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LOVE Incarnate in the Upside Down

Luke 1:39-41; 46-49; 52,53  

Let’s get this out of the way from the start. I know that for many, the stories about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth carry with them some pretty strong emotions and nostalgia. For some, this story can be confusing, maddening, and perhaps oppressive—depending on how religion [and your family] treated you growing up. I say that right off the bat so we can have an honest [and hopefully healthy] conversation about this story and avoid the common pitfalls around Christmastime. I do my best to present to you facts and background about the Gospel stories so that you can come to your own conclusions. But the main point of all this is not to say which interpretation of a story in the Bible is true or more accurate.

The point of any sacred story is to inspire us to be better people—to love ourselves and to love those around us.

Otherwise, the story has no meaning.

Now that I got that out of the way, let’s dig in to Luke’s story, and remember that I’ll be also discussing the series Stranger Things as part of our reflection. The theme is Love Incarnate in the Upside Down. Incarnate, as a concept, is not some untouchable holy idea, like a shiny white baby with a halo who doesn’t cry or ever commit a sin.

Image result for perfect baby jesus funny
Incarnate means something embodied in flesh; something personified or typified, as a quality or idea; or something represented in a concrete form. So, in this case, we’re talking about two women in Luke’s story [Miriam, called Mary in Greek, and Elizabeth]. Both women were pregnant. The idea, or the thing personified in them is the love and presence of God. Metaphorically, Luke’s story is focused on how the Divine is represented in the lives of the marginalized. In this case, two women—one of them who couldn’t have children [Elizabeth], and one who wasn’t supposed to, Mary.

maryElizArtwork by He Qi 

Luke’s Gospel, written at the tail end of the 1st century in Israel and Palestine, is focused on the theme of God’s salvation story, Divine love in action. Luke’s author focuses on the marginalized of society, specifically, women, the poor, and those stricken with disease or disadvantages. Mary and Elizabeth’s story is the center. Mary/Miriam had little worth according to society. She wasn’t rich, she wasn’t married, she was the last person an angel should visit.

anunciationAnd yet, in Luke’s story, Yahweh values Mary’s life. She’s inspired by this and sings about the stories from the Torah. Yahweh had helped her people the Israelites escape Egypt and oppression. The same would happen now for the poor and lowly, including her. Mary was favored, not because she was pregnant, but because in Luke’s story, the last of society are made to be the first.

Elizabeth’s context is not as humble and certainly not as poor. Was Elizabeth marginalized? Sure, because up to that point she was not able to have children. Sadly, this made her feel isolated and lonely. Of course, that isn’t to say that Elizabeth needed to have a child to have worth. But society sure conditioned her to think that.

I see in Elizabeth and Mary’s story the stories of others who have been told that they don’t have value because of who they love or because they don’t get married or have children. I hear the stories of transgender people who are pressured to conform to their family’s or society’s palatable version of themselves, and if they don’t conform, they are shunned. I hear the stories of children and youth from other countries whose parents came to the U.S. without documentation. The children are called “illegals” and told to “go back” to a country they have never even visited. I hear the stories of the working poor who are called “lazy” while they work three jobs and still can’t pay their bills on time. And I hear the stories of the many people who suffer from mental illnesses and are told by others to “get over it” and yet, every day is a real struggle for them.

And where, in all those stories, is love?

That is the right question to ask.

I’ve been asking this question personally during this past year: where is love personified, incarnate in this upside down world where one tweet can trigger millions and people’s lives are treated like slot machines? An upside down existence when rich and disconnected politicians gamble with the lives of the poor and marginalized? Where is love?

upsideDownteeThis is the question posed in my favorite show of the year, Stranger Things. One of the show’s protagonists is a girl named Eleven; later called by her friend Mike “El,” which means “God” in Hebrew. El’s parallels to Jesus are there.

ELsmilingShe has a mysterious birth story and her true father is never mentioned. El possesses miraculous telekinetic powers. While a prisoner in a government laboratory, she is tempted to use her super powers to kill a cat; she refuses. Later on in the story, El spends time in the wilderness and is sustained only by her manna which is actually Eggo waffles.

ElEGGOS

And finally, El visits the Upside Down dimension and discovers a monster, the Demogorgon. She lays in a cruciform position, arms spread, in a pool of water.

ELcrucifixShe descends into a mental state where she faces the monster and death. She cries out for God and then hears Joyce’s voice [Winona Ryder], saying: “I am here with you.”

You see, in the story of Stranger Things, love can be found even in the Upside Down, even in the midst of darkness and horror. Where is love incarnate? In the presence of those who accept us as we are and in those we can truly call friends. Mike, Dustin, Will, Lucas, El, Joyce, Sheriff Hopper, Jonathan, Bob, Max, Kali, Steve, and Nancy become friends, but not out of convenience or sameness. Their unlikely community forms out of marginalization, suffering, and uncertainty. They form bonds of self-sacrificing love and stand with each other when it is unpopular and inconvenient.

And that’s just it, isn’t it? We can ask this question: where is love? Where is God in this upside down world? And we won’t find the answer in a religion or in money or in power or in isolation. We find love incarnate in each other, when we truly accept each other and stand up for each other on the margins. We discover love incarnate when we help others realize their value, when we don’t give up the fight against oppression and injustice, when we take risks for others out of love.

May we be love incarnate in this, the Upside Down. And may you discover love in others.

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Life in the Upside Down II: Friendship as a Catalyst for Peace

If you haven’t seen the Netflix original show Stranger Things, I highly recommend it. I won’t give a full synopsis here, but even if you are not familiar with it, I think what follows will still be relevant and hopefully meaningful.

Let’s talk about friendship.

CinePOP-Stranger-Things-7-1-750x380In Stranger Things, friendship takes center stage. It is set in 1983 in a small town in Indiana and follows the lives of Mike, Dustin, Lucas, Will, and El, 12-year old kids. Mike, Dustin, Will, and Lucas have been friends since early childhood and they have their own club with secrets, pacts, etc. Something shakes them to their core, however, when one of their group, Will Byers, gets trapped in what’s called the Upside Down, an alternative dimension. The whole town of Hawkins starts the search, but to no avail. Everyone fears the worst, including his closest friends.

And then, a mysterious girl shows up. She is first called “Eleven” because of the number tattooed on her wrist. Mike eventually calls her El and despite the suspicions of Dustin and Lucas, El becomes part of their friendship club. It is El’s unsettling arrival into the lives of the three boys that is the catalyst for the writers of Stranger Things to define what the story is all about—friendship, and to define what that means in this tale.

We first get a glimpse in a scene with the three boys [minus the missing Will] and El, in the basement of Mike’s house one day after school. Lucas is upset that Mike hasn’t told his mom about El–that she’s living in his basement and probably has escaped from somewhere bad. Mike refuses to tell and so Lucas decides to take matters into his own hands. He opens the door to go upstairs to tell Mike’s mom. But the door slams shut by itself. Lucas tries again. It slams shut again. Then, the boys look at El.

ElmindbenderHer stare could cut through solid steel. Her nose is bleeding. All she says is: NO. It’s the first time that the boys recognize El’s mysterious powers and what she can move with her mind. They are in awe of her, afraid even.

“We never would have upset you if we knew you had superpowers.”

Dustin is really honest. And though they all seem to fear El at this moment, their fear doesn’t prevent them from seeking to form a bond of friendship with her.

Problem is, El doesn’t know what “friend” even means. So Mike explains:

“A friend is someone you’d do anything for…friends tell each other things. And…
A promise is something you can’t break — ever. A friend is someone that you’d do anything for … and they never break a promise … that’s super important because friends tell each other things; things that parents don’t know. Friends tell each other the truth. And they definitely don’t lie to each other…”

PromiseST
This definition of friendship drives the story of Stranger Things. After all, El is someone who has no experience with trust. On the surface, Mike’s very dogmatic definition of a friend is very twelve-year-old cut-and-dry. But if we look closer, the friendship of this group of kids is really based on trust, reconciliation and self-sacrifice for the sake of love. This idea is demonstrated again and again, like when Will first goes missing and all the boys’ parents tell them it’s too dangerous to join the search party, but of course they go and look anyway. When El tells them that the Upside Down contains a monster, they still pull out their compasses to try to find the portal to that world.

I think much of the appeal of Stranger Things is the friendship theme. After all, we too long for honest, loving friendships with others. If we can say that we have only 1-2 friends like that well, then we are lucky, no? And I also think it’s a story worth telling and embracing during this season and any season for that matter, because friendship of this quality leads to acceptance and inner and outer peace. Friendship of this level, just like in Stranger Things, can be salvific, resurrecting, healing.

For Christians, the season of Advent is mean to be a time of deep reflection, service to others, and development of spiritual practices. The Scriptures people read tend to be Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, authors who paint a pretty bleak picture of humanity that is full of war, corruption, greed, and fear.

Tucked within that negative narrative, however, is the belief that light breaks through it all—that we and this world are meant to be so much more.

That there are voices crying out in the wilderness telling us to prepare a way of peace and reconciliation—a way forward in the middle of an endless desert. Thus, while the world around us and the people filling the earth can often cause us to fear or to isolate ourselves, we can count on one thing being constant. The Creator God of Isaiah is mighty and powerful, shaping the beauty and majesty of the natural world. And yet, this God/Elohim is also a gentle friend to humanity. The prophet flips the world upside down as the valleys are lifted up and the mountains made low. The uneven ground is leveled, and the rough places are made plain. This is God’s doing and all of humanity sees it together.

Like the kids in Stranger Things who fear El’s mighty powers, we too can come to fear this Divine Elohim. But if we look closer, we can soon realize that fear is not what our relationship should be built on. No, in a world that is dangerous and alienating enough we long for connections that build peace and trust–including any relationship we have with the Divine. Some of us feel like outcasts, strangers, or someone on the outside looking in. We seek belonging and people who we can trust. Thus, finding a true friend can mean that we find a home or a family. Discovering friends who form bonds with us of acceptance and understanding, who are willing to recognize our suffering and share our love, make life worth living.

El was not to be feared, but loved and accepted. So too are we made to seek out friendships with others who choose to hear us, who encourage us to fully be ourselves, who love us as we are.

Friendship of this kind can move us towards peace. It’s not easy, to be sure, and peace does not mean the absence of conflict. In the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition, peace is shalom, and this means “universal flourishing, wholeness and delight…a rich state in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed…a state that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in. Shalom is the way things ought to be.” [1]

So kudos to the friends in Stranger Things. May we learn from them. May friendship open doors for you and welcome you in. May bonds of love and acceptance drive you forward. Make shalom reality.

[1] “Shalom: The Real Utopia”.

Living in the Upside Down

Isaiah 64:4-6; 8, 9b   
Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for Go.
You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
Yet you, Yahweh, are our Parent.

We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.

Most likely you have at least heard the Netflix series Stranger Things, created by the Duffer Brothers. Or, if you are like me, you cannot WAIT for season three…

Stranger Things takes place in a small town in Indiana [full disclosure, I spent part of my childhood in a town in Indiana], and the story begins with the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy named Will Byers. Over time, we learn that a group of scientists has been experimenting on a girl with telekinetic abilities [she is called “11” because that is the number tattooed on her wrist], and Eleven eventually makes contact with a monster-creature that inhabits an alternate dimension, ripping open a gate between that world and ours. The creature crosses over and is able to take the aforementioned Will and another character, Barbara. I won’t go into any great detail, because I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen it yet.

What I do wish to focus on are the characters of Stranger Things and the two worlds that exist side-by-side and simultaneously: our dimension, and the alternative dimension, called the Upside-Down. First, let’s focus on a few of the characters, all of them friends: Mike, Dustin, and Lucas, and the missing Will. Eventually, a fifth member of their party is added, Eleven. These young friends are the main focal point for the narrative and end up acting as our eyes and ears throughout the series. For example, they give a name to the creature-monster from the Upside-Down—the Demogorgon—based on a creature in their Dungeons and Dragons gaming. They figure out with the help of their science teacher that the alternative dimension is an upside-down version of their world. Eleven, their new friend, becomes “El,” as Mike deems it the best way for her to blend in. These friends interpret the story for us as they assign meaning to all the that happening.

And what is happening is definitely strange and sinister. Not only is their friend Will missing; not only have they encountered El who is gifted in ways they could not have imagined; but also, there is not just one Demogorgon monster loose in their town—for the secret government facility on the outskirts is up to no good and holds the gate to the Upside-Down.

upsidedownSpeaking of the Upside-Down, it is a mirror image of our everyday world, but corrupted, toxic, gothic, and heavy. Thus, Stranger Things presents to us a reality in which the natural and supernatural coexist; a seemingly idyllic world of a small Midwestern town in the 1980’s contrasted with the death and danger of the Upside-Down.

SPOILER ALERT: as the story unfolds, we are presented with the mind-blowing and unsettling fact that the Upside-Down is not separated from our world. In fact, the Upside-Down can even be in us, around us—and if we look closely enough, we can spot the toxicity of the Upside-Down creeping into the roots and foundations of our lives.

Clearly, Stranger Things draws from a variety of mythological, spiritual, and religious traditions. The dualistic idea of two worlds coexisting is nothing new in many traditions around the world. Likewise, the contrast between a beautifully-imagined divine creation and a terrifying, fallen world may sound familiar to many of us. In Judaism and then the Christian religion that came out of it, these ideas were commonplace, that Elohim/God created the whole earth, universe, waters, creatures, etc., as beautiful and good. And yet, creation was capable of falling into a state of isolation and death, called Sheol or sometimes Hades.

During the season of Advent [four weeks leading up to Christ-mas], Western Christians read the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah with the recurring theme: though Elohim made the world good, people aren’t seeing this good and aren’t seeing God, for that matter. People wonder if God is absent or missing. The beauty of the world and of humanity has faded and crumpled up like fallen leaves.

The Upside-Down has become reality.

Yes, it’s true that the season of Advent is really not supposed to be candy canes, mistletoe, sleigh bells, and so-awful-that-they’re-good Hallmark holiday specials. Advent is a bit Debbie Downer; it’s gloomy; it’s too honest about the world; it does really feel Upside-Down!

But that’s the point, really. And that’s why I’m grateful for the great storytelling and wisdom of Stranger Things. We ought to be more honest about the state of our world and the state of us. We shouldn’t ignore the completely Upside-Down ways we follow in society and how we let people we don’t even know tell us how to live, who to love, what to eat, what to believe, how to express ourselves, how to think.

What is more upside-down than that?

No, if we learn anything from this upside-down season we are all living in, it is that we must let our curiosity doors be flung wide open, re-imagining a world in which all people are valued as they are and where violence is not the answer to anything. And indeed, that we are living in the balance of at least two realities—the one being the world we are conditioned to see and the rules we are told to follow. This world can of course trick us into thinking that everything is “normal” and “okay” when in fact it is just the opposite. For under the surface there are people crying out for justice; right inside our walls are voices begging for acceptance; lurking in the shadows are true monsters who only seek to control, manipulate, and destroy; our bucolic, nostalgic worlds are only surface worlds.

For behind every wreath, Christmas tree, and stocking is an Upside-Down reality.

And waking up to this is to embrace the Upside-Down hope of Advent. For the story of Advent isn’t some religious hocus-pocus or some doctrinal creed to swallow down your throat. This is a season of actively waiting—waiting and working for a better world, a kinder humanity, a peaceful existence. This season invites us to embrace the dark and the light as one reality in the world and in us all. For all the Demogorgons out there, there are just as many Els. And for any moment when we feel like Will, trapped in a toxic, lonely place all by ourselves, there are people who still can hear us. They are listening. They are looking for us. We are not alone. Peace to you this season in the Upside Down.

 

 

Community within, Community Expressed

Sense8 is an original TV series streaming on Netflix, created by the Wachowskis, the two people behind the Matrix trilogy. Sense8, a play on the sensate, tells the story of eight strangers: Capheus, Sun, Nomi, Kala, Riley, Wolfgang, Lito and Will, each from a different culture and part of the world. As the story develops, all eight characters have visions and find strange connections to the others even though they are all worlds apart. They realize that they are all sensates, humans like anyone else except for the fact that they are linked with a mental and emotional connection, allowing them to sense and communicate with each other, as well as share their knowledge, language and skills. The eight sensates try to live their lives and figure out how and why this connection has happened and what it means.

Here are the eight sensate characters in the story:

sense8
Capheus,
a matatu driver in Nairobi, a passionate fan of movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme, and a son who is trying to earn money to buy AIDS medicine for his mother.

Sun Bak
, daughter of a powerful Seoul, Korea businessman and a star in the underground kickboxing world.

Nomi Marks,
a trans woman hacktivist and blogger living in San Francisco with her girlfriend Amanita. She was born Michael but changed her name to Nomi, which stands for “Know Me”.

Kala Dandekar
, a university-educated pharmacist and devout Hindu living in Mumbai, India. She is  engaged to marry a man she does not love.

Riley Blue,
an Icelandic DJ living in London.

Wolfgang Bogdanow,
a Berlin, Germany locksmith and safe-cracker who has unresolved issues with his late father and participates in organized crime.

Lito Rodriguez,
a gay, closeted actor from Bilbao, Spain living in Mexico City with his boyfriend Hernando.

And Will Gorski, a Chicago police officer haunted by an unsolved murder from his childhood.

In the story, the sensates represent the next step in human evolution. Their brains have subtly but powerfully changed so that they are able to connect with each other across long distances without being detected or listened to. They can have conversations in two places simultaneously, flipping back and forth between a rainy café in Germany and a sunny temple in India, while a character in Korea vapes with a character in Iceland. They seem to be physically in the same place as the others, having a face to face conversation. A common phrase for the sensates becomes:

“I am also a we.”

I wish to explore this idea of deep connection—how it is on the inside and then how it can be expressed on the outside. Have you ever felt a deep connection with someone you just recently met? How did it feel? What did that connection lead to? And, do you ever have the experience of feeling disconnected, even from people you have known nearly your whole life? See, connection is not about longevity; it’s not even about having things in common, looking the same, or sharing all the same perspectives. Connection, I argue, is an energy. It is an energy between people, between us, when we feel that we have been seen, heard, and valued as we are. Connection is that energy that fills us when we are not judged, when we are truly seen and valued.

I’ve mentioned this many times before, but it’s worth saying again. In this life, it is really important to pursue and nurture relationships/connections with people who value you, who see and hear you and accept you, as you are. That most likely means that you will have these types of strong connections with only a handful of other humans and that’s fine. Hey, the characters in Sense8 are only deeply connected to seven others. The energy of connection in our relationships is vital to our health.

The language and concept of connection is obvious in the Jesus of John’s Gospel. Jesus is portrayed in various I AM statements, and all of those identity statements lead us right back to the idea of connection. Jesus said I AM the vine and you are the branches. Straight up connection talk there. And now here in John 14 we find Jesus talking about dwelling places, though not your typical house or apartment. Jesus speaks here of a realm of dwelling beyond the brick and mortar. Dwelling in Abba God’s house is not heaven—it is the presence of God, and it goes both ways like a swinging door of connection. If God dwells in you, then you also dwell in God’s house. And vice versa. The place, the connection for all of us has already been prepared; it is simply up to us to embrace it.

And then the Jesus of John takes it one step further, or maybe in this case, Jesus humanizes it even more, because our good friend Thomas is still asking great questions. Thomas asks the how question and Jesus responds with love and care. How will you know the way to this connection? Well, I AM way, I AM truth, I AM life. No one comes to the light, to the connected Divine, to God, except through path, truth, and life. If you know your path, and truth, and life, then you will know the Divine. And from now on you do know, and you have seen.

Wonderful and beautiful language, but of course I have to mention [albeit briefly] that this beautiful part of John’s Gospel can also be negative trigger for some. Why? Because sadly some make it a habit of taking words from the Gospels attributed to Jesus and turning them into clobber texts, exclusive religious dogma, or even opportunities to say to some people they don’t like that they are doomed and that God doesn’t love them. Rather than spend more time on those who use this as a clobber text, I prefer to focus on what the text actually says within its context, also considering the audience it was written to. Keep in mind that John’s Gospel is the most inclusive Gospel writing, apart from the Gospel of Timothy, probably. John is a text written for a mixed group of people. It’s meant to open up the message of Jesus to a wider audience. It verges on universality sometimes. It’s often ambiguously symbolic and even combines different religious traditions. But John’s Gospel is not exclusive. Jesus’ I AM statements, each one of them, are meant to invite and include more human beings. Many rooms in Abba’s house, remember?

So this oft-quoted phrase about way, truth, and life is not a claim that Christianity [which didn’t exist at the time, by the way] is the one true faith and that Jesus is the only way to God. It doesn’t say that. The word only just isn’t there. What IS there is a kind and loving invitation to be connected in a deep and powerful way. Be connected to Jesus/God/the Divine/the Light, however you wish to call it, but be connected to this way, truth, and life, which is the power greater than all of us that connects us across genders, orientations, cultures, languages religions, countries, and differences. This connection is love and compassion—practicing that in our everyday lives. Seeing and hearing people as they are. Accepting them. Seeking and nurturing this connective energy gives us purpose and meaning in life. What do you think?

 

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