Saturday, June 26, 2004

The Wonderful World of Mark at Disney World, Part One

Riding on the shuttle train at the Orlando Airport last week, there was a family of four---a mom, a dad, and two little boys. The youngest of the two appeared to be about four years old. He was dressed, appropriately for these ninety-five degree, central Florida days, in shorts, a short-sleeved shirt, and sunglasses. He and the letter "r" apparently weren’t getting along well yet. Straining to see what he could from his lower vantage point, holding onto the handrail of the train, he looked at his parents and asked, "Aw we at Disney Woold yet?"

I can understand his impatience. I know that Walt Disney World in Orlando is a mecca of rapacious consumerism, a shrine to corporate branding, a come-on for those mired in materialism. Disney World would be a great place to start a twelve-step program for those addicted to "stuff." I know all of that. I know too, that the employees (cast members, they're called) don't always smile and aren't always singing, "Be our guest, be our guest, put our service to the test.”

But Disney World is still a repository of almost holy fantasies and wholesome dreams: a place that encourages us to believe in such virtues as hospitality, friendliness, love of neighbor, love of family and home, and even true love. A belief that all the diverse members of the human race can live together in peace and that we can interact with the earth’s environment without despoiling it are also part of the Disney vision, it seems. The fact that this sprawling set of theme parks and resort hotels and the entertainment corporation that spawns it so successfully uphold these ideals---and even appear to live them most of the time---is amazing!

The fact that this gigantic venture falls short of completely fulfilling those ideals is no surprise. Even at Walt Disney World, weary cast members snap at guests. There is litter that hasn't yet been cleaned up. There are souvenirs that are brazenly overpriced. And even Uncle Walt and all his imagineers couldn't create a separate world in which the sin of unregenerate human beings was banished. The Bible affirms that we are all born in sin (in Psalm 51, among other places); so Disney World's guests bring their sinful impulses and inclinations with them for the price of admission. Cast members clock in with their foibles as well. Only Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, can usher us into a whole new world where sin is no more, where a people made new by God after turning from sin, surrendering their wills, and walking through the valley of death with Christ, will live forever.

But there is something special about Walt Disney World. When the cast members tell you to "Have a magical day," there are times when you nearly feel the magic. Disney World may not be your idea of heaven. It embodies some of mine. But for all of us, I suspect, it reflects our fondest hopes, dreams, and yearnings. It shows us that even in this imperfect world, we can find hints of how it might be for us to live in a kingdom of love. It makes us realize that, contrary to what negative sourpusses who call themselves Christian might say, there are things about this world in which we live that are--or have the potential for being---fine and true and shimmering with innocence and blessedness.

That realization makes you wish that this world---a world of churning oceans and majestic mountains, of Redwoods and Blackeyed Susans, of the Eiffel Tower and even Disney World, could last forever and ever. We know that ultimately this world and everything that human hands have devised in it cannot survive. Both the scientists and theologians agree on that. But, oh, how we ache for it to not be so! We long for paradise and accustomed to this place and its sometimes breathtaking beauty, we wish--we ache--that this could be it.

It isn't just for a dazzling present or a better future that we long, though. C.S. Lewis spoke of those "good dreams" which seemed to reside in the memories and psyches of every human culture. The dreams weren't just of a future paradise. These good dreams contain an awaremess that something old, wonderful, and lost needs restoring. Composer Randy Stonehill gave eloquent voice to our good dreams in a mid-1980s song, when he wrote: "Like a child who dreams of flying and aches for something more, We hold the dim remembrance of an ancient golden shore."

Somehow, in spite of our efforts to bury the truth or to deny it or to delude ourselves, we know that there is a baby in the bathwater. There was an Eden and we believe, hope, and pine for it to be not just a place in our past, but also the place of our future. We know, irrespective of our grumbling, our cynicism, our selfishness, or our attempts to gracelessly quantify a world in which there are still mysterious unknowns, that there is something wonderful and worthy of redemption in the human soul and in the world we inhabit.

So does God! That’s why He became one of us two-thousand years ago. That’s why He shared our death, though He didn't deserve it. That’s why He rose from dead. He came to give us a second chance at paradise. That’s why He told a criminal who hung on a cross next to him, who’d asked to be remembered with Jesus on the other side of death, “Today you will be with Me in paradise!”

Today, on this creeking, beautiful planet, ambiguity prevails. Even our seemingly perfect Disney Worlds are infected by sin. Our Grand Canyons and purple mountains majesty show the effects of human shortcomings. The Bible says that right now, all of creation groans under the weight of human sin (Romans 7).

But there is hope! His Name is Jesus! This isn't heaven. But our good dreams tell us that there is such a place. God has inserted a holy hunger for it in every human soul. We try to feed that hunger with junk food---and ultimately, even my beloved Disney World is junk food. But Jesus, Who called Himself the living bread from heaven (John 6), is the real deal. Until we cross over from this life into the next, we can feast on His Word and His holy meal and know that there is a paradise awaiting us. As we turn from sin and turn to Jesus, we see that the good dreams are true. We see that God is for us and that in the end, the good dreams will come to pass and we will walk and live and laugh and love in the presence of God forever!

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