Sunday, July 15, 2012

Lessons from John Carter

Occasionally a scene or image - or even a whole movie - will catch my attention for its cinematography, story, depth, acting, or symbolism.  I have a weakness for good metaphor in particular and so, as you may recall, I loved Labyrinth for its marvelous depiction of the subtle yet insidious ploys of evil, and I mentioned House of Flying Daggers recently for its depiction of the burdens and honor of being a woman with a calling.  (Okay, that's not exactly what I said but it's kind of what I wanted to say.)  I have had good conversations lately about even the disappointing Snow White & the Huntsman, which I thought did one thing well: It painted an amazing picture of one of the great feminine conflicts.  (Some men resonate with The Hulk as they wrestle with their own anger and aggression.  Some women will find their story in the duality of Snow White and her Wicked Step-Mother Queen: Both were scarred by tragedy because of their beauty. Both faced decisions as to how they would offer their beauty to the world in response.)

Today I was caught by surprise by the movie John Carter.  Specifically there were two scenes that changed my entire experience of the story.  I will only discuss one here, particularly in light of my note about Snow White. I think I can do it without creating any spoilers.

The scene is short and simple.  The princess Dejah faces a typical royal dilemma: Will she sacrifice herself for what appears to be the greater good of her people?  It is the moment of her final decision and she makes one more appeal to the man she has asked to help her fight...

She stands in a position of power that requires this man to kneel before her, yet we know she is helplessly caught up in a greater power play - even down to the fact that she is draped in finery she detests, that displays her as the object she is destined to become, but that she has no choice but to wear.  It is in this moment she uses what power she does have to do something she hasn't yet attempted up until this point.

She poignantly releases all  overt control, manipulation, deception, or blackmail.  Instead, she shares with this man her heart, her vision; she recognizes and accepts him and his story; and she lets him go.

Even though it is obviously painful for her to do so.

Even though she clearly hopes that he will choose her
that he will fight for her
that he will partner with her for this greater good.

Even though it means she faces an unimaginable future without his help.

She offers her heart.

She makes her request.

And she lets him go.

It is a moment in which she operates in true power and authority, in the beauty of knowing who she is and knowing her own strength.

And right down to the very moment when her captors burst in upon her room only to look around in bewilderment - she waits.

"Princess, are you alone?" they ask, confused.

She turns and as the tears well up in her eyes she finally says, "Yes.  Yes, I am alone."

She has done all that she can do.  She has acted in humility.  She has acted in true strength.  And now she is alone.

She takes a breath. She stands up tall.  And she walks out to do what must be done, to be the woman that she knows that she must be, to face the difficult reality that is before her.

"Yes.  Yes, I am alone."

I think it is often a woman's story - to be given a facade of power, a "pretend" humanity, choice when there really are no choices.  And I think it is her greatest fear to have to face this great injustice, to see the great horrors of the world, to try to be a woman of strength and beauty and integrity, only to find herself utterly alone in it.

I don't know, but I think it is a woman's greatest fear.  I think every woman at the core of her being wants to have strength and character and integrity; I think every woman wants to sacrifice for a greater good. I think women uniquely bear a burden over the horrors and tragedies of the world around them and I think they want to do something.  Yet in so many ways we are helpless, powerless.  We cannot do it on our own.

Do we dare to believe in ourselves? Do we dare to reach out?  And if we do, what if it is only confirmed?  What if we find that we really are powerless?

"Yes. Yes, I am alone."

Many women are driven by this fear, I think.  Like Dejah, they may try to exercise their power to manipulate, control, deceive, hide, or pull any number of mechinations in an attempt to avoid that moment of choice, that moment of truth.  Perhaps it is the case with men, too, but this is something to which I cannot speak.  All I know is that I myself have been a coward in my own life, unwilling to face what is required of me, unable to face it alone.  Until the day came that I stopped running, stopped trying to control what was never mine to control, stopped trying to manipulate or blackmail or cajole.  One day I stood as Dejah did, accepting both what I had power over and all the ways I was distinctly powerless.  One day I decided to believe in my heart, to share my vision, and to ask for partnership.

And just as Dejah did in that moment, I found that I was alone.  It was my worst fear realized.

And I think that's the point.  I think that is the true line of integrity, the true test.  Are we willing face our fear, find that it is true, and stand in the face of it anyway? Are we willing to choose the path of integrity - even when our greatest fear is realized and we find we face it alone?

I read a blog recently written by a friend, a man appealing to women to forsake pornography, explicit novels, and other exploitive material/media, describing the impact that partaking in such things could have on men, particularly in their own struggles.  He is right.  If women choose to abandon this point of integrity because men have already abandoned them for the same, it only escalates the problem; it doesn't solve anything.  (That is the lie of sexual sin - any sin, really.  It poses itself as the solution. It pretends to be the answer, but it only creates a greater problem.  It only begets more sin and pain.)  But though he was right, the difficult truth for men has been one that I think women have faced for a long time now.

Will you choose what is right regardless as to who stands with you or abandons you?

Will you choose the difficult thing, the painful road of self-sacrifice, character, and integrity, even if no one sees it and no one stands with you?  Even if you do not get what you need?  Even if you have been wronged, belittled, or have suffered a great injustice?  Even if you find that you are alone?  That is the choice that men must make on the issue of pornography regardless of their own hopes and dreams and helplessness and suffering, regardless of women.  That is the choice that women have had to make in the midst of all the injustice that has been perpetrated upon them, too.

I, for one, can say I made my choice.  I chose to do the hard thing and I found my greatest fear realized.

"Yes. Yes, I am alone."

And I survived.

The fear said that I could not do it but I did.  The fear said that I would not make it but I did.  And it was only in facing this fear that I was finally able to truly accept that I was not alone at all.  God was and had been with me, and he had been raising up a woman of character within  my very skin.

My story did not turn out like Dejah's.  But by letting go as she did, I found that I was capable of real love, real sacrifice, real life, and real hope.  By letting go, fear no longer controlled me.  By letting go and finding that I was alone, I was able to receive the gift of not being alone when it came.

It makes me think of Esther.  When it came down to it, no one else could do what she did.  No one could walk the path to the court with her, no one could step out beside her as she presented herself to the king and offered up her life.  She was alone.  She had limited power; she was a figurehead, an object in the harem of the king.   It's a woman's worst fear.  And her story is recorded as a testimony to each of us about the calling God has placed on each of us.

All that, in a 2 minute scene from John Carter.  ;-)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Subtle & Epic

"Why do you speak of your people that way?" the young African asked. He stood among a group of men and women from different tribes of sworn enemies, his face earnest and shining.

"My father killed my class mate's father in a tribal war," he went on, looking at his colleague, another young person with a peaceful, glowing countenance.  "But we do not speak of each other or our people with disdain because of their failures, because of the past. We speak vision and hope and reconciliation to our people, that the dark continent would instead be a continent of light."

It was a prophetic voice, a loving word of conviction from a student at a university in Kenya to a group of U.S. Christians who had used disparaging language about "Americans."

Do not abandon your people, he seemed to say. Do not disown and ridicule them. Speak light to them, that they might be light. Speak hope to them, that they might be a people of hope.

I will never forget the testimony that young man offered us, a testimony about what it means to be called to a people. For the 14+ hour flight home from Africa, I sat listening to the Holy Spirit speaking to me through the words of a young African. They were echoed in a book titled "Waking the Dead" and in the scripture God led me to that day. They began to take shape so that, when the plane finally descended, it wasn't Atlanta that I saw below; it wasn't even the U.S. I gazed through a tiny window across the aisle out at a land, a people, shrouded as if in a fog, unable to see one another, unable to connect for the cloud that was lowered over their eyes and hearts, a veil that blinded them to their own need and to their calling.

In Africa, God gave me a vision of and for his people here; God called me to his mission here.

Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.

(Note: Be careful about inviting the Spirit of God to move in your life; he brings adventure in subtly epic proportions.  That's right: Subtle and Epic.)

It has taken several years but I have come to understand that I am here to call a people, that they might awaken to "the world pulled over their eyes" and see their own brokenness, that they might learn a different way, a way of intimacy and connection with God and others, a way of hope and reconciliation, a way out of the bondage they do not even know they are in.

God is not content to leave us in Egypt, even when we have made slavery our home.

Church, God has not asked us to serve those people, as if need and bondage and disconnect is somewhere out there. God has called us to open our eyes to our brokenness right here. God has called us to recover, to be reconciled to him; only then do we have life and light and hope to offer, that the world might be reconciled to him, too. How can we lead anyone down a path we have not tread ourselves?

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Unless we are sick, we have no need of Christ, we have no need of recovery, of reconciliation, and we have nothing to offer the world. But if we are willing to have our eyes opened to our sickness, then the doctor can can begin to form us in a new way, a way of life that brings life and serves all from a place of being made whole ourselves.

God has been leading me down this path of recovery, of being reconciled to intimacy with him and others, for 9 years now. It has been painful, humbling, grueling even. Just last night the path led me to share things I would have preferred not to share and I walked away from that conversation feeling very alone and more than a little ashamed. I fought back tears all day today over my story, my failures and my weaknesses, the sorrows of my heart, and the alienation and rejection that these seem to bring. Then the path led me to a meeting in which, for some strange reason, right in the middle of a business discussion God whispered to me: My story is not something about which others should be warned or for which I should apologize. It is something to be cherished and celebrated and shared with great honor as one shares a special and dear secret.

That is the path. That is the path to which I call others. It is a path of vulnerability.  It is a path of making mistakes and making amends. It is a path of sharing truth.  It is a path of intimacy and wholeness and healing. It is scary as all get-out but it is good.

I watched a movie the other night called House of Flying Daggers. In it, the main character is given a monumental and life-threatening mission for the greater good of China. It is an honor for her to be tasked thusly, not just because it is a remarkable act of self-sacrifice and daring that will perhaps esteem her in the eyes of history, but because it is her unparalleled skill as a warrior, her unrivaled spirit and beauty, her unprecedented cunning and commitment that uniquely qualify her for the venture. Further, it is her brilliant subtlety that pull all the pieces together for the success of her quest.

I would never in a million years think that this subtly epic warrior should apologize to anyone for her gifts, her experience, her mission, or her calling. Over the course of her journey, she is not only in constant danger, she is repetitively used and betrayed. Moreover she ends up bringing a great deal of pain to those who are really the most precious to her, and even to herself. But not once did I ever think that she should be ashamed of her prowess, her beauty, her cunning, or her mission, that she should apologize for any of it or the mantle it placed on her life.

When the movie was over, a friend turned to me and told me that I was like the main character in that film.

Of course, I thought he was crazy at first, but as I thought about it, I did have to admit that, though I am no war-provoking beauty, no breath-catching artisan, no great warrior, I have been given a mission and I am every bit as passionate about it as she proved to be in her iconic way. Yet I genuinely walk around broken-hearted over the very things that uniquely qualify me for my mission.


In fact, as I reflect on my experience in Africa, I realize that I am guilty of speaking of myself the way my American friends disparaged their own culture.

Why do you speak of your people that way?

May I take the words of a friend and the testimony of an iconic warrior to heart!  There will be no apologies from me anymore for my story or my calling. May I stand, instead, ready and waiting for those who will join the cause, for those who would allow their pain to be made their honor, their experiences to be made a story of redemption, their weakness to be made their calling and offering of hope to the world.  And may all the dark places of my story be made testimonies of light.