I’m Thinking of Ending Things is the title of a film on Netflix. It doesn’t have anything to do with me thinking of ending anything, doesn’t have anything to do with me at all, except that I just finished watching it. Written and directed by Charlie Kauffman, the creator (writer and/or director) of gems like Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (my #2 favorite movie of all time), and Adaptation, among others, it goes without saying that it’s weird. Critics gave it an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes (a film review website) while audiences gave it a 48%. That sounds about right. I usually love films like this, that play with time, dialogue, narrative, and identity like they were blocks to be arranged and re-arranged, but I’m not sure I liked this one.
I’m not really sure that’s the point, though. Charlie Kauffman probably doesn’t care if you or I like his work. It’s polarizing, mostly you love it or hate it. I have a good friend who took my recommendation and watched Eternal Sunshine with his special lady and he credits it with effectively ending the relationship. It was their last date. He often thanks me for that (the end, not the recommendation, he considers it the worst movie he’s ever seen.)
I’m not recommending I’m Thinking of Ending Things. You can watch it or not, you already know if it’s your kind of film.
In Rob Bell’s new book, Everything Is Spiritual, he writes, “They were just four-minute songs, but they were teaching me how creation works. We didn’t have to wait to see what happened, we could create the happening.” This is what any and all works of art do to me, show me how creation works. Something is there/here that wasn’t before. Something that was impossible moments ago is not only possible, but realized.
These films that challenge, that take your accepted notions of how movies go and what they are capable of, and explode them are absolutely vital. You see, we are born with a sense of wonder and imagination and, over time, have that conditioned out of us until we protect “the way we’ve always done things” at all costs. Our perspective shrinks until we can only see what already is. Faith is wildly irresponsible because it involves hoping in what is not (yet.)
The world around us is crumbling and 2020 has not been kind. But that can change the second we begin to believe it can, the second we start to understand that what we do here, now, today, (even the smallest act of love and gentleness and grace) can shape our tomorrows. That the way we behave toward our neighbors (in person or on Facebook) will impact strangers across generations.
The Scriptures say “All things are possible,” and I don’t always see that, if I’m honest. I don’t see how taking cookies to my friends affects a global pandemic or systemic racism or widespread violence or political corruption or countless other illustrations of human brokenness. But this tiny 2 hour movie about a guy with problems driving in a snowstorm with his girlfriend makes me think its true. Anything great isn’t about something so superficial as if I liked it, instead it’s about transformation. Has it moved me, even the smallest bit, away from desperation and cynicism and into a larger perspective? Has it cracked the shell I have so carefully molded out of the status quo? And will this new shift into the possibility of creation inform my relationships, day-to-day interactions, thoughts, and responses?
I don’t know exactly what this film was about, but I am an inch closer to knowing what I am about & a mile closer to you, and those 2 make it a tremendous success.
One of the books I’m reading is called Heroes and Jerks, written by Ed Daly. This massive doorstop of a book breaks down human history into segments and then, in each segment, lists the 10 Best and 10 Worst people of the time. Now, there might be a bunch I wouldn’t ordinarily like about such lists, but it’s educational and hilarious, so what I wouldn’t ordinarily like doesn’t matter in this instance.
I tell you about this book because I want to tell you about a Slovenian flute maker and me and times like these, in particular.
First, the Slovenian flute maker. He’s #5 in the best of the Early Ancient History category (spanning two million B.C.-501 B.C.). And he’s the #9 worst. In 43,000 B.C., he hollowed out a cave bear’s femur and fashioned the first musical instrument, so if you’ve ever loved a song, danced, or cry when Gisy sings on Sunday morning, you have this guy to thank. AND if you’ve ever heard a Britney Spears song (or that Extreme song, “More Than Words”) and hated it, you also have this guy to thank.
I’ll be 45 years old in almost 2 weeks and I’m only just beginning to embrace the fact that the best thing about me is also the worst thing about me. It’s the thing that makes you (and my wife and my kids and anybody else) love me and it is the very thing that drives you crazy and want to never see me again. Just for knowing, it drives me crazy, too. I used to want nothing more than to change it, to leave that part of me well behind. I don’t anymore.
2020 is hard. Yesterday my phone rang and on the other end was a friend I haven’t spoken to in quite some time. She was in distress over the tragic news in our town (and her job and the local schools and COVID and everything else that is making us all feel like the world is upside down and tearing at the seams). I am in distress over the same things, as well, so we mostly just talked about how hard it is to get out of bed some days. How it can feel like it’s all for nothing. And somehow in the middle of ALL of the emotions we were feeling, there were sprinkles of laughter and hope and genuine care.
Then there’s this boy who came into the weight room where I work yesterday. Usually, the early teen-aged boys are overcome by insecurity and inadequacy and are absolutely insufferable (!!!!!), but this boy came in quietly and asked me what to do. He is apparently often in trouble. But he is also the boy who brought a bag of pretzels to the school office to share with my wife last year.
I don’t really feel that much like writing today. But times like these are discouraging and depressing. But just like the Slovenian flute maker (and everything else), they are not simply 1 thing. They are full of tears, but they are full of beautiful old friends, too.
Last night I had a rehearsal for a wedding that I’ll officiate Saturday and as I looked at these kids, I knew what was coming for them, for their marriage: the fights, the fear, the illnesses, the funerals, the all night conversations, the shouting, the questions, the anger, the pain, suffering, heart aches. I also know what else is coming: the joy, the celebration, the wins, the healing, the reconciliation, the passion, the dinners, the cozy movies on the couch, the births, the answers, the kisses, hugs, the hands to hold. It’s all wrapped up in a swirly mixture of a full love and life. It hurts and it is THE GREATEST. It’s always more than 1 thing, (everything is always more than 1 thing), if we only can have the imagination and faith and courage to just keep going.
This week is the 9 year anniversary of tropical storm Lee. I talk about this particular storm so much because it started to rain on a Sunday and when it stopped on Thursday, my house was underwater and our lives would never be the same. We now refer to memories and personalities as Before the Flood and After the Flood. It’s 9 years later, though, and it’s fingerprint is still branded on our souls. I had a friend (a good friend, despite the story I’m about to tell;) who said to me about 5 months afterwards, “Isn’t it time to move on? It happened months ago.” I wonder what he’d say now, and I wonder if I’d still want to punch him when he did.
Sometimes you move on, but the scars are still there and sometimes they still ache.
We all were forced to closely examine our unhealthy relationships with control. Maybe that’s the biggest, most valuable loss – the delusion that we were ever in control. I thought I could be a superhero, protecting my family from all threats, keeping them safe and secure with my strength and will. As it turns out, my strength and will couldn’t stop the rain, couldn’t keep the water from swallowing my house, couldn’t make the insurance company make good on their promise, couldn’t make the family pictures reappear, couldn’t give anybody back what was lost.
This was a great big domino that started an avalanche. This horrible lesson/sledgehammer broke me open and walked me into many many more “couldn’t”s.
Now. Last week, in this space, we discussed control, the things that ARE actually ours to control, and taking it into settings, circumstances, situations. The flood, when it broke me open also broke my heart (a sledgehammer is NOT a particularly precise tool, that’s why we don’t use it to crack eggs) and when it healed, it formed in a different shape and pattern with grooves and texture that wasn’t there before.
I have bad skin, the consequence of years of abuse. I hated that skin for so long, was often disgusted when I would look in the mirror and see only imperfections. But now, when I see the marks on my face, I only see me. I’m not flawless. I’ve made poor decisions with food and drink and lifestyle and sunscreen. I’m getting pretty old and, where there once was a baby face stands someone’s husband and dad, wrinkled around the eyes and mouth from laughter and tears and lots and lots of smiles. I’ve been slapped, pinched, frozen in a questionable procedure by a dermatologist, scratched by cats, and on and on and on. But it’s my face and I wouldn’t change one thing.
And that heart that turned out to be wildly mistaken about my imaginary strength, will, superpowers, and control – it’s mine, I wouldn’t change one thing, and I’ll be taking this new broken/repaired heart everywhere I go, into every landscape and environment.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak to some college students who were volunteering to clean “flood buckets” (buckets filled with supplies and sent to flood victims about). I jump at those chances now. You see, I don’t exactly want to talk about or even think about our flood anymore, but now it’s a different sort of story. It’s about what I couldn’t do. It’s about kindness & peace & opening up my hands to the things to which I was desperately grasping. It’s about value and “enough.” It’s about losing all of my stuff and discovering that I didn’t really care about that stuff at all. It’s about my face. It’s about the redemption of my heart.
It’s about Jesus. It’s a Gospel story, now, and it’s a very good one.
This is an extraordinarily uncertain time, where any illusion of control is stripped from our hands. Honestly I suppose it’s not “extraordinarily uncertain,” but I do think the uncertainty is much more difficult to ignore. 6 months ago, if I told you the world could, or would, come to a screeching halt, you’d laugh and shake your head and talk about how I had lost touch with reality. And now it’s entirely possible that that exact scenario could happen AGAIN (!??!) next week, tomorrow, in an hour.
One of the unintended consequences of that sort of precarious standing is that we are forced to become reactors instead proactors (that’s not a word, but you know what I mean.) I think it’s sort of the same as the difference between thermometers and thermostats. Using overly simplified definitions I’ve constructed out of thin air, proactors prepare and move in a direction they choose intentionally, reactors read the room and move based on the environment of the room.
LeBron James said, about basketball in this Orlando bubble, that you control what you can and adjust to the rest (or something like that.) Last weekend I was explaining to my boy Elisha that I prepare so much for a wedding because then I am free to respond to anything that happens to come in my direction. That outdoor wedding had a torrential downpour 5 minutes before the scheduled start time which delayed the scheduled start, then after we (the groom, wedding party, my wife & I, and a few others) toweled off the soaked chairs, we stood in swampy puddles and oppressive humidity for this sacred ceremony, only to have forgotten the rings. Nothing went according to plan and it was just beautiful.
(It’s actually a solid metaphor for marriage, isn’t it?)
So. We’re forced to be reactors. Or are we?
Maybe there are some things we can control that will make us far more adaptable to the threat of rapid, jarring change.
Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD, Executive Director of Institute for Jewish Spirituality, wrote in an email I received a few weeks ago, “One of the core values we hold at IJS is to be responsive, not reactive. We have taken our time in listening and reflecting on what this moment means for us, as an organization, as a community, and as individuals. We are still listening and reflecting, even as we take action.
Yet the nature of our work is that, regardless of the particular issue at hand, there are some questions we invite and even demand of ourselves to ask:
Am I/Are we acting with as much compassion as I/we can?
Am I/Are we acting with as much wisdom as I/we can?
Am I/Are we listening as deeply as I/we can?
Am I/Are we being truly honest with myself/ourselves?
Am I/Are we reflecting and deepening the image of God in each and every human being as much as I/we can?
Am I/Are we creating greater capacity for shleimut, wholeness which embraces difference and contradiction, which is the essence of shalom, peace?
The answer to these questions is always “No,” because we can always do better. We can always broaden our awareness, deepen our compassion, and elevate our wisdom. We can always listen better. We can always be more honest. We can always do more to see and lift up the image of God.”
(He uses responsive but I am using prosponsive or proactors or pro-whatever in much the same way, to avoid the ‘re-’ confusion)
The interesting thing is that with a focus on our work, our journey, our quest, we have a different perspective and the uncertainty is reframed as landscape. If the story isn’t COVID and is instead the redemptive work of Jesus in the world, and in us, then it is less menacing and far more hopeful. We control the little patch of land that is ours to control (like our compassion, wisdom, listening, honesty, shleimut, LOVE) and let it translate into whatever setting we encounter.
If my path is to show the love of Jesus, there’s a strong possibility that whether it’s in school or not won’t matter as much. If my interest is the union of Steph & Tom, then how much it rains is less damaging. Shalom is desperately needed in every room, regardless of the temperature.
I know it’s a hard anxious time for all of us, maybe we could use a fresh (old) word, maybe we could remember a new story.