Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What does victory look like? (A prayer for peace.)

My last post about How to Train Your Dragon got me thinking about the problems of war. Christianity sadly has a long tradition of war and imagery associated with it. One of the best known Lutheran hymns called "A Mighty Fortress" envisions life as a spiritual battle and God as our defender. It conjures images of a castle, a strong arm, a shield and defender. These are wonderful images in the right context, but when juxtaposed on the often bloody history of the Christian faith, from Constantine's forced conversions to the Crusades and the Salem witch trials, it leaves a lot of us anxiously trying to distance ourselves from such images, and sometimes from the faith itself--with good reason. As I mentioned, we have plenty to atone for on a global scale, and those terrible events don't even consider the daily violence of hypocrisy and judgment that many people suffer at the hands of Christians.

At the same time, images of conflict are sort of central to the faith, whether that be in the form of an external conflict between people or internal ones. In the Old Testament we see Egypt against Moses & the Israelites, Israel against its various neighbors, Assyria, Babylonia, or even Israel against a prophet like Elijah. In the New Testament, it's Jesus and the Pharisees, and the young church in conflict with the surrounding Pagan society and those who would persecute them or give them false teachings. Spiritually, there is the cosmic conflict of good against evil--God vs. Satan, or the holy against the demonic. Our lives are set up this way too, with faith meeting a world which largely dismisses belief as a fairy tale, or one belief system against another. In human terms, conflict usually ends badly, with one side winning and one side losing. That's what happens in war, right? Two sides fight, one of them wins and one loses. Except in the kinds of battles we have, both in war and among ourselves, the winner has usually faced such a cost that they have lost, too.

Think about a marriage. Every couple fights, and in my experience, usually both sides are a little bit wrong. One person did something inconsiderate or hurtful, and the other person becomes disproportionately upset about it (usually stemming from some personal insecurity and not actually because of their spouse). Say the couple has a huge blow-out fight and one person storms out of the house and refuses to come back until the other apologizes. Desperate to keep their spouse from leaving, the other side apologizes, but secretly still feels very hurt. The fight may end with an apology and apparent forgiveness, but it doesn't really end there. It will pop up again, because ultimately this kind of battle without true reconciliation leads to another fight or resentment bubbling under the surface. Ultimately, no marriage can survive unresolved fight after fight or slow burning aggression bubbling under the surface for long. Words were spoken, the battle was brought to a close, but neither party won. War is the same way--one side is victorious, but both sides have suffered atrocious loss. What is the cost of that kind of victory?

For God, victory is not the aftermath of a bloody battlefield, with lost limbs and lost lives and post-traumatic stress disorder and scorched earth and tenuous peace. We are a violent, selfish people as we see again and again in scripture and in our own lives. David, one of our great heroes of the faith, set up a man to die in battle so that he could steal his wife. We do things just as nefarious to one another all the time, and even if we win in the short term, we are ultimately all losing because we have left a torn up battlefield in our wake. I think much of the atrocities in Christian history can be attributed to a misunderstanding of what it looks like to be victorious. For us, it looks like getting our way at any cost. The cross shows us that real victory is not "living by the sword" and forcefully converting people or imposing our culture and values on others, but instead real victory is self-sacrifice which leads to reconciliation.

When this happens, the result is not a bloody body left to rot, but an empty grave. True victory looks like two partners crying with each other, both acknowledging their wrongdoing and asking forgiveness in humility. That kind of vulnerability mends broken hearts and rebuilds lost trust. True victory looks like Christians protecting Muslims during a revolution so that they can pray safely. True victory looks like humbly offering apology for past wrongs perpetrated against GLBT people, and it looks like forgiveness in return. True victory is a message of love that speaks louder than a mob of hate. Real victory involves reconciliation, and reconciliation involves truly understanding the other.

That's why, despite our biggest failures and best efforts to twist the gospel, this faith has endured so long: because ultimately the message of the gospel is about the calm after the storm. The good news of God's love is about picking up the pieces of our broken lives, and it calls us again and again to the kind of justice that restores rather than subjugates. Christianity has been responsible for a lot of evil in the world, and we need to humbly ask forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed and continue to commit. But we also need to remember that we boldly proclaim this message because it has also sown a seed for real freedom, justice, and shalom (wholeness) that continues to bloom in spite of all our sin and tragedy. Victory is not an empty, bloody battlefield, but about the promise of what can come after: enemies embracing, lions laying down with lambs, and trees whose fruit is a balm to heal the nations (Rev. 22:2).

When we understand what real victory looks like, we can once again sing of God our fortress and shield knowing we harken to images of life rather than death. That message of hope endures because we so badly need it in a world with dictators and violence against women and environmental abuse and all sorts of evil. As a body of Christ, we must hold tightly to that message and try to live according to its truth in a world that so often pulls us towards conflict and rewards power. Glory be to God who promises to transform our blood splattered battlefields into a holy city of peace, and let us live our lives striving for God's victory. Amen.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Gospel According to How to Train Your Dragon 2

[This post contains spoilers for How to Train Your Dragon 2: Proceed at your own risk!]

If you haven't seen this movie yet, you need to go see it, like yesterday. Seriously, I'll wait. Are you back yet? Okay, great. In case you've been living under a rock and haven't seen these seriously phenomenal movies, let me give a brief synopsis. In the first movie, Hiccup, a young Viking living on a remote island discovers that the dragons that his people thought were their enemies are actually amazing, loving creatures. Hiccup befriends a Night Fury, the most deadly of all known dragons, which he shot down. Through this friendship, Hiccup learns that the dragons are actually stealing sheep and attacking their island in order to feed their evil "alpha" type dragon that controls them. Unfortunately, the rest of the people can't get out of their mindset of killing dragons, and it takes Hiccup's dragon (named Toothless, ironically) defending the Vikings bent on attacking the main nest from the evil dragon for them to realize that dragons can be their friends. The first movie ends with their little island of Berk being overtaken by these pet dragons.

The second movie opens with Hiccup missing a dragon race because he's out exploring and trying to map the world. His girlfriend Astrid eventually comes out to find him, and they go flying together only to be shot down by a dragon hunter who brings back dragons to an evil man named Drago, who is building up a dragon army. Hiccup and Astrid return to Berk to warn Hiccup's father Stoick who is also the chief of the community. Stoick immediately locks down the village and tells the people to prepare for war. Hiccup is not the type of man his father is, and rides off to try to talk to this Drago character. He and Astrid, along with some of their friends, get intentionally caught by the dragon catcher in order to be brought back to Drago, which is successful. However, Hiccup is captured by another dragon trainer named Valka who turns out to be his long lost mother. She has been rescuing dragons and keeping them in an amazing sanctuary for the last twenty years, trying to protect them from Drago and others who would hurt them. Meanwhile Astrid and the others are brought to Drago, who learn of Berk's dragons and set off to find them. Drago attacks Valka's dragon sanctuary, and destroys the good dragon who has been caring for them. Somehow, Drago controls another alpha type dragon and he sets it to take control of Toothless. Hiccup's father has tracked them down, and in an effort to save Hiccup from a mind-controlled Toothless, Stoick is killed.

The story sets up a classic conflict in Hiccup's identity: he wants to be a great man and leader like his father, but he hates war. He wants to find peace and achieve it through understanding as he did with his dragon. At the same time, he sees that a man like Drago can't be stopped by conversation. This is the conflict that Bonhoeffer dealt with in WWII, and it's the same conflict that we often deal with today. Do we use violence to achieve peace, or do we swear off violence and allow ourselves to become victims? Great men like Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. thought there was a different path to follow, and sometimes there is, if your foe is ruled by some morals. But the kind of peaceful resistance that worked on the US or British governments doesn't always work against totalitarian rulers. Hiccup and his dragon were the best, the strongest in all of Berk, and if they did the Christ-like thing of laying down their lives, who would defend those who were weaker? So Hiccup decides they have to fight to save Berk. He and his friends have lost their dragons to Drago, except the babies in the sanctuary (who pretty much don't listen to anybody), which they use to fly to Berk.

There, Hiccup confronts Drago who is riding Toothless. Toothless doesn't recognize him but Hiccup keeps reaching out to him, reminding him that they are best friends, and that it is loyalty that binds them rather than the sick control that Drago wields over him. Miraculously, Toothless is able to fight off the Alpha dragon's hold on him, and dump Drago. The Alpha dragon fires ice at them both and encases them, but instead of killing them, the ice begins to glow—it's Toothless. Realizing that Hiccup is going to die if he doesn't do something, Toothless becomes quite fanged indeed and challenges the Alpha. Despite being unimaginably bigger and much stronger, Toothless is fighting for love—to protect Hiccup, Astrid, and the people of Berk. He fires his dragon breath repeatedly until all the dragons are freed and standing behind him to defend Berk. Unable to stand a chance against those odds, the Alpha and Drago flee. The end of the movie shows Hiccup being made chief in his father's place.

Hiccup's central struggle is his identity—what kind of man is he going to be? Is he going to be a man of war like his father, or a man of peace? He wants to forge a different way. The reality is that there is some evil that can't be overtaken in this world with love and kindness. I am a pacifist at heart, and I love the writings of Martin Luther King Jr.--but was the United States wrong to join Britain in fighting against the Third Reich? I don't think so. We live in two kingdoms, as Luther wrote, and although God's way is amazing, and I strongly believe that ultimately God's power will overtake all evil so that the lion really can lie with the lamb, we live in the “not yet” part of the two kingdoms. Sometimes, as much as we like to, we can't stand by and let others fight their battles in the name of neutrality. If we aren't fighting against evil, we are for it. That raises the question of how we delineate ourselves from those who commit violence for the sake of violence?

To quote a well known question: do the ends justify the means? In other words, does it matter how you get there if you end up at the same place? Of course it does! Ultimately, Hiccup ended up in the same position as Drago—in control of a lot of people and dragons! The difference is that Drago gained his power by subjugating all those who stood in his way, not caring at all about them and doing violence indiscriminately. Hiccup achieved his power by so strongly loving Toothless that the dragon fought the most powerful dragon alive and won. And the reason Hiccup was victorious in the end is because love is more powerful than hate. There is nothing as strong in this whole messed up world as love, which can mend hearts and heal wounds the way no act of force ever could. Because love is a gift which grows with the giving. How can it ever be defeated if it only grows as it is spread from person to person, life to life? It can't be. Real power is in risking everything for another, in protecting, in caring so much about somebody else that you don't care about yourself. That's the same love that compelled God to become one of us and walk beside us all the way to the cross so that we could be raised. That's the power that is ultimately victorious over all sin, evil, and death.

Like Hiccup, we must discover our identity as Christians, which is ultimately to be known "by our love." (John 13:35) In a perfect world, talking things out would always resolve evil and transform the hearts of those who do it, but it doesn't. Sometimes we do have to take a stand. But we take our stand in love, to defend the weak; for justice, not for revenge or the kind of power which dominates others. True power is the power which frees us from the terrible tragedy of subjugation which hurts this world so badly, and we pray for that love which surpasses all our understanding even as we sometimes choose the path of conflict for the sake of those around us.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Song as prayer

Yesterday, P and I drove back from Kansas City where we had been spending a few days with my family. When he drives, he likes to listen to books. I find that they pull my concentration from the road, so I prefer to listen to music. We were both pretty tired, but I found myself driving the last two hour leg, and given that my iPod was dead and I had only brought two cds, I ended up listening to a mix of Christian music over and over again. The CD features songs from Jason Gray, TobyMac, Francesca Battistelli, DC Talk, Brandon Heath, and Newsboys. (Hey, don't judge, I like to rock it out old school sometimes.) I call this my "resurrection mix" because most of the songs talk about being brought to life and where God is in tragedy and loss.
Last year on my internship, this was especially necessary for me. I would sometimes find myself listening to the same song in my office over and over as I fought back tears and despair. Somehow, this would calm me. Music has a way of getting into you. I'm sure you've had the experience of tapping your toes along to a song you don't even like, or even singing along thinking 'why am I singing this stupid song??' It grabs our concentration, while somehow simultaneously letting our minds wander.

So as I was driving on I-35 singing along to the words: "speak life to the deadest, darkest night" or "nothing is wasted in the hands of our redeemer" I found myself moved. I kept listening, and as I was listening, I realized that what I was doing was confessing my sins right along with the singer, and professing truth about God, which was full of hope, and giving praise and gratitude to God at the same time. And even though the words came from somebody else, I realized that I was joining in with those musicians in a sort of corporate prayer, which permeated my body and made me really believe that something beautiful could come out of the war in Ukraine, and made me really grateful for the amazing people in my life, and made me remember the promise of forgiveness that has been given to me. I, not an ordinarily prayerful person, spent two hours talking to God and hearing from God through my husband's cd player.

The best part is that this is an effect that lasts much beyond the listening because of the way that music gets into us. My husband, ordinarily listening to his book while I listen to music, took out his headphones and listened too, and was later humming along to the music while making dinner. I found myself whistling it later, remembering the words I had been singing in the car. I think this is why singing is such a universal human behavior: because there is something a bit divine about music, whether that's a concerto or a hymn or a song on the radio, that gets inside of us. It is an incredible gift that is done universally in cultures around the world.

I suppose the title of this post is the revelation: music can be a really powerful way to pray. Thinking about it that way makes it much easier for me to figure out how to get in some prayer time, and I share it because I know how hard it can be to generate prayers, especially when you're in a bad situation or are scared or tired. I write this so that maybe you can also let yourself be guided by the words of other Christians when you're overwhelmed with despair, or can't quite find the words to ask for help, and remember that "the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26) when we don't know what to pray for.

Here's one song that makes for a great prayer. :)