Thursday, August 14, 2014

To be…

In 2010, I opened to our church a small, but meaningful window into my childhood development. As part of our annual Cinema Sermon Series, I preached on Dead Poets Society. Growing up, I watched that movie more than many times. It’s about schoolboys learning to find their own voice, learning “to be extraordinary.” As a growing adolescent, I wanted to be extraordinary! And that picture helped me think it possible.

I’m reflecting on it today because its star is dead. Robin Williams played the teacher who challenged his students to “seize the day.” He counseled, “Carpe diem, lads. For one day, we’ll all be food for worms.” Those words haunt me this morning, but he wasn’t wrong. We’ve all got one shot to make it count.

Honestly, I’ve never been one to mourn a celebrity’s death. Perhaps that says something about my youth or whatever, but it’s simply not been part of my experience. Robin Williams’ suicide, however, strikes me differently. I’ll confess, I loved many of his 1990s films. From the coming-of-age Dead Poets drama to his crazy, blue Aladdin genie to his tortured, strong psychologist guiding another troubled young man in Good Will Hunting. The man, or these roles he played, struck me as fundamentally decent. Honest about the troubles we face, but defiantly good, and that’s a beautiful thing in our oft-too-cynical world. He was a manically energetic comic who treated laughter like medicine, or maybe like a drug. Or both. Sometimes, that line is too close for comfort.

But the movie that’s most concerned me since I heard the news was his spiritual experiment. In What Dreams May Come, he plays the husband of a woman who’s committed suicide. A tragic irony sits prickly on my conscience today, though I think Tabitha said it best. “I hope he believed his own movie,” was her response, significant since it’s among her favorite films. If you haven’t seen it, permit me to ruin the plot. Still, watch it anyway. You see, before his wife’s death, Williams’ character himself had died. He watches her grieve in a limbo state of afterlife. Then, his love takes her own life. And his task is to find her, but that’s near impossible, because instead of Heaven, she’s gone on to Hell.

Recall that in classic Christian theology, Hell was the punishment for suicide. I hate that doctrine, but it’s significant in this film, although it explores a markedly nontraditional- and much better- hypothesis. The woman’s perdition isn’t God’s punishment, you see, but the effect of her own darkened soul and decisions. She can be redeemed, theoretically, but as a suicide victim, the film suggests that road is untraveled. Can she see beyond the jail of the darkness that’s trapped her, that led her to such extreme pain? Long story short, the answer- as all good spiritual answers are- is love. If love can find its way back into her terrified soul, she might be free. She might enjoy rest eternal.

That strikes me as entirely right. We confess, every Sunday, that Love created this world, and sustains it. And as Christ’s core message- indeed, God’s very character- saving Love is eternal. Which suggests to me that Hell isn’t a final destination. It might exist, but more real I feel is the always available grace of God. Thus, on that great gittin’ up morning, we’ll encounter Jesus waiting, arms wide open. Our final test will simply be- Can we open our arms in return and receive God’s love? A poignant reality for folk wrestling with suicide is an inability to accept they’re valuable, lovable, worthy of hope. It breaks my heart to know that’s true for too many, but I’ve been in darkness before. It hurts hellishly.

But the reason I do this job- and more important, the reason I attend church- is an unshakeable conviction that, “neither life nor death nor anything else can separate us from the love of God.” That includes our own darkness and sin, all our shame and brokenness. May we have courage enough to accept Love daily. And may that brilliant, tortured, decent performer abide in light, and rest eternal.

Grace and Peace,
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