Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sometimes We Are Not Ready for the Angel; Sometimes We Are Not Ready for the Message

The story of Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, has long fascinated me. Zachariah was a priest, described by Luke as "righteous in the sight of God." Getting the opportunity actually to go into the temple and present the incense offering was a rare honor. On this day as told in the first chapter of Luke, it is finally Zachariah's turn, and in he goes. He is promptly met by the angel Gabriel, who tells Zachariah that he and his wife Elizabeth (who is, according to Luke, "very old") are going to have a baby (who will turn out to be John the Baptist). Zachariah's response is "How do I know you are telling me the truth?" Perhaps as a sign, and perhaps as a bit of reprimand, Gabriel strikes Zachariah mute on the spot, and Zachariah does not speak again until the baby John is born.

Why would this righteous priest not believe a communication from God delivered to him face to face by an angel?

Perhaps Zachariah was simply not ready for a holy message. Like many of us, he was going through his churchy motions and making his religious noises, but the last thing he may have expected was for God to show up. I think failing to expect God to be in church is a danger for all of us; the phenomenon of tending the altar of God without really seeking God is particularly an occupational hazard for professional ministers, for whom the sanctuary can become routine. For God to honor their - and our - service and actually appear may not be on the radar of those who are simply going about their business.

There may be another explanation for Zachariah's immediate disbelief, however. Maybe Zachariah was ready for a message from God but did not prepare for the message to be personal. He thought God might speak to the nation, not to him. It is one thing to expect God to give a sweeping declaration to all people. It is something else for God to deliver an individual message just to Zachariah.

My thoughts turn to our nation. Ferguson and "I Can't Breathe" have highlighted simmering - and now often boiling over - racial distrust and tension. On one hand, we can look back at the sixties and say how far we have come. We can then look to the future and be optimistic, knowing that things will continue to get better. Comedian Chris Rock has recently reflected this optimism, saying that he expects his children to grow up in a much better racial situation: “It’s partly generational, but it’s also my kids grew up not only with a black president but with a black secretary of State, a black joint chief of staff, a black attorney general. My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people.”

On the other hand, an optimistic look at coming decades is of little import to those fighting the fight today. Whether the issue is race, socio-economics, or faith, what will happen in the future is distant. That is a message for generations, a sweeping gesture that is doubtless correct and in its own way uplifting but still remote, still impersonal.

Sometimes, we prepare for the general message and are not ready for a personal call. What if God wants me to make a difference in my community, today? What if I am supposed to be part of the answer? What if the angel is speaking a message to me that is about what I am supposed to do, not a broad dictate for the nation over the next fifty years?

This Advent, we hear the Christmas angels sing "Glory to God and peace on earth." That sounds so general, so futuristic, so all-encompassing - one day, God will wipe away all tears and end all strife, and there will indeed be peace on earth.

But what if those angels are singing now to us, individually? What if we are supposed to be making that peace? What if God is calling us (not someone else) to make a change here (not somewhere else) now(not in the future)? What if Christmas ought to be making a difference where we live today and tomorrow and the next day? What if peace on earth really is supposed to begin with me, with my neighbors, with my block, with my community, with my city?

Am I ready to meet the angel, and if I am, am I ready for the angel to speak to me ... about me?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Interstellar - The Father, The Ghost, and The Greatest of These

Warning: This blog contains spoilers. If you have not yet seen "Interstellar" and don't want me to ruin it for you, don't read the rest of this yet. Go see the movie, then come back and read.

And now abideth faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.

In her first line of the movie, young Murphy tells her father, "I thought you were the ghost." And the foreshadowing has begun.

I don't know that "Interstellar" is a great movie by most Hollywood standards. I have no idea if it will win many, or any, awards. But it is as imaginative and compelling a telling of the gospel as I have seen. I read a review by Jim Denison, whom I greatly respect and with whom I almost always agree, that was generally negative because the movie does not explicitly mention God and instead speaks a message that humans save themselves. Christianity Today's review had a similar response. With all due respect to both, I think these reviews miss the point of the movie by a mile. The movie never mentions God by name, but it tells the story of Christ in multiple ways. It is a palpable experience.

The setting and plot line of the movie are not really the point of what I take from the movie. (Whether Christopher and Jonathan Nolan are saying all of this intentionally or not is beyond me; the message comes through either way.) Yes, it involves a rocket-powered adventure to save earth from a dystopia of blight, overpopulation, and imminent doom. Yes, there are complicated descriptions of space travel, quantum mechanics, theoretical physics, surrogate biology, survival, exploration, and triggers of evolution. Yes, the film is long and relies on a lot of talking and a lot of crying.

On top of that are the most basic of symbols: dust and wind; fire and water; corn fields and ice fields; an unplayed piano; inscrutible mathematical scribblings; and, of course, the holiest of symbols, baseball. And most of this is set to the music of a dramatic cathedral organ.

It is all an elaborate device, pointing in one clear direction.

If you are still reading, you have seen the movie, or else you don't plan to see it and so it is ok if I spoil it for you. So here goes: Cooper is a trinitarian figure of the divine. He is the Father. He is the Ghost - if you have seen the movie, you understand. And he is the Christ, sacrificing himself and descending, through immense personal suffering, into the abyss as we see the flames grow in alternating scenes. He rises again, but not before his plunge into the inexplicable unveils the secret to overcome the curse that is taking over the world. It is a secret, a mystery, that he is able to share with the one who maintains - despite her own words and her own feelings - a stubborn faith in him and in his word. She finds the way to listen to him and to understand what he says, and from him she gains what she needs to solve the unsolveable equation.

She maintains her faith because her "dad said so."

Cooper promises her that he will come back. He will come again. She wants to know how and when, and he does not provide details, but he repeatedly says that he will come back. When he is on a distant world and all seems hopeless, he finds a way to come back. There is a literal second coming.

A critical part of the gospel story, of course, is the failing of humanity, of mankind. In the movie, the ultimate failures - deception, cowardice, betrayal, dishonesty, shortcuts, meanness, selfishness - are all portrayed in a single character. He believes that survival hinges on our response to the fear of death, and he relies on his own abilities, since "few have been tested as much as" he has. It is no coincidence that his name is Mann.

There is another character who fails. As Professor Brand dies, he confesses to what is later called a "monstrous lie," and it seems to us, at least for a moment, that Murphy's faith has been tragically misplaced. But we learn - as she learns - that her faith was not in Professor Brand but instead in the truth, in the hope that the unanswerable will be answered. And her faith is rewarded, but only through the unfathomable intervention of her father.

Dr. Denison is dismayed that Cooper says that the "they" who provide the help are really "we," that he and his kind have evolved into a future five-dimensional species that can communicate back to its more primitive self across time and space. But that is a device, a metaphor. Cooper is the Christ figure, and when he says that "we" are saving the world, the "we" is Cooper in all of his dimensions - father, ghost, and resurrected man.

So the movie starts with the hope of a new home and builds on the faith of solving the "problem of gravity." But as we all know, on top of all of this is the greatest of these. There are two critical speeches that make the point of the movie abundantly clear. The first of these, delivered by Amelia in her explanation of why they should choose Edmunds' planet, is her impassioned defense of the power of love. She argues that it is the only thing that reaches across time and space, reaching past its social utility, reaching beyond even death itself, and thus it should be trusted even though it is not measurable. She loses that debate in the moment, but the unfolding of events demonstrates that she is right - Edmunds' planet, where love tells her they should go, is the only one of the three planets that turns out to be what they need. She takes off her helmet and breathes.

The second speech is Cooper's explanation of why Murphy will return to the bookshelf to receive his message - because he loves her and she loves him, and that love will translate the message and obliterate the obstacles between them.

"Interstellar" tells the story of a world that is doomed to die. It cannot save itself. It needs supernatural help, something that, as the movie says, is "not possible ... it's necessary." It is a remarkable movie: birthed in hope, struggling with faith, complicated by the evil and mistakes of Mann, powered by love. It is a movie about the one who is Father and Ghost and, ultimately, the risen, living savior.