February 1, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
YOU OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES
I understand we have something to watch on television this afternoon. We’re going to have plenty of football before the day is over, more than some of you can probably stand, so I’ll make this promise right up front. No sports references in this morning’s sermon.
We’re going to have something else to watch three weeks from tonight. The Academy Awards. Actually, they are no longer called the Academy Awards. Somehow I missed that, but in 2013 the official title changed to “The Oscars”. There are some television shows I watch that Helen doesn’t care for. Today for example. There are some television shows Helen watches that I don’t care for. Half-time today for example. But we’re going to be watching together on February 22. Three weeks from tonight. We both like movies.
We actually went out to see a movie recently. We saw “Wild”. It’s the true story of an amazing backpacking adventure. That’s something I’m more into than Helen, but we both loved the book and we both loved the movie. It was not so much the story of a long hike as the story of a life transformed. A life coming back to life again. It got me to doing some soul-searching about my own life.
A good movie is like that. It touches you. It changes you. It makes a difference in your life. Alfred Hitchcock said, “Movies are life, with the boring parts cut out.”
I want to turn that around this morning. If movies are life, then can we flip that around? Can we say that life is a movie? Or a drama? Or a story? Chances are no one is going to make a movie about your life. Richard Pimentel is in pretty rare company. For the rest of us there would be way too many boring parts to cut out. But can you see your life as an unfinished work in progress? You know how it started. You know quite a bit about the part that’s been going on for some time now in the middle. None of us knows for sure just how it will end.
You ought to be in pictures. And the truth is you already are. Your life is a great drama unfolding one day at a time.
One thing the image of life as an unfolding drama can do for us is to help us see how exiting the adventure of living can be. Yes, there are boring parts, but with just a little imagination and initiative on our part, our lives can be so interesting we can hardly wait to wake up in the morning to see what will happen next.
Good movies are like that. You don’t need that 44 ounce soft drink to keep you awake. The movie keeps you awake. Good books are like that. You might stay up way later than you meant to because you just can’t put that book down. Or you wake up in the morning and the first thing you want to do is to pick up where you left off. Life can be like that, too. We never know what’s going to happen next. “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get.” That can be a scary thought. And that can be an exciting thought. So exciting it seems a shame to stay in bed one minute longer than you need to. It’s going to be a great day and you can’t wait to discover the specifics! And of course you have a rather big role in determining what those specifics are going to be. But it’s more than just you.
If we are the actors in this drama called life, then who is the director? Who is the playwright? Who is the author who alone understands our part and how best it can be played? “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” But who is the master mind behind it all? God.
Not everyone sees it that way. Not everyone believes in God. And not everyone who believes in God believes in a God who is actively involved in our lives. But those of us who believe that God is in charge, that God is sovereign, also believe that God knows the plot and how each of us is supposed to fit in. So for us to stumble through life, to figure it out as we go, would be about like Reese Witherspoon starring in a movie in which no one bothered to tell her who she is playing or what’s supposed to happen. We are on this earth for a reason, a reason not always clear to us, but a reason known to God. A reason that we will know better and better the better we get to know God.
Now I know this is treading perilously close to predestination. Predestination is the doctrine that God has our lives all scripted out for us in advance and therefore any freedom we might think we have is really just an illusion. The movie we are in, ending and all, is already in the can. I don’t believe that and I don’t think you do either. We are free. We are not puppets whose every move is controlled by some great puppeteer in the sky. The possible ways the drama in which we find ourselves can play out are unlimited. We don’t have to follow God’s script. And even if we do follow God’s script, there are many ways to follow it. God’s a director with marvelous creativity. We are free. God is sovereign. Both statements are true. We don’t have to choose one or the other.
I’ll illustrate in a couple of ways. As youth become adults they are faced with a bewildering array of choices. It’s always been that way, but it’s worse today. When it comes to right and wrong, what used to be pretty clear isn’t any more. So as they are shaking off the shackles of parental control, how are they going to keep from making a mistake that will cripple them for life? Parents stay awake nights worrying about these things while our children stay awake nights giving their parents reason to worry!
A mom with a daughter away at college was appalled to learn that her college had an informal understanding that guests of the opposite sex were perfectly free to spend the night in someone else’s dormitory room. She asked for an explanation from the dean of students. This is his written reply:
College students are at an age when their hormones are raging. But they’re too young to marry. Indeed, they don’t yet know who they are, and the formation of that self is what college is all about. So of course we have to recognize that sexual activity apart from commitment — much less marriage — will be common. But it’s far better than rushing them into marriage before they’re fully formed.
If life is a drama, if we are the actors, if God is the director, this kind of thinking makes no sense at all. Self-formation is not a matter of trial and error as we sample various forms of self-indulgence and discover what we like and what we don’t like. We don’t form ourselves. We are formed. By God. By other people. By the person we marry. The process is painful as often as it is pleasurable. It involves denying ourselves at least as much as it does fulfilling ourselves. It is certainly more about giving than getting. And the ground rules are not ours to make up as we go. Self-formation for the believer means allowing ourselves to be formed by God. God is the potter. We are the clay. Not the other way around.
Isaiah says it so well in that passage we read.
You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay? Shall the thing made say of its maker, “He did not make me”, or the thing formed say of the one who formed it, “He has no understanding”? (29:16)
If there had been motion pictures in 700 BC, Isaiah might have said it like this: “Shall the actor say to the director, ‘Don’t tell me how this movie is supposed to go’?”
There’s another season of life where we frequently don’t like the plot of our movie. We’ve talked about young people learning to use freedom responsibly. Now we’re going to talk about older people learning how to relinquish freedom gracefully.
Scott Peck wrote The Road Less Travelled. It has one of the all-time best first sentences. “Life is difficult.” If you don’t figure that out when you’re young, you will when you are old. Scott Peck told of four women who came to him individually for counseling. They had four different complaints — glaucoma, emphysema, hip replacement, and back pain — but it came down to the same thing. They were depressed about getting old. In all four cases they had wonderful lives. Good marriages. Enough money. Children who had turned out well. Their lives had gone according to script, so far. But now their bodies were betraying them and they were furious.
Scott Peck told each of them the same thing:
All of us are actors in a marvelous, complex, cosmic drama. The most we can hope for is to get little glimpses of what the drama is about and little glimpses of how best to play our roles. But what I hear you saying is that not only do you want to be the best actor you can possibly be in this drama, but you also want to be the scriptwriter.
Every stage of life requires something different from us. As the drama of our lives plays out, we begin with dependency. Then we grow older and discover what a wonderful thing freedom is. We declare our independence. But wisdom comes with maturity and we discover that while independence is good, interdependence is better. We are free, but we also need each other. Independence in isolation feels like slavery. And finally, having discovered the joy of life lived freely and fully in community, those who are privileged to live long enough often find themselves at the end of life where they were at the beginning of life. Back in dependency. Each one of us will live a unique and beautiful life, but these are the general parameters. We can fight them or we can accept them. Those who accept them, those who take hold of God’s hand and trust God to graciously lead them through all the twists and turns of life, are the ones who will experience most fully the goodness and the wonder of this “one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver).
This image of life as an unfolding drama under the direction of Almighty God is not the only image in circulation today. It is not the dominant image. Most people prefer to see life as something they can take hold of and control and do with as they please. And these are the people most people admire. Take charge people, people who make things happen, people who are the masters of their own destiny. They’re the ones in the most popular movies. They’re the ones who sing the most popular songs. Songs like, “I Did it My Way.”
This image is so popular and so pervasive it will become our image unless we consciously choose again and again and again that we will live a different way. That we will live in a different Kingdom. That our song will be, “I’m Doing it God’s Way.”
There was a man who received an award. He was not expecting this award. It caught him entirely by surprise. So when he approached the microphone, his mind was a jumble. He figured he’d just repeat what he had heard many others say at such a moment. But he got a little tongue-tied. The words came out: “I don’t appreciate this, but I certainly do deserve it.”
One year at the Academy Awards — excuse me, at the Oscars — Burt Reynolds parodied the typical acceptance speeches. Have you noticed they are all alike? They all have the same three points: I am surprised at this, I don’t deserve this, and I would not be here today if not for others too numerous to mention. Burt Reynolds got up and he said, “I am not surprised that I got this. I knew I was going to get it. What’s more, these other people competing with me didn’t deserve it at all. Nobody helped me. I’m here by my own skill, hard work, and good looks.”
It was a joke. He didn’t really mean it. But what he said is actually a pretty fair representation of the way a lot of people look upon their lives. It was meant as a joke but maybe what makes it funny is that it hits so close to home. For this is the image of life so many cling to so tenaciously. I’m dependent on no one. I’ve made it on my own. I deserve it. I have no one to thank but myself. I have no one to blame but other people. And maybe God, if I believe in God.
That’s one way to see life. It’s mine to do with my way. There is another way to see life. It’s a gift from God. It matters how I live, and it matters not just to me. I am accountable to God, to you, to each other for how I play the part God has given me to play.
I don’t enjoy all parts of a movie equally well. Often I will wonder what the filmmaker had in mind when I get to a scene that is boring or revolting or seems to make no sense at all. We won’t enjoy all parts of our lives equally well either. There will be moments when we will wonder what in the world God is up to.
I got a Christmas letter from a friend who has recently retired. Shortly after retirement his wife was diagnosed with brain cancer. His letter ended like this: “Retirement hasn’t turned out as we had expected but we live out each day to the best of our faith and limited ability.”
None of us would write a chapter like that into our own life stories. But none of us gets to write our own life stories. We take what we are given and deal with it as best we can.
Life is a gift. Everything in life may not seem a gift. But the hardest parts of life are often precisely the parts that link us most closely to God. The hardest parts of life remind us that we aren’t in charge. God is. And God is wonderfully gracious. God’s love will never let us go.
Paul was right. “All things [do] work together for good for those who love God.” Isaiah was right. God is the potter. We are the clay. And as long as we are malleable enough, God will create in the drama of our lives something good.
Gracious God, save us from the illusion that we are in control of our own lives. We aren’t. You are. Help us to take that giant step that is part of your plan for our unfolding lives: from self-reliance to absolute reliance on you and you alone. In Jesus’ name, Amen.