Friday, February 27, 2015

What Makes a Hero a Hero?

My 12 year old has been in major Star Wars mode this month, which means we recently watched the original trilogy in all of its original theatrical release glory. (Tonight we get the special release of the first film, complete with all its extras…longer Death Star run! Greedo shot first! Slithery CGI Jabba! It will be her first time to see Episode IV with all of Lucas’ changes.)

Watching these films has gotten us thinking about heroes and villains. Her fascination with Luke and Darth got me pondering, and I decided to pop over to the American Film Institute’s Hero and Villains list to see where they showed up. AFI, in case you don’t know, presents a list of the top 50 American film heroes and villains (along with lists of many other things connected to American film).

Here’s the interesting thing: Darth Vader shows up at #3 on the all-time villain list. And Luke Skywalker…doesn’t make the cut.

I was not surprised to see Han Solo come in at #14 on the hero list – we love scoundrels-turned-heroes. But Obi-Wan Kenobi at #37? Really? I mean, I love Alec Guinness and the gravitas he brings to the role, which ups the whole tone of the first film especially. I’m not sure anyone else could have brought the weight needed to lines like “You must learn the ways of the Force…”

And yes, of course he sacrifices himself in battle, another mark of heroism. But his role in really more of mentor-to-hero than hero; it’s his exit from the land of the living (though he continues to show up in ghostly form in the next movies) that allows Luke the room he needs to grow and come to grips with his destiny.

Luke is the one who has the classic hero journey. He not only ends up besting the #3 movie villain of all time in battle, but that villain is his father, and his continued reaching out in love and forgiveness to that villainous wreck of a father is what eventually enables Darth to do the right thing and find redemption. And he blew up the Death Star! How much more heroic can Luke be?

Of course, he doesn’t get the girl (primarily since the only girl for miles around in this galaxy turns out to be his twin sister, hidden from their dastardly father at birth) and one wonders if that factors in. Of course, it’s also a teensy bit frustrating to consider that Leia herself does not make it to the hero list (there are women on the list) since she seems to be at least as heroic as Han, both of them in supporting role kind of ways.

So what do you think? Should Luke have made the list?

In case you’re curious, here’s how AFI defines hero:

“For voting purposes, a "hero" was defined as a character(s) who prevails in extreme circumstances and dramatizes a sense of morality, courage and purpose. Though they may be ambiguous or flawed, they often sacrifice themselves to show humanity at its best.”

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Consider Him...(Pondering Hebrews 12:3)

Except for a lovely worship service and church school class this morning, followed by a great lunch at church, I have been working all day. This is not my usual kind of Sunday, but this particular semester, I've discovered that I often have to work on Sundays because of my class schedule and my deadline schedule with Spirit & Truth. Reminder to self: must find some sabbath time to take the place of what I'm not able to have on Sundays!

Because I've been working for several of the really needing to concentrate and think and write creatively type...I'm too tired to write the post I've been planning in the back of my head since this morning. That would be a post on John Newton, author of Amazing Grace. (I mention it here in hopes that it will spur me to actually come back sometime this week and write it...we shall see.)

For now, I just had to share this verse, which has also been running around in my mind and heart much of the day (it's been a crammed full to bursting mind and heart day)....

"Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted." (Hebrews 12:3)

This is a bit of Scripture that's been engrained in me for so long it nearly took my breath this morning in worship when I felt like I heard it "anew." I think I heard it back to front -- the words "weary" and "fainthearted" smacked me in between the eyes, because I must confess I've been feeling a lot of both lately. Then I backed up to the beginning of the verse, and the remedy for weariness and faintheartedness: "Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself..." jumped up for my attention. The enduring of hostility, going all the way to the cross, to restore us in love while we were yet sinners (yes, Romans 5 still singing through my head...thank you, Paul) -- what an amazing God we have.

But it was the "CONSIDER HIM" that really lodged in my heart today. It's an active verb. It's something we are to *do* so that will not grow weary or fainthearted....which suggests that the writer of Hebrews knows all to well how easy it is for us to become those things in this world.

Consider him...or as some other translations have it....
"just think of him"
"keep your mind on him"
"go over that story again"
"think constantly of him"
"think of what he went through"

Sounds like an important spiritual discipline, not just for Lent, but for any season!

Praying that I will find real and loving ways to consider him this week. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Thankful for the Apostle Paul (and Romans 5:1-11, and the Scriptures, and Grace)

I'm home on this Ash Wednesday evening, working on writing a lesson plan for Romans 5:1-11. This is part of the freelance curriculum writing job I've had since late fall, a job for which I continue to be so thankful, in part because it's such a joy to be able to spend time in the Scriptures, thinking and writing about them for youth and their teachers.

This is my fifth project for the publisher, and only my second New Testament lesson. It's also the first time I've had to tackle Paul for this curriculum. I use the word "tackle" on purpose, because as usual, I find Paul a challenge for my mind and heart.

In general, my story-loving self finds it ever so much easier to write lesson plans and activity guides for narrative or poetic/prophetic passages. Narratives give us characters we can hang our hats on, and poetry gives us concrete visual images. To be fair, Paul sometimes gives us both of those things -- he loves to re-tell Old Testament stories (often with a new twist) and he sometimes provides rich imagery ("clanging cymbal" and the parts of the body talking to one another come to mind right away). But sometimes he's the Paul I tend to think of when his name comes to mind: the pastoral, teaching Paul whose complex sentences can pack what feels like dozens of deeply rich theological words into a very, very small space.

These eleven verses I've been sitting with for the past couple of weeks contain a lot of the biggies: reconciliation, justification, grace, hope, peace, faith, endurance, suffering, rejoicing, wrath. They're all there, and the first few times I read through the passage, as I thought about trying to help teachers unpack it for youth, I found myself wanting to bite my nails. It was hard to pick one over-arching "big idea" because, quite frankly, every single idea in it is big.

So I just kept reading. I'd pick it up at odd moments and read it again. I read it in the ESV (my study Bible of choice these days), in the NIV along with some commentary notes, in the NRSV (which is the translation I need to use for my work). I read it in the Message (thank you, Eugene) and in the wonderfully expanded Amplified version, which interestingly enough, really helped me this time, because with its parenthetical comments expanding on some of those big theological words, it somehow captured the exuberance of Paul.

I think that's what I was missing for a while, as I read the passage with my mind (not a bad thing to do, of course, and needed) trying to understand the import of what Paul was saying well enough to begin to put it into simpler and more concrete terms for kids. I needed to read it with my heart too, to hear the excitement in Paul's voice as he builds and builds and repeats himself...and he does...about the amazing love of God. A love poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. A love shown to us through the death of Jesus on the cross, a death he died while we were yet sinners. While we were a helpless mess and could do nothing on our behalf, reminds Paul, God did it all.

And we who have been reconciled through that act have hope. Real, living, true, confident hope that will never disappoint us, no matter what kind of suffering may come our way. Hope that allows us to rejoice no matter what comes, because HE HAS DONE IT. When we turn to him in trust, when we put our hope in this great good news, he makes us new and sets us right, forever healing our relationship to God which was once so irrevocably broken.

All the big words Paul uses? He's not using them to impress or confuse, he's using them because they're the only ones he can come up with that are rich and deep and brilliant enough to capture at least a little bit of the truth he's trying to sing for us here, preaching it so it can sink deep down into our bones and enflame our hearts and remind us anew of who God is and what he has done.

I am so thankful for the apostle Paul, so thankful for these words and the gift of the Scriptures.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Meet Flavia de Luce: Diminutive Sherlock

Every once in a while, I come across a quote in a novel that grabs my attention – either because it strikes me as profound, or it stirs up tears or laughter. The stirring up laughter kind of quote is the one I usually run across in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries. Today it was this one, said by a rather batty (but inspiring) maiden aunt to her brilliant eleven year old niece:

“If you remember nothing else, remember this: Inspiration from outside one’s self if like the heat in an oven. It makes passable Bath buns. But inspiration from within is like a volcano: It changes the face of the world.” (~The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bones)

I’m reading the second novel in this delightfully quirky series, and enjoying myself for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is Bradley’s ability to disprove critics who think a child can’t be a suitable protagonist in a story mostly intended for adults. To be sure, I think Flavia’s mysteries would play well with a young adult audience too – though I wonder if young adults (more than older ones) might be put off the eleven year old heroine. But maybe not. Maybe they’d embrace her even more wholeheartedly!

Like Ender of Orson Scott Card’s science fiction novels, Flavia never quite seems her age – except on the rare occasions that she has to. The limits of an eleven year old’s world set interesting parameters for mystery solving. Flavia may compare herself to the “swarming clerics in Anthony Trollope who seemed to spend their days buzzing from cloister to vicarage and from village to the bishop’s palace like black clockwork beetles scuttling to and fro in a green maze” but our diminutive Sherlock has to make her way in pursuit of clues on her bicycle -- which she’s named Gladys.

I think that may be the genius of Flavia: she’s precocious enough to have read Trollope (okay, she confesses she “skimmed bits” of it, and that she’s not terribly into the books because there’s no one her age in them) but she’s still child enough to name her bicycle. She’s brilliant enough to perform incredible forensic chemistry experiments in her lab, but still insecure and immature enough to use her scientific brilliance in the pursuit of petty revenge on her older sisters (beware lipsticks and chocolates at the de Luce home…you never know what Flavia might have syringed inside them).

Between the genius of Flavia’s character and the lively humor of Bradley’s similes, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself with this series. I just might need to start collecting Bradley’s similes, like one collects bright beetles in a jar. He can’t seem to go more than a page or two without indulging in one. They’re often laugh-aloud funny at the same time they’re surprisingly evocative.

Did I mention the mysteries are pretty good too? There’s even a real police inspector, the amiable and smart Inspector Hewitt, who welcomes Flavia’s brilliance even if he’s not too sure what to do about her poking her nose into his cases.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Church School Snippets

One of the things I love most about teaching in our parish church school is how profoundly and wonderfully the kids get the message of God’s redeeming love. Sometimes it can be hard to remember just how much they’re listening…and thinking, learning, and growing….in the midst of the wiggles and the giggles and the bouts of silliness and the endless questions about when we’re going to have snack, but listening they are. And sometimes they do get it.

The kids we teach range in age from 5 to 11. Some of the moments with them are profound, and some are just delightful and funny. I have so many favorite moments on a given Sunday that I can’t possibly recount them all, but here are a few of my favorites today:

  • My seventh grade daughter, who assists us in teaching the class, leaning over and whispering to me during opening worship upstairs. She was reminding me that one of the kids had a birthday this week, so we would want to sing to him during church school (one of our traditions). She also reminded me that during church school prayer time, we should remember to ask a girl in the class about how her recent visit with her grandparents had gone. I nodded. Then without thinking, I leaned over and whispered back, “that’s good pastoring.” And it is. I love that my daughter is attuned to the lives of these younger kids and that she’s thinking about ways we can bless them and affirm the importance of the things going on in their lives.
  • Of course, the kids can also drive her a bit batty, especially when they are in highly active mode as they were today. She can get easily overwhelmed by all the noise and activity. At one point today, she hauled off and shouted “Silence!” which miraculously did produce a lull. It also made me laugh (inwardly) as I suspect that all pastors, even the grown-up official kind with collars, might not mind doing that on occasion.
  • The Bishop was here today, for his yearly visitation and to confirm one of the young adults in our congregation (now in her 20s, and we’ve known her since she was about 6!). The bishop gathered the kids and gave them a little talk about the ABUNDANT life we have in Christ, helping them to understand the word abundant. After the bishop prayed for and dismissed the kids, we took them downstairs and I was about to ask, as I always did, if there was anything in worship upstairs that they had particularly noticed or wanted to talk about. Before I could, a boy waved his hand and announced, “I noticed that the bishop has ABUNDANT eyebrows.” (Which is quite true by the way…our bishop’s eyebrows are most impressive!)
  • The kids were listening to a puppet show in which the characters were talking about the verse in Corinthians about how one person sowed, and another watered, but God made things grow. The little boy nestled on my lap looked at me, and said, in a highly intrigued voice, “Does God make things grow? With his POWERS?”
  • We were talking about the different gifts that God gives to different people in the church: all kinds of gifts, and all important and necessary. The kids were naming people in the church who did different things and some of their gifts, and I was pointing out that each and every one of them was also gifted and also an important part of the church. At which point a newly turned 10 year old piped up with the profound words: “my dad tells me my gift is that I’m vulnerable to letting God speak through me.” Well….yes. Wow.
  • We were praying for our city of the day: Windhoek, Namibia. Most of the cities we’ve prayed for this year (we’re going A-Z) have been in the 10-40 window and have a lot of unreached peoples, but Windhoek has about a 90% Christian population. The kids were astounded…and impressed. “I think missionaries have done a good job there!”
  • We were singing and dancing to a very African-inspired version of Galatians 5:1 (“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free; stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”) I called out, “If we’ve been set free by Jesus, why would we want to be slaves again to sin?” and one little boy hollered back, “Yeah, who would want to be a slave again? That’s just dumb!”) Amen, child. Amen.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Winter Re-Reads (or Book Staples on your Shelf)

What books do you re-read in the wintertime?

I'm an inveterate re-reader at all times, but I confess I re-read more than usual in the winter. This year the bouts of arctic cold and the rutted, icy ground right outside my door are sending me hurrying to my old favorites on the bookshelf more than usual. At the moment, I'm in the middle of re-reading the wonderful novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This lovely book by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows has a tendency to make me both laugh out loud and tear up every so often, and it's become one of my yearly staples.

I'm beginning to think some books are like staples in the pantry, the stuff you feel you can't do without for too long without worrying you're going to go hungry. Everyone's food staples are different (mine include potatoes, onions, carrots, corn meal, whole wheat flour, brown rice, kosher salt, basil, apples, and cinnamon) and our book staples are different too. You might be just fine if you run out of Austen or cozy mysteries, but beside yourself if you're low on Asimov or graphic novels. Of course, one of the nicest things about book staples is that they can keep for years on your shelves without needing much replenishing.