He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
—Mary, from The Gospel of Luke 1:52-53 (NIV)
Recently, I’ve been listening to the radio on my commutes home from work. A few days ago, I tuned into a show called The Frame, which was re-airing host John Horn’s interview with director Guillermo Del Toro. Now months after the interview, Del Toro’s film, The Shape of Water, has gone on to win Academy Awards for set design, score, director, and picture.
The Shape of Water, as Fox Searchlight describes, is “set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa is trapped in a life of isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda discover a secret.”
As I listened to Del Toro share about this film, I noticed themes in what he said that resonate with what I find are important messages for our times. I was also listening to the interview as thoughts arose from my morning journaling, having been recently responding to sections of the Gospel of Luke.
Luke offers unique insights into the history around Jesus. He shares stories of people interacting with Jesus. He recounts parables that Jesus told. He also highlights more women than any of the other gospels, sharing accounts of 13 women not found in the others. And this goes along with how Luke’s account often reveals power structures being flipped upside down. Simply looking at the first two chapters, we find Mary, a young woman being honored by an angel and being given an important and weighty responsibility. And Jesus’ birth in a manger, such an important event, was not lauded by the powerful or rich, but the first to hear the good news were shepherds working the night-shift.
These aspects of the book fit with my picture for this year: an hourglass flipped on its side. One of the things this image speaks to is our need to disrupt or to flip unhealthy, dishonoring, or imbalanced up-down/us-them dynamics. It speaks to how we need to honor people, work for justice and equality, and move in empathy regarding gender, ethnicity, national-origin, belief system, sexuality, or age. I loved that my church began 2018 with a series called “Loving like Jesus in a Fractured World.” During one of the messages, my pastor spoke about how “Jesus didn’t go after the marginalized—he moved the margins!” What a beautiful picture of shifting the boundaries of love to encompass others.
By reaching out, we challenge the marginalizing of others. We can flip the destructive status quo of us-them, up-down, male-female, national-immigrant…
And this is a resonating aspect of The Shape of Water. In the interview, Del Toro explained, “It’s important in the movie to show people reacting against a guy that looks powerful and invincible. […] This is the paradigm of the B-movie creature movie turned on its head.” So, Del Toro’s film takes the same track as Luke. It does this by challenging the image of the strong-jawed archetypal male hero, instead casting him as the villain. And it cast the a monster, as a figure worthy of compassion. The film flips the dynamic and gives voice to the voiceless and makes those who would be invisible, visible.
The film is filled with symbolism to support its deep themes. Green is used heavily throughout, with red used more often as the film progresses, either in its trajectory of love or violence. Elisa’s name brings to my mind Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, with their plots of a woman learning to wield her own voice. And movies play in the background of certain scenes, such as the 1960’s Story of Ruth, quietly quoting “Your people will be my people.”
The story is an adult fairytale, a parable for our times. It blends Beauty and the Beast and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In it, Elisa, a mute cleaning woman, connects with and then falls in love with an amphibious fish-man. Her loneliness and invisibility resonate with the “othering” of this creature/of him. Her world does too. Her friend Zelda is a black woman in culture of inequality and racism. Her neighbor Giles is a closeted gay man whose career as an illustrator is slipping away. Like the shepherds watching their flocks by night, Elisa and Zelda work the night shift. They are honored with being giving voice and importance in the story. And like Mary in Luke’s account, Elisa is swept up into more than she expects. Elisa especially responds throughout the film in ways that powerfully carry its themes.
In being fairytale for adults, the film does not shy away from language, violence, or sex even as it shares its message. Here however, the purpose of this essay is to point out its truths. It shows both the darkness and light of its subjects and the very real conflicts that happen when people contend to be seen, valued, and loved.
Another quote from the interview with Del Toro gives us a glimpse into this and gets at a core of his work: “The essence of love is seeing. That’s what love has in common with cinema. When I see you, I grant you your existence as a human being. When I see you as you are, I don’t see you as a reporter, I see you as John Horn. I’m giving you a moment of love. This is the most loving thing.”
A thought from Rick Warren resonates with this (and I assume Del Toro would agree with me in affirming it): “What is the greatest gift of love? It’s not diamonds, flowers, or chocolate. The greatest gift of love you can give is focused attention. You can affirm people just by looking them in the eye, which essentially tells them, ‘I value you. What you have to say is important to me because you matter to me.’ What people want more than anything else is focused attention. They want to know that their thoughts matter, that their lives matter, that they are valuable.”
Both The Shape of Water and the Gospel of Luke share stories of people without voice or visibility being lifted up. Each account uniquely challenges this lack, facing difficulty and darkness with empathy, companionship, belief, humanity, and love.
As Del Toro said in an interview with ABC News, “You can tell the world is difficult, you can tell the world has evil, but then you use these parables to talk about absolutes like love, hope, the abandonment of fear, the love of the other, empathy—they are perfect.”
We are approaching this year’s finals of the most famous tennis tournament in the world: The Championships, Wimbledon. This year, they celebrate 140 years since starting two centuries prior in 1877.
I have often called tennis the “Sport of Kings,” and nowhere is the regality of the sport conveyed as much as here, when players must (as tradition asks) wear all white, where crowds are hushed and the grass is precisely trimmed. It is fitting that in Lion Month, this tournament of the Sport of Kings is held, both for its long history and its stirring motto: “In Pursuit of Greatness.”
This year, tournament falls completely in July and its fitting that some of the greatest in the sport are still making a strong showing so late in their careers, Venus Williams and Roger Federer, both in the semifinals. To see these champions, all time greats still playing, still pushing, still pursuing is moving. It reminds me of what some commentators called “The Greatest Weekend in Tennis History” earlier this year, when we saw the Williams Sisters face off and Federer battle Nadal for the titles of the Australian Open. I saw that convergence connect with one of my themes for 2017 as these tennis royals played for further greatness.
I could wax on about my admiration of the Williams Sisters or the level of play from the men’s side from the past decades, but I have lessons to share that we can apply to our own lives, whether we find ourselves on a court or not, they are principles I see in the pursuit of greatness. I’ll share one “Tennis Lesson” with you now and another next week.
Different Surfaces & the Foundations of Greatness
Tennis is one of a handful of sports that is played on different surfaces: clay, hardcourt, and grass. Each surface has particular characteristics and brings out different aspects of a player’s game. Not only does clay play slower than hardcourt, or grass accentuate power, but on grass and especially at Wimbledon, we see the courts themselves change over the two weeks. I saw a promotional video for Wimbledon in which retired tennis pro Tim Henman brings this to light, “The feeling of the grass under your feet is almost like the perfect carpet, the perfect foundation to play great tennis on. It’s inevitable that a living surface is going to change, because it’s alive. That is such a challenge for the players because there’s no other surface that will change so dramatically over a tournament.”
When I heard this, I began to think about the different surfaces in tennis as varying foundations and how players must be able to adapt, even to shifts at Wimbledon as a court’s dirt is exposed.
…Staring at grass took on deeper significance.
Then I came to a realization about players who become great. There are some in the tennis world who specialize in one surface, seeking to dominate on it. But most players are pursuing greatness across the sport. They fight the game on all surfaces, on each of the sport’s different foundations. For some, winning a tournament, moreover a major, is a highlight of their career. But less than a dozen men or women have been champions enough to complete a career grand slam, or even more rare, achieve the greatness of a calendar grand slam, spanning the foundations of the sport.
When following the careers of these players, we can hear whispers of greatness in their interviews and see it in their physicality as they play, catching a glimpse of the depths upon which they draw, of form, practice, discipline, and drive.
So then, these great players have learned not only to play well on different foundations, but transcend these to play from a foundation within.
An abstract self portrait from my Saints and Icons project, taken on a tennis court.
It’s been said that we don’t rise to the occasion, we fall back on our training. Great athletes pursue their sport in tournaments, but far more time is spent in training, getting the foundations right—a punishing backhand, a striking forehand, serves targeted exactly where directed. Great athletes play from these foundations. But there’s an even deeper level, where inner foundations are built on elements like peace and joy. We might hear players talk about recovering the simple joy of the sport or see a certain type of peace and calm as they win high pressure points. That’s where we can learn—playing from joy and peace can make any of us great.
So here is the great lesson, even when foundations change around us, we can be great by falling back on the right inner foundation. This traces back to a famous story about builders, with this thought: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.”
What is the foundation you will play from?
Hope is a stone
We hold to,
When pain enters
In our hand
We can choose
To grip tighter,
To feel something
That we choose,
Like the cowboy
With a bullet
In his shoulder.
He clenches his fist
To chose to feel
His own grip,
To get through
The pain of the lead
Being cut from within.
Hope is a star,
A distant point of light
We move toward.
It keeps us;
It holds us.
As the world sways,
We might stay still
But the world heaves
And waves rock us.
And yet still
We can chose
Brilliant and flaming.
Even if the distant star
Its present light
Can call us,
In the darkest night.
Hope fascinates me. In the poem above, and in these accompanying thoughts, I’m exploring it. Hope is beyond a star. It isn’t the star that keeps us going, it is the idea behind it. So in a way, Hope is further than that star in a powerful way.
Yet, it is this same distant idea, this held out expectancy, it is this same Hope… within us that inspires. So hope is deeper than a stone we hold. Hope is something we hold within. “Hold onto hope” we say. It is as if Hope were a stone and a star.
How beautifully beyond and within…
It is an inverted incarnation. Instead of taking a thought and making it a physical reality outside of ourselves, when we Hope, we are taking a thought, an idea, a story, a character and making it more real within us. Hope is assimilated, received, ingested. It is our own Eucharist.
That is why Christ Jesus is the Hope we need. He offers to us, not only a story, an idea, a far distant future, and Good news, but a living, breathing person; not just the idea of Jesus, but the fact of his reality—the real Jesus. He is both the Incarnated One and the One by which we become incarnated. Through our Hope in Him, He becomes our inverted incarnation. Again, Hope mirrors communion; we take physical objects, and the reality or symbolism of all that is beyond/undergirding these, and hold them, and then ingest them. Jesus offers us this.
Jesus, He is the stone the builders rejected, but the One we hold to, our very foundation. He is the bright and shining star that we look to in times of darkness. He is our stone and our star, the very Nature of Hope.
I’ve heard that in training for the Rio Olympics, Michael Phelps swam enough miles to circle the earth. Think of how many he must have logged throughout his career! Now Pablo Picasso, throughout his career he created perhaps 50,000 works of art.
There’s a similarity here… Lots of work. Athletic training corresponds to artistic discipline. Greatness is made, not born. Gold is refined from ore, marble is first chiseled from a quarry, and paint pigment is mined from the earth–to transform these into something great first takes acquiring them as raw materials, then after that they can be used to create further art. And so, the bodies of athletes might come with inherent prowess, strength, speed, or flexibility, these, like gold, marble, or pigmented rock, must be drawn out as if by an artist. The athletes must sculpt themselves, refine themselves, and apply themselves, all for the art of performance. An artist too might have some in-born way of seeing or thinking, some inherent artistry, but without support, encouragement, discipline, practice, and training, their unique take on the world or idea might not see its ultimate expression. They must train like an athlete to achieve.
Just as in days of old when Olympians would ascend to Mount Olympus, today, artists who have had their greatness confirmed are found on the mount topped by the Getty Center. This museum complex is something we have created as an apotheosis of greatness. Not every artist’s work makes its way here, just as not every athlete makes it into the Olympics. But, no matter what our version of greatness is, to be truly great, we set up our win in the training, in the discipline, in the practice.
So athletes and artists, ascend to those heights–and train, train, train!
(Originally written August 18, 2016)
Mercy and Art in Action: Empowering a Look, a Word, and a Touch
I’ve been a part of Saddleback Church for a while now and one of Pastor Rick’s teachings I’ve seen this community live out is, “Everyone deserves a look, a word, and a touch.” It’s what Jesus modeled. He paid attention to people, seeing where they were, affirming their value, speaking life giving words to them, encouraging them, and addressing their need for comfort and healing. Jesus gave a look, a word, and a touch.
Now, although this is what Jesus taught us to do, cultural reaction to the Church has shown that we have not fully followed Him in this. Although Saddleback Church and others have reached many by living this out, overall the Church has ceded ground. People outside the Church do not turn to it to find value, to seek encouragement, or to meet their needs. Many churches are struggling, having lost cultural permission to reach their communities. The answer to this is Mercy. It is the attribute of God that empowers our look, word, and touch. The recent Miracle of Mercy campaign at Saddleback taught that Mercy is “love in action.” And so, if people won’t listen and won’t come, we can reach out with the touch of Mercy. We can act to change how people view the Church, opening them to be receptive to our message when they see and experience our love in action. As we often quote Theodore Roosevelt at Saddleback, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” We much reach our communities with practical acts of love. We must take up leadership in giving a meaningful touch.
God sends spiritual waves and there are two converging this year that the Church can chose to ride. One is Mercy. Under the leadership of Pope Francis and Pastor Rick Warren, both the Catholic Church and Saddleback are focusing on Mercy this year.
Even for me, the coming empowerment of Mercy is why, back in December, I placed two nutcrackers together to create a picture with the caption: #Mercy meets the merciless. Two iconic fathers… #PopeFrancis and #DarthVader!
Now art? Art! Art is the other wave. Art is an action. Art speaks a message. Art reveals. Art can do all this destructively or negatively, but in the hands of the Church, it gains its true power. Ultimately, Art has the ability to give a look, a word, and a touch—all at once! Art can be love in action. In fact, art must be an action. Art isn’t much until the idea of it becomes a reality through an act, such as drawing, or painting or sculpting etc. In this way, art is incarnational. Mercy is an action too, it isn’t just a thought. Both Art and Mercy then embody a thought. This incarnational aspect of Art and Mercy is something my friend Jason seeks to live out.
Jason has spent time on Skid Row, drawing portraits of the homeless there, giving them a look, a word, and a touch. His art had a direct hand in helping one man get himself off the street and into rehab for drug addiction.
This window to life change that Jason engaged people with on Skid Row was present on our mission trip last summer. The team from Saddleback Visual Arts found that our art made a difference. One night, our Everyday Icons art project impacted a young man, showing him his identity in God. It touched him with an art expression that helped him make a decision to follow Christ.
We also drew portraits for refugees in Berlin. Making physical objects they could keep, created from their identity, drawn onto an image that spoke of new life. Not only did we speak through both an act and through art, but we could leave something behind, which one day might be something one of them looks at and finds Jesus. We hope with expectancy.
And so, the recent spiritual growth campaign at Saddleback reminded us that Mercy is love in action. Now, as the Church must rely on Mercy to advance God’s message, Art will prove a powerful means to express that love in action. Mercy and Art are important all the time, but God is empowering them now as we move forward in this developing harvest season. Used effectively, they will allow the Church to build God’s kingdom in powerful and effective ways as we give a look, a word, and a touch.
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