A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Willy Wonka and our startlingly strange Gospels

Years ago when my son was 3, we were having lunch together and Jonathan decided we should all be animals. He settled on a monkey for himself, recently having admired a lonely, little monkey at the zoo. After some deliberation he concluded his sister would be an "efelant." Next he declared me to be a lion. His daddy sat waiting with anticipation, wondering what regal and impressively large animal Jonathan would connect with him. Finally Jonathan turned to his father, looked him in the eye and said, "Daddy, you are a swan." Todd's face fell as I cracked up. His daddy, the swan.

In a great passage from the gospel of Luke (13:31-35), Jesus seems to be playing a similar game. He calls Herod a fox. And then a few verses later, he likens himself to an animal as well. We may wonder what regal and impressively large animal this could be. We wait with bated breath, anticipating. And the animal is.......a chicken. A chicken!!! God incarnate is like a chicken?!

Much in the Bible, the New Testament in particular, makes me chuckle on good days and leaves me scratching my head at other times. It's so incongruous and subverted. We have a baby, who also happens to be the Son of God, born in a stable. We find Jesus coming to the rescue at a party, choosing to make water out of wine for his first miracle. And then we get to what Jesus actually says. He tells us to offer up our other cheek if someone attacks us. He speaks of leaving ninety-nine obedient sheep behind in order to go find the ornery one. He spins a story about a wealthy man inviting the lame, the poor, the crippled and blind right off the street into his home for a grand banquet. He speaks about camels contemplating passage through the eye of a needle. He says the Kingdom of God belongs to children. He makes clear that being great is about being last. He blesses and lifts up those who are poor, grieving, hungry and reviled and then turns around and castigates those who are comfortable, happy content and well thought of in their communities. He has the power to determine his future and yet volunteers for death on a cross. Days later, he sits on a beach, alive again, nonchalantly munching on fish and talking with his friends. And lest we forget, he compares himself to a chicken.

This is all very strange. We hear these stories so often, we maybe overlook the peculiarities. Of course the Luke text doesn't use the word, "chicken". Rather, Jesus talks about being like a mother hen who longs to gather her brood, in this case the children of Jerusalem, under her wings to keep them safe. But it's good at times to be jarred from our time-worn interpretations, so the word, "chicken", serves well.

A few years back I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl to my kids and then we concluded watching the old Gene Wilder Willy Wonka movie, based on the book. Talk about strange. Willy Wonka, owner of the world's most magnificent and secretive chocolate factory, is an eccentric personality who employs all sorts of extraordinary measures in the creation of his candy. He mixes his chocolate using a chocolate waterfall. If a certain candy batter feels too cold, he stirs in a coat to warm it up. He employs squirrels to sort nuts. He partners with Oompah Loompahs to run his factory. Adults call him crazy, a loon. And hidden in their ridicule is a kernel of fear. Therefore, at the point of retirement, Wonka hands his business over to a poverty-stricken child who seems to understand and even revere Wonka's irrational logic.

Children love both the books and the movie. I remember watching the movie a ridiculous number of times growing up. My kids have now watched the movie many times as well and at one point Becca even commented that "it just kept getting better". There is a subversive logic in this story that appeals to children. Yes, it's strange, but in the midst of strangeness and maybe even because of the strangeness that is Wonka, there is light. In some bizarre way, pieces begin to come together and add up. And you get the sense that maybe it's the rest of the world that has it wrong.

I can't emphasize enough how contrary the values of the gospel are to the world. So much of what we rely on to illuminate our days truly has nothing to do with light. Increasing earning power, schedules, time is money, power makes might and might makes right, more is more, denial of pain, happy thoughts, accessorizing, illusions of security. I think of the words to Joni Mitchell's classic song, "Both Sides Now."

Tear and fears and feeling proud to say "I love you" right out loud,
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds, I've looked at life that way.
But now old friends are acting strange, they shake their heads, they say I've changed.
Something's lost but something's gained in living every day.

I've looked at life from both sides now,
From win and lose, and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall.
I really don't know life at all.

So much of what feeds us every day is illusion. What is an illusion - that which obscures truth. It's another word for darkness. But we buy into our illusions so wholeheartedly, the gospel looks startlingly strange in contrast.

Funny then how we seem drawn to its strangeness. On some level of our being we must intuit that the only thing that makes sense is to be found in all the glorious strangeness communicated in these pages. "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it." I'm being honest when I say the only thing that's ever made sense to me is this completely irrational book. Now lots of attempts are made to turn it into something rational, but it resists every attempt to be tamed. It's power lies in everything antithetical to our notion of rational. And this is scary as heck and so half the time this book might feel a little dark. Strangeness is laced with doubt and doubt is confounding. That's why this community of faith is so essential. We need company. We need our hands held. We need people to listen to our fears and affirm our joys. Faith is not an easy road to travel. At times the light feels all too dim. We need each other to help us along the way. And we need reminders, like today's strange passage from Luke, which help enlighten and embolden our efforts.

There's more to the swan story than I shared as I opened this post. Days prior to our lunch conversation, Jonathan had witnessed a swan at the zoo try to eat a child's shoe. From that point on, he was convinced that swans are as ferocious as it gets in the animal kingdom. I'm assuming he saw his daddy as a protector and so naming him a swan seemed quite apropos.

Jesus also had good reason for comparing himself to a chicken. Mother hens are fiercely protective of their chicks and will go to any length to assure their safety and well being. A reading I found on the internet referenced an article by Phillip Allred from Meridian Magazine.

"A group of young college students were helping measure range damage after a wildfire raged across the prairie outside their university town. As they walked over the expanse of blackened earth, they noticed a cluster of small, smoldering mounds. One of the volunteers was particularly interested in the unidentifiable heaps and asked one of the more experienced range managers what they were.

"This veteran of many range fires replied that he had seen this phenomenon on a few occasions and suggested that the young man turn over one of the piles. He did. To his great surprise, several sage grouse chicks ran out from under the upturned mound. He was fascinated. How incredible, he thought, that these little chicks had known to find and run underneath this mysterious shelter.

"This young man asked what the mound was and how the chicks knew to take refuge there. To his amazement, he was told the smoldering heap was the remains of their mother. When there is danger, the mother hen instinctively calls out to her young ones and stretches out her wings for them to run under and find protection in her embrace. The young man was profoundly moved by this symbol of a mother's innate love and protection."

The mother hen is vulnerable. Jesus was too. Herod, the fox, wasn't directly responsible for Jesus' death, but other foxes were. This too strikes many of us as strange. We worship a vulnerable Christ. And yet, through his vulnerability, he found new life and won us the hope of new life as well. Strangely beautiful and so perfectly illogical and right. This is the light we live in. This is the light we seek.

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