Tuesday, September 23, 2008

With my children getting older, I don’t watch as many Disney movies as once I did. And I am not certain how many lessons for the church there may be in Disney-produced video products – though I recently attended a workshop for United Methodist Boards of Ordained Ministry that made a fair amount of use of video clips from animated movies, including Disney movies. Truth be told, there are life lessons to be found in Disney movies, life lessons appropriate to the Christian witness of faith. We should judge the heart and not the appearance as Beauty and the Beast told us, for true beauty is beauty in the heart. Running away from one’s leadership responsibilities is likely to leave things in worse shape than trying to assume leadership amidst one’s own doubts – that’s the pertinent lesson of The Lion King. Toy Story teaches the value of friendship and community, even when our friends differ from us considerably.

Well, Disney has done it again. Last weekend I attended a stage version of the Disney movie High School Musical. I had seen the movie – having a daughter at home who still tunes into the Disney channel from time to time – and if you tune in you are likely to see the latest movie for they run with amazing frequency. I attended the stage version of High School Musical primarily because the male lead was played by a young man whose family attends my church. I wasn’t really pumped up to see the story again, but lo and behold, there I was and there was Disney again offering another lesson for the church.

The basic story line of High School Musical is of a young man, a star basketball player, who wants to use his gift for singing, and of a young woman, known as an exceptional math student who also can sing. They want to play the leads in the school musical, but their friends are reluctant, at first, to see them in these new roles. One song is entitled “Stick to the Status Quo,” and it could be a theme song for countless churches. Many faith communities go well beyond the admirable attempt to pass on the ancient wisdom of their faith tradition and make every conceivable change a matter of compromising the faith. “We’ve never done it that way before” is heard all too often in churches, and not to their benefit. The play also includes a song entitled “We’re All In This Together” a celebration of community that also appreciates the different gifts people have and rejoices that people might have gifts that surprise us. While it may be a bit of a stretch, I couldn’t help but think of some of Paul’s words in the New Testament where he compares a church to a body, where we need the differing gifts of each part and need each other. Churches would do well to be in tune with the song, “We’re All In This Together” and let go of singing “Stick to the Status Quo.” Unfortunately, unlike a Disney movie, such transformation usually doesn’t happen in ninty minutes.

With Faith and With Feathers,


P.S. Almost lost in all of the news of the meltdown of our financial system, the price of oil, and the election campaign was the September 12 suicide/death of author David Foster Wallace at age 46. I have not read his most famous novel Infinite Jest, which weighs in at over 1000 pages, but have read some of his short stories and essays and thoroughly enjoyed them. Wallace was considered a genius by some, even receiving a MacArthur “genius grant.” I appreciated his intelligence, his wit and his humanity. He could make me laugh and make me think. I sometimes wonder about the connection between a certain self-destructiveness and creativity. Some of my favorite artists lived brief lives – Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton. But many others lived and worked creatively into later life – Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan is still going as he nears 70, Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver whose new book of poems I am reading and enjoying, and the list goes on. Human beings are too complex for any stereotype of self-destructive creativity to be accurate in more than a limited way. One need not generalize about this death to feel the tragedy of a lost voice – an voice that rang with intelligence and humor, compassion and appreciation for the depth and breadth of the human condition. The more campaign ads I hear, the more I long for such voices.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

I have decided to form a new book club, the Methuselah Book Club. Thus all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty-nine years (Genesis 6:27). I figure it will take that kind of life span to read all the books I would like to read! Any other charter members out there?

One author whose books grace my shelf, mostly unread, is Ernest Becker. Becker was a social theorist who wrote about fundamental questions regarding the human condition. I have dipped into Becker’s work from time to time, but have not had the opportunity to delve more deeply into his writings and I look forward to the day when I will do that. Becker’s most well known work is The Denial of Death. It was awareded the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1974, the year Becker died. The companion book, Escape from Evil was published posthumously. Cheery titles, I know.

Recently, I read an essay from Becker’s book Angel in Armor: a post-Freudian perspective on the nature of man. In “Everyman as Pervert, an essay on the pathology of normalcy” (again, intersting title – thankfully that wasn’t the book title!) Becker argues for a view of human maturity as accepting self-transcendence. That is, human beings are more mature, more fully human, when they can be open to an encounter with the fullness of the world, its mystery and complexity. “This is the way we give life its abundance of meaning: we revel in the multiplicity of natural mystery” (32). Becker argues “it takes strength to allow oneself to feel transcended” (33), that is, to acknowledge the depth of the other. We become human “by developing powers commensurate with responsible social living, by learning to endure failure, by respecting the integrity of other humans, by sagaciously testing the limits of his claims, by being suspicious of force, and seeking to check its use and dominion among men” (34). Becker’s vision of a healthy human community would be of “stong, independent, self-reliant people, who will be happy and patient to live with threatening complexity and overwhelming mystery” (34). “Man becomes supremely man by cultivating a sense of tragedy, responsibility, and awe” (34)

I would quibble with some of Becker’s terminology and certainly find his use of masculine pronouns troubling – but he was writing in a time before we became more cognizant of the limits of such langauge. However, I deeply appreciate Becker’s main argument – we are more fully human when we are open to the mystery and complexity of the world around us, when we can grant that others to whom we are related are truly other, that is, they have an integrity all their own which we need to appreciate.

In a very different genre, the poet Mary Oliver invites us to appreciate the beauty and complexity of the world in which we live. Oliver is a favorite poet of mine, and her most recent book of poems is Red Bird. I am savoring it a poem a day. One poem in this volume is “Another Everyday Poem” and in it she writes of considering lillies and ravens – each a miracle. Yet she also notices that “for the lillies/in their bright dresses/cannot last/but wrinkle fast/and fall,” The raven, too, in scavaging for food, reminds her of the brevity of life and beauty, but in the end even this brevity “makes the world/so full/so good.”

Openness to the world in all its beauty and mystery and tragedy – awe in encountering the mystery of another - - - Becker and Oliver, each in their own way invite me to this life stance. But I have heard the invitation before and keep trying to answer it, helped by writers like Becker and poets like Oliver. Jesus asked his disciples, among whom I count myself, to consider the lillies of the field, and he invites disciples to fullness of life. The prophet Isaiah invites us to consider the withering of the grass and the fading of the flower, in contrast to the enduring reality of God. Knowing that we, too, wither and fade, we nevertheless can find in the midst of our lives renewed strength, wings to take flight, as we are open to the God who is made known in the very mystery and complexity of life.

In his final months, Ernest Becker was interviewed by Sam Keen for Psychology Today. In that interview, Becker tells Keen, On my hard days, I am a Stoic and I know that the courageous thing to do is look straight at the wintery smile on the face of truth. But on those soft days when I am permeable to everything around me, anything seems possible and I know that the courageous way is the one with greater trust and greater openness to what is strange.

To live life with the courage to be open and trusting, even while acknowledging the wintery face of truth, is what I mean when I write about living with faith and with feathers.


Saturday, September 6, 2008

It has been too long between posts. End of summer projects (installing some new blinds, removing paint from a small deck so that it might be stained) and gearing up for Fall church programming have consumed my time – as have the Olympic games and the political conventions.

I have been interested in politics since junior high school, and don’t ask me why. My parents were not particularly politically active and I don’t remember political discussions around the dinner table. Somewhere along the way I became interested in elections, political processes, history and I have remained interested since. My doctoral dissertation focused on Christian political ethics and theories of democracy. My children will remember political discussions around our dinner table.

So I watched the political conventions and I must say that I am delighted that this year in our presidential politics we will be making history. Barack Obama accepted the democratic nomination for president on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. If elected, he will be our first president with African ancestry – this in a country that at one time considered persons with even a drop of “African blood” less human, less than equal. King’s dream of a country where the content of character rather than the color of skin matters is coming a little closer. It is not here – that people still ask whether the country is “ready to elect and African-American president” tells us as much. We are also closer to a dream of a country where women have equal rights with men. If elected, Sarah Palin will be the first woman to be elected to the office of Vice-President. We are not there, yet, either. Questions about the appropriateness of a mother of five running for the office of Vice-President smack of sexism. Do we ask such questions of fathers of five? With both Obama and Palin, we should ask searching questions about their political records, their policy plans and their hopes and dreams for our country. That some questions will reflect our nation’s continuing struggle with racism and sexism tells us that we have on-going work to do – but we knew that already.

Speaking of on-going work, one of the most moving moments of either convention was the appearance of Senator Ted Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention. Whether you agree with him politically or not, the Kennedys have given years of public service to our nation, and it was good to see Senator Kennedy, dying of brain cancer at this convention, and to hear him address the delegates and the nation. This will probably be his last convention.

Politics is about more than elections and elected officials. Politics, at its best, is about how we decide to live together as a nation, how we will organize our common life and care for one another. Such decisions must not simply be given over to elected officials but must remain our shared concern. After the election we need to keep working to make a dream of a better county more real. Just as Dr. King said 45 years ago – “now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children.” And as Ted Kennedy reminded us in 1980, “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.”

On Wednesday, August 27, I joined others in my community to do a little something to make the dream of a better world more real. Our prayer-walk through the Central Hillside in Duluth made the news. If you want to see that clip, here is the link:

Norhtland News Center story

With Faith and With Feathers,


I have also posted some thoughts about the concept of “vision” on my other blog, Bard’s Brushstrokes if you would like to check that out.

Bard's Brushstrokes