meaning

Projecting Possibility

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THE FIRST-EVER Movies and Meaning festival recently took place in New Mexico, bringing 250 people together to experience the possibilities of the most dream-like art form for making the world better. I was privileged to host the festival, which featured a huge screen, a contemplative audience, around a dozen films, and magnificent assistance from the voices of Richard Rohr and slam poet Jessica Helen Lopez. It was a dream come true after a lifetime of loving cinema and being compelled by the idea that art can create change.

Movies and Meaning wants to challenge how movies rarely get the chance to breathe in multiplexes or be engaged with rather than merely noticed, and to promote and facilitate better conversations about, and responses to, cinema—and all art, really. It was a happy surprise that the key word that emerged from the festival was “empathy,” a concept that Rohr told us didn’t even have a name until just about 100 years ago. There’s an intriguing irony there, because cinema itself isn’t much older, and one of cinema’s most important innovations is the experience of observing stories about strangers told in a way that maximized the possibilities of actually seeing them.

What we empathized with at Movies and Meaning was what happens when we reframe our stories as ones in which human beings are capable of cooperating to heal wounds and make life better.

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From the Archives: December 1990

THE ODDS that this note will arrive for your birthday are poor, but know that I’m with you in spirit as you celebrate 16 big ones. ... What I want to say—some of it isn’t too jolly birthday talk, but it’s real.

Yesterday I stood looking down at a 16-year-old who had been killed a few hours earlier. I know a lot of kids even younger who are dead. This is a terrible time in El Salvador for youth. A lot of idealism and commitment are getting snuffed out here now.

The reasons why so many people are being killed are quite complicated, yet there are some clear, simple strands. One is that many people have found a meaning to life, to sacrifice, struggle, and even to death. And whether their life span is 16 years, 60, or 90—for them, their life has had a purpose. In many ways, they are fortunate people.

Brooklyn is not passing through the drama of El Salvador, but some things hold true wherever one is, and at whatever age. What I’m saying is, I hope you come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you—something worth living for, maybe even worth dying for—something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead. I can’t tell you what that might be—that’s for you to find, to choose, to love. I can just encourage you to start looking, and support you in the search. 

Sister Ita Ford was a Maryknoll missionary in El Salvador when she wrote this letter in August 1980 to her 16-year-old niece, who lived in Brooklyn. Ford was killed three months later by a right-wing death squad.

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When Prayer Becomes Control

Elena Dijour / Shutterstock.com

Elena Dijour / Shutterstock.com

Andrew W.K. at the Village Voice received a question from someone whose brother was diagnosed with cancer. In his grief, he is frustrated by his grandma’s prayers and sees them as “superstitious nonsense.” Andrew’s brilliant response is a very worthwhile read, in which he positions prayer as a posture of humility, a deep realization of our smallness.

When senseless tragedy occurs, people of faith often rush to explain and control. As finite human beings, we are limited in our knowledge and power, which makes us uncomfortable. When we encounter something incomprehensible, we are driven to explain it. When a situation reels out of control, we long to control it. We invite God to fill those gaps of our discomfort, our lack of understanding and control.

We look for redemption stories, the ways God is bringing about good through a tragic situation. We do this to avoid letting the grief overwhelm us. Like grandma, we pray because we are hoping to claim some power in our helplessness. Our prayers end up being more beneficial for ourselves than the person we are actually praying for.

Unfortunately, what happens then is we cease to need God beyond the quick explanation. We’ve tidied up the situation with reverent prayers and spiritual meaning. We’ve quickly salvaged the ecosystem of our faith despite a tragic intrusive incident — our belief in the God of the gaps remain intact. Everything stays the same. When we do this, we are making God into an idol, one that explains and controls according to our sensibilities.

Meaningless Church Jargon

marekuliasz and bigredlynx/Shutterstock

Let’s all speak of God and faith and community in clear, simple, and meaningfu language. marekuliasz and bigredlynx/Shutterstock

Earlier this morning, I saw a tweet from @JesusofNazareth316: Blessed are they who stop using the word “‪#missional," which caused me to post something on Twitter and Facebook asking people what their favorite church jargon is — mine being “Missional Imagination.” The response was unbelievable and also quite interesting.

I realized upon reading the #meaninglesschurchjargon tweets that the responses tended to fall into several categories:

1. Mainline Protestant church consultant/bad seminary class lingo. (“Missional imagination”; congregations as “centers for evangelical mission”; pastors as “transformational leaders”; referring to members as “giving units”; and churches “doing life together”) this language has a commonality with corporate jargon and like corporate jargon, refers to the culture and practices related to an organization.

IDEA: Let’s make sure that in seminary classrooms and at church conferences and in congregational life when we use a term or a phrase, that it points to an actual thing or person or event and is not just a string of words that sound like something meaningful but, in fact, lack real meaning. There is a reason that my computer does not recognize the word Missional. Try it at home. Go ahead. Type that shit and see.

Art As An Act of Faith

Photo illustration, © Elena Ray / Shutterstock.com

Photo illustration, © Elena Ray / Shutterstock.com

Almost two years ago, I took a titanic risk. If you look at things from an earthbound perspective, what I did is: I took my livelihood, and my children's provision, in my hands alone. I quit my job at The News & Observer, a major, Pulitzer-prize-winning newspaper where I earned a decent salary and reached 150,000 to 200,000 readers on any given day. 

The decision was a long time coming — my whole adult life, really. Before I ever started my first newspaper job in 2000, I’d wanted to help people explore deeper things than just tax policy, or crime, or environmental regulation. These just skim the surface of who we are as humans: why we share or hoard, why we hurt or protect one another, what we owe to Mother Earth.

What I found as a newspaper reporter was that I had no choice but to skim the surface of things. There’s not enough space to go deeper, but, more importantly, deeper takes you into hypothesis, not fact — and hypothesis is a leap of faith. What you find when you go deeper depends a lot on the gear you’re wearing when you dive. I’m cloaked in Bible stories and Christian tradition, and therefore I live in hope that there’s a Creator and that this God is working quietly to heal the world.

I read recently in Psalm 27: 

“The Lord is my light and my salvation —
 whom shall I fear?
 The Lord is the stronghold of my life —
of whom shall I be afraid?”

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