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How I Come to Life

How I Come to Life: Why Roger Ebert’s Death Hit Me Hard

As with all public posts, please feel free to share or discuss this with anyone you’d like. See Logistics (Read Me First) for more detail.

This post is in honor of the documentary Life Itself being released in theaters on Friday, July 4. 

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Why did Roger Ebert’s death affect me so deeply? It may have seemed odd to put the death of a celebrity I’d never met on the same level as losing my grandfather and breaking up with a girlfriend.

And yet it was entirely appropriate.

I first encountered Roger in 2002, after I was blown away by Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. Up to that point, I’d liked movies as fun entertainment. But this one was in a different league. Beautiful visuals, great acting and an entertaining script that made me think long after the credits rolled. As I exited the theaters, I saw that Roger Ebert and his colleague Richard Roeper had given the movie “Two thumbs way up!” So I began following their television show to find other movies just as amazing as this one.

Anyone who followed Roger eventually encountered his writing, and soon I was reading his daily reviews and columns at the Chicago Sun-Times. Some of us had a special fondness for his reviews of truly awful films, anxiously hoping for those 1 star reviews to observe his wit and snark in action. (His review of Armageddon begins, “Here it is at last, the first 150-minute trailer”.)

But his reviews of movies he loved were the ones that mattered most. Read his reviews of films like the extraordinary documentary Hoop Dreams, Spike Lee’s powerful debut Do The Right Thing, or the once-polarizing, now classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here was a man who genuinely loved the power and emotion of the movies, and wanted to share that with others. He even held his own film festival called Ebertfest in his hometown of Champaign, Illinois so he could share them with us. (My best friend and I were blessed to attend it the last year he was there.) Through Roger, I found treasures such as Junebug, Synecdoche, New York, Three Colors TrilogyJoe vs. The Volcano, Tree of Life, The Third Man and Kinyarwanda (to name a few.) These are all beautiful, powerful works of art that enabled me to step into the shoes of someone else, and better understand the world.

Roger had a policy that anyone who read him was a friend, and all his writing reflected that. His prose was conversational, occasionally peppered with carefully chosen five-dollar words and references, and always beautiful. Read his journal entry on the beauty of literature, appropriately entitled Perform a Concert in Words. I took it to medical school interviews to read during downtime so I could be emotionally refreshed.

For a long time, I thought he and I were uncannily similar: we both had extraordinarily similar tastes and observations on film, loved science-fiction and literature, had Anglophile tendencies, sought to be completely open with everyone, etc. Now I realize that it wasn’t just me. He made so many other people feel that way, no matter their background, country or gender.

Then in 2006, Roger lost his jaw due to salivary gland surgery, and thus his ability to talk. That would have caused most people to disappear from society. Instead, he became more prolific. Just a few of his accomplishments: He became one of the best Twitter and Facebook users I’ve ever seen, started a new television show, created a blog that connected people (including me) around the world in dialogue with each other and him, and cranked out as many reviews as he normally did before his cancer.

If you didn’t pay attention, you’d never know he was battling illness. But if you did, you saw he was extraordinarily open about his struggle with it. When Esquire published a piece showing his jawless face and detailing his daily life with his illness, it was more than brave. It was the usual, the ordinary. How extraordinary.

Even though it’s been over a year since Roger died, I still haven’t found anyone like him in his tastes. As critics, we often fall into one of two traps: being so open that every movie is a masterpiece (reminiscent of the old joke: if everyone’s special, than no one is), or being so narrow in what we appreciate or deem as art. Think of it like going to a restaurant. Some of us will like everything, no matter how well or poorly it’s made (which means we don’t understand what we’re eating), and others are experienced but only like filet mignon.

Roger was the man who had artistic standards and could recognize good filmmaking, but at the same time hoped anything he saw would be a 4-star film. The man who’d sampled the world, and still was open to having a new dish be his favorite. Whenever you read his writing, you encountered a man who woke up expecting to be surprised by beauty, whatever form it took.

His death meant I’d lost someone who was always expanding my perception of beauty in the world, making it seem more alive to me each year. That beauty was an anchor when life was tumultuous. So while Roger’s death seemingly wasn’t as personal as the other two (although it hurt so much), it exacerbated the inner turmoil I experienced when my artistic girlfriend (who also showed me so much beauty) and I broke up, and when so much conflict arose at my grandfather’s funeral.

What it took time to realize was that even if Roger didn’t know it, he was instrumental in introducing me to my next mentor.

Someone greater than Roger. Who’d continue to make the world bigger and more beautiful to me, and who was involved in my personal life long before I met Roger. Someone more intelligent. More mysterious. And more appreciative of beauty. I’d met Him before, but I was about to meet Him again for the first time.

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An old Siskel and Ebert episode: Funny, educational and filled with love

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How I Come to Life

How I Come to Life: A Word from the Vicar (The Path to Inner Healing: The Three Orthos of Discipleship)

As with all public posts, please feel free to share or discuss this with anyone you’d like. See Logistics (Read Me First) for more detail.

In the beginning of this series, I wrote that my story is part of a bigger tale. One that involves my community of friends in Vermont and around the world. As I opened up about what I was wrestling with, each of them told me that they connected with a particular facet of that struggle. What was amazing was how similar their stories were to mine.

But because those stories are theirs, they are not mine to tell.

So to give you a glimpse into that reality of our connected stories, I’m including this excerpt from a sermon The Vicar recently gave on discipleship. Because the way my friends and I are working through our struggles and issues is by going on this mystical yet ordinary journey of being disciples of Jesus together. And in doing so, we are all coming to life.

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I was an odd, geeky sort of child. I spent a lot of time reading encyclopedias in my spare time for fun. And I learned a lot reading the encyclopedias. So if I spend a lot of time reading Wikipedia and I’m learning, am I a disciple?

I would say I am learning, but I am not a disciple. A disciple is one who learns how to be like someone else. Discipleship is not stuffing information into people’s heads. It is not that. It never will be that. It never was that, although sometimes we call that discipleship.

What does the Great Commission say? “Go and make disciples”–people who are learning to be like someone else–“of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Baptism is death to the old life and rising to the new, and it is also a grafting in to the body. It is that rite by which we become members of the Church. It is that rite by which we receive the spirit of adoption by which we cry “Abba, Father”.

Discipleship happens in community. Always. It never doesn’t happen in community. Can I grow and be a disciple of Jesus Christ and commune with him in my prayer closet by myself? No, you can’t, actually. I know it sounds pious and lovely, but you cannot. It does not happen outside the initiation into the body.

And that is why reading Wikipedia doesn’t make me a disciple. And that’s why, interestingly enough, if your entire Christian life is reading your Bible by yourself, it doesn’t make you a disciple. I realize that may be a challenging thought.

So Jesus goes on and says, “Baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

This is an important line as a reminder of whom we are to be like. Discipleship is the formation of Christ in us. It is the shaping of the character of Christ in each of us.

But what is obedience? Some of us would think that obedience is compliance. Compliance is not obedience. Compliance is following the rules so as not to get into trouble.

Is compliance part of obedience? I would say, yes. But the issue is this: For it to be obedience and not just compliance, there  has to be a person in the mix. And here’s the other thing that makes it more than just compliance: When we are complying to rules so as not to get into trouble, it’s because we don’t actually love the rules. We hate the rules. Despise the rules.

Obedience doesn’t just do the good. It loves the good, and it loves the one who has commanded the good. Obedience is a free choice out of love to do what our Lord commands, not to avoid wrath but to express love.

It’s not just compliance, because that’s legalism: I have to do this, this and this to stay out of trouble. There’s no relationship in that, is there? There may be a relationship of fear, but there’s not a relationship of love. Just doing the right thing isn’t enough. God is calling us to love the right thing, which is larger than that.

So how do you teach obedience? How do you teach this response of love to the commandments of good?

I think there are three things. Two of them are classic, and one is a recent addition by my friend Justin Howard, which I think is an awesome addition.

We teach obedience by orthodoxy, which is right teaching. We teach the truth about who God is: the God of love, the God of justice, the God of compassion. The nature of Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross. What that means to us in very real terms. We teach about the nature of the Church. We help people understand that [having your personal relationship with Jesus all by yourself] isn’t good enough.

But then there’s orthopraxis, which is right practice. We teach not just the right information. We teach how we should act in the right way. How our actions are right. How we respond in a right way in [different] circumstances.

And a big part of this kind of teaching is, of course, modeling. Showing people. Living that out. “This is how you love your enemies.” “This is how you pray for those who persecute you.” “This is how you live in openness and obedience.” “This is how you live in relationship in the light with God and with others.”

Part of it also is instruction on right action. “In this situation, this is an appropriate thing to do.” “In this situation, this is not an appropriate thing to do.”

So, orthodoxy–the right doctrine. Orthopraxis–the right way of behaving. And here’s the one I think is really important: Orthopathos. It’s Justin Howard’s word. It’s right feeling.

To create disciples, we need to know what the doctrine is, we need to know what the practice is, and we also need to know how to order our disordered loves.

And we don’t do that! We give people the information: “God loves you and if you do something wrong, you’re going to be in trouble. Therefore, do all these things.” And we don’t address our disordered loves. The orthopathos. To feel right. To respond right.

And why this is important is because [of] the command, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself”. We cannot do that with disordered loves. We can be excellent Pharisees (Editor’s note: legalists): right teaching, right practice, and have completely diseased and disordered internal lives.

And that, friends, is not a disciple. That’s a liar.

You know what I think? I think most of us have a reasonably good handle on orthodoxy. We have a reasonably good handle on orthopraxis. And, I think, a lot of us struggle with disordered loves and have no idea [as to], ‘How do I do this?’

And here’s the struggle: I can’t give you information to do that. I can’t say, “If you’ve got disordered loves, you should do A, B, C and D.”

Because it’s about relationship.

This is why programs will never do it all. Because people need more than information. They need someone to love them, to walk with them in their disordered loves, and bring order to them.

So what’s necessary for discipleship?

Well, clearly teaching is necessary for discipleship. Orthodoxy, orthopraxy and orthopathy all have elements that have to be taught. Who is God that we may love Him? How is it that Jesus’ death sets us free? How does the Holy Spirit empower us? What disciplines of life will till the soil for godly growth? How does Jesus’ saving work redeem me from my disordered loves? That is information, and the information matters.

But even if I were to be taught until I could be taught no more, does that make me a disciple? No. It might make me a conference junkie, but not a disciple. Remember, the body has to be both fed and exercised. We need community and belonging. Being in relationship matters. We cannot be disciples outside of community.

And here’s the central part of what discipleship is about: Discipleship is about being in relationship with a person or persons with whom I am willing to learn.

These are apprenticeship relationships.

Here are the problem with apprenticeship relationships:  You can’t read a book and go to a seminar, and Poof! It’s done! How frequently we [think that]! We’re struggling with something, we go off to some event and we think, “I’ll be done when I’m finished [with] this.” Apprenticeship takes time.

And we hate that! Why can’t I have this fixed now? Why can’t I have my loves ordered now? Why can’t I know how to do the right things now? Why? Because we’re not designed that way. We’re designed to live in apprenticeship. And apprenticeship is over time with a mentor or mentors. It is not about fast results. You might be in a rush. Jesus is not.

 I love [in the hymn] “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”, the line that says “Unresting”–He’s not lollygagging by the side of the pool–“and unhasting”. He’s always acting, but He’s not in a rush.

But here’s the other problem: To live in a discipleship or mentorship relationship requires humility. To be in relationship with someone from whom I am willing to be taught.

It is profoundly un-American because it makes the declaration: We are not all equal. And we’re not. Of course, on one level we are equal before God. I get that. But in another sense, friends, we are not! We are absolutely not!

There are people in my life (and I’m going to use this language) who are my spiritual masters. They’re not just a little more mature or have seen a little more. They have seen and understand this life in a way that I might someday, but I don’t yet. I am not equal with them. They have walked farther and gone deeper, and suffered more. They know the “ortho”s better than I do.

The greatest barrier to discipleship, I think, is, “I can do it myself. I will not submit to the wisdom of another.” Sometimes we pretend that we will, but we actually won’t. I worked with a guy some years ago for a long, long time, and all the stuff on the outside [said], “Yes, I want to listen,”, but [he] listened to nothing. You can’t come to somebody in a mentorship relationship and not listen, not live in obedience on some level.

 So one of the hard things is that in order to make disciples, you must be one first, which requires a sacrifice of pride and the cultivation of humility.

I want to leave you with two questions:

[First,] where am I becoming a disciple? Who are the mentors in my life? Who are the people from whom I am willing to learn?

And the second question is this: Who am I discipling? In whom am I investing? Because that’s the work of the church. To invest in people. The investment might be our friend who doesn’t know Jesus, or it could be another believer who wants to learn and wants to grow. Either way, who am I discipling? Because the Church will [never] truly grow until we become and create a culture of discipleship.

 I want to say one last thing about the Great Commission. Jesus said, “And ‘lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the age.” In the reality of doing this work, we live in the presence and the power of Jesus in us at all times.

Let us pray.

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How I Come to Life

How I Come to Life: God As My Lover

As with all public posts, please feel free to share or discuss this with anyone you’d like. See Logistics (Read Me First) for more detail.

The old joke is that to write a Christian worship song, just take a love song and change “baby” to “Jesus”. A friend of mine once did the opposite on Valentine’s Day by singing “I Want to Know You” to the ladies in our Navigators Christian group as “We Want to Know You”. Which meant he actually sang the line, “We want to touch your face(s).”

I’ve always hated songs like that. To treat the all-powerful God who created the universe as a boyfriend-crush to cuddle seemed to demean and reduce Him, because it was so focused on our emotions and not on who He is. And so I avoided the Lover aspect of God.

That started to change one day in 2007, after another heartbreak drove me to prayer as I was driving down the road. As I thanked Him for His personality and presence in my life, I felt a strong emotion that felt like love. Not mushy puppy love, and not the love you have for a friend. The powerful, romantic kind you have when you’ve known someone a long while. And so slowly, I began to change my perception.

All of us Christians know intellectually that God describes His love for us in romantic terms, but in practice? We’re comfortable with Him just as a Father, or even a Friend. The notion of Lover gets into weird, incomprehensible territory.

But God won’t let us avoid that part of Him. In chapter 16 of the book of Ezekiel, for instance, God deliberately uses both the Father and Lover metaphors, describing how He found His People as an abandoned female baby on the road, raised her as His child, and then married her when she grew up! So if Le Bon Dieu is insistent on portraying this side of Him, that must mean there are realities in that picture worth exploring.

I began doing that after my last breakup, as I began thinking about what all I missed about her and all that I regretted about our relationship. In that vulnerable time, I began to draw nearer to God than I ever have in my life. In a real sense, God became my first Love and Lover.

Enough abstract words. Here’s what my practical exploration of that notion looked like for me. Everyone’s going to do it differently, but these are connected to my thoughts and needs in relationship. I want to state upfront that there are needs that God only fulfills in human relationships. However, I’ve found more of my needs met in God than I ever realized.

Part of letting God be my Lover meant realizing that I was entering into a relationship with someone fundamentally different from me. Someone who was going to love me in ways I wouldn’t initially get or appreciate, and who’d love me way, way more than I would ever love Him. I had to be ok with all of that. To accept that I would be a very, very bad girlfriend, and to never give up on our relationship because of that. After all, there are no rules and He’s full of grace.

In realizing all of that, I had to make a commitment to trust Him. Because even when I didn’t get Him, I had to believe that He was the best, most considerate lover I could ever have. Part of that trust meant accepting He was much more active and thoughtful than I realized. We acknowledge that in the Lord’s Prayer, specifically in the line, “Give us this day our daily bread.” It’s our way of saying that every day God is giving us all we need, even if we think we need more.

This met a need of mine that I thought could only be found in relationship. In my notion of romance, partners are always doing thoughtful things to bless and celebrate each other, from small, well-chosen gifts to grand events orchestrated down to the tiniest details. I wanted a Lover so I could be blessed in that way. But when God became my Lover, I became aware of how often I minimized how much and how precious the amount of bread I get from Him really is.

I now began waking up every day excited to see what He’d be doing. Yes, I saw Him in my daily Bible readings, but it was more than that. If God is who He says He is, that means He’s overseeing the daily events of my life, both big and small. Things like a bus arriving on time, a conversation with a random stranger, the arrival of a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time, the beautiful sights that brought joy to my soul, or a friend showing up right as I was bursting into tears alone and needed someone to comfort me. Those were all thoughtful gifts and surprises from Him. I’m learning to be more conscious of those, and more thankful when they come.

I also began talking with God much more often, beyond what we classically think of as “prayer”. When R and I were dating, we’d text each other every day. Sometimes with funny observations. Sometimes with mundane details. That continual contact was important to maintaining and strengthening our relationship. So I began taking all of what I’d text to R and began telling it to God, which strengthened my conversation with Him.

Do I hear back from God? Not always, but more often than I thought I would. Believe me, when you’ve lived in your head for so long, you become aware of what sounds like you and what doesn’t. When my grandmother died, I spent time in prayer talking with God about what to say. I’d already brainstormed for several days with no success. But when I prayed, God brought back memories that I’d forgotten since I was a child. That was special.

Part of conversing with God included letting Him be the one who complimented me. Practically, I don’t enjoy being told, “You’re terrific”. I enjoy being told how I’m terrific, because it helps me understand what’s good in me. I used to believe that only a lover would be able to tell me that, because only she would care enough to see me for who I really am, and would be able to tell me things about myself that were good. Now I began listening to what I heard God saying to me in prayer, and what He was saying through the people I interacted with. After all, if He’s orchestrating events in my life, then my conversations are on some level arranged by Him. In a way, by drawing closer to God, I’ve become much more present in the world, in the moments God is giving me.

I’ve even learned to rely on God for the comfort I receive from touch. (As a heads-up, this next part is perhaps the most vulnerable thing I’ve written so far.)

Physical touch is important to me in romantic relationships. In one of my relationships, we’d hold hands as we walked through the neighborhood or sat in the pavilion. It was a way we communicated without using words. If a friend held my hand (and some like J have), it wouldn’t have the same effect.

So after the breakup, the absence of loving physical connection hurt. There were times I’d be standing by myself observing a beautiful sight, and I wished she was beside me to see it with me. Other times, such as during my grandfather’s funeral, I missed having someone beside me to help me process. In those moments, I felt like I was missing something, like I was only half a person.

So when I wished I was with her and holding her hand, I began to remember that God says that He’s with me at all times, and that means I’m never alone. So I began to hold hands as if God was standing right next to me and holding my hand. When I do that, I stop feeling like half a person. I feel whole, connected to God much like I once felt connected to her. Yes, it is my imagination. But it is also a reminder of the great reality that God loves me more than I know.

You may observe me sometimes putting out my hand and curling my fingers. Sometimes I place my other hand over it. That’s not me forming a fist. That is me doing something that is so precious, something I never did before her but that has brought so much healing and comfort to my soul. Something that was worth going through all the pain with breaking up with her for.

That is me holding the hand of God.

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