Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Gift of Life

[This post contains spoilers about the book and movie The Giver.]


when we were young
and the whole world of adventure
and possibility lay beyond.

Bright eyes stared
ahead with visions
of love and fame
and money.

Instead debt,
lonely days and failure,
tears and fights, and
many disappointments.

But also work,
and laughter and
creation of new life and
so much growth.

when we were young
and had no idea
how amazing a plan
not ours could be.

G. Powell (2014)

My husband and I went to see The Giver on Sunday. Lois Lowry's writing was a momentous part of my childhood. I probably read it the first time in middle school, and then again in my early twenties, and remember being so struck by the themes of identity, but the movie really drove home themes about love and humanity. For those who don't know, The Giver takes place in what appears to be a rather utopian society, where all kinds of evil and meanness has been eradicated. The people live in a community in which food is distributed so that nobody goes hungry, jobs are assigned so that everybody has important work, and the people don't even see color because that would highlight differences. The evil and inequality of the world led the creators of this utopian society to go to what they call "sameness" and to exterminate all memories of what the world was like before.

On the surface, this seems innocent enough. A bit controlling, but what do you do? Nobody is going hungry or being raped or murdered. There's no war. Who can ask for more? The story follows a young man named Jonas who is of the age to be assigned his job that he will have for the rest of his life. He is also on the cusp of manhood, and after having a slightly erotic dream about a friend, he is started on a new medication, which we later find out is to curb these sexual feelings. In fact, the people seem to experience no deep emotions at all, and talk plainly about all the more fleeting ones. No intimacy, no love, only duty and responsibility. Jonas doesn't know any different until he starts his new job, which is to be the "receiver of memory" for the community. Because the community did away with all historical knowledge and memory in order to keep out anything that could cause dangerous conflicts, the memories are kept by one elder who advises the others when a situation comes up that they aren't sure how to handle. Jonas is to be given these memories so that he can fulfill that role.

The Giver begins gifting memories to Jonas, and at first he's thrilled. Soon he begins to understand concepts like color and excitement and deep passion, like the feelings that were so quickly quashed after he admitted to his sexual dream. He experiences joy for the first time. But darker emotions and experience exist as well, and Jonas has to receive these to understand why his community had to "go to sameness." The beautiful parts are glorious, but the pain is awful and the community founders wanted to spare the people.

Meanwhile, Jonas' father has brought home one of the infants that he cares for in his role of nurturer of new citizens, because the boy is not growing as he should. His father feels some kindness toward this baby and thinks maybe being at home will help him. Jonas begins to get very attached to the boy. Along the way, however, he learns about "release to elsewhere" which is the end that criminals, elderly, and sickly people all meet. He discovers that these people are simply killed, and because he has experienced the joys and pains of life through the Giver, he understands what death is and what a horrific thing his community has been doing in the name of peace. The baby that his father has brought home will meet this same fate, he learns, and so decides that he must flee.

Now, we also learn that the memories are tightly contained within these people, but it turns out that if the keeper of memory crosses the boundary out of the community, all of those memories would be released back to where they belong. The book and movie diverge a bit in how this all happens, but the end result is that Jonas realizes that by taking away the "colorful" experiences of life and the potential for pain, the community has also lost the capacity for love, and the result of that is this darwinist, emotionless, empty society with no real depth or beauty.

This is where the poem above comes in. I was thinking about how my expectations of my life are so much different than I ever thought they would be. I have no idea how it happened that I ended up working as a chaplain, married to the amazing man I met, living where I am, meeting the people I meet, but I did. And it was not totally painless along the way. There were lots of fumbles and screw-ups and lots of sadness and misery as I tried to awkwardly figure out who I am called to be. But somehow out of the chaos of this journey has always come something new, something alive, something urging me forward, creating in me a more authentic relationship with God, and a more real way to relate to the pain of the world. The Giver raises the question of what it means to be truly human, what it means to suffer. We don't know why we suffer or what pain really means or where it comes from, but what we know for certain is that God meets us there and promises us new life.

In many ways, pain and suffering cultivate in us a deeper capacity to touch the world around us, and to understand a God who loved us so much that s/he could send Jesus for us. It is that love which weeps that makes us new, the same way that power comes in weakness and life comes through death. When we lose the capacity to love as Jonas' community had, we forget the value of human life--especially the weak or the old or the invalid--and truly lose our power to bring about a better future. Jonas sees the subtle costs of this forgotten magic and does the only thing he can: returns love with the hope that as a people we may, as the Giver said, "choose better." Sometimes love and pain are two sides to the coin, but in the same way that Jonas hoped, we hope for a new future where we may choose only love and thus God's promised future of no more tears and pain and war will become a reality. The path to that future may not always look like we expect, but we humans are rarely wise enough to choose our path well. Thank God for a Creator and Redeemer who sends the Spirit of love and newness into our lives every day.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Christian Vocation: Thoughts on Ferguson

"I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness." -Romans 12:1-18

The story of Ferguson, Missouri is on my mind lately, not just because I grew up partly in the state, but because this is a narrative that is becoming tragically familiar. A young, black man is killed by excessive force, and the outcry of the community is met with more violence. Some people seek to justify the young man's death all the while knowing that had he been white he would likely never have been stopped, let alone shot multiple times past the point of surrender. Do I know if Michael Brown robbed that convenience store, or even if he acted aggressively toward the officer who stopped him? No. But I do know that he was unarmed, and that there are ways to use force in less deadly ways, yet when it comes to black men, it's the same old story: shoot first, ask questions later. The narrative that focuses on his actions places blame everywhere but where it should be, which is on all of us for our role in institutional racism, a cycle of poverty and violence which keeps people, particularly people of color, in a hopelessly inescapable landscape that breeds more violence, more crime, more tragedy.

As Christians, we are called to be in the world but not of it, to not be conformed to the world. The "city on a hill" mentality has often led to Christians believing that they are called to live on this planet while remaining apart, somehow, from the problems and violence of society. However it has never been more apparent in all of human history how hyper-connected a life we all lead. The pain of our broken hearts crying for the tragedy of the world should tell us, even if we choose to interpret this passage otherwise, how we are all brothers and sisters. When my black brothers and sisters cry out in the agony of institutional racism and systematic oppression, I should also groan. We should all be groaning right now, not just because of Ferguson, but because of Syria and Iraq and Gaza and Ukraine and everywhere else that people are crushed under the yoke of oppression.

Not being conformed to the world doesn't mean taking the city on a hill approach. It also doesn't mean that being Christians somehow makes us better, different, or apart. Rather, it means that those of us who believe have undergone a radical re-orientation to the reality of the world, where we see not the thrill of power and privilege, but the grief for sons and daughters lost too young to drug addiction, prison, gang violence, and murder. We understand that although we all, in some ways, benefit from and take part in maintaining the social order which continues to segregate the rich from the poor or the white from the black or the man from the woman, that that reality of one stepping on another is a product of brokenness, and the reality that we are called to is that of no Greek or Jew, man or woman, slave or free. It means using "sober judgment" as Paul says, to recognize our role and break away from the biases and say no to the status quo and use our power in society for the good of others. It means understanding our interconnectedness as creatures and using our God-given gifts to usher in the kingdom of God, because we have a God who from the beginning has been about liberation of the oppressed.

Being transformed means re-orienting towards the future to which we are called. That future is the reign of God's kingdom, and it looks not like a people set apart from the world, but a people so deeply moved by the everyday trials and hurts that we stand up against what sometimes feels like overwhelmingly powerful systems. It looks like a people who take on the yoke of the oppressed as if it were our own burden, who fight for the rights of our neighbors as if they were our own rights. God's kingdom looks like brothers and sisters acknowledging and fighting for the right of the other to be fully, uniquely and genuinely who they are as a person also created by the same loving God as you and me.

I believe that the death of Michael Brown should serve as a wake up call to us, that there is still violence in the world because of inequalities large and small, obvious and subtle, and that as Christians our call is to solidarity with those in the world who are suffering. Paul calls us to be renewed; not to be conformed with the world that says that violence and inequality are the way of things, but to be transformed to the reality that God wants liberation for all God's people, who is always for us, who is always faithful, and who is calling us into greater communion with one another. May we all be remade daily so we may more fully learn how to weep, pray, and fight for our brothers and sisters in Ferguson and all over the world until God's promised reign of peace becomes today's reality. Amen.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The City of God

Then I saw coming from the heavens
a holy city, unlike any on earth,
not with an iron dome and military guard
But at the gate of the city, welcome,
and waiting to greet all those who draw near.

Those who entered were not refugees
and came not with terror and grief
but ecstatic joy for the Lord would
dwell there, and make them forget their pain:
the fear of gang violence and rape.

Then seated on the throne was the Son,
not a despot ruler killing for money,
oil, power, and territory, but a King of true goodness who
promised from the ashes of destruction
a sprig of life would burst forth.

I walked the streets of the city,
paved with lustrous gold, every building bright.
Here the gold was for all the people,
not just those with the most guns and militants
but for all to share as kin.

Then I saw a rushing river,
it was clean and clear. No corporate dumping,
or signs warning of toxicity,
only fresh water nourishing the plants on every side,
unadulterated and verdant with wide leaves.

Along the bank of the river were thousands of trees,
with different fruits that filled bellies of hungry
people so that no child would go to bed with the pain
of hunger or disease. The fruit of the trees was a balm
whose magic was in its ability to heal more than hearts.

Then I saw a Lamb, and it came to dwell with the lion,
but the lion could not look upon it
for it was like the sun, shining on all the people.
There could be no night here,
nor would darkness triumph again.

These things I perceived, not a fantasy
or distant hope, but a vision; a glorious
promise to dry tears and mend wounds,
and sure as these words appear here,
so shall this dream become our future age.