Sunday, December 18, 2016

"Elf Esteem"

One of my favorite Christmas movies is Elf[i], starring Will Farrell. Buddy the Elf isn’t really an elf. He’s a human who accidentally stowed away in Santa’s sack as a baby, and was raised at the North Pole with elf children. Because of his human size, he doesn’t fit in with the other elves. When he learns that he is human, he journeys to find his father, Walter Hobbs, who is a children’s book publisher in New York City. Hobbs wants nothing to do with his son Buddy, whose only desire is a relationship with his dad. Much of the movie is spent in Buddy’s efforts to please his father, and trying to get the grumpy man to show a little Christmas spirit. While Buddy has lots of Christmas cheer that he carries with him from the North Pole—there’s one thing that he lacks: self esteem (or, I should say, “elf esteem”). He needs to know that he is loved, and that he is wanted by his father. This elf-fulfillment is the subject of Buddy’s search.

God knows that we can only have self-fulfillment and self-esteem when we are in relationship with our Heavenly Father. Some spend their whole lives, searching like Buddy the Elf, to find the One who made us. In Deuteronomy 4, Moses tells the people about just such a search. He encourages them to follow all the commands of God, and specifically warns them against idolatry. If they do follow other gods, Moses warns, they will be scattered among the nations. Verses 26-28[ii] say:
26 “Today I call on heaven and earth as witnesses against you. If you break my covenant, you will quickly disappear from the land you are crossing the Jordan to occupy. You will live there only a short time; then you will be utterly destroyed. 27 For the Lord will scatter you among the nations, where only a few of you will survive.28 There, in a foreign land, you will worship idols made from wood and stone—gods that neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell.

God knows that we were made for a relationship with Him, and not to chase after anything else. When we are scattered, nothing seems to fit in our lives. Buddy realizes that something isn’t right when he can’t fit into the elf-sized bed of his childhood, or when he had to squeeze into an elf-sized school desk. In the same way, when you’re scattered, nothing seems to fit right. Have you ever been through a time when you felt like your spirit was scattered, your soul destroyed, and nothing seemed to fit? Maybe it’s time you sought the Father.

After a time away, God knows that His children will want to come back. When we do, God is ready to restore that broken relationship. In verses 29-31, Moses says:

29 But from there you will search again for the Lord your God. And if you search for him with all your heart and soul, you will find him.30 “In the distant future, when you are suffering all these things, you will finally return to the Lord your God and listen to what he tells you. 31 For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon you or destroy you or forget the solemn covenant he made with your ancestors.

Just as Buddy finds his dad, so too will every one of God’s children find Him when they diligently search. But this is where the analogy ends. In contrast to God, Walter Hobbs is a dishonest curmudgeon who would rather pay him to disappear than deal with him and restore the relationship. Still, at the end of the movie, all things are made right. If a bad dad can learn to embrace his son, and a weird son can find his father, how much more can God receive back His children who return to Him! In Matthew 7:11, Jesus says, “…If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” When God sees that you’re living at the North Pole, or as far from Him as you can possibly get—when God sees that you are scattered—God wants one thing: to reach out and draw you back to His arms of love.

How did Buddy gain a relationship with his dad? Not by following him around the office, watching him do things Buddy could never understand. Neither can we get close to God by pondering theology and going through the practice of religious ritual. When Buddy can’t grasp the father, he reaches out to Walter’s son, Buddy’s own half-brother. Eventually, when Buddy runs away, it is young Michael who bursts into his dad’s office to intercede for Buddy and ask for Dad’s help. In the same way, it is Jesus who mediates between God and runaway humanity. Sometimes we, like the people of Israel, can be cotton-headed ninny mugginses. We can stow away in Satan’s sack and allow ourselves to be carried off to who-knows-where. But it is the Holy Spirit who guides our journey back to the Father. And it is Jesus who puts our broken lives back together.

[i] Elf.  Bob Farveau, Director.  New Line Cinema.  2003.
[ii] All scriptures taken from the NLT.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

"The Island of Misfit Toys"

The 1964 classic movie Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,[i] is all about misfits. Rudolph has a very shiny nose, and gets tormented by all of the other reindeer for being different. His friend Hermey the elf prefers dentistry over toymaking, and suffers harassment by the other elves for not fitting in. Together they flee the North Pole’s persecution, in search of a place more tolerant of their differences. Along the way, they stumble on the Island of Misfit Toys, where they meet a nesting-doll clown with a wind-up mouse at the center, a choo-choo with square wheels, a squirt gun that shoots jelly, a spotted elephant, and a cowboy who rides an ostrich. These toys dream of finding homes where they can be loved and accepted. According to the mis-identified Charlie-in-the-box, “Every night, King Moonracer searches the entire earth. When he finds a misfit toy, one that no little girl or boy loves, he brings it here to live on this island til someone wants it.” In the movie (spoiler alert) every single misfit finds his or her place. And, as for the rest of the story, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer went down in history.

The reason we love that song and that movie is that most of us at some point have felt like a misfit. Maybe your nose didn’t glow, but your ears were too big or your hair too red. Maybe you had a learning disability or a hard-to-pronounce last name. It could be that, like me, you had a Christian childhood and non-Christian kids picked on you. Maybe you were unathletic or you wore glasses or braces on your teeth. Or maybe your parents didn’t make enough money and you didn’t wear the right clothes. The truth is that most kids feel like misfits sometimes. That’s why we love the story of Rudolph. We like to believe that one day every misfit will find a safe place.

If you’ve ever felt like a misfit, then you’re in good company. 1 Peter 2:7[ii] calls Jesus, “The stone that the builders rejected.” Isaiah 53:2b-3 says, “There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care.” Jesus Himself was a misfit. Yet, 1 Peter 2:7b says, “The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.” God is in the business of making something out of nothing—of taking misfits and lifting them up. God doesn’t exclude them—God understands how they feel. He offers a way for them.

To those whose hearts cry out for salvation, Jesus offers a promise better than an Island of Misfit Toys. In John 14:1-3, Jesus says, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.” Like Moonracer, every day Jesus searches the entire earth and gives a home to all who will trust in Him. Then, God gives you a glorious identity. Instead of being a misfit, God says, “…You are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. Once you had no identity as a people; now you are God’s people. Once you received no mercy; now you have received God’s mercy (1 Peter 2:9b-10).” Through the gift of Christ’s love, God has a glorious plan for you. You may once have felt like a misfit, but in Christ, you have a place with God.

The problem is that many who have found their place in Christ, or their place in society, have forgotten what it felt like to be a misfit. Perhaps they never felt like a misfit at all, because you were born into a place of privilege. Instead of being harassed like Rudolph, too many white, middle-class, Christian, Americans find themselves more closely resembling “all of the other reindeer.” You know, the ones who laughed and called him names because of his red nose. Or assaulted him for his skin color. Or didn’t let him play any reindeer games because didn’t speak English. Or despised and discriminated against him for his gender identity. Or told him to go back to his nation of origin. Or feared him because of his different religion. If that’s you—then Jesus has one message for you: “Don’t be all of the other reindeer! Be something better!”

We live in a nation that is too divided already, and we don’t need privileged Christians making it worse by behaving badly. The church is in enough decline as it is. In Matthew 25:40b, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” In that scripture, Jesus is very clear that God’s harsh judgment falls not on those who are different from you, but on you who treat others as though they were different. Jesus says that God is in them, too. Therefore, there are no misfit toys. There are only God’s children. Again, 1 Peter 2:9 says, “You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God.” Indeed, you MUST show them the goodness of God. If you were a misfit toy and Jesus gave you a home, then praise the Lord and be thankful! But don’t even think about denying others their place in the blessing. If you do, one might wonder whether you’re a toy worth playing with at all.

[i] Rankin-Bass Productions
[ii] All scriptures taken from the NLT.