

What else could Alex do? Here was a playing out of a scene he had done countless Sundays before: a lifetime of confessing his sins to a gracious Father who, week after week, would announce without condition or hesitation, the complete forgiveness of all our sins. So without having to think about it, Alex gathered his son in his arms and said, Of course, I forgive you.

James Smith tells that story in his book Imagining the Kingdom and then he adds, "the regularity and repetition of the practice of confession and absolution had already taught him, on a gut level, that he too was a prodigal son who regularly approached his Father asking for forgiveness - again. And again. And again. And every single time the gracious Father, already looking for his arrival, met him at the end of the lane and made the same announcement of forgiveness and mercy. ...Alex had absorbed the temperament of the gracious Father ... and the repetition of the practice had effectively recruited Alex as a character in the same drama."

Corsets and worship

The actress Michelle Dockery who plays Lady Mary Crawly on Downton Abbey told an interviewer in the New Yorker that her posture had permanently changed because of the costumes she has to wear for the show. "It really helps you understand how a corset shapes your worldview - the way you breathe, and eat. I think it is the single reason that women are less accomplished historically than men, they couldn't actually breathe!"

Downton Abbey shows two very different environments and how they shape the people of each one. There is the "upstairs" aristocratic world and the "downstairs" world of servants who meet their every need. Each world is shaped by rituals, and disciplines - different worldviews. It is not easy to cross from one world to the other. Dress and proper vestments play a role in how life is lived out. They support the proper worldview.

James Smith makes this point in Imagining the Kingdom. We are physical creatures in worship as well as outside of worship. When I was young it was important to sit still in church, to be as quiet as I could. I was not always able to conform to these disciplines and I heard about it afterward. But, what did that teach me? God wanted us to be quiet and still so we could listen to His word. It felt more like punishment and I counted the minutes til church was out (that was always predictable, too, one hour on the nose). What does movement in worship teach us? There is dance in the Bible, and bowing to the ground. There is loud singing, and instruments of all kinds. There are public prayers and responses, questions and answers as well as sermons. Actions are powerful teachers and shapers of behavior. We give an offering, we bow down to pray, we raise our hands to praise, we move forward and receive the bread and the wine ( how did it come to be grape juice?). We hear children fidget and babies cry. I see adults holding the infants from other families during worship. True, they are more interested in the babies than what I am saying from the pulpit! But, what an example of God's care for us. In what other ways can we flesh out the incarnation in worship?

How worship works

I'm reading Imagining the Kingdom: How worship works by James K. A. Smith. Good book and an important one. Basic premise: what we feel drives our behavior more than what we think. That may not be big news and it may not be exactly how Smith would put it. He uses bigger words and quotes from philosophers I never heard of. But what I get out of it is this: I have spent a lot of years preaching and teaching - focusing on The Big Ideas of Christian Truth. That's not a bad thing - Ideas are important, of course. We need to think about what we believe. But, what impacts behavior more is how our imaginations are formed. For me, it means we need to focus on worship as much as preaching. Most people do not come to church for the worship; they come or don't come for the preaching. In fact, liturgy turns some people off. All those preprinted prayers and confessions and bowing, or hand raising, or coming up to the altar for communion. Lots of people have opinions about that stuff. They have opinions about the preaching too and the biggest one is, " if I am not being fed there I am going somewhere else." Feeding trumps formation. But, Smith's point is Christian behavior/mission/purpose flows out of worship because the worship experience/the words and actions of worship/the environment shapes us. Most Christian people don't even believe they need to be in worship weekly. In fact, belief is too fine a point; they don't feel like being there or they feel like doing something else so they just do it. Not much thought involved really. But, Smith's point is that it is the repeated actions of worship that shape us so we act Christianly without really thinking about it. We learn Christian truth by doing it, not by only hearing it. We are shaped, formed by our experience of worship.

For example, my little granddaughter loves to be in church. She never hears a sermon because she leaves for children's church. But, she takes part in the greeting time, and she hears the prayers of the people, and she listens to the Scripture being read, and when she goes up for the children's sermon she brings a dollar for the children's offering. She says the Lord's prayer every week and she sings the doxology as well as all the other songs of praise. She is in a congregation of other children, infants and adults of all ages and she sees them taking part. This is an environment of learning. It is powerful shaper of spiritual life. She is forming spiritual habits that will inform her life all through the week. And it all happens "naturally," without giving it much thought.

Another example Smith uses: through his wife he has come under the influence of Wendell Berry, and Michael Pollan and other food writers who make the case for forming better (healthier) eating habits. But a funny thing happened one day when he found himself reading Berry's book, Bringing it to the Table, while eating in the food court at Costco. What struck him was the significant gap between thought and action. He knew what he should be eating but without thinking he was eating what he usually did. You can believe Michael Pollan and still find yourself in the drive -thru at MacDonalds.

His point: much of our orientation to and action in the world - is governed by preconscious habits and patterns of behavior, and those habits are formed by environments of practice. What "liturgies" are shaping us?

So, see you in Church!

Basketball and Bibles

 I need to follow up on a couple themes from previous blog posts. Predictably, the coach at Florida Gulf Coast - the team that surprised everyone with two wins in the NCAA tournament and did it with such an enthusiastic style that it was a joy to watch - took leave of team and school and headed for "Bigtime" college basketball. Using his brief success as springboard, Enfield leaped to USC almost immediately after losing his last game in the tournament. Leaving his team and school on the Florida Gulf coast which he absolutely loved just a few days before he packed his bags for the West Coast. His kids, of course, will stay and play for the new guy. Just one more coach living his dream off the talents of some gifted players. Not to be overlooked are the players who actually hit the three point shots and slammed the dunks - they made his coaching look better than it was. Prediction: he should have stayed on the Gulf Coast!

The Bible on TV is out on DVD now. Someone was asking me if I had a copy yet. He told me about the sword fight between Moses and Pharaoh which left a scar on Pharaoh's face or was it Moses' face. I forget. I had to admit I missed that in the Bible. I guess you have to read between the lines, or the chapters, or just put whatever you want in there to make it read the way you want it. I didn't think it was a bad story the way it was. No, I told him I didn't get a copy of the Bible on TV out on DVD. I already have a copy of the Bible.