Snow White, Our Latest Messiah

Snow WhiteI saw the new movie Snow White and the Huntsman the other day. As I watched I was struck by how many parallels there were to the story of Jesus. There are “Messiah” stories everywhere (messiah meaning, someone to save/deliver us) And that is what Snow White is to the people of that land.

Here are some of the parallels I noted:

The child who plays snow white is born in some extra-ordinary way, with a blessing, like every messiah story, including the story of the birth of Jesus. That child is perceived as a threat to the authority (In this case, the queen; In Jesus’ case, Herod, and religious authorities). Snow White disappears (captive in a tower) for years, until she escapes, which is not so dissimilar to the “missing years” of the gospels with Jesus’ childhood. When Snow White escapes, she rides through this town where the villagers look at her suspiciously. This happened to Jesus too.

But others see her and feel moved by her in some way, saying that “she is the one who will save us. I see an end to the darkness.” They see creatures respond to her, not unlike the people in the gospels who tell stories about demons knowing who Jesus is, and calming the winds.

Snow White collects a group of people who protect her and vow to follow her and do whatever she says. But of course the group (you know, the seven dwarves) are varying degrees of not-so-smart—just like the disciples.

The huntsman teaches her how to kill someone who gets close to her, and she says “I don’t think I could ever do that” playing the nonviolence card. And of course, one day she gets fed this poisoned apple, and is pronounced dead. Several days later, (following the Jesus story) she comes back to life.

Now, here is where the story diverges from the story of Jesus the Christ. Snow White gets up, goes outside, and gives a rousing speech to the village people gathered about how it is the right time to rise up, and the question, “who will ride with me?” Of course they all respond, and she becomes a military leader, leading an assault on the castle that ends with her killing the queen.

This is the messiah I think we always want—even the one that people hoped Jesus was. They thought Jesus would gather the troops, ride into Jerusalem, abandon all his previous ideals and start a military revolution that would end the occupation and win freedom for the Jewish people. Well, the story we get of Jesus has him riding into Jerusalem, on a donkey or a colt. Not exactly starting violent revolution.

This is the messiah story that happens over and over and over again. Which is to say, when freedom and being “saved” have to do with storming castles and defeating enemies with violence, the peace that follows is always temporary, and always a ‘relative peace’ no matter what they say about living happily ever after.

Jesus’ resurrection tells a different kind of story (though some atonement models would say differently). For that reason alone I have some kind of faith in it. Because if this was simply a story made up by the hands of people, Jesus would have stormed the castle and ended the occupation, become the actual king of the Jews and then we all would have lived happily ever after, just like in a Disney story.

Instead the stories of his appearances talk about people’s eyes being opened, and understanding scripture, and learning that they must now be the people who will carry on his work of proclaiming good news. Instead he tells his disciples that if you love me you will feed people. Instead he tells people, “peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit.”

One could question whether this works, or will work, or is working any better than being saved through violence (the myth of redemptive violence, Walter Wink would call it). I don’t have any good answers to that question, but I am intrigued by this idea of God acting in ways very foreign to our ideas of what a “messiah” should be like. Because  after all these years we should know that storming the castle and beginning your happily-ever-after with victory, bloodshed, winners and losers, death and destruction—it just doesn’t work. There is no good news—no gospel–in that kind of messiah story.

“Failure to Launch” or the new ‘normal’?

I recently went to a workshop put on by the Barna group called, You Lost Me.

It was a great day, but I take issue with some things. One is a conversation about “Failure to Launch.” They showed the difference between today’s 20’s-30’s achieving these milestones that signify adulthood, and the statistics of a previous generation. Statistics say that far less people today have lived these milestones by the age of thirty. The point was that many young people today have “failed to launch” into adulthood.

The key factors that marked a person (or generation of persons) as a failure had to do with leaving home, attaining economic independence, and forming families of their own. I don’t argue that these things are happening and that we should talk about them, but I do argue with the word “failure” and wonder about how we culturally define adulthood.

Leaving home: While this has been a sign of adulthood in American society in recent history, it is also a mark of our cultural value of independence. There are many cultures throughout the world and down through history for which this would not be seen as a sign of adulthood, or a desired state.

Attaining economic independence: I am unsure if this is about paying your own rent or having a career focused job, or some other sign, but some questions to consider might be these:

  • Is this happening because too many men are in their parents’ basement playing games?
  • Might there be other factors, such as baby boomers not retiring and saturating the market?
  • When they do retire, new hires often look and act like the old ones, but  ten years younger instead of forty years younger (or even twenty years younger) In my field, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, you can see this trend as you look at the newest bishops in the church, who are largely 50+. I am not arguing for twenty-six year old bishops, or even a leadership based on Numbers 8, but some diversity in leadership might be good for the Church.
  • Is it because the economy is tight and less people are hiring?
  • Is it because of a large national conversation in higher education about “vocation” meaning finding a calling, (to put it simply)  rather than just finding a job that pays the bills?

If these are factors, then can we blame individuals? Does the “generational failure” reside with those in their 20’s and 30’s (right now) or with another generation? Is it always a failure?

Forming families of their own: David Kinnaman, who wrote You Lost Me and presented on this topic, has also written a blog about the “The New Normal”  which includes pointing out that there is a “global pause in marriage.” Not just in American society, but across the world, many cultures are delaying marriage. There are good reasons for this. I have friends who did launch in all of these traditional ways—successfully out of the house! Successfully married! Successfully breeding! And at such a young age that now they are “unlaunched” or launch aborted. Some of those divorces were incredibly painful. While I have witnessed some great marriages, I can also say there are far worse things that remaining single.

I also think of my friends in the LGBTQ  community. Anyone can form a family, but for LGBTQ folks, they are often not recognizable as such to the government, the church, or a research group if they are defining family in a heternormative way. This, along with the sometimes long and painful process of coming out will probably delay the step of forming a family.

Twenty-two years ago I moved out of my parents’ house at eighteen. I got a college degree, started my first career. I’ve spent 3 months back in my parents’ house since then in between jobs. I became one of the “new normal” of “educated capable young women” who owns a house. But since I am not married and did not have children, I guess that means I failed to launch.

The valid point of talking about this during the “You Lost Me” presentation was to point out how churches are ill-equipped to deal with the “new normal.” I agree with this, because our churches are often very family-centric and heteronormative. But the “new normal” is still called a failure. It is a failure which Jesus would have (probably) been familiar with, because (as far as we know) he also failed to be economically independent. His family (see Mark 3: 31-35) was the people around him—perhaps like the “urban tribes” we hear about as forming new definitions of family. He seems to have walked around a lot, living an itinerant life. He didn’t live much longer after 30, so I guess we’ll never know if he would have eventually become a successfully-launched adult.

Can we please use different words?

Titanic

Lookout Frederick Fleet: Is there anyone there? 
6th Officer Moody: Yes, what do you see?
Lookout Frederick Fleet: Iceberg, right ahead!
6th Officer Moody: Thank you.
[hangs up phone[1]

Just seventy-three years ago, Jews were still being killed in Nazi Germany. Forty-five years ago, civil rights in our own country were unavailable to a whole bunch of people. Forty years ago, Women couldn’t be pastors in Lutheran churches. Twenty-five years ago, the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) didn’t exist. None of us had emails until about seventeen years ago. About that time, you couldn’t take communion in a Lutheran church if you were a child under a certain age. Three years ago, people who understood themselves as gay and wanting to be in a relationship couldn’t be pastors in the ELCA. This is all true.

I have to remind myself of these things.

I have to remind myself because sometimes I get really worried about the church. I have read articles that talk about how the church has three years to figure things out. Steve Knight talks about the age and number of baby boomers and the trends that show how the dollars in churches will decline.

I am haunted by the ideas in that article. I look around and feel like we’re all on the Titanic, (at least the movie version) and some people are choosing to  keep eating and playing music, pretending the ship isn’t going down. Others are running around trying to save each other, with great lines: “Music to drown by. Now I know I’m in first class.” And this great line: “Incredible. There’s Smith and he’s standing there and he’s got the iceberg warning in his hand, and he’s ordering more speed.”  And, to someone who has just decided to quote Psalm 23: “Could you walk a little faster through that valley?” I get really worried about how everything still seems like business as usual, even as we cut programs and staff, in every expression of the Church.

After Steve Knight wrote this blog, one friend tweeted something like, “I get that we have three years to figure this out, I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to do.” Therein lies the problem. Dollars have been designated for certain things; commitments have been made. Rules and guidelines have been set with much thought and prayer, and so they must be followed. People voted on all these things, so changing anything in a system this large is…well, it’s like the Titanic.

So, when a pastor, bishop,  seminary professor,  seminary president, or even a pastoral intern (like myself) wakes up in the morning, knowing the church may be dying, WHAT DO WE DO? Attempts are made from the margins, and if they can get close enough to people who feel empowered to make a different kind of decision than what has been dictated and preceded by others, then change happens.  There are little pockets of hope everywhere.  It takes a lot of work in a slow-moving machine, and it is hard to know what the first step is. Or the step after that, or the step that follows the one after you meet a brick wall. Time I fear we don’t have.

And it is on days like this that I have to remind myself that seventy-three years ago, millions of Jews were dying. Fifty years ago, some people couldn’t sit at lunch counters and white people didn’t share bathrooms with non-white people in this country. Forty years ago, women couldn’t be pastors. Twenty-five years ago, none of us had the internet. Four years ago, my friends who understand themselves as gay and also called to ministry could not be in relationships that fit their identity as humans. That is all different now, and these changes were TITANIC.  It seemed impossible that life could be any different; that the structures that held these things in place could be changed. But they did change, because of a lot of faith, courage and persistence. Even when people’s lives were on the line for affecting change.

And though my life is not on the line,  that is the hope I have to practice. As Church, I hope we can notice where God shows up and how God is working through people, and make room for that, even if it doesn’t follow the precedence and procedures set up by well-intentioned people just like us in an earlier time.  And if we don’t, well, God will still work.

I get that it is Easter. I believe God has conquered death and raises all things that encounter deaths, big and small. And I also believe new life never looks the same as what died. But I’m still trying to avoid death. At the end of Titanic (the movie), when they’re working on rescuing people, they’re rowing through those frozen waters checking bodies for signs of life.  An officer says, “we waited too long.” Can we tell a different story?

So, for those 10 people who read this, if YOU were a pastoral intern kept up at night with these concerns about the Church, what would YOU do in the morning? There must be something, because Jack (from Titanic) says so. He tells Rose: “What I was thinking was, what could’ve happened to this girl to make her think she had no way out?” Beyond advice for me, what might we say to other conversation partners? (pastors, bishops, people in congregations, people who run seminaries, people who write for the Church, people who work in the Church who are and are not rostered.) What should they do tomorrow?


[1] All Titanic (1997) quotes from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120338/quotes

Not a building

In the last couple weeks I have heard or read people talking about “church campuses.” By that they mean the buildings that make up a church. I was also listening to someone speak about how all these large church buildings were built in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. I wonder what these campuses have to do with the future of the church.

Building those campuses was probably a huge sign of hope and growth for the people who built them, but these days seem to be a little different. I work in a congregation that just slashed a large amount of money from their budget, cutting their staff down to a pastor, a part time office administrator, and a part time choir director. There isn’t much to cut after that, if you’re going to keep your building.

Keeping the building seems to be the largest priority, and I wonder at what point that changes for people. I know of a church in San Francisco who made a different kind of choice. They decided they didn’t want their budget and ministry priorities to be compromised and taken up by physical plant issues anymore, so they sold their building. Now they meet in other kinds of spaces, and are more free to be the church they believe they are called to be.

Perhaps we are moving to a day when church will be understood as something different than a building. Perhaps the “property committee” will be in charge of making sure that the things needed for worship get packed up in a couple of totes to be unpacked next time worship happens.

This would certainly mean some mourning, as churches have stood as cornerstones in neighborhoods for decades in some places, centuries in others. People have seen them as resting places and places of prayer. But they are also increasingly empty.

Church campuses can also be barriers for people. I stood outside of the church I work at last week, listening to a man talk about the 40 years he had been absent from church. He never had any issue with God, but he finds the buildings dedicated to God difficult to walk in.

The question is, if we lose our buildings, is the church dead? What if we got to put to death these things:

    • Yearly conversations about how to pay the mortgage
  • Staff and program cuts so that we can pay for a new furnace, new roof, new plumbing, new carpet, etc.
  • Strong feelings about banners/stained glass/church furniture based not on God but on the people who paid for them
  • Carpet color wars
  • Kitchen guarding (you know, the people who only think certain things should be touched in the kitchen, or who think only certain people should be allowed to use the kitchen)
  • Conversations about locking doors, putting in alarm systems, and other security measures that seem antithetical to the Gospel

Maybe it means resurrection. Perhaps there is new life and freedom to be found beyond the building.

Cast me gently into morning

On Easter each year I set my alarm for a few minutes before sunrise so that I can listen to this song by Sarah Mclachlan, Answer. One year I heard this song during holy week, and I heard these words in an entirely new way:

“Cast me gently into morning

For the night has been unkind.

Take me to a place so holy

That I can wash this from my mind–

the memory of choosing not to fight.”

All of a sudden I was thinking of the stories of Jesus on the cross, and the coming Easter morning. One of the ways I understand the cross is that Jesus was put to death for rebelling against authorities and teaching strange things that people didn’t understand and felt threatening to their way of life–especially those in power. And he chose to not fight, so that he didn’t participate in the systems of death and power. He couldn’t participate in those systems he spoke against, or none of it would make any sense. He had to live and die in a different way.

One year I saw Sarah Mclachlan in concert, and she introduced this song by saying she had written the chorus years ago and never had any verses, and she furthermore didn’t know what the song was about. From up in the balcony of Benaroya Hall, I wanted to shout. I know! I know what it’s about! It’s about death and resurrection. It’s about this story of Jesus on the cross, and people yelling up at him: “If you are the son of God, save yourself and come down from the cross” (Matthew 25:40). Its about going through the hell of all that rejection and pain and choosing not to fight. It’s about Easter morning and rising up from that death into life. It’s about the Holy.

And, as she sings in the verses of the song, “It will all be worth it—worth it in the end.”

(This year, sunrise in Denver is at 6:32 AM, when this was posted. I’ll be up way before that.)

If you’re going through hell, keep going.

I guess Winston Churchill said that. Someone else once said (and someone else put it on a card) “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

These are the two quotes that keep sticking in my head during Holy week, especially on this day, the Saturday before Easter. If you’re going through hell, keep going. I don’t know what Winston Churchill meant by this but it seems to me to say something about death and resurrection.

What the hell? That’s always the question. On Huff post this week there’s an article about what Jesus did in those three days between death and the empty tomb. Some parts of our tradition talk about descending into hell, and there are various thoughts about why, or what he was doing there. I once had a friend ask me, “what the hell did I ever do that was SO BAD that Jesus had to go to hell for three measly days so that I don’t have to spend an eternity there?”

Well, it’s a good question, but one that is a little bit lost on me. I don’t really believe in this physical place of fire and brimstone with a dark overlord best depicted in the South Park movie. But I can tell you this: Even in my own life, I have experienced really dark nights; I have gone through hard things that felt like the end. That felt like Hell. We all have. I imagine genocide feels like hell. I imagine war feels like hell. I imagine devastating earthquakes and tsunamis feel like hell. I imagine it feels like hell when you go through those things and nobody seems to care enough to help.

I also know about the dark voices in my head that keep me (as Martin Luther would say) curved in on myself, unable to offer my best self to the world. And that can feel like the devil. So we have these stories that personify and animate what we experience in life, because it’s the truth. Sometimes life is hell, and sometimes those voices that keep us down feel like evil incarnate.

So maybe when we hear the stories of Jesus being put to death on a cross, and then going to hell we can get it. The cross is hell. And Jesus went there. Maybe we can come to understand not that Jesus went there in your place, but instead that there is nothing you can experience and no place where you can go where Christ isn’t there with you.

And then the resurrection—which we experience as well. We know from our lives that it really is true—that life keeps going, and that in the end it will be okay. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.

So if you’re going through hell, keep going. It’s not the end.

Somebody that I used to know…

Yesterday morning before church I found myself between these two worlds, as I stood in the doorway of my colleague’s office at church, chatting about the upcoming worship service. His thirteen year old daughter lay sprawled out on the couch, not quite awake, listening to tunes on her mac.  Specifically, she was listening to this song called “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye. 

Then the organ started up. In one ear, I could hear the organ strains of “Lift High the Cross” while in the other, this song about somebody that I used to know.

I don’t really know how the pastor’s daughter thinks about hymns played on an organ. I didn’t ask her because it was far too early in the morning for her to consider answering me. But I wonder if it isn’t similar to the words of the song: Somebody that I used to know. And if it is the organ that is presenting the story of the cross…does the person on the cross also have potential to become somebody that I used to know? Or, somebody that I never knew?

My hope is that there is space in the Church for some people to figure out how to speak the language people are speaking, including the way music speaks. And by that, I don’t mean that hymns need to go away (though I think it is worth asking questions like: does this song still speak to how we think about God, or life, or the human condition?) And I don’t mean just putting guitars and drums up in front of the church, especially if it means singing songs within the Christian praise genre—(because I would ask the same question: Does this song speak to how we think about God, or life or the human condition?) But rather trying to figure out how music might speak about  faith and proclaim good news from and into each context.

My friend Michael Larson (musician) has some smart things to say about music in the church. Check it out here Michael Larson, “God Concept, God Song”