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Another Dream

I have an active dream life, and often have vivid dreams, for good or ill. This morning (while I am on vacation) is an example, and I share it because I think it speaks to some of the greatest anxiety I have regarding both my vocation and our culture. So below is the dream, followed by some thoughts as I wake from it:

——

I’ve run into a colleague in a bar, someone I have been close to and know I can speak without being judged. He asks how I am. In my response, I share that it’s a challenge to be helping to lead an institution that is in decline, that is struggling and failing to connect with people my age or younger. Another colleague comes by and shares that his church is going gang-busters after initiating some particular ministry; the innuendo clearly being that anyone who isn’t growing or successful is doing it wrong.

I’m on a porch with Lynn when a group of about half a dozen seniors walks up to me, bypassing Lynn completely, and drop a large stack of papers on my lap. “What do you think of these?” one of them asks, gruffly. I look down at the stack and ask what they are. “Applications for the nursing home.”

The church also operates a nursing home on its premises. Turns out, as (one of?) the pastor(s), I’m responsible for selecting new residents and overseeing the nursing home. I express a bit of dismay that this is something I’m expected to do, as well. One member of the group expresses a bit of empathy while others demand my review of the papers.

Looking at the first one, the paperwork has been filled out with a large handed scrawl. “This is terrible,” I comment, “my fourth grader can write more neatly and spell better than this.” I drop that one. The next one is a “request for roommate” form, completed by two women. The form seems filled out fine, but another hand has scrawled hastily written comments in the margins and throughout the form. I put it on the bottom.

One of the group comments that they want a recording of a funeral from the other day. I indicate that I don’t record them. They are shocked. The empathetic woman suggests that she could record from her phone. “Of course,” I share, “you could record it, but I’m not able to.”

The next form seems to be standard, and I realize that the top of it reads “Expects An Invitation.” The next form isn’t a form, but several copies of newspaper articles about a high school cheerleader. Someone in a shaky hand has written in mostly unreadable cursive comments about the girl throughout the pages, including one that clearly reads “lift up her skirts.” The implication given is that surely because of her immorality the girl, or a relative of hers?, wouldn’t be allowed in the nursing home…

——

Do you sense the anxiety I felt (or did you perhaps feel some of your own) reading the dream?

Some days, I think we are, generally speaking, getting meaner toward one another. Maybe we’ve always been this way, and I’m just growing out of innocent naivety to see it. Or maybe people really are becoming more free toe express gruffness, meanness, assertiveness bordering on (or crossing into) arrogance, and self-righteous entitlement.

I’ve given my life to growing (and serving) in love for God and neighbor; in pursuing “holiness.” I constantly work with others, and sometimes see degrees of this meanness expressed around me. How do I reconcile my commitment with the seeming failure I see around me?

In the last few years, as I really contemplate what a life with Christ/God means, I have gravitated toward Galatians 5:22-23a being the best descriptive of what “holiness” means to me. Here’s an amalgam of several translations of the verses:

“The result of God’s presence in our lives is love and unselfish concern for others; joy and exuberance about life; peace, serenity, and perseverance; patience and compassion in the heart; kindness; goodness, generosity, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people; faithfulness; gentleness; and self-control.”

These “fruits of the spirit” are the aspects prominent in persons of character that I respect and respond to. These are the transformative changes I pursue through my faith in Christ, and genuinely hope to help others to know, experience, and grow in. While neither I nor others are perfect in them, my hope is that we hold them as the ideals toward which we aspire and live.

Finally, an additional word of encouragement I find comes from both Romans 12:8 and Max Plank’s poem The Desiderata:

Romans 12:8, “if it is possible, as far as it depends on you. live at peace with everyone”
Desiderata, “As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.”

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Star Wars Spirituality, Parts 4 and 5

For those following along, my apologies that these are late!

If you watch http://www.thumc.com, we may have the audio of these sermons posted soon, too!

“It Binds Us Together” (part 4)

The Redemption of Anakin Skywalker (part 5)

Star Wars Spirituality 2015, pts. 2 and 3

I fell behind, but last Sunday (May 10th), since it was Mother’s Day, I reflected a bit (not greatly, in my opinion) on the strength of female characters in Star Wars.  

Click the following link for a .pdf of “The Strength of the Princess”: 02_TheStrengthOfThePrincess

This morning (May 17th) I reflected (as coherently as I could after a week’s chest cold!) on how the path of a Jedi is illustrative of the path of a Christian.

Click the following link for a .pdf of “Way of a Jedi… Way of a Disciple”: 03_WayofAJedi

Star Wars Spirituality, 1: The Saga of Star Wars: Inspiring Narratives and Why They Matter

( Here’s the full document in .pdf format: 01_TheStarWarsSaga.)

Intro: Early Memories

A long time ago, in a theater far, far away… somewhere in Scottsdale I think…

One of my earliest memories – if not the earliest I can recall – is of Star Wars; I recall standing at my father’s feet in a movie theater, moving around anxiously as the heroes on screen were in danger of being crushed in a trash compactor. I also remember feeling relieved when they were safe.

Star Wars has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve watched the original film, re-titled “Episode IV: A New Hope.” I’ve seen it in theatrical re-release, on VHS, on Cable, at the Special Edition theatrical re-release, on DVD. (I’m still waiting for Lynn to give me the Blu-Ray.) I devoured Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire novels and the many new Star Wars novels that came afterward.

And then the prequels came… and for a time my enthusiasm waned. That’s a longer story, but now, with The Force Awakens just a few months away – just 228 days from today! – with Star Wars Rebels on Disney XD and a new Star Wars film coming out every year… well, my geek flag is flying high again.

So here I am excited to share Star Wars Spirituality; and here you are, willing to endure it. So this morning we start at what I felt needed to be the foundation, partly based on my wife’s hesitancies, by addressing the question: Why bother? Why does this matter? Today we’re going to talk about Star Wars and story.

But let me quickly share what the coming weeks have in store:

  • Next week, May 10, is Mother’s Day, so we’ll look at the strong women of Star Wars and in our Christian heritage as I talk about “The Strength of the Princess”
  • Sunday, May 17th we will compare the Star Wars narrative with our mission as a church as I talk about “The Way of a Jedi… the Way of a Disciple”
  • Sunday, May 24th is Pentecost, celebrating the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, and I’ll discuss “’It Binds Us Together’ (The Force of Star Wars and Life in the Holy Spirit)”
  • And, finally, on Sunday, May 31st, I’ll draw more heavily from my favorite film of the original trilogy as we discuss “The Redemption of Anakin Skywalker”

#SWCA

But this week, let’s begin by discussing story, and to do so let me share a short one.

Two weeks ago I attended Star Wars Celebration Anaheim (#SWCA). It was an awesome experience – I just posted a handful of pics to Facebook yesterday if you want to check them out! Beginning at 4am on Thursday morning and through the time I left on Sunday afternoon, I spent the days waiting in line for hours at a time to attend 45 to 60 minute panels featuring cast members and producers of Star Wars films and television shows. I over-shared that week on social media so you can find more than you care to know on Facebook or Twitter.

Here’s the story for this morning: Thursday morning I got in line at 4am to attend the 10am panel launching the event featuring Lucasfilm CEO Kathleen Kennedy and director JJ Abrams. I was somewhere between attendee 4,500 and 6,000. JJ and KK shared the stage with cast members old and new; they brought out a fully-functional and incredibly awesome BB-8; and they closed by showing the new film teaser.

When Han Solo’s line, “Chewie, we’re home” finished out the trailer, the crowd – some 7,000 of us filling the arena – erupted in cheering like I’ve never heard before. It was incredible. There are online videos online showing the crowd’s reaction.

And that’s the point, for those gathered for the event, Star Wars is something special. Several attendees on social media, or in conversation in lines at the Con, shared that it was “a religious experience.”

Before you dismiss that out-of-hand, think about it. The attendees at Star Wars Celebration gathered together en masse, connected with one another as they waited in line, and then felt as though they were a part of something larger than themselves. Paraphrasing what Obi Wan says to Luke, “they took their first step into a larger world.”

That is part of the power of story. That is why Star Wars actually matters to so many, because of the story. And friends, we’re here today because we are part of a Story that is much bigger than ourselves.

But I get ahead of myself. Before we talk about our story, let’s consider for a moment the impact story-telling has in the Star Wars universe.

Motivations

We saw this morning two clips of C3PO, and a significant change between them. In Episode IV: A New Hope, 3PO tells Luke

I’m not much more than an interpreter and not very good at telling stories. Well, not at making them interesting, anyway.

While that might have been true early on, toward the end of the original trilogy it is 3PO’s ability to tell a story that inspires and motivates the Ewoks to join the Rebels in their struggle against the evil galactic empire.

We see the outcome of 3P0’s narrative prowess in the film, but there is a deeper telling of it in Brian Daley’s interpretation of the same scene in his script for Episode 5 of the NPR Radio Drama version of Return of the Jedi. In that radio script, 3PO tells Luke the following:

The Ewoks want to know where they fit into the story, sir. They wish their deeds against the Empire to be remembered, too. Myth and life are strongly intertwined for the Ewoks. If I make them part of the tale, it will, in their minds, make them part of the Rebellion.

And so 3PO brings the Ewoks into the story, and the “furry teddy bears” (as the original script describes them!) not only become a part of the Rebellion, but it is only thanks to their involvement that the Rebels escape the trap at the bunker!

Story connects with us deeply, often times inspiring and motivating. In Star Wars, for example:

  • 3PO’s story in Episode 6 inspires the Ewoks to join the rebellion
  • Obi Wan’s narrative about Luke’s father in Episode IV helps motivate Luke to follow the old Jedi off Tatooine after the Empire murders his family, severing the ties keeping him there
  • Chancellor Palpatine’s narrative about Darth Plagueis overcoming death motivates Anakin Skywalker toward embracing the Dark Side so that he might save Padme

In Star Wars, in our faith, and in life in general, story motivates and inspires people, I think, for two key reasons:
1) we are part of a Great Story that other stories connect with, and
2) Stories and mythologies convey truth

We are In Media Res of The Great Story

First, we are part of a Great Story, and Star Wars and other great stories connect with it.

There’s an old Latin phrase that will be familiar to many of you: “In media res” – “in the middle of things.” It’s a narrative technique of relating a story from the midpoint, and then filling it in as the narrative progresses.

Friends, we are, all of us!, in media res. We’ve entered a story that began long before us, and the narrative of Star Wars echoes this great narrative:

Once, things were good.

  • The Greatness of the Old Republic, guarded by the Jedi Knights.
  • The goodness of the universe, created by God and good.

Then, there was war.

  • The dark times of the empire come, with evil agent Darth Vader killing Jedi and threatening the galaxy.
  • Angels and humans rebelled against God’s will, tainting Creation, with Satan threatening humanity.

Then, the story continues:

  • Good endures, in tension with evil, until the final victory over Emperor and Empire.
  • Good endures, in tension with evil, until the final victory over sin and death and the recreation of all things.

Today, we are part of the Great Story, somewhere in between the corrupting origin of evil and its ultimate downfall.

I actually want to recommend to you a short little e-book that was shared with me by members of our Worship Design Team: Epic: The Story God is Telling and the Role That Is Yours To Play by John Eldredge. Eldredge talks about our love for good story, and early on in the introduction to the book shares this:

Might we have been given our longings for love and adventure, for romance and sacrifice as a kind of clue, a treasure map to the meaning of Life itself?

He then goes on to share the following:

every story we tell borrows its power from a Larger Story, a Story woven into the fabric of our being…

There is a Story written on the human heart. As Ecclesiastes [3:11] has it, He has planted eternity in the human heart. What if all the great stories that have ever moved you, brought you joy or tears—what if they are telling you something about the true Story into which you were born, the Epic into which you have been cast?

Good stories resonate with us, first and foremost, because we are in one! We truly are in an epic story – one that includes an ongoing battle between good and evil, one that holds the hope for all of good overcoming. We are in a Great Story.

Toward the end of The Two Towers, the second part and second film of The Lord of the Rings, Hobbitses Sam and Frodo talk about being in a story. I know this is jumping fan-doms, but let’s take a look:

[Video Clip here from LOTR]

Sam and Frodo know they are in a story, Sam wonders aloud if ever their tale will be told. Like Sam and Frodo, like Luke and Leia, or R2 and 3PO – we have been born into a Great Story, and we get to play a role in the story! That is part of the reason why Star Wars and other stories can touch us so deeply – they are reflections of the Great Story.

Though they are not always intended to bring us closer to Truth (with a capital T), because God has put eternity in our hearts, our very creations are a reflection of God and God’s Great Story. This is why I think Star Wars matters – beyond what was intended (and let us not ignore the fact that George Lucas originally intended Star Wars to serve as a morality tale), good stories convey to us a part of the Great Story. Through Story we get a glimpse of Truth.

Which connects to the second reason I think stories and mythologies connect with us so deeply…

Telling the Truth

…beyond resonating with us simply because we are in a Great Story, stories and mythologies tell the truth.

Now, don’t get truth confused with facts. Truth is much bigger than mere facts. Jesus didn’t say, “I am the Fact,” Jesus said, “I am the Truth.” Jesus Christ is the very incarnation of the Word, conveying truth about our selves and our universe and our God in a way that we could not know separate from his incarnation.

In the same way, in his own teaching Jesus conveys truth through story. Jesus tells over 30 parables in the three synoptic gospels – and then, in the Gospel of John, he shares eight metaphors in his “I Am” statements. In Matthew 13:34-35 we read:

Jesus said all these things to the crowds in parables, and he spoke to them only in parables. This was to fulfill what the prophet spoke: “I’ll speak in parables; I’ll declare what has been hidden since the beginning of the world.”

In all of these, parable and metaphor alike, Jesus teaches us about the truth that pre-exists us –truth about ourselves, about God, about Creation, about God’s Kingdom. All of Creation around us tells us of The Great Story of God’s continued creation and involvement: the beauty of summer invariably fades, darkness and winter come; but they never have the last word, because spring comes around, life is renewed. As Psalm 19 tells us:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

Jesus uses parables and metaphors because the truth cannot be simplified to static pronouncements. As one commentator shared in reflection on Matthew 13’s statement about Jesus always teaching in parables:

“Parables are a means of disclosing new truth that cannot be reduced to non-parabolic, discursive language… A parable is like a musical composition, or a poem in that it is not an illustration of a prosaic point, but is itself an inseparable unity of form and meaning.
“The newness of Jesus’ message called for a new form of communication… Jesus’ method of communicating in parables was not the typical practice of contemporary rabbis but a new and unsettling departure in religious communication…”

Jesus’ parables – and classic and contemporary stories– touch and connect with our hearts and spirits because they have something to teach us. They reflect, they illustrate, they shine forth some portion of The Great Story we find ourselves in, and that truth connects with us.

Truth in Mythology; Truth in Star Wars

As a foundational contemporary myth, Star Wars functions for many people very much like Jesus’ parables – through their narrative, they connect us with truth greater than can be known in other ways. Mythologies and stories often teach us truths we need to know, but perhaps cannot otherwise grasp. As Neil Gaiman has summarized G.K. Chesterton,

“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

George Lucas’ original vision with Star Wars included his intent that it serve as a form of morality tale. Lucas is quoted as saying:

I wanted it to be a traditional moral study, to have some sort of palpable precepts in it that children could understand. There is always a lesson to be learned. Where do these lessons come from? Traditionally, we get them from church, the family, art, and in the modern world we get them from media–from movies.

Because so many of us grew up with it, Star Wars is our contemporary mythology; its narrative influences us and our worldview. As John McDowell writes in The Gospel According to Star Wars:

…not only does the saga distill something of the ethos of popular culture; it is also significantly culturally generative. Put another way, it can shape and reshape the ways in which many think and feel about themselves and their world.

Jesus’ parables invite us to contemplate ourselves, faith, and God. Similarly, as McDowell shares in Chapter 1:

Like many other science fiction stories SW has something of a parabolic function in that it encourages us to reflect on contemporary moral issues through a fantasy setting and therefore enables us to think in a way we might not otherwise do.

McDowell draws from some good Christian Biblical scholars of the last century, describing and defining myth and mythology, and their influence upon us. He writes the following:

The message or truth is expressed through myth and not alongside it or inside it, and so the purpose of myths is “not to present an objective picture of the world as it is, but to express man’s understanding of himself in the world in which he lives.”

…myths can be so true that they shed light on people’s lives and situations more effectively than a simple recital of facts can. Some lessons cannot easily be taught; they must be lived and felt.

Another common definition sees myths as stories that express the senses of the sacred, or the sense of what life is and how it is to be valued, of those communities that created and retell them.

There is, as Tolkien believed, a kind of “sacramental quality” in myth in that the narrated world becomes to us a means of transformation by enabling us creatively to reimagine our ways in our own world.

So to answer Lynn’s questions of “why bother?” and “who cares?”, Star Wars matters because it both connects to and conveys truth about the Great Story of God; the story we find ourselves in. So let me close with just a quick word about our story.

Our Story

I would remind you that Our Story as Trinity Heights United Methodist Church is “to help one another grow as deeply committed followers of Jesus Christ, courageously working to change our world.”

We know as we help one another grow into maturity in Christ that it doesn’t stop with us, we are called as part of The Great Story to go and live boldly; like Frodo and Sam there are times we are called to leave behind what we know and strike out in faith. Our individual stories merge as we do greater things in the world together than we could possibly do alone. As Frodo said of Sam, “Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam.”

Together – together we can brave entering Mordor; together we can “have fun storming the castle, boys”; together we can defeat the power of Ultron; together, we can take down the Death Star! When it comes to the Great Story We Find Ourselves In, as Walt Whitman wisely wrote, “the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Today I invite you to look around at who is in the Great Story with you, and think what your verse might be.

And May the Force Be With You. Always. Amen.