Saturday, June 26, 2004

Meeting America at Disney World

During my recent four-day stay at Disney World, I became acquainted with a man named Thomas. He works in the food courts of two different Disney resorts. Thomas is thus employed at two full-time jobs. He came to America from India several years ago. "We always heard that America is the land where dreams come true," he told me with a smile. "My brother had lived here for awhile and told us how wonderful it is. So, we applied to come into the country."

Seeing that I was interested in his story, Thomas went on. "It took two-and-a-half years, but we were accepted."

"Do you like it?" I asked.

"We love it! You can do anything in America!."

Both Thomas and his wife work entry level jobs, although Thomas, at any rate, is an obviously well-educated person. For him, whether he attains financial success or not, the American Dream has already happened. In fact, that's precisely what he told me. Just living in a land that has the look, feel, and smell of freedom and goodness that America has (characteristics that those of us born in this country often take for granted) is nearly beyond the wildest imaginings of most people on this planet.

For several years now, I've been arguing that we need to recover the original meaning of that phrase, "The American Dream." Today, it's almost exclusively associated with having fat wallets. But that's not what it meant to the originators of the slogan, "The American Dream." For them, it meant the dream, unrealized in most of the world for any of recorded time, of freedom within the context of caring community. I've also argued that the dream is only possible when people are rooted in Christ, precisely the argument made by one of the Founders, John Adams. Without Christ, freedom degenerates into license, mobocracy, or materialism.

Among the things that make America unique--or at least, made it unique at its founding--is that it was a country that chose to come into being. It came together by compact, not by conquest, custom, or more traditional means. The thirteen original states entered a kind of marriage contract and announced to the world, "We're hitched."

The hitching coalesced, at least in part, around a set of common ideals, most of which we still don't fully live. But as one of my Political Science professors, B. James Kweder at The Ohio State University (later Cleveland State University) used to drill into our heads, the story of America is really the story of a nation fitfully but deliberately moving toward the expansion of the American promise embodied in the Declaration of Independence. All but a few of the amendments to the US Constitution have been about expanding the blessings of freedom within a community of caring and mutual accountability, thus embodying the ideals of our country.

Some days after the death of Henry Clay, a young Illinois politician gave a eulogy in Chicago. Clay was Abraham Lincoln's "beau ideal" of a statesman because Clay believed that America was more than just land sprawling across the Western Hemisphere. America was an ideal. America, in a phrase that Lincoln would later use, was the last best hope of the world.

Of course, I don't believe that America is the world's last, best hope. Only the God we know through Jesus Christ can claim that. America is a nation on a globe hurtling toward eventual extinction. God is immortal and eternal. He offers a spot in eternity to all who will place their hope not in temporary, earthly things, but in Christ.

But the American Dream, the American experiment, is noteworthy. Two-hundred, twenty-eight years after it bubbled forth from that laboratory in Philadelphia, that experiment--for all of America's faults, sins, and problems--is still working.

Thomas and people the world over who have come to these shores or who have ever wanted to, prove that.

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!

Sunday, June 20, 2004

The Happiness Project: Good Grief

Matthew 5:1-2, 4
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, June 20, 2004)

Some of you may have read a true story I told in a recent column. A friend of mine had gone to a funeral home viewing. The wife of a high school classmate had died and my friend wanted to pay respects. Later, he went to a family function and his twin brother asked why he’d been late. He mentioned the viewing and his twin, who, of course, was also a classmate of the widowed man asked breezily, “Oh yeah, how’s he doing?” My friend was a bit taken aback by his brother’s insensitive attitude. He began to reply, “Well, as you’d expect. It’s pretty hard.” But his twin brother was incredulous. He couldn’t understand how this classmate could be grief-stricken. With some condescension, the twin said that as a Christian, the classmate had a hope for resurrection and with that, he had no reason to feel grief. My friend was so thunderstruck by his brother’s words that he didn’t know what to say.

Grief comes in many forms in this life. Loved ones die. Jobs are lost. Relationships end. Friends move away. Cherished dreams go unmet. And even the ardent follower of the God we know through Jesus Christ isn’t exempt. Even Jesus grieved. He wept bitter tears in the garden of Gethsemane just before He was arrested, knowing that soon He would lose His life. He wept at the gravesite of His friend, Lazarus. He poured out a grief-stricken lament over the hardness of heart of Jerusalem, saddened that so many would turn from God and so throw away their eternal lives. Even though all who follow Jesus have an everlasting hope of life with God forever, we still are subject to grief. We mourn.

But there is a difference in our mourning. This is the second installment of a series we're calling The Happiness Project. We're exploring the elements of the happy life that Jesus illustrates during an intimate time of teaching His closest followers. It's found in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. The twelve verses we’re exploring are often called The Beatitudes. Last week, He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This week, He tells us, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Now, as I mentioned last week—and will probably mention every week of this series, the word that the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates as blessed can equally well be translated as fortunate, blissed out, or happy. But it's fair to ask: What on earth is there to be happy about in mourning? Not a thing. But you and I can go through either good grief or bad grief. It’s those who can go through their grief well who are the happy people of the world. They're happy because God comforts them.

We all know about the bad ways people grieve, I suppose. One bad way to grieve is to deny our sense of loss. We try to gloss over our pain with religion or fake optimism or a hard-shell. The problem with denial is that it doesn’t work. Eventually, the pain catches up with us. When suppressed, grief may lead us to unrelieved depression, physical illness, or to closing ourselves off from the outside world.

Another bad way to grieve is to develop what I call, rather indelicately, emotional diarrhea. It’s the polar opposite of denial. The mother of a woman I knew died. The woman and her mother always had a strained relationship. Angry, bitter words passed between them all the time. The mother hurled the most insulting, cruelties you can imagine at her daughter. But at the funeral home, the daughter began a sob-fest that could only be described as a phony show. For a long time afterwards, she would weep uncontrollably over her mother, not because of her loss or a sense of regret, it seemed obvious, but because this gave her attention.

That’s bad grief. But, according to Lutheran pastor and chaplain Granger Westberg, good grief—mourning our losses healthfully and well---has four results (my paraphrase):

1. We emerge from our grief at a higher level of maturity.
2. We become deeper people because despair has taken us to deeper levels of experience.

3. We become stronger. Grief is like a spiritual obstacle course, where we learn to rely on God and God gives us greater spiritual muscle.
4. We come out of our grief better able to help others because we understand something of the pain they’re feeling.

Jesus says that His followers can be comforted when they mourn. They can experience good grief. My observation is that this happens in three basic ways. First: We let Christ have access to our sorrows. We surrender to Him. One of my favorite incidents in the Bible happens when Jesus is met by a man who asks Jesus to cast a demon from his son. He begs Jesus, “if you are able,” please help him.

Jesus said to Him, “If you are able—All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

It’s hard to surrender to Christ, especially when we may feel tempted to blame our grief on Him. But we remember that Jesus is, as the Bible tells us, "a man of sorrows, well-acquainted with grief." We remember that even when we don’t understand, He understands us and what we’re going through. The Man Who went to a cross knows what it is to suffer through no fault of our own. He knows about grief. We may not feel capable of surrender. But if it’s our desire to place ourselves in His strong hands, He will catch us. He will see us through. When we want to surrender, all we have to do is to want to want to do just that!

In 1986, Merton and Irene Stommen lost the youngest of their five sons. He’d gotten through college and seminary and was just a few months away of achieving his life-long dream of becoming a pastor. He’d taken a group of young people to a Christian camp in Colorado when an afternoon thunderstorm came along. David Strommen, full of faith and promise, was struck by lightning and killed immediately. Mert Strommen is a devout Christian, pastor, and research psychologist. Irene, also a committed Jesus-follower, is a counselor. Their sense of loss was enormous. They’ve learned that no matter how deep one’s faith, you never “get over” loss. But, when we place our grieving souls in the death-scarred hands of Jesus, He will carry us, strengthen us, and renew our capacity for living.

Second: We grieve well when we let others help us with our grief. In both Old and New Testament times, they had elaborate rituals for people to use as they grieved. In fact, whenever the Bible uses those words grieve or mourn, it’s referring to both the saddened heart that goes with loss and to the formal rituals used to acknowledge the loss. Many of these rituals can be a huge help, especially when loved ones and friends we invite to take some of our journey through grief with us, are able to come alongside us. A buddy of mine had just lost the love of his life. She’d gone to be with another man. I felt inadequate as we sat together. All I did was listen and tell him how sorry I was and that I would pray for him. Later, he told me, that was all that he’d needed.

Finally, we grieve well when we have hope beyond today, the hope that Jesus gives to all who follow Him. Not only is the sun likely to come up tomorrow, God’s only Son Jesus has said that beyond life on this planet, all who turn from sin and follow Him will be with God forever. True story. The Rogers family were devout Christians. During their family prayer times, the parents often asked the children in their family to express how they knew they had eternal life. Seven year old Jimmy said:

[I think heaven will be like this.] One day when we all get to heaven, it will be time for the big angel to read from the big book the names of all the people who will be there. He will come to the Rogers family and say, “Daddy Rogers?” and Daddy will say, “Here!” Then the angel will call out, “Mommy Rogers?” and Mommy will say, “Here!” Then the angel will come down to call out Susie Rogers and Mavis Rogers, and they will both say, “Here!” And finally, the big angel will read my name, Jimmy Rogers, and because I’m little and maybe he’ll miss me, I’ll jump and shout real loud, ‘HERE!’ to make sure he knows I’m there.”

A few days later, a car struck Jimmy Rogers down. He was rushed to the hospital and the whole family was called. The doctors said they’d done all that was possible. The family gathered around Jimmy, motionless and unconscious, and they prayed. Late in the night, Jimmy stirred. They saw his lips move and form a single word. But what a word. Jimmy rasped out, “Here!” and he died.

Grief comes to us in many forms in this life. But when surrender ourselves and our sorrows to Christ; when we let others share our griefs; and when we let God give us a hope beyond the grave, we experience good grief. God gives us a happiness that nothing can destroy!


[The true story of Jimmy Rogers is told in Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul: 101 Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit. I heartily recommend this book as well as the others mentioned in this message.

[My understanding of the Biblical definitions for the words blessed, mourn, and comfort all were strengthened by consulting the monumental and, for any preacher or theologian, essential, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament by Kittel.]